Author's Note: Written for Avantika, who asked for an Alys/Aral story for Winterfair 2011. Please note that this is an AU story and contains a major character death.
The Cetagandan delegation left, the diplomatic staffers followed, and Lady Alys was alone in the conference room. She glared at the seat at the head of the table. The unused seat at the head of the table. If that didn't change, painted faces would be the height of fashion in Vorbarr Sultana within a year.
This time Aral had been too hungover to stir from his bedroom. The previous time he'd sat at the conference table in complete silence for two hours. The time before that... Alys didn't care to recall that particular incident. She wasn't sure whether she was angrier at the Cetagandans for their smug, knowing looks, or at Aral. It was horrible and heartbreaking that Cordelia had been killed rescuing Miles from Vordarian, but Alys' husband had died too and she had loved him and she was still here, trying to keep going.
The worst thing was that the Cetagandans knew exactly what was going on and were taking every advantage of it that they could. And without Admiral Lord Regent Vorkosigan at the negotiating table, making it clear to them that the civil war was over and Barrayar was strong and stable and able to defend herself, they had a lot of advantages to take. If Alys hadn't started to entertain the Cetas here, stalling them and distracting them and attempting to charm them, they would already be approaching other Counts and Ministers, digging yet more tunnels into the shaky foundations of the political edifice, but she wasn't going to be able to hold them for ever. Soon they would start to realise that she had no official brief beyond what she invented for herself and no authority beyond that of being the only High Vor woman in the Residence.
Miles was set to come out of the replicator in a month, but Alys didn't know whether that would change anything, and that uncertainty terrified her. Aral was already neglecting Gregor, leaving him to Drou and Alys. Alys didn't know how you helped a traumatised and grieving child, but she was doing her best for Gregor as well as baby Ivan, and trying to hold both the politics and the children together with soothing words and a confident posture. But it wasn't enough. She didn't know enough, didn't have enough power. She couldn't hold the empire on her own, but it seemed that nobody else was even trying.
Alys' thoughts circled around and around, but she didn't have much time to think before the nursemaid, Loretta, brought Ivan in to her, and she turned her attention to the next of her duties.
It was quarter to four in the morning, and Alys hadn't slept yet. Her flat had been damaged beyond repair after the war, and there wasn't a shortage of space at the Residence even with Aral occupying a set of rooms and one wing burned down. She'd come up to her suite from a tense and difficult party full of unhappy politicians to find Ivan crying and crying, and Loretta at her wits' end, and now Alys was pacing up and down the corridors of the Residence with him on her shoulder, patting his back and singing hoarse lullabies. He wasn't hungry, he wasn't dirty, he wasn't sick. He was just screaming, and the noise went down her spine and flooded her body with hormones, telling her she had to fix it. Now. And she couldn't, and she was so tired, but she couldn't sleep and she couldn't put Ivan down, he was all she had...
A door opened and a man in a worn dressing-gown stumbled out. As he came into the dim light, Alys recognised Aral. He looked terrible, but he seemed to be sober, at least. She paused in her singing.
"Lord Vorkosigan," she said coolly.
"He's not very happy, is he?" Aral observed.
"You are very acute," Alys retorted. "Go back to bed, Aral. There's a session of the Council in the morning."
Aral extended a hand. "I'll take him for a moment."
Alys hesitated, regarding him. Aral hadn't shaved for several days, his eyes were bloodshot and he looked more like a derelict from the caravanserai than a Vor lord, far less the Lord Regent. But nonetheless he was the Lord Regent and he held her oath. She passed Ivan to him wordlessly.
Aral held the baby awkwardly out in front of him. Ivan howled in furious frustration, and Aral balanced Ivan against his shoulder and said, "I know just how you feel, boy," in a low rumble.
Ivan's howls paused.
Aral blinked too, and Ivan shrieked again. "Your mother," Aral said, "is furious with me, young Lord Ivan. I need you to cooperate so that I can get back in her good books again."
