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Entreat me with your loveliest lie

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Count Vordroza never says the word “mutant” when he talks about Miles. Never says it, but Gregor can hear it lurking behind every other word that falls from Vordroza's elegant lips. Gregor knows that it isn't true, knows that there is nothing genetically wrong with Miles – knows that if not for the Pretendership Miles would look a lot like their cousin Ivan, just darker-haired and brighter-eyed.

Even with the soltoxin damage, actually, he thought that Miles looked more like Ivan than he did like Aral – and also a bit like holos he'd seen of Emperor Ezar as a boy. That same maniacal passion, vividness, inward illumination. And a similar bow to the upper lip.

But Miles' eyes are more interesting than either of the three's.

Instead, Vordroza uses words like “eccentric,” “unstable,” and – well, “manic.” Which were adjectives, in fact, that Gregor had applied to Miles himself. When he'd been about eight – when his little foster-brother had been about three – the baby Gregor had doted on, told stories and state secrets and little boy's secrets as well, had been replaced with a strange, electric, driven child. Miles had frightened him as a boy. He'd still been so small, hurt so easily, but was possessed with a will of fire and iron. Gregor had always hated watching Miles hurt himself: the feeling of inevitability, as the child tried to do too much; the momentary certainty that this time Miles was actually going to die, and then he'd have to tell Cordelia; the odd drop he always felt in his stomach when Miles looked up at him in that particular way, his face white and twisted and set but his mouth tightly shut to bite back any sound of pain.

Miles is third in line, behind his father. And Aral adores his son. And Miles – Miles has been crazy since before he could walk. And Gregor knows, from experience, that Miles will try anything.

But there is also something hiding behind these cool-headed political concerns. Someone: a little boy, five years old, shy and quiet, still easily frightened. Already being trained to the imperium. Feeling abandoned and displaced by the new higher-needs child. Feeling abandoned and frightened later when Miles started running himself against obstacles and stopped listening to what Gregor had to say. Gregor never says it loud enough. Or fast enough. How could he? The whole planet isn't big enough for Miles, doesn't turn quickly enough through space.

And something else, even behind that: something inchoate and yearning that is electrically aware of Miles' hands, his eyes, the set of his shoulders when he's about to do the impossible, the set of his mouth when he's too tired to try anymore, or when he's simply happy and at peace. Every part of the kaleidoscope of Miles' moods draws him like a magnet, inexorable and unspoken.

He wonders, sometimes – has wondered for a long time, actually – if Miles would change things. If it were possible to spare the Vorhalas boy, or – or if Gregor's father had not died at Escobar – what would Miles trade for an undamaged body? Now he thinks, for the first time: I was emperor when the attack happened. Ultimately, I bear the blame. All hands are between mine. If I could have …

Simon Illyan tells him about the mercenaries first. At first, Gregor is only sickly envious of Miles, flying free of all fetters, of gravitation itself. Then he just feels sick, as the implications of the thing begin to sink in – but initially, he only worries for his foster-sibling's health and safety. Illyan's eyes are sober and dark; Gregor realizes later that he'd already though through the implications in that moment, remembered Vorloupulous' Law. But Illyan's soft mouth remains silent. He protects Aral Vorkosigan's son for as long as he can.

When Vordroza first says the word “treason,” after Gregor has unburdened himself of these fears, Gregor feels even sicker. He denies it vehemently. Aral wouldn't, and even if he would – to imagine Miles as the instrument of his treachery would be madness. Miles' loyalty spins on an eccentric orbit, but does not degrade. He is loyal to Barrayar in the way that certain animals are to a single mate: bound together in life and death, unthinking of any other possibility. Miles would die for his country, as already given to the imperium of his breath and his blood, albeit in utero, where Gregor supposes he didn't really have an active say in the matter.

Vordroza is accompanied by a heavy scent, attar of roses and animal musk. He has a talent for the graceful disposition of his person; Gregor feels awkward and envious in the Count's presence. He himself is still gangling at twenty-one, so long and thin that he looks to have been stretched out: an emperor of moldable clay.

