"Here. Definitely here."
"No, my dear captain, it was further down. There was a fork in the river."
Cordelia shook her head. "That was after we started walking. The camp was here. I remember running over that ridge with Dubauer when we saw the smoke. And the log I first saw you sitting on . . ." She paused, biting her lip. "Isn't here anymore."
"Unless we were further down, and then it might be," Aral pointed out.
"Yes, because wood doesn't decompose at all over thirty years in moist conditions." Cordelia crossed her arms. "This was it." She looked down at the little bunch of yellow roses in her hand. "Do you remember where we buried Rosemont?"
"If this was it," Aral said, and Cordelia suppressed the urge to smack him, "then I think it was . . ." He began to gesture, then sighed. "Then I've no idea. I think we must face facts, dear captain." He reached for her hand. "Time has defeated us."
"It always does, in the end." She smiled and traced with her thumb one of the new pain lines at the corners of his mouth. His hair was pure white now, his face lined and careworn. It was possible that she might still have managed the two hundred kilometer trek they'd done together, all those years ago now. He wouldn't have. "But I don't know," she added lightly, dropping her hand. "I think we've had our fair share of victories, don't you?"
"I'd say so. Not that it's over," Aral added with a snort. He shook his head, surveying the rough Sergyaran landscape around them. "Gregor seems to think Viceroy and Vicereine are sinecures of some sort."
"Sinecures," Cordelia mused. "Does Barrayar have those? I think Gregor knows exactly what he's doing. How well would either of us do, twiddling our thumbs in Vorbarr Sultana?"
"True, true." He said nothing else, but rather turned slowly in a circle, giving Cordelia the chance to eye him critically. He sounded a little short of breath, but, she reminded herself sternly, even thirty years ago she'd been short of breath from the thinness of the atmosphere, too. It didn't mean anything, except that they should probably not exert themselves. No hiking. Nor swimming, not that they'd have been tempted. The river, pure snow run-off from the mountains, was running high but undoubtedly frigid this time of year.
"Well," she said at last, "I guess I'll just have to make my best guess about Rosemont." She was ashamed to admit that she'd not thought of him much at all in the last three decades. He'd been her conscientious, utterly dependable right hand in three Survey missions, and now she couldn't recall his face. His voice, yes, for some unknown reason, but not his face. Strange, how memory worked. His voice had been nothing remarkable. But he had been; he'd have made a top-notch Survey captain someday, if only he hadn't gotten caught in the crossfire of intra-Barrayaran strife. He'd been the first such casualty she'd known, but far from the last.
The patch of ground she chose was as likely as any, but no more so. This morning, when she and Aral had finally won their few hours' freedom from all well-meaning underlings, armsmen, secretaries, medical personnel, and sons to come out here alone, this had been foremost in her mind. She must put flowers on Reg Rosemont's grave. Why had she never thought of it before? Now she laid the dozen yellow roses on it and stepped back to slip her hand into Aral's.
Yellow roses had symbolized friendship in certain old Earth cultures and on Beta Colony as well. Reg had been her friend. If she'd stayed on Beta and had her Survey career, she'd have thought of him more often. But he had died, and she had met Aral and chosen a life on Barrayar, and she hadn't thought of him. I'm sorry, she thought at the unassuming patch of ground.
There was nothing of him left, of course. They'd buried him naked, having taken his uniform for Dubauer, and he was long lost to the soil. And yet she apologized as though something of him might remain, some echo might still linger in this place, where her life had changed forever, leading her down paths she could never have foreseen, just as his had ended.
After a few minutes she let Aral pull her away. Together, silently, they spread the blanket they'd brought out by the river and sat, leaning against each other companionably. He poured them both glasses of a dark, rich Vorkosigan red, and they drank it without speaking while the river burbled past.
"Are you glad we came back?" Aral asked her at last.
"Altogether . . ." Cordelia paused, considering. "Yes, I think so. Full circle often feels inevitable, but not always in a good way. In this case I think that perhaps . . ." She paused. She did not want to say, The only way to accept the end is to come back to the beginning, but she couldn't help but think it. Ten years, his doctors had told her. Fifteen, perhaps, if he did as he was told. "I think it was a good decision," she finished at last.
"As do I. Worm plague aside," he added in a mutter.
She laughed, then drained the last of her wine. She let her head rest on his shoulder. His skin was warm through the thin fabric of his shirt. "Are you hungry?"
He peered at the basket. "What is there?"
"Everything. Pym packed it himself and I think he was worried we might have to walk all back to the capital. Again."
Aral gave a gruff chuckle. "I think he might have been annoyed with me for putting my foot down and insisting they let us come out here alone."
"Well, we are quite elderly and dottering," Cordelia pointed out soberly.
"Speak for yourself."
She smiled. "Oh, I do. But yes, Pym provided quite well for us. And I did ask for a few things in particular." Their cook had looked at Cordelia as though she were quite mad when she'd requested an oatmeal-and-blue-cheese themed picnic lunch, but somehow she'd come through. Cordelia imagined Aral's probable reaction and bit her lip to suppress a smile.
Aral was silent for a few moments. "I'm not terribly hungry at the moment," he said at last. "Actually, dear captain . . . do you remember the appointment I had with Vorhallen before we left?"
Cordelia sat up, a small, hard knot of fear suddenly tightening in her stomach. Their personal physician was a good man, a kind man, but the news he'd been delivering them of late had made her dread his presence in their lives. "Yes?"
"Ah, well, he said - oh dear, I never could be as direct as you about these things." Aral cleared his throat. "His exact words were, and I quote, 'Sexual activity, provided it is within reason, can only be beneficial at this point.' I thought about pressing him to elaborate on what he felt was 'within reason', but I thought it might do his heart a harm if I did."
Cordelia stared. Then she laughed, nervous tension draining away. "No wonder you were so determined to leave even Pym behind. I did wonder."
"So did he, I'm sure." Aral slipped his hand around her waist and nuzzled the back of her neck. She smiled. "Well, dear captain? What do you think?"
"Aral. All jokes aside, we're a bit old to be rolling around on the ground."
"I thought of that, too."
"And?" She managed not to squeak the word, but only just. He'd kissed a certain spot on her neck that had gone neglected of late and it had been a bit startling.
"We're down here already. And I don't know that we need to roll about necessarily." He pulled away to grin at her, the corners of his eyes crinkling even as his mouth stayed serious. "Creativity has always been your forté, captain. Surely you can think of any number of solutions."
She could, as a matter of fact. "All right, then," she said, kneeling up and laying a hand on the side of his face, caressing the strong lines of his jaw. She kissed him and imagined it as a ring of endless light coming full circle.
Creative we shall be, then, she thought, with only a hint of desperation. And determined. Downright stubborn, in fact. Brave. Compassionate. Optimistic. In love, of course. All that and more, for as long as we have left.