Strange what you remember, thought Lord Mark Pierre Vorkosigan, second undersized scion of that name, though doing his level best to make up for it in the only dimension of growth left to him. Galan, his creator and tormentor, dead at his feet. His mother imperturbably telling it like it was damned well going to be to Simon Illyan himself. His father's dry grip around his fingers as he called him boy. The thunk of Baron Ryoval's bones against his heels. Miles, stubborn idiot that he was, shouting his name after him down a hallway. It made sense that these things would be burned into his brain, split second afterimages too terrifyingly there to encompass emotion or response.
By why in the name of Betan therapy should this be in among them? An image scarcely half-noticed at the time, in his blind determination to get Miles back and himself out from under his unwanted borrowed destiny. Mark felt like in repacking his memories after his recent jaunt to Jackson's Whole, he had inadvertently stuffed bits into the wrong drawer. But there it was: Tousled hair, thin silky black cloth pajama pants creased and skewed from the drawstring waist, slung low on the hip to reveal the barest beginnings of brown hair in a descending line.
Barest was definitely the wrong word to choose, there. With its reminder of how much absolutely uncovered skin there had been. Out of uniform, or even plain clothes, his shoulders had looked strangely broader. What had appeared slim and breakable seemed supple, shadows of muscle winding around his upper arms like cords. Weird that the Emperor would be in such good shape. Surely his was the ultimate desk job.
Or not weird at all, really. Not here where the Emperor had to keep in shape to dodge assassins like him.
And yet, he hadn't dodged. Not the meeting, or being alone with him, or the phone call in the middle of the night. Gregor had looked at Mark and seen him as he was. Not even the Countess, who saw what he could be, had done that. It terrified him, and yet -- if anyone could have watched the vids he'd ordered Elena to destroy, it was Gregor. Mark knew, somehow, that those cool gray eyes would be exactly the same after.
He'd wait -- Gregor was a man who knew how to let a silence work for him -- and then he'd ask one of those mild, interested questions. Probably "So, now what?"
The answer probably would involve calling in one or two more of those Vorkosigan lines of Imperial credit, eventually, now that he'd earned the right. But there were years of work ahead before he'd be ready to call upon the Emperor again.
That left Gregor the man. Maybe one of the very few friends Mark had on Barrayar. Or any place else. He could call at a decent hour, this time. Make sure the Emperor was dressed. But Mark was afraid. What if Gregor, who saw everything, looked down in and saw the black gang wave back out? "Hi, mom!" Mark stifled an appalled giggle.
On second thought, it was just as well Gregor hadn't seen the vids. There were things Grunt had done, with boys, with men. And with animals and stranger creatures, unnatural hothouse fruits of Jackson's Whole's specialized economy, things that would trigger any true Vor's fear of mutants. But that didn't worry him. It wasn't that that had got all tangled up, somehow, with the memory of Gregor in the half-dark, the bluish glow of the comconsole reflected in rumpled white linen sheets.
Mark didn't like slim. Or brown hair. Or men, dammit. He liked soft blondes that wrapped around him and made him feel safe. Gregor didn't make Mark feel safe. He made Mark feel naked. Maybe that's why Mark's subconscious kept trying to return the favor. It was a good theory, but it didn't feel like the truth. Not the whole truth, anyway. And Gregor was entirely too good at getting that out of a man before he even knew it was in there himself.
Beta Colony, Mark thought, was the answer. Therapy to clean up his black gang so they could come out on deck and socialize, look at the stars, dance with a pretty lady. But Gregor, Gregor was the captain's table. No amount of scrubbing would get them, get him, that clean.
He blinked again, determinedly replacing the image with Gregor at his most formal, taking a jingling bag of gold from his hand. Himself on his knees, as if he wasn't short enough already. Grunt murmured of things he could do, had done, on his knees. Mark ignored him, visualizing the scene. The buzz of Barryaran vowels behind him. His hands cupped between cool fingers, taking oaths he'd memorized, word-perfect, years before, but still scarcely understood. Yours, Sire. Gregor. My lord.
Beta would be much better. Or anyplace far away from here. No, Mark decided, fingering the card he still carried. He wouldn't be calling Gregor before he went.
So, naturally, Gregor called him.
Mark peered blearily at the chrono. It was oh dear lord in the morning, but the blinking signal was from the Residence. Your Emperor calls, do you accept? Why do they even bother asking? Imperial calls should just blink into existence, perhaps with a flourish of trumpets, Mark thought resentfully. Still, this formal inquiry did give him time to get - not dressed, in his still-recovering state that would be too long a procedure to keep the Emperor waiting - but at least covered in more than the reassuring layer of fat that proclaimed Not Miles to the world.
