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Vive l'amour

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Midnight was past, the young maidens and the dowagers were mostly gone, and the serious drinkers were getting into their stride. Ivan plotted a course across the room to a group of loudly laughing cronies from Ops, pleased that he was still steady on his feet. At least, mostly steady--who put that ridiculous little table there anyway, anyone could have knocked it over. Aunt Cordelia had proclaimed, as she always did, that a culture that calculated masculinity by how quickly your liver processed toxic chemicals was seriously deranged, before supervising the pouring of Miles into a groundcar. Uncle Aral was still medically forbidden from getting plastered, a restriction he had complained bitterly about to Ivan earlier in the evening, though Ivan thought he hadn't sounded that unhappy. And then Aunt Cordelia had said that at least they were allowed to have sex now, and perhaps it was a good time to go home to bed, and Ivan had gone in search of something stronger to drink before she said anything else. And she wasn't even drunk. You were allowed to say things like that if you were really drunk, but Aunt Cordelia said them all the time.

One of his colleagues suddenly made a dash for the rail and was noisily sick into the garden. Ivan scanned them again, and estimated that they were all at about that stage. Probably not that much fun, then. He looked around the room again, and his eye was caught by a figure sitting on the comfiest sofa. He squinted, and it resolved into really-not-his-stepfather. Simon. But not with his lady mother, who was off herding guests somewhere. Normally Simon followed her around like the tail on a tiger, menacingly swishing a half-step behind her. Strange to see him all alone.

In a burst of drunken fellow-feeling, Ivan made his way over. That was the nicest sofa in the room, and Simon had a fresh bottle of the good wine there. He grinned a greeting and flopped down beside Simon.

"If we're going to be family you should share that wine with me," he heard himself say.

Surprisingly, Simon made no ironic remark at his blethering. Instead, he looked around and said after a moment, "I've only one glass. You'll have to drink from the bottle."

Not an insurmountable problem. Simon passed the bottle to Ivan. Yes, the very best from the Emperor's cellars, though it was probably a bit wasted on him now. But if they were being polite to each other--Ivan topped up Simon's glass for him, splashing a little on Simon's hand, but again, Simon didn't say anything. Ivan thought he could get used to Simon not being sarcastic and having the best wine to share. He leaned back comfortably.

"This is the first Emperor's Birthday I've been off duty for in thirty years. No, more. I don't remember precisely, but I know Negri used to make us work then, and Winterfair too."

Ivan blinked at that. Simon normally only said he couldn't remember something if he wanted to make the person he was talking to feel about two inches high, or if he was really upset, but this time he sounded relaxed, almost cheerful, like any other person saying they couldn't remember the details of something that happened thirty years ago. He took another swig from the bottle.

"Bet you're glad to be off-duty now," was the next idiocy that escaped his mouth.

Simon, startlingly, laughed, a long rich laugh. "Oh Ivan. You have no idea." He sipped from his glass and made a pleased sound. "I only ever got tastes of this before. Imagine attending a party every year and never being able to actually go to the party." With another contented noise, he rolled his shoulders back against the sofa and stretched his legs out, beaming, and Ivan frowned at him as the mark began to drop: Simon was drunk. More than drunk, utterly plastered, in the best Emperor's Birthday tradition.

"Gregor was showing me the list for the Birthday Pardons earlier," Simon said after a while. "Haroche is eligible."

Ivan was gazing into space and trying to get his head around the idea of Simon anything other than stonily sober, and this remark took some time to sink in.

"No!" he said when it finally did, surprising himself with his vehemence. "You can't do that!"

Simon looked amused. "Why shouldn't we? I'm beginning to think he did me a good turn. I wouldn't be sitting here with my feet up if not for him. I'd be out there somewhere running around like a clockwork watchdog with a stick up his ass."

Ivan inadvertently spat out a mouthful of wine. "If Haroche had had his way, you wouldn't be here at all," he countered after a moment's drunken thought.

"Well, maybe. But I'm forgetting about that. I can, you know. It's most excellent. Forgetting." He took another sip of wine and gave Ivan a long lazy look. "And if I can forget, I don't see why you can't. You've been forgetting things since you were a baby."

"It's not right," was all Ivan muttered. There were some things he couldn't seem to forget in a hurry even if he wanted to.

"No, Ivan. I think I owe him. After all, if not for him I wouldn't be going home with your lady mother tonight and--"

"Simon!" Ivan interrupted helplessly.

"And living a life of comfort and ease," Simon finished with a grin. "Why, what did you think I was going to say?"

Ivan prudently opted not to answer that one, instead refilling Simon's glass to cover his silence.

