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Return of Saturn

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As the Imperium churned its way through the preliminary wedding preparations and the only marginally less important transition of ImpSec leadership, Miles found himself settling into a routine on Barrayar. It was almost novel knowing exactly where he would be on any given day, approximately what he would be doing for the week, and being able to make plans that he could follow through with, if he wanted to. The last part was harder than it appeared, especially when it involved going outside the house for anything other than essential errands, but even that was becoming easier as Miles settled back into Barrayar and his new-found routines.

One of those routines was the regular call from Ivan - snuck under the less-than-attentive supervision of Ivan’s immediate supervisor - being a welfare check disguised as a rambling discussion about the Vor social scene. Ivan passed the calls off as an overly-obliging son acting on behalf of his nosy mother; Miles suspected that the driving force was Ivan himself. He kept that observation to himself.

It was during one of these conversations that Miles realized that he had left something unfinished earlier, something forgotten in amongst the mess of his departure from ImpSec.

He could see Ivan turn on the screen, presumably looking out for the supervisor who had tasked him with something that Ivan was dragging out for as long as possible. His captain’s tabs reflected the overhead light as he did so, drawing the eye. Miles was reminded with exquisite discomfort of how he had responded to Ivan’s news about his promotion: fury, and then black despair. He could — and should — have done better and made it up to Ivan, but to date had not. Now that he remembered that he had left his apology almost over-long, he had to take action.

“Hey, Ivan,” he said abruptly, cutting off Ivan’s complaints about the dating scene or lack thereof of it in Vorbarr Sultana.

“Yeah?” Ivan said, taking the interruption in stride.

“I’ve been thinking—”

“I appreciate that now you warn me by saying ‘I’ve been thinking’,” Ivan interjected. “Gives me notice that you’re about to do something stupid. Tell me, should I leave the city, or do I need to immigrate to Sergyar immediately?”

Miles remembered why he hated trying to have sincere conversations with Ivan. It was like the man was allergic to them.

“Shut up and let me finish,” Miles said with a sigh.

Ivan rolled his eyes and mimed zipping his mouth closed. He did not, however, say anything in reply, and Miles would take what he could get.

“It’s about your promotion,” Miles said, jerking his chin up in the direction of Ivan’s tabs. Ivan brightened at the acknowledgment, belated as it was. His reaction confirmed Miles’ suspicions that Ivan’s efforts to downplay his promotion hid a pleasure equal to Miles’ own about his own promotion. Even if, Miles had to admit, Ivan’s method of obtaining his promotion was more orthodox than Miles’ all but stealing it on his way out the door. “We never did celebrate it.”

“We could say the same about yours,” Ivan replied. “Besides, you had a lot going on at the time, what with dying and then being fired.”

“I know.”

“That was strange, even for you,” Ivan continued. “Most people do it the other way around. Or simultaneously.”

“Thank you, Ivan, for stating the obvious,” Miles said. “Anyway, I’d like to do something for you now.”

“You’re really coming out of your cave?” Ivan asked. “I thought I’d need a crowbar to get you to do that.”

Miles did not dignify Ivan’s comment with a response; he let the silence hang between them as pointed commentary.

“What about tomorrow evening?” Miles proposed eventually, after he decided that the silence had gone on long enough. “Ma Kosti will be off for the evening, but I can ask her to make something before she goes.”

Past experience meant that Miles knew that Ma Kosti’s prepared snacks would be culinary confections that defied description. Ivan was no stranger to her cooking prowess, and had often commented that he wished he could have a cook of his own now that he had moved back into his own apartment. Miles waited for Ivan to accept the offer.

“I …” Ivan began, then stopped. He pursed his lips, obviously torn between what he wanted to say and what he was about to say. It was an interesting expression on Ivan. Miles had never known him to say anything other than what was in his head, regardless of how thoughtless it was.

“It’s tempting to see how fast the Great Man would revolve in his grave at our raiding his cellar again, but I really should take you outside to get you some fresh air,” Ivan said finally. It was not the response that Miles had expected.

“Fresh air? Like I’m some sort of plant?” Miles found himself saying. The idea of Ivan declining something that he obviously wanted had set him slightly off-kilter.