Idly, as his fingers punched the proper sequence to accept the call in secured mode, Mark wondered what happened to people who hung up on the Emperor. Probably, this being Barrayar, they got strung up and beaten with fiberoptic cable until dead. Probably, this being Barrayar, they were expected to assist in the process. Probably, this being Barrayar, they did.
Miles would snap to attention, but Mark doesn't do Miles anymore. Which meant this was probably a misdirected call. Unlikely, after so many years, that the eminently well-trained Palace employees could fail to find the Count-Their-Father in a matter of seconds, but the number and whereabouts of Vorkosigan cadets had been fluctuating so much of late, Mark supposed he couldn't fault them for being confused.
"Miles isn't here." He informed the screen.
Gregor - it was Gregor, himself, who appeared in the vid plate, and not the self-effacing colonel who Mark had become accustomed to see manning this desk - chuckled. With relief, Mark cut short his belated attempt to bow around his new stomach from a sitting position. Clearly this was not an official call.
"No, I can see that," Gregor observed. "There would scarcely be room for you both." Mark slept in a single bed - it's what the residence provided, and he hadn't bothered to change it. It's not as though he expected company, and anyway he wouldn't be there long.
Was that a dig at his weight? No, Mark decided after a careful study of the Imperial eyebrows. A dry joke, yes. Mark was new at jokes that touched on tender subjects without prodding the bruises. He could, he decided, get used to them.
I'll see your fat, and raise you one short. "Plenty of room at the top and bottom," Mark sparred for time. "We'd just have to sleep stacked."
Suddenly Mark wasn't smiling anymore, remembering Ryoval's - memorable - plans for the clone twins. Time to get off that, fast. "Hyperactive little shit probably steals the covers."
"Oh, yes." Gregor was bland, and Mark choked. Did he - did Miles ever - ooh, boy. There was no polite way to ask that question, not on Barrayar.
The Imperial mouth corners twitched as Gregor let the silence lengthen. Mark flailed desperately for a graceful way to turn the conversation. So, sire, you used to sleep with my brother, that makes you and every scary woman in the fleet, did you ever meet them, there's this one with fangs that could bite your dick off, speaking of which, how about that Sergyaran worm plague, huh? No. Better to just throw himself on the mercy of the ImpSec Comconsole Police and be done with it.
After a moment, Gregor took pity on him. "He lived here when he was a boy. There were ... escapades."
I'll just bet, Mark thought. He noticed that Gregor had said when Miles was a boy, not when he was. Well, Gregor was older than Miles, of course. But Mark was prepared to bet he never saw himself as a child. He couldn't afford to be.
"What can I do for you, Sire?" At this hour. "Is something wrong?" Mark asked hesitantly. For once, all the Vorkosigans were safely contained in a single building, so it couldn't be the usual deadly peril. He'd have heard the alarms. And Gregor in any sort of personal danger would not have bothered with small talk -- or with Mark.
"Not... really." Gregor hesitated, and Mark saw his first glimpse of the shyness Miles always claimed was his most notable characteristic. "I was wondering... if we might talk."
Mark bit back his impulse to point out that they were, in fact, talking. "Yes. Of course. Um. Now?"
Gregor shrugged apologetically. "If you don't mind. I'm sorry to interrupt your sleep -- I'm afraid my days are a bit... scheduled."
Right. How many appointments, Mark wondered, had Gregor juggled to give him that brief meeting in the first place?
"Of course," Mark said again inanely. "Er, about what?" Could Gregor possibly have read all the ImpSec reports on Jackson's Whole already? Mark had counted on them still being written.
"In person, if you don't mind."
Mark nodded, mouth dry. If Gregor didn't want to discuss it over the secured comconsole, that meant he didn't want even ImpSec aware of the content of this conference. Not the reports, then. Some new horror? "Just give me a minute to get dressed."
"I'll send a groundcar." Gregor nodded and cut the com.
The impassive ImpSec lieutenant led him to an unfamiliar door of the Residence, and then down a warren of tunnels to - oh. The dungeon. Mark swallowed hard, repressing the usual guilt for his original purpose, and illogical fear. If Gregor wanted to take him prisoner, he didn't need to interrupt his own sleep to do it. Or make a personal call, though he suspected the Emperor would have done the latter anyway: to the Count and Countess, if not to him. Most of what Barrayarans called honor still seemed utterly senseless and arbitrary to Mark, but he'd come to the conclusion that whatever was extra painful was probably right. Howl should fit right in around here.
The young officer delivered him to a smallish metal door deep in the stone bowls of the palace and stepped back, clearly disclaiming further responsibility. The man did everything but dust his hands. Mark stifled the urge to tell him it wasn't contagious, and the even stronger urge to tell him it was. He opened the door.
