Once, prior to Escobar, there might have been brother officers that Simon could have called up for a casual drink on a Friday evening. Before the chip, there certainly had been. But those that the chip hadn't taken from him, time had – some had died at Escobar itself, others had moved on, falling in love and starting families, or gone on postings to distant stars.
Of those that remained, Simon didn't feel inclined to call; it was as though a shadow had fallen between him and the rest of the world. That he shared that shadow with the likes of Vorkosigan, Negri, and the Emperor himself, didn't make it any better.
He walked, when he left Negri's office. His footsteps veered towards a park, brought him a few wandering, aimless circuits, then sent him towards home when the sky deepened towards dusk. His mind felt numb, hollowed out, and the chip cycled through image after image of Vorkosigan. He saw, as though for the first time, the bleakness in those eyes, long before the Prince had ever died; the look of a soldier resigned to death in the battle to come. He saw, momentarily, the melting of the ice when Captain Naismith crashed into Vorkosigan's life again, and recognised now the hope that had risen in Vorkosigan – a hope uncalled for, and unlooked for.
But Naismith had gone again, bringing that light with her, and even duty, once discharged, had fled. And so Vorkosigan had plummeted, with nothing and no one to catch him.
And now Negri wanted him to drag Vorkosigan out of that abyss; he, who was so inextricably linked with the entire Escobar affair that there was no way Vorkosigan would ever forget it.
And to what end? he wondered. A dark night, a deeper plot, another prince to murder? Surely Prince Gregor was too young to have done anything to warrant a death sentence – unless Ezar himself had gone as mad as Yuri.
He'd thought to head home. He looked up, and found that he had walked past his apartment, heading instead towards the fringes of the caravanserai. He paused, suddenly aimless. Groundcars streaked past, swift and uncaring, in the blare of lights and the drone of engines. Streetlamps flickered as they came on, casting sharply defined pools of light onto shadowed walkways. A drop splashed from the heavens onto his cheek, followed by another that drummed onto his shoulders. A long night, a cold night, stretched out before him, the promise of an uninhabited apartment with only his thoughts of Escobar for company. He would almost have preferred to report for duty – no, he wouldn't. He didn't want anything to do with Imperial Service tonight.
That thought helped him to make up his mind. Turning on a heel, he headed back towards his apartment.
Half an hour later found him ensconced in a watering hole in a discrete part of the caravanserai. Tavern or pub might have been too refined a word for this particular establishment, but he remembered it as being one of the places that was, if not friendly to officers, at least not outwardly hostile. To be safe, he was decked out in a set of civvies hastily scrounged up from his apartment. They'd come out of a box and were rather desperately in need of an iron, and the coat he'd thrown on was a threadbare thing from his student days, but no one gave him a second look when he walked in and took up a corner table with his back to the wall.
The first drink calmed the turmoil racing through him. The second gave him some distance, some clarity of mind. The third simply seemed like a good idea.
The fourth reminded him why he didn't drink. The chip, if anything, had gotten louder rather than softer, and images crashed randomly through his brain, memories spiralling madly out of control. He steered the chip away from Escobar with sheer force of will, settled instead on a generic, calming scene of forests and lakes, only to have it turn to leaves on grass, then the walk up the hillside to Vorkosigan House. General Count Vorkosigan met him at the door, and the alcohol induced haze in his brain turned the General's face to Serg's.
Betrayer, the phantom said, and he shook his head violently and took another gulp of his drink, and the image shattered, giving way to Ezar, standing in the shadows beside a narrow strip of light from his window.
I am dying, Illyan, the man said, and Simon thought it might be a memory and not his imagination, but it was becoming harder to keep the two apart. Who will guard my empire when I am gone?
Who indeed? Simon thought, despair pummeling him from all sides. And what is left of the empire that we serve?
Vorruyter fell, blood gushing from his throat, and his face turned into Gregor's. Simon held his hands to the wound, desperate, and the blood washed over his fingers, staining them red.
Will you save him? Negri asked dryly, over his shoulder. Imagine the consequences if he were to live, another Mad Emperor Yuri...
Simon clutched at his head. We don't know, he said, We don't know that!
Then save Vorkosigan, Negri said, dispassionate as ever, For we need a sword to do the deed.
He'd drained his glass again. He wasn't sure when it had happened. His shaking hands poured another from the bottle despite himself. Just voices, he told himself firmly. He was Imperial Service; they lived to serve, didn't they? If he doubted the integrity of his orders, the integrity of the man he was called to serve, then where did it end, except in blood and tears, and the fires of rebellion?
