Illya rarely invited people over to his apartment. While Napoleon often ended his evenings by asking his latest flame up for a nightcap, or to see his etchings (of which he owned a pair of Piranesi prints for that express purpose), Illya contrived to accompany his infrequent dates back to their own homes or hotel rooms, rather than violate the sanctity of his lair (as Napoleon was wont to put it. Illya retorted with a wolfen glare that really only proved his point.)
The restriction was as much practical as territorial; the uninitiated might break their necks maneuvering between Illya's stacks of books and newspapers and journals, wobbling towers all about the living room floor, an abstract diorama of Manhattan's skyscrapers built of bound paper. Illya resolutely ignored Napoleon's pointed mentions of filing cabinets and cleaning services and fire hazards, and when pressed would point out that an invading cat-burglar or THRUSH minion would find it equally hazardous to navigate.
Napoleon knew that the real reason, however, was that any rearrangement of the stacks would obviate Illya's unique organization system. Which owed less to either organizing or systems, and more to Illya's eidetic memory, but the upshot was that he knew the place of everything in the piles, and could retrieve any required article at a moment's notice.
Having had cause to test his partner's memorization on a couple of occasions, Napoleon knew it to be accurate. And he was at Illya's place often enough that he knew his way around, and could make it from kitchen to bathroom to couch without knocking over a single pile. So he had no real excuse, except that he was bored, and slightly giddy from the painkillers for his strained back, courtesy of their last mission. And Illya was taking too long to get ready this morning—he hadn't even been out of bed when Napoleon had arrived to pick him up.
"We're due in Mr. Waverly's office in half an hour," Napoleon raised his voice to remind.
"As I told you, I will be ready shortly," Illya hollered back through his bathroom door, unduly grouchy, probably because of the vodka he'd nursed his cracked rib with the night before.
Napoleon shrugged and pulled another few issues of the New York Times out of the middle of a stack. He scanned the headlines, then stuck them in a different pile, under some editions of the London Times, before stepping around that tower to reach the science journals.
* * *
That evening, Napoleon was enjoying a rare moment to himself when his communicator warbled. Even the alert tone somehow sounded aggravated, so he was unsurprised when his answering, "Solo he—" was immediately cut off by Illya's outraged, "What did you do to my newspapers?"
"I was reading a few back issues, it's not my fault that you've never properly explained your filing system. You might want to check out the journals, too," Napoleon added. "I may have misplaced a couple from the European Institute of Physical Sciences. Or was that the American Institute..."
"Napoleon!" Illya shrieked, at a pitch that Napoleon was quite certain no one else ever heard the reserved Russian hit.
"Just keeping you on your toes, tovarisch," Napoleon said cheerfully, not bothering to stifle his smirk since he was alone in his apartment. "A little extra stimulation is good for the brain-cells, you know."
"I will show you stimulation," Illya said.
"Is that a promise?" Napoleon replied, and grinned at the irritated click as the communicator's connection broke.
* * *
They spent the next week in Queensland. By the end of the affair, Napoleon sincerely hoped he would never see another wombat again, with or without stun-guns.
He hadn't forgotten Illya's threat, but there wasn't much he could do about Mr. Waverly's request for a verbal debriefing. As soon as he got out of the old man's office, Napoleon rushed back to his place, but it was too late. He made it to his apartment door just in time to meet Illya coming out, conscientiously locking the door behind him before turning and saying, "Oh, good evening, Napoleon," as if he hadn't heard his partner standing there panting for breath.
"Evening, Illya," Napoleon said, studying his fellow agent with narrowed eyes. "What brings you here?"
Illya smiled like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, and probably not sugar or dry ice, either. "I was verifying THRUSH hadn't left you any unfortunate surprises," he said. "They might bear a grudge after that last encounter. Well, it's been a long week, I'm sure you want to rest," and he quietly slipped out.
Napoleon entered cautiously. A call down to the front desk verified that Illya had been on the premises for well over an hour. He checked each room in turn, saving the bedroom for last, but found nothing, no buckets over the doorways or mousetraps in the cabinets. None of his alarms had been tripped, either the official U.N.C.L.E. equipment or his private arrangements—of course Illya knew about nearly all of those anyway, having helped install most of them, but he hadn't set off any of the others, either. There was nothing noxious in the refrigerator or revolting in the bath, and all his clothes were untouched in his closets.
