The Out of Africa Affair
Slang words in story:
Ag-A multi-purpose word, pronounced like the ach in German. "Ag, no man" (sign of irritation).
Bakkie (like "lucky")-truck
Boere-term that refers to the police
Dof (Dorf)-dull, stupid
Larny-(Fancy, designer clothes, snob, friend) A number of variations on a word denoting someone who is well-dressed, or designer clothes, or a well-to-do function.
Lightey (laai-tie)- Youngster
Moegoe-Stupid person, coward or weakling
Moffie- male homosexual (derogatory)
Skrik (Skruk)-a fright
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
A nod from his boss had Napoleon Solo taking his usual seat at the circular table. Across from him, Alexander Waverly, Number One, Section One of U.N.C.L.E.'s North American branch, fiddled with his empty pipe. Not a good sign at the best of times. But Napoleon's partner had missed his check-in three days ago and Napoleon was obviously not the only one worried.
Waverly gave him a penetrating look before putting down his pipe. After another moment's hesitation, he sent the outer surface of the table spinning. When it stopped there was a thin file sitting in front of Napoleon.
He picked it up and began perusing the information. "I hadn't realized negotiations were going so badly. Is that why it's taken so long?" Illya had been gone almost two months.
"Getting impatient, Mr. Solo? No, Mr. Kuryakin was sent in to find out if THRUSH was behind the arms trafficking going on in the country's southern region. He has done so. Unfortunately, though Mr. Kuryakin was able to notify us of his success, we have since lost contact with him. That Rhodesia's government has decided to declare independence from the British Crown has only worsened matters."
"You think he may not be able to get out?" Napoleon asked.
"No one knows how much these events will destabilize the country. But I prefer not taking any chances. You're to go in and get your partner out of there. We've made a reservation for you on a flight to Pietersburg. Your flight leaves in," he glanced over at the clock, "three hours."
Napoleon closed the folder and tucked it under his arm as he stood to leave. "Do we know if he's even still there, sir?"
Waverly grimaced. "No, we do not. But we do know he was about to make his way back to the large holding in South Africa where he was working as a hand of some sort. It's situated just on the other side of Rhodesia's southern border, which is why you'll be flying into South Africa. This place is quite a ways from civilization, Mr. Solo, so if I were you I'd pack accordingly."
Napoleon glanced down at his suit, straightening his tie as he did so. "Not the proper attire, sir?"
"Indeed not. Check with Wardrobe. Perhaps they have something you could borrow. I imagine you don't own the type of clothes you'll need. Levi's, I think is what they're called."
Great. There was nothing Napoleon hated more than having to dress down in order to fit in. That was Illya's role. Nevertheless, he took his leave of Mr. Waverly and set off for the lower levels of headquarters where a small army of personnel spent their days making sure the agents of section two had everything they needed. From there, he'd make a quick stop at his apartment before heading to the airport. With any luck, he'd have his partner and friend back home, safe and sound, in a matter of days.
Five hours later, in a plane somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, Napoleon was no longer sure the mission would go as easily as he'd originally thought. As soon as the plane had left the ground he'd done a more thorough review of the file now tucked safely away in his suitcase in the overhead bin. Mr. Waverly hadn't been kidding. Illya was in the middle of nowhere. Finding him would be the easy part. If Illya was in trouble, it would be getting his partner, and himself, away safely that was going to be hard.
Napoleon settled back in his seat, the lack of fellow travelers in his row and the dimming of the cabin lights making it easy to let his thoughts wander. He picked up his neglected scotch and took a sip. The cold liquid heated his insides. Nice, but so much nicer if Illya had been here. He'd missed his partner. There had been too many missions apart recently. Like this one.
His thoughts drawn back to the mission, he tried to imagine the layout of the land from the maps and aerial photos. It was an open savanna for the most part. Probably why cattle ranching had become such a lucrative business. But the open spaces would make it more difficult if they indeed needed to avoid government forces on their way out.
Out? At the moment he wasn't sure how he was going to get in. Illya had taken a bus from Pietersburg to the cattle ranch, owned by a Mr. Klaus Van Riebeck, and had been hired on the spot. Napoleon grinned. Illya could turn himself into anything and anyone, including an itinerant cowhand. Van Riebeck had probably jumped at the chance to hire his partner. Napoleon, on the other hand, hadn't sat a horse since his early twenties. One look at his hands and the Afrikaner would be showing him the door. Unfortunate if Illya was still in Rhodesia, because Napoleon would need the ranch as a pathway to the neighboring country. But he'd figure out something. He always did.
He downed the rest of his drink. Placing the glass on the fold-down table where the stewardess was sure to see it, he turned to stare out the window. There wasn't much to see, which was okay because Napoleon really wasn't interested in the scenery. It was more a way to relax and focus his thoughts. He felt relatively safe within the metal confines of the plane. Well, as safe as he could without his partner at his side. But he wanted to get a few things straight in his mind before he saw Illya again.
He snorted inelegantly. Straight was a word and a half for it.
They had been partners for a little over four years. Before that, from time to time he'd see the Russian in the hallways of Headquarters, his face usually buried in a file. There had been hellos and how are you's but Illya hadn't encouraged more than that. Napoleon hadn't been sanguine when told the man was to become his partner.
But it had all worked out. Better than Napoleon could ever have imagined. Spending so much time with him, Napoleon came to appreciate Illya's dry wit and stunning intellect. It hadn't taken them long to become good friends.
Then, about eight months ago, everything had changed.
While trying to find out why people were committing suicide after visiting Barnaby Partridge's gambling casino, Illya had had the bad luck to find out first hand exactly how it was being done. Brainwashed into seeing Napoleon as his enemy, he had come very close to completing his assignment to kill his partner.
Napoleon had pretended to shrug it off. Truth be told, he hadn't held it against Illya. It could have just as easily have been him being forced to go after his partner. No, his feelings for Illya hadn't changed. What had changed was Napoleon's sudden and violent realization of what exactly those feelings were.
When he'd looked into Illya's eyes and seen nothing but hatred directed at him, he'd felt the bottom drop out of his world. At that moment, as he fought for his life, he despaired at what that life would be worth if he was forced to kill his friend. More, he realized that perhaps what he felt for Illya was more than friendship.
And he didn't have a clue as to what to do about it.
Feelings he'd buried long ago were resurfacing, feelings both dangerous and unwanted. Napoleon had fought a long, hard battle to drown his dawning attraction to men years ago. He didn't like the idea that his partner had managed to bring them back to life. He didn't like the feeling of being out of control whenever he was close to Illya. And he especially didn't like that he didn't know if Illya felt the same way.
What he did know was that it was getting harder to ignore the sinking feeling in his gut every time Illya was captured or hurt. Or to resist the desire to grab hold of his partner and never let him go every time he got him back.
A slight movement caught his attention and Napoleon turned just in time to see the stewardess reach for his empty glass. She smiled at him, an invitation to flirt, and perhaps more.
"Would you like another?"
Napoleon schooled his expression into one of regret. "You're lovely to ask but I'm afraid not. One was more than enough." He reached up and lowered the overhead light. "I think I'll try to get some rest, instead. It's going to be a long flight."
He settled his head against the backrest and waited until she'd walked away before closing his eyes. His thoughts still chasing themselves around in his head, he finally gave into sleep.
He almost didn't make his ride out of town. He'd booked passage on the only bus leaving for Messina that day. From that small town near the border he'd have to find his way to Van Riebeck's spread. But due to his unfamiliarity with Pietersburg, he'd found himself flagging down the bus as it started out of the station.
And what a bus, if this thing had any springs left he'd be surprised. Most of its occupants were working men, dressed in clothing similar to his. As they huddled together in the vehicle's semi-cold interior, most looked barely awake.
Napoleon squirmed in his seat. He tried pulling at the tight material encasing his groin without calling undue attention to himself but with little success. After the look from the man in the next seat, he tried ignoring the discomfort.
He had never worn clothes like these, not for any length of time, anyway, and not for years. With little time to spare, he'd grabbed what he'd considered his size in the unfamiliar garment from Wardrobe. They had looked okay, as he'd tried them on. Strange, though not entirely unattractive, but the hotel's laundry must have done something wrong because now the denim material was stretched to its limit. Napoleon had barely managed to button the Levi's that now hugged his body.
After finally getting the recalcitrant pants to close, he'd walked over to the full-length mirror in his hotel room. His reflection, a blue work shirt tucked into his pants, his pants tucked into boots, was an unfamiliar one and he'd been hard pressed not to laugh at the disquieting image. He'd washed his hair and left it to fall naturally, which only added to the impression of staring at himself yet having someone far younger stare back. The hat he'd added to the ensemble only made matters worse.
The bus hit a particularly deep pothole, tossing its occupants against each other. Napoleon smiled an apology to his seat mate. The look he received in return was one he hadn't had thrown his way in a long time. An older man with weather-coarsened skin, his smile said more than words could have as he let his gaze wander down Napoleon's body. Napoleon blushed and scrunched down into his heavy coat, the thick fleece that lined it an ineffective barrier. If the man so much as touched him, Napoleon swore, he'd break his hand.
He kept his eyes straight ahead after that as the miles crawled by and almost didn't notice the sign as it passed by the window. The town of Bandelierkop lay ten miles ahead. Napoleon knew there would be a short stop there before they started on the second half of their journey, another hundred miles at least.
Another hundred miles to Illya, and if Napoleon wanted to make it there he had better quit allowing himself to be unnerved by some poor guy whose only sin was in finding Napoleon attractive. Not being aware of his surroundings was a good way to get himself killed.
Purposely relaxing his body, Napoleon took a good look around the crowded bus. Those not asleep were passing the time enjoying the scenery or quietly talking to their seating partner. Napoleon didn't really think there were any THRUSH agents on board but it always paid to be careful. He'd had just as many run-ins with those whose affiliations weren't quite so grand.
The quiet snores from the man next to him brought a grin to his face. The guy apparently didn't find Napoleon attractive enough to stay awake for.
He gave the interior of the bus another thorough check before he let his gaze wander out the window to the savanna spread out from the strip of road. So much of the land was still as nature had intended it and somewhere out in that vastness was his partner and friend. That he would not find him never entered Napoleon's mind. He would find him. He had to.
Bag in hand, Napoleon stepped down from the bus and stretched out the kinks in his back and legs. Five hours in the rickety vehicle had challenged even his stamina. Following behind him were two other passengers, both men probably looking for work. Just off the road was the front gate of the Van Riebeck estate. The stop was a regular one, a lucky break that kept Napoleon from having to figure out how to get here from Messina.
Other than the gate, though, there were no buildings in sight.
"You lookin' for work?"
Napoleon turned to the man who'd spoken to him. About his own age and build, but with a good four inches on him, the other man bore the look of someone who had spent a lot of time outdoors. His washed-out blond hair stuck out from under his hat and hung down almost into his eyes and there was at least two days' growth of beard on his face.
"That's the main idea," Napoleon responded.
"Ever worked for Van Riebeck before?"
The man nodded. "Me and Carter, here," he tilted his head toward his companion, "hire on every year around this time. Don't stay for more than a couple of months, though. Not one for settlin' down, neither of us."
"That's right. Tully Cross at your service." The man stuck out his hand, which Napoleon accepted after only a moment's hesitation. "Carter here is an Afrikaner."
The other man, Carter, tipped his hat but didn't respond in any other way. Shorter than Tully, but built like a bull with broad, heavy shoulders on an otherwise compact form, Carter looked to be in his late forties.
"I don't know if he can't or won't but he never says a word so don't wait for one," Tully advised as he withdrew his hand. "And you are?"
"Um, Solo. Napoleon Solo."
"Funny name. Suits you, though. More than our present location, if you don't mind me sayin' so."
"How far is Van Riebeck's from here?" Napoleon asked, ignoring Tully's comment.
Tully pursed his lips then shrugged, as if deciding that he didn't need to know anything about Napoleon that Napoleon didn't feel like telling him. "Couple of miles down the road. Come on, we might as well get going. I haven't eaten since breakfast and Van Riebeck's cook whips up a mean spread for dinner."
Napoleon fell into step with the two men as they started down the dusty road.
"What kind of boss is Van Riebeck?" Napoleon asked, more to break the silence than out of any real curiosity.
"Better than most," Tully answered. "Pays a fair wage. Doesn't ask a lot of questions, either," he added pointedly.
"That's good to hear. I haven't done this sort of work before," Napoleon confessed, figuring to test out part of the story he'd concocted for Van Riebeck on Tully.
"Didn't think so, not with those hands."
Napoleon brought up his free hand and examined his palm in dismay. "I did bring gloves."
Tully laughed. "Gloves can only do so much. Don't worry, they'll toughen up after a few days."
Napoleon dropped his hand, frowning at the thought of what his hands would look like by then if he actually had to do this kind of work. That hadn't been part of his plan. He was counting on finding Illya right away or, failing that, slipping away from the ranch and striking out on his own in order to continue his search. In either case, having to actually work on the ranch wasn't likely to happen.
But it never paid to go into a situation unprepared. With that thought in mind, Napoleon began peppering Tully with questions, beginning his first lesson in the life of a cowhand as the three men made their way down the road.
His companions hadn't been in a big hurry to get to the ranch, meal or no meal, so it was over an hour before the large, whitewashed house came into view. Dusty and tired, Napoleon took in his surroundings as they traveled across the open space that fronted the house and set it off from the rest of the buildings which comprised the ranch's hub. There was still plenty of activity, even considering that the sun was just about to set, but their arrival went unacknowledged.
Napoleon stayed back and let Tully lead the way up to Van Riebeck's house and onto the porch that ran its length. Going up to the door, Tully leaned his arm against the jamb and peered through the screen that allowed an easy view of the front room.
