Simon was let into the house by Pym. He had had the full run of Vorkosigan House for as long as the Count had been alive. Longer. So there was nothing to distract him from the uneasy contemplation of his assignment as he trailed up the stairs behind the senior Armsman, not even the weight of memory that hung about the place.
The house was relatively quiet. The Countess had decamped to consult on a design project across town, leaving Simon to his mission, and the children were playing in the back garden. Simon fancied that their starling cries were more subdued than usual.
Ahead of him Pym softly announced his presence with a knock on the door of the Count's suite and went in at once. "Captain Illyan to see you, m'lord."
"Yes, Pym. Thank you," came the Count's neutral voice in reply. Pym withdrew, leaving Simon to his fate with only a faint Good-luck-sir quirk of the eyebrow as he passed.
From the doorway Simon got his first sight of the Count, who was at the table in the bow-window alcove of his sitting room, leafing over a folder-ful of flimsies. He looked up.
"Well. This is an...expected visit. Come in, Simon." His lips twisted briefly, but his expression remained otherwise tranquil.
Simon did not reply; not verbally. He entered the room and took his seat at the table across from the Count, neither waiting for permission nor making a challenge of it. He settled his back against the chair and stretched his shoulders briefly, anchoring himself. And waited.
"You come most carefully upon your hour," Miles said, "...only, not so much. I expected you days ago."
Simon shrugged with his hands and left it at that. "What are you reading, my lord?" he asked quietly.
Miles declined to take him up on the straight line. "ImpSec digests from Domestic Affairs. Nothing very exciting, thank God." Because Simon had been looking for it, he had seen the tiny flinch at Simon's use of the honorific, a little jerk almost completely below the surface of his face. But his expression remained otherwise untroubled. "All is quiet on the home front. Unless you have some incipient scandal to relay to me?" He raised one eyebrow, cool and commanding without any lingering effort, as if he'd never taken an order from Simon Illyan in his life. Oh, Aral, you and I did our work well.
Ekaterin had nailed it exactly, the source of the problem: this inert serenity with nothing behind it. He goes to bed at a decent hour, she had said. And goes to sleep. Merely stirring him to the histrionics they were all used to would not serve.
When Simon still said nothing, the Count observed, "So far, you've asked me a question and got an answer. I've asked you twice at least why you've come to see me, without result. Why is that, I wonder?"
There was an edge to his voice, but it was not a defensive edge. It was the edge of a man who has no more defenses, nor spirit to resent the fact. Simon considered his answer carefully.
"Well, my lord," he said slowly after a moment, "a) you appear to know already better than I do, and b) you haven't yet asked me a question that does not tempt me to violate my settled policy of never lying to Count Vorkosigan."
The flinch again, an angstrom more discernible. "That is a very interesting policy," Miles said, measuring his words as if they might spill. "Especially for a man who's commanded Security for three planets for thirty years. Does Count Vorkosigan have a settled policy of never lying to you?" His eyes narrowed, as if sighting a quarry.
"I don't know," Simon said. "Does he?"
"It seems extravagant," Miles said.
"Yes," Simon answered. "Do you dare the risk?"
"Why are you here?" Miles countered. Yes: an edge. Which way to turn it?
"Reconnaissance," Simon answered simply.
Miles snorted, and got up stiffly to pace behind his chair.
"Since you seem to know all about it," Simon said, "you must have a better answer. Why am I here?"
Miles shot him a glare and said thinly, "You're here because Ivan can't get at me with the damned ice water."
Simon suppressed a smile. Where there's smoke.... "I think a countershock is contraindicated at this point," he said. "Though it's a very entertaining image, I have to admit. I almost wish I'd been there."
Miles stared at him, wrongfooted by Simon's candor. So the old dog does have a few tricks left, he thought. "Who told you about that?" Miles said. "Ivan?"
Simon gave him a don't-be-stupid look. "I debriefed the hell out of Duv Galeni. What d'you think?"
