Also, the main thing that I wanted this meme to distract me from has mostly gone away. I'm not sure this is connected in any way with the meme, but hey, let it take the credit!
Wimsey, Peter and Harriet (pre-Gaudy Night), forced to share a bed
Illyan and Cordelia, pretending to be married
Duv and Delia, truth or dare
Galeni, historical AU
Avengers, Steve, cross-dressing
Honorverse, Giscard/Pritchart, accidental baby acquisition
Gregor, accidental baby acquisition
Ivan and Miles, bodyswap
Alys/Simon, secretly a virgin
Alys and By, bodyswap
Gregor/Laisa, truth or dare
Alys and Gregor, bodyswap
Aral/Cordelia, historical AU
And this is the last one, which was meant to be short but inevitably got a little out of hand. I think by the time I've got more than 4000 words of Aral and Simon inhabiting each other's bodies, the fic deserves its own post, so here you go.
Length: 4200 words
Summary: Aral and Simon swap roles and lives for an evening.
The lights in the Hall of Mirrors flickered, just for a moment, and Simon's head went up in alarm. In the mirrors he caught Aral's gaze, matching his in an equal alarm. Then, even more oddly, the candles all guttered, as if a strong wind was passing through the room, though he felt no movement of the air, the windows sealed winter-tight. He felt a sudden surge of dizziness, overwhelmingly strong, and he closed his eyes and put a hand on the reflective wall for support.
The dizziness seemed to pass off in an instant, but when Simon opened his eyes, he was dancing with the Escobaran ambassador and he had no idea how he'd got there. He faltered on his feet, and the woman's eyes narrowed. Simon could read hostility in his sleep, and he stiffened, forced his face still and bland and calm. Something strange, something incredibly strange, had happened, but he would show no weakness before an outsider and a potential threat.
"Too much wine at supper?" she said sweetly.
"Ah, no," he replied, and his voice was wrong too, deeper and rougher. "Too early a start this morning, I fear." At least he seemed to know the dance, or his feet did. He turned the ambassador about and saw them in the mirror, and it took all his concentration not to stumble again. He was Aral. At least, that was the first nonsensical thought that passed through his head. No, he was himself, but ... he looked like Aral. And Aral had been dancing with the ambassador a minute ago, hadn't he? He queried his chip, and then not all the self-control in the galaxy could stop him from gasping and stumbling and losing his place in the dance, because there was nothing but blank silence in his head. The ambassador gave him an icy look, then steadied him with a cool hand, saying, "You are quite unfit to be dancing, Lord Vorkosigan. You should go and sit down."
He was Aral, or at least, she thought he was, everyone must think he was. And chip or no chip, he knew one thing: he must protect Aral. And he must not do anything that endangered their chances of achieving a new treaty with the Escobarans, not now that they were finally easing their hostility, ten years after the war. He smiled, as charmingly as he knew Aral could, and said, "Truly, I am very tired. But perhaps you would care to sit with me? It is more comfortable than dancing, if one wishes to talk."
The ambassador's frown softened minutely. Schooled by Lady Alys, Simon extended his arm, and she took it dubiously, but went with him. He supposed she was thinking she might gain concessions or uncover vulnerabilities, negotiating with a man she believed to be drunk. Aral liked to get his enemies drunk too, Simon recalled, for just that reason. But he had to win this round, or at least not lose.
He looked up as they walked over to a comfortable set of armchairs, and saw--himself. Aral? Someone in his body, evidently, standing where he had been, arms folded, holding up the wall, but he didn't look quite right. Perhaps that was how he always looked? Or perhaps...
"Allow me to fetch you a drink, milady Ambassador."
The title made her purse her lips, as he knew it would. Good. Let her think he underestimated her, let her think him drunk and clumsy. Let her be a little annoyed, and primed to make a mistake.
"Thank you, white wine would be excellent," she said, and Simon set off towards the drinks table. He passed himself, and stopped.
"Aral?" he said uncertainly.
His--Aral's--head went up, and bright brown eyes met his, blinking with disorientation. "Oh. Simon. How do you survive this?" He touched his head, and Simon realised all at once that Aral had his memory chip, and swallowed. "How can you--I can't hear myself think. I can see double, triple, the noise... it's awful." He swayed a little where he stood. "What the hell happened?"
