Maybe they shouldn’t have been walking in that particular district of the capital quite so late at night. Especially after ditching Bothari. But with him they wouldn’t have the chance to really see this side of the city and all its seedy aspects. Miles practically bounced from foot to foot, anxious to move on to the next street, the next establishment of questionable quality, just to see it all. Ivan and Elena trailed him, Elena just as excited as Miles, but Ivan bitterly thought his cousin might somehow infect people with excitement, just to see how far they would go. Ivan counted himself lucky that he seemed to be immune. Alas, he was not immune to Miles’ ability to argue and reason, making something that should be dangerous sound as pleasant as taking a stroll through the Vorbarra gardens.
It really, Ivan thought, wasn’t fair.
“Here next!” Miles exclaimed, adjusting the poorly fitting clothes he wore, stolen from some guardsmen’s footlocker and altered by Elena to fit Miles. Their normal, finely tailored clothes would kill them faster then Cetagandans in this part of town. Though Miles’ own form could get them killed. Most people wouldn’t give Miles enough time to explain the difference between genetic and tetragenic before he was beaten to a pulp. Not that they’d know what those words meant anyways.
Ivan snorted and shook his head. “Fine, but this is the last one. Then we’re going back.”
“Ivan, since when do you like doing what you’re supposed to be doing?”
“I don’t like working, Miles. But I don’t like being down here next to the biggest walking target these people have ever seen.”
“Biggest target, huh?”
“Oh, hell, Miles. Didn’t mean to…”
Miles put a hand up, doing his best not to look upset. Mentions of size never went well with his cousin, even if they were accidental and didn’t mean anything. Oversensitive. That was Miles’ problem.
“Don’t worry about it, Ivan.”
“Maybe we should just go inside for a little bit,” Elena offered, always the voice of reason. And someone Miles would follow anywhere. If Ivan could talk her into leaving, Miles would go like a horse after a sugar cube. “I’d like to see it.”
Miles nodded, head bobbing up and down in its odd way, and grabbed Elena’s hand as he shot toward the seedy bar. Ivan sighed again, shrugged and followed. It wouldn’t do to let family do something stupid without having some kind of backup.
Miles couldn’t believe he was here! Of all the places he wasn’t supposed to go, this was the biggest. Yes, he understood the issues of personal safety, but he figured that the stunners they swiped should do their job and keep the nastier element away if they ever thought about trying anything. That and Ivan was strapping, and Elena knew more than she realized about putting large men down. Her father had trained her well.
But the best part was that Elena was here with him! He looked back her, all legs and long dark hair and a smile that could light up city blocks. Or they’d light up these blocks if they were wired for electricity. No! She’d light them up, even without wiring. That’s how brilliant she was! Focus Miles! Focus!
He’d brought them here, talked them into this little adventure a while ago, to show Elena how impressive he could be. Not afraid of threats to his person, brave like any man of Barrayar. And it was fun to get Ivan to agree to go along even though he didn’t want to.
He took a greedy look about the bar, regretfully taking his eyes off of Elena. It was a low ceiling place, dim light thrown by the fire, which also loaned the place a smoky atmosphere. Miles broke into one of his maniac grins, the kind that Ivan had learned to dread and Elena had come to enjoy in spite of her own better judgment. This place was perfect.
Sidling up to the bar he did his best to lever himself up onto a stool without looking ridiculous or like he needed help. He seemed to have managed it because Elena and Ivan took seats on either side of him without comment. Ivan kept looking around like he expected something to jump out and kill them any second. Miles almost rolled his eyes. It wasn’t even dark quite yet, and he was sure he could have them back before they’d be missed. Make it look like they got caught in the hustle and bustle of the city, and sure Bothari might take a little bit of heat, but it wouldn’t be too bad.
“Beer,” Miles said, tapping his fingers on the bar. “Three of ‘em.” He affected a bit of the mountain accent, hoping that maybe even though he looked like a mutant sounding like a backcountry man might get him a free pass in the city.
The barkeep gave Miles a nasty look, like he was going to spit right in his face, but Ivan leaned forward, hoping to get through this whole mad idea in one piece. “Just three beers and we’ll be gone,” he said, not bothering to hide the unmistakeable city accent, but he kept his tone light and non-threatening.
That seemed to do the trick because three beers were grudgingly set before them. Miles noticed, but didn’t care. They were out on the town without anyone to tell them to stop or stay safe! He was living!
He drank his beer in a few quick gulps, not minding that it tasted like luke-warm swill. Ivan took a sip and set it down after making a face he couldn’t hide. Elena downed her own without complaint. Miles didn’t know if he could love her anymore than right now.
“Alright Miles,” Ivan said, low and practically growling in his ear. “You’ve had your beer, you’ve proven to Elena that you’re all manly. Can we go now?”
“What’s the matter Ivan, afraid?” Miles taunted.
