'You might as well come in out of the cold, Illyan,' Aral Vorkosigan said to him on the third month of Vorkosigan's retreat from public life and the third month of Simon's long, slow watch over the Imperium's most quietly ill-behaved and reclusive asset.
It was snowing hard, as it did this close to the mountains. Simon had been keeping a typical perimeter guard's distance, hunkered down in his powered-down flyer watching the exits of the house at Vorkosigan Surleau as his breath crystallised in air, until Vorkosigan had come out to rap on his flyer door.
'You know that's against protocol, sir,' Simon replied. And it was out of character besides; Vorkosigan didn't exactly pity his keepers.
'You'll want to see what's on the news,' Vorkosigan shrugged. 'They're burning down the Ministry of Political Education.'
Simon got up, and followed him inside.
They sat around a comconsole in the library, and watched the Ministry burn as though the fire were actually warming both their bones.
'Well, that's that,' Vorkosigan said as they watched the rioters being rounded up in the aftermath by the hitherto missing troop reinforcements. Simon had the unshakeable impression that, if he but squinted hard enough, he'd be able to see puppet strings extending all the way back to the Imperial Residence. Vorkosigan shut the console off. 'Grishnov's dead.'
'Assassinated,' Illyan murmured his correction.
Vorkosigan slid him a sideways look. 'Catching on to how things work, are you, Commander?'
Illyan thought of Escobar, of Vorkosigan's retirement, of laying waste and being wasted. He shrugged. Vorkosigan patted him on the shoulder, heavy-handed. 'Want something to warm you up before venturing out, Illyan?'
Simon looked hard at him, but it was impossible to tell if Vorkosigan had been drinking. Simon had his suspicions, though.
'No,' he shook his head, reaching for his hat and standing. 'But thank you.'
Simon trudged back outside and, for lack of better entertainment once he'd resumed turning into a human icicle, scanned Vorkosigan's expenditure logs. The receipts on the accounts were by far more telling than the man who generated them.
'Bonksalari wine,' Simon muttered. 'How are you getting yourself drunk on that, Vorkosigan?'
By the looks of his spending – a slow devolution from expenditure in past months on books to recent days on booze – with dedication, and almost by the barrel.
That said, it was a specific sort of falling apart that Aral managed; a kind of high-functioning dysfunction. He was very intent about being upright on days that he had to be seen in Vorbarr Sultana – then he was always in an adequately dressed house uniform and intent on the newsfeeds over breakfast. Vorkosigan received, as a sort of hero-in-retreat, a good number of social invitations from any number of Vor families eager to shill their eligible daughters at him. All were turned down, though Simon tracked no incoming transmissions from Beta Colony to Vorkosigan House or to their properties at the Surleau.
Then came the night that Vorkosigan slammed himself and his six-year-old lightflyer all to pieces in the Surleau canyons. Simon called the accident into ImpSec HQ and then stood aside as Count Piotr and his armsman poured Aral out of the wreckage and onto a floatpad.
'If you're not going to be useful,' the Count growled, clearly displeased at having his family's dirty laundry hung out and aired.
'ImpMil is on its way, my lord,' Simon replied evenly. 'Ten minutes at the outset.' He didn't add, It's a miracle you're not scraping the both of us off the surface of some rock, and you ought to be grateful.
Simon's own lightflyer was parked a few metres away, engine plinking cool. It'd been a long chase, and a hard one. Vorkosigan was lucky it hadn't been a short and sharp impact. The remains of the man's flyer were scattered haphazardly across the canyon floor where Aral had tried strafing low to the ground; he'd caught on a jutting-out rock and gone rolling. The spins had eaten not a little of the flyer's forward momentum; ultimately that, and the fact that Vorkosigan had been wearing his harness, had saved the man.
ImpMil arrived eight minutes and fifty seconds later, discreet without the flashing of their blues. A medic slipped out and did a field assessment.
'Nothing broken,' he informed the Vorkosigan men. 'We'll have to head back to ImpMil proper to check on his internals, but it's a grade three concussion at the very least.'
'Idiot child,' the Count muttered as the medical lackeys loaded his son into the medical shuttle.
Simon said nothing, but he didn't disagree.
'Keep him sedentary, keep him sedated; I don't care what you do,' Negri said to him at Simon's next debrief. 'Just keep him alive. Find his buttons – every man has his – and push them.'
It was Simon's opinion that Vorkosigan was doing a damned good job pushing his own buttons in a self-destruct sequence. Nevertheless, the second time that Vorkosigan nearly clipped his wings going joyriding, Simon broke into the garage and fried a good number of the flyer's circuits before paying off the 'shop mechanics to take their time with the repairs.
Vorkosigan found other amusements.
He was, as Simon discovered, good at the going to ground. Being stripped of his flyer seemed to have challenged him; given him a shot of vim. He disappeared from Vorkosigan House after running his usual errands for the Count; Simon was off-shift when he slipped his ImpSec guard.
