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In the First Days

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In the first days, Irulan is afraid to see the children.

She watches them sleeping. She sees their mother and father in their faces, and doesn't know what she feels. Grief is too strong a word; resignation too weak.

The empire is in turmoil, but she thinks the unrest among the noble houses cannot compare to the state of her own mind. She's restless, fidgeting where she should be still, waking when the sky is still dark. She walks the halls of the palace in Arrakeen and tries to appear as if she knows where she's going.

Alia stays with the children, goes where they go. In the palace, they're always surrounded by guards and nursemaids and attendants. Irulan tells herself that she is rarely permitted more than a glimpse. That she has no choice but to stay away from them. She hides from the truth: that she fears to face her own shame, her own guilt for her complicity.

The longer she waits, the more her guilt deepens.

---

"I want to see the children," she says quietly, lacking the conviction she used to reserve for Paul in his most stubborn moments. His sister has always been something else entirely.

"Tell me who is stopping you, and I will see to their immediate execution," Alia replies. She raises her eyebrows. In the single movement, Irulan reads a dozen mocking insults, and suspects a hundred more. She wants to believe that standing firm here is a kind of courage, but she knows better. Her own selfishness brought her to this moment, standing before Alia on her borrowed imperial throne.

"Paul was my husband," she replies, in the crisp, clear tone taught to her long ago, in a very distant place. Years of training never transformed her into the son her father desired. Even so, she has some command of her own voice. "I have a duty to see to the care and education of his children. One that I will not neglect."

"If you believe my brother's intention was to leave my niece and nephew to your oversight, then who am I to doubt?" Alia says, and again, she's mocking Irulan. "I shall inform the guards that you are to be given access to the children. Is there anything else?"

Irulan doesn't mistake Alia's agreement for a victory. There are sharp and biting words that she would like to return in kind, but now is not the time. This, too, she learned long ago.

---

When she first takes Ghanima into her arms, her eyes ache, and it takes a supreme effort to keep her expression anywhere close to neutral. It has been many years and few people who have ever broken through the façade she erected for the world to see. She finds she doesn't mind the shame as much as she should.

---

The twins have the same eyes. Blue-in-blue and eerily calm, peering up at her from where they kneel side-by-side on the stone floor as they complete their lessons. The other Fremen children play in the streets, among the desert rocks – shrieking and laughing and chattering in their language too fast for Irulan to follow, even after all these years of study. Leto and Ghanima sit perfectly still and silent. They learn quickly, with no encouragement or reprimand. The perfect picture of an imperial prince and princess. It brings a bitter taste to Irulan's mouth.

---

"Tell us again, Irulan, about how you met my brother for the first time," Alia says, with a smile set on her face like it's chiseled into her cheeks in stone. She sits and eats with all the poise and grace of an empress. Her words bite with the ferocity of a desert viper, when it suits her mood - which comes and goes as it pleases, as far as Irulan can tell.

Irulan returns Alia's smile, and her irritation doesn't show at the corners of her lips. She thinks her eyes might betray her, but she takes a sip of the unfamiliar foreign wine brought to their table before she replies, concealing her lack of patience behind long-practiced decorum. If she has any advantage over Alia Atreides, it's her wealth of experience as an imperial figurehead.

"It was a night not unlike tonight," she says, ostensibly to the dignitaries who have traveled from other worlds to meet with the Empress Regent. Their eyes have long since begun to glaze over; they are neither knowing nor willing parties to Alia's mocking. The sweet wine tastes bitter on Irulan's tongue when she wets it to continue her story. She pretends not to notice. "I had just arrived on Arrakis. Paul was... so kind, to show me his home."

Their guests murmur in agreement about Paul's benevolence, and Irulan again brings her glass to her lips to hide her smile. Paul was many things to her, but never kind.

---

She catches the twins laughing together one afternoon, among the rocks in the desert. Ghanima has something in her hands, cradled close to her. Both of them are peering down at it. Leto reaches out to touch whatever his sister is holding, and then his smile turns to helpless laughter. Ghanima laughs with him - carelessly, freely, as if they're no more than two ordinary children playing together in the sand.

It would be so easy to intrude, but Irulan stays hidden in the shadows. If either of them sense her presence, they do nothing to show it. They seem wholly focused inwards, on each other and whatever precious possession Ghanima has in her hands.

It's the first time Irulan has ever seen joy in their eyes.

---

"We should leave them be," she says firmly. She sits across from Alia in a room in the Fremen sietch where the children spend their summers. She keeps herself carefully composed, her back straight and her hands folded neatly over her lap. The perfect picture of a dowager empress, in what seems one of the most unlikely places in the universe. The perfect picture of something she never was.

"Oh, come now, Irulan," Alia laughs, in that high, airy way that always sets Irulan on edge. There is something ever more grating about Alia's presence since Paul has been gone. She never allows herself to be caught in a lie, never shows any hint of the temper Irulan knows boils just beneath the surface, but it's there. It's there, and Irulan fears the day it rears its head where others can see.

"They are too young," she replies.

"They are more than you will ever understand," says Alia. She rises from her seat and comes around the table to pour herself a cup of water. Pointedly, she leaves the second stone cup empty.

"You underestimate me."

"Underestimate you? Such a thing would not be possible." Again, that grating laugh.

