With thanks to lannamichaels and, obliquely, adrian_turtle for pointing me in this direction.
Prompt: loss of home
Content: angst, refs to canon deaths
Length: 1500 words
Summary: Piotr's home is not only a place.
The men were improving. The camp they'd made for this evening was almost well enough concealed enough to avoid even the better Cetagandan patrols, and they'd correctly picked out the best places to place the guards. General Ezar Vorbarra let no hint of his satisfaction at the improvement cross his face as he inspected. Personally conducting this refresher wilderness drill had been an excellent idea.
He walked the perimeter of the camp slowly, noting what had been done and what had been omitted. This thorny dip in the ground should have been guarded, he thought, there was a line of concealed access from those trees--he turned to look more closely, and found himself face to face with an intruder.
Two sets of reflexes fired simultaneously in Ezar's body, and he was reaching for his disruptor and straightening to attention in the same instant. "What--" he began.
"Quiet," said General Vorkosigan in a searing voice. He watched Ezar's hand move away from the disruptor, and stepped forward. Behind him was a boy carrying a baby, and Ezar blinked.
"Piotr," he began. "What are you--"
"You haven't heard anything," Piotr said. "Have you?" He sounded as baffled as a mountain man meeting galactics for the first time, looking into an alien world. What had changed, in Piotr's world?
"We're up here on manoeuvres. I thought I'd run them myself, and we haven't been in touch with anyone for weeks. What's happened?" Piotr looked like hell: eyes hollow, face pale, clothes dishevelled and bloodstained. Ezar had seen him return from many raids and attacks looking worn or injured, but the last time he'd looked like this had been at the destruction of Vorkosigan Vashnoi. But it was peacetime now. "Are you hurt?"
"It's Yuri," Piotr said. "Two nights ago. He killed Olivia. Vlad. Sonia and Ivan. And Livvy." His voice did not shake as he ran down the list of his family, but on the final name he rocked on his feet as if the ground was trembling beneath him. Ezar reached out to him, and found his way barred by the small white-faced boy, who snarled wordlessly at him. Ezar recognised the boy as Piotr's second son, and the baby as Sonia's, and made no attempt to pass that desperate protectiveness. Piotr placed a hand on the boy's shoulder.
"Steady, Aral," he murmured. "We're here now."
"My God," Ezar said meaninglessly. "Yuri," he echoed.
"He tried for Xav too. I hadn't heard anything about you. I didn't know whether I would ... find you, or not."
"I don't suppose anyone would have found us up here," Ezar said. "Half the time these idiots barely know where they are themselves. Piotr..." He trailed off, wordless in the face of Piotr's destruction. "What do you want from me?" he asked at last. "Are you pursued?"
"We were. My last Armsmen held them off. Nobody has been tracking us since." Piotr stared at Ezar with bloodshot eyes. "I want to put you on the throne," he said. "I want to watch Yuri die in agony, and I want to replace him with you." He took a step forwards, then dropped to his knees in the dust, and for a moment Ezar thought he had collapsed. But Piotr's back was straight. He put up his hands, and Ezar felt that his very heart had stopped beating.
He had fought a bitter and brutal war. He had seen men lose their families before, he had seen them go into the smoky ruins of their homes and carry out small broken bodies, he had seen every horror twenty years of guerrilla warfar could bring. Piotr had seen it too, had experienced this destruction before. And Ezar knew that there were only two things you could do for a man in this disaster of disasters: take care of the practicalities, and stop him from doing anything rash.
This was a harder thing to head off than some poor boy trying to charge a Ceta encampment on his own.
"What of Xav?" Ezar's tongue felt heavy and reluctant in his mouth.
"He's too old, and he's spent too long off-world. And he doesn't want it." Piotr's eyes seemed to read him in an instant. "You do want it. And you're here. And I will not leave my hands between the hands that did this to me one minute longer."
In the old days, when men came to join him from the ruins of their villages, Piotr had made a speech to them. Your home is not destroyed, he had said. Your home is your oath to your Emperor and to me. Ezar had thought it fine words, words which sometimes seemed to console the men and give them courage. He had not realised how true it was for Piotr until this minute.