Inside, Gregor sat at an incongruously delicate carved wooden desk. He looked up when Mark entered.
"Come on in." He gestured to Mark to close the door. "This is Count Vorvolk's office, the one I was telling you about. I thought you might like to see."
Mark glanced around obediently. It looked like a cell, naturally enough. An extremely archaic cell, complete with a narrow metal bunk bolted into the wall and some rattling chains for effect. Ryoval's had been much more high-tech.
"It looks... picturesque," he ventured, when Gregor seemed to expect some comment.
"Barbaric." Gregor corrected.
Mark shrugged. "Same thing."
Gregor laughed, and the tiny lines around his eyes seemed to relax a bit.
"Have a seat. Sorry I didn't get up, but..." Gregor gestured at the ceiling and Mark realized belatedly that his well-grown monarch would have to duck his head to stand comfortably. The room was so perfectly proportioned for him, he hadn't noticed. Maybe, he thought, that's why he felt oddly at home here, despite the obvious evidence that pre-fast-penta interrogation techniques had been conducted here at one time. Or maybe cells held no more horrors for him. It reminded him of his cosy ImpSec cubicle, actually: well defended. It's only a prison if you're trying to get out.
Mark settled into the comfortable chair across the desk: low enough that he wasn't kicking his heels like a child, he noticed, but not so low that he'd have to struggle in an undignified way to get out of it, like that torture contraption back on Jackson's Whole. He admired Gregor's -- or was it his staff's? -- eye for detail. But then, they'd had a dozen years of dealing with Miles' height before he put in his belated appearance.
"You were trained to take over as Emperor." Gregor began abruptly.
Mark stiffened. "I don't want your job!" he blurted. Dear God, the last thing he needed right now was some insane rebellion rumor. ImpSec would never let him off the planet then: what if he followed family tradition and came back with an army?
"I know." Gregor didn't look fazed, so Mark allowed himself to relax. "But your training makes you one of only two men on the planet who have some understanding of my responsibilities."
Two? Oh, of course, the Count his Father had served as Gregor's Regent.
"I've... come to realize how superficial my training was, Sire." Mark offered cautiously. "I know the forms and ceremonies, but I've only scratched the surface of the juggling that goes on behind the scenes." Mark gestured at their tiny bolthole, surely as behind as a scene could get.
Gregor nodded understanding of this caveat. "Even still. You possess one qualification even Count Vorkosigan cannot match."
Mark quirked an eyebrow. "I'm short enough to fit in the room?"
Gregor laughed. "You're not from Barrayar. You don't -- you don't eat and breathe the Imperium. For all I know you think we're all crazy -- like your mother does."
What was the politic answer to that? Not yes, for damned sure. "I take my oaths seriously." Mark said, still somewhat surprised to find that he meant it. Maybe it was just because he wasn't jaded yet with having a name of his own, but he found the idea of breaking his name's word gave him a sinking sensation in his stomach.
"I'm sure you do." Gregor said, "but that doesn't mean you're blind. You can give me an outsider's perspective. A galactic perspective, yet with no axe to grind or old home to favor. And an incredibly insider's perspective at the same time, because you know exactly what I'm supposed to do."
"So does Miles. So does any Vor." Mark felt impelled to point out.
"From the other side. Not from --" Gregor gestured at his own boots -- "within these shoes."
Gregor sat up and leaned forward abruptly. "Mark, I love Miles like a brother. But he's been trained from birth to treat all mention of being Emperor like the evil eye." Gregor made a rural villager's "avert" gesture just as Miles himself would have, and Mark chuckled. "His near miss with the Dendarii only reinforced that. It was safer and smarter for everybody. But at this point he's conditioned never, ever to imagine himself in my place. It makes him a superb advisor and a loyal friend -- but not a confidante. Not to mention his unnerving habit of trying to solve problems."
Mark sat a moment, absorbing this distinction. It was true, tell Miles you wanted a sandwich and the next thing you knew he'd have seized command of the kitchen. "Alright. Fair enough. I'm at your service, Sire. Happy to tell you you're crazy any time of day or night. So what do you want to confide?"
He'd meant it for a joke, but Gregor stood, hunching his shoulders in a way Mark was privately prepared to bet had little to do with the ceiling height, and walked a few paces to stare out of the tiny, barred window set high in the door.
"There's another reason I called you here." He said without turning. "I understand your... Ser Galan was a practitioner of torture."
Mark gave up trying to follow Gregor's leaps in logic. "I understand that too," he responded, "but I'm not sure he did."
"He functioned as your father?"
"More or less."
"Illyan has given me his word this room will be unmonitored. If you want to carry out his mission, now would be the perfect opportunity."
