Piece of Tin

Ivan found himself an empty room; one of the myriad of small offices-cum-libraries that peppered Vorkosigan House. He settled himself in a chair, pulled around to face the window, and held his glass carefully in one hand.

He'd have grabbed an entire bottle of wine had he dared, but it seemed everyone's eyes were on him no matter where he turned -- that just leaves you! and you're next, Ivan, so when will it be? Sighing, he closed his eyes and took a sip of the wine -- wouldn't do to get drunk here anyhow, not with a veritable parade of relatives all intent on celebrating Mark and Kareen's wedding.

He'd have thought they'd all be just so relieved it had finally happened that they'd forget all about him. But apparently not -- with all of Kareen's sisters married off, and Miles himself a father, dear God, it was left to him to be the sole focus of the gossips and well-meaning relatives.

Ivan took another sip of wine and wished he'd snagged a bottle regardless; he'd been more intent on making a quiet, unnoticed escape that he'd avoided the bar, snagging a single glass from one of the trays. It wasn't nearly enough. He sighed, not willing to risk going back for more, and sat, looking out the window through the slight haze of the shielding he could see the grass beyond, the sun shining down.

It should be raining, he found himself thinking, and gave a half-snort. Here on Barrayar it would suit his foul mood: a dismal, grey rain the likes of which fell only in late Autumn. But there had been a time -- a place, far away -- where a gentle spring rain was looked upon as good luck for new beginnings. Babies born on rainy days were considered touched by fortune; young couples arranged their outdoor weddings along the coastlines and in the famous Defraca Valley, known for its rainfall 290 days of the year.

Ivan spun his wine glass idly in his fingers. Perhaps he should simply go -- make some excuse or another, nevermind that everyone would accuse him later of fleeing. Did he care? The sharp ache in his chest was barely dulled by the wine; what he wanted was the confines of his own apartment and a bottle of something very much stronger than this.

"Hiding, Ivan?"

He started at the unexpected voice behind him; Ivan half spun in his chair, craning his neck to stare at the figure in the doorway. Not surprised to find himself discovered, but-- "What are you doing here?" he asked, then wondered if he shouldn't be using slightly more deference when speaking to the Emperor of Barrayar.

Gregor gave him a half-smile and walked into the room, door swinging closed behind him. Ivan could see the flash of a uniform in the hallway outside; brown and grey, not Imperial guards following Gregor's every footstep. Vorkosigan House was, Ivan recalled, considered more or less as safe as the palace. There were Imperial Guards littering the grounds, of course, but Gregor and Laisa had, as for Miles' wedding, come in attendance as family and friends, not royalty.

But Gregor didn't answer Ivan's question, instead glancing down at the half-drunk glass of wine and looking bemused. "It won't take them long to find you here."

Ivan just shook his head and turned back to face the window and the grounds beyond. He'd gained a short reprieve from his mother for a year or so, distracted by her...dear God, relationship with Simon Illyan. But each Koudelka wedding had reminded her, and for the last five weeks Ivan had heard nothing but a litany of names -- eligible, suitable women he might make the acquaintance of.

"You know," Gregor said, reasonably -- just like everyone else, when they were about to tell him about someone they knew, someone they were sure he'd love to meet. Gregor sounded distinctly amused, silent laughter in his voice as he said, "This would be so much easier if you just got married."

"I don't want to get remarried," Ivan snapped -- then froze. He felt his breath still, heart pound wildly in his chest and he opened his mouth, stammered, "Married," but he knew from the silence behind him it was too late. Not like Gregor to miss such a thing, after all. He heard a slight intake of breath and thought desperately, Please don't ask. Please, please, do not ask.

"Ivan--" he heard, and he tensed, told himself to turn and look his liege lord in the eye, at least, but couldn't bring himself to even breathe. His hands were trembling ever so slightly, the wine shaking in its glass. There was a pause, and Ivan forced himself to raise his head, turned half-way in the chair, but unable to raise his eyes past the second bookshelf of the set-in bookcase behind Gregor.

"What happened?" was the unexpected question, spoken in soft, demanding tones.

