philomytha (philomytha) wrote,

fic: dark clouds gathering

My first fic of the decade, and it's the one where Simon fast-pentas Alys. This one involved a sudden panic this morning when I realised I'd messed up some of the canon details, but working out what really happens in canon has helped me figure out a bit more of what was going on, so that was helpful in the end.

So here it is:

dark clouds gathering (6805 words) by Philomytha
Chapters: 1/1
Fandom: Vorkosigan Saga - Lois McMaster Bujold
Rating: Teen And Up Audiences
Warnings: Creator Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings
Relationships: Simon Illyan/Alys Vorpatril
Characters: Alys Vorpatril, Simon Illyan, Count Vordrozda, Count Vorhalas
Additional Tags: Barrayaran politics, Interrogation, truth drugs, Angst, Book: The Warrior's Apprentice

The close relatives of suspected traitors must be questioned by ImpSec. For the most high-ranking, the Chief of ImpSec performs the interrogations himself. And everyone knows that Lord Ivan Vorpatril is ruled by his mother.

The morning sun gleamed redly on the groundcar's long bonnet, making it glow like fine black silk by candlelight. Christos pulled up at the Residence entrance, jumped out and came around to open Lady Alys's door. Alys was halfway out when he suddenly turned, moving in front of her in well-drilled reaction.

Four black-uniformed guards were marching towards the groundcar, Horus eyes glinting on their collars. It was not the approach of an honour guard. Alys straightened her skirts and stood up, moving past Christos, though she had to force her legs to carry her smoothly. "It's all right," she murmured to him. It wasn't, but Christos could not hold off the entire of ImpSec and she could not win this battle by force. Could not win any battle by force. And her heart was clear away from her this time, not trapped in her body but safely hidden, just another Vorish cadet in the Academy. That idiot Ivan, nobody had accused that idiot Ivan of conspiring against the Emperor. She had seen to that. His mother, though, that was a different matter.

"Lady Alys Vorpatril," the lead guard said. He was a middle-aged man in corporal's tabs, running a little to fat. Alys could picture him in his shirtsleeves at the breakfast table with a rabble of boistrous children, a perfectly pleasant family man. He stared at her insolently now. "You are to come with us immediately."

"Go home," she told Christos. Meaning, report in to Cordelia at once, and stay free. "It's fine." Then, to the guard, "Am I under arrest?"

"You are to be detained." The other guards were eyeing Christos, who backed slowly towards the driver's seat of the groundcar, but did not get in, his eyes fixed on her in open distress. Alys went with the arrest squad. They did not lay hands on her until they entered the Residence, when they seized both her arms uncompromisingly. She had been expecting this, had tried to brace herself for it, but she wasn't braced enough. An old panic-reaction kicked in, and helplessly she gasped and flinched from them and tried to pull away. They tightened their grip, but otherwise scarcely seemed to notice her terror. It must be normal for them.

They marched her away from her usual route, towards the main security HQ here. But not into the familiar offices of the Residence guard commander or Simon's own office, but to a small separate room, windowless, guarded.

Inside were four men. Alys took them in: Count Vordrozda, of course, in his full House uniform, his lips tilted in the faintest of smiles. Admiral Hessman, his lackey. Captain Illyan. And Count Vorhalas, standing a little apart from the others, stiff-backed and stern.

It was Illyan who stepped forwards, and his eyes were cold and shallow and as blank as a computer's power lights. "Lady Vorpatril," he said. "You are here to be questioned regarding the activities of your son Lord Ivan Vorpatril. Count Vorhalas and Count Vordrozda are here as witnesses to this interrogation, in accordance with standard protocol. Sit down."

Ivan? No, surely she was being questioned on her own behalf? Her heart pounding, she did not obey at once, and the guards shoved her towards the solitary chair in the centre of the room. She lost her balance and would have fallen if they hadn't grabbed her. Vorhalas drew in his breath, but Illyan didn't seem to notice. The chair didn't slip, and Alys realised it was bolted to the floor. There were rings where she presumed straps could be attached, though the straps had been omitted today. Small mercies. She did not meet Captain Illyan's eye, did not look at him for support, for help, for consolation. He had been under suspicion for weeks, and Hessman would be watching him as closely as her. Safety for both of them lay in following through this ritual as precisely as the steps of a dance. She smoothed out her skirt and sat up straight, controlling her shaky breathing.

