The Growing Up Affair

by Joolz

For Romanse

Clarice stood in her borrowed dress and tried to fit in. This was the first really hip party she'd been invited to since she got to college and she was determined to make the scene. That meant consciously stopping herself from tugging down the hem of her miniskirt. When Clarice's roommate had loaned it to her she had stressed that it was supposed to be that way, so leave it alone.

The right side of the dress was white and the left side was black, with large black plastic buttons up the front. The knee-high black patent leather boots, also on loan from Judy, completed the outfit. Clarice's normally straight, parted-down-the-middle brown hair had been teased into a complicated flip on top of her head, and her friend had liberally applied makeup to her unaccustomed face. She looked like one of the cool kids. It was a pity she didn't feel like one.

Shifting the beer she was holding from one hand to the other, Clarice also shifted her weight to her other foot. There were kids in groups, and couples lounging about on sofas and bean-bag chairs, but Clarice was leaning against the edge of a table all on her own. She couldn't bring herself to sit down, since she didn't know how to do so without showing the room her panties.

The beer she was holding had gotten warm a while ago. She'd tried to drink it, she really had, but the bitter taste was disgusting, so now she just pretended. People were passing cigarettes and what Clarice knew were joints around, but she just pretended with those, too.

In other words, Clarice was seriously regretting having attended the party. She usually spent Friday nights studying or watching television in the dorm lounge, and she wondered what had possessed her to try to be someone she wasn't.

Oh, yes, she reminded herself. It was her resolution to take advantage of being away from home to become an interesting person. To hang out with the chicks and cats and other farmyard descriptions for people who knew where it was at, and subsequently find out for herself. Clarice hadn't expected that instead of being instantly cool, she would want to crawl into a hole and hide. She wished Judy had been invited too, so at least she would have had someone to stand with and not look like a total loser.

A tall, good-looking guy named Jerry handed her another joint, and she smiled up at him as she took it. Jerry had tried to talk to her earlier, but Clarice had become tongue-tied and hadn't been able to get out a coherent sentence. After a few minutes the boy had laughed at her and wandered away. Clarice hoped her smile didn't look as desperate as it felt.

As she brought the burning roll of paper and herb to her lips, she was relieved that Jerry looked away. It was hard to pretend to smoke without actually doing it when someone was watching.

Still holding the joint pinched between her thumb and forefinger, Clarice followed Jerry's line of sight. Two men had walked into the room, looking even less like they belonged at the party than Clarice felt. They were really hunky, for older guys, even if they were in suits and ties. The dark haired one simultaneously winced and raised his eyebrows, clearly disapproving of party's atmosphere. The smaller blond one coolly surveyed the room, his eyes coming to a stop when they landed... on Clarice.

The blond said something to his friend, and they both started walking towards her across the room. Clarice turned to look behind her, to see who they were really looking at. There were a couple of kids necking in the corner, but nothing else. When she turned back, the men were still headed her way.

The feel of the party had changed noticeably. Instead of 'grooving' on the 'good vibes', which was what Judy had instructed Clarice to do, people were starting to look 'uptight'. They were also giving Clarice hostile glances, as though she were responsible for these men being here. In fact, Clarice was quite sure that she had nothing to do with it.

She was surprised, then, when the pair stopped in front of her.

The dark haired man tilted his head and asked with a charming smile, "Are you by any chance Miss Clarice Farrell?"

His voice was so smooth and dreamy she almost forgot to answer. "Y, yes."

The man continued, "Miss Farrell, would you mind stepping outside with us? There's a matter of some import that we need to discuss with you."

Clarice was confused. "Outside?" she asked. "Excuse me, but who are you?"

"My name is Napoleon Solo and this is my partner Illya Kuryakin. A situation has come up regarding your father and it's rather urgent."

Clarice frowned. It figured that her father would manage to ruin her one chance at popularity. She would never be invited to a party again. Sure, she hadn't been enjoying it, but it was the principle of the thing.

"My father? What kind of situation?"

Mr. Solo said, "It's quite delicate, Miss Farrell. If you'll come with us we'll explain everything." He took hold of her arm just above the elbow, and Clarice started to feel alarmed.

Just then Jerry, who was still standing next to her, broke in, "Hey, little girl, these panty-waists giving you a hard time?" He tried to push between Clarice and Solo.

The blond man stepped forward, placing one hand on Jerry's arm, and said with a sexy foreign accent, "I suggest you stay out of this...." He paused, waiting to be supplied a name.

"Jerry," Jerry supplied.

"Jerry. We are, I believe you might say, the heat. We are not interested in any illegal activities that might be taking place at this gathering." He looked pointedly at the joint that Clarice was still holding. She opened her fingers and it fell to the ground. She'd completely forgotten she was holding it. He went on, "We do, however, have urgent business with the young lady. Unless you would like to spend the rest of the evening in jail you should not interfere."

The words themselves were fairly mild, but the way they were spoken wasn't. The man's voice was like ice, and his eyes even colder. Jerry was frozen in place, his mouth hanging open.

Solo said to his partner, whose strange name Clarice hadn't quite caught, "We don't have time for this. Let's leave now and explain later."

With a nod, the blond man took hold of Clarice's other arm and they began leading her toward the door.

Now she really was upset. "Hey!" she protested. "Let me go!" The way they were pulling her was awkward, especially as she was still holding the warm beer, the small handbag hanging from her wrist bouncing around wildly.

