A Voice on the Wind (part 3)
Another voyage. Napoleon stood on the deck, and lifted his face to the sun. He wanted to get the most of it before they sailed back into the winds and clouds and poison of the areas nearer the Dome. It had been a year since he last traveled this way, and he was ready for an adventure.
"Isn't daily life adventurous enough?" Susan had asked curiously while she diapered baby Rose. Napoleon had been holding Violet while she waited her turn, and he was trying to entertain her by making faces and sticking out his tongue. She grabbed for it, and Napoleon hastily withdrew it.
"Yes," he had answered, and meant it. It had been a busy and hazardous year. There had been such snowfall that they had been completely snowed in - he and Illya, Charles with his family, everyone else within their own homes. The snow had covered doors and windows and it had been a battle just to clear a way to the privy - a path which disappeared again within the hour. Food was hard to find, and the hungry animals came down into their settlement, prowling the streets, bold as if in their own distant dens. Fox, bears, and pumas were seen, and on one harrowing occasion a pack of wolves had invaded the butcher shop, leaping on the hanging carcasses, tearing open the cupboards and devouring everything not locked in the cold storage basement.
"And you let them?" one of the women had demanded of the butcher. "What are we supposed to do now without meat?"
"Next time you come and tell them no," the man had answered roughly. "They didn't pay my complaints much mind."
"We'll have to get more," Charles had said, and expeditions had been organized on the spot. They had focused on the predators this time instead of the tastier prey, with an eye towards both refilling their larders and lessening the threat.
Yes, it had been a hard winter. But with spring had come food, and the animals had subsided into their usual haunts. More storage cellars were built, and the butcher added sturdy shutters to his windows.
"Yes," Napoleon repeated now, handing over Violet and taking Rose, smiling into her blue eyes, so like Illya's. "But we need supplies, and medicines. We also want to get more salt to preserve the meats, so we don't run so low in future. More people want dogs, and we plan to arrange a special transport for horses."
"All well and good," Alexis spoke up from where she was nursing Edwin. "But why do you, and Illya, and Charles all have to go? Leaving these poor mites fatherless if something should happen to the ship - or on land."
"Everyone will look out for you and our children."
"Humph." Alexis buttoned up. "A lot of fine talk to justify the three of you running away to sea like boys with no responsibilities. But we'll say no more about it. Can you keep Edwin tonight? Illya's already agreed to take the girls. Susan and I want to go to the dance."
"Of course. I'll bring him along with me now." Napoleon took his son and smiled into those brown eyes, which crinkled up as the baby whooped with joy and thumped him on the nose. "Remember when you could tuck him into his cradle and he'd sleep through any dance?"
"I do, but now that he's walking he needs a close watch at all times. At all times, Napoleon," she repeated, giving him a stern look.
"I will," he promised. "You know I will. Come on Eddie, let's go see your cousins."
It was a hectic, loud, and cheerful evening. They took the babies to Charles' home because Sarah loved caring for them, and Mary was a welcome help. All four babies - Charles's Elizabeth as well - toddled about, fell and wailed, were lifted and comforted. Napoleon wished he were an artist, because the sight of Illya holding his twins on his lap was something he would like to capture and hold. Lacking that he contented himself with looking, and trying to imprint it on his memory. They ate on the floor, and the babies ranged from one adult to the other, taking whatever food took their fancy from each in turn. Alcott Solo frowned.
"We're raising a pack of wolf cubs," he said. "We need a bigger table so we can teach them how civilized people eat. And eat like civilized people ourselves, even when we are many."
"Next winter, Father," Charles promised. "And high chairs for the little folk. It will be a good project. If you two will do the same, Napoleon, we shall tame these wolves."
"Yes," Napoleon said, and smiled over at Illya, who was now holding Elizabeth. "Ready to go?"
"Let me get their bags." Illya handed Elizabeth to Mary, who took her and confronted him.
"Don't take the babies away, please? I want to sing them to sleep."
"You can sing Elizabeth to sleep," Napoleon said, and she stamped her foot.
"No! I want to sing them all to sleep! I want to tuck them all in! I want my cousins here!"
Alcott Solo, who frankly doted on Mary, frowned at the two men again. "It is a kind wish," he said sternly. "It should be obliged."
"It's all right," Sarah said, smiling. "The more the merrier. In fact," she blushed. "There will be one more by next springtime."
That brought a round of congratulations and exclamations of joy and surprise, and Solo, all sternness gone, had to sit down and wipe his eyes.
"Now I am thinking that I will have to add another room on to the house," Charles said by way of distraction, and Illya and Napoleon took their leave.
"We should do the same," Napoleon said as they walked, hand in hand, down the path to their home. "We really don't have any place for the babies to sleep even if Mary ever let us take them home."
"I know. We can add on. Another room down, and an extension on the loft above. At some point they'll need separate rooms. Edwin and the girls, I mean."
"I suppose so," Napoleon said, startled. He hadn't given it a thought, but of course they wouldn't be babies forever. Even now the tiny infant who couldn't hold up his head was a distant memory, replaced by this rambunctious boy. "Let's not wait for winter. Let's start as soon as we return."
"I'll ask Dillard to hew us some good wood," Illya promised. "Oh, Napoleon." He stopped, and looked at Napoleon solemnly. "Who would have ever thought we would come here. I never -" he pressed close to Napoleon, who embraced him. "I thought my life was effectively over. There would be nothing but sorrow and suffering and shame until I died. When your father bought me I was so frightened. He was so stern and grim I thought his son would be the same, would punish me for the smallest infraction and keep me short of food to ensure my docility. If I could have willed myself to die that night, waiting for you to enter the room, I would have."
"My love," Napoleon whispered in his ear. "I entered that room a callow selfish boy, thinking only of the pleasures ahead. My pleasures. By the time I left it for the last time, I was a man. I had learned so much - first, that I was not cruel. The sight of your fear quenched my desire so effectively and quickly that I knew that I would not be one who took pleasure in such. I wanted only to comfort you - and yet I was so worried about my position, my status in your eyes. `Be strong', my teachers all said. `He will respect nothing less.'"
"You were strong," Illya whispered against him. "You unchained me, you calmed my fears, you ... you did want my services but nothing was done to add to my misery. And that night -"
"Yes." How well he remembered the welcome warmth of the boy against his back, and how it had warmed his heart, too, to feel the shivering stop, to feel him relax into sleep. "That night - and every night thereafter."
"Every night," Illya echoed, and turned his face up for a kiss. Napoleon obliged, and they kissed there on the dark path, kissed for a long time, and when they finally moved on Napoleon's desire was flaming. Illya's was too, he had felt it, hard and urgent against his own. They hurried through the closing up routines and came together in the big bed in the small loft with joy.
Now Napoleon wished his thoughts had not turned in that direction, as he shifted position to accommodate his burgeoning erection. He should have kept on the train of thought that involved the new construction they had been planning. They would need nails as well as wood, and insulation, and more glass for windows ... the children should have a bright sunny nursery, but with strong shutters against the wind - and the wolves. The image of wolves leaping through the glass as they had leapt through the butcher's windows, tearing at soft baby flesh ... oh, hell. His erection was gone, and why were those images in his mind? He looked about for distraction and Illya was standing right beside him, clearly waiting for him to return from his introspection. And Illya had both arms folded across his chest, and Illya's mouth was set hard. Napoleon blinked at him.
"What? Why do you look like that?"
"Why do you think? You were looking right at them."
"At ... looking at ..." baffled, Napoleon turned his head again and he was staring at the water. At the sailors and other passengers, in the water. Laughing and swimming and frolicking about ... "and?"
"I'm going in," Illya said firmly. "How often does this chance arrive? It is safe at midday, all the sailors say so."
"Safer," Napoleon corrected and now it was Illya's flesh he saw being torn and devoured. "I thought I made this clear. I do not want you ..." he faltered, and stopped at the steel in the eyes that met his. He should be over this by now, he knew he should. Illya would not obey him anymore, he just would not and that was all there was to it. In fact, Napoleon suspected him of refusing perfectly reasonable directives just to avoid the appearance of obedience. But arguing with Illya, commanding him, did not work; would not work ever again. He felt a pang of loss for the gentle boy who had looked at him with such open adoration, and who had hurried to fulfill his least request. But he changed tactics anyway.
"Please?" he asked coaxingly. "Please do not go in. See - I am not telling you, I am asking you."
"I will go in," Illya answered. "This is only another way of commanding me. You still feel you know best, that your fears matter more than my common sense, just because they are yours. I am going in and ... and you don't have to watch if it frightens you so." Without another word he turned, stripped off his clothes, and went over the rail in a clean dive, landing in the middle of the group of men, greeted with whoops and laughter.
Stricken, Napoleon stared at the water. Illya didn't look up at him, didn't seem to care one whit whether Napoleon Solo was watching or not, worried or not. And Napoleon's teachers' words came back to him again - `if a male, he will respect nothing less than strength. Be strong.' But he had not been strong, he had relinquished his authority and this ... this was the result. He was angry, and felt guilty for that anger; and he was, as Illya had so mockingly said, frightened. That shark was down there, and more besides. Gritting his teeth, he removed his clothes and dove over the side. He would guard Illya as best he could, that was his responsibility whether Illya recognized - or appreciated - it or not. But as he swam about, searching for Illya in the crowd of swimmers, his feet fairly tingled with the expectation that at any moment they would be seized in savage teeth and he would be dragged down, down to his death. Damn Illya! Damn ...
"Damn you!" Illya exploded. "What are you doing in here?"
"Protecting you, of course," Napoleon snapped back at him, treading water, trying to keep his legs close to his body. "Since you're determined to be a fool ..." something brushed against his foot and he yelped, pulling them both up as far as he could, overbalancing and going under, choking, peering about with frantic eyes. Then he was yanked to the surface again.
"Unbelievable," Illya said through his teeth and swam towards the ropes, pulling Napoleon with him. He slapped the end of one into Napoleon's hands. "Go up!"
"Not without you."
"Because I am only a foolish boy who cannot be trusted out of your sight? I can take care of myself, my lord!" Illya hit those words with such venom that Napoleon, shocked, stopped swimming and sank again. Sputtering, he came to the surface.
"How could you take care of yourself against that shark?" he demanded, holding the rope. "How could anybody?"
"Then how could you protect me?"
"I don't know. But I'd die trying."
Illya sighed. The anger left his face, and he looked sad. "You really don't get it," he said, shaking his head. "You see me - will always see me - as a helpless, frightened child, and nothing I ever do will change it."
