Elena’s eyes were steel. Ivan stepped back, a sudden flashback of her kicking him to the floor many years ago…
“You’re sorry?” she said, slamming the book down.
Ivan glanced at the library door wishing someone would come in.
“And you think this pathetic apology makes up for it?” she continued, her eyes flashing. “Why did you have to bring this up now, Ivan? I’ve made peace with my screwed up past, but I will never forgive you. I don’t want anything to do with you!”
Ivan felt ill. This wasn’t how he had imagined it. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. “Elena, I’m sorry, I-“
“Stop apologising! You apologised that day on the ship – it doesn’t mean anything! You have no idea what it was like for me - having to put up with your disgusting pawing because you were Lord Damn Vorpatril! My father would’ve pulverised you if I’d told him, but I knew you would’ve still got away with it. I wouldn’t have though. He would have -” And she stopped and turned away. “Damn you, Ivan. Why did you have to rake this up now?”
“I made a mistake, I-“
“And you’re still making them,” she said turning back to him. “You’ve not changed at all.”
He wasn’t going to take that. “I have! Elena, this was over fifteen years ago, I-“
“You think that makes it better? Are you that stupid? Your life is still the same, Ivan. And I think it’s disgusting the way you’ve attached yourself to Ekaterin.”
“Now wait a moment!” Ivan said, appalled at this turn in the conversation. “Ekaterin and I are friends, you-“
“Friends? I bet she doesn’t know what you’re really like. Perhaps I should tell her.” And with a toss of her head, she left the library, but not before delivering her final parting shot, “I obviously didn’t kick you hard enough. I will be civil, as always, for the family’s sake – you just stay out of my way.”
Ivan sank into the chair, not believing he'd been that stupid. It was Miles’s kids; it was all their fault. They were making him strange, making him think about things, about his past…
Elena’s words were still echoing in the room...I will never forgive you…You’ve not changed at all…
Did she really believe that?
It was Helen and Sasha’s naming party - the reason Elena and her family were here. Ivan had been looking forward to the party; he’d helped Ekaterin plan it with his mother. Miles’s enthusiasm for organising it had died very quickly, but Ivan had enjoyed it.
Now he just wanted to sink into some lethal ethanolic beverages and go home.
He knew he’d have to put up with the pitying looks and the comments, “Come here alone again, did you, Ivan?”; “Your poor mother, no grandchildren for her, eh?”; “The only way a new Vorpatril is likely in your family is if your mother decides to give you a sibling.”
He could cope with all that. He could just about cope with Elena’s icicle looks. But losing the new friendship he’d formed with Ekaterin wasn’t something he could so easily put aside, what could he do about it, though? His past had bitten him in the ass and he’d invited it.
He’d pissed off Elena so much he doubted she was going to paint a fair picture of him. Then, what was fair? She’d spoken the truth. The fact that he hadn’t known he was hurting her at the time wasn’t going to excuse him. His memory of it was far foggier than hers. It wasn’t until the day she’d hit him, and told him what she’d really thought of him that he’d realised how blind he’d been. And they’d never talked about it since.
Elena would talk to Ekaterin, though, and that would be it. He avoided Ekaterin - it wasn’t that hard with all the guests and with all her family there. He left his gifts in the kitchen and sneaked away by one of the back exits – taking a couple of bottles of red on his way out. The only person who saw him escape was Nikki. Ivan put a finger to his lips and Nikki gave him a solemn nod and mouthed, I won’t tell; Ivan gave him a salute and left.
“You idiot! You know her visits here aren’t ever easy. Why did you upset her?”
Ivan rubbed his hangover eyes and gritted his teeth. “Because that was my plan, Miles, why do you think?”
And he cut the com, unwilling to go into it any further. Great, so she’s talked to Miles about it, maybe she told everyone about my stupid apology. Ekaterin would definitely know.
“I knew you’d be here. Here, take Helen will you, you can feed her.”
Ekaterin handed him a bundled up Helen from the pram - he watched Helen’s eyes dart around the wood plush décor of the restaurant as he held her. Sasha was still sleeping in the other half of the pram. Ekaterin seated herself opposite him in the snug booth, and then nodded to Roic who had followed her; he disappeared but Ivan knew he wouldn’t be far.
“How did you know I’d be here?” Ivan asked as Ekaterin handed him Helen’s feed.
“You told me,” Ekaterin said looking at the menu console. She took out Ivan’s card and put in her own. “It’s the weekend,” she continued. “You said you always come here after your swim.” She looked around and smiled. “It smells like a chocolate bakery, I like it."
“Best dessert in Vorbarr Sultana and it’s safe to talk here.” Ivan and Miles had made sure of it. Well, it was safe for them.
“Hmm. Not that you deserve my company,” she said looking at him. Ivan stiffened but then he noticed she was still smiling. “I’ve been forced to listen to vague war stories, every evening, without you as backup to change the subject.”
