L'oiseau qui vole n'a pas de maître.
It began in the library at Vorkosigan House.
No, actually. It began earlier than that, when they were still relatively new to one another, still mapping the boundaries of banter and sincerity. They were aboard the fast courier that would deliver them to Vorrutyer's flagship: before Escobar, before the stink of death and the triumphant ignominy of retreat, before Simon knew Aral down to his bones. They had been silently negotiating the delicacies of sharing a cabin. Aral was tense, tenser than Simon realized at the time, and he snapped at Simon for some tiny fault. Breathing too loudly, perhaps, or stitching imperfectly the seam between deference and duty.
"I know you'd rather I wasn't here," Simon said, a trifle smugly; he was too annoyed himself to manage blandness, and the only other option was to show his annoyance. "But at least we can be polite to one another."
"Or you could go fuck yourself," said Aral.
Simon closed his teeth against a petty response. "Fine," he said, barely opening them. "Just try to pretend I'm invisible."
"You're not bloody inaudible," Aral grumbled, but the anger had spent itself. After another minute during which Simon didn't attempt to be particularly quiet, Aral said, "Sorry. I know what your orders are."
"And orders can be maddening for all concerned," Simon allowed.
Aral snorted. "Indeed. I just hope someday..."
"That someday someone gets the order to follow you around and not allow you a moment's peace."
Simon laughed; it broke the tension, and before long they were trading stories of inconvenient orders they'd obeyed or managed to avoid, lingering on the ridiculous and mutually skirting topics such as Prince Serg and Komarr.
And, naturally, as things went on from bad to worse, he forgot, as much as he ever could, what Aral had said. His chip remembered, but it filed the line under "jokes and witticisms, to be consulted only when relevant to security concerns" and buried it there until much later.
The day after Aral was named as Regent and Simon as head of his personal security, they met at Vorkosigan House to select a place in the library for a secured comconsole before proceeding to the audience with Princess Kareen and Prince Gregor. Simon enumerated Aral's increased security detail, and made what was the third request, though not the last that day, that Aral consider moving his household to the Residence.
"No," said Aral in his and that's final voice; they both knew Simon would try again. "And I can manage with Father's Armsmen, thank you. I know you'll have a perimeter guard shadowing me no matter what I say, but we have good men here; I don't need ImpSec hanging on my heels." He grinned. "Had enough of that already."
The grin meant that despite the enormous load dumped on his shoulders, he was in a good mood. Cordelia had something to do with that, no doubt. For a moment Simon found himself visualizing them, together; the image of them kissing on that Sergyaran promontory was burned into his brain, not merely into the chip, and his imagination could easily take matters further. Not that it should.
Aral was looking at him curiously. "You'd have agents invading my bedroom if I let you have your way," he said, with a touch more intensity than the untruth deserved.
"No, sir. Though if your lordship will allow me to point out--"
"Stuff it, Simon. Tell me why I'm wrong."
"You're not wrong. I must note, however, that while the loyalty of the Vorkosigan Armsmen is unassailable... it is also undivided."
It hadn't been what Aral expected to hear, but he got the point immediately. "You're saying I need Imperial Security breathing down my neck not to protect me from my enemies, but to protect Gregor from me."
Simon shook his head firmly. "It's not what I say; it's what others will say. What I say is, let me saddle you with an obvious ImpSec presence, in part because it will alleviate certain concerns, but mostly because more protection is better, and my sleep will improve, knowing you have it. And that Lady Vorkosigan has it."
As he'd expected, the mention of Cordelia and the not-so-subtle touch of a hand to his belly melted Aral's obstinacy down to the remaining hard little nugget without which he would not be Aral. "Damn you, Simon," he said. "Set your bloodhounds on me, then. I should have known better than to argue with you about your job."
"Just keeping your best interests in mind, sir."
Aral glowered at him, and then the glower broke into a smile as Cordelia's voice sounded from outside the room. He nodded at the door. "Time to be going, then?"
It was three weeks later that Simon noticed his shadow for the first time. He was walking home after a forty-hour shift dealing with what turned out to be false rumors of Cetagandans targeting the Regent, almost too tired to move his legs, and yet desperately needing to after too much time in a chair. The night was cool and pleasant and the city looked beautiful under streetlights, any chaos or uncleanliness hidden in dark corners.
The reflection in a shop window showed him a figure slipping through a pool of light; alerted, he glanced into the next window he passed and this time saw movement under a maple tree flanking the street. Taking advantage of an unlit patch of pavement, he slid darkly into a gap between buildings.
While he waited, he accessed the chip's memory of the briefly-lighted figure and its face, and then checked the last several days, searching for any followers, identical or otherwise. Images tumbled into his conscious mind: the same man on a crowded street, in line at a café, turning away from Simon as he left his apartment building a few mornings ago. The chip hadn't collated the images and alerted him, which might mean that it recognized no threat, or it might be a processing failure due to his exhaustion. Certainly the man wasn't ImpSec-trained or otherwise a professional spy, or he wouldn't have let himself be seen so often, nor would he still be moving toward Simon after losing sight of him; he'd have gone to ground as well.
Simon took his nerve disruptor from his belt, and as his shadow slunk stealthily by, he stepped out of the narrow alley and aimed.
"Stand still or I shoot," he said, his voice completely steady. "Hands above your head."
The man obeyed, and Simon moved close to him and patted him down for weapons. None, barring a pocketknife, which he confiscated. With the nerve disruptor clearly in evidence, he shoved him into the nearest patch of light.
If not for the chip, Simon would have thought he'd never seen the man before in his life. Dark hair, ordinary if well-formed features in a narrow face, civilian clothing. Slightly taller than him, but less muscular. About his own age. "Your name," he said, gesturing with the weapon, "your employer, and your reason for following me. Now."
"My name is Jules Duval, I am an accountant at Vorbarr Sultana General Hospital, and I am not following you, sir, I swear it," the man gulped out. He sounded and looked authentically terrified. Simon didn't believe him for one second.
Seizing Duval by the throat, he pushed him against the nearest wall and shoved the nerve disruptor into his stomach. "Don't lie to me," he enunciated one word at a time. "People who lie to me are very sorry for it." A wave of power swept through him, pooling warmly in his belly. He squeezed Duval's neck harder, and then released his hold slightly to let the man speak.
Duval laughed, and with the laugh his stance altered and he relaxed into Simon's grip. "You're good," he said, and his voice was different too: lower in pitch, gently congratulatory, caressing the air around Simon's ears. "I thought if you hadn't made me yet, someone had been kinder about your abilities than you deserved. But you were waiting to catch me in the dark. Well" -- he lifted a hand and removed Simon's from his throat, lowering it to his chest -- "you've got me. What are you going to do with me?"
"Interrogation under torture sounds like a good plan at the moment. You haven't answered my questions."
"May I?" said Duval, pointing downwards toward his trouser pocket. Simon nodded and backed off a few inches, keeping the nerve disruptor in place. Duval removed an identification card and handed it to Simon.
