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Love is All that I Can Give to You

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Their evening seems to be cosmically orchestrated: one of those beautiful nights where the stars are in alignment and everything is cast in a dreamlike glow. Magical is how Illya would describe it, though he would have scoffed at such a sentiment before.

But how else could he describe the spell that has taken hold of him? How else to express the way that Gaby feels like home , like he has finally found where he belongs? It defies reason, transcends any force of this world alone.

Magical, in every way.

What other words, then, could he use except: Will you marry me?

 


 

Gaby is as enchanting as ever, bewitching in a gown of tulle and satin. She looks every inch the ballerina, but tonight, tonight she has stepped out of her music box to grace him with her presence.

Illya had grinned his lovestruck way through dinner—Cowboy, he must admit, had outdone himself with their reservations—and had felt all of his anxieties ease. The ring is a welcome weight in his pocket, an anchor to keep his feet on the ground.

There could be no better night to propose than this.

The walk to the opera house is a leisurely one, Gaby’s arm in his, the two of them strolling in their own, rose-tinged world. Illya covers her hand with his own as they wind their way through the ornate lobby, the high-society crowds, and up to their private box.

Again, Illya feels the guiding hand of the American on their evening. Cowboy had spared no expense in securing them the best seats in the house: far enough to view the entire stage unimpeded, close enough to see every facial expression in minute detail.

The curtain rises and he and Gaby are immediately swept away in the tragedy and madness and ecstasy of Giselle. The Royal Ballet Company is in exceptional form, led by their newest principal dancer, Yulia Vishneva. Illya recognizes her from the Bolshoi.

He’s not the only one.

As soon as Gaby catches sight of the budding prima ballerina, she inhales sharply, clutching Illya’s hand with distant, wistful eyes. Her feet flex en pointe in her seat as she watches, utterly spellbound by her breathtaking performance.

Long after the roaring applause dies away, Gaby is still standing, transfixed, staring out at the empty stage. She closes her eyes as if to seal the image in her memory before turning back to Illya with a sigh.

He brushes a kiss against her temple as he guides her from their seats. Rather than taking the stairs back down to the lobby, Illya instead leads her out to the second-floor terrace. He had excused himself at intermission to clear it with the ushers, explaining his plan and impressing upon them that there were to be no interruptions.

The terrace is softly lit, removed from the chatter and traffic of the street below, and unmistakably romantic. Gaby takes in the skyline of Covent Garden before turning back to Illya with a quizzical smile.

“This is the first ballet I’ve been to since I… since I stopped dancing.” Her eyes are bright, sparkling with a mix of joy and nostalgia. “Thank you.”

Illya nods, though it is Cowboy she should be thanking. He breathes deeply to steady himself, summoning up his courage as he takes her hands in his.

“Gaby,” he starts. “There is something I—”

“Excuse me, Miss Teller?”

Illya’s teeth grind together as he slowly, menacingly turns to glare at this fiend, this interloper hesitantly emerging from behind a pillar. The young man takes an involuntary step back, face going pale as he stammers out his excuse. “I’m sorry to, to interrupt, but Mr. S-Solo asked me to get you. Immediately.”

 


 

Illya scowls after the usher as he and Gaby follow him to the foot of the stage… where Cowboy is waiting with none other than the Russian prima ballerina herself.

“Evening, you two,” he drawls, smirking subtly at their astonished faces. “May I introduce you to Yulia Vishneva, the crown jewel of Russia?”

The young blonde smiles demurely, addresses them in gently accented English. “And you must be the Kuryakins.”

Illya coughs, embarrassed, resolutely avoiding the American’s eye. Neither he nor Gaby correct her. Yulia tilts her head, studying Gaby a moment. “Napoleon tells me you danced Giselle once.”

If he weren’t so shocked by this revelation, he might have smirked at the use of his partner’s given name. Instead, Illya’s lips curve downwards, questioning why Cowboy should know about this and not him.

Because you never asked.

Illya wills away his reproachful thoughts and concentrates on the conversation at hand. Gaby ducks her head modestly. “Not half so well as he’d have you believe, but… yes. It feels like a lifetime ago.”

“Perhaps it was,” the dancer replies. A graceful shrug. “You danced behind Iron Curtain. It was an escape, was it not?”

Yulia nods to herself, as if confirming her theory. “Yes. The stage is where we are most free.”

Gaby lifts her head and Illya can see the recognition, the kinship that passes between the two women. “I could feel it,” she says, hushed, “when you were dancing. It was…”

“Your soul and mine on the same journey.” Yulia smiles knowingly. A beat, then, “I would like it very much if you would dance for me.”

The Russian prima takes Gaby by the wrist and gentles her onto the stage. Illya stares. There is no small amount of nerves in the mechanic’s eyes as she toes out of her heels, but there is a determination, a light, and a hunger there as well.

She nods sharply at the American, poised at a piano that seems to have materialized out of thin air. Illya sucks in a breath as the music strikes up and Gaby launches into her routine with a ferocity that startles him.

She may lack some of the finesse and technical excellence from when she was training daily, but her skill is undeniable. What impresses Illya most, though, is her power: the raw energy and relentless honesty that radiates from her Myrtha.

Gaby does not need any Wilis to back her up. She is terrifying and exquisite and extraordinary enough on her own.

This is the first time Illya has seen her dance ballet. He might catch a pirouette here or there when she is restless or a couple drinks in, but this is something else entirely. Yulia’s words sink into his bones as he watches her now, catching a stolen, precious glimpse from another life.

He wonders, uneasily, if Gaby would ever go back to it. If, given the chance, she would rather be a star on the London stage than an operative behind-the-scenes. If she would choose a fresh start as a civilian over this thankless, half-life he could offer her.

Wonders, too, if he wouldn’t try to stop her.

Illya is warring with himself as he watches her, struck by the beauty of it, paralyzed by the fear of it as well. He feels the rising passion, the tidal waves of her emotion as if they were his own. When a gasp rips from her lungs, it is as if all the air has left the room.

The Dance of the Wilis ends on an eerie, discordant note, lurching into the silent theatre. Gaby’s chest is heaving from exertion and the overwhelming press of desperation and anger and heartbreak and healing and joy all in one.

She begins sobbing, her small form shuddering with the intensity of it.

Illya stands there gaping, dumbstruck and utterly useless in that moment. Even in his stupor, he can see the tears glittering in Yulia’s eyes as she gets to the mechanic first.

“Thank you,” she says thickly, “for sharing your soul. Truly, we have lost a great talent.” The Russian ballerina wraps her arms around Gaby, a sad, soothing lilt to her voice. “I would ask you to join our Company, but I can see that your heart, your home is elsewhere.”

Illya jolts at her words, hardly daring to trust the veracity of such a statement. But Gaby nods and buries her face in Yulia’s shoulder.

He has an odd sense of intrusion upon this shared, sacred moment: two dancers, two survivors bonding over something more powerful than words alone.

Cowboy must feel it too, because he appears suddenly at his shoulder. “Come on, Peril.”

Illya can hear the women laughing through through their tears, speaking in a rapidfire mix of languages as they exit through the side door. He sighs.

“Thank you,” he says and means it. A small, rueful smile tugs at his lips as he shakes his head. “But you have terrible timing.”

 

Chapter Text

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, Illya would be lying if he said he weren’t worried. Proposing on the most commercially-contrived, ‘romantic’ day of the year is a jaw-clenching cliche, but if the pageantry of yet another Capitalist Holiday is what it will take to pop the question, Illya is willing to bite the bullet.

But how to prove his mettle as a not-quite-fiancé, as a man worthy of the likes of Gabriella Teller? There will be hordes of other men, with their stale offerings in pale imitations of courtship, all observing the same rituals of February 14th.

He is determined to set himself apart, but how?

Every public place with even the hint of society or romance will be crawling with couples. Even worse will be the dinner they all share afterwards. Illya shakes his head in frustration. He and Gaby can’t go out and he can’t very well expect her to stay in.

There really is no place to go, then, but up.

 


 

Waverly peers at Illya over his glasses, pen poised mid-thought, Muse momentarily placed on hold. “Hot air balloons?” he repeats, a bit distractedly. “Yes, yes, they’re terribly romantic. I’m sure Gaby will love it.”

Illya clears his throat, shifting his weight on his feet. He is almost positive that Cowboy “knows a guy” for just such an occasion, but there is a reason he’s going to the Englishman instead: no ‘surprises’ or that uncanny knack for interruptions.

“You can… you can help me then?”

