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The Morning Coffee

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Gregor Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar, was scanning his daily schedule when the door slid open. His morning was oddly open. Yesterday, there had been a breakfast meeting with the chairman of the Sergyaran forestry committee, an attendance of a session with the ministers, and a lunch with Laisa – Laisa! -- and other members of her trade consortium. They had all been cleared. One was chance, two a coincidence. All three?

He glanced up at the hiss of the door and offered the head of Imperial Security a smile. "Simon," he greeted warmly. "I seem to –"

He broke off. Simon Illyan was carrying a tray with coffee. His face was neutral, as it usually was, but the grayness was bone deep, unconcealable. There was an emptiness behind his eyes. Gregor felt the tightness of his role snap back around him, straightening his spine, constricting and bolstering him. "What's happened?" he asked.

Illyan took the time to lay the coffee on the table before answering, pouring with precise motions. He's stalling, Gregor knew, and he felt some of Illyan 's emptiness creeping into him, a hollow in the pit of his stomach that gnawed away and swallowed little bits of him. He did not repeat the question, and he knew his eyes were steady as he watched the older man. He couldn't stall for long.

Illyan placed the cup in front of him, took one of his own, and sat. He looked at it for only a second, then met Gregor's eyes. "It's Miles," he said.

Gregor felt the air go out of him. It felt like a gut-punch. We've been through this before, murmured the detached observer in the back of his mind. The less detached observer was screaming, somewhere deeply buried, I just saw him a few days ago! "I see," he said.

Illyan read something in his eyes, and lifted a hand, his weight shifting forward in his chair. "No, sire," he said. "I apologize. Miles is not hurt, or in any danger."

Something unclenched. Gregor relaxed. Illyan did not. Gregor noted this, and frowned. "What's happened?" he asked again. And, "Should I assume the sudden clearing of my schedule is your doing, then?"

"Yes, sire." Illyan blew out a breath -- stalling again; Simon, what is this? -- then squared his shoulders. "Five weeks ago, I received a report from Jackson's Whole. It took longer than it should have for it to make its way through my analysis department and finally work its way up to my desk, though I can't fault any individual for that. The report included the medical reports of the cryo-revival specialist from the Durona Group who treated Miles. It detailed, among other issues, a series of medically significant and unexplained seizures he suffered after his revival. Seizures that he did not mention to the medical team evaluating him for a return to duty."

Gregor sat for a moment, absorbing this fact. He did not mistake the weight of this. He fought to fit it into his picture of Miles – no. Be honest. It did not require any great struggle to reconcile this information with his image of his foster brother. Still, he tried. "It was in the medical record," he said. "I know that Miles had some memory loss immediately following his revival. Is it possible that…" He sought for words.

Illyan cut him off. "He knew." He drew from his uniform pocket two data disks. "I called him home as soon as I read the report. I also requested additional information from my independent observer in the Dendarii. He had already completed his rescue of Vorberg when my message reached him, and I have here his mission report and the report of my independent observer, which arrived last night."

He placed one disk on the desk. "This is Lieutenant Vorkosigan's report of his latest mission. He describes the plan and execution in detail. It went as smoothly as these things ever do, until the end, when he describes a suit malfunction which locked on the plasma arc in the suit arm, slicing both of Vorberg's legs off at the knee."

Gregor's lips moved, forming the silent words, "Oh, God." He couldn't take his eyes off the data disk.

Illyan placed the second disk beside the first. "This is my independent observer's report. It includes the Dendarii fleet surgeon's complete personal log, in which she details the tests and treatments she attempted for Admiral Naismith's new and disturbing seizures, and includes a description of his last seizure, during the penetration of the hijackers' ship."

Gregor stared at this second disk for a moment, then pulled his eyes off of it and stood, turning to look out the window at the garden. He'd intended to have his lunch out there today, to show Laisa the beauty of nature Barrayar offered. He could offer so little beauty in himself: he needed to show her the world and coax her into sharing his dream of it. Was it possible? Miles had introduced him to Laisa. He closed his eyes.

"Lieutenant Vorkosigan told my secretary he had something verbal to add to his report," Illyan said quietly. Gregor turned back to him, his eyebrows pulled together. "It may or may not be a confession. It may or may not be… enough. Sire, when a crime is committed deliberately, the consequences of that action are also considered deliberate by law. It would not take a particularly clever military prosecutor to frame this as attempted murder of a brother officer."

Gregor absorbed this for a minute. "Would it be a valuable use of time in this conversation for me to read both reports?" he asked.