It didn't look forged, and Simon was willing to call him Duval; it was as good as any other name. "And the rest of it?" he said. "I don't think you're an accountant."
"An old and honored profession on Barrayar. I collect data and... make calculations. Not for Vorbarr Sultana General Hospital, I admit."
"You're not ImpSec." Not that Simon knew all the officers, agents, operatives and informants who made up Imperial Security, but his instinct told him he was right, and Duval was shaking his head. "Did you work for Grishnov? Maybe going freelance now that we've killed off your boss?"
"No. You know that," Duval said, almost gently. "I'll answer your question. But I would really prefer it if you holster your weapon first. You're likely to squeeze the trigger and kill me by accident, and I have always wanted to die very much on purpose. Thank you," he added as Simon did what he asked.
"I can still kill you in two seconds. With intent. Now, who do you work for?"
Duval smiled. "I am in the employ of the Regent of Barrayar."
Simon stared. "What?"
"Aral Vorkosigan hired me to follow you. Just follow, by the way, and take notes on your movements, nothing more... aggressive." Duval reached into his other pocket. "Here's my notebook. Do you want to know what you were doing at fifteen-hundred hours three days ago?"
The chip reported instantly that he had been on his knees in the Princess's suite talking to Gregor's stegosaurus, because Aral had told him he ought to try to explain about the security changes after Ezar's death, he himself, not Kareen or Negri, to a four-year-old, and apparently on that particular day the stegosaurus was acting as Gregor's secretary or translator. He had, in fact, rather enjoyed himself.
"It's when it starts talking back that you have to worry," Duval said, and Simon's brain flipped over from conversing with dinosaurs to being spied on by Aral. His incipient alarm at Duval somehow having insinuated himself into the Princess's rooms vanished; Aral knew perfectly well what he'd been up to, and had told Duval what he needed to know.
Not willing to waste another word or moment before running to Vorkosigan House and throwing the insult back into Aral's face, Simon paused only to sublimate his rage by punching Duval in the jaw. He looked gratifyingly surprised. Simon glanced back to watch him slump down against the wall; he put one hand to his face and waved Simon a vague salute with the other, and then collapsed.
Simon had covered several block-lengths in the rush to confront Aral when the reference clicked. I hope that someday someone gets the order to follow you around and not allow you a moment's peace.
Was that all that Duval amounted to? A joke? Better that than an acknowledgment that Aral didn't trust him, but... Duval didn't think of himself as a joke. Not that orders from the Regent could ever be taken less than seriously, no matter how foolish. And Aral could play the fool, though there was a grandeur to his foolishness that other men ought to envy.
Simon slowed his footsteps. No need to run; Aral would be waiting for him.
His own carefully-chosen men stopped him at the gate, scanned him and checked his identification: all as it should be. An Armsman opened the door to him, then stepped aside. "Lord Vorkosigan is in the library, Commander Illyan."
Simon didn't bother to knock. Walking in, he caught Aral and Cordelia nuzzling together on the sofa. He spun on his heel to face away, and snapped out, "Sir." And madam. All the way over he'd been troubled by the question of how he'd address Aral; was this a matter of friendship or of service? He supposed he'd just answered himself. And it wasn't like he'd used the man's name all that often. Just... there had been moments. Mostly when Aral was drunk, of course.
He wasn't drunk now. "Simon, don't be an idiot. Turn around." When he did, to find Cordelia sitting a decorous distance away from her husband, Aral went on, "Is this about the fictional ghem-General? Negri already reported to me on that. You didn't have to--"
"Aral." Ah. And now the name. The heart has its reasons, whereof... "May I speak to you for a moment?"
"I'll leave you two alone," said Cordelia. She patted Aral's knee, stood up, added, "Always pleasant to see you, Simon," in a voice that meant the opposite, and swept out of the room. Simon's chip provided comparative images, of Lady Vorkosigan in long dresses and Captain Naismith in fatigues; she was getting better at inhabiting her attire.
"Simon," said Aral; it wasn't a question. He got to his feet and stepped closer. "I expected you before now."
"Sorry to be so tardy in the discovery. I've been somewhat busy protecting you." Aral returned him silence, compounding Simon's guilt; it was a failure whether he neglected to notice a threat to himself or a threat to Aral. "Is that why you did it? To show up my vaunted omniscience?"
"I've never expected you to be omniscient. Though I do believe you should be paying more attention to your own safety. Who watches the watchers, hm? I need you, Simon." Aral's eyes narrowed; he'd caught the hitch in Simon's breath. "I need your experience and your wisdom and your eyes. You shouldn't be taking risks any more than I should. However," he added, coming closer, not stopping until he was well within the borders of Simon's personal space, "all that is to justify myself after the fact."
"Because you did it simply so I'd know how it felt to be followed. So you could get your revenge." Aral's mouth twitched; it was enough admission. "It's not the same," Simon added. "I was your shadow in public."
Aral shrugged; the movement of his shoulders alone seemed to diminish Simon's autonomy. "Neither are we the same. We come from different worlds." He made a small sweeping palm-up gesture, encompassing all of Vorkosigan House and the District behind it. "But we both serve; we both know what it is to have masters who change our lives on an arbitrary whim." And this is my whim, he implied. This is my one selfish fancy, the only one I'm allowed to have. Like appointing a stegosaurus as one's secretary, Simon thought. But Aral wasn't four.
"So it's Duval I ought to feel sorry for," Simon said. Aral grinned, his teeth fierce and carnivorous, and Simon realized, a second too late, that he'd tipped his head up fractionally in response, exposing his throat. He schooled his expression; but Aral was too close to him, in every way he cared to name, to miss the reaction. He didn't seek out power, but he didn't shun it either; and Simon had been offering it to him... since Escobar, if not longer.
Simon shivered, but it was Aral who stepped back, breaking the electric current between them. "Yes, he's good, isn't he?" he said, meaning Duval.
"He's impatient," said Simon. "Incompetent, I thought at first, but he was letting me spot him, forcing a confrontation. He's not trained to play a long game. Where did you find him?"
"The caravanserai. He was just a boy when we met." Something echoed behind the flat statement, something Simon didn't want to parse, but it tallied with Duval's near-flirtatious demeanor, his submissive response to Simon's aggression. "He's been useful now and then," Aral added. "And I didn't intend this to be a long game."
"I suppose that's generous of you."
"It was worth it, to see your face." Aral smiled, a cold smile, and put out a hand: two fingers under Simon's chin, lifting it into the light. "It's a nice face," he said, then dropped his hand and added, "Go home. Get some sleep. I need you rested and alert. I'll have an Armsman drive you."
"Sir," said Simon, and went.
When the groundcar reached his block, he glanced out the window and caught a movement in the shadows. After he was dropped at his building's front door, he stood watching the car pull away and then walked back down the street.