Napoleon regarded the chairs and couch for a good long time before finally concluding that a whoopie cushion was a bit too déclassé for his partner, and sat down with a sigh. Revenge was a dish best served cold, and Illya counted degrees of chill by Siberian standards, but that could backfire—with luck they'd be assigned another mission before his trap was sprung.
* * *
In fact they were off to Rio de Janeiro for the next three days, and only just made it back in time for Napoleon's engagement with the fair Judith, she of the blonde bob and emerald green eyes. She worked afternoons at Macy's perfume counter, and had happened to be the one to assist him a few days before, when he'd been in need of a cologne to overpower eau de wombat.
The date went swimmingly, up until when Judith, ensconced on Napoleon's couch, requested a Manhattan cocktail. Napoleon mixed up two glasses with assured expertise, not really paying attention, distracted as he was by the lady's charms, and brought them over. Ignoring his own, he was leaning in for a kiss when Judith took a sip, and promptly spit up her drink over both of their evening attire.
"I—I'm sorry," she stammered, blushing with embarrassment, fingers to her mouth, "it was just—um—unexpected—"
Napoleon took a drink from his own glass, gagged and set it aside. "No, I'm sorry, I have no idea what happened to the bourbon..."
Then he suffered a revelation so vivid he might have been clairvoyant; he could almost see his partner's face, knew with near-psychic certainty that somewhere, somehow, Illya was smiling his small smile of unparalleled wickedness and inhuman vengeance.
It turns out, Napoleon discovered, fine Kentucky bourbon is nearly the same color and consistency as fine apple cider vinegar. Likewise, red vermouth and red wine vinegar are not so different to the eye.
Gin is, in appearance, indistinguishable from 180 proof moonshine. And vodka in the bottle looks exactly like sugar water. Napoleon never did figure out what replaced the scotch; it smelled strongly of rotten eggs, something Illya had extracted from one chemistry lab or another, he imagined.
Naturally Illya would never throw away good alcohol, and the next morning Napoleon discovered his proper liquor collection in unmarked jars under his kitchen sink. Without labels, however, it took him some time to figure out which went in which bottle. When Illya let himself into the apartment that evening, he gazed around at the various glass containers spread about the kitchen floor, and Napoleon sitting in the midst of them sniffing and tasting, and remarked mildly, "Had you asked before moving them around, I did remember what I put in each jar."
"Yes, I thought you might," Napoleon said crankily. He swirled the latest sip of single malt around his mouth, debating the region. Highland, he decided, swallowed the scotch and picked up the funnel. "Hand me the Glenfiddich bottle, please."
* * *
The next morning found Napoleon suffering the nauseating sort of hangover that one only gets from sampling every hard liquor in one's cabinet, and in dire need of Alka Seltzer and retribution. Though he was too out-of-sorts to plan a complicated gambit, turnabout is fair play, and while Illya's alcoholic anthology was less extensively cultivated than Napoleon's, he was as devoted to it.
Sugar water served for the vodka bottle in Mr. Waverly's office—Illya being the only Russian at New York HQ, it was not so much in demand otherwise. The flask in Illya's desk was harder to come by; Napoleon had to wait until his partner was occupied on the firing range to have the time to pick the drawer's lock.
The pièce de résistance was paying off the bartenders at Illya's few regular haunts. The most difficult was the young woman at the jazz club; Napoleon turned on his maximum charm to convince her to substitute club soda for Illya's usual, and even then only managed it by explaining that it was for the sake of Mr. Kuryakin's health—"Just for the next week, and then he'll be off the medication, but if you could be firm about it until then...I've been so worried about him, thank you for understanding."
The effort was worth it. Illya's arguments with the hapless servers were music to Napoleon's ears, and topped when Illya poured himself a nightcap back at his apartment. The contortion of his face as he sniffed at the brackish salt water that had replaced the Russian rocket fuel in his freezer was such that Napoleon's only regret was not having a camera on hand, to capture the grimace forever.
* * *
The evening of unplanned sobriety ended up being to Illya's advantage, when they were summoned back to U.N.C.L.E. at five in the morning and dispatched to Okinawa. Three sleepless nights, two tectonic plate shifts, and another transcontinental flight after that, Napoleon had all but forgotten the matter, such that when he arrived back at their Portland hotel room, he didn't realize Illya was making a long distance phone call, much less register who it was to. He did catch something about "fuchsia" before Illya hung up, but there were more important things to deal with—"The wait's over, partner, our feathered friends are on the move, with the tsunami-machine," and they were off to Alaska.