"No," Napoleon protested. "I don't. Illya - you know that's not fair. We've -" he was interrupted by a yell from above.
He grabbed Illya's arm and fairly dragged him up the rope, climbing with one arm wrapped around it, hand clutching it as the other one clutched at Illya. Then Illya took the weight off of him, and he was climbing too. The rope twitched and shook as other men swarmed it. Illya and Napoleon fell over the railing onto the deck and scrambled up, leaning over to help the others. Then they heard the laughter.
"No shark," one sailor gasped, tears streaming down his face. "Just thought you'd lingered there long enough chatting back and forth. But oh, your faces ..." he went off in a gale of laughter.
Napoleon didn't laugh. He turned to Illya, and made him a stiff little bow. "Forgive me for offending you," he said. "I'll try to avoid it in future."
"I'm sorry too," Illya answered. "I was angry, and I said some things I don't mean. I know you're only trying to look out for my well being. I ... I do know that, Napoleon. I may wish you didn't feel the need quite so strongly, but I ... well." He smiled ruefully. "Who would have thought I would ever complain about someone caring about me too much?"
"Do I? Care too much?" None of the things Illya had said had hurt him so deeply. Illya thought he cared too much? Illya found his caring, his ... his love ... burdensome?
"No." Illya came to him, laid his head down on Napoleon's shoulder. Napoleon's arms went around him. "I didn't mean it like that. It's the way you show it ... but no. You could never love me too much, Napoleon. And I love you. That is why your opinion of me matters. When I feel you are taking me lightly ..."
"I never take you lightly." Napoleon drew back enough to look into his eyes intently. "You are the most important thing in the world to me. I'm sorry if I make you feel otherwise."
"And if I want to swim tomorrow?"
"I'll not say one word about it. I promise."
"But you'll come in with me. And try to swim with your knees tucked under your chin."
"I may do that," Napoleon allowed. "How can I not? When I see it as so dangerous, even though you do not? How can I not follow you, and be by your side?"
"All right, Napoleon," Illya answered gently. "All right." The sailors, who had been clustering around the railing laughing at those underneath, were returning to their tasks and the two men drew apart. They said nothing further, and the next day the sky began to darken, the winds picked up, and nobody went swimming after all.
"We should split up," Charles said. "This becomes more dangerous every time. Enough people have left the Dome for our land that the authorities are becoming suspicious. At first, they didn't care. A few radical dissenters vanish - what of it? Good riddance. But now we draw teachers and bankers, law enforcement and ..." his mouth quirked, "elderly leading citizens. So Napoleon, you obtain our medical supplies." He handed Napoleon a list. "I will see to the food. Illya, you go to the animal market. More goats, and dogs, and make inquiries about horses. Perhaps, if we lay in enough supplies, we can have a dedicated ship for the horses next time."
"Wait a minute," Napoleon protested. "Is it safe for Illya to go alone? And don't say it!" he snapped at Illya, who had bristled. "I fear that you may be recognized, and recaptured to be sold again. It is nothing to do with your capabilities."
"And if you say that often enough you may believe it, but I never shall!" Illya flared back at him. "Who will recognize me? That boy no longer exists. I am a man now, and they will not be looking for a man!"
"Napoleon has a valid point," Charles said, and Illya's eyes widened. Before he could speak, Charles continued. "At least conceal your hair. It has not changed. And speak as little as possible - what else would one of your background be doing here except as a slave? I had forgotten all of that."
"Napoleon hasn't!" Illya said through clenched teeth. "But just because that is what you see when you look on me doesn't mean others do! I will meet you at the transport point!" He whirled on his heel and stalked away. Charles sighed.
"I'm sorry, Napoleon. I should have said nothing. And I hope you are wrong, and we gather what we need and depart without incident."
Napoleon frowned, watching Illya's retreating figure until he turned a corner and disappeared from sight. "I do too, Charles," he said finally. "I certainly do."
Illya saw the slave trader as he left the second animal market. He was feeling pleased with himself - four heavily pregnant goats were at that moment being herded towards the pick-up point, and two mastiffs paced along behind them. He had stroked cats, but not bought any. The cats from the first voyage were busy breeders, and there were felines aplenty. He had an eye out for a small male dog to breed with Brownie, and was also following a lead on laying hens. His eyes passed over the slave trader, and snapped back. The man was lounging against a wall, watching a video screen in a store window. For a moment Illya quailed. Was Napoleon right? Did he still wear his slave status like a brand? But the man looked at him indifferently, and then his eyes moved on. Illya straightened. He had been the right one after all. That part of his life was behind him. Nothing of the boy remained in the man he had become. He continued on his way, swaggering a little. He would never be that boy again. He couldn't. He was a proud, independent, hard working and hard fighting man. Whether Napoleon recognized it or not. And ... a sound from behind made him turn, wary again, but there was nothing to be seen except street, and hurrying people, and ...
And then there was nothing. Blackness descended over his face and he brought his hands up to push it away. But a yank around his throat closed off his air, and he was pulled backwards, off his feet, dragged. He grabbed for the rope around his neck but his hands were pulled behind him, and bound. He lowered his head and charged forward, striking someone and knocking them down. The rope loosened, and he gasped in a breath, then a sickly sweet smell filled his nostrils, his head spun, his legs crumpled and he was falling, falling - and gone.
He opened his eyes to see bars. Bars in front of him, beneath him and above. He looked about and he was in a cage, a low cage, with barely enough room for him to crouch on his knees and forearms. His wrists were now bound in front of him, and, when he tried to speak, the words were choked off by a thick wad of cloth. He pulled at the gag and a jolt of pain went through him. He screamed - or tried to scream, though no sound emerged, and the pain came again, and again. It surrounded him, hurting him everywhere. When it stopped he whipped his head from side to side, trying to find the source, but he could see nothing besides the bars of his cage. Everything beyond was in darkness. He reached for the gag again, and again the pain came. This time he could see the sparks on the bars. The entire cage was electrified. There was no place to go to escape the agony that went through him again, and again, and again. Frantic, he threw himself against the bars and was hurt. He backed up as far as he could and was hurt again. He screamed behind the gag and the pain rose. He had to get out! But every move brought the pain. Maybe if he didn't move ... he crouched low and remained motionless, and heard a chuckle.
"That's it, boy. Be still, and quiet. Else ..." and the pain came again, even stronger than before, and longer. He thrashed, jerking and twitching, every chance contact with the bars throwing him against another side, hurting him again, hurting him more.
"Remove the gag," another voice said. "I fancy hearing him scream. Think you're something, don't you, boy? Running away from your master? Don't you know the penalty for that?" And again the pain came, and again. In the next pause someone reached through the bars, hands filling his vision, and pulled the gag out. As soon as the hands were gone the pain returned and he did scream, scream and scream until he couldn't scream anymore, couldn't move, could only lie in a huddled ball and jerk as the current ran through him. He wished wildly that he could pass out, but he didn't. He wished that he could get free, but he couldn't. All he could do was suffer - unendurable suffering that he nonetheless had to endure, because there was nothing else he could do.
Finally it stopped. The top of his prison lifted off and he was pulled out of the cage, thrown to the floor. A booted foot kicked him in the side and he cried out again. "Now," the strange voice said. "Where exactly did you think you were going, boy? You know it was only a matter of time before we found you. Was it worth it? Worth this?" And a new pain shot through him - burning him! Hot ... no! He rolled to the side, away from it, and it followed. He could smell his flesh scorching now and he was screaming again. He wanted to cry Napoleon's name, wanted Napoleon to hear, to come, to save him, but something kept him back. He didn't have the leisure to wonder what that something might be, just held onto its imperative.
When the burning stopped - although it didn't stop, the hurt places raw and savage but at least there was no new burning to endure - he gasped and looked about him again. Then the slave trader was holding his head back by his hair and talking right into his face, softly, almost commiseratingly.
"Where have you been all this time, hey, boy? Have you run mad, thinking you could just go free? Where is your master, Alcott Solo, and where are his sons? Did you kill them? Or did someone else kill them, and steal you? Tell me, and it may go easier on you." And when Illya just stared at him, mouth clamped shut, the man shrugged. "It makes me no matter," he observed. We found you again, didn't we? And mad or sane, it's all one so long as you are obedient."
"He's not obedient, though," the other man objected. "Lord Solo doubtless sold him cheaply. An unruly slave is worse than useless. Throw the cage into the pit and be done with it."
"But look at him," the slave trader said. "Look at him. He's made for fucking, he is. No, I'll recoup my costs with this one. You'll see. Lay him out."
Hands grabbed him, shoved him flat onto his back and while he was still trying to make sense of their words a thick wet cloth was slapped over his face. He gasped, choked on it and then more water was poured through it, making him strangle, and gag, and drown. The water sent him down into a terrible darkness, from which he was ejected by more pain, more shocks. It was a rod of some sort this time, touching him and hurting him everywhere it passed. He screamed, tried to pull away and the water returned, the water and the darkness and the pain, over and over and over again.
Time passed, but he didn't know how much, or how swiftly. He could only track time by the pain. Either they were there, hurting him, or he was alone in the cage, and the cage hurt him. He screamed and cried, but wordlessly. Words were dangerous. They weren't questioning him, not seriously. His life, his story, was of no interest to them. But if they knew - if they even suspected that he did know where the Solos - father and sons - had gone, that there was a place, a world - he couldn't really follow that to a conclusion but images of soldiers, of burning homes, screaming babies, filled him so he swallowed the words, buried his dangerous knowledge. And after a while there were no thoughts, and there was certainly no knowledge. There was nothing but pain and fear, and shame at his own weakness. He should be able to keep silent, manfully silent, under this torture, but he couldn't. The screams were dragged from him by the pain. He shouldn't weep - but the tears came whether he wanted them to or no. He should be stronger, he shouldn't break ... but that thought, like all his thoughts, was lost in the waves of pain and suffocation.
Hands around his throat, squeezing. He coughed, retched, tried to push the hands away, and was shocked again. Then the hands were gone and he tried to crawl backwards, away from them, but they followed, reaching for him, reaching for his throat. For his life. The rod shocked his legs, and he couldn't make them work anymore. It moved up, to his knees, his thighs. His genitals and that pain was so much beyond anything that his screams brought blood from his throat, blood he choked on.
Words exploded from him then, words he couldn't hold back. "No! No no no no please don't do that, please stop hurting me please stop please I'll do anything!" He broke wide open, then, desperate to somehow make it stop before ... before ... `please! I'll do whatever you say, I will, just please stop hurting me! Please?"
