another time, another place....

"You're late, Duv," the heavyset man under the tree said. "What took you?"

"The Empress Regent needed some support," Minister Galeni replied as he made his way through the thigh-high weeds. "The morning ceremonies were extremely difficult for her." His security detail surrounded him at a distance, scanning the desolate neighborhood and monitoring radiation levels.

Duv squinted in the bright sunlight, and spotted the trampled trails leading to and away from their rendezvous. "Are your children around?" he asked. "I don't want my people to shoot them by accident."

"They're exploring the ruins," Lord Vorkosigan said. His faint smile grew just a little sinister. "Don't worry, they know you're here."

"Is that...safe?"

"Probably not." The other man seemed unworried. "It's his house, though. Delia not coming?"

"No. She saw a lot more of this from ground level than you or I did. She didn't want to linger." It had been nine months before he'd been able to emerge from the windowless concrete womb of ImpSec headquarters. Nine months and four days before he tracked down his wife and daughter in the refugee camps, and he hadn't cared that she didn't have any hair, hadn't cared about that stupid argument they'd been having about moving to Komarr. They were alive. That was all that had mattered.

The funeral and death offering for Gregor Vorbarra had been today, ten years removed. They probably could have opened the city earlier, but a combination of Barrayaran paranoia about mutagens and the incredible work needed to make the city even navigable had put it off.

The streets near the hulk of Vorkosigan House had been mostly cleared of wreckage, but rebuilding hadn't yet commenced in this sector of the capital. The ruined garden they were in was strewn with glass and rubble.

"I'm surprised at all the life," Duv said. "You'd think all this would have been sterilized."

"Nah." Mark pointed to the shattered wreck of a building behind the far wall. "It got burnt out, sure, but the House shields would have taken a lot of the closest detonation. Maybe even held, if the office building next door hadn't collapsed on everything." He patted the scarred, man-sized trunk of the coiling-branched tree beside him. "Besides, these things are surprisingly rugged."

High-pitched laughter and a distant argument distracted them both. Though Mark maintained his outward unconcern, Duv thought he detected a hint of relief on his brother-in-law's face as his two adolescent children wriggled through a breach in Vorkosigan House's perimeter wall. It was a little more of a squeeze for Lieutenant Vorsoisson, who looked pensive as he delivered his charges back to their father.

Despite the nonsense they'd all given Miles Vorkosigan about how his children would bring down the Empire someday, Duv had always thought his niece and nephew much more intimidating. Particularly his niece. He understood Countess Vorkosigan's old arguments about the importance of integrating Barrayar's telepathic children into normal society, but it had still been a terrible idea to mention the experiment in front of Mark. Lillian had been a cute kid, but Duv was very uneasy about her swiftly developing talents.

Her younger brother the Count was more nearly a clone than a son, the product of his father's curiosity about how his genome would turn out uncrippled and untortured. The product of an additional two years of Escobaran genome optimization, Valerik Vorkosigan was tall for twelve and entirely too enthusiastic about everything. He had more than a little of Kareen in him as well, of course, most notably in his ash-blond hair and piercing blue eyes.

There was a stone set near the base of the skellytum, with names and dates. Another memorial had been placed near the house proper with the names of Armsmen and staff, but Nikolai had said his mother would have wanted to be remembered in the garden. Duv still did not know exactly why he had come, except out of respect for the man whose bones did not rest here. After adding a snippet of hair to the death-offering in the brazier, he sat on a cracked stone bench by the tree and reflected silently.

"He'd never have believed it, you know," Mark mentioned introspectively as the brazier burned down.

"What?" Duv asked.

"That the world would go on without him. Never in a million years. Ego the size of a planet, my brother."

A companionable silence. Count Val fidgeted - hungry, no doubt. His sister elbowed him.

"He told me to run the goddamn system until he got back, you know," Duv mused. "It was almost the last thing he said to me. I spent months trapped downside, holding things together by the skin of my teeth, just to give him the time he needed. On blind faith. When I found out, it was...I didn't know how to react. Out of all the ways I imagined him getting himself killed, pilot error never topped the list."

"If that's what they said, it's not true," Vorsoisson said.

"Hm?"

"Pilot error. It wasn't. I mean, that's why I begged the Empress for a waiver, so I could get the crossnetter implant and find out. Mama would have wanted me to find out, and she wanted to know too. It wasn't pilot error. Whatever it was, it was much weirder than that."

"Eh," Mark said, "but from this side that doesn't matter very much."

"No," the young lieutenant said with a frown. "No, I guess not."

Mark let out a deep sigh. "Your mama was a great woman, Nikki,"

"Well...yeah. I guess."

"Even if she didn't realize it most of the time. She was. My brother saw it. By the end, we all did."

"He loved her so much," Galeni said. "Though he never did anything halfway."

"That's true. Do you remember Uncle Miles, Lil?"

His daughter shook her head. "No," she said quietly. "Lots of people do, though. Grandfather used to..."

Mark nodded slowly. "And do you know why we burn death offerings, Val?"

"Because our fathers did," Val answered quickly.

"Well, that too. But mostly...memory. It's good to take time to remember those who came before. How do they do it on Komarr, Duv? Or have you gone native after all these years?"

Duv gave his brother-in-law a wintry smile. "I'm afraid so," he said.

"Heh." Mark hesitated delicately. "Have you ever...I'm sorry, this is personal. Have you ever burned a death offering for Ser Galen?"

"No," Duv said as flatly as he could. "You?"

"No."

Duv unbent slightly. "I burned one for my aunt, once. With your brother. He insisted. And one for your father, of course."

Mark's eyebrows climbed. "The old Count? Really? I never thought you the sentimental sort, Duv."

"I never realized how much of a radical the old man was, deep down. He kept it well hidden. Though it was amazing how enthusiastic everybody became about the idea of a constitution once it became clear the alternative was either two Komarrans running the place for the next fifteen years or civil war..."

His brother-in-law smiled.

"But it's strange that you ask..." Duv said, eyes narrowing. "Do you know what the last thing your brother said to me was?"

Mark looked suddenly wary.

"He said..." Duv gathered thought and memory. "He said: 'I'm beginning to understand your father's point of view much better, Duv.' Just those words."

"Oh," Mark said quietly. He sat on the ground with a heavy thump and seemed to curl up a bit inwardly. "God. Really?"

"I've never seen him like that before. Ever. It was terrifying. But I wasn't afraid for us...just for anyone in his way. I thought Delia and Laisa were dead, you understand. I knew Gregor was. It was a terrible night...the senior Galactic Affairs man on duty shot himself in his office."

"That's another reason we burn death offerings, Val," Mark said. "To put to rest the spirits of the unquiet dead." He leaned over and watched the offering burn down. It was mostly ashes now.

"Does it work?" Galeni asked, curious.

"Can't hurt. You'll burn five for me, Lil, eh? When the time comes."

"Daa-ad," she complained.

Something brown and flattened darted across the memorial stone. Val pounced, nearly knocking over the brazier. "Hey, dad!" the young Count said, eyes gleaming brightly. "Look what I found!"

"Huh?" Mark eyed the pustulent, bloated, Vorkosigan-liveried butter bug his son proudly presented him with something between delight and horror. "...oh, you have got to be kidding me."

Even Duv cracked a smile then. Life finds a way.