Right at Home
"Doctor, this is my son, Count Miles Vorkosigan. Miles, this is the Doctor. Please try not to blow anything up, either of you, while I go pack a bag."
Cordelia would have liked to see what she was fairly certain were identical indignant stares, but she had approximately five seconds before her son's brain caught up with her words and she intended to make the most of them.
"Wait - doctor who? Pack a what? Mother!"
She was halfway up the wide sweep of the staircase and neither looked back nor paused, forcing Miles to chase after her for once. "Wait, Mother, what are you - pack a bag? Where are you going? Vorkosigan Surleau will be frozen solid this time of year."
When did my world get so small? It hadn't felt small when Aral was alive, but the last few months Barrayar had felt like it was . . . constricting. It was only when she'd met a man with two hearts and stepped inside a blue box that was bigger on the inside that she'd realized she didn't have to feel like this anymore.
"Not Vorkosigan Surleau," she said, striding into her bedroom with its half-empty wardrobe. Winter sunlight streamed through the window, dappling the bedspread, and she paused a moment, basking. It wasn't that she would never see it again; she might be gone with him a year or two or ten, but he assured her he could bring her back to this very day - "Well, give or take," he'd added hastily, "but definitely, well, probably, within the year" - but she didn't know how long it would be, and somehow she sensed that it was the last time she would see it with these eyes.
Miles stopped dead in the doorway, staring as she threw an old suitcase - the one she'd brought with her to Barrayar, appropriately enough - open on the bed, then eyed her wardrobe. She'd not packed for herself in years, and now - there was nothing here she wanted to take with her. Nothing here that meant anything off Barrayar. She wished her old survey fatigues still fit.
No clothes, then. He'd said there was a wardrobe. It would have trousers, she hoped. "Not Vorkosigan Surleau," she said again, mostly to herself.
"Where, then? And with him?"
"Where? I don't know. Earth a thousand years ago? Barrayar before it was terraformed? Cetaganda five hundred years from now?" She shook her head, searching through their - her - desk for the holocube album. She would take that, she decided, and her wristcom. "Bit of jiggery pokery and you can check in with the kids any time you want," he'd said.
There was a very long silence then. Cordelia rummaged and waited for Miles to decide if she was mad or just - well, mad, after that speech. She was probably handling this terribly, but after this morning she couldn't keep her elation bottled up. It bubbled over despite herself, and Miles was looking more alarmed by the minute. If she stayed much longer, she might have to drown another psychologist, and she wanted to be on pre-diaspora Earth before the day was out.
"Mother," Miles said, in a very careful tone. "Are you . . . I know you've not felt yourself since Da died -"
"I haven't," she said, surfacing with her prize clutched to her chest. "And now I do, Miles. Don't you see? Now I do. I'm not going mad - I'm just waking up."
"I think I know better than most that sometimes they feel the same."
His voice was very strange. It brought her up short, forced her to pause long enough to look at him. He was watching her with real fear in his eyes. That dampened her excitement a little and she sighed. She sank onto the bed and gestured him closer. He came and sat beside her, looking very young and smaller than usual, as though he weren't projecting the way he usually did to try and take up all the space his body didn't. "Look at me, kiddo," she said, tapping him under the chin. "Do I look like I'm cracking up?"
"Don't know I've ever seen it from the outside," he muttered, "but no, I guess not." He frowned. "What happened to you this morning? You left before before breakfast and came back all . . ." He paused. "Effulgent."
"This morning," Cordelia said, then stopped. She had no words for what had happened to her that morning, but she felt a smile crack her face. "This morning I watched a sun explode, a million years ago. And then we went to a planet where they had these animals - hexapeds, like Sergyar. The sea was pink and the sky was green and gold, and my eyes were the first human eyes to have ever seen a sunrise there."
"A million years ago," Miles repeated. "But - that's impossible. Mother, you have to - time travel's not real. It's the stuff of fiction, and you - you're nothing if not a realist."
