Is it so small a thing,
To have enjoy’d the sun,
To have lived light in the spring.
To have loved, to have thought, to have done,
To have advanced true friends, and beat down baffling foes.
That we must feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose?
But thou, because thou hear'st
Men scoff at Heaven and Fate;
Because the gods thou fear'st
Fail to make blest thy state,
Tremblest, and wilt not dare to trust the joys there are.
Buenos Aires, November 1965
It’s already oppressively hot as he wakes, heartbeat slow and in time with the lazy thrum of the fan overhead. They’ve been in South America for a month, but his body – stubborn as ever – is resisting the adjustment to summer.
He keeps his eyes closed for a while longer, letting his other senses ease into the day first. It’s a luxury, this gentle drift into consciousness, and one that only ever occurs in the brief hiatus between missions – days that Solo steals for them between the interminable rounds of briefing, preparation, execution and debriefing that have made up the last couple of years.
One hand flexes on warm skin and he breathes in slow and deep as Gaby stirs slightly in his arms. He always wakes like this when he’s able to share her bed – one hand always in contact, back curled protectively around hers. She seems unfeasibly small like this. Sleep relaxes her form, robs her of her usual dancer’s poise and emphasises her vulnerability.
Still, he’s learned that she can kick like a mule in her sleep, tossing and turning in a strange dance which caught him out the first few times they tried it. He doesn’t remember waking last night though, which either suggests that she’s less restless or that his unconscious body has got better at learning the steps.
He finally opens his eyes, and the additional input of information makes him suspect it’s the latter, given that someone has kicked off all the sheets during the stifling night.
She’s still fast asleep and he’s reluctant to wake her, reluctant to do anything that disturbs his freedom to watch her like this, unguarded and himself unobserved. Freedom. It’s a word he is unused to applying to himself. It is used so widely, so imprecisely, so much can be comprehended in it. Socialism is freedom. Capitalism is freedom. But freedom to do what?
There is a trite Western maxim, live each day as if it is your last. A thing said only by the ignorant or the wilfully stupid, for he’s lived like that for years, free indeed – free of hope or expectation of a future. And now he has been bold enough to ask for a future, it comes with a heavy price, one that he must start paying well in advance of receipt, making a down payment towards it every time he must stifle the words I love you on his lips.
For he cannot tell the woman asleep in his arms that he loves her, cannot plan a future with her while his own is so uncertain. He lives on shifting sands, stepping lightly in the vain hope of firmer ground. The only way out lies across an abyss, beyond which exists a world he sees only dimly and does not dare to sharpen with his imagination.
His fingers have started tapping on Gaby’s hip and she shifts, dragging him back out of his mental shadows. She rolls into him, eyes opening and immediately frowning at the light. His hand slides over her as she moves, settling across her stomach, spanning the distance between the two lines of paler skin that mark the boundaries of her bikini top and briefs.
She stretches slightly, pressing into his hand, soft and yielding and his train of thought scatters entirely, brain suddenly starved of oxygen as his blood rushes elsewhere. In over a year of stolen mornings together, he has never quite adjusted to the sight of Gaby in bed, the time when he feels she is most truly his, rather than the accomplished spy he has to share with the rest of the world.
“I like these.”
Her frown deepens. “My tan lines?”
He slowly and deliberately presses a kiss to her collarbone, where the ghost of her strapline clings. She tastes of that indefinable smell he associates with her now, a smell he’d know anywhere, intensified by the thin film of sweat on her skin. He follows the pale line down towards its logical conclusion, laying kisses in lines across her breastbone as the line begins to widen.
“So you don’t like the bikini, but you do like the tan lines?” she asks acidly.
He shrugs and answers between kisses. “I like bikini well enough, just not as item for wearing in public.”
He hoists himself over her and shuffles down the bed, shins dangling precariously off the end. One day, he swears, he’ll own a bed which is long enough for him.
“And if we are not in public, I prefer you like this.”
She huffs a sigh, exasperated. “But if I sunbathe naked, how will I get the tan lines?”
He considers the idea of Gaby stretched out naked on a sunlounger by a deserted pool.
“I will manage without them,” he decides. “Perhaps just kiss all of you instead.”
She rolls her eyes, but lets him continue. He knows her body well by now, can feel it beginning to tense in anticipation as he traces concentric circles of kisses around one pale breast, starting low and spiralling in. He catches the small inhale she makes when his nose brushes her nipple on one rotation, enjoys the louder gasp as he completes his coverage.
The stuttering rhythm of her breath accompanies his pilgrimage around the other side, before he slides down yet further to start mapping her bikini bottoms.
“It would – seem a shame to – deny you the tan lines though,” she murmurs and he hums his agreement, making her squirm.
