Actions

Work Header

Letters From A Volcano.

Work Text:

It was settled. Ivan was going off to Earth on embassy duty for a year, or however long it would take for him to make his decision.

Gregor hoped that the distance between them would help the both of them figure out what they both wanted. It was easy to fall into bed in Vorbarr Sultana, nearly too easy. They didn't have to confront the light of day and consequences. They didn't have to confront the messiness of what they were doing if they kept it to darkness.

But Gregor wanted more and he didn't know if Ivan did. Some distance would do them both some good. They could figure it out better apart from each other than near each other. Too near to each other and the justifications were all Gregor could see. Why not be together, why not sneak around, why not tell everyone. But what did they want? It wasn't right if Ivan got swept away in this by the force of Gregor's Imperial heft.

No, some time apart would solve it. It would crystallize what they wanted, without the easiness of touch. They would have only letters and their own thoughts. And if, when Ivan came back, he wanted to become Gregor's Consort, and Gregor wanted to be his husband, then they could do that. But if, when Ivan came back, he didn't, then they'd know for sure, wouldn't they? They'd know if they were a relationship made for the light of day, or only for the darkness of a bedroom.

~~~

Ivan stared at his tablet and the screen he'd just made blank again. He'd thought it would be easy, writing letters back to Gregor. Just talk about what he was doing, give him brief updates on whatever, and let him know when and if Ivan had figured anything out.

He didn't think anyone would expect him to have figured anything out this quickly, despite the fact he'd thought about nothing but, on his journey out to Earth. It made up for all the time he'd not thought about what he was doing, jumping into bed (or the shower, or the lounge in the sitting room) with Gregor. Sex was easy, sex was fun, and no one really looked askance at him for what he was up to.

But then a year ago the gentle questions had started, from his mother, from Gregor's advisors (well, which was mostly his mother.) Did they need to search for a spouse for His Majesty or had he found one in Ivan. Did they need to explore surrogacy options, or did His Majesty wish to find a wife.

Ivan had known the day would come when he'd have to give up the easy thing he had with Gregor, but he'd always assumed that Gregor would call things off and find a suitable person to actually marry.

Only Gregor had asked him if he wanted to be that person.

Ivan hadn't had a fucking clue.

He'd tried to give it some real thought, but every time he was with Gregor they just ended up having sex. If he thought about it on his own, he either got distracted by thinking about how good the sex was and did he really want to give that up versus did he really want to be the Emperor's husband.

It didn't help that everyone around him had their opinions, whether they meant to share them with Ivan or not. People talked about whether he'd make a good Consort or if he wasn't qualified, if this was an attempt by his mother to get the throne she hadn't been able to get for him some other way. (A ridiculous theory, but Ivan had heard it from several people, unprompted. As if he'd ever said he wanted the throne! He'd made it pretty clear he did not.)

What made it all worse was how everyone kept coming to him to share their theories and find out what he was going to do and offer him favors if he became Consort and remember how we've been such good pals of yours, Vorpatril.

He'd finally realized that he couldn't really tell what he wanted, because he was either being bombarded with everyone's opinions -- or if he was alone with Gregor he sort of forgot to think at all.

So Gregor had come up with this plan. Send Ivan to Earth for a year, an assignment that made perfect sense for a junior officer of his pedigree -- a plush assignment with no real work or consequence. And he'd be away from all the plotting and gossiping and Gregor and he'd be able to just reflect on what he wanted as his future.

If the journey here was any indication, he didn't have much hope he'd do more than just worry whether he would make the right decision.

He tried again to write his letter.

Gregor,

So I actually have no idea how to start this. This is my fifth time and I figure I'm going to delete it and start over, so I might as well just say whatever since you won't see it.

Earth is nice, actually. I've only been here a couple weeks, but I promised to send you a letter once every two weeks at the minimum. (I know you didn't ask for my word on it, but it kind of feels like I gave it anyway.) But Earth is completely unlike Barrayar and I wanted to tell you it's kind of weird. Nice, but weird.

For one thing obviously no one knows who I am. I go out and walk around London and no one even looks at me except for seeing a handsome face in a uniform. Regs say I can go out when I'm off-duty in casual clothes, but I didn't pack that much and haven't found a tailor yet, so all I have are my uniforms. Earth fashion seems to be a huge mix of all sorts of things and I'm not even sure what I'd wear. (reminder to self, attach those photos of the people wearing feather skirts)

It looks like I'll have plenty of free time, the work at the Embassy is pretty dull (no don't say that, say... Uh... straight-forward.) (Ivan remember to edit this or delete it and start over.) (What would Mama say if she knew you still made notes to yourself in your drafts.)

Anyway there's lots to do in the city, and Galeni says I'm free to go anywhere on-world that I want, if time allows, like for the weekend. Tons of tourist spots all over the planet. I think I want to see the volcano -- it's due to erupt next month. That sounds like fun. (No one will be shooting at me, it's got to be fun.) I have a folder full of brochures and I keep thinking how much you'd like to see some of this stuff. It's probably too far away to do an Imperial Tour unless you want to invade Earth.

(Note to self: remember to delete that or ImpSec will delete it for you.)

[ImpSec Notation from Agent Vortroussen: By Imperial Order we are not permitted to delete or alter any aspect of personal communication between Lieutenant Ivan Vorpatril and His Majesty Gregor Vorbarra.] [ImpSec Notation from Captain Vorlang: Comment deemed insufficient for evidence of engagement in or encouragement to undertake military or political action against the planetary government of Earth. Advise: Do Not Flag. (Aside to Vortroussen: have you no previous experience with Lieutenant Vorpatril?)]

Anyhow, Earth seems nice, I'm told the weather is generally stable so I won't have to worry about getting rain gear or snow gear until winter is scheduled to begin in a few months. I can't decide if I want to try skiing or not. You know me, I generally prefer activities where I can wear a swimsuit or nothing at all. But there's a girl at the lunch stand I went to yesterday who was talking about it and it sounded fun.

I can't decide if I want to tell you she was absolutely offering to take me back to her place, and I didn't go because it feels weird. I know that's why I'm here, to think about things and do all the shit I think I might regret not doing and find out what sort of future I want. And you said no consequences, whatever I chose while I'm here. But it feels weird.

I'm gonna end up deleting this and sending you one sentence saying the weather's fine wish you could visit, or something lame.

The beep of his alarm startled him, his hand banging against the tablet, and Ivan glanced at his wrist comm. He was due at his work station in five minutes -- a good thing he'd gotten dressed before sitting down with his tablet. He flung it onto his bed, checked his jacket over in the mirror, and left, striding as quickly as he could without running.

After his shift was over, he discovered he'd managed to hit 'send.'