It took another three days to wrap up the affair, and another night after that while U.N.C.L.E. Medical held him for observation—pointlessly, Napoleon thought; it was hardly the first time he had endured frostbite. Illya's concussion was mild enough that the doctors released him, but he stayed overnight anyway, to fetch Napoleon another blanket when the damnable shivers struck again, and harangue the nightshift nurse for more tea for both of them.
Napoleon was half-asleep before he thought to question his partner's motivations; he forced his eyelids open again, sat up and demanded, "You're not feeling guilty for being late picking me up, are you? Because considering how many THRUSH snow blockades you had to plow through to get there at all, guilt would be ridiculous, and I should hope you're smarter than that."
"Yes," Illya agreed inscrutably, from the next bed over, "I would hope so myself. Good night, Napoleon," and that was that.
It wasn't until the next morning that it occurred to Napoleon that Illya might have another reason entirely for feeling guilty. To be specific, it didn't occur to him until he walked into his apartment.
And blinked, and walked out again, to double-check the number on the door. It was his number, however, and his key fit smoothly in the lock. And indeed the furnishings in the apartment were his furnishings, his couch and his dining set and his framed prints on the living room walls.
The walls themselves, however, had not been covered in rose and mauve stripes when he had left the week before. Nor had his bathroom been painted salmon. And his bedroom had certainly not been magenta.
"I thought it would match Gloria's bubblegum lipstick," Illya said, from where he was leaning against the lintel, now painted a hue that would not look amiss on a flamingo. It looked quite hideously amiss in Napoleon's apartment, however. "Or was it Annabelle's?"
The odor of new paint was strong enough to be dizzying. Or perhaps that was the effect of so many different shades of pink in close proximity. Napoleon thought he shouldn't be impressed, but it was hard not to be, faced with such extensive and uniformly colored catastrophe. "How'd you pull it off? Even the building manager doesn't have a key to my place, much less the codes for the alarms."
"No," Illya agreed, looking not so much guilty but gloriously smug, as only his partner could, "but U.N.C.L.E. does. It was simply a matter of convincing Section 4 that you were participating in a sting of a redecorating company with possible ties to THRUSH."
"Clever," Napoleon acceded. "I assume said THRUSH ties were manufactured...?"
"Indeed," Illya said. "They're merely laundering money for the Mafia."
Napoleon peeked once more into his blisteringly hot pink bedroom. It was distinctly possible that Annabelle would prefer it thus; last time she had made noise about the dullness of his ivory walls. Appallingly square, he believed she had said. He wondered how she would describe it now—quite a few adjectives could apply, but "square" would not be one of them, he would bet. He hadn't been planning on asking her out again any time soon, but it might be worth mentioning, next time he stopped by Documents & Photographs.
"You realize, of course, that you will pay for this," Napoleon said, going to the refrigerator and digging out the bottle hidden under the ice cube tray.
"Of course," Illya replied, and accepted the glass of genuine Stolichnaya that Napoleon poured for him.
* * *
Napoleon, having learned his lesson, now bided his time. The next two missions were only overnight affairs, glorified courier assignments. But THRUSH could always be counted on to make a major move, sooner or later, and when they were sent to Bombay on the trail of a steamer bearing a space-worthy rocket ship, Napoleon took advantage of their two-hour layover in Heathrow to phone New York. He made two calls, one to arrange the re-repainting of most of his apartment, and the other to his discreet, U.N.C.L.E.-sanctioned cleaning service, for a special detail.
They got back to Manhattan four days later, rumpled and grimy with sweat, Illya's cheeks toasted pink to match Napoleon's bedroom, and Napoleon with half of one eyebrow scorched off. Upon Waverly's dismissal, Napoleon suggested that his partner crash at his apartment overnight. It was a measure of Napoleon's fatigue that he risked giving away the game like that, and a measure of Illya's own fatigue that he didn't question the offer.
Either way, it meant that Napoleon was the one to chauffeur Illya back to his place the next day, rather than an anonymous cab driver, and thus it was Napoleon who was on hand when Illya opened his door to his utterly pristine, thoroughly cleaned apartment. The baseboards had been dusted, the tile in the kitchen scrubbed and polished to a shine, and the glass in the windows sparkled like it was brand new.
