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Welcome to the Jungle

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The crash-landing, Ivan felt, had been a work of sheer genius - especially the part where nobody actually got killed, although not landing in a river, swamp or tree also seemed worth a 'well done, Ivan!' at the very least.

"Next time, I think I'll walk," Byerly said. "Or better yet: learn how to fly one of these myself."

"Thank you, Ivan, for saving my life by your brilliant flying." All right, so Byerly was actually kind of good at mixing-and-mingling, and he was really good at recognizing gross food (although he usually only shared that information with Ivan after Ivan had already taken his first bite). "Oh, don't mention it."

"I wasn't," Byerly pointed out, not smiling. "Mentioning it."

"Not too late yet." The medkit seemed well-filled and mostly complete. Trekking through the jungle to the nearest civilized place should be doable, Ivan reckoned. He was almost looking forwards to it; Byerly might be good at the part where he talked smoothly and kept a straight face when he was offered snails-on-a-stick, but Ivan was the one doing the footwork, carrying the luggage and, occasionally, crash-landing the shuttle.

The way Ivan saw it, people were better off sticking to doing things they knew how to do. He'd been tagging along with Byerly for close to three years now and he could count the number of times he'd been shot at or kidnapped on one hand. Without using any fingers. And it had all been a misunderstanding, anyway.

"You've just landed us in the middle of a jungle, with only minimal supplies and no idea which direction we should head in order to rejoin the civilized world - inasfar as a society that considers snails an appropriate partysnack can be considered to be civilized."

"We're not dead."

"Really? I hadn't noticed."

 

Of course, Miles had never thanked Ivan for much either - not out loud, anyway. Ivan'd known though. Deep down inside, Miles knew what he owed Ivan. Miles wasn't ungrateful; he just didn't let it show. Much. Ivan assumed that was what family was for, anyway: you took them for granted and then, at some point, you let them get out of your sight for two damn seconds and wham, they got married. Or killed, sometimes, which Ivan supposed was worse than married, but only marginally.

"So, what's around here, anyway? Any large predators I should know about?"

There'd been a briefing. What Ivan remembered from it could be summarized as: don't touch anything that's not been offered to you, don't talk to anyone you've not been formally introduced to and don't go anywhere alone. Don't look too interested in anything, but don't look bored. Don't smile. Don't weep in frustration at not getting to do anything except stand around and look pretty without looking interested, bored or smiling. That last part had actually only been implied, but Ivan prided himself on being a good listener.

"You may recall the briefing they gave us? With the map?"

Ivan generously decided the heat was probably making Byerly cranky. Crankier. He nodded.

"The area we're in now was the one with the big red cross in it."

Ivan considered this. "As in: dangerous, don't crashland your shuttle here? You'd rather I'd kept on flying until we'd exploded mid-air?"

"As in: stay out. Visitors not welcome."

This was not, Ivan decided, good news. "As in: visitors will be shot on sight?"

"They probably know we didn't reach our destination by now," Byerly said.

"It was an accident. I sent out an SOS - well, I would have sent out an SOS, except that the radio had already stopped working by then." And that was when the first inkling of a suspicion came tiptoeing into Ivan's mind. "We both attended the same briefing, didin't we?"

"As you said: it was an accident."

With Miles, Ivan'd have known. Miles'd be grinning at him like a lunatic, happily trudging through the jungle with a backpack close to half his size and weight. Miles would share. It was an ego-thing; Miles simply couldn't live without people knowing how brilliant he was.

Byerly had been complaining since they'd left the shuttle. And they'd left the shuttle, instead of sticking near it, because Byerly'd said it would put them in a disadvantageous position to be rescued by the locals.

"There's accidents and accidents."

Byerly sighed and stared at the sleeve of his shirt. "Ruined. And I paid a small fortune for it, too."

Ivan wondered if he could get away with giving Byerly a black eye by claiming it had been 'an accident'.

 

"You never answered my question about there being anything dangerous around here."

Ivan was armed and reasonably certain that, given the right motivation, he'd be able to climb a tree, but in the holovids he'd seen, that didn't mean much. There might be large cats capable of climbing large trees, for example. There might be poisonous mosquitoes, whose bite would cause him to go temporally insane, or make his hands swell to three times their normal size. There might be flesh-eating plants - although Ivan thought that whole idea was a bit ridiculous. Still, he wasn't in a holovid adventure. Reality probably didn't care as much about realism or likeliness.

