Mark wanted to strangle Miles.
As best as Mark could tell, there were two reactions to Miles Vorkosigan. Normal, sensible people like Mark wanted to strangle him. Everyone else fell completely into Miles’s world. They were energized by him, electrified. They gazed at him with a strange worshipfulness which Miles took as his due. The whole business only increased the desire of normal, sensible people to strangle Miles.
At least, Mark thought it did. He didn’t have a very large sample size. Indeed, he sometimes wondered if he was the only normal, sensible person in the entirety of Beta Colony (he knew he was the only normal, sensible person who had ever set foot on Barrayar, that godforsaken hellhole). Maybe the only way to be a normal, sensible person who didn’t moon around Miles Vorkosigan starry-eyed was to share all of his DNA and then spend your entire adolescence learning everything there was to learn about him until you could mimic each mannerism and the timing on each joke. Which didn’t, actually, sound normal or sensible at all, which just made Mark want to strangle Miles more.
Mark had had plans for tonight after this party. Sex plans. He and Kareen were going to get to spend some time together, get tipsy but not drunk, touch each other a little bit, and then he was going to invite her up to his place to get her opinion on whether the Vor would be interested in buying the new Escobaran art he’d found from a trader. The rest would fall into place.
Kareen’s availability-indicating earrings glittered as she laughed at some witticism of Miles’s. She touched her hand gently on his knee. There was exactly one knee that Kareen was supposed to be touching tonight! If it were possible to murder someone by the strength of your glare, Miles’s head would have exploded by now.
“Oh, Mark!” Kareen said. “Miles says he knows how to go exploring outside the dome, and apparently the stars are beautiful tonight! Let’s go.”
Mark briefly visualized the difficulties of having sex while wearing an atmospheric protection suit. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea…” he hedged.
“Of course it is!” Miles said. “I’ve been all over Beta Colony, so I know exactly where to go. I’ll show you all the best places. It’ll be great!”
Mark saw his plans slowly collapse into dust in front of him. “That sounds fine,” he said. “Enjoyable. Wonderful.”
“You’ll love it,” Miles said. “Without an atmosphere, the stars are so clear. It’s one of the secret wonders of Beta Colony, the ones they don’t tell you about in the tourist guide. I only know about it because of Grandma. You really haven’t been on Beta Colony until you’ve seen it.”
Mark did not really care about the secret wonders of Beta Colony, except for the secret wonder that was Kareen’s vulva. That one he cared about a lot.
“I would be a failure as a brother,” Miles announced in his ‘now everyone needs to do what I say’ voice, “if I did not take you to see the stars at least once before I went back to Barrayar.”
“And as a friend,” Kareen said, her voice bright with reflected light from Miles’s glory. “Remember I’m going here too.”
“Of course!” Miles said. “I am going to show the beauty of Beta Colony to all the Barrayarans.” He considered this. “Well, okay, all the Barrayarans I like and that I think would actually appreciate it.”
Of course, there was one Barrayaran Miles probably felt the most desire to show Beta Colony to. The pretty female one. Mark was a fat, annoying afterthought.
Mark considered retreating back to his apartment to lick his wounds and mope about his mistreatment, but decided that would be wrong. When his therapist asked, he was going to say that this was because he understood that Not Doing Things Only Makes Depression Worse, and that Even If He Didn’t Feel Like Looking At Stars Now He’d Probably Enjoy It Once He Did It, and all of that other crap she said in the cool and kind voice that, come to think of it, also made him want to strangle her, although not as much as he wanted to strangle Miles. However, that was not the real reason.
The real reason was that he had this vision of Kareen and Miles walking along, hand in gloved hand, Kareen bouncing a little bit from happiness, a bright smile on her face. Miles says something clever. She giggles. They stare up at the stars, and it is so awfully romantic, and probably Miles gives her a Barrayaran rose or something because Miles always keeps an eye on the little details, and the next day Kareen takes her friend Mark out to dinner and talks his ear off about how she has never been on a more wonderful date in her entire life.
If one person could figure out how to have sex in an atmospheric pressure suit, it was Miles Vorkosigan.
Technically speaking, neither Kareen nor Miles nor Mark was monogamous. There was no reason that Mark couldn’t fuck Kareen after Miles did. In fact, there was no reason they couldn’t both date her at once, apart from occasionally awkwardly running into each other at her apartment, and his aversion to that was probably one of those Hangups he needed to Get Over. (He could hear his therapist’s voice, compassionate in a way that made it obvious she had been extensively trained in loving everyone and everything, calmly explaining this to him. From her perspective, he had a lot of hangups he needed to get over.) But Mark did not want Miles’s sloppy seconds. For once in his life he wanted sex, consensual sex, with someone who actually wanted to be having sex with him and not with Miles fucking Vorkosigan.
Even his rapist had wanted to rape Miles instead.
Goddammit, Miles. He had like fourteen girlfriends, and Mark wasn’t even counting the herm. Mark had zero girlfriends. He had never in his life had a girlfriend. Why couldn’t Miles leave this one woman for him?
Mark noticed that Kareen and Miles were looking at him expectantly.
“Um,” Mark said. “Yes?” What did he just say yes to? He hoped that it wasn’t a Mark/Miles/Kareen threesome. He couldn’t really bear to imagine his therapist’s accepting tone.
Mark saw a strange expression flash across Miles’s face, followed by an oddly strained smile. Oh goddammit it was the threesome. “Oh well,” Miles said. “Maybe next time.”
“That’s too bad,” Kareen said. “We’d have loved to have you along to look at the stars with us. But if you’re busy, you’re busy.”
“Yeah,” Miles said. “I’m sure we’ll get around to it before I leave.”
Vivid murder fantasies alternated with wildly implausible and frankly pornographic visions of what Miles and Kareen would do together, alone, without him. Mark vaguely sensed that he was being unreasonable-- at the very least, the one where Miles could drive Kareen into a dozen orgasms with the merest brush of his fingers against her skin was anatomically improbable-- but he could not find it in himself to care.
At least he wouldn’t have to watch them being cute at each other. His presence probably wouldn’t stop them from an ardent profession of love, whereas even in Beta Colony Miles probably wouldn’t fuck in front of his brother. And if Kareen loved Miles he really would have to commit murder.