Ivan's crying subsided at his voice.
"Keep talking," Alys murmured. "He likes it."
Aral paced down the corridor away from Alys, talking to Ivan. Alys heard the word 'Cetagandans' a few times, and realised Aral was explaining politics to Ivan. Ivan's crying died away, and after a few minutes, she heard the familiar sound of his little snore.
"There you are," Aral said.
"Come put him in his cot," Alys replied, opening the door to the nursery. Loretta had fallen asleep in an armchair, and Alys didn't blame her. With the stomach-churning tension of Ivan's screaming gone, she felt like she could lie down on the carpet here and go to sleep herself. Aral laid Ivan down in the cot very, very cautiously, but Ivan was exhausted now and didn't so much as stir.
"Thank you," she said.
Aral stood and looked into the cot for a moment, then drew her away with a hand on her arm.
"I think I will abdicate," Aral said. "You're right. I'm useless to you, to Barrayar, to Gregor."
Alys looked at Aral for a moment, then raised her hand and slapped his face. "What," she said in a fierce undertone, "makes you think this is a good time to have this conversation with me? I haven't slept in days. You, on the other hand, have done nothing but sleep."
"Oh, that's not true," Aral said. "I've thrown up quite a lot too."
Now seething with fury, Alys slapped him again. Aral, bizarrely, smiled, caught her arm and led her back into the corridor.
"We should make you Regent," he said. "You'd do it well. I suppose I deserved that. Feel free to do it again."
Alys gave him a look that should by all rights have frozen him solid. "You cannot abdicate," she said. "My Lord Regent," she added bitterly. "Your name is the only thing that is holding this planet together."
Aral paced along the corridor, wheeled, came back and sat abruptly down on the hand-woven carpet, his head bowed. "I don't care," he whispered. "I don't care. I want to care, but I can't. Can't feel anything. I keep thinking that when I'm drunk enough, I'll be able to cry, but I can't. I can't do any of this."
Alys' head lowered. "Do you think I don't know?" she replied, kneeling down beside Aral. "Every time I turn around, I think he's behind me, and then I remember."
Aral gave a low grunt, like a man punched in the guts. Then he reached out and pulled her into his arms, and Alys felt her eyes prickle and her throat close. She swallowed, swallowed again, and set her face.
"And what of Miles?" she demanded, breaking away again and sitting back on her knees. "After you abdicate and Barrayar falls into chaos and the Cetagandans attack? Gregor, too."
There was a thick, heavy, dangerous silence. Alys could hear Aral's breathing in the dim corridor, suddenly loud in her ears.
"We must have peace," she said. "You know that. And you are the only man who can give it to us now. You know that too. If you want to abandon your post and walk away, you must first find your replacement. And there is nobody I can see who can do the job but you."
"I can't do this," Aral repeated. "I know you're right. I know I'm not ... I know. But I can't do it." He looked at the door of the nursery. "You manage it," he said softly. "How?"
"What else is there?" she answered. "He cries, so I have to pick him up, and he has to be fed, so I feed him, and he has to be safe, and so I have to make this planet safe. Turning around and walking away isn't an option."
"I was just starting to get the hang of the politics," he said. "It was working, just about. Now I can't remember how I did it. And being a father... I don't know anything about it."
"Raise your head and go in," Alys murmured. "That's what my grandmother always said, when we were shy about going into a party or something. Raise your head and go in. I do that a lot, now."
Aral lowered his head. "You're braver than I am."
There was a long silence. Alys waited wearily. She didn't feel anger any longer, only an unhappy comprehension. Gently, she took Aral's hand and held it. He offered a hint of a smile.
"Cordelia," Aral said unexpectedly, the syllables of her name short and hard on his lips as if he might lose her again by naming her, "told me that she could have had children on Beta any time she wanted, either by cloning or with donated cells. But she didn't, because she wanted to have a co-parent." He let out his breath slowly and lowered his head to rest on her shoulder. "I think she's - she was right," he went on. "I need a co-parent, with Miles." He made a gesture towards the nursery door. "I think perhaps you do as well."