"I'm sorry for the use of force, Miss Farrell," Mr. Solo said with urbane casualness, even as he manhandled her. "Each moment we delay puts your life at greater risk."

"My life!" she exclaimed. "But, but."

Then they were outside. After the incense and smoke of the party, the fresh air felt good.

They were in a residential neighborhood in Canton, New York, not far from the St. Lawrence University campus, with lights on in the houses all around them. Clarice dug her heels in and pulled her arms out of the men's grips.

"Now wait just a minute. I'm not going anywhere with you until you tell me what's going on. I'll scream my head off, I swear I will."

Solo sighed. "Look, we work for an organization called U.N.C.L.E., United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. This is for your own safety, so you should cooperate."

"Why? What does this have to do with my father?"

The blond man said, "It has everything to do with your father. He is Dr. Clarence Farrell, renowned nuclear chemist, is he not?"

Clarice nodded, and the man went on, "There are some very bad men who want him to work for them. They have threatened to kill you if he doesn't do as they wish, and it's our job ensure that that doesn't happen. We are to take you to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters in New York City. Your father is already there."

"And if you're very good," Solo smirked, "we won't tell Daddy where we found you."

Clarice looked at the bottle of beer in her hand, then set it down on the edge of a planter. "I'm not...." She started to say that she didn't smoke or drink or do anything, really, but stopped. Why should she explain anything to them? Let them think what they wanted.

"How do I know you are who you say you are?" she challenged.

Solo answered, "We'll give you all the proof you need on the way, but we are going to leave now. And you will come with us, even if I have to carry you kicking and screaming. There's no need for that, is there?"

That did sound undignified. And with a skirt this short? Clarice shuddered.

"All right. But I still don't know if I believe you."

They escorted her to a sedan parked on the curb and handed her into the back seat. She was glad it was dark, because she wasn't used to this much of her legs showing. As the men got into the front seat, the blond driving, she clutched her purse in her lap.

"Show me some identification," she demanded.

Both men passed their I.D. badges over the seat to her. In the light of passing street lamps she looked them over. Yes, they said U.N.C.L.E. at the top, and had photos. Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. They were leaving the outskirts of the small town as she handed them back.

"What kind of a name is Kuryakin?" she asked.

"I am from the Soviet Union," he answered evenly.

"But they're Communist!" she exclaimed in alarm. Her father had told her all about the Communists, how they were trying to destroy the American way of life and take over the world.

"Yes, it is a Socialist Republic, but I am working with an international organization now, that has very little to do with such ideologies."

But he was a Communist. How could she believe anything he said? "Are you a Communist too?" she asked Solo, appalled.

He chuckled. "No, I'm afraid I'm a dyed in the wool Capitalist. But I'm surprised you're worried about it. I thought you hippies were all peace and love and easygoing."

"I'm not...." She stopped herself again. Then she noticed how dark it was outside the car. "Hey, where are we? Why aren't we on the highway?"

The Russian answered, "We have decided that it will be safer to go through the park. It is quite isolated, but for that very reason we will be less likely to be spotted by Thrush patrols. They were already on campus, you know, watching your dormitory."

That didn't sound good. It was more than three hundred miles from Canton to New York City, and longer than that if they went through the park. Were people going to be trying to kill her all the way there? People trying to kill her? It didn't seem likely.

"Who is Thrush?"

Although Solo explained about the organization of international criminals, it all sounded far fetched. Especially that her father could somehow be involved in such a thing. True, since her mother had died three years earlier he hadn't spoken to her much, so she didn't know exactly what he did. Oh, he was very committed to her education and didn't want her to grow up to be one of the ignorant masses, but they didn't talk about anything so personal as his work.

What if what they were telling her was a lie? It could be completely the other way around, for all she knew. They could have kidnapped her to use against her father. She'd been kidnapped by Communists!

Clarice scooted back into the corner of the seat and tried to think about what she should believe. What she should do. She didn't seem to have many options at this point. They were in the middle of nowhere. By the flashes of lightning around a distant peak she could see that they were climbing steadily into the Adirondack Mountains. It wasn't like she could just jump out and escape right here.

After driving in silence for a while, Kuryakin leaned forward and switched on the radio. It was set to Clarice's favorite pop station out of Albany. Strains of "Mrs. Brown, you've got a lovely daughter" filled the car.

Solo leaned forward, but his partner said, "Ah! Do not touch that dial, Napoleon. We are not going to listen to some Wagnerian opera while driving through the mountains at night. Believe me, you want me awake, not suicidal."

"But Illya," Solo argued, "Pop music? Can't you find a jazz station, or show tunes?"

"I think you'll find, my friend, that reception here is quite limited. Besides, I quite like pop music."

Another song started and to Clarice's surprise the Russian sang along.

"Love, love me do. You know I love you. I'll always be true, so please love me do."

His voice was pleasant and light.

Solo complained, "You're doing this on purpose to torture me, aren't you?"

"I would have thought you would be glad to see me embracing your bourgeois entertainment." It was dark, but Clarice could hear the smile in the teasing tone.

"It's certainly not my bourgeois entertainment. Give me Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin any day."

The next song was one of Clarice's favorites. Before she knew it she was sitting forward, leaning over the seat between the two men, listening. After a few lines, she joined Kuryakin in the sing-along.

"So Ferry 'cross the Mersey, and always take me there. The place I love."

"You have a nice voice," Kuryakin said to her casually. She didn't want to be pleased, but blushed anyway.

