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Gather Courage and Go Forth

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She needed to talk to Simon.

Actually, Cordelia thought, she probably ought to have talked to him long before now. Several weeks, at least, and probably longer. He'd had ... that expression of his. That worried, hesitant expression, the one that said he had something he half-thought he should say, but prudence and/or decorum dictated that he should think very, very carefully before he said it. It had been there for weeks now, and Simon still showed no sign of gathering the necessary courage to give prudence and/or decorum the shove. She had noticed that. Had worried over it, even. Not as much as she should have, though. Not until she noticed the other expression Simon had been wearing lately, and whose presence he'd been wearing it in.

Simon was leery of Miles. He didn't like being in the same room as him. Oh, he was subtle about it, he hid the ... distaste? alarm? ... very well, but it was there. And she hadn't noticed. Not for ages. Simon had something he thought he should say, and Simon didn't like to be in Miles' presence. Possibly the two things weren't connected, but ...

But she had learned from Piotr. A hard, insistent lesson. She had no intention of being blindsided again when it came to her son's safety. She had almost lost him far too many times for that. Not again. Not ever again.

So it was with that in mind that she arranged to corner Simon. Away from Aral, away from any complicated issues of oaths and loyalty. Or, well, as much as could be managed, anyway. No Barrayaran was ever completely free from those. But she cornered Simon alone, snagged him on his way out to ImpSec, and asked him for a moment of his time.

She made sure to have Miles in her arms as she did so. He was so small, so tiny and frail. He watched the world around him with such pained, curious eyes. She watched Simon's face at the sight of him. Of her, carrying him. She watched Simon's eyes track up to hers, the light of realisation dawning there, and then she watched something else. Something tired, resigned. His shoulders straightened instinctively, a man braced for a firing squad, and his expression blanked. He inclined his head, and turned to follow her without so much as a word.

Cordelia hesitated, briefly, glancing instinctively towards Bothari at her side, but there was no point flinching now. She led them up towards Miles' nursery, and had Simon wait in the next room while she settled Miles for his nap. As much of one as he could manage, anyway. He had trouble sleeping, even in spite of his exhaustion. Bothari nodded to her as she left, taking up his station by Miles' cot with steadfast, ever-lethal determination. There was a time she would have found that less than reassuring. She hadn't known Barrayar quite as thoroughly then.

"... Milady," Simon said, very softly as she closed the nursery door behind her. He was standing to attention, she saw when she looked up at him. His spine was stiff and straight, and his eyes were very bleak. "You wanted to see me?"

Cordelia debated for a moment with herself. Whether to gentle him through this, this young man who had yet to give overt offence, or whether to strike fast and lance the wound cleanly. It was so hard to think of striking Simon. There was something so puppyish about him still, though it had been fading more and more every day since the Pretendership, since he had taken over Negri's role. She didn't want to hurry that along any faster than it was already happening.

And yet. And yet. Her son lay in the next room. Miles, who had had to fight for his life before ever he was born. Cordelia had done much harder things than this for his sake. She would not falter now.

"... Is this guilt, Simon?" she asked finally. Slowly and carefully, coming over to stand in front of him. To watch him, to see that faint flinch run through him. His expression never faltered. His eyes stared agony while his face remained calm and composed, if terribly pale, around them. Cordelia's heart bled, and she forced herself remorselessly onwards regardless. "This ... this horror you have for my son. Is it guilt, or something else?"

He closed his eyes. Mute, flimsy defence, thoroughly insufficient. His hands were clasped behind his back, where she couldn't see them, but she could almost feel them clench. His frame all but creaked with the tension in him. But he gathered courage, at last. After weeks of waffling, he finally scraped together the courage to speak.

"... Both," he whispered. Opening his eyes to look at her. "Guilt and something else, Milady. Both of those. But not ... not horror. Not the way you mean. I swear to you, I swear it, I do not wish him harm. I could not."

His voice cracked, a depth of feeling welling up inside it, and Cordelia sagged abruptly in some relief. Truth, she thought giddily. Truth, ragged and raw. He meant that. It was unmistakable, and Simon didn't tend to lie. Keep his silence, yes, waffle and hesitate and prevaricate, but not lie. He meant it. He didn't want Miles hurt. He didn't want Miles gone. That ... was more of a relief than she had expected. The thought of his potential betrayal had been more of a horror than she had let herself realise. Simon was hers. Hers and Aral's, ever since Escobar. Vordarian had given her a crash course in civil war. She hadn't wanted to lose another friend.