"That's true," she conceded, "which might make you conclude, dear son, that I'm not on a flight of fancy or going mad, but have simply had an experience that realigned my view of the world. The universe, rather," she amended conscientiously. "I'd have said it was impossible as well before this morning, but the Doctor . . ." She hesitated. "He makes the impossible possible." Like this lightness in her heart, which she'd have sworn she'd never feel again. Or was a lightness in her head? She found it hard to differentiate just now.
"That's the other thing," Miles said, in the sharper tone of one who held a trump card. "This Doctor. Mother, I haven't exactly spoken to him at length, but he's a bit odd, don't you think?"
He certainly didn't look like anything native to Barrayar, she had to concede that point, not with the brown suit that looked like something out of holovids from old Earth and those incongruous shoes of his. But Cordelia held her own trump card as far as the Doctor was concerned, one she'd come up with that morning while watching him leap about the TARDIS and bang on the console with a mallet. "A bit odd," she agreed, "but really, Miles, he's a hyperactive, narcissistic genius with tendencies toward manic-depression. Somehow I think I'll be right at home."
"Oi!" she heard, and then the Doctor's tousled brown head stuck itself around the doorjamb. "I'll give you the hyperactive and the narcissistic, and I'm definitely a genius, you got that part right, but I'm not manic-depressive! Well, mostly," he added after a split second's thought. "Maybe a little on my bad days."
"You were eavesdropping?" she said with a reproachful lift of an eyebrow.
He shrugged, completely unrepentant. "Usually a good idea to know what people are saying about you. And as for your mum's sanity," he added to Miles, "I'll have you know she's one of the sanest people I've ever met. And clever! Where'd you think you got your brains?"
Miles bristled. "Da was clever!"
"Well, yeah, but there's clever and then there's clever, and your mum is the latter. Believe me, I know - I'm brilliant, me. But," he sailed on, even as Miles sputtered and Cordelia struggled not to laugh, "you can't possibly expect her to molder in your attic for the next forty years. It's just wasteful, that's what it is."
Miles shook his head. "She wouldn't - I don't expect her to molder, that's not it at all - it's not," he insisted, turning to her. "I just thought eventually you'd figure out what you wanted to do next."
"And I have," she said, laying a hand over his. "This is it. I've been searching and searching for a way - not out, but on. I can't stay here. I thought about going back to Beta, but after forty years that isn't home either, and I hate the thought of a two month journey between us."
"You'd rather a million years?" he asked numbly.
"A million years and no time at all. You'll see me more this way."
Miles shook his head and stood, pacing away only to turn on his heel and stride back. "No, Mother, this - no! We're sitting here talking like this is possible, but it's time-travel - it's a theory! It doesn't exist! It'll never exist!"
"Er," the Doctor said, leaning casually against the doorjamb, "someone offers you odds on that, don't take 'em. Especially not if the bloke's name is Jack Harkness."
"You -" Miles said, turning to face him, "you stay out of this. I don't know what you've said or done to her -"
"She is right here," Cordelia said, with significantly less patience, "and in full possession of her faculties. No one has done anything to me."
"How would you know if he had?" Miles replied, eyeing the Doctor sideways. "I don't trust him. Why do you?"
Cordelia said nothing at first. She met the Doctor's eyes and could not help but wonder briefly what had made her trust him that morning. "Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan," he'd said, and something in the way he'd pronounced her name had made her shiver, "how would you like to run for your life?"
They had not, in the end, actually had to run for their lives, though he assured her they would at some point. Once upon a time she had jumped through wormholes blind for the sake of scientific inquiry. Running for her life was not unfamiliar territory. She found herself looking forward to it as she had to little else in recent months.
"Because I do," she said at last. "I don't know if you've noticed, Miles, but I'm a decent judge of character."
To his credit, he said nothing. All things considered, it was going better than she'd thought. "Is it safe?" he asked at last.
She smiled faintly. "No."
