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Late Gifts of Winterfair

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Ivan was tired of being kidnapped. He was blaming this one on Miles, even if his cousin was presently not on Barrayar. In his experience, whenever anything remotely horrible, interesting, or out of routine happened it was usually Miles' fault. Even if it wasn't Miles' fault, Ivan was perfectly happy to blame him anyway. The henchmen who'd bundled Ivan up from the sidewalk a mere ten minutes' walk from his flat hadn't bothered telling him why they'd nabbed him; Ivan figured they were waiting for their master to come by and explain everything. So until he knew what was going on: Miles was to blame.

He had no clue who had grabbed him; whoever it was had men smart enough not to wear livery while committing crimes and they'd blindfolded him pretty effectively on the trip here. He had to give them that much credit, at least. They'd tossed him in a bare room alone, then locked the door and left him, hands tied with what felt like plasticord – and wasn't Ivan not pleased to know he could tentatively identify the stuff by the feel of it on his wrists.

They'd left the light on, for which he was immensely grateful. His kidnapping on Earth had left him with nightmares and a healthy sense of never wanting to be enclosed in the dark ever again. While he couldn't say he was comfortable, sprawled on the floor with nothing to do but wait, Ivan conceded that things could definitely have been worse.

After several minutes of staring at walls and ceiling with no better idea of what was going on, Ivan reflected that he might have brought this on himself, by deciding to walk home from the palace after a too-huge dinner because he'd wanted a chance to think. The palace staff had offered to arrange a ride and he'd turned it down, knowing the walk was a bit far for a casual stroll. But the last several weeks had been getting steadily more difficult and he'd just wanted some time to think about things without anyone distracting him. An hour's hike through the latest part of the evening might not have been his best idea, but to be fair, normally the neighborhoods he'd been going through were typically safe to someone wearing a military uniform.

Well. He certainly had some time now to consider his situation. Shut up in a room with nothing to do – Ivan decided to ignore the problem of his kidnapping, since he couldn't do anything about it yet anyhow. Other than blame Miles, which was easy and already done.

His real problem lay in the fact that he had no idea what to do about Gregor. The man kept inviting him to things. Vorish obligation meant that formal parties and events required he show up in full dress uniform and mingle, but at least at those all he had to do was hang around and look decorative. And eat and drink all the food he wanted, sure, but Ivan didn't really care about the fancy food other than the fact it was free and plentiful. He didn't have much need to make social or political connections – he had plenty of those already, thanks. As much as other people liked to approach him, hoping for something, he'd grown up with his mother's lessons and he could handle almost any of the high society Vor in his sleep.

The most excitement he ever got was when he overheard something suspicious that needed attention, and it was simple enough to put a word in ImpSec's ear via one of their undercover waitstaff. Ivan was glad to let the junior agents take all the credit for the tidbits he sent their way. They seemed to appreciate it, since lately it seemed like there was always one nearby when he needed them. He didn't need the credit, he just – Well. He just wanted to keep an eye out for Gregor.

He knew he ought to be doing it for Barrayar, and the Empire, but honestly most times it was all the same, and if he had to choose, Ivan was going to pick Gregor every time. And that was the basis of Ivan's problems. Because Gregor wasn't just inviting him to big, formal parties. It was also smaller dinners, casual gatherings for family and friends and every once in a while Ivan would show up and it would be just Gregor, waiting for him.

It made a sort of sense. With Miles off-planet, Ivan could appreciate that Gregor would want someone familiar and safe around. It certainly wasn't that he minded – hanging out with Gregor and those he trusted most to relax around wasn't exactly a hardship. Lately Count Vorvolk had been bringing his girlfriend, Adela, who had a wicked sense of humor and who could make both Henri and Gregor laugh out loud, a feat Ivan couldn't remember anyone ever doing before.

But the fact it wasn't a hardship was exactly the problem. It had been ten years, and Ivan was pretty sure Gregor hadn't forgotten Ivan's clumsy offer, but clearly he'd assumed Ivan had moved on.

Ivan hadn't moved on. He was just as in love with Gregor now as he had been all those years ago, clumsy with youth and lack of experience and suffering from entirely too much feeling. He'd been bright enough to wait until he'd had a little experience, kissing both boys and girls and getting no farther than a bit of heavy petting. He'd worried for months then worked up his nerve, scared that Gregor, at eighteen, would consider him still far too young. But he'd asked, because he'd had to. He'd been too much in love to do anything else.