"Anyone home? Teela?" Tully called out.
"Who's Teela?" Napoleon asked.
"Van Riebeck's housekeeper." Tully didn't turn at the question. "You have to get by her before you even get to see the boss." He waited a few minutes before shouting out again. "Teela, I know you're in there."
From the depths of the house, a short, middle-aged woman appeared, drying her hands on a dishcloth as she approached the front door.
"Tully, is that you?" She unlocked the door and swung it open. "Mr. Riebeck figured you'd be coming in today."
"Where is he?" Tully asked as the three men entered the house.
"Out trying to get some cattle free that wandered into a ravine. Probably won't be back until tomorrow sometime. But you know you've always got a job waitin' for you." She noticed Napoleon. "Who's this?"
Napoleon smiled and stepped forward. "Napoleon Solo at your service, Ma'am."
The woman grinned and stuck out her hand. She laughed when Napoleon took it and brought it to his mouth for a kiss. "Nice manners. Don't know if they'll do you any good around here, though."
"Not even for a good word to the boss?"
"Now, that it might get you. Seeing that he's not here, why, how could I turn down a new hand when he's so in need of workers?"
"He's shorta' workers?" Tully asked.
"Wouldn't normally be a problem, but he had to send some of them out to guard around the border. Nobody seems to know what's going to happen next door."
Next door. Must seem like that out here. "Has there been trouble?" And was Illya right in the middle of it?
"No, but Mr. Van Riebeck isn't one to wait until there is. He'll post guards until he knows for sure everything's going to be all right. But as for you three," Teela looked from man to man, "I've got food left from supper. Go get settled and I'll have it sent out."
Tully nodded and motioned for Napoleon and Carter to follow him out. "I think that's our signal to leave."
"Not everyone stops working when the sun goes down." Teela shooed them toward the door. "I'll let you know when Mr. Van Riebeck gets back."
"You do that."
Napoleon followed his companions out, turning only long enough to doff his hat at Teela, getting a hearty laugh for his troubles. They walked over to the bunkhouse, where Tully and Carter were greeted with shouts of welcome. The general uproar their appearance created allowed Napoleon to unobtrusively scan the room, looking for any sign that his partner had been here. He was pulled up short by an arm slung over his shoulder as he was interjected into the middle of the crowd.
"This here is Napoleon. Say 'hello' to the fellers, Napoleon," Tully encouraged.
Napoleon could tell the rest of the men weren't going to be as accepting as Tully. More than one was eyeing him with unmasked suspicion. He pasted a smile on his face as he step forward to confront the unfriendly crowd. "Good evening, gentlemen."
It was the wrong thing to say. If they had been suspicious before, they were downright hostile now.
" 'Good evening, gentlemen'?" one of the men mimicked. "Where'd you pick up this doos, Tully?"
"Came in on the bus lookin' for work."
"Bit of a larny, if you ask me," another man commented. Sitting at one of the tables pushed up against the wall to their right, he clearly didn't appreciate his meal being interrupted.
"No one asked you, Nelson. Give the man a chance. We all know what it's like starting at the bottom."
"What do you think, Carter?" The first man posed the question to Tully's companion.
Carter tapped himself on the chest, and then pointed his thumb toward Tully.
"Might have known you'd go along with him," Nelson grumbled as he turned back to his meal.
After that, Napoleon was forgotten. The men were too interested in catching up with their friends to waste any more time on him. So when Tully and Carter ambled over to join their friends at the tables, he took the opportunity to scope out the rest of the place.
It was a large room, with about a dozen double bunks lined up against the wall opposite the tables. Most were already taken but here and there a few still had the mattress rolled up and tied near the foot of the bunk. Between every other set of beds was a dresser with four drawers. As he strolled past the beds he tried to figure out which was Illya's, if any were. He still didn't know if his friend had made it back to the ranch.
A well-made bed at the end of the row caught Napoleon's eye. He couldn't say for sure it was Illya's, but looking over at the men across the room it was hard to imagine any of them being the type to even make their bed, much less to such military precision. Besides, it would be just like Illya to take the bed furthest from the door, where he could sleep with his back to a wall. Napoleon slid in next to the bunk for a closer look.
Napoleon hadn't noticed the young man, really not much more than a boy, lying on the top bunk across from the one he'd thought was Illya's. A mop of almost black hair tumbled down across the boy's forehead, partially covering wide-set dark blue eyes; his skin had been darkened by the sun, but Napoleon thought the boy was normally as fair as Illya. To cover his interest, he lowered his bag next to the unoccupied bed underneath the boy's. "This one isn't taken, is it?"
"No." The boy sat up and hung his legs over the edge of his bed. "You're not one to snore, are you?"
Napoleon smothered a smile. "Not as far as I know." He started untying the mattress, rolling it out on the bare springs as he talked. "You a friend of Davy's?"
The boy shrugged. "I suppose. Closest thing he has to one here, anyway. Davy's not one for giving just anyone his time."
"I see." Napoleon walked over to the wooden locker that sat at the end of the bed. There was one exactly like it at the foot of each bunk. He raised his eyes in question and, after receiving a nod from the boy, opened it. Inside were pillows, sheets and a couple of blankets. He took them out and started to make his bed.
"You can leave your bag in there after you've unpacked."
"Where do I put my clothes?" Napoleon asked.
"Bottom drawer. All the rest are taken."
Napoleon grimaced. One drawer? He hoped everything fit. With a resigned sigh he pulled his valise over as he squatted before the dresser, opened the drawer and started filling it with his clothes. He talked as he worked. "Have you worked here long?"
"A couple of years." The boy pulled up his legs and crossed them under him. "Name's Benjamin, by the way."
"Nice to meet you, Benjamin." Napoleon frowned and pulled out one of the shirts he had unsuccessfully tried to stuff into the drawer. He refolded it and attempted shoving in on the other side. "So, how come your friend isn't here?"
"He's out with the boss, him and a handful of the other men. Mr. Van Riebeck only took the best with him."
Ah, it seemed Illya, if Illya it was, had made a fan. "Maybe I can learn a thing or two from this Davy of yours." Napoleon stood up and carried the empty valise over to the locker.
"He probably won't have the time. He's really busy and he's already teaching me," Benjamin added with more than a touch of possessiveness.
Napoleon only smiled at that as he put his suitcase away. If Davy was Illya, Benjamin's hero wouldn't be around for much longer to teach anyone anything.
"Hey, Napoleon, you better get over here if you want anything to eat," Tully called from across the room.
Napoleon turned to wave, then brought his attention back to Benjamin. "I suppose I should go get something." He gave the bunk across from his another look. "I hope your friend comes back tomorrow. I'm looking forward to meeting him."
Benjamin didn't respond, only laying down again with his back to Napoleon.
Great, just what he needed. With a shake of his head, Napoleon went off to join Tully at the table.
"I'd like you to leave first thing in the morning."
He looked up at the man still perched on his horse. They'd just returned but Van Riebeck's day was far from over. "Who should I take with me?"
"Whoever you want. You know I trust you, David."
Illya Kuryakin only nodded as he walked away from the man who'd been his boss for the last month and a half. No words were needed. He had earned the man's trust and, once given, Van Riebeck didn't see any reason a man should continue to have to earn it. Whoever Illya picked, Van Riebeck would back him up. It was one of the reasons that, as much as he was looking forward to returning to New York, he knew he'd miss this place. But his mission had been accomplished and it was time to go home.
He walked toward the bunkhouse, looking forward to a shower and a good, hot meal. He wasn't picky about his food, but the barely cooked fare provided out on the veldt had challenged even his constitution.
A wave from one of the other men caught his attention. Benjamin was sitting on a bench outside the bathhouse to the left of the living quarters. Next to him, a man sat slouched against the wall, apparently being argued with, or maybe only being shouted at by Benjamin. He thought the other man's eyes were closed but it was hard to tell because what his hat didn't hide his hair did, plastered as it was onto his forehead in sweaty, dirty strands.
As he got closer, Illya saw that the man was caked in dust. His legs were thrown out and his pants, stretched tight across his groin, were the color of the earth. The man had pulled his shirt loose and unbuttoned it, so that rivulets of sweat washed streaks of grime down his exposed chest. Illya had to admit it was a nice chest. The muscles were firm and defined but not overly built up. And there was only a smattering of hair, another plus; Illya had never liked the gorilla look. Yes, all in all, a very nice chest and one, Illya noted with surprise, that seemed oddly familiar.
"Ag, I don't care if you wash up or not. I'm only here because Tully asked me to see what was taking you so long." Benjamin didn't seem all that pleased with the man and stood up as Illya approached. "You can stay here all night for all I care."
"What's the problem?" Illya asked, his gaze still on the other man.
The man's eyes flew open at his words. Illya almost laughed. He'd know those eyes anywhere.
"'Aweh, my bru. I've been trying to get him to get up. I think he's gone dof from the sun. Bit of a moegoe, if you ask me," Benjamin added with a barely concealed look of scorn.
"Why don't you go inside? I'll make sure he makes it." Illya sat next to Napoleon with a bemused smile.
They both watched the boy walk away. A groan of pain pulled Illya's attention back to his partner.
"I feel like hell." Napoleon wiped his hand across his brow then grimaced in distaste. "What did he say to you, anyway?" He motioned toward the door of the bunkhouse.
"That he thought you might have been addled by the sun...and that you're weak." Illya feigned an examination of his partner. "I can see why. You look like hell, my friend. And why in the world are you here, anyway?"
"To pull you out." He glared at Illya. "You don't look injured. Why the hell haven't you checked in?"
"Ah. My communicator broke."
"It broke? How did it break?"
Illya squirmed. "A cow stepped on it."
Napoleon gave him a look but finally just shook his head. "I don't want to know. All I do want to know is how fast you can be ready to leave."
"I'm afraid that will have to wait. The next bus into town won't be by until Saturday."
"Great. I should be dead by then. Do me a favor, make sure my aunt gets my record collection."
"Quit being such a baby." Illya stood and gave Napoleon a helping hand up. "I'm supposed to drive out to resupply the line shacks. I hereby volunteer you to go with me. It'll keep us away from the ranch until Friday."
They walked over to the bathhouse's door, slowed by Napoleon's exaggerated limp. Napoleon stopped at the entrance. "I know I don't have to say it but I'm glad you're okay. You had us worried."
The words surprised Illya. Napoleon had never been one to get emotional. He liked it. A lot. Yet his answer was merely a smile as he led his partner in.
Illya lay propped up on one elbow, the book opened in front of him forgotten. Across from him Napoleon slept in an unconscious sprawl on his own bunk. The thin sheet did little to hide the nearly nude man beneath it.
He'd always enjoyed looking at Napoleon. The man's good looks and trim physique had been a distraction from their first meeting. He had learned to curtail that pleasure in consideration for their partnership but as Napoleon had become first friend and then the most important person in Illya's life, Illya had discovered that he couldn't help but look upon Napoleon in any way but the lover he wished him to be.
Gazing on that perfect face, he could easily imagine himself kissing those lips, his hands gently holding Napoleon's sculptured jaw or pushing back the lock of hair that refused to stay in place. He liked the way it lay across Napoleon's brow right now, free from whatever it was his friend normally applied to his hair. It made Napoleon look not just younger but somehow almost vulnerable. He wondered if perhaps that was why Napoleon insisted on wearing it the way he did.
Illya smiled. He could just imagine the reaction at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. The women practically threw themselves at Napoleon now. If only they were here to see this young, unguarded Napoleon....
The thought of their work dampened his spirits only slightly. Waverly had not been terribly happy with the loss of Illya's communicator when Napoleon had reported in earlier. He had been even less happy when he'd learned that his two agents would not be able to return to New York for several more days. But it was several more days in which Illya would have Napoleon all to himself.
With that thought he returned to his contemplation of his partner, where the slow rise and fall of Napoleon's chest drew Illya's gaze. The definition of pectoral muscles led down to a flat stomach and compact hips. One of Napoleon's hands had settled on his abdomen, just above where the blanket was bunched up around his upper thighs. If Illya looked hard, he could almost make out the mound of his friend's lax genitals pressed against the thin material of Napoleon's briefs.
Feeling his own body respond, Illya thought it better to concentrate on his book.
"He really looks done in, doesn't he?"
Illya looked up. Standing at the foot of Napoleon's bed was one of the men who had come in during Illya's absence. The tall blond stuck out his hand. "Tully Cross. I came in yesterday on the same bus as Napoleon."
Illya shook the offered hand. "David Mallory." He saw no reason to give up on his fake identity now. One never knew when it would come in handy. He nodded toward Napoleon. "He is a friend of yours, then?"
"I wouldn't say that, exactly. But I'm usually a pretty good judge of character and he struck me as being a straight up sort of guy. He certainly gave his all today."
"Yes, he looks it."
Tully chuckled. "I've never seen anyone try as hard as he did. As long as the rest of us kept at it, so did he, even though it was obvious this isn't the kind of work he usually does. I was glad to hear you're taking him with you tomorrow. Loading the line shacks will be a snap after the day he put in today."
"Even if someone else better deserves to go," came the muffled complaint from the bunk above Napoleon.
Illya and Tully exchanged glances. "I am sorry, Benjamin. But sometimes things don't work out the way we'd like them to."
Benjamin's back had been to Illya as he lay on his bunk. Now, he sat up and rested his arms on his knees. He looked down on the two men. "I don't see why he should get rewarded for being such a moegoe."
"No more than you should for acting like such a child," Illya snapped. "Part of growing up is knowing you don't always get your way."
"But you promised you'd let me help you!" The boy's anger was palpable.
"Quiet, you will wake him."
"What's wrong with you, boy?" Tully asked. "It's not like you'll never get to go."