There was no time for this, not now. No time to wonder what had happened, or how, or what was to be done about it: right now they had to get through this evening without disaster. Though if this carried on, both of them would have a reputation for being drunk at important political parties. "You need to go somewhere quiet and sit down. Reduce all stimuli. Give operational command here to Colonel Nivens, and go." He paused. This was, after all, Aral. "And don't touch alcohol. It will make it all much worse. Trust me on this."
Aral blinked at him, and Simon had no idea how much of that he'd taken in. Well, all of it, on the chip, but he doubted Aral would be able to find it again. He remembered his own first few days with it in his head, when he had wrestled with constant confusion and disorientation, and he'd been prepared, he'd known what was happening to him. But he couldn't do anything more to help Aral now.
"Go on. You'll be fine," he said, and his voice sounded strangely familiar. Aral's voice, that firm, unarguable tone, a voice with the habit of command. Aral looked up at him, and that was strange too, to see obedient trust in his own eyes, with Aral behind them. Perhaps their bodies knew who they were too.
"All right," Aral managed, and Simon found himself clapping Aral on the shoulder in confident reassurance before heading over to the drinks table. He collected the drinks, ensuring that the one offered to him contained coloured water and not red wine, and headed back to the ambassador. It was lucky, he thought, that he knew Aral well, and making sure he stayed sober had been one of Simon's jobs enough times that he knew the tell-tale signs even without his memory chip, and could simulate the faint unsteadiness and weakness at the knees. Just a hint of that, but he caught the ambassador noticing, and smiled inwardly. Yes. She was primed for all Aral's weaknesses, had studied him, undoubtedly had her own ideas about how to play him at this game and win. But now, she wasn't dealing with Aral, and she didn't know it.
Simon lived like this all the time. Not only that, Aral thought, he did it without appearing to struggle in the slightest, like a fencer whose sword seemed a true extension of his arm. Aral closed his eyes, to see if that would help, but the racket in his head did not subside. The chip was talking to him constantly, spouting information back at him too fast to make sense of, capturing more, cross-connecting it dizzyingly. He heard a voice in the room, and the chip matched it to several thousand previous recordings of the same voice, all instantly right there, and if his concentration faltered for a fraction of a second, it would be the recordings he heard, and not the speaker now. And when he opened his eyes he seemed to see the room like a time-lapse photo, everyone in all the places they had been, all at once. It was impossible to make sense of any of it. But it couldn't possibly be like this for Simon, else he'd have died of it years ago. Aral felt like he might die of it after--twenty-three minutes and nineteen, twenty, twenty-one seconds, the chip informed him. It would almost be worth it, to bring quiet to his head again.
"Captain Illyan? Are you... quite well?"
He squinted, trying to bring the present into focus. It was Alys, standing next to him, her face turned upwards and her eyes narrowed. A thousand, a hundred thousand other images of her face started to flash before his mind; Aral bit his lip hard and they faded.
"Alys," he muttered. It seemed about as much as he could say.
She remained there, looking at him with unsettling focus. She could see him, even if he couldn't see her. "You seem unwell, Captain," she said, firm and confident. "I think you should go and sit down for a while."
The chip spouted a memory into his mind with surprising emphasis, and he heard himself say, "Yes. Somewhere quiet. Dark. Please." The memory continued. "Must tell Colonel Nivens he's in command."
"I'll pass the message along for you," Alys said. "All right. We don't want to have a scene here if possible. Can you manage?"
He was fairly sure he could walk, though less sure of his ability to avoid bumping into things. Or people. It was shockingly hard to tell who was really there, now, and who had been there ten minutes ago. Alys put her arm through his graciously, but instead of leaning on him, she steered and supported him, and there seemed nothing to do but follow. It was easy to do.
They wound up in a tiny sitting-room, and Alys dimmed the lights and escorted him to a sofa, where he sank down gratefully.
"Do you need a medic, Simon?" she said. "What's the matter?"
The darkness and quiet, and the fact that this room seemed to have far fewer memories attached to it than the Hall of Mirrors, were helping; he could think again, over the noise in his head. And the first thing he thought was: Alys never sounds as gentle as that when she's talking to me. A beat later, he registered the change from 'Captain Illyan' in public to 'Simon' in private.
"I... no. I don't need a medic. Not now."
"You're clearly not well, Simon." She sat beside him, and her hand touched his arm; his body gave an odd unexpected jolt. "I'm not happy leaving you alone here like this. Please, tell me what I can do to help."
