It was seventeen minutes past four in the morning when Simon's commlink chimed. He wallowed up out of sleep, reached out to his bedside table and picked it up without opening his eyes. "Commander Illyan here."
"Sir," said a younger man's voice. Simon's chip matched it. Ensign Briggs. He woke up fully as his chip went on to bring up that Briggs was commanding the security detail on Aral tonight. "I--I'm sorry to disturb you, but ... well, I didn't know who else I could ask, and I know you're not far away and, um, I'm not sure what to do and you did say--"
Briggs sounded tired and nervous and harassed, and wasn't making anywhere near enough sense for Simon's taste.
"Spit it out," he said tersely. "What's your situation? Don't you know how to make a report, Ensign?"
"This isn't a report. I just ... well, you were assigned to Lord Vorkosigan at Escobar, so I thought..."
"Start at the beginning," Simon said, sitting up in bed and rubbing his eyes. "Where are you? What's going on? Is there any immediate danger?"
"No, sir." He could hear Briggs pulling himself together. "I've got a six-man squad on Lord Vorkosigan on the night shift," he began.
The story came out fairly clearly after that. Briggs had been assigned to provide security for Aral while he went out drinking in the city. Normally, Simon knew, this followed a predictable pattern: Aral would choose an officers' bar, sit morosely in a corner insulting anyone who tried to talk to him until he fell asleep, then his ImpSec detail would collect him up and cart him back to Vorkosigan House and the care of his father's servants. But tonight Aral had bought a bottle of mead and gone walking around the city drinking and trying to pick fights with his ImpSec tail and anyone else he encountered. He'd finally fallen down in a gutter and had simply sat there, sipping maple mead all night.
"He's been there almost five hours, sir," Briggs said. "He refuses to move, he refuses to let my men take him anywhere else, he won't even accept a coat and it's been raining all night. The last time I tried to talk to him, he pulled out a nerve disruptor and said he'd shoot the next ImpSec bastard who bothered him. And I know we're not supposed to upset him, but that was an hour and a half ago, sir. We can't go on like this."
Simon could picture it all too clearly. "And where are you?" he asked.
"Well, that's the thing. We're in Turnpike Street, just past the monorail bridge."
A five-minute walk from Simon's apartment. He could see where this was going.
"And you want me to come and see if I can talk some sense into him?"
"Well, sir..." Briggs sounded timid, as if asking a tremendous favour. But then, he could have no way of knowing that it wasn't even a question: when Aral needed him, Simon would go, day or night, on duty or off. As for why--Simon thought only Negri and Ezar, and perhaps Aral himself, knew that.
"All right. I'll be with you in ten minutes."
He cut off Briggs' tangled thanks, and pulled on some old combat fatigue trousers, boots, a battered sweater and his raincoat. He didn't want to look in the least official for this. He kept his nerve disruptor and stunner, however, and his comm link.
It was unseasonally chilly and wet, light rain falling and a stiff breeze blowing from the river. Simon pulled up the collar of his coat as he went through the quiet pre-dawn streets. He came up to Briggs' outer perimeter guard, who saluted crisply despite Simon's civvies. Out of Aral's sight, Briggs came forward.
"Thank you so much for coming out, sir," he said.
Simon made an averting gesture. "What I want you to do," he said, "is pull all your men back to the furthest distance you can while remaining within the safety margin. Do not approach. You have a groundcar?"
"In Trick Alley," Briggs said.
"All right. Hopefully, I'll get him to go to the car and you can take him home. But just follow along with whatever I do."
"Of course, sir."
Simon took a breath and went around the corner. It was a moment before he saw Aral in the gloom, sitting actually in the drainage gutter running between the walls of the buildings and the pavement, his head down. He paused, the sight of Aral's despair almost a physical pain, then controlled himself carefully. Not what he felt, but what Aral would accept, that was the only possible approach. He took a slow steadying breath, and walked up. Without speaking, he sat down beside him, sharing the puddle. Aral turned his head.
"You," he said noncommittally.
Simon glanced quickly at Aral, then surveyed the image on his chip more carefully. His face was bruised, his lower lip split and his knuckles skinned and swollen, his eyes bloodshot and hollow. His clothes were wet and dirty and inadequate for the weather. He was shivering, a good sign, but another hour out here and he'd likely stop. Presumably this was his newest way to kill himself. Simon recognised the inertia of despair all too clearly.
"I said I'd shoot the next ImpSec idiot who came near," Aral said.
"I was told it was the next ImpSec bastard," Simon replied. "I'm not worried."
"I mean what I say."