For the duration of "The way you do the things you do," "Baby I need your loving" and "Do Wha Diddy Diddy Dum Diddy Do", Clarice forgot where she was and just enjoyed the music. She hadn't been exposed to a lot of the things other kids her age had, but she'd always had a radio in her bedroom. The music she knew.

Mr. Solo was apparently surprised that Mr. Kuryakin knew it, too.

"But how do you know the words to all these songs? I've never heard you sing them before."

"I'm not with you every minute, Napoleon. And all the young people are familiar with these songs."

"Young people? You aren't that much younger than I am, Illya. You aren't exactly..." he turned to look at Clarice, "How old are you?"

"Uh. Eighteen," she admitted, feeling like a child.

"You aren't exactly eighteen," he continued nagging.

"Ah," Kuryakin commented. "I begin to get the impression that you are jealous."

"Jealous! Of what?"

"That I know something you do not."

"I hardly think the lyrics to insipid songs played on the radio count as knowing something."

"Then why are you so incensed?"

"I'm not, I'm just annoyed at being subjected to this caterwauling."

Clarice grinned as she listened to them bicker. It seemed so normal. They seemed so normal. Not dangerous or subversive or anything. They were both very cute, and very funny together.

Then she sat back. It was no good thinking that way. For all intents and purposes she'd been kidnapped by these strangers and didn't know what their true plans were. It could all be an act. They could be trying to lull her into a false sense of security.

She told herself that she should not, could not allow herself to like them.

The radio reception faded to static and Illya turned it off. In the dark, swaying car, Clarice fell asleep.

The abrupt cessation of motion woke her. Rain was pounding the roof and windows and lightning flashes lit the sky every few seconds, and Clarice had slept through it. As she pushed herself up into a sitting position, Clarice heard Solo question his partner as to why the car had stopped.

The Russian answered, "It is much more dangerous to continue driving under these conditions than it is to stop. Mr. Waverly will hardly thank us for finishing the job Thrush set out to do. I fully intend to get the girl to New York alive."

"Fine, but sitting here in the middle of the road is hardly safe. What to you propose?"

Kuryakin pointed off the road to the right. "I believe I saw a structure of some kind there, through the trees."

Solo peered into the darkness. "You do have good eyesight, Illya. I see something, too. It looks like a cabin."

"Probably a shelter for hunters or campers. I suggest we wait out the storm there."

As much as Clarice tried, she couldn't see anything but the ghostly waving of branches in the blue lightning. She hoped there was somewhere they could go inside, because she'd never been fond of being out in storms. The wind buffeting the car made her long for solid walls.

Mr. Kuryakin carefully steered the vehicle through an opening in the trees, coming to a stop next to a cabin about fifty yards from the road. He maneuvered so that the car was hidden by the front porch, then jumped out and raced toward the door. Mr. Solo got out the other side, hurried around the car, opened the back door closest to the house, and offered Clarice his hand.

She took it, and the agent pulled her out into the pouring rain, quickly leading her up the stairs to the porch. He placed her against the wall and sheltered her with his body, but even so, cold, wet droplets reached her bare skin, causing her to shiver. The noise of the storm made her want to hide her face against the man's chest, even if it would seem childish. Whoever he might actually be, he was tall and strong and she could feel the heat of his body inviting her closer.

There was barely time for the thought to pass through her mind before Kuryakin had the door open and Solo was ushering her inside. When the door closed behind them it was suddenly much quieter but utterly dark, the space illuminated only by flashes of light finding their way through gaps in the window drapes.

Clarice stood in place rubbing her arms for warmth as the men busied themselves closing the curtains more securely. Then they both flicked on cigarette lighters and looked around.

"What do you think, IK?"

"I believe it is safe to light a fire. It will be a cold night without one."

Illya went to the hearth, which was on the far wall of the single room, facing the door. While he started a fire, Napoleon inspected the rest of their accommodations. On the wall to the left were cabinets and a basin with a hand pump. There were two double beds with bare mattresses pushed against the wall to the right. Between the fireplace and the front entrance stood a long wooden table with benches. Next to the fireplace, a door led to a small bathroom.

It didn't take long for the fire to begin to light and warm the room. Illya called to Clarice, "Come here by the fire. It is much nicer."

She did, and up close she could see that his hair was wet and matted to his head, and his suit coat was soaked. Napoleon came out of the bathroom with a stack of thin towels, looking no better.

Handing them each a towel, Napoleon said, "Here. Let's get dried off as best we can. We don't want to deliver Miss Farrell with a cold, now do we?" Clarice shivered, and he moved her closer to the fire.

It all seemed like a dream to Clarice. She was still sleepy from her nap in the car and she'd never been in a place like this before. Growing up, her father had provided her mother and herself, and then just Clarice, with every physical comfort available. This primitive room, windows rattling in the wind, was like something she might have read about in a novel, not a place she herself would ever be.

After she patted herself dry, Illya settled her at the table at the end nearest the fire. He asked, "Are you all right?"

"Yes," Clarice replied, trying to keep the sulk out of her voice. "I don't like it here. Where are we, anyway?"

"We won't be here long. We passed through Indian Lake ten miles back and will reach Highway 87 in another twenty or so."

That didn't tell her much, as she'd never been in the Adirondack Park before, but she did know that Highway 87 went to Albany, so that was practically civilization.