Waverly sets the pen down, Logan King Vol. 2 temporarily forgotten. He blinks at him, as if noticing the Russian for the first time. “Yes, of course,” he assures him. He sounds almost sad that Illya could have his doubts. “You just leave it to me.”

 


 

With the promise of a surprise and a few, teasing kisses, Illya manages to nuzzle Gaby awake and get her out of the house. The sky is still limned with stars as Illya navigates the vauxhall through dark, winding roads, Gaby dozing in the seat beside him.

They are chasing the sunrise on the way to Illya’s mystery destination: the scenic, picturesque estate of Ashton Court.

Cowboy hadn’t come home last night, but that could hardly be deemed surprising. The man is probably out and about, already making his Valentine’s Day rounds across the country. Illya huffs at the sheer expense, the extravagance of such a schedule, the ease with which Cowboy can extricate himself from the arms of one lover to the next: keeping every appointment without hurting any feelings.

A remarkable feat if Illya stopped to think about it, but right now, his thoughts are devoted to his own plans for the day.

Illya eases into the silence. Aware as he is of Gaby’s presence, he finds the empty streets and pristine darkness soothing. The drive helps clear his head, gives him the time he needs to run through his schedule and rehearse the order of events.

They will arrive in Bristol at 6:00 am sharp. There, they will meet their pilot and help him set up the balloon, or envelope, as Illya has learned it is called. He’s sure Gaby would like having that hands-on experience. After getting briefed, they will spend the next two or so hours airborne, drifting peacefully over the nearby villages and countryside.

Waverly has also arranged for a banner to be displayed midway through their voyage. A particularly breathtaking locale, a particularly breathtaking moment. Illya couldn’t nod his agreement fast enough when the man had approached him about it.

If he can’t get the words out this time, at least he’ll have it spelled out for him.

There is a complimentary champagne toast awaiting them at the other side. Illya prays fervently that it will be a congratulatory one; either way, he’s certain he’ll need that drink. He and Gaby will pack up the envelope and then spend the rest of their time in Bristol exploring all the wonderments that Ashton Court has to offer.

Foolproof, the Englishman had called it. A foolproof plan, an ironclad proposal. Nothing to worry about, he’d been assured, save for what he is actually going to say. As the sky begins to lighten, the bruised blues and purples yielding to soft pinks and golds, Illya repeats his heartfelt speech to himself—the one he’d spent hours working on, translating it in every language he knows, reciting it until it comes to his lips as naturally as her name.

As if summoned by his thoughts, Gaby stirs, gracing him with a sleepy grin. Illya smiles tightly, smoothing his fingers over the steering wheel, breathing deeply to maintain his composure.

Nothing is getting in the way of his plan.

 


 

Gaby is wide awake now that they’ve reached their destination. She hangs on his arm, almost dancing with anticipation. Illya leads her across the glistening, green expanse of a dew-kissed park where a few, shadowy figures have already gathered.

The mechanic gasps as she takes in the charming wicker basket and the multicolored balloon attached to it. She squeezes his bicep, urgently, dark eyes sparkling with excitement. Illya smirks down at her, grateful to finally have done something right.

As they grow closer, Gaby’s steps falter, the smile giving way to confusion. “Is he part of your surprise too?”

A knot forms in the pit of Illya’s stomach. He doesn’t need to look. The knowledge slices down his spine like a sixth sense, a shiver of recognition that spasms through his fingers.

Cowboy.

The American is decked out in his black, tactical gear, replete with heavy boots and gloves. Illya’s first thought is that there must be a mission, that the man is here to collect them, send them on their way with all of Waverly’s apologies.

His second thought—this one supported by the animated way Cowboy chats and, seemingly, directs the crew members—is that the man is here solely to ruin his life.

How could Waverly have allowed this?

Illya is shaking his head vigorously, unable to school sound into speech in response to the mechanic’s question. His frustration is skyrocketing, climbing to mercurial levels at the truly unwelcome sight of his closest friend.

One of the men points in their direction and Cowboy turns, his brilliant smile and showman’s grace dropping the second their eyes meet. His brows knit into a frown as he strolls up to meet them halfway.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Peril. Gaby.” He jams his hands into his pockets, regarding them with an almost sullen sort of suspicion. “Waverly put you up to this?”

“I asked him to help arrange a hot air balloon ride, da.” Illya scoffs. “He said nothing about you being here.”

Cowboy shrugs, an unusual tension in his broad shoulders. “Don’t look at me like I’m the one crashing the party, Peril. This is as much a shock for me as it is for you.”

Gaby uses this opportunity to intervene. Her eyes had been following this back-and-forth volley with increasing consternation. She grips Illya’s arm a little tighter, a pressure meant to restrain and reassure, as she looks up at the American.

“I don’t understand. Are you joining us, Solo?”

The CIA agent manages a small smile as he regards her. “That, my dear, is a matter of perspective. I’m not joining you so much as you’re joining me.” He bows perfunctorily. “Captain Solo,” he announces. “I’m going to be your pilot today.”

“No,” Illya growls. “We will wait for another one.”

That smile is growing dangerously close to a smirk as the American responds. “The thing is, Peril, there is no one else. I may not have been your original pilot, but right now, I’m the only one you’ve got.”

Illya opens his mouth to retort, but thinks twice when he looks at Gaby, remembering how her face had lit up upon seeing the balloon. He sighs. How could he deny her this?

“Fine,” he grits out. “Our lives are in your hands.”

And our futures too, he wants to add, but doesn’t. Solo must read it in him though because his usual arrogance vanishes. “Now, that that’s all settled, why don’t you help me get this balloon inflated and then we’ll be off and running?”

 


 

Illya is most definitely not sulking when the balloon takes off with a roar. The ascent is a gradual one, smooth and steady, the sun just beginning to crest over the horizon.

He can find some consolation in the fact that the weather, at least, is cooperating.

As expected, Gaby is mesmerized by the mechanics of their flight. She has the American walk her through every part of their vessel and every piece of equipment he uses along with it. Terms like “rip line”, “parachute port”, and “maneuvering vent” are thrown about as Cowboy explains how the valves open and close to adjust their height and better catch the wind.

It is when the American goes over the variometer that Illya feels the need to interject: skepticism laced with concern. “You cannot tell if we are moving up or down on your own?”

That had earned him a cool look from his partner. “We’re more than a thousand feet in the air. You can’t take anything for granted at that altitude, but, please, let me know how many visual cues you can find to tell us how we’re moving through space.”

Illya had clamped his jaw shut and let Gaby and Cowboy resume their lively discussion on the merits of a basket made out of wicker versus one made out of aluminum-fiberglass. The former is more forgiving on a hard landing; the latter, apparently, is stronger, lighter, and more durable when it comes to rough terrain.

Gaby’s evident enthusiasm warms him, even as it has Illya feeling like a “third wheel”—to borrow Cowboy’s term for it—on his own Valentine’s Day date. He stares forlornly out over the countryside, paying only token attention when the American points out the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

“Here’s a story you might be interested in,” the man is saying. “In 1855, a young woman by the name of Sarah Ann Henley jumped right off this very bridge. Believe it or not, it was her skirts that saved her life. They billowed out, acting almost like a parachute as she fell. It was low tide, she landed in those mud banks over there, and lived well into her eighties. Imagine that.”

Gaby eyes the striking, wrought-iron landmark with renewed interest. Illya, too. They ride in contemplative silence for a moment, broken only by the whoosh and roar of the burner system as Cowboy adjusts their positioning.

As they continue to float over Bristol, Illya decides to brave some small talk, keep his mind from fretting over his proposal like worry stones.

“Are you enjoying—”

His words are lost to the drone of the valve system. Gaby turns to him, brow furrowed. “What was that, Illya?”

“I said, are you enj—”

“Hold that thought, Peril.”

A loud blast from the burner and the balloon rises incrementally. Was that really necessary? Illya huffs, waits for the American’s cue.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” he finally sputters out, words only slightly slurred together. Gaby’s smile is soft, gratifying.

“Of course I am. Are you?”

“Da, I—”

“Sorry to interrupt,” Cowboy says, though Illya highly doubts the veracity of that statement, “but right below you is the SS Great Britain, the first iron steamer to cross the Atlantic.”

The American prattles off facts which Illya barely registers over the blood roaring in his ears: The SS Great Britain was a passenger steamship that sailed from Bristol to New York (the longest in the world from 1845 t0 1854), it uniquely combined an iron hull and a screw propeller, she served as a coal bunker and then as scrap metal in the two World Wars respectively… on and on Cowboy speaks.

