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It'll Be Good Someday

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After five months, things had finally gone back to normal. “Normal” in the sense that Ivan's mother was content to let him call her only twice a week, but Ivan was fairly sure she was checking in with everyone else whom Ivan spoke with just to make sure he wasn't keeping secrets about his health.

“Normal” in the sense he was somehow invited to the Palace almost every weekend to visit his nephews – though honestly Ivan would have invited himself over if he'd dared monopolise their time. So far no one seemed to be complaining; indeed most Friday evenings Niklas would call him, sitting on his mother's lap, and excitedly detail every aspect of his plans for the following day. Those plans didn't always pan out, because if left to his own devices Prince Niklas would spend his entire life ruling over the frog pond and his froggy subjects. But his mother insisted on boring things like “lunch” and “get you out of your muddy clothes” which was the least fun ever.

Ivan spent as much time with Xav, holding his hands as he practised walking and encouraging him to say “Uncle Ivan is my favorite.” Once the boys were down for their respective naps, Ivan would find himself with Gregor and Laisa, talking about the boys, and frogs, and Xav's budding awareness of horses and how long they could hold out before introducing him to real ones. It was easy enough to let an obsessed boy spend all his time at the pond, but a toddler in the stables was a decidedly different concern.

And, Ivan was still bemused to see, “normal” meant that any time he saw Miles, his cousin held himself ever-so stiffly, constantly catching himself as he spoke as though he might accidentally trap Ivan into agreeing to get drawn into another adventure. He was also, most annoyingly, constantly asking Ivan if there wasn't anything, anything at all, Ivan, that Miles could do for him.

Luckily Miles was kept busy enough that Ivan hadn't seen much of him anyway. Ivan did drop by Vorkosigan House once with his mother, and made sure to tell Miles' kids the story about Miles getting them all covered in manure, and encouraged Helen to start making plans for the next time they were at Vorkosigan Surleau.

It was all very normal, for definitions of normal Ivan had never encountered before, but it wasn't really that bad. The weirdest part was how “normal” meant feeling okay for probably the first time he could remember in forever. He still had a vid chat with his doctor every other week, though it was barely longer than asking how are things going, they're fine, good that's great see you next time. Ivan was still wearing his medical wristcomm most of the time – a second one, now, after they'd discovered the previous one would not stand up to frog slime, two feet of mud and water, plus a well-placed kick by a giggling, shrieking child.

Ivan was forever going to treasure the expression on Gregor's face when he realised that an ImpSec issued device, tested to withstand blaster-fire, had failed in the face of his nearly-three year old son.

All things considered, normal...wasn't too bad. Sometimes he still had a bad day, but they were much easier to cope with, and compared more to his previous “good” days. He still had his rescue anxiety shots, a couple of times he'd used them (and he'd admitted, afterwards, that he'd had an attack, because he did want his relatives to know they could trust him.) But mostly, everything was better, and life was – new - normal.

Today was mid-week, and Ivan had plans after work to head down to the Grey Swan with some of the other officers. He was only allowed to drink in moderation – absolutely forbidden to get drunk, but Ivan figured if he needed to be drunk he wouldn't be worrying about his mental health in the first place.

But the (unofficial) Annual Officer's Poker Tournament was going to start next month and everyone was keen to hone their skills in friendly games. Ivan had no intention of entering the tournament; he'd done so once several years ago, and only Kolistov and Vorreinhardt had given him any real competition. He'd complained to his mother for weeks after that, since she'd been the one to teach him how to play.

She'd just looked distinctly unimpressed at him before challenging him to a game and had promptly beaten the pants off him.

But the games before were fun, because everyone talked and drank and there were bowls of snacks on the table, unlike the stuffy seriousness of the actual tournament. It didn't hurt that Ivan was happy to play for chips and not cash, and let the losers pay off his tab for the evening. Which, given how little he drank, never pissed anybody off.

It was fun, and it was social and normal and made his relatives happy that he wasn't going home to lay on the couch and listen to tragic operas. (He liked tragic operas, but he conceded that he had a reputation to repair, just a little, when it came to staying home and being too depressed and anxiety-ridden to shower, much hang out with people in public.)

Ivan was trying to get through the last of the reports that absolutely positively needed done, and avoiding the ones he could safely ignore until tomorrow. He wasn't the only one – he could hear the clacking and buzz of a few others around the office, frantically trying to be ready to hit the door the very second their duty shift was over. Ivan saw half a dozen messages drop into his inbox and resolutely ignored them. He couldn't be held responsible for dealing with them if he didn't open them.

Finally he finished the last report, sent it off, and shut down his computer. He stood up to poke his head into the General's office to see if there was any last-second emergency needing tending to – he wasn't really concerned because the General liked the poker tournament as much as any of them and was probably grabbing his hat right now. Ivan turned and the General's office door was opening, in fact, and---

Everything went black.

~ ~ ~

Ivan woke slowly, feeling the pounding in his head and dryness in his throat and his first thought was that the bed he was lying in was too comfortable for this to be a kidnapping. He opened his eyes and saw the stark, boring white of an institutional hospital room, and Gregor sitting in a chair.

He tried to ask a question, but all he managed was a soft grunt, but it was enough to get Gregor on his feet and coming over. He stopped just shy of the edge of the bed, raising his hand then stopping that, too. Ivan frowned, trying to get his thoughts in order.

Maybe he was contagious?

“You're going to be fine,” Gregor said, and it didn't sound like he was trying to convince himself as well. Ivan made an agreeable hum, and that seemed to the cue Gregor needed to relax. He put his hand on Ivan's arm and squeezed lightly. “I don't know if you're awake enough yet to hear the full explanation?”

Ivan considered it. He didn't really feel the tug of unconsciousness, wasn't fighting to keep his eyes open, so he nodded. He did mouth, “Water?”, and was grateful when Gregor reached towards the head of Ivan's bed and brought back a small bottle. He held it while Ivan took a swallow, then waited patiently as Ivan wondered if he needed more.

His stomach let him know that more was potentially going to lead to puking, so he shook his head, then waited as Gregor set the bottle aside. He looked down at Ivan, seeming to consider what he was going to say. Something was wrong, beyond the obvious that Ivan had passed out and was now in a hospital room. He'd been taking his meds on schedule so at least he knew he wasn't going to get scolded.

“One of your meds was tampered with,” Gregor said, which – what.

Ivan blinked at him. “What...” he managed to say, because he'd been caught in the line of fire before, mostly from being involved in Miles' escapades. But he'd only ever been collateral damage, or potential. Tampering with his meds meant Ivan was the target.

He was pretty sure he hadn't done anything.