“Yeah,” Mark croaked. “Have fun. I’ll be heading home.”
With that, Kareen and Miles headed towards the door, Kareen smiling in a way that made Mark’s heart hurt. All he wanted was to have her smile like that at him.
At least Miles looked upset. Although Mark couldn’t imagine why he was upset. He was getting to spend time with Kareen. Mark, personally, would never be sad in a situation where he got to spend time with Kareen, which was one of the many reasons that he was better-suited than Miles to be her lover.
God fucking dammit. Stars. Why didn’t he think of stars?
Clearly, the party had been a mistake. There was too much risk that Miles might show up to any party, whether or not he was invited. What he really needed was to get Kareen alone. Spend some time with her. Show her the real him, and not just the businessman. And most importantly of all make sure that she was nowhere near his goddamn brother.
(Mark briefly wondered when he’d started to think of Miles as his brother.)
Unfortunately, the problem with getting Kareen alone is that he had to ask her to do it, and the asking process had a high risk of Miles Intervention. Mark considered and discarded the idea of asking her at a party. Mark knew that he was invited to parties as a courtesy invitation by people who really wanted to invite Miles and knew that for some unaccountable Betan reason Miles would be upset if Mark was left out. Therefore, any party Mark was at would probably have a Miles as well.
Annoyingly, the courtesy invitation thing got Mark invited to both Naismith parties and Vorkosigan parties; apparently Miles felt that it was in character for both of his selves to strongly consider him their brother. Apparently it didn’t occur to anyone to question how come Naismith didn’t show up to Vorkosigan parties then, or vice versa. Mark had once considered pointing this out to Miles, but he worried that Miles would insist he go on a diet and impersonate Naismith or Vorkosigan. At least this way, he got to eat as much as he wanted and he got to network at parties for his businesses instead of for Naismith’s.
So parties were definitely out. However, Kareen did get coffee every afternoon at a little pastry shop not far from Mark’s house, which Mark knew because of reasons that were not remotely creepy in the slightest and also did not involve stalking. (Being a deep-cover mole was a hard habit to break.) It wasn’t that unreasonable that he would drop in.
In an excess of paranoia, he called up Miles to ask what his plans were for the day.
“Hey! It’s been forever,” Miles said.
“We talked last night,” Mark said. It was true. Miles had monologued for two hours about all the exciting adventures he and Ivan had had as teenagers. Mark’s remark that he didn’t have any adventures as a teenager because he was busy being tortured and abused did not go over well.
“Forever,” Miles repeated.
“I was wondering what you were doing today,” Mark said.
He had prepared an excuse about why he needed to know this, but Miles seemed to consider this a perfectly ordinary question, at least judging by the enormous smile that broke out on his face. “I’m super-busy all day,” Miles said. “The Dendarii have a bunch of new recruits and I need to talk to them. Review their training...”
Brainwash them into thoughtless loyalty. Mark said, “Sounds tough. So you’re going to be off with the Dendarii all day?”
“Yes,” Miles said.
“Absolutely no ability to, as a completely hypothetical example, visit a pastry shop near my house and have a snack?”
“Honestly, I’m swamped,” Miles said.
Because of Mark’s years of spy training, he managed to conceal his glee.
“What about you?” Miles asked.
Mark had plotted out the details of the afternoon with more care than a general laying his battle plans. “Oh, nothing, I’m basically free.”
That afternoon, Mark walked down to the pastry shop.
“Mark!” Kareen said. “What a delightful surprise.”
“It’s a funny coincidence that I ran into you,” Mark said.
“How have you been?” Kareen said.
“I’ve been calling people all day,” Mark lied smoothly. “As it happens I have an extra ticket to a ballet, and I don’t know who I’m going to give it to.”
“I love ballet!” Kareen said. “I guess you didn’t know that.”
Mark knew. Mark had spent hours with Miles gently redirecting the conversation to Kareen until he had finally spilled her childhood passion for zero-gee ballet. “Really?” he said. “I had no idea. Like I said, a funny coincidence. Apparently some angel is watching out for us.”
The angel’s name was Mark Vorkosigan.
“What is the ballet?” Kareen asked.
Yes! The date was in the bag. All he had to do from here was not fuck it up. “It’s an all-herm cast,” Mark said. “They’re redoing Blue Light, which is a Betan romantic comedy classic. It’s a commentary on how differently we’d look at things with a non-gendered cast as opposed to a gendered--”
“Mark!” said a voice that sounded like Mark’s own, if someone had put him on an illegal, medically unadvised, and probably unprecedented combination of stimulants.
“Miles,” Mark said, and felt like sinking into the earth. This was absurd. Of course Miles wasn’t actually going to stop him from asking Kareen out on a date, that was just superstition. He would say something polite to Miles and then go back to what he was doing. Fine. “I thought you were busy with, uh, ImpSec business.”
“I finished up early,” Miles said. “Apparently the new crop of recruits was awful and they planned to fire ninety percent of them and hire new ones.”
“Of course,” Mark said.
“And I was having this craving for pastries after you mentioned them, and I remembered that delicious pastry place near your house, so I thought I’d stop by,” Miles said. “And maybe bring you a pastry and hang out since we both have free time? But you’re here! So I don’t have to.”
Mark did not have free time. He had very important business going on here. Very important eventually-leading-to-sex business. Of course Miles had no way of knowing about his very important business, so probably it was a bit unfair to hold it against him, but Mark felt that being fair was for people who didn’t just have their plans interrupted by a tiny manic undercover agent.
“Mark was telling me all about this ballet that he has an extra ticket for,” Kareen said. “It’s an all-herm cast--”
“Is that Blue Light?” Miles asked.
“Yes,” Mark said, feeling a vague sense of impending doom.
“Oh, I wanted to see that,” Miles said, “Bel Thorne’s cousin is in the play and it really wants me to go to show support, but I kind of forgot and now the show’s sold out. It’s going to be so disappointed.”
“Who’s Bel?” Kareen asked with great interest.
“A friend of mine from ImpSec,” Miles said. “Saved my life, oh, a half-dozen times.”
