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Miles wakes up in a hospital bed: muzzy-headed, blind, possibly deaf, pain dancing madly up and down along his spine and a gummy taste like unwashed combat socks coating his tongue. He recognizes instantly the particular scent of antiseptic and oppression that characterizes ImpSec’s grim version of a recovery room: the kind of room that makes a man wonder, nervously, what fresh hell he’s being kept alive for.

It is so far from the first time this has happened to him that it all feels positively homey.

He’s also naked, cold, and cuffed to the side railing. Rarer occurrences, in his experience, but easy enough to overcome once his senses come back online. A subtle twitch of his wrist ascertains that the bindings offer significant give and proves his captors know him either very very well, or not at all. It also calls to his attention the warm, gentle grip in which his right hand is cradled. Slender, feminine fingers, soft and free from any callous.

"He's awake," his mother's voice says, very close by.

His fingers clench around hers, and his eyes fly open -- there's the blindness issue resolved, and the deafness was apparently just dead silence. Her free hand brushes his hair back from his brow, and his pain is suddenly far, far easier to bear. He blinks, staring up into her eyes, which are as beautiful as ever but surrounded by rather more crow's feet than he remembers. Guiltily, he wonders how many of them came from him.

Her gaze shifts away. "Why isn't he saying anything?"

"Give him time," another voice says; and this voice he recognizes, too. He looks where his mother is looking, and finds Raven Durona standing over him, hands on his hips, his mouth crumpled into an unbecoming frown. "Let him figure out where he is."

"When he was decanted," the Countess his mother says, "he looked around, clapped his hands together, and asked where his breakfast was. Why does he need time now?"

He's about to smile, he can hardly help it, when a third voice is added to the mix, and Gregor Vorbarra steps to the foot of his bed. Miles's eyes go wide, his reflexive smile dies on his lips, and the illusion of a typical, run-of-the-mill, line-of-duty bonk on the head evaporates. Gregor's mouth is a pale, brittle line and his eyes are hooded and grim.

"He knows where he is," Gregor says. "He's just trying to work out why."




[Four days prior]

The fire in the hearth had died down to a deep orange ember, and the lights in the chamber had dimmed with the late hour. All the lights but one, which burned yellow and bright over the wreckage of Miles's strategy and the warm dregs of his brandy. Gregor's characteristic reserve was shattered by his unexpected victory, and his smile blazed with smug abandon. If Miles had been less busy surveying the board of betrayal, he might have found it quite distracting. As it was...

"How did you do that?" he demanded, glaring from the tacti-go board to Gregor, and then back again. "Did you do that on purpose?"

"Win?" Gregor said, his smile widening. He leaned back in his chair, long legs stretched out before him, and sloshed his glass in the direction of the board. "I don't generally play to lose."

"I know, but usually it happens anyway." Miles shook his head and gathered up his pieces. "Maybe I've drunk too much."

"Not a particularly gracious loser," Gregor noted.

Miles's eyes flicked up, and he grinned. "I haven't had a lot of practice."

Gregor laughed, exactly as Miles had wished and intended; and if it took losing a game of tacti-go without even meaning to, well... That was a fair enough price, as far as Miles was concerned. One liked a touch of grim pallor in one's Emperor in public, just to keep the troops in line, but Miles much preferred Gregor like this -- flushed and happy, filled with good drink and good humor. Barrayar could sleep easy under the care of a man who could laugh, and Miles could pretend the flush of pleasure in his chest was nothing warmer than patriotism.

"What time is it?"

Gregor waved his glass again; he was none too careful about his carpet on these late nights. "Late."

"Again," Miles said ruefully. "Hardly my fault this time, though. If you'd let me beat you an hour ago like I expected, you could be tucked snug into bed by now."

"I'd give up greater pleasures for the joy of denting your ego a little. I can't wait to tell Ivan; he'll be livid that he missed it."

"I don't suppose we could skip telling him," Miles said. "I'd rather not give him aspirations."

