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Second Son

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When Miles, Ivan, and the others had gone, the Emperor's private chamber rang with silence. Aral waited for Gregor to speak with a divided heart. Inwardly, he was still alight with the fires of Miles's success, burning only a little less brightly than Aral's relief at seeing him in that first desperate moment -- alive, well, those beloved grey eyes blazing with determination and intelligence. Miles believed his father saw deformity and weakness when he looked upon his son; he believed Aral saw failures -- his own, Miles's, Cordelia's. But what Aral saw, what he had always seen, was his son -- brilliant, passionate, soaked in honor down to his bones. He saw a depth of kindness and gentleness for which he could claim no credit; no father could teach the strength and complexity of Miles's spirit. He saw Miles, more clearly than anyone.

And he was proud. Viciously, desperately proud.

He was also blind.

"I owe you an apology," he said to Gregor now. "From the depths of my heart, I am sorry. I have failed you."

Gregor raised his eyes, shocked. "You have done no such thing. As has been proven here this very hour. Your honor, and Miles's, are intact. If anything, I should apologize to you, sir. I allowed myself to be led by men I believed to be loyal, who have proven faithless." He laughed hollowly. "I'm an idiot."

"I don't offer this as your subject, boy," Aral said sharply. "I know better than any other that I have served you long and well as your Regent, and now as your Prime Minister. And I know better than any other that Miles has no thought but to serve you as best he can, for as long as he can." A small grin tugged at the corner of Aral's mouth. "Though perhaps not as conventionally as he could."

Gregor snorted. "I believe he is allergic to convention."

"He is your man in all things, as I am. But intent does not ensure outcome." Aral sighed. "I've neglected you, Gregor. I've been no true guardian for you. I've been your subject, when I should have been your father."

Gregor's right hand lifted, then stilled; a quick, abortive move toward his heart. He's pale, Aral thought, so pale and small, even now as he comes into his greatest power. His eyes darted about the room, lighting anywhere to avoid looking into Aral's. Gregor swallowed convulsively, took a breath, and visibly gathered his composure to him. "I have never required--"

"I've been a fool," Aral said relentlessly. "I accepted responsibility for your care, and for your crown, but I never accepted responsibility for your character."

"Nor should you!" Gregor said impatiently. "My character, which recent events have shown to be somewhat ragged about the edges, is no one's fault but my own."

Smiling, Aral shook his head. "You're not wrong. The person you've become is to no credit but your own. With little guidance and less care than you've deserved, you've grown into an intelligent, good-hearted, generous man, and a strong, just ruler of men. My failure lies in leaving you to do so alone." He took a step toward his liege, his Emperor -- a boy, just a boy, whose loneliness and vulnerabilty shone out of him like a beacon to men of honor and those without alike. "I would tell you how proud I am of you, Gregor, except that I can take no credit for it. I'll carry that regret with me for the rest of my life."

"Sir," Gregor said, and then stopped. "Aral. Your example, all these years, has been my guidance. I haven't had a father, it's true; but if any man has shaped me, surely you understand that man is you. I only hope you can forgive my own failure of faith. I was -- I know I shouldn't admit this, but I was afraid. Not because I thought you would betray me; but because I knew you had that power. You have the trust and respect of men who see me only as a child, and I have so little to offer them."

"Had I done right by you, Gregor, you would have known you had nothing to fear. You would have known that you have my love as well as my service. You would have known that I would defend your crown to my death not because you are my sworn lord and my Emperor, but because in every way but blood, you are my son."

Gregor made a small, choked noise, and pressed his fist to his mouth, his knuckles white. His hazel eyes blazed with emotion Aral couldn't interpret. If it had been Miles, he would have known; he'd made a lifetime's study of Miles, and knew his moods by heart. He couldn't regret it, couldn't fault himself for leaning on the son who'd become one of the foundational structures of his life. But he could regret that he had never spared such study for Gregor -- never less worthy, but in many ways far less fortunate.

Tentatively, he took another step across the empty space between them. And then another.

And then Gregor flung himself forward, and the space was gone.

Aral closed his arms around Gregor's narrow shoulders in a fierce embrace far too long in coming. For all his wealth of power, for all his cool reserve, Gregor was scant years from boyhood; he held onto Aral with a boy's strength, face buried in the fabric of Aral's tunic. Aral pressed his cheek into Gregor's hair and let him hold.

"I'll make this right," he vowed roughly, a promise both to Gregor and to himself. "I'm not so old I can't learn from my mistakes."

Gregor pushed himself back, and Aral reluctantly let him go, watched him wipe at his eyes with the heel of a hand -- quick and efficient, but not embarrassed; that was something. "I'm not so young I can't forgive mistakes," Gregor offered, the slightest curve of a smile starting to take shape. "We'll make it right," he said; a question and an answer at once.

"Yes," Aral said firmly; and he was proud, however little he might deserve to be so. "We will."