~~~

Gregor made sure to set aside time to read Ivan's first letter from Earth. He didn't want to have any distractions; he wasn't sure which he was worried about the most: that Ivan had made up his mind already, or that he hadn't.

In a way, it would be easiest if Ivan was certain he didn't want to marry him, had made the decision easily -- come to his senses once he was away from Vorbarr Sultana -- and wrote home about it once he had a chance. It would give them both a year to let the emotions settle, to let Gregor have the chance to lick his wounds and then still welcome Ivan home with a smile on his face.

Gregor really hoped that wasn't what was in the letter. But... if Ivan was going to reject his suit, this would be the easiest time for both of them.

And if it was the other decision, that Ivan was sure he wanted to marry him, then they could spend the next year working out the planning. Ivan could come home to a betrothal and a wedding and avoid being able to be dragged into a room by his mother and forced to make decisions about seating arrangements. Ivan would get the easiest part of the wedding planning, able to ignore a letter or claim duty.

But it was probably none of those, and indeed, it wasn't. Gregor grinned to read Ivan's comments. He loved seeing this side of Ivan. Ivan kept a mask to the world no different than Gregor did, but Ivan's mask was intended to make him slide by unnoticed. But Gregor couldn't help but notice Ivan.

Jealously, Gregor wished he could read the drafts of the letter that Ivan had remembered to delete.

Gregor realized he was smiling at the glass doors out to the balcony, lost in memory of Ivan sitting next to him. He shook himself and then bent to his own reply.

Ivan,

The weather here is abominable and I won't say I wish you were here, because this winter is good for nothing except for escaping it to the coast. I expect to spend the next week there with some Ministers. Old Sturgal in Interior and Voressen in Agriculture are fighting about water again and I have to referee. We're going to have heavy spring floods at this rate. But you don't want to hear about this.

Do you want to hear how much I miss you? Or is that too much pressure?

Your mother sends her regards. She'll be sending you a package soon or may have already. I didn't realize how often a parent misses a child until I saw Aunt Alys the week after you left. I think she's going to adopt one of the junior secretaries as a replacement child. I walked in on her scolding Miss Vorvayne and it sounded like nothing more than when she tells you to straighten your sleeves, they're riding up again, do we need to send you back to the tailor.

It makes me wonder how my mother would have felt when I ran away

Since I can't come visit you on Earth, I'll just have to live vicariously through your experiences. I know you won't give me the sort of scares that Miles does, even if you do go visit an active volcano. Send photos, if you can. I don't know if you've ever seen Count Vorkalloner in a temper, but I imagine it would look like your volcano. I've always wondered what it would look like if he exploded.

His temper, that is.

I hope you enjoy Earth and your time there. The whole point of it was that the work wouldn't be too hard. We checked over your commanding officer very thoroughly; he's a good man and not political. This won't be like two years ago.