Benjamin threw his legs over the side of the bunk and slid down. "Forget it. I don't want to go anymore, anyway." With that parting shot, he crossed the room and was out the door before either man could respond.
Illya sighed. He had hated disappointing the boy, knowing that Benjamin had developed a bad case of hero-worship. But it couldn't be helped. There was no way he was going to leave Napoleon behind.
"He'll get over it," Tully commented. "Though it's probably best if Napoleon stayed out of his way for awhile."
"Agreed." Not that it would be a problem. He and Napoleon would return only long enough to gather their things.
"I suppose I'd better get to bed. Napoleon's not the only one who's tuckered out," Tully said with a smile as he turned to leave. "Tell him I'll see him when you all get back."
The lights in the room were slowly being turned off as the men stopped whatever they had been doing and meandered over to their beds. Illya closed his book and got up to put it away in the drawer he had claimed as his own. Climbing back into bed, he turned on his side and rested his head on his arm. Long after the room had darkened and Napoleon was little more than a silhouette, Illya continued to watch over his friend.
The sun was barely up, the air still filled with the morning's chill when Illya drove out of the main gate and onto the open road. Slumped in the passenger's seat, Napoleon watched the passing landscape with idle curiosity. It was a rich, untamed land, for all that Van Riebeck's family had held it for generations.
He thought about the people they'd just left. Illya had introduced him to the man who was ostensibly their boss. Van Riebeck had given him a cursory glance but seemed more than willing to trust to 'David's' judgment. It made Napoleon wonder how his partner had managed to insinuate himself so completely into, not just his role, but into the very fabric of this society. He was a trusted and valued member, admired even, almost to the point of hero-worship by some.
Napoleon remembered the look Benjamin had given him as he and Illya had driven off. He had the distinct impression that he would have gladly seen Napoleon dead just on principle. Just by showing up and redirecting Illya's attention he had inadvertently made an enemy of the boy. He wondered what Benjamin would do when he and Illya returned only to take off once again, this time permanently.
But until then, he wasn't going to worry about it. He had Illya all to himself, just the two of them for three whole days. Time enough, surely, to figure out a way to broach the subject of his...attachment to his friend. He threw a glance at Illya. If he didn't do this just right, his partner might happily go along with any plans Benjamin might have for him.
He tried imagining Illya's reaction. While his partner would very likely not hit him, him falling into Napoleon's arms and declaring his undying love was probably asking too much. He'd settle for still having a partner, still having the very good friend Illya had become to him.
Thing was, he wanted that declaration. Probably more than he'd wanted anything else. He just wished there was some way to skip the preliminaries, like telling Illya how he felt, and get on with the falling into each other's arms part.
"You're awfully quiet. Is something wrong?" Illya asked, breaking the silence and startling Napoleon at the same time.
Napoleon squirmed into a more upright position, his muscles protesting. "No, why would you think that?"
"It's not like you to say so little."
"Are you saying I talk too much?" Napoleon asked in mock affront.
"No, but you're not one to endure long bouts of silence, either. Besides, you have been this way since you got here."
"What way is that?"
"Quiet. Almost contemplative; as I say, not like you at all," he added, his smile taking the sting from his words.
"I think I've just been insulted." Napoleon turned to his perusal of the landscape once again. He supposed he did owe Illya an explanation of sorts. At least tell him enough to buy himself some time. "I was just thinking about how well you fit in here. Those people acted as if they'd known you for years."
"It wasn't difficult. All one has to do is be willing to put in a hard day's work."
"And, unlike some of us, not let it half-kill you," Napoleon noted with a rueful shake of his head.
"You're not used to this kind of physical labor. Your strength lies elsewhere."
"I'm the brains of the outfit, is that it?"
"I wouldn't go that far. Though you have managed to extricate us from some rather unpleasant situations," he conceded.
"Nice to know I'm good for something. Even my charm wasn't up to its usual standards."
"You're speaking of Benjamin."
"Yes, you certainly have yourself a fan with that one. I think he wanted you to take him home with you."
Illya shrugged. "I remember being very much the same way at his age."
"In what way?"
"You know, being completely taken with someone you admire. With me, it was a teacher. I probably made a total pest of myself but at the time all I wanted was the man's attention. Benjamin will grow out of it. I did."
Napoleon leaned his head against the backrest and thought about what Illya had just said. He himself had never felt anything like that. He'd been popular in school. Caught up in the social whirl of that insulated world, he'd given little thought to the adults who populated it.
He didn't know what it meant, that Illya not only understood Benjamin's attraction to an older man but also had felt something similar at one time. Perhaps what Napoleon had to say to his partner, whether reciprocated or not, would not be met with derision. Perhaps it was a truth Illya would have no trouble hearing at all.
They reached the bridge just as noon was coming on.
Illya had stopped the vehicle in order to study the map he'd been given by Van Riebeck. "The first line shack is just on the other side of the river."
"It doesn't look like it'll take the weight of the truck," Napoleon noted as he eyed the flat expanse of dirt that jutted out into the river. The earthen bridge, sitting only inches above the water, looked insubstantial against the river's current.
"It's stronger than it looks," Illya responded as he threw the truck into gear and started forward.
Napoleon watched with trepidation as they made their way slowly across. "What river is this, anyway?"
Napoleon looked at him askance. "Whatever you say."
"Truly, that's its name. It meanders through most of Van Riebeck's land. You probably passed it on your way here."
"Maybe." Napoleon gazed out the window into the water. "I don't remember crossing one this swift, though."
"It depends where you are along it. It's a tributary of the 'great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River.'"
Napoleon turned and grinned at his partner. "Does that mean I get to spank you, Elephant's Child?"
Illya gave him a look out of the corner of his eye. "I'd like to see you try."
He tried to shut out the picture that leapt into his mind, focusing his thoughts, as well as his eyes, on the water that lapped a few short feet away. From his vantage point he could see the water pouring through the bridge's wooden supports and he didn't feel comfortable until they'd crossed the river and were back on solid ground. Taking a turn to the right, they had traveled only a few hundred yards when, true to Van Riebeck's map, the first line shack came into view.
Illya brought the truck to a halt under the shade of a nearby tree. They both stepped down from the vehicle and Napoleon stopped to survey their accommodations for the night. They weren't much. The building was perhaps twenty feet square with a small covered porch that leaned precariously to one side. Still, the rest looked sturdy enough. Off to one side sat what Napoleon was regrettably sure was an outhouse. With a resigned sigh, he followed his partner up onto the porch and to the entrance. As if he'd been there a dozen times before, Illya opened the door and stepped inside.
Behind him, Napoleon cautiously peered in, giving the place a once over before joining Illya. "You're being awfully careless, aren't you? How could you know no one was waiting in here for us? THRUSH could have had an army of men waiting behind the door."
Illya had already started checking the cabinets in the small area that served as a kitchen. "Because," he responded while he busily scanned the shelves, "one, Van Riebeck is the only person who knew which line shack we would be visiting first, two, we're practically in the middle of nowhere and unless they flew in, which I find very unlikely, there's no other way for someone to get out here except the way we did and there's no sign of other transportation outside and, three," he turned and glared at Napoleon, "I've only spent the last two months making sure there wasn't any THRUSH activity going on in these parts, so I think I'd know if any of our fine feathered friends were around. Besides," his gaze softened as he shook his head in mock exasperation, "I truly don't think an army of men could fit in here, do you?"
Napoleon shrugged. "Never take anything for granted, tovarisch, it's the surest way to stay alive. Now," he started toward his partner, enthusiastically rubbing his hands together, "where do we start?"
By evening, they had visited three line shacks and were in the middle of restocking the fourth. Each place, though somewhat similar to the rest, had its own unique setup. If there was any rhyme or reason to their construction, Napoleon wasn't able to figure it out.
While Illya took charge of the restocking, Napoleon made the place habitable; they would travel no further that night. He opened the two small windows set high in the front wall of the building for ventilation before starting a fire in the stove nestled against the back wall of the cabin. Once he was sure the wood had caught, he began sweeping away the fine layer of dust that covered practically everything. A large chest set at the foot of one the two bed frames produced two thin mattresses and the blankets and pillows to go with them.
He unfolded the bedding and proceeded to make up both beds. He hummed quietly to himself as he worked, oddly content to be the one doing most of the manual labor. Somehow, out here where Illya appeared more in his element than he was, it seemed natural to let his partner take an unexpected lead.
"You're strangely happy about this."
Napoleon looked back at his partner. "Why wouldn't I be?" He chuckled, returning to his task as he spoke. "After the last few days, this is practically a vacation. Like I said earlier, I'd never make it as a ranch hand."
"Tully appeared to think differently." Illya had set aside several cans and after scrounging around for a can opener, proceeded to heat up their dinner.
Napoleon beamed "Did he?"
"Don't let it go to your head. Oh, and you can set the table while I do this," Illya added.
"What did he say?"
"Let me think—oh, yes, that he thought you were a 'straight up sort of guy' and that you were a hard worker."
"Is that all?" He had joined Illya in the kitchen area and was in the process of hunting down the cutlery. "I practically killed myself."
"It's back breaking work at the best of times, for someone who hasn't done it before it can be brutal. But most of the men are trained for little else."
"Does that include Benjamin? He seems a bit young to have already given up on any other vocation."
Illya began spooning out their meal as he talked. "Benjamin is a different matter altogether. He was orphaned at an early age and brought up by an aunt and uncle, two people who sound as if the only thing they were concerned about was how soon they could get him out of their house. Under those circumstances—"
"Even working on a ranch would seem like a break." Napoleon sat down before a bowl of steaming...something. It looked like some sort of stew. He sniffed. It smelled good. He took a hesitant spoonful, surprised at how good it tasted.
"Don't worry, I'm not trying to poison you."
"The thought never crossed my mind." Napoleon dug into his meal as he pondered Benjamin's situation. As much as the kid had made his feelings regarding him perfectly clear, Napoleon still couldn't help feeling sorry for him. "You know, he's going to want to kill me when we get back."
Illya shook his head in disgust. "Quit being so melodramatic."
Well, in for a penny. "I'm not. Come on, Illya, that kid feels more than hero-worship. He has a full-blown crush on you."
If looks could kill, Napoleon would have been sure and truly dead. Not wanting to antagonize his partner further, that, after all, was positively not part of his plan, Napoleon tucked back into his food, giving up the field. He glanced up at Illya a few minutes later but Illya's attention was steadfastly on the plate in front of him. The rest of the meal was passed in silence.
It began raining later that night. By then, Illya had either forgiven or forgotten and had started talking to Napoleon again. Making sure things remained that way, Napoleon stayed away from the topic uppermost in his mind. He had several days to walk through that particular mine field. No sense having it blow up in his face right now.
Instead, Napoleon brought Illya up to date on the gossip floating around UNCLE headquarters, both professional and personal. For once, the personal gossip wasn't about them, or him, as it more than not tended to be. Twice he made Illya laugh, the full-blown uninhibited laugher Illya rarely used but that Napoleon loved to hear. He could have kept it up all night but it had been a long day, and not too long a time later they decided to turn in. Each made a quick trip to the outhouse, taking turns cleaning up as well as they could, the kitchen's tiny sink doing double duty as a wash basin. Stripping down to their underwear, they climbed into their respective beds.
A half-hour later, Napoleon lay on his side listening to the rain. Less than three feet away, Illya slept the sleep of the righteous...or, at least, that of the extremely tired. Which was more than Napoleon could say. It happened sometimes; either too exhausted or too key up, Napoleon would find himself unable to sleep.
He studied his partner. The light from the banked fire gave a soft glow to everything, making Illya look just that much more desirable. Napoleon sighed and scolded himself for being such a coward. He could be sharing that bed right now. Or standing out in the rain. Don't forget about that possibility.
But, oh, if it turned out that Illya wanted what he did. It had been years since Napoleon had been with someone he truly loved and who loved him in return, but he remembered the feeling as if it had been only yesterday. He wanted that feeling back; he wanted that feeling back with Illya.
Napoleon turned to lie on his back but staring at the ceiling didn't help, either. He closed his eyes and tried to force sleep to come. Eventually, he succeeded.
Two days and several stops later, Napoleon sat and watched his partner as Illya stocked the last of the supplies. He would pick up one of the cans or boxes they had piled on the sturdy table and, giving more thought to it than Napoleon would have, place it on one of the shelves that lined the area to each side of the sink over the countertop.
They'd gotten good at this, quickly unloading and restocking the supplies, then moving on to the next line shack. This night, their last before returning to the main house and then home, found them ensconced in one of the nicer shacks. At least this one had a decent bed, though only one which Napoleon wasn't sure he was glad for or not. The building was also larger, with two windows at the back, one near the bed and one above the sink in the kitchen area. Looking past Illya, he could easily see the clearing sky through its panes.
The summer rains had plagued them off and on and the last five miles or so of their trip here had been made through a downpour. Luckily, Illya had been able to pull the truck up close enough so that the back had slipped easily under the porch overhang. They had managed to unload the last of the supplies without getting too wet.
Knowing this would be the last of it, they had set to work, eager to complete their chore and settle in. Now, a fire happily burned in the kitchen stove, giving the place a, dare he say it, romantic atmosphere.
He could certainly use the help. He still hadn't been able to find the words, or maybe make that courage, to tell Illya how he felt and what he felt. Maybe because he didn't want to destroy the perfectly good time they were having. The work wasn't terribly hard, the scenery was beautiful and they were alone together in a way they rarely ever were: no threats hanging over their heads, no chance of being called out on a mission to destroy the peace between them. Perfect.
"Why are you staring?" Illya's words broke Napoleon's reverie.
"I'm not staring," Napoleon retorted.
"Yes, you are and you've been doing it for the last three days. So either stop it or tell me what's bothering you."