“That’s better than the analogy I came up with,” Ivan agreed, making Miles wonder exactly what Ivan was thinking. It was probably something unflattering. “Yes. Like a plant.”

“All right,” Miles said, giving in to the inevitable. He needed to reacquaint himself with Barrayar anyway, and Ivan was familiar with all the ways it had changed in Miles’ absence: he might make a very good native guide as Miles eased himself back into life in Vorbarr Sultana. “What about the bar we went to all the time when we were cadets — what was it called?”

“It closed,” Ivan said. “Closed a year or so back. You are behind the times.”

“Why did it close?” was all Miles could manage through his shock. There were some establishments that one expected to be present until the inevitable heat death of the universe. The bar in question had been one that Bothari had dragged a younger, more reckless Miles away from more times than Miles cared to remember. It had been a terrible dive, full of soldiers on their last drink before returning home and cadets sneaking out for their drinks away from home. The bar’s only redeeming grace had been that the alcohol was cheap and the bartender asked few questions. Miles had promised himself that he’d go back there one day, for old time’s sake.

“No one went anymore,” Ivan said. “I don’t even remember why we went. Besides, you surely don’t want to go now even if were still open: you’d say something smart, and someone would get punched. Probably me.”

“I wouldn’t,” Miles protested.

“You would, and I would,” Ivan said with heavy finality. “Anyway. I’ll find a place.”

“No,” Miles said firmly.

“Why?” Ivan demanded.

“Remember the last time you chose the bar?”

The last time Ivan had chosen a bar for the two of them to catch up, it had ended with a Molotov cocktail being thrown through a window, death threats from two drunken locals who had experienced an unfortunate sobering up when ImpSec got hold of them, and an acerbic suggestion from Simon Illyan that Miles direct his ability to attract trouble at those who deserved it. Miles had thought that was an unfair assessment — it had been Ivan who had caused that particular altercation — but he couldn’t say that he had improved the situation either. Miles had carefully selected where they went drinking after that occasion, and the events had not repeated.

Ivan’s blank look indicated that he either did not remember, or did remember and didn’t care to let on. Ivan’s politely blank expressions were a masterwork: he had been working on them for as long as Miles could remember.

“I don’t know that I’m up for carrying you home afterwards,” Miles said.

“You never were.”

Miles and Ivan sneered at one another.

“You do realize that neither of are twenty anymore,” Ivan pointed out. “There’s not going to be any carrying anyone home. That is, unless you’ve become even more of a lightweight than you were before?”

Miles stared at Ivan. Nothing Ivan said was untrue; it was simply unexpected that Ivan, of all people, would be acknowledging the effects of age and purported maturity on them. Ivan, who had skated alone the line between his personal interests and Barrayar’s interests with a breezy wave. Ivan, who Miles knew for a fact had multiple notations in his file for reporting late due to overstaying the night before. Ivan, who Miles thought would not grow old disgracefully so much as deny its existence entirely.

“What?” Ivan demanded. “Something on my face?”

Miles marshaled his ability to speak.

“I … never thought I’d hear you say something like that.”

Ivan snorted.

“What, me admitting that we’re not young and stupid anymore?” He shook his head. “The hangovers just get worse, and you get less sympathy the older you are.”

“I suppose so,” Miles said, having never really experienced the phenomenon himself. It was only Lieutenant Vorkosigan who was nearly thirty; Admiral Naismith was a nebulous age from thirty-six to mid-forties with the tastes and interests to match. Even if Miles had been minded to follow Ivan’s lead, he hadn’t had the opportunity.

There was a muffled thud on the other side of the screen and Ivan turned to look at it.

“Aw hell,” he muttered, and then, louder, “I’ll be in touch with the address.”

The screen then turned off to Miles’ bemusement. Evidently, even Ivan’s lax supervisor had his limits and tying up an official line with a personal phone call for nearly an hour was one of them.

Ivan’s graceless termination of the call gave Miles the opportunity to think. At some point, Ivan had grown up, and Miles wasn’t sure when it had happened. The Ivan-shaped picture in Miles’ memory skated the line between charming Vor lout and inappropriate, immature and irresponsible, with loyalty to family running down to his bones. The Ivan that he’d just spoken to was still all of these things, but Miles couldn’t remember a time where Ivan had overruled him rather than following his lead while protesting all the way.