"Ivan?" Gregor laughed again. "He wouldn't know one if it bit him. You have to love him at least a little for that."

"I have to love him because Aunt Alys would be angry if I didn't." Miles grinned and pushed himself ruthlessly to his feet. He needed to go, and soon, in direct proportion to how much he wished he could stay. "And she'll be angry if I miss my appointment with her in the morning, as well, so I should make for home while Roic is still capable of driving. He doesn't always notice other cars when it's past his bedtime."

"Or you could both stay," Gregor said. "It is late, and it's not as if I don't have the room. Roic can bed down in any open armsman's bunk, and you could take the sofa by the fire. Or any other room in the Residence," he added after a second's pause. "The entire guest wing is yours to choose from."

"Tempting," Miles said, and the sofa actually was. It was warm and deep and soft, and he slept better there than he did anywhere else but home. "But my bones creak in the mornings if they don't wake up in my own bed."

"Old age, I expect," Gregor replied cheerfully. "I understand the rheumatiz starts to kick in around this time for doddering old soldiers like yourself."

Miles glared darkly, but was spared the necessity of response by a chime from the door to Gregor's apartments. He raised his eyebrows. "Does ImpSec report to your household staff these days?"

"They just know," Gregor said, shrugging helplessly. "I can't explain it."

"Pressure-sensitive chairs," Miles hazarded. "Set to ring an alarm when someone stands up."

"I don't question it. I prefer the air of mystery." Gregor sighed and rose to his feet. "I suppose you'll be back tomorrow for a rematch?"

Miles tilted his head and looked at Gregor; he didn't miss the tension behind the relaxed pose, or the veiled eagerness in the composed lines of his face. There weren't many this man could let down his guard with, could trust to let theirs down, too. He was lonely, the Emperor of Barrayar -- Miles's friend. Miles recognized the signs because he saw them in himself, and he took utter advantage of every shared moment to combat them.

"There is the matter of my reputation," Miles said slowly. He never took his eyes off Gregor, so he saw the moment the relieved smile was born and instantly wiped away. "And a certain amount of honor to be reclaimed. Tomorrow I'll try it sober, and see what happens."

"Tell yourself what you have to," Gregor said. "Whatever helps you make it through the day."




It's the last thing Miles remembers. He's sure there's more; the ghost of pain lingers, even though his bruises and cuts have healed, and his head feels strangely light and empty, like a cracked open shell. He can see scars on his hands that weren't there before, and his insides have a delicate feeling, as if they've been searched and not put back the way he left them. More to the point, his mother and Gregor both show traces of sleeplessness and fury; he's just not sure where the anger is directed. Did he do something terrible? Past experience doesn't rule it out, and so far, that's all he has to go on.

The languid, wasted sense of a seizure just passed makes his bones feel leaden and immovable, makes the simple task of breathing feel heroic. It must have been a bad one, if he can't even remember it; if it's brought him here, with Gregor and Mother and of all things, a Durona. It's this last bit that troubles Miles the most. Waking up to one of their eerily similar faces is never a sign of good health.

"Miles," Raven says, "say something to prove your brain isn't scrambled. You're upsetting the Emperor. And your mother." It isn't clear from his tone which of these Raven finds most distressing.

Miles tries. He makes a sound that isn't very reassuring. His throat feels like it's been sandblasted. Raven holds a straw to his lips and he sucks down water until it's gone, and another takes its place. It's cold, liquid bliss; he can practically feel himself re-inflating. He shakes his head when a third appears, and Raven puts it away and resumes his disapproving watch over Miles's bedside.

Miles licks his lips, and looks at Gregor, then his mother. Their worry worries him.

"Did I die again?" he says to Gregor finally, his voice raw and red as ground meat. "I thought we agreed you wouldn't call my mother unless it was permanent."

"See?" Raven says, "I told you. He's fine."