Miles let out a breath. "Mother, you can't - you can't go swanning off on adventures, doing I don't know what for months at a time, leaving me here wondering if you're dead or dying or -"
Cordelia blew out an exasperated breath. "Miles, it is because you are my son and I love you dearly that I'm going to point out what an absolute howling hypocrite you're being right now."
Miles's mouth dropped open. "She has a point," the Doctor said. "Admiral Naismith."
Miles's mouth snapped shut with an audible clack and he spun on his heel to face the Doctor. "How does he - what do you - who are you?"
"An excellent question," the Doctor said, smiling, "and one I can't even begin to answer. You have everything, Cordelia?"
She held out the holocube and showed him her wristcom. "Yes. I just want to say good-bye to my grandchildren."
"Yes!" Miles said, holding up a hand in apparent triumph. "Exactly! The grandchildren! Mother, you can't possibly leave Helen and Aral - they need you. And - and grandmothers don't -"
"Have lives?" she finished sweetly. He gaped at her, doing a remarkable impression of one of the fish he used to pull out of the long lake. "I'm seventy years old. I have another fifty years ahead of me if all goes well. I'm a grandmother, yes, and a mother, and a widow, but I need to be something else, too, or I'll just go mad."
Miles fell silent, looking from her to the Doctor and back again. "What are you, then?" he asked.
She cast the Doctor an inquiring glance. He shrugged and shoved his hands in his pockets. "I've always just called them 'companions.'"
"That sounds . . . euphemistic," Miles muttered.
"It's not," she told him firmly, handed off the holocube to the Doctor, and marched off to find her grandchildren.
This part, she had been dreading. They were so small still, and wondrously healthy and whole as Miles had not been at this age. She held both of them to her for a long moment, then kissed them on the forehead. They smelled clean and fresh from their baths that morning, and their curls were soft under her palm. For a moment, just a moment, with Helen folded into her arms, Cordelia wondered how she could possibly leave. Not only because they needed her - they didn't, much, not with Miles and Ekaterin and their twenty-six hour staff - but because she needed them.
She needed something else more now, though. Someday I'll be ready for this. Not today.
"I'll see you soon, my dears," she said, kissed them one last time each, and pushed herself to her feet. Miles had been watching her all the while from the doorway, she saw, turning, probably hoping that Helen and Aral could do what he had not been able to. He sighed when he saw her face, but to her relief made no further attempt to talk her out of it.
The Doctor, it seemed, had not wished to eavesdrop on that conversation. He waited in the black and white tiled entryway, scanning the walls with something that looked like a stylus and glowed with a strange blue light. He had a pair of old-fashioned corrective lenses perched on his nose. A baffled Ekaterin and a palpably suspicious Pym stood by, staring.
"Er -" Pym said.
"It's all right, he's with me," Cordelia said. She had not planned on drawing out these good-byes, especially not when she might be back in ten minutes as far as they were concerned, but she was glad she would have the chance to say good-bye to the two of them.
"So he said," Pym replied, in a tone that clarified exactly how much credence he'd lent the assertion.
The Doctor flicked the little blue light off with a faint click and poked the device back in his suit pocket. "You have termites," he informed Miles, with a certain amount of (Cordelia thought) inappropriate satisfaction.
His jaw dropped. "We do not!"
The Doctor waved the little device. "Sonic screwdriver never lies." He spun on his heel to face her. "Well, then! Shall we be off?"
"I think so."
"Off?" Ekaterin echoed. "Cordelia, you're not - you're not leaving, are you?"
"For a little while," she said. "The Doctor has asked me to go traveling with him, and I think it's exactly what I need just now."
"Alone?" Pym asked, frowning. "So . . . spur of the moment? Shouldn't you at least take an armsman, Countess?"
"No," she said, reaching over to squeeze his arm. "I promise you, I'll be perfectly fine on my own." She folded first Ekaterin and then Pym, to his visible consternation, into a brief but entirely heartfelt embrace. She felt tears pricking at the backs of her eyes and an uncomfortable tightness in her throat. This was why she hadn't wanted to take the time to say good-bye to everyone: once she started, she might well never stop. Limiting herself to her son and grandchildren was one thing, but now she'd begun to think of others - what would Alys say when she disappeared without a trace?
