Even after a millenium of space travel, science hadn't solved everything, and the cold and flu viruses still plagued humanity, locked in a perpetual arms race of mutations and new environments and new treatments. Every decade or so someone announced that this time, it was really a permanent cure... until the next round. Apparently both had been eradicated on Eta Ceta, and Beta Colony had eliminated the flu, but on Barrayar, both still had a firm hold on the population.
For most people, this wasn't a serious problem, but for one small sickly child, still not strong enough to walk, a mild cold caught from his Imperial cousin could be serious. Miles had broken three fragile ribs coughing, then, unable to breathe comfortably, developed severe pneumonia. It was the sickest he'd been in his short life, and he'd been in hospital for ten days, Aral and Cordelia taking turn about to sit with him and try to keep him comfortable and calm. Cordelia had looked haggard, in the security footage Simon had been reviewing earlier, and Aral had hardly been able to stay awake through this afternoon's security briefing, though he had gone on to the hospital to sit with Miles once it ended. Simon did a mental inventory of their other backup: Lady Alys was distracted with Ivan's bout of the same cold, not as severe, but she had a tendency to worry about him, Drou was pregnant and sick constantly, and there was no sense looking to the Count for family support. The extended Vorkosigan family seemed idyllic to Simon sometimes, when he watched security footage of Aral and Cordelia with Miles and Gregor, and Alys and Ivan too, all dining together or the children playing, but right now it was in need of a few more pairs of hands.
So at the end of his duty day, Simon made his own way to the hospital, up to Miles's private room. They were thinking of putting his name on the door there, he'd heard, though normally Miles used it for recovering from surgery or novel treatments or to have broken bones mended. Bothari was standing stolidly outside the door, but even he looked drawn and tired. He stepped aside to let Simon pass. Inside, he found Aral sitting by the cot, his shoulders slumped in uncharacteristic defeat.
"I don't like it," Miles was whimpering. "I don't like it, Da. Make it stop."
"You've had your medicine," Aral said wearily. "You need to rest and you'll get better. And do what the doctors tell you."
"But I don't like it! It hurts!"
Simon walked in, and Aral turned. "Oh. Simon. Is there anything new?" He looked like he might almost welcome some security crisis, something he might have the power to fix instead of his son's unanswerable pleas.
"Nothing new, no," Simon said. "Aral, you look terrible. Go home and rest. I'll sit with Miles tonight."
Aral blinked at him as if not quite understanding. "Oh," he said. "Thank you." He paused. "But you're on duty again tomorrow, aren't you? I can't ask you to--"
"You're not asking. I'm offering. I'll be fine. And Miles and I understand each other very well." He went past Aral to the cot. "Hello, Miles."
"Uncle Simon?" Miles said, his tone changing, distracted from his unhappiness. "Are you going to rescue me?"
"I'm going to stay here," Simon said. He took Aral by both shoulders, turned him around and propelled him forcibly towards the door. Aral made no resistance. "Go on. Go home and don't do any work. And don't think I won't know."
"Cordelia won't let me anyway," Aral muttered. He yawned. "All right. Miles, you listen to your Uncle Simon and do what he tells you. Your mother will be here in the morning." He looked back anxiously at Simon. "You'll call if anything changes, won't you?"
"Of course I will. Go." He gave Aral a little push for good measure, and Aral went out. Bothari, standing guard at the door, came as close as he ever did to smiling, and Simon went back to the child's cot.
Miles was supported half-sitting to help his breathing, an oxygen tube in his nose and an array of monitors attached to him. He looked dwarfed by the medical machinery, as always: they no longer had to make so much of his equipment specially, but he always looked small and unlike his usual boistrous, cheerful self in hospital.
"How do you say 'I broke my ribs' in Greek?" he demanded promptly. Simon blinked at the transformation from whimpering to quizzing, but he'd seen this before with Miles: novelty seemed to distract and cheer him up no matter how sick he was.
He translated the sentence for Miles, and Miles repeated it obediently back to him. "And 'I'm sicker than Ivan'?" he requested, with surprising glee, but then, Miles was competitive about everything.
Translation kept them amused for a few minutes, until Miles began to wheeze painfully and Simon said, "All right, that's enough. You shouldn't be talking so much."
"Tell me a story." Miles paused, then conscientiously added, "Please. You tell good stories, Uncle Simon."
Drawing up the armchair beside the cot, Simon said, "If I do, will you close your eyes and try to sleep?"
"If it's a long story," Miles countered instantly, reminding Simon of a sharp trader in the market.
"A long story. Very well." He called up one of the longer bedtime stories he'd overheard Cordelia reading to Miles, but three sentences in, Miles stopped him.
"I've already heard that one. I want a new story. A real one."
"A real one," Simon echoed. "All right." He reached for the room's light controls and dimmed them as much as possible, leaned back in his chair and waited until Miles stopped fidgeting. "When I was a cadet," he began, "we had to go on a training exercise in the Dendarii mountains, camping in the backcountry and learning survival skills."
"Were you at the Imperial Military Academy?" Miles interrupted.
"No, I was at the military college in Vordarian's District."
"Da went to the Imperial Military Academy."
"I know. Ssh now, do you want me to tell you the story or not?"
Miles subsided, and Simon settled into his narrative, describing how his team had set up their tent on the edge of some farmland and been woken in the night by a stray cow knocking it over, and believed themselves under enemy attack, then accidentally ended up catching a gang of cattle-rustlers red-handed. It was strange to tell a story from before he'd had the chip, relying wholly on his organic and fallible memory, but he was editing the story as he went, making it suitable for a four-year-old boy and embellishing it with dramatic details he thought Miles would enjoy. A report, he thought, where the goal was not accuracy but good storytelling.
Miles's eyes closed as he spoke, but when Simon reached the end of the tale, he looked up again. "What happened then?" he asked.
"In the morning we had to trek back to base camp to replace the tent, and also talk to the village Speaker and the municipal guard, and do a lot of paperwork, before we could get back to our survival exercise. The rest of it seemed very boring, after that." He leaned forward and adjusted the light sheet covering Miles. "Now it's time for your part of the bargain, Miles. You need to get some sleep."
Miles made a faintly unhappy noise, but closed his eyes again dutifully. Simon leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes too, but opened them again at another small whimper.
"It hurts," Miles muttered. "When you tell me a story I forget, but then it comes back again."
Simon stroked Miles's hair gently. "All right, I'll tell you another. But not such an exciting one, this time."
He started on a tale from his covert ops days, galactic surveillance and the interesting things he'd seen on Tau Ceti, and this time Miles did doze off partway through, his small form going limp in the cot. Simon kept talking anyway, until he was sure Miles was as deeply asleep as he was going to get. Then he settled down comfortably in the chair by the cot, pulled out his reader and began going through reports.
Hospitals were awfully hard places to sleep even if you weren't sick, he thought. Every hour a nurse came in and poked around at the equipment, there was a change of the guard as Bothari went off duty and his replacement took his place, there were constant footsteps and noises outside the door, once including other distraught parents with a seriously ill child: Simon felt an unexpected flash of complete understanding as he heard a woman sobbing, "He looks so small."
Miles roused at every sound and disturbance, and Simon settled him again each time with quiet instructions, lullabies and once another short story, and tried to doze himself between Miles's wakings. But just before four in the morning, Miles woke crying, demanding his mother and sobbing hysterically until his lips turned blue, and nothing Simon could think of helped. He called for the nurse, who offered an extra dose of painkillers, which didn't seem to make any difference. She lifted Miles out of the cot and gave him to Simon to hold while she rearranged the bedding, and Miles hiccupped and pressed his face into Simon's uniform tunic. Simon snuggled him close.
The nurse gave an approving smile. "That's fine, so long as you're careful to keep his head elevated and don't put any extra pressure on his ribcage. I always think it's better for our children here to be held as much as possible when they're sick." She adjusted the oxygen tube minutely, made some notes and went out. Miles continued to cry, but more quietly, and he stopped asking for Cordelia. Simon rocked him, tentatively at first, wide awake and tense lest he hurt Miles, but he grew more confident, and Miles grew quieter, his sobs falling off into sleepy whimpers, then finally silence.
Simon leaned back in the chair and let Miles nest against him, reluctant to put him back in his cot. Miles stirred in his sleep, his eyes flickered open and focused on Simon for a moment, then closed again, satisfied, and Simon felt obscurely complimented. He sat unmoving until morning, no longer daring to sleep himself, listening to Miles's short rapid breathing, and Miles slept peacefully until Cordelia arrived forty minutes before Simon's duty day began. She stopped in the doorway and a little smile crossed her face as she regarded them.
"That looks cosy," she said. "You want a new job?" She came over, lowering her voice. "If you give him to me carefully, he might not wake up."
"He woke a lot in the night," Simon said by way of agreement, and stood up in a smooth motion, forcing his stiff back and legs to obey him. Miles didn't stir. A little reluctantly, he lowered the child into his mother's arms, then, to his own surprise, bent and kissed Miles's forehead. Cordelia's smile widened.
"Thank you very much, Simon. You have no idea how much Aral and I needed that."
Simon contemplated the day ahead of him, on barely two hours of fitful sleep sitting by a hospital bed, and smiled at Cordelia. "It was my pleasure."
He looked back over his shoulder as he went out. Cordelia was settling down in the chair he'd vacated, snuggling Miles to her, naturally, warmly, and he felt a flash of envy, and of sadness. He'd never thought of himself as having paternal instincts, though he did still sometimes cherish the fading dream of finding a woman who wouldn't mind being married to a man who was already married to his job. Not likely, he knew. He shook himself and headed off to HQ and his work, but all day he kept remembering Miles sleeping soundly against his shoulder.