There was a pause. "You still don't get it, boy, do you? You'll do whatever we say, whatever we want, anyway. No bargaining, no trade off. I own you, boy. I own you!" And he flicked the switch and the pain ravened through him and when he opened his mouth to scream the cloth was back, the water was back, and the man was right, he was right. There was no appeal, no escape. They would do whatever they wanted, and he would suffer, and ... and that was all.
They bathed him, holding him under the water with a carelessness that was almost worse than the deliberate torture. They washed his hair with his head under the water because it was easier for them, and his breathing a matter of indifference. They dragged a comb through it and that pain, which should have been minor compared to everything else, wrenched moans from him. He was dizzy and sick, his head spinning.
"You're weak, boy," the trader said with contempt. "Weak as well as mad. Look at you, who strutted himself down the street, thinking himself a free man. You are good for nothing, except fucking. You're a pretty little fuck boy, and that's it. It's a pretty mouth, too," he added. "Shame to change its shape by pulling out all his teeth. Get the pliers, you."
There was always another horror, something he had not expected but that they wanted to do to him, and that would hurt so much ...Illya wanted to beg him not to, wanted to plead, wanted to scream out his protests, but when the pliers were lifted and the trader said, "Open your mouth, boy," he did.
He did. He opened his mouth because to refuse would only mean more pain and then they would do it anyway. He opened his mouth and waited.
"Ah," the slave trader said quietly. Caressingly, he brushed Illya's teeth with the pliers. "A fuck boy who doesn't use his mouth is pretty worthless, don't you agree?"
He nodded. Yes, he was worthless, yes he was. He must be. If he had any worth this wouldn't be happening to him. Napoleon wouldn't have sold him, he wouldn't have lost his mind.
"Now if I thought you'd be good, and not bite, I might let you keep those teeth. Your looks will suffer if I remove them, for a certainty, and the price be lower." He frowned as if considering it, weighing the risks and benefits, all the while tapping Illya's back teeth with the pliers.
I won't bite, he almost cried. I promise, I promise I won't bite ... but he held back the words. He hadn't been addressed, he hadn't been asked, and there would be no bargaining, no trade off.
"Ah," the man said again. "Tell me, boy. Will you bite my cock when I put it in your mouth? Will you ever bite a man's cock, or his tongue, or anything else he cares to put in you?"
Illya shook his head. And when the trader shoved his erect penis into his mouth he certainly didn't bite; he sucked, and licked, and used all the tricks he had been taught so long ago - no. Not so long ago. Because he was mad, wasn't he. That other world, that other life, was only in his mind, and that was so sad that he wanted to die. He wished he could die. But they wouldn't let him die. He was a pretty fuck boy, and they liked that. So they would hurt him, but they wouldn't kill him. Maybe if he did this well enough they wouldn't hurt him - for now. For right now nobody was hurting him, and that was as close to good as he was ever going to get. He was crying again as the man came in his mouth, holding his nose so he strangled and choked even as he swallowed. Just as merciful blackness began to steal over him he was thrown aside, kicked aside, kicked into the cage. The top was fastened down, the bars lit with that cruel electrical glow and he jerked and screamed and finally, finally, passed out.
"We have a buyer," the trader said. He opened the cage door and kicked the sides. "Boy! Hear me? We have a buyer. Come out. Stand up."
He tried, he really did, dragging himself onto his knees, but he couldn't get to his feet. They shocked him again and he fell, tangled up in the cage, twisted and broken and weak. Weak. He was weak, and he was crazy, and he was up for sale like ... like the goats, his mind whispered, but he turned away from that. It was part of the madness, that was all, and meant nothing. Then they pulled him out of the cage and cleaned him again, with the same indifference to the suffering they caused. They dressed him in a plain slave tunic, put a metal collar around his neck, pulled his hands behind his back, cuffed his wrists, and pushed him to his knees. He stayed there, swaying. He was cold and hungry, thirsty and throbbing with pain everywhere.
That voice! That voice! Illya lifted his head, incredulous, and was looking up into Napoleon's face. He started to come to his feet and the shock blasted through him, the collar and the cuffs alive with current, sending him to the ground, writhing and screaming. Napoleon stared at him, lip curled with distaste, eyes the eyes of a stranger.
"I thought you said he was ready," he snapped and Illya, who had thought himself broken before, broke completely. Napoleon didn't know him. Napoleon ...he had made Napoleon's kindness and consideration and ... and love ... up out of whole cloth in his own diseased mind.
"He is," the trader said and gave Illya a look that made his bones turn to water within him. "Aren't you, boy." Without waiting for a reply he dragged Illya back to his knees, and gave him a hard shake. "Aren't you?"
Illya nodded. Yes, he was ready, yes he was good, yes, he would obey. Yes yes yes.
"He is as beautiful as you said," Napoleon - or the stranger who inexplicably wore Napoleon's face - mused. "But a little battered for the price you gave me, surely?"
"I can get that much easily from any brothel, if you don't want him."
"You must be mad. A beaten, bruised, rebellious slave? Half that."
"He is not rebellious," the trader protested. "You there! Bring me the rod!"
The rod, sending that sizzling jolting agony all through him ... he could feel the tears again, streaking his face, but without a word he lowered his head, waiting for the pain.
"No," the buyer said. "I need him able to walk. But not at that price."
There was some more bargaining and haggling, and when it was finished the buyer handed over a bag of coins, and the trader handed over the keys to the cuffs and neck collar. After all the buildup it was quickly over, and Illya found himself following his new master out the door.
The sun blinded him, tore at his eyes the way the electricity had torn at his nerves, the way the poker had torn at his flesh. He had to squeeze them shut but then how could he walk? How could he follow this man? He stumbled forward, hoping desperately that he was moving in the right direction. His arm was seized and he was put up against a wall. Something came down over him, over his head, his body, covering him. He whimpered, but made no resistance. He would never resist. He had learned. He was ... he could open his eyes? The hood over his face dimmed the light while still allowing him to see. "Come," the man said curtly, and strode away. Illya stumbled after him.
He was clad in a long robe that tangled around his feet and made him trip. Made him fall. He landed hard on his face, unable to break the fall with his hands cuffed behind him, and heard the man curse. A foot nudged his side. "Up." The man rasped harshly. "Up and walk or by all that's sacred, boy, I'll turn back and see if that rod is for sale as well as you. Now!"
He did. He got up, and he walked. He walked behind his new owner, who was setting a stiff pace. Illya hurried to keep up. He hurt everywhere, and his calves and thighs were cramping with the sudden exercise after all the time caged and in chains. He forced himself ahead, on and on and on. They descended stairs, still hurrying, and were in a crowd of people, being buffeted on all sides by people. The man gripped his upper arm and fairly dragged him onward. Then they were in a small room and the man was pulling the robe off him, up and over his head. His face - Napoleon's face! How could that be, how ...
"Step in," the man said urgently. "That's it, Illya, one foot, now the other." He obeyed, accepting the use of his name without question. His name had been sold along with him, and there was nothing odd about that. He stood still, docilely allowing the man to snap up some sort of suit, a white heavy suit. When the helmet came down, covering his face, he whimpered softly but not in protest, no, he wouldn't protest. If this strange contraption cut off his air he wouldn't protest. He would be good. He wouldn't bite, he wouldn't argue, he wouldn't struggle. He wouldn't ... he was pulled out of the room and again they - the man in an identical white suit, his face hidden now too - were in the crowd of people, many in similar suits, hurrying, hurrying ... down more stairs. A door slid open.
Rows of benches stretched out ahead of him and the man guided him to a place towards the front - a strange room, long and cylindrical in shape. But he didn't wonder at it. He didn't wonder at anything. At this moment nobody was hurting him. He hurt, of course, he always hurt, but he wasn't being actively punished or tortured, he could breathe ... he would take it for as long as it lasted. They sat, and the man put an arm around his shoulders. Illya trembled. Now what? There were hundreds of men crowding into this place. Was he for all of them? Would they drag him down and penetrate him, one after the other? He shook with fear, and tears wet his face again inside the mask.
The space moved. It moved forward, accelerating quickly. The arm around him tightened, and the man patted his shoulder. He didn't speak, so Illya didn't either. Nobody spoke. Everyone sat still and silent and the space continued to move forward at a tremendous speed. He didn't understand, but he didn't need to. The man's hand slid up his neck, to his head, pressed it down onto his shoulder. It was surprisingly - shockingly - comfortable. He was dizzy with the shocks, one after the other, the changes, the newness, and yet... and yet there was something familiar, too, about these rows of white suited men, this silently gliding train. Train. Where had that word come from? But that was what this was, of course, a train of some sort. His head was spinning and he didn't even know when his eyes closed and he slept.
He slept, and woke, with no idea how much time had passed. They got up and used lavatories. They sat at tables, and food was placed in front of them. Illya looked at it. He didn't remember the last time he had eaten but he wasn't hungry, either. In fact, the smell of the food made his stomach roll forward. He fought back the need to vomit because how angry would this man - all these men! - be if he did. Then the man across from him lifted his visor, showing his mouth and a strong chin with a deep cleft. Illya stared at it. The man reached over and pushed up Illya's own visor, indicated the tray of food. Obedient, Illya put his fork in it and stirred it around.
"Eat," the man said and, still obedient, Illya put a forkful of something brown into his mouth. His gorge rose and he gagged, clapped both hands over his mouth, swallowed. He fought to keep it down and in a moment took another forkful. It was no use, he was going to throw up, he was ... the spasm sent him tumbling to the floor, retching and choking. When the hands closed over his shoulders he screamed - almost soundlessly, because his throat was so raw and swollen.
"I'm sorry," he gulped, staring at the mess he hadn't, after all. been able to keep from making. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, my lord I'm ..." other people swarmed around them and he could hear his owner talking earnestly. Only a few words reached him as another wave of sickness went through him.
"No, nothing contagious ... it's just been a long time since he ate or had any real rest. Yes, that would be better. That would be kind. Thank you." He was moved, lifted by other hands. It was on him, then. They would fall on him, one after the other ... they carried him and he didn't struggle, he didn't ... he was good, he was. He was laid down on a flat surface and his helmet removed. A cool wet cloth touched his forehead - the water! The water poured through the cloth ... but it didn't. His face was wiped carefully and his tongue came out to lick at the wet cloth without his willing it.
"It's okay, Illya," his buyer said, and his voice was gentle, tender ... loving. What ... what was happening? Was he losing his mind again? Would it be so bad if he did? Blackness was pulling him away, away from here, away from now, away from everything. Maybe he was dying. Wouldn't that be good? Dying, and beyond their reach. Dying.