As their basket languidly bobs up and down, Illya re-imagines their voyage as an awkward elevator ride: the lazy, vertical movements, the enclosed space, the irritating person one can’t easily be rid of, the tender words that feel wrong among such company.

Mercifully, the balloon will be cruising for the proposal. No historical tidbits or noisome distractions. Should Cowboy provide either, he is liable to be thrown overboard.

Illya is sure he can figure out the landing without any difficulty.

Next up is St. Mary Redcliffe, the 15th century gothic church. It won’t be long before they will arrive at the banner. Illya shifts nervously, fingers drumming idly against the wicker. He practices every technique he knows to stay calm.

Cowboy is launching into another lengthy spiel on St. Mary’s fifteen bells designed for something called “full-circle English-Style change ringing”. Illya is well past the point of caring when Gaby introduces a new topic of conversation, something that has been niggling at him since they’d first seen the American.

“You asked us if Waverly put us up to this,” she says slowly. “What did that mean?”

The CIA agent shrugs. “My involvement here is something of a state secret. I’d planned to keep it that way. Least until I got my pilot’s license.”

Illya’s expression is more scowl than frown as suspicion burrows in. “Are you supposed to be flying this?” he demands.

“Trust me, Peril,” the American replies with a grin. “My certificate is of the highest forgery money could buy.”

It’s a joke, it has to be, but Illya can’t restrain himself. He lunges at his partner, grappling wildly to take hold of the man’s neck. “YOU—”

The basket lurches to the side, rocked by the sudden shift in weight. They’re being carried off course, dipping lower before steadying out. The balloon spins in a wobbly, graceless circle as the red mist closes in.

“Illya!”

Gaby’s voice rings out, an edge of authority he automatically heeds. His chest is heaving as he releases the American. The man’s breathing is slightly labored, mouth set in a grim line as he has to busy himself making the necessary corrections.

The glare Gaby is giving him scalds more than the explosive bursts from the burner system. “Relax,” Cowboy finally mutters. “Waverly’s already seen to it that I’ve put in all my hours. He’s the one who set me up here in the first place.”

Now that the balloon is back to its measured drifting, the man tugs on his shirt, straightening the lines of his tactical. “In case you’re still wondering, I don’t need a babysitter to fly, and yes, I’m authorized to transport passengers.”

He holds his hands up in a placating gesture. “We’re all good here.”

Illya turns away, chokes on his apology when he sees a scrap of white in the distance, a barely-discernible question mark fluttering in the breeze.

“Where are we?” he snaps. He knows, he knows, but he can’t bring himself to accept it.

Cowboy cranes his neck, eyes snagging on a few landmarks to orient himself. “We’re coming up on Park Street. You’ll be able to see the University and the Cathedral in a moment.”

Illya tries to nod, but hangs his head instead.

The banner.

He’s missed it. And this time, he has no one to blame but himself.

The mechanic is seething beside him, glittering eyes trained on the ground below. Illya’s heart drops like a stone, unsure whether to laugh or cry when Cowboy’s radio crackles to life. Waverly’s voice carries through the static.

“Solo? Solo, can you hear me?”

The three agents exchange a glance, a sigh, as Cowboy moves to respond. “Right here, sir. What do you need?”

“I heard you had to cover a shift this morning. Kuryakin and Teller are with you, I suppose?”

“Yes, sir. We’re all here. Is our ride getting cut short?”

“I’m afraid so,” Waverly sighs. “How far out are you?”

Illya closes his eyes, suffering, as the American speaks. “Almost at Park Street. I can have us on the ground in ten.”

“Make that five, if you can.” A pause, then, “Park Street, you say? Then I suppose congratu—”

The Russian lunges to cut off the rest of that sentence. “What’s going on, sir? We have mission?”

“Terribly sorry to spoil your holiday plans, chaps, but it seems Cupid’s arrows aren’t what they’re all cracked up to be. Some kind of love-bug going ‘round that’s none too friendly.”

“You’re saying there’s a virus?” Gaby asks, the tautness in her voice unmistakable. Illya clenches his jaw, his fists, self-flagellating in his thoughts.

“No, no, it’s definitely man-made. Whatever it is THRUSH has cooked up, we need to get an antidote and fast. Let me know when you’re back on solid ground.”

“Understood,” Cowboy says. The radio hisses back into silence as he turns to his partners. “Either of you packing heat?”

Illya nods, reveals the Makarov strapped to his shoulder. Gaby indicates her purse. “I have my Walther in there.”

She slips a particularly wicked-looking knife from the sheath at her thigh and points to Illya’s left leg. “He’s got one strapped to his ankle too.”

There’s a long pause as Cowboy absorbs this information. He huffs. “Should I ask why you two chose to be walking armories on a seemingly harmless date? Was this something you two coordinated… or?”

Gaby shrugs. “We like to be prepared.”

Illya exhales hard through his nose, smooths his shaking hands over his trousers. If only it were that simple. He’d been prepared, arranged for the banner as his contingency plan, had brought his gun with him in the event of such a mission, but this… this is something else entirely.

His romantic, mid-flight proposal is now hurtling towards a rocky landing, Illya’s dreams (and sanity) right along with it.
And suddenly, Illya is glad that they have a wicker basket.

Chapter Text

His fingers fly over the keys, agile and sure, the intricacies of Mussorgsky flowing without conscious thought or effort. Illya is mindless like this, swept up in the waves of sound, blissfully barreling through the undertow of creative expression.

He picks up the tempo, foot pressing firmly on the pedals and wonders if this is what Gaby feels like when she is driving. This control, this abandon. Coaxing the best performance possible from a machine, an instrument, and bringing it to life in a way that no one else can. He wonders… and then lets it go like a streamer in the wind.

Illya plays until the world dissolves around him. Until the tension bleeds from his shoulders, the red mist recedes, and his hands no longer shake over the ivories. He plays, on days such as this one, when he needs to clear his head: hours and hours until he is lost. Until he is found.

It is not the forgetting that he chases, but the remembrance.

Illya’s father taught him to play chess. To strategize and to conquer. His mother taught him to play the piano. To create and interpret. To give rather than to take. Illya is a case study in these dualities: logic and passion warring in the halls of mirrors inside him, roaring in his echo chambers.

He had perfected his posture, not in the military, but on the piano bench. Shoulders back, head held high. The Kuryakin way. His mother’s skill and his father’s pride. Illya closes his eyes, breathing into the ache and the memories.

A gentle voice, a snatch of perfume, slender fingers carding through his hair. It is almost enough to make her real, to conjure her, summon her here to London. But Moscow is his mother’s home, is his home, though a traitorous part of Illya questions what is left for her there: Marya Kuryakin, widowed and outcast, the KGB’s queen. The only piece on the board that can checkmate him.

Moscow is where his mother belongs, yet still he wonders…

A frown tugs at Illya’s lips, his brows, when he senses her there beside him. Slim arms cross over his neck, a kiss is pressed to his temple. He breathes in the perfume—florals faded after a long day, sharp spices mingling with something sweeter—and sighs. Relief and disappointment.

Gaby.

Illya’s fingers still on the keys, chest inexplicably tight as he turns, drawing her to him. His forehead rests on her collarbone, hands firming on her waist, a string of broken Russian falling from his lips. Gaby strokes his hair, keeping his demons at bay.

When Illya’s breathing steadies, Gaby climbs into his lap, wrapping her arms around him. She brings him back to her with her kisses… the underside of his jaw, the corner of his mouth, leaning back to brave a smile at him.

“Alles OK?”

Illya’s palms sweep idly over her back, the edge of his sadness fading to a dull, bruising ache. He swallows. Nods.

“Da,” he breathes and pulls her back to him.

 


 

February 29th looms large before him: one last hurrah to punctuate a month that has seen all his stars crossed in dizzying, spectacular fashion. Maybe this extra day, he thinks, will be the exception to the auspices and interferences of the past few weeks.

But for what feels like the first time in 1964, it is not a proposal that weighs most on Illya. It is a performance.

That he ever agreed to Cowboy’s New Year’s gift is nothing short of a miracle, worthy of the most closely guarded of state secrets. A “strictly limited, one-night engagement” in the famous Wigmore Hall: just a Russian, a piano, and an assumed name.

Sergei Ivanov, he huffs, though not unfondly.

Illya has dedicated nearly every waking moment to preparing for his big debut. He spends hours at the piano, Gaby and Cowboy dropping by to listen and offer what support they can: a graceful, steadying hand on his shoulder, suggestions on showmanship and repertoire delivered (wisely) from a safe distance.

