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White Knights

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Lieutenant Aral Illyan was twenty three when he finally had the conversation with his father that he'd been planning for years.

It was a snowy winter in Vorbarr Sultana, but his father's ImpSec office was well-insulated from the cold. It had to be, given the amount of stone and concrete between it and the outside world - HQ was hideous, but at least it was warm. Aral sank deeply into a chair while his father went over the report, all too happy to be off his feet after months of running from one end of the galaxy to another.

"All in order, I trust?" he said, with a slight smile. Some people claimed that his father was unreadable, but Aral had the advantage of being family and knew all his little tells. For instance, the way his lower lip compressed could have been a good sign or a very bad one, but the slight crinkle at the corner of his eyes quite definitely pointed in the direction of relaxed-and-happy, or at least, relaxed-and-amused.

"Well." His father scribbled an annotation in the column and leaned back to look at him. "It does seem that you've managed to keep the Aslundians very happy."

It was the perfect lead in to the conversation that he'd come here to have. "Not just me, sir," Aral said. "I couldn't have done it without Ivan."

"Quite. I'll be putting in a good word for him with his commanding officer at Ops. The two of you have started to work remarkably well together." There was a glint in his father's eye. "And to think that there was a time when not a day would pass without both of you at each other's throats."

"There was," Aral said thoughtfully. "But that was before Earth." Which had been two years ago. Time really had flown.

"Which you did mention wanting to talk to me about." His Da steepled his fingers and regarded him over the tops of them. "Was it personal or professional?"

In a bid to keep ImpSec out of the house, as mother put it, they'd gotten used to distinguishing Imperial Service business from non-Imperial Service business, a distinction that had carried over naturally to conversations with his father.

"Not professional," he said, and it was as though his father flicked an internal switch, putting aside the ImpSec Chief persona for the time being. His entire body language seemed to become softer, more informal, and Aral mirrored it, relaxing as well.

"Go ahead."

"You read the report," Aral said, not because it was in any doubt, but he felt the need to lay out some context. "You can say that Ivan and I put aside a lot of our differences after that mission. Well, actually, that's not quite the correct way of putting it." He considered his words a little more carefully - his father was exceedingly meticulous about precision, where it came to drafting reports. Aral considered the same precision to be a good thing in any form of communication. "Say rather, I was being a bit of an arse towards Ivan before that, and when he came to my rescue, it dawned on me that I was being more than a little unfair to him."

"All siblings quarrel," his father said, with understanding. "Your mother and I thought it was a natural phase."

"Maybe," Aral said, a little uncomfortably. Fact of the matter was, when he'd made up his mind to talk to his father about Ivan, he hadn't realised that at least part of it would inevitably end up being about him as well. And while he got on just fine with his Da, they didn't exactly do … heart-to-heart chats. "You see, there was that conversation that he had with you when he was… oh, fifteen. Which I overheard."

From the wince that his father made, he knew he'd recalled which conversation.

"It took me a really long time to forgive him for that," Aral said. "And after that, it was as though that opened my eyes to all his imperfections. In truth, all it did was make me judge him - and, as I said, sometimes quite unfairly." He inhaled; exhaled. The years that had passed since the mission to Earth hadn't done all that much to blunt the guilt that he still felt, even though Ivan had made it abundantly clear - many times over - that he forgave him everything. In fact, if anything, Ivan seemed to blame himself for their estrangement. If there was anything that they were good at, as a family, it appeared to be blaming oneself. He glanced towards his father, who was still waiting patiently for him to continue. "I thought he was useless, especially when compared to Cousin Miles."

His father's lips twitched. "Everyone is an underachiever compared to Miles. This is not necessarily a bad thing."

He laughed. "I know that now. I swear that any of our newer Ensigns who spend any time in his orbit rapidly become inspired by him. It's terrifying." He scratched at a small thread on his uniform trousers. "I realised on Earth that I was wrong about the incompetence - Ivan's, that is. And I was wrong about him being a coward. I realised a lot of things that day, really." He glanced up to meet his father's eyes. "Did you know that he's afraid of being a target?"

"I had surmised that, yes," his father said. "And also that he's a lot more competent that he lets on. Your mother and I have been trying to convey to him for ages that it really isn't necessary for him to hide his abilities, but the message doesn't seem to get across."

"You see, that's where we need to talk about… elephants," Aral said.

"Elephants," his father repeated dryly.

"Motivations of men," Aral explained. The account of his father looking for an elephant to appease the Polian ambassador during Barrayar-Pol negotiations was an old favourite of his.

"And what is Ivan's elephant?" his father asked, looking faintly amused.

"I don't think he knows, himself," Aral said, and the amusement dropped away from his father's face. "You see, Ivan has a lot of de-motivators in his life. Trying not to be a target. Trying not to be a Security risk. Motivators… not so much."

"But something changed after Earth," his father pointed out. "It took a while for us to notice it - he went about it so quietly and calmly, after all, but it's all started to add up. He's leapt from middling obscurity to sudden prominence in his career. At this rate, he may well be promoted even before Miles. So, what happened?"

"Expectations changed," Aral said. "At least, mine did. You see, Ivan might not know it himself, but at least one of his elephants is family."

His father drummed his fingers across his desk, looking thoughtful. "Your mother and I were always careful not to impose our expectations on him. Are you saying that might have been the wrong approach?"

"I can't say if it's wrong or right," he said. "But if everyone is going to start from the baseline that Ivan is useless and anything he achieves beyond that is a pleasant surprise… can you blame him for treating himself the same way? It's impossible to live up to expectations that don't exist."

Some shadow fell across his father's face, his eyes going distant as he searched through his memory for … goodness knew what. The flicker in his eyes might have been regret.

"You should talk to him, Da," Aral said, and his father blinked and glanced back at him.

"Yes," his father said, his voice suddenly a little hoarse, like it was catching in his throat. "Yes, indeed I should."

*

The office door shut behind his son, and Simon leaned back in his chair and pressed his fingers to his temples. Years, he'd let Ivan believe that his parents had written him off. He'd never intended this result, never even saw it, but he really should have. It was startlingly obvious, when Aral spelt it out, although the cause of the rift between them was probably far more complex than Aral suspected.

He wouldn't have needed the chip to trace the path of memories that had brought him and Ivan to where they were today. He could practically see it every time he closed his eyes, a series of wrong choices and words unsaid, all piling one atop another. Truth to be told, it all seemed to collapse down to one single trigger point, a day when he'd been forced to make the impossible choice between his Emperor and his family.

He'd picked his duty, lost his unborn son. When he realised later that he'd also lost his step-son, albeit in a more oblique fashion, he'd thought it all part of a rather fitting punishment. After all, he'd chosen Gregor over his family; he hardly deserved them. That he'd been granted Aral and Alessa later had seemed a gift he was hardly worthy of, and it followed naturally - or so it seemed to him - that he would never have Ivan, could never have Ivan, because he didn't deserve to have a family so whole and happy after he'd failed them.

It all seemed incredibly, stupidly self-centred now. The cosmos didn't revolve around him. And Ivan was Ivan. Was Alys' first child. Was his step-son. Not some force of cosmic justice. And certainly not deserving of being dragged down with his useless lout of a step-father, who, it seemed, was only capable of achieving baseline mediocrity in all the things that mattered.

He needed to talk to Ivan. He'd needed to talk to Ivan twenty years ago, but perhaps there was still time. Too little, too late, was still better than not at all. Sighing, he made a mental note on his chip to remind him once he reached home.

And then, curiously, he forgot.