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A Deeper Season

Chapter Text

love is a deeper season
than reason;
my sweet one
(and april's where we're)
-- e.e. cummings


There were a great many things, Miles decided, that weren't nearly so dreadful as he had imagined. Lazing about Vorkosigan House over the Winterfair season, for one, even with most of the household gone to Sergyar. It wasn't nearly as mind-numbingly boring as he had once thought. True, there were a deeply unhinged number of parties and dinners and balls, but Lord Vorhovis had let Miles in on one of the hidden benefits of his new rank: the ability to turn anybody down with impunity, claiming vague, unspecified Auditorial business.

Not that there was any business afoot at the moment, Auditorial or otherwise. At least not for Miles. He suspected someone, probably Gregor, had manufactured this period of grace for him in the aftermath of Haroche's downfall. At another time, in another life, Miles would have chafed under the inactivity. But the newly minted Lord Auditor Vorkosigan appreciated it. He had been very tired, and for one of the first times in his life, he felt the need to take his time, to feel his way with care under the weight of his new and awesome responsibilities.

Miles gave a last settling tug at the tunic of his formal house uniform, and stepped back from the mirror. Through the windows of his suite he could see the snow-muffled shadows of a rapidly-falling Vorbarr Sultana winter night. He'd been dragging his feet too long, and he was stretching late beyond the bounds of fashionable and straight on into rude.

As if in answer to his thought there was a quick rap at the door, and Pym stuck his head around. "The groundcar, m'lord," he said.

"Thank you," Miles said, cast one more look in the mirror, and hurried out the door Pym held open for him.

He settled in the Count's grand old groundcar with some relief. That South Continent vacation was sounding better and better as winter progressed in Vorbarr Sultana. Ivan might like to come, or perhaps he would go alone. The thought of having all that uninterrupted time to himself would have once bored and unsettled him, but at the moment the idea had a certain appeal. He wasn't as soul-tired as he had been just a few short weeks ago, but he still felt somehow fragile, his emotions new and untouched like the first fall of fresh snow. An appropriate metaphor, Miles decided, as Pym piloted them expertly and quickly through the streets of Vorbarr Sultana towards the Imperial Residence. Not long ago, attending a party given by the Emperor, Miles would have worn his parade reds and blues which, dueling laws or not, still included a ceremonial sword. The thought elicited only the echo of an ache. Good.

Pym dropped him at the foot of the main steps, before taking the car off to one of the underground parking garages reserved for just such occasions. Where, Miles reflected with some envy, he and his Armsmen comrades would sit around and gossip the night away in a much more convivial version of the proceedings within the grand Residence ballroom. A somewhat soberer version as well, Miles trusted; after all, that was half the point of an Armsman driver.

Miles followed the all-too-familiar route through the Residence, noting the various house uniforms as he went. The social reconvening of the Council of Counts a few weeks after the birth of the new year was something that people took great care not to miss. And as late as he was, most of them would be at least halfway to sloshed. There was nothing quite like a roomful of inebriated Vor. Oh well, Miles thought, and snagged a glass of red wine off a passing tray as he stepped into the ballroom. No use being the only sober one here.

"Miles!" a familiar voice called just as he was surveying the appetizer table. He cringed. He'd almost slipped in unnoticed.

"Hello, Aunt Alys," he said dutifully.

She took him by the shoulder and steered him away from the food. Miles looked back mournfully over his shoulder. Gregor's master cook, though no Ma Kosti, was truly excellent. "I was starting to think you weren't going to come tonight," Aunt Alys said, pulling his attention back to her.

"What made you think that? You know I can't get enough of these high Vor gatherings." Miles took a long sip of wine and looked away so as to avoid Alys's slightly disapproving gaze.

"Well, it's a good thing you did finally show up. Gregor would like a word at some point."

"Ah?" Miles said. A word with Gregor could mean any number of things, but Miles had the feeling that his time of rest and recuperation was just about over. So much for the South Continent, he thought, but with only a mild pang of regret. "All right then. Just let me know when he's ready."