Kareen frowned. “It’s a shame to disappoint someone, especially if they saved your life… I know!” she said. “Mark, you can give your extra ticket to Miles!”
Mark’s lips thinned. “Are you sure?” he said. “You sounded really enthusiastic about it. I’d hate to keep you from seeing something you’d enjoy.”
“Oh, but Miles loves ballet too,” Kareen said. “And you’d get to spend time with Miles! I know you’d much rather do that than hang out with me.”
“We really don’t get to spend enough time together,” Miles said, “what with ImpSec and Mark’s getting his businesses off the ground and all that. Sometimes I feel like Mark is avoiding me.”
Gee. Mark wondered what could have possibly given him that impression.
Mark, personally, could list off several million things he would rather do than spend more time with Miles Vorkosigan. Spending time at House Ryoval had taught him a lot of creativity about tortures, and no fewer than two-thirds of them would be desirable if afterwards he got to spend the evening with Kareen instead of fucking, fucking, fucking Miles fucking Vorkosigan.
But, unfortunately, “torture and then spend an evening with Kareen” was not on the table. He had to make their relationship look natural. He had to play it cool. And there was nothing less cool than passing up a chance to spend some time with your long-lost brother in order to spend time with a girl you just met.
He was trapped. There was no way out.
“Great,” Mark said, “sounds like a plan. I’m looking forward to it.”
“I’m really glad I stopped by!” Miles said. “Bel is going to be so happy that I got to see the ballet-- and it’s been talking the ballet up so much, I feel like I’ve already seen it.”
“Yeah,” Mark said. “We’re going to have such a wonderful time.”
He was going to put his head in an oven.
Clearly, Mark could not rely on chance alone to keep Miles fucking Vorkosigan from interfering with his courtship of the beauteous Kareen.
Well, if luck won’t go your way, you make it go your way. As a businessman, Mark had allowed his spying skills to atrophy, but he still had them.
He perused his contact list, searching for the perfect patsy. Then his eyes alighted on a name. He pressed the button and placed the video call.
Admiral Ghotan came from a planet that was, somehow, even more backwater than Barrayar. No one knew what he was admiral of; some people even speculated that it was an ocean-going fleet. His pomposity was matched only by his utter lack of wit. He enjoyed hearing the sound of his own voice; indeed, he was the only person who did. If a physicist ever discovered a law of the conservation of charisma, Admiral Ghotan and Miles Vorkosigan would be their first case study. Together, they averaged out to be a normal human being.
“Mark Vorkosigan,” Admiral Ghotan said. “What a pleasant surprise. I was remarking to my partner just the other day how long it’s been since we’ve seen you.” Mark felt a momentary surge of curiosity about how on earth Admiral Ghotan convinced anyone to sleep with him-- did he pay them? But what sum of money would be enough-- but the man’s droning voice quickly quashed it. “And she said that she’d seen you just the other day in the market, and I said that they need to reform the market. It is a crying shame the ruffians they are allowing in the market these days. Why, just the other day, I was walking down the street and I saw a man in a torn uniform! Torn! If you can imagine that. As an Admiral I know the importance of a clean uniform. A man cannot have pride unless he’s wearing a clean uniform. I remember when--”
Mark raised a hand to stop him. “Admiral, you know I always love to listen to you talk,” he said. “But there is a serious business matter happening today.”
“What sort of business matter?” the Admiral said. “You know I’m always a great lover of men of business. Why…” Mark allowed him to entertain himself with his own babbling for a few minutes, then seized on one of the Admiral’s pauses for breath.
“Admiral,” Mark said, “my brother, the Lord Vorkosigan, has a sizable sum of money to invest. I have come to understand that you have a business venture or two--”
The admiral began to describe his various business ventures. Mark gathered that there was something about chickens, and something about blasters, but to be honest it was difficult to keep his eyes open, much less pay any attention.
Mark cut him off mid-sentence. “Those sound like excellent investment opportunities,” Mark said. “Perfect for my brother. Do visit him at his apartment at 562 Ares Way, will you? He’ll be there at, oh”-- Mark pretended to glance at an appointment book-- “6pm next Friday.” The admiral opened his mouth to begin to speak, but Mark rolled over him ruthlessly. “You will have to be very firm with my brother; he may try to send you away, but keep talking to him. I know the man, he is flighty and doesn’t know what’s best for him, but if you keep talking to him you’ll wear him down.”
“Very good, my lord,” Admiral Ghotan said, “you know exactly the trick of handling them. It’s just like horses. I myself have ridden on many horses since the days of my youth--”
“One more thing,” Mark said, “do leave out that I’m involved, will you? Bit of a spat we’ve had lately. Would totally ruin your chance to invest with him. Anyway, I’d love to stay and chat-- always want to hear your wisdom-- but I must run. Business meeting.” Mark flipped off the viewscreen before the Admiral had a chance to say anything else and silently laughed to himself.
“Tonight was magical,” Kareen said, her eyes shining. “The dinner, the show, the dancing-- I’ve never felt so alive.”
Mark smiled and moved in a little closer. She turned her face up to him, and their lips met. She was soft and warm and smelled unutterably feminine. It felt like he could see tiny fireworks going off inside his eyelids. Her mouth opened, and her tongue gently began to probe.
A crash. “Quick!” said an all-too-familiar voice. “Hide me!”
Mark pulled sadly away from the kiss. “You came in through my window.”
“No time,” Miles said, “and they might have seen me.”
“Who might have seen you?”
“Betan Security Forces,” Miles said. “Apparently they frown upon hacking into Mom’s criminal record to get rid of her outstanding warrants. Who knew?”
“How the hell did you wind up hacking into M-- Cordelia’s criminal record when you were supposed to be talking to Admiral Ghotan--”
“--he was boring and wouldn’t go away, and also how did you know the Admiral was at my house--”
“Never mind,” Mark said, “what are you doing here of all places?”
Miles looked at him like it should be obvious. “Hiding.”
Mark thought longingly of banging his head into a wall then, reconsidering, instead thought longingly of an uninterrupted night with Kareen.
“This is my house,” Mark said. “I’m your brother, they’re going to know it’s me.”