"You attended the same briefing I did."

Ivan rather doubted that. At least, he doubted that the briefing he'd attended had been the only briefing given. "It wasn't very informative. I thought you might have picked up something more ... somewhere." Never let it be said Ivan couldn't do 'vague' along with the best of them.

Byerly sighed. "I'm afraid not. The subject of local flora and fauna is as mysterious to me as it is to you. Just try not to shoot any people. That'd probably cause a bit of an incident."

"I won't shoot at anyone unless they're shooting at me." It was a philosophy that might have served Ivan better if he'd spent less time in the company of people who seemed to attract trouble as well people perfectly willing to fire the first shot and not differentiate too much between their target and the guy standing next to their target. "Or look like they're going to shoot at me."

"Thanks, Ivan."

 

It took a while for Ivan to catch on to the fact that Byerly had been ironic.

"You're armed, too, aren't you?"

"Why would I be armed?"

Ivan felt a headache coming on. He told himself it was the heat. "Why wouldn't you be?"

"Because it was a diplomatic mission."

"And our shuttle had a technical failure right above an area the locals didn't want us to see."

"As always, you have grasped the situation perfectly."

Ivan clenched his teeth. He liked it when people underestimated him. It was so much preferable to the alternative. He hadn't signed up for ImpSec, or for working for ImpSec. But.

"We're in the middle of the jungle. Do you really expect there's anyone listening in on this conversation you need to fool? And what happened to us being on the same side? That was my life you risked there, too, you know, sabotaging the shuttle. I could be dead right now. I have a right to know what's going on around here."

"That's what we're here to find out. Well, me, mostly," Byerly amended.

"I'm just the guy you need to act like an idiot."

"Aren't you always saying you want to get a job that fits your abilities?"

 

"Watch out, I think there's a snake near your left foot."

It was the first time Ivan'd seen Byerly lose his composure. Which was to say: Ivan realized that, until that moment, all the times he'd seen Byerly lose his composure, he'd only thought he'd seen Byerly lose his composure.

"Not that it would be much of a threat, given that you're wearing boots," he added, giving Byerly his best impression of Ivan-the-idiot-who-never-notices-things.

Byerly looked at him suspiciously. Ivan smiled. "Sorry. Still, I guess snakes probably don't like being stepped on. Kind of like humans."

"Next time you happen to notice a snake near me, don't say anything," Byerly said tightly.

"If that's what you want." Ivan shrugged.

"Just shoot it."

Ivan blinked. "I could hit you. By accident. I mean, really by accident."

"Accidents happen."

Ivan narrowed his eyes.

"For example," Byerly went on, "someone could accidentally decide to give you a new job. A really important one. With lots of responsibilities, and a staff of advisors and everything."

"Don't tempt me," Ivan snapped. And felt a flash of satisfaction as Byerly looked utterly surprised for several seconds.

 

The incident stuck with Ivan. It wasn't so much that he thought less of Byerly for being afraid of a type of animal that could, under the wrong circumstances, kill someone - it was, quite simply, that he'd at last found something that got under Byerly's skin.

It was the promise of revenge, served on a silver platter.

"Given your mission, shouldn't we try not to draw any attention?"

Byerly frowned. "What do you mean?"

"If I start shooting any time a snake comes near you, all it takes is one moment of bad luck for someone to notice and find us. And given that thus far, all we've seen is trees, plants, trees, snakes and did I mention trees?, I'm guessing that's not what you want."

Byerly looked decidedly less than happy.

"Just a thought," Ivan said cheerfully.

"Fine. Just warn me then."

"To your right," Ivan said promptly. He was fairly sure it was a treeroot, actually. It was quite possible that first one had been a treeroot as well, or some other entirely harmless part of the flora.

 

" - so I walked up to her and said - to your right - 'I've never seen you here before, are you new in town?' and she said - "

"Ivan," Byerly said, "I'm getting the feeling you're considering this a joke."