There was no corresponding relief on Simon's face, though. When she looked back at him, when she allowed her shoulders to straighten again in happy relief. His face was as fixed as it had been a moment ago. His eyes were still as bleak. Concern rose again inside Cordelia, and this time, assured of Miles' safety, it was purely for Simon himself.

"... I believe you," she said, and let herself be gentle this time. She reached out, touched him lightly on one stiff, rigid arm. "I believe you, Simon. But there is something. Not horror, maybe, but something. Tell me. You've wanted to tell me something for weeks. Or to tell someone, at least. After this ... Well. It might as well be now, don't you think?"

His eyes shuttered again. She felt him lean into her touch. She wasn't sure if he was conscious of it. It was only the smallest of motions, the faintest transfer of weight. It wouldn't have been noticeable if he hadn't been holding himself so stiffly. But noticeable it was, and Cordelia came to a rapid decision. She tightened her grip on his arm, grabbed the other one as well for good measure, and steered him rapidly backwards towards a seat. He staggered a little, his eyes flaring wide at the motion, but he offered no resistance. Thought of it, for maybe a second, but couldn't follow through. Cordelia sat him down hastily. She had visions of Kou, his swordstick in his hand, lined up against his throat. She was not allowing similar now.

"For god's sake, Simon," she hissed in dismay. "Whatever it is, can it be worse to tell it to me than to live with it in silence? You go stiff every time he's in the room. Or me, for that matter. I can't believe I didn't notice sooner. What is it? What could possibly be so terrible?"

He stared up at her. For a long, long second. There was something entirely unreadable in his face, a tension in his limbs like a man trying to work up to leaping off a cliff. And then, as though some internal tipping point had been reached and crossed, the tension bled out of him. All at once. He sagged back in his chair, and turned his head away from her to look towards the nursery walls instead. To look through them, it almost seemed.

"He's in pain," he said at last. Softly, painfully. "Your son. All the time. He's in pain, and so are you. And it's not going to change. He might live his whole life this way."

Cordelia breathed carefully. She had ... she had expected that. Guilt, she'd asked, and he'd admitted in his turn. She had expected this. It hurt, nonetheless, to hear it said. Miles' future, or a potential one, a very likely one, laid so brutally bare. It gouged at her, of course it did. Still. She'd fought this fight before, for herself and for Aral, for Kou and for Drou, for everyone who'd been there that horrible, fateful night. She'd fought this fight for Miles, and she would fight it still, gladly, every moment her son drew breath. It was barely anything to fight it for Simon as well, and possibly long overdue. He'd flinched from her for long enough.

"Yes," she said, as clipped and as brutal as she dared. "He is in pain, Simon. He will be, probably for a great many years yet. And people look at him, Barrayarans look at him, and I know what it is they see. My father-in-law made that very clear, believe me." She drew a breath, hard and ragged, and let it out again more calmly as he turned back to look at her once more. "But he's alive, Simon. My son. Miles. He's alive, and he's going to stay that way. He fights to stay that way. I see that too. Every day. He fights and he smiles and he lives. And there is joy in that. Worth more than any pain he could ever cause me. You need to believe that, Simon. We failed that night, all of us, but not all the way. My son is alive, and that is enough. That is everything."

Truth. Raw and ragged, truth. She felt it with every fibre of her being. And he looked at her, and there was something in him. Something tired and thin and faltering. He smiled, faintly. The bleakness didn't fade from him at all.

"I know," he said, so softly it was only barely audible. "I know, Milady. I ... I can feel it."

He said it like a prayer and like a confession both. He said it so oddly, put so much more meaning into four little words than they could possibly deserve, and almost despite herself Cordelia paused. She drew up, confused, and stared at him. He spread his hands, palm up and opened helplessly, and she stared at him, and groped for explanation.

"... What does that mean?" she asked carefully. "Simon. What does that mean?"

He closed his eyes. He did look horribly young like that. His head tipped back, his throat exposed. His eyes closed and his hands limp and helpless in his lap. He looked so young, and so terribly ancient in the same moment. Barrayaran. Completely.