Alys went very still. "What are you saying?" she said at last, thought she was pretty sure she knew.
"And," Aral went on, "I think if I'm going to do this - any of this, politics or parenthood or even just surviving - I need an ally. I need someone I trust at my back. I need a Regent-Consort." He sat up and drew a little back from her. "Alys, if I sent you a Baba, what would you tell her?"
"You're already neglecting Gregor, and all your duties," Alys said at last. "What makes you think you'd be a suitable co-parent for anyone?" But even as she spoke she saw Ivan calming at the sound of Aral's voice. Probably, she thought, it reminded him of his father's voice, which he had heard so often before he was born.
"I can do better," he said, stung. "Cordelia said -"
"I'm not Cordelia," Alys said flatly. "I'm not going to turn into Cordelia. And you're not Padma. If - if this goes any further, we cannot forget that." She paused. "Also, if this is a strategy to get someone who will look after Miles for you whilst you drink your way to the grave -"
Aral shook his head, wincing. "I know things have to change. I'm asking in all honour," he said. "Such as it is." He paused. "I wouldn't... make any demands on you, or, or, interfere in your -" he waved his hand helplessly. "This would be a partnership for raising children, and for politics."
"For politics, your consort would need to be above reproach," Alys said, batting this suggestion away. "What of other children?" she asked after a moment.
"I cannot, I will not, have another son. A daughter - Alys, I think we'd do better to see that we can care for the children we have, first. But perhaps..."
"Perhaps." Alys sat in silence for a while, considering this strange proposal.
"A month," she said finally. "I'm not marrying a man who can't stay sober for three days. Show me you can do your part, that you can govern and care for Gregor and for Miles. Then - then, in a month, send your Baba, my lord."
She stood up gracefully. Aral's eyes on her were alert now. "A challenge," he murmured ironically. "How can I resist?"
It was a small and quiet wedding, befitting their mourning state, but even a small and quiet wedding required time and preparation when it was the Lord Regent who was marrying, and Miles was three months old before Alys spoke her vows in the wedding circle, and was answered by Aral, pale and stern and determined.
In a quiet moment between the ceremony and the party that evening, Alys discovered far more than she'd wanted to know about what had been going on at Vorkosigan House before the war had begun.
"My daughter," General Count Piotr said, embracing her kindly, "I am glad to welcome you to my House."
Alys bowed her head respectfully to the old man.
"I am glad," he went on, "that my son has chosen a true Vor for his wife at last. Tell me, my dear, do you mean for him to adopt Ivan as his son and heir?"
"It would not be either of our wishes," Alys said carefully. "He will stand as father to Ivan, of course, but Ivan remains Padma's heir alone."
"Ah. That's a pity." He looked at her, up and down as if inspecting a horse or a soldier, and Alys flinched a little. "But you are true Vor," he repeated, "and now you are Lady Vorkosigan, and there is a duty that falls to you." His fingers flicked at his hip, a movement of experience, and then there was a small knife in his hand. Alys recognised the style. A mother's knife, unblunted. He extended it to her, tip pointing downwards.
"It is your duty now," he said, "to keep the blood of my House pure."
Alys looked at the knife, at the Count's freezing eyes, and her heart began to pound. She pictured the tiny, tiny child she had been holding just a few hours ago, cradling him with tremendous care as he looked up at her with eyes too big for his face, and her stomach turned over.
In a voice that seemed to come from a long way off, she spoke. "I am Vor," she answered, "and I never knew it was the part of any Vor to come between a wife and her husband." She met the Count's eyes for a terrifying moment, then turned in a swirl of dark skirt, leaving him standing still holding the knife.