"I have known your family since before you were born." Irulan lifts her eyes to Alia's, and does not flinch when Alia fixes her with her blue-in-blue stare.

"I have known my family since before I was born," Alia replies sharply. There are things she says that make no sense, but Irulan has been piecing it together for many years. What Jessica must have done, for Alia to be as she is.

"Let them have what you and I could not," she pleads, without shame. Throughout her life, she has felt shame for things she deserved and things she did not. There is no shame in pleading for the happiness of the children she has come to care for. "Let them know peace for as long as they can."

Alia says nothing. Her face, her eyes, never change. But when she sets the order for Ghanima and Leto's return to the capital aside, Irulan thinks that this is the first time in their lives they've ever been in agreement.

---

Many years later, she watches Leto take his father's throne, and she thinks it must be something other than grief that she feels. There is no sense in grieving for a man who still lives.

---

One afternoon not two years into his reign as emperor of the known universe, she finds Leto alone in his father's office.

"Leto," she says softly, when she sees what he's doing – sifting through authentic paper documents covered in Fremen script. His father's hand. She would recognize it anywhere, but here there's no mistaking it for anything but what it is. It could belong to no one else.

When he hears her, his fist comes down too hard on the stone desk. On any normal person, it would leave a bruise, but Irulan doubts that she will ever find one if she looks.

"Everything comes to an end," Leto says quietly. "Life. Planets. Stars. One day, the universe. And yet…"

"Leto," Irulan repeats, as gently as she knows how. The words aren't meant for her ears. She wants to spare him the embarrassment, if he can even feel it.

When he looks up, he seems to see her for the first time. His expression changes so quickly that she doesn't have a chance to understand it before it's gone, replaced by a mask of indifference and artificial calm.

"They're waiting for you, in the council chamber," Irulan says. If he recognizes it for what it is - a way out - he doesn't show it. He simply follows her out.

---

"Did you ever love my father?" Ghanima asks her. The sun is setting over the distant desert horizon. Leto brings the court here, sometimes, when the mood strikes him, or for some other reason to which Irulan will never be privy.

"Ghani-"

"He loved my mother so very much."

"I know he did."

"He loved her like the sun on the sand – heating it until it hurts to walk on."

Irulan's chest aches, her old guilt resurfacing from the depths. Even after all these years, she still thinks in metaphors that would make no sense to children born and raised on a desert planet.

"But he loved you too," Ghanima continues, as if she doesn't know what she has done. "Not like sun or sand. Like the rain on Giedi Prime. Burning through everything it touches."

The unintentional force of the words strikes Irulan like a blow, and for a moment she's speechless.

"Have I offended you?" Ghanima asks, and then she waits patiently while Irulan searches for an answer.

"No, Ghani, you haven't offended me. And... yes," she says finally. "I loved your father. I think… it would have been very difficult not to. For all that he was, when he looked into your eyes, he saw right into you. Right through you. When someone looks at you like that…"

"My brother has the same look."

"For you, maybe," Irulan says, her words sharper than her gentle tone implies.

"For the future," Ghanima says. Her gaze becomes distant, settling somewhere near the horizon. "The thing he treasures more than anything. The one place I can never go with him."

"Then treasure what time you have," Irulan urges. "Do not wait for anyone to bring you what you desire, because that moment will never come. Even if you had a thousand years to wait, it would never come."

---

Ghanima's son is born deep in the desert in the earliest hours of the morning, before daylight begins to break over the dunes. This time, Irulan is not afraid. This time, she allows the warm smile fighting to take over her lips as she watches Ghanima and Farad'n cradling their child close. Her life has afforded her so few moments of joy. She has almost forgotten what it feels like. Maybe she never knew.

---

In her last years, Irulan is afraid to see Leto's eyes.

"Tell me, Mother," he says, in an infuriatingly gentle tone that makes her want to shout at him, if only her voice were still strong enough, "What are you thinking?"

"Why do you call me that?" she says hoarsely.

"It is what you wished for."

He mocks her. She knows now that he knows Paul's thoughts as well as his own.

He is still so young, and she is old, but she looks into his eyes and sees the opposite; she is a child with wrinkled skin and white hair and aching bones, and he has lived ten thousand lives. And she thinks: if she is his mother, then she should be comforted that he will live ten thousand more, but it terrifies her. For his sake, for everyone's sake, it terrifies her.

He pours her water and waits for her to drink.

"Will you forget?" she asks.

"Yes," he says simply.

He's telling her something secret, something so private that for a moment, she believes that she sees a childish sort of desperation in his eyes. Whether or not she's mistaken is another story. Leto lets so little of what he feels slip through the cracks in his armor. Other people become easier to read with age. Leto only becomes more distant.

Like any mother would, she wishes she could soothe away his fears, but there are no words to alleviate his pain.

"Do not fear for me, Mother," he says, his voice as cool and calm as it has always been, from his first words to, she suspects, his last.

She wants to comfort them both with lies, but even now, she can't bring herself to do it. Enough lies have been spoken: to them, for them, about them. Instead, she reaches out to take his hand. His skin has taken on a strange texture and it worsens with each passing year, but it doesn't deter her. She holds it between both her hands.

For the very first time in his life, he looks at her with an expression of gratefulness. Deep within her, something eases.