Alys let out a long-suffering sigh. "I think that he would be ready at any point. Tonight he's escorting Patricia Vordovan."

"Tall, thin Vor beauty number one hundred and seventy-three?" Miles said, and craned his neck in vain in an attempt to catch a glimpse of his Emperor over the heads of the other, much taller guests. "Is he not enjoying her company?"

Alys paused diplomatically. "He has . . . a certain expression."

"What would that be?"

"Like he's thinking of different ways to kill himself," Ivan supplied as he appeared suddenly at Miles's shoulder. "Hello, Lord Auditor Coz. Nice of you to show up."

Alys frowned. "It's not funny, Ivan. Gregor is thirty-five years old. He has to get married sometime, and sooner would be preferable to later." She shook her head. "He keeps telling me to be patient, that he'll decide when the time is right, and that he refuses to marry some high Vor, incredibly dull twenty-year old heiress who comes complete with certified pedigree papers."

"He does have a point," Ivan said. "Have you seen holovids of some Old Earth monarchs? Frightening things happen with inbreeding."

There was a momentary, chill silence, where Ivan looked like he wanted to swallow his tongue. Miles controlled a visible wince. After a moment, however, Alys simply looked askance at her son and said, "We do have gene-scanning these days, Ivan. Pity we didn't have it thirty years ago. We would have eliminated your tactlessness, had we but known."

Luckily for Ivan, Gregor must have signaled to her just then, because she smiled gracefully, nodded, and began steering Miles toward the door of a side chamber that Gregor sometimes used for private audiences during more public occasions. She deposited him inside and said, "He'll be along in a moment. Do try not to take too long."  

"Yes, Aunt Alys." While he waited, Miles took a turn around the room, which was hung with a ring of paintings depicting some of Gregor's less controversial ancestors. Ivan might be tactless, Miles concluded after a few moments, but he also might be right. Some of the old Emperors were really ugly sons of bitches.

Gregor entered, and gestured him silently to a seat in one of the armchairs. He took one for himself and crossed his legs; Miles had the impression of someone who was trying to appear at his ease.

"I have instructions from Lady Alys not to keep you too long," Miles said, a bit formally. He still didn't know in what capacity he was here.

"Hmph," Gregor said. "One would think she was running the Imperium."

"No, just your social calendar."

"God knows I don't want to go back there and listen to Patricia Vordovan talk about - oh, I don't even know what she was talking about." He made a quick, unhappy gesture, an uncharacteristically frustrated clenching of the hands that set off a few faint alarm bells in the back of Miles's brain. Then the hands unclenched, laid themselves flat on the arms of the chair, and Gregor sat back. "What if I asked you to keep me the rest of the night?" he asked lightly.

 "Sorry," Miles said. "Aunt Alys scares me more than you do."

Gregor sighed. "I command the armies of three planets, but Alys Vorpatril is more intimidating. There's something sad about that. Or possibly reassuring." He shook his head. "In any case, I asked to see you, Lord Auditor Vorkosigan" - ah, there was the answer to Miles's question - "because I have a job for you. Your first assignment as an official and fully empowered Imperial Auditor."

Miles managed not to gulp. That was ever so slightly intimidating. "Yes, Sire?"

"The Imperial Science Institute was broken into before Winterfair," Gregor began.

"Good bit of work, that," Miles said, with mixed alarm and admiration. The Imperial Science Institute, epicenter of Barrayar's research and development interests in every field imaginable, was generally considered to be almost as impenetrable as ImpSec HQ.

"It gets better. A lone intruder got in at night, and held one of the department heads - biochemistry, it was - at nerve disrupter point for nearly fifteen minutes, demanding access to all sorts of classified information. He then managed to get back out of the building, after the alarm was raised. And then, even more troubling, entirely off planet."

Miles whistled. "ImpSec must be having quiet spasms. What about the scientist?"

"He's fine," Gregor said. "Between his description and footage from a few security cameras the intruder didn't disable on his way in or out, we have a pretty good picture." He pushed aside the antique wood top of the table between them, revealing a comconsole. A few quick taps produced an image of a bland young man in his mid twenties, which rotated slowly above the plate.

