"Lord Vorkosigan, Sire."
Gregor lifted his head to see which Lord Vorkosigan Gerard had brought him, like a cat with a dead mouse. The short man on the other side of his desk -- five foot or slightly less -- was pale, tired, and so thin that even his uniform's carefully tailored shoulders were beginning to slump. But the gray eyes in that winter-white skin were bright and steady on their Emperor's face, the twist to that expressive mouth rueful.
"Thank you, Gerard," Gregor said. His Armsman bowed and departed. "Hello, Miles," Gregor said, shifting his attention without preamble. He couldn't supress the worried crinkle to his eyes, and didn't try to. "You look tired."
"I look like shit," Miles interpreted this, not incorrectly, as it happened. He seated himself and slumped dispiritedly. "Are you busy?"
Gregor was startled to realize how late it was. "Not anymore," he said, and switched off his comconsole, shuffling the papers on his desk. "What brings you to the Residence?"
"Illyan." Miles waved in the general direction of ImpSec HQ, several blocks away. "I decided to come here instead of watching Mark and Kareen as they . . . do whatever it is they're doing while my parents are in the country. It looks like flirting."
Gregor remembered them dancing together at the Winterfair Ball, but had been too busy to keep an eye on Mark personally. There was an ImpSec report on it, somewhere. . . . "How brotherly of you," he commented. He turned in his chair and threw one leg over the arm, stretching cramped muscles. "What, you didn't want to hang around and offer advice?"
"Trying to get me killed, Sire?" Miles's lips quirked in a merry little grin. "Kareen and Mark were comparing the easiest ways to break someone's neck over lunch. I, ah -- decided not to stick around."
"Wise of you," Gregor commented. "I'll keep that one in mind."
Miles laughed shallowly, still catching his breath. Gregor added, "What did you need to see Simon about?"
"Oh, the Dendarii." Miles made a throwaway gesture, this one accompanied by a bitter twist of his mouth. "I asked him if he'd let me go back next week. He said no."
"I should think not!" Bemused, Gregor stood, gesturing for Miles to follow. Tucked away in a cozy nook -- cozy by comparison to the rest of his office, but still large enough to seat ten -- was a collection of leather furniture and a clever disguised liquor cabinet. Gregor dropped onto a couch, arms thrown over the back, and added, "Unless you're feeling a great deal better than you look?"
"No, actually." Miles was a few beats behind him, still looking winded. He sat more carefully but relaxed more gratefully, and then noticed the liquor. All the way over on Gregor's side. "But I thought it was worth a try. Maybe if I start working on him now, he'll be ready to let me go later."
Gregor shook his head and poured them both a glass of wine, stretching to hand Miles his. He carefully kept the round, blue-and-red crystal goblets half-full. The others, lined up on a tray, looked like hollow glass bells.
"Good luck," Gregor said, lifting his glass in a toast. You'll need it.
The signs of Miles's recent death -- and subsequent revival -- were invisible to the untrained eye. To Gregor, they were patently obvious. There were new lines around his eyes and mouth, and he'd lost enough weight that he probably could (and, knowing Miles, probably did) count his ribs every morning. He used to flit through the Residence with ease; now he was breathless. At the Winterfair Ball, he'd begged out after a mere handful of dances, and spent the rest of the evening looking noodle-ly and pale. It was going to be a long time before he was let out of Imperial sight.
Miles must have caught the note of sardonic humor in Gregor's voice -- with glinting eyes, he returned the toast. "Thanks, Sire."
Gregor spent a moment enjoying the wine. He prompted, "Still having trouble with your heart and lungs?"
"Is it that obvious? Damn!" Miles took a gulp of wine and gave a breathy laugh. "I wondered why Illyan kept giving me that 'you've got to be kidding' look."
"I thought it was his default expression."
Miles snorted and emptied his glass. He set it aside, expression suddenly set, and Gregor didn't offer him another. The Countess had already reported his unpredictable mood swings, worse than even his usual manic-depressive symptoms. An invisible effect his cryo-revival, maybe? Or the trauma?
"How's Mark?" Gregor asked into the silence. "And Kareen?"
Miles frowned, eyeing his empty glass. On cue, Gregor finished his own and offered a refill. Miles relocated to get closer to the goods.
"He seems all right," Miles answered. "Weird sometimes. Flashing in, and out --" he waved one hand over his face, like a man donning a mask, "and he's got the worst nightmares. Sleepwalks, too. Won't talk about it, though, not even to our mother. I don't know if he remembers." Miles sipped his wine. "Do you know what happened to him, on Jackson's Whole?"
"No," Gregor lied. Naturally, ImpSec had picked up Ryoval's surviving employees, and naturally, they'd been emptied out via fast-penta before even reaching Barrayar. And naturally, Gregor would see their confessions in Vorkosigan hands after a cold day in Hell.
And did Mark knew that Gregor knew? Had he really thought destroying the tapes would be enough? Gregor was almost dying to talk to him, to ask him . . . what?
