Not all gifts are wrapped in pretty paper. Or are put out on display.
One of the most appreciated, most touching and above all most useful wedding presents, at least from Ekaterin’s point of view, was never shown to the general public. And it wasn’t Mark’s gift certificate for a week at the Orb, although that was really appreciated too. Really. With gusto.
But the best, most useful gift of all came a week after the honeymoon was over. It was given to Ekaterin, in private.
And it came from Ivan.
A week after the happy couple came back from their honeymoon Ivan called on Ekaterin one afternoon. Pym ushered him into the Yellow Parlour, wearing his blandest non-expression.
“Lord Vorpatril, my Lady.”
Ekaterin managed to stop herself from glancing around to see if there was someone else in the room - she was still getting used to being anyone’s Lady. She smiled at Ivan as she wondered what he was doing there. “Miles isn’t here right now, but I’m sure he’ll be back soon. Would you like some…er…tea? Coffee? Wine?”
Ivan gave her one of his sunny smiles, “Refreshments would be lovely, this is going to take a while. And I didn’t come here to see Miles, I came to talk to you.”
There were times when Ekaterin could see the family resemblance between the cousins. She nodded to Pym to bring something suitable from the kitchens while she waited for an explanation.
Ivan chattered on, asking about Nikki, welcoming her back from the honeymoon, bringing her up to date on the latest news, until Pym brought a trolley laden with Ma Kosti’s finest delicacies. Then, with a satisfied grunt, he started on the spiced peach tarts.
Ekaterin was still in the dark, and trying to find a polite way to ask what the visit was for, when Ivan leaned back in his chair, dusted off a few crumbs, and smiled again, “Lovely. Now, it’s time to get started.”
“Started… on what?” Ekaterin was somewhere between unsettled and alarmed.
“On the rest of your wedding present. The bit I couldn’t give you before the wedding.”
Yes, cryptic definitely ran in the family.
“Present? But you’ve already given us…”
He waved a hand dismissively, “That’s not the important part. This is. I’ve come to tell you the truth.”
Unsettled was definitely shading into alarmed now.
Ekaterin drew back and took refuge in an icy calm, “Perhaps you’d better go, Lord Ivan. Maybe this should wait until Miles is home.”
Ivan was unruffled, “No, he’d be no help at all. Far better to do this when he’s not around to interrupt.”
“I don’t think I want to hear this.”
“Oh, trust me, you’ll be thankful later. Now, where to start… the beginning, I suppose. Ask questions any time.”
And, without waiting for her answer, he began.
For the next three hours, Ivan talked on, with a few pauses for refreshments and some extra explanations requested by Ekaterin.
Ivan told her about Miles as a baby, so tiny and fragile. About the operations and the agonising treatments. About the first five, frustrating years when Miles couldn’t walk and he learned to charm everyone around him to have some control in his world. The wildly hyperactive times after he was finally able to move around. The incredible freedom of riding, and being able to do something just like everyone else – the start of his love for horses. Swimming at Vorkosigan Surleau, sailing, fishing, camping, exploring – all of it gifting him with moments of freedom and the illusion of normalcy.
Of what it’s like to grow up with your own bodyguard. A bodyguard with an interesting set of psychological problems, also with the ability to kill in an instant without hesitation or regret, one of the most frightening and dangerous people anyone would ever meet, if only briefly in some cases. In fact, growing up surrounded by people who frightened, or terrified, just about everyone else. Being accustomed to walking through them all, even manipulating them, without turning a hair.
All about school, and the constant grind of prejudice, of having to always prove himself before gaining grudging acceptance. The growth of his attitude that if you can’t join them, outdo them.
The adoration for Gregor as emperor, and as big brother - and all the times when Gregor really was his big brother, playing games suited to the tiny, handicapped foster brother who made life so interesting. Years of games, holidays and fun with Elena and the Koudelka girls, as well as Gregor and Ivan – the network of protection they all tried to build around Miles, and the thousand ways he evaded it.
He told her about Miles in constant pain, and the fierce determination not to let it slow him down. A tiny child who learned quickly to smile, turn away the anxious questions, pretend it was all okay when it so obviously wasn’t. About facing pain and hostility, day after day. And about never letting it slow him down, or turn him aside. Forward momentum as a survival skill.
The need for acceptance, the incredible urge to be seen to achieve, the raging need to prove himself again and again, to not just be equal but to be more, better, extreme. About having to out-think everyone else until it became habit, and lifestyle. Of all the tiny calculations that went on in the back of his mind all the time, checking physical threats, the emotions and weaknesses of those around him, of always looking for fulcrums.
The strength of character, the sheer persistence that carried him on when all else was gone.
And the wildly over-achieving successes, when just winning wasn’t enough, he had to exceed all expectations. About risking all, and giving all, again and again while his family hoped and prayed that he’d find a calm centre before he used himself up. And what happened when he didn’t. And then what happened when he did.
And he told her how to stand beside all that. When and how to step in. What it was like being the final barrier between Miles and disaster. About a large bath of ice-cold water, when all else failed. About standing firm – and about Miles’s desperate need for a strong limit and a safe place to fall.
He told her how to protect Miles from himself, and what it was like being the one who so often was given that task. What it took to contain that incredible energy, and to redirect it, or even hold it still when necessary.