"Interesting," said Miles, studying him. "And you want me to get on his trail?" It seemed a bit unusual as Auditorial assignments went, but then again to hear the other Auditors tell it, there was no such thing as usual.

"Oh, no," Gregor said. "We've got him. Well, I should say, the Escobarans have him. They caught him going through customs last week."

"Oh," said Miles, blinking. "Who is he, then?"

"We don't exactly know. He's using the name Reynold Daley, but we can't seem to find anything on him under any name. In any case, the Escobarans are holding him, and they're a little reluctant to give him up. I'd like you to extract him for me, please."

Miles raised an eyebrow. "There must have been some hot stuff in that lab."

Gregor nodded. "How to save individual lives from disease, and how to kill everyone en masse," he said wryly. "At least that's what's usually going on there, as far as I can tell." He shrugged this away. "They were quite shaken up over there - that man of yours, the one who helped Illyan, had a great deal to say on the subject."

Miles grinned. "Dr. Weddell. I bet he was a royal pain in ImpSec's ass."

"Hmm," Gregor said, with a slight smile. "In any case, I'd heard from your mother that you were considering a trip to Escobar anyway, to see if those clone friends of yours could help you with the seizures. Two birds, one stone and all that."

"Yeah," Miles said. "I'm not sure they'll be able to do any more than ImpMil, but I figure it's worth a try. There must not be much of a rush on this, then, if you're all right with me visiting the Duronas while I'm there."

"No," Gregor said. "It doesn't appear Daley actually found what he was looking for in the labs, or at least nothing was missing. But it would be nice to know what he thought he was doing." He paused, frowning. "Unfortunately, he has a fast-penta allergy."

"Induced or natural?"



"Quite. In any case, take your time with the Duronas, see if they can do something. Stop and see your parents on Sergyar for a day or two if you want."

"All right," Miles said, suddenly thinking that this sounded almost like an off-planet vacation, all expenses paid by the Imperium. It wasn't like extracting Daley was something that a random ImpSec agent couldn't do, better than Miles probably. True, he did have his Auditor's seal, which was good for overriding, well, just about anything, but that wasn't nearly as useful in Escobaran territory as it was within the Barrayaran Empire.

"And I'm sending Ivan with you," Gregor added suddenly.

"Um . . . why?"

"You'll need an assistant. Someone you can trust."

"Er . . . all right. Gregor, are you not telling me something?"

"Don't be paranoid, Miles. I wouldn't send you into an assignment without all the information. There's a bit more, of course, but you can read it on the way."

True enough. "Okay. Anything else? I bet Aunt Alys is having kittens - speaking of which, would you like a kitten?"

Gregor stared at him for a moment, and then actually seemed to think about it. "Not . . . at the moment, thank you." He blinked, collected himself, and halted Miles's move to rise with a small gesture. "There is one other thing. I'd like you to come for dinner tomorrow night, if you can."

Miles frowned. "I thought this was your last ball of the season?"

"It is, thank God. Tomorrow is a private dinner. Unstaged. Non-political."

"It's never non-political, Gregor."

Gregor's mouth tightened, just a little. "Perhaps not," he said, with a shade of bleakness. "But that doesn't mean I can't try."

"All right, then," Miles said. "Of course."

"Thank you." Gregor stood up and took a deep breath. "Into the breach?"

"I suppose we should."

Gregor paused for a moment before hitting the door release, and stood there silent, almost brooding. Marshaling the forces, Miles was sure, preparing himself to be polite and friendly yet utterly unreachable for the rest of the evening. A sudden resentment toward his aunt took Miles by surprise. Unfair in the extreme - the existence of holiday balls was not entirely her fault. But it was nothing, he thought suddenly, to what Gregor must have felt, unexpressed, for over a decade.

They parted as they entered the ballroom, and Miles spent the rest of the evening in and out of Ivan's orbit, claiming his share of dances with the Koudelka girls, and drinking perhaps a tad too much red wine. District pride, he justified as he made his slightly unsteady way out to the groundcar and awaiting Pym. Gregor had provided Vorkosigan wine, after all.

