Length: 1400 words
Content: gratuitous hurt/comfort
Summary: Aral and Simon on Komarr after Gregor disappears.
Aral circulated through the reception with an affable expression on his face, working through the list of people he needed to greet and glad-hand, the people he needed to charm, the people he needed to impress with his strong front and command of the negotiations. He had a drink in his hand, but it was coloured water: he daren't touch alcohol now, for he knew his own weaknesses well enough to be sure that if he had one drink he wouldn't stop until he had finally numbed the agony in his mind and muted the terror into oblivion.
Nine days. Gregor had been missing for nine days, and nobody had found the least trace of him. They had sent the ensign back to Barrayar the day after it had happened, pleading illness, but Aral was staying to continue the negotiations as if nothing had happened. And, secretly, to supervise the search, dome by dome. He had thought the worst disaster of his life had already happened on Komarr, but this was its equal.
Somehow, he survived the reception, made his deals and held his ground, his face calm and his posture strong and decisive until he finally reached the shelter of the corridor to his own rooms. Then he came to a dead stop. His stomach burned, his head throbbed, his body so drained with terror and exhaustion that he felt that another step would be too much. All he could think was Gregor is gone. He had no Emperor.
One final thing, tonight. On that thought, he heard Simon approaching, and turned his head with weary hope. But Simon looked no better than he felt: haggard and wretched. He shook his head as Aral looked at him, a sufficient summary of his latest report. Then he hurried forwards.
"You should see a medic," he said, taking Aral by both arms. "You look awful."
Aral let himself lean on Simon, and they went through to the private sitting-room of Aral's suite here. Simon propelled him onto the sofa. "And what would I say to this medic? That I'm half out of my mind because Gregor is missing? I don't need a medic. I need good news."
Simon flinched and remained standing. "I don't have any." His voice was flat and hard.
Aral took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. I know you're doing everything. I just--"
"I understand." At Aral's weary gesture, Simon slumped down beside him. "Nothing new in the last three hours," he said. "Nothing from Escobar, nothing from any of the jump-point stations, nothing from home."
Nothing. The word throbbed in his head. "I wish Cordelia was here." It wasn't what he intended to say.
"We can send for her," Simon said softly. "It's only five days in a fast courier."
"No, no. I know we need her where she is, keeping up appearances. It's got to hold together, or this will get even worse." It was going to get worse sometime. The only question was when. He took a breath. "You'd better give me the rest of your report."
"There isn't anything more. Not a sign of him, anywhere. The Hegen Hub is still boiling, but that started well before this and hasn't changed noticeably, and I can't find any connection between the two. The only good news, such as it is, is that nothing seems to have leaked so far, here or on Barrayar or galactically. You're holding it together."
"How much longer, though?" Aral knew he sounded desperate, but he felt desperate, and Simon was the only person here he could confess it to. "How much longer?" He rubbed his hands roughly across his face, then closed his eyes.
Instead of speaking, Simon put his hands on Aral's shoulders. "We just keep taking it an hour at a time," he said. "Survive one hour. Then the next, and the next, until we find him." His voice stayed steady on that 'until', but his hands twitched betrayingly. He covered it by rubbing Aral's shoulders and then, turning him half-away, soothing the muscles down his back, his grip firm and warm and sure. Aral felt himself lean backwards against Simon's hands, and for a few moments the thumping tension in his body subsided, the aches in his head and his stomach and his heart faded, and he remembered as at a great distance what peace could feel like.
Simon's hands slowed, his rhythm faltering, and guiltily Aral realised just how exhausted he must be too, just how much of his own diminished strength he was pouring into Aral now. He would continue until he was entirely empty, Aral knew. With a great effort he turned back to face Simon, and saw in the quick flash of despair, imperfectly masked, that he was right.
"I know that if anyone can find him, it's you," he said with as much calm control as he could muster, which wasn't much. "All right, Simon. Thank you. Go get some sleep if you can."
Simon didn't move, as if he couldn't move. "I don't imagine I can. Daren't take anything, in case something turns up suddenly."
The same logic applied to him, of course. Aral nodded slowly. "Then stay, and we can not sleep together."
As a boy, his father had beaten it into his head: a good officer cares for his horse first, then his men, then himself. No horses here. He reached out to Simon and drew him closer, a hand on the base of Simon's neck. Simon didn't protest, which told Aral all he needed to know.
"Your turn," he said. It was almost as soothing to touch another person as to be touched, his world narrowing to the pale skin at the base of Simon's head, and he worked his hands up his neck and into his hair, holding Simon's head in his hands, tracking the tight knots of tension and working them loose. Simon gave an odd uninhibited sigh, and then a little snort, the full weight of his head resting in Aral's hands, and Aral realised he had fallen asleep. He smiled then, very slightly, and leaned back in a corner of the sofa and held Simon against him, listening to him breathe.
Sometime after that, Aral supposed he must have dozed off too, because he was jolted awake by a comm-link beeping and a sudden elbow to his stomach.
"Sorry--sorry--" Simon was jerking awake too, fumbling for the comm and springing to his feet. "Yes? Illyan here. Yes. Yes!"
Aral sat bolt upright at that note in Simon's voice.
"Send me the details right now. Yes. Excellent work, Major. Carry on. Excellent. Thank you."
Simon stared down at him, eyes wide. "That's it, Aral! We have a confirmed sighting. At the Jacksonian jump-point station in the Hegen Hub, arrested for vagrancy, if you'll believe it. But he was alive, sixteen hours ago, and in no immediate danger. Not a prisoner, except of the Jacksonian authorities. He's alive and we know where he is. They're sending all the data over now."
Aral was paralysed for a full minute. Then he almost bounced onto his feet, weary muscles forgotten, and kissed Simon on both cheeks, then full on the mouth, crushing him in a relieved bear-hug. Simon laughed into the kiss, a tired rusty laugh, and kissed him back.
"You did it. Simon, you're a miracle-worker." Aral gazed around at the suddenly bright and beautiful sitting-room. "Your men are doing everything to get him back already, I take it? Of course they are."
The comconsole beeped, and they both stumbled over to it. Aral waited while Simon fast-forwarded through everything once, downloading it all to his chip, then they went through it at Aral's pace, lingering over the images of Gregor under arrest. He was dirty and dishevelled and shabby, but unmistakable. And alive, beautifully alive. Aral almost kissed the console too. He hadn't let go of Simon.
"Yes," Simon said after a while, "they're doing everything to get hold of him as discreetly and carefully as possible. Reinforcements are already on their way. Unless the situation changes drastically, there's nothing we can do from here tonight."
Aral nodded understanding, then turned Simon to face him. "In that case," he said, "I think there's one more thing I can do. You're dismissed, Simon. Go and get some proper sleep, in a real bed and not that cot you've got set up in your office."
Simon's face was still creased with happiness and relief. "So long as you do the same, sir."
"Yes," Aral said. "I think I can rest now."
Crossposted at http://philomytha.dreamwidth.org/10