He told her about Miles – obnoxious, egotistical, driven, desperate, broken, manipulative, frustrating, charismatic, passionate, loyal, determined, amazing…. Incandescent.
Finally, long after the evening shaded into darkness, Ivan fell silent. Then he helped himself to the final peach tart and leaned back in his chair, “And now, I can hand it all on to you. He’s your responsibility now, heaven help you.” He actually seemed more relaxed than Ekaterin had ever seen him.
Ekaterin rubbed her eyes, still trying to process it all, “I knew some of this – and guessed most of it, but not in such detail. And not… all at once, like this. Why did you wait until now?”
A few more crumbs fell, “Well, if I told you all that before the wedding, you might have thought I was trying to put you off. Worse, I might really have put you off.”
“Oh, it’s too late to run now. Now it’s just necessary information for the long haul. Besides, sooner or later I know Cordelia will tell you most of it. Even Miles has and will, I’m sure, but just…from a different perspective. He’s not terribly good at being objective about all this.”
“Miles can be…less than objective about some things. But he’s tried to be honest with me about himself.” Ekaterin was still sorting through the flood of information, wondering if it changed her view of Miles, or strengthened it.
“Miles is the most egocentric little animal you’ll ever meet. And that includes Zap the cat.” Ivan was expansively cheerful now, “But he’s a lot more as well. He’d cut out his own heart for the people he cares about. Pretty much did, really. He needs to be needed. He has to do things for you – for heaven’s sake think of plenty of ways to keep him busy, when the Auditoring business is slow. Don’t ever, EVER let him sit around with nothing to do. Really. And let him gloat now and then – he needs a good gloat sometimes.”
Miles wasn’t the only one, Ekaterin could see that Ivan was smugly satisfied with his afternoon’s work.
“But Ivan… If I’m taking over the job of wrangling Miles… what about you? What will you do now?”
Ivan’s smug grin slipped for a moment, like a mask falling away, “Oh, I’m sure I’ll find something to do. Miles is safely married, Gregor has an heir… maybe now I’ll be free to … do something for me.”
“And what might that be?”
“Damned if I know. But it’ll be interesting finding out.”
Ekaterin felt that she’d finally seen the real Ivan, just for a moment. She wondered if the family was ready for his transformation. And she thought about all the things Ivan had told her, and knew that Miles wasn’t the only one who’d fought through a difficult childhood, and evolved a false face to cope with the world. Ivan hadn’t named his alter ego, but he’d lived as false a life as Admiral Naismith. And paid a high price of his own.
The door flew open and a small riot entered the room, resolving itself into the man in question. “Ivan! What’s up? Has Ekaterin fed you yet?” He stopped by her chair and bent – just a little – to kiss his bride. Twice. Then hustled over to the refreshments tray, stirred the crumbs with one finger and bounced back to the door to call for reinforcements. “You’ll stay for dinner? What did you two find to talk about?”
Ivan rose to leave, “Sorry, can’t stay, things to do. See you at Gregor’s reception at the Residence next week.” He nodded his goodbyes to Ekaterin and drifted out.
Miles waved him off and then threw himself down into his favourite chair, “So, what did you two find to talk about?” Ekaterin heard the unspoken question – ‘Was it about me? What did he say?’ She wondered if it was egocentric to assume everything was about you when it so often was.
“He just came to wish us well. We chatted for a while, that’s all.” And he came to give me a lesson on how to cope with my husband without throttling him. Not too often, anyway. And how to keep my marriage AND my sanity. She blinked back sudden tears, “He came to pass the torch on to me, I suppose.”
“Torch?” The small ego-on-legs that she’d married jumped up from his chair and paced restlessly.
“Just… a welcome to the family.” She watched the pacing. He’d be twitching soon. “Uh, Miles… I was thinking… Aunt Vorthys was hinting about how she’d love to spend some time in your family archives. And those attics – there were all those old trunks of papers. I know Duv Galeni still mutters about them. Perhaps you could check them for anything too sensitive, and then we can invite her over to have a look?”
He was on his feet in an instant, “Yes, brilliant idea! Right, I’ll get onto it-“
“Tomorrow. Tonight we eat dinner like civilised people.”
Miles escorted her along the hall, still chattering excitedly about checking the documents and maybe having a whole team from the university to go through everything… possibly books being written… her aunt’s delight at it all…
Ekaterin decided that, in some quiet moment, she’d make a list. And have it ready, for those times when Miles didn’t have enough to do. Useful little jobs that’d keep him busy and safely occupied until he had to go off and save the Empire again.
She realised the noise had stopped. Miles was watching her in silence, his grey eyes bright. “Did you enjoy your talk with Ivan? He’s… not always what he seems. I’m very fond of him… I owe him a lot.”
Ekaterin squeezed his hand, “So do I. And I’m very fond of him, too.”
“Good.” Miles nodded and pressed a kiss into her hand, “You can always depend on Ivan. Now, I wonder what Ma Kosti has for us this evening? Maybe we should have a dinner party soon, invite everyone… “
Miles and Ekaterin received many wonderful wedding presents. But Ivan’s gift to Ekaterin was the most useful of all. And the most appreciated.
The best gifts are the ones given with love.