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When Ivan was three years old, he bonded to Gregor.

No one really thought much of it – children bond to almost everyone they like, falling into bonds with family members, playmates, early schooling instructors. Miles bonded to two of his nurses when he was four (the ones who never gave him shots), and Gregor himself bonded to half of his guards, his foster parents, one of the tigers at the Zoo, and, what no one thought anything of, back to Ivan.

Most children fell into and out of bond as they grew up – preteens were infamous for bonding and breaking bonds every single week, often with the same friend over and over. Older teenagers bonded “for life this time, honest Mama” and again, no one put too much weight on it. Adults looked the other way as “forever bondmates” cuddled on the couch, then brought cookies and ice cream to soothe the pain of broken bonds, and life went on, children grew up.

When Ivan turned nineteen, ready for the academy, his childhood bonds had fallen to just Miles and Gregor, which nobody thought anything of. Family loyalty meant everything to the Vor – it was good, they said, that his cousins had him to rely on. Ivan went into the academy and came out older, not much wiser, and a lot more experienced with no mother to have to sneak home to.

The service wasn't much different, save for the freedom of living in his own bachelor apartment and having the whole entire world laid out for him. He had ladies and gents on his arm whenever he wanted, enjoying life to the fullest and only very occasionally (more or less) getting sternly worded notes from his mother on the comconsole the next morning.

He never bonded with anyone, despite some very obvious attempts to produce one. Ivan Vorpatril was a catch, and he knew it, but he wasn't terribly interested in settling down. Once or twice he might have sworn he was in love, but the bond never flared to life and eventually they went their separate ways, staying friends and sometimes lovers, but never more. Never that.

Ivan didn't really miss it. He ignored his mother's attempts to introduce him to nice young people – then nice slightly older people, suitable in age and stature and upbringing. He ignored when she sent him on “errands” to parts of the city or planet he'd never been, where he coincidentally met and spent some time with people from families he'd never crossed paths with before.

Alys ignored how whenever Miles called, Ivan dropped everything to help, because not even she could argue that Miles didn't need someone, and it never occurred to anyone to wonder why Ivan would do the same when Gregor – ever so rarely – did the same. Service to family, to the Emperor, was just as important as a bondmate, anyhow.

Then Miles met his bondmate, and the entire family rejoiced, if quietly and after a suitable length of time, given the messiness of the situation. Then Gregor met his and the entire Empire rejoiced, and everyone, it seemed, was happy.

And Ivan went on as before and for a good long while no one spoke to him about it. He was reaching the age when not meeting your bondmate meant there wasn't one to meet – missed chances or dying too young wasn't uncommon on their backwater planet, but it was still impolite to speak of such things out loud. Galactic notions of testing and databanks were slowly growing in popularity, but no one was surprised when the older folks refused.

It was rare when someone never had a bondmate to find, but no one honestly thought Ivan was that sort. Charming and friendly and easy-going, who wouldn't want a husband such as him? His mother got good at deflecting questions and subtle hints, and as time went on Ivan suffered through fewer and fewer matchmaking attempts.

Confirmed bachelor was his fate, they said, and the most sympathetic of the tongue-waggers said only it's a shame that whomever his bondmate was, they never was able to meet him.

Ivan served as his duty dictated, a double-twenty and half a dozen more, besides. A favorite uncle of his cousins' children, and he danced with whomever asked, and went home with them besides. And he went whenever Miles called, or Gregor, and did whatever was asked. (He did refuse to chaperone Miles' grandson to Beta Colony, because that child was a hellion and no one in their right mind would agree to be responsible for him. Miles had to do it himself and when he came back he apologised to his mother and his Emperor for everything he'd ever put them through.)

When Ivan was old, and very grey, and leaning on a cane that was more functional than ceremonial – no matter how cutting a figure he struck with it – he stood near the dais as they watched Gregor's granddaughter be coronated. Empress Ilana, head straight and tall as Count Vorhalas read out from a copy of an ancient scroll, her bondmate standing just beside and behind her, his hands clasped together and doing an admirable job of not tearing up. The Empire was entering its third generation of its Golden Age, with peace among their neighbors lasting now for nearly five decades.

Laisa and Gregor stood together, not bothering to hide their tears, clinging to one another's hands. They'd plans for retirement, Ivan knew, which involved a cottage and a lack of comconsoles and lots and lots of great-grandchildren's visits in between lots and lots of no visits at all.

Gregor tilted his head at Ivan, and Ivan gave him a smile.

It was a shame, they said, that Ivan never met his bondmate, never even knew who his beloved was.