With my most sincerest affection,
Gregor Vorbarra

He attached his seal out of habit, but chose to keep it in. Ivan knew who he was writing to. That was the difficulty, after all.

~~~

Dear Gregor,

We need to have the terraformers make Barraryar a volcano.

I know it's all made up to look good for the tourists; they control everything and you have to watch from a safe distance, on the platform of a big tour bus. They serve drinks and appetizers and it's actually pretty nice - even my mother would have liked it, I think.

The volcano itself is supposed to be some recreation of a famous eruption way back in the time before they even had spaceflight and they had this prefabricated fake town all set up that you got to watch being destroyed. It was fantastic. Seriously, so much better than fireworks. You should ask for a volcanic eruption for your next birthday.

They even do this thing with the smoke, so you see it as it first happens and you can see everything would be completely covered, but then it vanishes so you can see all the lava and everything get destroyed. The guide was talking about how far the smoke would have been seen and how long it would have stuck around and I guess the people living then wouldn't have seen the sun for weeks. Sounds pretty scary, but of course this was back before they had all the climate control tech.

I've attached a file of the professional video they let you buy so tourists don't have to try to take vid while they're watching, but I did get some still pics, which I'm also sending. The volcano as well as some of the London stuff, the old castles and clock tower and the ravens. (Why don't we have ravens? I think Vorbarr Sultana needs prophetic ravens.)

There's a pic of the girl at the lunch counter, her name's Rakil and I told her to smile big for the Emperor of Barrayar and you can tell by her expression she doesn't have any idea what that meant. (Or she thought I was joking. I guess she does work right outside the Barrayaran Embassy -- oh crap I just realized she might be a spy for Skya IV, 'cause she has those weird brown eyes they're known for. Except a spy wouldn't have any obvious features of their planet, would they. I should ask Galeni, except he'd just make me work it out myself for practice, I think.)

Well, if I get kidnapped then you know where to look first, I guess.

Anyhow, kidnappings aside, there's also a pic of the ocean and some very annoying birds called gulls, which I highly do not recommend. Do not import these, I am begging you. (I don't think you were planning on it, but please mark it down someplace to not ever.)

I should wrap this up, I think, because the Ambassador wants us to all come to an Embassy dinner, something his wife put together to welcome everyone new and for 'bonding.' It's kind of nice, the Ambassador is pretty laid back and easy to talk to if you aren't a lowly Lieutenant trying to stay out of everyone's notice. He doesn't seem to have any clue about me being anything else, which is nice -- I don't know if you wanted to hear that.

Sorry.

I'm still thinking.

Ivan

[attached files]

~~~

Ivan,

I watched that volcano sixteen times. I haven't felt catharsis like that since the time I found my old journal under the pile of books on the back table in the library and flipped to a random page and found that, yes, I really have been complaining about Illyan's disappointed face since I was nine.

I think I'm going to watch it again.

I don't know if we can import that, but I'm going to try. Maybe that could be something we could do when you're back It'll be an improvement over fireworks. Maybe we could make a smaller version for my birthday. I could almost feel the heat in the video. A fully immersive experience.

I'm glad you're enjoying Earth. Please try not to get kidnapped.

I can't match your volcano, but here is the video from the implosion of the Leld Bridge over in Ethan's Grove. I was in the area on a garrison inspection and the mayor tripped over himself inviting me to watch. They've got some Escobarans in for the replacement bridge, it's about twice as wide. I expect my son may be invited to watch that one blown up for the sake of progress in fifty or so years.

The hockey season ended and the Vorbarr Sultana Scorpions were the last in the league. I would send you highlights, but there weren't any.

With utmost affection,
Gregor Vorbarra

~~~


She sent socks and underwear.

Ivan meant to sit down and write his letter that same evening, but somehow, while he'd been sitting at his work comm, going slowly and easily through the files, he'd realized what he'd done. Texted Gregor like he was a few miles away.

Which would have been fine, maybe just a reason to laugh at himself, except he'd never done that before. He'd never let himself just - send a note when he thought of something to say. They'd never been ones for having conversations, not even before they'd fallen into bed.

He didn't know if that was his fault or Gregor's, or some weird political and social combination of both. Who just texts the Emperor out of the blue for stupid reasons like your mother sent you socks and underwear like a 12 year old off to summer camp? Well, Ivan did, now.

He thought... maybe he kind of liked it.


Gregor,

I still can't believe you like hockey. I would tease you for liking such a bad team, but yeah, yeah, home team, you're obligated. I get it. I would much rather keep my season tickets to the Sultana Opera Company, thank you.

So I've gone back to see the volcano -- your bridge was excellent, by the way, don't think it wasn't. But they do the volcano once a month (it takes them that long to re-set everything, and I found the company that made it and a few names of their designers and engineers, you know, just in case you really do want a volcano and trust me you do.) They have a little card where you can get a stamp every time you see it erupt, and when you've got the full set of twelve you can show it at the Gift Shop for a free miniature model of the whole thing.

You can buy the model, too, which I will because I missed one already and I'm only going to be here for a year, so I can get eleven stamps but not the whole twelve. Antonio (Vorkontos, the Ambassador's junior assistant) went with me, turns out he used to go all the time but got tired of going by himself. I guess most people think it's a cheesy tourist thing, but you know us Barrayarans - we love anything that goes boom. So we went and we're gonna go next month and he said when I go back home he'll finish up my card and get the model and send it along afterwards.

Yeah, I could buy one, I might still, but it's the principle of the thing.

Ivan

P.S. Turns out Rakil is a spy, but everyone at the Embassy already knew that, but for some reason they didn't know that the boy who sells news flimsies at the same stand is also a spy? I asked Galeni and he said the kid's only 14 so of course he wasn't, so I told him he was and maybe someone should check? I guess they checked and he's actually a 91 year old spy hired out of Jackson's Hole. I told Galeni he's working for Ilyrica, because anytime he's selling flimsies and an Illyrica staff person comes over he always sells them the special edition which is not really subtle, but they're still trying to confirm that.

[File attached: volcanopunch.jpgx]

A few days later, another letter arrived.


Gregor,

It turns out Embassy Row is full of spies. Maybe you already knew that, but it wasn't in my briefing. There's some like Rakil, who are just starting their training (although if everyone knows they're spies, how are they supposed to learn how to be real spies?) Apparently after she's trained here for awhile she'll get a new face and go someplace else to do real spy work. Hopefully they also give her more training. She's very earnest and dedicated, but not very good at subtle.

Then there's the regular spies like everyone's version of ImpSec who everyone knows are gathering intel, and again how are they supposed to get anything good if everyone knows who they are?

Then each Embassy has what are the actual professionals, the ones who are supposed to be actually undercover. There's seven of them here in Embassy Row, and they all know one another but no one else seems to know they're the real spies. I ran into one at the Riga party three weeks ago and we talked about hair styles and ball gowns, and then three days later I'd met all of them -- oh hang on, does this mean they think I'm Barrayar's real spy? I'm not, but why would they think -- maybe it's because they are all so bad at their jobs that I noticed them and they think only an actual spy could do that.

I'm not, I don't-- actually I guess I am reporting to a pretty high authority about what's going on, except nothing is going on. (I am not complaining!) Everyone thinks there's something weird going on at the Escobar Embassy and at least two of the other Embassies think they're planning an invasion, but it's actually just that the Ambassador is ready to get a new body mod. They've been female for a while and they're ready to just be neutral again. (It's a shame, they have really nice tits, but I did find out who their tailor is and she's really amazing so I know where to get the rest of my clothes done.)

I'm pretty sure Cetaganda has that figured out as well, their Real Spy is actually pretty good, the only reason I'm sure it's him is because you know how I keep going to see the volcano? Last week all the Real Spies were all there, very casually pretending not to recognize each other, to see if they could figure out who my drop is or something. (I suppose you are my drop, but if I do ever find out anything interesting the agents who are reading my mail can take credit for it.) (*waves* Hi, Tómas!)

[ImpSec Agent Vortroussen: Sir I swear I didn't introduce myself.] [ImpSec Notation, Captain Vorlang: Note to schedule re-assignment of Agent Vortroussen. I will take over monitoring duties of personal communication for Lieutenant Vorpatril.]

I'm thinking of feeding Rakil some information to see if someone can't actually train her correctly, instead of making her think she's being a spy when really she's not getting anything you can't read in the gossip columns. Why waste good talent by pretending to train them in a place like this?

Ivan

