The Week Before Mark's Thirtieth Birthday
"Mail call!" Kareen Koudelka bounced brightly into the library and tossed a thick envelope of other assorted envelopes on the desk beside Mark's comconsole. Her business partner/lover/fiance grunted his absent thanks and waved for her to linger a moment, hunching in his chair and typing furiously and with frowning, furrowed brow. Kareen leaned over and kissed the wrinkle between his eyebrows softly and teasingly, adding just enough of a little lick there to make him jump. His fingers immediately stuttered, his cock jumping to full alert. MAN THE CANNONS, BOYS, Grunt bellowed, snapping to immediate and military attention... His beloved laughed, reached down and squeezed him.
"Tease," Mark said affectionately, and turning in his chair, grabbed her around the waist and burrowed his plump cheeks happily and ferociously in her plump breasts. She just laughed again.
"Down, boy." She tugged playfully at his hair. "None of that; we're on MPVK time!"
"I set the clock," he growled. She snorted with giggles. "No, really, Mark," she said, pulling back, or attempting to, anyway. "I just got a call from Laisa. She and Gregor have invited us for dinner again tomorrow night, and while they've been very patient with us putting them off in light of the fact that we're serving their interests and tax coffers as undisputed financial overlords of the galactic private sector, she's not taking no for an answer this time."
"But I have that meeting with Vorsmythe tomorrow night," Mark said plaintively, still nuzzling. "Can't you use your Koudelkan wiles to persuade them to..." Kareen pouted at him, stuck out a pert lower lip, tugged at his ears and, when he still looked up at her pleadingly, giggled and bounced again. As his nose was still nestled in her cleavage, the movements caused his eyes to very nearly roll back in his head in ecstasy.
"Wench," he said. "Alright, alright, call her back and tell her it's a go. We shall be there promptly as Requested and Required, bells, whistles, and maple ambrosia cheesecake in tow."
Kareen nodded and squirmed off his lap. "She's actually still on the line. Oh, and..." Her brow wrinkled slightly. "She said that she had a message to pass on for you? From Gregor?"
"Mmm?" The reproachful siren call of Mark's comconsole was suddenly much clearer and sweeter now that there wasn’t a raspberry, creamy, delectably blonde alternative coming between them. "What's that?"
"I thought the phrasing a bit strange, but she insisted I repeat it word for word, so... I quote: "Sire is looking forward to seeing Lord Mark again and negotiating a new Deal', End Quote."
"I.... Beg your pardon?" The siren call of the comconsole squawked. Mark's head whipped around so fast it practically launched itself out the open window and off in the direction of the wormhole to Sergyar. What do you know about this, Mother?
"Don't ask me, I'm just the messenger. Ooh, maybe it has something to do with marketing our new line of the VorAciously Venomous Hot Sauces? You know how Gregor adores his spicy food, and do you know what an Imperial endorsement would do for our end-of-quarter profit margins?"
"I haven't had a chance to suck up to him on the subject yet," Mark said dazedly. Grunt and Gorge snickered through their wide-eyed, slack-jawed stunned shock.
"Well, no time like the present. I'll ask Ma Kosti to tuck a few sample bottles in along with the cheesecake. Gotta run, lover; Laisa's waiting for my answer."
"Sure," Mark watched her go, dazedly again, as Killer took a moment from rummaging in his closet for his best black hand-tailored suit (the one with the literal razor-edged creases in the trousers) to bark at the rest of the Black Gang.
UpupUP! You heard her! Sire's online again, and that means... He sat down hard, bewildered. What the hell does it mean, anyway?
Beats the heck out of me, Howl said blankly. I thought we closed that Deal years ago, no harm no foul and all hail Betan therapy and the mutual blonde and busty? Killer sat up in alarm.
You don't suppose that he and the Empress are having Trouble, do you? The kind where... There was a long, low growl, somewhat rusty and unconvincing, but not too unconvincing, all things considered. If she hurts him...
Don't be an idiot, Killer. Those two are worse than Miles and Ekaterin. Worse than the Count and the Countess, even. Though. Grunt stopped and considered. Not nearly as bad as Aunt Alys and Uncle Simon. Really, he said in disapproval. For the former Chief of Impsec, he's not that fussed about securing his own privacy, is he?
