Of course, the story I came up with two years ago and planned on writing for the better part of the last two years was, as it turned out, wrong in certain significant aspects, so many thanks to commodorified for pointing that out to me when I complained about how hard it was proving to write.
Thanks also to sanj, petra, and fairestcat for encouragement along the way, and as ever, thanks most of all, for beta and general support, to iulia.
So here is the ninth story in The World That You Need, with, for those keeping score, a title from the Mountain Goats' "Heretic Pride" that made slightly more sense for the earlier version of the plot and then just stuck.
During The Vor Game. Aral/Cordelia, Aral/Jole. Not explicit. 5800 words.
Arkady was awakened before dawn by a knock on the door.
Rocks in the Pathway
Arkady was awakened before dawn by a knock on the door. He was on his feet before he'd had time to think anything of it, grabbing the previous day's uniform shirt and trousers. They lay neatly folded on a chair, since no one had distracted him while he was getting undressed the night before. He didn't bother to actually put the clothes on before he went to answer the door; he was in his underwear, but everyone at Vorkosigan House who was likely to be waking him in the middle of the night had seen him in less, by now.
It was--naturally--Armsman Pym at the door. Arkady didn't have time to curse either his or poor Pym's luck before he registered Pym's grim expression.
"Captain Illyan's waking up the Count and Countess," Pym said without preamble. "It's Lord Vorkosigan. You should--you'll need to know what's going on."
Arkady lost a few seconds being stunned. Aral had told him several stories about Lazkowski Base when Miles was assigned there, and they'd led Arkady to believe that Miles's primary dangers there would be boredom and alcoholism. If Illyan had come in person, the news could only be dire. And, just as shocking, Pym thought Arkady should be present to hear whatever it was.
Arkady shook himself into motion after that helpless pause, stepping quickly into his trousers and then stepping barefoot into the hallway, donning his shirt as Pym led him down the corridor to the Count and Countess's rooms. The sitting room was still dark; Pym led him through the open door and into the bedroom, where Arkady had never ventured before. They stopped just inside the door, mostly out of the reach of the bedside light. A more senior armsman, Maisky, was already there, but he shifted aside to let Arkady and Pym join him.
Aral was perched on the edge of the bed in his underwear, white-faced with shock, his hands lying open on his thighs. Cordelia was kneeling behind him, wearing a dressing gown that was slipping off one shoulder. She had her arms tight around his shoulders, her face hidden from Arkady by her loose hair. Captain Illyan, facing them a pace away, was in full uniform and had his hands clasped behind his back as he said, "He's out of physical danger, but you can see what a mess it is."
"Again," Aral said faintly. "Again."
Cordelia rubbed one hand against his bare shoulder; Illyan winced. "I don't know what's happened exactly, sir. I've only had my agent's summation of General Metzov's, ah, accusations."
Aral raised both hands and scrubbed them over his face. "Charges, Simon. The charges against him."
Illyan grimaced, but did not debate the point, and Arkady finally managed to get a grip on what disaster had befallen Ensign Lord Vorkosigan at his first assignment. He must have been arrested for some manner of mutiny. By the sound of Aral's stunned again, the charges extended as high as treason, just as they had three years ago.
Arkady was struck by the sudden disorienting memory of hearing about those earlier charges. The excitement had been mainly about Vordrozda drawing a weapon in the Emperor's presence, and then the rest of the story followed on backward and confused, including the fact that the Prime Minister's exiled mutie son had been charged with treason. Arkady had been in Komarr orbit then, freshly promoted to his lieutenancy, and it had all seemed impossibly far away and high above him. And yet some part of it had surely happened right here, just like this, to these people before him.
"I've already briefed Gregor," Illyan said, when the silence began to stretch. "He is naturally inclined to interfere on Miles's behalf, given the way it worked out the last time, and equally naturally concerned about excessive partiality. I am requested and required to convey that he will of course do anything you ask of him in this case."
Aral lowered his hands, looking, if possible, more ghastly. "So it's up to me whether to ask that Miles be summarily rescued from treason charges which are inevitably unjust, however factually accurate they may turn out to be?"