Gregor had been gentle, and kind, when he'd turned Ivan down. He'd made no mention of it ever again, and Ivan had swallowed his pride and done his best to act no differently than before. He'd been grateful that his elders had only ever praised his devotion to his Emperor and never guessed at Ivan's true feelings.

He'd waited until the hurt died down and then he'd gone looking for someone he could love as much. For years he'd dated anyone who wanted, whether they just wanted to have fun or if they were on the prowl for a husband. Ivan knew he'd gotten quite a reputation, but he didn't care. Sometimes he found someone who became a friend, once or twice someone he liked well enough he thought he'd be able to make a life with, had he been ready to make that commitment. He'd been reluctant to tie someone to him if he could only muster up affection for them, but in retrospect he'd also been unwilling to completely let go of loving Gregor.

Through it all he'd got used to being in love and knowing it would never be returned. He'd got used to seeing Gregor everywhere, hearing his name mentioned and have to smile and speak well of him and not think about how much he still wanted.

Then suddenly Gregor seemed to want him around all the time. Private dinners and public events and Ivan was really, really enjoying it. Too much, he knew. Sometimes he would pretend it was more, pretend that it was something it wasn't. Then he'd go home and reality would crash back in and Ivan would sit alone in his flat and tell himself that next time he was going to have to say no. Invent a reason, invent a girl or boyfriend – maybe go out and actually get one, as he hadn't really dated anyone for nearly a year, now. He'd been turning down the offers he'd gotten because he'd wanted more to be available when Gregor called – and if that wasn't a sign of just how pathetic Ivan was, he didn't need a bigger one. But he knew it had to end. He couldn't put his life on hold because he had a chance to see Gregor maybe look over at him and smile.

Ivan closed his eyes. He should have stopped before now. Clearly; he was so far gone that just wanting to be around Gregor for a few hours was making him ache. He opened his eyes and glared at the closed door of his temporary cell and silently urged his captor to show up and get this over with. Anything rather than think about Gregor tonight: the way he'd smiled when Ivan had swung by to say hello, or the way he'd looked in his uniform (and didn't they need to design one with a short-waisted coat, because Ivan had seen Gregor in just his trousers and shirt and a long coat did him no favors at all.)

Ivan hadn't bothered to find him before he'd left, knowing the staff would let Gregor know if he asked. On his way out Ivan ha'd seen Lieutenant Vorpashkin, one of Gregor's personal guard who always seemed to be around whenever Ivan visited. Vorpashkin, Vorreznikov and the youngest Vorbohn all acted like they'd been assigned to him, as if Ivan were at any risk of being assassinated in the palace.

Of course he wouldn't have minded if they'd been around to keep him from being kidnapped, Ivan reflected. ImpSec would be on it eventually, because somebody would notice that he hadn't arrived home and start to wonder where he'd gone. If not tonight, then surely by Monday morning when Ivan didn't show up for work. Chances were reasonable that Ivan wasn't in any urgent danger of dying, given that his captors had dumped and left him here for nearly an hour already without so much as a by your leave or gloating over their plans for Ivan's fate.

He leaned back against the wall and stretched his arms the best he could, feeling the ache building in his shoulders. He was tempted to start banging around and yelling, just to encourage them to come back, but he wasn't quite that stupid, just in case they did want to kill him and leave his body in a back alley somewhere.

As if they'd heard him, the door opened and Giorgi Vordarian walked in. Ivan frowned, because what the hell had any of them done to him? Lately, that is, no telling if old family feelings were behind this. Giorgi wasn't quite old enough to have been involved in the Great Pretendership, but he was old enough that Ivan had hardly ever encountered him socially or otherwise, moving in completely different generational circles. That, and Ivan knew his mother and Giorgi's mother had an understanding that they would never, ever be in the same room at the same time, else blood would be shed. The truce had trickled down to Ivan and Miles and the younger Vordarian set.

Looked like the truce was over; Ivan wondered what his mother would do to Countess Vordarian when she found out about this.