Damn. He shouldn't be here. He shouldn't be in the middle of this--this whatever it was. Intimacy. He knew, of course, that Simon did a lot of work with Alys, but this wasn't a simple work relationship. Then, his own relationship with Simon was not a simple work relationship either. Perhaps it was just the effect Simon had on people. But still ... if she knew he was here, that she was offering this gentle comfort to the wrong man... the question was, now that she had given herself away, would it be better to pretend to be Simon, or should he try to tell her what was going on, even if it mortified her, because it was the truth?
Put that way, it wasn't a question. "Alys," he said, "you're not going to believe this, but ... I'm not Simon. I'm Aral."
Her eyes widened, and her lips twisted with fear and dismay. "I'm going to get a medic," she said after a moment. "Just sit quietly. You're going to be fine."
"At your wedding," he said, "your younger sister got a little tipsy, and told me that you'd really been trying to catch me instead of Padma."
For a moment, he thought Alys was going to slap him. She pressed her lips together. "That wasn't true."
"I didn't say it was. But it's something I know, that Simon doesn't."
"That Simon didn't know," she retorted. She stared at him for a long time. "All right. This is nonsensical and ridiculous--and if you are playing a game with me, you will regret it--but... all right." She looked at him, and her expression was different now, more practical, less ... intimate. "You're Aral. Does that mean--" She looked back in the direction of the Hall of Mirrors, as if she could see right through to where Simon was, wearing his body.
"I need to get back to the party," she said. "Simon doesn't know--he'll need backup. Do you want me to get you anything? Cordelia?"
Cordelia. God. But if Alys could accept this, so could she. "If she has a moment. Don't disrupt anything, out there. I think... I think Simon's doing a good job, being me." The chip helped him then, unexpectedly, shoving into his awareness an image of himself-but-really-Simon sitting down with the Escobaran ambassador and talking animatedly.
"Very well." Alys stood, looked at him for a moment in silence, then said, "I heard a story about this, once. When I was a child. They said there was a ghost in the Hall of Mirrors, the ghost of a sorcerer, and sometimes he would play tricks on people. Like this."
"And did the people get back to who they were before?" Aral asked, trying to sound casual.
"At the stroke of midnight." She looked at her chrono. "Well. In that case, you have two hours."
It wasn't easy to be Aral. Simon was accustomed to hard work, long and thankless and draining, but he was not accustomed to being on-stage, being watched, being studied as he worked, his every gesture and inflection picked apart by dozens of keen analytical minds. Such as his own; he wondered for the first time in seriousness whether his watching was a burden to Aral instead of a help. Though he didn't think he'd have minded being watched by someone who was trying to protect him. It was being watched by his enemies and having to project unconcern that made him uncomfortable, all the more so when he could not rely on his chip to monitor the background and alert him to changes.
But the Escobaran ambassador had been frustrated in every attempt to negotiate him down from the Regent's set of core requirements for the deal, and the scorn in her eyes had turned to reluctant respect when he had finally bowed to her as she went to tackle Vortala instead. Simon had found himself heading to stand by the wall, then remembering just in time that he couldn't do that now.
"Aral, there you are."
Simon managed to stop an oh shit from escaping his lips. It was Lady Cordelia. Playing Aral for the ambassador was one thing, playing Aral for Cordelia quite another. Some of that emotion must have been on his face as he turned, for her smile of greeting faltered.
"Everything all right?"
"Sorry. I was thinking about something else. I'm fine."
She gave him a narrow-eyed look that he associated with profound danger, and said, "If this is about this morning, then I really don't think it's fair for you to--"
Simon wished desperately for his chip then, which might have known just what marital dispute he had somehow landed in, but he consciously tried not to know these things until he had to, letting the chip hold them alone. "No, it's not--please, um, Cordelia--"
Her danger-look increased, and he took a step backwards. At that point, Lady Alys arrived, and Simon tried not to think, like a bouncer breaking up a fight. "Cordelia," she said quietly.
Cordelia turned sharply. "Yes?"
"Will this wait till the party is over? I think things will, ah, make more sense, then."
Simon's eyes widened. Alys knew. How could she know? But she would not otherwise have intervened between Aral and Cordelia. He felt Cordelia watching him, and turned back to her. "I think that would be better," he said. "There's a lot of work to be done here, tonight."
