Captain Lord Rulf Vorhalas reached the bottom of the page, leaned back in his chair, rubbed grit from his eyes and looked at the mechanical clock on the wall. Quarter to three in the morning. He'd been thrilled to receive his first ship command a month ago. He still was thrilled, but that excitement was buried under the discovery of the endless number of problems he had to solve before he could make His Imperial Majesty's light cruiser Revenant spaceworthy. She was a captured Cetagandan ship, old and battered and in need of repairs, but the mark-pinching engineers at the spacedocks argued with every requisition he put in. Worse, his executive officer had been badly injured in a lightflyer accident last week and now Rulf was shuttling back and forth between HQ and orbit trying to do two men's jobs until he could find a replacement. He picked up a fountain pen and scrawled a stiff reply to the quartermaster to the effect that yes, he did need an emergency reserve food supply and no, his men were not going to mysteriously stop wanting to eat, then read through the report from his tactical officer about the ship's combat readiness - bad - and his senior sergeant about the men's training - worse - and tried to choke back another yawn. The words blurred before his eyes, Rulf yawned again, then pushed back his chair. He had to knock off sometime, and he'd barely been home in days. He stood up and made his way to the exit, past the night duty officer, who gave him a smile and a nod. Rulf had got to know all the night duty officers here at HQ, these past few weeks.
The night breeze was cool and refreshing, with a slight drizzle in the air that misted his hair and made fine beading drops on the wool of his greatcoat. In theory, he could have called for his brother's groundcar to collect him, but it was only a mile and the groundcar - another piece of Cetagandan loot - was in the workshop for repairs half the time anyway. He turned and began to walk home.
As he left the wide new streets for the older part of the city, past blocks not yet rebuilt after the Ceta bombings, Rulf checked his stunner and nerve disruptor and turned up the collar of his greatcoat. Most thugs would leave an armed man in the Emperor's uniform alone, but there were always exceptions. But the streets were deserted, at this hour and in this weather.
Not quite deserted. There was a man lurking in the shadows outside a new and luxurious apartment building. Rulf made to walk wide around him, his steps deliberately brisk and military. He shot a glance sideways as he passed, then stopped.
Lieutenant Lord Vorkosigan.
"Aral?" he called.
Aral stepped forwards, then saluted him a little vaguely. Rulf returned the salute. Light from the doorway of the apartment building illuminated Aral's face for a moment, and Rulf pressed his lips together and hurried towards him.
"Aral, are you all right? What happened?" he demanded, looking at the blood running down Aral's face. Aral appeared sober, or mostly sober, for a change, but he seemed not to perceive the blood. He stared blankly back at Rulf, his eyes distant. Rulf grimaced and put a hand on Aral's shoulder and shook him a little. Had he taken one of those new galactic drugs that were gaining popularity among the more dissolute set?
Aral blinked at him a few times, raised a hand, touched his cheek and looked at his bloody fingertips in surprise. "Oh," he murmured. "Damn." He wiped his fingers on his trousers, which made Rulf wince, then said, "It's over."
"Are you all right?" Rulf repeated. "How did you cut your face? What's over, Aral?"
"You were right," Aral went on, still in a low, almost dreamlike voice. "You've been telling me to do this for years. It's over, Rulf. I'm not going back to him." Aral closed his eyes for a moment. Rulf looked around, then realised that they were standing outside Ges Vorrutyer's apartment block, and understood.
"Oh," he said. "Good." Rulf considered the blood on Aral's face and clothes. He'd fought with Ges - fought physically, apparently... could Aral have killed Ges? He wondered how to ask. Aral had that glazed shocky look that Rulf had seen before on men just coming out of combat. "What happened?" he asked. Absently, he dug out a clean handkerchief from his pocket, folded it into a neat pad and gave it to Aral. Aral pressed it to the gash on his cheek.
"He came at me with a broken bottle," Aral said. "After I told him. He said ... lots of things. He knocked me down, and then I knocked him down, and I left."
Rulf glanced up at the building, but Ges didn't seem about to follow Aral down and cause another scene in the street. Though Rulf had his stunner if he needed it, and would be very happy to use it.
Aral stumbled a little, and Rulf put out an arm to steady him. He'd picked up the pieces the two previous times Aral had left Ges, and then had watched helplessly as Aral drifted back into his old patterns again, as if unable to stop himself. Rulf had travelled offworld, had spent two days on Beta Colony and learned more there than he had in his entire life on Barrayar, and he knew that for some men, a plump, smiling and willing girl in a low-cut top was not the pinnacle of their desires, but whatever it was that Aral saw in Ges, Rulf couldn't find it. He'd tried, because he cared about Aral, but came up empty. By their fruits shall you know them, the old phrase went, but the only fruits Rulf saw of this were the way Aral's blazing promise withered, the way he drank and ruined his health and cared for nothing, and occasionally the injuries Rulf patched up. As now. Well, Aral had left him again. That was something.
Aral seemed to sense his thoughts, because he said, "I really mean it, this time. No more."