"Do you consent to be questioned under fast-penta?" Illyan went on once she was seated, standing just close enough that it was uncomfortable having to look up at him. It had been years since Captain Illyan had been able to make her feel uncomfortable.

Fast-penta. Alys knew it well by repute, but had only once seen a person under it: Padma, grinning wretchedly with anguished eyes. He'd been triple-dosed, they'd told her when his body had been retrieved after the cease-fire began, triple-dosed to force him into betraying her and Ivan. Now--now would she be the one to betray Ivan? She would be able to hold nothing back, every foolish thought and stray idea spilled out in front of Vordrozda and Hessman. And in front of Captain Illyan. She swallowed.

"Fast-penta?" she echoed aloud, and tried not to let her voice shake. Illyan had told her, from time to time, that this or that piece of security information had been obtained through fast-penta interrogation, and she had accepted it blandly, not thinking about the details of the process. Now she would find out exactly what it looked like.

"Yes. Do you consent?"

This too, Alys knew, was a step in the dance. Refuse consent, and be arrested. She looked from one face to the next, and stopped at Count Vorhalas. Vordrozda and Hessman were openly her enemies, and Illyan could not show her the least sign of favour. Vorhalas was not her friend, but he was not wholly her enemy either, and he might give her some cover. She could not understand why he was here at all; Vordrozda surely would not have chosen him as a witness.

"Given the sensitivity of your work in the Residence," Count Vorhalas said, "refusal of consent in this situation would prevent you from continuing in your duties afterwards, regardless of whether the interrogation found anything of concern."

"I see." She had won a little ground from him there, he was talking to her as if she did not already know that. People underestimate you, Simon had told her once. I underestimated you. Now she needed Vordrozda and Hessman to underestimate her too, even under fast-penta. "Very well, then. I consent." She carefully pulled back the sleeve of her navy gown, exposing her forearm on the arm of the chair. A shiver went over her, unstoppably, and she set her lips.

Captain Illyan bent and applied the patch test without further words, careful not to touch her skin. Everyone stood and waited in silence for the minute it took to work. Alys tried to hold on to her poise, keep her face calm and ignore the men standing over her, but her stomach was churning. Something had happened with Ivan, Vordrozda was making another move, and she had no control over what she would tell these men. Oh Ivan, what have you done?

The minute passed and no welt appeared on her arm. Captain Illyan bent and put the hypospray to the inside of her elbow, and this time he did hold her forearm still. His hands were very cold.

"Count backwards from ten," he said, stepping back, and she did.

This is going to be dangerous, she thought, but by the time she reached three, she was not afraid any more. It was the first time she hadn't been afraid for months. Years, perhaps. Ivan must have done something foolish, but it would be fine. Simon was here. It would all be fine.

Simon was frowning at her. Alys smiled up at him, pleased to see him even in these conditions, and his expression grew colder.

"Lady Vorpatril," he said, "you are now under fast-penta. You will only speak to answer my questions. Do you understand?"

"Yes, of course," she said. She didn't want him to look so distant and unhappy.

He asked her simple questions first, her name, her addresses, her family background, her role in the Residence. Alys answered warmly, trying to see if she could make him smile. He didn't. A part of her was aware that she shouldn't, that she should be careful, but that part seemed very quiet and far away and unimportant. She felt comfortable, insulated from trouble and worry, just her and Simon, chatting. There were other men around, but they were standing back, and she didn't have to think about them. It was nice not to have to think about things. The little room felt pleasant now, its military austerity softened into pleasant simplicity. Even the hard chair was perfectly adequate for her needs.

Simon's attention seemed to sharpen, and she sat up straighter, wanting to be helpful. Simon relied on her help so often, and she was glad to be able to ease his burdens a little.

"Where is Lord Ivan Vorpatril?" he asked, his voice taking on that deceptively gentle tone that meant extreme danger.

But this wasn't a difficult question, this was easy, so easy that she giggled in relief. "He's at the Academy, of course. The Imperial Military Academy. It's his first year. You know that, I was telling you only last week about his grades in--"

"He is not at the Academy," Simon interrupted her. She knew, distantly, that she didn't like being interrupted, though the feeling of annoyance was oddly muted. "Where is he?"