Miles was just about to launch on another argument when Elena, bless her heart, soul and ability to distract Miles, spoke up. “I’d like to see more than this bar.”
Miles was having the time of his life. They’d gone to five bars, had a good bit of truly awful beer, seen a few of the brothels—from the outside of course, he couldn’t take Elena into a place like that—and no one had done more than give them nasty looks all day. No shouts of ‘Mutie!’ following them around the streets, that had been the best. He could take all the looks, but the disgusted shouts. That would have been intolerable, because then Elena would have looked at him like he was fragile and start making noises about going back. Really, no one but Bothari should be missing them, his parents and Aunt Alys were sequestered with Gregor all day, preparing for the upcoming diplomatic event, but it was now the time to be going back. Dark was falling and while Miles loved adventure, he didn’t want to be responsible for Elena being harmed or getting in trouble with her father.
“Alright Ivan,” Miles said. “I think it’s time we got out of here.”
“Finally! I’ve been trying to get you to leave for hours, but no. You just had to…”
“Um, Miles. Ivan.” There was an edge to Elena’s voice that caused both boys to stop arguing and look around.
“What is it?” Miles asked, placing what he hoped was a calming hand on her own.
“I think we’re surrounded.”
Miles frowned into the lengthening shadows, seeing the shapes of hulking Barrayarian men, and more than a few with cudgels but most had only their fists, but that would be enough to break Miles’ fragile bones.
“Run!” Ivan hissed, and picked Miles up and ran. Miles squeaked at the indignity, but hung on because there was little else to do. Elena followed after, her long legs easily keeping pace with an encumbered Ivan. What shocked Miles wasn’t that they were followed, men shouting epithets and questioning his genetic heritage—that was par for the course—it was that Ivan and Elena could outrun them.
They ran down the street that little more than an alley and ducked into a fissure between two ramshackle buildings that was the real alley. Ivan didn’t stop there. He kept going, all the way back and out the other side, then starting picking streets at random, Elena close on his heels. Miles tried to follow, to keep some idea of where they were, but Ivan was going too fast and he couldn’t get a good view as his cousin carried him sideways. So while they got away from the immediate threat, they were now well and truly lost.
“Put me down, Ivan, I think you lost them,” Miles said, doing his best to keep his voice from dropping into a petulant tone. It didn’t sit well with him that Elena had to see him carried around like a rag doll because wouldn’t be able to keep up otherwise.
Ivan put him down. His cousin hunched over, panting. Elena was breathing somewhat heavily, but she was clearly in better shape. Not that Miles didn’t appreciate the view.
“Miles,” Elena said after she got her breath back. “What do we do now?”
Ivan watched Miles warily, doing his level best to glare and be convincing.
“We need to get back to the upper city.”
“But how?” Ivan pressed. “We don’t know where we are, and I’m sure that lot is the least of our worries. They’re the ones we could loose. I’m worried about the ones we can’t.”
Miles frowned. This was going to be a long night.
“Do you think they spotted us?” Ivan asked looking out a crack in the wooden wall they were currently hiding behind.
“Doubt it,” Miles whispered back. “They would have come right in if they had.” He took stock of his cousin and the girl of his dreams. Ivan seemed alright, tired and hungry probably, but nothing he couldn’t recover from. Ivan was sturdier than he thought. Elena, though, in spite of being able to handily take down several of their persuers that got close enough to threaten them, had lines of strain about her eyes and mouth. She was tough, no doubt about it, but she was worried and it showed. Miles reached out to hold her hand and tried for a reassuring smile. He was disheartrened to see her doing the same for him, and he realized that she was worried about him, not about herself.
Then the door burst open.
In a moment of panic, sheer, utter terror Miles saw in his mind’s eye a mob of men breaking in, dragging away Ivan and Elena for their own protection, hurting Elena more in case she was breeding with the little mutie. And then Miles. They’d beat him bloody and broken, bones snapping like try tinder twigs until the shards of bone punctured his organs and he bled internally until he drowned. He saw his father reaping vengeance upon the slums, finding the people who did that to his son and ending them in the old Vor style, and the repercussions that followed would ruin everything his father had worked for. Everything.
Instead Elena ran toward the man who had broken down the door, throwing her arms around him and the man glared at each one of the teenagers, his offset eyes making the stare all the worse.
“Bothari, I,” Miles stared but he didn’t have the voice. He’d just put the man’s only daughter in danger, and his job. Miles decided that the current better part of valor would be to stay quiet.
Bothari looked around outside quickly and growled, “Give Miles to me, we’ll be running for a car. Both of you are to stay in front of me and I’ll tell you where to turn. Don’t mess up.”