Gregor took a deep breath, pushing his shoulders down like he was forcing himself to remain calm, which didn't make any more sense than the rest of it. “ImpSec is, of course, on it. Miles is in charge of the investigation; we should know soon enough what happened. They have copies of all your correspondence, but can you recall anyone threatening you, or making comments that could be considered suspicious?”

Ivan shook his head, because if he had, he would have told somebody. That didn't mean someone might not have said something that he didn't realise was a threat, but on Barrayar people were generally straight-forward about threatening to kill you. Well, would this be considered an assassination attempt? Probably they'd be more subtle about it, if so, in which case they wouldn't have given Ivan a head's-up.

Unless they were completely stupid, in which case Miles would find them by supper.

But there was no reason to assassinate him, as far as he knew.

“They checked all of your meds, and only the droscet was tampered with,” Gregor continued. “They've already made a new batch – ImpSec supervised so we can be certain it's clean.” He frowned, slightly, and Ivan just waited. “The chemist said that only 7 of the 82 tabs you had left were contaminated. The rest were fine.” Then Gregor shrugged. “What's unusual is that according to their analysis, your doctor said that even if you'd taken all seven of the contaminated ones consecutively, all it would have done was lower your blood pressure for several days – which is why you fainted. Dr. Reeves said it wasn't enough to seriously endanger you, unless you'd been driving at the time and the auto-pilot would have kicked in, if you had been. ImpSec says your flyer was not tampered with and the auto-pilot responded to tests perfectly, so if they'd been planning your death to look accidental...they must have had another plan.”

Gregor's expression was not one Ivan had ever seen before, and he'd sounded like he'd stumbled just a bit before speaking of Ivan's potential murder. He stared at Gregor, wondering how much of his confusion was because of just waking up in the hospital, and how much was due to that making no fucking sense.

Gregor nodded at the bewildered look on Ivan's face. “One theory is that it was meant as a trial run, to see if it was possible.”

“Wouldn't that just alert ImpSec?”

“Indeed,” Gregor agreed.

Because, in fact, it had. Who would think they could attack Ivan and not draw the attention of Imperial Security? Ivan might try to be a nobody, hiding in the shadows, but that didn't mean he wasn't technically still related to the Royal Family. Once upon a time he'd been third in line to the throne and thank all the powers that were for the births of all his nephews and nieces.

Not to mention his mother would be pissed and that was worse than alerting ImpSec.

And, Ivan realised, it had certainly drawn Miles' attention, and he felt no little relief that his cousin finally had something big and important to do to help balance the imaginary scales between them.

He should have thought of this himself and rigged up something. Although he didn't think he could have crafted a plot complicated enough to keep Miles' attention for more than half an hour, tops. Still, he could be grateful, and once they caught whomever had done this he could thank them.

“Miles said he would call in with an update in a couple of hours; they're at the pharmaceutical company that manufactures drospivirine cetronotine. It's the only one on Barrayar that does, which will narrow things down significantly.”

There was a soft ping from Gregor's tablet, and he looked at it immediately. He seemed to relax, though really Gregor never showed much of what he felt at all, in his expressions or tone of voice or posture. Except with his children, of course, and Ivan remembered feeling astounded the first time he'd seen Gregor laughing with his infant son.

“Your mother is--” The door opened and they both turned their heads to see. Lady Alys swept into the room, looking composed and had clearly taken the time to be perfectly dressed for visiting an ailing relative in the hospital. Ivan wondered if that was meant to throw anyone off their gameplan, or if it simply meant he wasn't really in any danger.

She walked up to the other side of Ivan's bed and reached down to clutch his hand.

“I didn't even do anything,” Ivan complained.

She gave him a look that said she didn't quite believe him. “Assuming this isn't because you slept with the wrong husband's wife,” she said, though she didn't sound angry, exactly, but more the same exasperation she always had when she talked to Ivan about settling down.

“Or the wrong wife's husband,” Ivan said cheerfully, then clamped his jaw shut and wondered if they'd put him on painkillers or something, that he could blame.

~ ~ ~

First thing the next morning he was, Ivan was resigned to note, not released to go home. He was released into the tender mercies of the Imperial Guard and the Emperor of Barrayar and All Associated Worlds, as well as his mother and the return of his medical staff. They kept telling him he was fine, there were no lingering effects of the tampered medication, and the doctor had said in so many words he was welcome to resume all normal activities and duties. And yet he was not going home, and he'd listened as the General had been informed that Ivan was on leave until further notice.

Which, fine, if there was still someone out there trying to kill him, Ivan didn't mind standing behind an Imperial Guard or two. But he felt this was a bit overkill – pun not intended, obviously. If he'd been holding Xav in his arms, it would have made perfect sense, but the escort gathered tightly around him made him wonder if there was something he wasn't being told. Gregor was taken back to the Palace in a separate vehicle, for everyone's safety, but once inside the first layer of the Palace grounds Gregor met up with him and walked with him to the residential wing.

Right up to the brown suite. Ivan wrinkled his nose. “Tell me they haven't renamed it, yet.” Sometimes when he was visiting his nephews, he ended up staying for a late meal with Gregor and Laisa, and they would end up taking glasses of wine into the sitting room outside their bedroom, sharing the best stories from Barrayaran history with Laisa. Ivan had recently begun teaching her poker, encouraging her to get his mother to help her as well, because Gregor actually enjoyed the game but refused to play against anyone of lower rank.

Which ruled out everyone on the planet except Laisa. (He could have played poker with Miles without worrying he was taking advantage somehow, but Miles was terrible at the game, to the point even Ivan felt bad about chivvying him into playing.)

But wine and poker lasted for hours sometimes, and by the time they would call it quits it would be late. Ivan would be invited to stay the night and join them for breakfast, and Ivan was suddenly thinking about just how often he'd slept in this room in the last several months.

The door opened and Danica, the maid, came out and curtseyed. “The Captain's room is ready,” she said, and Ivan gave Gregor a glare, to which Gregor only smiled.

“We're not calling it the Captain's room,” Ivan said, as he went inside. At least he hadn't started keeping clothes in here – except oh, shit, he was. He hadn't meant to, but he remembered not being able to find his shirt at home a couple weeks ago that he'd last had here. When he got up in the mornings there was always a set of clean clothes left by a servant, and his dirty ones from the day before mysteriously gone to be laundered, and he didn't always think to grab everything and... Ivan sighed.

“What would you prefer it be called?” Gregor asked, and the bastard was definitely laughing at him.

Ivan scowled. “Sabine's Suite is fine.” It was the original name, the one it was – supposed to be – officially called. The fact it had been changed in décor and function dozens of times since didn't matter. The maps of the Palace had this suite clearly labeled. Schoolchildren learned about Sabine, the Emperor's second daughter, who had opened the University and founded its schools of art and music.