After rattling around in the cupboards, Solo began working the hand pump in the 'kitchen' and filled a large metal kettle. Placing it on the fire, he then set three mugs on the table along with a rather old looking box of teabags.

"A nice cup of tea is just what we need," he said brightly, sharing a quick look with his partner.

Clarice scowled at him. What she needed was to be tucked into bed in her dorm room, listening to Judy snore, not trapped in the mountains with strange men. When it arrived, however, the hot tea did help her feel a little less disgruntled. It was almost cozy sitting at the table by the fire, all of them sipping hot drinks.

Obviously making conversation, Illya asked, "So what are you studying at the university, Miss Farrell?"

Taking a breath, she determined to sound more positive than she felt. "Well, I'm just in my first semester, so it's mostly general requirements right now. But I'm thinking about majoring in mathematics. We don't have to declare until next year."

Illya raised his eyebrows in interest. "Mathematics? Are you considering following your father into the sciences?"

Clarice shrugged. "I don't know. I was thinking about being a math teacher, if I'm good enough. My father doesn't think women should be in the hard science professions."

"Why, that's fairly short-sighted of him," Napoleon commented. "We know some quite accomplished female scientists. On both sides of the philosophical divide." He winked at Illya in some private communication.

Then Solo said, "If you don't mind my asking, you seem like a fairly level headed young lady. What were you doing at a party like that? It isn't the sort of thing that's conducive to a serious career of any kind."

"I," Clarice started. She was too tired to dissemble, so she blurted, "I've never been to a party like that before. Hardly any parties at all, really, except for at my father's country club or school events. I'm not the type of girl who gets invited to parties. I'm plain and boring and these aren't even my clothes. I just wanted to fit in," she finished morosely.

"Well," Illya stated, "I hardly think you're plain or boring. You're actually quite pretty. If I were you, I wouldn't worry too much about fitting in. Follow your own interests and beliefs, and you'll find the place in the world just made for you. It may not be where you expect, but then again it may be much better."

Clarice felt her face heat. He thought she was pretty?

Napoleon smiled at his partner. "Just like you, Illya? Would you ever have expected to end up where you are?"

Illya smiled back. "Not, as you say, in a million years. I have no regrets about it. None at all."

Clarice covered her mouth to stifle a large yawn. It must be two or three in the morning by now, and it had been a long night.

Napoleon got up and laid one of the remaining dry towels on the end of one of the beds, then asked solicitously, "Would you like to get some sleep? This storm will probably last a couple more hours."

She did really want to lay down, so she nodded and went over to the mattress. He gave her another towel to cover her legs, which was good or she never would have been able to relax.

Clarice settled herself and winced at the scratchy texture of the towels and the musty smell of the bed. At least the room was warm. She didn't expect to actually sleep, though.

She was wrong about that and woke to the sound of a log popping in the fire, curled on her side.

When she opened her eyes she could see both men setting on the far side of the table from where she was. They were straddling the bench, both facing the fire. Napoleon was in front, with Illya behind him. Very close behind him. It almost looked like he had his arms around the other man. Clarice frowned, blinking her eyes.

A little more awake, she realized she wasn't wrong. Kuryakin's chin was resting on his partner's shoulder, his chest pressed to Solo's back. Clarice had never seen men do that before. She could hear the quiet murmur of their voices as they talked with each other. She couldn't make out the words, but the tone was very familiar and intimate. They must be good friends, she thought. The image played behind her eyelids as she drowsed back towards sleep.

Then she started awake, and her blood ran cold. They weren't just friends, they were more than that. She found herself holding her breath in fear as she worked it through in her mind. They were homosexuals. Men who had boyfriends instead of girlfriends. According to Clarice's father, they were the only thing worse than Communists. They were sick and perverted and violent and dangerous. They attacked small children and did horrible things to them.

Clarice had been kidnapped by Communist homosexuals. She concentrated on remaining still and making no sound. She didn't want them to realize that she had seen. Who knew what they might do to her? She'd been right. They were trying to make her feel safe, but they were evil. She had to be very careful, and get away from them as soon as she could.

Clarice took slow, even breaths as she lay quietly on the old mattress. It was almost too much to take in, especially as she didn't really understand. She knew about sex, what men and women did, at least in general terms. What went where, anyway. But what did two men do together? They didn't have the same parts as women.

She squeezed her eyes closed but it didn't stop her brain from thinking. She had never met any homosexuals as far as she knew, and had never asked anyone about it. It wasn't the type of thing normal people talked about. There were those two girls at the university, Hannah and Susan, who people laughingly said were Lesbos. Clarice knew that meant women who had girlfriends. What on Earth did they do for sex? It didn't make any sense.

When nothing awful happened immediately, Clarice started to calm down. She had to think about this rationally. Opening her eyes, she found the two men still in the same position. Solo chuckled at something Kuryakin said and tilted his head back. Their lips brushed briefly, and then they went back to looking at the fire. It was embarrassing. Disturbing. Private. Clarice didn't have any business seeing something like that.

But on the other hand, it didn't seem violent or dangerous. It was sort of sweet, and they were both still hunks. And they'd been nice to her, except for when they'd taken her out of the party. They seemed to want to protect her. She didn't know what to think.

Kuryakin stood up and stretched, his slim body illuminated by the firelight. His jacket fell back and she saw the outline of a holster and gun against his white shirt. That was another shock. Clarice reprimanded herself, because it shouldn't be. They were agents of some kind, whether good or bad, so of course they had guns. She simply hadn't thought about it.