(His only clear memory of Princess Kareen was an agonizing one. She'd pulled him in his lap and kissed his forehead, promised him that everything would be all right. Grow up brave and strong, my Prince, she'd murmured, and then, most bafflingly to his young mind, You will be kind, won't you?
He'd remembered it, as children sometimes remembered puzzling things, awaiting explanation. And then he'd gotten it, and he still didn't understand.)
"Right," Miles growled, returning him to the present with a jolt. "No one knows. Not even ImpSec." He drained his glass and refilled it absently. "What the hell was ImpSec doing all that time, that's what I'd love to know. An entire week --" With a ferocious scowl, Miles resolutely set the goblet aside.
Gregor levered himself upright, scanning his desk, his comconsole, and checking his pockets, making sure he had everything. "If we're drinking, we'd better not do it here." He glanced back at Miles’s startled face. "Coming?"
Later, Gregor would wonder what Miles had been thinking. What he'd known. Had he understood? Had Gregor? Could either of them, truly? Over and over Faust, standing in the garden, doesn't know anything that's going to happen . . . .
Miles stood, straightening his loose uniform with a yank. "Sure."
Once cloistered in his private rooms -- no guards, to Illyan's eternal distress and Gregor's deep satisfaction -- it was as if invisible weights were lifted from their shoulders. Gregor made his way to the luxuriously appointed kitchen, unearthing wine and more drinking glasses.
Miles hoisted himself up on one of the stools lining the kitchen island. "Nice place," he said, looking around. "Not a lot of antiques."
"It’s an apartment, not a museum."
"True." Miles accepted the wine with a nod. "Not a lot of guards, either." His eyes, damn the man, were sly and knowing. "So, Gregor, do you have any girls stashed in here?" A millisecond's pause, and he added blandly, "Or boys, or Betan herms?"
"Any --" Gregor snorted and nearly choked on his drink. "Sorry, Miles," he managed, wiping his mouth, "if you want an orgy, you'll have to call Ivan. My girls, and boys and Betan herms, go home for the weekend." He shook his head, amused.
"Ha!" Miles drained his glass -- his fourth glass, just how plastered was he planning on getting? -- and hopped down. "I'm going to go snoop. Anything I should avoid?" He stared avidly at a modernist painting that involved a lot of green, red, and blue figures, divided by sharp black lines.
"Pay no attention to the bodies in the closet," Gregor said blandly. "Or the wristcuffs in the nightstand drawer." He kicked himself the minute the words left his mouth -- would Miles go through his nightstand? Surely not. . . .
Snickering, Miles headed for the study. Gregor left him to his self-guided tour, carrying the wine and glasses into the parlor, a room decorated in pale jade and gold, with force-shielded windows full of slanting light. It was his favorite room, but even it left him feeling trapped, sometimes, pinned in place. There were no balconies, and all the windows were wired with alarms, so he could use them only in emergencies.
Miles reappeared. "There were no bodies in the closet," he announced, disappointed. "There were, however, enough uniforms to make up for it."
"I have a lot of public appearances," Gregor reminded him.
"Poor lad," Miles murmured absently, sounding just like the Countess. He spotted the remote for the holovid and snatched it up, tossing it from hand to hand. "Lots of books, though. Reminds me of Duv -- Duv Galeni. An entire three months’ credit reports of nothing but beer and books . . . he's still on Komarr, isn't he? Counter-intelligence work."
Gregor had no idea. He shrugged.
Miles grunted approval. "Good for Duv." He switched on the holovid and channel surfed with a fiendish little smirk. Gregor guessed what he was searching for, and caught the remote a moment later as Miles threw it at him. "Do you have any secret vices, Sire?"
Miles was smiling, but his voice held a pensive note. I try not to, all things considered, was perhaps too ugly a sarcasm. Yes, I just hide them very well, would be better, but too close to the truth. He settled for a cocked eyebrow. "And just how do you know what three months’ of Duv Galeni's credit reports say, my Lord Vorkosigan?"
Miles grinned. "Professional trade secret," he said, and with another quick sip of wine -- he seemed to be pacing himself at last -- added mildly, "I was surprised to find out there were no dinners or reviews scheduled for tonight."
"This late in the week? Most people do have lives, Miles."
"Gregor," Miles counted, eyes sharp and keen, sounding just like the Countess again, "I wouldn't have thought it possible to micro-manage an Empire, but you've been managing for these past few months. Speaking of lives, when do you sleep?"
Gregor bought some time with a drink. "Not micro-managing," he protested, lamely to his ear.
And evidently to Miles's as well. "Liar."
Gregor glanced over from the corner of his eye. "You haven't exactly been sitting on your hands either, Miles. Already on your way back out, aren't you?" And yes, that did hurt -- could nothing tear him from those mercenaries? They didn't understand him, his goals, or Barrayar itself. They weren't his family. If death couldn't bring him home, what could?