The floorboards had been waxed and the rugs vacuumed, easily accomplished because every scrap of newspaper and magazine had been removed, not a single solitary piece of paper visible.
Illya stood in the doorway and stared at this immaculate disaster, utterly motionless, his flame-reddened face as blank as a nuclear wasteland and every muscle as still as if he were trapped in one of Dr. Nillson's stasis fields. A minute passed, then two.
Just as Napoleon was beginning to wonder whether his partner might have suffered an apoplectically induced stroke, Illya inquired, in a tone quite as calm as that with which he might ask for the time, "Where are my books?"
"They're on the bookshelves," Napoleon said, indicating the bookcases. "Where they'd generally go."
"And my journals? My papers?"
Napoleon shrugged. "Incinerated by now, I expect. I told them to toss anything over a month old, since you shouldn't be needing it anymore. After all, you ought to have already read it by now, right?"
It was an effort to adopt the proper tone of casual indifference, especially after Illya's strangled squeak, which was like nothing Napoleon (or, he would bet, anyone else) had ever heard out Illya's mouth, or in fact any human's. For a couple dodgy minutes Napoleon wasn't actually sure he would get out of the apartment building alive. He should have figured out a way to relieve his partner of his firearm before the reveal. Something to keep in mind for future reference—provided he survived long enough to have a future anything.
The next day, when Illya arrived at their office, Napoleon presented him the key to the U.N.C.L.E. storage locker where all his stacks of journals and newspapers had actually been stashed (and recorded by date and title in the doing, such that the entire collection might be recreated, should Illya's apartment happen to burn down or blow up.) And Illya's unsurprised acceptance told Napoleon that his partner had already figured out the truth, once over the initial shock.
By then, however, Napoleon understood, looking at Illya's still slightly pink but glacially cool expression, it was too late for a truce.
* * *
Napoleon was ready for nearly anything, but he was still taken aback when he returned from his day trip to D.C. to be barred at his apartment door by his landlady. "I'm sorry, Mr. Solo," she said, "but you'll have to find other accommodations for the next week."
"The next week?" Napoleon asked, peering over her shoulder at the heavy plastic curtain draped over his door, like the airlock of an infectious disease isolation room. "May I ask why?"
"Emergency fumigation," Mrs. Feingold said tartly, for once ignoring his flirtatious tone and eying him with a good deal more suspicion than he was used to, and perhaps a touch of horror. "Roaches."
"Fumigation?" Napoleon repeated, an awful hunch burgeoning inside him. "But you didn't say anything this morning—don't exterminators usually need at least twenty-four hours' notice?"
Mrs. Feingold shuddered. "Not this time."
An hour later he was knocking on Illya's door. When his partner answered, Napoleon put on his biggest and most obnoxious smile and shouldered his way inside. "You don't mind if I take the bed, do you? Since you fit better on your couch than I do. My apartment's being fumigated, you see."
"So why not check into a hotel for the duration?" Illya inquired.
Napoleon stepped around a restored pile of newspapers and grinned at Illya, letting a hint of the maniacal slip out between his bared teeth. "I could do that," he said. "I also could investigate how my apartment managed, in less than a day, to become infested with three-inch-long hissing cockroaches. In this investigation, I might note that such hissing cockroaches are native to Madagascar, where, coincidentally, we had an assignment last month.
"In turn," Napoleon continued, "that might lead me to look into whether the U.N.C.L.E. biological lab might possibly be missing a few specimens. If that was the case, I would be forced to re-examine the paperwork for their release, and potentially call for more comprehensive documentation, given that it involves the introduction of a foreign species on American land. That would be, oh, twenty or thirty extra forms, and an inquiry by the US federal and state governments, and you know how Mr. Waverly enjoys those."
Illya, gazing at him steadily, arched one eyebrow but said nothing.
"Or," Napoleon said, "I could stay here for a week."
"The black towels are clean, but you'll have to supply your own toothbrush," Illya said.
* * *
Though Napoleon preferred his own apartment or a hotel if he had a choice, he had stayed at enough strangers' places to be a consummate guest, able to make himself at home while easing the lives of his hosts, never overstaying his welcome and always taking care to appreciate their generosity in having him.
