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Keeping Care of Me, Keeping Watch

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For once, the middle-of-the-night crisis did not have the very worst possible timing. Aral was lying tangled up with Cordelia, pleasantly mutually post-orgasmic, in that drifting stage where the next breath might bring another sleepy kiss, or a few more murmured words tacked on to a conversation they'd broken off earlier, or sleep. The chime of the household comm system therefore did not wake him, and found him in a sufficiently charitable mood that he only sighed. Cordelia's huff of breath had a smile in it, and she cuddled companionably up against his back when he rolled over to activate the comm.

"Vorkosigan here."

"Milord," Armsman Maisky said, sounding carefully neutral. "Lord Vorbohn's men delivered Lieutenant Jole to the front gates about ten minutes ago. I escorted him from there into the house, but he declines to go up to the Blue Suite or to let anyone see to him."

Maisky knew as well as Aral did what it meant that the municipal guard had brought Jole to Vorkosigan House, and had rightly bypassed the ImpSec gate guards in that particular chain of custody. Jole was ambulatory, or he'd be in ImpMil, and injured, or they wouldn't be trying to do anything for him. His non-cooperation was now very rightly his commanding officer's problem; there was a shadow of a tone in Maisky's voice which also suggested that this was between Aral and Arkady on a personal level, and Maisky was--again rightly--refusing to interfere with that.

"Understood," Aral sighed, rubbing his face and trying to work out his strategy for this. "Is he trying to leave?"

"No, milord. He knows he's to stay, he just refuses to go upstairs. Not today, he says."

Aral felt Cordelia's comprehension strike at the same instant as his own; she tightened her grip on him slightly, sighing against his shoulder. Aral twisted to look her in the eye, silently questioning even as he considered his options. She quirked a half-smile and nodded.

"Put him in the kitchen," Aral said, "he shouldn't fight anyone on that. Leave him be, I'll come down and deal with him."

"Thank you, milord."

Aral silenced the comm without turning away from Cordelia, and shook his head, smiling a little. "I should have known."

"What," Cordelia said, her smile taking on an element of sleepy amusement, "that the two of you wouldn't last twenty-six hours without seeing each other?"

Aral snorted and pressed an apologetic kiss to her lips. "That if I were going to have a late-night crisis with considerate timing, it would be Jole's doing."

Cordelia laughed, kissed him again, and shoved him gently toward the edge of the bed. "Remember you need to clear him out of the kitchen before the early shift comes on."

Aral put his feet to the floor but reached back for her hand, squeezing her fingers and then pressing a kiss to her knuckles. "I plan on being back in bed with you long before that."

Cordelia's smile widened, and she squeezed back even as she said, "Go on, then."

Aral dressed in crumpled fatigue pants and a non-uniform undershirt, leaving his feet bare. Decent for semi-public view but decidedly off-duty. He took the lift tube down to the basement kitchen.

There were a couple of lights on in the enormous room--there always were, for night-duty Armsmen and anyone else in the household who might require coffee or a snack in the handful of hours when the kitchen was not staffed. Arkady stood in shadow, a couple of strides from the other door into the kitchen, where Maisky or Jankowski would have brought him down via the stairs. He was in civilian clothes, his hair looking wilder than a fight would explain, which suggested some distinctly non-regulation styling at the start of the night. There was blood down the front of his shirt and spattered on one cuff, and he was standing with his chin nearly at his chest and his hands in his pockets, looking prepared to go on standing that way for the rest of the night.

Aral stepped through the doorway and struck out in the direction of the first aid kit as he said, "Lieutenant."

Arkady looked up, showing a flash of startled dismay. He was bloodied and bruised, and Aral's heart twisted in pained sympathy, though he kept his own expression neutral. Arkady, after the first second of reaction, looked away again, his expression returning to an unreadable mask.