Miles grimaced, silently accepting the touché. "It looks like I'll be doing so now," he said, a trifle unsteadily, "at least for a little while." Absently, he reached down and began undoing his boots. "Still haven't found a good Empress of Barrayar for yourself?"
"No," Gregor murmured, staring into his half-empty goblet and trying not to think of past failures. "Any luck with a Lady Vorkosigan?"
"Not as such. Several girlfriends, two that turned me down outright, the third . . . eh." He snorted.
Gregor smiled faintly. "What about Quinn?" He'd met Quinn when she was on Barrayar, while Miles was recuperating from one of his bone-replacement surgeries. She'd hidden her scorn for Barrayar, and by extension its Emperor, fairly well, although not quite well enough, obviously. The interview had been mercifully brief.
Miles frowned and the silence stretched. Gregor glanced over. His foster brother was frozen, foot in hand, staring at the table. His wide eyes were unblinking.
Mood swings, right. "Miles?"
"Mm." Miles dropped his boot and turned, reclining against the arm of the couch. Gregor could just glimpse his face over his drawn-up knees. "Quinn hates Barrayar."
Gregor refilled their glasses. So much had changed since the last time. They couldn't go back to those boys they'd been . . . did they want to?
Gregor said, "I used to get the feeling that you hated Barrayar, too."
"Hell, I used to get that feeling." They laughed together. "But . . . coming home this time, it's different. Last time I was here -- just before Mark pulled his stunt, and God, it feels like years -- anyway. I was with Quinn, on Escobar, and she said . . . I wish I could remember it exactly." Miles sipped cautiously, trying not to spill the wine despite his slouch. "She said she liked my parents, I remember that. She said Barrayar . . . she said Barrayar was a cancer, that was it. It was killing my mother, it was killing me."
Wrapped around the delicate stem of his glass, Miles's fingers shook. His eyes were horrifyingly blank. Gregor had seen Admiral Naismith and Lord Vorkosigan in action, but this . . . this was something else. What empty spaces lurked in a skull that held two minds, each counterproductive to but dependent upon the other? Lord Vorkosigan couldn't grow as long as Naismith lived, but Admiral Naismith couldn't be free with Vorkosigan there . . . without the little Admiral, Miles was miserable, and without the little Lord, Miles wouldn't exist. Such a fragile symbiosis.
"Quinn's opinion aside," Gregor said, "what do you think of Barrayar?"
"I don't know." Miles's mouth twisted and his eyes came back to the present. "I've always approached it like -- like a planet to be conquered. Haven't I?"
Gregor swirled the wine in its glass. At some point he'd propped his left elbow on the back of the couch. If he lowered the goblet a few inches, he could rest it on Miles's knee. "Sometimes." A pause. "Most of the time. Well -- yes." He grinned. "I'll give you this -- if anyone could conquer Barrayar, it would be Admiral Naismith. We request and require, however, that you do not."
"You have my word, Sire," Miles said. He laid one hand on his heart -- the heart that had so recently been regrown and replaced, and what kind of metaphor was that? -- and bowed, which in a reclining man looked more like a sit-up.
"In some ways," Gregor said, into the introspective silence that followed this playlet, "you have conquered Barrayar. With your, shall we say, most devoted allies Count and Countess Vorkosigan --"
"-- and Ivan, Simon, the Koudelkas, your District. . . ." Gregor found himself half-smiling, pondering this combination of circumstance and strategy. "I think you've been fairly successful. And you? What do you think?"
"I don't know," Miles said, watching Gregor watch him. "I know that it hurt when Elli said that. It hurt when she said I was like half of myself, here, but I think that's because she was right. But Admiral Naismith isn't that other half. He's -- equal parts delusion and construct. Larger than life. Poke him with a fork and he deflates."
Gregor spent a moment enjoying this image. "Have you thought about what you'd do if you left the Dendarii?" he asked.
"Once or twice," Miles admitted, a rueful quirk to his lip. "But I can't think of anything. I can't stand desk jobs, I'd be an awful in politics, and we don't have any wars on. What could I do?"
Gregor thought that over. "I think you'd be tolerably good at politics," he finally said, tentatively in case Miles was insulted. "They're not as unpleasant as they seem, most of the time, anyway. And on Barrayar, they can be surprisingly athletic." Miles snorted. "You'll make a good Count someday, at the very least."
A sudden, small smile, touched with real pride. "Thank you."
Gregor inclined his head. His glass, half-full and glittering in the blurry sunset light, dangled carelessly from his fingers, swaying over Miles's upright knee.
"It's up to you," Gregor said softly, barely disturbing the lazy silence. "As long as you want the Dendarii, they'll be there. I doubt," and his voice grew wry, "that the combined might of ImpSec and the Imperial Service could stop you from getting to them, if you tried."
Miles didn't disagree.
With a small sigh, Gregor wrenched himself away and went to lower the blinds. The lights, bulbs held in elegant globes, came to life as the room grew dim. Gregor found a box of pastries on his kitchen counter and brought it in.