With Illya, naturally, he made no such effort. Much of it would have been wasted anyway—Illya didn't actually notice how many damp towels were left on the bathroom floor or where Napoleon kicked off his shoes, as long as his books and papers went undisturbed. And since he generally avoided the kitchen anyway, he never saw Napoleon drinking milk from the carton or leaving the refrigerator door ajar, until finally Napoleon got impatient, picked up all the plates and cups about the place and dumped them in the kitchen sink and scrubbed them shining. Then Illya offered a bemused thank you, staring at Napoleon's rubber gloves and the mounds of suds in the sink as if they were strange and alien sights.
On day three, Napoleon resorted to cruder tactics, phoning Illya from Arnaud's to say, "It happens that Annabelle has a roommate, and since I can't show her my stunning new bedroom after all, thanks to my little inexplicable pest problem, I was wondering if you wouldn't mind making yourself scarce this evening?"
"By which, you mean, tonight, and tomorrow morning as well?" Illya sighed.
"Exactly," Napoleon said. "You only have a full mattress, but we'll make do." And to add insult to injury he made certain that night to hang a tie from the doorknob—not to the bedroom but the exterior apartment door.
Illya had no comment, nor anything to say about Napoleon having Gloria over the next night, but when he overheard his partner making plans with Cynthia for the night after that, he remarked, once alone in their office, "Really, Napoleon, even for you, is this not excessive?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Napoleon returned. "I'm just making up for lost time—between the redecorating and the giant insects, it's been a slow month."
"Have I not been a considerate host?" Illya said.
"Three-inch-long hissing cockroaches in my bathroom," Napoleon countered.
"The Madagascar hissing cockroach is utterly harmless," Illya said, in the lecturing tones of an amateur entomologist. "It doesn't bite or sting, and it's far more sanitary than the smaller American varieties. Many people keep them as pets."
"In my bathroom," Napoleon said.
"All right, you can have the place tomorrow," Illya said grouchily. "But Saturday night I am having a dinner party."
"You," Napoleon said, "are hosting a dinner party? At your own apartment? But you don't cook—or are you making a soufflé?"
"I believe such things are what caterers are for," Illya said. "You're invited, of course, unless you have other plans?"
The "of course" should have warned him, but Napoleon was too distracted with figuring out how Illya was going to clear his dinner table without disturbing his ongoing analysis of THRUSH activities in eastern Europe. And what party could possibly be worth the trouble? "I wouldn't miss it," he said, and then wondered whether it was only his imagination that Illya's smile held a disconcerting edge of...triumph.
* * *
Napoleon was kept wondering up until Saturday evening, when he answered Illya's doorbell and found himself greeting Melissa Campos, the pert, perky brunette who was U.N.C.L.E. New York's new morning-shift receptionist. "Napoleon," she said brightly, "fancy meeting you here!"
"Yes," Napoleon said, "lovely to see you again," and he pasted on a welcoming smile over his mental calculations. He had only just arranged his first date with Miss Campos for next week—as Illya knew, and when it came to his partner two plus two only equaled four on a good day...
The other figures in the equation arrived soon after: Cynthia, Annabelle, and Judith (and lovely figures they were, too.) While the former two were U.N.C.L.E. employees, how Illya had gotten Judith's number was anyone's guess; Napoleon couldn't fathom it himself. Illya introduced everyone—"We've already met," in triplicate, when he reached Napoleon; and then they were nibbling hors d'oeuvres and sipping before-dinner cocktails as they chatted.
Illya had arranged the event with diabolically mathematical precision. With Judith present, the other three girls couldn't talk about their jobs at U.N.C.L.E., and while to a woman they were bright, vivacious, active individuals, it soon came out that between the four of them, they only had one point of interest in common.
And being bright, vivacious, active individuals, with healthy measures of self-assurance and wonderfully modern sensibilities, they none of them had any compunctions about discussing this one point, even when said point happened to be sitting next to them on the couch at the time.
Illya, for his part, didn't do anything so obvious as ask leading questions or otherwise openly encourage the discussion. But somehow he timed his noncommittal remarks and offers of appetizers such that by the time they sat down for the soup and salad, they had moved past rating pick-up lines and were dissecting the anatomy of a dinner date with Napoleon Solo in explicit detail.
"...What about you, Judith?"
"Definitely a hand on the small of my back. But not you, Cynthia?"
"No, not the first date—he pulled out my chair for me, but kept his hands to himself until after we started eating."