"Barrayarans," Cordelia muttered. "All right. I'll save the rusty breadknives for later." She leaned across and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and he managed not to flinch. "Go on. Do your job, love."
He nodded, doing his best to copy the way Aral moved, the way he held himself, and Cordelia stared at him only a moment before returning to her own social duties.
"Simon," Alys whispered to him. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," he said. It wasn't exactly true, but it wasn't false either, and if he couldn't cope with Cordelia and marital arguments now, he couldn't discuss the rest of this with Alys either. Instead he said, "Quickly, Alys. Who's here that we're negotiating with, someone who can always get under Aral's skin?"
Her eyes lit as she understood what he was suggesting. "Try Count Vordrozda. He wants a special tax deal for Lorimel, and he nearly got it earlier just by driving Aral to distraction. He's been fishing for another opportunity to push his case tonight."
That, Simon had no trouble picturing, chip or no chip. Aral's brand of strategy and his temper and Vordrozda's slimy insinuatingness were a terrible combination, and both men knew it. The trick, he thought, was going to be imitating Aral enough to pass as him, without letting himself be drawn into the role so deeply that he would react the way Aral would. A different kind of covert ops.
The party ended before Alys ran out of enemies for Simon to negotiate with, but he was profoundly exhausted by the unfamiliar effort and had barely held his ground in the final discussion with Minister Ahmed. Impersonating Aral, trying to remember all the necessary details that Aral would have at his fingertips and which Simon had held on his chip, coping with the unfamiliar body and its unfamiliar behaviour... it had been a long day before any of this had started. Then, too, for the first time he was properly aware that Aral was more than ten years older than he was, and his body had accumulated a great many more aches, niggles and scars than Simon was accustomed to. Aral, he suspected, could ignore them; Simon couldn't. He circulated through the departing guests a little mechanically and tried not to be too obvious about the fact that he was following Alys's lead.
Then, when the final guest was gone, Cordelia returned from where she had been playing her part in the political games. She stopped a step away from him and stood there, her eyes searching him up and down. Finally she said, "I just ... want to test something."
She reached out and pulled Simon into her arms, then abruptly kissed him. His body seemed to know what to do just as in the dancing, and began to melt against her, his mouth opening of its own accord. Simon froze, overruling everything with the same mental strength that he used to keep the chip in line. He could not, could not, kiss Cordelia, no matter how much this body wanted to.
"Yes..." she said, drawing back again as he tensed. Her hand stroked his cheek almost impersonally, "Yes. I thought so. You're not Aral. Are you."
"No, milady. Simon."
"Ah. Yes. I apologise for that, Simon. Please forgive me." She stepped away from him, looking at him again as if noting every difference between what she'd expected to see and what was really there. "This is very strange."
"More so for me than for you, I assure you," he heard himself say without thinking. It was a very Aral thing to say, he thought. Would he become Aral, if he lived in his body long enough? He didn't think he wanted to find out.
"Shall we rejoin Aral?" Alys said across this exchange. She was frowning deeply. "He appeared to be having more difficulty with this... situation."
"Oh. I see." Cordelia's attention was diverted at once. "What sort of difficulty?"
"He has the chip," Simon said. "It's not an easy thing to suddenly have to deal with." He looked around, and then said, "Ah. He's coming to us." It was very strange to watch himself walking slowly across the room, looking somewhere between drunk and severely hungover, taking each step with conscious care. Cordelia hurried over to him, and that was odd too, to watch Cordelia put an arm around his shoulders, her face softening affectionately as she gazed at him, as if she really saw Aral there and not Simon at all. It was just as well, he thought, that the room was cleared now, apart from servants.
"You'd better come and sit down, then," Cordelia was saying as Simon caught up with them. She gave Simon a strange wondering look. "Was it like this for you, when you first had the chip put into your head?" she asked.
He couldn't query the chip to confirm, of course, but he knew that it would be answering anyway, in Aral's mind, and was not entirely surprised when Aral spoke, as if the words were coming to him without conscious thought. "No, not as bad as this."
"No," Simon echoed as Cordelia looked between them in surprise. "I had already been assessed as a suitable candidate, and prepared. It was difficult to adjust, but I don't think it was as bad as what Aral's experiencing right now."
Cordelia pulled Aral down onto a sofa, and Simon sat on his other side. Alys, after a pause, sat adjacent, her gaze keenly interested.
