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Best Toy Ever

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The wail cut through three floors of historic mansion. At this distance, Cordelia couldn't pick out the words, but her trained ear recognised that it was a wail of outrage and anger rather than pain, and that it did not require urgent action. Less maternally acute, the ImpSec guard on the French windows twitched. But then, they had reason to be twitchy today.

"He'll be down in a minute," she told him, and the guard twitched even more. They preferred being part of the furniture, she'd come to understand. Even more so than the servants, they disliked being involved in whatever domestic dramas and adventures were happening, even when she suspected they were involved in causing the situation. She left the guard and went into the Blue Corridor, hearing rapid irregular footsteps scampering down the stairs.

"They broke it! They knocked it over and broke it! I spent a whole week building that and I don't remember how it went together any more!"

Cordelia wondered whether there were any more degrees of emphasis for Miles to discover. He emerged at the top of the staircase clutching a half-demolished robot and a rattling box of parts.

"I'm never going to get it together again! They broke it!"

"Come down here and show me," Cordelia said mildly, but without much hope that a calm tone and manner could soothe this particular outraged five-year-old.

"Look!" Miles declaimed, scrambling down the last flight of stairs. "I don't remember how that bit went together and it was my Winterfair present and Ivan spilt his drink on the instructions so I can't make it again and it was my favourite!" His voice wavered between crying and shrieking in anger. Cordelia remembered the robot, which Miles had certainly spent a lot of time on last winter, but which had sat on a shelf in his room untouched for the past three months. Now, it seemed it was his most prized possession again.

"I'm sure if you sit down and think about it--" she started, but Miles overbore her.

"I'm never going to get it right and why did they have to have another stupid security drill anyway?"

Cordelia didn't explain that it hadn't been a drill this time and that an intruder had reached the top of this very flight of stairs before being apprehended by ImpSec. Aral had told Gregor the truth, but she had drawn a line when it came to the younger Miles. She wasn't sure whether it would be worse if he was terrified or delighted, but she knew which she would bet on.

Miles banged the box of parts onto a low table and put the remains of the robot beside it. "Look at it!" he said, again, and Cordelia obediently looked. At least half of the intricate robot had come apart; the pieces in the box were tantalisingly not quite obvious in how they should be replaced.

She picked out a few pieces and turned them over in her hands, stifling a yawn. The alarm had sounded at a quarter past four in the morning. They'd all been evacuated and kept in what was euphemistically called the 'secure zone' for most of the day while the ImpSec cleanup tore through the building, then reluctantly released into the Residence like zoo animals being allowed back into their habitat. For most of the day, Cordelia had been trapped in a small suite of rooms with Miles to keep entertained, with very little help from the guards and Armsmen, and with Aral and Gregor both at different locations for extra security. She'd hoped that now that they were all back home, Miles would be able to entertain himself for at least a few minutes.

There were voices outside, and she tensed for a second before recognising them. Backup at last.

"... wish I could convince the captain of the Vorbarra armsmen that I don't have a direct feed from every vid-camera in the Residence to my chip," Captain Illyan was saying in an uncharacteristically aggrieved tone. "He's out for blood."

"Things must be calming down, then," Aral responded. "It's just one of the stages of a crisis. Panic, desperate action, mopping up, looking for a scapegoat. Take it as a sign that it's time to knock off."

The men entered, and Miles whirled around, rounding on the new arrivals like a terrier on a bigger, better chew toy. "Look!" he shrieked, inevitably. "Look what they did! My robot!"

Aral and Captain Illyan stopped in the doorway, and Cordelia saw Aral suppress the urge to flee. Coward, she mouthed to him, and he gave a flashing grin and came over to inspect the toy. "I see," he said solemnly, and his looming gravity seemed to impress Miles enough to make him stop jittering from foot to foot. "ImpSec did have to go through our rooms very thoroughly in their, um, drill. It's an honourable loss in battle."

This gambit nearly worked, but then Miles's face contorted again. "It was my favourite! It was a present from Gregor! And I'm never going to get it back together!"

"Miles," Cordelia said a little more sharply, "there's no need to shout. We can hear you."

For a moment she thought this was going to spark a completely different argument, but as Miles turned to her, he paused, his gaze targeting Captain Illyan standing a half-step behind Aral.

"Uncle Simon!" he started, and Cordelia saw Illyan brace himself to receive the next round of overtired small child's fury. But instead Miles's eyes had lit with a new emotion. "You can fix it, can't you?" he continued. "I showed it to you, back at Winterfair when I'd finished putting it together. You'll remember all of it, you know how the pieces all went."

Illyan studied the robot, eyes going unfocused. Miles nodded forcefully, encouragingly. "Yes," Illyan said after a few seconds, "you did show it to me."

"Come on then, come and help me put it back together, please Uncle Simon, it was your men who broke it, you have to fix it, you're the only one who can do it, come on, please." His mood had shifted as if someone had pulled a switch, anger gone, eyes wide and glowing with hope as he looked at Illyan.

"Miles," Aral said across this, "your Uncle Simon has been at work since the middle of the night--"

"It's all right," said Illyan. There was a strange look on his face. Ezar's vid-recorder, Cordelia found herself thinking. Then Aral's dog, promoted from object to animal, yet still set apart. But for children these things were different. Sometimes it made her want to scream, how Miles accepted it all, as if it was normal to have servants, to burn wood, to be at the top of a monarchy, to exclude women from public life: all the insanity of Barrayar and all the insanity of their position here was normal to him. But she tolerated it, because that same childish acceptance meant that he was normal to himself, he had not yet understood that other children didn't spend months immobilised in braces or with a different broken bone every month. And to him, his Uncle Simon's ability to remember everything he'd ever seen or heard was just another part of this strange normality.

"Simon, you don't have to--" Aral murmured deprecatingly, but Illyan shook his head.

"It would be my pleasure," he said, and to Cordelia's ear he sounded inexplicably sincere. "Come on, then, Miles. I do recall exactly how it all went. Let's see what we can do."

Cordelia knew her own voice was entirely sincere as she said, "Thank you, Simon."

Miles gathered up the robot. "Come on, come on, come sit down over here, Uncle Simon. Isn't it great that you can remember everything? How does it work? Can I get one like yours? If I had one, I would never forget to brush my teeth again..."

In years afterwards, Cordelia could never see Illyan even at his sternest and most arctic without remembering his expression at this wholly novel appreciation of his memory chip, that confounded and baffled delight.