"Ah, the slow and steady routine. Yes, Janet in Accounting said her first time went more like that. What will you be up for, Melissa?"
"Missy, please—and not slow and steady, that's for sure, I'm more hare than tortoise," and they all giggled in startling unison.
"Oh, dear," Illya said, "I completely forgot the bread," and he rose from the table.
"Illya, sweetheart, don't bother," Annabelle said, "this spread looks lovely as it is."
"Yes," Napoleon said desperately, "between the potatoes and the pasta, we won't miss the bread—"
"Nonsense, it won't take me more than a few minutes to nip down to the corner bakery," Illya said, and turned his head from the table, such that only Napoleon was at an angle to see his smile, which was really less of a smile, and more the look of a cat spotting its latest mouse plaything.
And Napoleon knew he would never see his partner again, or at least not again tonight. Judith, Cynthia, and Annabelle had only just reached the second hour of the standard date, and Melissa looked a moment away from getting out her appointment book and taking notes in shorthand, and Napoleon thought that he should give thanks that Illya hadn't had Angelique's number handy.
Or maybe he did, and she happened to be overseas on important THRUSH business at the moment. Napoleon doubted she would have missed this for anything less.
But it was the thought of Angelique that saved him. Or more particularly, the memory of a certain night they—with company—had shared in Madrid.
After all, these were four active, healthy, self-assured women—and likely adventurous, as most members of U.N.C.L.E. tended towards, and Judith was likewise in spirit if not occupation. And clearly from this discussion they weren't suffering under any handicaps of prudish moral codes.
He couldn't simply make the proposition on the spot, obviously. But given the tenor of the conversation, it wasn't so difficult to lay the groundwork, drop a few suggestive hints. Pour a bit more of the excellent Bordeaux that Illya had splurged on—not too much; Napoleon deplored such vulgar seduction techniques. But enough to keep the conversation flowing down increasingly intriguing channels.
Better than wine, there was chocolate mousse, Napoleon saw when he went into the kitchen to fetch extra napkins. Mousse, and fresh strawberries in the refrigerator. He couldn't have planned it better himself. And if Illya wasn't back in time to enjoy his just desserts, well, why shouldn't Napoleon take advantage?
Illya wasn't yet back when they finished the main course, and Napoleon brought out the mousse and strawberries. By then the conversation had moved from the individual to more general encounters, if hardly less detailed, and definitely no less risqué. Adventurous women, indeed—downright experimental, even, deliciously so.
Napoleon didn't actually bring up the idea himself; Judith did, though while the ladies whispered and giggled among themselves, Annabelle raised her glass to him and remarked, "And I'm sure our Napoleon over there has been entertaining the possibility all evening, haven't you, gorgeous?"
"You know me well, lover," Napoleon said, and took the glass out of her hand to press a kiss to the inside of her wrist.
It was a good thing that Illya had cleared not only the dining table but the living room as well; maneuvering through the stacks might have killed the mood. Though his couch wasn't big enough for five, the rug before it was quite thick, plushly comfortable to lie upon, even if it was marked with square indentations where heavy books had been stacked. While not as weighty as Illya's tomes, the women left far more shapely patterns in the pile.
All was going beautifully up until the point Napoleon ducked into the bedroom for a few amenities and found...nothing. The nightstand by the bed was bare but for Illya's spare pair of glasses, for all that Napoleon well knew it had been equipped the night before—he had stocked it personally.
The bathroom likewise was oddly empty, not even a bottle of shampoo in the shower, much less lotion or oil.
"Napoleon?" someone called from the living room—Annabelle, he thought, unless it was Judith; both their voices dropped to pleasing altos when aroused.
"Be right back," Napoleon assured them, checking under the sink.
"It's all right, we're entertaining ourselves," someone else called back, to a chorus of delightfully naughty giggles, and then one of them—Cynthia, he guessed—yelped, "Eek—oh, hare, indeed!"
There was nothing under the sink. Nothing under the bed, either, when he returned to the bedroom.
And nothing in his pockets, though there ought to be, neither the jacket nor the slacks. Not even his emergency rubber stashed in his wallet, and Napoleon's suspicions flared like a distress signal fired into a midnight sky.
He returned to the living room, cleared his throat. "Ladies, I'm afraid..."