Napoleon picked up one of the cans on the table and passed it from one hand to the other. "There's nothing bothering me...exactly."
Illya stopped what he was doing and focused on Napoleon. "Then there is something?"
Napoleon hesitated. "I...I was wondering about the comment you made the other day."
"And what comment was that?"
"The one about your teacher."
A look, half regret, half disgust, flitted across Illya face. "I knew I shouldn't have said anything about that. But I was foolish enough to think it wouldn't make a difference."
"Then there was more than admiration for the man."
Napoleon's dawning joy was totally lost on Illya. "And if there was? Tell me, Napoleon, have you spent the last three days trying to think of a way to talk Waverly into partnering you with someone else?"
"Of course not!"
"No? You're just curious, are you, wanting to know all the gory details?"
"Hey, wait a minute," Napoleon protested, torn between elation and annoyance. "Did I say anything about it bothering me?"
Illya scowled at him. "You didn't have to. Why else would you be thinking about it so much? I can just imagine what's being going on in that devious mind of yours all this time."
Napoleon put down the can he'd been toying with and stood up. He strode around the table to Illya's side and grabbed his partner by his shoulders. "This is what I've been thinking about for the last three days." And with that, he hauled Illya against him and soundly kissed him.
Napoleon hadn't meant for it to be a long kiss. He'd only been trying to stave off his partner's diatribe. But when Illya's lips touched his, no power on earth could have pulled him away. Especially once Illya got over his shock and enthusiastically joined in.
How long they stood there, locked in each other's embrace, Napoleon would never be able to tell. Nor would he quite remember how they contrived to make it to the bed, much less how they managed to shed their clothes without breaking contact. That they did manage it said a lot to Napoleon. Apparently, Illya had wanted him as long, or maybe even longer, than he had wanted Illya.
In any event, when they were finally under the covers, their naked bodies touching, joined together, as in tune with each other as their temperaments had long been, Napoleon set about making sure Illya would never question that the wanting was, indeed, mutual.
Illya woke before dawn. He lifted his head from Napoleon's chest and reached over to push aside the curtain that covered the small window above the bed. There were the beginnings of color filtering into the eastern sky. They would have to be up and on their way in only a couple of hours.
Though still dark outside, the embers from the stove gave off enough light for him to see his lover's face. His lover. Illya felt a swell of joy at that thought. Napoleon was his. He could touch him when he wanted; do whatever fulfilled his need for Napoleon and Napoleon's need for him. He decided there was no time like the present. He brought his hand to Napoleon's brow and gently brushed back the lock of hair.
Napoleon's eyes opened instantly.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."
"Liar." Napoleon looked rather pleased with himself. "You know you want me."
Suddenly, he wasn't so sure of what Napoleon wanted. It wasn't as if they had actually done any talking the night before. Yes, he wanted Napoleon but what, other than his body, did Napoleon want from him? He looked away, returning to the view outside the window. "It will be light soon. Perhaps we should be up and on our way."
"Hey," Napoleon brought his hand up to caress the side of Illya's face. "We don't have to leave right away, do we?"
"They are expecting us back today. There would be no reason for being gone longer than anticipated."
"Is that what you want?"
Illya shrugged. "It doesn't matter what I want."
"Doesn't it? I thought, well, I hoped I wasn't alone in this."
"In what? What exactly is 'this,' Napoleon? What exactly are we?"
Napoleon maneuvered his arms around Illya's body and locked his hands behind Illya's back. He pulled him even closer. "I don't know about you, but I'm happy." He laughed, a light and singularly joyous sound. "More happy than I've been in a very long time." Tilting his head, he scrutinized Illya though long, dark lashes. "Please tell me that you are, too."
"I want to be, more than you could possibly know. But—"
"You're afraid, aren't you? Of what?" Dismay filled the expressive eyes. "Of me? You're afraid of me?"
Illya gave a hesitant nod. "If this doesn't work out, I...I don't know what it would do to me."
"I love you, Illya. I would never hurt you, not in a million years." Pain flitted across his partner's features. "You believe me, don't you?"
"I believe you. I know you would never intentionally hurt me. But nothing is guaranteed, not even love. If your feelings, or mine," he added, seeing the beginnings of denial from Napoleon, "should change, it could destroy what we already have."
"Oh, ye of little faith." Napoleon brought his head up and lightly touched his lips to Illya's, staying only a few seconds before settling back against his pillow. "You're right, nothing is for sure, hell, not even our lives. And feelings do change. As much as I'd love to be able to vow that my feelings will never change, as much as I feel they never will, I can't. But however long this does last, a day, a year, fifty years, I can't imagine ever being sorry that it happened, even if I'm the one who ends up paying the price you're so afraid one of us will have to pay. Right now, I'm happy. You make me happy. Please, can't that be enough for you?"
Illya searched Napoleon's face, looking for what, he wasn't sure. Once having known it, could he stay by this man's side if love was withdrawn? Could he do so now, having already tasted it? No, he knew himself well enough to know that he would forever crave what they had at this very moment.
"Illya?" Napoleon uttered his name. Worry, impatience—and hope, were all expressed in that single word.
Pulling himself over to fully blanket Napoleon's body, Illya lowered his head. He needed no words for what he wished to convey; his lips came down on his partner's, imparting his message until no doubt remained.
Soon Napoleon's hands were in his hair, running down his back and over his ass and back up again, as if his lover couldn't decide what he wished to touch the most. But every touch was the same for Illya, an electric charge of arousal so strong that he thought he could die of it, or die at its lack.
He pulled his mouth away from Napoleon's, who gasped and arched his back as Illya moved down and sucked in one nipple. He teased the bud with tongue and teeth until it hardened in his mouth. He flicked his tongue back and forth over the pebbled surface, while at the same time pinching its mate into the same state. Under him Napoleon bucked and moaned and spread his legs so that Illya's body settled naturally between them.
As he moved further down, Napoleon finally settled his hands in Illya's hair as if to hold his head where it was but Illya had other plans. Pushing the hands away, he lowered himself even further and came up on his knees. His lover's cock stood hard and erect before him. He tucked his hands under Napoleon's hips and lowered his head to take the organ's length into his mouth.
Napoleon cried out, the sound dying down to a prolonged groan as Illya began sucking and licking. He held fast, his fingers digging into the muscles of Napoleon's ass, savoring the feel and taste of the hot and heavy bulk moving in and out of his mouth. He glanced up to see Napoleon's head thrown back and his hands fisted into the sheet.
He'd dreamed of seeing Napoleon like this, lost in a haze of passion that Illya had brought him to, that, Illya vowed, only he would bring him to from this day forward. He sucked harder and was rewarded with an inarticulate wail from the man beneath him.
Napoleon had bent his knees and planted his feet flat on the bed, the extra leverage allowing him to lift his hips and push his cock deeper into Illya's mouth. Illya reciprocated by relaxing the muscles of his throat and taking the organ completely in. The wet strands of pubic hair tickled his nose as he buried his face against Napoleon's groin.
He knew Napoleon was close. Coating a finger with the saliva that had dripped down between Napoleon's ass cheeks, he swirled the digit around his lover's puckered opening and then pushed it in.
Napoleon gave a strangled gasp and suddenly his hands were once again in Illya's hair. He held Illya in place as his hips bucked up and down, shoving down onto the finger buried inside him, then up, pushing his cock even deeper into Illya's mouth.
Illya managed to push a second finger into his lover's body. With a prolonged groan, Napoleon came hard into Illya's mouth. Illya swallowed each pulse of hot liquid, savoring the flavor. Finally, the spasms died down. He gave the softening organ one last suckle, then released it and levered himself up.
He froze, struck by the look on Napoleon's face. He'd seen his partner look at many women in lust or passion; sometimes, even affection. But never like this, never with such deep and abiding love, writ so large that there was no denying the depth of Napoleon's devotion. It left him at a loss for words so that all he could do was utter his lover's name.
Napoleon smiled. "Come here."
Illya began to lie down but was stopped by Napoleon's hand on his chest. "No, not that way." He dropped his hands and wrapped one around each of Illya's upper thighs. "Spread your knees and get up here."
Illya awkwardly advanced on his knees until he was straddling Napoleon's chest. He leaned forward to balance himself with one hand. His cock dangled in front of Napoleon's face, still hard and in need.
Fascinated, he watched as Napoleon raised his head and took it into his mouth, his gaze never leaving Illya's.
Illya moaned, his eyes closing against his will. It was too much at once, to see Napoleon doing this to him while being inundated by the feeling of his cock sliding in and out of Napoleon's mouth. It was too much.
His hips began a slow undulation as Napoleon took more of him in with each push forward. His lover's fingers slid gently up and down one ass cheek while almost leisurely sucking the life out of him.
He could feel the tension building within his body, demanding release.
Somehow Napoleon managed to work his body up to wrap his arms around Illya's waist, his mouth avid and hungry as he returned to his suckling. Illya began pumping his hips in earnest, driving his cock in and out of the welcoming orifice.
The sound of the squeaking bed filled the room; it sounded as if it would break at any moment. Illya didn't care. The hot moistness of Napoleon's mouth, the smell and feel of his lover was overpowering his senses. He squeezed his eyes shut and let go.
Afterwards, after the last tremors had shook his body, Illya looked down.
Napoleon raised his head and returned his gaze. He had managed to swallow most of Illya's come; the only evidence of what he had just done was a drop of liquid that slowly dripped down his chin. Illya shakily brought his hand down and, using his thumb, wiped it away.
Neither spoke as they resettled on the bed, Napoleon on his back, Illya resting at his side. Drawing the covers over them, Illya leaned forward and they shared a long kiss, one that spoke of all their yesterdays and all their tomorrows. Then he burrowed down against his lover to steal the last minutes of the night.
"It looks like more rain is on its way," Napoleon noted as he climbed onto the truck's passenger seat. Clouds were fast building to the east and the winds were beginning to pick up.
"It is the height of the rainy season." Illya glanced into the rearview window before putting the vehicle into gear and slowly accelerating away from the shack. "Van Riebeck did say they've been getting more rain than usual, even for this time of year."
They followed the road back the way they had come, less than a mile along making the turn that would lead them back to the ranch house. Their route had been a circuitous one, taking the back roads off the main path that led to each shack, then doubling back and traveling on. Like a big lasso, the main road looped through Van Riebeck's holding, ultimately returning home.
Napoleon leaned back in his seat, enjoying the quiet serenity of the bush. A silence had settled between them as the truck ate up the miles, unbroken save for a murmured comment from one or the other. But they had never needed words to communicate with each other; now, even less so. All he had to do was glance over at his partner and see the contentment that Illya wore like a comfortable coat to know that his friend shared his happiness. He smiled and settled further in his seat.
The quiet and the motion of the truck lulled him into a half-sleep as the miles slipped by. He superficially noted the darkening sky and the cooler breezes that were blowing through his open window. Soon, he was noting nothing at all.
"Napoleon, roll up your window." Illya gently nudged his side.
He straightened and looked out. The clouds had closed in and a few splashes of rain pattered against the windshield. He cranked his window closed. "Is the rain going to be a problem?"
"It shouldn't. But if it gets too bad, we can always go back and spend another night at the line shack." Illya winked. "Not exactly what you would call a problem is it?"
Napoleon grinned. "Oh, I think I could manage that." He gave the sky another look and his grin was replaced with a frown. "Looks nasty."
Illya glanced up. "Yes."
For the next few miles, Napoleon kept a nervous eye on the weather. Though not much past noon, it was dark enough to pass for late evening. And with each mile the rain seemed to intensify, so that by the time they reached the river it was a veritable deluge.
The river was no longer a gentle flow, staying lazily within its banks. The bridge was still there but the water now lapped over its surface and each end sat in a muddy bog that smudged the water's edges into the surrounding grassland.
Illya stopped the truck and studied the way ahead. "I think we can make it."
"You better more than think we can, partner mine. Van Riebeck probably won't appreciate you losing his truck."
"Not to mention our skins."
"Yes, I happen to be very attached to my skin at the moment. Yours, too," Napoleon added roughly.
Napoleon would never forget the look of surprised pleasure on Illya's face before he revved the engine, threw Napoleon a wicked grin and started across the bridge.
The sky was fully dark by the time they pulled up in front of the ranch house. What men were about were wet wraiths appearing in and out of the rain. From off the porch, Tully approached the driver's side of the truck, water running down from the brim of his hat onto his slicker.
Illya rolled his window down a few inches. "Where's Van Riebeck?"
"He took some men out to move one of the herds closer in. A couple of the creeks have overflowed their banks and the fields next to them are being flooded." He was practically shouting. He glanced from Illya to Napoleon. "You have any trouble coming in?"
"You could say," Napoleon quipped.
"We almost didn't make it back across the river," Illya added. "I'm not sure how much longer the bridge is going to hold up."
Now, that was an understatement if he'd ever heard one, Napoleon thought. At one point the truck had started sliding, the wheels moving precariously close to the edge of the bridge. He had sat, white-knuckled, unable to help in any way, as Illya had wrestled with the steering wheel, finally managing to pull the vehicle away from the brink. Inch by slow inch, they'd crawled forward, fighting for purchase all the way. At last, the truck had lumbered off the bridge and onto the muddy road.
"Won't be the first time we've lost a bridge. Seems every time we have a downpour one of them gets washed away. Right now that's the least of our worries." Tully glanced back at the house. "Teela's having a fit because there's a leak in the kitchen, we're down three men who just up and left a couple of days ago and if this damn rain don't let up we're all going to need webbed feet to get around. Anyway," he continued, running his hand over his face in a vain attempt to wipe away the rain, "I'm really glad you're back, David. This being the boss is no fun."
Illya laughed. "I'm surprised Van Riebeck left you in charge."