Waverly has even offered up his own manor for Illya’s use. Much more private, he’d assured him with a wry, eye-crinkling smile. Saves some surprises for your partners.

The Englishman had been, as usual, uncannily and unerringly accurate with his remark. More than preserving the three agents’ sanity—one could only listen to “Bydlo” so many times in two months—it also lets Illya practice the most crucial part of the concert: an original composition.

The one he had written for Gaby, had promised to play for her some day. The still unnamed piece won’t be listed in the program. It will be an encore that, fate permitting, will end in… no. He won’t say it. Won’t even think about it.

 


 

Gaby straightens his tie. Unnecessary, but calming, nevertheless. Illya covers her hand with his own, keeping her there. A sharp exhale. He rests his forehead against hers and lets their breaths mingle for a moment.

A knock at his dressing room door precedes Cowboy’s arrival. The American peeks his head in. “Five minutes,” he informs them before bustling away.

Gaby’s free hand trails down the sleeve of his tux. “I better go take my seat,” she murmurs, though she doesn’t step away from him. “Waverly will be waiting for me.”

She rises on her tiptoes, lips ghosting over his ear. “Good luck,” she whispers, accent scraping gently over the Russian. Illya blinks, catches her soft grin. Before Gaby can slip away, a mirage in green silk, Illya kisses her. Urgently, possessively, wanting to taste his mother tongue on her.

He swallows her gasp, the moan he draws from her when his fingers flex over the bared back of her gown. It is several moments before she finally extricates herself… dark eyes fathomless and—he hopes—almost as lost as his own.

“Don’t worry about the audience,” she tells him when her breathing is back under control. “Who they are or what they think about you. You’re not playing for them.”

“Really?” he asks, lips curving into a grin. “Then for whom, may I ask?”

Gaby shrugs. “Me. If you want. But for yourself more than anyone.”

“Is that what they teach you in ballet school?”

“At an East German chop shop, actually.”

There’s still play in her voice, but Illya sobers instantly. “Your father.”

Gaby nods. Her eyes shine with a rare vulnerability, but she holds his gaze steadily. “My first recital, he told me to perform for myself or not at all.”

She clears her throat. “And tonight, I want you to do the same. We’re here to celebrate you, Illya. Not for you to prove anything.”

“Gaby,” he says, composure faltering. “I—”

“One minute,” Solo calls.

Gaby gives Illya one final kiss before stepping away. “If you get nervous,” she tells him, “just remember: I’ll be close by.”

 


 

Illya walks out to hearty applause, the bright lights obscuring anyone beyond the first couple of rows. Wigmore Hall is beautiful, intimate. Everything he could have dreamed of: 545 seats across two levels, a shoe-box shaped barrel roof that creates near-perfect acoustics, marble and alabaster all around. And above the stage, there is a striking cupola depicting, among other figures, the Soul of Music.

The piano gleams in invitation as Illya takes a deep bow, before striding over to the bench. He takes his seat and lets the world narrow to just this moment, this space. He knows that the audience is a mix of UNCLE agents, high-society members, and reporters anxious to investigate this mysterious, new talent.

But all that matters is the woman he loves, slipping into her seat beside Waverly. She smiles when she catches his eye, nods reassuringly. A slow, steadying breath before Illya’s fingers skim over the keys and he begins to play.

He plays for his mother, his father, his country. Cowboy. Waverly. For himself, for Gaby, and for the man who supported her at her first recital and every performance after.

 


 

Illya is performing all fifteen movements of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”: the ten pieces that comprise the suite and the five promenade variations (though Cowboy had urged him to eliminate the fifth, an almost note-for-note reprise of the first). Illya is not so easily dissuaded.

The piano practically sings under his ministrations. Clear, rich, and sonorous, the music shimmers and aches and thrills in every corner of the concert hall. It is spell-binding. Even the applause is not enough to jar him from this grand illusion.

Illya is distantly aware of the audience, but they are only a dream, a fantasy compared to the truth he is weaving with his fingertips.

Intermission comes and goes in a surreal sort of daze. Later, he might reflect on how the American seemed to know to give him his space, to keep that mindset intact. Cowboy only told him when to descend the short flight of stairs from the green room… and then let the Soul of Music take care of the rest.

Illya is flying high by the end of the program. After a respectful pause—hands returning ever so slowly to his sides, the last note of “The Bogatyr of Kiev” suspended in the silence—the audience roars to life.

He stands, eyes beginning to focus again. He takes stock of a packed house on its feet, instinctively seeking out Gaby’s reaction as he rises from his bow. Illya freezes when he finds that she is missing.

His smile falters. He doesn’t remember seeing her after intermission, though granted, he was too lost to do anything but take her presence for granted.

How long has she been gone?

A second, more perfunctory bow and then his long legs are carrying him away… and straight into Cowboy. The man’s arms brace against Illya’s, an effort to steady them both.

“Easy, Peril,” he says, frowning as he takes in his harried expression. “What’s going on? The crowd reaching Lisztomania-levels out there?”

“It’s Gaby,” he grits out.

“What about her?”

Illya shrugs, a muscle in his jaw ticking. He tries to sidestep the American, but Cowboy stalls him. Thankfully, he doesn’t press the issue. “Shall I get you for your encore… or should I send everyone home?”

His only response is a growl, low in his throat, before stalking off to his dressing room. The door slams shut behind him, barely dampening the applause still thundering undeterred. Illya knows he should go back out, take another bow, perhaps deliver on the encore he’d been planning, but without Gaby, what would be the point?

There had to have been a reason for her sudden disappearance, but nothing comes to mind. He sinks back against the door and shuts his eyes. The applause is finally beginning to die away, the rise and fall of conversations drifting indistinctly over him.

He counts in Russian until at last, there is silence.

Illya sighs and stands back up again, his moment of indulgent patheticness coming to a close. He stills when he hears the piano.

A frown knits his brows together as the melody, that haunting, familiar melody, is matched to words. A woman’s voice. Dark and sweet. Singing Ochi Chernye.

Heart hammering in his throat, Illya throws open the door to chase after the sound. He knows that voice, but it’s not possible. It can’t be. For surely the woman singing—the one who sends him careening to a jaw-dropping halt—cannot be his mother.

The song ends a moment later, but Illya’s thoughts, his pulse are still several beats behind as he stares at her: a vision straight out of his childhood memories. Cowboy vacates the piano bench, retreating to an unobtrusive distance as Marya Kuryakin steps forward.

“Illyushka,” she whispers and that is enough.

Enough to get his feet to move and his arms to fold about her, shuddering with the simple comfort of a touch, the reassurance of her presence. Her face, when Illya draws back to look at her, is more lined than he remembers, her golden hair threaded now with silver, but her eyes are still the same. The same brilliant blue that matches his own, mirroring all the emotions that leave his vision swimming.

“How?”

“I will explain later,” she responds before switching over to English. “But right now, there is a young woman waiting to speak with you.”

Illya slowly turns around, clutching his mother’s hand like a small child.

“Spasibo,” Gaby says with a slight smile. His mother nods before quietly stepping away from them, moving to join Cowboy—and Waverly too, he notes.

Gaby takes both of Illya’s hands in her own as he tries to school his thoughts into coherency.

“You did this?”

“Not by myself.” She gestures redundantly at the rest of their team. “I had to leave at intermission. I wanted to be… had to be the one to greet your mother. Bring her here to you.”

Gaby is more flustered than he’s ever seen her. “We caught the last part of your performance. Balcony,” she indicates with a breathless, nervous laugh. “You must have thought I… I’m sorry, I—”

“Is okay,” he chokes out, squeezing her hands tightly. “Is okay.”

Gaby huffs, regarding him with a suddenly intent gaze. It makes the breath catch in his throat. “Illya,” she says, voice tender, but sure. “Will you marry me?”

 


 

Illya’s heart stutters wildly, questioning now, more than ever, whether he hasn’t been hallucinating this entire evening. He frowns. “I should… it should be me—”

“It’s Leap Day,” she tells him, though that does nothing to clarify the situation. Gaby glances at Cowboy, as if in confirmation. “Solo told me it’s tradition for a woman to propose. Tradition. Just like barmbrack.”

“Just like barmbrack,” he echoes weakly.

“If you say no—”

“No,” he interjects. Too quickly.

Gaby arches an eyebrow at him, ignoring him, “Then you owe me 12 pairs of gloves. One for every month so I can cover my poor, bare, ring-less fingers.”

