Simon kissed his way along the woman's breast and paid only a little attention to the voice in his head that was still wondering whether this was a bad idea. It had worked out very well last year with the Betan agent sent to seduce him from his loyalties and political opinions. Simon had been trained and broken and remade by psychologists who had never heard of the Betan special forces' code of ethics. And he was not yet thirty-five; he had not sworn an oath of chastity to go with all the other oaths; and besides, it was part of his job. She'd had a month-long affair with him, confident that she was convincing him of her superior political opinions. He'd had a month of fantastic sex. He hadn't even had to be cruel to her in sending her back to Beta; for all he knew she was still convinced he was one good pillow-debate away from converting to the cult of voting for Steady Freddie. But she'd been gone over a year, and up till today, there'd been nobody.
Belle--which was not, of course, her name--was another of the same stripe. They thought they were being original, all these galactic espionage agencies. Send a female agent to backwards, patriarchal Barrayar, they'll underestimate her and powerful men will whisper secrets into her delicate ear on the pillow, or give up such secrets in exchange for keeping the compromising pictures and vid-recordings away from some prim Barrayaran bride or vengeful father-in-law. As if Dorca hadn't used the same trick himself on the Cetas, back in the day.
In the galactics' defence, it did sometimes work, so they kept on sending them. This one was Komarran, charming and sympathetic and determined to find a way to use him to liberate the Komarrans from the cruel Butcher's bloody fist. She'd set up the initial contact very cleverly, working as a waitress in a bar he occasionally visited, engineering a situation where another customer wasn't keeping the line and leaving Simon with almost no choice but to step in, the chivalrous hero. It was not a role he was accustomed to, no doubt chosen for that reason, a subtle flattering to his ego and a hint as to what she wanted from him. She'd stalked him carefully after that for several weeks, in the background whenever he was in public, but he'd always been able to pick her out in the chip-images even if he didn't make her instantly on his own. Her second, conclusive approach had been two hours ago.
By then, Simon had a file fifty pages long on her entire background, career and training, plus another section of her likely goals and how ImpSec could use them for its own advantages. And since it was standard policy to play these things out whenever possible, and since he hadn't been laid in over a year, Simon had walked into supposed trap. Lonely Barrayaran officer picks up a woman in a bar and goes to a neutral hotel room with her: there were dozens like him across the capital every night. And she'd been scanned, he'd chosen the room, all its surroundings had long been searched and guarded, and he and his analysts were confident that it was another psychological attack. Seduce the Chief of ImpSec. They must know he was not susceptible to blackmail, but anyone might fall in love. Anyone unattached, at least.
Belle groaned encouragement and wriggled a little upwards in the bed, and Simon let half of himself get lost in the sensations, working his way down her soft body. Her fingers curved around his head and he shivered, half anticipation, half the frisson of danger as she touched his neck. Her report showed only minimal hand-to-hand combat skills, and her body had none of the density of muscle that belonged to the trained fighter, but still, even as he licked and nuzzled her thigh, some part of him was braced, ready to flip from fucking to fighting for his life if he sensed that touch change. His heart was pounding.
She tugged slightly at his hair, fingers struggling to get purchase in the close military crop, and tilted her hips to give him a better angle. Simon inhaled, letting scent and taste rule over the chip-processed senses that were never quite his, and settled down to enjoy this. He could smell the soap she'd washed in, and taste salt sweat and musk.
It occurred to him that none of ImpSec's remote chemical sniffers were powerful enough to detect anything she'd concealed here, but by the time he'd had that thought, it was much too late.
"So, Simon," Belle said chattily, "tell me about Escobar."
Simon woke terrified, nightmare-ridden, and only a decade of ImpSec training stopped him from jumping straight out of bed. His chip kicked in a moment later, dumping its last memory into his mind, where it caught the nightmare feeling and held on. Escobar. Then--nothing, the blank of sleep. He turned his attention outward, but he felt unhurt, barring a headache as if his chip had got fed up of sitting quietly between the hemispheres of his brain and was trying to tunnel out.
He listened, opened his eyes. The hotel room was empty, and it was two in the morning. He'd lost three hours, and if the absence of clothes was any guide, Belle was gone. If she had any sense, she was long gone, with whatever she'd learned from him.
He got up cautiously and searched the room, but she was gone, and she hadn't left anything surprising for him. No note, no bomb, no tricks. Just an absence. His clothes were still there, and even the cheap dummy commlink he'd carried. He didn't touch any of it, but instead went out the door naked and direct to the corridor comm-unit, and contacted the ImpSec switchboard.