Emperor Ezar, said a quiet voice in his head. Yuri had been strange for years, but though he had made mistakes, they hadn't been fatal ones. Now he had made a fatal mistake. I could do better. And, even more seductively, Piotr thinks I could do better. Piotr was unmoving now, watching him, waiting, his eyes wild and hungry. The baby gave a small sleepy whimper, and Aral patted his back.
There would be time for planning later, for considering how a battered and bereaved Count and a minor General could rule a planet. But Ezar could not refuse Piotr's request. Did not want to refuse it. He closed his hands around Piotr's, and Piotr spoke the oath and he answered, and with that, Barrayar was split in two.
Then Piotr's shoulders sagged, as if the oath had transferred his burdens to Ezar's back. Indeed, it had. He pulled Piotr upright, and embraced him. "Sire," Piotr said, and there was desperate relief in his voice. He straightened up wearily. "Sire, I think we should start with--"
"Not now," Ezar said. They might not have avoided doing something rash, but the practicalities remained, and were doubly his responsibility now. "You need to rest. Eat. Sleep. Come on up to the camp."
"We left the horses down the ravine."
"I'll send some men for them. Come on." He took the baby from Aral, since the boy looked ready to drop, and Piotr put his arm around Aral's shoulders. Ezar conducted them up the hill and walked back into his camp an Emperor.
A few words to one of the guards about the horses, and a few more to his orderly, and they were in his tent. Aral stared around the fabric walls for a minute, looke at his father and dropped down on a bedroll in a foetal huddle. Ezar frowned. "The medic's coming."
"He's not hurt. But we've been travelling since--since." Piotr looked down at his son, his face barely less exhausted than the child's.
When the medic arrived, Ezar passed the baby thankfully to him, and a few minutes later a couple of camp followers were there as well, tough mountain women who took competent charge of little Padma and began to get him fed and changed. The baby had been disturbingly silent throughout, and though he knew almost nothing of babies Ezar was relieved to hear him start to wail.
Piotr was still standing in the centre of the tent, unmoving. Ezar had seen him at the point of collapse after over-long missions before, and knew the signs well enough. He let Piotr stand, and spread a blanket over Aral and coaxed him to eat and drink a little. The boy barely responded to him, and Ezar wasn't sure anything he said was penetrating his distress, but in a very few minutes he was asleep.
In the old days, he'd had to resort to all kinds of trickery and persuasion and occasionally brute force to make Piotr accept help when he needed it, and those old memories were still strong. But he was not Piotr's aide-de-camp now. He was Piotr's Emperor, and though the implications were still whirling through his head, he was dimly aware that this meant everything was different now. Without speaking he put both hands on Piotr's shoulders and pressed him to sit on a camp-stool. Piotr braced as if to lash out and Ezar's hands tightened, and then almost shockingly, Piotr submitted.
Piotr's definition of 'uninjured' was a little on the vague side, Ezar found as he helped him out of his filthy clothes. But bandaging each other's wounds was familiar enough. He put tea well laced with brandy into Piotr's hand, wrapped him in a thick blanket when he began to shiver, and set a bowl of stew on his lap, then stood waiting. He had barely eaten half of it when he began to drift off the camp-stool, his last strength leaving him, and Ezar sleepwalked him across the tent to lie down with his son. He watched as Piotr curled unconsciously around the boy, and covered them both, then retrieved the now-sleeping baby from the women and tucked him too under the blanket in the crook of Aral's arm. They would sleep more peacefully together, he knew. Then he settled down on the camp-stool himself.
Emperor. He touched the plain metal legs of the camp-stool and looked at the bounds of his empire: a small tent containing a baby, a boy, and a man, homeless and powerless. It seemed more like a bad joke than a true possibility. But they had risen from as low as this before, and they had won. Piotr muttered something in his sleep, opened one eye and looked at him, and just for a single blazing moment, Ezar believed that they could do it again.
Crossposted at http://philomytha.dreamwidth.org/10