How will he give them up, these snatched moments of intimacy? But give them up he must – every successful mission brings him closer to the abyss. The spinning top is wobbling precariously, time is running out and yet he cannot drag himself from her, cannot keep himself from falling into her bed at every opportunity, carelessly living each of these days as if another will inevitably follow.
She sighs his name and his heart breaks and heals all at once, aching in a way he never thought possible without physical injury.
“Illya – please,” she gasps, and it brings him back to her for the second time that morning. It is a powerful force, desire. A few of her moans in his ears, the taste of her on his tongue, the feel of her skin under his fingers – it takes so little to lose his worry in his lust for her. Her body tenses, bucks slightly, and his fear mutates into an urgent need to be with her, to hold her as close as possible, to feel her nails scrape over his scarred shoulders and her heels press against his lower back.
She looks a little startled at the sudden change of pace and he whispers an apology in her ear as he pulls her to him. I need you, малютка. Now. Please. She nods, biting her lip between her teeth as he tugs her hips into place. He is less careful than usual, but her head tips back as he presses down, breathing encouragement, fingers flexing on his arms. The last vestiges of his caution fall away, the blissful feeling of Gaby around him sweeping away the darkness.
He should have expected the knock on the door. The American has impeccable timing.
“Peril – I know you’re in there. Stop pestering Gaby. We’ll be late for breakfast.”
Gaby groans as he stills, dropping his forehead to rest on her collarbone.
“Go away, Cowboy,” he growls against her skin, and she giggles.
“Absolutely not. We discussed this last night – Buenos Aires is a fascinating city and we only have one day before we get whisked back for debrief. There’s no time to waste lying around in bed. Which is what you are doing, I presume? If I’m interrupting something, of course…”
He mutters threats of violence under his breath while Gaby takes up the cause.
“Come on, Solo. It’s not even 10 o’clock. Can’t you find a member of staff to amuse you for a while?”
“They’re all asleep.”
“All of them?”
There’s a short pause. “All the attractive ones.”
“Look, you have thirty seconds to make yourselves decent before I pick this lock. And frankly you should be grateful that I knocked first. One…”
He gives in and disentangles himself, padding across the room to shove a chair under the door handle just as the lock clicks open.
Gaby heaves a sigh and rolls off the bed, reaching for the little pills she’s been supplied with, no questions asked from Waverly. He hasn’t asked in too much detail, but they’ve removed the need for презервативы and he’s not about to complain about that.
Solo gives up jiggling the door handle and settles down to wait outside, placated now he knows they’re up and about. Illya rolls his eyes as he gathers up last night’s clothes. He’s brought this interruption on himself, to be fair. Ever since Geneva, when he foolishly mentioned how little he gets to see the cities he’s deployed in, Solo has taken it on himself to carve out a day or two after each mission to act as tour guide. It’s nice, he supposes – or at least it would be if the blasted Cowboy didn’t take it so damn seriously.
Half an hour later, the three of them troop out to breakfast at a carefully selected café. Both men know that if lives are not actually in danger, Gaby will not go further than half a mile without some form of caffeine in the mornings.
He wonders when they all learned each other’s habits so well. He could order for each of them without thinking; he knows that Solo will wait five minutes after finishing his coffee to light one of the slim cigarettes he loves, and will then blow the sweet, choking smoke at his face to irritate him; knows that Gaby will order something obscenely greasy but then eat only a third of it, playing with the rest until he offers to finish it for her simply to get her to stop.
They fall into their roles easily enough these days, the nicknames they have for each other so ingrained they’re second nature – far more lasting than the many, many names they’ve used temporarily on various missions. He’s comfortable in this life, in the man he is around them, and as the endorphins from his interrupted morning fade in the bright sunlight, the darkness edges back out of his subconscious. I don’t want to leave them.
For it’s not just Gaby that he loves, not just one person he’s forced to treat more lightly than he wishes. Although his feelings about Solo are far less simple to categorise. He unconsciously strokes the strap of his father’s watch. The master thief knew just how to inveigle his way past his defences. Save a man’s life a few times, return his most prized possession – who can resist that?
Of course, he remains an irritant, a jarringly foreign presence; the American charmer, imbued with all the arrogance and confidence of his nation. Master of all the things that Illya is not. And yet, he’s an outcast, another prisoner – quite literally. And he’s lonely.
That’s what really bonds the three of them together, the loneliness. They are all outcasts. None of them come with any ties, with family or friendships deeper than casual acquaintances. Solo’s network of contacts and associates don’t get to see the real man underneath the charm which keeps everyone at arm’s length. It’s because of the men, of course – something that used to bother Illya, but somehow no longer does.