Gregor was just smiling at him, like he knew a joke that Ivan didn't.

Before Ivan could come up with retort to that expression, they heard yelling from down the hall. Gregor grinned. “I think someone has found out you're here.”

Seconds later the door banged open, and Niklas sped in, pausing only long enough to determine where Ivan was, and launched himself at Ivan's legs. Ivan let him, bracing himself at the impact. Soon enough Niklas would be tall enough to bowl him over if he weren't careful.

Behind him was Laisa, with Xav in her arms. He was chewing on a small toy, which he dropped, then reached out for his Da. Gregor took him, and Ivan looked down at Niklas, picking him up as well when the boy lifted his arms up. Ivan saw Laisa smiling at them, and he tipped Niklas upside-down, making him shriek.

He lifted him upright again, then down again, and Niklas shrieked happily each time.

“You could do that outside,” Laisa said, faintly.

“The guards wear earplugs,” Ivan said, grinning. He had no idea if they did – probably not, though they certainly ought to. Regardless, they'd be used to this by now. Niklas had never been a quiet child, from the day he'd been born. Even asleep he moved around restlessly, making soft noises as he dreamt. Xav was much quieter, which was absolutely not a reason why Ivan claimed him as his favorite.

Ivan dangled Niklas by his leg, letting him shriek to his heart's content, before pulling him upright and letting his catch his breath before he started hiccuping and coughing. He found Gregor and Laisa both looking at him, with fond but very exhausted sort of expressions.

“You know you could have one of your own,” Laisa began.

“Don't need one of my own,” Ivan said. “I'm just going to steal one of these. Maybe both.”

He was pretty sure the ImpSec monitors hadn't just flagged him for a potential kidnapper. It wasn't like this was the first time he'd offered to steal the boys; ImpSec clearly didn't consider him a threat or they wouldn't keep letting him in.

Laisa and Gregor didn't look concerned in the slightest, probably because if Ivan did kidnap their kids, they'd just take advantage of the quiet to go to bed early.

Before anyone could say anything else, Gregor's wristcomm chimed. He juggled Xav into his other arm and looked at the readout. “It's Miles.” He went over to the desk and tapped the monitor and they all gathered around it.

Miles blinked, then gave them a wave.

“Should I leave you to it, then?” Laisa asked, already reaching for Xav.

“It's nothing gruesome,” Miles said, but nodded. “But--” Niklas yelled suddenly for Uncle Ivan to dangle him again. “Yeah,” Miles grinned. “That.”

Ivan tipped him one last time, smiling unrepentantly at Laisa as she took hold of her oldest – right side up to his supreme disappointment. She and a great many of the clustered guards left for the sound-proofed nursery, and Ivan and Gregor settled in to hear Miles' report.

“He has a good set of lungs,” Miles said, sounding not at all sympathetic. Like his own couldn't be just as loud. Gregor just sighed, and gave Ivan a brief, disapproving look that Ivan knew he didn't mean. Again, they wouldn't let him in if they didn't secretly like it.

“What have you found?” Gregor asked Miles.

“Turns out Ivan's not the only one who was affected. There are 5,206 people on the planet receiving droscet from Schmitt and Sons Pharmaceutical Manufacturing. Which, by the way, is being run by four of the original Schmitt's grand-daughters. I asked why they haven't changed the name; something about fitting it all onto the stationary letterhead.

“We've found fifteen individuals who were hospitalised and we're starting to get reports from people who weren't hospitalised, but who had less severe reactions. ImpSec is still checking in with each person who takes the medication, and while many people haven't had any reaction, we're testing the meds they have in their possession. So far about 12% of all tabs are contaminated, but the spread is almost random.”

“So it might not have been aimed at me?” Ivan asked.

“We don't know that,” Miles said. “We found the machine which was tampered with, and the way it's set up a few tabs out of each sheet were contaminated. They could have been hoping you'd end up with the bad medication, but in such a way as it might look like an accident in the manufacturing process. Also, whoever did it managed to stay off-camera, but we're checking everyone who had access. The two older sisters, Anna and Kaitlyn Schmitt, volunteered immediately to be fast-pentaed. We were able to clear them and they've been helping us wade through the employee files. The two younger cousins have both been on Komarr for the last month, trying to establish an expansion of their business. I'm still waiting for the local ImpSec to get back to me with their reports.”

Ivan frowned, and saw Gregor doing the same. Ivan wanted to ask half a dozen questions, the strangest of which was -- why do this at all if all it did was make a couple dozen people faint?

But Miles would have said, if he'd had any of those answers.

“Is there anything else?” Gregor asked, and it sounded like he'd just had the same mental conversation with himself as Ivan had.

Miles shook his head. “Right now we're just turning over rocks, seeing what crawls out.”

“You've been out hunting for bugs with Alex again,” Gregor said, smiling a little.

“I keep trying to get him interested in spaceships or horses. Plants, even, his mother would love that. Just something that doesn't crawl.

“Or you could get him a terrarium and he might not keep his bugs in his dresser drawer,” Ivan said. He'd heard all about Miles finding out his son was keeping bugs in his underwear drawer. And people thought he wanted kids of his own.

“We kept finding bugs in his room for weeks, even after the exterminator swore up and down he'd got rid of everything.”

“Yeah, because he was still bringing them inside,” Ivan pointed out, and was surprised to see Miles and Gregor both looking at him in astonishment. “This is why I'm the cool uncle,” he reminded them. “They tell me things like this.”

“And you encourage them,” Gregor said, dryly.

“Damn right,” Ivan agreed.

He made a mental note to get Alex a bug terrarium for the twins' birthday.

Miles was glaring at him, now, and Ivan just smiled cheerfully back at him. At least he was behaving normally, finally. That was worth getting Alex another bug book or five. Which – Ivan saw a tablet sitting on the desk, the one that was ostensively “for anyone” to use who was visiting, but he'd noticed it was coded with his logins. He opened up a program and did a quick search.

“What are you doing?” Miles asked, sounding faintly worried.

“Saw a book a few days ago, meant to buy it for your tiny scientist.” It was a picture book, possibly a bit young for Alex, but the pictures were huge blow-ups of native Barrarayan bugs, and the pages projected moving images of each bug growing from larval stage and doing things like eating and puking up wads of undigested plant matter.

Ivan,” Miles sighed, and when Ivan looked over – book ordered and sent directly to Ekaterin who would give the book to her son – he saw Miles rubbing his face. “I have been up all fucking night trying to figure out who was trying to kill you, and this is the thanks I get.”

