I. The Sofa.
"We don't need a new sofa. This one's served me perfectly well -"
"For fifteen years."
"So? There's nothing wrong with it!"
Ekaterin put her hands on her hips, gathered all of her considerable patience in two mental handfuls, and said, "That depends, I suppose, on your definition of nothing. But that isn't my point -"
"What do you mean, 'depends on your definition of nothing'?"
Ekaterin's patience snapped. She marched over to the disputed sofa and removed a cushion. "Exhibit A," she said, and flipped it over. A purple stain covered roughly a third of the cushion. This was especially unfortunate given that the cushion was off-white. "What was this, red wine?"
Ivan winced. "Probably."
"And Exhibit B." Ekaterin reached for another cushion. That one had a smaller stain, not quite so spectacular, but still highly questionable. "Do I even want to know?"
Ivan blanched. "Probably not."
"I rest my case."
"But they're fine if you just flip them over!"
"I don't want to have to flip them over," Ekaterin said with exasperation. "I want a new sofa!"
"Well, I don't!"
A blighted silence fell. Ekaterin briefly considered leaving the room, but decided that would set a dangerous precedent this early on. Instead she stalked over to the armchair and sat down with her arms crossed over her chest. After a moment, Ivan sat on the sofa. Ekaterin was put in mind of an article she'd read once, in a course on the history of environmental activism, about twentieth century activists who had prevented the felling of trees by climbing up and refusing to come back down. Her professor had deemed the strategy "effective, if obnoxious."
She gave a quiet laugh. Ivan looked up, eyes narrowed. "What?"
Ekaterin shook her head. "Nothing." She drummed her fingers briefly on the arm of the chair. "I'm not proposing to choose a new sofa on my own, you know," she said at last. "I just want us to pick one out together."
"And . . . ?"
"I like this one. It's comfortable."
"We can make sure the next one's comfortable, too," Ekaterin said, deliberately missing Ivan's point, though she knew what he really meant by comfortable. The next sofa would not have been in Ivan's bachelor apartment, would not have been broken in by a thousand nights in front of the holovid, would not carry memories of all the times he'd fallen asleep or snogged a girl there.
Ekaterin sighed. Words of one syllable, she thought, remembering Countess Vorkosigan's advice on the eve of her second wedding. Fine. "I've never bought a sofa before."
Ivan looked vaguely dumbfounded. "Really?"
Ekaterin pressed her lips together. "I lived with my father until I went to university, where I lived with my aunt and uncle. And then I lived with Tien, in a series of furnished apartments. The first one, I think I bought a few things, but after I had to abandon them . . . And after Tien -"
"Oh," Ivan said. He looked down at the sofa, picking at a thread that was coming loose. One of many. Ekaterin didn't know how a sofa ended up that battered when Ivan had never even owned a pet. "I guess . . . this is a big house. It's a lot bigger than my old apartment."
Ekaterin bit her lip to stay silent.
"There's that room next to ours - we could make it into a sort of rec room, for when Nikki wants to have friends over. It'd make sense for the sofa in there to be broken in, wouldn't it?"
Ekaterin nodded. "It would. Then if they spill something horrible on it, there won't be anything to be upset about. Not that they will," she added, when Ivan looked alarmed. He relaxed, nodding. She got up and went to sit beside him, lacing their fingers together and laying her head on his shoulder. "Thank you."
He laid his cheek on top of her head. "Yeah, well. This marriage thing. I hear there's a lot of compromise involved. Or something."
"Or something," she agreed, still smiling.
II. The Handcuffs.
"Ivan. What is this?"
"That's, er, Dono Vorrutyer's wedding present. To us."
"I see that from the card. My dear Madame Vorsoisson -"
"Ekaterin . . ."
Ekaterin cleared her throat. Ivan swallowed the rest of his sentence. Nothing he said was going to stop this train wreck, anyway. "'Please allow me to congratulate you for succeeding where so many others failed,'" she read. "'Our Ivan has certainly grown up nicely, and I must believe that it is at least partially due to your good influence. But I doubt that he has changed so much that you won't get some use out of my gift!'" She set the card aside, reached into the small, discreet black box, and withdrew Dono Vorrutyer's blasted gift, letting it dangle from one finger. "He sent us handcuffs."