He can’t remember when he first noticed it, the way Solo’s eyes drift towards the smart waiter as often as the pretty waitress, the smile he gives the barman, the unspoken communication with the bellboy. But one day, he sees Solo as a womaniser, and the next – it just makes sense. Solo likes pretty things, all pretty things.
Of course, then he’d realised that at least half of Solo’s teasing was actually flirting. Two very awkward days had followed. Gaby had spent most of them trying not to cry with laughter.
“For heaven’s sake, Illya, mach kein Theater. You’re a very attractive man, and Solo likes to flirt with attractive people. It’s no different to how he is with me.”
She’d tipped her head to the side, considering. “Unless – do you want to do something about it?”
“What?! No – I – what?”
She’d smirked and patted him on the knee.
“Then stop fussing. If it’s bothering you, tell him to knock it off.” She shrugs, mischievous. “Personally, I rather like it.”
He’d fumed about that for the next few minutes, then thought about things properly, like the way he used to pull Natalia Nemtseva’s hair when he was six, and the strange internal glow that comes from the knowledge that he is thought worth looking at. It feels less awkward after that, and while he doesn’t examine the feeling too closely, he finds that he too would miss it, if Solo’s flirting stopped.
They’re on the move again, Solo wandering lightly down the street, an apparently carefree tourist. He plays this part superlatively – the cultured man of leisure, subject only to his own whims and desires.
Perhaps he’s drawing from experience. It occurred to him a while ago that, out of all of them, Solo is the only one to have tasted real freedom. For Gaby and himself, the relaxed grip of UNCLE is the closest they have ever been to it. But their relative freedom is still a prison sentence for Cowboy, a period of time to be endured as he buys his autonomy mission by mission from his own government.
He wonders when he stopped thinking of Solo as a criminal. The label refuses to stick to his Teflon charm. His subconscious keeps recasting his crimes as misdemeanours – pranks against the rich and powerful. He’d asked Solo once, how he felt about running missions for others, stealing what he is directed to steal.
“It’s better than prison,” he’d replied, more curtly than usual.
Typically, Solo had registered the hurt expression on Illya’s face even before he’d known he was making it.
“Particularly recently, of course. UNCLE has been a marked improvement – exotic locations, decent food, nice digs, new people – some prettier than others.”
He’d smiled, mollified. “And is only temporary.”
“Indeed – only three more years of suffering my presence, Peril, I promise.”
“What will you do, after? Go back to – Cattaraugus?” He struggles with the strange American name, still bemused that, according to Cowboy, New York State has its share of poor, rural counties.
“Christ no. Manhattan, I suppose – perhaps set myself up as a consultant for insurance firms specialising in art collections. Work with galleries, private collectors to help keep their precious treasures on site.”
“Going straight?” he’d said wryly.
“I prefer to think of it as giving others the benefit of my wisdom, Peril. Can’t stomach the idea of getting caught and stuck with you again.”
He’d conceded the point. “Not consultant for government? Your FBI?”
“Absolutely not. No, in the future I want to work only for people who are seeking profit, not power.”
“Money is power, Cowboy.”
“Touché, Peril, but the aims of insurance firms are slightly smaller than world domination, at least.”
He tries not to dwell on the twist his heart gives as he imagines Solo at large in New York, charming his way through various meetings with businessmen in handmade suits, decorating his tasteful apartment with expensive knickknacks and beautiful people, hiding all his sadness under that smooth carapace, hard as the diamonds in the jewellery he covets.
He watches the two dark-haired figures ahead of him, laughing arm in arm as they wander past brightly coloured corrugated-iron houses. Gaby leans into Solo’s shoulder as he tells her about the local artist who created this place, Caminito, a few years earlier, transforming an abandoned street into a performance area, attracting poor artists and quickly creating a haven of colour and creativity in the barrio.
He sighs. Napoleon’s charm is too dangerous to be fraternal. It still nags at him, exactly how much Gaby is immune to their friend’s appeal. When he leaves, will the Cowboy comfort her? Will she go with him to New York and be the leading lady in his glittering cast of companions?
The thought eats away at him, even as he hopes it will come to pass. At least he will leave Gaby with someone to look out for her, someone who would die for her. If it can’t be him, then best it be someone he trusts – the only other person he trusts with her. And at least in New York, she will be far away from him, above suspicion, a threat to be briefly assessed by the chasing pack then abandoned as the hunt follows his trail away from them. How long will it be before he can see her again? When will the agency decide he and his secrets are no longer worth the resources to keep chasing him? One year? Five? Ten?
“Mein Gott Illya, stop looking as if we’re torturing you – this is meant to be fun.”