“Thanks, Miles,” Ivan said breezily, and tapped the 'Would you like to add on this popular item' suggestion of a life-size model of a mudbank beetle, complete with glowing, pulsating abdomen and stinger-covered babies clinging to its back.

Miles gave Gregor a look. “Why aren't you stopping him?”

Gregor gave Ivan a look of Official Imperial Disapproval (marred only by the amusement in his eyes) and said, “Ivan, his birthday is in one month, shouldn't you wait until then?”

There was a noise from Miles which they both ignored. “I've got something else in mind for his birthday. Better than a boring old book.”

“I am going to bed,” Miles said flatly, and with a short wave, clicked off his screen.

Gregor waited a moment until the connection was definitely broken, then asked, “What are you getting him for his birthday?”

Ivan grinned. “A bug terrarium. A nice, big one.” At Gregor's raised eyebrow, Ivan added, “Ekaterin already said it was fine. I didn't want to get one if they were getting him one. His room's not big enough for two.”

Looking faintly worried, Gregor asked, “And what are you getting Helen?”

Ivan shrugged. “Miles thinks she's still too young for a sword, but she keeps begging me to get her one. Haven't decided. You know she refuses to use a toy one, but a real one will hurt her wrists. Would a dagger work, you think?”

Gregor sighed, sounding pained like they were talking about his kids.

Pretending to take pity on him, Ivan said, “It's all right, Gregor, I promise not to get Xav a pony until he's two.”

~ ~ ~

Ivan spent most of the rest of the morning on the floor of the nursery, alternating between helping Xav stack blocks (Ivan) and knocking them over (Xav), reading books about frogs, horses, and spaceships, and playing whack at the ball with Niklas who hadn't quite grasped that there were rules in sports, but was very delighted to hit a ball around with a stick.

By the time both boys were down for their naps, Ivan was feeling a bit like a nap himself, but instead he went to find Laisa in her office, just across the hall from the nursery.

“Am I interrupting?” Ivan asked when the guard let him in.

“You are, but please do!” Laisa waved him inside. “I'm just going over holding reports. Why is it that the more important something is, the more boring it is?”

“You know if an accounting report is exciting that means they're hiding something,” Ivan said.

Laisa sighed, slumping back in her chair. “I wouldn't mind a little excitement, if it weren't people's livelihoods.”

Ivan pulled a deck of cards out of his jacket pocket. “Major Vordelfio is off-duty, we can invite him in, maybe round up someone else and have a real poker game.”

Laisa's eyes had lit up in delight when she saw the deck; as Ivan finished his offer she was nodding, quickly. “Oh, can we have chips and beer and-- I don't think I want to smoke, but...?”

“Bar food,” Ivan said, decisively. “We need bar food.”

Laisa clapped her hands. “You know, I absolutely adore my husband and children, and I do really love my life here. But--” She sighed, a bit guiltily. “There are times when I miss just being able to go out and do shit.”

Ivan nodded sympathetically. “Gregor doesn't, because he's never lived a normal life. He's never been to a seedy bar on the backside of the planet where all anybody cares about is how much cash you have on you and how much you're willing to lose. And, er, whether you're willing to get completely naked.” He winked, and Laisa laughed.

“With crappy, disgusting alcohol that tastes like it was distilled through somebody's socks.” Laisa shook her head. “My parents rarely let me do anything like that; they thought I should stay safe and be the 'pretty and sophisticated' face of the family. Luckily, my aunts took me on a 'internship' for a year and we did all of those things.” She waved a hand. “It is a wonder I didn't get myself killed or kidnapped a few times, but it was definitely worth it.”

“I spent some time on Earth,” Ivan began, then he paused long enough to send a message to Vordelfio and another to Laisa's lady-in-waiting, to please bring up a poker table, chips, and placed an order to the kitchens for appropriate food. Then he told Laisa about his assignment on Earth, some of the very questionable places he went, and beds he woke up in, reveling in the freedom of not having his mother call him the next day to ask him what had he been thinking. He didn't go into detail about how Miles had ruined his fun – she'd heard that story before, pieces from him and he suspected she'd heard more from Gregor.

They ended up relocating to the secondary family room further down the hall, in order to have enough space. Lady Agata, one of the Majordomo's assistants, was there to oversee the procedure, directing the set-up and the discussion of which rules they'd be using. Ivan had been teaching Laisa both native Barrayaran poker, as well as one of the more common Galactic styles.

Laisa kept bouncing in her seat, which Ivan knew went unnoticed by nobody, which meant regular poker nights was going to become a Thing. Poker afternoons, at least, depending on whether they managed to rope Gregor in.

The snacks they brought in even looked like real bar food – Ivan wondered if the cooks were moonlighting, or if they'd sent someone scrambling for a take-out order. They'd drawn the curtains and dimmed the lights slightly, to add to the ambiance, and Vordelfio and Lieutenant Demopoulos had shed their duty jackets for casual wear, which meant they could freely partake in the beer Laisa had requested. Ivan found his own mug filled with the non-alcoholic ale he preferred, which reminded him yet again maybe the Palace staff knew him a little too well.

Then chips were divided evenly, everyone reminded it was a friendly game, with Lady Agata telling them all very seriously that there were no knives allowed and no flipping of tables. That made Vordelfio sigh sadly and Laisa ask if that meant she had to hand over her knife or just promise not to draw it.

Ivan was left trying to decide if she was serious, then he thought about what he knew of two or three small, innocent looking items his mother tended to carry, and didn't ask.

Then Demopolous, as the lowest ranking officer, had the first deal and they settled in to play.

~ ~ ~

Later at supper they made Gregor laugh, recounting the way Laisa had steadily lost, until they'd stopped and reshuffled the chips and started again. She'd lost several hands again, but so had Demopolous, who had eventually shoved his chips over to Laisa and took his seat over to sit at her shoulder and silently point out advice. Ivan and Vordelfio did gradually win all her chips, at which point Ivan beat the Major in three hands, making the man shake his head in resignation.

He'd explained to Laisa about how Ivan just did that, sat back and let you think you were winning then take your feet out from under you. Ivan had promised to teach her how to play the long game, reiterating that she really needed to invite his mother to play. As he thought it, Ivan sent a note to her just then, not caring if she scolded him for interrupting her (or his) supper.

Eventually Ivan made his way to the suite that was absolutely not his, and fell sound asleep.

He was woken when the bed shook ever so slightly. He left his eyes closed, wondering if he'd imagined it, then there was a tiny giggle. He lay still as someone small crawled onto his bed and made their way towards him.

