This was Ivan’s least favourite sort of party. His mother had pressed him into service yet again to escort her on her rounds of all the other middle-aged high-ups, sipping their drinks and talking about mutual acquaintances.
This one was even worse than usual. This reception was taking place at the Barrayaran Embassy on Betazed, which meant that, for every person he saw and made an inappropriate mental comment about, there was an even chance they could read his mind. His mother had already clipped him around the ear twice after hearing shocked gasps in the crowd, and he wasn’t sure the second one had even been him.
Just as he was reaching to grab another drink from a passing waiter’s tray, his mother leaned across and deftly turned him aside.
‘That’s plenty for one evening, young man,’ she said, as if he wasn’t all of twenty-one years old. ‘Come along, there’s someone I want to introduce you to.’
Ivan groaned. Under his breath, though, so that his mother wouldn’t hear. He gave her his arm and they proceeded through the room, dodging the knots of murmured conversation until they reached the other side.
‘Alys, my dear!’ exclaimed a voice.
A woman hove into view. Her outfit made his mother’s worst excesses look positively drab. It looked as though she had fallen into a box of feathers and sequins, via a vat of purple paint. Against all probability, it looked smashing on her.
‘Why, thank you, what a sweet boy,’ the woman said, grabbing him by the chin and tilting his head to inspect him.
Ivan belatedly strove to be a blank; she looked at him curiously.
‘This is my son, Ivan Vorpatril,’ his mother said. ‘Ivan, this is Ambassador Lwaxana Troi, Daughter of the Fifth House, Holder of the Sacred Chalice of Rixx, Heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed.’
Ivan made the right polite noises.
‘And this is my daughter,’ said Ambassador Troi, ‘Deanna Troi. I imagine you two must be about the same age.’
Ivan’s eyes widened. He tried to think of something non-inflammatory to think of and settled on the image of his cousin Miles. That seemed to help. He certainly wasn’t going to think about Deanna Troi, or her exquisite figure or her full lips or...
Miles. Think about Miles.
Except then he wound up thinking about Miles and Deanna Troi, which was not at all what he’d been aiming for and actually quite distressing.
Pink elephants, pink elephants, pink elephants, dammit!
He’d have to thank Miles later for managing to ruin his night without even being there.
His mother was saying something. He wrenched his attention back with an effort that he hoped he had concealed sufficiently.
‘You were just saying that you’d be interested in seeing the embassy gardens, weren’t you, Ivan?’
He’d clearly missed something.
‘Yes?’ he said, although he didn’t remember saying anything of the sort. He was nothing if not well trained.
‘There we are, then,’ said Ambassador Troi. ‘You two young people entertain yourselves, we’ll see you later.’
Ah. He knew how this one went. His mother was always throwing eligible young women at him and hoping one would stick. Unfortunately what his mother considered eligible often didn’t jibe with what Ivan considered desirable, or else they weren’t at all receptive to Ivan’s ideas about how they might get to know one another better.
He sighed and offered an arm to Miss Troi. She took it, with a demure nod. Not promising. They walked off.
‘Yes, I do know this is a set-up,’ she said, answering the question he hadn’t asked.
‘Oh,’ said Ivan. ‘Isn’t it a bit rude to read people’s minds all the time like that?’
‘Wasn’t reading your mind,’ she said. ‘I’m only half Betazoid. I watch people carefully, it makes up the other half.’
Ivan felt a flush of relief which turned into a flush of embarrassment when she said:
‘I can still read emotions though. Especially ones as... unsubtle as yours.’
‘I beg your pardon,’ said Ivan. ‘But I can’t help what my brain does!’
It was just his brain so far, thankfully.
‘It’s all right,’ said Deanna. ‘I’m used to unsubtle.’
She cocked her head back to where their mothers were huddled conspiratorially close. Ivan smothered a grin.
They passed through the glass doors that led onto a wide terrace, and then followed some steps down to the gardens which were, Ivan had to admit, very lovely. If you liked that sort of thing.
‘I’m sorry you got caught in the middle of my mother’s dynastic machinations,’ Deanna said.
‘I could say the same thing,’ said Ivan. ‘Mine’s been trying to marry me off since I reached my majority. Only child, you know.’
‘Same. She doesn’t understand that I want to travel the galaxy, and see things, and learn things. I’m not ready to get married yet.’
‘Me neither,’ said Ivan emphatically.
They had walked some way now. The path was shady, and there was a pretty wooden bench in the shelter of a large, leafy tree.
‘Shall we sit?’ Deanna asked.
‘Sure,’ said Ivan.
‘It’s nice to meet someone who understands the kind of pressure I’m under,’ said Deanna. ‘It’s difficult not to get frustrated with Mother, even though I know she only wants me to be happy.’
Ivan nodded. He was trying his very hardest to listen properly and to not think about how nice she smelled.
‘I spend so much time doing things for the family,’ she continued. ‘Sometimes I just really need to do something for me - do you see what I mean?’
He made what he hoped was an encouraging sound.
Dammit, I didn’t ask for a heart-to-heart! It’s hard enough as it is to concentrate on not having obscene thoughts!
She shuffled a little closer to him, confidingly.
‘I knew you would understand,’ she said. ‘People in our situation... well... we have to help each other out, when we can.’
‘Yes, of course,’ said Ivan.
‘What I mean is,’ she said delicately, ‘I don’t want to get married yet, not for a long time, but... marriage isn’t everything.’
‘Mmm,’ Ivan mumbled.
She was sitting so close. It was taking all of his energy to keep his thoughts away from what sort of things might happen if they were just an inch or two closer. He tried saying the alphabet backwards to himself.
She sat back a little, and frowned at him.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘I can usually tell more or less what people are feeling, but for some reason you’re very difficult to read. I can’t work out whether you want to have sex with me at all!’
‘I was almost certain you did, back there, but since we sat down you seem to have barely paid attention to me. I have to admit, I’m thrown.’
Ivan replayed the last couple of minutes in his mind.
‘So, what you’re saying is that we could,’ he swallowed, ‘have sex right now, and that would be fine with you?’
She clucked exasperatedly. ‘Why do you think I dragged you all the way down here? There’s a bed of rilla leaves just back there that’s very soft to lie on. Come on, it’ll be ages before anyone even notices we’re gone.’
And it was.