To say nothing of everyone else's, Howl agreed. Though you know, we might have guessed that all those years of repressing for a living would have their inevitable effect on him. I'm just surprised that Aunt Alys goes along with his little exhibitionist streak.
She does it to annoy Ivan, Grunt said knowledgeably. Those two really need to go to Beta Colony and invest some serious time and money into the Oedipal Seminars they offer there. It would do their relationship whole worlds of good, and who knows? Ivan might actually get up the balls to just tell her that he and By Vorrutyer have more in common with each other than her as their mutual nemesis!
Like she doesn't already know. Howl pff'd disparagingly. And she accuses HIM of passive-aggressiveness? Never mind taking the courses, those two should teach them!
HELLO? Killer bellowed. Can we all quit channeling the Countess-our-mother for just one MINUTE and discuss the situation at hand, please? HE WANTS TO NEGOTIATE A NEW DEAL!
Pained silence sounded.
But he's married now, Howl said in a small voice. And I'm all for pain, you know that, Killer, but there's pain and there's pain, you know? We like Kareen. We need her.
She doesn't like you, Gorge pointed out rudely. Howl waved him off.
So I don't float her boat, big whip –er. Whoop. I can still suffer vicariously through the rest of you; it's one of the advantages of dormitory living in the bowels of the Good Ship Lord Mark. The point is, is that we've taken out an extended long-term mutual option on her, she's practically one of us after all this time, and if he... if he...
Married, yes, but he has his heirs now, Killer said detachedly. Several times over, and did it never occur to any of you Betan wannabes that short, plump financiers seem to really, really turn his Imperial crank? The only thing that Laisa has – and had - that Lord Mark doesn't are non-Vor genes and an 's' in front of her personal pronoun, and now that there are little Vorbarras running all over the Residence... Well. He glared blackly into the metaphorical mirror and reached for the boot polish.
She never really struck me as the type who he could bend over a metal bunk and beat with a rubber hosepipe either, Grunt noted thoughtfully. He must really miss it sometimes.
"Oh shut up, all of you," Lord Mark snapped, and crouched in his chair, hunching his round shoulders miserably. After a moment he reached out and turned the vid-plate off.
We could just call and tell him we're not interested, Gorge ventured. Killer snorted sadly.
That's our Gorge, always the glutton – for punishment as well as everything else, he said, but not unkindly. This is Gregor Vorbarra we're talking about, boy. No one can put one past Gregor, especially not us.
So we are interested? Howl said, confused. But I thought...
Don't think, Howl, Killer told him, a little less kindly this time . You're not good at it.
Ow, Howl said. That hurt, and sighed happily. Miles, passing by and whistling tunelessly, stuck his head in the library door to say hello.
"You okay, Mark?" he greeted him. "You look like you just lost your best friend."
"Go away, Miles," Mark said dully. "You're not helping." Miles' head was promptly followed by the rest of him.
"Come on," he said. "Don't be such a noxious little shit. I thought that the fortune you invested in your Betan therapy bought your way past all that."
So did I, brother. So did I.
"Miles," Mark said abruptly. "Do you ever get the urge to talk to your old girlfriends?"
"Sure. All the time. You know me, or rather, you know them. Can you imagine any of them just letting me drop out of their lives permanently just because I'm married and have half-a-dozen MiniMileses running about?" He eyed his brother. "What's this about anyway? I thought Kareen was your old girlfriend. You two aren't having trouble, are you?"
And Mark suddenly wished he'd never opened his mouth. Miles had that beady little Look on now; the one he got when he was about to start Imperially Auditing something... It was astonishing, really, how his resemblance to Cordelia Vorkosigan comes out at these times.
I'll see your redheaded Betan Survey Captain and raise you a...
Oh, fuck it. Fuck it all. I have a maple ambrosia cheesecake to order up. Or two, or three. Quite possibly four. He stomped out of the library, gritting his teeth and pushing his startled brother to one side.
"Mark! Hey, Mark, what..."