Napoleon looked down at Illya's face, and wiped his cracked lips again. Even from the depths of wherever he had retreated to his tongue came out to catch the drops. Napoleon squeezed some more out and Illya swallowed once, twice, before turning his head away.
Napoleon had wanted to go in raging, armed to the teeth, and tear Illya away from them, but Charles had forbidden it. "We cannot risk being pursued," he had said - harshly, for him. "As it is, suspicions are being raised. Soon we will have to find another way to get the supplies we need. If you steal him -"
"You can't steal a human being! Who knows what they're doing to him in there? We have to rescue him now!"
"No," Charles had repeated. "We have to be more subtle than that. We will set up a viewing, and purchase him. No one will think anything of that - they are already putting out feelers to their wealthy buyers. A rich man will enter, buy a slave, and leave with him. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to remember. Just one transaction among the many they will carry through this year. And it should not be you." He eyed Napoleon, and sighed. "But I know you will insist. Have you considered that he may give us away when he sees you? He may cry out your name, make it plain he knows you. If he hasn't given it all away already, under the torture."
"Not Illya," Napoleon said confidently. "He's too brave, and too smart for that. He has told them nothing, else they would already be looking for us. And even when he sees me, he'll play along."
"I hope he is in a condition to do so. They will have drugged him, at the very least."
"They'll be hurting him." Napoleon swallowed hard. "I have to get him out of there."
And they had. But it was so much worse than Napoleon had expected. Illya was beaten and burned, starved and nearly out of his mind with fear. At first Napoleon had thought he would give the plan away after all, but then he had shrunk from Napoleon as if he were indeed a stranger, a dangerous stranger. Napoleon had hoped he was only playacting, but well before Illya's collapse in the dining hall he had known that for the folly that it was. Illya was ... he was in worse shape than he had been that first night, chained to Napoleon's bed. He cowered away from Napoleon's touch, he shrank from his voice. But if he was broken, he was also safe. At this very moment he was safe, head on Napoleon's lap, and that was the important thing. The only thing. Everything else could be - would be - managed. Surely it would.
When Illya woke, he felt not better, but different. Even as he lay, eyes still closed, he realized where he was. The conflicting images from the day before solidified in his mind, making sense now as they hadn't before. The white uniform with visor - yes. The long lines of sitting men, the forward motion - he was on a carrier, as he had been previously. Napoleon - Napoleon, helping him dress, offering him food, wiping his face with a cool cloth. Napoleon kicking him, shouting at him, threatening him with the rod. Which was real? Was anything real? Maybe he was still in prison, even at this moment drowning, his brain frantically trying to call up images his mind could tolerate. His whole body jerked at the thought, and another voice came - familiar, reassuring, but not Napoleon's voice, not his master's voice.
"Illya. Be still."
Oh, he would be still, he would obey. He froze, waiting for further commands. They came.
"Look at me, Illya. Open your eyes and look at me."
He did, and was looking into the face of a man, a worried man, a man he knew. But he said nothing. He wouldn't speak first, he knew better than that. He knew ... he knew how to be good. He would be good. So he looked into Charles Solo's face, and locked the questions and the fears behind his closed mouth.
"Good." Charles smiled at him. "You know me?"
He nodded. Was that the right response? He did know Charles, Napoleon's brother.
"Napoleon hasn't slept since you didn't meet us at the rendezvous point. We're still a long way from home, so let him rest. Is there anything I can do for you?"
Oh, that was a hard question. If he shook his head no, wasn't that the same as telling this man no? If he nodded yes, then what? If he ignored the question that was bad, surely. He didn't know what to do. Tears spilled over and he pressed closer to the comforting warmth against his back. Charles reached a hand towards his face and he flinched, squeezed his eyes shut, feeling more tears streak his face.
"All right," Charles said. "It's all right, Illya. You're safe now. The drugs should be wearing off, and that will help too."
Drugs? What drugs? He looked at Charles again, and although he didn't ask the question, Charles seemed to read it in his eyes. "They drugged you very heavily," he said. "If you're having trouble with time and place, that's why. Now you're in withdrawal, which is why you were so sick."
Sick? Oh! Yes, he had vomited! In front of his master! What were they going to do to him? He whimpered, then, freshly horrified, clamped his hands over his mouth to keep silent. The warmth against him shifted, moved, and Napoleon's voice reached him.
"Illya? What - was I asleep? Charles. Is he all right?"
He had woken Napoleon up after being told not to. He hadn't meant to wake him, but he had. Now surely would come the strap, the fists, the water and the rod. He turned, pushed his face against Napoleon's stomach, realizing too late that he was seeking protection from the man who was about to punish him. Before he could react to that he was drawn even closer, arms strong around him, Napoleon leaning over him, whispering into his ear.
"Illya. Illya, my love. It's all right. It's all right. You're safe here, with me. I'm sorry I had to act - I'm sorry I - I had to get you out of there without them suspecting. Charles said ... Charles thought ... I'm sorry, sweetheart. So sorry."
"Charles was right," Charles said tartly. "No one is chasing us, we need not fear this carrier will be halted and searched, or that troops will be waiting at the ship; endangering not only ourselves, but risking the entire enterprise. But I too am sorry, Illya, that it took so long. We did our best, Napoleon and I." He waited, then, "Why won't he speak, Napoleon? Illya - don't you understand me?"
"He won't speak first. He will only answer. Illya. Do you know where we are?"
"A ... a carrier, my lord?"
"Napoleon. Yes, that's right. A carrier. Good. Do you know Charles ... and me?"
"Yes, my lord." This was easier. Simple questions, to which he knew the answers. He looked up into Napoleon's face. The cold stranger was gone and Napoleon was ... Napoleon was smiling at him.
"Good, Illya," he said softly, and Illya relaxed a little. He was pleasing his master. "And after the carrier is the ship, and then home. It's over. You were captured, it was bad, and now it's over. Yes?"
"Yes, my lord."
Why did his master keep repeating his name? Did he think Illya still didn't recognize him? Would that make him angry? So he nodded.
"Napoleon. I know you, my lord. But they said ..." he choked. He was saying too much, nobody had asked him what `they' had said. "I'm sorry."
"No, go on. What did they say?"
"They said I was mad, my lord. That you had doubtless sold me for insolence, and I was insane."
"Why would they say that?" Charles voice was sharp. "What did you tell them, Illya? Did you tell them about the ship? About our life in the new world?"
"I ... I don't ... I'm sorry! I don't know! I'm sorry!"
"Stop it, Charles," Napoleon said, and his voice was sharp too now. They were cutting him open with their sharp angry voices. "You're frightening him."
"He is frightening me," Charles returned, but the anger was gone. "Illya. Try to think. Why exactly did they tell you that you were mad? Their exact words."
Their exact words. He thought, although it meant sending his mind back, back to that place, back to ... "Me, strutting down the street like a free man, when I am a thing, only a thing, a thing made for fucking." He wept then, great tearing sobs and Napoleon cradled him, rocked him, stroked his hair, kissed his forehead. But Charles persisted.
"Nothing else? They said nothing about ... about the sun, and dolphins, and forests? Illya! Think!"
But he couldn't think. Charles was angry with him, and angry men were dangerous, they were ... Napoleon lifted him into a sitting position, shifting so they were now side by side.
"Stop it, Charles," he said again. "Let me. Illya. Is that all? That you were a free man? Is that all they tried to take from you?"
"I don't mean it like that. Did they - or you - talk about this carrier right here, with the white suits and the endless days of travel? Think, Illya. Charles is right- it is important."
"No, my lord. Nothing like that."
"All right. What about the ship? The time in the hold, the time on deck, the ... the sharks in the water. Storms and wind, and seeing the sun. Did they taunt you, perhaps, with the impossibility of any of those things?"
"No, my lord. They didn't know about ... I ... I didn't tell them!" It burst from him as if his head had cracked open, and a shaft of light had spilled through. "They asked where I had been, but I knew ... I knew that was a secret. A great secret. I thought of them landing on our shores, storming into our camp ... the women and the babies ... the houses in flames ... I didn't tell them, my lord! Truly I didn't! I said nothing! They didn't really care, anyway; didn't think I could have anything of worth to say. They just hurt me, and they killed me, over and over again, into the water, the water in me, the rod ... my lord! Is it really you? Your arms - they have never harmed me, never. You found me? You saved me? I ... I was worth that to you? Truly? Or am I mad indeed, now and forever mad?" He cried again, ashamed at his lack of control but unable to prevent it, any of it, the tears and the sobs and the gasping for breath.
"And under the drugs?" Charles said. "They drugged you. Did they question you then? Because you might not remember, Illya, what you said. I don't know what they gave you but if it was a truth drug of some sort you might have answered, despite your best efforts. No blame could attach to you, brother. But we need to know."
"I didn't know they drugged me. But ..." he fell silent, letting himself remember their voices, hearing it, feeling it ... he clutched at Napoleon, afraid of his own daring, afraid to let him go. "I'm sorry my lord," he gasped, fingers digging into Napoleon's arms through the suit. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry ..."
"It's all right," Napoleon soothed him. "Illya, it's all right. Hold on to me all you want. I'm not angry. I promise. Answer Charles."
That part was a command, and he tried again, tried to think. He thought about what they said to him, and how they treated him, and finally he shook his head. "They didn't ask me anything. They told me. They told me what I was, and what they would do to me. They - they wanted me to stop fighting, to be obedient, to have value. I have no value as a rebellious slave. My only value is my looks. It's always been my looks. I'm made for fucking, and I can't fight them. I won't, my lord. I promise you. I'm good. You won't regret taking this trouble for me. I don't even feel sick anymore. You'll like fucking me again, you'll see. And you can put it in my mouth if you want. I won't bite, I'll be good. You'll see, my lord." Comforted by Napoleon's arms, Napoleon's body, Napoleon's voice, whispering reassurances, whispering words of love, he laid his head down on Napoleon's shoulder. He was sleepy again, but that was all right. He could sleep. Even Charles had stopped asking questions, and was patting his shoulder.
"Good for you," he said, and his voice wasn't sharp anymore. It was kind. "Illya - good for you. You kept us all safe - the women and the babies and the homes. Good for you."
"Good for you," Napoleon echoed and he was rocking again, back and forth, slow and steady, a sweet rhythm that made it impossible to resist the black tide stealing over him, pulling him down, down into Napoleon's arms, deep into Napoleon's love, and once safely there he slept.