"Didn't have much choice, now did he?" With a nod toward the house, Tully stepped away from the truck. "I was just going in to see what I can do about the leak when you two drove up. The boss is probably going to need you in the morning, David, so you both might want to call it an early night. There should still be some hot grub at the bunk house."
"We'll do that." Illya rolled up his window and pulled the truck back enough to start a slow turn away from the house. Even here, the mud sucked at the tires, threatening them with being stuck in the quagmire. It was with a sigh of relief that Illya approached the huge barn where the trucks were all garaged.
Napoleon pushed open his door. "I'll get it." He hurried up to the barn door, trying to keep his feet from sliding out from under him at the same time. At first the door wouldn't budge, but finally, the rollers loudly squealing, Napoleon managed to get it moving along its track. Illya quickly drove the truck through and into the darkened interior.
Standing just inside the doorway, Napoleon waited while Illya got down from the truck and walked over to the rack hanging on the wall off to his right. Keys of all shapes and sizes hung from hooks screwed into the large slab of wood. Placing the truck's key ring on its designated hook, Illya moved to Napoleon's side. They both turned to gaze out into the rain.
"We don't even have raincoats," Napoleon lamented.
Illya looked back into the barn, his gaze moving from place to place, searching. Finally, he made his way over to a table shoved against the far wall. He returned with a couple of pieces of burlap. He handed one to Napoleon. "They won't keep the rain off for long but they're better than nothing."
With a grimace, Napoleon took the proffered protection. As one they hustled the door closed then made a mad dash for the bunkhouse.
Maybe it was the very ridiculousness of their situation, or maybe because he was so damn happy, but Napoleon found himself laughing as he splashed alongside Illya. They pushed and shoved each other, pretending to fight for supremacy, though Napoleon knew, at least for himself, that it was merely an excuse to touch his partner. From the look on Illya face, he was pretty sure his partner's reason was the same. By the time they made it to the bunkhouse door they were soaking wet, muddy up to their knees and practically holding each other up.
"Wait, don't go in yet," Illya shouted above the downpour. "Let the rain wash the mud off first."
Napoleon couldn't argue with that; at this point, they couldn't get any wetter, anyway. He gingerly raised one and then the other leg so that the water pouring down from the overhang washed his pants clean. Illya did the same and then the two of them entered the bunkhouse.
Napoleon frowned as his partner was practically bowled over by the exuberant Benjamin.
"You're going to get wet," Illya protested, all the while trying to extricate himself from the arms of the young boy.
Benjamin pulled back just far enough to look up into Illya's face. "You gave us a bit of a skrik; couple of bridges are out and the main road's a bloody mess. And the bakkie you took is probably older than me."
Illya smiled down at the boy as he stepped away. "The truck held up admirably, so there was no reason to fear for our safety. But what's this about the road?"
"Road coming in from Pietersburg is out," one of the hands sitting at the nearest table offered.
Napoleon vaguely recalled the man's name as Nelson. "That's the one from Pretoria, isn't it?"
"That's right, which is why we won't be gettin' any new men for at least a week."
Illya glanced over at Napoleon before responding. "And why is that?"
"Because the regular bus run's been canceled. Tully was in here just a bit ago to let us know," Benjamin piped up, pulling at Illya's arm as he spoke. "Come on, Davy, you should put something dry on before you catch a chill."
Napoleon put his head down to hide his smile. The kid had it bad, but it was a good idea. "Yes, Davy, why don't we? I could do with some dry clothes, myself."
Illya gave him a look, but then followed him over to their bunks with Benjamin trailing close behind.
"I'll get your clothes out, Davy," Benjamin eagerly volunteered. He was pulling open the drawer before Illya had time to protest. He exchanged glances with Napoleon, who merely shrugged before starting to remove his own clothes. With an economy of motion they removed their shoes, socks and shirts. The tight denim that encased their legs was another matter.
Glancing around as he balanced on one foot, the pant leg stubbornly refusing to come off, Napoleon noted that the other men in the bunkhouse had gone back to their own concerns. It was late, and most were either preparing for or already in bed. Yet he couldn't help but notice the way Benjamin's gaze lingered on Illya's bare skin longer than would be considered polite, how his Adam's apple bobbed with each deep swallow the boy took. He hadn't worried about the boy's preoccupation with his partner before, not really; he did now.
Finally managing to remove the offending item, Napoleon picked up two of the towels that had magically appeared, Benjamin's work, he was sure. "Here, put this around yourself." He threw one of the towels at Illya, using the other to start drying himself.
Illya gave him a startled look but took the towel, anyway. He carelessly swiped the moisture from his body, his attention riveted on Napoleon.
He managed to ignore his partner's studied attention until they were both safely tucked into their respective beds. Turning his head toward his partner, he let his gaze lock with Illya's. "Sorry," he mouthed.
Illya only smiled, then pulled his blanket up and turned to face the wall. Minutes later, the lights were turned out. Napoleon let his eyes drift closed.
Napoleon felt the hand on his shoulder, then a wisp of hair across his cheek.
"Follow me," Illya whispered into his ear.
He sat up, scanning the darkened room as he quickly donned the clothes placed at the foot of his bed. In bare feet, he followed Illya to the back of the bunkhouse and through the door set in its far corner, then down the long hall that connected the living quarters to the bathhouse. The glow from the pole light in the back filtered through the windows set high in the wall and kept them from walking into each other. They cautiously continued past the bath house entrance and on to a third door tucked at the end of the hallway.
Illya quietly opened the door and they both ducked inside.
Napoleon squinted as the bare bulb came to life. "You could have warned me."
"Did you think we were going to stand here in the dark?"
"Wouldn't it be safer?" Napoleon asked as he took in their surroundings. They were at the back of the washhouse, it's grainy floor damp beneath his feet. Toward the front, well-used washing machines lined each side of the narrow room; the back half of the space was taken up with large folding tables.
"It would if I hadn't brought an excuse for us being here," Illya remarked somewhat sarcastically as he handed over half of the items he'd been carrying. "Here, hang these over one of the lines."
Taking the clothes, which turned out to be his own, Napoleon followed Illya's gaze. Off to his left, nestled between the row of machines and the tables, several clotheslines sagged between two poles. He walked over and proceeded to carefully hang his clothes. "I take it we're here to decide what we're going to do tomorrow."
"I don't believe we have much of a choice. We can either try our luck walking out of here and hope we manage to catch a ride back to the nearest airport or we stay here and wait it out."
Napoleon finished hanging the last of his clothes and turned to contemplate his partner. Illya's movements were fitful, not at all in keeping with his usual graceful motion. "You really don't want to leave, do you?"
"I'm sure Mr. Waverly won't be interested in what I want or don't want. Besides, I'm sure you'd like to be out of here as soon as possible."
"This isn't about what I want. I know what I want. And you're not answering my question."
"What do you want me to say, Napoleon?"
Napoleon shook his head. Sometimes getting Illya to talk about his feelings was like pulling teeth. "I want you to tell me what it is you want to do. If you want to stay, you need to tell me so. If you want to leave—"
Illya stilled, his hands still resting on the line. "I think it would feel almost like a betrayal."
"To Van Riebeck?" Napoleon walked over to Illya's side, close but not touching. "Or to yourself?"
"Both, I suppose." Illya looked up at him with a hint of a smile. "You know me much too well, my friend."
"Yes, I do, but that's not why I know what you're thinking. At least, that's not all of it. Did you actually believe I wouldn't agree with you? That I would be okay with leaving these people in the fix they're in when it's in our power to help, if only a little? Just how well do you know me?" Until he'd spoken the words, Napoleon hadn't realized just how much it hurt, the idea that Illya would think so little of him.
It was Illya who instigated the touch, lifting one hand and bringing it over to rest against Napoleon's cheek. "Well enough to know you would stay as long as possible, do whatever was needed to be done. No, Napoleon, this was not because I don't know you. I think it was because, now, I know you too well."
"I don't understand."
Illya rubbed his thumb along Napoleon's lower lip and his body leaned toward Napoleon's. "Yes, you do. You're my boss, for lack of a better word, and now you're also my lover. I'm afraid of mixing up the two, of demanding something from you as your lover I have no right to demand from you as your," he hesitated, tilting his head in bemusement, "well, I won't say inferior."
"You don't know me as well as you thought if you thought I'd let you get away with it. You let me worry about the job, tovarisch, you just worry about keeping me happy, okay?"
"Is that my new job description?"
Napoleon caught the teasing note in his partner's voice and relaxed. They had gotten over that hurdle, the first of many he was sure. But he was also sure they would manage the rest. "You're damn right it is."
"Then I shall start immediately." And he did, leaning forward to place a kiss on the lips he had just been caressing.
Napoleon returned the kiss at first; he couldn't help himself. But then sanity prevailed and he pulled back. "As much as I hate saying this, I think perhaps we should wait to continue this some other time, say, when we're off duty."
Illya nodded, yet Napoleon could see the deep regret in his eyes. It shadowed his own.
They quickly slipped out the door, turning off the light as they went. They let their eyes adjust before retracing their steps down the hall, making their way back to the bunkhouse entrance. Napoleon placed his hand on Illya's arm just as his partner was opening the door.
"Did you hear something?" he whispered, straining to see into the semi-darkness behind them.
Illya stilled, his head cocked as if to catch any sounds. After a minute or so, he shook his head. "I don't hear anything. Do you want to go back and check?"
Napoleon continued to peer down the hall. Finally he shook his head. "No, it was probably nothing. Come on," he motioned for Illya to open the door, "my feet are freezing."
With a speaking look, Illya pulled the door open and the two men hurried through as quietly as they could and made their way back to their bunks.
"Yes, sir, they don't expect the road to be open for at least two more days." Napoleon glanced around as he spoke into his communicator. He'd picked this spot behind the bunkhouse because it was away from the ranch's general traffic and he'd be able to see anyone coming long before they saw him. Still, it paid to remain vigilant.
"That's very disappointing. You and your partner are desperately needed on another affair. Surely, there's more than one way in or out of that part of the country. Two young men like yourself, a walk to the nearest city should be no trouble at all."
Napoleon grimaced at the instrument. Leave it to his boss to see a thirty mile trek through the bush as a 'walk.' "Several bridges are also out, or so we've been told, so walking isn't an option. We're basically stuck here."
That morning's news hadn't been good. With the road closed and the bridges out, not only could they not get out but no new hands could get in. Van Riebeck had called for Illya first thing and his partner had been sequestered with the ranch's owner ever since.
"I must say, I'm surprised at your lack of initiative in this matter, Mr. Solo, very surprised. I believe another round at the Survival School might do you and Mr. Kuryakin a world of good."
"We are trying, sir."
"Very well, let me know if there's any change in your status. Hold on a moment, Mr. Solo." Waverly's voice was muffled, as if he was covering the mike. After several seconds of this he turned his attention back to Napoleon. "I've been informed that the weather is expected to clear within the next forty-eight hours. I'll have a helicopter there to pick you up at that time. Waverly out."
The line went dead. Napoleon closed off his communicator and started off to where he'd agreed to meet up with Illya, whom he hoped would be free by now. As he turned the corner of the bunkhouse, he could see where all the other men were milling around in front of the barn where all the trucks were housed. Illya was nowhere in sight.
Thinking of his partner, Napoleon brought his hand up and lightly brushed his fingers over his lips. They'd have to do a better job of controlling themselves. Last night, no matter how wonderful the kiss, couldn't be repeated, not until they were home and in the safety of their own apartments. Even here, and thinking about the men he worked with maybe even especially here, it was too dangerous.
He saw Tully lift his hand in greeting and he waved back. He worked his way through the throng of men until he was at Tully's side. "Where's David?"
"Should be out pretty soon. It's not like we're going to be doing much more than moving herds to higher ground." Tully glanced up and gave the sky a disgusted look. "'Course, at this rate we're going to need an ark to do that."
"Isn't the rain supposed to be letting up?"
Tully gave a snort of skepticism. "I've heard that one before."
Napoleon only shrugged. If Mr. Waverly had anything to do with it, and Napoleon often felt the old man could do just about anything he set his mind to, the rains would be over in two days. But he couldn't very well tell Tully that.
With nothing else to do but wait, Napoleon casually looked over the other men. It was something he'd fallen into the habit of doing years ago. More than once, it had saved his life.
Most were in there thirties and early forties, with a smattering of young boys probably right out of school. He'd gotten to know very few of them during his time here and probably wouldn't get to know them much better in his time left. It was the way it was for him.
He came to Benjamin and his eyes widened slightly in surprise. The boy was staring at him with more hate in his eyes than Napoleon had seen directed at him in a long time. Even THRUSH agents rarely looked at him with such venom. He felt his side nudged and reluctantly pulled his attention back to the man next to him.
"Here he comes."
Illya and Van Riebeck had just exited the house and were making their way over to the men. Napoleon took one look at their faces and felt his spirits sink. It wasn't hard to figure that they were all in for a long, hard day.
"Hold on to 'im!"
Napoleon tried. He had his arms wrapped around the yearling's throat, trying to get it away from the river and back toward the rest of the herd. The animal wasn't cooperating. Neither was the weather. Napoleon was wet, ankle deep in mud and bone tired.
A shock of agony lanced up his left leg and almost took his breath away. It did break his hold on the animal that burst out of his arms, kicking wildly as it finally rejoined its brethren. Napoleon's legs gave way and he fell on his ass in the mud. He didn't care. With both hands wrapped around his throbbing shin, it was all he could do to keep from crying out in pain.
God, it hurt! His entire body was shaking, his breath coming in sharp gasps that sounded uncomfortably close to sobs. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to bring his body back under control.
"You stupid kak! Are you dof or something?"
