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What Passing Bells

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Ivan made his ImpSec driver set the lightflyer down about a block away from Vorkosigan House, and, as was his habit, ignored the imprecations of his paranoid shadows as he approached on foot. He could see the house from up the street; every light blazing, the garden a twinkling net of firefly glows outlining the scraggly, yet strangely beautiful, Barrayaran vegetation. Miles had wanted to hold his 34th birthday party entirely in the garden, which was finally finished after a year and a half of steady work on the part of that most intriguing widow friend of his. But Cordelia, who passed for a Vorkosigan Family Voice of Reason, had pointed out that mid-autumn was a bit chilly in Vorbarr Sultana.

He heard the press before he saw them, a gaggle of prole-types with holovid recorders standing about outside the gates, watching the comings and goings of some of the most important people on Barrayar. It made Ivan long for the old days, when Vor gatherings were for the Vor and not for mass prole consumption. One couldn't even get properly and traditionally drunk these days without seeing holos splashed all around town for the next week. And Miles, the rat, had called it progress and encouraged Gregor to encourage it, and even used it himself for the purposes of his Grand Plan. And as the bloody Imperial Heir - and he still couldn't say exactly how that had happened - Ivan spent far too much time staring down the business end of a holovid recorder these days.

Which was why he liked to walk into these things. No one expected the Imperial Heir to schlep himself in through the servants' entrance. Ivan turned up the nearest side street before the sharks could see him, heading for the back. He'd developed an extraordinary atlas of kitchen doors, scullery entrances, and generally d lassé modes of arrival and exit that he'd known very well once upon a time when he and Miles were kids, but hadn't had any use for since - right up till four years ago, that is. He ended up in the kitchen, snuck a steaming pastry off a tray in passing, and escaped upstairs before he could be noticed by the formidable Ma Kosti, who was busy directing her minions. He slipped into the ballroom through a servants' door, dismissed the agents (God knew the place was crawling with them already), and scanned the room. Miles, he could see, was holding court over by the hors d'oeuvres with some key players in the Progressive Party - Counts Dono Vorrutyer, René Vorbretten, and Henri Vorvolk. Ivan wasn't sure he wanted to go say happy birthday just yet; with that crowd he was certain to be drawn into whatever scheme they were currently concocting to give the Conservatives their long overdue fatal heart attacks. He did his best to keep clear of anything too awfully political. It was almost his duty as the Heir to the Imperium; wouldn't want anyone to go getting ideas, now, did he?

He scanned the room again for more promising company. His mother and Illyan were chatting with the Koudelkas. Ivan didn't particularly want to draw their attention just yet, either. Ah, there. Standing just this side of the huge French doors leading out to the garden was a stunning tableau: the female counterparts to Miles's political cronies, plus that lovely widow who had designed the garden, Madame Vorsoisson. Nearly four years now since the death of her husband during that mysterious case of Miles's, and still she hadn't remarried. A pity, really. A beautiful woman like her shouldn't be alone. Ivan snagged a glass of spiced wine and made his way over.

"Good evening, ladies," he said, smoothly inserting himself in between Countess Olivia Vorrutyer and Madame Vorsoisson. "Are you all enjoying yourselves?"

"Oh yes," Tatya Vorbretten said. "We were just talking about how beautiful Ekaterin's garden is."

"It's not my garden," she said quickly. "It's Lord Vorkosigan's. I just did what he asked with it."

"Well, it is lovely," Ivan said, swept up her hand, and kissed it. "Much like its designer."

"Er . . ." she said, and was - unfortunately - unable to reply properly because Miles's voice at its very driest said from behind Ivan, "Thank you, Ivan. So glad you're enjoying the garden."

Ivan could have growled. Instead he let go of Madame Vorsoisson's hand and turned to face his cousin. "Good evening, ladies," Miles said, bowing to them. "I hope you don't mind if I borrow my feckless cousin for a few minutes."

"Not at all," Olivia said, with a bit too much enthusiasm. Ivan glared at her. "We're going to go take a walk, aren't we, girls?"

"We'd like our husbands back at some point, though. If you don't mind, Miles," Tatya added.

"When the dancing starts," Miles assured them, and the four women moved off into the garden together, figures pleasantly outlined in torchlight.

Ivan opened his mouth to berate his cousin for interrupting what could have been a very enjoyable conversation, but Miles beat him to it. "Don't even start, Ivan. You remember what I said about Madame Vorsoisson."