[Three days prior]

Miles Vorkosigan was missing -- not for the first time, likely not for the last. But this time he was missing from Gregor's own home turf, from a place safe enough for children and small kittens, safe enough for the person of the Emperor of Barrayar himself. Between assignments, his Auditor's chain tucked safe in a box at home, even his suits and house browns set aside for an idle evening -- missing. Between Gregor's Residence and his own, Miles had vanished into the mist, leaving nothing behind but an empty car on a lonely back road out of the city.

Less alarming -- at first -- Roic was missing with him. Captive, Roic had shown a cat's own skill at evading permanent injury and a commendable habit of rescuing anyone nearby, as needed, on a case by case basis. Captive, Miles and Roic gave one another a chance. But Roic, slightly dented at the skull and more severely wounded in his pride, had turned up dazed and frantic at ImpSec Headquarters a scant hour later, demanding to see Allegre, Ivan, and Gregor -- not necessarily in that order.

His memory provided a single clue: a delicate, sweet scent that seemed to follow Miles into the car. It was nothing he'd picked up in an evening of dinner, brandy, and tacti-go with Gregor, and nothing remotely familiar to Roic -- who had fallen peacefully unconscious from it mere seconds after Miles did. From his injuries, it appeared Roic had been subsequently ejected from the car at speed. He knew nothing of who might have taken them, or why, or where they might have gone.

Finding Miles took hours -- not least because he freed himself.




Memory or nightmare, Miles can't actually tell. But he can't wake up from it, and it plays out endlessly as it happens and as he watches it happen. They strap him to a cot in the back room of a deserted farmhouse with rope and a belt around his feet; they don't even bother to cover his eyes. Clearly, they know nothing about him at all; it's not surprising, given that the most noteworthy aspects of his career are deeply classified, but it is a little bit depressing. He's still pondering his lack of fame (appalling) and his chances of escape (fairly good, all things considered) when they hit him with the hypospray and everything goes neon and tingly.

Miles talks. He talks a lot. At first he even responds to questions, but at such length and volume as to discourage further inquiries. His stomach rebels; he vomits, and keeps talking, and they don't even bother to clean him up. He talks about Mark, about Barrayar, about his mother. He says things about his father he didn't even know he thought, or felt; at one point, his face is wet with tears; at another, he bites his tongue so hard it bleeds. Still, the truths come, and the hell of it is he can't even figure out what it is they want -- he would tell them, he's sure of it, if they would just find the guts to ask.

When it comes -- when they finally figure out how to put the words together -- it's so surprising that he laughs. This gets him hit (again -- they're extremely fond of hitting) and he repeats the question, which gets him hit again; and when he answers it (with the truth; all he has access to in this condition is truth) there's more, and worse, and worse than that, until one of them (he thinks there are three -- possibly four) digs through the satchel Miles carries everywhere and comes up with the worst thing of all.

"I've read about this," the curious one says, with a curious, vicious smile. "Let's see what it does."

He fights them -- begs them. But they hold him, they fit it over his head, and the world shorts out.

Again, and again, and again.




[Two days prior]

The trail was non-existent, but the road twisted through what used to be a village, before the line between urban and rural shifted and left it to be filled in, someday, with commerce. In the empty village they found another car; this was also empty. And they found the house: silent and still and stinking with blood. Satellite scans had already marked it a dead zone, and so Gregor himself -- against all advice and against all hope -- led the way in. Allegre, jangling almost audibly with the repressed urge to take point, followed at Gregor's elbow, ready to shove him aside at an instant's notice. But there was nothing in the main room; nothing in the kitchen; nothing until they reached the very last door.

Behind that last door, there was carnage.

Gregor waited in a blank white silence while Allegre's men sifted through the bodies. It could have been hours, but was probably only minutes, when Allegre's voice penetrated the scrim of ice over Gregor's senses with the only acceptable thing, the only possible thing he could say.

"He was held here for a while," Allegre said, "but he isn't here now. I don't know any of these men, but I know these kills. Whoever did this -- and I have a pet theory on that, which I suspect you'll agree with -- was ruthless. Probably desperate. Definitely ImpSec trained."