Vorkosigan wine, as it turned out, imparted Vorkosigan headaches as indiscriminately as any other. Miles grumbled his way out of bed in the morning, resenting the stiffness of cryo-damaged limbs. The reminder was not something he particularly liked waking up to. He paused a moment, feet swinging over the edge of the bed. Was that it, then? He'd spent months coping with all the consequences, everything that had followed his death like the trail of a particularly devastating comet. Had he done all that only to discover that the real problem was dying in the first place? No, Miles decided, standing. He was alive now. Alive, reasonably healthy and, yes, strangely content. That would do.

A packet of data from ImpSec arrived via comconsole just after lunch. Miles perused the pertinent details in under a minute. An ImpSec courier ship would be awaiting his pleasure tomorrow morning, the Barrayaran ambassador on Escobar was blah blah blah. It was perfectly, beautifully simple. Miles's neck began to itch. A bit overly suspicious, boy? No, I really don't think so.

Ivan called a few minutes later, smiling with what Miles identified after a moment as gratitude.

"And here I thought this Lord Auditor business would only be useful next time you roped me into committing treason," his cousin said cheerfully.

Miles made a lightning quick calculation and decided that, on balance, there was nothing really wrong with letting Ivan assume Miles was responsible for his latest duty assignment. One good turn, even an imaginary one, deserved another, and Ivan could make himself useful in so many ways. "We leave tomorrow at 1000 hours," Miles said. "And we'll be stopping by Sergyar for at least a night."

Ivan's smile dropped. "Uh," he said uneasily, "are you sure they've really dealt with that worm problem? Vorline's parents emigrated, and he has the most awful scars. . ."

Miles waved an airy hand. "Got them out, didn't they?"

Ivan made a small, disturbed sound, and Miles grinned. "Don't be late," he said, and cut the com.

Pym took care of most of the packing. Miles rattled uneasily around his rooms, getting in the way and irritating the cat. He found that now that there was something to do, he was impatient to get to it. Such as it was. Ah well. He'd always known he just wasn't cut out for a proper life of Vor leisure. He watched Pym pack the seizure stimulator, and brooded hopefully upon the prospect of discarding it in a few weeks time when - if, dammit, don't do this to yourself - the Duronas' combined medical know-how could figure out a way to fix him up. He wondered how much Ivan would howl if Miles called him and told him they were leaving in an hour. But no. One did not stand up the Emperor of Barrayar.

Miles lingered a moment over the issue of wardrobe as late afternoon edged into evening. He finally shrugged and settled on neat but comfortable street clothes. Gregor hadn't said who all would be joining them, but Miles had gotten the strong impression of an intimate, friendly gathering. No one to impress in that category - they all knew him far too well already.

He was much more prompt tonight. Pym dropped him at the South wing entrance just shy of eight, and the waiting Armsman whisked him up to the third floor, towards the wing of the Residence housing Gregor's own apartments. They fetched up in a small glassed-in balcony off Gregor's private sitting room. The Armsman bowed and silently withdrew, and Miles's eyebrows rose as he took in the table set for two only. Gregor had not yet arrived, and Miles restrained his curiosity as he stepped to the glass. Snow flurried past, only a few centimeters from his nose, not fresh powder brought by yet another storm, but simply old snow driven about before the powerful north winds. It was going to be a very cold night, Miles could already tell by the aches in artificial bones that his doctors insisted were entirely psychosomatic. But the balcony was a haven, a warm bubble of sheltered stillness.

Gregor's arrival was heralded by only one quiet footstep. "Sorry I've kept you waiting," he said, pausing a moment in the doorway, then bypassing the table and joining Miles at the glass wall.

"Anything important?" Miles asked automatically.

Gregor's lips compressed, and he shook his head. "No business tonight, please, Miles," he said, leaning his forehead against the glass. "Let's talk about something else."

