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i.

Vorbarr Sultana is a freezing, slushy nightmare in the winter – except for the imperial gardens, which have crisp pathways shoveled clear and a pristine fluff of snow dusted everywhere else. Gregor sighs as he looks out at it, breath steaming from his nostrils in plumes like an overworked horse.

“What?” Miles slants him a look under lowered lashes; he looks exactly like what he is in his wrinkled Dendarii greys, which is an off-duty spy, but also nothing like what he is, which is a manically brilliant fool.

“Just thinking,” Gregor says, wry. “Eight months ago I said I missed the palace. Now I’m longing for another space station.”

“You could take a vacation,” Miles suggests only slightly ironically. “Abuse your imperial authority a little.”

Gregor has to snort. Miles hasn’t willingly taken a vacation since he escaped Barrayar’s orbit, possibly because being a sort of intergalactic warlord is what he considers a vacation. A vacation from his life. A vacation from being Vor…

No, that’s a thought unworthy of him. Deep down they’re the same -- Miles always comes back, after all. He’s chained here just as much as Gregor is: by love, by duty, by a kind of inevitable knowledge that his life will never be more, mean more, than when he spends it in Barrayar’s service.

“Maybe,” he says in response to Miles’ suggestion. “But what would I even do?”

“Lounge around in your pajamas? Go visit my parents in Vorkosigan Surleau and fish in the lake? Rot your mind with three hundred episodes of The Vor and the Lady?”

“I’d be bored in a day.”

I’d be bored in a day. You’d last at least a week, I bet.” Miles scuffs his boots against the floor. “Hell, Gregor, if you want it so bad I could get one of the Dendarii light cruisers over for a jaunt. I mean, if we can convince Simon.”

Gregor thinks about that. “Not likely.”

“No,” Miles agrees. “Probably not.”

Silence falls again, companionable yet thrumming with tension in a combination unique to spending time with Miles. Eventually Gregor stirs.

"Well," he sighs. "That was my scheduled ten minutes of break time. Thanks for keeping me company."

"I was in your previous meeting. No problem."

"Will you be in the city long?"

"Another week or two. Hey, you want to invite me over for dinner sometime? Maybe we can come up with a solution for your, uh--"

"Rat-in-a-cage symptoms?"

Miles grins. "I was going to go with 'dancing bear problem,' but that works too. Comm me, we'll make a war meeting out of it. A war meeting with a four-course meal! Fun."

Gregor has to admit, even if only within the confines of his own mind, that it does sound fun.

"Sure. Don't get into too much trouble before then."

"Who, me?" Miles says.

 

“Wait, what?” Miles says a week later. “Repeat that, I can’t have heard right.”

"I said that I've been volunteered to do a public relations stunt for the Pol-Vervain-Hegen Hub treaty."

"And you're..."

"Doing some symbolic planting on the spaceports and planets, yes. Why is that so shocking?"

"I just," Miles sputters for a bit. "I remember thinking -- remember when you were an indentured servant? Don't answer that -- I remember thinking that it was the least stressed I'd seen you in years."

"So?" Gregor raises the Imperial Eyebrow.

"And then I thought: maybe we ought to send him to the salt mines for two weeks every year, to keep him happy and content with his regular job."

Gregor chokes a little on his next sip of wine. "Well," he says in a suffused sort of voice. "Then you were remarkably prophetic. It's not quite the salt mines, but the sentiment is vaguely the same."

"Don't tell anybody else I thought that," Miles adds hastily. "I don't feel like being tried for treason again."

"Miles," Gregor says, rapidly regaining his composure. "You said it to my face."

"Yes, but you're much more understanding than, say, Vormoncrief."

"True." Gregor swirls the dregs of his wine in his glass, then sets it down. "So would you like to come along?"

"In what capacity?"

"Slightly nepotistic Vor-appointed ImpSec attache."

"Only slight nepotism?" Miles raises his own glass. "I'll take it."

"Good." Some previously invisible tension eases from Gregor's shoulders, noticeable only by its absence. "We're taking the Prince Serg."

"We can spare her?"

"Apparently. And it makes a good statement, anyway, using the same ship that held off the Cetegarian invasion."

"'Don't mess with us, for we have a big stick?'" Miles says, sardonic.

"And superior firepower," Gregor agrees.

"To superior firepower, then." Miles tips his glass in Gregor's direction.