She didn't begin to run until she was out of sight, and she didn't start shaking until she reached the nursery. Bothari was standing inside the door. He stirred as she entered, watching her as she went to collapse on the chair by Miles's specially-made cot. She put her face in her hands.
The door opened again, and Alys jumped convulsively, expecting the Count, but it was Aral. Alys tensed, trying to work out whether and how to tell him what had just happened, but when she looked at his face she saw that he already knew. He came over to Miles' cot and placed his hand, very lightly, over the sleeping infant. Miles's body was barely longer than his hand.
Alys tilted her head back to look up at him, at the grim lines on his face. He put his other hand on her shoulder, then bent and kissed her forehead. It was, strangely, more intimate a gesture than the staged and formal kiss at the end of the wedding, and Alys let herself lean against him, knowing that in this battle, in all battles now, they would be allies.
They settled into a stable partnership without fuss, presenting a united face against political enemies and supporting each other in the many ups and downs that caring for the three children entailed. Aral discovered in himself a strong paternal streak, and began to spend all his lunch breaks with the boys, taking Gregor from his tutor and whisking Ivan and Miles away from the nurses and nannies for stories or adventures and playing in the Residence gardens. Alys liked to watch when she could, because she saw so different a view of Aral there: sitting perfectly still holding Miles when he cried, crawling around with Ivan riding on his back horse-fashion, being pelted with snowballs by Gregor.
And in politics they made an excellent team. Alys drove Counts and Ministers into Aral's nets, and Aral never missed her signals or fouled her ploys. It was just as well, because things were very difficult even after Aral had forced the Cetas to back down. The war reparations and sanctions after Escobar from the Betan League of Interstellar Trade were driving the Imperial Treasury to disaster, the Counts were rebellious, the Ministers terrified, the Komarrans restive and the General Staff wanted to blow something up. Vordarian's supporters were broken, but barely a month went by without Illyan coming to them with another new plot he was trying to root out on a shoestring budget and with his own grip on ImpSec still tenuous.
But despite this, there remained always a reserve between them, a border that could not be crossed. Alys wasn't sure whether it should be crossed or whether she wanted it to be crossed. It occasioned no remark that they each had their own suite: such arrangements were not uncommon amongst the Vor, and with two babies in the nursery and Aral often up at strange hours to deal with the inevitable disasters that always seemed to break at the worst possible time, it would have made sense even for a less formal marriage. But sleeping alone was strange after years of sharing a bed with Padma.
In the small hours of the night, Alys woke abruptly from unpleasant dreams of faceless black-clad soldiers chasing her through endless narrow alleys, hearing a cry. She sat up in bed and listened, and heard the cry again, strangely strangled, and she couldn't quite tell whether it was Ivan or Miles. Quietly, she got up and put on a robe and slippers and opened the door to the nursery, but it was silent. Alys walked past Ivan and Miles's cots and Gregor's low bed, moving silently so as not to disturb the night nurse dozing in her curtained alcove. She paused by Gregor's bed for a while. He had been offered his own room, as he'd had before, but he had asked to share the nursery with the babies. Alys could see that he was hoping to be treated like a baby himself for a time, seeking that lost maternal security, and she had allowed him to have his way for a time. She'd thought he would have grown tired of the frequent disturbances and the injunctions to play quietly and not disturb the babies, but instead he seemed to take comfort in it.
Then she heard the cry again and realised it was coming from Aral's room. Uncertainly, Alys opened the door from the nursery to her husband's room and stood in the doorway. He was muttering in his sleep, his words incomprehensible but his tone urgent, frightened, raw. His voice raised suddenly, and Alys hastily slipped in and closed the door behind her before he woke the babies or frightened Gregor.
Aral thrashed around in the bed and cried, "No, no, stop -" and Alys jumped.
She reached for a lamp and turned it on, low enough not to be a shock, and said clearly, "Aral." She approached a few steps closer. "Aral, you're dreaming. Wake up."