"I can feel it," he said again at last. Looking away from her, towards the nursery. "It was ... I wanted to tell you. You, Milady, and ... and Lord Vorkosigan. Aral. I should have told him months ago. Maybe years. I did ... mean to. I put my hands between his, I owe him that much. But I didn't tell Ezar. Or Negri. I should have told them, and I didn't. I was afraid. And then they were dead, and Lord Vorkosigan ... I should have told him. I was going to. Once ... Once I found the courage, I suppose. Please believe me, my lady. I was going to tell you."

He was babbling. Entirely earnest, but babbling, as badly as if he'd taken fast-penta. Which he hadn't. She hoped. Cordelia crouched hastily in front of him, uncaring of any idiot decorum she might be breaking, and gathered his hands in hers. Kou. Again Kou. She wasn't letting this go anywhere near as far.

"You are telling me," she said, gripping his hands fiercely until he looked at her. Blinked at her, foggily, as though he was swimming up from some depth. "I'm not sure what you're telling me, mind you, but you're making the effort at least. You're already there, Simon. The hard part's done. You might as well go the rest of the way."

He huffed. Humour, somewhat ragged, but a decent start. She beamed encouragingly up at him. He curled his hands tentatively in hers.

"I can feel things," he said, slowly and cautiously. Watching her, for what she wasn't sure. She didn't show it, whatever it was. She kept nothing but encouragement on her face, and did her best to hide the confusion. He smiled, for some reason. He shook his head and carried on. "It was ... a side-effect of the chip. I think. It emerged after it, anyway. I thought ... I thought it was madness at first. The chip did have a tendency to cause that. But my symptoms didn't match the others. And after a while I realised ... Well. It's still possible, more than possible, that I just went mad, but ... I don't think so. It's real. I'm almost sure it's real."

He looked so earnest at that. Almost pleading, trying to convince himself as much as her. Cordelia still wasn't sure what was going on. She felt a chill drop into her stomach, though. She felt something icy spread inside her, even as she nodded encouragingly.

He noticed. She wasn't sure how he did, but he noticed. His expression flickered, became rueful. He stole his hands back and looked away.

"I know," he said quietly. "Believe me, Milady. I know exactly how it sounds. I'm sorry. I can't help it. It ... It's not like the chip. It's not fact, it's not concrete. It never has been. All I can tell you is that it's real. All I can tell you is what I feel."

"And what is that?" Cordelia asked. After a moment, levering herself up out of her crouch as her legs began to stiffen. His eyes followed her up. Tired and rueful. That bleak edge to him, even still, and another now of humour. Wry and self-amused. She stared down at him in dismay. He stared back up like a man resignedly in freefall.

"I feel his pain," Simon said, quiet and flat, looking once again towards the nursery walls. Then back at her, calm and quiet. "I feel your confusion, now. Your worry. Your pity. I can feel them. Emotions, mostly. Sometimes physical sensations. I thought they were phantoms at first. I thought ... I thought the chip had done something to my brain. I suppose it did, either way. I think it woke something. I can feel what you feel, my lady. You and everyone around me. There are ... there are limits to range. Some other limits. There's ... there's the matter of interpretation as well. Information is only ever worth what can be made from it, and I'm not always particularly good at that. Not with this kind. But. Yes. I am ... You could call it psychic, I suppose. Or mad. There is always that option."

He tried a smile, at that, a wobbly, lopsided little thing, but it faltered quickly. It slid sideways off his face, and there was only stark terror remaining. There was only pain, and naked vulnerability staring up at her. He believed what he said. He was Simon. Of course he did. Simon Illyan didn't tend to lie.

Cordelia fumbled beside her for the other chair. She caught the arm of it, pulled herself sideways until she could drop into it. He watched her, all the way. He watched her fall into her chair with stiff, terrified patience. Cordelia had no idea what to say.

So she thought, instead. She left him, somewhat guiltily, to panic to himself a little longer, and turned her mind inwards instead. She took a breath, and thought it through.

Psychic ability had long since been proven unlikely in the extreme, beyond the odd rumours that floated up every now and then. Stories of experiments, usually, genetic engineering, some long-lost strain of humanity re-emerging once the gene pool was given sufficient prodding. Stories mostly involving Cetaganda, now that she thought about it, and ah. Ah. There was one problem to start with. Among the multitudes. Tinkering directly with the brain might be another path to the same result, if one followed story logic. Installing a biochip in the brain, altering the structure around it. Maybe it was possible. She'd never asked for the details of Simon's chip, or the experiment that had granted it to him. From what he and others had told her, the details weren't particularly encouraging. The failure rate had been staggering, by all reports. If Simon hadn't been the sole survivor, he'd been one of a very, very few. What sort of trauma might that cause a man? Especially one whose brain was already interfered with?