"This is the Chief. I'm declaring a Code Red. Full-lockdown of all sites, decontamination team to me." He described 'Belle' again and gave a stun-on-sight order. His men were watching this hotel, a team would have followed her when she left. With luck they'd have her within ten minutes, but after this, Simon was willing to believe luck was on Belle's side.
A shocked chambermaid was at the other end of the corridor when he looked up. "Go about your work," he snapped at her, and she ran.
ImpSec arrived in force some forty seconds later. Simon described the situation as brusquely as possible and turned himself over to the medical team for decontamination. It was a relief to him that embarrassment was an emotion the chip couldn't feel, since he had no time for it. He looked back at the clean-up teams that were moving methodically into the hotel room.
"There were three back-up recordings," he said. "If she left any of them, give them directly to me. Make no copies." The record of last resort, not in his drug-susceptible brain but in three microcameras he'd placed around the room as he entered, a paranoid last record intended for his successor if they found only his body here in the morning. This, at least, wasn't that bad. Or rather, it might not be that bad.
He submitted to the medical team's decontamination in the commandeered washroom next door, barely attending to the swabs taking samples of anything and everything they could find to test. He doubted they'd find anything. She had been clever, damnably clever, she wouldn't have left any traces. He showered under their supervision and lacking any other clothes, put on the hotel pyjamas and dressing-gown and slippers.
"We have one of the bugs, sir," said the lieutenant in charge of the clean-up squad. "It seems intact." He offered it cautiously inside its case, and Simon slipped it into the dressing-gown pocket. "The other two were burned out. And they've just found the men who were watching her. All stunned. She's in the wind."
"Stunned?" Simon echoed. "Shit."
"Better than it could have been," the lieutenant said, eyeing him worriedly.
"No," Simon said. "No. Much worse." Stunned, not killed. That meant she hadn't been Komarran. A Komarran agent would never hesitate to kill ImpSec officers, nor would a Cetagandan. He'd been spared for some more arcane reason, which would doubtless become apparent when he watched this vid-recording. The tail had been stunned because that was part of the standard rules of engagement, for the Betan intelligence services.
"I need to see the Regent at once," he told the lieutenant. "Arrange transport. I'll wake him when I get there."
He queried his chip thirty-six times in the short hop to Vorkosigan House, but whatever had happened in those missing three hours, it wasn't there. He forced himself to stop when he landed. The answer was in his pocket, and while he wanted to watch it first on his own, he didn't dare. Aral was going to be furious enough about this without any suspicion that Simon was hiding anything from him.
"I need the Regent," he told the Armsman on duty. "I'll go up."
He watched the Armsman turn, poker-faced, to the unenviable task of calling up to the Regent's bedroom at three in the morning. By the time Simon got to the top of the stairs, Aral was emerging, dressed in combat trousers and a loose shirt, blinking and frowning at the walls, only a red streak on his face betraying that he'd been buried in pillows a minute earlier.
"Simon. What the hell?"
"The library, sir. The back room, please." The one that wasn't monitored by ImpSec, or anyone, the one Simon swept personally twice a week. "I think--I have seriously fucked up, my lord."
Aral blinked once more, and Simon felt his attention sharpen, taking in the wet hair, the slippers and the hotel monogram on the robe. "I know in ImpSec you care more about results than appearances," he said, deceptively mild, "but you are out of uniform, Captain."
"Yes, sir." His head was still throbbing; he had reported it to the medical team and been advised that it should go away on its own and to lie still for several hours. No chance of that. There was nothing wrong with him, none of ImpSec's tests had found any traces of drugs or anything else lingering in his system. He should be fine. But Aral must have detected something, because on the stairs his hand caught Simon's elbow.
"What happened, Simon?"
"Inside." Simon went into the room and took out the equipment to sweep it yet again for bugs, put up a cone of silence for good measure, turned on the comconsole and unplugged the sole outgoing cable. Aral took a seat and leaned back into it, his posture a counterfeit of relaxation as he watched Simon prepare.
"You fucked up," Aral said when Simon was finished. "I presume this is something to do with the honeypot you told me about a few days ago?"
"Yes. The Komarran woman. She wasn't Komarran. She was Betan. She--she outsmarted and outplayed me."
"I don't have your chip," Aral said, "but I'm certain I asked you not to play with your prey. You were pushing your luck last time."
"Last time," Simon said grimly, "was the warm-up. I would not be surprised if this woman was last year's boss, or supervisor, a senior officer. That was reconnaissance. This was the attack." He inhaled, pulled out the bug in its little data case. "Sir. She successfully drugged me, and I believe she questioned me, though I have no memory of it. But I know she asked about Escobar."
Aral had kept some faint humour at all these preparations, a friendliness that warmed Simon despite it all, but at these words it evaporated all at once like water struck with a plasma beam. He looked at the data case. "You have a recording."