"Eat," he ordered. Miles rolled his eyes unenthusiastically. "Or you'll be passed out within an hour."
Grumbling, Miles sat up. "I'm about to burst," he growled. "Between Mark, Mother, Ivan, and now you --"
"Aren't you glad we're spread out like this, instead of all at once?" Gregor asked serenely, and dropped carelessly into his seat.
They spent a few minutes dividing up desserts. Gregor left the strawberry turnovers for Miles, who liked them particularly as he recalled, and shredded a blueberry danish for himself, eating it in small bites. An odd little luxury, this not having to worry about manners or polite conversation. It had been so long that he felt awkward, stilted, a puppet with its strings cut.
Miles ate gladly despite his grumbling, getting crumbs on the expensive silk divan and pouring more wine as Gregor switched on the holovid. For a while they spoke of nothing but the shows they used to watch at Vorkosigan Surleau, as children together, and things were as simple that.
Sometimes, Gregor thought the moment of his death had already come and gone. Maybe he should have, and maybe he secretly had, died the day that Vordarian's forces overtook the capital. Maybe the last thing he'd seen was his mother's face, distorted with fear and rage. . . .
But he hadn't. And Death, cheated of him, instead pursued everyone nearby.
"I don't remember anything," Miles was saying, over the softly playing holovid. "Everyone always asks. It just . . . happened. Like falling asleep."
Morbid topic. How had they gotten on it? It would be the height of hubris to blame himself for Miles's death. After commanding his loyalty, his service, and his friendship, he would at least grant Miles the freedom to die, whenever and however he chose.
Still, he couldn't fight the feeling that his life was a battle to . . . to what, really? What would victory consist of? I will break it some day, to summon death to the whipping post. . . .
"And then you woke up?" Gregor murmured.
"Exactly," Miles said, and lifted his glass in salute.
The globes had long been burning with steady light, as the world behind the blinds sank into deeper shadow. Illumination spilled in from the kitchen, countering the colorful, hypnotic glow of the projector. With a sigh, Gregor rested one foot on the table and leaned back into the soft cushions.
"Dwelling, Gregor?" Miles prompted.
He shook himself. "What . . . what do you suppose it's like? When it's for real?"
"I. . . ." Miles hesitated, uncharacteristically. "You don't still, you're not . . . you don't still think about it, do you?"
"What, dying?" Gregor was too drunk to identify the tentative note in Miles's voice. He even smiled. "Not on the personally causative end, no. But my mother, and my father, and so many others -- yes." He glanced at the wine bottle and debated whether sitting up would be worth it. "I still think about it."
"Oh," Miles said softly.
Gregor waited a beat and looked over. Miles had at some point stretched out his legs, small feet laid in Gregor's lap, and he was so deep in the couch that it looked like he was being swallowed.
"Am I worrying you?" Gregor asked, catching on at last. He felt suddenly self-conscious, hyper-aware of his hand on Miles's shin. "Sorry."
"No." Miles waved a hand and seemed surprised to find there was an empty wineglass in it. He sat up immediately to remedy the situation, and Gregor held out his own. "Just -- well, maybe a little. I don't know," he said, answering Gregor's initial question, "I've never really thought about it -- dying for real. I suppose . . . I don't know." He sat back.
"You don't ever think about it?"
"I see it often enough. I try not to dwell on it."
Gregor identified the bite in his voice as frustrated pain. "I'm sorry," he said soothingly. "I haven't seen it as much, perhaps, but I still want to understand."
"Curiosity," Miles drawled, "killed the cat."
"Pun intended?" Gregor shot back.
Miles snorted and didn't answer. Silence descended, broken only by the rise and fall of sound from the holovid. Gregor watched it without seeing.
"Do you think of your mother often?" Miles asked, subdued.
"Yes," Gregor said immediately. His hand on Miles's ankle tensed and then relaxed, trembling. "Especially as I get older. I wonder about her life. What she thought, what she knew, what . . . what she would think of, of -- this." He waved a hand and swallowed hard. Ah, this was why he hated getting drunk, now he remembered. If he closed his eyes, he'd see her. . . .
"As my father often says," Miles said, "the past is a lesson, not a choice." His gray eyes suddenly resembled the Count's more than the Countess's, intent in the flickering light. "We spend too much time regretting things we can never change."
"We?" Gregor inquired. Yes, come bleed with me. Misery loves company.
Miles gestured eloquently to his shortness.
"Ah," Gregor said. "Do you know, I forget sometimes. You're just short." Miles laughed and gasped in startled indignity. Gregor grinned. "I mean, it's just part of who you are. I don't even notice it. Haven't for years. Unless someone points it out, which is just . . . tiresome."
"I've often felt the same way. Thank you." Shaking with silent amusement, Miles added, "I think."
"Gregor," Miles said a moment later, "you're really drunk."
"Not drunker than you," Gregor muttered rebelliously, which made them laugh again. Miles struggled upright, casting aside his glass and stretching stiff muscles. The bone-replacement scars on his arms stood out in the uneven light.