Beyond Arkady, a meter or so past the door, Aral heard a quiet tread on the stairs. Whichever Armsman had brought Arkady to the kitchen had stayed close enough to keep watch until Aral arrived on the scene. The chain of custody was thus complete.

"Have a seat," Aral added, removing the kit from the bracket on the wall by the stove, "and put your hands where I can see them, please."

Turning back to face Arkady, Aral watched him make his slow way from the spot by the door to a stool by the big worktable. Seeing him in motion made it obvious that Arkady was thoroughly drunk, and Aral revised his expectations for the rest of the night accordingly--as well as his mental image of what had driven Maisky to call on him rather than let the matter wait until morning.

Aral timed his own movement across the kitchen to accord with Arkady's. A second after Arkady had gingerly perched on a stool at the table, Aral set down the first aid kit on the table and sat down on the next stool. Arkady's hands--the right even more bruised and cut-up across the knuckles than Aral had expected--lay on his thighs. Arkady was still staring down in their general direction.

Aral opened the first aid kit. Arkady didn't look toward it or respond to the sound.

"So," Aral said quietly. "You're a stubborn drunk, are you?"

Arkady looked up, glassy-eyed, his gaze tracking visibly a little slower than he moved. He didn't smile. He had a darkening bruise around the left side of his mouth, both lips split where someone had hit him straight on.

"Just quiet," Arkady said after a few seconds. "Sir."

This pronouncement delivered, Arkady bowed his head again.

"Quiet's all right," Aral said, lifting Arkady's right hand to the table top and then digging out an antiseptic wipe from the kit. "But you're going to tell me what happened tonight, Lieutenant."

Arkady nodded.

"There are a few questions I have to ask before anything else," Aral said. He was reasonably certain he knew the answers to them--it wouldn't have been Maisky waking him up about Jole if he didn't--but he had to be certain, and he wanted to hear it from Arkady. "First of all, was anyone killed?"

Arkady looked up sharply at that, eyes widening for an instant before he once again looked away. He didn't bow his head this time, just wouldn't maintain eye contact. "No, sir."

"Did anyone suffer injuries likely to leave permanent damage?"

Arkady bit his lip briefly, wincing away and then unselfconsciously licking the cut there. "No. He was--no. Sir."

Just one man? But that wouldn't have gotten the municipal guard involved. Just one man Arkady might have hurt badly, then. "Did anyone at any time take up a weapon of any kind?"

Arkady shook his head. "No, sir. All officers. We know the rules."

Aral accepted this answer with a nod and a private burst of relief. Whatever Arkady had done, it could be dealt with. "What have you got in your pockets tonight?"

"None of that," Arkady said quickly, well-cued by the question of weapons. "That's for you, for--I don't carry that off duty, it's locked up at my flat."

Aral said nothing, and Arkady took his right hand from the table and emptied his trouser pockets, turning up only the keys to his flat and a reasonable amount of cash for an evening in Vorbarr Sultana.

"Hands on the table," Aral said, and when Arkady complied Aral began gently cleaning the knuckles of his right hand. "So this happened at the party? At Kozlov's, or had you gone somewhere?"

"Kozlov's," Arkady assented. He'd been planning to go to a party for a friend who'd been promoted to captain. The promoted man being single, it was apt to have been a bachelors' party; heavy drinking and a fistfight weren't particularly out of the ordinary for such a gathering. Intervention by the municipal guard suggested things had gotten rather badly out of hand.

With the blood cleaned away, Arkady's knuckles didn't look too dire; nastily bruised, but there weren't as many cuts as Aral had first thought, and they were small, mostly clotted. Aral wrapped a little gauze around Arkady's hand to catch blood, and then fished out a cold pack from the first aid kit, shaking it to activate. He laid it on the back of Arkady's hand and then scooted closer to him, reaching across his body for his left hand.

"Did you start it?"

Arkady's head went down at that, momentarily confusing the motion of his nod. His voice was as steady as ever as he said, "Yes, sir."