She wiggles all ten, tanned digits at him, shrugging when he doesn’t say anything. Her tone is light, but there’s an uncertainty she can’t fully mask. “Well, my hands are getting cold…”

“I will not let that happen,” Illya assures her, already lifting her hands to his lips. He smiles, shaking his head with a rueful sort of amusement. After all of his worry and overthinking… is it truly as simple as this?

“Of course I will marry you,” he says and feels the weight of the world lift from his shoulders.

Gaby’s eyes search his, a grin playing at the corners of her mouth. “Then what are we waiting for?”

“I’ve got the rings right here,” the American says. Illya thinks back to their ‘collision’ earlier, but can’t bring himself to roll his eyes. Not even when Cowboy adds, “I happen to take my Best Man of Honor duties very seriously.”

“German weddings last at least two days,” Gaby teases, drawing him back to her. “Is that not how it is in Russia?”

“Da,” he says slowly, before finally pulling his fiancée in for a kiss. The smattering of applause surrounding them warms Illya more than any other ovation from this evening.

“Then it’s settled,” Cowboy declares, braving a few steps towards them. He turns to the Englishman beside him. “We can get a wedding planned by tomorrow, can’t we, sir?”

Waverly nods. “Even if we have to move heaven and earth to get it done.”

“I think we already have,” Illya says wryly.

Gaby tilts her head up at him, dark eyes dancing with humor. “A ‘strictly limited, one-night engagement’. Isn’t that right, darling?”

He smirks, making a show of studying his hand. “Hmm… but no ring for your fiancé?”

“Is not the German way,” she quips back. “Most couples don’t bother with engagement rings.”

“And yet you still wear yours. From Rome.”

Gaby smiles. “It’s more than just a ring.”

“Your wish?”

“Your promise,” she corrects him. “When you gave this to me—”

“I didn’t know if I’d see you again.”

Gaby nods. “It was a commitment. Dangerous. ” Her chiding is softened by her smile. “Some might even say foolish.

“Not as foolish as leaving you behind.”

She traces the scar by his eye, serious once more. “You wouldn’t have had a choice.”

“I may have had my orders, da, ” he says, finally able to accept, to own this revelation, “but I had already chosen you. I will always choose you.”

The way Gaby kisses him—fierce, hungry, her lips speaking the truth that words never could—would make him blush if he remembered that they weren’t alone. As it is, it’s not until Cowboy pointedly clears his throat that they part from each other.

The American taps his watch. “It’s getting late, Peril, and you two lovebirds have a big day ahead of you. I’ll take Gaby back to Emes. You’ll see that your mother gets back to her place safely, won’t you?”

He doesn’t wait for Illya to acknowledge him. “There’s a spare room for you there,” he tells him. “I’ll come by in the morning. Pick the two of you up.”

Off of Illya’s questioning look, he shrugs. “Can’t have you seeing the bride before the wedding.”

Gaby gives Illya one, last lingering kiss before going over to his mother. Their voices are too low to distinguish the words, but the women part with a smile.

When they are alone in the concert hall, his mother turns to him, grave. “A German, Illyushka? Of all the women you could have fallen in love with,” she says, making Illya’s heart stop, “I am glad that it was her.”

Chapter Text

 Illya slips quietly through the front door of the safehouse, a still-warm box of pastries tucked under his arm. He knows the kitchen is already generously stocked—UNCLE has seen to that—but Illya wants something… special, something fresh and indulgent to celebrate his mother’s arrival in the West.

There is another reason why he wanted to leave. Go for a walk. Clear his head.  Settle his nerves and prove that this isn’t all just a dream.

His mother is here and he is marrying Gaby.

Illya is hesitant to trust it, may never fully comprehend it. Already, he is bracing himself for the fall, the abrupt return to grayscale reality. The tension eases in his chest when he sees his mother: two mugs of coffee beside her.

He had stayed up until the early hours, talking with her, committing every detail of her face and her voice to memory, until finally, she had sent him away. Rest, she’d ordered him. A dark, shadowy urgency had gripped him then—a look mirrored in her own eyes.

Rest, she repeated. I will still be here in the morning.

And she is.

That was the first thing Illya had seen to before leaving for his errands. He had been loathe to go, but his mother had shown him her gun and assured him she could handle herself. A curious ache had threatened to split his chest as he kissed her forehead and waited until he heard the click of the lock behind him.

 


 

Marya Kuryakin smiles gently as her son sets down their breakfast. She nods her way through his whirlwind tour of the delicacies within. She is only half-listening, focused more on the timbre, the resonance of his voice.

It rolls over her, like rain, like thunder, and she wants to close her eyes to it, be soothed like a small child. How like his father he is. When had her son become a man? Years of coded letters and even fewer phone calls could hardly prepare her to be here, in his presence, to see and hear and yes, to touch.

Marya can’t help herself from tracing the scar by his eye. The rest of his sentence trails into silence. A new tension creeps into his shoulders as he pauses.

“Мама?”

She smiles, shaking her head at her own sentimentality. “It’s nothing, Illyushka. Continue.”

Her son hesitates, but nods and indicates the last item: a golden-brown cake topped with almonds and with a layer of custard in the middle.

“Bee sting cake,” he explains. “What Gaby would call ‘bienenstich’.”

Even in three syllables she can hear it. A softness to the edges of his German. Illya has always been a quick study, but there is something natural now in the way he says the word. That rough, militant inflection she has only heard on him a few times before is gone.

Marya hums as she examines it. “That looks like a dessert.”

She arches a brow, a smile hovering at the corners of her lips. Illya’s cheeks redden slightly: an endearing quality she’s missed on him. Time and circumstance may have separated them, but Marya Kuryakin still knows her son.

“Special occasion,” he says, shrugging. His subtle grin is enough to make her heart soar. When was the last time she had seen her son like this? So at ease? So happy?

Whatever God or gods there may be, she thanks them. She thanks them all.

 


 

A knock at the door startles them both to attention. Illya automatically reaches for his gun, but his mother stops him with a hand on his shoulder. She shakes her head, smiling as she moves to answer it. Illya shadows her, ready to jump in at any moment.

The door opens to none other than Napoleon Solo himself. His arms are laden with expensive-looking chocolates and bottles of champagne.

“Cowboy.”

“Peril.” He smirks. “I come bearing gifts.”

The American brushes past him to lay out his offerings on the table. His mother fusses over his selections, making small sounds of approval while Illya remains rooted to the spot.

“For your vykup nevesty,” she explains, switching over to English.

“My vykup… I don’t understand. Gaby has no—”

“Family?” Solo asks. “Maybe not in the traditional sense, but … that doesn’t mean we can’t still hold her hostage while you ransom her away.”

Cowboy’s smirk widens. How he even knows about this tradition is well-beyond Illya. He is about to say something, say anything when his mother’s soft voice stops him. “I will be there,” she tells him. “Gaby is already like a daughter to me, no?”

Solo beams. “Look at that, Peril. Mother Russia is indeed a mother to us all.”

“That includes you, Cowboy,” his mother adds. Illya finds himself grinning at that: the look of shock that passes over his partner’s face.

Solo winces, but there’s laughter in his eyes. He turns to Illya. “We need to make sure our darling Gabriella is given away to a worthy man.”

A knot forms in his stomach as he looks at his mother. There is a soft, pleading tone to his voice that makes the smile drop from the American’s face. “And am I worthy, мама?”

Am I worthy of her? Of you?

Illya barely registers how Solo quickly excuses himself to retrieve something else from his car. All he can focus on is the saddened sincerity in his mother’s eyes. She smooths a hand over his cheek, smiles up at him reassuringly.

“She chose you, didn’t she?”

A pause before he nods. His mother gives him a light slap, a sternness to her voice. “And you have and will always be worthy, Illyushka.”

Illya huffs, nods again. The knot disappears, replaced with something lighter. Buoyant. Cowboy returns a moment later with a garment bag draped over his arm. “Unless your tuxedo is planning on making an encore this morning, I imagine you’d like a change of clothes.”

He blinks. In surprise, in suspicion. Maybe even in gratitude. He knows without looking that the suit inside is not one from his closet, knows without trying it on that it will fit him perfectly.

“Thank you,” he manages, automatically reaching out to take it.

His mother clears her throat. “I have something for you as well.”

A pair of cufflinks are pressed into his upturned palm. They are not the ornate ones he remembers from his childhood, but a simpler set: one that a young, struggling law clerk could hardly afford, but managed to purchase anyway.

His father’s.

“He wore these on our wedding day,” she confirms. Illya’s fingers curl into a fist over this precious offering. His throat constricts when he sees the tears in his mother’s eyes.