Vordarian scowled at him and walked in, stopping in the middle of the room and clasping his hands behind his back. Ivan waited. Sooner or letter they always start gloating and ranting, and sure enough, Vordarian took a deep breath and asked, "Do you know why you're here?"

"I'm assuming Miles pissed you off," Ivan said, making sure he sounded completely unconcerned.

But Vordarian looked confused, then annoyed. "You don't even recall, then? Arresting my little brother was so insignificant that you have forgotten?"

Brother? Arrest-- Oh. Not Miles' fault after all, then.

"All I did was hand over the reports when I was asked for them," Ivan pointed out. Because, seriously? Ivan hadn't been in any position to even care why he was handing over the reports. They hadn't been classified, he'd just been the one in the room when they needed someone with the logins. The military police had shown up, made their request, and for Ivan that had been the end of it. Apparently not for Giorgi, though.

Vordarian lunged forward, grabbing Ivan by the jacket, yanking him close. "My brother is in prison for the next twenty years, and you sit there and smugly act like it means nothing!"

Ivan tried to scoot his head back, away from Vordarian's red-face and spittle. "He was embezzling government funds, so, yeah, twenty years is the minimum, isn't it?" He could remember the trial, now, from the news. He hadn't had to go to court, obviously, as he hadn't had anything to do with it. He wondered if pointing that out would make any difference. The kid had hadn't even managed to embezzle much, barely twenty thousand marks, but the law didn't differentiate when it came to stealing from government funds. It wasn't a first offense, either, which Ivan thought was the real reason they'd given him a full sentence.

The wild look in Vordarian eyes wasn't exactly reassuring, and the chance of his plan being to dump Ivan's body someplace was suddenly beginning to look like a real possibility. Ivan wondered if ImpSec knew he was missing, yet.

If Miles were here, he could talk Vordarian into letting us go. Ivan thought. Too bad Ivan had always preferred to stand back and let Miles do all the talking – he'd never really picked up the trick of it, himself.

The door creaked again, and Ivan glanced over, hoping for a second to see the reassuring black fatigues of armed ImpSec personnel.

He was absolutely not expecting to see Lieutenant Vorreznikov step through the door, still kitted out in his Emperor's Guard formal uniform from the party. He was followed closely by Ensign Vorbohn and – holy cow, Captain Vormeuller himself. All aiming rifles at Vordarian.

Ivan felt his jaw drop, and holy hells, Gregor must be pissed. Vormeuller was head of the night shift for the entire palace's guard. What the fuck was he doing here?

While Ivan stared, Vorbohn came over, quickly kneeling beside him. "Are you all right?" He looked worried, and pissed off as well, which didn't make any sense because it wasn't like it was his job to keep an eye on Ivan once he left the palace.

Ivan nodded. "Mostly confused." He jutted his chin at Vordarian. "He's mad at me for doing paperwork."

"We heard. Crew outside has their ears on. You aren't hurt?"

"No." Ivan shook his head and leaned forward to let Vorbohn untie his wrists. He rubbed at them and tried to stretch his arms, feeling the sharp pains in his shoulders. Two painkillers and he'd be fine in the morning, if possibly no less confused than he was now. "Seriously, what the hell?"

Vorbohn helped him stand, and Ivan watched as two more guardsmen were handcuffing Vordarian. Vordarian looked as discomfited as Ivan felt. Too bad, he thought, perfectly willing to gloat over someone's decision to overdo Ivan's rescue. Two more of Gregor's own guards suddenly came in, then the someone who'd apparently overdone Ivan's rescue walked into the room.

Ivan heard Vordarian stutter out a "Sire!" but Gregor ignored him, walking over directly to Ivan. His expression – Ivan wasn't exactly sure he understood that particular look on Gregor's face. The guards hustled Vordarian out of the room and, Ivan hoped, into a cold cell of his own.

"Are you all right?" Gregor asked, though surely someone had told him, Ivan had seen Vormeuller speaking into his wrist comm and there were no medics rushing in to tend to Ivan's bumps and bruises. He nodded anyhow, and opened his mouth to ask what the fuck, when Gregor stepped up, right there in front of Ivan, and put his hand on Ivan's face and kissed him.

"Did I hit my head?" Ivan asked, when he could.

Gregor looked suddenly worried. "Did you?" He glanced back, no doubt to give orders which would lead to doctors and medics and hospital visits.