"The backup. Yes. It's possible that she left it deliberately, she destroyed the other two."
Aral lifted it out of his hand, and Simon was suddenly aware that Aral was armed and he was not. If this was as bad as it could be, perhaps Aral would shoot him. If this was that bad, it would be a mercy.
The comconsole swallowed up the data case, and Aral set it playing back, starting with Simon leaning as-if drunkenly against the doorjamb, planting the bug.
"I have all of this. Nothing of interest until twenty-seven minutes in. That's when my memory cuts out."
Aral took over the control, and fast-forwarded through Simon and Belle undressing, kissing, talking, some very enjoyable foreplay. Simon's chip helpfully fast-forwarded it in parallel, the two angles of view overlapping in his head. It was all data. Aral stopped five minutes before his chip memory ran out, just as Belle was licking his cock. Simon refrained from protesting that he knew what had happened here. If Aral didn't trust him, it wasn't hard to see why.
Aral regarded the scene critically. "That's her?"
On the screen, Simon groaned and his head went back, panting.
"That's what we've paid for, is it?" Aral said sourly. "You getting your end away with a pretty spy."
Simon said nothing, keeping his breathing very slow and steady as an exercise in self-control. Aral was not making any such effort. Simon could hear his breathing speed up, watching. He let his chip catalogue it all, to give his mind something to do. Aral's breathing rate measurably increased whenever the camera got a good view of Belle's mouth on him, and he made a small unintentional sound when she drew back without bringing Simon to orgasm.
"I can see why you thought she wasn't concealing any weapons," Aral said, as if to cover this.
"Failure of imagination," Simon said. "She concealed the drug--" He gestured to the screen, where he was now enthusiastically working his mouth towards her cunt.
"Shit," Aral muttered. "Seriously? That's--shit. Even Ges never--" He fell silent, watching narrow-eyed. The drug worked almost instantly, and Simon sank prone on the bed.
"Tell me about Escobar," said Belle. Simon felt his chip pair the two scenes together and start to reconstruct the internal view to match this recording. He stopped it.
"Escobar," he said thickly, lips smeared against the mattress. He looked asleep, Simon thought, except that he was still responding to Belle. She watched him with clinical attention, then rolled him over, disentangling him from her legs, her touch as gentle and affectionate as it had been the whole time they'd been in bed together. She pulled him up the bed and got him lying flat, comfortable, then lay propped up on one elbow alongside him.
Her hands ran smoothly over his chest, reassuring, comforting, as she waited for a response. "Escobar," she said again. "You were there, weren't you?"
"To watch," he agreed. Simon's heart sank. It had worked; he was talking. On the vid, he arched his back into her caressing touch. "Not ship duty. I never got ship duty."
"Et tu, Brute," Aral said in an undertone. "Even my security chief dreams of ship duty?"
Simon knew he might have glared at Aral for that remark, some other time. Instead he stared fixedly at the display.
"Not part of the staff or the internal security, no," Belle said smoothly. "You were there to watch. Who were you watching?"
"Everyone and everything," he said. "I remember everything. I'll remember this, you know." His voice was slow, dreamlike, but he was answering coherently enough.
"Maybe. And then again, maybe not. You like taking spies up on their offers, every so often. Not a good habit in your position."
"It's not a secret," he said. "I don't have personal secrets. I'm Imperial property. You can't blackmail me for fucking you, all ImpSec knows I'm in here. You know that, don't you? I wouldn't want to waste your time."
"What the hell did she give you?" Aral demanded, pausing the vid.
"The lab is still running tests. I doubt they'll find anything, the Betans are good. But I can see how it worked. The chip doesn't record in my sleep. I think whatever she did, it's put me in something close to sleep, some kind of dream state. But I'm answering almost like it's fast-penta. No inhibitions. It's something new. I daresay they'll engineer an allergy to it soon, and give me that one too."
Aral set the recording playing again. Belle studied Simon, then adjusted his body to make him more comfortable, and stroked his hair gently as she spoke. His erection hadn't faded completely. Watching, Simon felt he would have preferred violence to this patient careful attention.
"Were you watching Prince Serg at Escobar?" she asked.
"That little shit. Yes, of course I watched him. The Emperor often had me watch him. But I wasn't ordered to watch him especially at Escobar. I was watching Aral."
"Yes, Aral Vorkosigan." Belle smiled at him like a teacher whose dullest pupil was starting to show some promise. "And why were you assigned to watch him?"
"I wasn't told."
"Why do you think?" she asked patiently.
"To be a witness for the Emperor. And to make sure Vorkosigan did what he was told."
