"I think maybe I can reach it . . ." He swung over the railing past the sign admonishing Caution: Stay on the Trail and flung himself flat on the ground over the edge... ...But his blunt fingers swung short of the prize they sought.
She lay prone, and reached as he had. "It's all right, I think I can . . ." Her fingers too swung short of the packet, but only just. She inched forward, feeling the precarious pull of the undercut slope. She stretched . . .
The root-compacted soil of the edge sagged under her weight, and she began to slide precipitously forward. She yelped; pushing backward fragmented her support totally. One wildly back-grappling arm was caught suddenly in a viselike grip, but the rest of her body turned as the soil gave way beneath her, and she found herself dangling absurdly feet-down over the pond. Her other arm, swinging around, was caught, too, and she looked up into Vorkosigan's face above her. He was lying prone on the slope, one hand locked around each of her wrists. His teeth were clenched and grinning, his gray eyes alight.
"Let go, you idiot!" she cried.
The look on his face was weirdly, wildly exultant. "Never," he gasped, "again -"
His half-boots were locked around . . . nothing, she realized, as he began to slide inexorably over the edge after her. But his death-grip never slackened. The exalted look on his face melted to sudden horrified realization. The laws of physics took precedence over heroic intent for the next couple of seconds; dirt, pebbles, vegetation, and two Barrayaran bodies all hit the chilly water more or less simultaneously.
..."You aren't upset about the accident?" she inquired timorously as they regained the path, still hardly able to believe her good fortune in his admittedly odd reaction.
..."Madame Vorsoisson, trust me on this one. Needle grenades are accidents. That was just an amusing inconvenience." But then his smile slipped, his face stiffened, and his breath drew in sharply. He added in a rush, "I should mention, I've lately become subject to occasional seizures. I pass out and have convulsions. They last about five minutes, and then go away, and I wake up, no harm done. If one should occur, don't panic."
"Are you about to have one now?" she asked, panicked.
"I feel a little strange all of a sudden," he admitted.
"I'm sorry. I haven't done anything like that in quite a while, at least not in a waking state. Sorry."
"Was that a seizure?"
"No, no. False alarm entirely. Actually, it was a, um, combat flashback, actually. Unusually vivid. Sorry, I don't usually . . . I haven't done . . . I don't usually do things like this, really." His speech was scrambled and hesitant, entirely unlike himself, and failed signally to reassure her.
"Should I go for help?" She was sure she needed to get him somewhere warmer, as soon as possible. He looked like a man in shock.
"Ha. No. Worlds too late. No, really, I'll be all right in a couple of minutes. I just need to think about this for a minute." He looked sideways at her. "I was just stunned by an insight, for which I thank you."
She clenched her hands in her lap. "Either stop talking gibberish, or stop talking at all," she said sharply.
His chin jerked up, and his smile grew a shade more genuine. "Yes, you deserve an explanation. If you want it. I warn you, it's a bit ugly."
She was so rattled and exasperated by now, she'd have cheerfully choked explanations out of his cryptic little throat. She took refuge in the mockery of formality which had extracted them so nobly from the pond. "If you please, my lord!"
..."It was an evacuation under fire. It was an unholy mess. Shuttles lifting with people crammed aboard. The details don't matter now, except for one. There was this woman, Sergeant Beatrice. Taller than you. We had trouble with our shuttle's hatch ramp, it wouldn't retract. We couldn't dog the hatch and lift above the atmosphere till we'd jettisoned it. We were airborne, I don't know how high, there was thick cloud cover. We got the damaged ramp loosened, but she fell after it. I grabbed for her. Touched her hand, even, but I missed."
"Did . . . was she killed?"
"Oh, yes." His smile now was utterly peculiar. "It was a long way down by then. But you see . . . something I didn't see until about five minutes ago. I've spent five, six years walking around with this picture in my head. Not all the time, you understand, just when I chanced to be reminded. If only I'd been a little quicker, grabbed a little harder, hadn't lost my grip, I might have pulled her in. Instant replay on an endless repeat. In all those years, I never once pictured what would really have happened if I'd made my grab good. She was almost twice my weight."
"She'd have pulled you out," said Ekaterin. For all the simplicity of his words, the images they evoked were intense and immediate. She rubbed at the deep red marks aching now on her wrists. Because you would not have let go.