At the last minute, Ivan opened his eyes and said “Boo” at Niklas, making the boy laugh delightedly, and pounce on him. Ivan caught him and poked him in the ribs where the shirt of his froggie pajamas was rucked up, eliciting more laughing. Leaning up, he placed his mouth on Niklas' check and blew hard, and was rewarded by a loud, happy shriek.

When Ivan leaned back, he gave Laisa a smile where she was standing in the doorway. “The whole Palace should be awake, now.” He glanced at his wristcomm and, oops, it was a little earlier than he thought. There might have actually been someone still asleep.

“They've both been up for half an hour,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Gregor and I thought why not share the joy?”

“Oh, thanks.” Ivan sat up, letting Niklas tumble to the bed and roll over. He rolled back, and Ivan poked him in the ribs again as he came close, and Niklas rolled away, kicking and laughing.

“Do you want to join us for breakfast?” Laisa asked, glancing towards her son, as though realising it was a very loaded question.

“Yes, yes, yes!” Niklas cried, bouncing on his knees.

“Are we going to have gruel?” Ivan asked him.

“NO!” Niklas yelled. “Cake!” He climbed to his feet and jumped on the bed. The mere idea of giving this child sugar for breakfast made Ivan want to run away to Kyril Island.

“We're having cake for breakfast?” Ivan asked thoughtfully. “Gruel cake?”

“No!” Niklas yelled again, jumping onto him and therefore screaming directly into his ear. Ivan hid his wince, though he thought maybe Laisa wasn't fooled.

Their wristcomms chimed and they both started a bit, then each looked down at their screens. Huh – Miles was here. Ivan slid out of bed, scooping Niklas into his arms.

“Looks like I have a meeting with your Da,” Ivan told him, making the boy pout. “I guess gruel cake will have to wait.” If Miles was here either he'd cracked the case and wanted to gloat in person – highly likely. Or he was stumped and wanted to interrogate Ivan for clues, which wasn't likely at all. It wouldn't help, either, since Ivan knew less about what had happened than anybody.

They managed to coax Niklas into returning to the nursery for a non-gruel, non-cake breakfast, with Ivan promising to visit as soon as his meeting was done. Then he headed for Gregor's private office, realising halfway there he was still in his pajamas and hadn't even grabbed a robe.

He really was getting too used to being here. Well, both of them could deal with his attire – it wasn't like his mother would be there. He did try to run his fingers through his hair, but figured he'd just point out he'd been abruptly awakened and hadn't had time to do anything, not even grab a cup of tea.

Major Vorhaus greeted him at the outer door to Gregor's office, accompanied him to the inner office, where Ivan stepped in to find Miles, Gregor, and his mother all sitting there already. His mother gave him a very expressionless look, which Ivan knew very well meant he was killing her with the state of his appearance, and he shrugged. “Niklas.”

Gregor nodded. “He was...in a fine state this morning.”

Lady Alys did not look appeased. Ivan sat down in a chair facing a tiny bit away from his mother so he wouldn't have to see her glaring at him, and focused on Miles instead. He didn't start right away, glancing at Gregor, who held up a finger. Ivan wondered what the hell, then the door opened again. A maid carried in a tray which she set down on the center table and proceeded to serve each of them tea. There was also a small plate of toast, jam, and hard-boiled eggs and a small bowl of cut fruit and selection of cheeses which was set in front of his mother. Ivan had half a mind to delay things even more by asking for some actual breakfast, but he didn't want his mother to actually reach over and throttle him.

Finally the maid left, and Ivan took a sip of his tea and found it was the same herbal blend he drank at home – no caffeine but a dark roasted flavor that made him not miss coffee quite so much. He also stole Miles' toast. Clearly there was no longer any emergency, so Ivan relaxed and stole the entire pot of gooseberry jam. After everyone had had a moment to eat a bit, Miles finally cleared his throat.

“So. The tampered medication was a result of industrial sabotage.”

“Fun,” Ivan said, because that meant he had had nothing to do with it.

Miles nodded. “Schmitt and Sons is a small pharmaceutical company, relatively speaking. One thing they have going for them is a patent for manufacturing two drugs which use a native Barrayaran plant. They recently decided to try branching out to Komarr to increase their distribution. Another company, Vordyne Pharmaceuticals, apparently considered this a threat to their profits and decided to try to discredit them, trying to make them lose their licensing for a year or, at the very least, sully their reputation so that no one on Komarr would consider working with them.”

“We have the agent in custody, as well as the owners of Vordyne,” Gregor said, giving both Ivan and Lady Alys a glance. Ivan was suddenly not sure why his mother was here, unless she'd simply invited herself in. He stole the hard-boiled egg that Gregor hadn't eaten and ignored the way his mother's eye twitched towards him.

Miles continued, “There's still some details to figure out – some of the Vordyne board members might not have been involved, but now it's just a matter of talking to everyone and seeing what they confess to, figure out who gets charged for what.” He rolled his eyes. “Davd Vordyne is claiming that since they hadn't really hurt anyone, they should get off with a fine.”

Gregor's expression made it clear that was not going to happen. There might be a fine, but somebody was going to jail, and potentially losing their business license for good.

“So, the Schmitt women are cleared?” Ivan asked.

Miles nodded. “Unless something ugly crawls out of the woodwork, like someone on the inside trying to set them up. Which – my instincts are telling me is not the case. Everyone I spoke to was genuinely upset at what had happened, and kept asking me if the patients taking their drugs were okay before I could even get around to asking questions.”

“So that's the end of it, hm?” Ivan thought it felt a bit anti-climatic, but then again he definitely didn't want it to get more exciting.

“It is, for Schmitt and Sons. They're cleared to resume operations,” Gregor said. “Determining the appropriate response for Vordyne will take a bit longer, but it seems to be fairly straight-forward.”

“Then it's just their bad luck I take that med,” Ivan wondered. “Otherwise, ImpSec wouldn't have got involved – would they have gotten away with it?”

Miles shook his head. “I can't reveal names, of course, but you weren't the only one with high security clearance to be affected. ImpSec had already begun looking into it, about an hour before you collapsed.”

That made Ivan feel a lot better. He hated thinking that justice had only gotten served through the fluke of him being who he was and having just the right kind of broken brain. It was good that Schmitt and Sons wasn't going to come out of this any worse, as well – and that thought gave Ivan an idea. He saw Gregor raise an eyebrow at him.

“So the reason Vordyne did this was because Schmitt and Sons are on Komarr trying to get some business contacts. Wouldn't it be unfortunate for them, if someone helped them do that?”

Gregor smiled, suddenly. “It would indeed. I imagine Laisa knows someone – Toscane Industries isn't involved in the pharmaceutical business, but I'm sure they know the right people and can make some introductions.”