Miles was staring at him wide-eyed. “You said I’m your brother!”
“By Betan law,” Mark emphasized, “I’m your brother.”
“You said it!” Miles said. “I knew Mom would get through to you--”
Oh god he was never going to hear the end of this. “More importantly,” Mark said, “don’t you have a security force to be fleeing from?”
“Right,” Miles said. “Well, I can hide in your bedroom closet, I’m quite small, but they might still--”
Kareen looked like she was having a brilliant idea. It was a face Mark had come to suspect as much on Kareen as he did on Miles. “You can come to my place!” she said.
“Brilliant!” Miles said. “Even if they saw me come here, no one would ever suspect that you were at Mark’s house.”
Of course they wouldn’t. Because Kareen was not his girlfriend, because he was constantly being cockblocked by his twin broth-- clone. By his clone.
“I suppose I can come along,” Mark said.
Kareen shook her head. “No, you have to stay here to delay the security forces. If they see you’re not here, they’ll suspect something.”
Betrayed on all sides, Mark sat in his living-room chair and tried to look innocuous. Which, he thought in great annoyance, was not hard. He was looking forward to committing some fornication and maybe even a spot of sodomy, but it looked like in spite of his best efforts he was going to remain pure as the driven snow.
Miles and Kareen were going to be alone. Miles and Kareen were going to be alone, together, in her house, which given Mark’s knowledge of houses probably contained a bed. There were no atmospheric pressure suits to get in the way of them having sex. Probably they were going to be driven together by danger and by Miles being a thrilling bad boy with a dark and troubled past and on the run from the law, which is something Mark couldn’t have pulled off even though he had definitely been a thrilling bad boy with a dark and troubled past and on the run from the law for much longer than Miles Vorkosigan ever had. He would drive her to raptures of ecstasy previously unknown to womankind.
Probably they were going to fall in love. Probably they were going to fall in love and get married and then Kareen would be the Countess Vorkosigan and they would be sickeningly affectionate at each other all the time and Kareen would describe to him as one of her closest friends all of the hundreds of orgasms that Miles gave her every time they had sex and they would have fourteen unbearably adorable children and Miles would still be dating every woman in the Dendarii plus one herm and then he could never escape them because even if he fled to the outer reaches of the galaxy Miles Vorkosigan would just follow him and say “I missed you, brother! Let’s go to a ballet together!”
Fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking Miles Vorkosigan.
Mark Vorkosigan had suffered many things at the hands of Miles Vorkosigan. From a certain perspective, every indignity he’d suffered in his entire life was directly or indirectly at the hands of Miles Vorkosigan. But nothing was quite as shocking as the moment that he went to dinner with Miles and stopped short to discover Kareen sitting at the table as well.
Was it not bad enough that Miles had stolen the only girl who had ever been interested in him without being paid money to do so? Did he have to invite him on their romantic dates as well?
“Hello!” Miles said cheerfully.
“You didn’t say Kareen would be here,” Mark said, his mouth a tight line.
“I thought it would be a pleasant surprise!” Miles said. “I know you both love this restaurant.”
“So how did you sort that thing out with the Betan Security Forces?” Kareen said. “I’m dying to know.”
Ah, yes, of course. Kareen wants to hear all about how troubled Miles is. Mark was troubled too! Was Miles psychotic and carrying around a murderer inside his head? No, he was not. Not even a little bit! Miles got to be the cool one and Mark was the boring businessman, even though Mark had a significantly more interesting traumatic backstory, just because Mark’s traumatic backstory was not appropriate for a fancy dinner or, indeed, for someone as untroubled as Kareen to hear at all.
Somehow, Mark had managed to wind up with all the trauma and all the depression and all the condescending therapists, and none of the dark brooding sexiness. It was a ripoff. He didn’t even manage to have sexy coping mechanisms. He didn’t fly groundcars too fast or slash his skin open or jump into wormholes. No, he just ate.
Nobody was attracted to a man who ate his feelings.
“ImpSec sorted it out,” Miles said. “Convinced them it was all part of some secret ImpSec plot. Apparently all the security forces cut each other slack like that-- well, at least the allied ones do. I sure got reamed out by Illyan though.”
Of course it would be extremely unreasonable to expect Miles to experience a single consequence for any of his actions.
“How have you been, Mark?” Kareen asked.
“Uh, well,” Mark said. “Not as interesting as Miles, though. No espionage or running from the law over here.”
“I think you’re plenty interesting,” Kareen said.
Mark glowed. On a rational level, he knew that she was just being polite, but that didn’t stop the glow. He was being approved of! By a woman! An attractive woman! Who had definitely kissed him for at least ten seconds before absconding with his clone-brother to have lots of sex and babies!
“Mark is always too down on himself,” Miles said. Mark snorted. That was the first time anyone had ever accused him of lacking arrogance. “Have I told you the best thing about him? Being a clone himself, he has a lot of sympathy for the clones on Jackson’s Whole.”
“What happens to them?” Kareen asked. Mark marveled at her innocence.
“They get killed,” Miles said, “so that rich and evil people can have brain transplants into a young body.”
Kareen gasped. “That’s horrifying.”
Apparently traumatic backstory was appropriate dinner-table conversation after all.
“Well, Mark’s made it his project to save the clones,” Miles said, “and because he’s a true Vorkosigan, he’s decided to go for the direct solution.”
Mark did not glare at Miles for calling him a ‘true Vorkosigan’, because that would probably upset Kareen and make his chance of sex with her even worse than it already was, but the glare existed deep down in his soul.
“So,” Miles said proudly, “my brother has decided to end the murder of clones by ending death.”
Kareen’s mouth widened into an O. “That’s ambitious,” she said.
Oh god oh god she hated him she thought he was an overweening arrogant asshole no better than Admiral Ghotan--
Mark hurried to say, “This is a very long-term plan. Right now I’m just working on getting funding for the Durona Group and identifying up-and-coming companies for them to acquire. I’m not involved in any of the day-to-day science, I’m just an investor.”