Simon looked again at Aral, at the nerve disruptor loose on his lap. He didn't tell the truth, which was that he thought it significantly more likely that the raindrops pattering on his head would turn to hundred-mark notes than that Aral would shoot him in cold blood. Instead he said, "Your hands are too numb. I'll be impressed if you can even pick that nerve disruptor up, never mind aim at anything. Or turn the safety off."
Aral's fingers twitched, but he didn't try to move them, proving Simon's point.
"Do you know," Aral said after a moment, "you're still one of the most annoying men I've ever met."
"Doesn't surprise me. How much longer are you planning to sit here? You'll pass out either from the cold or that fucking mead sooner or later, and then you'll wind up in ImpMil and be fussed over by a lot of irritating nurses and medtechs for days. It won't be amusing, and they won't let you have anything to drink."
"Definitely the most annoying."
"Alternatively, I could arrest you."
"Obstructing the Emperor's roads. Loitering. Being drunk in a public place--did you know Yuri had that put on the books in case he ever needed a pretext for arresting anyone?--or perhaps being a public nuisance." Simon let his lips curl. "Actually, since I'm ImpSec, I don't strictly need a reason. Negri likes it if we can come up with something, but that's what the legal department is for."
Aral stared around the dismal wet streets. "I don't feel like going home."
That wasn't hard to understand. "You could have that apartment in ImpSec HQ again if you wanted it," he offered.
"Ha. No. Thank you."
Simon paused. Getting Aral indoors and warmed up was undeniably the goal of this exercise, but he was suspicious of his own impulses here. "My apartment is five minutes away," he said at last.
That made Aral look at him, hearing the tiny flick of vulnerability in Simon's voice. "Is it?" he said. "And do you bring drunk men home often?"
Aral studied him thoughtfully. "You're sitting in a puddle," he observed.
"So are you."
"You're going to stay there until I give in, aren't you?"
Simon nodded blandly, and Aral sighed.
"All right. But keep the rest of those idiots away from me. I don't want to see them."
It took two tries for Simon to get Aral to his feet, between the numbness of the cold and the effects of the mead. He slung Aral's arm across his shoulders. Aral was disturbingly cold against him, his steps wavering and uncertain, but he stayed doggedly upright.
They stumbled down the road, Briggs and his men keeping well out of sight. It took almost fifteen minutes to manage the five-minute walk, but Aral bared his teeth at Simon at the mention of the groundcar. They finally reached Simon's anonymous apartment building, drifted up the lift tube to his tiny studio apartment, and went inside. Simon automatically stopped and checked his security readouts at the door, but nothing had happened in the half-hour he'd been out. Thoughtfully, he set his internal bugs to record only, not transmit. Then he deposited Aral in an armchair and went to turn the heating up as high as it would go.
"If you fuss over me I'll break both your arms," Aral said, watching this.
"If you can get out of that chair and do it," Simon retorted, "I won't fuss." He put the kettle on and made strong, sweet tea for them both, watching Aral narrowly. His shivering was getting worse. "You need to get out of those wet clothes," he observed.
"Ah, you bring me back to your flat and then you strip me."
Simon brought two mugs of tea over and dragged another chair up alongside Aral's. "Here."
Using both hands, Aral managed the mug, and Simon regarded him. Aral's barbed jokes were covering something real, he knew. He'd recorded Aral's gaze on him time and again during the invasion, almost professional but not quite. And he had no doubt at all of his own feelings, try as he might to ignore them. It would have been beyond inappropriate before, Negri would have flayed him, but now--now he had Aral here in his flat, and they were both off-duty; indeed, technically Aral had resigned from the Service now, a civilian. He was probably too cold and drunk and exhausted for anything at the moment, but still, there it was. And wasn't lying in bed with another warm body supposed to be good for hypothermia? It wouldn't hurt, and it was probably good for self-destructive misery too.
He took a breath, his heart suddenly pounding like it did when he was going into combat. He knew all about taking calculated risks, and this was one. "Take your clothes off and get into bed."
There was a silence. Aral swallowed the last of the tea, and put the mug down clumsily. He levered himself to his feet, his eyes fixed on Simon. Simon held his gaze.
Then Aral blinked and stumbled, and Simon reached out to him. They'd touched many times before--his chip marked them all and began to count and classify them--but this time Simon was painfully aware of his hands on Aral's body, steadying, leading him across the small apartment to the bed.
Aral tried to pull off his tunic, then looked back at Simon. "My hands still don't work," he complained.
