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Coping Stratagem

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Ambassador Vorpatril, back from his latest assignment, had Barryar all to himself for three glorious, blissful days. Miles had gone haring off on some wild goose chase (word from Gregor said it involved some contretemps from his mother, and Ivan thanked whatever deities were listening that he was many wormhole jumps away from that barrel of monkeys) and Vobarr Sultana was...quiet, for a change. He, Tej and the still-blobby Padma Shiv (whose gurgling presence had the most remarkable softening effect on all of his friends and family, he should have produced offspring years ago) had a pleasant dinner with Mother and Simon and the Count and Countess Vorrutyer. They attended a casual luncheon at the Residence, where Ivan used his fine-honed diplomatic talents to pretend he saw the Vorbarra children as anything other than walking safety bumpers between him and a really uncomfortable camp stool. They even managed a quiet afternoon at home in their lavish new digs. Ivan's (shudder) brother-in-law, ostensibly visiting to bear witness to Padma Shiv on behalf of his extended family, was even mildly positive about the decor, or at least didn't feign vomiting when he crossed the threshold. 

It was not to last. Ivan knew this, he accepted it, but it still hurt when it was all over.

Ivan's idyll came to an end one morning when he had dragged himself away from his warm, soft bed and his warm, soft wife to get his day started. The whole house was asleep, and Ivan was wearing a pair of sleeping shorts and the crusty stuff in his eyes as he shambled out for coffee. The only downside to being off-duty was not having any charming young embassy staff to bring him his coffee.

The coffee was halfway brewed (filling the kitchen with the aroma and dragging Ivan a few centimeters closer to wakefulness) when the voice he least wanted to hear in all the universe said, quite casually "good morning, Ivan."

Ivan swore and his mug went flying. He went for his stunner, which he wasn't wearing, and his other hand jerked towards his screamer-tag, which he also wasn't wearing. He recognized the voice, of course, but was it his fault that it was indelibly associated with terror, discomfort, and immediate peril?

Miles was sitting in Ivan's living room, unshaven and dressed in, dear god, shorts and a t-shirt. His feet were up on Ivan's priceless Time of Isolation coffee table, damn his impertinence (it was an old Vorpatril family piece that had a mural depicting the second execution of Lord Vorventa the Twice-Hung on it) and he had his hands clutched around...

Oh dear god. Around a bottle of maple mead. And not the store-bought kind, either, the kind you got in stone jugs from toothless hillbillies and used to strip enamel off of lightflyers. 

"Who died?" Ivan said, panicked "was it Ma Kosti? Did Ekaterin leave you? Are the Cetagandans invading?"

"Nobody died, I'm still married, and we're not about to get our bones melted, at ease," Miles said in that very careful way he had when he was hopelessly smashed.

"Oh. Okay. Then why the fuck are you in my house at," Ivan glanced at the chrono over the coffee pot "seven in the goddamn morning?

"I used my override," Miles said, waving his solid gold Auditor's seal at Ivan.

"Not how-why, why-why!" Ivan said.

"Oh," Miles said "oh. Sorry. Yes, well, I just got back from Sergyar."

Ivan waited.

"My mother, um. Is having more children."

"Well, anyone could have seen that coming," Ivan said, reasonably enough "she planning to drown Sergyar in babies, or something? Miles - you're forty two. Shouldn't you be past being jealous of your younger siblings?"

"You're lucky your-" Miles trailed off.

"...Father got shot?" Ivan finished, helpfully. He was being shitty, he knew, but, well, he was mostly naked and being home-invaded by his psychotic cousin in a funk. Etiquette be damned. He poured himself a cup of coffee into a fresh mug and sat opposite Miles in a big leather armchair.

Miles glowered "I meant, that your mother doesn't want more children."

This also seemed reasonable to Ivan. When you threw the genetic dice and rolled two sevens, why would you throw again?

"Miles, I love you like the brother I never, ever, even for the slightest moment wanted, and you know that I would kill or die for you. But could you get to the point before I lob you off the balcony?"