But, the chip asked him, except that he knew the voice was his own, How can you go back to serving Ezar, knowing all you know, knowing all he's done?
He had a crazy idea of dropping everything and running to the Residence. His mind's eye provided him with a suitably grand entrance, flinging open the double-doors to Ezar's suites, leaving his Armsmen in shock. Storming up to the royal bed like a returning angel of justice, demanding an explanation.
He laughed despite himself; the scene turned to the Armsmen dropping him in his tracks with stunners – if they were even so kind. At least, he thought darkly, he wouldn't need to think any more, after that.
Vid-recorder, Ezar called him. Sword, Negri said, and don't flatter yourself. His gaze travelled of its own accord to the ceiling, which was wood beamed and ancient, and scruffed – how did a ceiling become scuffed? He raised his glass in salute to it, a fellow scarred veteran, but the clink of another glass against his own was very real. Shocked, he sat bolt upright, and came face to face with--
--Vorkosigan gave him a tight smile, saluted him with his glass, and drank deeply.
"V-" he started to say, when his chip kicked him soundly and reminded him of the kind of establishment he was in. "—Aral."
"Fancy seeing you here," Vorkosigan said, and helped himself to his bottle. "Simon."
"Don't drink that," Simon said quickly. "That's--"
Too late. Vorkosigan made a face and gave him a look. "Trying to kill yourself by alcohol? There are cleaner ways of doing it." The sardonic lilt to his voice suggested that he had thought of all of them.
"You would know," Simon mumbled, and pulled the bottle closer to him. "What are you doing here?"
"What are you doing here?" Vorkosigan said. "This is my watering hole."
Too late, Simon remembered how he knew that this establishment was Imperial officer friendly. He swore under his breath.
Vorkosigan placed a hand on his arm. Simon jumped despite himself, and despite the alcohol. "Does this have anything to do with your visit to me, the other day?" Vorkosigan asked, and the concern in his voice made Simon blink.
"No-- yes-- no," Simon said, then realised what it must have looked like. "Negri didn't fire me, if that's what you're asking."
Vorkosigan seemed to relax a fraction. "Ah good. I saw you in the corner – in civvies, no less – and thought that the worst had happened. I owe you an apology."
"No," Simon said, then his tongue tripped over itself before he could explain. "I—" he waved vaguely. Coherency had left the party a while ago, and standing in the doorway hollering for it to come back wasn't working.
"My answer remains the same," Vorkosigan said, firmly overriding him. As always. "But I could have expressed it better. I apologise."
"No," Simon said insistently, although he had the vague feeling that it was about as effective as a comet hurling itself at the sun in a bid to get the sun to move. "No. I-- I know why you reacted the way you did. I didn't know then, but I do now."
Vorkosigan had gone very still. "What do you mean by that?"
He didn't know how to explain it without leaking the Imperium's state secrets in every direction. "Swords," he said, a little helplessly. "He said you can't blame the sword, but they get bloody anyway, don't they?" He closed his eyes briefly. "I didn't know. I should have known. I was there, as you said."
The ghost of Escobar reared its hideous head between them, and the face it wore was Serg's.
"Simon." Vorkosigan reached through the apparition to clap him on the shoulder, and his voice was pained. "We shouldn't discuss this here. Come with me."
He stood without conscious thought, and it didn't matter at all that Vorkosigan wasn't his commanding officer any more. That Vorkosigan had never, actually been his commanding officer. The room spun for a moment, then Vorkosigan placed a hand on his back to steady him.
There were private rooms on the second floor. Vorkosigan grabbed a bottle and glasses from the counter as he passed, and Simon, out of sheer ingrained paranoid habit, tried and failed to scope the room for bugs before Vorkosigan shoved him into one of the chairs. "You're off duty," Vorkosigan pointed out.
"But the rest of ImpSec isn't. And goodness knows who else." He cast a tired eye around, feeling the effects of two days of bad sleep and a bottle of bad alcohol all catching up with him at the same time.
Vorkosigan shrugged. "Then don't name names. I'm sure you know how to do that."
"Perhaps," Simon admitted, then cast a look at the glass that Vorkosigan placed in front of him. The liquid within glowed a rich amber. "This isn't... your District's speciality, is it?"
Vorkosigan smirked. "It's a close second." He lifted his glass. "To broken swords."
Simon met his eyes, and raised his glass as well. The clink seemed particularly loud in the silence, and the whisky burned all the way down.
"So," Vorkosigan said. "They told you the truth about that mission."
Simon sighed. "Negri told me to go figure it out." He ran a finger over the top of his glass. "I know now why you won't come back. And to be perfectly honest, I don't blame you one bit."