Simon was scarcely breathing, watching this. Aral was tapping his hand against his thigh, an impatient rhythm.
"Did Ezar think Vorkosigan would not do what he was told?"
"Vorkosigan never did what he was told. I don't think the Emperor expected him to. But he didn't like the invasion."
"Vorkosigan didn't like the invasion of Escobar?"
Belle gave another encouraging smile. It was an excellent interrogation, Simon thought dully. She was letting him provide background, treading the careful path between leading her witness and losing the thread of the questions. Beta had sent their best.
"And you served the Emperor?"
At that, Simon didn't answer, turning his head a little away from Belle.
Aral mirrored the movement, turning in his seat to glance warily at Simon beside him. "Damn, she's good," he said.
"Were you serving the Emperor, or Vorkosigan, at Escobar?" Belle asked, her tone a little firmer.
"Both. Vorkosigan served the Emperor. I--I--the Emperor sent me to watch Vorkosigan. I went at his orders."
"All right." She smiled at his uncertainty. "I understand. It's not easy, the way things work here. You were sent to watch Vorkosigan, but you fell in behind him instead. He's a remarkably charismatic man, you weren't the only one. He even managed to seduce a Betan soldier to his side, after all." She sat back. "And you were on the flagship when the retreat began. Wasn't it impressive the way Commodore Vorkosigan swung in to save the day then? He must have worked fast to put together those plans when he didn't know what he was fighting."
"Vorkosigan's a genius."
"Kind of you," Aral remarked parenthetically.
Belle gave a tolerant smile. "I know he's your idol. But that much of a genius? According to all reports, he was confined to quarters while the battle was going on. Then when he gets released as the last officer standing, he's instantly ready, just like that, with formations that protect against the plasma mirrors. He seems to have known exactly what he was up against."
"Of course he did."
Simon stopped breathing. He had a crazy urge to shoot at the vid, as if he could shoot himself lying naked in the bed before he spoke again. Next to him, Aral's hands were clenched into fists.
"Of course he did," Belle echoed, almost exactly like one of Simon's chip-echoes. Her posture didn't change, relaxed, patient, but her nipples tightened, and Simon knew this was what she had been hoping for. And she was good. She didn't push, even now, just waited and left him to fill the silence.
"He knew all along," Simon said drowsily. "It was like watching a man in a nightmare. It tore him apart. I didn't realise at first, but then I saw it, and everything made sense. He knew in advance."
"But how did he know? Haven't you ever wondered about that?"
"He told me he interrogated Captain Naismith. Just like this, I expect. He was keeping her in his cabin, you know. Talked me into it, damn him. I crossed so many lines for him."
"He interrogated Captain Naismith while the battle was ongoing?"
"No. He said he did, but he didn't. He wouldn't have done that to her, and she wouldn't have forgiven him if he had. He didn't even have any interrogation drugs."
"How do you know that?"
"I searched his cabin. He had me scan for bugs, every day. He was keeping her old uniform in his bottom drawer, but he didn't have any drugs. He didn't like drugs."
"Ah. So how did he know about the plasma mirrors? Did you ask him?"
"Not at all?"
On the bed, Simon moved his arm to push Belle away, making contact briefly with her shoulder.
"You're fighting it," Aral murmured. "Yes, good, good."
Simon clung to the strength in his tone, as if he could transmit that encouragement to his past self.
"He never told me, but he--he implied it was Ezar." Simon turned his head into the pillow as he spoke, as if to smother his words, too late.
Aral went utterly still. Simon remained still too, resisting the urge to kneel and offer his throat to Aral, held back by the grim need to know how much worse it was going to get.
"Oh, is that his story?" Belle said lightly. "Just for his closest confidantes, of course. You really believe that, don't you?" She took the hand that he was trying to raise against her, and stroked it. "Relax, Captain. Of course that was a possibility. But I think you'll find it is by no means plausible. Not when you consider the alternatives. Ezar wasn't scared of the dark, he wouldn't have moved against his own blood just for his disgusting personal habits. But of course you think Negri was omnipotent, he had you on a short leash. And you love Aral Vorkosigan. You wouldn't want to think badly of him." His hand had gone limp again; she laid it down gently by his side, then propped herself up on one elbow again. "You really believe it was Ezar?" she asked.
"I--it fits. It all fits. Nobody but Negri could have known, and the first person Negri would have told was Ezar."
"Nobody but Negri could have known," Belle echoed. "But that's not true, is it, Captain? Someone else knew." She leaned in and cupped his cheek with her hand. "Captain Naismith had one of the prototypes of the plasma mirror field generator on her survey ship when she met Aral Vorkosigan. A known defector from Beta to Barrayar, in possession of a secret weapon, and six months later, Vorkosigan knows all about this secret weapon. Did you know she had that?"