He turned a lightpen in his hands as he thought about when it was that Ivan changed and why he hadn’t noticed. The obvious answer was that it had happened all at once when Miles had died, providing a neat explanation to both questions all at once. Miles couldn’t have noticed as he was dead, and Miles’ death was a shocking reminder of Ivan’s own mortality, causing him to mature in response. It was almost too neat an explanation, and Miles found himself dissatisfied with it. He discarded that idea, as well as the idea that Gregor’s pending nuptials had triggered the change. Perhaps their upcoming thirtieth birthdays were part of the cause, but it didn’t seem right that it was all of the cause.

Or was it a more gradual change, and Miles had simply missed it? Now that Miles thought about it, it was entirely possible. While he, Ivan and Elena had been playmates together as children, adulthood had cast them to the four winds. He saw Elena regularly in his role with the Dendarii and was impressed every time at how much she had grown into herself once free of Barrayar. Ivan, on the other hand, Miles had seen infrequently but assumed that Ivan had little scope for change. Now, it was clear that Ivan had lived a whole adult life that Miles had only barely intersected with, a far cry from their lives as children. With as little as Miles knew about Ivan’s life now, was it really such a surprise that Ivan had grown in ways that Miles had never predicted?

More importantly, what was he going to do now?

“Augh,” Miles groaned. “How did I miss this?”

He allowed himself a moment of frustration before rummaging through his desk for a notepad and pen to plan his assault on his ignorance about Ivan’s life of late. While no plan lasted past first contact with the enemy, Miles was confident that if he spent the time preparing now, regardless of what surprises Ivan could throw his way he could adapt to it. He had led a mercenary unit for over a decade, surely he could handle one childhood friend?

***

The wine bar that Ivan chose was surprisingly nice, especially given how difficult it was to find in the first place. Miles found it after climbing several flights of stairs, walking across two scaffoldings, with the last leg being a ride in an elevator that was missing half of its buttons. With each stage of the journey, Miles revised his expectations downward, and so was pleasantly surprised when the elevator doors opened to reveal a well-lit and recently renovated entry to a bar. Ivan loitering out the front of the bar confirmed that Miles had finally reached his destination.

“You could have told me I needed a map and compass,” Miles complained as he walked up to Ivan.

“You found it, didn’t you?” Ivan replied.

“Eventually.” Miles looked at Ivan closely. “You didn’t know it was like this, did you?”

“Let’s just get inside,” Ivan said, looking away from Miles’ gaze.

Miles smiled crookedly and followed in Ivan’s shadow into the bar.

Once inside, he took a moment to take in the sheer everything about it. He recognized the fixtures as being reminiscent of the first century of the Time of Isolation. Window frames crudely fashioned out of rough-hewn wood served as a contrast to the unpainted stucco walls, with metal-wrought furnishings that Miles suspected came from later in the period when they had furnaces but was willing to allow it on the basis of romanticism. The light fixtures were more obviously modern lights fashioned to look like lanterns, a necessary sacrifice to not burn down all of Vorbarr Sultana or, at the very least, a significant portion of it. Milling around the bar itself was a mix of officers, Vor and otherwise, as well as groups of women sitting at the tables. The sight of the soldiers mingling in their undress greens should have stung, should have made Miles long for the uniform he had dragged himself across broken glass to earn. It did hurt, but not sharply; it was the wistful ache of a dream replaced by a reality that wasn’t unpalatable, simply unpredicted.

Miles wanted a moment to stand and study the dynamics of the room before passing some comment to Ivan. Ivan, perhaps sensing Miles falling back into old habits, instead pulled at his elbow and headed towards a private booth, out of line of sight but with a spectacular view of the city from the window. The sun had set completely at some point while Miles and Ivan had made their way through the windy passageway towards the establishment, with lights from nearby buildings only starting to become visible in the deepening twilight. Miles craned his head to look at the buildings, and found himself unable to recognize most of them. He had known that Barrayar would change, known that it could do nothing less with increased contact with galactics, but he hadn’t thought that it would mean a skyline he did not recognize.

