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It was one of Gregor's rare lax afternoons--though to be honest, he had work to do, both Imperial and academic; he'd presided over a Council meeting in the morning, and completed a lengthy essay on recent Komarran history the day before. After doing the most necessary correspondence post-Council, Aral had disappeared to spend time with Miles, and Gregor fell to looking out over the garden as snowflakes drifted past. A pair of gardeners were up in a tree using a float pallet, freeing a tree of branches that had torn following the most recent blizzard.

After a minute he could see another small form, coming into the residence from a deeper area of the gardens. It took him a moment to realize the small huddled shape in a conelike fur coat was Olivia, and the things in her hand were skates. Rather than hang them over her shoulder by the laces, which would take suppleness out of their ankles, she was holding them by the padded skate-blades. It was ridiculous--he hadn't seen her in months (and saw her very rarely, now that she and Miles lived with their grandfather again instead of with Gregor) but she was coming to the Residence to skate and never saying hello.

All right, to admit it: he missed the Vorkosigans. It was why he found himself getting out of his chair to make a short sprint down a hallway to the nearest outside door to call, "Olivia!" It took her a moment to spot him at the small service entrance, but then she waved and came over.

He accepted a tentative hug, where her arms went around his waist and her head nearly came up to his armpit; even unstunted, the doctors said Olivia would probably never be more than six inches taller than her brother. She was still tiny, though; still in the lower classes with the little girls, and a year or two away from the jump to the upper class. "Have you had lunch?" he asked.

"Not much of one," she said hesitantly, which made him smile because it was exactly Miles's gambit too: truth with a foot in the door. "I came here really fast when school got out."

Why couldn't they stay with him?  He saw Aral almost every day and Cordelia... often enough, he guessed. But it wasn't the same as before they'd moved to Vorkosigan house, when he'd been a big brother, when Miles and Olivia had rooms on the same floor and they all sat together after dinner... Olivia was so happy to see him, even though it seemed that she'd been specifically told not to bother him at the Residence when she was there. "Well, I haven't had any. Do you want to come in? I'll get lunch for two."

Olivia nodded excitedly, and bounced in when he stepped back from the door, before enthsiastically stamping her feet on the mat with all the intensity of a flamenco dancer. Snow came off in two small halos. Then she clutched her skates to her chest and looked up at him, and began trotting in his wake when he went back upstairs.

Gregor took his coffee while she curled up in an armchair, and waited for lunch to be set out for them; the Armsman who'd seen them coming up the stairs quite thoughtfully brought two bowls of soup and extra bread. As they ate he pried information about the rest of her family, and how Miles was doing, and what Grandfather had said, and that Mother was in Hassadar, and that Father was away at the Residence all the time because he said the Council was acting like a pack of frightened chickens, which made Gregor laugh. She was at the Residence to skate because her old instructor had stopped working at the municipal arena so Father said she should use the ice at the castle and take lessons there.

He didn't tell her, because she didn't need to know, that the change three weeks ago had been because of a Komarran attempt on her father's life; ImpSec had increased security at school for her and Miles, in case they became secondary targets, and kept them out of unsecured places as much as possible. No wonder Aral wanted her to skate at the Residence instead. "How's school?" he asked.

Olivia looked down at the surface of her hot chocolate, frowning a little. "How do you not cry?" she asked.

"How do I what?"

"You don't cry." Her serious face turned up at him. "Even when you get really hurt, like when you cut your knee. I want to do that."

An answer almost came out of his mouth before he called it back, because he almost answered her, to tell her about himself. But something stopped him--perhaps the way Cordelia had always answered his questions when they came out like this. "Why don't you want to cry?"

"Because I look like a baby, and then people tease me for it even more."

Gregor's brows drew together. "Who teases you?"

"The girls at school. And when I cry they say I'm a baby and they laugh at me. Grandfather says they only pick on me to get a response, and I've tried not to cry, but I can't."

It was true, he thought. Olivia was like Count Vorbretten, who always went bright red whenever he stood up to speak, or the moment he realized people in a room were listening to him; she couldn't not react to things, and her face was hard to school. "Well, what do they tease you about?"

Olivia lifted one shoulder, a little uncomfortable. "They take my books, and things, and then laugh when I can't find them. And once they made fun of my jacket, and they didn't like my hair."

"That sounds pretty mean," he said neutrally.

Olivia shrunk a little into her seat. "They said," she almost whispered, "that I'm the ugliest Vorkosigan."