Gregor nodded and waited for just a moment, until the white noise in his ears faded, and he found that he could think again. "I see," he said to Allegre calmly. He took a conscious breath and became aware that it was the first in many seconds. "Thank you."

Allegre nodded. "My guess is, he liberated himself in something of a hurry. He didn't take anything with him, and he didn't leave anybody alive. This is recent, Sire. Within the hour. I don't think he'll have made it very far."

"You don't know him like I do," Gregor murmured. Properly motivated, Miles could have made it out of the system by now.

"Sire," a young man in ensign's tabs said, stepping forward. "General. We found this beside the cot. I'm not sure--"

Carefully, Gregor took it from him. It was familiar; many nights he'd helped Miles set it in place himself, watched over him while the seizures took him and then freed him for another day. So small, and so very much a part of Miles now. It was damaged -- mangled. It smelled cooked. There was black hair on it, and blood, dark red blood that smeared and dripped onto Gregor's hand.

"Find him, Allegre," Gregor said distantly; and Allegre snapped to attention as if he'd shouted. "Find him for me now."




In the morning his father is still there, and Gregor is gone. Miles doesn't know anything yet; he can't remember, and nobody is willing to tell him. Raven wants to see what he can put back together on his own, his mother probably doesn't know, and Gregor had done nothing but stare and smile and then frown again until Miles eventually faded out into sleep. With all these noble personages haunting his bedside, it crosses Miles's mind to wonder who's actually running the government these days; there's only one person in the line of succession he hasn't seen yet.

"Ivan isn't in charge of things right now, is he?" is the first thing he says to his father. "I'm fine, really; it's the Empire that I'm worried about."

"Gregor is still in charge of things," Aral says comfortingly. "He's just choosing to be in charge from here, temporarily. And Ivan is here, too. We haven't let him in yet because Doctor Durona said you shouldn't have too much excitement just yet."

Miles rolls his eyes. "Trust me, Father," he says. "Ivan Vorpatril is not that exciting. He can come in whenever he likes; I probably won't even notice."

"You might be surprised." Aral leans back in his chair and scans Miles with a measuring, paternal eye. "You've made quite a splash this time around. People are...uncharacteristically agitated at the moment."

"Well, at some point, someone will have to tell me the whole story, so I can be agitated, too. As it is, I can't even figure out why Raven won't let me out of bed. I feel perfectly fit. I haven't even had a seizure since I woke up."

A flicker in his father's eyes gives it away; Miles is on the right track. "We're still determining the extent of your injuries."

"Ah. My brain injuries," Miles clarifies, and his father's eyes flicker again, nailing it down. "Everything else is bruises on top of bruises and a couple of broken bones -- all of which my career has left me intimately familiar with and none of which would cause this level of maudlin angst. All of which are healing well under Raven's expert, if slightly sarcastic, care. All that leaves is the gray matter. Which also feels fine, I should add, so if there's something wrong in there it's going to be news to me."

Aral spreads his hands. "There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with your deductive skills," he says.

"Or my math skills, or my language skills," Miles ticks off. "All of which Raven has tested in the past twenty four hours. "Or my motor skills, or my reflexes, or my blood pressure, or--"

"Thank you," Aral says. "But I've seen the chart; I know what you've been tested for. As far as anyone can tell, your brain is as healthy as it was a week ago. Maybe more so."

"And, it being unlikely that my captors were trying to heal me to death --"

"Exactly."

"Does Raven have any theories about what was done to me?" Miles asks carefully. If his father doesn't know, Miles can't tell him, and there isn't any reason to send him off asking questions.

"We have more than theory," Aral says grimly. "We have tapes."




[33 hours ago]

"Sorry," Miles gasped when they found him -- Allegre's arms lifted him from the tattered bed he'd crawled under to hide, but it was Gregor's eyes he wouldn't let go of. "I'm sorry, Sire. Gregor. Can't remember what I said. Pretty much everything, I think. Change all the locks."

