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A Fine and Public Place

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The excellent thing about the younger Lord Vordalan's parties was the quality and quantity of the wine that tended to flow. Vordalan District, but the good stuff, not the poison they made a killing off with the proles. Weighed up against this was the chance of being cornered by your host. Ivan was coming to the conclusion that he'd jumped the wrong way.

Vordalan clapped Ivan on the shoulder. "What do you think of this Empress Laisa business, then?"

Ivan raised his eyebrows. "She's hardly new. You're not just noticing that Gregor's married, are you?"

Vordalan laughed, affected and hearty. It might have suited him if he'd been fifty, instead of floundering somewhere in his mid-twenties. "The flagship, I mean."

"Oh, right." The funding vote for The Empress Laisa was coming up, Ivan remembered. Nobody seemed to doubt it would pass, with Gregor's full support behind it. Ivan couldn't help wondering how Laisa herself felt about it: knowing that something the weight of a city had appropriated the name Lord Ivan Vorpatril would have given him the strong urge to hide under his bed. But then, she'd had other things on her mind lately ...

He lifted his glass to his mouth, distractedly scanning the crowd again. There was still no sign of Byerly. Ivan frowned, jittery at the absence. It didn't matter, but he would have expected to see By here.

"Dreadful waste of resources, of course," Vordalan was saying when Ivan tuned in again. "Any idiot could see that demilitarisation and trade alliances will serve Barrayar better, going into the future."

Oh god, he was really and honestly going to try to talk politics. At a party. Ivan tilted his glass up again, taking a gulp of wine. What was wrong with the usual line in vicious High Vor gossip?

Vordalan seemed to catch the same drift. He shifted directions, but picked a massively worse one. "Of course, this new ship can hardly be more dangerous than its namesake! Here's hoping it won't be quite so hot to hold, eh?"

The ponderous joke sat in the air for a moment. Ivan made an effort.

"Good god, you're not talking about that little thing last week, are you?"

Vordalan frowned. "I would hardly call a hysterical mental breakdown by our empress a little thing!"

Ivan was getting a headache. "Trust me, I was there. It was nothing but a new parent getting fed up with a few meddlers, and letting them know where to go." He shook his head. "You should see m'cousin fidget over his ankle biters; it's terrifying, makes Laisa and Gregor look like the mellowest couple in the Imperium."

He didn't pay much attention to Vordalan's response; he'd just spotted a familiar slim figure over by one of the refreshment tables. Finally. He bid Vordalan a distracted leave and made his way over.

That made the third person tonight to bring up Laisa's tirade at that handful of counts last week. Ivan couldn't imagine what they expected of her. The poor woman was hardly highly strung, but she was Komarran, after all: she couldn't have been prepared for the sheer amount of interference in her own child's upbringing that she'd be expected to brook.

Although Lady Alys must have warned her. Ivan had some dim memories of the power struggles Alys had fought over Ivan's own upbringing, as a young widow.

Byerly raised his eyebrows as Ivan approached. "You look serious," he offered.

Ivan shook his head. "Just this Laisa thing. Too many people think I'm some kind of pipeline to palace gossip."

Then he frowned. "If it comes to it, you look odd yourself." Ivan looked at him more closely. He couldn't say he knew Byerly all that well – they were hardly taking lightflyer trips together on the weekends – but he knew him better than he used to, and he didn't think he'd ever seen quite that expression on his face. It was some combination of tension, apology and unholy amusement. It made Ivan nervous.

"Ah," Byerly said. He examined the fingernails of one hand, the casual gesture destroyed by the way his fingertips wouldn't hold steady. He took a breath. "Well, yes. I've been speaking with a lady, and I have what you might call a new brief. Something more in the nature of, er, active deflection, rather than my usual line in information."

"Oh." Ivan's shoulders relaxed a little. It was political, then, and with any luck would be nothing to do with him. Byerly still looked strange, though. "Nothing, uh. Nothing dangerous?"

Ivan winced. Well, that was idiotic. When did Byerly Vorrutyer's line of work take him into actual danger?