Illyan gave a very shallow bow. Aral settled one of his hands over Cordelia's on his shoulder. Arkady watched him turn over command of the situation through that touch, looking away as Cordelia tossed her hair back over her shoulder and met Illyan's gaze directly.
"Simon, what happens if this goes through normal channels? If Miles is treated like any other ensign under arrest?"
"Like any other Vor ensign under arrest," Illyan corrected blandly. "The charge goes through channels up to the General Staff's liaison with ImpSec Domestic Affairs, and that department assigns a courier to take him into custody. The courier, with suitable security backup, is dispatched to the Vor officer's location. In the absence of a dripping knife or other incontrovertible evidence, the courier will not place him under arrest but, in deference to his station, merely detain him for further questioning and bring him back to ImpSec HQ to be held pending investigation."
"So they'll bring him home," Cordelia summarized, perhaps more or less accurately for a Vorkosigan. They considered Captain Illyan a member of the family; ImpSec HQ must be likewise practically home. "When? How fast?"
"Today," Illyan said. "Before nightfall, our time, unless atmospheric conditions are badly against us. The present forecast is favorable."
"And in the meantime it's the middle of the night where Miles is, he's out of immediate danger, and there's no point in making a big splashy move and committing publicly to interfering with what passes for due process around here."
Illyan nodded. A beat later, Aral nodded as well.
"Then there's nothing else to be done right now. Simon, go back to the office and take a nap before normal business hours, or at least have some breakfast."
Illyan smiled for the first time, a small ironic quirk of the lips. "Yes, milady."
He gave the flick of fingers that passed for a salute from ImpSec officers, which was returned by a mere nod from Aral and the same from Cordelia. When he turned to leave, his eyes passed without surprise or particular curiosity over Arkady. Maisky stepped past Arkady and Pym to escort their visitor to the door, and Arkady found Aral and Cordelia both looking at him for the first time.
They both had the same thoughtful look as they considered Arkady; their gazes both shifted at the same second to look at Pym. Whatever they thought of Arkady being there and of Pym having brought him in, they were thinking it in perfect unison.
Pym stepped forward as soon as their attention settled on him. "Milord. Milady."
Aral nodded, and Arkady waited for some remark on his presence from one of them, but Pym had something else on his mind.
"If Lord Vorkosigan's situation should permit, I volunteer to go wherever may be required to serve as his batman, milord, milady."
Arkady looked away. He hadn't really thought about Lord Vorkosigan in all of this; his parents' shock and worry were so much more present than the man himself.
There was a little further silence, and then Aral said, "Thank you, Pym. I don't know whether it will come to that, but I will keep your preference in mind."
"Milord," Pym murmured, and then strode smartly away, whether dismissed by some silent gesture or simply claiming his opportunity to have the last word, Arkady didn't know. He didn't look up until Pym was through the door, leaving Arkady alone, half-dressed, with Aral and Cordelia in their nightclothes. He almost immediately had to avert his eyes again, as Cordelia slid down off the bed, disarranging the dressing gown.
"I'm going to go tell Alys. She'll have my head if I let her be blindsided by this over her breakfast." Arkady glanced up when the dressing gown had safely settled around Cordelia's ankles, in time to see her wrap her arms around Aral in a brief tight hug. She whispered something Arkady couldn't make out and slipped out to the sitting room.
Arkady took a hesitant step forward, commending himself to Aral's attention without quite approaching the Count and Countess's disarranged bed.
Aral gave a sad smile and shook his head.
"I'm glad I don't have to brief you on this," he said, sounding weary and looking older than Arkady had ever seen him. Arkady had seen his air of power and authority in many modulations, from deliberately-set-aside to no-one-dares-question, but he had never seen it so utterly extinguished as it was right now. Arkady wanted to cover him up, to hide Aral even from his own eyes. He had known that Miles was Aral's vulnerability, but he had never seen it so starkly, painfully demonstrated, and the tenderness he felt was nearly paralyzing.
Aral flapped a hand at him, taking his silence and stillness for a question, or an answer. Cordelia would have known, but Arkady could only guess, and he wasn't feeling very clever just at this moment. He felt half-blind.