"Of course," Miles said. Gregor did look tired, just a little worn around the edges. He was probably after a simple, uncomplicated evening in good company. Miles could give him no less. He waited a polite moment for Gregor to supply his topic of choice, but the Emperor was silent, face still and pensive as he looked out into the snow. Miles shoved his hands in his pockets and waited some more. Snow. White. Probably very cold and wet. What in the world could be so fascinating out there?

"You know," Miles said finally, "I used to think you were utterly off your high Vor rocker."

Gregor turned his head, eyebrows rising. "Used to?"

"It was that thing you did," Miles explained, squinting in recollection. "When we'd go to Vorkosigan Surleau, mostly. You'd just sit on the dock and stare into the lake for hours on end, thinking only you knew what."

"You used to splash me to get my attention," Gregor said, lips curving up. "And you'd pull me into the water by my ankles and drag me off on whatever hare-brained scheme you'd come up with that day. I don't think it ever occurred to you that I was simply exhausted from trying to keep up with you in the first place." They laughed quietly for a moment, content in the flood of shared memories. Then Gregor pushed off the glass and turned towards the table. "Dinner?"

The food was served in what Aunt Alys would have called "unseemly taste," all three courses and dessert laid out on the table in chafing dishes at once. Gregor dismissed the waiters with a flick of the fingers and served the salad himself. Miles sipped his wine, a simple, rather dry white, and controlled his impulse to babble. The more paranoid portions of his brain began concocting disastrous scenarios - Gregor fatally ill, Count Vorkosigan dead in some horrible accident, Miles's newly acquired Auditor's chain and seal to be revoked for some unthinking crime. That last would matter to him a great deal, Miles realized with some surprise as he forcibly calmed himself. He hadn't committed any crimes as bad as all that - well, at least not recently - his father was fine, Gregor was fine, and Miles needed to eat his salad and make nice, soothing conversation.

He drained his glass in a few quick swallows and contemplated another. Gregor made a quick, abortive gesture, and Miles followed his frown down to his own stubby hands on the table's edge.

"What happened to your hands?" Gregor asked, a strangely sharp edge to his voice.

Miles relaxed, turning his hands and flexing them in the light. "Kittens," he said succinctly. "Kittens everywhere."

Gregor eyed the vivid, red scratches with disfavor. "And you wanted to give me one of the things?"

"Oh, they're perfect darlings when you get them alone," Miles assured him. "It's just right now they're traveling in a pack. Predators with a herd instinct. Ugh."

"Ah," said Gregor, then paused in visible calculation before deciding to go on. "I was worried for a moment that you weren't as, ah, satisfied with things as I had thought - and hoped - you were."

Miles withdrew his hands from consideration and put them to good use about his plate. "I don't know if satisfied is quite the word," he said after a pause. "I really haven't done enough of my new job to be satisfied in it."

"Haven't you?"

"That doesn't count," Miles said.

"On the contrary, I think it counts a great deal. As unpleasant as it was, don't you feel the satisfaction of a job well done?"

Miles leaned back, his lips twisting. "No," he said. "No. I just felt . . . tired. I was too worn out after everything."

"Felt?" Gregor repeated. "What about now?"

"Now . . . I'm adjusting," Miles said. "My mother says I'm integrating. It's as good a word as any. I'm getting to know myself." This was true, he realized suddenly. He wasn't so much a new person now as a reconstituted one, fragments long torn apart for their own protection finally reunited into something different than any could be separately.

"And what do you think of yourself?" Gregor asked.

Miles was reminded at just whose Betan knee Gregor had picked up that unnerving habit of going straight for the heart of everything. "I . . . think I'll do," Miles said slowly. "It's simple logic. Take something you disliked and feared too much and mix it with something you loved and prized too much, and you ought to get something more balanced, something better than either. Lord Vorkosigan is . . . growing on me."

"I'm so glad," Gregor said, and Miles looked up in time to see deep and genuine relief cross his face. "We all worried," he continued. "I was afraid of . . . well. Of quite a number of things. I'm so glad you decided not to leave us, by any method."

Miles nodded mutely, thinking of Gregor's request, the notable lack of a direct order, not to flee to the Dendarii, not to abandon Barrayar forever. An order would not have held Miles so irrevocably as the simple knowledge that, if he had found the will to go, he would have been allowed to. "Thank you," he said quietly.