"It's rude to interrupt," she said, distracted. "You should know that, you--"

"Answer the question," Simon said, interrupting again. His voice was still level, but even so Alys blinked up at him in bemusement. Simon was usually so careful and polite. It worried her that he was being impolite now, it made her afraid of what else he might do. "Lord Ivan is not at the Academy. Where is he?"

"He is at the Academy," she said stubbornly. "He vidded me only last week. I asked his senior officer to make him vid me once a week, and he's very good about it. He's at the Academy. He's safe there." But Simon was frowning as if she'd said the wrong thing. The lights in the room seemed dimmer. Why didn't he believe her? She was under fast-penta. He should know that meant she was telling the truth.

Simon took a step closer to her. "Lord Ivan Vorpatril left the Imperial Military Academy last night, without orders or leave, without telling anyone where he was going. We believe he may have gone to the shuttleport."

Alys rocked back in her chair as if he'd struck her, as if he'd lashed her across the face with a riding whip. "No! That's ridiculous! Why would he do that?"

"Can you explain why he would do this?" he continued. Alys tried to get a good look at his face, but he leaned over her uncomfortably.

"No. He's not supposed to leave, he'll get into trouble. I don't want him to get into trouble." Ivan, vanished. First Miles had gone offworld, and all this awful mess had started, and now Ivan had gone too and it didn't make sense, nothing made sense. She shifted in the chair and ran her hands over her face. "It doesn't make any sense," she said out loud. "There's no reason for Ivan to go anywhere. All he had to do to be safe was stay where he was and behave himself. I've told him that. I've told him so many times, and I told him that if he didn't listen to me he'd end up in trouble, and now he has." She turned her gaze up again. Simon did not look happy. Simon rarely did look happy, but he seemed angry with her now, and it made her feel sad, and scared, and alone.

"Did you arrange for Lord Ivan to go to the shuttleport?" Simon asked when she stopped talking. "Is he going to his cousin Lord Miles Vorkosigan on Beta Colony?"

"Of course not. He's studying at the Academy, not on Beta. He's not half-Betan, there's no reason he should need a Betan education." She wanted to think about where Ivan might have gone, and why, but she couldn't concentrate on her own thoughts. She gave Simon a frustrated look. If he would only be quiet for a bit perhaps this ridiculous drug would let her think...

"Did you tell him to leave the Academy or go anywhere else?"

"No! I didn't tell him to go anywhere. I told him to pay attention to what his instructors say, try his best, and not run after prole girls. I don't want him bringing me a prole daughter-in-law, even an offworlder would be better than that, Vorpatrils have never married proles." She didn't see any change in Simon's expression, but a thought occurred to her anyway, and she went on, "I don't mean--"

"Did you arrange for anyone else to take Lord Ivan away from the Academy?" Simon interrupted again, his tone exactly the same as it had been before.

"No," she said quietly. She'd upset him. She hadn't meant to say that, but it was fast-penta, it was true. Vorpatrils couldn't flirt with proles, even brilliant-eyed ones with calm voices and strong hands. Simon's hands were by his side, perfectly still. He was always so still, he reminded her of some lean waterbird waiting for its prey to swim by, poised, then a single flash of lethal movement so swift that you might think you imagined it. Now she felt like a fish.

He leaned in sharply and she flinched away. His expression didn't change. "Why has Lord Ivan left the Academy?"

"I don't know."

"Why has he gone off-world?"

"I don't know," she said again, but the questions distracted her from Simon and she leaned back, thinking about it. Her thoughts emerged from her lips unstoppably. "Perhaps he's going to have fun. He was so jealous that Miles got to spend a student year on Beta, he wanted to go there too. Not that he'll bring me back a Betan daughter-in-law either. At least, I hope not, I love Cordelia but one of her is quite enough for the planet." She saw Vordrozda choke back a smile at that, and wanted to smile back at him, but her ideas were still flowing so she continued to speak, "Besides, it's too soon for him to marry anyway, not before Gregor marries."

"Why shouldn't Lord Ivan marry before the Emperor does?"