“You’re amazing,” Kareen said. “Lots of people just want money as-- as a scorecard or something. You’re as smart as any of the other businessmen on Beta Colony, but you want to do something really good with it. Not just buy yourself a bunch of fancy mansions and a spaceship and three herm lovers.” Her smile was small, but it made Mark’s heart ache. “I really admire that about you.”
“I know!” Miles said. “I’m pretty sure my brother is going to become the most famous Vorkosigan of all time.”
Great. The future Count and Countess Vorkosigan were bonding over how great he was. Wonderful. This is exactly how he wanted to spend his evening. Mark honestly felt like it would have been better if they’d hated him. This just felt condescending. Like they were going to throw him the bone of their approval while taunting him with their romantic happiness and affection and ability to kiss each other…
“I wish I had goals like that,” Kareen said. “I feel like I don’t have any skills except getting married.”
“You have lots of skills,” Mark said, hating the earnestness in your voice. “You’re smart and hard-working and likeable and-- anyone would be lucky to hire you.”
“I tried to get Illyan to hire her for ImpSec,” Miles said. “He wouldn’t. First time I’ve ever seen him make a mistake.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I could do that,” Kareen said. “It sounds terrifying.”
“It’s mostly boring,” Miles said. “--Well, the parts that aren’t boring are sheer terror, so it probably works out to be pretty terrifying on average, but most of the time you’re just bored.”
Wonderful. Now they were talking about how great Miles is again. As if anyone could have a different topic.
“Oh!” Miles said. “The musicians are here.”
Musicians. Great. Miles hired musicians. How the hell was Mark supposed to top musicians?
An entire chamber music quartet appeared behind Miles’s chair and began to serenade the three of them. They were playing Mark’s favorite songs, a Barrayaran classic from the Time of Isolation. It did not improve his mood.
Kareen’s hand flew to her face. “How did you do this?”
“It’s amazing what you can get away with when you can bribe the restaurant owner,” Miles said.
“This is my favorite song,” Kareen said.
“It’s Mark’s favorite too,” Miles said. “Isn’t it great how you two have so much in common?”
It was very great! It was one of the many reasons that Mark was so interested in Kareen! It would have been even more great if the things they had in common shifted around a bit, so that they didn’t include “a very emotional relationship with Mark’s brother” and did include “fucking for hours on Mark’s countertop.”
“I think this creates a lovely and romantic atmosphere,” Miles said. “Let’s listen to it as we eat.”
Ugh. When would Miles stop rubbing it in? So he got Kareen, just like he got every other girl he’d ever wanted, there was no need to keep reminding Mark of that fact.
The dinner consisted of strawberries, bananas, cherries, and chocolate drizzled with honey and cinnamon, accompanied by a plate of oysters, another plate of avocados, and several bottles of red wine. Mark was not sure who Miles thought he was kidding.
“This is delicious!” Kareen said. “How clever of them to bring out the dessert at the same time.”
“It’s so you can fill up on dessert,” Miles said, “and skip the rest of the meal. I wish they’d do that everywhere else.”
Mark took this advice of Miles’s to heart, eating chocolate after chocolate, chewing mechanically, not even tasting what he was eating. He washed down each of the chocolates with huge swigs from the bottle of red wine.
Kareen was never going to be attracted to him now, once she’d seen how gross he was. Mark didn’t care. He didn’t deserve her anyway.
When Miles was half-escorting half-dragging a stuffed and drunk Mark to his bed, Mark thought he heard him say, “this wasn’t what I meant to have happen at all. Don’t worry, Mark. I know you’re scared. I’ll help you. Just as soon as I figure out how.”
But it was such a weird thing for him to say that in the morning Mark concluded it must have been a dream.
This, of course, meant war.
Miles was not going to make his Kareen, the first woman to ever kiss Mark because she wanted to kiss him, into the Countess Vorkosigan without a fight.
Mark had sabotaged himself at the date. Bizarrely, however, it didn’t seem to repulse Kareen at all: in fact, she called him up the next day to ask him to have dinner with her. But that was a stroke of luck that Mark could not expect to repeat. If he won Kareen’s heart in the future, it would be because of planning.
Mark saw now the folly of his previous course. Miles would not be distracted or thrown off the scent. As long as he and Mark were on the same planet, he would keep chasing Kareen, and he would keep interrupting Mark’s attempts to do the same.
As long as he and Mark were on the same planet.
Mark called the only person he knew in ImpSec. Duv Galeni’s face shimmered on the screen.
“I need you to do me a favor,” Mark said abruptly.
“Why would I do you a favor?” Galeni said. “I saw you once. Years ago. You fast-penta’d me, pretended to be Miles Vorkosigan, and said you would overthrow the Imperium.”
“I didn’t end up overthrowing the Imperium,” Mark pointed out.
“There are lots of people who didn’t overthrow the Imperium,” Galeni said. “Nearly everyone, in fact. I do not do favors for most of them.”
“I killed your father,” Mark said.
“I think it says a lot when your homicide of my family members is your biggest argument about why I should help you,” Galeni said.
“Please,” Mark said, his voice acquiring a tone of abject despair. “I don’t want anything wrong or harmful to the interests of Barrayar or anything. I just… need Miles and I to not be on the same planet for a few weeks. He’s driving me mad.”
“Being on the same planet as Miles Vorkosigan would drive any man mad,” Galeni said, not unsympathetically.
Mark knew he wasn’t the only normal, sensible person in the world. The surge of liking he felt for Galeni in that moment was as great as the liking he’d managed to feel for any person whose name didn’t begin with K.
“Just… a month,” Mark said. “Give me some breathing room. Then I can deal with him. But right now Miles Vorkosigan is giving me problems that not even the best Betan therapist can solve. And I know this because she’s tried.”
“Now, that’s a pitch,” Galeni said. “Never let it be said that I left an innocent person with Miles Vorkosigan without cause. So what do you want?”
“Can you just… make sure he gets assigned to some ImpSec job?” Mark said. “Somewhere else? Anywhere else? He’s allegedly a courier. Maybe he can actually do some courier-ing.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Galeni sent Mark a message. It was done. Mark immediately called Kareen to set up another date.