Just loud enough so that Clarice could hear, Kuryakin said, "It sounds like the storm is letting up. I'm going to go check around outside."

Solo nodded. "All right." After his partner had stepped out into the murky pre-dawn light, Solo got up and poked the fire with a stick, sending up a plume of sparks.

Clarice pretended to still be asleep, unsure of what she should do. She should probably make a run for it and try to get a lift back to school. But that sounded pretty scary, too.

The front door opened and shut abruptly.

"Napoleon, get the girl." Illya's voice was tense and now he held the gun in his hand.

The other agent stood up straight and reached for his own weapon. Even as he was moving towards Clarice he asked, "What is it?"

"I'm not sure, but I think we have company."

"Then we probably do."

Solo touched her shoulder and Clarice looked up at him. "Are you awake? We need to go," he said quietly, his face serious.

Clarice sat up, the towel still covering her legs. "Okay."

Kuryakin went into the bathroom and peeked through the small window that faced the rear of the cabin, then came back into the room.

He said, "We'd better—" and the world exploded.

Clarice was on the floor. There was a weight on her back, and she realized that it was Mr. Solo, his body covering hers. Why was she on the floor? Why was she breathing dust? As memory started to return, she started to panic. Something had happened. The building had collapsed. No. Been blown up. She remembered the far wall flying to pieces.

Her body shaking, she tried to wriggle out from under the agent, who wasn't moving. He moaned and shifted, then took some of his weight on his arms, allowing her to scoot out.

The cabin was decimated. A large hole in the wall and ceiling was letting in a mist of rain. Debris was everywhere, and a fire was spreading where some wood had fallen into the hearth. Solo was propped up on his elbows, covered in dust, his previously perfect hair in disarray, a grimace on his face. Blood was dripping off his chin from a gash in his head, just above the temple. Clarice realized that some of that blood was on her shoulder and arm, staining her dress and skin. She tried to wipe it off with her hand, but it just smeared. She wondered idly if the stain would come out or if she would need to buy Judy a whole new outfit.

He squinted at her. "You all right?"

She sat looked back at him numbly, no words coming.

A noise drew her attention, and she saw two men standing outside looking in at them through the hole in the wall. Solo fumbled for something on the ground, then brought his hand up, pointed at the men. Several gun shots sounded, and Clarice screeched, slapping her hands over her ears. She bent over, closing her eyes, wishing it would all go away. She didn't want to be here.

Clarice felt hands on her arms, shaking her, and looked up. Solo was on his knees, saying, "Miss Farrell. Clarice. Easy, now. Clarice, are you hurt?"

She considered that, then shook her head.

"It'll be all right," he said. "Just stay here."

Then he left her sitting there and stood up, staggering slightly, the gun still in his hand. "Illya?" he called.

Clarice looked around the room. There was no movement other than a stream of smoke drifting toward the opening.

Napoleon cried, "Illya!" and Clarice followed his line of sight. At one end of a pile of debris there was a bit of golden-yellow hair. Illya had been nearer the wall when the explosion happened, and she thought he must be dead. She started to hyperventilate. Dead!

The still mobile U.N.C.L.E. agent staggered over and started pulling wreckage away. It wasn't that much, really, and soon she could see more of the Russian. He was lying on his back with one large ceiling beam pinning him down across his middle.

Solo patted his face. "Illya. Talk to me."

Kuryakin's head rolled to the side and he groaned. "Napo..."

Not dead, then. That was a tremendous relief to Clarice, who'd never seen a dead body, not ever her mother's. She had no desire to start now.

"Right here." Solo tried to shift the beam, but it wouldn't budge. "Can you move at all?"

Illya's face contorted with effort, then he said, "No."

"All right," Solo said grimly. "I'll have you free in a minute." He tried to lift the heavy piece of wood again.

"Napoleon," Illya said softly, then again, with more force. "Napoleon."

Solo leaned over. "What?"

Illya looked toward Clarice. "Get the girl to safety. That's the mission."

Frowning, Solo stated, "I'm not leaving you."

"Yes, Napoleon, you are. Thrush is out there. You must protect the girl."

"No," Solo barked.

"Yes. Your duty. And mine. You know I'm right."

Clarice could see Napoleon's face as he looked down at his partner. His lover, she thought. She could see emotions fighting for dominance. Horror, fear, frustration, and winning out, realization that Illya was right. Napoleon was going to have to leave him for her sake.

A sudden moment of clarity washed through Clarice, swamping even her own shock and panic. Napoleon was going to have to leave someone he loved, and man or woman, love was love, to certain death. If the bad guys didn't kill him outright, the burning cabin would. Napoleon was going to have to walk away and not look back, just to save her.

It wasn't right. No one should have to do that. No one should have to suffer that. Clarice could feel the pain deep in her gut, as though it were happening to her. It gave her the strength to move.

"No," she echoed Solo's earlier statement.

Both men turned their heads to look at her.

"No, we won't leave him. We'll get him out. I'll help." She pushed herself to her knees and crawled across the several feet of floor separating her from the men. Looking down at Illya she said, "I won't go without you, and that's final."

He shook his head, looking pale but resolute. "You must. Thrush..."

"Never mind Thrush." She turned to Napoleon, who was looking at her with a new mixture of emotions. Hope, gratitude, relief, and not a little determination. "We'll move the beam," she told him.

"Right," he said. "We need a lever."

Illya tried again, "Napol..."

