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Tanery Base was not well-equipped with comfortable places to sit, but even so Simon didn't think the visitor's chair in his office would make the top ten. Nonetheless, Aral hadn't moved even though Simon had run out of late-night security briefing some fifteen minutes ago.

"Shouldn't you get some sleep, sir?" he said after feeding a pile of paperwork into his chip to process. "It's late."

Aral was gazing blankly at the wall. "I'm not tired."

He looked tired, and more than tired, drawn and haggard. Not the worst Simon had seen him this past year--a set of comparative images flashed before his eyes--but very much in need of sleep.

"Lady Cordelia will be all right," he ventured. "We'll find her."

Aral frowned at him, but without much force to it. "You won't compel her to return," he said. It was the fifth time he'd given that order today, the chip noted, but Simon merely nodded.

"I understand, sir."

Aral grunted and resumed staring at the wall, and Simon turned back to his plans and reports. Too many plans he couldn't execute, and reports with too little data in them, that was his problem. One of his problems. Along with the fact that ImpSec currently consisted of some thirty-eight men here under his command, another twenty-six in the capital reporting erratically to him, and at least five of those also to Vordarian on the side, and four hundred and seventeen scattered over the planet and of unknown loyalties. And his HQ was in enemy hands and the boy emperor he was sworn to protect was in hiding and outside his protection. And now it seemed his commander and lord was choosing to sit in his office and have a quiet breakdown over the not-very-mysterious disappearance of his wife. There wasn't anything more he could do about the rest of it tonight; time to focus on that problem.

He stood up. "Well, sir, I'm going to knock off for today." He shut down his console and pushed himself to his feet one-handed, went to the door of his office, opened it and stood expectantly. Aral stood up with a grunt.

"I shouldn't get drunk, I suppose," he said, "but if I have to listen to Father saying one more thing about Cordelia running off with Kou--"

"Count Vorkosigan has already retired for the night," Simon said. He'd checked that earlier, after suffering through several encounters today. "Tomorrow he will be travelling early out to Rougemont for negotiations; you shouldn't encounter him all day."

Aral looked at him then. "Thank you, Simon," he said. He draped his arm around Simon's shoulders, and Simon quickly turned his face away so that Aral wouldn't see his grimace. The infected plasma burn that had been his price for escaping Vordarian's men was by no means healed. But he didn't shrug Aral's arm off, instead taking the opportunity to steer him towards his quarters. Pain wasn't recorded on his chip; it wasn't real. Besides, Aral seemed drained, walking blindly with heavy steps, his weight on Simon.

They reached Aral's door, but Aral made no move to open it. "I don't understand it," he said ruminatively. "I was alone here before she arrived, and that was fine. She was hardly much safer then, but--" He shook his head. "Last night I couldn't sleep a wink without her there."

"I can get them to send up something from the base infirmary," Simon offered.

"No good. You might need to wake me suddenly, I can't afford it."

With a sigh, Simon reached for the door control. Aral pulled him back with a tight grip on his burned shoulder, and this time Simon flinched away with a gasp, black stars wheeling in his visual field, and had to catch himself with his good arm against the wall.

"Shit," Aral muttered, jerking his hand back in understanding. "I'm sorry. Dammit, Simon, why didn't you say..." He took hold of Simon again, supportively now, and looked directly at him for the first time this evening. "Never mind me, you're done in. Where have we put you in this warren?"

"Two levels down. Near the ops room," Simon said, controlling his breathing with conscious effort, shunting all his perceptions to the chip, where pain was just another neutral fact, of no more significance than the ambient temperature. He'd been doing this all day, he could keep going a little longer. "It's all right, my lord. I'm fine. You should get some rest."

"I wouldn't sleep anyway. Come on." His arm still firmly supporting Simon, he turned back to the stairwell, and Simon let himself be propelled along. Aral went straight to his door and opened it, his palm overriding Simon's security lock. He led Simon over to the bunk and sat him down.

"I thought you looked a bit off, earlier. You haven't been taking the painkillers, have you?"

"Don't need them," Simon said. "The chip handles it."

Aral gave him a narrow-eyed look. "Idiot," he said. "If you won't follow the doctor's orders you'll follow mine. Let me take a look. No, don't try to move it, I've had my share of these burns..."

Since he was finding it almost impossible now to keep his attention solely on the chip's anaesthetic data, the pulse-beat of his arm throbbing too loudly for him to deny, he sat still as Aral carefully removed his tunic and shirt and examined his burned arm. Simon knew it was no worse; it just wasn't much better either.

"Hm. All right, you'll do. But take the painkillers."