For once By passed up the opportunity to be witty at Ivan's expense. "Mm, no," he said. "But it ... well, the method of carrying out the brief was left to me. I've settled on a method I think will serve, and I won't pretend the devil in me doesn't find the idea attractive. But I have a suspicion it's not going to make me popular with the lady."

Ivan narrowed his eyes. He would be the first to allow that his mother was formiddable, but something about this wasn't ringing true.

He glanced around. They were in clear view of fifty or sixty of Vordalan's other guests, but he didn't think anyone was close enough to overhear, above the babble of other voices. He could probably pry a bit, but he wasn't sure whether he wanted to. You could never tell when you might find yourself involved, when it came to ImpSec.

Byerly directed a funny little smile at his wine glass, turning it around in his hand. "I also think it's likely to cost me a ... friend," he said. He turned and set the glass down on the table behind him, then turned back to Ivan, meeting his gaze directly. "For which I apologise, Ivan."

"What –"

He didn't have time to say any more. In the next moment Byerly had lifted the wine glass out of Ivan's slack fingers, turned him around, pressed the back of his shoulders against a thin pillar and leaned in to press his mouth against Ivan's.

For a moment Ivan couldn't even process it as a kiss. His mind whited out, little panicked sparks of electricity firing an objection to reality. He made some kind of "mmmph" noise, his limbs uncooperative and frozen and he should be pushing away, that was –

He accidentally opened his mouth instead.

He felt the surprised noise Byerly made, barely verbal, and the way the kiss was suddenly less of a businesslike press and more ... more of a kiss. Unmistakable as a kiss, and Ivan should be pulling the hell away only he was leaning in, instead, chasing heat and soft mouth, his heartbeat deafening in his ears.

Then Byerly broke the clinch, stepping back with a jerk. There was a moment that Ivan would never, ever be able to call back in which he nearly tried to follow, a half-movement of tilted chin and a hand pushing off against the pillar behind him.

The room was hushed. The crowd had fallen still, an incredulous quiet. Ivan stared shell-shocked into Byerly's own shocked gaze.

Then it was less quiet.

*

Ivan wasn't sure how he got back to his rooms. It was like some kind of trauma blackout. Which was also serving to fuzzy up his recollection of the very loud, very confused sound of a breaking scandal that had chased him out the door during his measured, dignified retreat.

Well, a very fast stride meeting nobody's eyes, which under the circumstances wasn't too bad.

Ivan dropped into a chair and put his head between his knees, slammed again by the circumstances.

His comconsole was lit up with messages. Ivan could see them blinking out of the corner of his eye. With a muffled exclamation he got to his feet and wheeled over to it, scanning the names. And yes, there it was.

Ivan didn't know why he'd been so sure Byerly would check in, given that he clearly had no idea what Byerly might take it into his head to think was a good idea, and had been fooling himself to ever think he did. He punched a button to receive the call before he could think better of it.

Byerly blinked, leaning back from his screen.

"... well, this is awkward," he said after a moment.

Ivan clenched his hands around the edge of the desk, leaning in. "What?"

It was a general question. It addressed everything about the situation, in all its shattering aspects.

By made a face. "I just didn't expect you to actually accept my call. I had a message prepared."

Ivan stared at him. Then he dropped into the chair in front of the desk. "Are you still at the party?" he asked colourlessly.

"Ah, no. I thought the gossip would gain better traction without me."

"Right," said Ivan, sliding down into a sprawl and letting his head fall back. "So. So why did you need gossip? What are you throwing me under a groundcar in the name of?"

Byerly winced. "Nothing you don't know about. ImpSec needed a scandal to beat the Laisa story out of the water."

Ivan lifted his head. "Seriously? A few people gossiping about Laisa getting into an argument? Barrayar has had empresses who poisoned people at the dinner table and had conversations with their cats. Remember Laughing Vera? Mad as a goddamned snake, according to the contemporary accounts."