"The second one, yes," Illyan answered. "For the first, I think the summary will be enough. Also of note is the belief of my analysts that the description of the incident with Vorberg was inserted after the bulk of the report was written."

Gregor nodded almost absently, then picked up the second data disk and fed it to his comconsole. As he read, Illyan rose from his seat and moved around the room, not distractingly. He seemed to have a need to move, which Gregor could certainly understand. He felt himself coiling, like a snake swallowing its own tail. Phrases from the surgeon's log caught at his mind and hung there, dangling as from some grim gallows: "…approached me on his return to the Triumph…", "…recommended a trip to a clinic on Beta Colony, but he prefers to keep it in-house…", "uncomfortable with the need for secrecy from even Commodore Jesek…"

It took forty-five minutes. Illyan was leaning against the wall, looking at his booted feet. Gregor exhaled. "Well," he said. Illyan crossed back to his chair, waiting for his Emperor to open the subject.

Gregor considered for a moment before speaking. "Let's start with the simplest side of this. If none of this had happened -- if he had told the ImpMil doctors immediately following his return to Barrayar – would he be qualified to run ImpSec with these seizures?"

Some of Illyan's tension loosened at this easy entry to the discussion. He took a moment to consider, then said, "No. Not if they aren't treated. They're not frequent, but they're disabling. We couldn't afford that in a crisis."

The answer was the one Gregor had expected, and he nodded. "Under the same circumstances, would he be qualified to operate the Dendarii as Admiral Naismith?"

Illyan blew out his breath. The moment he took this time was longer. "Yes," he said at last. "We would need to tailor his plans slightly differently, and the results would be less predictably good. He would have to stay out of the line of fire, which means delegating real-time tactical control. For strategy and planning, however, he could still serve in that role. If he couldn't stay in that back seat, we'd need to reconsider."

That was not the answer Gregor had expected, and he took a minute to absorb it. "You know that Miles must have done this out of fear of losing them," he said carefully. "The idea that he might have had them despite this is… jarring."

"I don't know why Miles would do this," Illyan responded, his voice losing its cultivated blandness. "I still can't quite believe that he did. It –" He broke off, one hand squeezing into a fist. Gregor could almost see the effort as Illyan gathered up the emotions he would not allow himself and pressed them into the tight confines of that fist. When Illyan spoke again, his voice was again detached and calm. It had only taken the space of two heartbeats. "It seems very unlike the Lieutenant Vorkosigan we've come to know. I believed his loyalty was unconditional. I trusted him absolutely. But I was wrong."

Gregor let this reply sink into him. "It seems I was as well," he said finally.

For a moment, the two men sat silently, letting the stillness and the betrayal fill them. Finally Illyan spoke. "What could have happened if Miles had been open from the beginning is not relevant. He was not."

"No," Gregor agreed. "He was not." He waited for Illyan to continue.

Another moment ticked by in a conversation of silences: painful revelations punctuated by the breaks needed for hearts to heal for the next strike. When Illyan did not speak right away, Gregor said quietly, "I had so many hopes for him, Simon. My right hand. My brother. Are you telling me it was all a mask?" I cannot believe that. --No. Emotional reactions had no place here.

Illyan exhaled slowly. "No," he said, his voice heavy. "He is loyal. He has had too many chances, too many opportunities to – I handled him badly, sire. This is my responsibility. I knew how he longed for his military status, and I know his ambition. I allowed him to see Admiral Naismith as his only way to achieve that goal. I kept him there too long, and I made his heart's desire into this hidden trap. It does not take a brilliant man to see how cleverly shaped a web this was for him, just a man who is not blinded."

Gregor did not interrupt this spate of confession, turning to look out the window as it poured over him. It seemed somehow indecent to watch Illyan through it, like staring at a naked man. It had started to rain, a dull drizzle sifting down from a graying sky. The garden lunch wouldn't have been very pleasant, after all. He weighed replies, and turned back to Illyan. The older man was looking at his hands, face grim. A tear had cut a track down his lined face.

Gregor felt cold. He rejected all his planned responses and said, instead, "I need some breakfast. Let's let this rest for a few minutes."

It only took a few minutes to get the food brought up. While he waited, Gregor watched the rain come down, blurring the view out the window. They ate in silence. Illyan had control of himself again.

For several minutes after the last bits of pastry were gone, they watched the crumbs on their plates lie there, motionless. Gregor wrapped his hands around his coffee mug. It was cold and bitter; he had no desire to drink.

"He may tell me all of this himself, when I call him in," Illyan said at last, breaking the stillness of the room.

"If he does," Gregor said, taking up the thread of conversation as though it had never been broken, "will it change anything?"