Was he mad? Simon Illyan. Their Simon. Had he made up a fantasy to deal with what had been done to him? Had his brain been damaged, throwing up phantoms to deal with the intruder implanted within it? Was some side-effect of the chip, as he thought, and was that side-effect madness or ... or something else? Empathy? Was it possible? Was it real?

She looked at him. She met his eyes, and wondered when she had last seen anyone so calmly terrified. So serene, waiting for a judgement that could not possibly go his way. He'd thought every one of these things long before she had. More, probably. Security bred paranoia, and Simon had lived and breathed security for years now. Married to his work, indoctrinated by it, and ... and a risk to it, every day, if this truly was what he feared. If it was madness, or at least more so than the Barrayaran baseline. Who could trust a madman to run security on the Regent, the Emperor himself? God, Simon. No wonder he was terrified. No wonder he hadn't told.

Until now. Until her. Until Miles. Was that what this was? Guilt for her son, guilt that he had let something slip through, terror that his madness had allowed it? A confession, a fantasy of guilt, madness and grief?

But no. No. Her hands curled into fists even as she thought it. Something fundamental inside her rejected even the idea. He wasn't insane. Not Simon. She had ... she had seen monsters. Madmen. She had seen men and women broken by grief or torture or combat. She had seen them. This wasn't that. Whatever it was, whatever the chip had done to him, it wasn't that. It hadn't been madness that let Vorhalas through the net, only simple underestimation, simple mischance. A tragedy of errors, start to finish. Simon's madness hadn't done that. Vorhalas', maybe, the madness of grief, but nothing to do with Simon.

He wasn't mad. Simon, of all people. He wasn't mad. Or, if he was, he was the most functional, self-aware madman she had ever met. She had seen him wrestle with many things. Conscience, duty, terror, cold logic. All of that and more. But he was rational, for all of it. Maybe too much so, at times. He shielded himself in coldness, when he could. His conscience, his kindness, staggered him despite it every time.

His conscience had led him here. To her, to this room. To this conversation. He'd been fighting with it for weeks. Fighting to tell her. To tell Aral. Fighting to admit his guilt, and wait for their judgement upon him.

And what judgement should she pass? What judgement could she pass?

"... Tell me about it," she said, after what felt like hours. To both of them, probably. She looked back at him, fumbled out across the arms of their chairs to catch his hand once more. He only flinched a little from her. His hand was cold in hers, clammy and icy, but he let her take it. He let her tether him by it. "Tell me what you mean, Simon. Describe it to me."

She had to know. Madness or empathy. She had to know for sure, or as close to sure as either of them could get. And he understood, she thought. His head bowed, but he understood.

"It's difficult," he began softly. Flatly, still, but she couldn't begrudge him that. "It's not solid, not like the chip. I can't recall it for you like I could that. Which is ... That's been a mercy, at times. It doesn't register on the chip. These things. I could ... I could hide it from Negri. Ezar. Myself, sometimes. If I needed to. Not for long, but for long enough. The chip balances it, I think. It lets me pull back out, away from the stimuli. Without that, I think I really would have gone mad. Well. Provided I'm not already. After the suicides, probably, or ... Serg. Kareen. Ezar, even, I don't know if you know ... He was terrifying. Nothing but hammered willpower, by the end. Negri loved him. That ... I'm not sure if you knew that either."

"I did," Cordelia said. He glanced at her, and she shrugged uneasily. "I was beside him at Ezar's funeral. He wept. I think I was the only one who noticed. I know he loved him."

Simon smiled crookedly. "Somehow, that doesn't surprise me," he said. "I could feel it. That love. He would have done anything Ezar needed. It ... It terrified me. It shouldn't have. I should have aspired to it, if anything. But he didn't know I was mad. He could pull all my secrets out of my mouth whenever he needed to, and he didn't know I was mad. And I ... I wanted it to stay that way. I'd felt Ezar by then. Serg, too. A failed experiment isn't really of use, and they were desperate. I didn't want to die."

