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Treatment for Shock

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Mark couldn't take his eyes off Miles's blank face--colorless, expressionless. He remembered another blank face just like it, and couldn't stop remembering; it was bad enough in those first minutes to call up his old early thought-redirecting instructions from his very first therapist. Pay attention to your present surroundings. Identify the trigger.

Not so much a trigger as a bomb-blast. His father was dead. Fifteen years later, time had done what Galen could not.

Mark stayed motionless, trying to fix himself in the real world around him. His available anchor-points weren't doing much better than he was, as far as he could see. Miles was like a holovid whose projector had gone wrong: a frozen image, perceptible in three dimensions but horribly lifeless. Vorventa was frozen at attention, like a wax figure of a Barrayaran soldier.

When someone did move, at long last, it was Roic, and Mark's eyes moved to him gratefully. Roic was Miles's man; he'd know what to do.

Roic was still standing by the railing, but he was, inexplicably, unbuttoning the tunic of his brown and silver uniform. Mark looked back to Miles--was Roic going to cover him with it? They were in the middle of a perfectly temperate transfer station. If Miles needed a medtech or a foil wrap or something, surely Roic could get that for him instead of wrapping a uniform tunic around him.

Roic shrugged out of the tunic, and Mark's memory jerked suddenly away from that horrible night on the tidal barrier to the last time he had seen Roic without it--his brother's dry voice, years ago, saying, "Armsman Roic, you appear to be out of uniform." Mark had been half-convinced Roic slept in that uniform, ever since. What could possibly have induced him to abandon it now, at this moment of all moments?

Roic hung the tunic neatly over the back of the chair he'd never sat down in. Miles didn't seem to notice--not a flicker of motion from the frozen holo of Mark's brother that sat across the table from him. Mark darted a glance at Vorventa, whose lips had parted, and who was looking back and forth rapidly from Miles to Roic, calculating something. He was a step ahead of Mark on this. Mark wished suddenly, painfully, for Kareen to guide him through this--and who would tell her the news, and how? The Count had been a second father to her; she'd known him twice as long as Mark had.

Mark recognized the early warning signs of the always-dangerous Absent Kareen Stress Spiral, and forced himself to focus again on what was happening in front of him. Roic, looking half-naked in shirtsleeves, took up a careful, formal stance in front of Miles.

"Count Vorkosigan."

Miles jerked like he'd been struck and looked up at Roic--down to Roic's tunic, hung over the back of the chair--and then back to Roic with such an absolute expression of horror that Mark started calculating available weapons and possible angles of attack. No one was allowed to do that to Mark's brother and live.

Roic shook his head quickly at Miles's expression, though he kept his face and his voice calm. "Being released I am free to offer my oath again. If you wish to reserve the honor of swearing first for another--for Pym, maybe--"

"No," Miles croaked. He cleared his throat and then pushed his chair back, standing up stiffly to face Roic. "No. You're here. Being the man on the spot counts for much, in my experience."

He sounded almost like himself by the end of that sentence, and he was steady on his feet. Mark shifted Roic irrevocably out of the category of "prey" into "defend at all costs."

Roic nodded and knelt before Miles, putting his head on the level of Miles's shoulder. Mark belatedly stood, looking to Vorventa, who nodded to him in something like approval.

Miles looked around for a moment--he didn't quite look through Mark, but evidently he saw nothing to arrest his attention, which made Mark rather proud. He was faking functional well enough not to distract his brother.

Miles sighed and said, "Better than the first time I did this, anyway."

Roic made no comment on that, only offered up his folded hands, like an ancient image of prayer. Miles closed his smaller hands around them and said, "Do you know...?"

Roic nodded, and spoke quickly and firmly. "I, Jason Roic, do testify that I have been a sworn Armsman to Count Aral Vorkosigan and am released by his death, and so do freely take service under Count Miles Vorkosigan as an Armsman simple, and will hold him as my liege commander until my death or his releases me."

Miles's lips moved around silent words. He visibly swallowed. No one moved while he struggled to speak, though Mark glanced around to see tourists staring, someone taking a vid of this strange spectacle in a quiet station cafe. Mark glared, and ten meters away the camera was lowered and the woman holding it hastily backed away.

Mark's attention was riveted again on his brother as he spoke, slowly but clearly. "I, Count Miles Vorkosigan, a vassal secundus to Emperor Gregor Vorbarra, do accept your oath and pledge you the protection of a liege commander, this by my word as Vorkosigan."

Miles opened his hands and offered the right to Roic, who took it in a handshake-grip and stood--and though Mark had never watched his father swear in an Armsman, he recognized him in that echo. The Count his father would have pulled a new Armsman to his feet with that grip. Miles, who must have absorbed this ritual into his bones long ago--I could never have been you, Mark thought, one more thing I never knew I never knew--Miles could not leave out the gesture any more than he could avoid naming himself Count Vorkosigan.

Roic released Miles's hand and immediately reached for his tunic. After an interim of perhaps five minutes, he was once again a Vorkosigan Armsman, and had the right and responsibility to wear it.

Mark watched Miles. His brother, though wearing only his same grey suit, seemed to possess an armor he had lacked when Roic knelt. He said it, Mark realized. His word as Vorkosigan. He has to be the Count now. He has to lead if someone's going to follow.

Roic said, "What orders, my lord?" and Mark breathed a sigh of relief as Miles put his chin up and took command.