"I saw," Ivan said weakly. Damn it all to hell, it was far too early for this sort of thing, and on their one mutual day off per week, too.
"Velvet-lined handcuffs. Anything you care to tell me?"
Ivan swallowed. "I used to date Donna Vorrutyer?"
"I figured that much out on my own, thank you. Handcuffs, Ivan!"
Ivan put his hands on his hips, suddenly annoyed. "What do you want me to say? That Donna and I used to play naughty games involving handcuffs and blindfolds and the occasional spanking?"
Ekaterin held her hands up, realized one of them still held the item in question, and grimaced. "Enough! I don't need details."
"Then don't ask for them!"
"I didn't." She dropped the handcuffs back into their box and shut the lid decisively. "I just hope you don't expect me to - to -"
"I don't," Ivan reassured her, all the while mentally damning every unhinged member of the Vorrutyer family tree. He'd bet his lightflyer Dono had known exactly what he was doing.
"Good." She turned to stalk off into the bathroom, stopped mid-stride, and turned back. "Wait, why not?"
Ivan blinked rapidly, in an attempt to recover from his sudden mental whiplash. "Why not what?"
"Why don't you expect me to?"
Ivan felt his mouth fall open. "Because I assumed you weren't, er, interested."
Ekaterin shook her head. "Nothing." She turned and went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her. After a moment, Ivan heard the shower start to run. He fell back onto the bed and shoved a pillow over his face. Married life was so bloody complicated.
He'd almost fallen back to sleep when the pillow was suddenly removed, leaving him blinking, startled, up at Ekaterin, damp and flushed from her shower. Her towel covered her from the chest down, but a stray droplet sliding over her collarbone arrested Ivan's attention - so much so, that he missed what she was saying at first.
"Sorry, what was that?"
She frowned at him - but with amusement, rather than annoyance, so that was all right. "I said, I assumed I wasn't interested, too. But how do I know that?"
Ivan sat up. "I take it you've never -" Not with him, certainly. And the only other option . . .
"Not with Tien, no." She looked away, refusing to meet his gaze. Par for the course whenever her sex life with the man Ivan and Miles referred to in private as That Ass Tien came up. "He wasn't very imaginative. But I used to have to - never mind." She bit her lip. "I don't think I want to talk about this after all."
Ivan reached for her hand and pulled her down to sit beside him. "Ekaterin."
She looked away again. "I used to have to fantasize, when I was with him. Some of the fantasies were, um -"
"Kinky?" Ivan supplied.
"That's not bad, you know," Ivan said gently.
"But I hated them," she burst out, "I hated that I needed them, and I don't want to give up touching you just to, to -" She made a frustrated, inarticulate noise, and made a gesture that vaguely indicated binding her wrists together. Her ears were very red.
"I see," Ivan said, and smiled to himself in unexpected anticipation. "You know, you've broken one of Aunt Cordelia's Fifteen Cardinal Rules for Married Arguments. Number 3, actually."
Ekaterin frowned. "I made an assumption?"
Ivan nodded, very seriously. She quirked an eyebrow inquisitively. Ivan grinned. "You're assuming you're meant to be the one wearing the cuffs."
III. The Late Nights.
Ekaterin pushed the front door open, winced at its habitual creak, and slipped inside, shutting it quietly behind her. She shed her coat, hung it neatly in the coat closet, and tucked her gloves into its pocket. She would make a quick snack, she decided, and then go to bed. Hopefully she wouldn't wake Ivan.
The light in the sitting room flicked on. Ekaterin jumped, hand going to her mouth to stifle her own scream.
"Good evening," Ivan said.
"How long have you -" Ekaterin began, realized she was being too loud. "How long have you been sitting here in the dark?" she hissed.
"Only since I heard your autocab pull up. And you don't have to whisper," Ivan added in a normal voice. "Nikki went to stay at Vorkosigan House for the night. Seeing as he doesn't have school tomorrow." He paused. "You did remember there wasn't any school tomorrow, didn't you?"