Aral finished cleaning off Arkady's left hand--less battered, but then all else being equal men tended to prefer their dominant hands in a fight, especially drunk and caught off guard. Aral knew as well as anyone how badly a man could be caught off-guard by a fight he'd started. Aral started another cold pack, laid it over Arkady's hand, and then dragged both of his hands by the wrist to angle him as much as possible toward Aral with both hands still on the table.

He put his fingers under Arkady's chin, tilting his face up, and started cleaning away the lingering traces of a bloody nose from Arkady's upper lip and then his chin. Arkady didn't quite close his eyes, but he kept his gaze averted. Aral ran his fingers carefully around the darkening bruises. As well as the one around his mouth there was one on his temple that wasn't quite going to swell his eye shut, and one on the opposite cheekbone. In the dim light it was only the contrast with his own fingers that allowed Aral to see how pale Arkady was everywhere he wasn't bruised.

"Were you hit anywhere else on your head?"

Arkady's eyelashes fluttered, but he didn't look up. His shoulders twitched in a shrug.

Aral smiled slightly, and shifted his hand on Arkady's face into his hair, probing carefully. "When I hit a spot that feels like it got hit, say ouch."

With Aral's fingers behind his left ear, Arkady obediently said, "Ouch."

Aral traced out the palpably swollen extent of another bruise and said, "Did a medic look at you?"

"Guardsman checked for concussion," Arkady said. "Blood alcohol point one five."

Which made it rather remarkable that Arkady could speak this clearly, and nearly impossible to be sure he hadn't been concussed. Though if he were concussed on top of being this drunk he surely wouldn't be speaking this clearly. Aral found no other evidence of head injuries, and took his hands away for a moment.

"Were you provoked?"

Arkady flinched at that, bowing his head again, his shoulders drawing up.

Aral sighed, considering how to proceed. "Do you know why Lord Vorbohn's men brought you here, Lieutenant?"

"I didn't," Arkady said, and then straightened his shoulders, but still didn't lift his head. "I gave my name. A moment later the guard commander came and took me out of the flat and put me in a car. No more questions, no cuffs."

"I didn't ask you how they brought you here," Aral said patiently. "I asked if you knew why."

Arkady nodded. Aral waited, and after several seconds Arkady said haltingly, "They knew I'm--that you're my direct superior. Your name. I didn't say, but they knew. They treated me like Vor. Like a count's heir."

Clever boy, even when disoriented by the upending of his expectations as much as by alcohol and minor head injuries; he'd been a prole for twenty-five years, and now this. "And do you understand why this was not entirely a kindness on their part?"

Arkady flinched again, but he met Aral's eyes, as steadily as he was able. "Yes, sir."

Aral nodded. "Do you understand the responsibility which devolves upon me as your commanding officer, because you have been handed over to me?"

Arkady nodded, keeping his gaze on Aral's. "You're to punish me, instead of them."

Aral allowed himself to smile a little. "Punishment's a couple of steps further down the line. First I have to find out if you've done anything wrong."

Arkady kept his eyes on Aral's for a few seconds more, then closed them. As if to compensate, he tilted his chin up slightly as he said, "I walked up behind a man and punched him in the back of the head, sir."

Aral raised his eyebrows and resisted the temptation to check a chrono. He'd gotten Arkady to volunteer something; that was a good sign. Aral reached over to Arkady's right hand and lifted off the ice pack and peeled back the edge of the gauze, considering the bruises in light of the impact of fist against skull.

"You hit him just about as hard as you could," Aral observed, taking care to keep his voice level, neither impressed nor amused nor pronouncing a verdict.

Arkady licked his lips but said nothing, and kept his eyes closed.

"Which brings us back to the question of provocation," Aral said.

Arkady offered nothing.

"He was facing away from you," Aral said patiently, walking through it. "The party had been going on a while, everyone had had plenty to drink, and you had to walk up behind him, so you were a little way across the room. A quiet drunk is probably a listening drunk, isn't he."