"Fast-penta," Allegre said, confirming what Gregor already knew. "Among other things. We need to get him to a hospital, right now."

"Go," Gregor said instantly. "I'll follow."

"Follow closely," Allegre said. "We don't know if there were more of them."

Miles grasped at the collar of Allegre's uniform, his eyes bloodshot and tearing with pain. "No more," he said, "safe, got them all. Shouldn't have asked me that," he said, "shouldn't have touched it, it's not theirs."

Gregor laid a hand across Miles's forehead -- the skin was pale and clammy against his palm. "All right," he said. "You got them all. Now it's time to go."

Feebly, Miles nodded. "Got them," he said, smiling through bloodied teeth, and died.




"Thawing out after dying just once is enough for most people," Ivan says, kicking at the side of Miles's bed with one of the muddy boots propped up on it. "Twice, I'm told, is officially pushing it. For your parents' health if for no other reason, Miles: Stop it."

Miles rolls his head toward Ivan's voice, groggy with sleep. He's been sleeping a lot since he woke up at ImpSec, but he's not sure if it's more or less than he should. He sleeps when he's tired, which seems often; but when he wakes, he feels almost comically better. Sleep seems to count for more than it did before; it just works better.

"Sorry," he says, rubbing at his eyes. "Is there any coffee?"

Ivan's boots thump down hard onto the tile floor, and he leans over the bed with a dark and menacing glare. "Not for the dead," he says angrily. "No!"

"It's not like I kidnapped and killed myself," Miles whines. "I was just driving home, minding my own business!"

"Sure you were!" Ivan says. "In the middle of some covert op you're never going to tell me about, leaving me to think you were just randomly kidnapped off the street because it was the middle of the week and nobody had anything better to do! Leaving me to comfort your mother and try to convince your father not to go to war with ImpSec over exactly how fast they're not finding you. Honestly, Miles; if Gregor had been around to be dethroned, your father would have staged a coup. As it was, he completely terrorized half the men in uniform on this planet. I'm no longer concerned about his heart; it's the people around him we should worry about."

"There was no op," Miles says mildly. "I don't think."

"No, you don't think," Ivan spits out, and he seems to be heading for a whole new head of steam when Miles drops his head back onto the pillow and says in a gray, pathetic voice,

"Coffee? Ivan? Please?"

Ivan goes pale and vanishes so fast he leaves a puff of smoke behind him. Miles feels moderately guilty about it, but according to his father he's already been tortured once; no need to sit still for it again.

"Efficient," Gregor says from the doorway. "Unkind, though."

Miles shrugs philosophically. "He'll take it out of me later. He usually does."

"You seem better."

"I feel better." Miles flexes an arm to demonstrate: hale and hearty. "I'd offer to beat you at tacti-go to prove it, but that's no longer a sure thing."

"Offer to tell me, truthfully, what happened in that room," Gregor says. "That will go a long way toward convincing me."

"Can't," Miles lies. He does it brilliantly; he does it for Gregor, because there are things Gregor never needs to know. "Amnesia, from the deep freeze. Raven says I'll probably never get it back."

"It always amazes me," Gregor says. "We've known each other since we were children, and you still think I can't tell when you're lying. Is it arrogance," he wonders, "or do you just think I'm an idiot?"

Miles glares reproachfully. "Sire."

Gregor waves it away. "Never mind," he says. "It doesn't matter. I've seen the tapes."

Miles deflates; he leans back against his pillows and sighs. "Damn it."

"How much do you remember?"

"Enough to be incredibly embarrassed." He picks idly at a loose thread at the corner of his blanket. "Enough to be surprised you're here, if you want the truth."

"That is, generally, what I want from you. I'm always pleased, if slightly surprised, when I get it."

"That's unfair. I never lie to you unless it's extremely important--"

"In other words," Gregor says, "you never tell me the truth when it really matters."

Miles winces.

"Ivan will be back with your coffee soon. We can discuss this later." Gregor smiles, giving an impression of baring his teeth without ever showing them.