"Yes, of course," Ekaterin said with a glare. She gave a mental sigh. She was exhausted from yet another fourteen hour day, and it seemed Ivan was bound and determined to have the argument that had been brewing ever since Ekaterin had started the new job. Fine, then. But she wasn't going to do it on an empty stomach. "I'm going to make a sandwich and a cup of tea. Would you care to join me?"
Ivan shrugged, nodded, and followed her into the kitchen. Ekaterin turned on the lights and set the kettle brewing. Ivan pulled a loaf of bread out and began assembling a sandwich for her. She leaned one hip against the counter and decided to let him. "What else have I missed?" she asked.
"Oh, not much. Lizzy Vortaine broke his heart by going out with some boy in the grade above them. Nikki says he's a complete oaf, but between you and me I'm not entirely sure Lizzy doesn't like them that way. He's having trouble in math again -"
"I thought we had that sorted," Ekaterin sighed.
"Well, we did, and now we don't. Miles said he'd tutor him, but if we want him to learn anything besides the math involved in supplying large-scale mercenary fleets, I think it'd better be Cordelia." Ivan handed her a sandwich on a plate and gently pushed her towards the kitchen table. He sat down across from her, his own cup of tea in hand.
She picked at the crust of her sandwich. "I do understand what you're trying to tell me, you know. Don't act innocent," she added, when he looked as though he might protest, "it just doesn't suit you."
Ivan crossed his arms over his chest. "All right. Much as I enjoy the bonding time with your son, it'd be nice if you got home before we were both in bed once in awhile."
"I know, I know, and believe me, I want that, too. It won't be for much longer -"
"That's what you said two weeks ago," he reminded her.
She winced. "I know. And I thought I almost had a handle on it, but then I realized there was even more stuff I had no idea I didn't know! Do you know what that's like, thinking you finally understand and then realizing that no, you don't, and the hardest part hasn't even started yet?"
Ivan looked a little sheepish. "Not . . . really."
Ekaterin felt her eyebrows climb. "Really?"
He shrugged. "Last time I was in a brand new job, I was twenty-one and too much of an idiot to care that there were things I didn't know. I managed not to botch it completely, so they gave me another job, exactly like the first except with more money and minions. Everything I've done has sort of just followed from the thing I did before."
"That's just it. None of this has followed from anything I've done before. I didn't even think I'd get an interview, much less the job. I still think Miles must've talked to someone after I specifically told him not to." The rat. She couldn't really be mad about it, Ekaterin supposed, but there was something about having well-meaning, meddlesome friends in very high places that made it hard to feel like you ever accomplished anything on your own. "Everyone else has advanced degrees in terraforming, economics, or law. Some of them have all three. I'm a gardener."
"Which is what they needed or they wouldn't have hired you, no matter what Miles said," Ivan told her. She opened her mouth to protest, but he wouldn't let her. "You need to stop trying to prove you're good enough to be there by staying later than everyone else."
"That's not it, there's so much I really don't know - I can't possibly get it all done during the day -"
"So bring it home."
Ekaterin's mouth snapped shut. "Oh."
Ivan gave her a look. "Yeah. Nikki will do his homework, you'll do your homework, and I'll sit in the corner and gloat that I never have homework."
She threw her napkin at him. "You're incorrigible." He raised an eyebrow at her. "All right," she conceded, admitting to herself that it would be nice to have dinner at home once a while. Ivan was a much better cook than he let on - and when he wasn't, he had excellent taste in take-out. "I'll try."
He smiled, reached across the table, and raised her hand to kiss the back of it. "Okay. Now, eat your sandwich and tell me all about everything you found out you didn't know today."
IV. The Mother-in-Law.
"She did it again."
"You said you'd talk to her."
"I did. She even listened."
"For six months. And now -"
"I know," Ivan said with a groan, "I know." He resisted the urge to whack his head against the window of his groundcar. And to think everyone - absolutely everyone, from Miles and Cordelia to Gregor and Simon - had taken it upon themselves in the run-up to the wedding to inform Ivan that his mother was going to be the biggest issue in it. As though he could have possibly failed to see that himself.