Alys turned, startled, because that wasn't Simon, that was Count Vordrozda who had asked the question. She looked between them in confusion, because Simon had told her only to answer his questions, but she could feel the answer starting to come into her mind and out her mouth anyway.

"It is inadvisable to have more than one questioner in a fast-penta interrogation, sir," Simon said, interrupting her just as she was drawing breath to speak.

"This is pertinent, Captain. Carry on."

Vordrozda didn't give orders to Simon, that was wrong. Alys opened her mouth to say that too, but before she could, Simon asked, "Why shouldn't Lord Ivan marry before the Emperor does?" and her thoughts flipped back to their original track.

"People would want to make him Gregor's heir, if he was married and had children and Gregor didn't. I want grandchildren, but not if my daughter-in-law has to go through what I went through. I want them to live. I want them to have quiet lives." She could remember things too clearly under fast-penta, things she didn't try to remember, things she didn't like remembering. "I want everyone to have peaceful lives. Nobody should have to see--" Her voice faltered. Simon remained perfectly still. "Nobody should have to watch their husband like that, he was under fast-penta too, I could see his face when they shot--"

Vorhalas coughed loudly, and Simon moved abruptly back, making her feel dizzy, losing the thread of her thoughts. She held on to the arms of the chair, her gaze following him as he moved. He was watching Vordrozda and Vorhalas and Hessman too, she thought. He always watches everyone. His eyes seemed huge, empty, the openings of a vast camera. Alys stared up at him and couldn't think at all.

"Does that suffice, sir?" Simon asked, and he was speaking to Vordrozda again. Alys closed her eyes, and the room swam around her. If Vordrozda answered, she couldn't tell. She couldn't think on her own, her mind would only do what Simon told it to do. Wasn't it enough? She opened her eyes again, but it didn't help.

"Do you love your son, Lady Vorpatril?" Simon asked, his words disrupting her dazed thoughts like bombs landing. She tried to think about that question, but was distracted by Count Vorhalas, who was frowning again as if he didn't like something. "Do you love your son?" Simon asked again, leaning in, and this time she was able to parse the question, and she laughed, and then she couldn't stop laughing, or possibly she was screaming, she wasn't sure of the difference from the inside. Simon made a cutting gesture at her, so sharp it seemed to slice the air. "Do you love your son?"

She gulped, swallowed, breathed, and answered, "Of course I love him. Of course I do. Ivan is all I have. Ivan, my little Ivan." Thinking about him calmed her, he always calmed her, she had to be calm and steady for him, be his mother and his father both. "Ivan, my beautiful boy, and they want to kill him, so many people want to kill him, is that why he vanished, do you think? Please, tell me, is that why--"

"This is not an investigation into a death," Simon said, and his tone was angry, as if he was annoyed at her question, but Alys felt only relief. Not a death. Not yet. Ivan wasn't dead.

Simon took a step to one side, and her gaze followed him. "And do you tell your son what to do, Lady Vorpatril?"

She managed to gather her thoughts, though odd giggles kept escaping her. Simon was still looming over her, but there was an inward look on his face now, the camera turned upon itself, remembering something. Something sad. But that wasn't what he'd asked her about, so she didn't mention it.

"Of course I do. I have to. He needs me to tell him what to do." Ivan needed her to escape these questions, needed her to find out what had happened to him and fix it, and she couldn't, she couldn't...

"Why is that?" Simon interrupted her thoughts.

"Ivan has no sense at all. That idiot Ivan," she added, and giggled again. Believe something long enough, and it becomes true. "He'd get mixed up in politics if I didn't keep him out of it. He has no sense."

Simon said nothing, so she continued.

"You know there have been plots. People try to get him involved, try to drag him into their schemes and their treason, and he doesn't understand how to avoid it. I have to be so careful with him, and make sure he never gets mixed up these plots."

"What kind of plots?" Simon asked, his voice frighteningly gentle again.

"Plots to make him Emperor." Alys stared up at Simon in misery. She shouldn't be talking about this. Nobody should ever talk about this, not in public, not so bluntly. Why wouldn't he stop asking?

"And do you believe your son could become Emperor?" Simon's voice was very quiet now.