The date went wonderfully, with absolutely no interference from Miles Vorkosigan whatsoever. He ate a normal amount of food and barely sipped his wine, possibly due to the non-presence of Miles Vorkosigan. The conversation flowed easily and did not involve the topic of Miles Vorkosigan. Not only that, but he managed to get her up to his apartment, without any other people being present in his apartment, most notably Miles Vorkosigan.
His therapist would be proud. Well, she probably wouldn’t be proud of why those things were true, but what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
Mark and Kareen were sitting next to each other on the couch talking, his arm around her. She had grown quiet and was looking into his eyes and biting his lip and he began to move closer--
“Important ImpSec business,” Miles said, body halfway through Mark’s window, “can’t wait, I’ll brief you in the car.”
“I have a door,” Mark said. “Most houses have doors. Your behavior seems to suggest that you don’t know about this, and I want to make it clear, so that in the future you can come in through the door.”
“Very important ImpSec business,” Miles said in a tone of explanation.
“I don’t work for ImpSec,” Mark said. “You work for ImpSec. We are, in fact, two different people.”
“Extremely important ImpSec business,” Miles said, “I can’t make the plan work without you and as a Vor you have a duty--”
“I’m not a Vor,” Mark said, “I’m a clone, you can go ask all those assholes on your planet--”
“--your planet whether they’ll accept me--”
“Mark,” Miles said. In his voice there was a strange earnestness. “I need you.”
Mark was going to regret this. He knew he was going to regret this. But something about the way that Miles looked at him, or how much fun he’d had at the ballet, or Miles taking him home after the dinner where he was certain he’d fucked up everything, or something made Mark pause. He didn’t have the heart to say no.
Like a bear caught in its own trap, Mark said, “Fine.” He turned to Kareen and briefly kissed her for the second time in his life. Someday he was going to kiss someone, who wanted to kiss him, for more than three seconds. Mark believed in dreaming big. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
It took Mark a moment to notice the weird thing about this planet.
“Where are the women?” Mark said, as the fourth bearded man walked by carrying the shopping and holding the hand of a toddler (also a boy). “Is this some kind of weird patriarchal society where they keep all the women in seclusion?”
“Weird patriarchal society yes, seclusion no,” Miles said. “Athos doesn’t have any women. The Athosians are religious fundamentalists. They think that women are evil and drain men’s souls. If a man meets a woman, they think, he will go mad and do whatever she wants.” He paused, as if in thought. “Honestly, I’m not sure that they’re entirely wrong…”
The Athosians, Mark was sure, has never met Miles Vorkosigan. If they had, they’d rapidly revise their positions on whether men could be soul-draining and drive people mad such that they do whatever you want. Even Mark himself was not immune.
He had to have gone temporarily insane. That was the only possible explanation. He had thought he was a normal, sensible person, but apparently he too could succumb to the force of nature that was Miles. He had just… looked so sad.
Mark had deliberately set up Miles to go to Athos, and somehow he wound up going with him.
Isn’t personality genetic? How come Miles was so bright and beloved, when Mark had the approximate charisma of a potted plant?
“Surely there have to be some women somewhere,” Mark said. “A brothel. Mothers. Female children?”
“Nope,” Miles said. “They use uterine replicators, don’t conceive female children, and don’t let women immigrate to the planet. No women anywhere.”
Mark’s one comfort in this tragic situation had been the idea that he might be able to go to a sex worker. The women of a backwater planet were unlikely to be as well-trained as a Betan licensed sex worker, but they were likely to be good enough for his purposes, women who were willing to pretend to be attracted to him long enough for him to work off some of his caged sexual energy. In the capital city he might even manage to find a dominatrix, and if her collection of whips and chains weren’t as good as a Betan licensed sex worker’s, well, Mark had always been a fan of what you could do with hands.
But apparently there weren’t any women.
On the entire damn planet.
No women meant no sex workers (at least not of the sort Mark liked-- he very much doubted the planet of gay religious fundamentalists would have herms). No sex workers meant no fucking. Not only had Miles ripped him away from Kareen, he had condemned him to celibacy.
“Cheer up,” Miles said. “It’s only for a few weeks. I’m sure you’ll be fine. Just think of Kareen!”
The problem, Mark thought glumly, is that he wasn’t going to stop thinking of Kareen.
Miles’s adventures dragged Mark across what felt like the entire damn surface of Athos, and Mark could conclusively state that there wasn’t a single woman in the place.
He hadn’t really had much doubt that Miles was telling the truth. But Mark was nothing if not an optimist, and the universe was nothing if not determined to quash every speck of optimism that lingered inside him.
Not even a herm. On the entire planet. How did they live?
After this thrilling scientific investigation was completed, Mark was engaged in his third-favorite hobby, Glumly Thinking About How Kareen Will Never Love Him. He had a busy schedule: a little later this evening he would spend some time doing his second-favorite hobby, Sexual Fantasies About Kareen, and finish it up with a spot of his favorite hobby, Plotting The Murder Of Miles Vorkosigan.
A ping from his console. Someone had sent him a message. Probably someone telling him that the jump to Beta Colony was premature, the damn ImpSec business wasn’t concluded yet, and they would have to visit the Planet of Only Herms, followed by the Planet of Only Squid People.
At this point, Mark was pretty sure that he would fuck a squid person. At least Miles wouldn’t be his competition.
But instead the was from Kareen. “Hey cutie,” it read.
“Hey,” Mark wrote.
“I missed you,” her next message read. “I sent you a message as soon as you were close enough to me to talk in real time. Uh. Not that I calculated it and sent you a message as soon as I could, of course.”
Mark felt a sort of jealous pride, a pleasure that he knew was wrong but couldn’t help feeling anyway. The first person she could message, and it was him. Not Miles! Take that, the future Count Vorkosigan! So much for all your troubled yet socially appropriate bad boy nature!
Then Mark realized that she could totally be messaging Miles at the same time, and his pride deflated a bit.
“I should have thought of that,” Mark typed. “I missed you too. Probably more. Did you know Athos doesn’t have any women on the entire planet?”
“So you’re not bringing home any exotic Athosian mistresses for me to meet?”
“Too bad. What happened? Was there a plague?”
“A plague of religious fundamentalism. Apparently they think women drive men mad.”