True, he hadn't realized until just before Miles and Gregor's wedding that this he'd have to start practicing the phrase, "No, Mother" in the mirror every morning, but he was damn good at it these days, if he had to say so himself.
Today, though - today it wasn't enough, because Ekaterin was still frowning. "She's been worse since Miles and Gregor had Vasha. You don't even see half of it."
"Just tell her what I told her, that we want to wait three years."
Ekaterin crossed her arms over her chest. "I did."
"She reminded me how old I'm going to be by the time we start."
Ivan winced. Well done, Mother. "It's not as though that matters with replicators.
Ekaterin speared him with a look. "Very much not the point."
Ivan sighed. "I'll talk to her again."
"Thank you," Ekaterin said, but she didn't relax as Ivan had hoped. She stayed sitting ramrod straight in her dress, arms still crossed over her chest as she stared out the window. Ivan kept his mouth shut and hoped that was the end of it, though the sinking feeling in his stomach made him think it probably wasn't.
"Thirty-nine," she said at last.
Ivan blinked, then realized. "Is how old you - we'll be when we have it - er, her?"
Ivan waited. Nothing. "So?" he finally asked.
"Isn't that - I mean, that doesn't worry you? Nikki will be eighteen. Thirty-nine isn't young anymore."
"It's not exactly old either," Ivan said, even as half of his brain took up panicking that he'd be thirty-nine, which was practically the same thing as forty, in three years. "They say our generation's average life span is going to be twenty years longer than our parents'. If you think of it that way, thirty-nine isn't even really middle age anymore." Right.
Ekaterin looked unconvinced. "Having a baby takes a lot energy. I had it when I was twenty. I'm not sure I'll have it at thirty-nine with a fulltime job."
"We'll hire a nanny, it'll be fine."
"That just -"
"That feels like cheating."
Ivan blinked. "Well, it's how almost all the high Vor do it, and most of them don't work the hours you do, if they work at all. I don't think you get extra parenting points for running yourself into the ground."
Ekaterin hmm'd. Ivan didn't know what to say to a response that wasn't one, really. Was Ekaterin just thinking out loud, he wondered, or did she really not want any more children? Damn, this had been on Aunt Cordelia's list of Things People MUST Discuss Before Any Legally Binding Commitment Ceremony. They'd both agreed they'd wait three years and then have the first, with a possible second to be negotiated after two years. Ekaterin had wanted a daughter. Ivan had been more than happy to oblige, since the sort of unfortunate political attention daughters tended to attract was less physically dangerous than anything his son might encounter.
Ivan cleared his throat. "If you don't want -"
"That's not it," Ekaterin said hastily.
"But if it is," Ivan hesitated, "it's . . . okay. So I get to miss the three am feedings and the screaming and the teenage years. Imagine my disappointment." He would also have to find a way to say, "No, Mother" to the one thing his mother hadn't given up expecting from him. Ow.
And, more than that, he realized, he would miss all the good things, too: the sweet moments, the proud moments, the moments that had Miles and Gregor both looking ridiculously doe-eyed recently. It wasn't that he was hell-bent on kids like Miles always had been, but he had . . . adjusted to the idea, especially since he and Ekaterin had decided on a daughter. He loved Nikki, but that was very different, Ivan suspected, from how he'd feel about the little girl he and Ekaterin would have together.
The panicking in the back of Ivan's head was silenced, abruptly, by a sharp pang of anticipatory grief.
Ekaterin did not look as though he'd fooled her one bit. "I'm not saying I don't want us to have a baby, I do want that, you know I do, but . . . thirty-nine."
Ivan could think of nothing else to say. They were silent until the groundcar pulled up in front of their house. Ekaterin gathered her skirts in one hand to get out. She paused. "You'll talk to your mother again?"
"Yeah, I will," Ivan said, swallowing his reflexive sigh. He followed her out of the car and into the house.
Three years was a long time, he told himself. A lot could happen in that amount of time. Ekaterin would be less overwhelmed by her job by then, surely, and the idea would not be so daunting.
V. The Promotion.
"It's only for two years."