"I guess it is good to be able to forget stuff," he offered in half-concession after a while, hoping to avoid the topic of what Simon and his mother might do when they got home. Though to his eye Simon was way too drunk to--do things he wasn't going to think about, he told his brain. It was like trying not to think of a purple elephant.

"So much stuff. All gone." Simon made an evocative gesture, like dust blowing away in the wind, and nearly overturned the bottle. "Reports. Forms. Holovid dramas. Dead people. Lots of dead people. I always kept count of them, but I've lost that too, how many people I've killed."

His voice slowed, staring blankly at the far wall, and Ivan tried to decide whether maudlin-drunk Simon was better or worse than thinking about Simon and his mother.

"I had categories," Simon went on. "The people I personally killed, with my own hands. The ones I ordered killed. The ones who I killed by accident, caught in the crossfire. The men I sent to their deaths, my own men. The ones I killed by mistake. My own mistakes."

He went silent, eyes moist, and Ivan scanned the room hopelessly, in case anyone was going to rescue him from this conversation. Rescue did not appear. "You must have kept everything in categories," he tried, latching on to the less morbid half of the statement and knowing he sounded inane.

"Oh yes." Simon emptied his glass, and Ivan topped it up automatically. "It was the only way to keep it all straight. I gave up organising the sex, though. Too distracting. I had to just file it all as sex, the porn, the surveillance, the vids, all of it. Not the personal experience, not that there was much of that."

Sex was definitely better than death. "The vids?"

"It was the first thing Negri put me on, would you believe it? Censorship. Gentle desk duty, while I recovered from the surgery and the rest of it. I watched so many of these imported vids, looking for things that breached the decency laws, or anything subversive or political. I remember having this long argument with the other guys about whether the ones from Beta Colony with herms were glorifying mutation or not. They were good, though, the Betan ones. Even the strange ones were kind of sweet, and they weren't faking any of it, it was all real. Certified, even. The homegrown stuff... a lot of people on this planet are into boots, Ivan. And swords. There are places you really shouldn't put a sword. And then there was the question of whether the sword in the vid was legally owned or not. Probably not, but fortunately they weren't actually sharp. Probably made of rubber. God, I hope they were made of rubber, but after thirty years of this job you realise that people will do anything, anything." He stared across the room. "I'd estimate that somewhere between a quarter and a third of people here are into weapons and uniforms and boots, one way or another. You'd probably know better than me, you've cut quite the swathe through Vorbarr Sultana."

Ivan was afraid his ears were turning pink. "I don't kiss and tell," he tried. "What about you?"

"Me? I did the watching. I had sex for fun about as often as I went to parties for fun. Later on, there were vids about me, the younger generation can make anything on their consoles. A lot of them worked out to dog jokes, me on Aral's leash. Idiots. Aral always wanted to wear the leash, in bed, and I should know, I--"

"Please shut up," Ivan blurted out.

Simon burst out laughing. "I haven't been indiscreet in thirty years, Ivan. Let me have this once."

"So you had, um, your own private porn collection, inside your head?" Ivan said across Simon's continued laughter. "Wow."

"It would have been more fun if I had any off-duty time. Or if more of it was to my taste. Besides, couldn't share it with anyone else. Some of it was so bad, or so ridiculous, you wanted to watch it with a handful of friends and drink and laugh yourself stupid." He gave Ivan an odd look; it was a while before Ivan's stunned brain processed it as wistful. He'd done that a few times, with Miles and Gregor. Simon, presumably, had watched them watching ridiculous porn and laughing at it, in some dismal office on his own.

"But the chip used to cross-reference everything for me, you know, and it didn't always get it right. One time--I have no idea why I can remember this--one time it dumped an entire twenty-minute vid of someone doing really nasty things to a horse while I was standing at attention during the Imperial Review, and it just wouldn't stop, every time I tried to shut down the memory it came back again, and I had to make a speech at the same time, and all I could see in my head was this giant horse--" He made an eloquent gesture and took another drink of his wine. "I am so glad that doesn't happen any more. We did pass that one on to the relevant District guard and I think they made some arrests. I hope so. As you would say, it's not right."

Ivan reached for the bottle. "God, Simon. Maybe you're right. About pardoning Haroche," he added at Simon's baffled look. "Though it might not have been so bad if it was good stuff. There must have been some." Shut up, a part of his brain that was half-drowned in wine was saying, don't encourage him.