Ivan laughed, relieved. “Look on the bright side, that’s more than Miles and his colleagues ever told me. Miles never kept in touch with anyone, and when he was back on Barrayar he rarely talked about what he did; I refuse to believe it was all classified.”
“But you were involved in some of those stories, weren’t you?”
Ivan grimaced. “Rarely and unwillingly; even on those occasions I didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
Ekaterin laughed. “I don’t believe you.”
“It was all Miles’s twisted version of his own truths – or it was classified,” he admitted.
“Hence my saying vague war stories.”
“A lot of in-jokes?”
“It all sounded like an in-joke.” But Ekaterin gave a slight shrug, she looked amused. “I’m getting used to it.”
“You should call him on it.”
Ekaterin gave him a look. “You and Miles are just as bad with your own stories.”
Ivan frowned. “But it’s not deliberate. And I told you, you should ask us.”
“Yes, you did. And I do,” she gave him a rueful look, “when I want to know the detail.” She paused. “Elena and her family leave this evening.”
Here we go…“I know.” He braced himself, but Ekaterin was giving him an odd look.
“We’re still friends, aren’t we, Ivan?” she asked.
“Yes, of course. I hope so. Yes.”
Ivan felt lighter, relieved. They ordered coffee and cake and ate in a comfortable silence. Helen was now asleep and Ivan placed her back in the pram. But as he sat back down, he faced Ekaterin and whispered, “She’s never going to forgive me, is she?”
Ekaterin gave him one of her enigmatic looks. “Sometimes, this is as far as it can go. Miles told me why he thinks Elena was upset, do you want to tell me your side?”
"Elena didn't say anything to you?" he asked surprised.
"No, she didn't. Do you want to tell me your side of it? It might help."
So Ivan told her his side, such as it was. Ekaterin asked a lot of questions, forcing him to be more honest than he wanted. It was painful revisiting the past like that, especially revisiting it with Ekaterin.
“So you waited until her father wasn’t there?”
Ivan sunk into the booth. “You make it sound so calculated.”
Ekaterin raised an eyebrow and Ivan sighed. “Yes.”
“It never crossed your mind that she didn’t say anything because of who you were, and how bad it would be for her?”
“No. I can honestly say I wasn’t thinking at all. I wish she had kicked me earlier.”
“I’m sure she does too, but she shouldn’t have had to - should she?”
There was nowhere further to sink in the booth. “No.”
It was hard to tell what Ekaterin was thinking; she showed no expression except that slight frown she had when she was concentrating on your words. They talked about it for a few more excruciating minutes and Ivan told Ekaterin what happened in the library. “She was so angry I said anything…I s’pose it wouldn’t be a good idea to apologise for apologising, but I don’t know what to do.”
“It’s obvious how sorry you are, Ivan, but…did you also apologise to make yourself feel better? Be honest.”
Ivan breathed in sharply. “Can’t it be both?”
“Yes, it can,” she said with a small smile, “that’s a very honest answer. You shouldn’t be sorry you tried to talk to her; the problem is you don’t know her – not as she is now - and she doesn’t know you.”
Ivan shook his head, starkly recalling Elena’s anger. “I don’t think she’ll ever want to know me now, Ekaterin.” That thought bothered him a lot more than it ever had before.
“Perhaps, but then there’s nothing you can do. You’ve done what you can, Ivan. Let it go until she comes to you. This is her choice, not yours.”
Ivan didn’t like that answer but he nodded, and after a small silence said, “I have changed, you know, long ago,” he said, defensively. “Whatever she or my family have told you.”
Ekaterin gave him a sympathetic look. “Do you think you’re the only person who’s ever made a mistake?”
“Ah, so my family have spoken to you.”
Ekaterin laughed and Ivan smiled. “My family have a very long memory, Ekaterin, and now and then they like to take those memories, attach them to a stick and beat you with it.”
“I think that’s called being Vor.”
“Hah! Yeah, it is like that, isn’t it? You stepped on my ancestor’s foot, now I have to kill you with this needle grenade. Stop laughing, I’m trying to be serious!”
They talked for a long time, but before Ekaterin left she said, “Next time, don’t dismiss my friendship so quickly.” Her smile was wry but her words were serious.
Chastised, Ivan kissed her hand in apology.
Ivan went to Vorkosigan House after Elena and her family had left. Miles surprisingly didn’t mention her; Ivan wondered what Ekaterin had said to him. Whatever it was, Ivan knew the reprieve would be short-lived. This was his Elena after all – he was sure that was how Miles still saw her. There was some acidic remark waiting for him, but he felt he deserved this one.
He suddenly thought of those drama-vids. If this was one, there would be a neater ending for him and Elena; she would have left a message for him. But, of course, she hadn’t.
There was no message, no forgiveness and no closure. Not yet.
Let it go until she comes to you…
Ivan wondered if he would ever see that day...or if he deserved to.