"Quiet," Solo snapped. He scrambled away and soon came back with a metal pipe and block of wood. He positioned the pipe under the beam near where it rested on Illya's body and braced it over the block. He said to her, "When I lift the beam, pull him out from under. Get ready. We'll only have one chance at this."

Clarice shifted to kneel at Illya's head and tried to get a hold on his shoulders, finally settling on grabbing the backs of his arms. She nodded that she was ready.

Napoleon put all his effort into pushing down on the lever, his face contorted with exertion. The beam shifted a little and he pushed harder. She could see that it lifted a couple of inches.

"Now," he gasped.

Clarice pulled. Kuryakin was not a large man, but he was heavy for Clarice. She tugged and managed to drag him a few inches. She felt his body stiffen under her hands, and his face transformed to a rictus of pain. She could tell that he was fighting not to scream. Startled, she let go.

Napoleon growled, "Get him out."

"He's hurt," Clarice protested.

"He'll be hurt worse if you don't get him out. Just do it!"

She grasped his arms again and pulled. Scrambling backwards, she ignored the cuts and bruises she was getting on her knees and pulled hard. It seemed to take forever, but little by little the man came free. All of a sudden it was much easier, and he slid the rest of the way out. Napoleon dropped the beam, which shook the floor with its weight.

Clarice saw that there was a large splinter of wood sticking up out of Illya's hip. It must have been a part of the beam that dug into him when she pulled him away, thus the pain and resistance. She stared at the blood welling up in morbid fascination. It was dark and raw and she felt sick.

Napoleon leaned over his partner. "I'm going to pull this out," he said.

Illya nodded, his face sweating and eyes unfocused.

Solo grasped the splinter and yanked straight up, eliciting another moan from his partner, who then seemed to pass out. Solo slipped off his damp jacket and pressed it to the wound. "Hold this here," he ordered Clarice.

She leaned over Illya and placed her hands where Napoleon's had been and pressed. The agent retrieved his gun from his holster, stood and went to the gaping hole in the wall to peer out. The smoke from the fire was thicker now, and Clarice could barely see him.

He darted back into the room, grabbed several burning boards and threw two of them out of the opening. Then he cracked the front door and threw the other three in different directions. Clarice heard several thuds as bullets hit the cabin wall from outside. They were shooting at him!

Solo hurried back and knelt beside his partner. "Illya? You awake?"

The blond head nodded, and the blue eyes opened.

"Can you walk?" Solo asked.

The answer was somewhat indistinct. "Don't know. But I guess I'll have to. You bloody stubborn Americans."

Solo grinned down at him. "That's the ticket. Up you go, then."

He eased Illya to a sitting position, catching him as he slumped forward. Wrapping his arms around Illya, Napoleon stood, pulling the other man to his feet. After a moment Illya steadied, standing on his own and only leaning partially on Napoleon. Illya tried to take a step, but his leg gave out and he almost fell, caught again in Napoleon's arms.

"Sorry," Illya murmured. "My hip."

"That's okay. We'll help you. Clarice? Can you lend him a hand getting out of here?"

She nodded. "Sure." Moving closer, Solo placed Illya's arm around her shoulder and she felt his weight shift to her. It was a strange sensation to be practically carrying a man, but it was okay. She could do it. His life depended on her for the moment, and maybe her own did, too. They still had to get away from the men trying to kill them.

Shuffling, Clarice and Illya followed Napoleon to the opening in the wall. Outside the early morning fog was thick, hanging in a grey blanket around the cabin. The burning pieces of wood Napoleon had thrown out were producing thick smoke that swirled through the fog. The flames didn't so much illuminate as cast odd shadows all around. It would make it harder for anyone to see them.

Napoleon turned to her and Illya. "Wait for my signal, head straight across to the woods, then aim for the road. I'll catch up with you."

Illya nodded, and Clarice was glad he knew what to do, because she didn't. What signal? Where was the road?

Solo slipped out of the opening and disappeared in the direction of the front of the cabin.

After a moment Illya cocked his head and said, "Now." Clarice hadn't heard any signal, but she trusted that he had.

They hobbled out into the mist as quickly as they could. Illya's arm was tight around Clarice's shoulder and he grew heavier with every step. This close to him, she could hear suppressed gasps and hisses as he tried to walk.

They made the nearby tree line and then Illya pointed at an angle to the left. By the time they reached the gravel shoulder of the road, Clarice was practically dragging him. She stopped, leaning them both against a tree, and asked urgently, "Mr. Kuryakin, are you all right?"

His face pale, he managed a tight smile. "I think we might be on a first name basis at this point, don't you, my dear? And to answer your question, it seems that I may have some rather serious damage to my hip, possibly a broken bone.

She looked down, but it was hard to see anything but dark pants. Then she noticed some red on the ground and realized that it was Illya's blood, still dripping from the open wound. She looked up at him in alarm.

"You're doing wonderfully," he assured her. "All will be well. We'll wait here for Napoleon's next signal."

Clarice didn't know how he could be so calm about everything. If she were hurt that badly she'd be screaming her head off, for sure.

Looking down again, Clarice noted that her own legs were dirty, scraped and spattered with blood, and there was still an awful lot of them showing. It didn't seem to matter anymore, though. Compared to the threat of imminent death, a little thing like someone seeing her panties wasn't all that important. Survival was the priority.