"Ah," Vorkosigan said. "But – let me guess. Negri wants you to drag me back, doesn't he?"
Simon took another mouthful from his glass, and said nothing. The look Vorkosigan gave him was knowing, and somehow sympathetic.
"Drinking, you know, doesn't solve anything," Vorkosigan said. "I know this makes me a flaming hypocrit--"
"It also makes you an expert, I expect," Simon said without thinking. "Sorry, sir. That was--"
"Unless I'm much mistaken, you're off duty for tonight, and I'm off duty permanently," Vorkosigan said. "You're not my subordinate, Simon. You weren't even my subordinate on that mission. The blame is not yours to bear."
He slumped in his seat. "I have to go back to work on Monday," he said, dully. "I don't know how." How to look into Negri's eyes and take his orders, knowing what those orders had led to, and could lead to. How to go back to how he was before, knowing what he did. How to get his old life back – if he even wanted it.
Vorkosigan took a long drink from his glass and gave him a level look, the kind that could arrest Simon's attention from across a room filled with thousands, nevermind across a table in a private room. "The perfect soldier never questions orders," he said, every syllable as sonorous as a gong. "But it is the best who know what they fight for. What do you fight for, Simon?"
"Barrayar," he said, automatically, then sighed. "But what that is, who knows?" He gazed wearily back at Vorkosigan. "You knew, when you signed up for that mission. And yet you chose to do it, anyway."
Why, was the unspoken question that hung between them, weighted by the deaths of thousands of brother officers. Officers who had simply obeyed their orders, done their duty, and been led to the slaughter.
If Barrayar called you to sacrifice yourself in such a fashion, for the betterment of the Imperium, would you? He wrestled with the question; it slipped out of his grasp, leaving him bereft of answers and as lost as he'd been before.
"I knew," Vorkosigan said, and refilled their glasses. "I saw the arguments. I saw the conviction." No need to say whose; Simon remembered too clearly the steely resolve in Ezar's eyes when he spoke of Escobar. He wondered now how much of that steel covered grief and regrets, if there were indeed any. "It's not something that can be explained by logic, or words," Vorkosigan said, and sighed deeply. "You'll rise to command one day, Simon. Or you will, if you stay. How do you choose whether to send a squad of men out after one, when to pull out and leave your men behind? How do you choose when to exchange one hostage for many, or when to break yourself on unbending, uncompromising principle?" He clenched a hand, and let it fall open again. "So it is. We live to serve, but what do we serve?"
Simon stared at the liquid in his glass. It shimmered, and the amber recalled the stones in the walls of the Residence. He narrowed his eyes. "The position that you were offered..."
Aral slanted a glance at him, and drained his glass.
It was so clear now, he wondered how he had missed it before. "It was the Regency, wasn't it? I can see why you didn't want it."
Aral refilled his glass, mechanically. "A lifetime of making those decisions. To step into his shoes, and look Gregor in the eye..." he laughed; it was a hollow, bitter sound.
Gregor. His chip threw up the image of Vorruyter again, throat slashed open, staring at him with Gregor's reproachful eyes. He shook his head violently. "I can't do this," he said, and only realised that he'd spoken the words aloud after his chip registered the words as audio memory.
Vorkosigan's mouth twisted in an expression that was half sympathetic smile, half grimace. "You still have a promising career ahead of you, you know. Negri's got you lined up for high command. Maybe even his successor."
His eyes widened. "He told you that?"
Vorkosigan shrugged easily. "It's obvious. Negri mentors you. How many others does he do that for?"
"Ezar mentored you too," he mumbled, to hell with bugs and not naming names. And then sent you out to die. Not so obviously, of course, but he might as well have killed you at the same time he killed Serg...
"Ah," Vorkosigan said, sardonic. "That was different."
"No," Simon said, and knocked his glass back. He couldn't taste anything any more. "Ezar – calls me his vid-recorder. Negri doesn't, but it's what he uses me for. To them, I'm a tool - an interesting, potentially useful tool. Equipped with playback button. Hardly command material." Where had this bitterness come from? He hadn't known he had it in him. "Command material is people like you. People who burn brighter than the sun. People who need no artificial aids to make them … something more than anyone else." His mind caught up belatedly with him, with cries of open mouth insert foot, Simon, and he snapped his mouth shut. Too late.
"I shine no lights now," Vorkosigan said. "And if I ever did – you of all people know that they were an illusion. But perhaps you give yourself too little credit."
Don't flatter yourself, Negri had said.
"Simon," Vorkosigan said, insistent, and his voice dragged Simon's gaze up from the table to meet his eyes. "When it all went to hell, I didn't rely on you because you're just a vid-recorder with – a playback button, you say? What do you mean?"