Napoleon leaned on the railing once again, and stared out over the blue water. Beside him, Illya stood very close. They didn't speak - Napoleon because he had nothing to say, and Illya because he wouldn't speak unless Napoleon did. He pressed against him, as he always did these days; right up against him, and Napoleon's arm was wrapped around his shoulders. It was a peaceful moment, and Napoleon savored it. Because despite the terrible ordeal he had been through Illya was alive, with him, and doing better. He was, Napoleon thought, stealing a glance at that pure, clean profile. He was doing better.
Physically he had almost completely recovered. He was too thin, still, but the bruises and welts and burns had faded. He ate with real appetite, and slept without screaming - as long as Napoleon was there. And Napoleon was always there. He stayed close to Illya, knowing that all Illya's security was tied up in him.
Furthermore, Illya was oriented to time, and place. He understood the sequence of recent events. He no longer questioned his own sanity, and seemed contented enough on this journey. He smiled at Napoleon frequently, and acquiesced to everything he said. Everything. Napoleon sighed. In short, he was the perfect Companion for a well born man. Even as Napoleon thought that, a burly sailor ran to the railing, peeling off his clothes as he went. He vaulted over and hit the water with a splash, greeted loudly by those already there. Again, Napoleon looked at Illya.
Illya watched the swimmers below with the same air of detachment he gave to everything except for Napoleon himself. Napoleon cleared his throat, and Illya turned to look at him - not inquiringly, but signaling his attention.
"Do you want to go in?" Napoleon asked, and, when Illya's brows furrowed, he indicated the noisy crowd below. "It's hot today."
"If you want to, my lord, of course I will accompany you."
"No, I don't want to. But I thought that you might."
"If you wish it," Illya said, rather doubtfully.
"What do you want?"
"To be here beside you, my lord. But if you want me to swim, I will."
And if somebody had told Napoleon that he would miss Illya's contrariness, his obstinacy; that he would desire above all else to see Illya dive into that water whether Napoleon wanted him to or no, he would have scoffed. In fact, hadn't he been waxing nostalgic for his sweet biddable Companion; missing the boy who had hung on his every word, and watched him with adoration in those great eyes? Hadn't he? Well, now he had it. Illya wouldn't swim against his wishes - Illya wouldn't do anything unless Napoleon Solo told him to. And it was ashes in his mouth. Looking ahead to their homecoming, he felt a great load of responsibility. He did not have a partner in their hard life. He had ... not a burden, no, because he loved Illya; and moreover Illya would complete whatever tasks Napoleon set him. If he told Illya to cut wood and carry water Illya would, willingly. But in an emergency, what would he do? Would he rise to an unexpected occasion? Or would he wait for orders? What if ... what if Napoleon right now jumped into the water? Leaving no instructions, just going. What would Illya do? Would he remain on deck, or would he follow?
He remained on deck. Napoleon had jumped, trying very hard not to think about sharks and other monsters in the depths, because suddenly he had to know. He jumped, sank, and regained the surface, looking up at the ship. He could see the sun striking fire off of Illya's hair, and waved to him. Illya lifted a hand in response, but he made no other move. Was he anxious, at being left? Napoleon knew that he would be, so he waved again, this time a clear gesture to join him and Illya jumped, landed beside him, surfaced and treaded water by his side. He showed no surprise at Napoleon's actions, but after a moment he smiled, lifted his face to the sun.
"Feel good?" Napoleon asked, and he nodded.
"Yes, my lord. It does."
"Swim with me," Napoleon urged him and struck out, making a circuit around the ship. Illya followed him, and when they returned to their starting point the ropes were coming down. Napoleon put Illya's hands onto one of the great knots. "Hold on," he said, and as Illya was lifted he grabbed on too and together they were brought up onto the deck. Illya smiled at him again.
"That was -" he began and stopped, face stricken.
"Was what?" Napoleon asked coaxingly. "Go on, Illya, it's all right. You can speak whenever you like. You are free, do you remember? I will not be angry, I promise you."
"Nothing, my lord." Illya had bent his head, and Napoleon couldn't see his eyes. So he put a finger under Illya's chin, and lifted his face again.
"It's all right," he repeated. and Illya looked at him searchingly.
"Is it?" he asked, and Napoleon kissed the tip of his nose.
"Yes. It is. It is more than all right. Do you not remember, sweetheart, how it was between us? How we talked, and disputed, and laughed, and even argued? Like when you wanted to swim, and I was afraid of the sharks?"
"Yes." Illya frowned. "You were angry with me, my lord. Very angry. I ..." he trembled, and Napoleon drew him close.
"Perhaps I was. But it meant nothing."
"I went in, against your expressed desire, and ... and we quarreled! Didn't we? We quarreled about swimming! You were ... is that why you sold me back to them? Because I defied you? I am sorry, my lord. Very, very sorry! I will never ..." he choked, and Napoleon rocked him a little.
"I did not sell you back to them, Illya," he said, trying to maintain his calm, knowing that this was important, right here and right now. This - what Illya had said, what he said now - was important. "They captured you. They abducted you, imprisoned you, drugged and tortured you. It had nothing to do with any disagreement we had had. They knew nothing of it - nothing of me. Nothing of you, Illya, because in you they had all the secrets of the rebellion, if they had known it. They saw an opportunity for profit - and revenge, I am sure - and that is all. I would never sell you. I cannot! You are not mine to sell."
"Am I not?" Illya trembled again, and Napoleon brought him down to their little secluded sleeping place behind the mast. "Then what am I? Whose am I? What holds us together, then, if not that you own me, that I am your property?"
Napoleon waited for a moment while he ordered his thoughts. "You are not my property - or anyone's. You are your own, and a free citizen of our new world. We are held together, and I will never leave you, because I love you. Love is our bond. That is all we need."
Nothing more was said as they settled in for the night. The sky had darkened, and they gazed up at the stars together, Illya's head on Napoleon's shoulder, their arms tight about one another. Then Illya whispered, "I love you too, my lord."
"Napoleon. Please. Call me Napoleon."
"Napoleon. I love you. The rest of your words are hard for me, and I will have to think about them. But that you love me, and I love you, yes. I remember that. I know it."
"I'm glad." He kissed Illya's cheek, rejoicing. It would take time, but Illya would come back to him, all the way back to him. And if you want to swim alone, or ... or leap from the mast and ride the backs of those dolphins, I will applaud you and ... and let you go. Because you will always come back to me, and I to you.
They were becalmed. For endless days, and now weeks, they lay motionless, the sails drooping limply. As they stood by the rail, Napoleon told Illya about the ancient days he had read of, where slaves sat below decks, oars thrust out through openings in the ship's hull, and rowed. "They were chained to their posts," Napoleon related, and Illya looked at him somberly.
"And if a storm came? And the ship sank?"
"I suppose they sank with it."
Illya shivered. "It is a terrible thing, when people are owned, like the goats." Then he paled, shrank ... not away, but closer against Napoleon's side. "Are you offended with me, my ... Napoleon? I'm sorry!" he added quickly, when Napoleon turned his head to look at him. "I know you don't want me to call you that. I'm trying to remember, I am, I ..." when Napoleon hugged him, dropped a kiss on the top of his head he subsided, plainly relieved. He didn't move away, however, just rubbed his cheek against Napoleon's shirt.
"I rather like the mistake," Napoleon said after a moment. "It sounds as if you are saying `my Napoleon', reminding me that I belong to you, too, that I am your Napoleon as you are my Illya. Not belong belong," he added hastily. "Just ... well, that we belong together."
"That's a nice way to think of it," Illya said after a long moment. Napoleon nodded. It was nice. After another long pause he ventured to ask another question.
"What do you remember of our life at home, Illya? Do you - do you remember the babies? Your babies, and mine?"
Illya was so still that he almost seemed to cease to breathe. "Yes," he whispered finally, voice so soft Napoleon had to strain to hear him. "I pushed that away, down, back and down and away, because I didn't want them to know."
"Them? The babies?"
"No. The slave trader and his men. I thought of what they would do to our little ones, so I buried it deep. I never thought about them. It seemed safest. But now ... now I can?"
"Now you can," Napoleon agreed, and hugged him some more. "Have I told you lately how awed I am by your courage, and your resourceful mind?"
"It is kind of you to say so, my ... Napoleon." Then he looked up at Napoleon with a very faint trace of his customary impish smile. "My Napoleon."
"My Illya," Napoleon answered and Illya turned his face up, as if ... as if for a kiss. They had not kissed on the mouth since Illya's rescue because Napoleon didn't want it to look as if ... as if he wanted what they had wanted, what Illya feared. But this seemed like a good time, and no one was around, so he did kiss Illya's lips, softly, very lightly; no hint of tongue or passion. When Napoleon drew back, Illya's eyes were shining.
"I remember that as well, Napoleon," he whispered. "Don't worry that I would ever confuse you with them. I remember how it was, how it is, when you love me and I you. I will not be sorry when we are once again ..." he frowned, as if trying to pull something back up from the depths he had talked of. Then his face brightened. "Once again in our own home, in our loft, on our soft mattress and wonderful linens. That's where we are going, right? Home?"
"Home," Napoleon agreed. "I suppose the babies will have grown."
"We were going to build tables, and add another bedroom on to our house, weren't we. Because they are growing so quickly."
"Good. Will - will everyone have to know what happened to me?"
"Not necessarily. It is only Charles and I who know, and if you wish it kept among us, then that is where it will stay."
"Good." Illya looked relieved.
"But you know, sweetness, that none of it was your fault. It was just bad luck that the slave trader was there, and recognized you. I wish we had considered that that might happen earlier, but it never occurred to me. You seem so different to me, but of course your face and hair and eyes are unchanged. Did they not notice that you are far more, well, like a grown man in your build?"
"They did comment that whoever had held me in the intervening time had had other uses for me besides the obvious. They held him - that unknown owner - in some contempt, because after all, I'm only made for fucking."
"I wish I could have killed them all," Napoleon said savagely. "I wanted to - I lusted to. But Charles would not permit it. And I suppose he was right. We did make our escape unpursued and unhindered. But I think it would be best if you did not return with us next time. Until we hear that all who would recognize you are gone, that is."
"Have no fear," Illya said, and shivered. "I have no desire to return. Even before that happened I found the city depressing and dark."
"Me too. I wish we could be self sufficient, but we have no way of making medicines, and despite the men's best efforts coffee beans do not grow well in our new world."
"Did we get the supplies we came for? I forgot all about that. I was supposed to be seeking animals."