Captain Lord Miles Vorkosigan of the Dendarii Resistance crept along the ground towards the Ceta emplacement. There was a guard on duty outside, and if he squinted Miles could almost see the paint on his face. A ghem-officer, surely a worthy foe. And he'd seen his true target go into the building, the Ceta leader. Now he and the rest of his squad were closing in, their angles perfect for covering fire and their ammunition prepared and ready. Emperor Dorca would be arriving soon at Vorkosigan Surleau, and they had to neutralise the enemy before his flyer landed.
He waited, rechecking his ammo and signalling his squadmates to silence, lying flat in the snow. Some people said he was no good at being patient, but Miles knew he could watch and wait when it really mattered, even if it was freezing cold and his mother had made him wear a silly hat. It was good camouflage.
Then the door opened and he saw a parka-clad figure, short and slight, emerge from the Ceta post. That must be the leader. He gave the signal by launching his first missile.
It landed squarely on his target, and Ivan and Elena immediately followed with their own attacks, a barrage of snow-bombs that took out the guard and made their target wheel and shout in alarm. Miles caught a glimpse of his face then, and swallowed. That wasn't--he'd attacked the wrong target. But it was too late to stop, they'd given warning and Ivan and Elena were in full pelt, and the only thing for it was to continue the assault. Two more Cetas came rushing out, and there was a lot of shouting, and then suddenly an alarm bell began to ring, and that wasn't in the plan either. Da had been very serious about false alarms.
Green-clad guards rushed in all directions, a force-screen went up, though that didn't help the snowball-pelted men outside the guard post, and a flyer suddenly shot into the air.
"Miles," Ivan said in an urgent whisper, "Um, Captain Miles, we need to go now."
"One more minute," he said, hurling his last snowball at a Ceta guard rushing towards them and getting him square in the face. Elena grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away, down the hill and back towards their fortress, but it was too late. Four more men rushed up and surrounded them, and Miles stood up slowly, hands in the air.
"I told him it was just the kids fooling around," one of the guards muttered. "Come on, you lot. Inside. The commander wants to talk to you. Stand down," he called to the others.
They were prisoners. Keeping up the game was getting harder, as an ImpSec guard took him gently but implacably by the arm and led him down and into their guard post, but Miles stood as straight as he could. Captured by the enemy.
Inside was chaos. "No, they can resume their flight, it's not an enemy attack," someone was saying into a control headset. "Yes, it is safe for him to land here, yes, I know, I'm sorry, it was a false alarm."
The man Miles had hit with his first snowball came forward, snow still crusting his collar and his hair. It wasn't a man Miles knew, the commander of this guard post, he thought from the tabs. "You stupid little children," he growled, face reddening as he looked at them. "You have just set off a massive security operation and caused endless trouble for everyone. How dare you fool around like this? People are doing real work here, and we don't have time to waste because you wanted a bit of fun." He glared at them.
Elena looked like she might start to cry. Miles stood forward. "It was my idea," he said bravely. "It's my fault."
"Sir, the Emperor's personal guard want to talk to you," one of the junior officers interrupted. "They don't sound very happy, sir. And the Lord Regent's guard commander, and, er, the senior Vorkosigan Armsman too." He looked a little frantic to pass all these angry superiors on to someone else.
The commander went even redder, looking as if he might catch fire with anger and embarrassment. "Your fault, was it?" he snapped at Miles. "You brainless mutie, you don't start a snowball fight in the middle of a security operation!"
Miles jerked back as if the man had hit him.
"I perceive you've been having difficulty telling the difference between a snowball and a missile strike," said a dry voice from behind them, and everyone whirled around, the commander's face turning from red to white. "I think I'll be taking custody of these miscreants. And, Commander--" his voice went even drier "--if you don't learn to watch your tongue, you'll find yourself wishing for snowball fights on Kyril Island. I'll speak to you later. Lord Miles, Lord Ivan, Miss Elena, with me, now."
Miles stared at Uncle Simon. He never used all their titles like that. He went quickly over, Ivan and Elena following, and Uncle Simon escorted them out of the guard post and across the snow-covered lawn to the house. Inside, he waited for them to take their snowy wraps off and sat them down in his little office, all without saying a word. Miles wasn't sure whether he found this more frightening than the angry ImpSec officer or not.
"Firstly," Uncle Simon said, "I apologise, Lord Miles, for my officer."
Miles blinked. "Um. That's okay," he said, since something seemed to be required.
Uncle Simon looked hard at him for a moment, then nodded. "Now," he said, "what in the world were you doing that got them all so worked up? Tell me the whole story."
"We were--we were playing Dendarii and Cetagandans," Miles said. "We were going to, um, um, attack the Ceta base and take out their leader before the Emperor arrived." His voice lowered. "I didn't mean to throw snowballs at that commander. I thought--I thought he was you. Sir."
Uncle Simon's expression flickered unreadably. "You were planning to attack me with snowballs, were you?"
"I didn't think you would have, um, made all that fuss," Miles protested. "You would have known it was us." He'd been hoping Uncle Simon would fight back and they could have a proper snowball fight. Uncle Simon was very sneaky in a snowball fight.
Uncle Simon let that hang in the air for a while, then said, "You realise that this has delayed Gregor now. They had to scramble extra fighters to guard his flyer, and got halfway to diverting him to Tanery Base before the all-clear propagated through the system. Someone's going to have to explain to him why he'll be late for dinner." He paused. "They'll have locked your father down too, he won't be happy about that either, and he'll want to know what started this off." He placed his hands flat on his desk. "I think I know what your next mission will be, ah, Captain Lord Miles."
Miles sat up as straight as he could. "Yes, sir," he said.
"Also--" Uncle Simon leaned forward a little, and Miles felt himself echo the movement "--I think you should take this as a lesson in the importance of verifying your target before launching an attack."
"Yes, sir," Miles repeated.
Uncle Simon looked at Ivan and Elena. "You two--" he began, then sighed. "Try to stay out of trouble."
They both made small assenting noises.
"Off you go, then. Time for your next mission."
Miles slithered off the too-high chair with as much dignity as possible, and said, "I'm sorry, Uncle Simon."
Uncle Simon nodded gravely and opened the door to his office. Miles marched out, with Ivan and Elena behind him. As the door closed, Miles heard an odd sound from inside. It was almost as if Uncle Simon was laughing.
Simon trudged away from his Vorkosigan House office, yawning and hoping to get home before anything else happened, heading down the stairs and around the corner. Then he heard an unmistakeable voice ringing behind him.
"Uncle Simon, Uncle Simon! Wait!" Then equally unmistakeable steps, irregular and fast and clicking with metal braces. "Wait!"
The steps reached the staircase at full tilt, and Simon turned abruptly. Miles was making a precipitous descent, one hand waving to stop him. Simon dashed up.
"Miles, be ca--"
He made a leap as Miles, inevitably, tripped and fell, and managed to snatch the boy out of the air, his heart pounding. Miles grinned at him, unfazed, and allowed Simon to carry him down the last few steps.
"You know better than to do that sort of thing," Simon began sternly.
Miles beamed with a child's serene confidence. "I knew you were there." He gave a wriggle, and Simon put him down. It was all too easy to treat Miles as the five years he looked rather than the almost-ten he actually was, and Simon knew he hated it.
"So what is it you want?" he asked.
"I have something to show you. Come on, come back up, it's in my room."
The hated physiotherapy had done its job, Simon observed as he followed Miles back up the stairs and along to his bedroom. Miles was moving almost easily now, the most recent spinal surgery over. Miles hustled him inside and pointed to a small model built of card, grinning. It was Simon's own HQ building. He chuckled.
"You're hankering after my HQ, are you?"
"I did most of it last month, when I had to stay in bed, but I just finished it off yesterday. Look, it's all to scale and everything."
Endless work disasters had kept Simon from visiting Miles as often as he'd've liked when Miles was immobilised from the surgery. He admired the model now--it was remarkably accurate, reproducing the hideous building almost too well. Simon could almost fancy a miniature self inside his office there. On the table beside it was a sheaf of papers: sketches not in Miles's childish hand, but in a familiar thick pen.
"Da did them for me. I didn't know he could draw," Miles explained, showing them off. Aral had indeed sketched HQ from multiple angles, the lines confident and accurate. "He did these too." A series of small faces in the margins of one page: several of Cordelia from different angles, lovingly drawn, Miles himself with a gleam of mischief in his eye, Gregor, Ivan, Bothari, Elena, a careful, respectful study of Piotr, and even one of himself. "I tried drawing some too, but I wasn't any good at it, and Da had to go off to a meeting before he could explain how to do it."
Flipping over the paper, Simon found an attempt at a face, not as recognisable as Aral's sketches, but he thought it was intended to be Gregor. "It's a good start. I can't draw at all, not like this." He set the sketches down, and his hand fell on a large plastic bottle that had been lying on its side behind the model, half-shrouded with a towel. "What's this?" Red food colouring, according to the label, but why did Miles have five litres of it in his bedroom?
Miles twitched a towel back over the bottle, his face turning almost the colour of the liquid. "Nothing," he muttered.
"I just--I just need it for something."
Simon picked up the bottle and turned it over meditatively in his hand. "Five litres of red food colouring," he remarked, "is not a thing one needs very frequently. Tell me, Miles." Some mischief, he was utterly certain. "If it's not dangerous, I won't interfere," he added. There was a clear line in his work between things he saw and had to ignore, and things he had to take notice of, and it was especially important with Miles that he keep that line, and keep his trust.
Miles gave him a sharp look. "Promise?" he said.
"I promise," Simon said solemnly.
"Okay," Miles said after a pause. "It's for--I want to--I'm going to go up to the attics and put it in the hot water tank, the one that feeds to the bedrooms. Then when Da has a shower when he gets back from the gym..."
Simon had a vivid mental image of Aral's reaction to a bright red shower. He scanned the label again, but it seemed the dye was entirely non-toxic and would not cause any harm, though it might take a while to wash off again, especially since the bather would be restricted to cold water. And there wasn't anything critical happening tonight--Lady Alys would never forgive him if the Regent and Consort showed up to a party dyed red.
"I see," he said.