"Four years ago!" Ivan said indignantly. "I think I've given it plenty of time, don't you?"

Miles regarded him. "Perhaps. Depends on what you're after. She's not one to mess around with, you know. She has a son and a career ahead of her. And . . ." He grimaced and stepped closer. "Between you and me, her first marriage was a horror show."

"

What business is it of yours, anyway?" Ivan demanded, nettled. Dammit, Miles had Gregor, didn't he? What did he care about Ivan's sex life?

Miles shrugged. "I like her. She's a very brave woman. And I think she's brilliant at what she does, too. She only has a semester left at the university and then - well, I think she'll be able to pick and choose her garden commissions, or even go on to train in terraforming if she wants. In any case, I thought I'd extend a friendly word of caution. If you're ready to grow up . . . fine. I wish you all the luck in the world. If not . . . for her sake, please pick someone else to entertain yourself with."

Ivan bit back a sharp reply. He hated it when Miles was right, as he so infuriatingly often was. Even Ivan knew that no one would get anywhere with the reserved widow by being suave and flattering. That much was obvious to anyone with half a brain; if it were any different, she wouldn't be here without an escort tonight.

"Anyway," Miles continued, "that wasn't why I wanted to talk to you."

Ivan abruptly noticed that they were drifting back towards the food, and the Counts Miles had been conferencing with earlier. "Miles . . ." he said warningly.

"Ah, Ivan, good to see you," Dono Vorrutyer said with menacing cheer, and Ivan was trapped. Mired in politics, like he'd been since the day he was born, despite his best efforts. "I think he'd be a good one to have standing up there, too," Dono added to René. "Put his support as Heir behind it."

"That's exactly what I was thinking," Miles said.

"And just where am I standing this time?" Ivan asked with a sigh. "Got a banner you need propping up again?" He helped himself to a plate of colorful and undoubtedly delicious Ma Kosti snacks, and finished off his first glass of wine with an undignified gulp.

"We're trying to launch a campaign to clean up the eastside," René said.

"Ha, good luck." Ivan snagged another glass of wine off a passing tray.

"No, I think it's really going to happen this time," Miles said. "It didn't work before because there wasn't any money, but after Lord Vormoncrief died last year, the coffers might just be ready to open for this."

"Too bad someone had to die first," René said grimly.

"Loads of people have died," Miles corrected. "Count Vormoncrief's son was just the first one the Council couldn't ignore."

"Oh," said Ivan, blinking over a cream puff. "You mean that's really what happened to him? I thought it was just a rumor." He'd known the man in passing; one of By Vorrutyer's familiars, if Ivan wasn't mistaken. Which was odd, because By's crowd drank its weight in wine on a weekly basis, but they were hardly known for more intensive chemical recreation. "What was he doing?" he asked, morbidly curious.

Miles sighed. "A new import called Jump Juice. It does the usual: cosmic understanding, heightened sensations, etc. No different from a dozen other galactic drugs. It's supposed to be rather like a wormhole jump is for a pilot, though, thus the name."

Ivan raised his eyebrows. "I hadn't heard that."

"Well, we're not exactly advertising it," Miles said. "We're trying to make it less appealing. That's not the most dangerous thing about it, anyway. It just burns people right out. Withdrawal is almost as dangerous as overdosing."

"That's what happened to Vormoncrief's son," Dono said with a sigh. "His family finally got him into detox and then . . ." He shook his head. "Byerly was quite upset." Ivan followed Dono's gaze and saw Byerly Vorrutyer, wearing his usual outlandish town-clown garb and talking animatedly with the son of Minister Drade of Civil Defense. Byerly was smiling and gesturing with his wine glass, and he didn't look all that upset.

"Anyway," Miles said, "when we start cleaning it up, there'll be some sort of public ceremony, with the Counts who shoved the bill through." He gestured around. "And Gregor, to show his personal support for the project. And yourself."

"Do I have to do anything except just stand there?" Ivan asked suspiciously.

"No," Miles assured him airily.

"Fine then." Ivan heaved a great, put-upon sigh. "Let me know when and where, as usual. You've talked to Gregor about this already, I assume."

"Not in detail. But he approves." Miles took a sip of his wine, probably to mask the fact that he was scanning the room continually. Ivan rolled his eyes, wondering if it were as transparent to anyone else.

