"You don't want to stay in this pit. Come on, come with me."
Aral lolled back on the barstool precariously, and Serg caught him by the shoulders before he went over, running his fingers over the muscles of Aral's back. "Come on, Aral, I'm just trying to help..." he began, and Aral jerked forwards and twisted with shocking strength, throwing him off and somehow managing to keep his balance at the same time. Serg was caught between anger at the rebuff and helpless admiration of how Aral could fight even when he was too drunk to stand up.
"How many times do I have to tell you? I'm not interested. Go find someone your own age to play with."
Damn it, he was seventeen years old, not a child any longer. Never a child. A Prince. "I'm not looking for anyone else," he said. "Will you ask me to kneel to you? I will."
Aral turned slowly to face him, his eyes bloodshot and hollow and still so piercing they could make you cry. "You don't know what you're saying, boy. Now go away, and be grateful I won't remember any of this in the morning."
You could break yourself on that strength, Serg thought, break yourself into a thousand pieces, and in the end, Aral would still be there. As Vorrutyer had found out. Vorrutyer hadn't been good enough for Aral, but he would be. And clever enough. He bowed his head to Aral, far more deeply than a Crown Prince should, and saw Aral pale. A real reaction, good. Then he walked away.
He'd left the Residence party earlier this evening when he'd seen that Aral wasn't there, and had taken out his new imported lightflyer for a spin. A few words to one of Negri's men got him the right direction, and he'd tracked Aral down to this dismal hole. It wasn't the first time he'd gone in search of Aral, but it was the first time he'd found him alone. Ever since Aral and Ges had split, Aral's friends and his little cousin were always trailing around after him looking worried, but Serg could see they wouldn't be any help. Aral needed someone new, someone different.
He'd worshipped Aral as long as he could remember, when he'd been a boy and Aral had been the shining older officer, son of the Emperor's stirrup-man, strong and brilliant and deadly. And beautiful, Serg thought, in his own way, the perilous beauty of a battle-axe or a broadsword. A sword to his hand, as Count Piotr was to his father's. Right now, a rusted and damaged sword abandoned in a ditch, and Serg felt like the only man who'd noticed that it had been made by a master craftsman. He would pick it up and take it home and clean and mend and sharpen it, and make it his own, restore it to its full glory and danger and strength. And then Aral would turn those piercing eyes on him, and only him.
But for now, he had to wait. He sat down in his lightflyer and turned the heat on against the winter chill, leaning back in the padded seat and putting his feet on the dashboard. He didn't think this would take long.
It was a bare half hour later when the door to the bar opened and the barkeep and his bouncer threw Aral out, like any other drunk who'd outstayed his welcome. Serg stayed where he was until they went back inside, and Aral was lying alone in the gutter. Through the lightflyer's window, open a crack, he could hear Aral swearing rhythmically in four languages. Serg waited. Then Aral propped himself up on one elbow and looked directly at the lightflyer, and Serg shivered in anticipation. He got out, letting his greatcoat billow around him like a holovid hero, and went to stand over Aral. His sword.
"Come on," he said. "You can't stay there, Aral. You'll freeze to death."
Aral glared up at him for a moment, a flash of the strength of this blade, and Serg felt a matching flash of pure desire. Then Aral shivered, sighed, and seemed to sink into himself. "All right. Play your game. Whatever you want, I don't care."
It wasn't the invitation Serg was waiting for, but it would do for now. He hauled Aral upright and helped him into the lightflyer, not too fast despite the cold, so that he could appreciate this moment when Aral did take a small part of the help Serg wanted to give him. There was so much more he wanted to give, if only Aral would let him. And so much he would gain, in return, once this drunken wreck was a whole man again. His man.
Not tonight, though. He slid into the pilot's seat beside Aral and shot the flyer into the sky. Aral groaned. "Gently, damn you," he gasped, and Serg steadied out. Negri's pursuing flyer followed them, and for a moment Serg considered giving them all an adventure, show off what this flyer could do. But Aral would undoubtedly vomit everywhere if he tried anything like that, and that was the sort of thing that would make Ges laugh. Not the right approach.