His eyes opened unseeingly, he twisted in the sheets and mumbled something.
"Aral," Alys repeated a little more sharply, and his eyes suddenly fixed on her. She stood still as awareness slowly returned, then came closer.
"Alys," he rasped, sitting up. He was drenched in sweat and shivering. Alys picked up a towel from the rail and offered it to him wordlessly, then perched on the side of his bed and circled her hand on his back whilst he wiped his face and got control of his breathing.
"Didn't mean to wake you," he said at last. "I'm sorry, m'lady."
"I thought it was one of the babies," Alys said. "It's all right." She didn't ask what he'd been dreaming of. She might be his wife now, but she didn't have the right to invade his privacy about such a matter.
"No," Aral returned. "I'm afraid I'm not much better a sleeper than they are." He wiped sweat from his neck. "Thank you," he said. "I'll be fine now. You should go get some sleep whilst you can."
Alys drew back her hand a little reluctantly, and gave him a long appraising look. "Very well." She paused. "I wasn't entirely sorry to be disturbed, you know," she added. "I wasn't having much better dreams."
"Padma?" he asked gently.
Alys nodded, suddenly feeling very cold, curling in on herself. Aral put a hand on her shoulder. "My lady," he murmured, "I know I'm not much of a husband, but whatever comfort I can give is yours."
She leaned a little towards him, and he pulled her in. He was cold too, she realised, still damp with sweat, the hairs on his arms standing up. "You'll freeze," she said, and pulled the blankets up a bit, trying to cover him. Aral gave a sudden crooked smile and drew her close under the blankets with him.
"Stay?" he breathed, very gently, as if coaxing a shy horse nearer.
In answer, Alys pulled the blankets over both of them and curled up in Aral's arms.
It was so much better than returning to her own cold bed with the vast empty gap on her right side where Padma had slept. Aral said quietly, "Let's see if this helps, then."
Alys heard herself yawn, an unladylike sound, and inhaled deeply, smelling Aral on the sheets, heavy musk from his body. It was surprisingly unobjectionable. She felt herself relax slowly, felt Aral relax too.
In the companionable silence, Aral spoke. "I won't insult your intelligence by trying to persuade you that I married you because I fell in love. You were there, after all." His arm around her tightened a little. "But I will say that you have become very dear to me. It may have been a choice in desperation and grief, but it was not a bad decision."
Alys nestled in alongside him, hearing his heart beat in his chest. "Indeed it was not. And... I would not have married a man if I did not believe I would come to care for him."
She felt the little sigh that went through him, and stroked a hand over his shoulder affectionately. It wasn't, she thought, the kind of love that would drive someone to cross a galaxy, that would bring a man back from his own living grave. But it was real, and here, and true. Aral held her close and kissed her hair lightly, and Alys let herself drift off to sleep in her husband's arms.
She woke to the sound of Ivan and Miles and Gregor in the nursery, and found Aral still beside her, sound asleep, one arm still draped over her. She stirred a little, and he woke at once.
They looked at each other for a moment, and Alys tentatively smiled. "Did you sleep well?" she asked.
Aral propped himself up on one elbow. "Much better."
Alys' smile grew more confident. "So did I."
"No, Lord Gregor -" they heard from the nursery, and the adjoining door burst open. Gregor galloped with Ivan crawling at full speed behind, and the nursery-maid followed a little helplessly, holding Miles.
Aral abruptly got out of bed. "What's this? An invasion?" He took Miles from the maid and nodded thanks to her, closing the door firmly. "An invasion of wild dogs, perhaps?" He swung Miles into the air and play-rushed at Gregor and Ivan, growling like a dog. Gregor burst out laughing and jumped onto the bed, hiding behind Alys. She hastily rescued Ivan, who was trying to climb onto the bed on his own, and Miles and Aral landed on the bed next to them.
Yes, Alys thought as they all sat on the bed laughing, it had been a good decision.