Miles is even stranger than he, small and scarred, but somehow Gregor never thinks of him as lesser, or unlovely. Miles is fascinating, yes – he catches Gregor's eyes and holds them for however long he'll stay – but never looks repellent or malformed. Just – different. Sometimes strange, sometimes almost beautiful. Vordroza doesn't call him a mutie, but Gregor, alive to the resonances between the two of them, damaged sons of their respective terrible fathers, knows that Miles is strange and wrong and bent – because he himself is also all those things.

He wonders: if he'd had to betray his father in order to avoid betraying his world, would he have done it? Even if it meant giving up a glittering freedom that he'd yearned for all his life? He doesn't think that he could have, not father-hungry as he feels now. To save Prince Serg, Gregor would have done – anything.

If the fanatical power of Miles' loyalty were to become divided, which side would fall uppermost in his strange, bent, manic heart? Emperor, imperium, or father? Gregor sucks in his breath sharply at the very thought: such a cruel, impossible choice.

Aral Vorkosigan loves his son. More than he loves his emperor. How could Miles – sensitive, perceptive, desperately insecure Miles – not respond in kind?

Vordroza leans over, puts his heavy hand on Gregor's knee, and Gregor swallows heavily. He imagines Miles killing him the way Cordelia had killed the Pretender: a short sharp blow to the neck, and there's an end of it. He imagines Aral's smile of approval, and for a moment he hurts inside so much that he can't breathe. He imagines Miles slowly starving to death in the public square. Okay, maybe not so slowly – Miles is so small, it couldn't take long. Maybe Vordroza would find some way that Gregor wouldn't have to see it.

He nods his head, and Vordroza smiles approvingly, and the hearings begin. Miles is absent. Gregor doesn't know exactly where he is, because he's sent Simon Illyan and his sad, worried face to rot in one of his own cells. He isn't sorry. But he can't let Miles starve in the Great Square, can't kill the last of the Vorkosigans – his little brother, maybe more even than that if he's honest with himself – without extending him one final lifeline. Admiral Hessman organizes the mission to get the charges to Miles, out beyond Beta Colony, but Gregor asks for them to include Ivan Vorpatril. Ivan might be an idiot, but he's loyal to Miles, understands the twisty ways his mind works in as well as any of them. Maybe he'll be able to help, somehow. Gregor doesn't count on it.

Captain Dimir fails to report after landing on Beta. No word comes from Ivan, and Gregor adds Alys Vorpatril to the list of people whose eyes he cannot bear to meet. He dreams of Miles in chains. It's more likely now to be exile. Miles would have to be there for them to kill him, and as Gregor reflects with a certain amount of bitterness in his heart, it's not like Miles hasn't burned with longing for years now to be anywhere else. If he doesn't come, if he abandons them …

Fuck the Vorkosigans anyway. Why does he have to love them all with such stupid intensity? It's not as if they return his love. Miles has been panting after Elena Bothari for years.

Miles bursts back onto the Barrayaran scene like a firecracker, bright and brilliant and dangerous. Gregor cringes in the background as Miles exposes Vordroza, Hessman, their plot, the way they'd aimed Gregor as a weapon at Aral, the way they'd played him like a baliset. But even as he wilts with shame, doubts in his friends melting away to be replaced with deeper doubts in himself, Gregor can't stop looking at Miles. His face is lined – with pain? - and there is something weary and worn in his carriage, but his eyes are like sparks in the darkness, luminous and sudden and lovely. Ivan stands beside him, faithful second, and in that moment Gregor envies Ivan terribly. He would give a great deal have Ivan's clean slate with regard to Miles.

He had never seen Miles and Vordroza together before. When Vordroza turns his needler on Miles, Gregor thinks only that, in comparison, Miles does not seem mutated, or eccentric, or damaged. Miles is the only right thing in that room, and they all stand in crooked relation to him. Vordroza does not look elegant anymore, not beside that bright earnest tumult of energy and passion and dedication and nobility.

Miles tells him that he only ever wanted the part of Vorthalia the loyal. Gregor thinks he's already more of a hero, seventeen and small and strange, than anyone catalogued in Old Barrayar's stories or songs. When Aral leaves, he tries to apologize. “Miles, I - ”

But Miles is already gone, has followed Aral away from Vorhartung Castle out into the sunlit Barrayaran day. Gregor sighs, rises, and tries not to envy him as he squares his shoulders and re-balances his various imperial burdens. He does not even try to not feel heartbroken, however.