“Oooh. You should have brought home an Athosian man for me. I would have loved to drive him mad.”
“You’ll just have to settle for me.”
Kareen’s next message made Mark reschedule Sexual Fantasies About Kareen to a few hours earlier. “Speaking of driving you mad… I don’t have any clothes on right now. Want to see?”
He could not type quickly enough. “Uh, yes.”
A video call opened. There was Kareen, as advertised, completely naked. Mark had seen naked women before-- Beta Colony had a truly mind-boggling array of pornography-- but Kareen took his breath away. It was something about knowing that she was naked for him alone, that she wanted him to see, that she was naked right now because she desired him. Even the little flaws in her appearance-- the one breast that was a little bigger than the other and sagged a little bit more, the small mole on her stomach, the red lines from her clothing-- aroused him. Her image hadn’t been altered to better suit the sexual interests of men. Her flaws meant it was real.
There was a lump in Mark’s throat. “You’re beautiful.”
“And you are wearing entirely too many clothes,” Kareen said. “It’s not fair. If I’m naked, you should be naked too. Equality.”
“But you’re wonderful,” Mark said. “Not like me. Nobody wants to see me naked.”
Kareen’s voice was firm. “I do.”
You couldn’t argue with a persuasive argument like that, although Mark’s hands were sluggish in undoing his buttons. Surely no one could actually be attracted to him, particularly not a beautiful girl like Kareen. Perhaps she didn’t know how hideous he was…? Maybe his suits were better-tailored than he thought they were, and she was totally unaware of his monumental fatness and thought he was just big-boned…? Maybe when she saw his flab in the all-too-much flesh, she would flee into the comforting arms of Miles…?
Naturally, this was the precise moment that the owner of said comforting arms chose to appear.
“Mark!” Miles said. “What are you doing?”
Like hell was he going to admit that he was getting naked and (potentially? Possibly? They hadn’t talked about it but he hoped?) jerking off with Kareen. “Uh. Nothing?” His voice sounded uncertain. On screen, Kareen stifled a giggle.
“Oh, good,” Miles said. “I was thinking of organizing some quick war games with the rest of the Dendarii before we land in Beta Colony. And there’s no one else I’d rather have as my second-in-command. What do you say?”
Mark looked at Kareen, pleading for rescue. She typed for a second, and a message appeared on his screen: “go have fun with your brother! I’ll still be here when you land.”
But Mark didn’t want to go have fun with his brother! What he wanted was to look at Kareen’s breasts. Frankly, Mark felt that anyone would rather look at Kareen’s breasts than spent time with Miles except, presumably, Kareen, who got to spend as much time as she liked looking at them anyway.
Sure, they would see each other when he landed (oh god, they would see each other when he landed). But “when he landed” was observably not “right now”. And if he did both, then he would get twice as much time looking at Kareen’s naked body which-- as he was sure everyone would agree-- was far superior to the alternative.
Of course, if he said ‘no’, Miles would pout. And Mark didn’t really want to make Miles sad. It was like kicking a puppy.
The war games couldn’t be that bad, right?
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll be your second-in-command.”
Miles’s grin was blinding. “Great!” he said. “I’ll give you a few minutes to get suited up, and we’ll be going.” He disappeared.
“I could have time to, uh, get off in front of you,” Mark said to Kareen. “If I did it really quickly.” He was probably going to do it really quickly. Kareen’s soft breasts and smooth stomach did that to people.
“Mm, I don’t want you to be late,” she said. “And you don’t want Miles to walk in on you.”
That horrifying thought instantly dampened Mark’s arousal. Not even Kareen’s breasts gently swaying as she turned away from her viewscreen could reawaken it.
“Don’t be so sad,” Kareen said. “As soon as you land, you can do more than just see me naked.”
Apparently the thought of Miles walking in on him didn’t have as much power as all that.
As Mark struggled into his war-games armor, he comforted himself with two thoughts. One, Kareen was definitely not talking to and definitely definitely not naked with Miles. Two, maybe his arousal would make him less than completely incompetent at war games. Sublimation and all that.
Mark’s arousal did not make him any better at war games.
The opposing team of Dendarii was somewhat obnoxious in their rejoicing. To be fair to them, no one had lost to the great Miles Vorkosigan in the past three years. To be fair to Mark, this didn’t exactly make him feel better.
“I was so happy I got to play with you,” Miles said.
“We lost,” Mark said.
“I know,” Miles said. “But you’re my brother, and I got to lose with you.”
Mark’s mouth found itself forming the words before Mark’s brain got a chance to veto it. “Maybe we should do this more often. Then I’ll get better and we can play and you won’t lose.”
Miles grinned, and Mark hated how rewarding it was. “I’d love to, Mark.”
Fucking, fucking, fucking Miles Vorkosigan. Mark was going to have to revoke his own title of normal, sensible person entirely unaffected by Miles.
But it made Miles so happy. What else could he do?
Mark had Kareen fully naked in his bed, moaning and flushed with arousal, her body somehow much more intoxicating in person than on a vidscreen, when a knock came at the door.
Pulling on yesterday’s shirt and a pair of pajama pants, Mark hurried to the door, hoping it was a door-to-door saleswoman he could tell to fuck off. Unfortunately, when he opened the door, Miles’s slightly manic face appeared.
“Well, at least you’ve figured out the existence of doors,” Mark said. The fact was a small comfort that did nothing about the anger rising up inside him.
“Mark!” Miles said. “Great to see you. So I was thinking that we could--”
“What is it this time?” Mark said, his anger increasing. “ImpSec business? You got in trouble with the law on fourteen separate planets at once? You’ve come to start a Jackson’s Whole emu dealership and you’re looking for legal advice?”
“Mark, what’s wrong?” Miles asked.
“What’s wrong? What’s WRONG?” Mark said. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong. Every time I am about to get somewhere with Kareen, you show up to take me to a play or play war games with me or take her on a romantic date stargazing with fucking chamber music or, or drag me to the planet of the separatist homosexuals, and I’m tired of it! I know you’re interested in Kareen, who wouldn’t be interested in Kareen, but you have sixteen girlfriends in the Dendarii alone! In your entire life I bet you’ve never had a woman turn you down. And I have a girl, the first girl who has ever been interested in me, and you’re STEALING HER and I am TIRED OF IT!”