Shit. He was tempted to lie, but there was something about Vorkosigan that could draw the pure, honest truth from him with just a word. "When I said I couldn't edit my report to you," he said, "I meant ... precisely that."
The light of understanding started dawning in Vorkosigan's eyes, followed swiftly by anger. His brows came down, his hands sought his glass and tightened around it, as though trying to choke the life out of it.
"If you would like to resign your commission," Vorkosigan said, very carefully, as though if he spoke any louder his grip on his temper would shatter, "I would be honoured to have you as one of my armsmen."
"The chip--" Simon said.
"If they put it in, I'm certain they can take it out again," Vorkosigan said.
God. He shut his eyes, and tried to imagine himself in brown and silver. Walking up a leaf-strewn path. Learning how to catch horses, maybe. It was too easy. He called to mind his dress greens, and watched their fabric turn dark, gold piping morphing into silver, rank tabs falling away--
--but the silver eyes remained, staring at him in silence.
"Simon," Vorkosigan said, in some concern. His eyes snapped open, and he realised that he was clutching at his collar. His silver eyes weren't there, of course – they were tucked away in his drawer at home, but he almost fancied that he could feel their weight.
"What good is a sword without a battle?" he said, his voice leaden with hopeless exhaustion, the words starting to slur. "We live to serve."
Vorkosigan sighed. "We live to serve, indeed." He stared contemplatively at his glass. The silence stretched out between them. The world seemed to be darkening around the edges, getting a little fuzzy, and Simon wondered vaguely if he could put his head down on the table and fall asleep, and wake up to find that it was all a bad dream.
"You're going to pass out," Vorkosigan observed. "Let me get you home."
"No," he said, "No, don't. I can find my own way back."
"After you've had a few minutes to rest – yes, I know that excuse well," Vorkosigan said dryly. "Can you even get up?"
He tried, but his legs seemed to have migrated to a different planet. He made a face. "Maybe they have a room here for the night..."
"Let me get you home," Vorkosigan said patiently, and pulled him to his feet. He staggered, the room swinging crazily, but Vorkosigan – Aral, his mind supplied – was a warm, steady presence next to him. A pillar of strength – one, perhaps, that could take the weight of all of Barrayar and bear it up.
"You," Simon said, "Would make a great Regent."
Vorkosigan froze, and Simon swore as he realised that he'd unintentionally spoken aloud again.
"And you're drunk," Vorkosigan said, with false cheer. "Come on."
Drunk, yes. Let Vorkosigan believe it nothing more than alcohol induced rambling. It was easier that way.
The air outside had a bite to it that spoke of winter, though the alcohol buzzing through his system kept it mostly at bay. He managed the trek back to his apartment without embarrassing himself further, the need to navigate keeping what was left of his mind focused. They strode – stumbled – through pools of light and shadow, and Simon thought crazily that perhaps it was some kind of metaphor for their lives. Light and shadow, shadow and light – there was always more shadow than light, but they couldn't stay in either for long. They had to keep moving, and when they did, they slipped between states, belonging to neither.
"You shouldn't be out here without a guard," Simon said, when they were almost at his apartment. "Should have your armsmen, at least."
"Oh, I expect they're around," Vorkosigan replied. "And your ImpSec spooks never quite leave me alone for long. Now can you manage the rest of it yourself, or shall I tuck you into bed?"
"God forbid," Simon muttered, but it still took him two tries to get his keycard through the reader. He glanced at Vorkosigan. "Please tell me you're not going back to the caravanserai to finish your drinking for the night."
Vorkosigan looked thoughtful, then shook his head. "No. Maybe not tonight." He toasted Simon with the bottle. He hadn't even realised that Vorkosigan had brought it along with him.
"Good," Simon said, and opened the door to his apartment. "Well. I'd invite you in, but – I have no furniture. And I'm out of coffee. And--" He checked himself.
"And we'd never live down the scandal," Vorkosigan murmured, but he sounded amused. "No, you're obviously dead on your feet. Go get some sleep."
"...Thank you," Simon said, for more things than he could give voice to.
Vorkosigan was staring contemplatively into the distance. "Faith," he said, and Simon blinked.
"Faith," Vorkosigan repeated, and looked back at him, with that clear, steady gaze. "I think that's what she would call it. When logic and words and arguments break down, when you look into the crystal ball and can't see the future, that's all you have left – the belief that the hand that wields the sword does so for good, and not evil."
"Faith," Simon repeated.
Vorkosigan smiled, and it seemed a little less fey, a little more genuine, if sad. "Good night, Simon."