"Oh, right." Miles looked at him speculatively. Before he could speak again, Simon followed up.
"Why are you expecting me to come after you with countershocks, by chance?"
"Dammit, Simon," Miles grated, "this interrogation has gone one way for long enough. Did Ekaterin put you up to this?"
"In a word, yes," Simon said, and couldn't help adding smugly, "Though if I were running your interrogation I'd ask instead whether the Countess was the first to approach me, or the first to actually convince me to come here."
Miles was visibly nettled. Forward momentum, Simon thought. But Miles's curiosity was even stronger than his pique. "Who was the first?" he said, pacing again. "No, never mind. I think I know. Has my mo -- wait." He turned. "You said 'No' to Gregor?"
Simon folded his arms and waited for Miles to answer this one himself.
Miles narrowed his eyes almost to slits, thinking. "You said 'Wait and see' to Gregor," he said finally.
Apparently Miles's brain had finally come back online. Simon gave him a benevolent blink.
Miles drew in a long breath and looked away out the window. "My God. How long has this been going on?" Simon opened his mouth, but Miles flung up an arresting hand. "That was rhetorical." Simon subsided, smiling faintly.
Finally Miles blew out his breath and turned to glare at him. "Who else? Ivan?" Check. "Aunt Alys?" Double check. "Let's put it this way, who hasn't asked you to try your hand at a little Betan therapy?"
Cordelia. They'd sat alone in the gazebo, that first night at Vorkosigan Surleau, watching the stars gimbal across the heavens, and Cordelia hadn't asked him for a thing.
"I think Betan therapy is contraindicated too," Simon said, very quietly.
"Then what," Miles said, "is indicated, exactly?"
"I was hoping you'd tell me, my lord."
"Well, you're out of luck," Miles snapped. "I suppose everyone's waiting for me to have a nuclear meltdown, with lots of explosions and innocent bystanders, as my dear cousin would say. And they sent you in to defuse me before I go off. Well -- "
"Actually," Simon said, "I gather the explosion is what some have been hoping for."
"Well, there isn't going to be one," Miles said. "You can go back and tell them to stop checking their chronos."
Another, younger, Miles would have declaimed those words. Count Miles delivered them evenly, from sure and certain knowledge. Finally, Simon was getting information.
"If not the explosion," he said, "then what?"
"Vorkosigan Vashnoi," Miles said, and turned away to the window.
Simon's throat suddenly ached hard. Yes. A slow reclamation, a project too long for one generation; a name to break your heart on, and then break it again, and again. Slowly, aching in every fiber, Simon got to his feet and moved silently to just out of Miles's reach.
There was a long silence. Miles's face in profile was unmoved, unmoving. Simon stood patiently, swallowing the ache and thinking about Vorkosigan Vashnoi.
"And the rest of the District, too," he said, after a moment.
"Is this a reminder to me to be grateful?" Miles said.
"Is gratitude a Vor duty?" Simon asked. "I lack information on that point."
Had he just made a mistake? He felt that Miles was going further from him, not drawing in, though neither of them moved. Simon couldn't even see Miles breathe. Long minutes passed; he gave up waiting for an answer. Circling back to his first leverage, Simon took a breath and risked a long shot. With loving irony he said:
Miles's spine went rigid. Then he whirled on Simon with a ferocity from which Simon did not dare recoil.
"Who the hell -- " his voice started rough and surged to a bellow -- "do you think you're talking to?"
Check. Simon smiled through his anguish as the reverberations of Miles's shout cleared from the air. "I'm talking to Miles Vorkosigan," he said. "Who never does anything the easy way, if a hard way is available."
Miles looked away, resisting. After a moment he pushed out words in a sheaf ahead of threatening tears, soft and almost bewildered.
"But that's just the trouble. It isn't hard at all. Falling heir to a world without my father in it? It's the easiest thing I've ever done. Falling off a goddamn cliff would take more effort."
