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The Lord Regent was standing behind Illyan, reading over his shoulder. He stooped closer, one arm reaching across his neck to adjust the viewscreen, his body pressing against Illyan's shoulders and the back of his head. Illyan deliberately extended his legs and leaned into the touch, the opposite of his instinctive reaction to having a man's arm halfway around his neck. It would be harder now for him to spring upright, or to seize that arm and use it to haul the potential threat over his shoulder. He shifted his weight backwards in his seat too, and Aral flicked through another screen's worth of information, his arm pressing now against the side of Illyan's neck, a heavy weight that made him feel the thump of blood in his carotid artery. Faster now, a tell he couldn't entirely control.

The data from the viewscreen was all on the chip already, he didn't need to read it. Just as well, though he did maintain an awareness of what it was Aral was examining now.

"You've cut the upgrades to the Residence monitoring system." Illyan could feel Aral's voice as well as hear it, vibrations from his chest against the back of his head. But not going into the chip, despite proximity. Only the sound was Imperial property, the sensation belonged to him.

"That went in favour of an additional analyst on Komarran affairs."

"Mm." Another flick of his arm, and Aral leaned a little more against him. "How many false positives are you getting these days?"

"My men handled eleven from the public parts of the building in the past week. And I had four from your private suite."

"Ah." This time, Aral turned his head a little as he spoke, his breath stirring Illyan's hair. "Four. You must have missed one."

"I do sometimes go off-duty, sir."

"Not too damned often lately. I'm starting to feel like one of the evil emperors of old, just looking at you makes me feel tired." Aral's arm weighed his shoulder down. He flicked along another screen's worth of budget data. "Two million for intelligence gathering on Beta Colony? Seems a bit steep."

"Yes, sir. I was hoping to ask you about that." He extended his legs further in anticipation, only his heels resting lightly on the carpet. "We have very poor-quality information about the Betan and Escobaran security services, since the war. Lady Cordelia--"

He felt the reaction to his words in Aral's arm, muscles turning to steel cords, pinning him back against the chair.

"Absolutely not."

Negri had drilled him in maintaining a calm and composed exterior under almost any set of stimuli. He would, he thought, have done Negri proud this time. "It would be extremely valuable, sir. She has recent and high-level eyewitness evidence of their state of--"

"Cordelia is not some defector you can debrief. Her loyalties are her own. No."

"My men's lives are at stake in this, sir. I'm not proposing to arrest and fast-penta her. If she doesn't want to, she's perfectly capable of telling me so."

Aral held him pinned a moment longer, then let go so abruptly that Illyan lost his balance and had to scramble to get his feet under him again. "Ask her, then, damn your nerve. But not tonight."

Lady Cordelia had received a letter from Beta this morning, the chip pointed out. He'd read it; he had not censored it, though he'd wanted to. Protection was his job, but not all kinds of protection.

"Thank you, my lord."

Aral moved back into his space again. His breathing was still a little fast. "If you can reduce the amount on Betan intelligence, you can put it towards upgrading the Residence security systems. Unless you don't want to."

"The physiological alert levels calibrated for Ezar are less than accurate for you, sir. For you both. But even if I were able to recalibrate those, it's always going to alert me if one of you says you are dying."

Aral put both arms across his shoulders then, slowly and deliberately. "Is that so? I'm afraid my wife is a hard taskmaster, Captain. Tell me, are you able to verify the false positives on audio data alone, or do you also confirm with visual?" He placed the flats of his hands against Illyan's chest, then slid one hand upwards, smoothly up his neck and cupping his chin.

"I can only afford to err in one direction, sir. I always use visual confirmation." Aral could snap his neck, in this position. Illyan controlled his breathing, controlled his chip as it attempted to replay yesterday's audio and visuals. He was unable to stop his organic memory from reproducing its blurrier, more passionate version of reality. More accurate, less accurate? He did not permit the chip to cast its impartial judgement on this, but in that blurry mind's eye, Lady Cordelia straddled Aral, and Aral's breathy groan resonated in his head.

"Thoroughness is a virtue in my government, Captain." Aral's other hand worked downwards, following the line of his tunic to his belt, not pausing at the buckle but continuing. Illyan swallowed.

"I live to serve."

"You live to watch. But not to touch. I know you, I know you never did this, not any of the four times this week nor last week nor the week before. You watch and you wait and you remember, a perfect record for ImpSec." His fingers, broad and sure, traced the line of Illyan's erection through the thick fabric of his dress greens, first lightly, then with sudden firm pressure.

"Everything I see and hear." Illyan looked straight ahead, at an item on his budget: Bonsanklar region summer station staffing increase. His chip, bored with the same input, ran six kinds of analysis on the item, including one on letter frequency in the Cyrillic and English alphabets.

"Yes. But not everything you feel." Aral's hand moved back upwards, unfastened the buckle with as much casual speed as if he was opening his own trousers. "That, you keep separate."

"That belongs to me." Illyan's voice had dropped almost to a whisper, as if the words were a blasphemy he didn't want the chip to hear. Pointless. The chip could always hear him.

"And this is for you." Aral's other hand slid slowly up his cheek and towards his eyes, and Illyan closed them, Aral's fingertips brushing his eyelids very lightly before settling to cup his cheek. "Ssh."

Illyan obeyed, all input shut off from the chip. He slid lower in the chair and let his head sink back, feeling the pressure of Aral's chest against the base of his skull, Aral's arms weighing him down. Aral's right hand pushing open his trousers. Closing around his cock, his speed confident, swift, but not hurried. He could feel each finger separately, and despite Aral's instruction he made a soft sound. Aral moved his other hand to cover his mouth, he could feel the weapons callouses against his lips, and he mouthed them, tasted salt and ink and the dust from the archives where, the chip told him, Aral had been working earlier this evening. He quieted the chip and angled his hips into Aral's hand, muscles trembling in his stomach, allowing himself to inhabit only his skin. Aral's chest was rising and falling behind him, hot breath on his skull as his hand worked. Illyan gripped the sides of the chair, hard wooden frame digging into his skin, and let go of everything else, his mind silent, only sense and skin and taste and smell and movement, his and only his, resonating to the rhythm Aral was setting, until he shuddered and came.

Aral held him, and he gasped into Aral's palm words that not even the chip could hear, a movement of air and lips against skin, voiceless, his only voice.

For a while he sat slumped in the chair, eyes still closed, vaguely aware of Aral cleaning up, refastening his trousers, restoring order. It was his place to do that, he thought, but when he stirred Aral's hand on his shoulder held him in place. Then Aral cupped his face with his hands and bent around to kiss him. Illyan reached up for him, reciprocally, but Aral stepped back.

"I'm off to bed now. I recommend you do the same, though I think you might have another false alarm in a little while. Do be sure to check it up thoroughly." His voice was light, warm, and Illyan knew he was smiling. "Got to keep your life interesting somehow, haven't I?"

"You're succeeding." Reluctantly, Illyan opened his eyes, restoring visual input, and the first thing he saw was that smile, boyishly playful, an expression he rarely saw on the Regent's face, and even less often aimed at him. Even as the chip began to categorise it and file it, he let himself bask in its warmth, for just one unguarded moment.

"Upgrade the scanners," Aral said, "but I leave it entirely up to you how you want to calibrate the ones in our bedroom. We don't mind a few false alarms. And it wouldn't be a problem if you ever needed to investigate them in person."

"I--yes, my lord." He was smiling back, he could see it reflected in Aral's eyes. "Perhaps I will."