"Yes, the goats are on board and two have given birth already. The two biggest dogs I ever saw share their very own cabin, and it has struck me that we could perhaps find wolf cubs or fox kits to breed with our own."
" Brownie and a fox," Illya said, clearly bemused. "It is an interesting prospect."
"A small brown dog with a big bushy red tail," Napoleon said, and laughed. Illya smiled, then leaned over the rail. "Would you like to swim?" Napoleon asked, and Illya shook his head. Then he stiffened, leaned further. Napoleon clutched his arm.
"Please do not hang so far over. You could ..." then he stopped. He had seen what Illya had seen. And, from the shouts coming from the others on deck, they were not alone.
It was a small boat, without sails. It was too far distant to clearly make out any details, or determine who, if anyone, was aboard. As Napoleon was straining his eyes the captain came over, and Charles was with him. The captain was using his spyglass. "Are we pursued?" Charles asked sharply.
"Too small," the captain answered, without lowering the glass. "But I do not understand the strange symbols on the flag. Here" He passed it to Charles, who looked through it for a moment, then turned to Illya.
"Here," he said, and his voice sounded odd, Napoleon thought. "You look."
"Napoleon should go first," Illya said nervously, stepping back. "I -"
"No. I want you to look." Charles put it in Illya's hands, and, with obvious reluctance and a sideways look at Napoleon, he used it. Then he dropped it. Napoleon snatched it out of the air before it could fall overboard, and the captain grabbed it from him. He cuffed Illya on the side of the head.
"Stupid!" he shouted. "It is the only one I have! Don't think it!" he added harshly to Napoleon, who had rounded upon him in fury. "I am the captain here and I am over every man on board! And if our spyglass falls into the ocean we will all regret it!"
"It's all right, Napoleon," Illya said, rubbing his head. "I didn't mean to be careless," he added to the captain. "I was just so surprised ... may I see again? I will take greater care."
"Best do that," the captain grumbled, but he handed it over. Illya stared again at the boat, which seemed to be drifting aimlessly, just as they were. Then he handed it back. "Well?" the captain barked. "What is so surprising, beyond the fact of its presence here at all?"
"It is ... Illya began, then stopped. He looked uncertainly at the captain, then at Napoleon.
"Go on," Charles urged. "Or let me guess. It is a ship of the Others, is it not?"
"Yes," Illya said reluctantly.
"The devil you say! We'll blow it out of the water then!"
"No!" Illya's voice was suddenly harder than Napoleon had heard it since his capture. "No! Why would you do that? They are clearly fleeing, just as we are! And I think I saw women and children on board!"
"If they are fleeing in an open boat they are desperate indeed," Charles said. "And no danger to us, I warrant. We could, as you say, blow them out of the water. In fact, they know it. See how they are rowing away!"
Indeed the small boat was moving off, and when Napoleon took the spyglass he could clearly see two men rowing hard, casting terrified looks over their shoulders. In the back of the boat three women huddled together, and smaller shapes lying on the bottom might be children.
"I will hail them," the captain declared. He lifted a megaphone. "Ahoy there in the open craft! Stop rowing and prepare to be boarded!"
The men only redoubled their efforts, and Illya snatched the megaphone. The captain grabbed for it back but Illya hung on. "They don't understand your language!" Illya said urgently. "Let me try! Please!"
"Well ..." the captain began. He said nothing else, but let Illya take the megaphone. Illya lifted it to his lips and called out.
It was such a strange sound! Napoleon stared at him. He wished suddenly that he had made more of an effort to learn Illya's tongue. They had tried, using the books Napoleon had brought back, but with even the letters so different, and so many of the words being unpronounceable no matter how he tried, they had let it drop. But Illya was still talking, and the men in the boat had stopped rowing to look back. Then one rose, cupped his hands to his mouth, and shouted back in the same tongue.
"They are taking on water," Illya said. "They have been bailing and rowing for ..." he called out again, and the man answered. "They don't know how long. They have lost most of their party. The children are nearly dead. What - what are they doing!"
Two of the sailors had run to the deck and were aiming guns at the craft. They fired, and the men bent low and began rowing again. Illya dropped the megaphone and ran to the sailors. He grabbed for their guns, and they shoved him aside. He grabbed again and this time Napoleon and Charles joined him. "What are you thinking?" Illya demanded, and they looked at him as if he were mad.
"They are the Others! I have heard their wretched tongue before! And how do you come to speak it so well?"
"I am Other," Illya retorted, and when they stared at him in slack jawed surprise he took advantage of the moment to grab for their guns again. He got one away this time, and Charles took the other. "I am Other, and they are defenseless. They are women and children! What is wrong with you? Why would you fire at such helpless frightened people?"
"They are nearly out of range anyway," the captain said. "Let them go. They won't last long out here . What are you doing!"
Illya had climbed onto the rail, and without a pause dove out into space, slicing cleanly into the water. In a moment his head reappeared, and he began swimming to the boat. Napoleon was in after him before pausing to think. He swam hard, but before he could catch up Illya was being pulled into the boat by one of the men. Napoleon put his face into the water and stroked as fast as he could. When he lifted his head to breathe he saw the rowboat was coming towards him. It was Illya now leaning over the rail, and Napoleon grabbed for him. Illya pulled him in and there they both were, on the small open craft with - with the Others.
Napoleon quailed. He had grown accustomed to Illya, but had always considered him an anomaly; had not changed his mental image of the Others as savage, hulking, uncivilized brutes. But these men were ... just men. If Napoleon had not heard their strange speech - if he were not hearing it now, as they conversed earnestly with Illya - he would not have known them for what they were. How many times do I have to learn the same lesson, he thought ruefully, and then a soft sobbing came to his ears. He turned, and knelt beside a woman, who was weeping and cradling a naked child.
It was plain to see that the little boy was near death. His mouth was cracked, and his tongue swollen. His eyes were sunken in his head, and his little body was skeletal. As Napoleon's eyes moved over to the other child, he saw that she was in the same state. He could see, too, his own baby boy, starving, dying of thirst, too weak even to cry, and he saw Alexis sobbing over him. Tears stung his eyes.
"We must take them on board our ship," he said to Illya. "They will die else."
"Yes," Illya said. "But they are fearful, and who can blame them? And we should ask the captain. He is right, it is his ship. You swim back and talk to him. I will remain here, and try to reassure them." Then he stopped, looking so dumbfounded that Napoleon would have laughed if his heart were not breaking in two, looking at the miserable people huddled in the boat, shrinking from him as if he were just as likely to hurl the children overboard as to help them. "Is ... is that all right, my ... Napoleon? I mean - I am giving you orders, as if ... as if ..."
"As if you were in command of this situation, and I were not," Napoleon said, and smiled at him. "Yes, it is all right. I will do as you say. Tell them that I am going to get more help." And as Illya once again broke into that incomprehensible talk he gently brushed the child's face. "Fear not," he said to the woman, hoping his voice and his touch would say what his words could not. "We will help you - all of you." Then he went back into the water, and swam for the ship. The ropes were already down and he grabbed them, suddenly remembering the sharks. Odd that he hadn't thought about them before.
"There are two men, three women, and two children, little more than babies," he reported to the captain. "They seem to be unarmed. All are near death from hunger and thirst and exposure. I request permission to bring them on board. They could stay in the empty cabins that women generally use."
"And you would bring the Others to your new world?" the captain asked. "Bring war and destruction down upon your families and friends? If you had told me your man was of them I would not have taken him on board in the first place."
"They are trying to escape war and destruction," Charles said. "And if you had asked about Illya's origins - about his accent, for example - we would have told you. We did not consider it important. We will be responsible for their conduct."
"The first sign of rebellion or trouble, and they are overboard," the captain warned and Napoleon, taking that as assent, went to the railing and waved. He made welcoming gestures, urging with his hands and his arms, and first Charles, then the captain, joined him.
The small craft approached, the two men rowing as before, and Illya in the stern. He caught the ropes they threw him, and secured the boat to it. Then he scrambled up the rope. "The men can climb," he reported. "They have long had the larger share of rations, and any fish they could catch, as well as more rainwater. All knew that without them the vessel would have been lost already. But the women and children are too weak. We will need to fashion some sort of basket for them. Someone go ahead to prepare their quarters, and get them some water, and something to eat."
Napoleon had to smile, watching the sailors hurry to follow Illya's orders. Together he, Charles, and Illya found a deep wicker basket, generally used to stow bread. They tied it securely to the ropes and first they, then the basket, went over the side.
It took several trips, and there were some harrowing moments when the basket tipped, but each time there was a man there to hold it, to right it, to reassure the terrified passenger. Finally, all were aboard.
Face to face with the Others, both captain and crew rallied quickly. The women and children were whisked off to their quarters, to be given food and drink and new clothes. Illya talked earnestly to them, clearly offering reassurances and promises of safety. The men hung awkwardly back, but seemed relieved to have the burden of their party's safety lifted from their shoulders. They ate ravenously, and later that evening they told their tale, with Illya interpreting as they spoke.
"We had taken shelter in one of the smaller Domes," one said, pausing to let Illya interpret. "It had never been of much importance, and had no military value. We were overlooked. The war ended. We felt safe. We had children, and raised them. We ... and then the Dome cracked."
There was a longer pause after this statement while Illya, clearly incredulous, talked and then the man talked, the other man breaking in, both nodding vigorously. Finally, Illya turned to Napoleon. "He says the Dome cracked," he said, and there was absolute silence. The captain broke it.
"Cracked! How could that be? The Domes are impregnable! Unless ... unless it was damaged in the war?" Illya turned to the men and, presumably, asked the captain's question. The men shrugged, but one shook his head
"I do not see how. It was never targeted, never bombed. Of course we did not know how to do any of the maintenance it no doubt required. Perhaps there are steps that should have been taken that were not. All I know - all we know - is that one day there was a huge tearing sound and then a crack appeared. A small crack, but every day it grew. We ... there was a great dispute. Some felt it meant nothing. Some - we - felt it presaged disaster. We urged flight, but in the end it was only a small party of about twenty who took to the tunnels."
"Tunnels?" Napoleon asked. "You mean - like the carriers use to travel between Domes?"
"Yes, although most of the carriers had been moved to more valuable areas, and some were destroyed. We had to climb over them, and ..."
"Twenty?" the captain said. "Twenty of you left the Dome? But there are only seven now."