It was said so easily. So plainly, so calmly. She'd seen him do that before. She saw the terror as easily now as she had then. And she had seen Ezar too. She had seen what a wreck he'd made of Aral, of Aral's honour. She could understand that terror all too well.

Simon looked at her. Long and hard, his lips pressed together so tightly they were white. He turned his hand in hers. Thinking. Fretting. And then, eventually:

"You know, don't you?" he asked finally. "You know about Serg. Ezar. Escobar. You know."

Cordelia drew a breath. She needed to. Her chest felt stiff and tight. But they'd already made this choice. In Vorrutyer's blood, they'd made it. She nodded.

"I didn't think you did," she answered tiredly. "Aral didn't either. He was sure you hadn't ... hadn't been read into the plan, so to speak."

"I wasn't," Simon replied, equally plain. "I was never told. But I ... I was Aral's shadow. I felt ... what it did to him. I felt him fight it, inside that green room. I felt him become resigned to it. I felt his rage, his fury. His ... his pain. All of it. And Ezar. His ... purpose. His desperation. His will. It broke them all. I felt it happen. I never knew the plan. But I knew ... I knew the shape of it. I knew it was planned for the invasion, I knew it was something terrible. And I was right. More right than I had ever dreamed. I knew ... I knew for sure then that I could never tell Ezar. I knew I could never let him or Negri know about me. Cowardice, I know. Utter selfishness. But ..."

"But you didn't want to die," Cordelia finished, and honestly didn't blame him. Escobar had broken more than him. Several thousand times over. And ... and on that thought. With that thought. "Simon. You say you can feel ... Vorrutyer? Did you feel ...?"

He flinched. Turned away, his face twisted. Shame. Grief. Something else. His hand was bloodless in hers, and he nodded.

"I tried not to," he whispered. "I tried so hard to ignore them. For Aral's sake, some of it. He couldn't afford ... he couldn't have afforded that. Not just then. But mostly for my own. The chip has automatic recall. Anything I did ... Negri would know. He'd want to know why. I could have looked for proof, could have tried ... tried to stop it, but ... They would want to know why. And it wasn't my duty. It wasn't what I'd been told to do. It's ... It's amazing how easily conscience can be argued away. Or it is when you're a coward, I suppose. Aral ... was made of sterner stuff. You'd know better than most."

... Yes. Yes, she knew better than any. That wasn't what she was focused on, though. She could feel her gorge rising. That wasn't what she was focused on at all.

"You felt what he did," she said. Slowly. Flatly. With such precision. It came out so harshly. She could feel his tremors, his hand shaking in hers. Guilt. Terror. It wasn't ... it wasn't what she'd meant. She tried to explain. "I know why you didn't ... I know why you waited. That's not ... But you felt that? You felt ..."

"Yes," he said, and his voice was barely there. "From both ... from both sides. There's ... There was a range limit. Thank god, thank god, there was a range limit. It was only if I was close enough, and I tried very hard not to be, once I realised what was going on. I'd ... I'd felt that before, something similar. In the clinic, when I first ... I knew what it was. I tried very, very hard to ignore it. Until I couldn't. Aral is ... so much better a man than I was. Am. I couldn't ignore it forever. I shouldn't have ignored it as long as I did."

Conscience. Conscience, every time. And she had some knowledge of it, now. Those kind of choices. When Miles had been taken, in vitro, hostage against Aral's regency. She'd known the choice, the guilt either way. She'd made a different choice to Simon. To Aral, even. She doubted it had been any less painful for any of them.

And, still, that was not the point. She wasn't sure which of them was being dense, or if they were both trying desperately, even now, not to see. Possibly both. If Simon was telling the truth, if his empathy was real ...

And she thought it was, she realised. She thought it was. She believed him. Whether it was true psychic empathy or merely native perceptiveness exacerbated by the chip, she did believe him. And she was ... inclined to think the former, as well. Just for what he knew. What he'd been aware of, that he really, really shouldn't have been. Intuition, Aral had said once. Simon's intuition was inspired. Hah. Though she supposed that paranoia, fantasy and perceptiveness could combine to make a reasonable facsimile too, but so accurate? And besides. It just ... wasn't the sort of delusion she thought Simon would turn to. Not by nature or his own choice. He didn't like emotion. It was ... messy. Not concrete. Not factual. As he said, it was information he didn't always know what to do with. She could empathise with that herself. Duty was ... straightforward, if not easy. Conscience was difficult, and empathy ...