"I can't, any more than you can take a sleeptimer," Simon said. "I'm fine, sir. Truly."

Aral gave a provisional grunt. "Very well." He sat down next to Simon then. "What a mess," he said. "They'll contact you first if--if any new information comes in?"

"Of course."

"Good." He sat back on the bunk, drawing Simon with him until he was sitting half against the wall and half against Simon, yawned, but made no move to go, staring at the bare wall opposite

"If she doesn't come back..." His voice was low and hoarse, a man looking into a nightmare. "What then?"

It was one of Simon's nightmares too. He had too many nightmares now, though his chip carefully tracked and numbered them all, shuffled them and combined them to keep him motivated to his work. But this was one of the worst. The Regent left alone, with no wife, no child, the fragile empire crumbling and the child-Emperor vanished...

"Barrayar will still need you," he said. And it would fall to him to hold Aral to that task, without love or hope or future. After all, he had done it before.

Aral sighed. "Ah, Simon. Are you Ezar's man still?"

The question drew truth from Simon, like poison from a wound. "He made me who I am. You know I am your man, but he made me."

In answer, Aral's hand moved, cupping the base of his skull, where the inhuman contents of his head lay hidden by Ezar's command. "He did. But you do better with me." A bare statement of fact, without arrogance, and Simon was unable to deny it.

"It won't come to that," he said instead. "Bothari went with her, and Drou, and Kou as well. They'll be fine." He was almost more worried about what else they might do along the way, with that combination.

"I wish she'd taken you too."

That thought sent a shiver down Simon's spine. Drou was Cordelia's sister-in-arms, Kou her worshipper, Bothari her dog. He was Aral's.

"They will serve her better. I need to be here."

"Perhaps you do at that." Aral yawned again and stretched his shoulders out, head resting against the wall and eyes slitting half-closed. "Sleep, yes. But... not up there, not alone." He turned to face Simon squarely, a question forming in his eyes. Before he could ask, Simon nodded. There was no need for question, nor answer; it had already been agreed.

The room was small, much like a ship's cabin, and they'd shared smaller spaces often enough that there was no awkwardness as they both made ready to sleep. Simon tidied batman-fashion and double-checked the security, then lay down on the bunk between Aral and the door, his back to Aral. Aral draped a heavy arm across him, and Simon's eyes flickered shut.

Aral pulled him close. Simon was not in any doubt about what Aral wanted of him tonight, not a lover to stand in for Cordelia, but something closer to the dog that men called him, a warm safe presence to hold in the night. He could sense Aral's distress and exhaustion beating off him with every breath in his ear, all guards down now. But Aral had no secrets from him, could hold nothing back from ImpSec's total embrace of his life. He'd quipped once that Negri had probably known of Cordelia's pregnancy before either of them, and it was true. Simon had been there, an unseen third in the marriage bed, at the breakfast table, in the shower. There was only one thing added by being here in person: Aral could see him too.

Part of him objected to this, the part of him that was Ezar, that was Negri, that was the chip. He was no longer the green lieutenant who had followed Vorkosigan to Escobar and back, Aral's private watchdog. He was the chief of ImpSec, and it was his duty to be passionless, to watch and go unwatched. It was Gregor he served now, not Aral, for all that he held this too-elevated promotion from Aral's hands. When he reached Negri's office he would doubtless find the old orders from Ezar telling him precisely the circumstances in which he would have to arrange for Aral's death, who was now trusting him with his every fear.

But Negri and Ezar were gone, and it would be for him to make these judgements. Aral's hand moved over his hair, as if he sensed Simon's inner debate and wished to tip the scales in his favour. But there was no need. He had already made that judgement in coming to Tanery Base, with only Aral's bare word to prove that Gregor still lived, and not even the chip could find a flaw in that choice.

He reached out in a reflexive final check of commlink and nerve disruptor on the ledge by the bunk, and regretted the movement at once. In the quiet dark, it was no longer possible to use the chip to blot out pain, with no distracting sight and sound to focus on. He completed the check anyway, then shifted uncomfortably, trying to find an angle that would not pull on the healing burn. Aral shifted with him, and Simon was reminded that he could conceal nothing from Aral here. Aral leaned back, accommodating him, and in that, something changed, so that he was no longer poised as the last line of defence between Aral and the door, but resting protected against his liegelord's broad body.

And as if Aral was finally calmed by the need to watch over his liegeman, his breathing began to slow and deepen in Simon's ear, his arm across Simon's body going heavy and slack. Simon lay back, the chip falling drowsily silent at last, his awareness only on the overwhelming somatic input of another person holding him, on Aral. And even in his sleep, Aral lay still, no stray movement jarring Simon's half-healed arm.