Duval was lounging against a wall. "I've found that one-man one-target surveillance has its disadvantages," Simon said, approaching and leaning back to share the wall-space. "But you knew where I was going, and you knew I'd come back here." Duval nodded. "Vorkosigan tells me he's done with this," Simon added. "You can go off-duty." It had been implied, at least. But Duval was shaking his head.
"I'll need to hear it from him. Until then... it's a comfortable wall."
"Yes," agreed Simon, and accepted its support for a silent moment longer. "You may as well come upstairs, though," he said finally, pushing away from the wall and striding away, not looking back. But Duval was following him.
As soon as Simon unlocked his door and they came through, he shut it behind them and pressed Duval against it, hand closed on his throat once more. They were both breathing hard, and they hadn't taken the stairs. Again, the spark of power; again, Duval's muscles going slack in response. Simon put his face close.
"You like this, don't you?" he whispered. He slid his free hand down to rest against the front of Duval's trousers. "Yes, you do. Funny, so do I," he added, removing his hand and pressing his body closer. "It's like it was arranged for us. I'm meant to take advantage," he went on, thumb against Duval's windpipe. "And I always do what I'm told." His hand slid to the back of Duval's neck; he ground his hips harder into his shadow's and captured his mouth in a brutal kiss.
Simon woke late the next morning. He would have been pleased to claim leisure as a conscious entitlement, but as it happened the combination of long tense duty and rough sex sucked him down into a deep swamp of slumber that even the sun failed to rouse him from. He'd kicked Duval out of bed, telling him that if he wouldn't leave he could have the sofa. Not that Simon could have stayed awake, but the concession meant either that he trusted Duval not to knife him in his sleep, or that he trusted Aral to avenge his knifing; it hadn't really seemed to matter which.
When he stumbled out of the bedroom, he was not surprised to find Duval missing and a neat pile of bedding on the sofa. Word must have come through from Aral, allowing him to relinquish his job. Simon considered having an elaborate breakfast and reporting to work in time for lunch, but getting the brunt of Aral's sarcasm out of the way early seemed a marginally more attractive proposition, so he made coffee and headed out the door.
His office at the Residence was occupied when he arrived. Aral was standing in the doorway chatting with one of the servants; the chip provided name and length of service, while all Simon's unassisted brain could manage was source of additional coffee, and oh, pastries would be nice. He conveyed this with a raised eyebrow and a pantomime of lifting a cup to his mouth -- if she brought him strychnine and shit pies it would be all the same to him -- and steeled himself to meet Aral's eyes.
"Good morning, Simon," he said, with a slight smile that might have meant no more than what time do you think this is to report for duty? And then he stepped aside, saying, "I thought you might need some help in the office, so I've hired you an assistant," his timing impeccable, so that on the last word Simon saw that Duval was seated at his desk. "Subject to your approval, of course," Aral added.
"Fuck you, Vorkosigan," Simon breathed, and then, louder, "Thank you, sir. I'm sure my new... adjunct will serve me well."
Aral really couldn't have been disappointed that he hadn't exploded with fury; he knew Simon too well to think he could be provoked into a display like that. He nodded, glanced at his chrono, and reminded Simon that they were meeting with Negri about further Cetagandan monitoring in an hour. Simon watched him march down the hall, then walked into his office, batted Duval out of his chair with a fierce gesture, and sank down in it himself. It was still warm from Duval's body.
After a moment, Duval said, "It wasn't my idea. Sir."
"I know that!" Simon snapped, and then added, "I suppose you have a security clearance?"
"Top-level. And I am actually a qualified accountant."
"And are you required to dog my heels and note down every time I piss?"
"No, sir," Duval said, mouth twitching. "The Regent has relieved me of that duty."
"Good. Then you may be useful." Simon pointed to a chair and then to his side; Duval moved the chair over and sat down, and Simon pushed a pile of flimsies toward him. "Make something of these, if you would." He noted some of the important details and possible discrepancies, then added, "First, requisition yourself a desk and a comconsole. Does ImpSec Personnel know about you?"
"My wages will be paid directly by the Regent, sir."
"Ah. Well, at least you'll avoid our crap dental plan. No Imperial Service whatsoever, I expect?"
"Not in the sense you mean, no."
"I'm not sure how I'll explain you. Though 'by the favor of the Regent' will do, I should think."
Duval smirked. "We live to s---"
Not greatly to Simon's surprise -- one of Aral's talents was human resources, after all -- Duval proved to be a valuable employee, smart and adept at the aspects of administration in which Simon had no interest or training. It was not standard practice to give one's office assistant a weekly breathless buggering, but Duval accepted that aspect of his job with equanimity; relieving Simon's tension was his job, really, so it was all one, and Simon tried not to think about whose pocket Duval's pay came out of.
They had one of their assignations in the early morning after the Emperor's Birthday bash. Simon assumed that he was being spied on as he assumed his heart would keep beating, so Duval arrived with a briefcase (full of legitimate though not classified material) and Simon did a routine check for bugs before they fell into bed, an odd but now natural part of foreplay.
Not that they had much notion of it otherwise. Simon ordered and Duval obeyed, and the one-sided wrestling match was over quickly enough. Gratified, breathing hard, Simon pressed an atypical affectionate kiss to Duval's shoulder blade and rolled over, limp and replete with transitory happiness. Duval nestled up next to him, touching his lips to Simon's shoulder in ironic commentary. The literal about-face Duval made from absolute submissiveness in the heat to breezy insolence afterwards always pleased and mystified Simon.
"Yes? And your point is?" he said.
"Thank you, perhaps?" said Duval. "It's agreeable, being liked. Being trusted, as well." Simon lifted a lazy eyebrow in his direction. "You know I could break you, if I wanted to, just by a word in the right ear. And you know I won't."
"The Regent would throw me to the wolves, yes. But he might not be able to save you from them either."
Simon's personal opinion was that Aral could do just about anything he desired, including rescuing Simon from a charge of treason, let alone the ramifications of far lesser sins. But he didn't say so; he just said, "Get out of bed," and Duval quickly cleaned himself up and dressed and made coffee that was ready by the time Simon's driver and car arrived.
His first stop was Vorkosigan House, to check with his guard commander. All was well, and he was turning to leave when Cordelia intercepted him and dragged him into the library with a cryptic request to move Vidal Vordarian to his short list for the attack on Aral's groundcar a few days earlier.
"Very well, milady," he said. "But you'll have to give me some reason other than female intuition."
She glared at him, as he'd known she would, but it got her talking. An encounter with Vordarian at the party the night before: she repeated the conversation with almost chip-like precision; clearly it had been important to her. At the mention of Aral's bisexuality, he tried and failed to stop a flush of heat moving up his neck; Cordelia noticed, but kept going, and had Simon helplessly smiling by the end.
"What?" she asked in response to the smile.
"You really are wonderful. Milady."
"In the sense that I fill all Barrayarans with wonder? And for God's sake, Simon, in private you call me Cordelia."