Arkady angled his face away slightly as he opened his eyes, not looking at Aral.

"Whatever he was saying, it made you so angry you had to hit him as hard as you could, and you didn't care about the dishonor of striking a man from behind. You didn't care that his friends were going to jump you the next second and turn Kozlov's party into a brawl. You had to hit him as hard as you could. You didn't want to fight, you wanted him to fall down and shut up. You didn't mind how badly you hurt him. You just had to stop him from saying what he was saying."

Aral stopped there and waited a little while, but Arkady was a quiet drunk, and a still one. Aral got bored first.

"You wouldn't have done that for anything he might have said about you," Aral pointed out.

"Sir," Arkady said, and then shook his head, still looking away.

Aral watched him steel himself--it took several seconds, going in stages, his hands shifting, his back straightening, shoulders squaring, chin tilting up. Last of all he turned his head to look Aral in the eye.

"Admiral, sir," he said, and Aral leaned back slightly, feeling the distance of his rank as if Arkady had put a hand on his chest and shoved. He couldn't ever remember Arkady calling him Admiral before.

"I confess," Arkady bit out. "I broke regs. I attempted to injure a brother officer."

"Ah," Aral said softly. With his subordinate's confession more or less freely offered, a commanding officer's reasons for continuing to demand to know details came down to prurient curiosity or sadism. "Very well, Lieutenant. Thank you for confessing."

"Sir," Arkady said.

"Tell me, do you ever plan on doing anything like that again?"

"No, sir," Arkady said, dropping that determined gaze. "Can't, sir."

Aral raised his eyebrows. "What's going to prevent you, Lieutenant?"

Arkady looked up, and for just a second seemed to be wryly smiling with that battered mouth, those glassy eyes. Then he looked down again, ducking his head as he said, "Wouldn't be fair, sir. I listened before I hit him. I knew he was a lieutenant and a prole. Not a superior officer, not a subordinate, not Vor."

Aral nodded and waited, fascinated.

"Not fair for me to hit proles anymore, sir," he said quietly. "But I'm not Vor, either. So I can't hit anybody."

"I see," Aral said. "I'm glad to hear we won't be repeating this incident."

Arkady nodded and then went still. He kept himself squared up, awaiting his commanding officer's judgment.

"Lieutenant," Aral said, rubbing a hand over his mouth to suppress his weary smile. "Being familiar with your record, I realize that this is an unprecedented moment in your career, but there is literally nothing I care less about, professionally speaking, than you getting into an off-duty drunken fistfight. No one was seriously hurt, and the municipal guards clearly want as little to do with the matter as possible. If you still feel strongly about it when we get back to the office you can write yourself a reprimand, and I will sign it."

Arkady gave him a startled glance, then lowered his eyes and nodded. "Sir."

"All right," Aral said. "Now that that's out of the way--Arkady...."

Arkady slumped forward with such suddenness that Aral stood up to catch him, and Arkady curled into him, pressing his face to Aral's shoulder.

"Aral, I'm sorry," Arkady said. "I know I'm not supposed to be here tonight."

Aral laughed a little, half-voiced. "Arkady, don't. Of all things--you can't have thought I'd mind you just being here. You are always welcome in my home, always. Especially when you don't have any choice about it. Your rooms here are always yours, even if I'm not going to visit you in them. If you ever find yourself at loose ends in Hassadar or Vorkosigan Surleau, you have a place to stay." Aral put his hands on Arkady's shoulders and pushed him back, looking him in the eye. "You always have a place, do you understand me?"

Arkady nodded, wide-eyed, and then looked away, not leaning into Aral's grip. Aral let go when he was sure Arkady didn't need to be held up, and started unbuttoning Arkady's bloodied shirt. It all looked to be from the nosebleed; the shirt itself wasn't torn. Arkady didn't resist or otherwise respond to being undressed. Aral kept his touch mostly businesslike as he traced the bruises on Arkady's torso, probing along his ribs. Arkady wasn't breathing or moving like he'd taken any serious injuries, but it was worth being sure, and Aral thought they both needed the contact.

