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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Station

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He knew she was angry when she called him dearest. That was always a bad sign.

"Dearest," she'd said, though set teeth and a tight smile, "the gentleman has a gun."

It wasn't news, really. Of course the gentleman had a gun, Illya knew the signs. He was not an idiot. But the way she said it . . . he carefully set his second cup of coffee down on the table.

Gaby sat across from him, her cup empty in front of her. That had been the most recent argument, how he couldn't leave without a second cup and didn't he know they had a schedule, which of course he knew, they were still keeping to it, and since when did it bother her that he enjoyed a second cup of coffee?

To which she had replied with a string of highly creative curses, and he, scowling, had managed to make the second cup drag out for seventeen minutes more. Another twelve and they would be officially behind schedule.

Then came the man, short and slight in a neat dark hat, who had pushed back his chair and turned around so he was angled up tight against the back of Gaby's seat. The posture was that of somebody re-positioning for a friendly chat, but his face was far from friendly and to judge by the way Gaby's back suddenly went very straight and correct, so was the jab of the gun.

Illya took a slow, deliberate sip of cold coffee. Gaby pursed her lips and that was when she told him about the gun.

"I know," he said, and they narrowed their eyes at each other. "What, am I an idiot now, that you tell me these things?"

"So only an idiot needs to be told things?" she challenged. "This morning you told me the time. Was I an idiot then?"

"I think I should not answer this. You are in an unreasonable mood."

"Oh, I am unreasonable?" she cried, and he slammed his palm down on the table.

"Yes! Today you are unreasonable. I do not know why."

"Perhaps," said the man with the gun, "you might like the chance to continue this little quarrel at a later date. Shall I tell you how to ensure that you can?"

"I don't know," Gaby sniffed. "Apparently if you try to tell him things, he'll believe you think he's an idiot."

"But surely he can set his ego aside long enough to see what a danger that will pose to you." He looked at Illya directly, just in time to mark the twitch in his jaw and the flex of one forefinger. "Yes," he said, softer now, "I think he sees the danger."

"Hmph!" Gaby said. It was a high-pitched sound of pure exasperation, and not the appropriate noise, Illya felt, for their situation. But then Gaby sometimes lacked a proper appreciation of decorum, and sometimes that was not so bad, really.

Sometimes he found it adorable.

Well, that was an inconvenient inclination to sentimentality. Illya quickly tamped it down by knocking back the sugary dregs of his coffee. His resulting irritation at being forced to finish on someone else's schedule sharpened his focus nicely.

"All right," he said, "you have our attention. What do you want, and why should we give it to you when it would be much simpler to kill you instead?"

“Good. I had hoped we could be reasonable. What I want is for you to get up quietly from this table and enter the car across the street.”

Illya and Gaby both swivelled to openly stare at the vehicle in question.

“And then?” Gaby wondered.

“And then we take a drive. Not a long one. My superior has questions concerning your recent activities in Prague, and he was most insistent that I invite you to answer them.”

Illya frowned. “This invitation . . . I do not think we will accept.”

The uninvited breakfast guest frowned. “Don’t you think I’ve already given you sufficient motivation to accept?”

He jostled his hand and Gaby set her jaw as the gun dug in. Illya pressed his palm flat to the table to settle his fingers.

“Maybe,” he said, supremely non-committal. He caught her eye. “But she has been very irritating, lately.”

Gaby gasped.

Irritating? Oh! I like that. After how you’ve behaved today, you have no room to say that I am irritating. You should apologise for irritating me.”

“For irritating you—!” he tossed his hand up as if inviting some unseen sympathetic force to witness his magnificent patience.

“Yes!” She started to lean in, eyes snapping, but the man with the gun caught the nape of her neck and jerked her back into her seat. She screwed up her face against the impact.

The sound that came out of Illya was like the muffling of a small explosion, and Gaby’s eyes flew open.

Don’t,” she gasped, and the man with the gun nodded.

“Listen to her,” he said. “If you do anything foolish, it will be over before you can stop it. I know you think it isn’t so, but in fact—”

He broke off, his head bowing forward as if he’d suddenly been struck by a philosophical turn of mind, and was contemplating Gaby’s empty coffee cup. In fact, he’d had his head pushed forward by the barrel of the gun Napoleon Solo had pressed to the base of his skull.

“Well,” said Solo, “this is all very interesting, I’m sure. I am only a little hurt I wasn’t asked to join in.”

“Did not think this was your kind of party,” Illya said dryly.