"Traffic accident," Ivan managed, seeing suddenly the man at the door, light grey uniform of the local police, genuine regret in his eyes as he said those words. I'm sorry to inform you.... He didn't remember much after that of the next several days, but that memory had become etched, clear and bright in his mind.

"How long ago?" came the next, still inexplicable question; not the ones Ivan feared most, but ones he found himself compelled to answer, fighting over the plea still sounding in his thoughts.

He opened his mouth and stopped, knowing that when he said, it would be a short leap to where, and who. He tried again to look up at Gregor, ask him to withdraw the question, ask him to turn and go and pretend he'd never found Ivan, never heard his slip.

"Vaguely, then," Gregor said, voice still soft, almost kindly, and frightening for how clearly he seemed to read Ivan's thoughts. "A few years? Several?"

Despite the gentleness, Ivan felt as though each answer was being wrung out from him. "Several," he whispered. The date came to him unbidden -- almost ten years exactly for his personal calendar. He'd never tried to match the two planets up and figure out what day it should be. But the knowledge of the anniversary hit him and he choked back a gasp, rubbed the palm of his hand viciously against his eye.

He felt a light touch of fingers on his arm, and looked up. Gregor gazed down at him, his eyes dark but his expression -- Ivan found himself able to breathe. "My sorrow for your loss," Gregor said softly, and Ivan jerked his head in a nod of acknowledgement. He breathed again as Gregor let his hand fall, thinking he might escape with just this. But there came a look of apology on Gregor's face and he said, "You need not answer, if you choose. But why is it no one knows?"

Ivan looked away, searching for and unable to find a way to say it. He gave a tiny, mute shake of his head.

"You are aware that if there are...difficulties, political ramifications for an elopement...you do have family that would protect you."

Bewildered, Ivan looked over, found Gregor just watching him -- it hit him that Gregor wondered if Ivan had wed some girl whose family hadn't approved. He just shook his head, finding himself taken aback as he heard the offer in those words -- protection, the political might of his family -- of the Emperor coming to play for his sake.

Now it was Gregor who looked confused, but to Ivan's relief he did not utter the questions Ivan knew he was thinking.

Ivan unbent from his fear -- terror -- long enough to give what gratitude he could. "Anyone I would tell, it would eventually get back...I couldn't even tell Miles," One of only two people on the entire planet who might not have cared who Ivan married, who might have simply be happy for Ivan's sake. "He would have told his mother, and she have told mine." Whatever his aunt's own opinions, open-minded enough to have simply been happy for him -- she would have felt the maternal bond over any right of Ivan's to keep his secrets.

Gregor said nothing; Ivan didn't know if that meant he'd figured out enough he didn't have to ask, or if he'd simply gained enough information that he was giving Ivan the rest of his privacy, out of pity. Ivan didn't try to say anything else, waited on Gregor to decide if the interrogation was truly over. His heart was still pounding; he truly, desperately wanted that whiskey now.

"If you leave by the side door, no one will miss you for some time," Gregor said. Ivan looked at him, again surprised and bewildered at the amount of Gregor's...concern. Gregor seemed to take no note of Ivan's confusion, saying only, "If you wish a few days' leave... I will call the General's office in the morning and arrange it."

Ivan nearly said it wasn't necessary -- then he realised, come morning if all went the way he hoped, he would have an amazing hangover. Staying in bed and avoiding the universe for a short time suddenly seemed like a wonderful idea.

He stood up, setting the forgotten glass of wine on the table, and found himself unable to meet Gregor's gaze. He nodded, dumbly, and moved to walk past Gregor and make his escape. Gregor stopped him with a hand on his arm.

"If you should wish to talk, Ivan -- and only if you wish it," he clarified, and Ivan knew there would be no more questions unless he offered. Gregor continued, "If you should require anything, please remember -- your family cares about you. No matter what you've done, or think you've done. But only if you wish it."

Ivan managed another short nod, and felt a stab of guilt -- that he should have told it all, spilled his secrets to Gregor, to everyone. But Gregor let him go, then, and Ivan bolted for the door, fleeing the house and its mass of relatives intent on celebrating the joyful union of two of its own.