"That would be treason, technically." 

"No court would convict me."

"No court would be convened. You'd be tried by Auditorial investigation and summarily executed."

"Get to the point, Miles, or get to the balcony rail and start flapping."

Miles sighed, and took another pull off his jug. Good god, how much had he drunk already? 

"My mother...shared some details. About...my father. His personal life," Miles said.

"Oh, do tell," Byerly said, appearing out of nowhere, coffee in hand, in a dressing gown of peacock silk that should have made him look ridiculous but didn't. 

Miles looked up in bewilderment, with a dash of real pain. On the whole, Ivan sympathized, but right at this moment he would take any ally he could get. Damn Miles, for making Byerly Vorrutyer the lesser of any conceivable pair of annoyances.

"Why is Byerly here?" Miles asked, eyes squeezed shut "Byerly, why are you here?"

"Visiting my nephew-in-law," Byerly said, sitting down, legs crossed at the ankles, on Ivan's loveseat. Mile's blackest glower slid off Byerly without so much as ruffling his hair. 

"Also getting his annual debriefing by ImpSec," Ivan supplied. Was it always this chilly at this hour?

"That too," Byerly said "but let's stick to the facts. Your mother shared details about the between-the-sheets life of your father, the Viceroy Admiral Prime Minister Regent Count etcetera etcetera?"

"This is family business," Miles said.

"Excellent. I'm family. Would you like some coffee?"

"Oh god," Miles said, squeezing his eyes shut "he's family."

"I know, I know," Ivan said sympathetically "it hurts me too."

 "Fine. You're family. No, Byerly, I would not like coffee." 

 "...Can I have some of the mead, then?" Byerly said, holding out his half-empty cup.

Miles gave him a long, measured glance.

"Sure," he said, topping Byerly off "Ivan, grab a glass. Trust me, you'll need it."

"I'm going to get dressed," Ivan said, standing "don't get into any soul-scarring personal revelations without me."

"Wouldn't dream of it," Miles said.

 

<><><>

 

Tej was awake and fully dressed when Ivan entered.

"I heard his voice through the door," she said tersely "what level are we on?"

"Miles Alert Seven," Ivan said, grimly "he's having a personal meltdown. Something about his father." 

"Oh no," Tej said "I've got Dimitri getting Padma Shiv ready. We're going to escape out the service elevator. Are you sure you can't come with me?" Tej said.

"Are you kidding? It's Miles having a shit-fit about his Da. If I don't keep him here while he gets it out of his system, we'll probably be at war by the end of the day. Get out of here. If I die, remember me as a hero."

Tej kissed him, her heart in her eyes "anything else, hero?"

"Yeah," Ivan said, pulling on a shirt "make sure the statue of me is extra handsome, okay?"

"I'll pray for you, Ivan Xav," Tej said, breathless. They were, unfortunately, only about 50% joking.

"Pray for us all, Tej. Pray for us all."

 

<><><>

 

 "Admiral Jole?"

"Yes. Apparently for like...twenty damn years," Miles said. 

A tiny, high-pitched squeal of glee emanated from Byerly's sternum, but otherwise his composure was unchanged. 

Ivan was...was there a manlier word for flummoxed? It wasn't that it was so inconceivable, the bisexuality part, it was just...

"I have a hard time imagining your father having sex, period," Ivan said.

"I don't," Byerly murmured, not quite sotto voce.

"Oh my god, shut up," Ivan said, more or less on reflex "I mean...like...casual sex." 

"It was a twenty year relationship. That's not casual."

"No no I mean..." Ivan struggled  "like, having sex that didn't change the world."

"He only did that once," Miles said, managing a brief smirk.

"Ugh," Ivan replied, taking a belt of mead. It tasted like sugar and gasoline. 

"It wasn't just sex," Miles said "my father loved  this man. Loved him as much as he loved my mother, in a different way. Now he's going to have my father's children."

"Would it bother you if he'd loved another woman that way?" Byerly asked mildly. 

