"Simon," Aral says, and Simon picks up his head and looks at him. Really looks at him, for the first time since the first time he had seen him, it seems.
He remembers not really looking. He remembers only picking apart the new things, the subtle changes. More gray hairs, more white ones, a very pointed House uniform after days of dress greens, boots that were scuffed. Small things, really. Changes to his mental image of Aral, which has always been perfect.
Simon has to look at him now to see him. To see his parade dress (Imperial audience, of course, but no medals, it's not the Review) and his white hairs and the smile on his face and that look of worry in his eyes.
"It's not that my memory is bad," Simon reports, making it sound easy, simple, painless. Aral always wanted quick, verbal summaries before he would get into the meat of the written reports. "It's merely out of practice."
Aral's expression changes slightly, and Simon used to know them all like muscle memory. He could respond to every movement of Aral's eyes. He could obey all those unvoiced commands.
Now he can't even read them.
"And incomplete," Simon adds.
"Everything that was on the chip is gone?" Aral asks, and he must already know the answer. Is this yet another test, to see if Simon's reasoning facilities are still working? To see if Simon can still function in Vor society without destroying everything?
"The chip has been destroyed," Simon says, deciding to interpret Aral's question as being about security. "What remains from it has been placed in Gregor's vault. The chip wasn't designed to be able to be accessed out of the brain and Gregor assures me that no technician could get any information off of what remains. It would only be a coin toss if they could recognize it as being a piece of technology."
Aral nods. "What," he starts, endearingly hesitant, "do you remember?"
"I don't remember what I don't remember!" It comes out before Simon can really stop it, but, he tells himself, if he didn't believe this was a safe place and a safe conversation, he never would have said it. He isn't a security risk. He refuses to live the rest of his life, however short it may prove to be, as an embarrassment, as a relic they can't let out in company in case he gives away state secrets like party favors.
"So much of it is blank," Simon continues, calmer. Forcing the calm. He was the cold-blooded silver-eyed bastard once. He'll be that again. He can't let this get to him. There's always been that danger of being taken out by a sniper. He just never expected the sniper to blow up the inside of his brain, and leave the rest of him alive. "I've been assured that this is normal behavior for the human brain. I was keeping so much redundant, so much useless, memory for so long that I'm frankly out of practice actually accessing it voluntarily. This is a temporary problem. I'll get over it."
Aral reaches out to him, but then stops, his hand a finger-brush away from Simon's shoulder. "Do you remember me?" he asks.
Aral's been the center of Simon's life for thirty years. It would take more than Lucas Haroche and all the technology in ImpSec's evidence rooms to make Simon forget him and still remember his own name. And, beyond that... it's not a memory flash, because Simon's had those. They were constant, in the early days, and he had fought desperately against them. And won that war, permanently. And it's not a memory recall, because Simon knows those, too. Those were what had made him seem infallible. He could remember everything, down to the last detail.
This isn't that.
It's not even close.
But he can remember, with eyes open, with Aral looking at him like he's fragile, which is a damn insult, and Simon can remember the body standing before him as it looked lying on white sheets. He can't remember where the bed was located, he can't remember the circumstances, he can't remember why Aral, in the memory, is laughing at him, or where the bruises on Aral's arms and shoulders had come from, or if Simon had killed the men who put them there. He can't remember why or where, but he knows the what, and it's close enough to what he remembers the real memory recalls to have been like that it almost chokes him up.
"Well, you needn't seduce me again, if that's what you're worried about," Simon says, doing his best to achieve irritated and annoyed that Aral would even have to ask, to insult him that much. "Not that you succeeded superbly the first time."
"I was drunk," Aral says, sounding relieved and like he's reciting his lines from an old argument.
Simon can't remember this having been an old argument.
"You were not," Simon returns. But, and Simon realizes now, and it's terrifying, this is the fallibility of memory. What if Aral really does remember it a different way than Simon had on his chip-memory? What if it's always been different? How do they manage without perfect recall, without chips to let them know exactly what they were doing ten, twenty, thirty years ago?
"I should have been," Aral says, contemplatively, and Simon wishes, desperately, that he could remember his line now. That he has any idea what he's supposed to say here. What Aral expects him to say.
"It's ancient history," Simon says instead.
Aral grins, and that must have been the right response, Simon realizes with relief.
"And we're still standing," Aral finishes some remembered phrase. "We're still here." He clasps Simon on the shoulder and it's another flash, a human memory flash, and therefore, he reminds himself, horrifically fallible, but he remembers Aral slinging his arm around his shoulder, as they walked through these halls one day long ago, and from nowhere, Aral had pushed him up against a wall and Simon remembers thinking that there was some attack and he remembers reaching for his plasma arc (but he never carried energy weapons on normal duties inside the Residence when Gregor was still young and taken with trying to steal them, only ever during public events; he remembers that as a fact, and was this an anomaly? Is this even real?) and then Aral had kissed him and laughed in his ear about spontaneity and how Simon's going to have to erase the surveillance later (but if he had touched the Residence surveillance, whoever the head of Residence Security had been at the time would have cut his own throat on Simon's desk as revenge, and what has his name been?) and then Simon had said he couldn't erase his own memory and if he wasn't a part of Residence surveillance, than nothing was, and Aral had laughed again, and kissed him again.
"I'm still here," Simon says, hollowly.