"To salt mines." Gregor clinks their cups together and tilts his head back.

 

ii

Miles doesn’t get to be involved in any of the diplomatic on planet flim-flam, but he doesn’t get to kick back and relax either. Simon sent along an ImpSec babysitter: one Colonel Van Pakhomov, who, while not as strict as Captain Ungari, is significantly more cunning.

“You have to save me,” Miles begs, kicking off his boots in the safety of Gregor’s quarters. Then he looks up.

“One day,” Gregor observes, “your inability to knock is going to get you in trouble.”

He stands in the middle of the (remarkably bare, he must have put his foot down about luxurious accommodations) room dressed only in a dirtied pair of official uniform trousers, dirt streaked up his arms to the elbows. There’s a plaster on his cheekbone.

“What happened?” Miles unfreezes enough edge closer, scanning Gregor for further injuries. “Assassination attempt? A riot?”

“The first.” Gregor’s mouth is set in a grim line. “Security couldn’t have caught them, they were allowing citizens up to five feet away from the planting site. Just a knife, thankfully, otherwise I might be dead.”

“Were they captured?” Miles’ mind races. “Have we fast-pentaed them yet? Or are the Pollanders arguing custody? And where the hell is your security, I walked right in!”

“My men have standing orders to give you access. You saw them at the normal checkpoint, didn’t you?”

Gregor does have an entire corridor of the diplomatic living quarters to himself, and Miles did pass guards on the way in. Fine.

“And no, we have the attacker. Fast-penta allergy, though.”

Miles’ eyes narrow. “Almost certainly induced, it’s exceedingly rare to have a natural allergy. Which means that it was deliberate – but no suicide pill? Or did they just choke at the last minute? – it implies a larger organization at work, but—“

“Miles!” Gregor breaks in. “ImpSec has it under control. This isn’t your job.”

Miles gives him a flat look. Gregor has enough sense to look slightly sheepish.

“Well I’m going to take a shower before… anything,” Gregor says, and disappears into the en suite bathroom. A moment later he reappears to grab a change of clothing, then leaves again. Miles takes the time to poke around; a week and a half into their trip Gregor’s quarters holds few surprises, but it’s possible that something will interest him. There is a bowl of fresh fruit on the table that Miles steals from, good oranges being hard to come by in the mess hall, and several loose flimsies that he leaves alone.

Gregor showers with military efficiency – he’s out and dressed within five minutes, already talking.

“I thought Simon told you to keep your head down,” he says, smoothing a hand through his ruffled hair. “This is the opposite of keeping your head down.”

“I’m not going to do anything ridiculous,” Miles says, and continues on with an injured tone at Gregor’s look of disbelief. “I’ll just ask nicely to be allowed in on the investigation.”

“Do you actually expect that to work?”

Miles thinks of Colonel Pakhomov and sighs deeply. “Not really. Do you think you could abuse your imperial authority to get me in?”

“I can update you after I get my daily reports, how about that,” Gregor says.

“More removed from the source than I like, but I’ll take it,” Miles says. “Do you want to go pester my ImpSec babysitter in the meantime?”

“I’m not going to order him to leave you alone,” Gregor says, but follows Miles willingly enough out the door.

 

iii.

“I feel like you’ve been holding back on some important information,” Miles says, staring out into the crowd.

It turned out that the assassin was a hire from Jackson’s Whole. After some (not quite literal) fingernail pulling, they gave up their contract for a promise of credits and freedom, which means that Gregor is clear to be Imperially Diplomatic on Vervain.

Miles thinks that whoever told him Gregor was the darling of the planet after the attempted Cetegarian invasion was underselling things.

“You don’t have to go out there,” Gregor says, and something in his voice makes Miles turn to look at him.

Resplendent in dress blue and reds, he looks every inch the emperor hero. But Miles knows Gregor, has known him since childhood, and there is a tightness to his mouth and a set to his shoulders that indicates stress – and guilt.

“You did make a difference that day,” Miles says. “Even if it doesn’t feel like it. You stand in front of them and they put you on a pedestal high enough you can’t breathe, and you live the lie for them. Maybe eventually it’ll become truth.”

Gregor slants him a look, just a sideways glance of his eyes. “You sound like you have experience.”

“When I first left the Dendarii.”

“Ah.” Gregor takes a deep breath, stands infinitesimally straighter. “All right then. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” Miles says to his retreating back. “Sire.”