Aral held Ivan, pacing a few steps back and forth, rubbing his back gently to soothe the pain of teething. The toddler was only snuffling slightly now, looking like he might fall asleep soon, a big improvement over his agitated fussing and whining when Alys had arrived with him.
Alys looked on admiringly. “You have the magic touch with him, Aral.” I can’t even get him to stop crying so quickly.” Aral looked tense. He was always intense, but not tense, not like this. “Cordelia says you’re the same way with poor Miles. A godsend, I believe she called you.”
“Heh.” He widened his pacing to almost a meter, the nearly asleep Ivan now cradled in the crook of his arm. “My Aunt Sonia, Padma’s mother, used to say the same thing. Just call me the Baby Whisperer!”
They both laughed quietly at that so as not to wake the now sleeping boy. Alys wondered what kind of father Padma would have been. Probably not quite like Aral - having watched him with the fragile Miles and the emotionally devastated, brutally orphaned Gregor, she knew he was probably one of a kind - quite amazing, actually. Padma had told her of Aral’s troubled relationship with Piotr and wondered who his role model had been. The snoozing Ivan had a firm grip on Aral’s thumb, his hand looking so tiny next to Aral’s very large, very strong looking one. She hoped Cordelia realized how lucky she was - how lucky Miles was, if one could ever call Miles lucky after what had happened to him in the soltoxin attack aftermath. At least he had Aral, and that was quite something. She felt a pang for her own son.
Still pacing, Aral glanced at the boy, still looking troubled. “He looks so much like Padma at the same age, Alys. He’s big in comparison to Miles - any baby would be, but he’s bigger than Padma was at a year old, too. A fine, strong boy, your Ivan.”
Aral hadn’t slept the night before, going over and over in his mind what to tell Alys, how to tell her. He had been agonizing over the decision for weeks, hating to have to make it at all, trying to enjoy his time with Padma’s son as much as possible before he reluctantly did what he felt he had to do. Alys had been accommodating, bringing Ivan around to play with Miles - if what the two boys did could be called playing, babbling their baby nonsense at each other as if it meant something and giggling uproariously when he’d go through his repertoire of funny faces. Young Ivan somehow seemed to grasp that he had to be gentle with Miles, and seemed to enjoy their time together. It was going to be hellishly tricky to manage what he was about to do, because he desperately wanted the two boys to have the kind of friendship he and Padma had had, maybe even closer since they were very near in age. He’d been more like a big brother to Padma as a child, and they’d happily remained the best of friends as grown men, one of the great and rare joys of his life.
He kept pacing, pacing... feeling Ivan’s baby snores rather than hearing them, and smiled a little, noticing the questioning look Alys was giving him, but still working it over and finding no comfort, no easy way to say what he’d asked her here to tell her.
Alys watched him fondly as he smiled warmly at her son, the affection so obvious on his face. Padma had always claimed the Vorbarra menfolk were more emotional than most - it was a Russian thing, he told her. She was never quite sure if he was pulling her leg or not, but he and Aral had always been openly demonstrative in each other’s company, much more so than most other Barrayaran men, within the family circle, at least. Within the family circle, Aral’s renowned poker face was non-existent. His emotional highs and lows seemed more intense than those of anyone she’d ever met, especially in comparison to the very laid-back, oh-so congenial Padma. She knew there was something eating at him right now, something big and very troubling.
The sight of him in full dress admiral’s uniform - the most powerful man in the imperium - rocking Ivan ever so gently, was almost incongruous. She corrected herself - no, not incongruous at all to those who knew him. It was said he wore his uniform as naturally as a tiger wears its stripes. So very true. But he wore the mantle of fatherhood just as naturally - all his military and imperial trappings did nothing to obscure that.
Aral was still pacing. She put a hand out to stop him in his tracks. He halted, the look in his eyes full of remorse. “Alys...” he began, at the same time as she said, “Aral...”
“Alys, let me go first, please.” He paused, trying to meet her eyes, and mostly succeeding. “There’s no other way to do this, so I’m afraid I’m just going to have to be blunt. You can hate me for it later.”
“Please, Alys. Please. Just... let me finish. I can’t tell you how glad I’ve been - Cordelia, too - that you’ve been bringing Ivan here for Miles. I hope for both their sakes you’ll continue to do so. And please know that I will do everything and anything in my power for you and Ivan whenever you might be in need of help, of any kind. I’ll always be there for both of you. You must believe that.” He was near tears, voice cracking with raw emotion. “God, I wish there was some other way... Alys, I can’t be a father to Ivan the way I am to Miles and I’m trying so hard to be with Gregor. I’m utterly terrified that doing so will put him in as much danger as Miles and Gregor. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way that not even very young children are immune to the madness and insanity that comes with my position, with being Vorkosigan.”