Help me, Simon heard beneath the words. He peeled off Aral's sodden tunic, then the rest of his drenched clothes, checking quickly for injuries as he went, but found nothing beyond the surface cuts and bruises. Aral was shivering violently now, skin pale and clammy, but still watching Simon with almost predatory intensity.
Simon wrapped a blanket around Aral's shoulders, then took a first-aid kit from a cupboard and began to clean the cuts on his face and hands. Aral held unusually still as he worked, carefully wiping dirt and blood from the scrapes on his knuckles and palms, following with antiseptic and quick-heal and synth-skin spray, all the galactic innovations ImpSec provided for its men. Then he cupped Aral's chin in one hand and leaned in closer, cleaning the blood that was still slowly oozing from the split lip. Aral's gaze was fixed on his face now, and he opened his mouth a little under Simon's hands, moving his lips against Simon's fingers. Simon slowly put the antiseptic wipe down, his eyes not leaving Aral's.
"Simon," Aral said quietly.
Simon kissed him, carefully, trying to avoid the injury. Aral had no such inhibitions, and a moment later Simon tasted blood and antiseptic as well as mead and cold. He wrapped his arms around Aral and held on, for warmth, for support, for closeness, and closed his eyes. It was folly to care so much for Aral, for a drunk and broken officer washed up on the beach, but at his worst as at his best, he towered in Simon's mind. It was not the uncomplicated lust he'd felt for his casual bed companions, nor was he some new-minted ensign worshipping at the feet of his first commanding officer. But the cocktail of devotion and admiration and loyalty and pure desire he felt now went to his head like Aral's maple mead.
Aral's shivering jerked him back to reality, and Simon broke away with a jolt, then pressed Aral down onto the bed.
"In a hurry, Lieutenant?" Aral said, his biting irony returning. Since his eyes were a little wide and his lips a little swollen, Simon didn't answer even to correct the rank; he'd grown used to Aral calling him 'Lieutenant' over the past months. Instead he stripped off, quickly hung up their wet clothes to dry, and found some heat packs. Thus armed, he climbed into his bed beside Aral, settling both heat packs along Aral's back. Aral made a low sound, half pleasure, half pain, and wrapped his arms around Simon.
He really was freezing, his skin almost burning Simon's with cold. Simon closed his teeth and lay against him, skin to skin, and when Aral curled in close, he put his arms around him.
"Commander," Aral said thoughtfully, correcting himself. "Sorry. You earned that the hard way. I forgot." The barest flick of humour livened his voice for a moment. "Not all of us have your memory." He lay close, and his hands moved over Simon. Simon stirred, but Aral's interest was merely in trying to find the warmest patch of his skin to rest against. Simon lay still. This wasn't about him, tonight; whatever Aral wanted of him, he could have.
Aral was silent, curled against him, his shivers first growing worse, then gradually easing, his skin warmer to the touch and his breathing becoming slower and steadier until Simon thought he might have fallen asleep. Perhaps that was for the best. But then Aral spoke, his voice low and unsteady.
"I went to see Amelie today. Rulf's widow. She's pregnant." Words were escaping him in little pained spurts, as if he was speaking against his better judgement. "Their third son. Only a few more weeks to go. She told me--she told me--Rulf wanted him named for me. Aral Vorhalas. There wasn't anything I could say." He was shaking again, with emotion rather than cold, and Simon instinctively moved closer. "Rulf provided well for his family, of course he did, and there's the Count for her to call on at need, but ... anything that is mine to give is theirs, down to my heart's blood... She was so kind to me. I wish I could have told her, to make her stop."
And then he'd gone out and tried a new way to drink himself to death. It fit together. Briggs should have mentioned this, Simon thought darkly, but most likely he hadn't understood the significance. Dammit, Aral needed to have men who understood what was going on around him now, not strangers.
Aral gripped him tightly, then deliberately let go, denying himself even that small comfort. Simon choked back the urge to reciprocate, to hold him close, to kiss him again. Aral might well punch him for that, right now. Instead, after a silent minute, he said levelly, "Your hands are still cold." He chafed the offending hands in his, then pressed them against his skin, letting the offered comfort masquerade as first aid, and with a sigh Aral permitted it. First aid for the soul rather than the body, but no less desperately needed.
Aral didn't relax, but after a few moments he spoke again, as if once started he couldn't stop, his pain escaping in scattered words. "Do you know the other reason it had to be me?"
It wasn't hard to fill in the blanks in that sentence. "Mm?"
"For my name. Ezar's worst nightmare was if Serg had driven the Escobarans to surrender before the reinforcements could arrive."