"He was saying something about me?" Aral said softly, with his arm around Arkady as he traced the line of a rib to his spine.

Arkady made a noise that might have been a laugh or a sob. "No."

Aral raised his eyebrows, and flattened his hand against Arkady's back, leaning in to press a kiss to his unbruised cheekbone, and another to his forehead. He felt Arkady's breath catch, but he didn't ask, just stood his ground and waited.

Arkady tugged his right hand out from under the cold pack and pressed his palm to Aral's chest. "I can't--I won't repeat it."

"I wouldn't ask you to," Aral assured him, evolving and rejecting one theory after another for what it might have been.

"It wasn't you," Arkady repeated, his voice going wobbly for the first time. "It was--Cadet Kosigan. Lord Vorkosigan." Arkady let out a shaky breath of almost-laughter, but his fingers curled into Aral's chest as if it hurt. "I've never even met him."

Aral closed his eyes, blindly pressing a kiss to Arkady's forehead. "Arkan."

"I couldn't," Arkady said miserably. "All I could think of was how it would--if you were there, if you heard it--and then I thought, you must have heard it. You must have heard people say those things about him and it must have hurt."

"Shh," Aral whispered, wanting to take away the agony he could hear creeping into Arkady's voice. He could picture it all too clearly, Arkady standing there and listening and being silently, invisibly torn up. But it couldn't be taken away, and couldn't be denied.

"I couldn't bear it," Arkady whispered. "And I realized--"

This time the caught breath was much closer to a sob. Aral raised his other hand to the back of Arkady's neck.

"I love you," Arkady whispered, as much a pained confession as any of it. "And I'm such a fucking fool, because I want to protect you, as if you--as if I ever could. And I can't. But I had to do something. I had to make him hurt."

Aral sighed and ran his hand up and down Arkady's back. "I know you did. It's terrifying, knowing they don't have to lay a finger on you to rip your heart out."

Arkady shuddered.

"That was the first thing I loved about you," Aral whispered. "Your courage."

Arkady raised his head at that, eyes wide, looking very young and shocked in a more pleasing way than he had at any time that night.

"I love you, Arkady," Aral said softly. "I have the luxury of imagining that I will be able to protect you from some things. For the rest I can only hope that it's enough to share your suffering, as you share mine."

Arkady swayed forward into a cautious kiss, both of them careful of his bruised and bloodied mouth. Arkady didn't so much pull away from the kiss as move in beyond it, curling forward again to rest his head on Aral's shoulder, sliding both his arms around Aral's waist.

"When they brought me," Arkady murmured. "I'm so--they didn't say where they were taking me. We were just suddenly here and for a second I thought it was because they knew. Because everyone knew that I'm yours like this. Because they knew I had a bed here and someone would look after me."

Aral settled his arms around Arkady's shoulders and leaned his cheek against Arkady's hair. It smelled different tonight, quite apart from the smells of blood and alcohol--something sweet and waxy.

"And then I realized," Arkady sighed. "It's just the job description."

Aral smiled and pushed back, tugging Arkady up to look at him. Aral settled his hands carefully on Arkady's cheeks, steadying him. "That's all they know, Arkady. That's all they need to know to know I will be concerned in anything that concerns you. Nearly every one of my military secretaries has been dropped off at the gates at one time or another. You're the only one I got out of bed for."

Arkady gave a cautious, lopsided smile, and reached up to hold Aral's hand steady as he turned his head to kiss the inside of Aral's wrist. Aral raised his own hand to muss Arkady's hair--it stood improbably straight up in spots--and then returned both hands to Arkady's shoulders, tugging him gently up to stand.

"Come on," he said softly. "Let's finish the first aid so you can get on with sleeping this off."