"You say that like it's nothing. Two years is a long time. Nikki will almost be ready for university by then."
"At least he'll have had a diverse education."
"'Diverse' doesn't always mean better. If he wants to be a jump pilot -"
"Jump pilots come from all over. Just say it. You don't want me to to take the opportunity, because you don't want to move."
"Fine," Ivan said, throwing his hands up, "no, I don't want to move to the South Continent! It's -"
"Before you say anything," Ekaterin interrupted, careful to keep her voice even, "please do remember that I'm from the South Continent and still have family there."
Ivan visibly swallowed his words. Ekaterin suspected it had been provincial or some close relative thereof. "Fine," he said, slouching a little in his chair. He poked at the plate of salad left in front of him. "But you have to admit, the opportunities for Nikki there just aren't the same as they are here."
Ekaterin forced herself to uncross her arms. Body language. "You don't have to hide behind Nikki. You're allowed to say that the opportunities for you aren't the same there either."
Ivan grimaced. "You know I'm not ambitious."
Ekaterin hid a smile. "I know you want others to think you aren't." Ivan looked up, mouth falling open slightly. Ekaterin tapped the tip of her nose. "A hit?"
"A palpable one," he agreed. He slumped more than slouched this time. "I'm not bad at what I do."
"I know that."
"I know you do. And so do the people above me."
He fell silent, moving lettuce around on his plate now. Ekaterin waited, patient.
"There was talk," Ivan said at last. "Only the preliminary stages, but there's an assignment on Komarr in the pipeline. Good money, and probably a promotion for whoever it goes to if they do well. Commodore Vorpatril isn't something I ever expected to be, but - it's appealing, if only because it would drive Miles straight out of crazy and into batshit."
Ekaterin looked at her hands. "I don't want to live on Komarr again."
"I figured as much."
Neither of them spoke for at least three full minutes. "Vorbarr Sultana is a good compromise," she said at last. "And with the house - moving would be complicated now. Better to just stay."
And yet, still neither of them moved. "Is that really what compromise is?" Ivan finally asked. "Neither of us gets what we want?"
"Neither of us ends up miserable either," Ekaterin pointed out.
"Yeah, but . . ." Ivan cleared his throat and straightened suddenly, leaning forward. "I, uh, had a talk with Aunt Cordelia last time we were at Vorkosigan House for dinner. She said - well, you know Cordelia, but she said the best marriages - that people -"
"Ivan, what?" Ekaterin demanded.
"It's your turn."
Ekaterin blinked. "What?"
"She said that in the best marriages, you go further than just compromising for things that are really important to your partner. And you earned this and it's important to you. More important than getting promoted is to me. So. It's your turn."
"But Komarr -"
"Has terrible weather," Ivan said with a grin. Ekaterin snorted. Ivan shrugged. "There'll be other opportunities. And if there aren't - well, I didn't think I'd ever go further than captain anyway. It doesn't bother me."
Ekaterin knew this was not really true, but she appreciated the sentiment. Very firmly, she quashed the voice in the back of her head that was telling her she was sabotaging Ivan's career and he would never, ever forgive her if that promotion never came round again. "They want me there in two months. That's not much time."
"Things to do then," Ivan said, standing to gather up the dinner plates.
"We should talk to Nikki before anything else." Ekaterin pinched the bridge of her nose. "He's not going to like this."
"Probably not," Ivan agreed. "But he's proud of you. He'll get over being fifteen eventually." He kissed her on the top of her head and carried his plate and hers into the kitchen. Ekaterin's throat was suddenly, unaccountably tight.
She had never known it could be like this. It wasn't that she and Ivan argued less than she and Tien had. Ekaterin had discovered heretofore unknown wells of stubbornness and determination in herself in the five years since she'd last been married, and Ivan was no shrinking violet. But with Tien, once the argument was over, there had been days of silence, rather than discussion, and in the end . . . she'd always just caved in the end, to restore domestic tranquility. Not so, with Ivan. Say what Ekaterin might about her mother-in-law, but Alys Vorpatril's son never expected his wife to just cave on anything.
Ekaterin laughed, silently, and went to call her supervisor.