Would anyone really sign up for that by choice? In range of Ezar. In range of Vorrutyer. Even the delusion of it, imagining that you felt ... He wasn't that much of a masochist. She was fairly sure. She would have noticed.

Though she hadn't noticed the empathy either. The madness or the trauma. The fear. How very long he'd been afraid. Of what he was, of what he had inside him. Of how they would react to it. Any of them. Ezar, Negri. Her and Aral. Gregor, maybe, though Gregor was a little young yet for that to be an issue. Barrayar. Barrayar, from start to finish. It demanded of them without end. It ate them, one and all. She just hadn't realised how chewed Simon had already been. Half-digested, and clinging desperately to rationality in spite of it.

"... Simon," she said. Gently. Very gently. Very carefully. "Simon. You could feel it. Emotions, you said. Physical sensations?" He turned to blink at her, rather warily, but he nodded. "Simon. Are you ... are you telling me Ges Vorrutyer managed to rape you? By ... by proxy. By accident. From across the ship. And you managed to hide it?"

He ... He gaped at her. Like a fish. Like she'd struck him across the face. Not horror, she thought. Not even realisation. Utter shock, rather. Just a complete blankness. A complete inability to manage that. He shook his head. His hand tugged against hers, a gesture of confusion. He didn't seem to notice her tugging it back down.

"... No?" he said at last. Bewildered, half-horrified by the thought. "No, I wasn't ... It wasn't me. It wasn't mine. What she felt. It wasn't me. I ... know that. I always know it. What I feel, I know it isn't mine. It doesn't ... It feels different. I know who it belongs to. People feel like themselves. And the chip always knows where it is, what's happening around it. What isn't. I always know. It's ... It's like watching surveillance, maybe? Just ... more intense. More present. But it's not me. I always know it's not me."

Oof, Cordelia thought. Well. That was a relief, at least. That was one mercy, however small it might be. Very small, she thought, looking at him. Pale and drawn, terrified from a dozen different angles. A very tiny mercy. But there, nonetheless. And he clung to it. She could see how he clung to it. To the chip, too. There was a horrible sort of irony to that. An ugly, evil sort. Very Barrayaran.

"I ... I'm all right, Milady," he said. Leaning towards her, she noted suddenly. She'd missed a bit, apparently. He'd leaned up, leaned forwards. Brought his other hand up to cup both of them around hers. His expression was earnest once again. Battered and gentle. Oh. Oh dear. "I didn't ... I'm sorry. I didn't tell you to hurt you, or remind you of things better left forgotten. I'm all right. Mad, possibly, but all right. I promise, Milady."

She nearly laughed at him. Only barely stopped herself. Good god, if he believed that ... But he did, probably. Why shouldn't he? He was no more terrified now than he'd been for years already. Well. Maybe slightly more, for the risk of having told her. Even that couldn't be worse, though. He'd survived Ezar. Serg. Vorrutyer. Vordarian. He couldn't think her worse. She hoped ... she hoped he didn't think her worse.

"... Why do you flinch from me?" she asked distantly. Thinking of the last few weeks. The last few months. All the way back to the soltoxin. Thinking of Miles, and how Simon stiffened to be in a room with him. Thinking back to what she'd feared, bringing Simon up here. That he hated her. That he hated her son. Not true, she knew now, but ... "Simon. You and Miles. You and me. You said guilt. Guilt and ... something else. What was it? Tell me. Please."

His hands curled. Fists, helpless, awkward around her own. He looked involuntarily towards the other room. Towards the child, sleeping painfully beyond the wall. He looked back at her, and there was that terrible bleakness in his eyes again.

"I feel his pain," he told her, his voice etched thinly. "It's ... it's different, my lady. A child. Your child. A child I failed. It's not ... I know what you thought. After the Count, I know what you had to think. He's a mutant now. An experiment. My failure made him that way, and he will pay the price for that for the rest of his life. I ... I didn't want to feel it. I'm sorry. I owe you both better than that. I shouldn't have flinched. I'm sorry."

A mutant. A mutant and an experiment. And psychics were a Cetagandan fantasy as well. Oh. Oh, she saw it now. All of it, the whole ugly spread. Her heart ached, for him and Miles both.