~~~


ImpSec just pulled me into their office to ask me for the names of the so-called "Real Spies." They said they just wanted 'to confirm'. It's not my job, Gregor, tell your people to figure it out themselves. Do we not have a Real Spy here? Why would we, nothing happens on Earth.

~~~


Ivan,

I would ask you, as your Emperor, to not improve the spying capabilities of Our adversaries, but on the other hand, bad spying is even worse than good spying in many ways, so you'd be doing us a favor in the long term. But if you're going to pass along information, can you at least coordinate that with Galeni? That's part of his job.

We have spies everywhere, you know that. If you want a challenge, you can try to ferret out any details from ImpSec on Earth, but if you get too good at it, Illyan will want you for his department. I thought you specifically didn't want to be ImpSec? Something about the necessary sneakiness?

Your "real spies" aren't the first one to mistake you for one of their number. A couple years back, the Cetagandan ambassador bent my ear about your trip there and said that the two spies I sent had been worth the risk I took on them. That includes you, Ivan. Of course, I knew nothing about it.

Even Miles wasn't really there as a spy, but why argue with a Cetagandan Order Of Merit?

But if you're bored and you want new friends to play with, you might want to wander over to the Fashion District and stop in to see a friend of your mother's. I think she has some children around our age who do her deliveries.

Do me a favor. Next time you go to a volcano, slip something into a waste bin and see who gets to it first. My money's on the Polians.

Gregor Vorbarra

Ivan,

I'm sorry for the brevity, twenty things suddenly happened and I'd rather have sent you a short letter than no letter at all. I don't want you to think I'd forgotten you. I don't need to see you or your letters to be thinking about you all the time.

Do you remember that tree in my garden? You used to climb it whenever you'd come over. It got hit by lightning last night and today the gardeners are looking it over. It may need to come down. If it does, I'll keep the wood for you. Let me know if you'd like me to have it fashioned into anything in particular.

The Cetagandans are being very annoying. You have my permission to trip their spy next time you run into him on the street.

Gregor Vorbarra

Ivan,

You didn't fall asleep at the symphony tonight to Vorness's Twelfth, because you weren't here for me to drag you to it, and so in sympathy, I fell asleep instead. No one woke me until intermission, when I felt Cordelia nudge me carefully. I was dreaming of you.

I'm headed to the South Continent tomorrow. There was a training accident on the Black Escarpment and three cadets were seriously injured. All I remember from training there was ImpSec invisible around me the entire time to make sure I didn't stub my toe. I felt like a fraud. I expect to do so tomorrow as well. How can I stand there when I, alone of all Emperors, never did a damn thing to earn my name. The one time I stumbled into a war, no one wanted me there but me. If Miles could have wrapped me in packaging and had his father ship me back to Barrayar in a secure pouch, he'd have done it.

I send all of you out there and all I can do is the highest-levels, the ones where my hands are only dirty if I want them to be. Tomorrow I'm going to look at a place where so many cadets learned not to die, and all I learned was that no one will let me die.

Where I stand now is a place of coddled nightmares and I can't sleep.

Be well, Ivan. I hope you come home to me but I'll understand if you won't.

Gregor Vorbarra.

The night was still dark, dawn hours away. Gregor added his seal and sent the letter off. It wasn't anything he could have said to Ivan when he was here, but he should have. If Ivan was going to marry him, he should know who he'd be marrying. Absence made secrets easier to let out; he didn't need to find the right time or risk losing his courage. He could let the timing find him, and let the letter find Ivan when he had time to read it.