Miles suffered the indignity of being picked up by the large sergeant as Ivan and Elena stood ready at either side of the now broken-in door. As soon as Bothari came out they took off down the street to the left at the indication of Bothari’s nod. The old soldier loped through the slums like he knew exactly where he was going, a revelation that disturbed Miles, to know for sure that his bodyguard had come from the slums. He hadn’t given much thought to where Bothari had come from, he had always been there. And right now he didn’t look all that happy at being back home. He hissed out direction changes, which Elena and Ivan picked up on without too much trouble, though Ivan almost turned the wrong way when they were getting close to a more populous area and Bothari kept his voice low. Elena grabbed him by the collar to keep him on course.
Without further incident, they made it to the car. Bothari nearly tossed Miles into the backseat, Ivan and Elena scrambling in after him, and then the old sergeant peeled out of the slums and headed back for the Vorkosigan residence.
Back home was the scene Miles feared most, his parents and Simon Illyan staring down at the three teenagers with a palpable mixture of worry, disappointment and rage. Bothari doggedly emerged from the driver’s seat of the armored car, looking like the family pet that had been a bad boy and knew it. Miles also saw Ivan and Elena with the same hang-dog expressions. They were all in trouble, when really it had been all his fault. Miles opened his mouth to start explaining, but his father beat him to the punch.
“Inside, all of you. Now.” Aral Vorkosigan looked down at them, steel in his eye, and then turned on his heel and marched smartly back into the house. Miles’ mother and Illyan followed him closely.
Inside, Cordelia put a hand on Bothari’s arm and led him off quietly, speaking to him in soothing tones and shooting a nasty glance at her son over her shoulder. Miles frequently forgot how protective his mother was of the strange man, and how little she tolerated those who agitated them, even if that person was her own son.
He followed his father to the drawing room, sitting down beside his reluctant partners in crime while his father sat in one of his high backed chairs with Illyan just to his side. Looking at them, Miles understood why they were two of the most feared men on Barrayar.
“Well?” Aral started, one silver and distinguished brow arching.
Ivan braced himself for a scolding, Elena’s expression only showed worry. Miles didn’t like what he was about to do, but he knew it needed to be done all the same.
“It’s my fault, sir,” he said.
“And how is that?” his father asked, keeping his composure even though Miles could tell he desperately didn’t want to.
“I talked Ivan and Elena into coming with me to the slums. I threatned them with the knowledge that I could go without them if they didn’t come with me. As for why they didn’t come forward, I was already on my way. Preparations had been made already, and I had neatly maneuvered them into coming with me, playing off of their curiosity and fear for my safety.”
Aral took a moment to let those words sink in for everyone, watching Ivan and Elena’s faces as Miles spoke. Neither met his eye. “Is that true?” he asked them.
Neither spoke. No, it wasn’t true. Not exactly. But it wasn’t untrue, either. They just both had to stay quiet about it and Miles could take all the blame for this little mess up and no one would be too hurt.
“Alright. Miles, your mother and I will discuss your punishment. As for you two. Ivan, just get out of here. I figure returning you to your mother will be punishment enough.” At that Ivan paled, swallowed heavily and nodded. He stood up, knowing when he was dismissed, and Illyan saw him out, muttering to Ivan under his breath about how he should do better by his mother, the poor woman had suffered so much already.
“Elena, your father will want to speak with you. I’m sure. You will also find yourself very occupied by your studies for the time being. Is that understood, miss?” Elena nodded, hiding behind her hair before she bolted from the room. Which left Miles alone with his father.
“What the hell possessed you to do that, Miles?” his father asked. It took all his courage, but when Miles looked up to answer, he saw how tired his father was. How worried. Damn it.
“I wanted to see—”
“You wanted to see the slums! What for? They’re dangerous! And I’m sure you got attacked, or you and Ivan wouldn’t have so much dirt on you! Do have any idea of the danger you put Elena and your cousin in?”
“Yes, sir,” Miles said in a small voice.
“Go to your room, Miles. Your mother and I need to talk.”
Miles slunk out the door and swept up to his room, feeling worse than he ever had in his life.
It just wasn’t fair.
None of it was.
A soft knock woke him up the next morning.
“Come in,” he muttered.
His mother entered, calm and rational, nothing out of place and Miles hoped that she wouldn’t be administering his punishment. She was stricter than his father, not that anyone would ever guess that from the outside, but Miles knew the truth of Vorkosigan House.
“Miles,” she said, with no indication of irritation. “Come to breakfast. Your father and I have decided what do.”
“Yes, Mother,” he said sulkily, flopping out of bed and blearily hunting around for something to wear. “Mother?”
She stopped in the doorway, half turning back to face him.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”
Her expression softened. “I know you didn’t mean for any of that to happen Miles, but you’ve got to learn to think ahead a bit more, and understand there are some things that you just can’t do. We all have limitations, Miles. Even you.” Then she left.
Miles shook his head. As bad as he might feel about what happened, she didn’t understand that he couldn’t be limited. He couldn’t think that way. Or he might as well lie down and die right now. He’d show them all what one little mutie could do.