"I have a higher tolerance," Miles explained cockily, which somehow Gregor hadn't noticed till then. "Mercenary that I am." He made no move to stand, sitting beside Gregor in companionable silence. "Don't, please," he said. "Even if it meant you'd get to meet her."
"I know that." Humiliated, Gregor stared at his knees. He didn't want to be this drunk if Miles wasn't, too. How embarrassing. "I know. I wouldn't. I'm over that."
"I know," Miles said, sheepish. "But -- it would be disaster. For us all. Professionally and, and. Personally." Miles turned to face him, and so of course Gregor turned as well. In a small voice, Miles pleaded, "Promise me?"
Gregor wetted his suddenly dry mouth. Miles's eyes seemed to flicker, or was it the light?
"I promise," he said, in a voice gone raspy and low. He tore his gaze away. "You have my word."
Miles relaxed. They sat in silence for a while longer, Gregor eyeing his wine. He had the feeling it had betrayed him.
"You really do have wristcuffs in your nightstand drawer," Miles stated, and then flared crimson as Gregor turned to stare. "Shit. Shit! I didn't mean to say that out loud! Shit. How drunk are you, really?"
"Ah. . . ." Gregor could feel his heart pounding. He wasn't the only one being betrayed by the wine, apparently. "Getting more sober by the second, I'm afraid."
"Shit! Here, have another drink." Shaking with nervous laughter, Miles poured them both full glasses. "A toast, to, to, um, fitting one's foot in one's mouth?" He tipped back the goblet and drained it as Gregor kept staring. "It's a toast, Gregor, you're supposed to drink, too."
Gregor sipped politely. "Um."
"I'm sorry," Miles said, displaying the early signs of a classic Miles-babble. "I'm sorry. I was just -- I mean, I shouldn't have looked, but you said it, and I thought, no, he wouldn't, and then, he probably would, and won't it bug you not to know?, and that I'd just take a peek and --"
"It's all right." Helplessly amused, Gregor added, "I shouldn't have said it. Guilty conscience, I guess."
"No, no, nothing like that," Miles burbled, "nothing to be guilty of or embarrassed over, it's perfectly normal -- I told you about Taura earlier didn't I? I don't remember. It's just --" He paused for a deep breath. Gregor watched him with a small smile. "Who do you use them with?" And then he winced. "Shit! Ignore me." Another deep gulp of wine.
"Miles," Gregor said, strangled, "I think the wine is just making it worse."
"No, no, no," Miles protested, "at least let one of us forget this conversation. Preferably me. Please."
"All right." Much less drunk than he'd been thirty seconds ago, Gregor took another sip. "I use them with . . . people."
"You've never said who." Wide-eyed, Miles had evidently given up on activating his brain-to-mouth filter. "I mean, I've told you all about Taura, and Quinn, and Rowan, and Bel. . . ." Ah, yes, Bel. Miles's face darkened, scorched with fresh pain and regret.
"Just . . . people." Gregor's voice was weak. More wine, yes, they definitely needed to forget this conversation. But he didn't pour himself another glass.
"People," Miles repeated. "Anyone I know?"
Gregor felt himself coloring. "Maybe."
"That's a yes. Oh." Miles evidently decided Gregor wasn't going to finish his wine and took it, draining it quickly. Gregor didn't look over. "I'm not trying to embarrass you. And I am half-Betan. By Barrayaran standards, I'm unshockable."
Gregor cocked an eyebrow at him, sneaking a glance from the corner of his eye. "Are you really?" he asked. "You look shocked to me."
Miles all but glowed. "Erk," he said, eloquently.
Gregor lifted one shoulder in a lazy shrug. "A few people, here and there," he said, and suddenly regretted his teasing. Did he really want to say this out loud? "Not your usual crowd, when you're on Barrayar, which isn't often. . . . " He looked over, but Miles wasn't stopping him. He was, in fact, listening intently. "Henri Vorvolk. And Byerly Vorrutyer, too, in recent times." He decided not to mention Olivia Koudelka. Miles hadn't asked about women, had he?
"Byerly . . . right, I know him. You and he --" More blushing. "A Vorrutyer?"
Gregor grimaced. "Nothing like that."
"No, no, I know. Sorry. Just, ah -- everyone was wearing those cuffs willingly, right?"
Gregor rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Yes, Miles, thank you."
"Good. Just checking." Miles cast around desperately for a change of topic. "Nothing wrong with By," he said. "Kind of a prick, though. And you tell me to behave."
"He never says it to anyone's face."
"Yes, yes, unlike yours truly, I know." Miles relaxed suddenly, letting out a pent-up breath. "Uh, glad I got that one out. I was about to pop." He winced. "Sorry for the conversational ambush tactics?"
"It's a joy, Miles," Gregor said, and found himself meaning it. Hysterical laughter, quickly squashed, bubbled in his chest. "So what else did you find?"