"That's the problem," Byerly said. "People are starting to bandy that word mad around. It's only what they always say when a woman makes a scene, and of course the empress's gene scan is spotless, but if people start digging ..."

Ivan's shoulders dropped. "They'll find a madwoman," he guessed. "Is that it? The Toscanes have a funny character in their genetic attic?"

Byerly sighed and held his hands out. "A few generations back, and as I said the empress's genes are clean, but ... yes. A great-great aunt, apparently. It's enough to do some damage if the gossip-mongers got hold of it."

"So you gave them something else to hold." Ivan pushed forward, resting his forehead on his hands. He felt hollowed out. "Was there a reason you picked me for your goat?"

By didn't say anything. After a moment Ivan lifted his head again. By was looking tense and apologetic again, the mixture of emotions awkward on his face. Ivan scowled at him. It felt inadequate, but he couldn't find the energy for something more appropriate. He'd work out what was appropriate at some point.

"Partly," Byerly said, his voice reluctant, "it was because I was ninety percent sure you wouldn't have my face rearranged for the insult. My list of Vor lords who both met that criterion and were popular enough to raise the level of scandal I needed was ... short."

Ivan bit the back of his hand. "Brilliant," he mumbled. "That's excellent." He shook his head. "So what was the other part? Your sheer joy in messing with me? That lovable Vorrutyer compulsion to put me into horrifying social situations and watch me squirm?"

Byerly hesitated. "Well," he said. "Well, yes, you are rewarding to mess with. That wasn't a negligible quantity in the equation."

Ivan drew in a breath. "Fuck you."

"But," Byerly said, "the other part of my reason was that I believed that it wouldn't do any long-term damage to your reputation."

Ivan was having difficulty letting his breath go again, or dragging in the next. There was something wrong with his throat.

"Your romantic history and ... general demeanour," By said, "seemed ... well, I assumed you would only suffer a bit of flak from terrible Vor wits, and all blame for the act itself would fall on me."

There was a long drawn-out moment. Ivan's breathing was still weird and catching in his throat.

"You weren't supposed to kiss back," Byerly said quietly.

Hearing it like that, stark and unavoidable, should have felt like a blow. The fact that it barely left a tremor on Ivan's state of mind functioned as a kind of final proof: the revolution was over, the battle decided; he lay down his arms.

Ivan breathed out. "Right," he said on the exhale, his voice shuddering. He wondered whether sleep would come if he lay his cheek down on the console now.

Byerly seemed to struggle with himself. "Why did you?" he asked. "Confusion? Social conditioning?"

Ivan laughed, and the sound came out hoarse and a bit jagged. He looked up, meeting Byerly's eyes. He really wasn't very good at lying to himself – the Vorpatril psyche was a clear pool, for the most part. Something as big as this was only ever going to have held together if it was absolutely undisturbed. It had only taken the length of the trip home for these particular self-delusions to come crashing down, and it was obvious, really.

Byerly searched his face, and whatever he found there, it made him let out a pained breath. His smooth expression stuttered, and for a moment he looked devastated. "Oh," he said. "I think I may have committed a ... worse mistake than I realised. Oh, fuck."

Ivan thought about this, turning it over in his mind, in the quiet of nobody saying anything. The beaten and emotionally exhausted patina that had settled on him was beginning to speckle and fray. He could feel it giving way to the terrified liberation sparking beneath it.

He was considering doing something that he would almost definitely regret, and regret hard.

He thought, Oh, fuck it, and did it anyway.

He met Byerly's eyes and smiled. "Speaking as somebody with very little left to lose," he said, "I'm going to ask: what would you do if I turned up at your place right now? Would you let me in?"

Byerly looked stunned. After a moment he managed, "I would say that my apparent gift for self-sabotage is rivalled only by yours." He shook his head. "Ivan, you moron, being seen coming anywhere near me is about the only thing in the world that could make this – this worse." Then, a wondering smile tugging at his lips, he added, "And of course I would let you in."

Ivan still had the keys to his groundcar in his pocket.

They were jangling from his hand as he let the door swing to on his heels.