"Yes. We lost a large group in the tunnels when an empty carrier tore loose and, running uncontrolled, came upon us while we slept. We ran, we climbed, we pressed against the walls, but the carrier was so large and it ran them down ..." then his voice broke, and he wept. "It ran down my son," he choked. "I climbed, and reached to pull him up, and the carrier rushed through and tore him from my arms."
"How did you know there was any place to escape to?" Charles asked, after a period of silence while the man recovered himself, and Illya repeated his words. The other man answered.
"We did not know. We only knew that when the outside air got inside the Dome, all would die. I work in manufacturing and building, and a crack like that - it does not heal itself. We hoped to find another Dome, perhaps, or ... we knew not. We were just fleeing for our lives. The tunnel ended at a seaport, and we ... we stripped the suits from the corpses lying about and took to the sea in this boat. From that time to this we have lost everyone else - only we who speak to you live. We rowed straight out, away from the poisoned air - and, we believed, away from your land. We knew what sort of greeting we would get from Destroyers."
"Destroyers!" the captain snorted. "How dare you refer to us as such? We ..." Illya put up a hand.
"Please," he said wearily. "I am not even interpreting that. You call us Others - when to ourselves we are the True Sons of the Land. We call you Destroyers, and to yourselves you are the Righteous. Have not enough people died over those words? Do we need to continue the battle here, and now? And what sort of greeting did they get from you and your men?" He was interrupted by one of the Others, and listened intently. Then his face darkened. He answered at length, and when he gestured towards Napoleon, then at himself Napoleon knew, without being told, that Illya had been asked why he was with Destroyers, and he had answered.
"Please tell him," Napoleon said awkwardly, "that it is not that way between us now. That we have no lords, only companions, in our new world. Tell them - that you were asked to join your line with ours, that children of your blood live and thrive there. Tell them they are welcome to join us, or, if they do not wish to, that we will repair their craft and give them provisions. Tell them ..." it was his voice that broke now. "Tell them I am sorry, for the devastation of their land and all the deaths. I did not know."
Illya was looking at him with that deep affection that Napoleon had not seen in too long. "I will tell them," he answered, and, turning, talked for a time. The men looked at him, and at Napoleon. They looked at Charles. Then the man held out his hand and first Illya, then Napoleon, then Charles, shook it.
"Hey," the captain objected. "What about me? I had naught to do with that war. I confess to having believed that all Others were violent brutal beasts, but I see I was wrong. I see ... that you are men like myself, and my crew. Will you not shake my hand as well?"
When Illya had translated that, the man broke into a wide grin and instead of shaking hands he embraced the captain, who, after an awkward moment, embraced him back. There was much embracing after that, and back thumping, and when all was done the men went to sleep in the hold - `we've seen enough open sea, thank you very much,' one said drily to Illya when sleeping areas on the deck were proposed, and the captain went to his quarters.
Illya, Napoleon, and Charles stood by the railing. "The Dome cracked," Charles said, and his voice was troubled. "How could that be? Is it indeed a lack of maintenance, or possibly a weapon did strike it before this party retreated there? Because otherwise ..."
All were silent. Then Illya said, "I don't know, Charles. But if it is maintenance - what type of maintenance is done now? Are there crews of workers who know how to keep it in working order? Or is that, like much else, a lost skill?"
"Like what else?" Napoleon asked. Illya frowned.
"It seemed to me, on this last journey, that things were looking - well, run down. Your people adopted the social ways of a much earlier time, a time called medieval, am I right? With lords and slaves, and a rigid class structure? With education so very specialized that each class of workers is taught only what is needed to perform its specific task? It seems to me that that leaves no place for innovation, for progress."
"Progress is what brought the Bad Times upon us," Napoleon said automatically. "When all is stable and all is well, what need for innovation, or progress?"
"But what if new problems arise?" Charles asked. "Anything could have happened to their Dome. A meteorite strike - we see the falling stars from our forests and marvel at their beauty, but what if one struck a Dome? Would they even see it coming, or know what it was? An earthquake could shift the ground underneath a Dome, and, with its foundation damaged, who would know how to fix it? I am in the same case as the workers in that I was educated solely to fill my position. I was taught how to command, not how to repair."
"The people who built the machinery for the Domes are gone," Illya mused. "Did they pass down their knowledge of how to maintain them, or have we - all of us, Righteous and True Sons alike - been relying on everything continuing to run as it always has? Your father would know, Napoleon. He might remember. He might ... oh. That feels so good." He had lifted his face to a breeze that ruffled his hair. "It feels - oh!" He stared at Napoleon with startled eyes, and at the same time the captain bellowed.
"Hoist the sails! All hands on deck! The winds return!"
The ship erupted into a beehive of activity, sailors running everywhere, Illya climbing the rigging to let the lines loose. As Napoleon too was pulling on lines he turned his head and one of the Others - the True Sons, he corrected himself, was pulling with him. They exchanged grins, and then the man faltered. He said something incomprehensible to Napoleon and Napoleon, feeling helpless, shook his head. The man pointed urgently overboard and Napoleon, looking where he indicated, saw their little boat being left behind.
"You want your boat?" he asked. "Why?" Now it was the man's turn to look helpless. Both looked about for Illya, but he was on the mast. Napoleon hesitated, then gestured to one of the small life rafts which hung suspended over the side. Without exchanging another word they lowered it, climbed down the side, and began rowing for the storm ravaged little craft.
Why on earth does he want it, Napoleon wondered. Were there other passengers aboard, kept hidden for some reason? Or ... were there arms? What was he thinking, setting off from their ship, which was surely pulling away from them by now. Who even knew he was gone? Then a spotlight struck them, highlighting them in the water and he could hear distant cries from their vessel. Someone had seen them. He waved both arms, and then pointed to the boat. They had reached it now and the man leapt into it, pointed back towards the ship and began rowing. Napoleon rowed the raft, and the man rowed his battered craft and then heads appeared in the water beside them - Illya, and two seamen. With more arms for the rowing they made rapid progress, and Napoleon could hear the man talking urgently to Illya, whose surprise was obvious. When they reached their vessel the man began handing crates over to Napoleon, who handed them to the sailors on the ropes, who helped carry them - six in all - up to the deck. The strangers' boat was firmly tied to their ship for towing, and then everybody scrambled back up.
Three of the crates contained weapons. The captain frowned darkly at sight of them, but when the man offered them to him he nodded, and passed one back to him. Two contained books - more foreign books, Napoleon thought, for their library. One contained bottles of clear liquid and Illya lifted one in wonder. He asked the men something and they nodded. He turned to Napoleon.
"It is vodka," he said, and Napoleon nodded dumbly. He didn't know what vodka was, but by the expression on Illya's face - and the difficulties involved in transporting it all this way - he knew it was important. Illya laughed at him. "Like your whiskey," he said. "Only better - at least to my way of thinking. I was young when my world ended, but not that young. It was mother's milk to us. But perhaps we should not open it here," he added, returning it to the crate and shutting the lid. "It is very strong. We will drink to our safe arrival once we are home." He said something to the other men, and they nodded agreement.
The ship was well under way now, skimming over the water like a bird set free from a cage. Before retiring for a few hours sleep - what a strange night it had been! - Napoleon, Illya, and Charles went below decks to check on the women and children.
The sound of wailing and sobbing filled their ears. "Oh no," Napoleon said, and Illya hurried forward. He talked, and the women talked, and the children cried. But after a few moments everyone calmed down, and Illya turned back to them. "They were expecting to be eaten," he said. "They thought that their men had already been our dinner, and they feared becoming dessert. I have reassured them. Can we get some goats' milk for the little ones? They are too listless to eat the rations." he added, and Charles turned and left. He returned quickly with two cups brimming with frothy goats milk and handed them over, going back for more. The women fed the babies, and smiled gratitude at the three men. Illya said something, and one woman answered.
"Let's go," he said softly to Napoleon. "Sleep is what they need now."
"Will they live?" Napoleon asked. He was looking at the baby boy he had first seen, and while he was swallowing the milk being dribbled into his mouth, he was a pathetic sight. Illya shook his head.
"I don't know," he said. "I will be glad to get home and let Mrs. Giraud care for them. You - you don't think it will be a problem, do you? You don't think those of our company will object to more Others coming?"
"They didn't object to you."
"Yes, but ... one man is quite different from this small tribe. I think that that is why they want to keep their boat, even more than the provisions aboard. If they need to flee again, they think they will need it."
"We will let Charles - and you - go ashore first," Napoleon said. "You two will explain the situation, and smooth the path. Surely they will be welcomed. Actually it is our father who may be the only voice against it. But all are accustomed to his ways. "
"We will get Mary to talk to him," Illya said, and smiled. "She can do anything with him. It was due to her that he stopped objecting to the girls being schooled with the boys."
Napoleon laughed aloud. "I remember. All she said was "But Grandfather, I like school," and he ceased his protests. Illya - when I looked at that dying child I thought of Edwin, and my heart broke. How many times do I need to be taught that we are all men together, and all have the same thoughts and feelings and desires? Because when I realized that ship was of the Others, I was afraid. I fully expected the ravening brutes I had learned of."
"Just as they fully expected to be devoured," Illya said. "We will continue to learn, my Napoleon. We will learn from one another." They had reached their secluded corner on the deck and curled up together. "Oh. Napoleon. Thank you so much for rescuing me. It was ... it was so terrible, and it destroyed me so completely. So quickly I went from thinking of myself as a man, a proud, competent man, to accepting again that I was a thing, a nothing. So quickly they reduced me from standing and fighting them to cowering in a corner. But you came for me."
"I came for you. Of course I came for you. I was nearly demented with fear for you - and for me, without you. And you would have done it for me."
"Oh, I would, Napoleon. I would. I will not let anyone tear us apart." Then he gave Napoleon a sideways look. "And are you sure that you appreciate my standing again? Because there were times before I was taken that I thought you would have preferred me as I was, docile and obedient and clinging to you."
"No," Napoleon protested. Then he stopped. "I will not be dishonest with you. There were times when I missed that boy - but only because I was secure that he would never leave me. He needed me desperately, and I was pleased to provide shelter. As you became more independent, I became afraid that one day you would turn that cool blue stare upon me and wonder why on earth you were saddled with me. Every move you made towards manhood felt - sometimes - like a move away from me. And I .. I need you, Illya. It may be I clinging to you."
"We will cling to one another," Illya whispered in his ear. "I never once thought of leaving you, my lord. I feared that you would no longer want me if I grew too bold, and then I would act bolder than I was because I had to know - I had to be sure - that you loved me still."
"I love you. And you love me?"
"Yes, my Napoleon. I love you."