"It's not dangerous," Miles said, with an undertone of anxiety in his voice and expression, not quite trusting him.
"No," he agreed, "it's not." He set the bottle back on the shelf. "Very well."
Miles still didn't look entirely happy about this. "You won't tell?"
Simon contemplated the plan. "What are you going to do about the code-lock?" His hyper-paranoid security sweep of the house, back after the soltoxin attack, had led to him setting code-locks on the water tanks, to protect that resource more completely.
Miles gave a small shrug. "They've used the same code for the past two years. I watched, the last few times the plumber came--it was really interesting what he was doing, I didn't know... anyway, it'll be the same code."
"Will it now." That was the other reason he wanted Miles to tell him these things: Miles had an impressive nose for ferreting out security breaches and exploiting them. "In that case, I'll be speaking the security commander here."
"Yes, Miles. Afterwards." Simon smiled. "You know, I was going to head straight home now, but I think I'm going to get a bit of paperwork done downstairs first. You'll be wanting to go right away; your Da will be back from the gym in fifteen minutes by my timing. And you won't want anyone else to give the alarm first."
Miles's eyes lit. "Oh. No, that's a good idea. All right." He looked at Simon. "If anyone does notice before he gets back... could you do something? Tell them it's a drill or something? So that they won't make a fuss? The whole thing will be ruined if someone warns him."
"I won't tell lies on your behalf. But I expect I can delay them long enough to allow your plan to work."
Miles grinned, then slid the bottle into his schoolbag and headed for the door. "Thanks." He looked up at Simon suddenly. "Do you want to come too?"
The sight of Miles trying to share what he plainly thought of as a rare treat amused something deep inside Simon. "I haven't done any covert ops for years. I'd love to." He came to a playful attention before Miles. "Lead on, commander."
Miles returned the salute more solemnly, then bounced off towards the attic stairs. Simon walked beside him, observing Miles. "So," he said, "how's school going?"
Miles blinked at him, then said, "It's okay."
They passed the corridor guard, who snapped smartly to attention as he saw Simon. Simon gave him a nod. "I noticed you had a security breach two months ago. The feral dog in the teachers' lounge. Apparently you were completely innocent of the whole affair."
Miles's mouth twitched betrayingly, but he said, "Nobody said I did it."
"I know. Impressive, that." He opened a door for Miles, and they went through. "All I want to know is, were my security men negligent in any way that you noticed?"
"No," Miles said slowly, "no, they did everything as usual." He closed his mouth tightly.
Then I suppose we'll have to hope that what ImpSec's eyes can't see, kidnappers and assassins can't see either, Simon thought, but did not say aloud. Lady Cordelia had yelled at him quite a lot the last time he'd said anything like that to any of the children. Let them have as much childhood as possible, she'd said. Barrayar eats her children quickly enough without us handing them over on a platter garnished with parsley. That mental image would have stayed in his head, he thought, even without the chip. And then she'd looked at him as sadly as if she thought he was one of the children Barrayar had eaten.
In that case, he supposed, she could hardly complain about any of this, could she? Aral would complain, but that was all right. He could use the distraction.
"I'm glad to hear it," was all he said aloud, but he couldn't help adding, "Just be careful, Miles, all right?"
Heading up the steep stairs to the attic, Miles shot him a glance over his shoulder and gave a short jerky nod. Simon followed, not letting Miles see that he was watching out for slips and stumbles, and they picked their way through the heaps of miscellaneous junk stored up there--God, you could hide a bomb in this mess and nobody would even notice--to the flimsy partition wall that divided the storage space from the infrastructure of the house. There was a gap between the edge of the partition and the external wall, too small for Simon to squeeze through, but Miles slipped in, then looked back.
"Okay, you keep watch," he said, clearly an afterthought to give Simon something to do.
Simon had an unexpected sympathy with Ivan's point of view on Miles's various adventures. "I live to serve," he replied, and Miles grinned at him. Through the gap, he saw Miles unlock the hot water tank--and yes, it had the same code as before--and open the service hatch, then unscrew the top of his food colouring. He glanced up at Simon as if not quite believing his luck, then quickly tipped the whole lot into the water. He peered in, and beamed at Simon.
"It works," he said. "I did test it to make sure the dilution would be right, in the bathtub." He bounced on his toes, then, with surprising meticulousness, refastened the hatch and sealed the code-lock, collected up the empty bottle and hurried back.
At the bottom of the attic stairs, Simon turned. "I had better get on with my work, Miles. Thank you for inviting me along." He glanced at his chrono. "I think your Da will be here any minute now."
"You don't complain as much as Ivan does," Miles replied. "I promise I won't do anything dangerous, Uncle Simon," he added, unprompted. "Just ... fun things."
"Good." Simon headed off for the little office he used on the Regent's floor, but then stopped at a small bathroom on the way and turned the hot tap on. It ran clear for a while, then pink, then an alarming bright red. Simon smiled, rinsed out the sink with cold water, and went into his office. But he left his door ajar, so that when the explosion came, he would know. That had always been his favourite part of covert ops.
The hospital smell was strong, antiseptic and machinery and overheated rooms and the never-quite-masked smells of sickness. Smells of pain. Miles stopped at the entrance to the ward, not quite voluntarily.
"This way, my lord," said the nurse, and Miles had no choice but to go forwards, with Bothari at his back. But he wished with all his might he hadn't overheard his parents' conversation.
He truly hadn't intended to eavesdrop, this time, he really had just happened to overhear the voices, his Da loud with frustration, Mother soothing, and had gone in to find out what was going on. The problem, he'd been informed, was that Uncle Simon's mother was dying, and neither Da nor Mother could get away from their political duties to go and be with him. And Miles, remembering both his grandfather's lectures on his Vor duty, and the fact that if he proved he was independent and responsible he might get to have a student year on Beta Colony like Mother kept talking about, had volunteered to go in his father's place. He couldn't retreat now. He jerked up his chin and followed the nurse.
Ma Illyan was on a big ward, but there was a curtain drawn around her bed. The nurse pushed it aside a few inches. "Some visitors for you."
A mumble from within, and Miles peered curiously around the curtain too. "Uncle Simon?"
There was some rustling, and the curtain drew back,. Uncle Simon looked out at him and blinked. "Miles? What on earth are you doing here?"
"Father and Mother are very sorry they couldn't come up right away," Miles said. "But I could come." He hesitated again, staring past Uncle Simon to the bed, where a small elderly woman lay, bone-thin, her skin almost translucent, wisps of white hair smoothed neatly on the pillow, eyes closed.
"Oh," said Uncle Simon.
Miles had a horrible fear that Uncle Simon didn't want him at all and would send him away again, but instead he moved aside, and Miles went into the curtained alcove. Bothari took up a station outside, and Miles felt a bit jealous. He caught Bothari's eye, and Bothari gave him a tiny nod: go ahead, do your duty. Uncle Simon drew the curtain closed again.
"I wasn't expecting anyone," he said, still seeming a bit blank. "Your parents are coming too? Have they discussed that with their security?"
"I don't know. They don't know when they'll be free yet. Not today, they don't think. But they both, um, they both send their love."
Uncle Simon looked down, then turned away and pulled up another chair for Miles. He sat down and tried to think of something to say. But before he had to, they both saw that the bustle had disturbed Ma Illyan, and she was fidgeting in the bed, her eyes flickering open. Uncle Simon turned to her.
"Kaeso? Is that you?"
Uncle Simon stooped low over the bed. "No, Mother, it's Simon."
"Oh. Simon. My good boy." Her voice trailed off again, and her eyes closed.
"Who's Kaeso?" Miles asked after a while.
"I didn't know you had a brother," Miles blurted out, then felt like an idiot. How could he not have known? But it had never even occurred to him that Uncle Simon might have a mother, before today. He was just ... Uncle Simon, on his own.
"He died at Komarr." Uncle Simon stared vaguely into space. "My father died when I was a baby, so for a long time it's just been me and my mother. Even before Komarr--well, Kaeso got space duty, he was away a lot. I was the one nearby. She was always glad I was stationed in Vorbarr Sultana. It's been particularly useful lately, meant that I could get up here in the evenings most days."
Miles had noticed that Uncle Simon didn't seem to be lingering around the house recently, but had assumed it was just another work crisis. He'd hoped it might be something exciting, some new adventure for them all. It had never occurred to him that it could be a family crisis.
"I didn't know," Miles repeated. He remembered abruptly that he had been pestering Uncle Simon to help him with some algebra in the evenings last week, nagging when Uncle Simon had been trying to get away, and added, "I'm sorry about last week." He managed not to add why didn't you say something? as some vague sense told him that wasn't a fair question to ask, especially not right now.
Uncle Simon smiled a little. "That's all right, Miles. I don't mind going over schoolwork with you."
A nurse came in and began a routine deeply familiar to Miles, checking Ma Illyan and the monitors and making notes. Uncle Simon stood back, his face blank. Ma Illyan made no response to anything the nurse did, and she sighed, drew breath as if to speak, then looked at Uncle Simon and went out again without saying anything. Uncle Simon looked down at his mother, and Miles shifted uncomfortably in his chair, then distracted himself by trying to find similarities between their faces. There wasn't much, maybe the shape of the nose, and the broad round cheekbones. He pictured them much younger, and people telling Ma Illyan how much like her Uncle Simon looked, the way people always did with him and his parents when they couldn't think of anything else to say.
Then Uncle Simon stretched out stiffly, looked away, then back at Miles. "Miles, would you be happy to stay here for a few minutes? I really need to stretch my legs."
"Um," said Miles, and Uncle Simon sank back. "Yeah, okay," he said quickly. This was why he'd come, after all, to be helpful. "It's fine."
Uncle Simon gave a faint smile and stood up. "Thank you. I just--I don't like to leave her alone. I won't be long."
"It's all right," Miles said. "I'll be fine."