Miles grimaced. "Nothing." He held up both hands. "I promise."
Gregor glanced at him. Little flickers of amusement and embarrassment danced under his skin, and his chin jerked up in the familiar old tic. Gregor forced himself to stop staring.
"I," he announced to the room at large, "am very drunk. I think I need to stand up, but it's going to take some effort. Would you like to stay and laugh, or. . . ."
"Oh, yes," Miles said. "You first. And unlike you, I have to get home. Damn."
Gregor leaned forward and got his feet under him, catching the cocktail table as the room spun. Two false starts later, he was upright and frowning crossly at Miles, who was pretending not to grin. "I'd like to see you do better."
Miles stood easily, with a small flourish.
Miles laughed and the last bit of awkwardness evaporated. "Come on, Sire," he said, chuckling and offering a shoulder for leaning-on. "It's time for you to toddle off to bed, and for my Armsmen to haul my sorry ass home." He paused reflectively. "God, Pym is going to kill me."
A long, carpeted hall ended in the Emperor's bedroom, a blur of blue, green, and the low, dark gleam of wrought iron. Miles deposited Gregor on the huge bed and mumbled something about the bathroom; Gregor waved him off and struggled with his cufflinks.
When he stepped out a moment later, Gregor had managed to unbutton his tunic half-way before getting stuck on the belt. Miles grinned. "Having trouble?"
"Buttons," Gregor muttered blackly. His hands felt cold and far from his body; his face, in sharp contrast, was hot. He was painfully, burningly aware of the nightstand at his right and the wristcuffs in its drawer. Finally, he gave up on his clothes and glanced up to find Miles watching, lips slightly parted. "Catching flies?" he inquired.
Miles shut his mouth, swallowed, and seemed to hesitate. That -- well, it wasn't the first clue, those had been sprinkled randomly throughout the evening, but -- that was when Gregor . . . really wondered. With only a single backward glance at the door, Miles crossed the distance to Gregor's bed.
"Your clothing really is inordinately complicated, Gregor," Miles commented, as if his short, stubby fingers weren't already making short work of Gregor's belt. "I'd give someone a stern talking-to, if I were you. Request and require fewer buttons. Something."
Gregor made a noise that -- he hoped -- indicated attentiveness and agreement. In reality, he was fascinated by Miles's hands. Only two thin layers of fabric kept them from his skin, and then the tunic was free and it was only one. . . .
Miles went to work on the cream silk shirt. Gregor swayed ever so slightly, leaning into his touch. There was shockingly little space between them, filled with scent and heat. Heart hammering, Gregor took a deep breath, and then another.
"Gregor," Miles said, soft and uncertain, his knuckles just brushing Gregor's bare stomach. "Is this. . . ?"
Gregor leaned forward the rest of the way and caught his mouth in a kiss. Doubt seized him and he pulled back too fast, awkward and off-center. Miles made a bereft noise.
The hell with it, Gregor thought, and said, "Yes," not even knowing what that meant, what he was agreeing to. He reached up and tangled his hands in Miles's green uniform tunic. "This. Off."
"Yeah." Wide-eyed, Miles took a half-step back and freed himself from the top half of his uniform. He was back a heartbeat later, warm breath sweeping over Gregor's lips and chin, as they met in a messy, fumbling kiss. They fell back into the bed, or the bed rose up to meet them -- in Gregor's state of mind, either way made perfect sense.
Miles was short but skinny; his waist was small like a woman's, but with the hard muscle of a man's. Gregor touched his hips, his jutting ribs, between his shoulder blades, and then his shaggy, non-regulation haircut. A thousand flickering images spiraled past his mind's eye, as if that simple contour map had freed his imagination to destinations unknown.
They broke apart, gasping. Miles looked stunned to find himself on top of his Emperor. "That is. I just. We." He blinked. "Um?"
"I know," Gregor said, bones fizzing pleasantly. "Do you want to stop?"
"Do you know," Miles began, and appeared to think it over. "No. No, I don't. Hell, no." His gaze sharpened. "Do you?"
"No," Gregor murmured, face warming, but Miles pinned him to the mattress before he could reach out. Up went one Imperial eyebrow. Miles didn't budge.
"Hmm," he said thoughtfully. He tightened his knees around Gregor's hips and reached for his shirt, undoing it slowly and carefully. As Gregor shrugged himself free, he ran his small hands over Gregor's chest, seemingly mesmerized by something he saw there -- or something he didn't. "I don't -- you know I've never --"
"Yes," Gregor said. A surge of something warm and incredibly gentle caught him off-guard. He tugged Miles down again, so they were lying chest-to-chest. "You mentioned that earlier. Relax."
Miles nodded, eyes darting over Gregor's face, and then kissed him again, clinically, experimentally, as if some part of his mind (Naismith, maybe) was watching from a distance. Gregor nipped at those soft, expressive lips until Miles was moving against him, desperate and needy, not far away at all. The heat of that wet mouth was everything. When Miles scrabbled frantically at the zips and buttons of their trousers, Gregor was startled. He caught Miles's hands and showed him what to do.