Napoleon looked up through a haze of pain. Benjamin glowered down at him, spitting venom with each word; Napoleon only wished he knew what he was saying.
"You're so useless, you can't even handle a yearling. I don't know why Van Riebeck even keeps you around."
"Leave him alone, lightey." Nelson had approached the two and now squatted down next to Napoleon. He tried prying Napoleon's hands away from his leg. "Let me see."
Though initially suspicious of Napoleon, Nelson's attitude had changed after he'd seen the effort Napoleon had made to keep up with the rest of the men and their relationship had improved, something Napoleon was heartily thankful for as the man gently pulled his pant leg up to expose the injured area.
Napoleon sucked in his breath, still fighting the pain, and stared stupidly at his wound. Blood was freely flowing from the gash that ran at least six inches down his shin. The wound itself was ragged and ugly looking and the skin around it was already starting to bruise.
Nelson pulled out a kerchief from his pocket and then began to gingerly wrap it around Napoleon's leg. "I know it must hurt like hell, but you were lucky. The animal could have broken your leg."
"It feels like he did," Napoleon responded through clenched teeth.
Nelson tied off the kerchief, then turned to Benjamin who was still standing nearby. "Go get David. We're going to need something to carry him out on."
"Stupid, moffie, getting himself skopped like a—"
"Boy, I'm not telling you twice. Now, get."
Benjamin finally retreated back to where he'd tied up his horse. With a last look of disgust, he mounted and rode off.
"He doesn't like you much, does he?" Nelson asked.
Napoleon gave a shaky laugh. Big black dots were forming before his eyes and he knew he was about to pass out. "Now, what makes you say that?" he managed to quip before being enveloped by the welcoming darkness.
Napoleon watched with a certain drugged detachment as the doctor gently bandaged his lower leg. Propped on a couple of pillows, it lay outside the covers that blanketed most of the rest of his body.
The ride to the ranch house was a blank, but he'd woken up, his leg on fire as Illya and two other men had pulled him from the truck's passenger seat and carried him into Van Riebeck's house.
Somehow they'd managed to remove his wet and muddy clothes and bundle him into bed. A towel had been placed under his leg, which was still bleeding profusely, and a call sent out for a doctor. Napoleon wasn't sure how long he'd had to wait; it seemed an eternity though probably not more than ten minutes. However long, Illya had sat at his side, a look of quiet concern on his face. His partner had only given up his spot with the doctor's appearance.
The pain was a little more than a dull throb now, thanks largely to the shot the man had given him before he'd begun cleaning the wound.
"You were very lucky, son," the doctor commented as he tore the end of the bandage down the center to tie off the two strips.
"So I've been told." Napoleon looked past the man, hoping for a glimpse of Illya who had disappeared into the rest of the house.
The man gently pulled the end of the blanket and tented it over the injured leg. "Well, don't doubt it for a moment. More than one man has almost lost a limb to one of those animals, and a couple have. Those brutes are dumb but they can be mighty vicious."
Napoleon shivered and pulled the sheet over his exposed left arm. "Considering what's in store for them, I suppose you can't blame them."
With a laugh, the doctor stood up and grabbed his bag from the floor. "You're probably right. Anyway, I've left you some medication to take. It's there on the nightstand. Try to keep off the leg for at least twenty-four hours, though if you're like the rest you have every intention of ignoring that advise."
"I'm not making any promises, Doctor, but I'll do my best."
The man shook his head and then walked out. Illya, who had evidently been waiting right outside the door, replaced him.
"I can't leave you for a minute, can I?" Illya grumbled as he pulled up a nearby chair and seated himself next to the bed.
"I didn't do this on purpose you know," Napoleon responded, though it was more out of habit than any real feeling that Illya was serious. He'd seen the look on his partner's face as they waited for the doctor. If he hadn't already known what Illya felt for him, he certainly would have now.
What surprised him a bit was that he'd never noticed it before. Well, he had noticed, but never made the connection. How could he have missed the affection, the love Illya had for him? More importantly, how had everyone else?
Illya sighed, resting his arms on his thighs as he leaned forward. "No, I know you didn't. It's just that it's more difficult than I thought it would be."
"Seeing you, like this." Illya didn't look at Napoleon as he spoke. Rather, his attention seemed to be on a spot on the far wall. "Not that it hasn't been hard for a very long time. But somehow this...change has made it worse."
"Did you think it wouldn't? And don't you know that the reverse is true, too?"
Illya grimaced. "I'm not stupid, Napoleon. Nor blind. I suppose it's that the reality of it turned out to be far worse than anything in theory. I wonder—"
"What?" Napoleon shook his head, trying to clear the fog that was settling even more over his brain. "What do you wonder? About us?"
Illya finally turned to look at Napoleon. "Don't be absurd. I'm merely speculating on how we will manage to deal with it." He sat up and slipped his hand underneath the covers to take Napoleon's. "Though, if nothing else, I wonder about you sometimes. No, you will not get rid of me so easily."
The warmth of Illya's hand brought a comfort Napoleon was fast becoming addicted to. "That's good to hear." He settled back into the pillows, the drug in his system taking hold and making it difficult to keep awake. "And with any luck, we'll be back in New York by tomorrow."
"I wouldn't count on that. We may be out of it but according to the radio, the storm has settled over Pietersburg. There won't be any helicopters flying out of there and the next closest city is Pretoria. We could be here a few more days."
Napoleon's response was lost in a yawn.
"I should let you rest." Illya's hand slipped from his as his partner moved forward to place one knee on the bed. "I will be back tomorrow. Sleep well, my friend," Illya whispered, placing his lips against Napoleon's brow for a moment. More a benediction than a kiss, it warmed Napoleon even as Illya left the room and he was pulled toward sleep.
Napoleon walked out of the house and toward the group of men standing outside the bunkhouse. He took his time, favoring his left leg somewhat; though not painful, he could still be reminded of his injury if he put too much weight on it. But the men's attention was on the man closest to the truck parked nearby, not on him. The man held a piece of paper and appeared to be extolling the rest about something. As he drew nearer, Napoleon was able to see that the man doing the extolling was Tully Cross.
The American seemed uncomfortable in the roll of praise giver and he stumbled over some of the more complimentary remarks. Eventually, he managed to get through the speech and then proceeded to give the men their work assignments for the day. As the workers moved off in different directions, Napoleon approached his friend.
"Have you seen Il...David around?"
Tully eyed him suspiciously. "What're you doin' out of bed?"
"I'm fine, the injury wasn't that bad."
"Like hell it wasn't. You were bleeding like a stuck hog when they carried you in yesterday." Tully raised his hands in surrender at Napoleon's grimace. "Hey, it's your funeral. Anyway, David took off this morning with a couple of the men. They're going to check out how the bridges and dams are doing to the south of us. All we need is for the whole damn ranch to end up under water."
"Could it get that bad?" Napoleon asked as he scanned the skies. "It doesn't look like we have to worry about any more rain."
"Water's still coming down from upriver. We're not out of the woods yet."
"So what are they having you do?"
Tully snorted in disgust. "Same thing, except I've got to ride out and check to the north, when I should be out there helping to round up the rest of the herd, just in case."
Napoleon strolled over and took a peek inside the truck. Though covered with its share of mud, it looked to be brand new. "Why don't I go out instead?"
"You? You're not even supposed to be walking around."
"I told you, I'm fine. Besides, I could take this truck if it's available. I won't need my left leg to drive it."
Tully looked unsure but Napoleon could tell the man's skepticism was vastly outweighed by his desire to rid himself of the job. Finally, with a nod of his head, he dug the keys out of his pocket and handed them over. "Here, just be careful. Van Riebeck just bought it and I doubt you've had much practice at driving on the left side of the road. You shouldn't have any trouble with her, though, because she drives like a dream."
"Yes, sir." Napoleon gave an exaggerated bow before opening the door of the truck and maneuvering into the driver's seat. He inserted the key into the ignition switch and the engine kicked into life. "Where do I start?" he asked, his arm leaning on the window frame.
"Remember the field where you were working yesterday, near the water?" At Napoleon's nod, Tully continued. "There's a small earthen dam about two miles upstream. Start there and just work your way back. Shouldn't take you more than three or four hours."
Napoleon gave him a two-fingered salute and drove off, kicking a respectful amount of mud up behind him.
Once on the main road he settled into a respectful speed. The truck lived up to Tully's words of praise, managing the muddy road, its surface deeply rutted where other vehicles had passed, with ease. Even the seat was comfortable. As the miles passed, though, the going got progressively rougher, especially after Napoleon had left the main road. The path he found himself on, hardly more than an animal trail, wasn't meant for this mode of transportation.
Even so, it took him less than thirty minutes to reach the stand of trees to the right of the road that marked the turn off. He halted the truck and got down to get a better look. Before him the land spread out in a field of trampled grass and mud. In the distance, he caught the glint of water. With a slow shake of his head, Napoleon returned to the truck and got back in. He gave a resigned snort and turned off to slowly drive onto the water soaked pasture.
Somehow, he managed to get to the river and work his way up its muddy bank to the dam. He eyed the embankment. The ground dropped away a good six feet before finally evening out at the water's edge. Did he really want to make the trip down its side? He tried opening the door and standing with one foot balanced on the seat. It didn't help. With the profusion of growth on the river's banks, it seemed his only alternative was to go down there if he wanted to get a better look.
Once again getting out of the truck, he slid carefully down the slippery surface as it sloped toward the water until he stood even with the dam. Even to his untrained eye it looked to be barely holding its own, as if the slightest breeze would dislodge its burden and flood the surrounding area.
To Napoleon's mind it made little sense to look further. This was something he felt Van Riebeck would want to know immediately. But he decided he'd follow the river's edge as long as it paralleled his own path back to the ranch house; if he could report that the area was clear or not, so much the better. But once the water veered away, taking a more southerly route, he'd turn off and head back to the main road.
Having decided his course of action, Napoleon began the short climb back to the waiting vehicle. Planting one foot, he pushed up with the other, his steps unsteady in the soaked earth as he worked to haul himself up the steep incline.
He felt the first twinge of discomfort after only managing to get about half way up the embankment. He stopped to rub his aching shin and catch his breath. The ground above was now even with the top of his head but his progress so far had been at more of a cost than he would have imagined. Come on, it's only three more feet, for god's sake. He took a deep breath and started his climb again.
Napoleon was trembling by the time he pulled himself up onto the flat surface. He sat down, not caring about getting dirty, and pulled his pant leg up. The twinge had become a constant ache and he was worried he'd pulled the stitches out. He was relieved to see the bandages were still clean, with no sign of blood. He gingerly touched the area and was rewarded with a flare of pain. He bit his lower lip and lowered his head onto his upraised knee. God, it hurt.
Come on, get up. Pain or not, he knew he had to get moving. He pushed down his pant leg and slowly levered himself up, trying to put most of his weight on his good leg. He limped back to the truck and slid onto the seat. He had to use both hands to lift his injured leg inside.
He wished he had one of the pain pills but he'd foolishly thought he wouldn't need them anymore. He'd taken the antibiotics, but left the other pills on the nightstand. Luckily, all he had to do was get the truck back to the ranch. He started it up and, easing it into gear, drove it carefully forward.
The ground cooperated, staying relatively smooth so that Napoleon was able to keep from jarring the truck, and himself, more than necessary. And now that he was no longer putting any weight on it his wound seemed to have decided to calm down. The pain was still there but more a dull throb than the agony it had been.
Ten minutes later he spied the stand of trees off in the distance that meant he would soon be able to rejoin the road. Almost to the turnoff, he happened to glance to his right. An earthen bridge spanned the river, the water less than a foot below its surface. Napoleon slammed on the brakes. On the other side, a saddle slung over one shoulder, Benjamin walked slowly toward the water.
Great, who else would he run into out here in the middle of nowhere but the one person who couldn't stand him? He waited, debating with himself whether to let the boy make the hike across the bridge, heavy saddle or not, or to drive across and pick the kid up. Benjamin looked fine, but at this distance Napoleon couldn't be sure of that. When Benjamin suddenly dropped to his knees, Napoleon's decision was made for him. With a few choice words, he turned the truck onto the bridge.
The boy seemed to finally notice him then. He dropped his saddle and began shouting and waving wildly. Whatever he was saying was lost in the sounds of the river.
"Oh, hold your horses," Napoleon muttered. The creaking of the bridge below his wheels was making him nervous but he didn't dare go faster. He glanced over at the boy, who had stopped just shy of the bridge. He looked nervous.
Well, welcome to the club. Napoleon inched his way forward, berating himself for not letting Benjamin walk across the bridge; he certainly appeared fine now. It was too late, though. The only way off this thing was forward. And was it his imagination, or was the water suddenly a lot higher?
He nudged the accelerator, picking up as much speed as he dared. Napoleon scanned the road ahead, yet he was still caught unaware by the crater that opened in the road's surface, too suddenly for him to avoid. The truck took a sharp drop to the front and side and came to a dead halt.
Though it started, no amount of maneuvering would free the truck. It had settled at too steep an angle and was tilting even more with every passing minute. Napoleon slammed his palms against the steering wheel in frustration. It looked like Benjamin wasn't the only one walking back to the ranch.
Thinking of the boy, he glanced over and saw Benjamin frantically gesturing to Napoleon's right. He turned to look and his eyes went wide. A wave of water, perhaps six or seven feet high, was bearing down on the bridge.
He tried opening the door but the angle of the truck, the right side several feet off the ground now, made that impossible. Napoleon quickly slid down the seat to the passenger door but it would open only a few inches before hitting against the ground. Turning, he swiftly got to his feet, grabbed hold of the driver side window and hauled himself up. He was attempting to extricate his legs from inside the cab when the water hit.