Miles doesn't just wince this time; he flinches, with his whole heart. Gregor leaves while Miles is still trying to figure out what it all means.




[One week later]

"You'll be late," his mother says. "I believe that's the third shirt you've tried on so far. One more and you'll have beaten your father's record."

Miles gives her a dark look. "I'd like to preserve at least the illusion of dignity when Gregor orders me to leave his presence forever."

"Those stripes with the pants you're wearing are an interesting choice, then." She smiles, a curl of mouth both indulgent and amused, and not entirely generous toward her firstborn son.

"You're enjoying this, aren't you," he accuses. "My military career went toes-up years ago, and this week has seen the end of my Auditorial life, as well. All that's left is being idly rich, and I should inform you," he says, yanking his tie into a tight noose beneath his collar, "I intend to do a great deal of that while lounging about your house in a robe and slippers."

"If you bring Ma Kosta with you, you're welcome to any room you like. But I doubt you'll be able to budge her, and without that coin, the rent may be steep indeed. I believe your father would welcome a new project, now that Sergyar is starting to come into its own."

"I'm happy to put myself in his hands and see what he can make of me," Miles says with complete honesty. "Perhaps he'll make a better work of me than I have, so far."

"Miles." Cordelia rises from the chair where she's been scanning through her correspondence and crosses to lay her hands on his shoulders. He's long past resenting the need to look up to meet her eyes; he's grown to suspect he would have had to do that at any height. "Gregor is your Emperor, your family, and your friend. I don't know what you may have said under fast-penta, or what you may think you said. But I do know him, and I know you, and I know he's not going to part with you at any price. He'll fight for you till the end. The fact that you don't know that makes me wonder if you really did escape captivity unscathed."

"I don't remember what I said." Miles hoists himself up onto his desk, propping his feet in the chair. "I remember some of it," he amends. "Enough to be glad I don't remember the rest. They took me to hurt him -- not personally, but politically. They wanted me to say something that would damage him in the eyes of his subjects; luckily, I had no such secrets of Gregor's to tell. Instead, I told my own secrets, and damaged myself in his eyes." He looks down at the scars on his hands, so expertly healed by Raven and his team. He wishes they could as easily heal the scars on his life. "It still might have been enough, if they'd gotten away. He has no choice, Mother. And if he isn't wise enough to know that... I have to be."




The armsman lets him in, and closes the door behind him; it's a long, strange walk to Gregor's home office, and Miles takes it slowly. It's not that he truly believes Gregor will be angry; it's more that he's aware of deserving it. For years -- he's not actually sure how long -- he's used Gregor's loneliness to stave off his own, under the cloak of friendship and good will. If the trade had been even, Miles might have found a way to excuse it. But it hasn't been, not for a long time, and what Miles gets from their late nights of quiet ease and conversation has never been his to take. In keeping it secret he's served only himself, when he should have been serving his Empire. Preferably somewhere far beyond the reach of temptation.

He wonders if the Dendarii have any openings for a slightly addled ex-admiral in exile. That might be just far enough.

Before the turn into the office, he hears his own voice, tinny but unmistakable. Manic and rambling, desperate. It's odd; he doesn't remember this part. He could be listening to Mark, for all he knows, except for the fact that Mark can't sing. The tenor on the recording is rather pleasant, if he does say so himself.

"You might as well come in," Gregor says. "I can hear you panicking through the wall."

Miles draws himself up to his full, negligible height and steps across the threshold. "I wasn't panicking," he says stiffly. "I was preparing."

"When it comes to you, I've yet to notice a difference."

Gregor's back is turned; he's facing a small screen on which a very tiny Miles, pretending to be asleep, is working his way out of the ropes that bind him. There are five men, all told, passing back and forth in front of the pick-up. And when Miles is finally free, he tears through them like a child through paper soldiers. It's brutal, bloody, and short, and when it's done, Miles stands panting at the center of a red room with cold, empty eyes. He smiles, and it's utterly alien; Miles has never smiled like that. Surely, he never would.