He was going to have to make sure every bug recording from his apartment was deleted, Simon thought. He flagged it up as urgent on his chip. But that was a problem for later.
"If they surrendered," Aral went on, "then Serg would win everything and Ezar would lose. So they made sure everyone knew I was there. The Butcher of Komarr. So that the Escobarans would be too terrified of my reputation to surrender."
Aral's idea of pillow talk would give anyone nightmares. He contemplated responses, then settled on turning over, vulnerable on his back with his neck exposed, trapping his arm deliberately underneath Aral. You are not a monster, I trust you absolutely. Aral shuddered and his hand pressed Simon's shoulder. For a moment he lay still, then he leaned across and kissed Simon, hard and desperate and hungry. No, Simon thought a little hazily, not hungry. Thirsty, as if Simon was the nearest substitute to a bottle of strong alcohol, seeking oblivion in whatever form was available. He wrapped his free arm around Aral, stroking down his back, trying to relax him. If Aral sought oblivion, better this than the alternatives, but he thought Aral would regret this, later. They could do better.
It was hard to think coherently with Aral kissing him, but he tried his best, gentling the kiss as much as he could, his touch soothing and soft. His earlier arousal was returning now, entirely in agreement with Aral's desperate urgency, but he restrained himself. He wasn't sixteen, he could take his time.
Though he didn't want Aral to think he was unwilling, either ... he slid his hand down Aral's back--less solidly muscled than it had been when they'd sparred together, after these months of self-punishment--then around and between his thighs. Aral was half-hard, and he jerked at Simon's touch, then rolled over, pinning Simon down beneath him. Simon tried to breathe, to move. He didn't want to have to tell Aral to slow down, but for a moment he didn't think he would have a choice. But then Aral sighed and seemed to realise what he was doing, and he eased his grip. Simon got comfortable again, and things went better, the pace less frantic, and he thought that perhaps this could work. He smiled, his hand running warmly over Aral's cheek, then placed a kiss over Aral's heart. Aral went still, his expression turning blank, and Simon realised his mistake: a little too much self-betrayal in that blatant affection, more than Aral would accept. He tried to back off, but it was too late. Aral pushed himself up on one elbow, breaking contact.
"You're not going to change anything, you know that," he said, almost brutally. "Don't ... this is just tonight, Simon, for now. Tomorrow is not your responsibility. Not your problem. I'm not your problem, not any more, and whatever happens to me is not your fault."
If that were true, Simon thought, you wouldn't bother to tell me so. He was suddenly angry, with Aral, with himself, with the whole situation. Impulsively, he rolled over on top of Aral, straddling him, knees braced into the mattress, palms flat on either side of his chest, their faces close. "I'll put my hands between yours again," he bit out, "and you can tell me not to care again. My lord."
Aral blinked at him in surprise, then in a matching anger. "I don't fuck my liegemen," he stated. "You can't have it both ways, Simon."
"Then it's lucky I've spoken no oath to you. But I won't lie here and listen to you tell me to my face that none of that was real." He lay still for a moment, feeling Aral beneath him, and his voice was rough and almost as bitter as Aral's when he next spoke. "Don't worry. I know the score here. I know what you're doing and I know why, and I know I can't stop you." He breathed, regaining control, and deliberately caressed Aral's face again, a chip-perfect imitation of his previous gesture. "But I'll be damned if I leave you alone on that road without some company along the way."
Aral went still. Then his face relaxed slowly, just as it had when he'd agreed to come to Simon's apartment in the first place. "I see. Very well." He lifted a hand to touch Simon's cheek in return. "Then I couldn't ask for better company." A faint smile crossed his lips, and he ran his hand through Simon's hair. "I miss it, you know. Having you always there when I turn around. I hated it at first, but.... I know you were watching me, but I was watching you too. And what I saw..." He sighed. "I don't deserve ... any of this, but I'm too selfish to refuse."
Simon's lip quirked. Not selfishness, he thought, but a sign that Escobar had not entirely broken him, that he still had it in him to desire happiness and life. It was the most hopeful thing he'd observed from Aral for months. "Good," was all he said, but for a moment he put his head down on Aral's chest.
Then he moved a little sideways, sliding partly off Aral, but Aral's hands closed on his hips. "No, stay there, that's good..." he murmured, pulling Simon down, skin to skin, the earlier chill replaced with heat. Simon kissed him again, and it was better now, he could feel it, Aral relaxing at last, his prickly guard finally dropping away. He ran his hands over Aral, kissing his way down, observing with satisfied pleasure Aral's increasing arousal, his breathing quickening.
