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The Family Expert

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The comconsole call came in at 3 o’clock in the morning. Mark supposed he deserved that. But if it was petty revenge Gregor was after, surely he would have called at 3 in the morning on Mark’s wedding night (not that he ever anticipated having such a thing), not his own. And there was something very odd about his face. It had the same hunted look on it that Mark had grown used to seeing in mirrors, after he’d killed Galen back on Earth. And Gregor had clearly washed his face before making the call, but Mark could still see the traces of tears on it.

The words were out of his mouth before Mark knew what they were going to be: “Who do you want me to kill?”

Gregor blinked at him for a few seconds. “There was a time I’d have found that a very tempting offer. Especially if you could guarantee it would look like an accident. But I find that I don’t actually want to die.” He favored Mark with a bleak smile. “Thank you. That helps.”

Gregor had obviously mistaken Mark for someone else. (Mark hated being mistaken for someone else.) A regular human being, who knew how to do the friend thing. He felt sick and helpless, like when he’d walked into Kareen’s dorm room to find her in tears because she’d just gotten a vid from her family and she missed them so much. “Sire,” Mark started, but no, that wasn’t right, Mark could figure out that much. “Gregor. Do you, uh, want to tell me what’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong,” Gregor repeated. He pushed his hair out of his face, which it hardly needed, being cut Barrayaran-fashionably short. Gregor didn’t do nervous gestures. “About half an hour ago, I woke up, and there was someone in bed with me. And . . . it was Laisa, of course, and I knew that, but I couldn’t--I managed to make it to the bathroom without waking her. And then I threw up. And eventually I managed to stop crying. And I knew I should go back to bed. And I just . . . couldn’t.”

“So you decided to call the family expert on sexual trauma,” said Mark sourly.

“God. Look, Mark, I’m sorry for bothering you.”

“Oh, shit, Gregor, wait--” but Gregor had already cut the comm.

Barrayarans,” Mark growled savagely, rooting through his desk for Gregor’s personal call-card. He might as well have said humans.

The other times he’d used the card the bland-faced Armsman on the other end had passed him through without comment, but now he said, “Lord Mark, it’s the Emperor’s wedding night.”

Oh gee, really? And if Mark gave up now, and went back to sleep, no one could blame him, because he’d tried, right? “Yeah, I was there,” he said. “I was talking to him a minute ago. I’m calling him back.”

Gregor hadn’t managed to get back to bed in the last minute and a half either. “I don’t like it that you know all about me and Galen and Ryoval when I never chose to tell you,” said Mark.

“I know,” said Gregor.

“So now you tell me what happened to you,” said Mark. “It’s only fair.”

Gregor shook his head. “It’s such a little thing, compared to what you went through. And you manage to make it work with Kareen, and I can’t even--”

Mark rolled his eyes. “I make it work with Kareen because I’ve had therapy. Lots and lots of therapy. I’m still in therapy, and probably will be for the rest of my life. Whereas you, in your Imperial wisdom, have apparently decided to let this fester for . . . ?”

Gregor got an unfocused look like he was doing a quick bit of figuring in his head. “Ten years,” he said with a sigh. “You know about the War of the Hegen Hub?”

“Sure,” said Mark. “You and Da swooped in on a white battlecruiser and saved the collective asses of Vervain, Aslund, and Pol, thus forging the Hegen Hub Alliance. Miles was there, too, as Admiral Naismith, but I only found out about that later. I guess you’d sent him on ahead to hold the line until you could bring the big guns in.”

“You wouldn’t have lasted a week here as Miles.”

“I did okay on Earth,” said Mark, stung. “I was going to kill everyone who could have caught me out before the week was up, anyway. But enough about my inadequacies, we were talking about why you were kneeling by the toilet renewing your acquaintance with your dinner half an hour ago. What would I know about the War of the Hegen Hub if I were Miles, but I don’t, since I’m not Miles?”