"No. I--no. I never asked her anything about it."
"Now perhaps she didn't tell him on purpose. Perhaps she just let it slip accidentally, but at that level, that kind of carelessness is just as bad as treason, isn't it? You'd have shot her on the spot, not even waited for a trial. But if she told him, he certainly didn't pass it on to anyone else, did he? Not until it was time for his power play. Six months after that, the pair of them control the entire Barrayaran empire."
"He told her about the invasion of Escobar, did you know? She did report that, very properly, when she got back to Beta, and she did it so cleverly that we never wondered if Vorkosigan had compromised her as much as she'd compromised him."
Simon turned to stare at Aral. "Did you?" he demanded.
"You," Aral retorted, "are not in a position to be questioning me right now."
That, Simon reflected, was not a denial. But there was something strange going on now, this wasn't an interrogation any more...
"She's giving out information," he said. "Why?"
Aral waved him to silence, his eyes intent on the screen.
"I don't believe you," he was saying to Belle. Simon believed it now, though. The chip threw up the relevant records: Negri had known that surprise was lost before the invasion, it had been in his briefing. The storage depots had been on Sergyar when Cordelia had been there with Aral, she could have deduced an invasion from it, but not that it was Escobar, not without being told. A mistake, a slip of the tongue... of such things a bloody rout is made of. Ezar couldn't have ordered that, but he had undoubtedly used it, and chosen to overlook it.
"Yes, you are very devoted to him, aren't you?" Belle responded. "But cui bono, Captain? Think about it."
"He didn't want the Regency," Simon argued. "He refused. Ezar kept offering it, and he kept refusing."
"He refused until Captain Naismith arrived," Belle corrected this. "Then he accepted." She caressed his head, a quasi-affectionate gesture, then ran the back of her hand along his cheek, gazing at him almost sadly. "Were you having sex with Vorkosigan during the invasion?"
"No. Only afterwards, once he resigned his commission," Simon answered calmly. "Then, quite often. He--he needed someone, and I knew what had happened. Nine times. It would have been more but he was too drunk the rest of the time. Then Captain Naismith arrived, and--"
"And it was over. You were a stand-in," Belle said. "You were useful to him for a while, until the person he was really interested in returned. But it was a lot more than that for you, wasn't it? Don't answer that," she added. "I'm not that cruel, Captain. And we both know the answer already. Barrayarans," she muttered, and on-screen, Simon flinched. He did so again, and so did Aral, because she sounded precisely like Cordelia. Coincidence?
"Where the hell is she going with this?" Aral snapped. "You give it to her, you give her the whole fucking thing on a platter, and she doesn't believe it and instead she hares off like this--"
Simon paused the recording, his chip replaying Belle's imitation of Cordelia. "I'm not sure this is an interrogation at all. I think she's trying to suborn me," he said, and then wondered whether he should have said that out loud. He drew breath and continued, eyes front. "According to her, you and Lady Cordelia worked together to betray the fleet, sabotage the invasion, and get rid of the Prince. She's testing my loyalty."
"They've got imaginations, the Betans," Aral said. He stared at the tableau on the screen, Belle paused mid-caress, Simon gazing blankly up at her. "And it's not your loyalty she's testing. It's your love. She was very clear about that." Aral glared at him, brows low over his dark eyes.
Love, Simon thought, not flinching from his gaze. "No," he said slowly, not breaking eye contact. "There's something else going on here." Testing his love, as if that hadn't already been tested in fires hotter than anything this Betan could offer.
Barrayarans. Barrayarans. Barrayarans. His chip insistently replayed the imitation of Cordelia, and this time he saw it. "This isn't about you at all. She doesn't think I'll lay a finger on you. This is about Lady Cordelia."
"Cordelia?" Aral's voice was at its most dangerous now, a whisper so low Simon could barely hear it. He braced himself, and continued.
"They've stopped sending requests that we extradite her for trial, but they haven't forgiven her for abandoning them, with all the things she knew and the trust they placed in her," Simon said. "The Betan security services aren't permitted to assassinate their own citizens, and they can't strip her of citizenship to assassinate her either, not after that case two hundred years ago. So they've come up with a new plan." It all fit, the whole picture making sense at last. "They can't assassinate her, but they're allowed to tell me, as they see it, the truth, and rely on my, on my jealousy, my anger, to finish the job for them. And if they really believe she fed you their most vital military secrets--it's rather clever."