"Yes, milady Cordelia," he said.
"You did know about Aral's 'secret scandal'? I'm not bringing you news here."
He bowed. "ImpSec," was all he had to say. "It's in his file. Which I read when I was assigned--"
"To spy on him, yes. And how is your assistant doing? Jules?" she said in a transparent non-change of subject.
This time the blush went all the way up his face. "Very well, milady," he managed.
"Cordelia," he returned. "I suppose Aral--"
"Aral has danced around the topic." Simon had a sudden flash of chip-memory from the night before: Aral, mirror-dancing with the Princess, with far more grace than one would expect from a man of his build and profession. He imagined himself, trying to copy Aral's every move and failing utterly. With Aral and Kareen, it had been hard to tell which of them had initiated each dip and turn and gesture: a balance of power that did not reflect the realities of their everyday lives.
"It's not an aspect of sexual behavior that I know a great deal about," Cordelia went on, "but it's not something you should be ashamed of wanting." She sounded a little doubtful. Simon was momentarily baffled by Betan turns of thought until he realized that she didn't mean homosexual acts, she meant... whatever was happening between him and Aral and Duval. "If we were on Beta, I would simply offer Aral the chance to sleep with you when he wished; we might even arrange a sort of three-cornered union. I gather that's not much of an option here."
"No," Simon managed, and then, "Cordelia, the last thing I want is to... what did you say about Vordarian? Blow up your marriage."
"Oh, Simon. That won't happen, believe me. But I can't think you're happy with the way things are now. Do you love Jules?"
"I hate him," Simon spat out, and then, "No. He... helps me get through the days. He just..."
"Isn't Aral." Simon put his face in his hands; how had he got himself into this conversation? "It must be difficult, in this society, being--"
He looked up. "I'm not. Really. Not that the chip makes romancing women very likely."
"Mm. I should think it would play havoc with your sex life no matter of what sort. Remembering every last detail. Comparing one to another. Losing yourself in what's past."
Simon shuddered. "I had... a fear, completely unjustified, the first time Duval and I... that Aral would ask me to give him..."
"A blow-by-blow? And you could, too, couldn't you? I can't see Aral doing that, though."
"No. He wouldn't. He knows Ezar used to make me... activate the chip and let words spew out of my mouth. Aral's never done that. Not that he doesn't take advantage of the chip, but he lets me use my own words. I'm very grateful."
"He's a deeply decent man. No matter his faults. And he wants to treat people like people, though I'll admit this planet doesn't always let him." Cordelia smiled sadly. "I understand why you're in love with him, you know. But you see him as a superior officer, only and always; he'd swallow you up. And you need some distance, if you're going to do your job properly. So perhaps sticking with the current arrangement is best. If you ever need to talk, though..."
"Milady Cordelia, I hope you won't take this the wrong way--"
"But you'd rather eat out your own liver. And you're not Vordarian, so I can't get a perverse pleasure out of tormenting you." She put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a little push. "Go on, then, Simon. Get to work. And put Vordarian on that list. I don't trust him."
"Yes, Captain Naismith," he said.
Much as Simon wanted to blame Cordelia, what happened next was no one's fault but his own. He and Duval had never slept together two nights running; they had, in fact, never technically slept together. That evening when he left work, he gave Duval the signal; his assistant looked surprised, but three hours later came the knock on his door.
He invited Duval in, fed him some good wine, chatted casually about the weather and the next day's schedule, and then took the glass out of his lover's hand and kissed him, gently, slowly, seductively, and took him to bed. It was the first time he could call what they did together making love, and by the end they were gasping each other's names -- Jules and Simon rather than Duval and sir -- and Simon's satisfaction in the act miraculously doubled. His own climax had been the goal of their previous encounters; if Duval came, that was beside the point, made inconsequential by the ascendancy of Simon. This time, he witnessed the head thrown back with abandoned pleasure, kissed the mouth moaning so good, so good, knew what it was to bring someone else to the brink and push him over.
And then they slept, and Simon woke at dawn with hungry lips teasing at his, and they did it all over again. He thought that he had never in his life felt so amazingly, fantastically... and then the chip chimed in with a list of previous instances, few enough since it had been part of his brain. Not that the chip understood ecstasy, but it gathered enough data to draw conclusions, and it told Simon that feelings were fleeting, and that the good ones, especially, never lasted very long.
"You," said Duval, still breathing fast, "are fucking brilliant. Or the other way around. Why haven't you--"
"Shh," said Simon, laying fingers on Duval's mouth and smiling as they were kissed. "I don't know. I'm glad I did, though."
"We can't go back from this. You know that."
"Good. Because I think I might be falling in love with you."
He was going to remember that the rest of his life, with or without the chip. "Cupboard love," he admonished Duval. "Wait five minutes; see how you feel then."
"In five minutes I'll be gone. Have to change before work. Holy terror of a boss; you know how it is. One second tardy and it's the rack for me."
"We don't do that anymore, remember? Modern methods." Simon thought how much he would like to put Duval under fast-penta right that second, and then decided that sex could have much the same effect. Except you didn't need to let words spew out; you didn't need words at all. He tasted Duval's mouth again, everything he was feeling expressed by the movements of his lips and tongue. How many times in history, he wondered, had men burdened with secrets turned to each other for comfort, and sat in offices together for years on end, remembering mysteries in the night?
"Be off with you, then," he said finally, breathing in one last breath of Duval's scent, and headed for the bathroom before he could add anything he'd regret. When he came out, Duval had vanished.
Simon spent the next hour humming and trying to remember the words to a song that had planted itself in his head. Clearly he hadn't heard it since the chip went in; those songs never ended up as bits of tunes he could not fully finish or explain. It was in French; he knew that. He fed himself eggs as well as groats, and took his second cup of coffee on his journey to the Residence.
Duval was packing his desk.
"What the hell are you doing?" Simon asked, even though it was obvious.
"I've been reassigned," Duval said, the brusque tone not hiding his distress.
"Hassadar. Bureau of Works and Development. Which sounds large and important, but I think it's just me and a development officer. Female, in case you were wondering. Unusual, that. I look forward to meeting her."
Simon waited till the babble died down, and then said quietly, "Vorkosigan."
Duval looked down, biting his lip. "Simon. I'm sorry. This morning, when I... reported in."
What came to mind first, oddly, was another image of the Residence ballroom, and the thought: no wonder Aral had so much floor to dance around on. Then he wanted to scream, but of course he didn't, merely let out one heartfelt "Shit" and started throwing office supplies into Duval's box. Half of them were ImpSec property and had to be patiently removed by Duval's gentle hands.
"Sir," Duval said finally, "do you have somewhere else to be? Meetings? Terrorizing suspects? Second breakfast? I'd just rather..."
"Yes. Goodbye, then." Be off with you. "Safe journey."
"Thank you, sir."