“It’s changed a bit since you were last here, hasn’t it?” Ivan noted, hitching himself up onto a stool to gaze out over the city. “Construction’s really taken off these last two years.”

“Yeah, like this bar,” Miles said, dragging his attention away from the skyline. “How did you even hear of it? It doesn’t seem like your kind of place.”

“It’s not,” Ivan said. “It came as a recommendation from someone.”

It was uncharacteristic of Ivan to be so close-lipped about a source. If it was a girlfriend, he would have simply said so; a fellow officer he might have even named. From the faintly embarrassed air as he continued to look at the night sky, it was clearly someone that Ivan had both regular contact with and was a little mortified about it still. As Miles studied the bar further, he added to that assessment that it would have to be someone who knew of Miles’ interest in history as Ivan would be better placed in a more robust setting. That narrowed it down to only one person, and Miles stared at Ivan in appalled delight.

“No,” he breathed. “Simon recommended this place to you?”

Ivan was used to Miles’ deductions and just sighed, long-suffering.

“How are Aunt Alys and Simon getting on, anyway?”

It was rather like watching a lightflyer crash in slow motion, Miles thought, seeing Ivan squirm at the thought of his mother and her — lover? Partner? Future husband? Whatever Simon was and would be to Alys Vorpatril, Miles was sure that it would be exquisitely socially acceptable. It would also be something to needle Ivan about for some time, and Miles made a note to do it whenever possible. Such things were a gift, and not to be cast aside.

“They’re fine,” Ivan managed finally. “I wish you wouldn’t look at me like that though.”

“Like what?” Miles asked innocently.

“Like you’re laughing at me.”

Miles could not defend himself from the charge. Instead, he studied the wine list and was gratified that this, at least, was not inspired by the Time of Isolation. In fact, it was refreshingly galactic in its selection, and Miles found himself opting for a Escobaran red purely on the basis that he’d never heard of it before. Ivan chose a robust red from the Southern Continent. The order was received by a young man who Miles suspected was only barely old enough to drink in public. When had he started thinking like that anyway? When he’d been that young, he’d outright stolen a mercenary unit. Maybe there was something in his mother’s observation that with age comes the ability to think in years, rather than minutes.

The wine itself arrived with pleasing alacrity, sparing Miles from further introspection. He took a sip, letting the wine play on his tongue, before pulling himself up to sit on another stool. Ivan moved belatedly to help and Miles waved him away. He’d been navigating Barrayar for decades now and didn’t need help with this.

“How’s work been?” Miles asked after taking another sip of his wine.

Ivan shrugged.

“Nothing special.” His laconic tone took on a more pointed quality when he added, “I’ve almost caught up on the backlog from when someone called on me to be his mule.”

“Really?” Miles asked, startled. He had finished his own report to Gregor three weeks earlier, and couldn’t imagine that Ivan would have had all that much to do. “That was a month ago.”

Ivan rolled his eyes. “Some of us don’t get to set our workload.”

Miles had seen Ivan in action and knew that he was a master of devising systems that allowed him to finish his work exactly when it was due and no earlier. He suspected that Ivan’s superiors were also aware of this skill and were merely placing enough stress on Ivan’s system to require him to prioritize efficiency over appearance of the same.

“I’ve been wondering,” Miles opened, ignoring Ivan’s groaned oh god, what now?. “What is it that you do?”

Ivan blinked, non-plussed then suspicious. It was an expression that Miles had seen before, usually immediately after Miles had come up with a new plan and needed assistance in pulling it off. It was not an expression Miles expected to see after asking what Ivan did for a living. He found himself leaning forward, chin resting on the heel of his hand, waiting for Ivan’s answer.

“The same as before?” Ivan answered carefully after a moment’s consideration.

“Yeah, I figured,” Miles said impatiently. “What is that?”

Miles considered himself to be a decent interrogator; he’d worked for ImpSec long enough to know how to ask questions and he also knew Ivan well enough to know how he ticked. With that in mind, questioning Ivan about what he did was surprisingly difficult.

All Miles was able to determine after half an hour of questioning was that Ivan was involved in budgeting for operations on Barrayar at the moment, and that he’d been stationed on multiple planets during his career. Miles had vaguely known the former, and hadn’t paid enough attention to Ivan’s career to notice the latter. At some point during the discussion he drained his wine glass and got it refilled, but all in all the drink was much less interesting than the puzzle before him.