"Alys thinks this will all just ... fix itself, at midnight," Aral said. "It couldn't be soon enough for me." He seemed to realise what he'd said, and turned to look at Simon. "I don't mean--"
"I've been playing you all evening," Simon said, smiling. "I don't think I'll mind getting back to normal." He paused. "Mostly, anyway." He already knew it would be hard to give up the silence. When he stopped thinking, now, his mind went truly quiet, a soft fresh-snowfall silence that was soothing and clear. He'd been too busy to appreciate it much this evening, but it was something he hadn't felt in years, hadn't expected to feel again. Peace in his head, easy peace that he didn't have to fight the chip to obtain. Aral had no idea what a gift that was. Well, he might, after this evening.
"You might need to go back into the hall," Alys put in, breaking the silence. "Since the, ah, location is significant."
"I think," Cordelia said, "you'd better explain to me what you think is going on, Alys." She looked at Aral and Simon, and opened her hand. "Go on, then, you two. Get yourselves sorted out."
Aral stood up obediently, then extended a hand to help Simon up. Since everything had stiffened for a few minutes of immobility, Simon was not ungrateful. He met Aral's eye and they both smiled. There didn't seem to be any need to say anything.
They went from the antechamber into the Hall of Mirrors, and Simon realised Aral was following him closely, possibly still struggling with visual disturbances. Those had been a bad sign, in other candidates for the chip; Simon himself had rarely experienced them for more than a moment or two. Just as well they would be changing back soon. Even if right now having his chip back again felt a little too much like throwing himself on a grenade. But he was armoured against that grenade, and Aral wasn't.
"I suppose," Aral said, "you'll know every detail of what I did, when this rights itself."
"If I choose to ask, yes. It will all be there." He looked at Aral in a mirrored wall. "Why? Did you do anything you'd rather keep to yourself?"
"I couldn't do anything except sit there and think," Aral replied. "And listen."
Aral, Simon considered, had had access to his entire life, or at least the last fifteen years of it. Every rash word, every wakeful night, every mistake... well, of the entire planet, of the entire galaxy, nobody had more right, and if it changed anything of how Aral thought of him, it would be nothing but justice.
"Have I ever told you," Aral said, "what a privilege it is to serve with you?" He gave an odd inward smile, and Simon knew the chip had answered his question. "I see I have. Twice. Well, this makes a third time." He put his arm around Simon's shoulders, the weight and balance wrong to Simon's instincts, but the confidence was entirely right.
Somewhere, a clock began to strike, and the sound echoed around the room, bouncing from one glass wall to another. The sound made Simon's head spin, and for a wild confused moment he was both Simon and Aral, linked, intertwined. Then he broke away from Aral and stood bent over with his hands on his knees, breathing hard. He was the wrong height, his muscles were wrong, and his head was full of a familiar racket. He managed to pull himself together enough to check on Aral, who was looking equally dazed and shaken, but unharmed, and slowly Simon felt himself settle into his body again, into his skull.
Aral straightened up, and now that he had his chip back, Simon could compare the side-by-side images of Aral as he truly was with his impersonation of Aral. He smiled wryly at the difference. No wonder Cordelia had been so suspicious. He could only hope that none of the other guests had observed Aral with the keen eye of love.
"All well, Simon?"
"Seems to be," he said. "You haven't scratched the paintwork, sir."
Aral laughed, and it was right to hear that laugh in his proper voice. "Glad to hear it. I'm quite sure you haven't--" a quick glance at his own reflection in the mirror "--though I must say it was nice to remind myself what it felt like to be a little younger." He made an extravagant gesture, betraying to Simon just how relieved he was to be back in his own body. "Shall we rejoin the ladies? And then I think you should come back home and have a drink with me. Since I know for a fact that you're off-duty now."
"I suppose I am." And the temptation to return to work at this hour was very easy to resist. He followed as Aral turned back towards the antechamber. He needed to re-establish who he was, in his head, and he knew it would be easier if Aral was around, the weight of his personality pulling Simon back into his proper orbit. Aral put his arm around his shoulders again, and this time the weight was right, body and mind congruent. He leaned a little against Simon, and it occurred to Simon that he wasn't the only one who needed to re-establish himself. Well, they would sort it out together. He looked up at Aral. "Lead on, my lord," he said.
Crossposted at http://philomytha.dreamwidth.org/92