"No, no, I'm fine, I just – What the hell? What are you--" He stopped because he'd seen the look on Vormeuller's face. The man was hiding a smile and making it very obvious that he was Not Watching. Vorreznikov was doing the same and Vorbohn was just grinning openly at him.

"It's all right, m'lord," Vorbohn said, in a reassuring tone. Ivan did not at all feel reassured.

Suddenly he thought about how, whenever he left the palace, the staff or guards nearby always seemed to be disappointed. How they seemed so happy to see him when he arrived.

This was not a conversation he wanted to have in Vordarian's basement. "Can we get out of here now?"

"Of course." Gregor slipped his arm around Ivan's waist, like he needed the assistance and Ivan – he wasn't going to push him away even if he didn't understand what was going on. Rather, he had a very good idea of what might be going on, but not a clue as to why.

The guards all spilled out around them, herding them towards a large, nondescript, but very well armoured car. Gregor helped him into the backseat and someone got into the front with the driver – Ivan thought it was Vorrezhnikov, but he couldn't be sure since he wasn't really paying any attention to anything except the fact Gregor had kissed him. He waited until the car pulled away then he turned to look at Gregor.

Gregor was looking at him apologetically. "I didn't mean to do that," he said quietly, looking more worried than anything else.

"Kiss me?"

Gregor shook his head, but said, "Like that."

"You're saying you didn't arrange to have me kidnapped so you could rescue me, and kiss me in front of all your guards?" Ivan smiled, but he wasn't exactly sure how he was feeling. Gregor had kissed him, which, holy cow. But he wasn't exactly asking if he could do so again.

But there was a very murderous expression on Gregor's face. Ivan opened his mouth to, what, he didn't know. Apologise, maybe? But Gregor reached over and closed his hand around Ivan's wrist – then stopped. Ivan saw the fear, then, deep in Gregor's eyes.

"I'm fine," he said, quickly. "They didn't hurt me."

Gregor nodded and inhaled slowly, but he didn't let go of Ivan's wrist. He kept staring at Ivan, and Ivan just waited, wondering if Gregor even knew what he wanted to say.

"You kissed me," Ivan prompted. "And you didn't mean to." The words hurt to say, but he kept that off his face as best he could.

But Gregor shook his head. "I meant to," he said, clearly and simply, and Ivan wondered if he should be feeling less confused now.

"But you said no," Ivan said, and maybe ten years was too long ago. He wondered, briefly, if Gregor even remembered that Ivan had asked him, once.

"I wanted to say yes," Gregor said, and he sighed, settling back in his seat and looking tired all of a sudden. He glanced out the window, and Ivan noted that he hadn't loosened his grip on Ivan's wrist at all. Then Gregor turned back to him and said, "I was eighteen, and had been listening to people talk for years about how I would be marrying whomever was picked out for me."

Ivan opened his mouth to argue the point, and Gregor shook his head.

"I figured it out eventually, but at the time I thought – at best I might get to pick among whomever was offered. But I honestly did not know I could freely choose whomever I loved." He paused, then, and before Ivan could blurt out anything embarrassing, Gregor asked, "Do you remember Vordroza's attempt to get Miles arrested for treason?"

"Vaguely," Ivan said, dryly. He was rewarded with a tiny smile from Gregor, and Ivan smiled back. He felt like a good one half of his brain was stuck on the words 'whomever I love.'

"He wasn't just after Miles," Gregor said, then he gave Ivan a rueful look. "He figured out how I felt about you, and he did his very best to convince me it would never be permitted. He was very gentle and understanding about it, constantly offering his sympathies. He even once suggested that after I was safely married and had heirs, I could have a very secret affair with you." Gregor tilted his head, consideringly. "Vordroza was very eager to introduce me to a cousin of his, that I might marry. Or his niece – he was very keen that she would be willing to promise herself to me, though she was only fourteen at the time."

"So when Vordroza and Hessman tried to have me killed on the way to find Miles..." Ivan shook his head at the complete nefariousness of Vordroza's plot.

"Two birds with one stone, I think," Gregor said, mildly. "Getting you out of the way might have just been a bonus." He didn't sound terribly upset – but Ivan figured he'd had time to get over it.

"So why didn't you say anything once you dumped him as your advisor?"