Ivan looked increasingly troubled as the conversation progressed. Finally, he leaned forward while Miles was crafting his next question and asked with studied mildness, “Is this leading somewhere?”

“Hm?” It was Miles’ turn to be nonplussed. “What do you mean?”

“The questions,” Ivan clarified. “I haven’t been asked this many questions about what I really do since the time you upended the Earth embassy.”

“I didn’t do that intentionally,” Miles said, stung. He added, after a moment’s reflection, “I’ll allow that those questions would have been unpleasant for you and Galeni.” Mostly Galeni, who would have had to explain how it was that he missed a Komarran conspiracy led by his father and stationed in the city he was working.

“Unpleasant?” Ivan snorted. “They were downright brutal. Death by a thousand pointed questions.”

“Imagine how unpleasant it would have been if I hadn’t shown up,” Miles said.

“It would have been quieter, and then I would have left and it wouldn’t have been my problem,” Ivan said, without any real heat. “And now there’s this.” He studied Miles’ expression. “Level with me, coz. Are you planning on going through the entire service, removing all the heads as you go?”

“No!” Miles said reflexively, horrified at the image. “No, that’s not it.”

“Then what are you doing?”

“I …” Miles began, and stopped. Unfortunately, Ivan did not see fit to fill the silence. Turnabout was unfair play.

“I just realized that I didn’t know what you did when you weren’t assisting me with something,” Miles finally confessed.

“Oho!” Ivan chortled. “So you’ve finally noticed that people have lives before you show up.”

“I’m not that much of an egomaniac,” Miles protested. “Am I?”

“Not an egomaniac,” Ivan allowed, though Miles didn’t appreciate the subtle emphasis on ego. “More… that you’re so used to being multiple people that you forget that for most of us we’re just one person.”

“Rather than egomania, a multiplicity of egos?” Miles asked, finding the idea peculiarly charming: his various personalities all suspended precisely to stabilize the core Miles at the center of their rotation, with people orbiting in and out of his system like comets or a meteor shower. He discarded the meteor shower metaphor after a moment’s contemplation as that suggested that people burned up to nothing in his presence, and he didn’t think he had that kind of effect on people.

“Yeah, I guess,” Ivan said with a shrug. “Anyway, if you’re not upending the service, what are you doing? What will you do now?”

It was a good question. Miles didn’t have an answer. He’d ricocheted from ImpSec to investigating ImpSec in a matter of weeks, devoted every waking moment to the investigation, and then had thrown himself into reporting to Gregor. Now that the dust had settled, he had a new promotion and power, and few fetters on it. Little wonder that Ivan was concerned that Miles was going to reshape the military.

“I don’t know,” Miles admitted finally. “Auditors are free to investigate whatever captures their interest. My interest … remains uncaptured at the moment.”

“Find something,” Ivan said with startling intensity. “Preferably many somethings. Otherwise you’ll get bored and get others into trouble.”

Miles took a contemplative sip of his wine only to realize that he had all but drained his glass a second time during their conversation.

“Another drink?” he suggested. Ivan looked visibly relieved at the suggestion.

“Definitely.”

“Same as before, I assume?”

Ivan waved his agreement and Miles placed their order with the distressingly young man serving them. Silence reigned briefly while their glasses were replenished, and Miles took the chance to look out the window at Vorbarr Sultana. It was a kind of envy, he thought, that drove him to stare at the skyline. He’d read somewhere that you could tell the health of a city by the number of construction projects you could see, and he could see half a dozen without even trying. By comparison, there’d be half a dozen construction projects across his District in total. Barrayar’s development after it had chased Cetaganda off its soil had been inconsistent, and nothing reflected this as well as the the various Districts. The Vorkosigan District, despite Cordelia’s best efforts, limped behind the others. A sacrifice for the good of the empire. It was embarrassing how grateful the people of Silvy Vale were to him, given what little he had done to improve their lot in life.