He hurries to catch up, trying to wipe the hangdog look off his face. But the afternoon sun can’t burn off his gloom. The die is cast. The intelligence they lifted from the operation against Fischer in Geneva has led them inexorably to this point, one mission away from the final piece of the jigsaw that Waverly is patiently building, the damning dossier of evidence that can be used by the UN to shut down THRUSH’s moneymen and arrest the main conspirators. The after effects, chasing down the little cells and operatives involved, will rumble on for years, but no-one expects the CIA and KGB to keep playing happy families for that.
Relations between the two countries have only worsened since Khrushchev’s fall from power just a month or so after Geneva. The party under Brezhnev and Kosygin is harsher, less lenient. It has made his predicament sharper. He is under more and more pressure to return to Moscow permanently, THRUSH considered a low enough threat to leave to other interests, the wellspring of former Nazi intelligence run dry.
They’ve turned into a cemetery filled with ornate, picturesque tombs. Not to his taste, but somehow still heartbreakingly beautiful. His partners have given up trying to get him involved in the sightseeing, so he wanders past the memorials aimlessly and alone. He should shake it off; apart from Waverly, no-one should have any knowledge of his plans. His position is as it has ever been, the loyal Party attack dog. But privately, the thought of the sort of work that he knows he will be asked to do on his return fills him with horror.
He sees now how fortunate he was to operate under the relative thaw of Khrushchev’s regime. He has known nothing else, graduating from the KGB academy in 1955, two years after the charismatic leader came to power and only a year before his Secret Speech. He has lived through a decade of relative leniency, which he had hoped signalled the end of the required initial harshness of Communism, the start of the triumph of Socialist ideals.
The naivety of this, the unbounded foolishness, was laid bare to him by the arrest of Sinyavsky and Daniel. He had thought the spectacle of show trials was behind them, this iron censorship of thought and feeling suited more to the Fascist and right wing regimes that still lingered in Spain and South America.
This underlying faith in socialism, strangely hard to break, bewilders his two avowedly liberal partners. It’s proved a substantial obstacle to Waverly’s attempts to find him an escape route. It would have been much easier were he just to defect. But though he is disillusioned, he is still proud, still Russian. He isn’t a traitor, he won’t give up his hoard of state secrets, and that poses something of a problem to the governments who might otherwise be sympathetic to his plight. There aren’t many governments willing to host a volatile ex-Soviet spy who won’t play ball.
The sun is dipping now, and even Solo’s enthusiasm for sightseeing is waning. They stop off at a local restaurant on the way back to the hotel and share a bottle or two of Malbec, Solo choosing the wine and continuing his attempt to educate Gaby and Illya in oenology.
It’s an idyllic scene, sun-drenched and carefree; Gaby teasing Solo for his solemn pronouncements on the bouquet of the wine, making up ever more ridiculous ways to describe the taste, “Notes of – petrol, I believe. Definitely higher octane, possibly 97.” Her hand slides on to his knee under the table during her fourth glass. He drinks more than he should, chasing their good mood, until on his third glass of wine he finally feels the dark cloud lift.
It’s the wine that means he doesn’t spot the warning signs as they roll back to the hotel, footsore and tipsy. Thankfully he heads to his room while Solo and Gaby roll straight through to the hotel bar, just enough in control to remember protocol, his regular call to check in.
Oleg is sitting quietly in the chair by the bed, patiently reading a file. He sobers instantly, forcing his fingers to lie still against his leg. Not yet. For now, there’s no-one else here, no immediate threat.
He packs silently, efficiently, striving to keep his movements calm, his heartbeat acceptably slow. There is no reason to call him back now, no reason to come in person. Perhaps an emergency, an urgent assignment? But he knows already from Oleg’s silence that it isn’t so. He feels a prickle of fear on his neck. Oleg is alone, but the sightlines from this window aren’t optimal and he senses the back up in the corridor, in the reception, in the street.
He stays silent as Oleg leads him down past the hotel bar. Solo spots him, brows quirking up in surprise and some alarm as he strides past. Gaby is facing away from him. He sees her start to turn at Solo’s expression, catches just the impression of her profile in his peripheral vision as he walks on by, failing to stop the twitching in his little finger.
At the airport, his fears are confirmed as Oleg nods him towards a private plane. He walks calmly up the plane steps towards the dark entrance, into the mouth of the beast. As he ducks inside, the last of the evening sunshine cuts off, and it’s as if he’s already behind bars. He feels himself slipping away as the rage bubbles up, flowing into the deep-carved channels of his soul. It’s a reservoir of hate he can never quite drain, which at times of high stress surges and pushes at his boundaries. Boundaries that are infinitely weaker without Gaby and Cowboy, that the agency deliberately kept paper thin. The plane door closes and he can feel the chill of winter before they’ve even taken off.