"Nikki," his mother chided lightly. "Sit up straight. We're at the table."
Nikolai grimaced and shot her an irritated look, but obeyed. From his seat, Count Vorkosigan offered an encouraging smile and the shadow of a wink, missed by sterner maternal eyes. Nikolai didn't return either. Instead, he poked listlessly at his food with the tines of his fork, sliding it around on his plate without eating.
"Aren't you hungry?" Maternal eyes, unfortunately, missed little else, and the countess's expression was worried as she looked down at his plate. She leaned over to touch a cool hand to his forehead. Nikolai jerked away, dismayed.
"Ma! I'm fine. Just tired." He rubbed at the back of his neck, eying that hand warily.
Aral, completely unnecessarily, piped up with an appallingly cheerful, "Nikki's been up allll night dreaming of Aleeeeeeexis." Nikolai glowered at him and slouched again, dropping his eyes to his plate.
"I've been studying," he said to his fish.
"Nikki, we can't understand you if you don't speak clearly."
"You can't understand me when I do speak clearly!" he said, glaring up at his mother. "You just... don't understand anything." He pushed to his feet, knocking the carved chair over. It clattered loudly on the stone floor.
"Nikki!" His mother's tone was horrified, but Nikolai ignored her, wheeling to stalk out of the room. Count Vorkosigan's chair scraped, but he did not rise.
Nikolai had never liked failure. Count Vorkosigan, of course, said that whatever you put your mind to, you could do. But then, Count Vorkosigan was a genius. And a count. And, for that matter, a Vorkosigan. Nikolai was none of those things. He was just... a man.
Or a boy, he thought bitterly, flipping a data disk in his hand to skim the summary on the back again. Twenty years old, and still living with his mama and her meal ticket. This was going to be his way onward, upward. Outward. Away from the repressive history of Vorkosigan House and the bossy confidence of a ten-year-old heir apparent to the countship.
Not that Nikolai didn't love his brother. It was just... complicated. Everything was complicated.
Just like his damn pilot's exam. Too damn complicated for poor simple Nikolai. Aral got a genius Imperial Auditor for a dad. Nikolai got a corrupt petty mutie bureaucrat. And wasn't that the way this always shook out?
He slid the disk back into his comconsole and called up the pretest. The math was... indecipherable. He rubbed his nose.
A faint tap at the door distracted him before long. He looked up, wavering on the edge between irritated and grateful. He came down, obviously, at the point of petulant. "Go away," he told the knock.
"Nikolai, please open the door."
It was Tante Cordelia. Nikolai made a face at the door, but didn't reply. Maybe if he ignored her, she'd go away. He looked back at his comconsole.
"Nikolai." She wasn't leaving. Reluctantly, Nikolai stood and crossed to the door, unsealing the lock.
She did not immediately step inside when the door opened. Instead, she stood examining him. He drew his shoulders in, hunching moodily, and avoided her eyes. She didn't say anything. He waited awkwardly. Finally, he moved aside with an indistinct mumble of, "Yeahokay."
She stepped in through the door, folded her arms, and inspected him. "You are bleeding all over everyone," she said at last.
He didn't understand, so gave a half-hearted grunt and went back to sit in front of the comconsole. He tapped a few buttons, calling up a 5-space model which revolved slowly.
"What's wrong," she said. It wasn't really a question, but he glanced back at her. She'd seated herself on the edge of the bed. "Your mother is worried," she explained. "I have some sympathy for mothers who worry."
He shrugged. "Nothing." The silence hung for a moment. Her eyes were steady on him. He scratched at the back of his neck, then shrugged again. "I mean... well, nothing. I'm failing school, is all."
Her "Ah," was so quiet as to be nearly unvoiced. Nikolai looked back at his comconsole. The space between his shoulder blades itched, as if her gaze was a tangible thing resting there. "It's not like anyone here knows about that," he said at last.
"Failure?" Tante Cordelia asked quietly. "I think most people here know a great deal about that."