"Is Gregor here tonight?"

"Yes, of course. He needed to speak to my parents for a few minutes. They should be - ah, there they are. Excuse me." Gregor, along with the Count and Countess, had just entered the ballroom. Miles managed to insert himself at Gregor's side before anyone else had even noticed his quiet entrance.

The Counts drifted back to their wives now that Miles was through with them. Astonishing, really, how fast the little bugger had taken over the running of the Progressive Party, considering most of his career up until four years ago had been almost completely hidden from public view. Even after his days in covert ops had ended, his various cases as an Auditor had been mostly too sensitive to be used to bolster his general reputation. But now . . . Miles was about as public a figure as it was possible to be. And far too disturbingly political, at that. Ivan winced, wondering what circus he'd just agreed to be a main attraction at.

Perhaps now would be a good time to go find Madame Vorsoisson, since Miles was sufficiently distracted. Ivan started towards the garden, but hadn't gone three steps before an all too familiar voice drawled, "Ah, Lord Ivan."

Ivan sighed again. "Hello, By."

Byerly Vorrutyer sketched him a bow. "Going for a walk in the garden? Mind if I join you?"

Yes. Ivan opened his mouth to say just that, but By quirked an eyebrow at him and Ivan, reminded that while Byerly was certainly a town-clown, that wasn't all he was, decided against it. He could always lose By outside. "Not at all," Ivan said, only a little grudgingly.

"Excellent." The two of them made their way into the garden. Ivan hadn't seen it up close before, and he had to admit, gazing around at the vegetation and the quiet brook burbling over and around stones he knew to be taken from the Vorkosigan District, that it was very pretty indeed. Brilliant at what she does, Miles had said. How . . . interesting, for a Vor woman to have something that she actually did. Ivan wasn't sure he had ever dated a woman with a career, unless he counted the very practice of high Vor female existence. But then, Madame Vorsoisson wasn't high Vor. But she did have impeccable taste, Ivan thought, catching a glimpse of the widow, walking on a different path with Delia Koudelka-Galeni and her husband Duv. Madame Vorsoisson's dress was not expensive, his experienced eye assessed, but it suited her perfectly.

"Good luck," By said, interrupting Ivan's thoughts.

"What?" Ivan asked, glancing back at him sharply.

Byerly gestured after Madame Vorsoisson and the Galenis, disappearing up the path. "Madame Vorsoisson has turned down half the men in Vorbarr Sultana in the last four years."

Ivan had heard something to that effect. "Playing hard to get, is she?"

"Mmm," By said. "In my opinion, she might genuinely not want to be got. Can't really blame her either, with the Vor bore types who have been chasing after her." Byerly started leading Ivan to a deserted part of the garden.

"What do you want, By?" Ivan asked without preamble.

"I wanted to put a word in your cousin's ear," Byerly said, and seated himself on an elegantly carved wooden bench. Ivan sat down next to him and suppressed the urge to sigh. Why was he always the messenger? "Two cousins, actually."

Ivan raised an eyebrow at this. "Get on with it, will you?"

"All right, all right," Byerly said with a sigh. "No sense of the dramatic," he grumbled under his breath.

"By, with Miles as my cousin, do you really think that I need to have any sense of the dramatic?"

"Ah. Point well taken." By smiled briefly, but then turned serious and leaned in. "You've heard the rumors about Gregor, I assume."

Ivan pulled back and glared. "Is that what this is about? By, everyone has heard the rumors about Gregor." Gregor, who was thirty-nine now and still unmarried, and who had named Ivan as his heir four years ago, indicating to all who cared to see that he had no intention of marrying any time soon. Gregor, who had refused to escort any Vor beauties for years now, and dodged all questions of romance in his rare interviews. The secret of Gregor and Miles's relationship might be well kept, Ivan reflected, but the secret of Gregor's preferences was much less so. Not that anyone really dared to say it out loud.

Well, not to his face, anyway.

"Yes, but not everyone is as observant as I am. Or as . . . inclined to be observant about certain things."

Ivan almost stopped breathing. "What things?" he managed.

By waved an airy hand. "Oh, relax. They're very careful. Flawless, in fact. I honestly had no idea what I was looking at until - well." He paused, swallowed. "I can keep an ear out, if they'd like. That's why I'm talking to you."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Ivan said reflexively.