“That's a lovely idea, Ivan,” his mother said, sounding very pleased and like she wasn't thinking of grabbing his ear and making him recite etiquette lessons. He risked giving her a glance, and yes, she was still going to scold him later. “Perhaps I'll discuss it with Laisa now,” she said, setting down her cup and standing, making all three of them leap to their feet. “I'm meeting her later anyhow, for a discussion of strategic logistics.”

Ivan saw Miles and Gregor blink in confusion, but Ivan grinned. “Her poker lessons, you mean. Perfect. She's getting good, but she's a little timid.”

His mother Looked at him, then said, “I have it under control, Ivan.” Which meant in a year or so, Laisa was going to be beating him at poker. Well, good for her, bad for him, maybe he'd take up table dice and teach that to Niklas.

Lady Alys took her leave, and Miles made to follow her. “Ivan, if you could stay a moment,” Gregor said, and Ivan sat back down, confused. Gregor waited until the door was closed, looked at Ivan for what felt like a very long time, then walked over to his desk. He reached behind it, did something, then came back and sat in the chair facing Ivan.

He'd turned off the monitoring devices, Ivan realised. He didn't know whether to be frightened, or just terrified.

Gregor shook his head. “I just...need to talk to you, Ivan. And I want you to feel free to respond however you wish.”

“Uh?” Ivan couldn't think of anything he had to say which couldn't be on record. Maybe Gregor thought he wanted some personal revenge? He'd got that, by handing the Schmitt women over to Laisa.

Gregor just watched him for a moment, and Ivan tried to keep himself calm, tried not to start thinking of every single thing he'd done or not done in the last...oh, thirty years. Give or take.

Then he realised Gregor looked nervous.

What was going on?

Finally Gregor sighed, and clasped his hands together, staring at them. “I honestly have no idea how to say this. Laisa and I have discussed it, and...I thought I had it all worked out in my head. Turns out it's a lot harder to actually say to you.”

Ivan could feel his heart starting to pound. Was his medalert on? Someone was going to come crashing into the room soon, if so. He didn't think it was on. He usually left it off when he was here, if only because he felt safer here than anywhere else. And if he needed help, there was always a guard a few feet away.

“Um. Could you...give me a topic, at least?” Ivan asked and he could hear his voice stuttering at nearly the same rate as his heart.

Gregor looked up sharply, and his face melted into an apology. “I'm sorry. I shouldn't have-- Laisa and I were wondering if you were interested in...joining us.”

Ivan froze. He blinked. He had no idea if his heart had actually stopped? Or.... “When you say-- what. What the hell, Gregor?” He was fairly certain his voice didn't squeak. It just sounded like that inside his head, right?

“I believe you're aware that you are one of Laisa's closest friends and confidants,” Gregor said, and Ivan nodded, because yes, she'd said as much, though they'd always been careful – more so at the beginning – to avoid being alone together in certain situations, for appearances' sake. Now – well, Niklas was a fine chaperone/deterrent and Laisa had stood in the doorway while Ivan had been in bed, right? No one thought anything...? If he and Laisa were doing anything, the Palace would either have announced it as a legitimate secondary relationship, or they wouldn't be stupid enough to carry on right there on Palace grounds.

But Gregor wasn't saying stay away from my wife. He was saying. Something.

Gregor was clearly still struggling with whatever it was he was trying to say, as he continued, “I...agree that having you around is...nicer, than not.”

Ivan frowned. “That's not much of an explanation.” Joining them wasn't the same as come hang out with us and teach Laisa how to gamble.

Gregor sighed and leaned back in his chair. He looked tired, suddenly, like he hadn't been sleeping any more than Miles had lately. Except all he'd had to do was wait for news, just like Ivan had been. But then Gregor looked over at him, and Ivan saw something new in his expression. He had no idea what it was.

“Having you here is...I practised this with Laisa, and I thought I had it all worked out. Turns out I'm not as brave as I thought I was.” But he visibly steeled himself and Ivan found himself tensing in response. “I like when you visit,” Gregor said. “I like you, as a friend and companion and when you're around everything is better. I relax when I'm with you, same as when I'm with Laisa. You make me laugh, and you--” Gregor tilted his head at Ivan, who was growing steadily more confused and alarmed. Gregor made himself relax, and said in a calm tone, “When you visit, you never have an underlying motivation. If you want something, you simply say so. If you don't, you never bring a matter up 'while you're here.' You're honest and straight-forward and I can trust you – not that I can't trust others, but you don't have any duplicity in you at all, Ivan. There are a handful of people I can say that about, even those who consider themselves to be on my side. On Our side.”

Ivan tried to absorb that, and reconcile it with the other part. “That's...not the same thing as 'we want you to join us'.”

But Gregor looked at him again, and, wow. He'd seen that look before, on Gregor's face, but only when he was looking at Laisa – or, once, a really rich cream cake when he'd been twelve.

“You're sitting there trying to tell me that you want me around more, I can... I get that, I guess, I mean--” Ivan forced himself to stop babbling. “That's not the same thing as join us because that implies you also want there to be kissing.”

Gregor kept looking at him and fuck.

Fuck.

“The exact nature of the relationship would depend on what you yourself want, Ivan. Whether you simply visit more frequently and...spend the night with us at times, or if you even are interested in...more.”

More. Fucking hell. Ivan knew what more meant. But – spend the night, which meant Gregor really was asking for something. Ivan frowned at him. “Have you ever even kissed a guy?”

Gregor nodded, which -- what. “I was much younger, and no, I won't tell you who. But I have had sex with another man. I know what it's like. I generally have found I prefer women, but mostly I think I prefer being with someone I care for.”

“You're saying you would actually want to kiss me,” Ivan repeated, feeling very doubtful. He wasn't concerned about an attraction between himself and either of them – he loved sex, pretty much with anyone willing. And it was easy to see how, if he'd met Laisa before she'd got involved with Gregor, that he would have wanted to court her.

Gregor was looking at him thoughtfully. “I think so.”

“You think--” Ivan was about to point out that wasn't the same thing as yes, but then – Gregor was moving forward. His intention very clear, and Ivan didn't try to move away because nearly ninety percent of the population of Barrayar agreed that Gregor was attractive.

When Gregor got close enough he stopped, and Ivan told himself fuck everything, if this was his only chance to know, he was taking it. He leaned forward and kissed Gregor. Or let Gregor kiss him, he wasn't really sure because he was kissing Gregor and his brain had ground to a complete halt.

When Gregor leaned back again, he nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I would.”

Ivan blinked at him. He took a deep breath, let it out, and tried to see if he could restart his brain. He tried breathing again, then – “I have to walk back to my room in my pajamas.