Negri put him on the scent, which devolved into a series of credit-chip uses that criss-crossed the city before ending in the pocket of a slim young whip of a man with no identification on him. Simon relieved him of the chip and went looking for establishments that imported Bonksalari swill.
He found Vorkosigan in the back room of a joint in the Caravanserai, out of his house uniform and hunkered down in a set of civvies that look like they'd seen better days. Simon wondered what he'd traded for them: money or reputation. The establishment's various characters slinked, slithered, and slipped out of its doors at the sight of Simon's horus-eyes, leaving Vorkosigan deprived of partners at his card table.
The proprietor adroitly closed the door behind Simon when he entered the back room.
Vorkosigan dipped into his pocket for a chrono. 'Only four hours, Illyan; I'm impressed.'
Illyan bowed his head, and seated himself at one of the vacated positions at the table.
'Are you here to corral me back?' Vorkosigan asked, thumbing through a deck of cards. Illyan noticed his hands shaking only very slightly. Real swill, that Bonksalari shit; not even a proper intoxicant.
'If you didn't want to be corralled by the Imperium in some way, my lord, I imagine you'd be harder to find,' Simon said. Harder to find, or dead.
Vorkosigan flashed him a smile that was all bared teeth. 'I'm guessing Negri's sent you to find out what makes me tick. What is the list, for you ImpSec fellows? Money, power, sex?'
Simon shrugged. If Vorkosigan wanted to navel-gaze through the bottom of a bottle, he wasn't going to stop him.
'No Vorkosigan has ever cared for the former. I've retired from chasing after the second. So are you trying to find some inroads on the third?'
'Sex is a better rush than chases through canyons,' Simon deadpanned.
Vorkosigan looked at him, then said, 'And more fun to witness besides?'
'You're drunk,' Simon said.
'Undoubtedly. But not senseless,' Vorkosigan pointed out, reaching for one of the bottles on the table. He poured steadily enough. 'So, shall I set out some conditions for you, Illyan?' The drink disappeared down his throat. 'One, it can't be a woman –'
An image of Captain Naismith flashed through Simon's head, chip-accurate. 'You and your fucking double standards, Vorkosigan,' he said flatly, against his better judgement.
Vorkosigan ignored him. '– two, it shouldn't be anyone Vor – wouldn't want to offend social sensibilities a second time, for the sake of the Imperium; three, it'd be preferable if my affairs didn't end up a liability for Ezar and all of his crows–' his voice was steady, but brutal.
Simon stopped him by reaching for the best of the bad bottles on the table and pouring Vorkosigan another drink; the pitiful bastard. He pushed it across the table.
Vorkosigan took it and said, voice level again, 'I don't need to go on – it's impossible; don't bother.'
'You're drunk,' Simon repeated.
'And you're enabling me,' Vorkosigan pointed out, lifting the glass up in lazy salute.
'Yes,' Simon agreed. 'It's better than seeing you disabled, my lord.'
It took half a bottle more to get Vorkosigan pliant enough to move; then Simon had to move him. Vorkosigan was coherent enough while sitting up, but his legs wouldn't obey any master while standing, and Simon had to sling Aral's arm over his shoulder and haul the older man bodily out of the establishment. He put Aral into the passenger seat of his lightflyer and took off for Vorkosigan Surleau.
There was Armsman Bothari waiting when Simon landed, but Vorkosigan lifted a hand and waved him aside, saying 'Stand down, Bothari; Commander Illyan has got me this far, he can get me the rest of the way,' before directing Simon up through the stairs and hallways.
There was a weird familiarity to walking with Vorkosigan; a flashback to their time together during the Escobaran War. Simon slid Vorkosigan onto his bed, and then bent down to unlace his boots. It wasn't his job, but — he had come this far. He might as well go the rest of the way.
The act made Vorkosigan sit up. Simon knelt between his legs as he worked off the man's boots and parroted, 'One, it can't be a woman; two, it shouldn't be anyone Vor; three; it'd be preferable if your affairs didn't end up a liability for the Emperor and all of his crows.' He spread his arms, and then put his hands on either side of Vorkosigan's knees. He didn't lean up; didn't try to lean in.
It took Vorkosigan a moment before he moved, then he took Simon's hands in his own and just held them. 'Very clever of you to offer; or convenient, for both Ezar and Negri,' he said, almost distantly.
To which Simon said, quietly, 'This is a private judgement.'
'All public duties come performed on the back of private judgements. They'll decant you like a fine wine,' Vorkosigan warned him.
To which Simon said, 'Perhaps if you drank anything other than swill, that would matter.'
Vorkosigan sighed. Neither of them spoke for a moment, then Vorkosigan said, 'I wouldn't; I wouldn't use you for a tape recorder, or for assassinations.' A hand came up to cup his cheek; a thumb brushed itself across Simon's cheekbone. 'Damn. I wish you had better masters.'
Instead of what he wanted to say, which was I could've had them; I could have them, Simon said, 'You're drunk.'
'Not drunk enough; I'm sorry. I haven't had to go adrenalin tripping since I was a teenager. The Service always provided.'
'Then shut up,' Simon said, 'and let the Service provide.'