"Goodness." Ekaterin peered over Miles' head as she approached, watching his clone-twin stomp like some fuming baby elephant down the hall. "What's his problem? Are the preliminary sales of the VorAciously Venomous line coming up short of his estimated projections or something?"
"Don't ask me. Maybe he's having some sort of early existential midlife crisis? His thirtieth is coming up next week, you know, and you know how foul he gets on the subjects of birthdays."
"Ah. Didn't your mother once say that he doesn't think his counts or something?"
"Mm. He did mention something about old girlfriends though." Miles’ brow wrinkled. "I didn't even know Mark had any old girlfriends, did you?"
"Maybe that's the problem?" she offered after a moment. "Maybe he's regretting what he's never had?"
"He's an idiot if he is. There's not a woman in any world other that Kareen Koudelka who would tolerate his schizoid little personality, much less his multitude of other obsessive-compulsive quirks."
"Pot, meet kettle," his dark-haired, quiet wife said dryly. "You are clones, you know."
"I'm manic-depressive, not schizoid," Miles pointed out. "And I'm in no way obsessive compulsive." She snorted with inelegant laughter at that one.
"Well, technically, he's not schizoid either. Your mother explained it to me once; he doesn't so much have multiple personalities as he's got..."
"Issues," Miles interjected. "Let's just leave it there, hmmm? I'm sure you have much better things to do in the next hour besides analyze my dear brother's peculiar psychological architecture."
"Me.” He growled and manhandled her into the library, shutting the door firmly behind him as she laughed helplessly all the while.
The Imperial Residence
The Emperor and Empress' Private Quarters
The Next Evening
"Good evening, Sire." Mark bowed: nervously, cautiously, properly. Gregor's gaze flickered over him, eying up the loose black trousers, the deep grey, silver-embroidered shirt and the white-gold cufflinks, the black silk vest and impeccably folded silver handkerchief... It was, point in fact, the outfit that Lord Mark had worn to Count Vorvolk's last soiree. Oh yes, Grunt jittered. He remembers alright. The Emperor said nothing, though the Imperial eyebrow quirked in ever-so-slight ironic appreciation.
"Good evening, Mark," he said easily. "Kareen. You look lovely as always." Kareen batted her eyes at him and giggled. Laisa narrowed her eyes in amusement as she kissed Mark on the cheek and tucked her arm through his, patting his hand... reassuringly?
"You look very sharp, Lord Mark," she complimented him sweetly. "Would you like a glass of wine?"
"Ice water is fine," Mark said nervously, and as she hauled him off to the bar, he could feel those cool hazel eyes lingering on the back of his neck. Coolly amused, he fancied, and his universe tilted on its axis just a little more, but when he turned again, Gregor was deep in conversation with Kareen again, only taking time out to sniff with distinct pleasure at the fragrant smells emanating from the pastry box from the small side-table. His armsmen were trying to look as if they weren’t hoping there would be leftovers.
"That's a very nice shirt, Lord Mark," Gregor said conversationally after they'd settled down at the table. "Have I seen you in it before?"
"I haven't worn it in quite some time, Sire. It's been in my closet for years."
"It suits you." Gregor wiped his lips briskly, and his eyes fell on the other man's barely touched plate. "Something wrong with your food?" Mark looked down convulsively, swearing to himself. Gorge looked slightly guilty.
We never eat heavily when he Requests and Requires our presence, he whined. It makes us nauseous, remember?
"Not at all, Sire," Mark gritted from between his teeth, and started shoveling in his olive-oil roasted potatoes with rosemary, sea salt and fresh-ground black pepper. "Everything's delicious." Gregor didn’t smile, but his hazel eyes danced gravely.
"Save room for dessert now," he said blandly. "Thank you for bringing it by the way, Kareen. I can't tell you how much I adore cheesecake, and the touch of true Vorkosigan maple heightens the overall exquisite experience to the level of the sublime."
Mark choked and coughed at that, hacking potato into his napkin, eyes watering and face positively crimson. Laisa and Kareen, seated on either side of him, patted his back and cooed over him concernedly, pressing water on him. He sat up, gasping, and waved them away.
"Sorry," he choked out. "Thank you, no, I'm fine. No really."