Gregor raised an eyebrow, then looked down, grinning as he saw Ivan's predicament. Ivan rubbed his face with his hands and tried to start thinking of...anything. Ice cubes. Accounting reports. No, crap, that made him think about Laisa.

Who apparently also wanted to kiss him.

Ivan felt himself starting to breathe harder. He reached over and grabbed Gregor's hand, gripping it tightly. He heard Gregor say his name, then he was being helped down to sit on the floor, and leaned sideways against Gregor's chest.

“In and out,” Gregor was saying, slowly, then a tablet appeared in front of him, a small blue circle on the screen. It was expanding and shrinking slowly, and Ivan recognised it as a breathing aide he used sometimes. It took a few tries before he could get into sync, then he watched it, back and forth, and breathed.

He could hear Gregor, whispering in his ear, slowly making out words. “Sorry, sorry love, just breathe, that's it, just breathe,” and Ivan did, just sat there and breathed.

At some point someone came into the room and crouched down, and Ivan was feeling like he might have some control over his body. He looked up and saw Major Vordelfio, who very often seemed to be around when Ivan was there.

“Are you ready to go back to your rooms, my lord?” he asked, and Ivan managed a nod.

He looked over at Gregor as he and Vordelfio helped Ivan to his feet. Gregor's expression was closed, the same professional look everyone saw from the Emperor. Ivan squeezed his arm. “I... yes? But...” He couldn't get his thoughts in order, but Gregor not looking like anything – thinking that he'd done this to Ivan, triggered a panic attack, made Ivan hurt for him. “Good shit triggers it, too, this isn't--”

There was a subtle relaxation to Gregor's expression, and he gave Ivan a nod. “We'll talk later,” he said in a soft voice, and Ivan wanted to tell him that if he intended on keeping any of this a secret, he couldn't sound like that when he spoke to him.

Then Vordelfio was getting him turned to the door, and Ivan got his feet moving, and he almost fell over as he realised what Vordelfio had called him.

So.

Maybe not a secret.

Ivan closed his eyes briefly, then let Vordelfio take him back to his room.

~ ~ ~

Ivan left the Palace, feeling a bit like he was sneaking out. But he felt better, he'd gotten a shot of his post-panic meds, and he'd collected himself enough to know what he wanted to do before he saw either Gregor or Laisa again. He'd placed a call from his room, so ImpSec would have a record of it and they could tell Gregor, make it clear he wasn't running away even if it felt and looked like he was.

He'd lain in bed in the brown suite for an hour, dozing and trying not to think of the implications of what Gregor had asked and what Ivan had said in reply. He wasn't panicking now, but he had realised that saying yes wasn't nearly as simple as it seemed.

He'd wanted to talk to someone, but most of the obvious choices weren't good ones. His mother would have an opinion on it and would try to talk him into agreeing with whatever she thought was best – whether that was ignore it and flee the planet, or marry them. He had no idea what she would want for him, but he didn't think he wanted to talk to her first.

Ivan honestly didn't know what he wanted, but he knew he needed to talk to someone, else he'd roll things around in his own head forever and never be able to come to a decision.

For obvious reason he didn't want to talk to Gregor or Laisa just yet. He knew they'd both just tell him to make whatever choice he wanted, but there were social and political concerns that Laisa simply wouldn't be aware of, and Gregor would refuse to say much of anything for fear of persuading Ivan into something he truly didn't want.

Since Ivan didn't know what he wanted, he didn't think that would help. Miles was out, if only because he didn't think Miles had any sense at all when it came to relationships. He'd lucked out with falling in love with Ekaterin, and Ivan did briefly consider talking to her.

But she'd grown up with Gregor as her Emperor, not her friend and relation, and Ivan had a feeling he needed a perspective that could focus on Gregor the person as well as the implications of having a relationship with the Emperor and Empress.

So he'd made a call and went home to his apartment, and tried to force himself to keep moving. At one point he'd had to scramble to his bathroom for another shot of his anxiety meds. When he was able to breathe normally, he headed for his refresher, needing a shower and clean clothes before he could deal with any of this.

Then he forced down a bottle of enhanced water, knowing he wouldn't keep down any food, and headed for his mother's flat.

His mother was still at the Palace – and who knew what she was being told. But Simon let him in, waved him inside to the kitchen where they sat. Ivan clung to the cup of tea he'd been handed and tried to get his thoughts in order.

He hadn't ever quite figured out what Simon really was to him. He'd come to terms with his mother and Simon being – not a thing, but a want-to-be-a-thing for decades, free only to do so in the last few years. But they hadn't married and no one had seriously suggested Ivan call him step-father. As a child, Simon had never been an Uncle to him like he had been called by Miles, so really he was just his mother's boyfriend, former Head of ImpSec and a man who'd watched him and Gregor grow up.

What he really was, was someone who would listen without judgement, without having a preference as to what Ivan did, and a solid idea of the actual (and imagined) problems Ivan was facing.

“So,” Simon said, regarding him calmly.

“Yeah.” Ivan nodded. He'd only told Simon he needed to talk to him, was he free now, could he come over. He'd sent a very short message to Gregor and Laisa saying I'll call, knowing that wasn't enough but all he could give. He took a deep breath, and launched into what was, in fact, a very short story.

Simon frowned at him slightly as he wrapped up. He'd left out the erection in his pajamas problem, but left in the panic attack, and admitted that yes, Gregor really had kissed him unless he'd hallucinated it – which was technically and medically possible.

“And Gregor said they wanted you to join them.” There was nothing in Simon's tone or expression that told Ivan anything. That was what he wanted, he reminded himself. A sounding board that didn't lead him, just listened. Poked him when he thought about running and hiding. “Did he specify the nature of the relationship they proposed?”

Ivan shook his head. “He said it was for me to decide. Whatever I want, as long as... well, if I wanted to run away to Ylla I suspect they'd be unhappy, but they'd let me. Neither of them is going to...trick me or bribe me, I wouldn't think.”

Simon shook his head. “No, they wouldn't. They'll abide by whatever decision you make. Though I might point out, it is not a decision you have to make immediately, nor one you can't...renegotiate, later.” He gave Ivan a steady look, and Ivan found himself relaxing at the reminder. He wasn't being asked to give his word, just...choose.

Ivan was struck by the image of what if his mother had married Simon, all those years ago. He'd be sitting here with the man who would have been his father. It was actually a nice thought. As long as one didn't focus on the 'Head of ImpSec' aspect of it. Ivan rather thought growing up like that would have been...interesting. He might have turned out a lot twitchier, he supposed.

“So do you know what you want?” Simon asked, sounding wonderfully indifferent to Ivan's answer.