Oh, Olivia, he thought with passionate sympathy. That was a desperately dirty tactic, because Olivia loved her brother like nobody else; she'd never turn her back on him, even in an attempt to ward off that kind of insult. Did Cordelia know about this?

"I think if somebody said something so nasty about me and my family, I'd cry too," he lied, and her eyes popped wide.

"Really?" she asked incredulously.

Gregor winced internally and tried to walk himself back a little. "It's really a not-nice thing to say. I can't blame you at all for getting upset about it. I don't think it's your fault at all if you cried because they said that."

Olivia nodded in breathless agreement. "It's so mean! I had to go away into another room so they couldn't see, but some of them followed me, and they wouldn't go away. Why are they so mean?"

Momentarily at a loss, Gregor found himself doing what Cordelia always did: telling the truth. "I don't know," he said thoughtfully. "There are a lot of reasons people are mean to each other. Some of them just enjoy making other people hurt. That's called a 'sadist'. But most sadists are really rare, so usually people who are mean... I think they do it because it makes themselves feel powerful. If somebody picks on you, then maybe somebody else won't pick on them.  Especially if they've ever been picked on themselves, they think, 'I don't like the way that feels, so I'm not letting anyone do that to me again. I'm going to make sure other people get hurt instead.'"

"That's dumb," she opined. "Just make sure nobody gets hurt."

Gregor opened a hand. "Maybe you're right," he said. "That doesn't stop them."

"So how do I stop them?"

"Be nastier than they are," he said, "or more powerful. If this were a planet--say, if you were Barrayar, and Cetaganda wanted to pick on you--you might learn to fight back, and say, if you hit me, I'll hit you back twice as hard."

"Like the war!"

"Like the war. But, excuse me, you're a little short to go around punching people."

She giggled. "And I'd get in trouble."

"Right. That leaves us with option two."

"More powerful?"

"When planets decide they can't go to war--because they're only small planets," he held his hand off the floor at about her height, which made her giggle again, "or because they'll get in trouble, they do what's called diplomacy. Diplomacy is where you go around and make friends with all the other planets, so when Cetaganda comes to pick on you, you can say, if you do that I'll hit you back, and all my friends will hit you too."

"Oh." She drooped again. "I haven't got many friends."

"Then you'll have to make friends. And there are two types of friends: there are people you like, who you spend a lot of time with and play together. Like you and Luvia, right?" She nodded, and he continued. "Then there's another group of friends, of people who come together and say, we'll be friends. Diplomatic friendships. You're not best friends, but you do things together, right? So what you do, is you make a list of all the girls who are picking on you, and then you go make friends with everyone who doesn't like them.

"Tatya," Olivia said promptly. "And Violetta and Marie. Tatya told me they were stupid."

"You see? Go make friends with them. Make sure that before they come to pick on you again, they stop and think how many people will stick up for you. But of course, if they stick up for you..."

"I've got to stick up for them," she said, with a decisive nod.

"Always try to think of ways to fight back. Sometimes you can think up just the right thing to say, that just shows 'em, and a lot of the time, you've got friends. So next time they make you want to cry, think about how you're going to fight back, and where you can go that's safe where they can't get you anymore."

"I don't think I'm allowed to fight at school," she said dubiously.

"Well, hopefully you won't have to. And maybe--" he hesitated over it for a minute. "Maybe you'll find that some of the girls are picking on you because somebody's picking on them. You might find out, sometime down the road, that they grew up and don't want to be mean anymore. Just get yourself out of the way, and let them know that it shouldn't be happening to anyone."

Olivia frowned again, but it was determined, like she was trying to put it all down in her mind. "Right."

"Your parents are really good at this kind of thing. I bet if you asked them how to make friends, they'd be willing to let you know."

"I just can't tell Miles," she said. "He'd try to beat them up."

Gregor nodded solemnly. "He probably would. Big brothers are like that." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his batman come to stand at the door, in the manner that meant Gregor had a call on his comconsole. With a sigh, he nodded and raised a hand to ask for just a minute. "Well, it looks like our lunchtime is over. How about you come back, and tell me how it goes?"

Olivia bounced to her feet, and started searching for her boots. "I come here a lot to skate, so I can see you when I'm done."

"Not all the time, Livvy. They keep me a little busy here." He winked. "So I'll ask your Da to let you know, before you come over for skating."

She hugged him, before he went, with an earnest, "Thank you, Gregor." He separated himself with some difficulty to go check his comconsole; at the top of the stairs, a Vorkosigan armsman collected his wayward charge and ushered her out.