"Good," was all Rulf said. "Where are you headed now?" he added after a moment. The drizzle was growing heavier.
The question seemed to perplex Aral. He looked around, his head turning in the direction of Vorkosigan House, then away. Count Piotr had called Rulf a week ago, looking older and more tired than Rulf remembered, asking whether Rulf had seen Aral lately, and Rulf had had to say no. The Count had looked grim and cut the comm.
"I don't think I can deal with Father right now," Aral muttered. "In the morning, maybe."
"You can have my sofa if you want," Rulf suggested when Aral seemed to have no further ideas to offer.
Aral lifted his head and offered Rulf a painful-looking smile. "That would be good," he agreed. "Thanks."
They walked through the streets slowly, Aral seemingly exhausted. Rulf had to steer him around the potholes and cracked paving slabs of the old streets. "I do mean it," he said again, his voice distant. "I don't... Rulf, I don't like who I am any longer. I don't want to live this life any more. But I don't know where I went wrong."
"It doesn't matter where you went wrong," Rulf said. "All that matters is what you do now."
"Work, I guess. Though it's boring as hell." Aral went silent, missed a step and leaned hard on Rulf for a moment, then whispered, "And talk to Father. God, Rulf. I don't know what to say to him."
"I wouldn't have thought you have to say much," Rulf said, recalling the Count's lined face. "Just-just show him. By what you do. That you mean it. That's what he wants: to see you do well."
"Yes. I know. And I've let him down."
That trail of thought, Rulf knew from experience, led Aral straight to the bottle. "That's in the past. You don't have to keep doing it just because you did it once."
Aral turned to look at him then. "God. If only that was true."
"It is true. Try it and see for yourself."
"I suppose - I suppose I have to." He sounded deeply uncertain. "The thing is," he went on after a while, "the thing is, Ges is the only person who understands. Understood," he corrected himself, the past tense self-conscious. "Understood that I'm not just the Great General's son, that I'm not worthy to be the Great General's son, that I'm just a mess. Broken."
"Ges wanted you to be a mess," Rulf answered sharply. "So that you'd be like him." He took a deep breath. "People who - who care about you, they want you to be your best, not your worst."
Aral looked down. "I know. But I think I've forgotten how."
Rulf couldn't think of any response to that that wasn't something he'd said a thousand times before to no avail. What use were empty platitudes, anyway? Aral was bright enough to come up with them for himself. They walked the rest of the way in silence, climbed up to Rulf's apartment, and Aral collapsed onto the sofa, eyes closing again. Rulf dug out a first-aid kit and carefully cleaned the gash on Aral's cheek and closed it with surgical glue. "You're going to have a scar," he said.
"It can join the collection," Aral said wearily.
"You hurt anywhere else?" Rulf asked, and Aral shook his head.
"Just bruises." He leaned back against the cushions, and Rulf left him there and went to put the kettle on. Perhaps this time would be different. The last time, Aral had been extremely drunk and had spent almost three hours sobbing on Rulf's shoulder. This time at least he was calm, and reasonably coherent. Perhaps that was a good sign. He made tea and went back to Aral, who was looking around.
"This isn't Vorhalas House," he observed, giving Rulf second thoughts about quite how coherent Aral was. "I didn't think, at first - is there something wrong?"
Rulf shook his head, passing Aral a mug. "It's one of our properties, so I don't have to pay rent. Carl is teething. My sister-in-law says this means it's normal for him to scream constantly for hours and hours, but there's only so much of that I could take. And Evon - well, he's a good kid, but he asks questions all day long. What makes spaceships stay up, why do wormholes work, what happens when you die, why isn't there air in space... he can keep it up for hours too. And with all this work I needed a place where I could hear myself think." He waved a hand in the direction of his desk, piled high with yet more folders and papers.
Aral drank the tea in two swallows and seemed to pull himself into better focus, his attention finally turning outwards from his own pain to the rest of the world. It was always a little disturbing being the focus of Aral's attention, always had been since they'd been boys. He had a stare that seemed to go right through you.
"What on earth were you doing out there at this hour anyway?" he asked. "You look worn out."
"Trying to get my new command outfitted before Doomsday," Rulf said on a sigh. "Revenant."
Aral nodded. He knew every ship in the navy, always had, ever since he'd sat at Prince Xav's knee and listened to space stories. Rulf had been too old for those stories, in theory, but in practice he'd lurked close by to hear them too.
"She's one of the Ceta ships," he observed. "Harder to get parts for. They have to make them specially."
"Don't I know it," Rulf muttered.
"You having problems?"
"Endless problems." Rulf yawned. "I'm sorry, Aral. I've been up since forever. Will you be all right now? There's blankets and stuff in the cupboard, and - just rummage around if you need anything. I'm off to bed."
Aral looked contrite. "Of course. I shouldn't keep you up. Good night."
Rulf squeezed Aral's shoulder in passing, then stumbled to his bedroom to collapse, and even worry about Aral and Revenant wasn't enough to keep him awake.