Aral made an angry sound in his throat at that, but Simon was following the trail of logic now. At least now he understood why this had happened to him. "They've made me vulnerable, attacked me on my--my weakest spot, they've given me the sense that they're stronger and smarter than I am, and then they tell me something they think will overturn my world, and give me a target to take it all out on. They don't believe I'd move against you. But they do think I'll go after Lady Cordelia for this. It's--it's how the Betans think we work. They're giving me two motivations."
"A love triangle and a usurpation plot," Aral said in understanding. "And too wrapped up in her own theories to know the truth even when you tell it to her. She should be a holovid director."
"She is a holovid director," Simon shot back. "This is all a show, for me, here and now. She left that camera deliberately. She knew I'd watch this. Though I think she expected me to watch it alone."
At that, Aral looked at the display, and then back at him. "And do you like the show, Captain?" he asked, his tone completely flat.
"Do you mean, am I going to head off and arrange some impeccable accident for Lady Cordelia?" he answered, equally flat. He had a file containing fifteen ways to do just that, in case it was ever needed. Right next to the file on how to assassinate Aral. "If you think that, then shoot me now. I've earned it, for this."
"More than earned it," Aral snapped. "Damn you, Simon! You should never have got into this situation."
In answer, Simon set the recording playing again. If Aral was going to shoot him, at least he would die knowing the full extent of his betrayal.
But on the bed, Belle sat back, her hand trailing idly across his chest. "Yes," she said, "I think that's everything. You've been very helpful, Captain Illyan, and I hope I've been able to help you too. I'm afraid you're not getting what you came here for, though."
Simon turned his head slowly towards her. "You're not going to fuck me?" He made a disappointed sound. "I wouldn't mind. You've got me right here."
She laughed. "I know that. Dangerous taste for a Barrayaran, you'll get killed one day if you keep up with this, my dear. Not everyone is as humane as me. No, you go to sleep now. It's fine." She twitched the sheet up over him, and stood up.
"Betans," Aral muttered. "Drugging and questioning you is just fine, but heaven forfend they lay a hand on you without a signed contract."
On the bed, Simon sighed and closed his eyes. Belle stood by watching, her posture the relaxed attentiveness of a scientist at the conclusion of her experiment. Simon's hand fumbled beneath the sheet, jerking in an unmistakeable rhythm at first, then trailing off drowsily partway through. Belle gave an unexpected giggle at this, watched for another minute until it was obvious that he was deeply asleep, then turned away, her body language suddenly entirely different from the woman Simon had tracked.
"Is that it?" Aral said, sitting back.
Belle went out of the camera's view into the adjoining washroom, then emerged surprisingly quickly, dressed, exactly as she had entered. Her exit, Simon knew already, had not disturbed ImpSec's more distant watchers in the slightest. She moved around the room with a few quick gestures, only half-visible.
"Those are the other two cameras," Simon said to Aral. Belle stopped at the third and looked directly at it. "Good luck to you, Captain Illyan," she murmured, then went out the door.
Aral fast-forwarded through ninety minutes of Simon sleeping, then set it back to playing as he woke up, watching as Simon looked around, climbed naked out of the bed and went to the door. The terror on his face was much easier to read than Simon had expected it to be. He would have to watch that.
"So," Aral said, turning the recording off. "That's what the Betan secret service does these days."
Simon nodded. "I'm going to countermand her arrest order," he said, and was pleased that he sounded completely calm now. "If that's what she thinks she's figured out, it's better to let her go. We know her game now. Let her think she's won, let her keep wondering. I'll tell them to let her go."
"Like hell you will," Aral said. His voice was a hoarse, rough growl, as if he was expressing all the emotions Simon was holding back. "Like hell you will, Simon. After what she did to you?"
Simon swallowed. This had been an ImpSec operation to draw out a foreign agent, and it had gone wrong. Such things happened, and his duty was to assess the scale of the disaster, and carry out damage limitation. Anything more--anything more was irrelevant to his duties. He was aware that his breathing was quickening, and he tried to control it. His own reactions had no place here.
Aral stood up, strode away from him, turned. "I may want to beat you senseless for getting into this situation in the first place, but she's right about the most important thing. You are mine. And I do not permit foreign intelligence agencies to drug and question and--and do any of that to my officers. Least of all to you. She could have done anything to you in there. No. Your men may shoot to kill, if they see her." He came closer, standing over Simon, too close. Simon made his chip start cataloguing his work for later on today. It didn't help, his heart was racing and he didn't dare search hard enough to know if the feeling underlying it was fury or despair or desire.
"No more," Aral went on. "No more games with other spies. Because she's right about another thing. I didn't ask you if you wanted to stop, when I married Cordelia. I just... let you go. She took me to task about that, she wanted me to--but I didn't think you would want--" He put his hands on Simon's shoulders, grip hard. "No more of this. In future, you come to me."