~~~


Gregor,

I do not want to work for Illyan. I don't want to be a spy - is it my fault that when I thought Mama was teaching me how to be polite to people at parties she was really teaching me how to be a spy?

I took your advice and met Suzanna. She and her wife have a baby girl and they'd never been to see the volcano. So last weekend, Antonio and I took them all to see it, and we had a really good time. Suzanna kept asking me questions and -- well two of the Real Spies had followed us and I didn't want to let them know I was there to try to decide if I wanted to marry the Emperor of Barrayar. So I made up a story about wanting to marry a prole girl that my mother didn't approve of and she'd arranged to send me off to "think about it." But it's likely Suzanna will say something to her mother, who will say something to my mother, so if you could just give her a head's up.

This is why I don't want to be a spy. Why would anyone want to juggle all this nonsense? It's so much easier to just tell the truth or say nothing, than keep track of who you told what lie to. But even I can figure out it's maybe not a good idea to dangle the Emperor's boyfriend in front of a Cetagandan spy.

I did take a map of the volcano and its little town, which is closed to the public, and drew a few dots on it and a quick cypher about a red box. I left it in the trash and we can see who picks it up.

Ivan

Two days later, Ivan sat in his bunk. He hadn't slept at all -- as soon as he'd received Gregor's last letter he'd frozen. But surely -- surely if it had been some sort of... warning or message or warning that Gregor was going to do something stupid, ImpSec would have already done something about it. They were reading all the mail, in both directions, and well before Ivan would have ever gotten this letter, they would have stopped him.

And if not, someone would have told him. They wouldn't just forward his letter then say, later, we're sorry to inform you.

Ivan had had to sit down and breathe slowly and deeply for some time before he could read the rest of the letter. Even if it was just what it sounded like… Gregor was probably talking to someone about it, wasn't he?

Well. Ivan realized that he was.

If he married Gregor, this was the person he would be marrying. Not just Gregor, the laid-back, fun in bed man where Ivan always knew where he stood. Not just Gregor, the Emperor who was responsible for an entire empire. Gregor, the man who'd grown up with losing his parents and living through a war and not coming out of it completely unmarked.

Ivan rubbed his face and looked at the letter again. He knew he wasn't going to be sleeping tonight, it was already just a few hours before his morning alarm would go off. He could, if he needed to, set the letter aside and answer it later.

But it wouldn't mean he'd get any sleep.


Gregor,

I've been trying to answer your last letter for awhile now and I can't think of what I should say. I want to tell you you can't die but that's exactly what you said you don't want to hear.

But I don't want you to die. Not because you're the Emperor and you're the best one we've had in a long time. I don't care if you're the Emperor -- if you wanted to abdicate and go be a fisherman or a crappy hockey player, that'd be fine with me and I'd go with you.

I guess that's one of my answers, then. But that wasn't the only question.

If you wanted to abdicate and go play hockey, I would go with you. (I can't promise I would watch your games, to be perfectly honest.) But I would go with you and I don't want you to die, because I love you.

(Do not ask me how long I sat here staring at the screen before I got the nerve to write that.)

But I do and that's half the answer, but the rest of the question is still something I can't answer yet. Do I want to be the Emperor's Consort? I have no idea.

When I was a cadet, there were still some of the upperclassmen around who'd been there while you were. Not your year, a year or two back, but they'd been there. And all I ever heard was how proud they were to have been there. No one seemed to think you were faking anything and no one ever talked about how you were cheating the system because your guards were there to keep you healthy and safe.

Most of them seemed to think that they would be the ones to jump on the fake grenades before your guards could ever get to them.

But mostly, they thought it was pretty awesome that you wanted to see how it really was, that you wanted to see how they lived and worked and they felt like -- Cadet Vormastersen was talking to a brunch of us newbies, telling us what we had to strive for, you know? He said that we were lucky to have an Emperor who wanted to know them, even a little, because then they knew that you wouldn't be wasting their lives. If you gave them an order, they knew that you understood what you were telling them to do.

I always thought you knew that, but maybe you didn't.

People don't really care about whether you won wars or not. I know the old Vor set talk about nothing but, but that's because they had so many they don't have much else to talk about. But people like you because you care about everyone and you try to make good laws that help people. No one wants another war, and people feel safe with you as Emperor.

You're not a fraud and you're a good person and you're not allowed to die before you're ninety.

I'm really glad my work is stupid easy, because I don't think I'm going to get any sleep at all.