The force of it pushed him back into the vehicle. Napoleon let out a strangled cry as his full weight came down on his injured leg. Water gushed in and filled the cab, pouring over him as he attempted to stand. He felt the entire truck shift. It was being inexorably pushed off the bridge. He had only seconds. He'd managed to get to his feet when the truck lunged again, tipped onto its top and fell into the river below.
Napoleon was thrown to the cab's ceiling as it smashed against the bottom of the river. Dazed and confused, he groped around until he found the edge of the window. He tried to pull himself through but the force of the fall had crushed the cabin in, narrowing the space between the ceiling and the steering wheel. Where the windshield had been there was now a gap of only three or four inches. He'd have to go out the other window.
Turning was difficult in the tight confines of the cab, especially since he could barely make out where he was, the stirred water a murky brown. He felt his way around, trying not to think how like a tomb it was—or the possibility that he wouldn't be able to get out the other window. Napoleon knew he was running out of time as he fought against claustrophobia and his own fear of drowning.
He'd forgotten about the bridge, or the fact that the truck had fallen straight down its side, until he felt one of its wooden supports dissecting the window's opening almost exactly in two. Though he was pretty sure it was a useless attempt, Napoleon tried squeezing through anyway. He wasn't going down without a fight.
He almost managed it. Struggling for freedom, his lungs burning for air, he lost his fight to hold his breath. As it released in an outburst of bubbles, his last thought was of the total irony of it all. After finally gaining what he had long sought, he was about to lose it all; this time, he wasn't going to make it.
It was pushing dinnertime when Van Riebeck, with several men including Illya in tow, took the road up to the ranch house. They were all bone-weary and Illya was sure there wasn't a muscle in his body that didn't ache. It had been a long, hard day and he was glad to be seeing the end of it.
He glanced over at Van Riebeck. Even at fifty, the Afrikaner was still an attractive man who'd kept himself fit enough to put most of his men to shame. His keen intellect and willingness to join in and get his own hands dirty had kept the place profitable while many ranches in the area were having trouble. Illya knew he would miss the man.
"I know it's nothing compared to what you have, but if you ever need a place to go to, you'll always be welcome here."
Illya had been surprised at the man's words after he had confessed who he really was and why he was here.
They had stopped for a quick meal and when Van Riebeck had moved off on his own, Illya had taken the opportunity to apprise the man of his true identity. He and Napoleon would be leaving soon and Illya felt he owed Van Riebeck the truth.
Van Riebeck had taken his story in stride, only stopping him to ask a pertinent question from time to time. As would be expected, the Afrikaner was more than aware of what was going on in the country so close to his own. For him, Illya's mission was not only vital, but also greatly appreciated.
Now, as they approached the main house, and with only hours left of his time here, Illya could feel that it had been time well spent. He dismounted from his horse and tied it off to one of the posts in front of Van Riebeck's house. The man himself had already reached the steps, his boots leaving muddy footprints on the clean wooden boards. Just inside the door, Teela stood, her arms crossed, a look on her face that brooked no argument.
"You'll be leaving your boots on the porch, Boss."
Van Riebeck grinned at Illya as he sat down in one of the porch chairs and began to remove the offending footwear. "I bet you thought this was my house, didn't you?"
"I was under that impression, yes," he answered, having joined his boss under the shelter of the porch to do the same. Using the wall as a prop, Illya balanced on one foot while trying to force off his mud-encrusted boots. He'd removed one and was working on the other when his attention wandered over to the corral and stayed his hand. Several men were gathered around a horse and there appeared to be an argument going on.
Illya was only vaguely aware of Van Riebeck entering the house, the creak of the screen door opening and closing hardly registering. He knew that horse, or rather, he knew that Benjamin normally rode the white-and-brown spattered paint—and Benjamin was nowhere around.
"It trotted in about fifteen minutes ago."
Illya turned at the sound. Teela still stood in the doorway. "What happened to Benjamin?"
"Don't know. I imagine they'll be sending out some men to find out."
"I should go with them." Illya donned his discarded boot and stood up. "Could you tell Napoleon I'll be in to see him later?"
Teela gave him an odd look. "Napoleon's not here, Davy."
"What do you mean, he's not here?"
"Just what I said. He wandered out sometime after breakfast, said he was going to get some fresh air. I haven't seen him since."
Illya swore under his breath. Why was he not surprised? "Tell Van Riebeck I'll be back soon," Illya called over his shoulder as he hurried down the porch steps and toward the group of men. Tully turned at his approach and Illya was taken aback by the obvious look of relief on his face.
"Boy, I'm glad you're back. I was afraid I was going to have to leave without letting you know what was going on."
"And what exactly is going on?" Illya nodded toward the horse being held by one of the other men. "That's Benjamin's horse, isn't it?"
"Sure is. Showed up without its saddle, though, so I'm thinking the boy might be in some trouble. I sent him out to check the fields north of the river for strays, so I'm going out with a few men to try to pick up his trail."
"If you don't mind, I'd like to go along."
"Sure, more the merrier."
"Very well." Illya looked behind Tully toward the large barn at his back. "But I wanted a word with Napoleon first. Is he in there?" he asked with a nod toward the structure.
Tully grimaced. "Uh, no. Truth is, Napoleon lit out this morning, too."
"'Lit out'? What exactly does that mean, 'lit out'? He wasn't supposed to be doing anything strenuous, much less sit a horse."
"Oh, he wasn't going to be riding a horse. I was about to go out to check on one of the dams and Napoleon volunteered to do it for me." Tully rubs his chin. "Come to think of it, though, he should have been back hours ago, too."
Great, not only was Benjamin missing but now it also seemed his partner had managed to get himself lost—or worse. Illya tried to visualize the terrain between here and the river. He couldn't imagine any place where Napoleon could have possibly run into trouble. But it wouldn't be the first time Napoleon had managed to do just that, whether Illya could imagine it or not.
"I'm going to retrace Napoleon's route. If—when—I find him, we'll join up with you to search for Benjamin."
"That'll work. You might want to pick out another horse, though. Yours is probably done in."
Illya agreed, then started back to the house. He'd get his horse and find someone to brush it down while picking out another ride.
"Hey, they're in the same general area. For all we know, they've found each other," Tully called out.
Knowing how things stood between the two, Illya hoped not. He lifted his hand in response, neither looking back nor slowing his steps.
Napoleon blinked his eyes open. He was lying on the ground, though cocooned in some sort of bedding. Lucky, since, he realized, he didn't have a stitch of clothes on. To his left, a wall of vegetation surrounded him, the overhanging branches blocking out a partial piece of the sky. He stifled a moan as he maneuvered up on one elbow. His entire body felt like he'd been pummeled by an expert and his leg ached terribly.
"I wouldn't try gettin' up just yet."
He glanced over. About ten feet away Benjamin squatted in front of a small fire. A very small fire. "Is that the best you can do?"
The boy shrugged. "Not a lot of dry wood around, now is there?"
He had a point. "Where are my clothes?"
Benjamin used to chin to point to off into the darkness. "Hanging on a tree. They should be dry pretty soon."
"I suppose I should thank you for saving my life."
"Almost didn't, you know. Would've been easy enough to let you drown after that dof stunt. But I figured Davy'd be mighty upset if you died."
Napoleon smothered a smile. "Yes, I suppose he would have been." He looked at their surroundings again and at the slowly darkening sky. "Where are we and how long was I out?"
"We're a little ways from the river. I didn't think we should stay too close in case there was any more flooding." He reached to his side and brought a few more twigs over to fuel the fire. It flared briefly, then settled down only a little larger than it had been. "We'll be okay here until they find us. It'll get a bit cold, but the bushes should keep out most of the wind. And you were out, oh, maybe four hours or so."
That surprised Napoleon. "Four hours?"
"Well, mostly you was out. I thought you were comin' out of it a couple of times but then you'd pass right out again. Did some talkin', too, mind. Crazy stuff. I figured you must have hit your head, not just almost drowned."
Napoleon felt the back of his head. Sure enough, there was a substantially sized bump there, still tender to the touch though he didn't have a headache. He wondered what he had said. "I vaguely remember being thrown against the cab's ceiling when the truck rolled over."
"Yeah, that'd probably do it." He gave Napoleon a speculative look. "So, what happened to the rest of your body?"
Napoleon pulled the blanket that lined the bedroll up to cover his chest. "What are you talking about?"
"All those scars and all. And it looks like whip marks on your back. You with the boere or something?"
"The police...and who's Illya?"
"Where did you hear that name?" Napoleon asked, alarmed at what all he may have divulged.
"You kept callin' for him and talking about a mission. 'Complete the mission' you kept saying. If you're not the boere, what are you?"
"Just what I said—"
"I ain't dof! I knew from the beginning that you were lyin'. Didn't figure you belonged out here. Now, I'm sure of it." He spat in disgust. "Not much of a man, are you, lyin' to the person who saved your life? 'Course, I already knew you weren't much of one, being a giyn, and all."
"You know, a moffie." He sneered at Napoleon, "a fellow who likes other fellows. Like you like this 'Illya'."
Napoleon looked at the boy, not sure how to answer him. It took him long seconds to formulate a response. "I'm not sure where you got that idea but I don't see what that has to do with anything. Whatever kind of a man I am, I agree that I owe the person who saved my life the truth. No, I'm not with the police but I am in law enforcement. The organization I work for is multi-national. World-wide." He revised his wording at the look of confusion on Benjamin's face.
"Like a spy?" Benjamin asked eagerly.
"Yes, something like that."
"I still think you're a giyn."
"Does it matter so much to you what I am?"
Benjamin looked away to grab more kindling. He fed the fire while hesitantly answering Napoleon's question. "Don't really know. When I saw you kiss Davy..."
"Oh, don't worry. I didn't tell anyone. They probably wouldn't've believed me, anyway. But when I first saw the two of you I thought, well, I thought it had to be your fault, right? Because Davy, he wouldn't do such a thing. I thought maybe you had something on him, like maybe you were threatening his family or something. But then I could tell that Davy liked it and...and I thought that maybe I'd like it, too."
"You're in love with him, aren't you?" Napoleon gently asked.
"But I can't be, can I?" There was such fear in the boy's voice, mixed with a deep longing.
"Why not? Listen to me, Benjamin. What you feel, it's not wrong. I should know...I spent a lot of years trying to convince myself of it. I almost succeeded. No, the only thing wrong is that you've picked someone who can never return those feelings."
"Never thought he would. I've never met anyone else who, well, was like me, you know? Figured I'd always be alone. Just wanted him to like me, that's all."
Napoleon remembered those fears all too well. "I know it's hard to imagine, but you'll find someone someday, someone right for you. I won't lie to you though; it won't be easy. Your feelings aren't wrong but there are a lot of people out there who are afraid of those feelings."
"I know that already, don't I?" He shifted a bit, as if to gather more warmth from the fire. "I would never have said anything to Davy, knowin' what could happen if I did. I would have been happy just bein' his mate. But now..." He gazed sadly at Napoleon. "Davy is Illya, isn't he?"
Napoleon didn't answer, unsure how the boy would react.
Benjamin shook his head. "You don't have to answer. I figured he'd have to be after the way you were goin' on about Illya. How else could you have kissed Davy the way you did unless they were the same person? Will you answer me one thing?"
"You're both going to be leaving, aren't you? You and Davy?"
For some reason, he found the words hard to say. "Yes, Benjamin, we both have to leave here."
"Very soon, probably as soon as they find us."
The boy didn't answer, only got to his feet and walked out into what was now near darkness. He returned carrying Napoleon's clothes. "Here, you should probably put them on now. It's getting late and I'm sort of tired."
Napoleon took the garments and began to dress, watching Benjamin as he put out the fire, the boy's entire demeanor one of defeat. Crossing over to where his saddle lay, he sat down and leaned back, using it as a pillow.
Once completely dressed, Napoleon pulled out the blanket that lined the bedroll and limped over to hand it to the boy. "You might need this."
Benjamin only nodded but took the blanket, wrapping it around his shoulders.
Napoleon returned to the bedroll and slid inside. He thought Benjamin's eyes were closed but he couldn't be sure. He didn't remember closing his own.
"I think we should call it a night, start fresh in the morning."
Illya had heard more than seen the other man ride up to his side. Van Riebeck was little more than a darker shadow in a land that had fast become nothing but shadows.
"I have to find him."
"And you will, but not tonight."
As word had spread through the ranch, Illya, Tully and the two other men with them were joined by many of the other hands. Eventually, Van Riebeck had rode out, adding his knowledge of the land to the search. It was needed. They had discovered that the northernmost dam had given way; any trace that man or animal or machine would have left had been washed away.
The hours had passed in a blur, as Illya had searched relentlessly, always ahead of the rest in his quest for his partner. Still, neither man had been found. And once the sun had begun to set, there was little chance of finding anyone in the unremitting blackness. Illya could hear the river twenty or so feet ahead of him, yet all he could see of it was the glitter of moonlight off its surface.
He shivered. Night had fallen and so had the temperature. Wherever Napoleon was, he hoped he was warm. Surely, he would not have left the safe confides of the truck.
"You're exhausted. You'll be no good to your friend that way."
Illya knew Van Riebeck was right. Still, the idea of leaving Napoleon out here, alone, possibly injured, was something he wasn't sure he could do. "I can't go back without him. If he's hurt—"
"We don't know that. But even if he is, you can hardly see your hand in front of your face. He could be five feet away from you and you still wouldn't see him. Come, we'll start again at first light." Van Riebeck turned his horse to leave, then stopped a few feet away. "Illya?"
Illya stared into the darkness. Ahead, the ribbon of water rushed by, the light bouncing off its surface broken only by what looked to be the remains of an earthen bridge. Somewhere out there, Napoleon waited to be found. It took all he had for Illya to turn and follow Van Riebeck away from their search.