“We were poor then,” she tells him, “but we were happy. It is the love, Illya, only the love that matters on a day like this.”

 


 

Illya finishes his breakfast in jittery silence. Sometime during his visit, Cowboy had managed to slip a few newspapers onto the counter—all lauding Sergei Ivanov’s performance of the night before.

He doesn’t read them.

Instead, Illya concentrates on the day ahead, the Destiny that awaits him. His mother had left with the American, giving Illya ample opportunity to go about his preparations. His fingers shake as he fastens the last button on his dress shirt: a classic white in Illya’s preferred cut. Monogrammed cuffs.

He thinks of his mother’s words to him as he reaches for those twin squares of mother of pearl. We were poor then, but we were happy. And after? What then? When his father had worked his way to the top and could provide everything for his wife and newborn son, were they still happy?

Something in the way his mother had held onto the cufflinks all these years tells him that they were. She could have, probably should have sold them. He knows she’d needed the money.

His parents had made a commitment to each other then and he would like to believe that they still would. That, if given the chance and the benefit of retrospect, they would do it all over again. Choose each other, the way he has chosen Gaby.

The way Gaby has chosen him.

Illya hums as he reaches for his tie. All of his worries about what he can or can’t offer the mechanic seem to ease with this realization. Gaby is not settling for him. She is not throwing her life away or deluding herself that the path ahead will be an easy one.

Rather, Gaby has chosen and asked him to choose to spend their lives with one another.

It is only the love that matters.

 


 

With his ‘ransom’ safely in tow, Illya strides up to Eme—a knight ready to rescue his princess. Only, instead of a dragon, his mother is the one to greet him. She is rapturous in a Grecian-style gown, blonde locks pinned up like a goddess of old.

“You look beautiful,” he says past the lump in his throat.

His mother smiles. “Flattery will get you nowhere, Illyushka. You need to pass my test first.”

Illya grins. He’d cross his arms if he could, but settles for tilting his head back. “And what is that?”

“You must answer three questions.”

“You are like the Sphynx,” he mutters. “Very well, мама. I accept your challenge.”

She nods at him, mock-solemn. A perfect mirror of his own subtle humor. “What is Gaby’s favorite monster film?”

That was easy.

“Frankenstein,” he replies. No hesitation.

“I heard she slept through that one.” His mother smiles. “Try again.”

Illya frowns, racking his brains as he thinks back to Halloween, to their nightly movie marathon, the distractions provided by his partners, his ‘time out’ chair. He huffs as the answer comes to him and he has to stop himself from rolling his eyes.

“The Bride of Frankenstein.”

“Correct. What was Gaby’s favorite memory in New York?”

New York, he thinks. That was Thanksgiving. He sifts through the memories: the bugged engagement ring, the novel, the ‘family’ dinner they had all shared. Illya is about to respond with “The Macy’s Day Parade”, but stops short.

Gaby had loved seeing the giant balloons and the celebrities, had nestled against his chest to keep out the autumn chill… but, as much as it pains him, the image of her childlike wonder on 34th street does not come close to her breathless laughter on Black Friday.

He grits his teeth, can almost feel her smirk from somewhere in the house. “Her favorite memory,” he scoffs, “is when I accidentally stole a coat rack for Waverly.”

There. It was out in the open now. His mother’s eyes are bright with mischief even as she scolds him. “Illya,” she tsks. “You are very lucky that was her answer.”

An embarrassed shrug. “What is the final question?”

“When did you first tell Gaby that you loved her?”

That stops him cold. Illya has never told her in so many words, has been holding back until he knew she would be willing to accept them from him. But surely he has communicated it to her before?

“In Rome,” he finally says. “When I gave her back her ring.”

Our third engagement, he thinks with something close to fondness. His mother smiles. She rises to plant a kiss on his cheek.

“You may proceed.”

 


 

Cowboy is waiting for him in the living room. The furniture has been pushed back against the wall and Illya has a distinctly impending sense of doom. His fingers flex as he approaches the American.

Out of the corner of his eye, he can see his mother moving to take her seat. He swallows nervously as he awaits his punishment.

“You might want to set those down, Peril,” the man says, grinning. “You’ll need to have your hands free for this one.”

A muscle works in Illya’s jaw as he complies.

“Your next challenge—should you choose to accept it—requires you to get in touch with your artistic side. A song or a dance. A recitation of love poetry, even, if you’re feeling so inclined.”

Illya scowls. He’s been expecting something like this. Mercifully, no one else is watching. He longs to sweep the room for any hidden cameras, but he is far too eager to get this over with.

“I will dance.” He ignores the smug look on the American’s face as he crosses the room to flip through Gaby’s records. When he finds one that will suit his purposes, he puts it on. The turntable crackles to life as a waltz begins to swell around them.

He moves to approach his mother, but diverts at the last second. If he is going down in flames, he’s taking the Cowboy with him.

Illya bows to the American, extends his hand. “I need a partner,” he says. Darkly. Solo recovers from his shock and accepts Illya’s invitation. He even deigns to let Illya lead him around the makeshift dance floor.

“Well, isn't this a surprise,” he drawls. “Who knew you could cut a rug like this?”

Illya ignores him, mentally counting the seconds until this torture is over. About halfway through the song, the American decides to put on a show.

He is seconds away from breaking Cowboy’s wandering hands when the bright, warming peals of his mother’s laughter causes the spike of red to recede. Illya can hardly remember the sound, nor recall the last time he had seen her smile like that.

So, Illya decides to ‘grin and bear it’, as Solo would say, and ups the theatricality of the endeavor. By the time, he twirls Solo and dips him with a modest sort of flourish, there are tears running down her face as she applauds them.

Solo bows to her. “You will save a dance for me tonight, I hope?”

“For this gift you have just given me, Mr. Solo, you may have all the dances you’d like.”

The American bows again before turning to Illya. “Your blushing bride-to-be is in the drawing room. Waverly will be waiting for you there.”

He shakes Illya’s hand. “Good luck.”

 


 

The screen is back up in the drawing room, presumably to conceal the mechanic behind it. Waverly stands to greet him, though it takes Illya half a second to recover his composure. Before he can stop himself, the words tumble out.

“What is that.”

The Englishman frowns down at his nineteenth century get-up, though Illya is more concerned with the wide black hat adorned with a number of colorful ribbons.

“Well, you see, Kuryakin, it’s an old Bavarian custom.”

“Bavarian.”

“Don’t take this from me.”

Illya withholds a smile, pretends to look properly chastised. Waverly touches the hat almost self-consciously. “The hochzeitslader invites the wedding guests personally. Each ribbon seen here is an RSVP.”

He shrugs—or the closest Illya has ever seen to such a casual gesture from the man. “I made the rounds at HQ this morning.”

“I see.”

Solo’s nudging him jolts him out of his stupor. “I don’t know how familiar you are with hostage situations, Peril, but your negotiation skills could use some work.”

Illya blinks, snaps back to the present. He nods and divides the chocolate and champagne between his superior, his partner, and his mother.

Waverly inspects these proffered goods with his wry brand of stoicism. “That should do it then. Gaby, will you come out please?”

Illya’s pulse skitters uselessly as he catches a glimpse of white from behind the screen. He exhales heavily when he sees who emerges instead: Alexi Bashkin, the only other KGB agent working with UNCLE.

The man is dressed up like a bride, batting his eyelashes ridiculously from behind his veil as he picks his way over to Illya in—what he must think—passes for a dainty grace. It is an old joke, part and parcel with the tradition, so Illya allows a token of a smile.

When the laughter dies down, he turns back to Waverly. “This is not my love, sir. Will you send Gaby out?”

“That depends,” the Englishman says. “What else do you have to offer for her?”

His stomach drops, ice sliding down his spine. He doesn’t have any more sundry items… money, then? He begins to reach for his wallet, pauses. There is a collective intake of breath when he starts to undo the clasp of his watch.

“That won’t be neces—”

“For Gaby, sir. Anything.”

Before the man can open his mouth to protest, Illya holds up a hand to stop him. “I can give you the work of my hands, the air from my lungs, the blood from my body. I can offer you my continued loyalty, my services, all the years I have left and it will never be enough.”

He clears his throat, shifts his weight on his feet. “You already have all those, sir, and more. Same with Gaby. I could offer my heart, but it has been hers ever since we met. Before that even. There has always been a hope that I would find her, broken and undeserving as I am.”

Illya holds up his most treasured heirloom. “This watch is the only meaningful thing I have left to give: a symbol of my love, my loyalty, and my commitment to my family. Please accept it, sir, and please let me have your blessing to have Gaby’s hand in marriage.”