Simon went very still, holding himself up against the weight of Aral's hands. Then, slowly, he tilted his head backwards, allowing himself to look at Aral not as his superior officer but as his old lover, for the first time tonight. For the first time in years. Those fierce eyes were fixed on him, hooded, unreadable. He could feel the familiar warmth of Aral's body beating on him, a memory not of his chip but of his skin. Aral was breathing fast too, his tongue slipping out to moisten his lips, and Simon's lips parted in answer. Aral stooped like an eagle and kissed him, hard and swift, then pulled him to his feet.
Simon went with him, stumbling, and Aral held him close. He moved his hands upwards, taking Simon's face between his palms, gazing into him in as much wonder as if he was trying to save some memory of his own. For a moment Simon feared he would pull away, and he leaned in, his mouth seeking Aral's as desperately as if he was breathing through Aral's lungs. His head was spinning, and as his lips met Aral's, the chip went haywire, throwing up image after image of the recording he'd just watched, out of order, jumbled: betrayal, helplessness, terror, despair. Aral's arms wrapped tightly about him, holding him together, and Aral's tongue found his. Simon reeled backwards until he was resting against the wall, Aral moving with him as close as a duellist, pinning him in place, pinning him in time.
Simon let himself be overwhelmed, slid his hands under Aral's loose floral shirt, seeking skin. He could still feel Belle under his hands, still smell her. He inhaled Aral instead, felt the layers of muscle on his back, tasted him, riding the rush of old sense-memory, immediate and raw. Other places, other times, swam in his head: an alley in the caravanserai, his own apartment, here in Vorkosigan House, Aral on top of him, beneath him, standing, sitting, memories he had kept carefully locked away now bursting loose, and if Aral hadn't been holding him he would have fallen.
Aral's teeth scraped at his lip, the present demanding his full attention and getting it. Simon laughed into the kiss, with a wild edge to it, because it was not a memory, and pulled Aral's hips into his, feeling the hard line of Aral's erection. Aral groaned, pushed them apart enough to jerk the dressing-gown open, then ground himself against Simon even harder. But there was something tender in Aral's intensity, something deeply familiar to Simon, but reversed. Five years ago, he had been holding Aral together. Now, Aral held him.
Aral broke away to breathe, and Simon let his lips burn down Aral's neck, feeling the racing thud of his pulse.
"Not doing this for five years," Aral breathed, "was a mistake." He unbuttoned the hotel pyjamas, impatient, hands spreading out across Simon's chest, circling the sensitive tips of his nipples. "Dammit, Simon... well, I suppose you couldn't tell me, all things considered."
"I did tell you," Simon managed to answer, as honestly as if he was still under the interrogation drug, his mouth muffled against Aral's neck. "I told you every day. It didn't get through."
"You've got my full attention now," Aral said, and Simon recaptured his mouth. Aral's hands moved not with the expertise of a Betan agent trained by their LPSTs, but with a deeper knowledge of Simon himself, a confident touch that made Simon's mouth turn dry and drew a gasp from his lips.
Aral slowed, and Simon felt himself being regarded in Aral's full attention, body and mind and heart. Aral slipped one hand up until it was alongside Simon's cheek, and despite himself, despite everything, Simon let his head rest there. "I mean it about shooting to kill," Aral said softly. "Do you think I can make you forget her?"
Forgetting. Simon wasn't even sure what the word meant. He lifted his head again, pulling a little away. "Try," he said, commandingly, as if giving an order to his subordinate. Aral's hands tensed, his body pressed harder against Simon.
"You like living dangerously, don't you?" he said, low, but as Simon's heart began to pound he saw the glint in Aral's eye. Aral gripped him by the hips and lowered himself to his knees, slowly, his face close enough that Simon could feel Aral's breath on his abdomen.
Simon closed his eyes then, let his hands settle in Aral's hair, and Aral pulled the pyjamas down and found his cock.
Aral was slow, methodical, strategic, thick fingers curled to encircle his balls, lips confident. Simon let go of his last shreds of control and let Aral set the pace, tilting his head back to rest against the wall. Memory, chip or otherwise, was blotted out by the present, overwhelming thought. Aral's breathing was fast, his fingers and mouth lingering, not taking Simon fully into his mouth until Simon was gasping and clutching at him, swearing under his breath. Then Aral pulled back.
"You are not going to fuck any other spies," he growled, his hot breath on Simon's twitching cock.
"No, my lord," Simon gasped, then, "Fuck, Aral, I can't--" and Aral circled his lips around the tip of Simon's cock. Simon couldn't control his thrusts, but Aral spread out his hands against his hips, holding him back to a pace that suited Aral, drawing him in. Then Aral took one hand off him and reached for his own trousers, and Simon opened his eyes again, realised Aral was just as close as he was. He stared down, letting that image fill his mind and his chip both. Aral's groan vibrated up Simon's cock, Simon's knees gave way, his hips jerked. Beyond speech, he clutched at Aral's hair in warning, and came.