"Go on," Aral said. "Go back to sleep. I'll need to carry on with my schedule exactly as planned for the most part tomorrow. Depending on when Miles gets in and how seriously Simon is inclined to protest, I may need you to open a hole in my schedule so I can disappear for a little while to see him at ImpSec. You can do that in the morning. For now just get back to sleep."
Arkady nodded obediently; there was virtually no other response possible, if Aral wished to speak to him now as commanding officer to secretary. He took a sideways step closer to the door, and ran the automatic mental inventory that always accompanied entering or leaving Aral's company.
There was, actually, one other thing he could say. "Does your stomach hurt?"
Aral look startled and then rueful. "Rather badly, now that you mention it."
Arkady reached into his pocket--everything was still in place from the night before--and fished out an antacid, walking over to the bed to offer it to Aral. Their fingers brushed as Aral took it from him, and Arkady stayed there, within reach, while Aral crunched and swallowed the tablet.
"What would I do without you?" his voice rasped on the words, and Arkady hazarded a tiny smile in return.
"Suffer a recurrence of your ulcer and a perpetual lack of efficient scheduling, I'm sure."
"Hard to say which would be worse," Aral agreed dryly, and pushed himself up to his feet. He put a hand on Arkady's shoulder, tugging him down for a brief kiss, only their lips touching. "Go. I'll need you rested in the morning."
"Yes," Arkady agreed, and when Aral released him, Arkady turned and walked out. Cordelia was at the comconsole outside, sitting slumped with her face in her hands before the empty screen. Arkady averted his eyes once again, and let himself out very quietly, returning in silence to his own darkened room and his own empty bed.
Given a full workday's notice, Arkady was able to create not only an hour-long hole in the Prime Minister's schedule, but also a literally unimpeachable alibi. The Emperor's secretary was quite willing to assist in covering the Prime Minister's tracks, especially when the deception--intended only for the eyes of those sufficiently highly-placed to gossip meaningfully about the minor movements of the most powerful men on Barrayar--would win the Emperor a necessarily inviolate hour's respite from all other demands.
"He could use it," Kanzian insisted, when Arkady might have thanked him for the assistance. "He hasn't slept since the word came in. He's got that shifty look like he thinks I won't notice if he just doesn't yawn."
Arkady grimaced in painfully thorough sympathy and wondered, not for the first time, just how far his and Kanzian's feelings for their commanders stayed parallel. Far enough not to make any material difference, anyway.
So when Aral actually told him they were going ahead with a covert visit to ImpSec, to commence a half hour from that moment, Arkady just glanced at his chrono, nodded, and said, "Let me send a couple of messages and then we should head down to the tunnels to walk over. You're meeting with the emperor, ostensibly to brief him on the contents of Vorkeres' upcoming South Continent report but obviously in truth about Lord Vorkosigan, should anyone ask."
Aral looked genuinely startled for an instant, and the expression lightened his features as nothing had all day, though it quickly disappeared into a wearily approving nod. Arkady suppressed the beaming grin he wanted to break into and nodded back, returning to his own desk to send a triggering note to Kanzian and cancel the meetings he'd already identified for that purpose; the truly important ones had already been rescheduled or delegated to staff on other pretexts hours ago.
Arkady had been taught six underground routes from the Prime Minister's office to ImpSec. Two of them were fairly routinely used in inclement weather by Imperial workers in the know. The others were progressively more secure--there was one Arkady wouldn't actually be able to take alone, though if Aral elected to bring him along after getting past the retina-scan, no one had told Arkady about any security features that would prevent it. Arkady settled on the fourth-most-secure, as they were being secretive but were not actively pursued. Aral said nothing to gainsay his choice, but, Arkady noticed after the first turning, Aral also wasn't watching where they were going. Arkady took his elbow to steer him around corners after that, only stepping away from Aral's side to press his own palm to the read-pads at locked doors.
Aral pulled himself together once they emerged into an ImpSec sub-basement, potentially observed by ImpSec analysts and surely under surveillance. They passed a handful of men, all perfectly expressionless no matter what they thought of the sight of the Prime Minister walking through the halls in his dress greens; they saluted and carried on, and Aral returned each salute with parade-ground crispness. Their route up from the sub-basements was fairly short, ending in a narrow room with a cot, sink, and coffee pot.