Gregor didn't turn around, and Mark sat, not knowing what to say.
After a minute, "No, then." Gregor said. He sounded tired. "My father... Prince Serg. Was also. A practitioner of torture. A connoisseur, even." Gregor's tone was wry.
"Did he ... hurt you?"
"No. I was too young. He preferred his victims to know what they experienced. So much more humiliating that way."
Mark sucked in a breath of understanding. "Oh yes."
"My mother... was protected once I was born." But not before. Goddamn Barrayar.
"I should tell you this is all highly classified information. Your security clearance has been...suitably adjusted. Publicly, my father is a hero."
"You're okay with that?" Mark was curious. He'd have figured Gregor, who'd clearly adopted the Countesses' style of brutal personal honesty, for blowing the lid off.
"It is... expedient."
Gregor finally turned around to face him. "So you see why it had to be you."
Mark blinked up at him. "Not really. Someone who knew your father... or Duv Galeni, although I don't think he likes talking about it..."
Gregor shook his head. "I need you to tell me if I'm like them. A monster. Unfit to rule. You would know, and you would tell me the truth. Everyone else -- would do one or the other."
"You're not a monster."
"How can you be sure?"
Mark stood up and paced. So what if he was waddling? Elli Quinn wasn't here to make fun of him for it.
"Because I've killed monsters."
Gregor shrugged, a helpless gesture. "You don't know, the frustration. The fantasies I have sometimes. Snatching up some guard's nerve disrupter, burning off the face of some idiot Lord blathering at me, my own administrators telling me why I can't and I mustn't. You haven't seen... watching the interrogations sometimes, I, I enjoy it. The power. Making people spill their secrets. Hell, I don't even know what I'm capable of. How can you?"
"So find out," Mark suggested.
Gregor stopped short. "What?"
Mark smothered a grin. Every once in a great while, Gregor reminded him of Miles.
"Find out. You're saying you spend all your time holding yourself back because you're afraid you'll do something awful, so now you won't take not doing anything awful as proof that it's not in there somewhere. I am..." Mark grinned blackly. "Something of an expert on In There Somewhere, lately. I'm not going to pretend it's not possible. But if you really want to know, and you're not afraid to face up to the possibility... stop holding back. Try it. And then you'll know. One way or the other."
Gregor gave an angry grimace. "I'm sure my self-knowledge will be a great comfort to whatever poor bastard I pick. We are trying --" Mark couldn't tell if that was the Imperial We, "not to be barbaric any more."
Mark took a deep breath.
"Not a prisoner. Me."
"What?" Gregor said again.
This time Mark didn't bother to smother the grin.
"I'm sure you've heard the short form of what happened to me on Jackson's Whole. It was bad. But as a consequence I am ...uniquely suited, just now, to soaking up just about anything you could throw at me."
"I don't need any martyrs. And your mother would kill me." Gregor said crossly. "After all you've been through, I don't know that I'd blame her."
"This isn't any of her business. I believe she'd understand that." Considering her unnerving sink or swim style of parenthood. "It's between you and me. Sire."
Gregor hesitated. "I hoped after you'd rescued Miles you'd have grown out of this need to prove yourself."
"I have." Mark said honestly. "It's not that. I suppose... there are parts of me that are pretty ugly, Sire. I learned that on Jackson's Whole. I won't turn my back on them. They helped me survive. But it would be nice to know... that they can help someone besides myself."
Gregor had an arrested look on his face as he thought that one over and then nodded once, decisively. "All right. Let's see what happens."
The resolutely incurious ImpSec guard had fetched the required items without so much as a raised eyebrow and gone away again. Mark would have gone personally, to make sure he didn't gossip, but Gregor said that his guests running their own errands would make far more of an impression than any amount of ordinance, and he was the expert after all.
Mark was unaccountably shy about removing his clothes. He had never, actually, done that part for himself. Galen's or Ryoval's goons had always taken care of that for him, if he wasn't naked to begin with. And this was, after all, the Emperor, fully dressed and looking at him. He was acutely conscious of the flab on his upper arms, his thighs, his belly. But Gregor didn't seem revolted. Curious, if anything.
"You look so different from Miles. It's hard to believe you're his clone."
"No needle grenade scars." Mark grated.
"I didn't mean that. I meant... solid. Sturdy."
"Thanks." Mark said gruffly, but he was pleased. "Too bad you don't have the key for these," he said to change the subject, lifting the heavy steel manacles from the wall with a clank.
"Lost in housecleaning decades ago, no doubt."