“I...I keep trying to think about it and my head spins off in a million directions. I never wanted to be involved and this is about as involved as it is possible to be. If I married them, or even if I just was a Consort. Both, or either, it wouldn't really matter. I'd be right there, center stage, beside them.”

“And with turning them down being the choice at the opposite end of this spectrum, what would the middle ground be?”

Ivan shrugged. “Visiting, sometimes. Staying the night. The weekend, maybe. Just.. being an affair. Long-term affair. I don't know what you'd call it. The Imperial Boyfriend?” Ivan wrinkled his nose. That sounded worse.

Simon was grinning. “That would be an interesting title. I think, oh, 85 years ago was the last time the Imperium had a Emperor with a wife and two lovers. I don't...recall they ever had titles?” With a slight frown that Ivan recognised, Simon glanced down at his reader to check his memory, or lack thereof, against public records.

“No, they didn't have titles,” Ivan said easily. “And before that, Emperor Dmitr had a husband and wife, but they could never agree on seniority, much less on who had which title. At least I don't have any plans on inserting myself into the line of inheritance.”

“Any more than you already are,” Simon observed. “You shouldn't have children with Laisa until they've had at least two more, just for the sake of arguments of lineage.”

Ivan choked, and set his tea down to cough. Finally he was able to say, “I don't-- I don't need kids. Mama can dote on the ones they already have, I don't want to make any of my own.

“Mm,” was all Simon said, looking like he knew something Ivan didn't. Well, none of that mattered if Ivan couldn't figure out what he wanted to do about the first part of it.

“Can we please focus,” Ivan said, desperately.

“All right. So. The question is still – what do you want, Ivan. You don't want the throne, that's been clear since you were four years old and understood what a throne even was. You do, presumably, have some interest in a steady romantic relationship with Gregor and Laisa – both or just one?”

“Both,” Ivan admitted. “Definitely both.” His brain tried to show him what it might be like to have both together, and he frantically shoved those thoughts aside.

“So then what are the issues causing you problems? Political backlash? Attention from the media? Having to wear fancy dress?”

“Oh, don't even remind me. Dress uniforms are hard enough. They'd have to completely re-do mine, wouldn't they?” Ivan sighed, thinking about all the events he'd be expected to go to, if he had any sort of official relationship with them. If he was just the guy they invited over sometimes, he could more or less keep his same lifestyle – his apartment and his friends and his job--

Except, Ivan realised, no, he wouldn't. He'd have to be re-assigned, because no one would be able to risk upsetting the Emperor's boyfriend. Too many people would only work with him if they wanted something, and he'd have no recourse to get away from his fellow officers. And his apartment would have so much additional security, the Palace would probably buy the whole thing outright, or simply move him into a more convenient dwelling, like a house in the country.

Many of his friends would treat him the same, probably, but there would always be the ones who would see him as an opportunity. Exactly the sort of glad-handing he'd spent his life trying to avoid. Would he be allowed to wander freely, even, or would he have security guards trailing him everywhere? ImpSec would argue for just sticking him somewhere to keep him safe, regardless of what Ivan had to say about the matter.

He didn't want to be a kept man, hidden away in a house just let out for social events and night-time visits, which he could easily see that becoming. Which meant he needed one of the other choices, ones which involved moving into the Palace, becoming something more than just their occasional lover. That didn't sound so bad, not really. He'd spent enough time there lately that he had a good idea what his life would be like.

Whether he moved into their bedroom, or the Consort's bedroom right beside it, or kept his suite, were questions that by rights he needed to discuss with Gregor and Laisa.

Certainly living there would make spending time with Niklas and Xav easier, which was never a bad thing. Which meant the only real loss he was facing would be losing his job, which he could realistically only keep if he turned them down completely.

He looked up to find Simon watching him patiently.

“I think I'd need a decent job,” he said. “That's the only thing I think would...make me unhappy. Not having something worthwhile to do.”

“Not interested in being their Majesties' boytoy, eh?” Simon asked, and Ivan was grateful he'd left his tea alone.

“Not just,” Ivan said, and was glad when Simon just laughed.

“So, you've figured out what you want, then?”

Ivan nodded, and he felt relaxed, if still a bit shaky because he realised he was going to do this. “I have. I need to talk to them of course, but... I know what it is I want to ask for.”

“Good.” Simon reached over and took hold of Ivan's hand, squeezing briefly. “Good. I'm glad I could help.”

“You can call Mama as soon as I'm gone, since you were going to anyway. Tell her the gossip so she won't yell at me next time she sees me.”

“Oh, I will,” he said, smiling. “I'm going to write down every word you said as soon as you're gone, so I get it all exactly right.” He pulled his tablet towards him, and began typing even as Ivan sat there and watched.

Ivan just sighed, and saw himself out.

He ended up going home again, because despite everything he wasn't ready to just go tell them. He didn't know what, exactly, he was waiting for, but he needed to go home first, where no one could bother him or ask him hard questions.

He paced aimlessly for awhile, trying to tidy up a bit and not being able to focus on anything. Finally he laid down and stared at the ceiling until at some point he fell asleep.

When he woke, it was evening, and Ivan felt groggy and starving. He had half a dozen messages on his comm – none from Gregor or Laisa, granting him his space. But two from his mother and one from Miles and he stopped looking after that because he didn't want to know.

He fixed himself a light supper, sat at his empty table and ate, staring out the window. It wasn't much of a view, but he hadn't ever really cared about that. A city block that looked much like any other. Soon enough he wouldn't see this sort of thing at all, without making it an entire production.

He thought about Laisa being excited at having a poker game. He wondered what, if anything, he'd find himself missing.

He thought about Gregor kissing him. About Laisa, and sitting around after supper, telling stories and making each other laugh. He thought about how it had felt when Gregor had his hand on Ivan's arm, holding him close and safe when he'd had his panic attack.

Ivan put his dishes in the sink and headed out. By the time he got to the Palace it was late. He was met at the door, told everyone was asleep and did he need them to be notified. Ivan just shook his head, and let his (his) guards walk with him to the brown suite.

In the morning, he headed to the private family dining room where breakfast was being served, still in his pajamas – as Niklas and Laisa were, and Xav, who didn't much care what he was ever wearing and Gregor who insisted on being fully dressed regardless, just in case. Neither Gregor nor Laisa looked surprised to see him, just happy.

Niklas squealed when he walked in, and Ivan ended up with Niklas on his lap, handing porridge bowls and jam back and forth, and unsuccessfully trying to keep butter out of Niklas' hair. Gregor and Laisa laughed, but Gregor had Xav's milk down his shirt, a fact which neither Ivan nor Laisa pointed out to him.

As it turned out, breakfast was rather nice.