Arkady checked his chrono; they had three minutes left of the half-hour Aral had specified. Aral walked briskly over to the door, raising his hand to the buzzer, and then stopped short. Arkady held his position just behind Aral's shoulder and kept very still, watching only through his peripheral vision as Aral composed himself. Their uniforms, their location, and the weight of everything bearing down on Aral, all forbade Arkady to offer any other support than this, so this would have to be enough. He held himself perfectly in line, thinking of nothing but making this moment a little bit easier for Aral by being the perfect secretary.
Their three minutes were just about up when Aral touched the buzzer, and Arkady didn't have time to count seconds before the door slid open, revealing Captain Illyan's office, and Lord Vorkosigan, standing before the desk.
He was unshaven and his uniform was crumpled from travel, his hands and feet plastic-bagged and looking worryingly gray and shiny, but maybe that was medical goo. For just a second, as Arkady was stepping through the door, Miles looked staggeringly old--Arkady remembered Aral last night with a disorienting jolt--and then, when his eyes settled on his father, disarmingly young under his grubbiness. His gaze shifted sideways to Arkady, and for just an instant he looked unnervingly like his mother though he was not, Arkady devoutly hoped, thinking any of the things Cordelia seemed to be thinking when she looked at him like that. Then Miles's attention was captured again by his father.
"Thanks, Jole," Aral said, an undertone that would not be missed in this silent room. "I'll see you back at the office."
There was only one answer to a command. "Yes, sir."
Arkady turned back to the door, daring one last glance back at Aral and Miles--a tableau of silently fierce self-control--before the door slipped shut behind him. On the other side, he fell motionless just as Aral had a moment before, suddenly without direction after the long day's scrambling. It was a queasy sensation, like a sudden loss of gravity.
What would I do without you?
Arkady was properly at his desk well before his superior walked in, blank-faced as a waxwork. Aral hesitated beside Arkady's desk, and Arkady reported calmly, "The rest of your schedule has evaporated, sir."
Aral blinked and then nodded--no gratified surprise at all this time.
"Wait half an hour," he said distantly. "Then call the House for an armsman to collect me."
Arkady nodded and stayed at his desk while the Prime Minister walked on into the inner office and sealed the door.
Arkady spent half an hour deflecting curious, solicitous, and oblivious members of Aral's staff, and triaging everything to be dealt with tomorrow. He did not think about what was happening, very quietly, in Aral's office behind him.
Arkady followed Aral to, and into, the groundcar. Aral still looked just as composed as he had in the office, and his voice was steady as he said, "Arkady, you needn't...."
Arkady shook his head. "I haven't gone shopping in a week, and I don't feel up to it tonight. I was going to abuse your hospitality and cadge dinner from your cook, if you don't mind."
"Of course not," Aral said quietly, and leaned back in his seat, head tipped back and eyes closed.
Halfway there, Aral said, in a hollow voice, without moving, "He won't be charged. He'll remain in the Service."
Arkady's hands closed into fists, but he held himself perfectly still. The words conveyed a better result than the worst they had feared last night, but Aral could not have sounded more desolate if he were reporting that Miles had been--well. Crippled. So.
Miles's career would surely never recover, and whatever his father had hoped for him--however Aral had wanted to see his son demonstrate his worth in a way that would make Barrayarans forget his deformities--none of it would happen now. Still, Arkady couldn't forget the single conversation he'd had with Miles, in which Miles had relentlessly mined him for information about ship-duty and his experiences as an ensign. At the time, Arkady had mostly been grateful that Miles didn't seem to have noticed anything amiss about Jole's presence and extremely casual state of dress, but it had said a great deal about Miles's focus and ambition.
"I'm sure he'll find a way to make his service meaningful," Arkady offered.
Aral made a sound like a laugh and half-opened his eyes. "Miles always finds a way," he said grimly, and then subsided again. A kilometer further on, he murmured obscurely and a little bitterly, "Idiot proof."
The rest of the drive was silent.
The air of mourning extended, perhaps even more intensely, belowstairs. Arkady ate a plain supper of soup and bread and then went up to the blue suite. There was no point in changing into after-work civvies, but he disarranged himself enough to feel properly off-duty, with his boots and tunic off and undershirt untucked.