Especially since there was a much better, subtler alternative. He soared up, circling higher and higher, above the permitted altitude limit for traffic over the city. At this height, the scars of decades of war were invisible, and the city was a carefully-wrought jewel of light and darkness, glittering in the shadowy hills. And above, the cold winter stars. Serg cut the running lights, engaged the autopilot, and looked at Aral.
Aral had been sitting dully with his head down, but now he raised his head and stared around, eyes widening. Serg watched him. Yes, he thought, all this, this gem, this beautiful world, this is my gift to you. How can Vorrutyer compare? Aloud, he said, "This is the only way to see the city, I think."
"It's almost like space," Aral said quietly. He looked up at the stars, down at the city, back at the stars, and said, even more quietly, "Thank you."
Serg swallowed. He held the flyer absolutely still, a perfect hover, his eyes fixed on Aral. Aral gave the faintest of smiles, and then his eyes began to close even as he gazed around, his breathing slower and heavier. Calmer. I will make you strong again, and make you love me, he thought. I will. I will.
Aral's eyes closed, his body going limp, and as Serg watched, he fell asleep. Serg reached out and pulled him sideways a little, so that Aral's head rested on his shoulder. He sat there a while longer, wrestling with temptation and winning, mostly. Except for the faint butterfly kiss he placed on Aral's lips. Aral's eyelids flickered and closed again, and he mumbled, "Ges."
Serg's head snapped back. He bit down on his lip so hard he tasted blood, and pushed Aral away from him, letting him slump sideways in an awkward position. I am your Prince. Not Ges. What do I have to do to make you forget him? He brought his fists down hard on his own legs, letting the pain jolt through him, not sure who he hated most: Aral, Ges, or himself. For a moment, crashing the lightflyer in flames seemed the only possible response.
Aral gave a choked snore, and reluctantly looking at him, Serg saw that his head had fallen forward, compromising his airway. Serg breathed deeply himself and watched Aral struggle for air against the dead weight of his own body, and as quickly as the rage had come, it was gone, leaving penitent remorse. Ges had broken his sword, and he had to repair it. Gently, almost tenderly, he leaned across and pulled Aral up, tilting his head safely back, and Aral breathed deeply again. He did not rest Aral against him this time, though one hand caressed Aral's chest, almost of its own accord. Damn him. Damn them both.
He shook himself, trying to clear his head. He had watched the Imperial swordsmith at work, and knew that you couldn't repair a fine sword in an hour. Patience. Ges didn't have enough patience, and that was why he had lost Aral. Serg was better than that, he knew. He had Aral here, under his protection, under an obligation to him. That was something. Carefully, he took back the controls of his flyer, spiralled down gently, and landed on the roof of Aral's apartment building.
Aral barely roused enough for Serg to drag him inside and deposit him on his bed, still fully dressed. A hundred possibilities raced through Serg's head, from just leaving Aral like that, to taking some payment for the debt Aral owed him, now when Aral couldn't object. Then Aral blinked up at him. "You're not such a bad kid, really," he said in a clear voice, then passed out again.
Distantly, carefully, more like a craftsman with his material than a lover with his beloved, Serg made him comfortable on the bed, taking off his boots and his damp jacket, drawing off his belt and tunic and covering him with the blankets. Then he pulled up a chair and settled down for what remained of the night. If Aral threw up in his sleep, he could choke himself to death before anyone noticed. Serg had never kept such vigils even with his closest cronies; the Crown Prince was above these menial duties. But if anyone was worthy of his time, it was Aral. Someday soon, he thought, he might keep such vigils in bed with Aral, instead of sitting tamely by.
You make your sword, the Imperial swordsmith had said, speaking to him man to man, as such a smith might to any man, even the Emperor, and your sword makes you. With Aral as his sword, Aral at his side, he knew he would be an Emperor greater even than Dorca himself. It was their destiny. Aral would forget Ges, and love him instead, and together they would win everlasting glory. He was sure of it.