Gregor pushes a button and the picture freezes. He doesn't turn around. Miles has time to wonder what Gregor must think of him, what any sane person would think of him. He's vaguely horrified at himself, and he understands what he did, even if he doesn't remember. Gregor has seen worse -- has probably ordered worse. But up close, expedience tends to lose whatever charm it may possess at a distance. Why does he just stand there? Why doesn't he say anything?

"I wish you hadn't seen that," Miles says quietly.

"I'm glad I did." Gregor turns, finally, and his eyes are alight, his voice warm with vicious approval. "It's one of my favorite parts."

By increments, Miles's vertebrae unlock. He shrugs his shoulders to work out some of the kinks -- unfamiliar, after the week behind him, with the sensation of his muscles relaxing. "I don't remember that part," he says. "But I can't say I mind watching it, if you don't."

"I admit, at first I was a little bitter. But Allegre has a remarkable memory for faces, and he recognized one of your unlucky captors as an associate of Lord Gavril Vorkavelin."

"Ah." Miles takes a sharp breath. "His father was--"

"One of the men who tried to have your father declared unfit to serve as Regent, based on certain unsubstantiated rumors about his personal life."

"And so the poison flows, one generation to the next."

"Gavril said much the same about you," Gregor says calmly. "Just before he died."

Miles's eyebrows climb. "Oh?"

A smile cracks the pale ice of Gregor's expression. "What? You think you're the only one who gets to have any fun?"

"I think I'm going to need a more accurate accounting of my time in the cooler," Miles says. "Worst thing about being dead: You miss all the good stuff."

"That's also the worst thing about being stuck in the Palace," Gregor muses. "We'll have to compare notes, some other time. Today, I think we should talk about the rest of this recording. Don't you?"

"I'm not sure it's necessary." Miles straightens his spine; all the tension he'd managed to let go of slides right back into place. "The effects of fast-penta on my system are well-documented in my ImpSec files. Nothing I may have said under its influence can be --"

"You tell the truth," Gregor says implacably. "A lot of it, far more than is requested or required, but the truth, from one end to the other."

"Yes," Miles admits. "I know. And I know you know that, too. But aside from Ivan, who doesn't care, and Illyan, who has other things on his mind, nobody else knows, and nobody with a brain would dare to ask. No one will risk your displeasure based on the allergic ramblings of an ex-Auditor nobody has seen in months," he says, breathing deep, "or years, if need be. There are a lot of planets out there, and I haven't yet seen them all."

Far from the relief Miles has been hoping for -- halfway expecting -- Gregor's expression draws tight with annoyance. "It is a constant wonder how two such brilliant parents could have produced such an idiot child," he declares. "If not for your mother's eyes and your father's hair, I would commission a genetic study, just to be on the safe side."

"You know it's the best way," Miles says. "You know it's the clearest way out of what could be a legitimate danger to your rule."

Gregor turns away; he pushes a button, and after a few seconds, Miles's brittle recorded voice fills the room again.

"Are you mad? Are all of you mad? You're asking me if I've been secretly sleeping with Gregor Vorbarra?"

Miles closes his eyes tightly, wishing he could go back and unsay the rest, everything that comes after. But that's not how fast-penta hits him; it rips him open so the truth pours out in torrents, and the truth is--

"Have you met him? Have you seen him? He's brilliant, and he's the best man I know, and he's beautiful, and he puts up with me. With me! Have you met me? If I'd been getting that lucky, believe me -- I'd be singing it from the rooftops, not sneaking about acting like I'm just that dedicated to my work."

Gregor spares him the rest, but his eyes are dancing, and a faint blush stains his cheekbones. "I never knew you were a poet," he says innocently, and Miles buries his head in his hands.

"A hole in the floor would be nice," he says, muffled, through his fingers. "Right about here. Right about now. A nice sloping tube attached, feeding out into the river. Just as a courtesy to your more humiliated guests."