"Yes, he could," Alys said, and wished she could choke on the words instead. But the fast-penta wouldn't let her, and it was true, and she knew it was true. Simon had to know it was true too, why would he ask all these questions otherwise? Vordrozda was watching with gleaming eyes, and Alys tried to explain. "People have tried, you know that. But it would be a disaster. Gregor is much better," she went on earnestly. "Ivan would hate to be Emperor."

"You believe your son does not want to be Emperor?"

"Of course he doesn't. Ivan's lazy. It would be far too much work for him."

"And do you want your son to be Emperor?"

Alys gasped aloud. "No!" she said. "No. I--no. Never. Please, never. Don't even think about it."

"You are very emphatic," Simon stated. "Why is that? Is there someone else you want to be Emperor?"

"Gregor is the Emperor. We have given him our oaths. I want Ivan to live. If he was Emperor someone would kill him. People have tried to kill him just for being related to Gregor. They've tried to kill me. I want Ivan to live," she repeated, staring imploringly up at Simon. Surely he understood this.

"And so you tell him what to do, and advise him to avoid politics?" Simon said.

"Yes." Alys began to laugh again, at being understood. Of course Simon understood. "Yes."

Simon took a step back from her, and his eyes were absolutely hard and cold. "Then how can such a mother, a mother who dotes on her son and carefully manages his life, not know when that son suddenly runs away and deserts his post?"

The condemnation in his tone was like another blow, and her laugh changed to a gasp, and another, then a sob. Tears escaped her eyes, but the need to answer the question overrode all else, and her voice broke and stuttered as she said, "I don't know, I don't know where he's gone, and I don't know why he didn't tell me. I don't know. I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I don't know."

Some distant part of her was furious, was mortified, but that distant woman had no control over her words or actions. Simon showed her no mercy, looking at her with the same cold emptiness he had worn throughout this interrogation.

"This seems very unlikely. Did you tell your son to leave the Academy?"

"No," she breathed. She'd answered this already, she'd told him already. "I told you this already, why are you asking me the same thing, please--"

"Did you arrange for anyone else to tell him to leave?"

"No, no. He was safe there. I just want him to be safe, please--" She tried to wipe her face with her hands, but her coordination was confused and she slumped back in the chair instead.

"Did you arrange for him to get passage to Beta Colony?" The question was as impersonal as another hammer blow on a nail.

She tried to speak, but only a gasp came out. Simon stood waiting. She didn't know what she'd done to make him look at her with so much cruelty. He'd already asked her these questions, but she must have given him the wrong answers. She wanted to give him the right answers. Simon always needed the right answers, or he couldn't do his job. It was her job to make sure he had those answers. But this was the truth, and she had to say it. "No," she whispered. "No, I didn't."

"Did you ask him to find Lord Vorkosigan?"

"No. I didn't ask him to do anything. I didn't know he was gone. I don't know where he is. Please, Si--" Her voice choked on a sob, and distantly, she was grateful. Even weeping was less undignified than this helpless pleading. Simon watched her impassively.

"Did you--"

"This is a waste of time," said Vordrozda across whatever Simon was going to ask. Alys blinked up with tear-blurred eyes, not knowing who or what to answer. Ivan was gone. Ivan was gone and she didn't know where he was and nor did Simon. "She doesn't know anything about this. Give her the antidote."

"Standard procedure would be to continue for at least ten more minutes to cover all the possibilities," Simon said, still in that empty voice. "Fast-penta means you have to ask the same questions many different ways to be sure. These emotional reactions are quite normal, nothing for you to be concerned with."

"No. Give her the antidote and move on." Vordrozda grimaced. "If she's really not mixed up in it, I've got to work with her, and so do you."

"Very well, sir."

Admiral Hessman came forward with a second case. Alys turned worried eyes up to him. She did not want Hessman to touch her. Simon moved sternly between them, took the case and removed the hypospray. "This is the fast-penta antidote," he said. "You may feel unwell. Remain still."

She flinched back as he leaned over her. He ignored this, took her forearm in one cold hand, and pressed the hypospray to her skin. "Count to ten."

By the time she reached seven, she felt as nauseous as if she had morning sickness again, and the room swam around her. Captain Illyan watched her, still cold and hard-faced. She wanted to think it a mask, but knew it was something more fundamental, the side of ImpSec she tried to avoid seeing. The side he tried to avoid showing her. Interrogating sobbing women without feeling anything was part of his job.