He managed to put in a few hours of work at the comconsole, but his attention kept wandering. Even here, alone in his room, he could sense the hush of the big house, and the anxious sadness dragged at him.
He felt foolish when he finally gave up on working--not for knocking off for the night, because he wasn't doing anything particularly urgent at this point, but for feeling too weary and stricken to focus any longer. He had no right to feel this as intensely as anyone else in the house; he alone of everyone within a twenty meter radius felt this only secondhand. That ought to have meant he felt it less.
Arkady knew he ought to sleep, ought to watch something or read something or do anything else that kept him here, in the blue suite, out of the way of everyone else in Vorkosigan House. Aral had gone straight to Cordelia's side when they walked in the door, and that was just where he belonged. The Count and Countess needed one another right now. Arkady was off duty.
He paced for a few minutes and then gave it up as hopeless and slipped out of his room. He glanced down the corridor, toward the Count and Countess's rooms, but the door was closed and all was quiet. It was early for them to have retired, but this wasn't an ordinary evening. Arkady walked soundlessly, stocking-footed, to the stairs and padded lightly down to the ground floor, encountering no one until he came face-to-face with Maisky standing watch outside the library.
That meant the Count was inside, and likely the Countess with him, but Maisky nodded approval and gestured for Arkady to go inside, not batting an eyelash at Arkady's state of disarray.
Arkady considered turning away, or trying to explain that he wasn't on any official errand, but Maisky put a hand toward the doorknob, making to open it for him. Arkady acceded to the silent guidance and stepped forward and through the door.
The big room was dim, and the quiet at least felt natural in here. His eyes went automatically to the secure comconsole where he and Aral often worked, but it was dark, powered down. The little bit of light in the room was further away, a shaded reading lamp beside the sofa. Arkady couldn't see Aral from here, but the light glinted on Cordelia's hair, and Arkady knew she wouldn't be far from him tonight.
Cordelia looked up as the door closed behind Arkady. She looked tired, and Arkady remembered how he'd seen her that morning, bracing herself to spread the word about this. She had to need her husband, too, and Arkady was interrupting. He made an apologetic face and gestured vaguely behind him.
Cordelia raised an eyebrow and then glanced down--toward Aral? When she looked up again she met Arkady's eyes and tilted her head in invitation.
An instinctive caution against intruding--even where he was invited--made Arkady walk around the opposite end of the couch from where Cordelia sat beside the lamp. He stopped short with the whole length of the couch between them, because Aral was lying stretched down that length with his head in Cordelia's lap, eyes closed, one hand dangling close to a decanter on the floor. He was undressed to exactly the same degree Arkady was, tunic gone and undershirt untucked, boots off but socks on; Arkady felt a pleasant burst of rightness, of fitting-in, at having so correctly assumed the evening's proper uniform.
Then Arkady tilted his head, squinting at the decanter, which looked quite a lot closer to empty than the Vorkosigan House staff would have allowed it to remain for very long. He'd never seen Aral have more than one or two drinks at a time, but he looked beyond drunk and into unconsciousness, now. Arkady looked up at Cordelia, who was sitting quietly with one hand on Aral's chest, watching Arkady with an unreadable expression. He found himself cautiously certain that she'd rather he see Aral like this than anyone else, that she would not have invited over one of the Armsmen so readily. Aral was his to look after, as well as hers.
"Do you need," Arkady said softly, gesturing toward Aral. Strong as Cordelia was, she hadn't much leverage from where she sat, and it would probably take both of them to move Aral if he were anywhere near as incapacitated as he looked.
Cordelia opened her mouth; Aral opened his eyes. Arkady froze.
Aral blinked owlishly at him and then nodded and raised a hand, beckoning. "Come sit, Arkan."
He didn't sound drunk, but he also didn't sit up, and he was inviting Arkady onto the couch where he was already rather comfortably close with his wife. Arkady had to assume that he had downed as much of the brandy as it looked like he had. He perched carefully on the end of the couch, beyond Aral's feet.
Aral huffed, reached for him, and then pushed up, swaying, to reach for him more emphatically. Arkady scooted toward him more from fear of Aral toppling off the couch than because Aral was anywhere near catching hold of him. He allowed himself to be tugged down, curling himself awkwardly around Aral and ending with his legs tangled with Aral's, his head on Aral's chest, one arm thrown across him as Aral curled one possessive arm over his shoulders to help keep him on the couch.