"... He's more than pain, you know," she said. Her voice seemed to come from somewhere very deep inside her. Somewhere very jagged and very strong. "Miles. He's so much more than that. Shouldn't you feel that too? Shouldn't you feel ..."

"I do," he whispered. Near begged, holding tight to her hands. "I do, Milady. I know. He's ... He's so curious. Bright. I feel that too. I am sorry. Please believe me. I know I've done you both ... so many disservices. Aral too. All of you. I know. I do."

And I'll answer for them. She could hear that too, as easily as if she'd been psychic herself. He didn't lie, Simon. He told the truth expecting to answer for it, once he'd mustered up the courage. And he had more of that, too, than he thought he did. Courage. His guilt gnawed at him, but he answered for it. He flinched from his conscience, but never for long. He'd told her everything she'd asked of him. He'd put his life in her hands.

She wished he hadn't, a little bit. She wasn't sure this was something she wanted to know. But if he could find courage, so could she. God knew Barrayar demanded an endless supply of it. He'd never failed her by his own choice. She could scrape together another handful for his sake.

Why did they do this to her? Why her? Him, Aral. Bothari, Koudelka, Droushnakovi. All of bloody Barrayar. Why her? But she couldn't fail them now. Her own private oath, offered to no one but herself, but she couldn't.

"It's all right," she heard herself saying. Found herself meaning, too. He looked to her, half terror and half hope, and she dredged up a mostly genuine smile for him. "It's all right, Simon. I do believe you. And ... and thank you, too. For telling me. For risking it. I ... I've no idea what we're going to do about it, mind you, at least as far as Barrayar and the rest of it is concerned, but ..."

"Aral," he said. Answering that. Grimly, a little, his hands clenching in hers again, but without hesitation. His courage was mustered, she saw. His course was set. "We tell Aral. I ... should have told him long before. He's my Regent. He put the Emperor's life in my hands. I should have told him the moment he did that. I think ... I think I wanted to tell you first. For Miles, because of Miles. Or maybe that's just cowardice again. I'll tell him now. I will ... answer for it, along with everything else."

Answer for it. For volunteering for something he hadn't understood. For being altered, mind and body. For surviving. For being afraid. For wrestling conscience, duty and terror all the way down the line. For having ... kept secrets, if never outright lied. For having told the truth. For having flinched from other people's pain, and not wanting to suffer his own. God damn this planet anyway. Why had she fallen in love with it? Why had she fallen in love with them?

Because she couldn't bloody help it, that was why. Because they were battered, and brave, and desperately needed minding. Now as much as ever.

"We will tell Aral," she said, sitting properly upright once again. Tugging his hands over into her lap, glaring at him fiercely. He froze, in the face of her. He went as still as a snake before a mongoose. She nearly laughed at that, once again. She settled for a tight smile, and a decisive nod of her head. "Together. We'll tell the Regent of Barrayar who his Chief of Security really is, and we'll deal with the fallout from it. And ... and if it goes badly, Simon. It won't, I'm sure it won't, but if it does. You're no experiment, failed or otherwise. Not to me. I would put my son's life in your hands, and I would put Gregor's. You're a friend. Remember that."

Simon stared at her. Distantly, vaguely, as though he was swimming upwards from some great depth. Towards sunlight, she thought suddenly. Something in his expression. He looked like a man striking upwards towards the light.

"You have no idea, do you?" he wondered softly. "You or Aral. You have no idea how easy it would be to die for you." She started, and he smiled lopsidedly. "I used to wonder at Negri's love, you know. He had to know what Ezar was. He'd seen it, if not felt it. How could he love something so terrifying? But it turns out it's easy. It really is."

Cordelia ... had no idea what to do with that. Except stare at him, she supposed, in some dismay. "I'm not terrifying," she said. Maybe a little plaintively. Remembering, involuntarily, the ring of faces as she rolled a severed head down a table. She wasn't terrifying, was she? She didn't want to be.

He laughed at her. Rudely, she thought, when she'd been so careful not to laugh at him. He was gentle about it, though. He was wry and tired and rueful.

"You are absolutely terrifying, Milady," he said, with every seriousness. "All of you. And I would gladly die for you all in the morning. Whatever ... whatever small offering that might be."

"... More than you think," she answered, just as seriously. "And more than I want. More than I would ever ask."

He paused, at that. Went still, went careful. Wondering. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I know."

"I suppose that's what makes it so easy to offer."