"Not this way." He picked up a stylus, twiddling it between his fingers and avoiding looking at her. "Not from just... not being good enough."
There was a brief silence, then. Finally, a sigh. "That feeling," she said, "is common to all people, I think."
"To you?" Nikolai snorted. "You were a survey captain, a countess, a vicereine. You've done...You can do whatever you want. Just like Count Vorkosigan. No wonder you both think anything's possible. You're... genetic freaks. Just... in the good way. Unlike me." He pulled back the tip of the stylus and released it to flip across the room.
Tante Cordelia paused again. "How are things with Alexis Vorenta?"
"She dumped me. Whatever."
The silence hung for a minute. "She has this... oh, whatever. It doesn't matter." It had been a disaster. Alexis had spun out this whole fairytale life for him and her. The Vorzohn's Dystrophy didn't have to change anything, not really, not in this day and age. But she'd wanted old-fashioned. She'd wanted perfect. And Nikolai Vorsoisson was demonstrably imperfect.
She had sobbed, accused him of lying to her. He had tried to explain, to apologize, to excuse, but she got more and more shrill, and finally stalked out. She hadn't returned his calls. Hadn't reacted to the flowers. Dead as his da, that relationship was.
"If you say so." Tante Cordelia's voice was gentle, but not pitying. That was something. He risked a glance back at her. She was smiling, just a little bit.
"That's not what this is about."
"I didn't think it was, entirely."
"It's just… I don't know if I can do this. I'm trying. But it feels like the work keeps getting harder, and... I'm not keeping up." He stood up and walked to the window, staring out at the street below. "If I'm going to fail... I don't know. If I was gonna fail, I wish I'd just done it at the start. Cleanly. This... have I wasted the last two years of my life?"
The springs creaked as she rose from the bed. He didn't look back. "Do you feel like they were wasted?"
He exhaled. "Yeah. Kind of." He paused. "I don't think Alexis wanted to marry a jump pilot, anyway."
"What did you want?"
Some people grow into their dreams, instead of out of them. Count Vorkosigan said that, back when he was still Lord Vorkosigan, and the funny little Lord Auditor instead of Nikolai's step-da. His eyes stung, but did not blur. He rubbed the inside corners of them. "Wanted to marry her. Whatever. Too late now."
"Nikolai." Her tone startled him, and he turned. Her expression had grown steely. "Stop that. You are still breathing. It is not too late for anything."
In spite of himself, he felt his back straighten at these words. She paused for a moment, waiting for them to sink in, and then repeated her question. "What do you want? It seems to me that you've been walking this path so long it's become the only road you know. Ask Miles, sometime, how those blinders can kill a man in pieces. Not that he hasn't been willing enough to help you build yours up."
The maternal exasperation in her voice was a relief, after the harder tone of a moment before.
"I... don't know. I want... to be something. I want to win."
Her face was wry. "Winning is a bit meaningless, if you don't know the game."
It was a fair observation. Nikolai sighed and leaned against the wall. Tante Cordelia waited for him.
"I don't know if this is… who I am," he said at last. "I mean... there's still this image in my head. And I wish… but it's not the real thing, and I don't... it doesn't feel like a goal, as much as... a destination. The end of the line. I have to get there, because otherwise, I'm still... in progress."
"We're all in progress, kiddo," she said, ruefully. "But if you don't like the direction of the progress... find another one. Only you can say if you need a new one. Choosing a different road isn't a failure. It's a choice. As long as you choose it for the right reasons."
Nikolai absorbed this. "I... oh." He didn't speak for a moment, and she let him not-speak. "I think... I need to think more."
Her smile at this was pure approval. "Good choice," she said. "In the short term, at least. Putting off a choice too long becomes a choice in itself." She moved to the door. "If you're hungry, later, I promise they'll be willing to slip you something in the kitchen."
"Thanks." Nikolai watched her leave, the door closing quietly behind her.
Choose a new road. The world lay in front of him, different paths radiating out from a single point. Him.
Some people grow into their dreams, instead of out of them. And some people grow on. I am my own man.