"Oh, well." Mark looped a pair of standard military issue cuffs through the chain and fastened them matter-of-factly about his own wrists, giving an experimental tug. "That ought to do, even if it's not so atmospheric." A second pair secured one ankle to the bunk's supports. The other, encased in a cast as a legacy of his Jacksonian adventure, was too thick to restrain. "Watch that free leg, though. I don't intend to fight back, but certain maneuvers may be ... instinctive."
He gingerly stretched himself out on the bunk and forced himself to let his knees fall apart. Ridiculous to be worried about size at a time like this...
"Are you, does it hurt?" Gregor asked anxiously.
Mark shook his head, grunting. "Cold."
"Do you want a pillow?"
Mark grinned up at his Emperor. "No offense, Sire, but I don't think you've really got this torturer thing down."
Gregor gave a little helpless chuckle. "Just ...stalling, I suppose."
"Look." Mark tried to catch his eye. "I may start... reacting a bit strangely. It's my -- defense mechanisms taking over. Don't worry, and don't let me loose until I answer to my right name, all right?"
It was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Gregor's shoulders hunched again. "We don't have to do this."
Emperor or no, Mark decided, sometimes you had to take a firm line. All that practice with Miles was finally good for something. "Maybe not, but we're going to. Get the shockstick and come here." He paused. "And bring a chair, for god's sake, before you give yourself a concussion. We're not torturing you."
Gregor laughed again, and did as he was told. "I got hit with one of these once, you know." He sounded almost proud of it. Mark wondered who would dare to hurt the Emperor.
This was surely the strangest torture session ever conducted in these precincts, Mark reflected, with the victim giving step by step instructions.
His second check was a strange reluctance to say "Penis" to the Emperor. "You read the files on my... brief escape, in childhood?" he asked instead. Gregor nodded soberly.
"I think we should start with that... procedure." There, that sounded suitably clinical. Much more appropriate than "how about you jam that thing against my cock, crank it up to high, and keep pushing the button till I faint or beg for mercy?"
Mark wondered, privately, if he were crazy for suggesting this, but it didn't worry him particularly. Since Ryoval's untimely demise he'd been feeling delightfully free of his demons. This would only give him the chance to conclusively prove that the biggest bogeyman of all was nothing by comparison to what he'd triumphed over. Besides, it had been weeks: Howl was starting to get restless.
Gregor looked appalled. "Surely you'd prefer something less... personal."
"Torture." Mark reminded him patiently. "Come on."
Gregor sat and stared down at him. Mark was just starting to wonder if he should have left his hands free to grab the damned wand and force it down onto his own dick -- humping up at the empty air was so undignified -- when Gregor at last made a jerky motion with his right hand, connected, and thumbed the contact on.
"Like that?" he asked anxiously.
Mark's back arched -- thank goodness it had been massaged out of spasm by the grateful Duronas -- and he screamed.
Gregor thumbed the current off instantly and peered apologetically down at Mark. "Are you all right?"
Exasperated, Mark lifted his head clear of the metal bunk to look Gregor in the eye. He quivered slightly from strain, shockstick tremula, and sheer irritation.
"Of course not, Sire, there's a shockstick on my cock. Now turn the damned thing on and stop asking stupid questions."
Still Gregor hesitated. "When do I stop?"
Mark shrugged. "When you're sure you want to."
"You sound like your mother," Gregor said, which was the last thing Mark would have expected. And then he thumbed the contact on again, and Mark stopped expecting anything but pain.
Gregor's hand came in from the side, hesitantly, like a fighter afraid to engage the enemy head on. Prod. Stop short, watching Mark's body vibrate with faintly horrified eyes. Prod again, a little longer. Stop short. Mark's thighs jerked and he pressed his broken foot against the cold stone wall to stop it swinging up. He wished he had his hands free to press his thighs open and out. The tendency to try to curl into a ball was quite automatic, and Gregor didn't have minions handy to straighten him out again. An oversight, clearly. Gregor took a deep, trembling breath, then placed the shockstick directly at the tip of Mark's cock, and caught his eye. Mark took back control just long enough to nod. This time when he screamed, Gregor didn't jerk his hand away.
Howl was having a wonderful time. Mark had expected that. Even through the screaming he was practically wriggling with eagerness, twisting Mark's body helpfully to bring new areas of skin into view and give the nerves time to recover, only to be rasped raw all over again...
What he hadn't expected was Grunt's participation. Ryoval and Galen between them had screwed Mark up more than he'd anticipated, some distant part of his mind observed. He would have sworn it was physically impossible to achieve an erection under these conditions, but damned if Grunt hadn't managed it. The stupid thing bobbed up and down, red and incongruously cheerful, as Gregor meticulously sought out new angles of delivery. Howl, of course, was thrilled. More length meant more to hurt. Lord Mark peered out of his own eyes as from a distance. Gregor looked... scientific.
