Not being an idiot Kareen knew exactly what she was getting into when she accepted an invitation to tea from the Countess Anastasia Vorkleves, aka Mark's very protective big sister. Coupair, the Countess's personal armsman, met Kareen in the echoing black and white marble entrance hall of Vorkleves House and ushered her down the west gallery and into the small, Porcelain Tea parlor.

The room owed its name to the elegant Cetagandan porcelains displayed on tables and in glass fronted cabinets. The three Vorkosigan sisters were there waiting for their victim, sitting in a half circle like a tribunal of judges. Anastasia's chair had a high back carved with the Vorkleves crest and the twins' were almost massive and ornate. Kareen set her jaw, determined not to be intimidated, and took the couch opposite. The tray was brought, tea or coffee distributed along with sandwiches and pastries all arranged neatly on small, convenient tables. The minute the door closed behind the footmen Anastasia opened fire with the breathtaking directness that made her seem like another of Tante-Cordelia's daughters, not just a stepdaughter:

"Why won't you marry my brother, Kareen Koudelka?"

Kareen did her best to look dignified and affronted. "I don't see what business that is of yours, milady Countess!"

The almond shaped gray eyes, almost frighteningly like Mark's, didn't blink. "I agree your love-life is no affair of mine but Mark is my brother. He has had quite enough trauma in his life. He needs permanency not a casual affair."

"It's not casual," Kareen answered defensively. "Not casual at all. But we don't want to be married, at least not yet. Not Mark and not me."

Anastasia snorted. "What men think they want and what they need are often very different things!"

"Thanks to his truly appalling upbringing Mark is even more emotionally un-self-aware then most males," Livie Vorchek said in the tone of one explaining how two and two make four. He desperately needs a wife to take responsibility for him."

"He barely knows now to be human, much less Mark," Lizzie Lubachik continued in a slightly kinder tone of voice. "He has to have the permanence, the security and emotional support of a wife, not a mistress. He needs love, Kareen."

"He needs you," said Anastasia flatly.

Kareen blinked back sudden tears. "I know that, Ana. And it's not all one way, I need him too. He makes me feel strong, capable, like a real person -" I thought it was being home on Barrayar that was making me shrink up into a box but it wasn't – not entirely – it was being separated from Mark… She felt the hostility if not all of the tension go out of the atmosphere as the sisters exchanged communicative glances.

"Then why not marry him?" Lizzie asked reasonably.

"Because – beause -" Kareen struggled for words, then suddenly they came. "Because I want to be a real person, whole in myself, before I give my oath. And I want Mark to be too. It won't be any good if we're totally dependent on somebody else to supply important parts of our personalities. We'll spend our whole lives as half-people. We have to want each other, not need."

Lizzie looked at her sisters. "I hate to say it but that makes a lot of sense."

Livie's gaze remained locked on Kareen. "Marriage is dependency."

"No, it's interdependency," Livie nodded accepting the correction and Kareen went on. "It's completely different from the relationship Mark and I have now. Marriage just wouldn't be right – not yet. I feel it."

"And marriage is all about feelings," Livie agreed and now it was her turn to look at her sisters.

"I don't like this in-determinant status," Anastasia snapped. "Betans may call it flexibility I call it a lack of commitment!"

"I have a formal contract with Mark, to be reviewed and renewed every year," Kareen corrected. "It may not be a marriage but it is a commitment and I promise you, Ana, I take it very seriously. I'm not going anywhere – not until and unless Mark and I both decide we don't belong together after all."

"Good enough," said Livie and Lizzie nodded agreement. They both looked at their elder sister.

Anastasia frowned darkly at the whipped cream topping the tart she was holding but not eating then turned the frown on Kareen. "If you ever hurt him, I will kill you." It was a solemn oath.

"If I ever hurt him," Kareen said, un-frightened and completely sincere, "I'll deserve to die."