“I don’t think there’s nothing for me to do,” Miles said, still looking at the skyline. “The District could really use some attention.” He looked across as Ivan’s polite frown. “When Da was Regent, he was always scrupulously transparent. Not wanting to be seen as profiting from the regency, though I don’t think anyone would have faulted him for keeping pace with the other Counts. There was only so much Mother could do. I could have done more. I can do more, and I should do more.”

Ivan did not look convinced that rebuilding Vorkosigan District as the leading light of Barrayan infrastructure was a full-time job. Maybe it was because he disliked visiting the District.

“You need something else as well,” Ivan said. “Something not work. A girlfriend. A hobby. Hell, putting teeny tiny boats inside itty bitty bottles while drinking cocktails at a beach. Just something.”

Miles was equal parts flattered and disturbed at this level of insight from Ivan; he had enough insight to know that he needed to be kept occupied. That said, he doubted that Ivan would have realized it on his own. A task from someone he knew? Probably, and someone Ivan felt familiar with that he could put his own spin on the suggestion.

“Did Mother put you up to this?” Miles asked. He knew, even as he said it, that he was wrong. If his mother had had the idea, she would have had the conversation with him herself before supplying him with a plethora of options to chart his own destiny.

“No,” Ivan confirmed Miles’ suspicions before then scuttling all of his tentative theorizing with, “Uncle Aral did. It was terrifying, and I never want it to happen again.”

“Huh,” Miles said as he mulled over the implications of his father and Ivan having conversations about him. None of them were reassuring. When had his father and Ivan gotten so close that his father considered Ivan to be anything other than an idiot? Or, even more horrifying, was it that his father did consider Ivan an idiot, but that he was the best tool they had? Or — or — what else? Miles’ mind spun in circles.

“But he’s right,” Ivan continued, to Miles’ increasing consternation. “You’ve always been up and down, long as I’ve known you. When you got discharged from ImpSec, that was the biggest down I’ve seen. Then you run around like a man possessed to find out what happened to Illyan. And now… what? What will you do now?”

It took Miles a moment to understand why Ivan was so insistent. How can I follow you, if you go somewhere I cannot? seemed to be Ivan’s unspoken plaint. There weren’t many places Miles could go that Ivan couldn’t, and one of them was death. Miles’ experience of his death had been quick; for those left on Barrayar it would have been agonizing, or so he supposed. He had not been ghoulish enough to ask. Not even of Mark, who barely knew Aral and Cordelia. Although, now that he thought about it, maybe he was wrong about that too. The time between his death and resurrection was a black box, and one that perhaps he should become more familiar with, if only to understand what had happened.

Not today, though.

“Ivan, I didn’t know you cared,” Miles said, trying to keep his voice light. Ivan acknowledged the lifeline with a sardonic incline of his head.

“Too right, I do. If anything happened to you now I’d never hear the end of it.”

The heavy tension of the last few minutes started to dissipate. Miles let it. He had understood, a little, that his death would have had to have changed things. It had changed his own life, and while he was not egomaniacal enough to think it had had the same effect on Ivan, he knew that it would have had at least some effect. And then there was his self-destruction afterwards. Little wonder Ivan was treating this catch-up session as an intervention; Miles would have done the same had the positions been reversed.

“And, I will find something,” he promised. Honesty compelled him to add, “I don’t know what it will be, but I will.”

“I was hoping for more precision than that,” Ivan complained. “Like ‘I will take up competitive knitting tomorrow’.”

“Is that something people do?” Miles asked in fascination.

“I have no idea.”

Miles looked down at his glass, touched and a little embarrassed. He had come to this meeting with the goal of learning more about Ivan and who he was now, and instead his future plans had dominated the conversation. Perhaps there was some truth in his mother’s observation that Ivan was a mirror that reflected back what you expected to see.

“This was meant to celebrate your promotion, you know,” Miles said wryly. “It wasn’t meant to be about me.”

“I told you earlier, it’s fine,” Ivan protested, embarrassed. “It was a standard promotion, anyone could have done it. Hell, you did it even after leaving the service.”

“Yeah, but you did it first.”

“Finally got one over you,” Ivan said with a grin.

“You did,” Miles agreed. He resolved to leave the quest for the true Ivan Vorpatril for another day, when he hadn’t made significant inroads into a bottle of red wine. If recent events were any indication, he would have more than enough time to see the man behind the mirror.