With a small nod, Uncle Simon slipped between the curtains and went off down the ward. Miles sat still for a moment, then shuffled his chair closer. Ma Illyan didn't move. Miles sat in silence until he thought the sound of the machines beeping might drive him crazy.
"I'm Miles," he said at last, to break the silence. "Uncle Simon's not really my uncle, you know. But my Da's brother and sister were killed a long time ago, and my Uncle Naismith lives on Beta Colony and I've only ever met him once, and my Uncle Padma is dead too. But Uncle Simon is around almost every day, and he always stops to talk to me when he has time."
Ma Illyan didn't respond, but Miles supposed he may as well keep going now he'd started.
"When I was little--" and he wasn't little now, dammit, not if he was old enough to do this "--he used to help me with my exercises. And sometimes if I was quiet and there wasn't anything too important going on I was allowed to sit in a corner of his office and watch what he was doing. It was actually kind of boring, except for when he talked to people. And he helps me with my homework and he showed me how to spot an assassin in a crowd and how to drive a groundcar in a getaway even though I'm not old enough to have a license." He smiled a little at that memory. "Ivan says he's scary, but I don't think he's scary, unless something really bad is going on. Then he's scary, but it's a good kind of scary. I want to be scary like that one day. But you have to tell the truth to him, all the time, because he always knows if you make things up. Even Da doesn't always know, but he does. It's good having him for an uncle."
"You love him."
Miles jumped, his flow interrupted. Ma Illyan's eyes were still closed, but she must have heard all that, for she was speaking, very faintly. "Yeah," Miles muttered, blushing a little. "Yeah."
"Like a son. Good." Her eyes opened then, and Miles leaned in automatically. "Will you burn the offering for him? When he dies. He has no other sons."
Miles swallowed, frozen in place. I'm not his son, not really, this isn't my job...
"He needs someone." Her eyelids fluttered. "Swear, boy."
The thought of Uncle Simon dying one day, perhaps looking like this impossibly old and frail woman, was swamping all other thoughts in Miles's mind. "Yes," he heard himself say. "I will." Then, "I swear by my word as Vorkosigan."
She said nothing more, her eyes closing again, but her lips moved in a tiny smile.
If she could hear him, Miles supposed he should talk some more, but now he couldn't think of anything to say. But he moved his chair closer and put his hand over Ma Illyan's.
A few minutes later, Uncle Simon returned, slipping through the curtain without making any noise.
"Everything all right?" he asked. Miles jumped, and turned. Uncle Simon's face was a bit flushed, blotchy red on his cheeks and eyes, and Miles realised with a jolt of dismay that he'd been crying. But he sounded calm enough.
Miles shifted awkwardly. "Yeah," he muttered.
Uncle Simon's eyes narrowed. "What happened, Miles?"
He'd told Ma Illyan he couldn't lie to Uncle Simon, hadn't he? "She woke up for a bit. She said--she asked me--" He swallowed. "She asked me to burn an offering. For you. When you--after you--"
"Ah." Unexpectedly, Uncle Simon smiled a little. "She's always been upset that I haven't got married and had children, and that was one of the things that troubled her a lot. If she thinks you'll take on that duty, she'll be much happier. You don't need to worry about it, Miles."
"I gave her my word. As Vorkosigan," Miles blurted out, and Uncle Simon went still.
"Oh." For a moment he stared into space, and said, more than half to himself, "It seems I have more of my mother in me than I thought." He looked back at Miles again, then said, "You don't have to think about it now, Miles. It's all right. I'm not going to die any time soon." He put his hands on Miles's shoulders soothingly, and Miles felt incredibly stupid. He'd come here to be helpful to Uncle Simon, not to be another person for him to worry about. He broke free, yielding the chair by Ma Illyan to Uncle Simon again, and walked around the cubicle for a minute before going to sit down again.
They sat in silent vigil then as the evening wore on, until Ma Illyan's stillness became permanent, and her noisy breathing stopped. Uncle Simon watched her; Miles averted his eyes, and wished he'd never overheard his parents' conversation in the first place. The nurse came back in, looked at Ma Illyan, and said, "I'm sorry, dear, she's gone."
"I know." Uncle Simon sounded oddly normal. He stood up, but then didn't move, as if not sure which way he should go now.
"Do you want me to go?" Miles asked uncertainly.
"No," said Uncle Simon, the response instant, almost instinctive. "I--" He trailed off, looked at Miles properly and said, "Unless you want to, Miles. You're a bit young for all of this." But his hand reached out and caught Miles by the shoulder, hard.
Miles was too old for hugging, he'd informed his mother two weeks ago, but now he couldn't think of anything else to do. Uncle Simon held on to him tightly for a minute, and whispered, "Thank you, Miles. For being here."
As Simon went down the corridor from the conference room at Ops HQ, a door opened and a green-uniformed cadet emerged. A very short cadet. He smiled.
Miles whirled around and saluted him, crisply formal, and without permitting himself to smile, Simon returned the courtesy. "Sir," Miles said.
The relevant data filtered up from his chip: Miles was in the second week of a placement at Ops, one of his electives. "Are you at the end of your duty day?" he asked.
Well, the Academy was certainly teaching him all the proper military formalities. "Good," said Simon. "How's it going?"
"Very well, sir."
Simon did smile then. "I'm not asking as a superior officer, Miles. Relax. I haven't seen you for a while." He wouldn't say he'd missed Miles, precisely--at least, he wouldn't say it where anyone could hear--but he had noticed his absence, when he went to Vorkosigan House. His honorary nephew had a presence it was hard to overlook.
"It's really amazing," Miles said, his usual excitement bubbling up again. "The first few days were all boring stuff, fetching and carrying, but today I got to help with designing a new sim for the tac comp, and I think I improved the original design a lot. And that's going to be used for training the crews of the new Serg-class ships, when they're out of the yards. I love it here."
"You weren't interested in a rotation at ImpSec, then?" Simon asked.
Miles shot him a quick glance. "I only got to choose one," he said. "The rest were random: Logistics and OrbTrafCon and this really weird fortnight down in the lowest bunkers at Tanery Base, I never knew they did all that stuff there... but I didn't get ImpSec."
"Probably just as well," Simon said. "My roof is still attached and I like it that way. Not that some of your classmates haven't done their best to alter that. I think you must have affected the entire year-group."
"I live to serve," Miles said, and Simon groaned.
They went out into the plaza and Simon looked through the crowd of military and civilian staff leaving and spotted his groundcar and driver waiting in the no-parking zone. Miles trailed him, saying, "There should be a van somewhere around here to take us back to the barracks, I don't have town liberty tonight--" He broke off suddenly.
Everything happened in an instant. There was a movement in the crowd that triggered all Simon's reflexes, and he was already reaching for Miles when the man burst forwards bellowing, "Death to all mutants!"
Simon had his disruptor half-drawn and aimed, his chip giving him a perfect line of sight through the crowd, but before he could fire, Miles shoved him sideways. The assassin fired. Off-balance and on one knee, Simon seized Miles and pulled him behind him with brutal force, trying to analyse the chip-images almost before they arrived in his mind, lining up a second shot.
An assassination attempt in the middle of a plaza crowded with soldiers was never going to be a terribly successful enterprise, and the assassin had no chance for a second shot before he was overwhelmed. Simon saw that he was down, and focused on his groundcar, the nearest refuge from any possible second attack, and all but dragged Miles towards it.
"Get in," he gasped. His ImpSec men were fanning out around them already, the defensive machine swinging into action. Simon's hands were shaking as he shoved Miles into the rear compartment; he clenched them into fists to stop him venting his feelings by shaking Miles.
"You too, then," said Miles without a hint of apology in his voice. "He wasn't aiming at me." He caught Simon's elbow and pulled him in after, slamming the door shut behind them with authority. The driver turned his head.
"Route A, sir?"
Simon nodded curtly, and they sped away at an unsafe speed through the crowd, away from any potential follow-up. He ran over the scene again on his chip. Yes. Miles was right, and his quick shove was all that had saved Simon from being in the line of fire. He looked at Miles, a quick, measured assessment for injury, and recoiled a little, because Miles was examining him in exactly the same way. Miles's eyes were glittering with adrenalin.
"I saw it," he said. "I just ... saw it. He was aiming at you."
"You still had no business doing that," Simon said, still shaken. "It's not your job to protect me. Quite the opposite. Your job is to get your head down when there are assassins around."
"I watched the Sergeant die," Miles said bluntly. "Not you too. Are you all right?"
There was an odd look to Miles, and it took a moment for Simon to think what it was. A chill went down his back. Miles was reminding him of Aral, reminding him too that Miles had, however illegitimately, led soldiers in combat and commanded military operations, had assumed responsibility and taken decisions with other men's lives. He'd reacted with a speed and intelligence that Simon was not accustomed to seeing in cadets. Admiral Naismith.
"I'm fine." Simon waved Miles back to answer his frantically beeping commlink. The commander of security at Ops HQ and his personal security commander were having a tug-of-war over command of the scene; Simon decided in favour of his own man, on the grounds that he had been the target. They were doing all the right things, the would-be assassin was in custody, there had been no follow-up and no further disturbances, there was a cordon around the area and the bystanders were being corralled and identified. He made a side call to the Academy to inform them that he had their missing cadet and he would return him when the security situation was contained, then cut the comm and wiped his hands over his face.
Miles had been watching him at work with his usual intensity. He leaned back when Simon finished, then looked up. "He was aiming at you, so why was he shouting about muties?"
"Ah." No, his chip informed him, he'd never discussed this with Miles before. Strange, that. "There's a ... small set of people who consider the memory chip equivalent to a mutation. 'Muties on purpose are still muties', I think is the phrase. It makes me different, and that frightens people. It seems possible that this attack was motivated by, or involved, this as a factor."
"Possible?" Miles echoed in bewilderment. "But that was what he was shouting."
"Doesn't mean that's what he believed. Or he could be a cat's-paw, some lunatic with a morbid grudge against me who was primed to attack me by some third party. We won't know until the fast-penta interrogation and background check, and maybe not even then."