Gregor comes around his desk and leans against the edge, directly in front of Miles. He pulls Miles's hands away from his face and holds each of them in one of his own. It's a gesture just inches from a promise, an oath, and Miles has to fight the urge to draw back, as well as the urge to never let go.

"I never would have spoken," Gregor says. His hands, so fine and strong, are trembling. "I would have spent the rest of my life pretending to an aberrant obsession with tacti-go, never offering you more than my sofa at the end of the night. But if I can come so close to losing you for a fiction, Miles, I will have the fact -- if you will. If you could want that."

He lets go of Miles's hands, leaving them cold and empty. Leaving a choice there, if Miles is strong enough -- or crazy enough -- to make it.

"How long have you known?"

Gregor laughs; his hands wrap around the edges of the desk on either side of him, white-knuckled. "Since you started showing up for dinner and a game you hate, and looking at me..." His voice trails off. "The way you do."

"Ah." Miles nods, feeling blank and distant inside his own head. "Quite a while, then."

"A while, for you." Gregor shrugs. "For me, quite a bit longer than that. Does it matter where we put it on a calendar?"

"Well, I have a tactician's interest in how long I've been completely failing at discretion," Miles says, "but beyond that, no. I guess not."

"Don't go," Gregor says. It's not an order, not a command; Gregor's voice is soft and coaxing, not an Emperor's voice at all. "Don't disappear into the Dendarii, or wherever else you're planning to run. Stay here."

"Anywhere else," Miles says. He reaches for Gregor's hands, and they're there, strong and warm. "On Beta -- on any world but this one, yes. I want that. I want you. But this is where we are."

"Then help me make where we are better." Gregor shakes his head. "You've never run from a fight in your life, Miles. Are you really going to start running now?"

He'll fight for you till the end, Cordelia says smugly from the back of Miles' mind. She knew; she had to know. She knows everything.

"I guess I'm not," Miles says. Did he ever really think he could? What new world could be worth the trip, if he didn't have Gregor to share it with? "I'm not," he says, but that's not strong enough, not true enough. "I'm not running."

Gregor's fingers clench convulsively around his. "You'll stay, then?"

"I haven't had a seizure since the, ah." Miles isn't sure what to call it. "Since I was revived, this time. My neurotransmitter levels are no longer spiking. The Durona Group is curious, to put it mildly. They think I may have stumbled on a cure."

A slow blink is the only sign that Gregor is at all thrown by the change of subject. "I can't say I recommend it for others," he says slowly. "But I know how much you've always hated the stimulator. Does this mean you'll no longer need it?"

"It might. Mostly, it means I'll have to make a few trips to Escobar over the next couple of months," Miles says, smiling. "But that is the full extent of my travel plans, for the foreseeable future."

Gregor closes his eyes, and the tension goes out of him all at once; it's beautiful to see, and even better to be the cause. "I want you with me," he says when he starts breathing again, "as often as you can; as much as you can stand."

"That's going to be quite a lot," Miles says gravely. "I expect you'll need to pick a side of the bed," and after that it's a mad jumble trying to get it all right. Miles ends up in a guest chair with Gregor on his knees in front of him, each of them trying to figure out where their hands are allowed to go. Miles swallows a bark of hysterical laughter and prays whatever ImpSec surveillance the office is under doesn't have video pick-up. It would be an education.

"Miles," Gregor says, watching him. He raises a hand to Miles's face, then hesitates; Miles reaches out and pulls it to him, slides his jaw against Gregor's palm. It's strange, and a little mad, and therefore exhilarating. Miles never knew he could feel like this on his own planet.

"Hullo," he says, a little stunned at the power of Gregor's eyes so very close. "I think you were saying something."

"This will work," is what Gregor was saying; he says it against Miles's mouth, which is no way to make Miles listen. "We'll make it work."

"Okay," Miles says breathlessly. "Okay, we'll make it work." All his fears aside, they've never truly failed each other; he can't imagine they're going to start now. He smiles at Gregor, at everything between them; at everything yet to come. "Where do we start?"