“Two gentlemen, a lovely lady . . . Peril, if that isn’t a description of all our best parties lately, I don’t know what is.” He cracked a tiny smile, which Illya met with a quick nod before looking back to Gaby, who was still sitting with unnaturally beautiful posture.

“You will lower the gun now.”

“Will I?” said the man in the hat. “No, I think I will keep it as it is. Instead the man behind me will lower his, or I will shoot her.”

“And then what?” Solo wondered. “You leave in that vehicle whose driver I left napping in the alley beside it? You call for help from the two men in the kitchen, who are taking a nice rest under two bags of sugar? No, let me guess,” as the man at the end of his gun seemed inclined to make another suggestion, “you’ll seek assistance from the lady I locked in the lavatory, whose gun I am now holding against your head. Whose gun I will use, if you don’t let her go.”

The man hesitated. Solo bore down with the pistol.

Now.”

 


 

Napoleon Solo had been on the point of meeting his colleagues when he heard Gaby call Illya dearest. That was never good.

He stumbled to a halt, peered around the doorway of the café and took in the situation unfolding on the sidewalk.

One man. Close to Gaby (too close. Solo had to acknowledge that Illya was performing a superhuman feat of self-control, not rectifying that) and the way his hand was angled behind her . . . gun.

Well then.

Solo checked the immediate perimeter for additional threats. Too many possible hiding places, so he soon gave that up and checked for a secondary exit instead, and that was when he found the men in the kitchen.

A quick crack brought both their heads together and drew the attention of a customer in shop, a lady in a neat dark suit with a gun in her garter.

It was a really beautiful gun and the leg wasn’t too bad either. Solo paid her a genuine compliment on the shape of both, which she answered by trying to stab him, so he stole her gun, locked her in the water closet and peeked out at the street again.

This time Illya saw him. They locked eyes, Solo nodded, and Illya . . . well, he didn’t do anything because that would have attracted the other fellow’s attention, but somehow the nothing he did was a very conspicuous nothing. Solo took a moment to admire the completely technical way he did nothing at all, like it was all he could do not to do everything at once.

Which, considering the way Gaby was sitting, her spine so oddly straight, it was probably was.

Illya looked back to Gaby, and again he didn’t really do anything, but Solo thought he caught a flicker all the same. Like Illya was again doing a very conspicuous nothing, this time for Gaby’s sake. Letting her know something was going on, by letting her know nothing at all.

Really, it was quite a talent. Great techniques, those KGB fellows. Though maybe he shouldn’t be admiring them so openly when there was still a problem to solve.

That’s when both Illya and Gaby looked across the street, blatantly staring at a vehicle parked by an alley. So that was the rest of the backup, and very handy to know. Solo nodded in cheery thanks, lifted a paper from a deserted table, tucked it under his arm and sauntered across the street like he had just remembered he really needed to be on his way.

The driver didn’t put up any fight at all, and after a brief, expert frisking that turned up two short blades, some loose change and a car key, Solo decided he’d enjoyed himself enough for one morning and trotted back to the café.

He called an order through the door, opened his paper and stood casually propped against the doorframe, watching for any kind of signal that it was a good time to jump in. Illya was the one who gave it: a lifted hand, palm up, ostensibly in response to something the other fellow had said but in fact a very plain invitation to join them.

Solo folded his paper with a snap, drew the beautifully-shaped gun, and stepped up to press it to the back of the man’s head.

Of course the fellow required some additional convincing, and it couldn’t be the sort of convincing Illya usually employed: not with Gaby tucked so snugly against the muzzle of his gun. Solo rattled off all the confederates he had dealt with, and trusted he hadn’t missed any. It felt like a safe bet, since he’d been standing there with his gun to the man’s head for over a minute and nobody had tackled him yet.

Apparently the man at the end of the gun agreed. Slowly, reluctantly, he withdrew his weapon from Gaby’s side. Gaby exhaled softly, and something tight in Illya’s face eased almost imperceptibly.

“Now,” said Solo, “as we appear to have a shortage of suitable places to store you . . .” and a quick tap to the base of the skull knocked the man over neatly. “There. I think that about wraps it up.”

“Not bad, Cowboy,” Illya allowed. “But I would have thrown table.”

“Well, you still can, if you insist,” Solo said, drawing up the newly-vacated chair. “But I have a coffee coming, and—oh, here it is. My thanks—I’d not mind a minute to finish it.”

“Yes,” Illya said, “I know this feeling, but the morning has not been kind to men who would like to finish their coffee.”

“Again with the coffee!” Gaby cried. She leaped to her feet. “Illya, are you completely incapable of proper perspective? Is that the problem?”

Illya sighed.