"You taught me that," Miles said after a while. "How to see an assassin. It works."
"Nothing's perfect," Simon said automatically. "You shouldn't ever rely on a single method of protection." He cut off the familiar lecture; Miles had heard it many times. "You shouldn't have done any of that," he said again, "but all the same, there's a good chance I'd be dead now if you hadn't. Thank you."
Miles gave a sudden exuberant grin. "Does this mean you'll stop going on about being locked up in prison for a month?"
"You know I never give up an advantage," Simon retorted, then softened. "You were forgiven for that years ago, Miles. You don't have to try to get yourself shot to repay me. In fact, please don't."
"Because it would make too much paperwork for you," Miles answered. It was a running joke between them, ever since Miles had come upon Simon wrestling with the forms after an attempt on Aral and Cordelia when Miles had been eight.
"Even this little escapade is going to be a pain," Simon said. "Yes, Miles. Because of the paperwork."
Miles stood on the carpet in front of Captain Illyan's desk. Illyan looked him up and down slowly. "Lieutenant Vorkosigan," he said at last. Miles supposed it was silly for him to have imagined Illyan might ask him to sit down. "I understand you have brought a souvenir home from your little Cetagandan holiday."
He'd heard it all, then, and read the reports. Of course he had. At Illyan's expectant look, Miles pulled the box slowly out of his inside breast pocket. He had a sudden crazy urge to offer it to Illyan as a present. A Memento From Eta Ceta. No. Illyan might just take him up on that, and his medal would disappear into a vault somewhere, never to be seen again.
Illyan took the box, holding it gingerly between his fingertips as if a two-year-old had just given him a small treasure covered in drool. He opened it and examined the Order of Merit with microscopic care. "Very pretty," he observed at last. Miles winced. "I've had the report from Colonel Vorreedi. Including the transcript of a quite remarkable conversation you had with him. And I've also heard from the Ambassador, at some length. Frankly, I'm amazed I haven't heard from my opposite number of Cetaganda to complain about you as well. Though this is message enough." He held the medal up to the light for a final examination, then placed it back in the box. "Well, it's yours. Apparently you earned it. I understand you had a private audience with the Cetagandan emperor, in which he said nothing to you?"
"Yes, sir." And he was almost wishing he was back there now. Giaja had been sharp, but he hadn't known all the right spots to land his knives. Illyan certainly did. He wished Illyan would give him the medal back and he could hide it away in his pocket again. He wished Illyan would say something. He wished a hole would appear in the ugly institutional carpet beneath his feet and swallow him. It wouldn't need to be a very big hole. He felt about ten inches high. Illyan was just looking at him.
"I was trying to stop a war starting!" he finally blurted out, just to get it over with. "And stop the Cetagandans blaming us for stealing their Great Key! I had to do it!"
Illyan sat up. "I quite agree. Those were very important goals. What was your backup plan if something unfortunate happened to you, so that your goals would still be achieved?"
Miles opened and closed his mouth. "Ivan..." he began, a little feebly.
"Ivan," Illyan echoed, matching his dubious intonation perfectly. "Yes. I've read his personal log and his report. Rather more complete and clear than yours."
That stung. Ivan didn't write better reports than he did--did he?
"This is not the Time of Isolation, and you are not Lord Vorthalia the Bold," Illyan went on, even more bitingly. "It is neither necessary nor desirable for a lone hero to gallop about solving problems single-handedly. We have considerable resources for just such crises as these at our embassy on Eta Ceta, all of which you deliberately and carefully avoided. If your plans had failed--and from both your and Ivan's reports it seems they came very close to failure--then you would have been without any backup or assistance."
"I didn't know if--if the people at the embassy were any good," Miles protested. "They might not have understood the situation. It was really complicated."
"At our core embassy on Eta Ceta?" Illyan said sweetly. "One of the most critical posts in the galaxy, and you think your father and I would assign deadweights?"
"You can't tell me there aren't people in high-ranking positions who didn't get there because of their merits," Miles countered, his reflexive urge to argue every point outweighing common sense.
"Indeed. And I am certain there are men in the service who would refrain from asking you for help because they would assume you received your own position in such a way. Are you quite sure you can detect such people, Lieutenant Vorkosigan?"
Miles flinched, feeling like a circus performer standing splay-limbed while knives landed around him.
"As it happens, both Ambassador Vorob'yev and Colonel Vorreedi are excellent servants of the Imperium, intelligent and broad-minded and vastly capable and experienced. If you had had their support, it is very possible that we might have been able to turn this situation more to our benefit."
"But it did come out to our benefit!"
"It certainly could have been much worse. But the opportunity to increase civil confusion in the Cetagandan Empire is not one that comes often. Your acts, beneficial though they were to us, also strengthened the position of the Cetagandan emperor. Which is why you have this little bauble to hang on your wall." He tapped the Order of Merit in its case with one finger, surprisingly loud in this soundproofed room. "You don't think he gave it to you because you served Gregor well, do you?" Another knife landing, this one close to his heart. Miles said nothing, thinking traitorously of the haut Rian.
"And then there is the way you misused Colonel Vorreedi," Illyan continued mercilessly. "A very fine officer, and by any normal interpretation of the regs, I would be forced to reprimand him most severely for how he failed to control you and let you run riot over his patch, not to mention his gullibility in believing your bullshit stories."
"I never told him any lies, sir."
"I listened to your conversations most carefully," Illyan said. "You did not. Technically. But you have placed him in a very unpleasant situation. I suppose," he added, "he must be grateful you didn't get him thrown into a Cetagandan prison. Are you ever planning to show some consideration towards your brother officers, when they are involved in your adventures? Or must I keep you permanently away from all the rest of my men, for their own protection?"
"He shouldn't be reprimanded, or punished," Miles said quickly. He did care about his brother officers, he really did. He just wasn't sure they would care about him. "It wasn't his fault at all. I tricked him."
"I would say, you should not have been able to trick a man of his calibre, but I know you."
Miles supposed that wound up as a compliment, oddly enough.
"Indeed, he will not be reprimanded or punished, though I will have to do some work to restore his confidence in himself. He was most upset at having a mere lieutenant running rings around him, as a man of considerable rank and experience."
"I wasn't--I wasn't doing this as Lieutenant Vorkosigan," he blurted out. "I was doing it as Lord Vorkosigan. It's not the same."
For the first time, he saw Illyan hesitate, as if it had been Miles's turn to throw a knife at him, and that made Miles wince again. Illyan commanded Lieutenant Vorkosigan, but he served Lord Vorkosigan, and all his life Miles had known that to play games with that distinction was utterly dishonourable. So he was relieved when Illyan finally said, in tones almost precisely as sardonic as before, "And Lord Vorkosigan, of course, has rich experience in high-level diplomacy. Compared to a mere Ambassador."
"Sir," Miles said, to underline their proper relationship here. Illyan leaned back in his chair, and Miles recognised the signs that the knives were being put away. "I'm sorry, sir. It all seemed like the right thing to do at the time."
"It always does, with you." Illyan pushed the Order of Merit back across his desk towards Miles. "I expect this kind of thing when I send you out on missions with your fleet. Not when you go on state visits to Cetaganda." He placed both hands flat on his desk. "I know how you work, Miles. I know you get the results you do because you work best on your own, with minimal control and a free hand to choose your own approach. But I do expect you not to get so distracted with your own personal ambitions. Nor your personal ... attractions. Not when the stakes are this high."
Miles blushed fierily.
"A little more circumspection, a little more forethought, a little more emotional distance. That's all I ask of you, in future. Do you understand?"
Illyan studied him for a while longer, then pushed his chair back and stood up, stretching out his shoulders. "All right. Go. And don't come to my negative attention again until I have a new mission for you. I've had all the new grey hairs I need for this year."
Miles saluted crisply, and tried not to scurry out. There was nobody quite like Captain Illyan for tearing you to shreds when you didn't live up to his standards. But perhaps this would be the last time he'd have one of these lectures. Surely, sooner or later he'd manage to make everyone proud of him, even Captain Illyan. But he suspected it would be a long time coming.
Simon walked leaden-footed out of the hospital room under the flustered and angry glare of the doctor. He did not speak or attempt to argue with the doctor's perceptions. Let Chief Illyan have a reputation for laying into his men as they lay injured in hospital; it would probably come in useful someday. Let it be believed that Vorkosigan's Dog had savaged Vorkosigan's son; that would be even more useful, right now.
Vorvolk's words fired up from his chip, almost unprompted. You're not objective about Lieutenant Vorkosigan, Captain. There's no possible explanation for these accounts in the reports, yet you've signed off on all of them. It was true, all of it: the reports did not explain the accounting, and he was not objective about Miles.
The targets were all neatly lined up: first Miles, then him, then Aral. The pattern was familiar by now, sufficiently so that he began to run a double-check of the whole situation on his chip, because the human mind was too eager to fit things into familiar patterns. But his fallible mind was not deceived. Miles had been on the take, he'd turned a blind eye, Aral was responsible for them both. Or so Vorvolk's story went. On the scale of plots he'd dealt with before, it wasn't the worst by any means, or even close, but it loomed larger than it should in his mind, and he knew why. Miles wasn't a thief. Was he?
The doctor shot him another frightened-defiant look and scuttled off, and Simon went to the nearest ImpMil security post and called up the cameras in Miles's room. The guard on duty there--who had undoubtedly witnessed their conversation--kept his eyes cast downwards. Simon looked at Miles. He was lying quietly now, awake, with the spaced-out, strained look that told Simon he'd been drugged and was still in pain. The pain was betrayal, Simon knew, the kind of pain anaesthetics couldn't help with. His chip replayed Miles's outraged attempt to get up, his furious movements, his agonised voice; it didn't replay Simon's alarm and dismay, nor his gnawing guilt, but it didn't need to.