"This," Miles muttered nonsensically, "this, you've done this before."
"You knew that," Gregor pointed out nervously.
"I just didn't realize. Oh, God." Miles suddenly stopped. "Were you -- did you -- you let someone . . . do that to you, didn't you? Didn't you?" His eyes were hungry. "Who? Who was it?"
Gregor's hand tightened on Miles's waist, that delicious snippet of bare skin. "I --"
"Who?" Miles inquired softly, with concentrated menace. "Who did it first?"
Gregor swallowed. "Henri."
"Ah." The look sharpened. Gregor wished like hell that he knew what it meant. "That's what I thought. That is -- that is." Gregor found himself being kissed again and gave himself up for a lost cause; if Miles wanted to be baffling, it would take more than Imperial consequence to unravel him.
"Yes," Miles whispered, into Gregor's ear as he rubbed himself against Gregor's belly. Gregor groaned. "Yes, yes, yes." Miles kissed his jaw, sucked and nipped at his throat, undid him with tender expertise. Tactics, Gregor realized, in some safe corner of his brain, the little git has tactics in bed --
"Yes?" Gregor asked, head lolling on the blankets. His fingers tightened on Miles's waist. "Yes what?"
"Yes," Miles stated, and eyed him fiercely. Gregor felt naked and powerless, a feeling he both detested and craved -- those gray eyes could trap and pin one endlessly, a world without end, amen. . . . "It's mine, too," Miles murmured, "all mine," and kissed him so hard that Gregor saw stars. "All mine," he whispered, and sat up suddenly. "Wristcuffs. Now."
"Good God," Gregor said, mind racing with all the things that could mean, that they could do. He held out his hands obediently.
Miles woke up with a jolt, freezing despite a slick coating of sweat. His blurry surroundings resolved into a bedroom, not his; slowly, memory overlaid dream-panic. Gregor's bedroom. He was asleep in Gregor's bedroom, in Gregor's bed, aching from things he'd done. With Gregor. In Gregor's bedroom, on Gregor's bed, with Gregor . . . quit that. The alcohol, thankfully, was gone, although he suspected it had left a headache somewhere, lurking and waiting to pounce. At least I can blame the booze. If I want to.
Carefully, Miles extracted himself without waking the Emperor, and staggered off to the bathroom, wringing a painful protest from cryo-stiff muscles. He'd just had sex with Gregor. His father was going to kill him. His mother probably wouldn’t mind, though.
Once under the harsh overhead lights, Miles found himself wide awake. He took one look at his face -- sleepy-pale but with an obvious underlying satiation -- and turned for the shower. It was huge and fiendishly complex, but he defeated it and made it spit water. There was soap, too, and anti-dandruff shampoo. Well, well. The Emperor had dandruff. Who knew?
This shower really was insanely luxurious. He had a sudden image of Gregor, dark and serious Gregor, indulging himself in the very spot that he, Miles, now occupied, and felt himself waver. He remembered Gregor with his arms stretched back, cuffed over his head, the long, lean stretch of his torso and, below that, flat against his belly --
Miles slumped against the wall, dizzy as the blood left his head. And pooled somewhere else. Oh, God. And here he'd been sure he didn't like men.
I'm going to smell like Gregor's soap, he realized, and ruthlessly killed the thought. He'd just have to shower again when he got home. Several times. Or maybe steal some soap for later . . . quit that, too.
Clean and dandruff-free, Miles toweled himself dry and tip-toed back into the bedroom, where he cleverly located his trousers by tripping over them. He caught himself on the wall, cursing silently, and thanked God that he'd had his toe bones replaced.
Gregor was turned onto his other side, away from the light peeking through the bathroom door. Miles found himself quite unable to resist the back peeking from those dark blankets, and climbed up to peek over Gregor's sharp (and definitely male) shoulder.
Asleep, or something very like it. Miles had never understood the allure of watching someone sleep -- kind of boring, really, far too much laying about and holding still -- but he was aware of the transformation that people underwent, the nakedness of expression. The lines around Gregor's mouth, which made him look grim, were softened, his dark hair tousled every which way. In the dim light from the hall, he looked about twenty years younger.
Dammit. They couldn't do this. Gregor couldn't risk the exposure, the controversy -- what was he thinking, with Byerly Vorrutyer, of all people -- and with Miles. . . .
God, Miles was lying to Gregor. Of course, it wasn't a lie if the seizures had gone away, but if they hadn't . . . he'd been so distracted that he hadn't even remembered the damn things. What a way to ruin the mood that would have been. God!
And there were Vorbarra Armsmen and ImpSec guards just outside the door of Gregor's apartments. What if one of them had stepped inside, had heard something, what if they saw him come out and realized . . . frantic, Miles hurried back into the bathroom and checked his appearance. He looked normal. He'd pass for normal. Right?