He was assigned an ImpSec lieutenant as his new aide, frighteningly clever and efficient and dull, and in the normal course of the following days and weeks he saw a great deal of Aral and managed not to betray for an instant any of his tangled emotions. And they were too busy for such minor matters in any case. He did miss Duval during the investigation of Koudelka and Bothari's adventure in the mucky depths of Vorbarr Sultana, if only because he would have made a useful agent given his familiarity with the area, and sometimes he found himself missing him for no reason at all, feeling the lack of a snarky remark or a warm body in his bed. Regret was off-limits; a vague and pointless melancholy was all he would allow himself.
Then came Carl Vorhalas's execution, and the horror of Evon Vorhalas's soltoxin attack, and regret was reassigned to mean I should have been there; I should have stopped it; I can never look Cordelia in the face again. He'd called out "My lord!" in giddy relief when he saw that Aral was alive; he'd reassumed his rightful place between Aral's hands, and Aral took all his regrets and transformed them into duty. Keeping Aral alive became the whole of Simon's existence, as it should have been all along. He was Service; he had no right to an independent life.
When Cordelia's bloody and temporary birth-giving was over, and when he'd done his duty with regard to Count Piotr, the Vorkosigans finally left for the District. Simon was both relieved and oddly disconnected. He was not exactly at a loss for things to do; for weeks he'd been following up Cordelia's intuition with investigation into Vordarian, gathering evidence of his conspiracy. Agents were reporting in with more information, and sorting it all out was perfect work for Simon's chip. Negri pulled together the final proof needed for Vordarian's arrest, and Simon was conveying a critical piece of it to him when the shooting started.
To the east, at the end of the street he was on, he could see fighting, and to the west he could hear it. He headed north, toward the University district, running through a database of residents in his head, dismissing half of them for being obvious targets of Vordarian's troops. One name seized his attention: Mikhail Kanzian, professor of chemistry, brother of the admiral. The chip provided an address, and he turned his feet in that direction; coming around a corner he slammed straight into two men in fatigues with Vordarian's colors on armbands. The element of surprise saved him: a fist to one's jaw, a kick to the other's stomach, and both followed up with blows to the head. He grabbed an extra weapon from each and ran back the way he'd come.
After two other close calls, during one of which his left arm caught the blade of someone's knife, he succumbed to paranoia; maybe they knew where he was and were bracketing him. If anyone was following him, they were good; or it was possible he'd been slipped a tracking device. He paused, looked around, and ducked into an alley to catch his breath. They'd come to him, if they wanted him.
In another thirty seconds he heard feet on the street, moving slowly toward him. Clutching his weapons, he watched the alley entrance for the silhouetted figure to appear.
It did, hands already in the air. "Don't shoot, Simon," it said. "It's me."
He knew the voice instantly. "Jules? What the hell... get in here; someone will see you."
Duval slid into the alley and leaned against a wall next to him. "Hello there. What's up with you?" he said. The flirtatious edge to his voice was probably panic-induced, but it made Simon laugh anyway.
"I thought you were in Hassadar," he said.
"I was. I came back two days ago. It's the first place Vordarian will try to subdue; I couldn't risk getting trapped there."
"How did you... never mind. I probably don't want to know. And I assume our meeting like this is no coincidence."
Duval shrugged. "Old habits," he said. "I thought you might need something typed or filed, or some coffee made, or else... your arm's bleeding."
It had soaked through his uniform jacket already, but Simon said automatically, "It's fine."
"Simon. Blood loss leads to lightheadedness. I enjoy your foolish side, but while we're formulating an escape plan and executing it you need to be alert. Take your jacket off." He did, painfully, and Duval took out a knife and ripped off the sleeve, turned it inside out, and detached the lining, which became a bandage.
"Now," he said. "Plans."
Simon nodded. "I've got the map in my head, of course. But the movements of Vordarian's troops aren't making sense to me. If I try to compare the locations of pro-Vorkosigan professors--"
"It's not professors they're after. It's students. They make better hostages. I know which streets the students tend to live on: cheaper housing, you know. So we'll work around those. You can just follow me; I know where to go."
"You know the University district that well?"
Duval smiled. "My thesis was on Barrayaran French songs of the early Time of Isolation period. Feel free to use me as a consultant if that ever becomes relevant. Come on; this way."
It took them two hours to cover territory that Simon could have strode through in thirty minutes on a normal day, and several times he lost track of their location despite the chip. They dodged into cul-de-sacs and through the meticulously-maintained back gardens of tenured professors, lay panting behind hedges and even at one point took to the roofs. Simon's arm hurt and he was dizzy and fatigued, but he hadn't had so much fun in years.
They ended their journey at a nondescript little house that Duval assured him was both currently empty and of no interest to Vordarian. Simon closed all the curtains and shades nevertheless, and refused to turn on the lights despite the growing dusk.
"Some things are better accomplished in the dark?" Duval said, sitting down in his cat-like manner next to Simon on the sofa, and then added, "We'll need some light so I can dress your arm properly. And that uniform has to come off anyway; it's a dead giveaway."
Simon didn't argue; he let Duval remove his blood-stained shirt and retrieve soap and bandages from the bathroom; there was nothing more sophisticated for wound treatment, so Duval poured some vodka over the slash, which stung mightily. He also brought a change of clothes for Simon, found in a closet somewhere.
"God," Simon muttered, looking at the gray gabardine tunic and trousers. "How long has it been since I've worn civvies?"
"Mm. I was hoping for some time spent in the unclothed state. Since we will be here most of the evening."
Simon's heart beat harder; he could feel Duval's warmth through the centimeters of air separating them. "They warn us, in ImpSec training, not to get caught with our pants down."
"Well, it won't be for very long, at the speed you usually--"
"Shut up." And he set the pace at an exquisite slowness, just to defy expectations.
They left the house at about two in the morning, slipping from shadow to shadow until they had reached the residence of Mikhail Kanzian. Simon had begun to wonder how, aside from throwing pebbles at each window in turn, they were going to raise Kanzian from his bed, but as they came in along the back path after climbing the wall, he could see light along the edges of a window, probably in the kitchen.
As Duval tapped at the window, Simon held up his ImpSec silver eyes as a badge of fealty. Duval had tried to persuade him to leave them along with the uniform, but Simon had refused; it would have been like giving up breathing. The shade at the window went up a handbreadth and a set of eyes peered through for a moment and then vanished. Apparently Kanzian was not one of those who recoiled from ImpSec as from a basketful of snakes, because the next sound was the door being unlocked. It only opened a crack, but it was enough to speak through.
"We're looking for your brother," Simon said quietly. "We need to take him to Admiral Vorkosigan." Of all Aral's titles, that was the one that came readily to his tongue. "We are loyal to Emperor Gregor."
The door opened wide enough for them to slip inside. "Simon Illyan, Imperial Security," he said, accepting the handshake of a heavily-built man with a shock of white hair. "Jules Duval," he added, pointing.