The damning evidence, the reports, the black holes in the accounting--none of those had altered in the past fifteen minutes. But Simon could no longer believe his hypothesis, even as a supposition, not on this circumstantial evidence alone. He knew Miles; that too was evidence. He knew Miles as a man knows his dearest son. If this was some other crime, of vainglory or arrogance or rashness or one of the many other follies and errors Miles was prone to, he could believe it. Might even have been first with the accusation. But secretive crimes of greed were not in Miles's nature, and he would not lay his word, his name, on a lie. Simon had never known him to tell such a lie, not one single instance in twenty-five years of perfect recollection.
If Miles had been on the take, he would have covered for him, then moved him quietly somewhere where he would have no opportunity to repeat his crime. To avert this plot, to spare Aral the shame, to spare Miles the punishment. That was his job: to protect, and sometimes he had to protect people from themselves. But Miles was not a thief, and it was Simon who was ashamed.
His wristcom beeped, and Simon looked down at it and winced. Lady Cordelia. That was quick. He supposed the doctor must have called her. They had great respect for Cordelia at ImpMil, after all these years, and she was the obvious person. He sent the guard out and transferred the call to the comconsole in the security post.
"Simon." Her face on the viewscreen was a little puzzled, a little angry, a little thoughtful, and her tones were not so much accusing as curious. "Why are you torturing my son?"
He did not look away. "To find out if he's been stealing from the Imperium, my lady."
That made her blink and stare at him, clearly not expecting an admission of guilt. "The doctor said, but I didn't--what were you doing, Simon?" This time her voice was very sharp, a sword's edge flashing on a conference table. "What the hell's going on there?"
"Miles was in recovery from the surgery. Alert and aware, but in pain. Vulnerable. I went in to ask him to explain his accounts, which contain some very large and disturbing discrepancies."
"The doctor said you laid hands on him." Still the glint of steel.
"When he understood what I was asking, and why, he became very angry with me. He tried to get up. I caught him before he could collapse. If you wish, I will transfer the security vid of our entire conversation to you, my lady."
She studied him again, and he saw the sword slide back into its sheath. "That won't be necessary. When the doctor called me I thought it had to be all nonsense, but then--"
"It's not." He held her eye. As he wanted the truth from Miles, she was owed the truth from him. "Make no mistake, my lady. I chose this moment to attack. The doctor misunderstood some of what he saw, but he did not misunderstand why I was there, at that time."
She shook her head. "Oh, Simon. You idiot." Her tone was sad now, not angry. "One day you'll have to start trusting people. I know Miles can be a total pain in a lot of ways, but he's not a thief and you know it."
"I do know it," Simon said. "But ... the discrepancies in his accounting are serious. And they have given the Auditor a clear line of attack, at him, at me, and at Aral. Though he's no thief, he does need to learn care and discretion."
"Ha. Good luck with that. We never managed to teach him any. But don't stress him any further, Simon, please. He had an incredibly rough time on Earth, and before, and afterwards. I've seen the reports. Ask him for the explanation, and he'll give it to you. You know that too."
Simon sighed. "Vorvolk told me I wasn't objective about Miles, and he was right. I was too harsh on him because I was afraid I was being too lenient." He opened his hand to Cordelia. "Does that make sense to you?"
"Of course it does." She smiled a little at him then. "Don't try that again, Simon. And don't worry. He'll forgive you for it. I'll be along later on this evening to see him; try to have it all sorted out between you by then, please."
Simon bowed his head to her, and she cut the comm. He leaned back in the station chair and found himself studying the view-screen of Miles's room again. Miles was still awake, but his eyes were heavy and shadowed, the familiar look of pain. Simon sighed. He would leave Miles to sleep for a few hours, go and stall the Auditor, and come back later to hear Miles's explanation. And to apologise to Lord Vorkosigan for doubting his word.
Miles woke suddenly to the sound of footsteps outside his bedroom door. He sat bolt upright, his heart racing: an intruder? Assassins? He reached out, fumbling for his grandfather's dagger. The footsteps passed his door, halted, turned around and went back, and this time, Miles recognised them. Simon. Of course. He set the dagger down, feeling a bit foolish. There was an increased guard on the house, after all, not to mention the force-screen: intruders were not exactly likely here.
The footsteps faded and Miles lay down again, then started to wonder what Simon was doing walking around Vorkosigan House at--he glanced at the glowing lights of his clock--quarter to two in the morning on his first night here. Perhaps he would rather be back at ImpSec after all. Or perhaps he just couldn't sleep, though he'd seemed very tired earlier. Ruibal hadn't mentioned sleepwalking, or anything like that, had he?
He heard Simon moving further along the corridor, and it occurred to him that perhaps Simon needed something, and as a good host, he ought to go and see if he could help. He got out of bed and went out into the corridor, padding softly in bare feet.
Simon was standing on the landing to the back stairs, looking up and down the spiral flight as if trying to decide which way to go. The night-dim lighting made him look strangely old and small, but when he heard Miles's footsteps, he whirled around, hand moving reflexively to his hip, though he was unarmed.
"Oh! It's you." Simon took a step back. "What are you doing here?"
Miles swallowed at those too-familiar words. "I heard you out here. Is there a problem? Do you need anything?"
"Oh. I thought your bedroom was ... somewhere else. I didn't mean to disturb you." Simon looked down the corridor Miles had come from in faint bemusement, as if it hadn't been there a minute ago. "I'm fine, Miles. Go back to bed."
There was a strong note of dismissal in his voice, and Miles felt himself beginning to turn in automatic reflex before his brain woke up fully and he began to realise just what the problem was. Simon was lost. In Vorkosigan House. And wasn't going to ask for help.
"I was thinking I might make myself some cocoa," Miles said, thinking quickly. "Do you want any? Ma Kosti goes home at night, so we won't wake anyone." He headed for the stairs without waiting for Simon's response; after a fractional pause, Simon followed him down.
The route to the kitchen was a bit convoluted from here, and Miles walked slowly, but did not let himself look to see whether Simon recognised where he was or not. Inside, he flipped on half the lights and stared around at the array of cupboards.
"I used to know where this sort of thing was kept..." he muttered. He began to open doors, unearthing a vast number of cooking ingredients, mostly things he had no idea how to use. One large shallow cupboard held a massive spice collection: he stared in bemusement at the array of jars and canisters. Simon came over to join the search, his interest evidently piqued despite himself, and typically, he was the one who found cocoa and sugar. In fact, he found nine varieties of sugar and three of cocoa.
"Well," Miles said, studying the catering-sized jars and packets, "I suppose we could try them all and use whichever one tastes best."
"Some of us," Simon responded, "have occasionally had to cook for ourselves." He selected one of the sugars and one of the cocoas, and carried them over to the enormous main stove. Milk was easier to locate in the walk-in refrigerator, though finding a saucepan that wasn't sized to make cocoa for fifty took some time. Since he seemed to know what he was doing--evidently, cooking was something he could remember how to do--in the interests of having good-tasting cocoa Miles let Simon decide on quantities and procedure, and confined himself to following Simon's orders. It was a familiar pattern.
There was a small table and some chairs at the far end of the kitchen where the staff sat for their breaks. Miles poured the cocoa into two steaming mugs and headed over there.
"I woke up and I had no idea where I was," Simon said abruptly after his first swallow of cocoa. "I did remember coming here yesterday afternoon, in the end, but not why I was sleeping in Count Piotr's room."
"Father would kill me if I didn't give you the nicest guest rooms we have," Miles answered, trying to sound casual. "And then Mother and Aunt Alys would come around for seconds," he added, winning a faint laugh from Simon.
"Oh yes. Alys arranged for the flowers, didn't she? They reminded me of her, when I saw them."
"No dancing housemaids, though," Miles said, but that reference clearly eluded Simon. He took a sip of cocoa.
Simon was holding his mug between his hands as if warming them. "How can I get lost in Vorkosigan House?" he muttered. "It's ridiculous."
"People get lost here all the time. Martin's been working here a month, and he still gets lost sometimes. It's not that ridiculous."
Simon gave him an almost annoyed look, and didn't have to say I've worked here thirty years.
"After my cryorevival," Miles added more slowly, "I got lost here once. On my way to the attics. I went up the servants' stairs, and--there was a gap in my memory where that bit of the house had been. It was scary." He swallowed cocoa without tasting it.
Simon made a faint sound that could have been either acknowledgement or agreement, his gaze fixed on his mug as if it was the most interesting thing he'd ever seen, and Miles didn't try to meet his eye. They drank cocoa in silence and sat, both lost in their own thoughts. Then Simon tried to stifle a yawn, and Miles stood up. Mindful of Ma Kosti's comments the last time he'd tried to cook in this kitchen, he went to wash up both mugs and the saucepan, while Simon remained in his chair, obviously weary. When he was done, Simon pushed himself to his feet, and Miles preceded him out of the kitchen. He went back the front way, up to the main hall and up the wide stairs, and noticed the way Simon relaxed here. He hadn't forgotten the entire house. Still, Miles led the way up to the door of Simon's suite and pulled it open.
"Planning to tuck me in as well?" Simon asked, very dry.
"You used to," Miles retorted. "And tell me stories."
"And sing lullabies," Simon added unexpectedly. "You were a complete terror at that age. Still are, in fact. All right. Good night, Miles. Or is it good morning?"
"Still good night, in my view." He hesitated, picturing again Simon waking up with no idea why he was here, wandering around the house alone and getting lost. "You know," he said cautiously, "I have a wristcom always with me. You can just call me, if--if you need anything. I'm right here, and I don't mind."
"I'm sure I'll be fine." Simon's voice was like a high stone wall with iron spikes on top.
Miles was used to playing wall. "You never used to have any compunction about calling me in the middle of the night when you suddenly had a job for me."
A palpable lie. Miles wanted to demand will you only ask for my help when you want me to cut your throat for you? but there was a chance Simon didn't remember that, and if he'd forgotten, that was one thing Miles never wanted him to recall. Instead, he tackled the wall headfirst.