"Well, maybe I am. Consider it payback." Ivan grinned. "Any time you want to check if it's really a snake, feel free. Now, do you want to hear the rest of the story?"

"Not particularly."

"I listened to your story," Ivan reminded him.

"Mine was actually interesting and funny. And what do you mean: maybe you are?"

"You're always bugging me about my weaknesses and short-comings. Well, what you see as my weaknesses and short-comings, anyway. Why shouldn't I get to do the same?"

"Because it's perfectly sensible to wish to avoid animals that can kill you."

"We don't know that," Ivan said.

"It's an educated guess."

"To your left."

 

They found a clearing to set up the tent when it was near dusk. The tent seemed rather too small for two people who didn't like one another all that well, although Ivan admitted to himself that if he'd been alone, he might have begun to feel a bit lost and lonely by now.

It was strange, being surrounded by non-human noises. Barrayar had its wilder places, and Ivan had visited some of them, but even those had felt ... civilized, in a sense. He'd carried the means to have someone come and pick him up, if he got in trouble. He'd known what to expect.

He hadn't particularly enjoyed the experience. Ivan liked being around people - even when those people included people like Byerly and Miles and his mother.

Miles was all right, really. Getting married had slowed him down a bit. It hadn't slowed down Ivan's mother - sooner the opposite - but Ivan supposed that was kind of all right, too, even if it was weird.

Byerly ... well.

"It's utterly impossible for anything larger than a grain of sand to have slipped into this tent unnoticedly while we set it up, Ivan. So unless you mean to indicate an interest in more than sleeping together, I suggest you keep your hands to yourself, on your side of the tent."

"Are you?" Ivan wasn't sure where that had come from, really.

"Good night, Ivan."

Well.

 

The thing was: Ivan was reasonably sure he liked girls - well, women, really, given his age. He dated them (though not so much anymore these past years), he looked at them (without much hope of touching them) and he fondly remembered sleeping with them, in the sense of doing more than just sharing a tent in the jungle and dividing it in two.

And Byerly was Byerly. Even if Byerly had been a woman, and attractive, and interested, Ivan rather doubted if he'd have been interested.

Of course, Gregor seemed to think they made a good team. They did, really, most of the time. When Byerly wasn't being an utter pain in Ivan's behind.

Anyone wondered sometimes. What it would be like, with another man, or with a man and a woman, or with more than two women. (That last, Ivan didn't think would really work - two was quite a handful already, and not something he'd feel up to nowadays.)

Byerly was quite open about his interest in people of his own gender.

He'd never expressed an interest in Ivan that way though.

And Ivan wasn't interested either, was he?

It was just the heat getting to him. That, and this tent. It really was far too small.

 

[one month later, give or take a few days]

"Snakes?"

"Got it from a very reliable source," Ivan said smugly. "All kinds of useful stuff in the venom. And according to my source, that jungle you and I traipsed through for two weeks is crawling with them."

Byerly shivered.

"Funny, eh? We searched for two weeks for some sort of building or installation, and all this time, it was right there."

"Very funny."

"Guess all those treeroots weren't treeroots after all."

"Don't."

"Don't what?"

"Don't remind me. Stop talking about it. Why don't you finish that story you started telling four weeks ago?"

"You said it was boring."

"I'm willing to be convinced otherwise."

"Right," Ivan said. "Well, the problem is, I've kind of forgotten how it ends. It was a while ago."

"It ends with you getting the girl. That's how all your stories end, Ivan."

"Funny how they never seem to stick around for very long." Ivan sighed.

"Some people might take that as a hint."

"Yeah," said Ivan. "And some people might have dropped one when we were spending the night in a crowded tent in the jungle, surrounded by snakes."

Byerly grimaced and snatched a small snack from a platter on the table. "Touché."

"You do know what it is you're eating, don't you?"

"Don't tell me."

"A giant snake." Ivan grinned. "They caught it last week - put it on ice just so they could serve it tonight, to impress the ambassador."

"Oh well, it's dead. Doesn't taste too bad, either."

Ivan's grin faded.

"So," said Byerly, "want to distract everyone from the fact these people are serving a dead venomous animal to their guests by dancing with me? I can take the woman's part, if you want."

"By all means, let's."