"Eight, nine, ten," she whispered, staring fixedly at the wall, willing herself not to vomit in front of this audience. Though if she did, a small part of her said, she would aim for Vordrozda's shoes. But she sat still and the sensation passed.

Four pairs of male eyes regarded her, and she did not move, not even to wipe the messy tears from her face. The misery of the drug was nothing compared to the much deeper panic she felt now. Ivan. Ivan was missing, something had happened to him, he was gone and he was involved. She was cleared, for what good that would do her. She had no wish to be cleared, if Ivan was condemned, but the cruelty of fast-penta was that it gave her no way to push back, no way to reverse their suspicions.

Captain Illyan said, "This interrogation is concluded."

"Indeed," said Vordrozda. "I think it's clear that whatever dangerous, ah, activities Lord Ivan may be implicated in, Lady Alys is ignorant of it. She is not involved in his disappearance. Very well, Lady Alys, this is over, you can go back to work now and forget about this." He paused, and gave her a little smile that made her wish she had vomited on his shoes. "And should you learn anything of what your son is doing, do not forget that it will be in his best interests as well as yours if you report immediately to the proper authorities."

Captain Illyan neither looked at her nor spoke again before leaving the room with Hessman and Vordrozda.

Alys closed her eyes when they had left, trying to compose herself. When she opened them again, she realised she wasn't alone. Count Vorhalas was standing several steps away from her, his face averted. Wordlessly, he removed a large, crisply folded handkerchief from his pocket and offered it to her.

She took it shakily, the gesture somehow making her want to cry again, and wiped her eyes, her nose. Her makeup was running, staining the white linen, and she carefully wiped it all off.

"You will wish to rest for a while before returning to your duties," Vorhalas said, looking at a spot somewhere above her head. "Permit me to escort you."

He offered her his arm to stand, and Alys took it. She would not usually have permitted herself to lean on a man so much older than her, but this time she felt shaky and weak enough to be grateful. Vorhalas walked with her to the door, along the corridor, away from the stark security offices. The guards stood impassively by as they left.

She relaxed a little as they reached her own suite of offices, a familiar and comfortable space. The senior maid, Gina, was standing by the wall, her face its usual mask of trained blankness, but Alys knew she had been watching for her return. Gina's aunt was the Vorkosigan House cook; Cordelia would shortly know she was back from interrogation.

"Tea, please," Vorhalas told her, and Gina bobbed a slight curtsey. Vorhalas saw Alys into one of the small reception rooms, into a soft armchair that Alys normally reserved for elderly guests.

"Thank you," she managed, as Vorhalas settled her with punctilious care. Perhaps it was only courtesy that had brought this unexpected attentiveness from him: Vorhalas could be eloquent on the subject of proper courtesy and its decline among the youth of today. But she was not fool enough to spurn an olive branch from Vorhalas. Whatever he wanted, it would not be to embroil her in some further scheme.

Vorhalas took a seat opposite her as Gina returned with a tray, and left again at Alys's nod. Vorhalas poured the tea and handed her a cup himself, and Alys was grateful, because she still felt too shaky to trust herself with the heavy silver teapot.

"I am sorry that you had to endure such a distressing situation," he began, and his usually clipped voice was unexpectedly kind.

Alys held the cup in both hands, letting the warmth seep through the fine china into her skin. "It is ImpSec's duty to do these things," she managed.

"I do not believe," Vorhalas said, taking his own cup, "that there is any honour in questioning a mother over the loyalty of her sons," and Alys swallowed her mouthful of tea and suddenly understood exactly why Vorhalas had volunteered to be a witness, and why he was here with her now. Of course.

"But ImpSec has never had honour or decency," Vorhalas continued. "That was--exactly what I would have expected of them."

It had doubtless been Illyan himself who had fast-penta'd all of Evon Vorhalas's family after the soltoxin attack, fresh in his terror and fury at what had happened to Aral and Cordelia and Miles. Alys did not think he would have crossed the line into open cruelty, but Vorkosigan's Dog would have harried and bitten deep in his pursuit of the truth.