Love,
Ivan

~~~


Ivan,

People have lied to me my whole life, but I know you aren't. It's easier to hear it from you. I can believe you when I've never believed anyone else. And how could I? They were telling me what I wanted desperately to hear: that I wasn't in the way, that I wasn't play-acting the uniform, that I really was the Emperor and not a placeholder for Aral Vorkosigan.

I'm beginning to believe it now, but it's still very hard. I think Miles wants to shake me sometimes. I think I've been waiting for Barrayar to kill me since I was five. I'm slowly coming to understand that it probably won't. But I know what my grandfather did to deserve being Emperor. I even know what Yuri did, and look what they did to him when they'd had enough of his madness.

Every time I walk into Vorhartung, the Counts want me to know that they'll do it to me, too. And yet, they're like those cadets. They did rush to be between me and danger. I don't know how to square that circle. All I know is that it may one day be my skull, or my son's skull, that they display.

I love you. But that's your other half of the question: what if it's your son they kill, too?

What if he deserves it?

I did have a chance to stop being Emperor, you know. I could have slipped away from Miles. I could have kept running. I chose to come back. And that was my answer to the question I used to wish someone would ask me. I wished someone would say, Gregor Vorbarra, do you want to be Emperor. I wished I had a chance to even seriously consider what my answer could be. It might have been yes, it might have been no. And then I had an answer: having been the Emperor, would I keep being the Emperor? Would I accept my Vor duty and continue, even knowing what it might do to me? What I might become?

And that's why even though I want to rush you, even though I long to know an answer, that's why I can't rush you on this. If you need more than a year, you have it. Because I know it isn't simple and isn't meant to be.

Sleep well, Ivan.

Gregor.

~~~

Ivan wanted to answer the letter immediately. He knew exactly what he wanted to say, even how to best say it, but he made himself stop. He went to his duty station each day and went through long, slow, boring reports. He had lunch from Rakil's stand, listened to her talk about her trip to the Brazilian coast. He walked around Embassy Row and barely noticed if the spies were out and about.

He visited Suzanna again, listened to her stories about her daughter and looked obligingly at pictures and tried to make himself think what if it were my son. He couldn't think, couldn't think beyond forcing himself not to react -- over-react -- to Gregor's words.

Accepting a job was a much bigger deal, in this case, than just accepting a person's marriage proposal. If a marriage didn't work out, you got yourself a lover or five, or built separate houses in different parts of the city and tried to be polite to your husband when he came to call.

He made himself wait. Days went by, a week. He made himself send a few texts, mostly just so Gregor would know he wasn't dead in a ditch or run afoul of pissed off Polians.


The Cetagandans got the map of the volcano I left; two of their "cleaning staff" got booted off the planet for sneaking into the town.


The Queen of York made a pass at me. Also, the Queen of York is an old lady who was an actress for a hundred years and her nurses let her sit in the park to feed birds. Her offer was pretty good, so there's your competition.


I would come to your hockey games, you know. I'd bring a book, but I'd be there for every one.

Finally, nearly two weeks later, Ivan made himself sit down. If he was still panicking, well, then he wasn't likely to stop. If he was over-reacting, he'd given himself plenty of time to calm down. He'd seen Miles over-reacting plenty of times so he felt confident that he could recognize it in himself.

He opened a new blank screen, and stared at it for a while.


Gregor,

If you needed to not be Emperor anymore, I would do it for you.

Love, Ivan

~~~

"If I needed to not be Emperor anymore," Gregor repeated to himself. Out of the corner, he saw Armsman Jardin move forward to be better placed in case Gregor was about to call for him. Gregor waved him back. He didn't need anything right now.

He didn't know if this was an answer or if it was an answer to a question he hadn't intended to ask. He was not going to ask Ivan to be Emperor in his stead, if Gregor could even get away with abdicating. And he wasn't going to ask Ivan to help secret him away in the dead of night and then live out in the country together, Gregor as a terrible hockey player and Ivan as his husband who didn't much like hockey.

Gregor thought about the letter through the rest of the day, through his judo session with some of his younger guards, where he lost more than he won. He thought about it as he wandered through the garden and read briefing books in a small gazebo by the lake, lit gently by the lanterns and the moon.

"While I am Emperor, would you do it for me too?" Gregor wrote and then erased it.

Ivan,

But would you marry me?

He sent it unsigned.

~~~

Ivan spent the time after he sent his last letter doing everything he could to, well, not think about it. One small part of him wanted to reach out and snatch it back; another wanted to send a second letter saying not really, it's the thought that counts.

He knew part of it was the way he'd been raised -- Vor, who was always ready and willing to do whatever was required of him. Did the Emperor need something? It was Ivan's to give. But when he'd sent the letter he'd realized that what he'd meant was something more than that.

Obviously if his Emperor asked something of him, Ivan would give it. But Gregor tried so hard not to be Emperor at him, especially once they'd started sleeping together. He'd tried so hard to make it utterly clear that he was never giving orders or making Imperial Suggestions, or doing anything other than accepting whatever Ivan chose to give and asking for only what any man might ask.

Since he'd got Gregor's last letter his nerves had been yelling at him to pack up and go back to Barrayar because his Emperor needed him. Except he'd realized -- his Emperor did not need him.

Gregor needed him. And he owed it to Gregor to not react to this as if it were only his Emperor who was asking.

When he received Gregor's letter, Ivan found it easy to answer.


Gregor,

Yes.

(I am going to wait a week and see the volcano one more time. Then I will come home.)

Ivan

P.S. The Cetagandan Embassy sent our Ambassador a very politely-worded nasty note, something about underhanded trickery, blah blah whatever. I am assuming that me leaving a fake map isn't going to lead to intergalactic repercussions but just in case I would like to point out that you encouraged me, kind of, to do it. But maybe you could offer to send Miles back to "smooth things over" and they'll take that as a threat.

