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Chapter 20 - Can’t Trace Time by A.J. Hall

God, whatever else was wrong about this planet you couldn’t fault the wine. Neither in quality nor quantity. Nor, for that matter, the food. There was dancing, too, but it was formal and complicated, and neither he nor Bel knew the steps. It didn’t matter: letting himself get pleasantly anaesthetised on the various drinks offered to him seemed, briefly, like some sort of solution.

It had worked once before, after all. For a time. It worked now.

Until the moment when it suddenly stopped working, and he found himself with a desperate need to be somewhere else - anywhere else - just somewhere he could punch his fist into the wall and mouth helpless obscenities back into the teeth of the mocking fates.

And that, too, only worked for a time. Just like before.

Eventually Bel tracked him down to an upper landing. He’d escaped, earlier, pleaded a desperate need for a slash. Bel wasn’t going to follow him into the men’s bogs, not dressed like that, not on Barrayar anyway and maybe he’d taken advantage, just a little, of that fact. He was leaning over the balcony, watching the glittering throng pass below. The only hint he got of Bel’s presence was when a warm, lithe, muscular body pressed hard up against him from behind, and a soft breath touched the nape of his neck.

“So? What’s your problem?”

Where do you want me to begin?

Sorting out what was wrong with the hospital had been an answer, of sorts. It had allowed him a chance to feel competent, useful, in charge.

It was only when the Countess had dismissed them that he had allowed a thought that had been lurking in his back-brain all along to crawl into his conscious mind.

Go home? Somewhere I have friends? And are the two supposed to have something in common? And even if they did - how the fuck can those idiots back at the Hub ever find me again, if I’m not allowed to stay in the only place they might have tracked me to?

Oh, shit. I’ll never see Cardiff again.

And the funny thing is - a couple of days ago I thought I’d have kissed the arse of anyone who’d made that a promise.

He turned, allowing the balustrade of the elaborate balcony to support him as he looked up into Bel’s eyes. The depths of the hurt in them made him, unexpectedly, choke. Whatever else he did here, he couldn’t allow that misunderstanding to continue.

“This isn’t about you. I brought this shit to Barrayar with me, sweetheart. Every last bit of it.”

Bel scrutinised his face and then, after a pause, nodded, accepting. That gave him ease, even as he recognised that couldn’t be the end of it. They had been through so much together over the last few hours. And they were too alike; each wandering through the universe in search of someone who didn’t want to be found. At least; not found by either of them.

You owe Bel better treatment than -

Than what, precisely? It occurred to Owen, uneasily, that the only word which completed that sentence was “the others”. And that thought, if pursued, would take him places he really didn’t think he could face going. He spread his hands in a gesture intended to indicate finality. It occurred to him, in some remote part of his brain, that it might also indicate defeat.

“But there’s no future in this either, you do know that? I’m not the type, and even if I were -“

Bel smiled enigmatically and bent its head towards his lips, closing his comment with a brief, cool, undemanding kiss. “Trust me,” it breathed, “I’m not looking for the happy ever afters. Just appreciating the moments along the way. Can you settle for that?”

There were things he could have said, but Bel’s lips were still too near; the need to lose himself in the moment too pressing. Speech was a fuck-all useless way of communicating, anyway.

Suddenly one hand was cupping Bel’s cheek, pulling those lips greedily against his, his tongue forcing its way into Bel’s unresisting mouth. His other hand roved unchecked across Bel’s back, the smooth bare skin exposed by the low scooped back of the evening dress.

Bel’s eyes were almost shut; its lips soft against his, its breathing shallow and fast, the complex spicy scent now overlain by something else; sweat, and urgency and need.

Owen let his other hand down inside those silk and lace knickers, caressing, for a second or so, the smooth curve of that perfectly muscled arse, before trailing his fingers with precise, tortuous slowness up along the line of Bel’s spine, caressing each individual vertebra as he went, sadistically unhurried.

“Not - going too fast for you, am I, darlin’?”

Bel moaned and bit at his tongue and lips, twisting its hips to slide its body between Owen’s thighs, raising one satin clad leg to rub it seductively across Owen’s aroused cock. And then again. And again.

“Perhaps - you are being a little forward. Director.”

Bel’s voice was unsteady, breathy with desire.

His hand cupped Bel’s right breast. Owen dropped his head to Bel’s cleavage, flicked out his tongue and with infinite care traced a perfect circle around the aureole of Bel’s nipple. Bel’s body against his convulsed, uncontrollably.

“Oh, God, just do that again -“

A ragged exhalation. “Left to me, I’d have you right here on this floor -“

“So, what’s stopping you? Just do it. Any way you want. Just now.”

“Oh, God, yes -“

There were footsteps loud behind them. They disentangled just enough to allow one of those muscular young men he’d noticed lounging against the walls of the salon earlier, conspicuously not drinking, a little too well-muscled for their immaculate evening dress to fit quite properly - to squeeze past in his casual promenade along the landing. His cold eyes passed over them as if they had stealth cloaking.

Owen got the message. The Countess’s security. Alert to stop anything from drunken brawls to over-exuberant galactics doing things in public which might frighten the horses.

His heart was thudding, every inch of him ached with lust. “Get your coat, sweetheart. You’ve pulled. Let’s blow out of here.”