Clarice found that it did matter to her whether Illya and Napoleon survived. And herself, too, of course. But she was convinced now that they had been telling the truth and were the good guys, regardless of anything else. They were almost friends. At the very least, the three of them needed each other.

There were some muffled noises coming from behind them, and she realized that it must be Napoleon fighting somehow with their attackers. Then suddenly he was in front of them, his face and shirt still stained with blood, but his eyes sharp.

"Come on," he told them, and led them along the road to the left as he looked around intently, gun at the ready. There was a car parked at the side of the road that wasn't the one they'd come in. The Thrush agents' car, then.

Just as Napoleon opened the back door, Illya's weight grew heavier against her and she struggled to keep him standing. "Napoleon!" she whispered loudly.

He turned back and grabbed Illya before he could collapse entirely and picked him up in his arms. Napoleon maneuvered Illya's lax body into the back seat, laying him out horizontally. Then he backed out of the car and motioned Clarice in.

"Get on the floor in the back. Stay down and try to stop the bleeding if you can. I'll be right back."

He helped her in and closed the door, then disappeared before she could ask where he was going. Clarice looked around and found a used man's shirt stuffed halfway under the driver's seat. Her nose wrinkled at the smell, but it was the only thing she had so she balled it up and pressed it against Illya's hip.

The front car door opened and she stuck her head up to see who it was.

"It's me," Napoleon said quietly. "Stay down."

Clarice ducked and concentrated on staying hidden as Napoleon started the car. They pulled onto the road and drove on, she thought in the same direction they had been traveling the night before. Clarice could see that the fog was still thick, and they weren't going very fast.

"Is it all right now?" she asked.

"Those Thrush operatives won't be bothering us again, but there will be more," he responded grimly. "We're not out of the woods yet." Then, his voice tight, he asked, "How's Illya?"

Clarice looked at the blond man's slack face and answered, "I think he's still unconscious."

"Okay. Do the best you can with him."

It was uncomfortable on the dirty car floor, bumping along the twisting mountain road, but Clarice focused on keeping pressure on Illya's wound. Even through the bunched up material she could feel his hip bone under her hands. Yet another first for her. She'd never actually touched a man before tonight, and this felt incredibly personal. Still, it didn't upset her like it might have the day before. A lot had changed in the last few hours, and Clarice hardly felt like the same person at all.

There was a beeping sound in the front seat, and she heard Napoleon say, "Open Channel D." There was static and the faint sound of a woman's voice, but it faded in and out. "This is Solo. Reception is bad, but if you can hear me, we're on 28 about twenty miles from Highway 87. We were attacked by Thrush agents and Kuryakin is seriously injured. Miss Farrell is doing wonderfully, though I'm sure it hasn't been the best night of her life. It would be very welcome if you could send some additional agents as backup, if it isn't too much trouble. I'll keep trying to check in as we get out of the mountains. Solo out."

Clarice wasn't sure exactly how he could be talking to anyone from inside the car, but they were like spies, so who knew. It was probably more James Bond type stuff. She'd seen that movie with Sean Connery, but hadn't expected to ever be living something like that herself. It certainly wasn't as glamorous as they made it look. In fact, pretty much everything about it was horrible.

Pushing aside some hair that had fallen in her face, Clarice didn't even want to think about how she must look at this point. The care that had gone into fixing her clothes, hair and makeup last night, just last night, had been wiped away by dirt and blood and violence.

Her mind drifted as the car rolled forward. Napoleon hadn't turned on the radio, so it was quiet. So different than the start of the trip.

Illya groaned and shifted slightly. Her eyes snapped to his face, to find him looking down at her. "Clarice," he murmured. "Are you all right?"

Without even thinking she blurted, "I'm scared! I'm so scared."

"It's going to be fine, I promise."

He didn't seem to think it incongruous for him, gravely injured, to be saying that to her.

"Clarice, why don't you sing to me for a little while. It will help me to feel better."

She stared at him. Was he serious? He looked like he was. His hand shifted to rest on top of hers where it was still holding the shirt to his wound, which she thought had maybe stopped bleeding, at least.

"Go ahead," he urged.

Clarice cleared her dry throat. This was easy. She could sing.

"How many roads must a man walk down," she warbled, "before they call him a man? Yes n how many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand?"

He patted her hand. "Very nice. Keep going."

Her low note on wind was cut off when the car suddenly swerved to the right and onto a bumpier terrain. "Hang on, back there," Napoleon advised. After a few moments it came to a stop and the engine cut off.

"Napoleon?" Illya asked quietly.

"There were some cars coming the other way. I don't want to take any chances until we're in a more defensible position."

Napoleon got out of the car and came around to the back door by Illya's feet. He opened it and leaned in, and Clarice could see thick pine branches outside framing his body. He climbed part way into the back and Clarice scooted as far as she could toward the other door to make room for him.

The dark haired agent gave her a nod of thanks, then gently checked the injury as he asked, "How are you doing, Illya?"

"Splendid. I have my own private chanteuse, as you may have noticed."

"You do tend to bring out the nightingale in the ladies, don't you my friend?" Napoleon teased.

"What can I say, it is a gift. My gypsy heritage, no doubt."

Napoleon snorted. "Gypsy heritage my a.." he stopped and winked at Clarice.

He leaned closer to his partner, cupped his hand against Illya's cheek and asked in a softer, warmer voice, "Really, how are you?"

Illya sighed. "Not terribly good. But I am alive, which is somewhat unexpected. It is not anything terminal unless we don't make it back to headquarters. Don't worry about me."