They chatted about inconsequential things for the rest of the meal. Miles was careful to keep the flow of talk relaxed and rather aimless as he covertly observed his companion. Gregor was outwardly the same as always, mild-mannered, charming in a low-key sort of way. Miles wasn't quite sure how he came by the idea that his Emperor was tensed to the point of snapping in half, but the conviction was unshakeable.

"We've got two weeks of member grievances coming up," Gregor said over coffee. He looked as though the prospect of the traditional space given at the beginning of every year for individual counts to air their concerns with their districts, Barrayar at large, and oftentimes each other, was giving him a headache. No servant had appeared to clear away their dishes, Miles noted.

"I get to miss it," Miles said, with perhaps a bit too much smugness.

Gregor's lips twitched. "I could always send someone else," he said.

"Hmm," said Miles, spotting an opportunity but not entirely sure how to phrase the question. "About that. Why exactly am I going, again?"

"I think it will be . . . necessary," Gregor said, then closed his lips on anything else.

Miles waited hopefully for something further, but nothing seemed forthcoming. He decided to take the hint at last, and sat back. "And what over bred, undernourished, high-Vor bud will be gracing your company for the next few weeks, since Lady Patricia did not suit?"

"Oh, someone or other's daughter," Gregor said, mouth twisting in distaste. "I've never met the girl, but I can tell you now she will be charming, subservient, and quite taken with the idea of being Empress of Barrayar. In other words, all things I do not want."

"So you want a difficult, challenging, power-hating wife?" Miles asked, raising an eyebrow. "Gregor, do you realize you're describing my mother?"

Gregor laughed into his cup of coffee. "Not quite," he said, setting it down and laying his hands flat on the table as he gazed at Miles. "Close, but not quite."

"What do you want, then?" Miles asked, curiosity piqued. Gregor had not so much as alluded to the prospect of an Imperial marriage for over a decade, not since he had confided his lonely fears after that nearly disastrous attempt to run away from his life. If Miles could slip a clue to Aunt Alys, maybe he could make the whole thing just a little easier for her, and for Gregor. "Or don't you know?" he added, frowning.

"Oh, I know," Gregor said. "That . . . knowing has never been the problem." His fingers drummed rhythmically on the table for a moment, and then stilled. "And yourself?" he asked.

"Mmm," said Miles noncommittally. "Quinn and I . . . well. Our differences caught up with us, I suppose. And now, I don't know. I've never had much luck with Barrayaran women." He winced, recalling some of the more outstanding examples of his particular kind of luck. "I'll miss Quinn, though," he added reflectively. "But that's part of missing . . . everything else that went along with her."

"I'm sorry for that," said Gregor.

Miles waved this away. "I made my own bed, as it were."

"Yes," said Gregor thoughtfully. "You did, and quite spectacularly at that. Then again, I have come to think that no mistake can ever really occur in a vacuum. A failure in one person must in some way also be a failure in those who care for him." Miles blinked, unsure how to respond to this. "In any case," Gregor continued, smile returning, "have you considered Barrayaran men? You might have better luck there."

"Uh," said Miles, who was beginning to develop a case of conversational whiplash. "I can't say I have, no. I rather doubt Barrayaran men would consider me, anyway." He reached for the wine. Better than coffee, at the moment. "But what about you?" he hazarded, in attempts to push the conversation back to more fruitful ground. "You never did tell me exactly what it is you're waiting for."

Gregor shrugged. "Sanity," he said lightly. "An opportunity. A miracle. Just time, lately." He leaned forward and took a careful breath, as if gathering himself, and when he looked at Miles again, all humor was gone from his face. "I want someone who will want me in return, who would want me with or without the Imperium. I want someone who could be my equal. I want to know someone as deep as the soul, and be known in return. I want . . . I want to lay my hands between another's, for the first time."

Miles's breath caught. That was a powerful metaphor, a strange choice of Gregor's - surely it was a metaphor.