But she couldn't. If she did, she'd never leave - and she had the sneaking suspicion that the Doctor wouldn't wait for her.
"But how long . . . ?" Ekaterin asked, her eyes flicking to Miles and then to the Doctor.
Cordelia smiled faintly. "It's hard to say. It might be sooner than you expect - or a bit later."
"It's all right, Ekaterin," Miles said, to Cordelia's relief. "I'm just going to see Mother off. I have the afternoon free, though - I thought we might take the children out, if you like."
"Oh, yes," she said, taking the hint easily, if a bit reluctantly. Cordelia was once again grateful for her daughter-in-law's seemingly endless discretion. "I'll just - see about lunch. Pym?"
He went with her, of course - he had no other choice. But he paused halfway up the stairs to look back. Cordelia smiled at him; he returned it with a slight bow that made her heart squeeze. He shot a stern look at the Doctor over Cordelia's shoulder - even more narrow-eyed than Miles's own had been - and turned away.
Cordelia sighed, then gathered her wits and her courage and cocked an eyebrow at Miles. "Well, then. Would you like to see?"
"The TARDIS," she said, smiling, then leaned in and lowered her voice. "The Doctor's timeship."
Miles's eyes widened. "Yes," he said, then managed to rein himself in. "If you're going to be living in it, I suppose I should."
"Of course," Cordelia said, so demurely he had to know she was laughing at him. She led the way out through the ballroom and into the adjoining garden, frosted over as it had been five years ago on Miles and Ekaterin's wedding day. Snow crunched beneath their feet. Cordelia wished she'd brought a coat after all, but there wasn't far to go - down one path and up another, to a spot well hidden from the main road, where the TARDIS, sporting a light dusting of snow, awaited them. The Doctor seemed unaffected by the cold. This didn't surprise her, just as the inside of his ship hadn't surprised her.
To her infinite satisfaction, it certainly surprised Miles. He stared around in awe at the cavernous console room and ran a hand along the humming wall - and he'd not even seen what lay down the corridors: miles and miles of ship, and she'd have sworn it was never the same twice.
Cordelia was fairly sure she wasn't imagining the faint spark of envy in his eyes when Miles turned to her. "You'll be careful?" he said.
"As careful as you ever were," she said dryly.
The envy turned to worry in a heartbeat. "Mother . . ."
She sighed. "I'll be careful."
He looked at the Doctor. "And you'll look after her?"
He leaned against the console, stroking a hand along it. "Don't think I'll have to, really," he said, but at Miles's frown, he relented. "I imagine there'll be mutual looking-after. There usually is."
Miles nodded. The Doctor took himself off then, mumbling something about having to check the whatchamacallit - at least that was what Cordelia thought she heard - system. Cordelia looked at Miles, who eyed her as though thinking of a dozen more things to say. But then he simply laughed and said, "Life is strange, isn't it?"
"It is," she said, and bent just the slightest bit necessary to hug him. "Thank you for understanding."
He backed away, wiping ineffectually at his eyes. Her own were dry. "It's a decent object lesson," he said. "I had no idea. Come home, all right?"
She nodded and kissed him on the forehead. "Always," she said, hoping it was a promise she could keep.
"Well!" the Doctor said, moments later, when they were alone in the TARDIS. "You said Earth, didn't you? My favorite! Actually, there's someone I want you to meet - oh, you and Martha will love each other, and you don't have enough stories about me yet for it to be really embarrassing. Well," he paused, rubbing the back of his head and making his hair stick up every which way, "she does, of course. Still, let's try for London in 2008 -" He paused.
Her eyes were no longer dry. She gave a watery laugh.
"You all right?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, surprised to discover it was true. "London, 2008? That sounds perfect. Let's go."
"Brilliant! Hold down that lever!"