Those too, mustn't forget, full of spunk, huh, this will teach you... giggled some voice in his mind. Galen's, he rather thought, and Killer growled. Down boy, he's dead. Gregor moved the shockstick down to his balls and observer-Mark wondered if the words had leaked out of his mouth.
Gregor was smiling now, a small, absent, fascinated smile, like a boy watching an ant colony. "Does that hurt more?" he asked.
Howl considered the question carefully through several more comparison tests. "Different. Don't stop." The spot just under the head hurt most, actually, but Mark couldn't find breath and words to tell him so. He wasn't used to being so... present, for Howl's sessions. But he couldn't leave Gregor here alone.
Gregor's smile broadened just a little. "I wasn't planning on it, actually. Just yet." He reached his other hand down and carefully turned the power up to max. Howl whimpered happily.
"Pass out. Soon." Mark managed to warn Gregor.
"Ah," Gregor took in the information and powered the stick off. Mark lay twitching in his bonds. And then, still smiling mildly, Gregor slid the shockstick down still further, until it just rested on the pucker of Mark's asshole, and turned it on again.
"Gahhhhh!" Even Galen had never done that. Mark convulsed. Howl purred. And Grunt shot a load of humiliating proof of his bizarre tastes all over Mark's ample stomach. Gregor left the shockstick there a moment longer, watching Mark thrash with aptly named aftershocks, then switched it off.
It took Mark several moments to realize that it wasn't only him shaking. Gregor's hand was trembling. His fingers opened and the stick dropped to the floor. He looked pale, his face clammy. With a low groan Gregor shoved the chair aside and paced over to the door again to look out, as if he were being held against his will.
"So now I know. I am a monster." Gregor's voice was quiet, pensive, but his usual style was so understated, even this modest melodrama came oddly from his mouth.
Gathering up the body again was like untangling the strings of a marionette. Mark's tongue felt thick in his mouth, and hard to move. "No monst'." he managed.
Gregor rounded on him. "How can you say that?"
Mark essayed a lopsided smile. "Bahly?"
"Look what I did to you."
Mark looked as well as he could for lacking the strength to lift his head. Streaks of white were still drying on his skin. "Looks...like I had fun." Yes, definitely his consonants were coming back.
"That's not the point!"
"Is t'me." Mark said. "If I said stop...wud you?"
Gregor took a deep breath. "I don't know."
Mark nodded, acknowledging that, and immediately wished he hadn't. "Synergine?" he asked plaintively.
Gregor who'd been staying as far from Mark as the confined space allowed, looked jolted by that and immediately brought over the hypospray to press against Mark's throat. Mark wished he had a hand free to hold him there. Come to think of it... "Hands?"
Gregor wordlessly brought the key and freed Mark from the cuffs. Mark tried to grasp Gregor's wrist, but his fingers wouldn't close properly and Gregor flinched back as though Mark had tried to bat his hands away.
"No. Stay." He managed to take Gregor's hand on the second try and hold it against his own chest. "Still here. Okay. See?"
Gregor gave a ghost of a laugh. "That's not where I hurt you."
Mark slid the hand down to his crotch, yelping when Gregor's palm brushed his sore flesh but refusing to let him pull away. "Fine. Still here."
Gregor's whisper was agonized. "I liked it. I -- I still like it. I'm just like him."
Howl was gone, back to whatever hole he hid in. It didn't matter, this wasn't for him anyway. Mark tightened his fingers, making Gregor's hand clench painfully around his abused cock. Eye level with the front of Gregor's trousers as he was, he distinctly saw the Emperor's own cock twitch before Gregor pulled his hand away. See? he consoled the bashful Grunt. You weren't the only one enjoying yourself.
"Would you," he concentrated on enunciating, "have done it if I hadn't asked?"
"No!" Gregor shook his head in quick denial.
"An' now that you know. How good it is. Would you drag me back if I said no?"
"Of course not."
Mark struggled heavily to a slumped sitting position, trusting the wall to hold him up. Good stuff, walls. "Then for gods sake stop beating yourself up because you actually enjoyed using your power instead of suffering under it for once." He gave a weak laugh. "Beat me up instead. More fun f'r everybody."
Gregor walked over to the chair and sat down heavily, as if his knees had given out. "You don't hate me?"
"Word as Vorkosigan."
Mark tilted his head carefully. The synergine was taking effect. "Well.... I should've taken the pillow."
Gregor gave a bark of laughter. "Come to that, I should have picked someplace with a bigger, more comfortable bed."
"I should've made a better job of the restraints." Mark countered.
Gregor's tiny smile crept back. "I should have pushed the shock stick in."