"Oh, there was good stuff. But I couldn't get into the habit of getting off to what I had recorded in my head, because the chip would try to be helpful, if I liked one porn vid, and it would provide me with real recordings, surveillance footage, that shared some of the cross-references. And you can't do that. You know, we have to watch a lot of people having sex in ImpSec, and if you're getting into it then you're not doing your job right. Sometimes you can't help it. But you can't do it on purpose. Cold showers all around." His voice was starting to slur. "Except for--he liked being watched, you know. And I'm very good at watching. That was fair game, but not on duty." He gave Ivan a strangely bright smile. "Not on duty any more, Ivan. It's great."

"You are so fucked up," Ivan muttered. "And I'm not just saying that because you're in love with my mother. Crap, I really hope you didn't have vids of--" He stopped, but drunk or not, Simon had no trouble picking up that thread.

"No. None. Though it's a whole genre, you know. Two genres, really, innocent Vor maidens seduced by hairy prole men, or some fierce Vor dragon ordering prole boys to serve her. Stable boys especially, lots of bad Time of Isolation costumes and stable boys and riding whips."

Ivan had seen some of those, though they weren't his thing. From the look in his eyes, it was possible that it might be Simon's. "Most of them have soldiers," he offered. Those were the ones he liked better.

"Of course they do." Simon's eloquent gesture said all he thought about that. "Uniforms. Especially captains, no surprise there. Something about the word, I think. Nobody wants to say 'ooh, second lieutenant' in bed, do they? Sometimes I think that's why Negri never took the promotion, not that he ever slept with anyone other than, well, anyway. But you're enjoying being a captain, aren't you?"

Ivan was starting to get whiplash. "So you watched all this in the line of duty?"

"Ha. Not all of it. Your mother, and Aral, and especially Cordelia tried--and I know you've found Alys matchmaking for you difficult, but I had Cordelia desperate to pair me off with someone and there's no comparison--but people aren't exactly lining up to socialise with the Chief of ImpSec, y'know? Except for the ones who wanted to pump me for secrets in bed or kill me in the morning, and Aral went sarcastic if I slept with any of them anyway. And it wasn't all crisis-crisises. There were lots of long dark evenings, too worn out to read more reports, and the number one thing people use the comm network for is porn, isn't it? Well, I know it is. Better than staring at the walls, anyway. But most of it was bad. All ended up on the chip anyway, mixed up with the rest of it." He scanned the room lazily. "I can watch the party now and it's not going to stay there. In my head. Probably people off having sex in the corners here, and they'll all end up on vid somewhere, and I--I don't have to remember it. Probably had some of you, once, you used to be stupid enough to try it on at the Residence--"

Ivan went red. "Shit." He'd known, vaguely, that ImpSec watched everything that happened here, but it hadn't put him off at the time.

Simon gave him a lopsided smile. "S'all right. I just let the chip deal with those on its own. I could do that, you know. Not know things and know them at the same time. It helped. I miss that, sometimes. Now, now I just forget it all anyway."

For a horrible moment he thought Simon might cry, but then instead Simon took another drink and laughed, slumping a little so that he was leaning against Ivan's shoulder. "Better that way. I'll forget all this for sure. And you will too. It's very ... very freeing."

"Yeah."

Simon closed his eyes. Ivan considered finishing the bottle, but someone was going to have to keep an eye on Simon like this. It was all very well him telling Ivan stuff he didn't want to know about his sex life, but Ivan didn't want to think about what would happen if anyone else sat down here instead.

Fortunately, there was a much better watcher. Ivan had only sat with Simon dozing on his shoulder for a few minutes when Maman showed up. She was sober, or appeared so, and she frowned down at them both.

"Ivan," she began, "please don't tell me you've been pouring for Simon."

"It wasn't me," Ivan protested. "He was already well on his way before I came over."

Simon roused at their voices and blinked blearily up at Maman. "S'not his fault, love. I was making up--making up for not being off-duty on the Emp'ror's Birthday, ever. He's a good boy, Alys." His trailing mutter of 'a bit too into uniforms' was fortunately too quiet for Maman to hear.

"Hm. Very well. Let's get you home." She touched her comm-pin and summoned Christos. "You're taking a taxi, aren't you, Ivan?"

He nodded, which made the room lurch unhelpfully. Maman surveyed him a moment longer, then sat down on Simon's other side. Simon promptly tilted towards her, draping his arm around her shoulder. "Oh Alys," he said. "I'm so glad I've forgotten all that now. Don't want to bring it to your bed."

Ivan tried to get up and escape, but his mother skewered him with a look. "What were you talking about?" she asked, the sharpness of her tone blunted by the way her hand was idly stroking Simon's leg.

"You don't want to know," Ivan said. "Trust me on this one, Maman. It's a--a--it's a father-son thing."

Simon turned his head slowly to look at him, blinking and smiling. "Is that what it is?" he mumbled, and something in his gaze made Ivan feel warm inside. "I could--I could get used to that."