"My Illya. We will grow in manhood together, and our love will only strengthen over the years. I know it. Right here and now, lying in your arms, sharing our innermost thoughts and fears, I know it."
"And I know it too." They twined closer then, and, clinging one to another, they fell asleep.
There was the usual welcome home feast with its accompanying music, dancing, and laughter. Any arguments that had been made against the admittance of Others to their shores were silenced as the people themselves were unloaded from the rowboats; emaciated, terrified, but wearing big smiles as if to proclaim their harmlessness.
"Well, at least until they recover," the butcher had grumbled. "I wouldn't send a dog away looking like that. Here, Mistress Nolan. Take these cuts of rabbit. Tender meat is what those babies need. And here are some pork ribs. Give them to the men. It'll fill `em up, it will."
So the Others were installed in a private home, vacated by the death of its previous tenant over the hard winter just passed. Mistress Nolan moved in with them, to help with the babies. It was all settled very amicably, after the buildup of apprehension, and since Alcott Solo preferred remaining home with Sarah to joining the rest, that encounter was at least averted. So it was a pleasant evening; pleasant to see and greet old friends, pleasant to eat fresh food after the weeks of shipboard rations. Pleasant to be far away from the city, and the Dome.
It was relatively early still when Napoleon rose to leave. Illya followed suit immediately, grateful. He hadn't wanted to hurt anyone's feelings by leaving too soon, but the multisided conversations, the questions about his trip, about his time in the city, wearied and bewildered him. He didn't know what to say, and had kept busy eating to avoid answering. Now he followed Napoleon away from the tables. It was a relief to have Napoleon lead so decisively when he himself was so tired, and sick at heart from the answers he hadn't given. He yawned, and stumbled over a tree root. Napoleon caught his arm and pulled him in closer. "Let's just say goodnight to Charles, and head straight for home," he suggested.
"Yes," Illya answered and, still leaning on Napoleon's strength, he smiled up at Charles.
Charles smiled back. "Goodnight brothers. Have I said how pleased I am to see you so fully recovered, Illya, and how in awe I remain of your recuperative powers, as well as of your courage?"
"Courage?" Illya shook his head. "You would not say that if you had seen me cringing and begging and finally agreeing that they had the right to do whatever they wanted to me. You would not say that at all."
"I certainly would," Charles said firmly. "My hope is that one day you will believe it as well." He went on his way, and Illya put his head on Napoleon's shoulder. Napoleon smiled, kissed his temple.
"My love," he said softly. "Teach me how to say it in your tongue."
Illya smiled at him. "Moya lyubuv," he whispered, and they too went down the path to their home.
Inside, once Brownie had been properly greeted, given treats from dinner, walked, and fed, they climbed up to their sleeping loft. Napoleon opened a small casket, and withdrew the tube of lubricant. Illya eyed it, but said nothing until they were in bed together. Then he spoke.
"Napoleon? I don't ... I mean I think it's ... I mean even though ..." he trembled. "I don't want to."
"And how pleased am I that you will say that to me?" Napoleon said, and smiled at him. "Just let me ..." he put the ointment on his palms, rubbed them together, then applied it to Illya's organ. Illya jumped.
"What ... why ... my lord?" He was trembling again but not with fear now. His organ had leaped to attention, and as Napoleon continued smoothing the ointment onto it it swayed and jerked. Then Napoleon squeezed another portion of lubricant onto Illya's finger and laid down, on his back, legs spread. He wasn't hard - in fact he was trembling with fear himself, but he had resolved to do this, and he would carry that resolve through. He smiled up at Illya. who was staring, thunderstruck, at the lubricant on his finger.
"Apply it thoroughly," Napoleon said. "Very thoroughly. Please." Then the wry tone altered. "Illya? I want - I want to do this. I want us to be equal in this, as in everything else."
"You don't have to prove anything to me," Illya began, but Napoleon reached for him, took his hand and guided it to his entrance. Illya swallowed, and began making small circles there. Napoleon gasped. Oh, it was like melting, like ... like ... he had no words for the sensations filling him. But his cock needed no words, it had perked up, was rising, and seeing it, Illya seemed reassured. He leaned over and kissed the tip, then continued preparing Napoleon with more confidence. When Napoleon was ready, more than ready, hips rising and falling, body glistening with sweat, Illya propped both Napoleon's legs up on pillows, leaned in, and entered him.
Napoleon hissed with pain and Illya froze. "My ... Napoleon?"
"Don't stop," Napoleon gasped. "Just ... just hold on a minute. Give me a minute."
"Let me try this," Illya offered, and wrapped his fist around Napoleon's organ, squeezing it, pumping it. Involuntarily Napoleon moved forward and Illya slid in further. Again Napoleon hissed, and again Illya stopped. They continued that way; Illya stroking, Napoleon moving, and with each move they were closer, and closer, and finally Illya was all the way in. Napoleon gave a strangled cry as a new sensation filled him, like a spark, like a tiny fire there. He clutched at Illya's hips, and Illya thrust into him, and after the prolonged build up it was fast, and hard, and sweet. So sweet, Napoleon thought, nearly drowning in that sweetness, Illya's sweetness, the sweetness of what they had made together. When he screamed aloud Illya screamed too, letting loose and finishing it up in a frenzied burst that left them both panting, and sweating, and ... a great sob broke from Napoleon's chest and he turned his face away, trying to hide the tears. Illya, who had withdrawn and was reaching for the washcloth Napoleon had left beside the bed, came back instantly.
"Napoleon? Napoleon, what? I hurt you! I hurt you, didn't I? At the end, I forgot! I ... I was ... selfish, wasn't I. I am so sorry, Napoleon, oh, my lord, I am so sorry!"
"No," Napoleon managed, turning his face back because protecting his pride meant nothing compared with protecting Illya from this terrible guilt. "No, you didn't hurt me. It was wonderful. You must know it was. I ... I mean, look at us. Look at the bed. I loved it. I can't believe I waited so long. It was ... Illya." He embraced Illya, rocking him, comforting Illya even as Illya was comforting him.
"Then what? Why? What's wrong? Don't pretend nothing is, Napoleon - you're crying!"
"I know. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to spoil it. I just ... I could see how it would be, Illya, if I were unwilling. How it would feel, if someone just went ahead and forced it into me, whether I wanted it or no. How much it would hurt, how shameful and terrifying and ... negating, as if I were nothing. And I thought of you, and ..." his voice broke, and he wept openly. Now it was Illya rocking him.
"You're right, Napoleon. It is terrible, when I ... you ... when someone is unwilling. It hurts, and it seems intolerable, but you must tolerate it. It seems unbearable, but it must be borne. You're right."
"And that first time I ... I did that to you! Not just uncaring strangers, not just brutal slave traders, but me!"
"No, Napoleon, no. Even that first time it was not like that. It hurt, yes, but you were trying to make it not hurt and that made me feel like ... like not nothing. Like something - no, like someone. My feelings mattered to you. I could tell that. You just didn't know any better, and I certainly didn't. The next time, when you made me want it too, and when you used the ointment ... the ointment Charles recommended ..." he laughed, and Napoleon laughed too, and if there was a touch of hysteria in both of their laughter neither minded. Napoleon kissed him, then, and Illya kissed him back. He used the washcloth, cleaning both of them carefully, and tossing it into the basket they used for linens. Napoleon drew him down, and Illya tucked himself into his usual sleeping position, head on Napoleon's shoulder, body turned towards Napoleon's, Napoleon's arms around him. There was a long silence, and then, just as Napoleon was sliding down into sleep, Illya whispered, "Napoleon?"
"Next time I do want you to be inside me. I had forgotten how it could be, because it was all tangled up again in how it was, but watching your face reminded me. You ... you must really love me, to let me do that. Want me to do that."
"Yes. I love you too, Napoleon. Moya lyubuv."
And then there was sleep.
The children ran on the grass, laughing, falling, tumbling, wrestling. Mrs. Giraud sat with a baby of the Others on each arm, and they sucked goat's milk from cups, and watched her with eyes from faces no longer shrunken with hunger. Edwin, Elizabeth, and the twins toddled about with the rest, weaving in and out among the legs of the older children, occasionally being knocked over but getting back up again none the worse for wear. The grass was thick, and the ground soft after plentiful rains. In the schoolhouse both languages were being taught to adults, and the children were picking them up naturally - chattering away in a mix of English and what Illya had told Napoleon was Russian. Charles was putting together another expedition to go investigate the situation in the city, and to attempt to surreptitiously inspect the Dome itself, and to find out how it was maintained - if at all. And a bigger journey was planned for the next summer - to the land of the Others, in search of survivors who would be open to a new life in a new world. Both Illya and Napoleon planned to join that expedition, with a mixed crew of what they now called the `True Righteous' - the word `Sons' having been roundly voted down by the women. Neither planned to return to the City, but Charles was, and he told them that they would do something about the slave trader.
"You are safe," he said to Illya. "But I presume you were not the only captive they were mistreating so. Am I correct?"
"Yes," Illya said, and shivered. "I could hear them screaming ... yes, Charles, please stop him. He - and his associates - are terrible people. They took so much pleasure in my suffering, and yet it was also a matter of business as usual to them. Will you kill them?
"Probably not. But we will arrange their arrest on some charges that will result in their exile from the Dome. Essentially the same thing."
"Yes. Thank you."
"Not just for you, but you are welcome. And meanwhile, here we are." He spread his arms and Illya looked about them, and smiled. Yes, here they all were. He had fooled his captors into believing him a nothing, a trifle, not worth questioning, so this was all still here, unsuspected, unspoiled. And he was still here too. Maybe not unspoiled, per se, but then he had hardly been that when Napoleon and he had first met. Napoleon didn't mind - more, Napoleon didn't blame him. Napoleon ... Napoleon loved him.
And next summer there would be more travels, more great adventures, and probably some would be bad, and maybe some would be painful, but when all was over they would hopefully return here, to see their children grow up. In their love, each had found his own best self and devoted it to the betterment of the other, and all these, too, whose lives were now entwined with their own. How completely splendid, Illya thought, to have thoughts and dreams and aspirations and goals beyond his own self, beyond his own day to day safety. How much better life was now, with a family, and friends, and a community to care about; to protect, to fight for if necessary.
`You're mad, boy, do you know that? Quite mad.' The slave trader's voice echoed in his mind, and Illya supposed his thoughts would seem mad to him, and to his colleagues. But it was their world that was mad. He, and his - he smiled as Napoleon took his hand, turned him towards him - were just fine.