His hands bit hard into Simon's back as Simon's tongue found the tip of his nipple, hips jerking up. Simon slid a free hand down to Aral's cock, and for a moment he thought this would all be over in a few minutes. Then Aral exhaled slowly and took Simon's chin in his hand, tilting his head up.
"Company along the way," he murmured, his eyes glinting. "You're very good to me, Simon, but I think you need to stop thinking about this so much. Or perhaps I should make you? Hm..." He moved suddenly, twisting them over, then slid down in the bed. Simon noticed that his earlier uncoordination was gone now. Then he did stop thinking in truth, because Aral's mouth was on his cock, and he clearly knew what he was doing. Simon closed his eyes, and even the chip in his head quietened, his mind taken over by sensations its electronic memory could neither process nor record. He gave a sigh of pleasure, as much at the mental silence as at Aral's skilful touch, and worked his hands into Aral's hair.
Outplayed by a strategic genius in bed, he thought dimly, and then he didn't think of anything at all except yes and don't stop. He gripped Aral, basking in rare peace. Too many of his sexual encounters of the past years had been as part of various covert ops, and he'd been unable to relax and trust his partner. But he could do nothing else, with Aral.
He opened his eyes briefly, wanting to capture and save the visual. Aral's face was a study in attentive concentration, applying the same thought and focus to giving a blowjob that he had for his military campaigns. And he was even more thoroughly distracted from his own distress than Simon would have imagined possible, earlier.
Aral caught his gaze, and his eyes crinkled in what would have been a smile if his mouth hadn't been otherwise occupied, and he increased the intensity so that Simon really did have no space left in his mind for anything else. He closed his eyes again and let his thoughts go, let everything go, even losing track of time so that he had no idea how long it was before he clenched his hands on Aral and gasped aloud, back arching, then lay back in a stunned fog of pleasure.
It was a minute before Simon reluctantly opened his eyes to see Aral watching him, a pleased smile lightening his face.
"I thought for a bit you'd gone to sleep there," he murmured, "and I was going to be left to my own devices."
Simon smiled, shook his head, then leaned over and kissed him, languidly and slowly, feeling Aral's simple response. Now, he thought, now Aral was with him here. Not quite according to plan, but at this moment Simon couldn't bring himself to object to Aral's variation.
He didn't stop to ask Aral what he wanted, aware that the question would set off Aral's being-looked-after alarms all over again. Instead he rolled over on top of him as before, and was rewarded with a sigh of satisfaction as he let his weight rest on Aral fully. Aral was already quivering with arousal, his body twitching at every touch and movement, and Simon didn't think he was going to be able to spin this out, no matter how much he wanted to. He moved against Aral, stroking and kissing, and Aral groaned and thrust up, against Simon's hip, into his hand.
Simon was watching this time, enjoying the view. Aral's head was tilted back, his lips parted, breathing hard: the chip flashed up a side-by-side comparison of this face with Aral's expression a few hours ago when Simon had arrived. As rare a gift as it was to be able to trust his partner, it was no less rare to have this uncomplicated joy in another's pleasure.
He ran his free hand down, between Aral's legs and behind, pressing up and in, and Aral gasped and shuddered, swearing under his breath, then thrust up hard against Simon. His eyes snapped open, wide and distant, two more strokes and he spilled into Simon's hand and sank back limply, breathing hard. Simon relaxed too, lying sprawled on top of him, and Aral wrapped his arms around him, loosely, comfortably. Simon put his head down against Aral's shoulder as they both slowly recovered breath and wits.
Aral didn't fall asleep instantly, as Simon had half-expected, though he made no effort to move or help when Simon finally rolled to one side and cleaned up, his body spent with release and exhaustion. But there was a faint smile hovering around the corners of his lips, relaxed and calm. He was fully warm now, but Simon was careful to pull the blankets around them both anyway. Aral rolled over and curled around Simon, his heavy arm solidly across Simon's chest. He didn't speak, but there was no need: Simon could read him well enough. The peace was undoubtedly fragile, but it was real.
In a few minutes, Aral was snoring. Simon dimmed the lights and lay back. This was only first aid, he knew. Not a cure, just the immediate treatment to preserve life. For a cure ... his traitorous chip provided an image, red hair clashing with an orange prisoner's smock. But she wasn't coming, she wasn't here. They would have to make do. Aral had survived these heavy griefs on his own before, and after tonight, Simon was beginning to think that it might be possible again, that Aral would find his own way to healing this time as well. Until then, he thought, all he had to do was hold on.