"Oh." Howl and Grunt both sat and up and took notice. If they were gonna keep working together like this, Mark wondered if they'd need a new name. Hunt. Growl. Either one had a ring to it. "Yeah. You could... do that." Greatly daring, Mark added, "next time?"
Gregor turned his face away, not immediately answering, and Mark rushed into babbling speech to fill the void. "Oh, I'm sorry. You asked, but I couldn't talk much. Right here --" he pointed, "hurts most."
Gregor did turn back to look at him at that. "You're sorry?" he asked curiously.
Mark shrugged, embarrassed. "You asked. Sire."
"And you want to help." Gregor had his fitting the puzzle pieces together face on. "I don't think I understand. What you get out of this."
Mark shrugged. "I guess... it's never been my choice before. Or... someone I could trust."
A strange expression crossed Gregor's face, one Mark couldn't interpret. Impulsively he tried to stand and go to the Emperor, but his legs wouldn't support his weight yet and he fell in an undignified heap. "Whoops," he said, in a tone of mature deliberation, and they both chuckled.
Determinedly Mark sorted out his limbs and began crawling towards Gregor. The strange look faded, to be replaced by...satisfaction? Mark made a mental note. Crawling good. Excellent. He could do that.
He ended up on his knees at Gregor's feet. Deja vu, although only in his nightmares about that formal presentation had he been naked. At least no one was watching them now. "Sire," he said formally, "I ask a favor."
Gregor's face went serious. "Anything in our power that does not harm the Imperium, Lord Mark. We --" And that was definitely the Imperial We, that time -- "owe you much."
"I can't help noticing... that your, er, situation is not entirely resolved." Mark gestured to indicate the erection that was still tenting the front of Gregor's loose plain trousers, just at eye level. "I was wondering if you might permit me... to serve you in this matter."
Gregor laughed and his Imperial face relaxed. "Lord Mark," he said formally, "I request and require it."
Mark shivered. What a strange phrase to arouse him so powerfully. He couldn't blame that one on Galen or Ryoval, or even Miles. His shaking fingers fumbled with the fasteners on Gregor's trousers, until the Emperor took pity on him and pulled out the Imperial cock and fed it to him, one hand cupping his cheek. God.
He began sucking hungrily. Hungrily? Gorge, are you in on this too? Is it a conspiracy? Some kind of -- palace coup? Mark would have laughed except that would mean stopping. God Bless Ryoval's training, he thought without a trace of irony. His body knew how to do this. He swallowed, suppressing the gag reflex and allowing the ripples in his throat to caress the head of Gregor's cock. Gregor smelled of sandalwood and tasted of salt.
Gregor groaned and threw his head back. Mark wished he had a hand free to stroke where his mouth couldn't reach, but both were needed on the chair arms to keep him upright.
"Lord Mark?" Gregor said in a strange, far away voice.
"Mmmmm?" he asked. Lick. Suck. Extremely gentle nibble -- biting the Emperor during a blowjob was probably treason.
"Spread your legs."
Puzzled but obedient, Mark shifted his knees apart on the stone floor. Mental note, get kneepads, Mark thought. And Gregor, casually, swung one booted foot to kick him in the balls.
Don't bite, don't bite, Mark thought frantically, concentrating on holding his jaw open and motionless while the rest of his body convulsed.
"Very... adept of you." Gregor observed as the spasm eased and Mark was left trembling and clinging to the chair. He sounded amused. Mark redoubled his efforts, sucking frantically as if he could draw Gregor's pleasure out by force of will. Without warning, this time, another kick exploded through Mark's nervous system. He whimpered around the hot thickness in his mouth and pressed forward. Fill him up, so empty... he could have wept with relief when Gregor's come poured into his mouth. He swallowed, carefully. Even ImpSec's dimmest would notice white stains on the Emperor's clothing.
Mark let his trembling thighs ease down to rest on his heels... with the lump of the cast, he was slightly lopsided, but he didn't think Gregor would mind. He leaned his forehead against Gregor's thigh.
"That was ... impressive," said Gregor. "I've had the experience before, of course--" From who? Mark wondered irrelevantly. His guards? Ambitious Vor buds like the kind Gregor had declared at their last meeting he would never marry? Whores with security clearances? "But never with such... urgency. You may consider that part of your regular duties until further notice."
"Yes Sire." Mark smiled.
"I noticed your ... efforts intensified after I kicked you. So naturally I had to do it again. Curious. Am I training you or you training me?"
"Ah... feedback loop?" Mark hazarded.
Gregor laughed. "A distinct possibility."
Mark snuck another look at Gregor's face. He looked a lot less greenish. But Mark of all people knew the reaction could hit later, and in forms no one would expect. "Sire? You will... call me, right? If you need to talk to anyone."