Gregor actually laughed. “You’re like one of those things at the zoo, in the savannah exhibit.” Mark hoped he was talking about the lions, but instead he said, “A porcupine. Nowhere to pick you up where you don’t have prickles. But yes. The first thing you would know is that I didn’t get to the Hegen Hub in the nick of time in a white battlecruiser. I got there about a week earlier, in a tramp freighter.”

He was quiet for a little while, and Mark wondered whether he should be saying anything. But presently Gregor seemed to have arranged his thoughts. “It was . . . a bad time in my life, and I did some stupid and irresponsible things. Which ended up with me in the custody of another mercenary leader who thought she could make herself Empress of Barrayar. Until I got back to my own people, I . . . encouraged her to think so.” He shrugged. “And that’s all, really.”

“Right,” said Mark. “You only got taken prisoner and raped, and had to pretend you thought it was all your idea and you were having a wonderful time. And I take it from the fact that you were surprised by your reaction tonight that you haven’t tried sharing a bed with anyone since?”

“Not for sleeping. There were a couple of times--” Gregor broke off. “But it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t what I would have chosen if I’d had a choice, but it wasn’t awful. She was attractive, and smart, and I think she liked me in her way. If I’d ever said stop she would have backed off--she was trying to seduce me, not hurt me.”

“Gregor,” said Mark, “you have got to stop looking at things from the other person’s point of view.”

Gregor raised his eyebrows. “I beg your pardon. I’ve always understood that having a wider perspective was a virtue.”

“In moderation, sure,” said Mark. “And if you were trying a case in court or something, I’m sure that what this woman was thinking and what she intended and what she thought you thought would be important. But if you’re trying to understand your own reactions it’s just a distraction. What were you feeling?”

“I didn’t know--” Gregor’s hands tightened on the arms of his chair. “I didn’t know what was going on with Miles, and the Dendarii, but I knew that if I made one wrong move things could go badly for them. And for me. Cavilo wasn’t a woman who had any problem switching gears; if she knew the Empress thing wasn’t going to work out, if she’d gotten any idea how much I hated--but I didn’t hate all of it. There were parts--there were things that she did, and I did, with her, that felt . . . very nice. And she’d fall asleep, and I’d be awake, watching her, and knowing I could snap her neck, thinking about how it would feel. And I’d think, what sort of person lets this happen to him?”

“Oh, that one,” said Mark. “I know that one. You probably also thought, if I were Miles, I’d have thought of fifteen clever ways out of this by now.”

Gregor’s eyes went wide with horrified laughter and he covered his mouth. “I did.

Which might be another reason why he was having this conversation with Mark and not Miles. Mark supposed he should be flattered--and he kind of was. “I’m glad I could help you with this,” he said, “but the person you really should be talking to is Laisa.”

“Yes,” said Gregor, sober again. “I told her about Cavilo before we were engaged, but more as a fling I had when I was young and stupid thing, not a rape thing. I didn’t intentionally lie to her. I wasn’t expecting--”

“I don’t really know Laisa,” said Mark, “but since you picked her out I’m going to make a leap of faith and assume she’s a decent human being. I don’t think she’s going to mind you sleeping on the couch for now, if that’s what you need. The sex itself was okay? You did have some? It’s supposed to be traditional--”

Gregor turned a very interesting shade of pink, but he was smiling. “Yes. I think we were both reasonably happy.”

“Well, good. So there’s that. And you trust each other, so that’s a start.”

“I’m not sure how you figure that,” said Gregor. “Was it the part where I woke up in a panic because Laisa was in bed with me that gave you the clue?”

“No, it was the part where you didn’t feel like you had to suppress any sign of your panic or else very bad things would happen. I have a feeling you wouldn’t do that with most people.” Mark paused, thinking about what he had just said. “So thank you.”

“Um,” said Gregor. “It was no trouble.”

“I think it kind of was. That’s what makes it worth something.” Mark rubbed a hand across his face. “Try to get some sleep, Gregor, okay? I know I’m going to.”

“All right,” said Gregor softly. And he cut the comm.