Byerly smiled. "Of course not." He stood up. "I'll leave you to your lovely widow now, Ivan." He sketched a retreating bow and ambled back up the path, his gait somewhat unsteadier than Ivan remembered it being on their way out.

Ivan sat for a minute, thinking, quite simply, Shit. He could hear voices coming up the path, and then Delia's familiar silvery peal of laughter. He wondered if he needed to find Miles and Gregor right now, or if he could take advantage of the fine opportunity that was about to present itself. He could attach himself to their group, perhaps persuade Madame Vorsoisson to come inside and dance with him. Show her that he wasn't a Vor bore like every other twit who'd spent the last four years panting after her. And after that he could catch Miles and Gregor. It really wasn't anything that wouldn't keep.

By the end of the evening, Ivan was in rather a foul mood. Madame Vorsoisson had consented to one dance, and one dance only with him. And it had been a mirror dance, too, and thus involved no physical contact whatsoever. Physical contact was Ivan's specialty. He'd caught Miles's gaze on him afterwards. His cousin had shaken his head at him as if to say, What am I going to do with you? Madame Vorsoisson had danced the rest of the night with men who were safely and happily married - and, Ivan noted with a scowl, several times with Miles, who was certainly not married. Was she perhaps nursing a crush? Was that why she had turned down every eligible Vor bachelor in the capital? But they were both unfailingly polite and platonic, Ivan decided after covert observation. Perhaps it was just that Miles was her friend, and so he was safe?

And then she left early, before midnight even. Ivan sighed, and danced the rest of the night with his female acquaintances, all now depressingly married.

The party began slowly winding down around two in the morning. Miles worked the room expertly as he said good-bye to people. Ivan watched with a sardonic eye. These things just weren't as much fun anymore, he reflected. Miles was constantly schmoozing, which was rather disturbing to watch because he was unnaturally good at it. Ivan could see glimmers of the little Admiral whenever Miles turned on the charm for some recalcitrant Count or another.

Ivan caught up to him as he was making his final rounds. "I need to talk to you," he muttered.

Miles raised an eyebrow. "I'll be done here in just a minute. Wait for me in the library?"

Ivan nodded and went dutifully off. He found Gregor in the library already, examining the books distractedly. "Good evening, Sire," Ivan said.

"Ah, Ivan. Are you hiding too?"

"Not exactly, no. Just waiting for Miles to finish getting everything he wanted out of his guests now that he's filled them up with Vorkosigan wine."

"Speak of the devil," Gregor murmured, lips turning up as Miles strode in. Just looking at him, still vibrant and crackling with energy after the long night, made Ivan want to yawn. Miles had been the center of attention for hours. He thrived on that sort of thing, and it would be days before he was bearable again.

"What a smashing evening," Miles proclaimed, flinging himself into an armchair with vigor. "And I don't just mean Count Vordovon - the man really must stop drinking so much in public."

"It was a good birthday, then?" Gregor asked, leaning back against a shelf.

"Oh yes," Miles said instantly. "Mind you, I still think it would have been better with a few dozen Dendarii hillmen and as many gallons of maple mead, but you can't have everything." He smiled reflectively. "Now there are some people who know how to throw a party."

"Your thirtieth, was that?" Gregor said. He and Miles shared one of their looks, a lightning fast exchange of perfectly normal expressions, which somehow managed to leave the impression of something very weighty in the room. The two of them were like that, Ivan reflected, watching them. Maybe out of necessity, or maybe just preference; a little of both, he rather thought. Like an iceberg, the two of them were, not much showing, leaving those who knew where to look with the impression of something stunningly massive hidden away beneath the surface. They were very, very good at sliding through below the level of perception, of fooling even those who knew into forgetting. And then, with just one flicker of Miles's fingers on Gregor's sleeve, or one of Gregor's tiny hand-over-heart bows, you were surprised all over again. Which reminded him . . .

"Er," Ivan said uncomfortably. "About tonight . . ."