He woke to a hand shaking him gently. "Rulf. It's almost eight." He sat up with a start. Aral was standing by his bed. Well, Rulf supposed, at least he hadn't gone back to Ges in the night.
Aral had made coffee, too. Rulf gulped down the cup and went to shower and dress. When he returned, Aral was standing in the middle of his sitting-room, looking a bit sheepish. And tired. His eyes were red-rimmed, but no longer with the vague emptiness of last night. Instead, they were alert and watchful.
"I... um, I couldn't sleep," Aral said. "So I took a look at your work." He gestured towards the desk. Rulf blinked at it. The messy heap he'd deposited there had transformed itself into three neat stacks, with a fourth sheaf in Aral's familiar handwriting at the front. "I didn't look at any of the eyes-only folders," Aral added hastily, "only the ship outfitting stuff. These are the critical reports that you really ought to read yourself." He tapped a small stack. "These ones I've summarised for you here -" a much bigger stack, with a sheet of paper in Aral's writing on top. "These are the security ones. And these are some letters I wrote for you to the engineering department and the personnel bureau, dealing with some of the non-critical reports. If you want to use them, you just have to sign them."
Rulf stared. Apparently taking this as criticism, Aral went on quickly, "I hope you don't mind. But I - I felt I owed you, for last night. I kept you up, and..." he sighed, his face turning very sober, "I think if you hadn't come along then, I'd have gone straight back inside again. I didn't know what to do next. I still don't, really."
Rulf picked up one of the letters Aral had written for him. It said everything he wanted to say and three things he hadn't thought of but should have. He picked up the pen and signed it, then the next, and the next, and the next. Aral was watching him intently now. Rulf suppressed the urge to tell Aral that if he felt he owed him anything else, there was a much bigger stack in his office. His pen halted mid-signature.
The problem with Aral was that when Ges lived half a mile from Vorkosigan House, he was going to keep running into him. Rulf's problem was that he didn't have an exec for the Revenant. The wormhole patrol was a very, very long way from Ges's apartment. Carefully, he finished the signature, then looked up at Aral.
"I have permission to select my own exec from the officers' transfer list, after the accident. You're on it. Do you want the job?"
Aral's eyes went very, very wide. Then he looked away. "That's not - I didn't do this so that you would offer me ship duty, Rulf! I just... wanted to help." His voice was angry.
"I understand. But you've done it perfectly. And I need someone, and you can do the job, and - well, we've made a good team before."
Aral stared at his feet. "I'm only on the transfer list because Captain Tierney wants to get rid of me."
"I know." Aral's personnel file from the past few years was full of black marks and demerits and punishment duties. Drunk on duty, poor timekeeping, excessive sick leave - for the hangovers - and 'conduct unbefitting an officer', a catchall for everything from kissing Ges in the corridors of HQ to brawling with the Marines in dive bars. He'd been shuffled from one makework headquarters job to another, the standard approach for handling a Vor scion who was too well-connected to be discharged and too incompetent to be trusted with anything serious. Not someone who would be assigned as exec even on an old Ceta cruiser.
Not unless the captain had seen Aral at his best, and hadn't forgotten.
"We're assigned to Commodore Kanzian's squadron," Rulf added as-if casually. As far as Aral was concerned, Rulf knew, Kanzian walked on water, being one of the few people who could argue strategy with Count Piotr and win. "Jump-point Five. Mine-clearing, guarding the shipping, anti-piracy patrols, fleet manoeuvres and training. But mostly mine-clearing."
The smart-mines had been the Ceta's parting gift, hundreds of thousands of them seeded at each jump point from here to Komarr. Yuri had cleared enough of them to allow a narrow shipping passage, but then decided to leave the rest as a defence, and the fact that Barrayar's best engineers hadn't yet figured out how to control the mines themselves hadn't discouraged him. Ezar had ordered the mines cleared, in the hope of reducing the shipping tariffs by cutting down on the danger of bringing galactic goods to Barrayar, but it was an immense job. But the Revenant, old and battered as she was, had better sensors than any Barrayaran-made ship yet, and would be invaluable to Kanzian.
He could see Aral's mind beginning to go through the same logic, recognising the importance of the work. But then Aral hesitated again. "Your officers wouldn't like it, though, if you bring me in." Aral had made himself thoroughly unpopular with the serious military crowd over the past few years.
"Then you'll have to win them over," Rulf retorted, his tone a deliberate challenge. "Do you have any real objections, Aral? If not, then get your boots on and come with me now. We can sort out the transfer paperwork later; I need you to start at once. I'll talk to Tierney."
Aral came abruptly to attention, somehow not looking incongruous despite his civilian clothes. "Yes, sir," he said. Then, more quietly, "Thank you."
"I'll work you into the ground," Rulf said. "All hours, paperwork and meetings and vid calls and planning. Commodore Kanzian is expecting us to rendezvous with his flag in nineteen days. Are you up to it?"
Aral met his eyes squarely and gave a firm, decisive nod.