Gregor raised an eyebrow. "This kind of 'talk'?"
Some part of Mark salted away the unlikely sight of the Emperor being arch and flirtatious for future deliberation. It was a thousand pities he could never, ever discuss this evening with Miles. Or anyone else. But right now he was deathly serious. "Or any kind of talk at all, Sire. About your father, or the Imperium, or ... if you ever need a reminder that you're no more a monster than any other man."
Gregor smiled. He looked closer to relaxed than Mark had ever seen him. "Oh, maybe a little bit more," he said. "But that's all right. I'm in control, and that's what matters."
Mark couldn't agree more. "I wish I could stay here," he said wistfully.
Gregor cocked his head. "Why?"
"It's... safe here. I know what I'm supposed to do. No one can hurt me." Gregor looked skeptical, but Mark pressed right on, "and I can't hurt anyone."
Gregor considered this for a moment. "Bring Us the shock stick, Lord Mark."
Mark dutifully crawled after the tool that had rolled away under the bunk, and fetched it back, while Howl stretched under his skin in anticipation.
With an effort that made the chair creak, Mark got himself leveraged to his feet, and this time they held him up, though he wouldn't be running any marathons any time soon, even without his damaged ankle.
"Here, you say?" Gregor's usual mild tones were incongruous with the shockstick held against the precise spot Mark had so helpfully pointed out earlier. He really was crazy.
Mark licked dry lips. "Yes Sire."
For the first time ever, Mark's lack of height was good for something: standing in front of the seated Emperor, they could look into each other's eyes.
"No restraints this time. You will hold still because I command it, Lord Mark."
Fear increased Mark's heart rate. There were no guards. Gregor was unarmed except for the obvious. And Killer had a lifetime of training aimed at this man. Add the normal male impulse to protect that which proved him a normal male and there was a hell of a lot riding on the self-control of a man with more selves than he knew what to do with, right now. Did Gregor really know what risk he was taking here?
Still, that hadn't been a question.
"I trust you too." Gregor said, so softly that Mark wondered if he'd truly heard it or only imagined it. And then Gregor turned the power on.
Mark's hands balled into fists at his sides and he quivered and screamed, as much with the effort of holding still as with the pain. Howl, already replete with tonight's banquet, found room for dessert, though Mark found that even so it hurt more without Grunt's contribution. He could simply withdraw, of course, and let Howl take what Howl needed, but Howl wasn't much for self-control and it was imperative that Mark stay precisely as he was. And anyway Mark felt, obscurely, that that would be letting the side down. Stupid Barrayaran honor was contagious after all.
30 seconds, 2 minutes, an eternity passed before Gregor lowered the shock stick again. He reached out and ran a hand lightly over Mark's quivering flesh.
"I always did like them plump, you know," Gregor said, apropos of nothing. Mark nodded. So did he, but to the skinny Emperor he thought it might be rude to say so.
"Just as well you weren't born a girl." Huh? Oh, Gregor's paranoia about Bad Vor Genes, right. Mark didn't see what the big deal was. With uterine replicators, any genetic problems could be ironed right out before the cells had even divided. And he didn't think being a son of a bitch was a genetic trait. He'd liked the clones, after all, and they were as genetically close to the bastard cannibals who'd made them as it was possible to get. But it wasn't any of his business.
"I wasn't born at all." Mark pointed out, still thinking of replicators. Technically, being a girl was irrelevant too, with cloning technology, although no one on Barrayar seemed to have figured that part out yet. There was no real reason he and Gregor couldn't have a whole litter of babies right now. Well, except for the fact that nobody sane would trust Mark with so much as a houseplant. And of course, the civil war that would result. Plus, Mark had met this girl...
Gregor came back to himself with a start. "True enough. You may get dressed now. You must be cold."
As if that had been an order, all of a sudden he was. The rough cloth -- what the hell had he been thinking to get his pants made out of what felt like burlap sacking? -- was its own species of torture, but Mark managed to reassemble himself at last, turning his back on the Emperor in some vestigial memory of modesty, however absurd.
"You know, Mark..." came Gregor's voice behind him, thoughtful and mild. "In the old days, the army used to use lead lined rubber hoses for their discipline parades. I'm sure there are one or two still lying around somewhere..."
Mark sucked in a breath. Miles, now, Miles would say something clever and oblique and sideways, so that everyone knew what he meant without the embarrassment of having to actually say it. But Mark didn't do Miles anymore.
"Yes," he said, and then thought of something he should add. "Please?"
Maybe he would put off leaving for Beta just a little longer.
© 2003 by Mer (stakebait_at_hotmail.com)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, email@example.com
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Last updated: March 20th 2007