The room has gone unnaturally silent as he concludes this speech. His face is warm, but he tamps down any shame he may feel for his candor. Waverly reluctantly accepts the watch, looks almost pleadingly at Solo and his mother.

“Steady, Alex,” the American cautions him. “He’s got one more task to complete.”

Waverly nods and pulls himself together. “Yes, of course.” He takes a deep breath. “Illya Kuryakin, you have more than my blessing. You have my full-fledged support and all my best wishes for both of your continued happiness.”

He rises and moves to the screen. “You asked for Gaby’s hand in marriage and her hand I will give you. But first, you will have to identify it. Close your eyes and hold out your hand.”

Illya complies and waits for a small, cool hand to brush against his. His brow furrows, feeling the smooth skin. Too soft. The perfume confirms it. “This is not her.”

A new hand reaches out: large and rough. A long-suffering sigh escapes him. “This is Alexi.” A moment passes, then, “Still Alexi.”

The KGB agent laughs raucously at his own antics. As soon as Illya feels the next hand, he knows. That zing of recognition, the fire that hums through his veins. Gaby’s fingers curl—almost instinctively —to lace in his own, her callouses gently catching on his skin.

Illya smiles and gently guides her out from behind the screen as the applause begins to ring out around them.

 


 

Gaby is radiant: demure in a chic, white dress. A familiar white dress. “From Rome,” he whispers, more to himself than to his fiancée.

“Something old,” she confirms. Gaby indicates the dazzling pair of sapphire earrings she’s sporting. “Blue and new. Courtesy of Solo.”

“Is it borrowed too?” he asks suspiciously.

“I assure you it’s all perfectly above board, Peril,” the American chimes in. “I’m afraid I don’t have that honor.”

“Then what…?”

“Not what,” Gaby says. “Who.”

The mechanic grins and goes to stand next to Waverly, lays a hand on his shoulder. “He’s on loan to walk me down the aisle.”

A thoughtful look crosses her face before she gentles the watch from Waverly’s hands. Any argument dies on Illya’s lips when she approaches him, fingers wrapping around his wrist. There is a playful light in her eyes, though the sincerity is unmistakable.

“You said this watch is a symbol for you. I want it to be mine as well,” she murmurs. “To remind you that I accept the man you are, the man you were, and believe in the man you can be. I love you, Illya, and I will love you from now until our time runs out.”

Her smile is a priceless gift as she refastens his watch. He exhales shakily, seconds from kissing her when his mother comes up to them and presses something into Illya’s hand. He frowns down at in confusion.

“Something new,” she explains, exchanging a small smile with Gaby. “There. Now I can be like Best Man, yes?”

Illya stares down at the delicate watch, runs a thumb over the cool glass face. When had she had the opportunity to buy this? It is clearly Russian-made. His chest tightens as he thinks of the risks his mother had taken to purchase it so soon before her extraction: a gift for a woman she had never met, but had already accepted into her family.

He nods and turns to his fiancée, his own smile tugging at his lips. He kisses Gaby’s hand, secures the leather band around her wrist. Watches are not rings and these are not the vows they will be exchanging, but in this impromptu moment of ceremony, none of it seems to matter.

“It is your soul and mine on the same journey,” Illya promises, “from now until the end of time.”

 


 

Out of all the venues in the world they could have chosen to get married in, a Victorian-era waterworks would not have been on her list. But now that they are here, Gaby can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Solo had described the Kew Bridge Pumping Station as an ‘industrial cathedral’ and it isn’t hard to see why. From the stately standpipe tower—not a chimney, she’d learned—to the reserved, tactile grandeur of the engine house, Gaby is immersed in a unique blend of function and elegance.

The giant steam engines and even larger pipes that surround her are a far cry from her garage in East Germany, but there is something comfortingly familiar about it all the same. She knows that Illya, too, can appreciate the (now defunct) station’s legacy of public service.

Yes, Gaby thinks as Waverly escorts her down the ‘aisle’ of the magnificent Steam Hall, there can be no place better than this.

 


 

The final, shimmering notes of the piano are lost to the crescendo of cheering as she and Illya make a run for it: hand in hand, ducking against the barrage of rice being thrown at them from all sides.

Gaby will never forget the look on his face when he had first heard that melody—the melody that he had composed for her at New Years. Gaby had chosen it to bookend their wedding. It moves her just as much the second time around.

She doubts she will ever tire of hearing it.

They reach the courtyard and collapse against each other, breathless with laughter and the joy and the relief this day has brought them. The waterwheel spins lazily beside them, the sun catching on the gold rings they now wear.

Gaby lifts up her right hand, inspecting the slim band. It is a welcome weight—and even more welcome sight—that she has already grown accustomed to. Illya raises his own hand to compare against hers. A matching set, she thinks. The two of them, proudly wearing their allegiances, a loyalty untouched by regimes and regulations. They belong together. To each other.

She must spend too much time staring because Illya smirks at her, before bending to nuzzle her neck, press a quick kiss below her ear. His hum is electric against her skin as he breathes in her perfume. Gaby sighs, lacing her hand with his once more.

The assembling crowd causes Illya to straighten though he doesn’t let go of her. “Next task, Peril,” Solo calls out. “A German tradition this time.”

Gaby pats Illya’s arms and he reluctantly releases her. She strolls curiously to the set of sawhorses and the log propped up on it. She hadn’t even noticed it before, though admittedly, she’d been a bit distracted.

Illya is close behind, frowning as he picks up the long, two-handled saw. A look passes between the newlyweds as Gaby moves to stand on the opposite side of the log.

“Looks like you’ve got the gist of it,” the American says. “The baumstamm sägen represents how well the pair of you will work in your marriage.”

“Oh, is that all?” Gaby smirks at Illya as she takes one end of the saw. “Come on, ehemann. Let’s get to work.”

 


 

The World War I Cenotaph is remarkably simple, but unspeakably profound: a blank canvas for those in mourning. It is an empty tomb, Illya explains to her, to honor the absent dead. For those soldiers buried in “some corner of a foreign field” or whose remains were never recovered at all.

Gaby sneaks a quick glance at her husband and wonders if he thinking of his fallen comrades. Wonders if he is thinking of his father. She knows the rumors surrounding the gulag: mass and unmarked graves scattered all throughout Siberia.

The tension in Illya’s jaw tells her everything she needs to know.

Her hand slips into his, a reassuring squeeze to bring him back, as they pay their respects. It is a Russian tradition, this visiting of local memorials. They will lay flowers and wreaths at each one in tribute—a solemnity that humbles her.

Gaby offers Illya a smile, closes her eyes as he pulls her against him. His breath ghosts over her hair in unsteady bursts. Gaby times the rise and fall of her chest with his, steadying him until even their hearts seem to beat in unison.

 


 

A greeting line awaits the newlyweds as they return for the reception. Gaby and Illya are all smiles as they make their way through it until, finally, they reach Marya and Waverly, who offer them salt and bread and their blessings.

The Englishman is again representing Gaby’s side of the family. He has been her superior, her mentor, and her friend these past two-and-a-half years. There is no one else she would rather have take her fathers’ place on this happy occasion.

An orphan twice-over, it is a bittersweet celebration. Gaby may be without her relatives today, but she can’t say that she is without her family. If the mechanic ever had any doubts, she would only need to look at Solo, at Waverly, at Illya and his mother and all of the friendly faces around her to be sure of it.

This is her family and she is home.

 


 

To officially kick off the wedding reception, Solo makes sure that every guest has a flute of champagne—or a suitably discreet substitute. He had had to fight Alexi earlier for the designation of Tamada or master of ceremonies.

He may not be Russian, but that doesn’t mean he can’t party like one.

Solo stands before the crowd and raises his glass in a toast. “Za-Molodykh! For the newlyweds!” He catches Alexi’s grin and holds back his own, knowing what is about to come next. His accomplice sips the champagne and immediately starts coughing.

“Gor’ko!” he shouts, a cry that is soon echoed by the other guests.

 


 

Gaby leans into Illya. “What are they saying?”

He can feel the tips of his ears warm as he answers her. “They are protesting that the wine is too bitter. They expect us to sweeten it.”

His wife sets her hands on her hips. She huffs. “How are we supposed—”

“Like this,” he says and dips her into a kiss.

Around them, the guests begin to count. They are somewhere around eleven when he and Gaby resurface. Illya grins at her slightly-flustered expression… and assiduously avoids looking at anyone else.