"My mother has a saying." He drew breath, feeling his face heat, but there was only one kind of dynamite that would bring this wall down. "You've probably heard it before. 'Let me help' rhymes with 'I love you'. Let me help, Uncle Simon."
"God, you're your mother's son," Simon said, his tone somewhere between swearing and marvelling. "All right. All right. As you wish. If I have another ... another problem, I'll call you."
"Thank you," Miles whispered. He looked at Simon, then, impulsively, reached out. Simon gave him a look that was clearly meant to say I'll humour you if I must but was belied by the little sigh he gave as Miles hugged him. "God, Simon," he said, "you have no idea how glad I am to have you home here, after all that."
"Home," Simon echoed softly. "I suppose this is as much my home as anywhere is." He let go of Miles and looked around. "Then I'd better learn my way around again, hadn't I?"
"In the morning," Miles said, "we'll go over the whole house until you've got it straight again." He looked up and smiled. "Good night."
"It occurs to me," Miles said, "that there's something I never said to you."
Simon drained his glass. Miles had all too visibly been brooding on something all evening, and Simon had a tolerable certainty that whatever it was, it would be easier to handle if he was moderately anaesthetised first. He'd often thought it would be easier to handle Miles if he was drunk, and now at last he was allowed.
The party was in full spate around them. A small party, Alys had described it, though it seemed oddly bigger when he was trying to navigate it as a guest instead of running security for it, a small party to help Laisa settle into her new, temporary position as the Emperor's Betrothed. And Alys herself was dashing around, or at least gliding gracefully but without pausing very often, guiding Laisa and smoothing her path, and Simon had concluded that there wasn't much he could do to be of service to her here, and had retreated to a comfortable sofa with a bottle of Gregor's best wine. Miles had joined him, talking of inconsequentalities, but with an edge to him that Simon recognised, unmuted by the wine he was drinking. And it seemed they were here at last.
But the bottle was empty. Miles raised a hand and one of the servants--ImpSec, and only more attuned to Alys herself than to Simon, here tonight--came over with commendable promptness and a fresh bottle. Simon recognised the delaying tactic for what it was as Miles refilled both their glasses and took a sip from his, but he let Miles spin it out a few moments longer before finally saying, "Well, Miles? Spit it out."
"I'm sorry," Miles said, very fast.
Simon had picked up his glass, but now he put it down again with a faint clink. He didn't have to ask why, or what Miles meant, and though he no longer had his chip to verify it, he was as certain as he could be that it was true: Miles had not apologised to him. Gregor had, and that had been an experience he was just as glad not to have permanently stored in his head, but Miles had not.
"I know you trusted me. And I lied. I knew it was wrong as soon as--before--I did it. And you always told me to tell the truth, whatever it was, and--"
Miles was babbling now. Simon raised a hand to stop him, then did pick up his glass and took a judicious sip. "I know you've apologised to Gregor," he said, "and you've regained his trust." A glance at the chain of office that Miles wore for this formal party. "And you've done me ... great service. Why bring this up now?" He had no need to watch Miles intently as he asked: he could read him by instinct, in the dark.
"I suppose--I suppose I was thinking about Haroche. He never apologised to you, did he? Nor to Gregor. I ... don't want to be any more like him than I have to be."
"He was a good man," Simon said. "A brave and clever officer, a worthy successor, a good man. Or so I thought. As I thought of you."
Miles flinched, but bore it in silence. Simon recalled rather too clearly how Miles had looked when he'd fired him. How he'd felt. How he'd wept. How he'd feared for Miles's life, afterwards, and wondered what he would do if he had driven Aral's son to suicide. How he'd nearly called Miles, a dozen times over the next few days, and told him to forget it, to come back, that all was forgiven... but some cold and solid conviction that he was right prevented him.
"It was the one thing I always asked of you," he said, "and always got: the truth. You disobeyed my orders, you imprisoned my men and ran rings around them, you ran your own private wars, you committed treason--but you told me the truth about it all, always. I prized that highly."
Miles looked nearly ready to cry. Some of that was the wine, no doubt, but not all. "And I pissed all over it," Miles whispered. "I am sorry."
"You broke that trust," Simon agreed, and let that hang in the air. "But what you should be asking me now is, have you regained it?"
The noises from the party seemed very distant now. Miles's eyes were fixed on him.
"I've fucked up in my time, you know. Not by lying, at least, not often, but in other ways. Lots of them. There was Evon Vorhalas, for one--an error of judgement rather than a--a sin, but no less terrible for that. And many other times. I never expect anyone to go his entire life without these violations. Not you, not me, not anyone. You'll screw up again, too, in your life, some new way, and I will too."
At length, Miles said, "And have I regained your trust?"
Simon did take a deep gulp of his wine then, because some memories were still too clear and he would prefer to blur them. "When I needed someone," he said quietly, "when I really needed a person I could trust to help me, who else did I ask for, Miles? Even then, after it all, who else did I trust?"
Miles's shoulders slumped, his whole body relaxing, and he seemed to sink into the sofa as if the tension had been all that was holding him up. Simon put an arm around his shoulders, and Miles leaned into him. "Thank you," he said at last. "Thank you."
He sat still for a while, his breathing slowly steadying again, and Simon felt himself relax too. He hadn't quite realised that he'd wanted this, that he'd been waiting for it. That he'd been owed it. He looked sideways at Miles, and then smiled, because Miles had passed out. Lightweight, Simon thought fondly. He looked up, and caught Alys's eye on them, a little disapproving. He probably wasn't supposed to let the newest Lord Auditor pass out drunk at Laisa's party. A very minor screw-up, but he really didn't want to spoil her evening. He made an apologetic gesture to her, and saw her response: Fix it, then.
He did so simply, nodding to one of the servants and sending him in search of Miles's armsman. It was barely a minute before Pym was standing discreetly by them.
"Ah," Pym said, taking them in with a look in which gentle amusement was not quite fully concealed. "I'll take him home, then, shall I, sir?"
"That would be a good idea, yes," Simon said. But he kept his arm around Miles for a moment. "You have children, don't you, Pym?"
"That's right, sir."
"You always forgive them, don't you, when they do something they shouldn't?"
A softer expression flickered across Pym's face. "Of course I do, sir."
"Yes," Simon echoed, "of course you do."
Though Miles was no child now, that was certain, but a man full grown in experience and pain, a man old enough to make mistakes and own them and apologise for them, as an equal. And be forgiven.
They had the conspirators all located, trapped, though they didn't know it, while they met in their anonymous hotel room. Time for the final stage of this operation. Miles looked around for Simon, but he hadn't arrived in the little shielded command and control centre yet. Miles wasn't sure whether to ask him to hurry up or not. Having Simon along to consult on this case had been very useful, multiple times over, but Lord Auditor or not, Miles didn't find it easy to tell Simon what to do. But Gregor had suggested it, and it was true that Simon's old ImpSec knowledge and contacts, patchy as they were, had been invaluable several times. They had found their gang of disgrunted ex-ImpSec men, discovered most of the plot, and were poised to swoop in.
This was the part Miles had the most doubts about. They were all retired or dismissed ImpSec agents, clever and dangerous; there were going to be casualties. But when Simon suggested going in as a decoy, Miles had finally put his Auditorial foot down. He was not, dammit, going to let an old man take the greatest risk. He'd finally got to a point when he didn't have to order people he loved into the line of fire, and he liked it that way.
He studied the line of approach, then began to swear under his breath. On the viewscreen, a slight figure was moving, leaning a little affectedly on one of Miles's longer canes, headed for the room where the conspirators were meeting. Damn him! Damn him, how dare he try to pull off a stunt like this?
Technically, Miles supposed, Simon was disobeying a direct Auditorial order, and if he ever fancied being skinned alive by his Aunt Alys he could choose to make an issue of it. But he knew perfectly well Simon wasn't disobeying an Auditorial order. He was refraining from following advice on his own territory from his own ex-subordinate and, as he'd pointed out more than once, from someone he'd once sung lullabies to at bedtime.
He'd be skinned alive by Ivan, too, he suspected, if this went wrong now. When Gregor had suggested that Simon help out on this case, Ivan had come to find Miles and spent a fair bit of time trying to find ways to say 'please take care of him' without being too obvious about the fact that he was worried about his stepfather and his new--or perhaps finally unrepressed--adrenalin-tripping habits. Well, Ivan had been right to worry.
His heart in his mouth, Miles watched as Simon knocked on the door. Simon's movements were casual, confident, as if he entirely belonged here, and Miles had a sudden flash of memory, of Simon telling him covert ops stories when he was young.
"He's wearing a wire, my lord," said Tuomonen, who was managing the op, since Miles knew his own operational experience was getting a little out of date. "What's his plan?"
"I don't know," Miles bit out, and Tuomonen's eyes widened, then crinkled betrayingly. Miles had added the Captain to his staff a year ago, when Tuomonen completed his twenty years and took Miles up on the old job offer, and he knew Tuomonen enjoyed his work, but he hadn't forgotten what had happened on Komarr.
"Well, he is Captain Illyan," Tuomonen said, a hint of reverence in his tone. "What do you want me to do?"
"Get his wire up on the screen," Miles said. "We can't stop him now. Wait for his signal."
Simon's perspective, visual and audio, appeared on his screen and headset a moment later. Another knock, some sounds inside, muffled and unintelligible voices. Then the door opened.
They did have a booby-trap prepared, Miles saw at once as Simon glanced vaguely towards some hastily dismantled wires on the doorway, ready to be reconnected in seconds if necessary. And there were two men standing in covering lines of fire, too. But they evidently weren't prepared to blow up someone who might just be cleaning staff or an accidental visitor. That was a good sign, Miles thought. And they all looked deeply shocked to see Simon.
"Is Thierry Bisset here?" Simon said, his voice cheerful and casual. "They said to try up here..." He stepped into the room. "Oh, I didn't mean to intrude--ah, Thierry, there you are."