"But I do, you know that. I'm going to take you straight to the hospital in Albany."

"You'll do no such thing. You'll stay on the side roads as much as possible, but will continue directly to New York City." When Napoleon opened his mouth to argue, the obviously very stubborn Russian went on, "I am quite grateful to you both for saving my life, but the mission remains to get Clarice to her father safely. We will take no unnecessary risks. I'll be fine until we get there. Truly, Napoleon, I will."

Solo studied his partner's face and rubbed a thumb over his pale cheek. "Pig-headed.... All right, for now. I won't risk your life unnecessarily, though. You're more than a little important to me, you know."

Illya's lips twitched into a fond smile. "And you to me, tovarisch."

Napoleon drew back. "Let's get this show on the road, then," he said briskly, and favored Clarice with another wink. He was just too gorgeous for words, even in his bedraggled state. It fairly took her breath away.

When he climbed out of the back and resumed driving she shifted to stretch her legs the best she could, then noticed Illya's eyes on her. He looked at her speculatively, until out of nervousness Clarice blurted, "It's okay," without knowing what, exactly, she meant.

Illya patted her hand again. "You're a fine girl, Clarice. I hope you know that."

For about the millionth time, she blushed. "Thanks."

Her companion fell asleep and Clarice rested her head on his arm, lulled by the motion of the car. Napoleon told her when they reached the highway, and explained when they turned off onto a parallel secondary road. She listened to another conversation between Napoleon and a small, tinny voice, but didn't pay attention. It was all starting to catch up to her and she felt kind of floaty. The lack of breakfast and water didn't help, and time drifted by like in a dream.

Clarice was aware when a couple of additional cars with U.N.C.L.E. agents arrived to escort them. There was some kind of confrontation and she felt Napoleon's tension increase dramatically, but he kept driving and told her not to worry, the others would take care of it. That was okay with her. She was confident that they would make it all right, now. She wasn't alone. They weren't alone.

When they pulled out of traffic and into an underground parking garage, Clarice sat up. A man in a suit opened the door and helped her out. She wobbled a bit, her legs having cramped up after all that time on the floor, but it wasn't too bad.

Some other men dressed as doctors lifted Illya out of the back seat and onto a stretcher, and then her father was there, rushing towards her, pulling her into a hug the likes of which she hadn't experienced from him since she was a little girl.

"Clarice! My darling child. I was so worried about you. I was so afraid to lose you." He held her at arms length and looked her over. "Are you all right? Are you hurt?"

"No, Father, I'm fine," she answered evenly, and it was true. "The blood isn't mine. Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin were hurt protecting me."

"Such fine men!" he exclaimed, then turned to another man, older even than Clarice's father, and praised, "I feel the deepest gratitude toward and respect for your agents, Alexander. I owe them a great deal."

"Nonsense," the man harrumphed. "All in a day's work." He then turned to Napoleon, who was watching his partner being wheeled towards an elevator. "Mr. Solo, you look a frightful mess. Please do take a moment to tidy yourself and then report to my office."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Waverly."

The man looked at Clarice and continued in his bossy way, "Come with me, young lady, and I'll show you where you'll be staying until this bothersome matter is resolved." He took her father's arm, "Clarence," and led him away.

Clarice started to follow, then stopped and looked back at Napoleon. "Thank you for everything," she said.

"You're more than welcome." He continued with a sympathetic tone, "If you're upset about anything that happened..."

She interrupted, "I'm not." It wasn't completely a lie. She'd been upset about a few things at the time, but not any more. When someone was willing to die for you, it put things in perspective. She felt the greatest gratitude toward and respect for these men, too.

And her father might be smart, but he didn't know everything. He wouldn't approve of Illya and Napoleon if he knew more about them, but he could be wrong about things and about people. He could be wrong about her, too. She would keep that in mind.

Clarice continued, "I've grown up a lot since yesterday. I learned more than I probably will the rest of the year in college. Or more important things, anyway. And I think you and Illya are fab."

Napoleon grinned at her and nodded his head in a salute. "Likewise, I'm sure, Miss Farrell."

She grinned back and followed her father into the elevator.

A week later Clarice was back on the St. Lawrence University campus, catching up on what she'd missed in her absence.

Sitting at a table in the library, her mind wandered back to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. She'd gone to the medical section to say goodbye to Illya, who was half immobilized but mending nicely. Napoleon was there looking all spiffy again, a regular cross between James Bond and Frank Sinatra. They had entertained her with more teasing banter, then each given her a warm hug when she left.

It was funny to think that the most terrifying experience of her life should also be one of the best. And it was funny to think that she could like two men who were so different from her as much as she did. But not as funny as it would have seemed before. Clarice had a new appreciation for people who were different, who didn't fit into the popular mold, who weren't afraid to be themselves.

Speaking of which, she saw the girlfriends Hannah and Susan sitting together at another table and went over to introduce herself. "I'm having a little party in my dorm room on Friday," she told them. "Just Cokes and chips and music, and maybe some conversation. I'd like it if you could come."

At first they stared at her in shock, like no one had ever been nice to them before. Then they smiled and accepted. Clarice went back to her books. She'd already invited Toshio, the Japanese student who didn't speak much English and Missy, the nerdy girl who was the top of the math class. There were a few more people she wanted to ask; misfits, like herself, who didn't fit in anywhere.

People who didn't fit in anywhere yet, but they would. She had that on good authority.

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