She knew then why she'd had a sense that Illyan had been talking to someone else, had been replaying his chip. The interrogation had been a show for Vordrozda and Hessman, yes, but also a show for Count Vorhalas. Illyan had interrogated both him and his wife, after Evon's treason. It must be a memory burned in Vorhalas's mind. And he would have noticed, if Illyan was gentler to Alys than he had been to them, would have noticed and been suspicious. But Illyan had that memory in his mind too, far more vivid and precise than Vorhalas's. He had been using it to guide his interrogation of her, so as to convince Vorhalas of his sincerity. And, perhaps, to win a little bonus of respect from Vorhalas: Illyan was harsh and exacting in interrogating his friends as well as his enemies. Vorhalas would like that.

Which told her how to play this. Vorhalas was thinking of his distraught wife as he tried to comfort her. She sipped her tea and didn't look up, didn't try too hard to control her still-shaky breathing.

"You had no idea anything had happened to Lord Ivan before this," Vorhalas said, not a question. But then, he didn't need to ask: he had seen her reaction. "It was a cruel way for you to find out. I requested them to tell you beforehand, but I am sorry to say that neither Vordrozda nor Illyan would hear of it. I'm afraid I also have no idea where he may have gone."

"It is... very worrying," she said, and she wasn't sure if she was pretending distress or really feeling it. Vorhalas saw something, because he bent to refill her teacup. "When he gets back--" and she couldn't go on, because there was no 'when', no certainty that he would come back and be hers to scold and lecture and embrace again. There was one thing Illyan hadn't asked, one thing she was absolutely, painfully certain of: if Miles had somehow sent some message to Ivan, requesting his urgent help, Ivan would have gone at once. If Miles had a target on his back, then Ivan would rush in to share it.

"I am sorry," Vorhalas said soberly. "I can make you one promise, my lady. If it is nothing more than some boyish prank, badly mistimed, I will not hear of any punishment more than is fitting for a boyish prank, regardless of what other events are going on around him."

Alys looked up at him then, wide-eyed. Vorhalas's protection for Ivan. It was not a sturdy shield, but it was more than she could have hoped for. She swallowed, struggling with herself. If Vorhalas was willing to commit himself thus far, she should push for more, try to get him to look kindly on whatever ridiculous mess Miles was mixed up in, instead of merely shielding Ivan. She drew breath, trying to force herself to speak.

Count Vorhalas was one of the shrewdest players in Vorbarr Sultana. His lips twisted as he watched her. "I am not going to change my views on what Count Vorkosigan and his heir may or may not be doing," he said, cutting her off before she could try to ask him. "Your loyalty does you credit, my lady, but do not think of it. But there is no reason for all of our sons to be destroyed on the board Vordrozda and Vorkosigan are playing between them."

Alys gave the ghost of a smile. "Then, my lord count, I will respect your forbearance. You will not wish for my gratitude, but you have it nonetheless."

Seated, Vorhalas bowed his head to her in understanding.

It was almost midnight when there was a knock on the door of her office. There had only been a minor event this evening, and she'd survived it as best she could and then retreated to her private office in the Residence. She ought to go home, but she didn't think she could sleep, though she felt as exhausted as if she'd just given birth, empty. She stared at the door, and the knock came again, more hesitant than normal. She had wondered if he would come.

"Enter." Her voice was steady.

Simon stood in the doorway, rigid and even more grim-faced than he had been this morning, holding a flimsy across his body like a barrier between them. "My lady," he said. "I have the vetted lists for next week's events."

"Yes," she said, not rising from her seat on the sofa. "Good."

He entered cautiously, closing the door behind him. In the brighter light of the room, he was almost grey with fatigue, his eyes hollow. He crossed the room to give her the flimsy, and suddenly he was standing over her just as he had during the interrogation. She didn't think she'd reacted or made a sound, but she must have betrayed herself somehow, because Simon froze. Then, slowly, he dropped to one knee to be face to face with her.

"My lady, I am most deeply sorry."

His voice was as sternly controlled as it had been during the interrogation, controlled to gentleness now, his whole body controlled to give the impression of innocuous kindness instead of impersonal cruelty. Alys hated that control suddenly, hated that he should have to pretend anything to her, hated everything that had brought them to this horrendous place. She snatched the flimsy from his hand and tossed it onto her desk, and as he blinked, she seized both of his hands in hers and pulled him up, off the floor and onto the sofa beside her.