His gaze swept the room. There were eleven men inside, the full set of conspirators, and they were all staring at Simon. One man's hand moved up in a fraction of a salute before he stopped himself. Miles ran the cross-checks: every single man in this room had served Simon. Thierry Bisset, the conspiracy leader, who had retired from ImpSec at the rank of Colonel, started forward.
"Sir! What on earth are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," Simon said easily. "They said to try in here."
"Oh," Simon said. He faltered. "I... downstairs. One of the people I asked. I'm sorry, I can't--"
Miles saw, through Simon's eyes, the way Thierry's lips pressed together, dismay and frustration and a hint of pain. He certainly would not press Simon for more. Miles had seen Simon playing up his disabilities before, and every time he hated it. It might be over seven years since he'd sat beside Simon in the ImpSec clinic and listened to him beg for death, but there was no chance of him forgetting it. But these days, Simon seemed almost amused by his own frailties. Vulnerability can be a defence too, he'd said to Miles. Or a weapon.
"What can I do for you?" Thierry said after a pause. "I'm afraid this isn't a good time--"
"I was trying to find out what had become of you, and I heard you were staying here," Simon said. "It's a strange life, once you're out of that rat-trap. Though the new building is an improvement, I'll grant. But if this isn't a good time--perhaps you could give me your home address, we can catch up."
"Oh. Er. All right," Thierry said. He began to recite an address--not the one on file, Miles noted, and wondered which one was false--but Simon interrupted him.
"Sorry, would you mind writing it down for me?"
Again, that strange grimace of dismay, echoed by several other faces in the room. "Of course, sir," Thierry said gently. He rummaged inside his jacket pockets--Simon saw the weapons there, but said nothing--and pulled out a torn flimsy and a pen, then stooped over a table. Simon, leaning on the table with him, drummed his fingers on the wood once.
"Go," Miles said to Tuomonen. "Now."
"I've got a place here in the capital now," Simon was saying as Thierry wrote, and for a horrible moment Miles thought he'd misinterpreted Simon's signal, his voice was so perfectly casual. "Not too large for me, but there's room when the grandchildren come to visit--" and the door blew in.
Simon's view of the next thirty seconds was deeply confusing, even for someone used to following command headset data. He ducked down, and someone rushed at him, and his wire gave off nothing but blackness and the sounds of feet and shouts and stunner fire. Miles switched to the commandos' views, and tried desperately to find Simon. He was lying beneath another man, not Thierry, but the man who had nearly saluted when he'd entered. Rewinding rapidly, Miles saw that as soon as the door had broken down, the man had flung himself on top of Simon. And half the men there had looked not to Thierry for orders, but to Simon. Reflexes, indeed. Miles swore under his breath.
He saw it was secure before Tuomonen gave the all-clear, and jogged at the fastest pace he could from their nest to the conspirators' room, pushing past commandos and arriving just in time to see the conspirator being dragged off Simon. Miles ran over.
"You damn sneaky bastard," the conspirator was saying half-appreciatively, looking at Simon and entirely ignoring the commandos. "Sir."
Simon extended a hand, and at a nod from Miles the commando let the ImpSec conspirator pull Simon to his feet. "As ever," Simon replied. "I'm sorry to see you here, Baudin." To Miles he added, "Baudin used to command my personal security detail, once. Until he starting turning up drunk on duty. His wife had died, but ... well. Can you do anything for him?"
"We'll see," Miles said. "Take him away, but hold him separately from the others," he added to the commando, and they watched until the room was cleared. Then Miles glared at Simon. "Dammit, that was far too dangerous--what on earth got into you? You could have been killed!"
"I'm fine, Miles, stop fretting," Simon said placidly. There was a strange little smile on his face. "I knew you were there, after all."
Miles ground his teeth, hovering at Simon's shoulder as they headed out of the building and towards the waiting lightflyer. "I'll go back with Simon now," he said to Tuomonen. "Congratulations, you get the mopping up. I'll be back later on, and you can always contact me if you need anything."
"Yes, my lord."
The only hint that Simon hadn't found the entire experience as easy as he feigned was the way his hand gripped Miles's shoulder to help himself into the flyer. But he was smiling as he sat down. "It worked very well," he said.
"By the skin of your teeth," Miles retorted. "If you ever pull a stunt like that--" Self-awareness finally caught up with him, with the dancing light in Simon's eyes. "Is this revenge, Simon?"
Simon ... smirked. "I wouldn't say I was above a little revenge now and then," he said, "though Sasha and Helen have most of the market cornered on that these days. But in this case, I thought you were letting emotion cloud your judgement. I knew I could distract them enough to reduce the risk of casualties, and I have never prioritised my own safety above my--ImpSec's--men."
"You wouldn't have had to answer to Aunt Alys if it had all gone wrong," Miles muttered. "Or Ivan, or Tej, or the kids, or Father and Mother, dammit."
Simon only looked at him. "Now that," he observed, "is revenge. I notified your parents that you were missing in action three times. And I notified them of your death."
Miles winced. "Did I ever say I was sorry about that? I am. Though I still don't think I could have done anything else."
"Mm. Perhaps not." Simon leaned back against the seat. "Still," he said, "I enjoyed that." He looked deeply content, like Zap the cat after a satisfying prowl laying down the law to the other Vorkosigan House cats. Miles shook his head and sat back opposite, letting his own post-combat nerves dissipate. It had all gone well, in the end. Perhaps Simon was owed a little revenge. And a little fun.
They drove back to Alys's apartment building, and Simon and Miles both noticed the extra security vehicles around the place, and the Vorbarra armsman at the door. Alys had visitors. The armsman scanned them quickly, then waved them both past, and Simon unfastened the door. He was home again.
A wall of sound hit them both, followed rapidly by a small missile colliding with his knees with a battle cry of, "Grandda! Grandda!" A second, smaller missile struck a moment later. Grinning, Simon bent and scooped up both his namesake and Elizabeth, one in each arm.
"Ha," Miles observed, also grinning, "you can see who's more popular than her poor old Da."
"Hello, Da," Elizabeth said, but wrapped her arms enthusiastically around Simon's neck. Only a little sticky, Simon considered. Alys was doing well.
They went into the living room, where a beautifully chaotic scene was spread before them. The Crown Prince was carefully dismantling one of Simon's old ImpSec commlinks, aided and abetted by Sasha and supervised by Ivan. Tej and Laisa were sitting on the carpet, which was liberally decorated with toys, along with Helen and Xav and a puppy, and Alys was serenely enthroned on a sofa with baby Sonia on her lap and little Kareen snuggled in on one side, reading a story, apparently oblivious to the chaos.
Tej rose to her feet as they entered, though Laisa remained seated, helping Xav fit the pieces of a small wooden puzzle together. "You're back! Did everything go smoothly?" She beamed at him sunnily. Ivan turned too, and Simon thought he caught a flash of relief on his face.
"Yes," Miles answered, "we got them all caught and rounded up, all safe." He said nothing about Simon's unauthorised role in this, and Simon smiled.
"It went beautifully," he said. "Elizabeth, if you want to get down, you can just say, you don't have to kick me."
"You behave yourself, Lizzie," Miles put in. "Don't kick your Grandda Simon."
"Down!" Elizabeth promptly demanded, and Simon deposited her on the carpet, and she pounced on the puppy.
"I thought we were just having Miles's children here," Simon remarked to Alys. "While Ekaterin gets sorted out with her new design commission. Did I forget something?"
"No, that's right," Alys told him, "but then Ivan had the day off and thought he'd bring the family around, and then Tej was talking to Laisa and we decided to have a general visit." She made a swift grab to stop Sonia chewing on the edge of the book. "To give everyone something to do while we waited for news."
With Laisa's parents on Komarr, Tej's on Jackson's Whole and Aral and Cordelia on Sergyar, he and Alys were the only grandparents within a week's travel time most of these children had, and Alys was enjoying it to the full. Simon was enjoying it too, even if the rate of breakages in their penthouse seemed to have increased exponentially in the past few years. He ran a thoughtful eye over the Crown Prince and Sasha, who had also appropriated Christos's toolkit for their engineering experiments, but Ivan seemed to have them well in hand.
"Play lightflyers with me, Grandda," little Si demanded suddenly, and Simon laughed and held the child under his arms and swooped him around the room, taking off and soaring and taking evasive action from a sneak attack by Miles, and winding up with a spectacular crash landing on the carpet, narrowly missing Elizabeth and the puppy.
"Again, again," Si said through hysterical giggles, bouncing back up to his feet. Simon sat up more slowly, also laughing but aware that he'd crash-landed a little harder than he'd intended and was already going to have bruises from his earlier activities. Ivan came over.
"I think it's my turn, you rascal," he said, retrieving his son and extending a hand to Simon. Simon let his stepson help him up and dust him off.
"No trouble with the conspirators, then?" Ivan said with excessive shrewdness.
"Nothing Miles and I couldn't handle." But Simon rubbed his hip ruefully anyway. Ivan, watching this, gave an oddly parental sigh. Fatherhood really had changed him, Simon thought, it was rather charming. He went over to the sofa and sat down beside Alys. She leaned across and kissed his cheek, her hand trailing over his leg in a way that reminded him that later on, when all the grandchildren were gone, his bruises would doubtless get all the loving attention they could stand. She passed baby Sonia to him.
"You sit here a bit, love. I'll go have a word with them in the kitchen, and we'll all have tea now that you're home safe."
She bustled away, and a moment later, Miles, who also looked a little tired, came over to take her place, leaving Ivan and the ladies to the more active supervision. Simon surveyed the room.
"I never would have imagined that I might be coming home to something like this, one day," he said. "I didn't know you could get grandchildren without having children first."
Miles gave him an amused look, reaching out to catch little Kareen before she crawled off the edge of the sofa. "I don't know, Uncle Simon," he murmured. "After all these years, what makes you think you didn't have children?"