“Gor’ko!” Alexi shouts again and the crowd takes up the chant. Gaby rolls her eyes, but Illya can tell that she is enjoying herself. Maybe a little bit too much. He really should know by now to expect a trick, but his woman has always had a way of knocking him off-balance.

True to form, Gaby pounces on him without warning. Illya feels himself falling backwards when she catches him and locks her lips onto his.

 


 

If Solo were a less dignified man, he might actually be gaping at the spectacle before him: an enormous Russian being held up by a diminutive German mechanic, defying gravity for as long as her arms can support his weight.

He doesn’t know if anyone is counting. Doesn’t know if he is counting, but when Gaby manages to pull Peril back to a standing position, he claps right along with everyone else. They look relaxed as they take their bows—Gaby exuding smugness while her husband looks more than a little bit dazed.

Relaxed.

It is a strange word, a foreign word for a spy, yet here they are now: no pretenses, safe enough to let their guards down. A rarity. A miracle even.

When Solo looks back upon this night, this is the moment he wants to remember. He lifts his glass to his lips, if only to cover his smile.

His partners always did have a knack for overcoming the impossible.

And that is something he will drink to.

 


 

The hochzeitstanz comes next. Illya leads Gaby out into the center of the hall to share in their first dance as husband and wife. A waltz strikes up and she can see the corner of his lips twitch upwards, as if at some private recollection.

“Is nothing,” he assures her when he reads the unspoken question in her eyes. Gaby hums and settles into the familiar cadence of the music—more than a bit surprised at Illya’s lightness of foot, how confidently he leads her.

“You’ve been practicing,” she murmurs, “or else you’ve been holding out on me.”

Illya tilts his head back, a teasing look in his eyes. “This is not my first rodeo, as Cowboy would say.”

“So, you’ve been married before?”

His kiss is a rebuking one. Evidently, he did not appreciate her joke, though she can’t say she didn’t enjoy her scolding. “I have danced before. Quite recently, too.”

Illya hums, close to her ear. “Though you, milaya, are much better partner.”

The alcohol is singing sweetly in her veins, daring her to level the playing field a little. She wets her lips, dark eyes burning into his. “You have no idea, Illya, how good I can be.”

She rests her head on his chest, laughing, when he stumbles.

 


 

Illya dances with his mother next. Gaby and Waverly are across the way, talking in hushed, but happy tones as they move to the music. The other guests soon join them until the dance floor is full and the spotlight finally seems to be off him.

His mother smooths the hair off his forehead. “This is all I have ever wanted for you. To see you happy. And to know that you will not be alone.”

Illya’s vision blurs as he pulls her closer to him. “Neither will you, мама,” he promises. “We will make sure of that.”

 


 

The dinner that follows is a lively affair.

Besides the traditional German ‘wedding soup’, there are a number of Russian dishes as well: chicken tabaka, caviar, dumplings, herring. The vodka and champagne, the beer and the wine are all free-flowing.

So, too, are the speeches.

It seems everyone in attendance has something to say to or about the newlyweds. Their marriage is lauded as a symbol for global unity, the living embodiment of the UNCLE ethos. It is every positive adjective under the sun, every hope, every aspiration, every dream.

And it is all true.

For hasn’t this been his wish all along?

Illya is pulled back onto the floor to play a game that Gaby translates as “Who Rules the Nest?” A special cup—a Brautbecher, his wife informs him—is produced by Solo: one fashioned to look like a maiden carrying a cup above her head.

He is startled to learn that the maiden’s bell-shaped ‘skirt’ doubles as a cup as well (its counterpart at the top swivels independently). Both ends are filled with champagne as Cowboy explains the rules.

Illya and Gaby must drink simultaneously from the Brautbecher … whoever finishes their portion first will have control over the marriage. His brow furrows as he considers this proposition and inspects the bridal cup.

Gaby’s side is significantly smaller than his, and knowing the mechanic, is barely more than a mouthful for her. She must read his thoughts because she arches an eyebrow at him.

“Scared I’ll drink you under the table, liebling?”

He bites back a smile as he taps the rim of his cup. “I seem to be at competitive disadvantage, no?”

“Then let’s switch.”

With some careful maneuvering, they manage to reverse their positions. Gaby smirks at him. “Prost,” she says.

“Za tvoyo zdorovie.”

On Cowboy’s signal, the game begins.

 


 

They wait until midnight for the cake-cutting ceremony. When Solo had had time to bake a Baumkuchen for them or how he had even learned to master such a dessert will forever remain a mystery to her.

“The King of Cakes,” he proclaimed as he unveiled his creation. Gaby had gasped, clutched Illya’s arm and assured him that the term “tree cake” would soon make sense.

She playfully jockeys her husband for space and to have the literal and figurative ‘upper hand’ in the marriage. Illya proposes a compromise: they will switch halfway through. A tie, just like the Brautbecher game.

Even though it is only a silly superstition, Gaby is warmed nonetheless. Equal partners, they decided. At work and in the home.

She takes great pleasure in showing Illya the several golden layers hidden inside the cake, the uncanny resemblance they bear to tree rings.

“Or wedding rings,” Illya had suggested.

The American had shrugged. “More like the years of thick and thin ahead of you. Longevity in life and love.”

Gaby had smirked at Solo’s unusual display of sentiment, but had squeezed his hand in gratitude all the same. He had winked at her, indicated the rows of barmbrack cakes he’d similarly prepared for the guests.

“Do you believe in my fortune-telling cake now, Peril?”

 


 

It is late into the night when the crowds finally begin to disperse. Illya has long since been separated from Gaby, caught up in a hurricane of farewells and well-wishes. Alexi, in particular, has proven to be unshakable, doggedly pursuing him and monopolizing his attention… almost as if he were doing it on purpose.

Illya halts, stares at the man closely. His fellow KGB agent is spared an interrogation when Cowboy strolls up to meet them.

He doesn’t take his eyes off Alexi as he addresses the American. “Where is she?”

“About that…”

Illya looks sharply over at Solo, his fingers tapping instinctively at his sides. This had better be another game.

“I’m afraid Gaby has been kidnapped,” Cowboy calmly informs him. “I’d check the nearest bar if I were you.”

He claps Illya on the arm. “Oh, and uh, be sure to bring your wallet.”

 


 

Thus begins a wild goose chase throughout London’s finer (and admittedly, less fine) drinking establishments. Illya stops in each one he passes, glancing around for a familiar face: a guest or two who confirm that yes, his bride has been here, but since been spirited away.

He has to pick up the tab in order to get them to talk: the name of another bar, a pub, an intersection, a clue. Annoy him as it should, Illya can’t help from chuckling as he settles their bill and goes on the hunt once more.

When he sees Waverly and his mother, he knows that this is his last stop. Illya’s heart is thundering as he scans the room, his eyes alighting almost automatically on his wife. The relief floods through him… even as a new type of tension begins to take its place.

Gaby waves lazily from the bar and holds up her drink in salute. Illya’s feet are carrying him towards her before he realizes he’s even moving: his hands cup her face and then his mouth is on hers.

She doesn’t say anything when they finally break apart. Instead, she grabs his hand and pulls him along. Last call, he smirks, as they breeze through their final rounds of goodbyes and close the final tab.

Waverly coughs when they approach him. “Terribly sorry about the expense, Kuryakin. Agent Bashkin can be quite the handful, but I assure you, you will be reimbursed for any… incidentals he may have incurred.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Illya’s mother moves to lay a hand on Gaby’s arm. The two women exchange a warm smile. “Have you decided on your honeymoon yet?”

Gaby tilts her head up at him. A shared look, a nod, then, “Oslo. It will be nice to see the city. As civilians.”

“Speaking of civilians,” Solo says from somewhere behind them, “there’s someone I’d like you all to meet. Or… re-meet, rather.”

The four of them turn to see the American and the Russian ballerina beside him. Yulia catches his and Gaby’s eyes, inclines her head at them in recognition.

Solo guides her over to the Englishman. “Sir, allow me to introduce Yulia Vishneva of the—”

“Royal Ballet Company. Yes, I know.” He clasps her hand warmly. “Alexander Waverly. I have so enjoyed seeing you perform, Miss Vishneva.”

“Dancing is only the half of it, sir. I believe you’ll be interested in what else she has to offer.”

Yulia hums, secretive. She catalogues the small group in turn, a playful spark in her eyes. “Napoleon Solo... Alexander Waverly...”

She smiles at Gaby and Illya, at the rings on their hands, and at his mother beside them. “And you must be the Kuryakins.”