"My brother is in the cellar," Kanzian said. "I was just fixing him a meal. Some soup and bread. Would you care for--"
"Yes. Thank you," Simon said, realizing he was starving. "Let us help you carry it down."
They found the Admiral behind a partition in the cellar, in a small room well hidden from the casual observer. It wouldn't have kept out ImpSec, but Simon hoped Vordarian's goons would miss it. Some of his followers were ImpSec, of course, but they'd likely be needed for more sensitive missions.
"Built for the Resistance," Mikhail Kanzian whispered before opening the secret door, and then he was saying, "Viktor, these are loyal men. Simon Illyan and Jules Duval, Imperial Security."
Simon thought of correcting the identification of Duval, but didn't manage to before the Admiral had enveloped Simon's hand in both of his and was saying, "Yes, Illyan. Aral Vorkosigan's man. Good to see you again," and pulling forward a pair of rickety chairs for them to sit in to eat their soup and bread.
They talked strategy for the next hour, and had messages ready to send out with Mikhail in the morning to arrange a reasonably safe passage to Tanery Base, once they'd confirmed that Aral was headed there. Duval sat quietly and listened, and Simon was glad he hadn't mentioned that his companion was a municipal employee of Vorkosigan's District complete with mysterious security clearance and dubious past.
Finally they fell silent, and the Admiral dozed in his chair. Duval tidied up the dishes and placed them by the door, humming quietly to himself.
"What's that tune?" Simon asked; it was the one that had been stuck in his head the day Duval left him.
Duval's mouth quirked. "Sorry, didn't realize I was doing that. It's an early Time of Isolation French ballad. Not unexpectedly."
"I know it, somehow. Heard it as a child, maybe."
"I tend to hum it at odd moments. Maybe... in the office." In bed, more like, Simon thought. But it wasn't just the tune; he knew some of the words.
"It's about a bird that... flies away, and will return when it's summer again."
Duval smiled. "That's not what it's about. But I suppose that's what a child with... a French-speaking mother?" Simon nodded. "Would pick up. It's about love, of course; most of them are that aren't about war or weather. I could lecture for several hours on the musical response to Barrayar's dreadful climate. If we don't hear back from your contact soon enough, you may be in for some of that."
"It's better than an endless diet of military strategy."
"I'm flattered," said Duval dryly. "The interesting thing about l'oiseau qui vole is that it's completely dependent on memories of Earth, and yet it wasn't written until a hundred years after the Founders were dead. Barrayar has no migratory birds, no native birds of any kind, and all the song's composer would have known were chickens and ducks, which don't tend to inspire romantic poetry. Although there have been times I'd have made love to a duck dinner. Or for one."
Simon glanced at the Admiral, but he seemed asleep. "I want you to have duck dinners every night the rest of your life."
"But that would be dull, Simon." Duval paused, looking at nothing, at the blank walls, and then added, "I can't stay. I'll be off to Hassadar when Vordarian is put down, and I'm not certain I'll be there long. And you have... other loyalties. I think you're going to be quite busy with them."
"L'oiseau qui vole, are you?" Simon could feel his throat tightening. "I suppose birds don't put their wings between anybody's hands."
"They do," said Duval gently. "They make themselves go still, so very still, while they're held and stroked, but if you hold them too long, they peck you, quick and hard, and bruise your hands in the struggle to fly away. Best just to let go."
Simon couldn't think of an answer, and then he did, but as he opened his mouth to proclaim it the Admiral spoke first. "Why are you talking about birds, for God's sake?"
"I raised pigeons as a boy, sir," Duval responded quickly.
"And where was that, lad?" the Admiral said, shrugging himself upright in his chair.
"Here in Vorbarr Sultana, in the caravanserai."
"Ah. You must have had a difficult childhood."
"Parts of it were, yes. My mother died, and I had to earn a living any way I could. The pigeons were one way: food, and I trained them to carry messages. For anyone, I'm afraid. I wasn't always honest, or good, but... I met Aral Vorkosigan, and he changed my life. I'll never forget what he did for me. Which is why I want to help you, sir."
It was a charming little speech. Simon had his doubts that most of it was strictly accurate, but the part about Aral rang true. He'd changed Simon's life for the better, too, if not quite by picking him up out of the gutter and sending him to university to study centuries-old music, in exchange for a few dubious favors along the way. Simon suddenly wanted to turn back time, not only so he could fix all that had gone wrong for Aral over the last months, but so he could start over with Jules, honestly and kindly. It would probably make no difference to the bird who was born to fly away. Or the boy who'd learned to hold very still and accept what was done to him, so he could afford to eat.
I am so sorry.
When the wagon pulled up to the cabinet factory the next afternoon, the first stage in their journey out of Vorbarr Sultana on the way to Tanery Base, Simon helped the Admiral climb in and then turned back to Duval.
Comrades in arms, or in filthy civilian clothing, said farewell with a handshake or a manly embrace; and all Simon really needed was to touch him again. The Admiral could see him; the wagon driver could see him; the factory manager could see him, and he fancied God could see him too.
Screw the bastards. He took Duval's face between his hands and gave him a hearty, lingering kiss. Then he said, "Go. And take care of yourself," and climbed into the wagon, and didn't look back.
Admiral Kanzian gave him an assessing look as he sat down among the bundles of scrap wood. Simon stared back. Finally, the Admiral nodded, said, "Some of the best men I've known, really," and launched into a description of the rest of their planned route which Simon had already memorized.
It was all danger and quick maneuvering and stunner tag after that, and then seeing Aral and Cordelia again, and debriefing, and the doctor with gentle hands and a jab to cut his fever and a lot of bloody silly questions, and finally sleep. And then work, and more work, and a new title to go with it, and a glimpse ahead to a broadening horizon.
Then Cordelia vanished, and his world spiraled down to Aral, pacing and swearing. He redoubled his efforts to get agents into and out of Vorbarr Sultana, but Vordarian's border control was stronger now, and it wasn't that he couldn't send men to their deaths, but he couldn't waste them. Brought up thrifty, he said to himself, and failed to suppress a giggle. Count Piotr shot him a black look.
He didn't have a moment alone with Aral until the morning Vordarian's men came in. Leaving them to the tender mercies of about a dozen curious ImpSec guards and the night shift medical officer, he knocked at Aral's door and then went in.
Aral was face-down in his bed, pillow over his head, dead asleep. He'd only crashed an hour and a half back, after welcoming Koudelka and Lady Alys and hearing of the death of Padma Vorpatril. Simon quashed a quiver of pity, removed the pillow, and shook Aral's shoulder. "Sir," he said. "Wake up, sir. You're going to like this. Sir."
"What," said Aral, and then, coming awake fast in the military manner, "Simon. What the hell time do you call this?"
Time for victory, he thought, but it was far too uncertain. "We have a meeting in forty minutes, sir. I thought you'd like to know."
Something in Simon's voice alerted Aral, and he turned over. "Two of Vordarian's officers came in," Simon reported. "They want to negotiate."