"You should really take more care in the proper chewing of your food, you know," Kareen said solemnly. "That gag reflex of yours is going to get you in real trouble one of these days." Mark glared at her; she simply stared back at him blandly.
"More carrots, Mark?" Laisa offered, holding out the tray, "They're really very good. Gregor told me that you're very fond of them, isn't that right, Gregor darling, especially when laced the appropriate sauce."
That did it. Mark threw down his napkin and shoved his chair back.
"What," he said between gritted, panicked teeth, "is going on here? First the message, then all the..." He paused and took a deep breath, trying visibly to calm himself. "Sire," he said a bit desperately. "Gregor. I. I can't do this, I..." He buried his face in his hands. "I love Kareen, alright? And I want to marry her, and have babies with her, and yes, I know there are parts of me that she'll never be able to accept or Deal with, but that's alright, really, because I'd do anything to make her happy. Anything at all, and I'm not willing to risk it. I'm not willing to risk her. Us. Not even..." His breath hitched ohgodhe'sgoingtohangmefortreason – "Not even for you." That last was barely a whisper. "I'm sorry. There's not going to be any new Deal, I..." He stopped. "I can't."
The room was dead silent. Gregor pushed his chair back deliberately and got to his feet. Came around the table and pulled Mark to his feet, cupping his hands gently between his own and looking down at him with grave, hazel eyes.
"We apologize, Lord Mark," he said quietly. "We did not mean to cause you distress."
"Mark," Kareen said in a small voice. "Don't blame Gregor, Mark. It was me, I came to him. F-For help. I love you too. I want to marry you, but I want to marry all of you, don't you see? You've given me so much, made so much effort for me, done everything for me, and I." She swallowed. "I went to Tante Cordelia, and. She suggested that I talk to Laisa. I didn't know why, but..."
"Kareen came to me, Mark," Laisa interjected kindly. "Saying that she came from your mother, and needed advice on the subject of ensuring your complete future happiness. I of course, knew what she was referring to immediately; Gregor had told me everything that happened between the two of you before we met, and so I went to him." She smiled a little wryly. "It was a most enlightening conversation."
"What?" Mark shook his head in confusion, but didn’t pull away; Gregor's thumb was stroking the side of his hand now, softly, oh so softly and Grunt was definitely sitting up and taking notice. "This was your idea?"
"I can't deal with Howl," Kareen said miserably. "You know that, Mark; I've tried, really I have, and I can do it in theory; he's an interesting conversationalist and quite educated and from a therapist's point of view it's a match made in heaven" - Howl sniffed and blinked back tears; I love you too, Kareen, he gurgled, and it's alright, I don't mind being platonic really, as long as we can still have our tea and cream cakes and weekly fireside chats. Killer kicked him hard. Grunt and Gorge let out faint cheers - "But I'm just not wired that way. I understand the you liking men part, I mean, God, it's not like I don't think about girls all the time..."
"You do?" Laisa asked, surprised. Kareen looked at her, puzzled.
"Well, sure," she said. "I may have been born on Barrayar, but I had a full Betan education, and they encourage you to try everything there at least once. Oh, and my sister Olivia married Dono Vorrutyer as you know, and let's just say the attraction there started way before he ever had his body mod. Sisters talk, and so when my LPST suggested I put my... er. Mouth where my imagination was, I took it up on it. It was lots of fun."
"Interesting." The Empress' calculating blue-green eyes were suddenly alight, and Mark was suddenly extremely reminded of the fact that Laisa Toscane Vorbarra was native to Komarr, and while Komarrans might not be quite as progressive as Betans, they were certainly a great deal more progressive there than your average Barrayaran. Gregor just shot her an amused look.
"But I just don't get the masochism thing," Kareen continued, undeterred and apparently oblivious. "I mean I do on an intellectual level, I am a psychotherapist after all, but personally?" She sighed. "The thought of causing you pain - me causing you pain - just... Hurts." She stared down at her clean, sturdy hands. Laisa patted her comfortingly on the shoulder.
"Don't feel bad, dear," she said "As I told you, you and Mark aren't unique in this. Gregor and I are certainly sexually compatible enough, but his sadistic side does creep me out a little – not because, as you say, that I don't understand it intellectually, but just because, quite frankly, I'm a real crybaby when it comes to pain. I can't even handle a hangnail, much less rubber hoses, whips and chains." She shuddered. Gregor sighed regretfully.