The bedroom. Miles grabbed his shirt and tunic, smoothed out the wrinkles, picked up an ImpSec silver eye that had fallen off. No traces. He couldn't leave any traces --
Gregor stirred and Miles froze, guiltily. It seemed like a short eternity before the Emperor sat up. He saw Miles -- half dressed, clutching the rest of his clothes, paralyzed -- and inquired hoarsely, "Did I interrupt a panic attack, or were you just leaving?"
Miles whimpered indecisively. He ought to run, yes, run while he still could, but now that he knew -- knew all the noises Gregor could make, moans and pleas, and all the things he could do, clever mouth, clever body, clever man (clever man!) -- now he didn't want to. He wanted to stay.
Dammit. We can't do this!
"I," Miles started, and then dropped his clothes and climbed back into bed. But he didn't touch, trying to regain some semblance of sanity, some echo of a mindset that didn't know what Gregor's skin tasted like, and didn't want to.
Gregor was silent for a few long minutes, looking half asleep. Finally he blinked and scrubbed a hand over his face. "If you have to go. . . ."
"You know that I can't -- we can't." Miles stared beseechingly at the top of that dark head. "If it got out . . . God. Homosexuality, Vorkosigan, mutie lord . . . all at once. It couldn't be worse if our -- if your -- enemies had planned it. We shouldn't have done this at all." Gregor flinched a little at that. "You can't prove a negative but if there's something there, and now there is, people can find it. Now we'll have to wonder, now we'll --"
He stopped to breathe. Gregor's bright hazel eyes flicked upwards.
"Now we'll have to, have to know." Miles said, hypnotized with regret, terror, arousal. . . . "And forget."
Gregor kissed him, quick as light, like the first time. Miles chased after him, followed him down to the pillows, touched him all over -- once more, had to see it once more. Dark, Imperial eyes fastened on his face, watching, watching, only closing at the end as a strangled moan wrung itself from those thin lips.
Miles came back to himself and found his chest aching. His new lungs, or his battered heart. . . ? Pick one. He kissed Gregor's shoulder and put some space between them, resisting the urge to start all over again. If he did, he'd never stop. Or leave.
A long silence followed.
And what was this, really? Had this been lurking in his backbrain all along, was it something spontaneous -- unreliable -- transient -- or would it hover and linger over them for . . . years? Miles searched his foster brother's face, watched his breath even. There were invisible marks there, left by his parents -- the Count's sense of obligation, the Countess's self-supplied laissez passer. . . .
And there were other marks, other souveniers -- from those hazel-eyed monsters that Gregor was so afraid of, their power, their authority. The wristcuffs had left tender red marks on the Emperor's wrists. And a sad, blue-eyed woman, whom Miles had seen only in holos, chosen for her grace, her beauty, never understanding why.
When Miles realized Gregor was asleep again, a furrow etched between his eyebrows, he crawled out of bed and donned his shirt. Gregor didn't wake up, didn't call him back. Just as well.
On went the tunic, left unbuttoned at the collar. No stray bits of insignia were left on the floor, both socks were on his feet, both boots were still in the sitting room. Miles checked his reflection in the hall mirror, pulled on his shoes, and hesitated before switching off the holovid.
He couldn't stay. It was risky, far too risky, his curiosity could be fatal to everyone he loved. You've taken punches in the gut for duty before, boy. Swallow your pride and do it again. This isn't yours to have.
Since when have I given up so easily? Maybe, if it was a secret . . . ImpSec has hidden worse and weirder. We could do it. But for what? Is this really want you want? No Lady Vorkosigan, no one to continue your line, privately in love and publicly alone . . . forever? Is it worth it?
He went into the hall, bright and bustling with guards, and occupied himself with calling Pym and remembering where the exit was. No one questioned the story that he'd been drinking with the Emperor all night long -- his face was flushed, his eyes were red, and he swayed on his feet, casting many reluctant backwards glances.
But he left.
So here it is -- that autumn landscape
Of which I've been so frightened all my life:
And the sky -- like a flaming abyss
And the sounds of the city -- heard as if
From another world, forever strange . . .
-- Northern Elegies, Anna Akhmatova, tr. Judith Hermschemeyer
And a woman with translucent eyes
(Of such deep blue that to gaze into them
And not think of the sea was impossible),
With the rarest of names and white hands,
And a kindness that as an inheritance
I have from her, it seems --
Useless gift for my harsh life . . .
-- Northern Elegies, Anna Akhmatova, tr. Judith Hermschemeyer
Over and over Faust, standing in the garden, doesn't know
anything that's going to happen, he only sees
the face of Marguerite, which is irresistible.
-- Wild, Wild, Mary Oliver
Everyone feels so comfortable and accustomed to it.
All of you agree to share it,
Nevertheless it is always mine
. . . . . . . . . . . .
It is deforming my fate,
It almost devoured my soul,
But I will break it some day
To summon death to the whipping post.
-- Northern Elegies, by Anna Akhmatova, tr. Judith Hermschemeyer