A slow smile opened up Aral's face like a wound. "To sell him out?" Simon nodded. Aral pushed himself up to a seated position. "My God. Anything. Not that we let them know that, of course."
"Our thoughts are as one, sir," said Simon with a little bow. Aral reached out a hand and Simon clasped it.
"Though perhaps," Aral mused, unconsciously pulling Simon down to sit next to him on the bed, "we can get enough out of them before they realize that we don't need to pay them. No," he went on, letting Simon's hand go with a gesture, "we play this one straight. Information and reward. And then you fast-penta the hell out of them to make sure they weren't holding anything back."
"Yes. And Aral... we might be able to get Cordelia out in time. And Drou and Bothari."
"I had thought of that, Simon," said Aral dryly, with a gleam of... hope? Mischief? Then, softly, "You've done everything you could. We needed to catch a break. I pray this is it."
Simon nodded, and Aral went on, "You've had no sleep at all."
"Not for the first nor the last time, I expect."
"The Chief of Imperial Security never sleeps, eh?" His eyes ran over Simon. "You're starting to look your new rank. I don't mean you look like Negri, God forbid. Just... inhabiting the part."
"Like Cordelia," Simon said without thinking. Aral's eyes narrowed. "There was a day, in the library. I'd walked in on you... and then she swept out the door, and I thought, inhabiting her clothes better. Though it's more than that, of course. She is Lady Vorkosigan, Regent-Consort. Or anything she wants to be, really. Entirely splendid."
Aral was trying not to let his lips tremble. Simon reached out and seized his hand. "We'll get her back, Aral. I swear to you." Not on his name; his name was nothing. On his very flesh.
"Simon," Aral began, and then he bit his lip and squeezed Simon's hand harder, took a deep breath and recovered himself. "I remember that day," he said. "You were coming to tell me you'd discovered... your follower."
"Yes. He was with me in Vorbarr Sultana, did I say?" He had, of course, but they hadn't discussed it. "I couldn't have got to Kanzian without... well, no," Simon corrected himself with knee-jerk honesty. "I could have, just not so quickly, and time was of the essence. If I'd run straight into Vordarian's squad that morning... anyway, Duval helped a great deal."
Aral's eyes hadn't faltered from his. "Where is he now?"
"I don't know. I doubt I'll ever see him again."
"Never's a very long time, Simon." Aral looked down for a second at their clasped hands, then met Simon's eyes again and said, straightening his shoulders, "I must apologize for my asinine behavior."
"If you hadn't behaved like an ass, I'd never have met him, and I'm glad I did. And" -- Simon swallowed -- "I'm glad I gave him something of what he deserved, before the end. I suppose he told you. The day you reassigned him."
Aral looked confused. "He left the job of his own accord. I didn't reassign him. He did say that he thought the situation was untenable, and I growled about you being rough with him, and he said no, it wasn't like that at all."
"Once I got my head on straight. Of course, it wouldn't have done in the long term. Barrayar isn't Beta, not yet. And I grew up dreaming of a pretty wife to dance with at parties." Simon smiled a little. "Not that I'll have that either. I think Negri came to peace with celibacy before he hit forty. I can stand ten more years of fumbling with myself at night, when I get to go to bed, that is."
He closed his eyes. God, what was he saying? It was the warmth of Aral's hand in his, betraying him. He looked at Aral again. "I don't mean to... I have never wanted a job more. I'll serve you to the utmost--"
"I know you will."
Absolute faith, like an electric current running both ways between them. He let his thumb trail along the length of Aral's, and back again. The action was contrary to his words, but he had given himself ten more years. "To think," he said, "that if Ezar hadn't ordered his toy vid recorder to follow you around..."
Aral's mouth twisted. "We'd probably both be dead, me to suicide and you defending the Princess, and Cordelia would be wandering around Silica with a black hole in her heart. Bloody cheerful, Simon."
"You'll have enough to do sorting out the what-ifs of the future, without considering changing the past. Which can't be changed. If, for example, I had not had a fit of wickedness and asked Duval to follow you..."
"Point taken. And why? I've been wondering."
"Oh." And now it was Aral's thumb caressing Simon's. "I thought you needed a distraction?"
"Damn it, Vorkosigan. I could have killed him. I am trained to take down assassins, you know." Even if I fail to at the most critical moments.
Aral smiled. "Duval is trained to deflect assassins. In his own non-violent way. Simon, I'm not certain I can explain myself. At first it was just an impulse, a rather cruel joke, but subconsciously I must have chosen Duval for a reason, and not just because I knew you could get your rocks off with him if you so desired."
"I suspect Cordelia could tell us exactly why you chose him," Simon said, very dry. "Let's ask her, when we see her again."
Aral laughed. "Cordelia fairly battered me with rage and curiosity, when she found out. We had a whole angry conversation at one point about Kou and his suicidal impulses, except that underneath it was all about you. That was after Duval left. I just saw you being admirably efficient, like... like a knife blow straight to the heart; she saw all the blood and the pulp and the life pumping out."
"Aral. No. It wasn't..." Simon didn't have the words. He didn't need words. He shifted position on the bed so he was facing Aral, and slipped both his hands between his lord's.
Aral, his face blank, pressed his palms to the backs of Simon's hands, then held them there while he gazed at Simon with wordless honesty and love, and finally let go. "Thank you," he said. "Do you know what Negri said to me when he assigned you as head of my security? 'I thought perhaps you might like to have Commander Illyan, for yourself.'"
"Well, it was something of a fait accompli by that point," Simon said, and his lip twitched at the rightness of it. "You might have handed Duval to me with much the same line."
"It wouldn't have been true. I know him well enough to understand that."
L'oiseau qui vole. "How well do you know him?"
"Not carnally, if that's what you're wondering." Simon made a give me more gesture, and Aral went on. "He was turning tricks for small change when I came across him; he was fifteen, and I haven't been into children since I was one myself. He tried to pick my pocket, and before I knew it I was buying him dinner and peeling his hands off me when he made to pay me back, and the next day I called in a favor and enrolled him in remedial classes at a private school. It didn't last, of course; before long he'd seduced the mathematics master and stolen his lightflyer, and he was... there's an old Earth phrase. In the wind. But he turned up again, at eighteen, when I was home on leave, and said he thought he could get into Vorbarr Sultana University if I'd sponsor him. He did a business course simultaneously at another school, but... music. Huh." For a second Aral looked wistful, as if he wished he'd been able to give himself over to a similarly frivolous course of study.
"And you used him as a spy?"
"Now and then, when he seemed right for it. I haven't been home much, of course. But Father asked me favors, sometimes; business competitors with the District, that sort of thing. And I had a go collecting information on Ges and the Prince once. Duval was the only person I thought could survive that." Simon looked up, sharply. "Yes, I used him that way," Aral said, his voice hard. "He volunteered for it; I didn't force him. You weren't the first. You were the only one he fell for, though."
Simon breathed out. "We'd better get to that meeting."