“She has been this way all morning,” he confided to Solo, who put up one eyebrow and sampled the coffee. “Angry, but she will not say why. It is very irritating.”

Oh,” Gaby fumed. “Should I have to say why? Fine! I am angry because I told you we are having a baby, and you got upset!”

“You’re having a baby?” Solo cried. “Well, that’s wonderful!” Then he paused, gauging the tension between his partners. “Isn’t it?”

“Of course it is!” Gaby snarled. “It is wonderful! See, you?” she turned to Illya, spitting mad. “Even he knows how to behave. So why don’t you? I mean, what kind of man gets angry when he hears his woman is having a child?”

Illya set his jaw and made a gesture that may or may not have suggested he contemplated squeezing some part of her in a less than affectionate way. Instead, he also got to his feet, drew her close and looked down at her with something a few degrees beyond mere solemnity.

“I am not angry you are having a child. This is wonderful news. I mean yes, this world is terrible, we will probably all be dead of nuclear apocalypse in ten years. It is actually a terrible time to have a child. Very selfish. But what can be said, except that I am selfish, and you are wonderful. Our child will be wonderful too, however long it survives.”

“I must say,” said Solo, “this is all very touching.”

Illya ignored him. He rested a hand on Gaby’s shoulder.

“Please. Do not accuse me of being angry that you are having a child.”

“Then—then what?” said Gaby, but it was clear his speech had already gone a long way toward mollifying her. “If you’re not upset about the baby, why did you get so angry this morning?”

“Because of the way you said it! You said you had a—a bun in the oven.”

“Yes, it’s an American expression. You know I’ve been practicing dialects; I was trying it out.”

“I know it’s an American expression! My question is, why? There are many other opportunities to practice your languages, so why would you choose some ridiculous American idiom to tell me that I am going to be a father? The moment is special. Your phrase was crass and insulting. It demeans our child.”

“Well, hold on now,” Solo frowned, setting aside his cup. Again, Illya ignored him.

“You are a British agent of—of good German heritage. And I am Russian.” He stood a little taller even as he said it. “There is no need to bring Americans into it.”

“Yet you have no problem bringing them into your bed,” Solo muttered. Illya steadfastly refused to respond.

“You’re probably right,” Gaby sighed. She nestled in against him, tipping her chin up so she could smile at the underside of his. “I am sorry. It was thoughtless.”

“If I were a smaller man,” said Solo, “I might be insulted by some of this.”

“If you were a smaller man,” Gaby countered, “you would not have been invited to join us more than once.”

Solo paused mid-reach for his coffee.

“Yes, well. Perhaps I will withdraw my objection.”

“I had thought you might,” said Gaby.

“On the condition,” he leaned forward as they both sat down, wagging a forefinger at each, “that I am named godfather.”

Illya grumbled deep in his throat.

“Right,” Solo nodded, “the decadence of the church, I should have known. Will I least be allowed to babysit?”

This time it was Gaby’s turn to grimace. Solo flung up his hands.

“Fine! Although I won’t pretend I’m not a little insulted. After all I’ve done for you—to you—both of you—I would have thought the least you could do is let me watch the baby.”

Illya and Gaby exchanged a quick, consulting glance. Gaby nodded. Illya cleared his throat.

“You may hold him. Sometimes. When we are both watching.”

“Hold him?” Solo considered the offer. “Well, I suppose it’s a start.”

“It is very generous,” Illya corrected. “You think I would let just any man hold my child? Especially an agent of your CIA? No, I am magnanimous.”

“You really are,” Gaby agreed. Her hand crept across the table and she traced a finger over the back of his hand. Solo considered telling them they were acting a little too European for his taste, but then Illya lifted his gaze to meet Gaby’s and something hot and bright crackled through the air between them. Solo, who felt it too, swallowed the gibe. Instead he cleared his throat and made a show of checking his watch.

“We, uh, seem to have wrapped matters up forty minutes ahead of schedule.”

“Have we?” Gaby murmured. She was still tracing patterns on the back of Illya’s hand. “Well. What can we do in forty minutes’ time, do you think?”

Illya shifted in his seat.

“Twelve minutes to return to the hotel,” he calculated. “Five minutes to prepare for the meeting afterward . . . this leaves us twenty-three minutes to enjoy.”

“I can think of many enjoyable ways to spend twenty-three minutes,” said Gaby. She turned an invitational smile in Solo’s direction. “Can you?”

Solo applied the full force of his imagination to the problem, and presently, like Illya, shifted awkwardly in his chair.

“You know,” he said, “if we took their car, we could make it to the hotel in three.”

He didn’t have to say it twice.