Arkady looked up across Aral at Cordelia, who now looked rather fondly amused as well as exhausted. Arkady was quite used to the sensation of having come in during the fifth act when he was around Aral and Cordelia together. Usually he did his best to take his cues as they were given, but right now it felt safe enough to ask, "Have I missed all the excitement?"
Cordelia actually snorted, right next door to a laugh.
Aral squeezed Arkady's shoulders and said, "Just a lot of rambling. I fear I'm a rather talkative drunk."
Arkady lay his head down again, shifting a little so he could hear Aral's heartbeat more easily, counting the slow steady thuds under his ear. Aral, despite his claim, didn't say anything, just rubbing his hand gently up and down Arkady's arm. It occurred to Arkady that, lying as he was, he prevented Aral from reaching the decanter again.
"You said," Arkady murmured, and Aral's hand stilled. Arkady kept his gaze fixed on the back of the couch. He couldn't quite make out the pattern on the cushions in the low light. "You said you were past the age where there were many good reasons to get really drunk."
"True," Aral sighed. "But every so often a bad one--" Aral raised his free hand in a fist and splayed his fingers wide, a gesture that might have been a magician's voila or a bomb exploding.
Arkady nodded against Aral's chest.
"I've been going on and on about Miles and sounding more like my father with every word," Aral said softly. "But I don't--I mean, yes, I rather liked the idea of someday pinning Admiral's tabs to his collar; Gregor would have permitted me the honor, and it would have meant as much to Miles as it did to me."
Arkady looked up at Aral and caught Cordelia's gaze looking down; she was frowning slightly, focused. Aral hadn't said that before now, Arkady thought. This was something new, something Aral was saying to him in Cordelia's presence.
Arkady cleared his throat, and Aral and Cordelia both looked at him, Cordelia looking concerned, Aral a little puzzled.
"I don't actually know what happened," Arkady said sheepishly. He ought to have found out before now--he could have, if he'd exerted himself a little to extract the gossip--but he had wanted to hear it from Aral, or from someone who cared, not as idle intelligence-swapping from someone in ImpSec. Only now, looking up at their faces, did it entirely strike him that this meant forcing someone who cared to say what had happened, to expose himself as someone who hadn't bothered to find out.
"Fetaine," Aral said, and Arkady flinched, remembering Illyan saying He's out of physical danger--and if all this silent misery had been not for Lord Vorkosigan's career but for the end of the Vorkosigan line--
"No," Cordelia said, "No, Arkady, no one was exposed."
Arkady relaxed a little, and Aral squeezed his shoulder and echoed her, "No, not that. There was a spill, techs were ordered to clean it up--which was probably a foolish order but not a criminal one--and refused--which was a disciplinary problem of debatable magnitude--and then a squad of infantry trainees, teenaged boys, were armed and ordered to hold the techs at nerve-disruptor-point until they complied, while the techs were ordered to strip naked in the snow. That was a criminal order, or several of them, in the making, if not already in fact; it would have been a question for the Service court."
Silence fell while Arkady contemplated the horror of that situation--fetaine, and the Arctic cold and darkness, the terror of it, and boys who'd never had that very memorable lecture on criminal orders holding nerve disruptors and waiting to be told to fire.
"And then," Cordelia said wryly, "Miles stepped in."
"Literally," Aral agreed. "Stripped naked and joined the techs, took himself hostage for their safety. And won it--stopped the whole thing cold--and incidentally threw in with a mutiny, which for a Vor lord carries an automatic charge of treason. We've quashed the whole thing--the mutineers won't be tried--but Miles's career won't--he won't...."
He would not have a career to match his father's, or to match his own ambition--and yet, Arkady thought, Miles had barely made it into the Academy. For all his ambition, for all his courage and intelligence, Aral had to have known for twenty years that the odds were against Miles ever being allowed to do all he was capable of. It had to have been a shock to see it end like this, but--either Aral was much easier to shake than Arkady had ever realized, or some depth charge had gone off that Arkady hadn't yet identified.