"Yes," said Aral.
They'd been negotiating with Vordarian's officers for about an hour when Cordelia and Kou came in, and then Cordelia tossed that bloody head on the table and Simon grinned so hard he thought his face would break, and he was sure he had never been so happy in his entire life.
When it was all over and they'd won and he had a rare free day, he went to Hassadar. As he'd expected, the entirely male staff of the Works and Development Bureau had never heard of Jules Duval or seen anyone of his description. The bird has flown, Simon mused as he wafted home over the patchwork loveliness of the Barrayaran countryside.
In the years to come, he thought of Duval less and less frequently; sometimes when clutching and stroking himself in the midnight hour, but as he'd predicted that happened less and less frequently as well, and phantom lovers gave way to meditation techniques as a way of subduing the constant strategizing of his chip-dominated conscious mind. When Gregor, his stegosaurus replaced by Vordrozda, threw Simon into prison, it was Aral he thought of during the long cold nights, and Miles, and Cordelia, and, interestingly, Alys Vorpatril. There were moments during the Dendarii years that the phrase "in the wind" and the murmur of a melody passed through his mind, to be quickly replaced by "Idiot boy, what are you up to this time?"
His chip remembered it all, of course, but astoundingly it had the tact not to remind him.
And then, thirty years after that fateful year, the chip turned to snot in his head and whiplashed him in and out of memories, recalled down to the last syllable and breath and as real as when he'd lived them afresh. More real, perhaps, many of them, laced now with the panic of imminent personal destruction. Then he had to rebuild himself: a new man woven out of the foggy tendrils of the past. He was surprised to find how solid they were when grasped and held, like living hands steadying him, the fingers short and strong, or small but clever, or softer and quicker than he'd ever dreamed.
And Cordelia gave him a map, which made him recognize how long she'd been his compass. He took a walk with it one day before Winterfair, in the cold wind and the flurrying snow, humming a little under his breath at the sheer genius of the thing. He was in a part of Vorbarr Sultana he hadn't walked in for he didn't know how long, and he was not lost, and it was all absolutely marvelous, and...
A voice out of the past; he plunged down again into the despair of not knowing, the agony of familiarity without sense. He turned: a man of about his own age and height, who'd pulled off his hat, perhaps for easier recognition, to reveal dark hair with a lot of gray in it.
"Do you remember me?" the man said, and Simon plummeted further; it was important, he knew it was important, but he couldn't, didn't... and then he took a deep breath of crisp air and thought about what Alys had told him, that we remember with more than one part of our brain, that smell and sound and touch provoke more memories than the mechanics of sight recognition. He could hardly go up and sniff the man, but he could touch; touch was socially approved. He peeled off his right glove, and the man did the same, but somehow when Simon got close his fingers refused the handshake and lifted to ruffle the hair instead, and he remembered. He knew.
"Jules," he said. "My God. Jules. It's been thirty years." He looked around; he was standing on a tree-lined snowy street just around the corner from Mikhail Kanzian's house. Mikhail Kanzian was long dead, of course, along with his brother. "I have a map," he said, nonsensically.
Jules smiled. "I heard what happened to you. The chip sabotage. I'm sorry."
"I'm not," said Simon. And where the hell did you hear that? he nearly asked, but it wasn't his job any longer. Word was out, anyway; you couldn't stop rumor. "Where have you been?" he asked instead.
"Oh, here and there. Doing this and that." He relented. "Sergyar, mostly."
"Yes. It's more... intellectual work, these days."
"He didn't tell me. But then, he wouldn't have. So, are you...?"
"Well. Happy with my life. I wrote a book." Simon asked the question silently. "The French songs."
"Yes." Memory was flooding back. "Family? Children or anything?"
"No," Jules said dryly. "I have... a pleasant arrangement with someone. An ImpSec commander, as it happens. I mention this as he is no longer in your chain of command. And you?"
"I think you know. Or you wouldn't have approached me."
"Hm. You have been seen often of late in the company of Lady Alys Vorpatril. Good for you. Your tastes have changed."
"Not really." Jules raised an eyebrow. "God, no," Simon said, flushing as a new set of memories blew into his mind. "Not that. I'm well past that sort of... youthful error. Equality is far more erotic, as I hope you recall." Jules's mouth curved up. "I meant... she has something of your sort of courage."
Jules shook his head. "I've never been brave. I just survive."
Simon tilted his head a bit, gazing at Jules; the slight change in perspective provided more recollections. "If that's what you want to think," he said. It was snowing harder; broad flat flakes had covered Jules's hair, turning it white. "It's wonderful to see you," he went on. "Is it likely to happen again?"
"Oh, I shouldn't think so. But you know I exist now; if you're ever desperate for a reunion, you can find me."
I loved you. I remember that now. But Simon didn't say it out loud. "I'd better be getting back. I have a date for the opera."
Jules grinned; then his mouth flew like a bird to kiss Simon on the cheek. "I'll be back in the summer," he said.
"For the Emperor's wedding?" Simon asked, but Jules just winked and turned away and disappeared into the snow.
Nine years later, Simon walked through the bitter damp at Vorkosigan Surleau and helped Aral into the ground. He was already miserable, cold and heartbroken and inadequate, and now he was swiping tears out of his eyes with the back of a black leather glove, because he'd just seen Gregor's face.
It was finished. He moved into his place among the mourners, knowing that he had done his part. He had served, and he still would. Even if he felt like he was missing... a lung, or a foot, or a kidney. Something hard to get along without, but not impossible. The thought made him weep harder.
Gritting his teeth and working at the tears with the hand that wasn't gripping Alys's, he glanced sideways at the intimate crowd with habitual and unnecessary worry at who was seeing this display, and caught a glimpse of a bowed head, completely gray now, and a familiar profile. His breath drew in, and then he turned his attention back to the main event. Distraction. Aral would be amused.
When it was over and the crowd began to drift toward the house for warmth and drinks, he looked around again and spotted Jules standing by the cemetery wall, still watching the grave.
"Alys," he said, turning to her and holding her by both hands. "Will you go ahead, be with Cordelia, and I'll catch you up soon?" He nodded sideways toward Jules. "Old friend," he said. Alys raised her brows. "Very old friend," he amended. "I'll explain later."
"Isn't he coming to the house with us?"
"I doubt it."
"You could always ask," said Alys, admonishing him gently for lack of social finesse. "I'd like to meet him. He looks... vaguely familiar."
"He worked for me... God. A lifetime ago. Ivan's lifetime ago, to be not quite precise. We were briefly... close."
"Oh." Surprise, curiosity; not a hint of distaste. "My goodness, love, I do need to hear this tale. When the party's over, so to speak." She kissed him. "I'll see you at the house, then."
Simon watched her go, gray and black like a sad dove flitting down the hill, and then went to Jules. "It isn't summer," he said.
"No," said Jules. "It certainly is not. But I could hardly have missed this."
"No," Simon answered. "Nor could I."