"Yes," Illyan said.

"Will it change enough?"

Illyan exhaled.

"Do you think they're repairable?" Gregor asked at last. "You've read the reports; you've seen the analyst's commentary on them. Do you think Miles can be restored to… normal?"

Illyan shook his head, but not as an answer. "I don't know," he said. "I don't think anyone can know. It won't be simple, or his Dendarii fleet surgeon would have solved the problem. He'll need a research team."

"He'll have one."

"I don't know."

"If it can't, and if he does confess… what happens?"

Simon exhaled. "If he confesses… we may be able to salvage him as an officer. A reprimand will be in order, certainly, and a censure appended to his personnel file. We'd need to transfer him back to HQ while ImpMil worked on him, and after that… if he can't resolve this, he could still do good work as an analyst, until he decided to muster out. He's done his ten years; I don't know how much allure an analyst's life would have for him."

"If he can be fixed?"

"Then… there may be more options. We can't send him back to the Dendarii, not when they drove him to… this. That door is closed."

Gregor breathed for a moment in the quiet room. "Simon, Miles went through… an undeniable trauma. Is it possible the effects of that were still active when he… chose to do what he did? Might he have been subtly not himself, in a way we could possibly forgive?"

"How far does that stretch?" Illyan's voice was harsh. "Voluntary confession could have made that argument valid, but now? As a rush to confess a step ahead of the evidence?" He grimaced. "A step behind the evidence. Too late, sire. No."

Gregor rubbed with his thumb at the bridge of his nose. Too late, indeed. "If he tells the truth, then, what will you do?"

"Send him off to ImpMil. Not tell him just yet that I already knew. Let him have the confession. It will be good for him. Later, there will be time for the question of who knew what. Sire, I can't in good conscience continue to consider him as my replacement, regardless of what happens now. Haroche can do the job, and I'll keep an eye open for someone younger, hungrier."

Gregor felt that loss like a hole inside him. Someone else, he would not know like a glove to his hand. Illyan had been a part of his government since it first became his, when he was five years old. Miles could have taken on that burden of trust. He didn't know if anyone else could. The role of ImpSec Chief would forever change, for him, after Illyan relinquished it. "I understand. If he doesn't confess?"

Illyan looked very old today. "I should put him on trial. There should be a court-martial, a dishonorable discharge, jail time."

Gregor didn't flinch, just watched Illyan steadily. Illyan returned the gaze. Without breaking eye contact, he finally sighed. "But I don't know if I can do that." Now he looked away, letting his eyes rest on a painting on the wall behind Gregor. "Not after he has done so much, and paid so much. He's given body and blood, again and again, without flinching or asking more than to serve. For that, and for his father's sake… a medical discharge, without prejudice. It is the most I can offer. It is more than I would give to any other officer."

"How did this happen?" It was a rhetorical question, and one Gregor hadn't meant to ask. Illyan didn't try to answer. "It will destroy him," he said quietly.

Illyan's voice had no mercy. "You can't let that matter, sire." The emphasis on the title was slight, but unmistakable. "The Empire has destroyed other men before, for its needs. Lieutenant Vorkosigan made his own choices, and they carried him to this place. He has one more chance. He may save himself."

Gregor absorbed the reprimand, as well-earned as all others Illyan had handed down through the years in his quiet way.

"It's the most we can offer," Illyan said again, quietly.

Gregor Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar, sat very, very still for a long moment. "Captain Illyan," he said at last. "If he is discharged, do you think Lord Vorkosigan will attempt to flee to the Dendarii?"

Captain Simon Illyan, Chief of Imperial Security, sat just as still for just as long. "Yes, sire. I do."

"It would be treason."

"Yes, sire."

The silence hung for a minute. Suddenly, Gregor rose from his chair and turned away, spitting curses at the wall behind him. Illyan did not interrupt, did not move. Gregor wound down, rested his forehead against the wall, and squeezed his eyes closed for a minute. The room was suffocating.

"I accept your judgment in this, Captain Illyan." It was the Emperor's voice, cool and precise.

"Thank you, sire." Gregor knew, in that moment, by some quiet, half-registered tell, that some part of Illyan had been praying for an override both of them knew he could not give.

"I need a drink." Gregor broke the new, uncomfortable silence between them, crossing to a liquor cabinet. "What other news do you have for me, Simon?"

He closed the subject and opened a bottle, pouring a shot of amber liquid into his coffee mug. As Illyan spoke of affairs critical to the security of his Empire, Gregor tried very, very hard to listen, willing the words to drown out his image of his foster brother dying slowly in the public square.