"After that entire mess, I thought, it happened because I was desperate to distance myself from Uncle Aral, and his policies. I wanted to prove myself my own man. But after seeing how easy it was for Vordroza to delude me, I felt that I needed to make sure I could be a good ruler – that I had it in me to do what was best for the Empire. Quite frankly, I needed to grow up, and learn to trust myself as a ruler before I could worry about whom I was going to marry."

He was watching Ivan as he talked, and Ivan could see all of it in his face. Gregor normally kept his expressions carefully neutral, but right now he was letting Ivan see everything. Guilt, and sorrow, and apology, and a calmness that made Ivan think that ultimately, he'd probably made the right choice.

"So what changed?" Ivan asked. "Why now, I mean? This isn't the first time I've gotten kidnapped and you've never tried to kiss me before. That I know of," he added. True, the attempts hadn't all been here on Barrayar. Maybe Gregor had got over the urge to kiss him by the time Ivan had got home.

But Gregor's reply surprised him. "Last year at Winterfair, Uncle Aral sat down with me and a very expensive bottle of whiskey. He asked me why I didn't seem interested in any of the people I was being introduced to as potential mates. He wanted to know if there was a reason I was so steadfastly remaining single."

Ivan's jaw dropped. "You told Uncle Aral?"

Gregor smiled. "I was rather drunk by that point. I tried talking around it at first, but he kept topping off my glass, and before I knew it, I was telling him everything." Another sigh, but Gregor didn't really seem upset. "He suggested that, as you were also rather steadfastly single, I might try again." He stopped talking, then, and just sat there, still gripping Ivan' wrist and just looking at him, calmly.

"That was almost a year ago," Ivan said. "You-- Holy fuck, Gregor, have you been inviting me over on dates this whole time?" Because yes, all those invitations had started right after Winterfair last year. And Vorvolk had taken to smiling at him over those – double dates, holy hell. And hadn't Uncle Aral had a very strange conversation with Ivan a few months ago, that hadn't made any sense at the time, but had been full of vague assurances that if Ivan wanted to do anything, it was fine, the family supported him. He'd thought his uncle had been talking about a new career or something.

That made a lot more sense, if also a lot more terrifying. And his mother, she'd been smiling at him more than normal, and completely stopped talking about when he was going to settle down. Ivan felt like crawling back into Vordarian's basement and never coming out.

Gregor was rubbing a hand over his face. "I hadn't – no. They weren't meant to-- I was trying to figure out if you were even willing... If you were still interested. I wasn't trying to trick you."

"Why didn't you just ask?"

He didn't answer right away, but it was easy to guess what the answer was. Fear, something Ivan was all too familiar with. What if he says no. What if it means we can't even be friends.

What if he breaks my heart.

Without thinking, Ivan just leaned forward, and kissed him. A minute later, half-on Gregor's lap and his wrist finally out of Gregor's death-grip, Ivan looked out the window at the private and very secure underground parking garage at the palace. "How long d'you think they were going to leave us in the car?"

"All night if need be," Gregor said, smiling. He looked happier than Ivan could ever remember seeing, in fact, and it made Ivan want to test something. So he did; he leaned in and kissed him a second – third – time. When he broke the kiss and checked, Gregor was smiling so contentedly he looked like he might melt into the seat.

"If we make a dash for your room, do you think the hallways will be empty?"

Gregor nodded, seriously, like he was willing to give Imperial commands if necessary. Ivan reached past him and popped the door, then crawled across Gregor and out of the car. The garage was, in fact, completely empty. Gregor had grabbed onto his hand as he went, not quite the same deathgrip as before, but Ivan had a feeling that Gregor wasn't going to be letting go for awhile.

The urgency of getting to a bedroom dimmed, just a bit, because Gregor loved him. He laughed. At Gregor's curious look, he said, "Hey." He tugged at Gregor's hand. Gregor smiled at him indulgently. "I love you, too."

Gregor's contented, smug smile of before was nothing compared to the look on Gregor's face now. His smile wasn't as wide, but Ivan could see that it went all the way down, deep into his bones. Like every single part of his being was completely and utterly happy. Ivan figured that was just as well, because he was, too.

Hopefully whoever was manning the ImpSec security cameras for the garage didn't mind more kissing.