P.P.S. Antonio just brought me a pastry called a peach and pecan fritter and I am bringing twelve boxes of these things home with me. Actually I may not come home, these things are amazing. Why did no one tell me about these when I first got here.

~~~

Gregor couldn't stop smiling for hours after he read Ivan's letter. It was one thing to know that Ivan hadn't ruled out marrying him; it was another to know that Ivan would marry him. He couldn't remember ever being this happy, with nothing bearing down on him. Even the arrival of Count Vorlakial to petition him about ignoring his nephew's latest escapade didn't ruin Gregor's mood.

Ivan said yes. Ivan would marry him.

And Ivan planned to come home. Gregor sent off a note to the ambassador and Ivan's chain of command. Gregor didn't want to officially yank Ivan back to Barrayar before Ivan was ready to come home -- having seen the video alone, Gregor wasn't going to prevent Ivan from experiencing one last Earth volcano in person -- but he also had to give Ivan a path to come back to him.

But Ivan would come back to him. Ivan was going to come back to him and marry him. Gregor's cheeks hurt from smiling. He lost track of how often he relaxed his muscles and then found himself grinning again.

He was getting married.

Ivan,

If you think they can stand the jumpship, bring back one for me, too.

Do you want me to tell your mother for you that you've accepted me? Or do you want to do it yourself? I think she might suspect something, but I can push her off until you get back.

Enjoy the volcano. And the Cetagandans deserved it for falling for your bait.

With all my love,
Gregor Vorbarra.

~~~

The next day Ivan woke up, walked out of his room -- intending to swing by Galeni's office to give him a head's up that Ivan was heading home early. He paused at the sight of two ImpSec guards standing very unobtrusively in the hallway.

They very unobtrusively accompanied him to Galeni's office, where Ivan let him know that his duty assignment was going to be ending -- he had no real idea when or how Gregor was going to get him recalled to Barrayar, but it seemed only prudent to let the man know.

Not as though Ivan's job was really urgent or necessary; he'd rather suspected they'd made up a position for him to keep him busy. He'd never told the man exactly why Ivan was here, or what the real purpose of him having some time away from home was, and honestly, his commanding officer wasn't really the first person Ivan wanted to say those words aloud to.

But Galeni just nodded, and Ivan left with his unobtrusive guards in tow, and wondered if he really needed to head to his duty station or if he could slough off for the day. Or the week.

How long was it going to take for him to get sent back?

Would it even matter, because if he did get a reprimand for not getting his work done, chances were pretty good it wouldn't get into his permanent record. Did he care because he was getting married.

To Gregor.

The Emperor.

Ivan realized he was walking for the front entrance to the Embassy and he kept going.

"Um, Lieutenant?" one of the ImpSec agents spoke as they got near the door and Ivan paused. Right, he was supposed to do stuff like clear his plans with them first, right?

"Marvel's Bakery," he told them. "I need more peach pecan pastries."

The agent, whose name Ivan didn't know because he'd never seen either of them before -- they were dressed like normal Earth citizens, undercover, and Ivan had no idea if they were even trained to protect the prospective Emperor's Consort? The agent spoke into his wristcomm, and Ivan waited patiently.

He took a long, slow breath. Emperor's Consort. Yeah, he needed a pastry and some coffee.

Finally the agent nodded, then looked apologetic and said, "If my lord would prefer we can have your order delivered."

Ivan opened his mouth to say it was fine, it was barely two blocks away and the walk would do him some good. Then he realized what the man had said. He was never going to be able to go anywhere outside of the palace by himself ever again without guards and permission. Because he'd agreed to get married. To Gregor.

Ivan found himself grinning. The ImpSec agent coughed, once, and looked distinctly uncomfortable in that way ImpSec usually trained out of its agents. Ivan was tempted to go out and do the Cetagandans some more mischief, but Gregor would really not like if Ivan got himself in actual trouble, here on Earth, before he could get safely married and -- more importantly -- be assigned some real Imperial Guards.

Because he was getting married. To Gregor.

"That's fine," Ivan told the poor man, who was beginning to look like maybe Ivan was grinning maniacally. "Order a case -- how many cases can I get onto a jumpship? Order that many, and get their recipe if you can."

The agent nodded, looking slightly disturbed but much more resolved now that he had an actual order to cope with and, Ivan suspected, was much relieved that Ivan let himself be herded back inside the Embassy under the watchful eye of the second agent.

Ivan headed back to his duty station and considered trying to get some work done, then he realized that he needed to write a few letters before his mother appeared out of thin air and strangled him.


Mama,

By the time you get this, you may have already been told, or figured it out. But I've accepted Gregor's proposal and I'm headed home. Please have everything planned before I get there. I leave everything in your capable hands as to the logistics and arrangement of it all, except please do not make us sit through an entire rendition of Markovich's Ode to the Flowers. If I have to stand for two hours before the wedding even happens I am going to elope.

If you ever get to Earth you have to go see the volcano.

Ivan


Miles,

I don't actually know where you are right now? But I'm sure ImpSec can get this to you. Anyhow, you ought to come home if you can in the next few months because apparently I'm getting married.