"So... What?" Mark said, trying desperately to process this all. "You went to my mother, and my mother told you to go to Laisa, and Laisa came to talk to Si -. Er. Gregor..." Gregor's hands shifted ever so slightly and he pinched the skin between the thumb and index finger hard. Mark's eyes glazed over slightly. Gregor smiled down at him slightly, mildly, and...
God. He closed his eyes in near-agony.
"And here We are," Gregor confirmed.
"I thought he could teach me, at first," Kareen confided, her blue eyes anxious for understanding. "I was going to surprise you on your birthday with it. I had the outfit picked out and everything, but in the end, I just... couldn't. He showed me his toolbox and I nearly barfed all over him."
"You're either wired that way or you're not," Laisa said briskly again. "At least to the extent these boys are, Kareen."
"Do you still have the outfit?" Mark asked, distracted momentarily. Gregor pinched him again, but his eyes were crinkled with laughter.
"Yes," Kareen said, blushing slightly. "Laisa's been keeping it for me in her closet."
"Ah." Mark removed his hands gently from his liege lord's, ran his hand through his hair and sat down heavily. His head hurt. He reached for his wine. Everyone waited, the Emperor standing with his hands in his pockets.
"But what would you get out of it?" he said miserably, finally. "Even if I did agree, I'd feel just horrible, going off and...."
"I'd know you were happy," Kareen said steadily. "And that you were getting something that you need to make you whole. That would be more than enough."
"It's not enough for me, though! I'm not stuck on monogamy, I mean, I know that.. um. Certain people can adjust to the reality of living without expressing themselves fully given certain other compensating factors, but it just doesn't seem right for me to have a secondary..." He struggled for the appropriate word.
"Lover?" Laisa supplied helpfully. Mark blushed purple. Gregor didn't so much as blink, much less change expression.
"And you'd just... Sit home, you'd stay at home, worrying, not getting anything in return?"
Laisa's lips twitched.
"You could always bring her along on those occasions," she suggested. "I'm sure she and I could find something in common to talk about, don't you, Kareen dear?"
"Well, sure. That'd be great, I..." The younger woman's head whipped around as she stared at the Empress, her voice suddenly squeaky with shock. "What? Really ?" Gregor threw back his head and laughed.
"That. Um. Seems fair," Kareen said after a moment, trying for the casual and failing miserably. "In the interests of equal partnership and... and... All."
"I agree." Laisa nodded. "So what do you think, Mark?"
"I. Er," Mark said dazedly. The Black Gang waited with bated breath and puppy-dog eyes.
"I suppose," he said weakly, "that we could try it and. Er. See what happens?" Gregor nodded once, satisfied.
"Waitwaitwait," Kareen interjected hurriedly. "There's just one thing." Everyone looked at her inquiringly. She took a deep breath.
"I want to see you do it," she said firmly. Gregor's eyebrows nearly flew off the top of his head.
"Do it?" he repeated. Kareen waved a hand vaguely.
"You know," she said. "It. I want to see..." She took another deep breath. "I want to see you Command him."
"Oh, that," Gregor said easily. "Very well." He straightened from against the wall, and came over to stand before Mark. Kareen and Laisa watched with bated breath and intense curiosity as he looked down and lifted Lord Mark's chin with one long finger, searching his deep grey and dilating eyes.
"Is everyone present and accounted for?" he asked softly, deeply, in a profoundly intimate and familiar tone that just made Lord Mark shake.
"Yes, Sire," he managed, and oh god, he thought; multiple personalities do make for multiple orgasms, if only on the metaphorical level, after all.
"Good." Sire's hand flashed out and grab him by the hair, yanking his head back and sinking his teeth deeply and viciously into the fleshiest of the fleshy parts of Mark's neck. Howl promptly took over the mouth and let out a strangled muffled scream of profound, delirious and almost desperate joy.