And there it was; that was it. Simon watched Miles bow his shoulders and submit to the truth, as he had done to other truths without fail so many times before. By instinct he put a hand toward him; having committed himself, he stepped closer.
Without any of the dramatic flourish of his youth, Miles turned to him and laid his face against the front of Simon's tunic. He abandoned struggle altogether and began to weep silently. They were not pent-up tears; God knows, Simon thought, we've all cried plenty. He certainly had; and wasn't near finished yet; nor was this the first time he'd stood in just this spot with his world unmade. Simon put his arms around the smaller man and wept with him, just as silently. One of Miles's hands wound itself in the fabric of his tunic. Uncle Simon. He didn't have to say it.
He heard a faint snick at the door: probably Pym, investigating Miles's raised voice. But they were not interrupted, and the investigating presence withdrew, leaving them alone again.
Simon recovered first. Blinking blurrily, he cast his gaze out the bow window, over the thriving back garden to the equally thriving capital city beyond. Aral had preserved Barrayar from the fires of civil war; Miles had saved it from Komarran machinations and Cetagandan vengeance. No doubt Miles's children would spend themselves as extravagantly, and their work too, and God knew, Barrayar itself, would pass away in its time. Simon's own day was almost over. Yet even at the grave we make our song. Unable to remember the ancient wording, Simon had sung the old tune with disjointed snatches of Barrayaran Russian for himself and Cordelia under the stars.
He hummed a little of it now, in a baritone scratched from tears. Miles stopped weeping and listened quietly, making no move to pull away. Simon trailed off without finishing, and they stood together, their breathing slow and matched.
Finally Simon cleared his throat. "Well," he said rustily, "we've ruled out meltdown, therapy, catharsis, and hope. What have we left?"
Miles drew back to look up into his face: all of the man was present there now. "I think the 'we' is instructive," he said. "Thank you, Simon."
"You are welcome, my lord." This time Miles did not flinch at the address; neither did he attempt to hide the brief flash of fresh pain in his eyes.
The corner of Miles's mouth quirked up gently. "Do you remember," he said, "when he first suggested I work for you?"
Simon could not repress a smile. "I cannot now reproduce the conversation as it went. But as I recall, our reactions were an identical inarticulate chagrin."
Miles barked a laugh. "That's it exactly! Inarticulate chagrin." He glanced out the window and chuckled again, then turned back to Simon in sudden decision. "I know what this calls for," he said. "A wake."
Simon thought that was a terrible idea. He was all for it.
"Yes," Miles said, warming to his theme. "A wake. Dammit, some inebriate traditions deserve to be renewed. A pallbearer's wake. I'll be the host. I wonder if Admiral Jole is still downside? I'll find that out when I brace Gregor. Better do that first. Let's go," he said to Simon. Without waiting for Simon's response, he started off across the room to the door, planning.
"We'll need a variety of alcohols. Not everybody likes maple mead." (Simon stifled a groan.) "I suppose I'd better give a heads-up to Ekaterin, in case the ladies wish to get well clear."
"My lord," Simon said.
Miles turned. "Oh, yes? What is it?"
"I don't wish to offend you, but this is a good moment for me to mention another settled policy I've developed, somewhat more recently."
Miles raised an eyebrow. "And it is?"
"Never to attend any table meal conceived and planned by you."
Miles burst into unrestrained laughter. "A well-thought-out policy," he said, grinning. "I should think about adopting it myself. Well, there'll be neither a meal nor a table for this, so you're in the clear. -- Well, I suppose we do need a table. We'll have to have something to slide under. Ivan's response will be much more offensive than yours, by the way."
"What do you expect Ivan to say?"
Miles adopted an Ivanian pose. "'If the party's over when you're under the table,'" he said, in perfect imitation of Ivan's tones, "'it'll be the shortest wake on record.'"
"You're right," Simon chuckled, "that is probably what he'll say. And I have a fair idea what Gregor'll say, too."
"So do I." Miles opened the door. "Let's go make him say it."
Amiably, Simon followed Miles out to his doom.