Gregor paused for one more breath, then reached across the table and took Miles's hands. His touch lingered for a bare, nearly tender millisecond over the kitten scratches, then he turned Miles's palms inwards towards each other, and slipped his own hands between them.

Miles stared for one blank, astonished moment, watching his smaller hands press automatically inward on Gregor's larger ones. He should probably clean his nails, he thought. Then realization arrived as if on a time delay, and Miles felt a hot rush of color flood up his neck and into his face. He snatched his hands back and grabbed the edge of the table like an anchor to reality.

"Are you out of your over-bred, under-nourished, high Vor mind?"

Gregor sat back, a shadow of a smile turning up his lips, then vanishing. "Yes," he said simply. "Very much so. It's . . . glorious."

Miles stared at him, appalled and fascinated. He didn't think he'd ever seen Gregor look so . . . alive, ever seen that much true expression on him. Gregor's eyes were alight with a quietly vulnerable look, a simple, breathless hope. He's wide-open. This is - this is him.

"Gregor," he began, then ran out of sentence. Somewhere in the back of his brain the automatic panic switch had been flipped. A stream of distracting babble flooded through his consciousness, and he was dimly grateful that for once it did not connect automatically with his mouth.

"I had hoped that maybe you knew, that you'd guessed," Gregor said. "I had hoped it wouldn't be quite such a . . . shock."

"I had no idea," Miles managed. A sudden thought floated by in the murk, and he grabbed at it like a life preserver. "I'm going to Escobar tomorrow. Why are you sending me - why did you tell me . . . ?"

"Because I rather thought I would shock you," Gregor said. "I wanted to give you time away, a chance to think. Time away from Barrayar." He took a breath, and a part of Miles's awareness noted the way his hands knotted over each other on the tabletop. "I do not request anything of you," Gregor said, catching and holding Miles's eye. "I do not - I would not - require. I simply ask that you think, that you consider whether you could learn to, to feel as I do. Please. Forget about," he waved expressively around them. "Forget the Imperium. Let me worry about that. Just take the time to consider whether I am someone you could learn to . . . care for. If," he swallowed but held Miles's eye steadily, "if you decide - if you wish never to speak of this again, it will not be spoken of. I give you my word that there will be no . . . consequences, should you choose to forget this conversation."

Miles breathed in, carefully discarding an assortment of responses, some for sheer incoherence, others for inappropriateness (he rather thought Gregor wouldn't appreciate being called "Sire" right now). Finally, he settled on a jerky nod. "I believe you," he said truthfully. Through everything else, Miles could still feel that Gregor's word was unnecessary on a matter such as that.

Some of the tension eased from Gregor's shoulders. "Thank you," he breathed, and swiped a hand quickly across his face. "You'll take the trip to Escobar? You'll . . . think about it?"

"Yes," Miles said, nodding again. He rather suspected he wouldn't be able to turn his poor brain off ever again. Gregor asked . . . Gregor wants . . . my God.

Retreat. Re-evaluate. Regroup. Miles reached for the comfort of habit, but had to cut the old drill dizzyingly short. He couldn't even consider 'respond' right now. His eyes flicked instinctively towards the door.

Gregor followed the look and rose at once. "You should probably go," he said. "You have a long trip ahead of you."

Miles stood and ducked his head, feeling suddenly and utterly transparent. He was sure that Gregor had heard his silent mantra as clearly as if he had spoken out loud. "Uh," Miles said. "Yes. Thank you for, uh, dinner."

Gregor nodded, started to say something, then changed his mind. Miles stood rooted for a moment, then jerked into motion and stepped around the table. He was nearly to the door when Gregor's voice reached him.


He paused, glancing back almost reluctantly. Gregor still stood by the table, posture straight but eyes dark and worried.

"I will see you when you return from Escobar?"

He's afraid I'll run. He thinks he's scared me as bad as losing Admiral Naismith did. Has he?

"You'll see me," Miles said with conviction.

Gregor shifted, imperceptibly relieved. "Safe journey," he said.

Miles nodded, controlled a reflexive, casual salute, and ducked out.