Light slowly crept into the room as the sun rose. From where he lay on his bunk, Illya began to make out the sleeping forms of the other men. He'd been awake for at least the last half hour.
He turned on his back, Napoleon's communicator clutched in his hand. Teela had found it within the folds of Napoleon's muddy clothes. Somehow, in all the excitement of his friend's injury and Napoleon's drugged state the following morning, it had been forgotten. When Illya and the other men had returned the night before from their unsuccessful mission, the woman had somehow known to give the pen to him. She hadn't said a word, only pressed it into his hand.
Illya hadn't said anything, either, only nodded his head in thanks and walked away. He'd placed the pen carefully atop his clean clothes as he'd showered, making sure to keep it always in sight. Except for his boots, he'd gone to bed fully clothed; he didn't want to waste one moment in the morning. And somehow he'd managed to hold onto the communicator through the night, while awake and even during the snatches of fitful sleep.
He closed his eyes. He needed to gather his thoughts, and his strength. He could not conceive of a future without Napoleon. Nor would he, not yet. Until proven otherwise, he would continue to trust that they would find his partner and that he would be alive and whole. If not, if he let go of that certainty, he didn't think he'd have the courage to get up.
All right. It was time. Illya opened his eyes, sat up and swung his legs off the bed. And then he almost dropped the communicator when it went off with its customary signal.
He hurriedly opened it as he stood and quickly made his way to the back door of the bunkhouse and out into the back hallway.
"Ah, Mr. Kuryakin. While I'm most happy to hear your voice, I assumed it was Mr. Solo I'd be speaking to since I was under the impression it was he I called."
"Yes, sir, it was, but Napoleon has been missing since yesterday morning."
Illya heard Mr. Waverly's sigh and all the words left unsaid about his CEO—and his CEO's partner. Illya wasn't the only one who marveled at the messes he and Napoleon sometimes managed to get themselves into.
"Do you have any idea as to where Mr. Solo has absconded to?"
"No, sir, we weren't able to find any sign of him yesterday but we were all going looking for him again this morning."
"Then I take it the helicopter which should be appearing above your position in approximately ten minutes will be of some service?"
Illya grinned. "Oh, yes, sir, it would help immeasurably."
"Very well. Let me know the minute you make contact with Mr. Solo. And you can tell him for me that I find his lack of directional abilities most distressing. Most distressing."
"Yes, sir, I'll do that. Kuryakin out." In his haste, it took two tries to get the communicator closed but once he did he hurried back to his bed, tugged his boots on and rushed out the front door.
It was a bit lighter, the sun having topped the small plateau to the east. He looked to the south—the direction the chopper would surely be coming from—and strained to see a glimpse of it. But he heard it first, the distinct sound of its blades whirling in the still air growing louder as the minutes passed. Finally, the sun shining off his smooth surface, the helicopter appeared just above the horizon.
As it came closer, its noise drew people out, so by the time it was hovering over Illya he was surrounded by a couple dozen men, most of them only half dressed. He waved frantically at the pilot until he managed to catch the man's attention. He must have been given Illya's description because he lost no time in lowering the machine, landing it gently not twenty feet away.
Illya ran up and clamored aboard. "Wait here, I'll be right back," he yelled at the man. With a thumbs up from the pilot, he jumped out and hurried over to the closest hand. "Tell Van Riebeck I've gone to look for Napoleon and Benjamin."
The man only nodded, either too surprised or still half-asleep, Illya couldn't tell which, to do more than that. He hoped his message was delivered but he couldn't wait around any longer. He hurried back to the helicopter and got in. Signaling the pilot to take off, they were air borne before Illya managed to get buckled in.
"Where are we going?" the pilot yelled as he motioned for Illya to don the other set of headphones.
Illya settled the equipment on his head before responding. "Do you know where the Mogalakwena River is?" At the man's nod, Illya continued. "Follow it north. You'll come upon a broken dam. At that point, turn around and we can start searching from there."
"Who or what are we searching for?"
"A man and boy. The boy works on the ranch, the man is Napoleon Solo, num—"
"Number one, section one of New York. I know."
"You know Napoleon?"
The pilot grinned. "Sure do. We went through Survival School together. Haven't seen him in years, though. Name's Shaun Howard, by the way."
"I know. You're Napoleon's partner, right?"
"Yes," Illya looked away, out onto the vast expanse where, somewhere, his partner waited to be found, "his partner."
The land flew passed, its once verdant plains now little more than flats of mud, the viscous substance covering everything. Nothing moved.
Once at the broken dam, they had worked their way back, flying slowly over the free-flowing river and its denuded banks. The stilted forms of dead cattle appeared from time to time, and each time Illya's stomach lurched before they verified that it was, indeed, an animal, not Benjamin or, worse, Napoleon.
He glanced over at the helicopter's fuel gauge. The pilot had warned him that they would only be able to keep this up for maybe an hour before fuel levels would force them back to Pietersburg to refuel. If it came to that, Illya would have the man land and he'd continue the search on foot. There was no way in hell he was leaving this place without his partner.
As they approached the area where the search had been called off the night before, Illya noticed that some of the men were already there, searching along the side that was still accessible. At this point along the river the water had barely overflowed its bed, so there was still plenty of vegetation where a man, possibly injured, could be hidden.
Too much vegetation, Illya thought in dismay as he surveyed the land beneath them. It could take days to cover the entire area.
"I think they've found something," Howard suddenly commented.
Illya looked ahead to where the pilot pointed. A group of men stood on the muddy bank near where an earthen bridge had given way; all were facing the water, their attention focused on something either in or across the river. Catching sight of the advancing helicopter, many of them started waving their hats over their heads.
Illya held his breath, trying not to hope too much as Howard slowed his approach, coming to a full stop at their destination and hovering above the men. One of their number moved out from the rest and pointed vigorously toward the other side of the water.
Illya looked across the river. Benjamin stood a short distance back from the water's edge. He was alone. Illya's heart sank. He was glad Benjamin was safe, but he would have given anything for Napoleon to be standing there next to the boy.
Then, as if giving substance to his wish, Napoleon stepped out from behind a stand of trees. He slowly walked toward Benjamin, an obvious limp to his step. He was dirty, clearly exhausted—and the most beautiful sight Illya had ever seen.
In one graceful arc, Howard banked the helicopter to the right and over the river. The road that picked up on the other side had been created in a naturally formed open space next to the water. There was plenty of room to land the craft. He gently lowered the helicopter until it settled with a slight bump.
Illya tore off his headset and leapt down. He could barely see his partner through the swirl of dust from the rotors. Finally, the helicopter quieted and the dust settled. Not thirty feet away, Napoleon stood, waiting, his weight resting on one leg. About fifteen feet to his left, Benjamin appeared to keep his distance.
Illya slowly approached his partner. Still about a yard away, he stopped and drank in the sight of him.
Napoleon looked ready to collapse and pain was etched onto his features. Still, there was a smile on his face. "I was beginning to wonder when you'd get here."
"Considering that I thought you were safely in bed for most of yesterday, you're lucky I got here as soon as I did."
"Well, I'm glad you did. Who's your friend, by the way?" Napoleon nodded toward the helicopter.
Illya turned to glance back. "His name is Shaun Howard. He says he knows you."
Napoleon cocked his head in thought and then gave a nod of recollection. "Survival School."
"Yes, that's what he said."
Napoleon weakly waved at the pilot. "Our ride back to civilization got here in the nick of time, I take it."
"It helped that Teela had found your communicator. Perhaps if you had had the wherewithal to take it with you...."
"Ah, but then Mr. Waverly wouldn't have been able to contact you if I had. Besides, it would have probably been washed away."
"Is that what happened?" Illya stepped closer, no longer able to continue their normal banter. "You were washed away?"
"Was it? Answer me, Napoleon." He was suddenly angrier with his partner than he'd been in a long time.
Napoleon stared at him for several seconds then reluctantly nodded. "I was crossing the bridge when a wave of water came at me. The next thing I knew, the truck was in the river with me in it. If it hadn't been for Benjamin—"
Illya didn't let him finish. Without thought, he pulled Napoleon into his arms and held on tight. "Don't say another word," he whispered.
He supposed Napoleon understood, though he couldn't say the same for himself. All he knew was that he needed the tangible proof of his partner's continued existence, to hell with what Benjamin or Howard or anyone else thought. But whatever Napoleon thought, he nevertheless brought his own arms up and around Illya in a returned embrace.
From where he stood in front of the bunkhouse, Illya had a clear view of the helicopter. Settled in the space between the main house and the corral, the side door of its cabin area was wide open, only waiting for Illya to return so that it could start its journey home. Napoleon was already ensconced within its cabin, but Illya had one more task to perform.
When Illya had finally loosened his hold on Napoleon at the river's edge, his one and only priority had been to get his friend to safety—and to the medical attention he so obviously needed. He had barely noticed the silent boy who had followed them into the chopper, who had taken the seat in the cockpit next to the pilot, allowing Illya the privacy he so desperately needed with his partner.
Not that anything had happened; they were both too professional, not to mention too wary, to let their guards slip more than they had. They had taken the back bench of the cabin and, with Illya's arm securely around him, Napoleon had lowered his head onto Illya's shoulder. They had remained that way during the entire flight.
Once at the ranch, Napoleon had been hustled into Van Riebeck's house, where he was looked over by the doctor. Only a little worse for wear—the antibiotics he had continue to take during his ordeal keeping infection at bay—he was allowed a bath, his injury had been re-bandaged and he'd been dressed in a fresh set of clothes. From there, he was escorted back to the helicopter, with instructions to not move until they landed in Pietersburg, and then only to walk to the plane already waiting for them.
Still, in all the commotion of seeing to his friend and finalizing plans for their trip home, Illya had noticed the absence of the one person who had, for all his time here, been a constant presence—Benjamin.
Once he'd seen to Napoleon, putting Shaun in charge of making sure Napoleon stayed right where he was, Illya had searched the young man out. Eventually, he had been directed to the bunkhouse.
Giving his partner one last look, Illya entered the cool interior of the building, the bunkhouse quiet and dimly lit. Most of the men were absent, either at their jobs or sitting idly outside, speculating on the helicopter that had so suddenly entered their world—and which as suddenly would be leaving it. Skirting around the tables, Illya made his way over to the line of bunks. Surprisingly, he found Benjamin lying, not on his own bunk, but on the one that had been Napoleon's. His eyes were closed.
The boy didn't answer, didn't move.
"Benjamin, I know you're awake."
Illya sat on what had once been his own bunk, keeping his feet planted on the floor. "I wanted to say goodbye."
"So, you've said it. You can go now."
"I thought we were friends."
Benjamin opened his eyes, turning his head toward Illya and staring at him accusingly. "Friends don't lie to each other."
Illya lowered his head for a moment. "I didn't like lying to you, to anyone. All I can say is that it was necessary."
"Because you're a spy." At that, Benjamin sat up, his entire demeanor one of dejection. "That's why you can't stay, isn't it?"
"Yes." Illya thought a moment. "Did Napoleon tell you that, that we were spies?"
"Yeah, he was sort of out of head for awhile. I don't know if he even knew who he was talking to."
"When was this?"
"After I pulled him from the bakkie and pumped about a gallon of water out of him. He was sort of dof at the time."
"You saved his life. I'll be forever grateful to you for that."
"Wouldn't have had to if he hadn't tried comin' back for me. Why'd he do it, anyway? I was fine, only tripped, that's all."
"Napoleon didn't know that. All he knew was that you appeared to be in trouble. That's all he had to know."
"He's a really good...friend of yours, isn't he?"
Illya took a long look at the boy. Something had happened between him and Napoleon, something that Benjamin wasn't completely sure about. Whatever it was, Illya was more than willing not to push. "The best. And probably the finest man I know."
"Then I'm glad I saved him." The boy hesitated, as if weighing his next words. "I almost didn't. Didn't really want to. Everything was fine until he came along. You was here, helping me and all. Then, well, everything changed after that, didn't it?"
"No, Benjamin, I would have had to leave whether Napoleon had shown up or not. And, truly," he leaned over and lay a hand on the boy's shoulder, "I don't believe for a moment that you would have let him die. You're just not that kind of person."
"Maybe. But it doesn't make being alone any better, does it?" At that, he got up from the bunk, effectively removing Illya's hand. "It's probably time for you to go."
Illya took a deep breath and also stood. "Yes, it is. Will you walk out with me?"
Benjamin nodded and the two of them began walking toward the door.
"Hold it." Illya turned back and hurried over to the set of drawers set between the bunks. He squatted down and opened up the drawer that had been Napoleon's. His partner had insisted that he'd have no more use for any of the clothes he'd worn while there and that it would be ridiculous to bother packing them. Illya thought otherwise. He quickly pulled out the two pair of Levi's. There was no way he was going to miss out on seeing these on Napoleon again.
He caught up with Benjamin and the two of them exited the bunkhouse. Illya turned once more to the boy. "I know it doesn't help right now, but you won't always be alone. One day you'll make a new friend, one that will mean so much more to you than I do."
"Like you feel about Napoleon?"
"Yes, something like that."
He ruffled the boy's hair and then hurried down the porch steps and toward the waiting helicopter. He leaped into the back and closed the door. Without a word, Howard started the rotors, lifting off as Illya made himself comfortable next to his partner.
"Is he all right?" Napoleon asked.
"Not totally, but he will be."
Illya nodded, smiling down into the dark, beautiful eyes that had captured his soul and now owned it. "I'm fine."
They both turned to gaze out the window behind them as the helicopter lifted, watching the ranch dwindle away and the landscape turn into the perfect beauty of the veldt. And at that moment, Illya knew that never before had it been so true.