Kareen's eyes widened and her lovely lips parted slightly. "Oh my," Laisa said, intrigued, as her husband released the smaller man with a slight shove backwards. Lord Mark, panting almost to the point of hyperventilating, fell heavily to his knees, head bowing, thighs spreading and hands lacing behind his back out of sheer reflexive instinct. "That's just..."
"Hot," Kareen said whole-heartedly. Her rosy cheeks and throat were flushed and red. The Empress glanced at her sideways.
"Do you think so?" she inquired lightly.
"God yes. Don't you think so?"
"It is rather warm in here all of a sudden," the older woman conceded. Gregor wiped his lips with the handkerchief that he had somehow relieved from Lord Mark's pocket and refolded it neatly before tucking it back in tidily. A slight scarlet smear shimmered vividly against the silver linen. Then he hunkered down in front of Lord Mark and pulled his head back and sharply to examine the wound. Mark just knelt there, glazed.
"Perhaps We'll wait a bit for dessert," Sire said judiciously, and slapped Mark's cheek lightly and stingingly, twice. "Up you get, Lord Mark. We're going for a little walk, and you'll need to get there under your own power."
"Yours to command, Sire." Lord Mark's voice was small and far away as he struggled to his feet. Sire adjusted his collar carefully.
"Count Vorvolk is waiting for us," he said. "He's missed you, and has informed Us that he'd like to renew your acquaintance. If the ladies have no objections of course?" He bowed courteously.
"Please," Kareen said breathlessly. "Feel free. Just don't break the important bits, okay? I may very well need them later."
"No you won't." Laisa tucked the younger woman's arm firmly in her own, and her eyes were narrowed and calculatingly amused again. "Have fun, Gregor darling."
"You too, my love." Her husband kissed her lightly. Kareen tried (very hard) not to bounce in thrilled and squirming anticipation. "Save that, dear," Laisa murmured and patted her hand. "Now why don't you come with me and show me that little outfit you were talking about earlier? I've been depressingly noble and haven't peeked once, but under the circumstances..."
"Bye Mark, bye fellows," Kareen said breathlessly, offering them all a quick peck on the cheek. Mark visibly pulled himself together and ran a hand over his hair.
"You actually address his sub-personalities as individuals?" Laisa asked curiously. Kareen, distracted for a moment, nodded.
"Well of course," she said. "They are individuals, and it would be foolish of me to try and ignore the fact. We're a team, the boys and I, all working to keep the ship afloat, stoked, happy and contented. A Vor wife's first duty is to her husband, don't you know," she intoned piously. "We must do whatever it takes to ensure our lords' well-being so that they might serve and further the welfare of our Great Imperium."
"Go Team Koudelka," Mark said dryly, if a bit hoarsely. She shook her head and laughed.
"Somehow I never pictured Killer with blond hair," she said. "Or boobs, for that matter."
"For such a one as you, madame," Killer offered a Vorish bow, "I could be anything. Though," he added a bit uncomfortably. "I do hope you won't take advantage of that fact."
"Of course not," she assured him. "That would be most ungentlemanly of me." She patted his cheek. "Keep them all in line now, they're a bit out of practice, and might need a bit of a metaphorical boot to the rear to remind them of proper protocol."
"This is going to take a bit of getting used to," Laisa murmured, and tilted her head consideringly. "You're Gregor's knight assassin, yes?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," Killer said respectfully, and dropped to one knee, bowing his head. The Empress' lips pursed slightly at him.
"I may have a job for you on occasion," she said. "May I place you on retainer, by virtue of my relationship with your employer?"
"You wish me to slay monsters for you, milady?"
"Perhaps on the financial field?" Her eyes twinkled. "Toscane Industries could use a champion with a solid understanding of the seamier side of galactic accounting now and again; we've had some problems with fire-breathing moles lately, and I, of course, cannot rout them out myself due to conflict of Imperial interest." Lord Mark couldn’t help but grin. No wonder Gregor fell in love with her. She's as fond of metaphors as he is.
"Oh well," Killer said with aplomb. "Of course. Sire permitting, my Queen, I shall be more than happy to ride forth and trounce any and all fiscal dragons in your name."
"Mm. Heavens, you are a charmer, aren't you? Run along now, dears; Count Vorvolk's waiting..."