Startled, she began to protest but was silenced by his hand, gentle but quite firm, on her arm, and she held her tongue.
“As much as I would like to be a big part of Ivan’s life - to be a proper father figure - for your sake, his, and Padma’s, I will not allow him to become a political pawn. Miles is - that’s his curse as my son, and Gregor is to some extent, because of the vow I swore to Ezar. In Ivan’s case, at least I can do something to keep him as far away from it as possible - I owe Padma that much.”
“Aral, you don’t...”
“I do, Alys, I do. I owe him. Padma’s dead because of me. I took the regent’s job, knowingly putting my family members - all of them - at risk.” The deep impassioned voice was scarcely a whisper. “Negri’s dead, too, because of me. Gregor’s an orphan, because of me.”
Equally impassioned, Alys said, “NOT because of you, Aral. Because of Vordarian! Because of damned Barrayaran politics! You took the regent’s job because your emperor required it. Your people required it. Your modesty is becoming, but you know as well as I do - as anyone who isn’t a damn fool ultraconservative reactionary knows - that you’re the best man, the only man for the job. Everyone who knows you knows how much you tried to avoid it.”
“Hmmph. Right, maybe those who know me, but everyone else is seemingly convinced I intend to keep it and are hell-bent on bringing me down before I can. It’s been a curse on the family, Alys. I can’t begin to tell you how much I long for the day when I can step down. Does that make me horribly selfish, wanting to dump it all in poor Gregor’s lap?”
“It’s his destiny, Aral. You’re just keeping the campstool warm for him.”
“As I swore to do.” His voice was a near sob. “I knew it would be dangerous, but my God, Alys, look what it’s done to the kids already! Miles so badly damaged, Gregor orphaned, Ivan fatherless.”
He paused, the muscles in his heavy jaw clenching and unclenching furiously. “Alys, for Ivan’s sake, I’m going to have to ask you to limit his exposure to me, as much as possible. He’s in the line of fire enough as it is being third in line to the throne. If I go down for just about any reason, anyone close to me goes down with me. I will not add to his risk. I couldn’t live with myself if...”
Alys interrupted, “There must be some way. A boy needs a father.”
For the first time since she’d known him, she saw a hint of his fabled anger, his voice a cold harsh whisper. “Don’t you think I’ve tried to come up with something? Have you any idea how many sleepless nights I’ve spent? I don’t want to do this, Alys! If you can think of something... anything, some way around it - I beg of you - please, please tell me!”
Ivan stirred in his arms, more aroused by the tension than sound - she could hardly hear Aral herself. He resumed his soothing rocking, and Ivan fell back to sleep.
“I’m sorry, Alys. I didn’t mean to dump that on you. But you know I’m right, don’t you?”
Unfortunately, she did. He was too terribly right. It hadn’t occurred to her before, but it should have. She had been so preoccupied with the future benefit to her son as the nephew (well, first cousin one removed) to the regent that she had been blind to the tremendous risk posed by Barrayar’s infernal political insanity. Yes, sadly, Aral was right, horribly right.
“It won’t too awful for Ivan. Padma did all right for himself without a father, wouldn’t you say? The Vorpatrils will be a help. They’re thankfully as far from the madness as it’s possible to be on Barrayar. Good people. And there’s your family, too. I promise to do what I can for Ivan, but it will have to be from a distance. And please don’t let this keep the boys apart. Miles will need real friends - I’m so afraid he’s be destined to be surrounded by those trying to suck up to him because of me AND being shunned by the rest because of his disabilities.”
“Of course they’ll be great friends! You’ll see. How could they not? And as much as I hate to agree, you’re right. You’ll be a fantastic “uncle” - but you would have been an even better father.”
He looked pained at that, and deeply exhausted, blinking slowly, his eyes gleaming.
“That wasn’t a criticism, Aral. I understand your reasoning, I really do. I’m ashamed to say it hadn’t occurred to me. I apologize. It should have.”
Ivan woke, grinning at Aral, who threw him up over his head to peals of laughter, flying him around in circles, complete with engine noises. When he let him down, Ivan hugged him, his little arms clamped tightly around his uncle’s neck before raining sloppy kisses on his cheek.
“We can’t tell him, Alys,” he said, once Ivan had released his grip on his neck. “Not while he’s a child, anyway. Maybe some day, once he’s grown.”
“If we have to do it this way at all, that’s probably wisest,” she sighed. “But you still would have been a wonderful father to him. Padma would agree.”
Sighing deeply while disengaging Ivan’s mouth from the top button of his uniform jacket, he managed a small smile. “So we’re still good? You don’t hate me too much?”
Snorting in a ladylike way, she punched him on the bicep. “Not too much, no.”
Holding Ivan up in front of him and looking the drooling boy in the eye, Aral told him solemnly, “It’ll be all right, Lord Ivan. We’ll be all right. You’ll thank me for this some day.”