"This isn't about Madame Vorsoisson again, is it?" Miles said, boots sliding off the table with a thump. "Because I've already told you -"

"No," Ivan said hastily. "It's not." Out of the corner of his eye he saw Gregor twitch. That had to sting, Ivan reflected, even after the fact. A few nasty rumors, more innuendo than anything, had made the rounds in the months following Miles's return from Komarr and his continued association with the newly widowed Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Ivan himself hadn't known what to make of their friendship. Miles had explained it away as a genuine liking for the woman, and a wish to see her happy and well in her new life. Ivan hadn't been present for whatever discussion of the matter had passed between Gregor and Miles, but the upshot was, well, absolutely nothing. Miles had simply smiled in the face of the gossip and continued on as before, seemingly unperturbed. Madame Vorsoisson, after some initial unease, followed his lead. Gregor, of course, maintained an aloof neutrality, and eventually the talkers stopped talking. What must it be like to have to hide so much, so long? "It's not about that," Ivan said, clasping his hands behind his back. "Er, well. I talked to Byerly Vorrutyer, you see. He wanted me to tell you that he, well, er . . ."

"Spit it out," Miles said impatiently.

"Knows about the two of you," Ivan said hastily, then shut his mouth.

There was a pause. Miles crossed one booted ankle over his knee and drummed his fingers rhythmically on the polished heel.

"Because of the rumors," Ivan said into the silence, waving vaguely at Gregor. "You know, about . . ."

"Oh yes," said Miles distantly. "Byerly Vorrutyer. What did he want?"

"Nothing, as far as I know," Ivan said, shrugging. "He was offering his services, actually, to keep an ear out for you, if you like."

Miles snorted. "God save me from amateurs," he said, with the sort of covert ops snobbery that made Ivan want, very, very briefly, to have a few adventures of his own to look back on. Not that Ivan thought it'd really matter. By wasn't an amateur, and, much as Ivan hated to admit it, the fact that so many people misjudged him was actually evidence of his considerable skill.

Gregor stirred. "Miles," he said slowly. "Do you think . . ."

"No," Miles said. "No. It's not time yet."

For a moment it seemed as if that would be the end of that, but then Gregor took a quick breath. "Why not?" he asked.

Miles made a helpless strangling noise. "Because it's not," he said.

"I'm beginning to see the flaw in your great plan," Gregor said mildly. "It leaves the exact moment of truth unspecified. To be forever postponed and postponed and postponed again."

Miles straightened in his chair, breath hissing between his teeth. He visibly swallowed the first few things that came to his lips, and finally settled on a neutral, "Getting impatient?"

"How could I when I have everything I really want?" Gregor shrugged a bit ruefully. "Let's call it greedy in my old age." His voice took on the faintest edge of pleading. "But androgenesis has been available on Barrayar for over two years now. The number of children is creeping up into the hundreds. Your political standing has never been better." He paused, but Miles did not respond. "But we will wait," Gregor said at last. "If it pleases you."

"It doesn't," Miles said, standing and pacing uneasily. "You think I don't want - if it's too soon, we could lose everything."

"Is that what you're afraid of?" Gregor asked gently, and Ivan didn't know why, but he had the impression of those words snapping between them like the edge of a drawn blade.

Miles halted in his pacing and bared his teeth. Ivan considered slinking for the door. "Don't dare me," Miles said lowly. "I don't tend to react . . . moderately to it."

Gregor smiled, startlingly open in the moment of tension. "Why do you think I do it?" He sighed and shrugged minutely. "But I do apologize."

Miles let his breath out, took two steps, and sank back into the chair. "Damn," he said, brushing a hand over his face. He looked up at Gregor again. "I'm sorry, too."

Ivan covertly let out his breath. He was, he supposed, Miles's closest confidante when it came right down to it. He knew they'd disagreed more than once in the past four years, apart from that most spectacular occasion that had sent Miles haring off to Sergyar that very first spring. But Ivan had never witnessed it himself, and he had absolutely no desire to. It was a deeply terrifying prospect. But the two of them seemed to be of one mind on so very many things, or perhaps more accurately of compatible mind, and this strange point of tension was news to Ivan. How long had Gregor been chafing, and why wasn't Miles?

"I'll have a word or two with my might-have-been cousin," Miles added, making a face. "Set him straight on a few points."

"And I'll leave it in your capable hands," Gregor said, glancing up to the chrono. "I should go." He crossed the room to lean over Miles, and Ivan turned away. He could still hear them murmuring goodnights, Gregor's soft laugh, the squeak of the furniture as Miles knelt up to reach him. If they can survive hiding like this for so long and only grow more together with each year, they can survive Miles's moment of truth, he thought, and felt only a small twinge of unease.