"Don't worry, Napoleon, I came prepared," Annabelle said, and she took out her purse from the closet and dug through it. Then she frowned. "No, never mind. But I could have sworn—"
"Allow me," Judith offered, retrieving her bag. "I've got enough to—what the heck? Where is it? I know I—"
"Have no fears, girls," Melissa said, blushing as she got out her own purse as well, "I thought there just might be a chance, so...wait a minute...hmm, that's odd..."
Cynthia sat on the couch and crossed her arms. "I don't suppose there's any point to me even looking, is there?"
Check and mate, Napoleon thought grimly. Or rather, a distinct lack of mating—damn the sly Russian. Illya had courteously collected all the women's purses and put them away in the closet, more than enough time for his feather-light fingers. And Napoleon hadn't been watching his own pockets, though he should have known better.
"All right," Napoleon said, sighing as he conceded this round to his bastard of a partner. "I'll just nip out, be back before you know it."
The ladies' effusive and enthusiastic thanks almost made up for the trouble. Leaving his tie behind and shrugging into his jacket as he left the apartment, Napoleon took the stairs rather than wait for Illya's dawdling elevator, and hit the garage at a jog. He had his key in the ignition and his foot on the clutch before it registered that there was someone sitting in the passenger seat of his Mercedes.
The garage's dim lights glimmered on a head of pale hair. "Looking for something?" Illya inquired.
"However did you guess?" Napoleon demanded, and if his voice came out as a whine, that was better than having it crack, which was an accomplishment, considering his present condition.
Which condition Illya must be well aware of; the lipstick traces on his face and neck, four different shades, would be unmistakable even in the darkness. Napoleon didn't see the flicker of Illya's tongue in the shadows, but he saw the wet gleam of his moistened lips afterwards, when Illya turned his head. "If you want something, all you have to do is ask," Illya said.
"When you were straightening up your apartment for the party," Napoleon said, "you seem to have misplaced a few items."
"But I'm sure you remember where you put them."
"Unless some blockhead went and moved them," Illya said.
Napoleon bumped his forehead against the steering wheel. "If I apologize, will you forgive me?"
"Maybe." Illya's voice was so low it might have been a growl, or a purr. "If you prove that you mean it."
Napoleon glanced up overhead, as if he had the x-ray vision to pierce the car's roof and several floors to Illya's apartment, and the four beautiful women waiting there patiently for him.
Then he looked over at his partner's shadowy presence on the seat next to him. Waiting too, if not patiently; he could feel Illya's stare, hot as a brand and its mark as indelible. Napoleon swallowed, his throat dry. "So where did you put the, uh, items, anyway?"
* * *
"It was the damndest thing," Melissa Campos said to Lisa Rogers early the next morning, an hour before any enforcement agents were due in to U.N.C.L.E. HQ. "He stepped out to pick up a few supplies—if you catch my drift—and then never came back."
"Not for the whole night?"
"Not a whisker of him! We—er—waited up for him. And Illya didn't come back, either, for that matter..."
"Wait, Illya?" Lisa asked. "Illya was there?"
"We were at his place. His invitation—some host he turned out to be."
"Ah," Lisa said.
"But his partner was the bigger disappointment, and after all I'd heard, too! And really, now, even if it wasn't Napoleon Solo—what kind of man leaves four women dangling?"
"One who's gotten a better offer," Lisa said, then patted Melissa's hand at the face she made. "Oh, no offense intended, Missy—but after a month of foreplay I don't think even Napoleon could've waited a night longer."
"A month of—"
"Just some friendly advice—the next time Illya asks you over, double-check the schedule with the other girls. Before the match really gets going, it can be worth your while, but being a pawn in their endgame can be...unsatisfying."
"Well..." Melissa thought of the previous night—before and after the gentlemen's unanticipated departure—and blushed a dusky rose. "I wouldn't say entirely unsatisfying..."
* * *
Several blocks from headquarters, in his freshly fumigated apartment, Napoleon Solo roused to the first sun shining through his bedroom window. He rolled over to see his partner beside him, elbow on the pillow and hand propped under one cheek, studying him with blue eyes almost incandescent in the morning light.
"So," Napoleon said, his voice gravelly with sleep and utterly satiated, "call it a draw?"
Illya nodded, the golden hair falling over his forehead picking up strawberry highlights from the magenta walls. "A draw," he agreed, and leaned over to kiss Napoleon, smiling against his mouth, "For now, anyway."