“...oh.” Miles’s voice was quiet.
“Your sense of timing is uncanny!” Mark said. “Every fucking time I have some plans with her you burst in and tear them into smithereens! It wouldn’t be so bad if you also wanted to date her-- I mean, it would be bad, but at least I would get to date her too! But instead you’ve been sabotaging me for months! I’m sick of it! Why don’t you just leave me alone?”
“Because I miss you,” Miles said.
Mark blinked. “...what.”
“I miss you,” Miles said. He was sad. Mark had never seen Miles sad before, but he recognized that facial expression and it was definitely, of all the goddamn things, sad. Mark hadn’t actually realized that Miles was capable of the emotion. “I’ve never had a brother before and I miss you and I want to get to know you. That’s all.”
Mark had to be hearing things. “I literally killed you.”
“Brothers fight with each other sometimes,” Miles said. “You should have seen me fighting with Ivan when we were kids, even though he’s only my cousin. But they always make up after. And I was trying to make up with you.”
“So you took me to the ballet--”
“Because I wanted to spend time with you,” Miles said. “I also didn’t want a pastry-- I mean, I did want a pastry, but there are pastry shops closer to the Dendarii, I just wanted to see you.”
“Dragging me off to Athos?”
“I figured you couldn’t escape from me while we were on a ship together,” Miles said. “And I was right,” he added smugly.
“We’re brothers,” Miles said. “I never got to play war with you as a kid, so I thought we would make up for lost time! --They really were going to have to make you a better warrior if they were planning on passing you off as a Vor.”
“They weren’t planning on having me fight wars,” Mark said. “They were planning on assassination. If there were an assassination game, I would wipe the floor with all the Dendarii. What about the stargazing?”
“Trying to spend time with you,” Miles said. “Subtly. By letting Kareen know about something and hoping she would drag you into it. Which didn’t work at all, so I figured I had to get less subtle.”
“By which you mean crashing through my window and dragging me off to the planet of separatist homosexuals.”
“Lack of subtlety is one of my gifts,” Miles said.
“Crashing through my window when you were fleeing the Betan Security Forces?” Mark said.
“You’re my brother,” Miles said reasonably. “Who can I expect to help me when I’m in trouble if not my brother?”
“What about the romantic date?” Mark said accusingly. “You’re trying to bond with me as your brother by dragging me out on your dates with Kareen?”
“Mark, I don’t want to date Kareen,” Miles said. “I never wanted to date Kareen. She’s like a sister to me. I was trying to help you. I know you like her and you don’t have experience with women and I just thought--” Miles’s hands spread wide, and Mark was treated to the unusual experience of having Miles at a loss for words.
Mark rapidly recontextualized the past few weeks. He tried to get Miles sent off-planet just because Miles wanted to spend time with him. He made Miles spend time with Admiral Ghotan, of all the sadistic tortures, because he was too paranoid to tell his brother-- his brother who, evidently, only wanted his romantic happiness-- to knock it off because he wanted to ask a girl out. He had repeatedly fantasized about murdering someone whose only crime was liking him. Didn’t he complain constantly about how unliked he was? Miles was, actually, fun and funny and not very bad company, and if he’d appreciated it instead of stewing in his own resentments and jealousies he wouldn’t have spent the last few months so miserable.
Mark said quietly, “I’ve been a really big asshole.”
Kareen appeared in the hallway, naked except for the blanket she’d wrapped around herself. “Mark, what’s taking so long? If it’s a saleswoman you know you can tell her to just go aw-- oh, hello Miles.”
Miles took in Kareen’s current state of dress, or rather undress, and his eyes widened.
“So you are-- with Kareen,” Miles said.
“Yes,” Mark said. He couldn’t resist the urge to add, “Without your help.”
“No wonder you were yelling at me,” Miles said. “If I were in your situation right now I would definitely be yelling at me.”
The blanket slipped below one of Kareen’s shapely breasts. She unconsciously tugged it up. “I am going to be yelling at both of you unless you explain what is going on,” she said. “I understand that being a Vor means that sex will occasionally be interrupted with military or diplomatic crises, but this is getting ridiculous.”
“No crisis,” Miles said. “Just-- Mark has been avoiding me, and I missed him, and I think I was kind of a jerk about showing it. Did you know that Mark was afraid that I was sleeping with you?”
The revulsion on Kareen’s face filled Mark with unabashed glee, slightly tempered by his knowledge that he was jealous and paranoid and completely incapable of acknowledging the existence of good things in his life without assuming they were the product of conspiracies that were out to get him. “Disgusting.”
“Agreed,” Miles said fervently.
“I’m sorry,” Mark said. “Look, I’ve never had a family before a few years ago. I know I’m bad at it. I am-- going to try to be better.” Mark decided to leave the exact things he needed to get better on ambiguous. Knowing that Mark had sent Admiral Ghotan after him would probably not be conducive to familial harmony. “But in exchange you have to make appointments with me the way normal people do. With phones. Going through doors. Not declaring that you need my presence because of matters of state security. And not interrupting me when I’m about to have consensual sex with someone I’m not paying for the first time in my entire life!”
“Really?” Kareen said, her earrings twinkling in the light. “Your first time?”
Mark replayed the last few sentences. “I uh…” he said. “I wasn’t going to admit that.”
“Now if that’s all settled,” Kareen said, “I was going to have sex, and I still want to do that, and I am perfectly willing to describe the sex in detail if it means you will go away.”
“Eurrgh,” Miles said, and turned to leave. Over his shoulder, he said, “Wednesday! At about seven? There’s this wonderful little Old Earth fusion place, you’d love it--”
Kareen said, “so, your brother’s dick is--”
“Going!” Miles said. The door slammed behind him.
“I don’t know why he objects to that,” Kareen said, “your dick literally the same as his dick.”
Mark looked Kareen up and down appreciatively. “So, where were we…” he said.
“Before we get back to what we were doing,” Kareen said, “you thought me? With Miles?”
Mark sighed and gave thanks that at least no one knew about his worries that she would become Countess Vorkosigan.