Also, Gregor is getting married at the same time, you'll never guess why, and I just realized we're going to have to argue over whose side you stand on.

Ivan


Gregor,

I sent my mother a note, so I imagine she will be descending upon you shortly. Home soon as I can.

Ivan

~~~

Gregor had never been happier to have Aunt Alys descend upon him. He was berated for waiting so long, he was berated for giving so little notice. Calendars were produced, schedules were consulted, and before Gregor knew it, he was agreeing to tentative dates. He sent the date off to Ivan immediately, but didn't expect much, if any, argument.

With the dates settled, an agenda began to grow and more dates were circled for when decisions absolutely had to be made. Gregor was whisked away to meet with the General Staff and came back to the Vorkosigans ambushing him in his sitting room.

Cordelia hugged him. Aral hesitated and then Gregor hugged him. He couldn't help it. He was getting married.

"Will you stand in place of my parents?" he asked them. He couldn't imagine anyone else being there for him. He wouldn't want anyone else there for him, if he couldn't have his mother.

Aral insisted on toasting his engagement after he agreed.

That night, Gregor wrote to Ivan.


Ivan,

I've seen less organization when we're wargaming invading Cetaganda. I should make your mother an admiral. She must have been planning this for a year already.

I've attached your mother's preliminary checklist. Can you let us know if there's anyone you want to invite for your side that isn't on the list of people we're going to have to invite anyway?

Gregor

Gregor put in the paperwork to have Illyan recall Miles home for the wedding and then went to sleep, still smiling. He was getting married.

~~~

One last volcanic eruption, then Ivan found himself being bundled onto a fast courier and whisked away from Earth. And 'bundled' it had been, he'd done nothing at all to pack his own things or carry a single bag, and the poor nameless ImpSec agent kept 'm'lording' him in the proper direction and not letting Ivan wander off for last minute souvenirs.

It was very tempting to try sending one of the agents herding him here and there to get some knick knacks, but Ivan restrained himself. He had bought out the volcano people's gift shop, practically, and had enjoyed making his last visit there escorted by two "work friends" in Barrayaran uniform and casually followed by two more undercover ImpSec agents in civilian attire. Three of the so-called Real Spies had also been in attendance at the eruption and Ivan left a napkin in his chair with a drawing of an Earth walrus on it. He'd asked Antonio to let him know the results.

Then off he'd gone, onto the fast courier, headed towards home.

Then they'd arrived at the Hegen Hub and Ivan found himself being bundled onto the Dauntless. Not one of their biggest cruisers, but a well-armed and extremely fast Barrayaran warship -- its official designation was as a diplomatic courier but Ivan didn't think anybody really thought it wasn't armed to the teeth. Barrayaran diplomacy so often involved shooting things, anyway.

He was also greeted by actual Imperial Guards, who introduced themselves and took up space at his shoulders and -- well.

Welcome to your life, Ivan.

The remainder of the trip was swift and boring, as Ivan mostly kept to his suite. He tried to write more letters, but everything came out as variations on "We're getting married" and "!!!" so he ended up sending none of them.

Then it was Komarr and the last jump and the station in Barrayar's airspace, and Ivan was on a shuttle with all of his luggage and cases of pastries and a slightly larger working model of a volcano, and six Imperial Guards, all of whom agreed they regretted not being on Earth with Ivan to see the thing in person.

The shuttle set down, and Ivan felt the familiar pull of Barrayaran gravity. It had nothing to do with why his knees were suddenly shaky, but it didn't matter because he was here. He waited patiently as Captain Voraddos exited, then gave him a nod, and Ivan disembarked. They walked down the short hallway to the waiting area.

He was not surprised to see the entire room was empty, save for one man.

Ivan broke into a grin.

Gregor's grin mirrored Ivan's own. "Welcome home," Gregor said.

Epilogue:

The Three Peaks Volcano, five hundred miles from Vorbarr Sultana, was set to erupt any day now. Ambassador Yono from Earth had toured it last month and proclaimed it made her homesick, the highest praise Gregor could think of.

They were going to set it off to celebrate the birth of the Crown Prince.

The wood from Ivan's favorite tree had been crafted into a rocking chair for the nursery. Everything was ready, except for the arrival of the baby himself.

Gregor gave the nursery one last nervous look, then turned to his husband. "Are we forgetting anything?" Gregor asked him.

"We forgot to elope and become fishermen," Ivan said. "Why am I wearing fancy dress for decanting a baby?" He tugged at the edge of his jacket. "I should be in pajamas. Make a new law before the next one, would you?"

"Close your eyes and think of the photos," Gregor said. "That's what I always do."

Ivan gave the incubator another look, tried not to look over at the family who were gathered -- close but not quite hovering, ostensibly to allow the new parents a semblance of privacy for the birth of their son. No cameras had been permitted inside by tradition, but soon enough they'd have to step outside and let the entire planet see their newest Prince.

There were a lot of things Ivan had gotten used to over the last two years, but the heavy scrutiny of the media was not really one of them. His mother was still berating him for deigning to step outside in a casual shirt and trousers with dirt on the leg -- a photo which had graced the planet's newscasts for nearly three weeks.

He reached over and gave his husband's hand a squeeze, and leaned in for a quick kiss. "You distract them. I'll grab Julian and make a run for it."

Gregor squeezed back. "Sounds like a plan."