"No, you aren't," she snapped. "Why should you be sorry? You did the only possible thing to protect me, to protect us both. How dare you apologise to me for that? You aren't sorry and you have no right to be."

His control fell away then, and she saw his true expression on his face at last, a bitter, comprehending smile. "No," he agreed in a low, intent tone. "No, I am not sorry that I protected you, nor yet that I've kept us all going another day." He studied her again, and instead of the careful gentleness she saw honest worry and pain. "You're bearing up?" he said, only half a question. "There was no possibility of warning you, or telling you what had happened with Ivan. Not that we know much. I haven't had any more news about him, you had it all this morning." The pain on his face was a mirror of hers, she knew. "I have no idea what he is doing, and evidently you haven't either. So far," he added, his voice very soft, "there is no evidence that this is an attempt on his life. I believe he did board a shuttle and leave the planet, but as yet I am not certain which of the five ships that departed this morning he went on. Or why."

She said what he hadn't asked in the interrogation, what she'd been thinking with Vorhalas. "If Miles asked him to go, he'd have gone. Just like this. Damn the boy, damn them both."

"I am aware." Memories flickered behind his eyes, and Alys knew what they were, the thousands of childhood scrapes and idiocies Miles had dragged Ivan into with him.

"How has it worked out?" she asked after a moment. "Vordrozda bought it?"

"So far. And you played Vorhalas perfectly."

"You played Vorhalas perfectly. That's how you interrogated him and his wife, twenty years ago, isn't it? He offered me his protection for Ivan, afterwards."

At that, Simon gave an honest smile. "I knew you would see it. Vorhalas didn't. They don't--nobody does--realise that for me it really is as clear as yesterday, it's easy for me to match my behaviour now to my behaviour then."

"Well, of course." Alys let herself take comfort from leaning against him, just for a moment, his wiry strength at her side. "Will it hold?"

The bitterness returned to his face. "I hope so. You understand, it wasn't Vordrozda who wanted you interrogated today. He was all for waiting and seeing what happened with Ivan. I prompted it, I pushed them to question you at once, fast-penta you in front of witnesses at once. 'ImpSec protocol dictates we cannot leave a potential threat at liberty in the Imperial Residence'," he parroted himself, the cold voice from this morning. "Now you have been cleared, in front of Hessman, in front of Vorhalas, and in front of Vordrozda. ImpSec has conducted a full investigation into you, and you have passed it. You will be safe now, and you will be free to act, later on, whatever happens." After he was arrested, or executed, she knew he meant, and while she wanted to match his detached, wry attitude, she found herself catching up his hands again, gripping them tightly.

"Ah," she said. Then, after a moment, "Good. Thank you." She did not let go of his hands. "It'll be your turn next. Won't it."

"Probably. If Vordrozda and Hessman had a way to download my memory chip they'd have done it already. They think I sent Ivan with a secret message to Miles, for Aral. I have no way to disprove them." Neither his hands nor his voice wavered, but his eyes betrayed him, a brief fear-widening. "Make sure we haven't wasted this," he said at last. He made no move to free his hands. Alys closed her eyes briefly, trying to hold in her mind the warmth of his skin, the strong muscle in the palms of his hands, even the bones of his knuckles. Then she let go, quickly, like cutting a cord.

"You can't stay," she said. "This won't be wasted, Simon. I swear."

She stood up and he put a hand on the table to push himself up, a betrayal of his weariness that Alys was grateful for, knowing he was still unmasked. She brushed a strand of her own silver hair from his sleeve, as fussily pointless as any wife seeing her husband off to war. Simon straightened up and as Alys watched, he reverted to the expression he'd worn when he'd entered, severe and grim, all traces of softness gone now. Alys did not try to touch him then, did nothing to jar his mask. Instead she found herself dropping into a deep formal curtsey, as far as her hips would let her go.

"Captain," she murmured, bowing her head. "Thank you."

His mouth stayed set and hard, but a smile warmed his eyes. "My lady," he said, and left the room.

Crossposted at There are comment count unavailable comments there.
Tags: alys/simon, fics, vorkosigan
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