Arkady looked up at Aral, who had turned his face away from Cordelia and closed his eyes again. Arkady watched him, with Cordelia in his peripheral vision, as he said softly, "Aral, what were you doing in your office after you came back from seeing him?"
Cordelia tilted her head; he hadn't mentioned that little stretch of private time to her, then. Aral opened his eyes and looked at Arkady steadily.
"Political strategy," Aral said softly.
Arkady raised his eyebrows.
"Half the techs were Greekies," Aral said. "None of the trainees. If they'd all been killed--if the story had come out about them being ordered into a fetaine spill and being killed for resisting--"
"But Miles stepped in, and that would have changed the story quite drastically. So I sat there for half an hour and thought about what could have happened. About the way I'd have had to use my son's death to settle the unrest--riots, maybe popular uprisings--if it had come to that."
Arkady tightened his grip on Aral even as his gaze skipped up to Cordelia; she had gone paler, and had the knuckles of one hand pressed to her mouth, her other hand on Aral's head.
"But even that," Aral said softly, his eyes slipping shut, "was nothing next to wishing I'd done it myself. If I'd been standing in that damned gymnasium in Solstice, if I'd stepped between them and those boys under orders...."
Arkady felt himself freeze. It had been nearly six years since his Academy class had had the seminar on criminal orders from Admiral Vorkosigan, but he wouldn't forget the vids of the gymnasium: the blood, the bodies, the way they piled up in the corners, cut down as they instinctively sought a nonexistent refuge. It was all too easy to picture precisely what would have happened to one man, one more body--this body he loved so well--standing between the conquering soldiers and their victims.
"Even if I had died I would have served," Aral murmured. "I would have given my father and Padma leverage to bring the Komarrans around, to pacify the uprisings by holding me up as a martyr. So many lives...."
Arkady kept still, barely daring to breathe, paralyzed by the awareness of how young he was. There was nothing he could say, no comfort he could offer, to the man who had lived through that day and all the years since. He looked up and saw Cordelia looking down--looking enlightened and not at all overwhelmed.
She caught Arkady's eye, smiled reassuringly, and then said in a bracing tone, "There you go. Twenty-seven years and crystal-clear hindsight and you finally come up with a better way to do it that still wouldn't have worked on the day."
Aral's eyes flashed open, looking up to meet hers, and she went on, more softly, "What were you saying about not second-guessing your field commanders, hm? That goes for young Admiral Vorkosigan, too."
Aral smiled slightly in response and murmured, "Poor bastard," as his eyes slid shut again.
"Poor suffering bastard," Cordelia echoed softly after a moment, and Aral stayed still. Arkady shifted a little, and Aral's grip on his shoulders slipped, his hand sliding loosely down Arkady's arm.
Arkady kept quiet for a moment, watching her watch him, feeling the rise and fall of Aral's chest under him, the precarious warmth of Aral's unconscious grip on his bare arm. After a while Cordelia looked up and met his gaze.
"I'm glad you met him first," Arkady said, realizing even as he said it that that was sort of a stupid thing to say in terms of actual chronology, and also wildly presumptuous. But he still was glad that he'd never had to try to comfort that poor suffering bastard, that he'd come in on the fifth act when things were already sorted and Aral was already safe and happy with Cordelia.
A thousand plays and stories and ballads had taught him that love meant sole possession, but he realized, lying there, that that part had been as wrong for him as all the parts about the appeals of the maidenly form. He couldn't even begin to imagine being solely responsible for the happiness of the man he loved; it was terrifying.
What would we do without you?
"I'm glad he met you when he was ready for you," Cordelia replied, and she took her hand from Aral's head to ruffle Arkady's hair.
When she drew her hand back, Arkady reached up and caught it, tugging her hand down to press a light, courtly kiss to the back of her hand. There weren't words for how glad he was that she'd allowed him this, allowed him to be here.
He let go, and Cordelia's hand settled back on Aral's head. Arkady, looking up, saw that Aral's eyes were open the tiniest bit, invisible from Cordelia's angle of view.
"It's all right," Arkady murmured, letting his hand rest over Aral's heart, and Aral's eyes fell shut even as he spoke. "Go to sleep. We've got you."
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