Arkady nodded agreeably, and allowed Aral to tow him over to the sink, where there was a light on. Aral gave him a couple of pills to head off the worst of the hangover, and gave him a tall glass of water to drink. While he worked on that, Aral started applying bruise salve everywhere it was needed, not neglecting the bruise hidden under Arkady's hair.

The salve took longer than the glass of water; Arkady stood quite still with his hands at his sides, letting Aral work. Aral was startled to realize, when he looked up, that Arkady wasn't averting his gaze anymore. He looked drunk--and battered and tired--but his eyes were fixed firmly on Aral.

"Almost done," Aral said softly, and went back to it. He couldn't resist looking up every few seconds to meet that quiet, steady regard.

When Aral was finished, he wiped his fingers on Arkady's ruined shirt and turned him toward the door that led to the lift tube. Arkady fell into his usual place, just behind Aral's shoulder, and Aral led him to the lift tube and up to the third floor, keeping hold of him in the lift so that he wouldn't miss the exit. Once in the Blue Suite, Arkady shrugged out of his ruined shirt, letting it fall to the floor, and started unfastening his pants. Aral pushed him gently to sit on the bed and knelt, tugging his boots off for him.

Arkady gave him a hand up when he finished, and tugged Aral close, pressing his knees to Aral's hips. "Think that's meant to go the other way, sir."

Aral smiled. "It goes whichever way we need it to go, Arkan. Now get your pants off and get under the covers."

Arkady obediently shoved off his pants and flopped over, crawling clumsily under the covers. Aral tugged them up to cover him and sat down for a moment on the edge of the bed.

Arkady blinked up at him. "Aral, I don't think I'll forget this, exactly, but--tomorrow--"

Aral leaned in and kissed the corner of his mouth. "I love you, Arkady. I'll say it again, any time you want to hear it. I don't mind hearing it, either, any time you want to say it."

"I love you," Arkady said, a bit experimentally, and then he grinned and added, "maybe not exactly any time, hm?"

Aral smiled and shook his head.

Arkady's eyes closed, and he repeated softly to himself, "I love you," and then giggled at whatever inner vision of inappropriate timing he was entertaining.

"Good night," Aral said, standing up, and Arkady mumbled an unintelligible response. Aral went over to the comconsole to enter a do not disturb directive for this room and silence incoming calls, and then let himself out and padded back down the hall to his own bed.

Cordelia stirred, flipping the covers back and scooting out of his space, as he approached the side of the bed. He dropped his clothes as untidily as Arkady had shed his, and crawled back into her arms.

"Arkady's all right?" she murmured.

"Until the bruises and the hangover take hold," Aral murmured. "I'm afraid he's realized he's in love with me."

"Which naturally occasioned a fistfight," Cordelia said around a yawn, sounding rather fond. "Barrayarans."

Aral considered for an instant telling her what, precisely, had occasioned the fistfight, but he swallowed the words. There was no need to spread that particular unhappiness any further; he could protect her from this small thing.

"Has he realized you're in love with him?" Cordelia added, sounding slightly more alert.

"Well, I told him," Aral said. "Realization may have to wait until he's sobered up."

"Ha!" Cordelia sounded definitely awake now, and nearly as amused as Arkady had a moment ago. "Welcome to the sober side of that equation, love. Twenty-one years was not too long to wait for this moment."

Aral grinned and snuggled closer. "I think we'd been married the better part of a week before I was absolutely sure I wasn't going to wake up to a hideous hangover and realize it was all a dream."

Cordelia was smiling as she kissed him. "We'll none of us escape that easily. We're all in it for the long haul, now."

"Together," Aral murmured, his voice going rough with the sudden wordless certainty of it. He'd have thought he knew, but it struck him almost dizzyingly at that instant, what it meant to be loved by Cordelia, to be loved by Arkady, to love people who were all in it together.

Cordelia didn't bother to answer in words, only kissed him again and held him close.