Gasping, he slid down the wall, arms tangled around Aral, and they ended up lying on the carpet across each other, Aral holding him. Simon lay like that, unstrung, dimly aware of Aral wiping and adjusting clothes with one hand, the other still wrapped around him. Then Aral too lay still, except for one hand stroking Simon's hair.
"You," Aral whispered, "were never a stand-in. Never."
Simon smiled. "I know."
When he felt his legs would support him, Simon got to his feet and pulled Aral with him, and they crossed the room to slump down, not on the hard chairs they'd been seated on to watch the recording, but on the small sofa on the far side of the room. Aral draped his arm around Simon.
"Well, Simon? Was she right? Have you spent the past five years furiously jealous of Cordelia, furious at me? She thinks you have, and she has, apparently, spent a great deal more time and effort on unpicking your psyche than I have."
Simon rested his head against the back of the sofa, eyes closed, too spent to care how defenceless he was. "My psyche was unpicked for the Imperium before she ever thought of me. What she sees is what any Betan would see. Lady Cordelia excepted, perhaps. But I'm Barrayaran."
"And not, thereby, human," Aral muttered, and turned his head to place a kiss on the corner of Simon's mouth. "I know I put you through hell. But I didn't think it was that particular hell."
The drug was long gone from his system now. But Simon told the truth anyway, because it was Aral asking, and if Belle had had the truth from him, Aral deserved it too. "I've wanted you. Damn but I've wanted you. But... this was the proper order of things. I wanted you, but I knew I couldn't have you. It wasn't hell. Not that part."
"Betans," Aral said meditatively. "Cordelia saw it instantly, you know. But when I told her that's not how we do things here, she accepted that. I should have thought harder." He gave a slight shrug. "Truly, I wasn't completely sure Negri hadn't ordered you to sleep with me. I thought you seemed relieved when Cordelia arrived."
"Relieved because I thought you'd stop trying to kill yourself," Simon said bluntly. "And you did. But Negri didn't order me. I didn't consult him at all, either way. He didn't object, though."
"I don't suppose he did," Aral said dryly. "Dammit, Simon. Do you think we should import a cohort of Betan LPSTs here?"
There was a knock on the door, and Simon tensed. Beside him, Aral did not tense, and a moment later a familiar voice called, "Aral?"
Aral looked at Simon first. Simon blinked, then nodded. "Come on in," Aral called back, and the door opened to his voiceprint.
Lady Cordelia was also in her pyjamas and robe, but she looked alert, as if she'd stopped in on her way to the shower. "You've been a while," she observed. "Is everything all right? Good morning, Simon."
It was morning now, just about. Simon began to stand up, but Aral's arm held him down. "I think," Aral said, "despite the probabilities, everything is all right. Come here, love." He opened his other arm, and Cordelia went unhesitatingly to settle down on his other side. Then she looked at Aral's embracing arms in growing curiosity and awareness.
"Yes," Aral said before she could speak. "You told me I needed to talk about this with Simon, and it turns out you were right."
"Of course I was right," Cordelia said. "You said it wasn't Barrayaran, but it is human." She looked past her husband at Simon, and just for a moment he flinched from her calm Betan regard, and wondered if he had been more deeply programmed than he thought possible. Aral's arm tightened on his shoulders, and he leaned into that, restraint and protection together.
"Well, Simon," she said. "For the record, I think this is an excellent idea and if you're happy and Aral's happy then I'm happy."
Simon sat as still as if for military inspection, and Aral snorted. "Good, that's sorted. All right. I've been here for ages and I want some breakfast." With that he stood up and strode out the door without looking back. Leaving Simon alone with Cordelia.
"Damn him," Simon whispered. "He really is impossible."
"I agree completely," Cordelia said, "but what particular impossible-ness are we discussing here?"
Without looking at her, Simon said, "A Betan agent just attempted to turn me. Tried to, um, motivate me to assassinate you on behalf of Beta Colony. Aral's just... I don't know what he's doing. Rubbing my nose in it."
"Demonstrating that he doesn't think you're going to assassinate me?" Cordelia offered.
"Oh, he knows that. He's just..."
"... impossible," Cordelia finished. "You know you wouldn't stand a chance anyway, don't you, Simon?"
"There's that, too." He stared morosely at the carpet.
Cordelia leaned in and kissed his cheek. "Come on. Breakfast. If we don't hurry he'll eat everything in sight before we get there."