"Not," Miles said, hiccuping to a halt "not if I had known about it." 

Ivan suspected this was the sticking point.

"Why didn't he tell me?" Miles said, quiet, his voice incredulous and hurt. Ivan's heart bled, as it always did when Miles was in crisis, though it would take fast-penta or two more shots of maple mead to get him to admit it. 

 "Did you ask Cordelia?"

"Of course, but all I got was Betan psychobabble about how maybe he worried that I would judge him."

"That seems too human, right?" Byerly asked, thoughtful. 

"I...uh, yeah," Miles said, blinking owlishly.

 

<><><>

 

Ivan remembered his uncle...not altogether fondly, it was true. Aral Vorkosigan had always seemed a giant, more real than reality, and seldom had the time of day for feckless young Ivan. Ivan had given up trying to make of Aral a father figure by the time he was seven. He was bitter, even now, a little, but he understood. Being father to Miles had to have been a full-time job, and Aral had run a three-planet empire and raised its Emperor on the side. Ivan knew, even at seven, what he did and didn't rate.

He remembered the last time he saw Aral, presenting his wife to the Viceroy and Vicereine on Sergyar. It had been...nice. Aral wore a luridly colored shirt covered in rainbow birds, and talked to Ivan as though they might, in some broad sense of the word, be considered equals. 

She's a good woman, Aral said in the garden, after dinner, over two fingers of something from the Time of Isolation. Just him and Ivan. Like grownups.

Yes sir, she is, Ivan said, trying to suppress the errant thought that the only thing he'd even done that had won anybody's approval was get married. 

Aral stared off into his garden, listening to Tej and Cordelia's animated conversation on the veranda.

You'll be a good man for her, he said it's easier for men like us, when we see ourselves reflected in another's loving eyes every morning, every moment. Easier to be who we should be, who others need us to be. I'd be lost without them.

Men like us

It was only in retrospect that Ivan wondered about the 'them'.

 

<><><>

 

"I'm not angry," Miles said "and I meant it when I told Oliver I was glad for him and mother. It's just that now I don't know...what else I might have missed, you know?

"Knowing your parents doesn't always make you love them better," Byerly said neutrally "and, Miles, I can't say it was really any of your business at the time."

"I know that, Vorrutyer, for god's sake-"

"Well I'm glad," Ivan said suddenly.

Both Miles and Byerly stopped and looked at him, in that way they had, where it seemed like he had interrupted a conversation about the Classics by loudly breaking wind.

Because he was. Aral had been a great man and a good one, but he had never seemed, at the root, to be an especially happy one. Mad Yuri had struck the first blow against the feckless second son that might have been, and Barryar had been quick to follow through. Even the death of Ivan's father, a happier man than Aral had dreamed of being, had been another strike against him. He knew his mother and Aral both saw Lord Padma Vorpatril ever time they saw Ivan, but in different ways, and for different reasons.

Anything that made the old bastard happy was fine by Ivan.

The fact that it undoubtedly made Piotr, the oldest bastard of them all, spin in his grave like a Greekie wedding dancer was a wrinkle to Ivan's appreciation that he felt best to keep to himself.

"That's very nice, Ivan," Miles said with exaggerated patience "but we're talking about my feelings right now."

Ivan hid a smile. Weren't they always?

"So for god's sake, Vorkosigan," Byerly said "about these birthdays. What did what to whom, and...look, I'll sketch a diagram."

"Urgh! No. I swear, am I the only Barryaran male without repressed homoerotic impulses?"

"There's me," Ivan said.

Byerly snorted daintily.

"That was for Rish and Tej's birthday and it did not count," Ivan said, flushing. Miles stared at him.

"They're the same day, years apart," Ivan explained "it's an even-sibling odd-sibling thing for the Arquas."

"That's not..." Miles bonked his head rhythmically with the mead jar "I don't need more shocking revelations from any family members, okay? I'm tapped out. I'm done."

"Yes dear," Byerly said, smirking with everything but his mouth.