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A Covert Affair

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The late afternoon sun was slanting through the curtains of Ivan's apartment when he blinked himself awake. He lay for a moment, luxuriating under the covers and dozing lightly, before reaching a hand out and discovering that the other side of the bed was empty. He reluctantly forced himself a bit more awake, enough at least to realize the shower was going.

Ah, shower. Sometimes even By had a good idea. But Ivan had a better one. He rolled out of bed and padded, naked, into the steam-filled bathroom.

"Ah," By said from inside the shower, "it's Sleeping Beauty. Thought you'd sleep straight through the festivities tonight. Not that I'd blame you; so overwhelming is my sexual prowess."

Ivan slid the door back manually and stepped inside. "Is that what's overwhelming about you? I had something else in mind."

By sniffed. "Stung, Ivan. I'm stung. And for that, you can wash my back."

Ivan grumbled, but truthfully he had no real objection, especially since it meant he got a few minutes under the spray, as well as a lovely view of By's ass. By had a tendency to hog the spray when they showered together, which meant Ivan ended up freezing. He'd have been lying if he said he didn't have an ulterior motive in mind when he lathered up his hands with the soap By had insisted on bringing over once he'd started spending the night regularly, claiming that Ivan's soap was too harsh for his "sensitive aristocratic skin." He started at By's neck, then slid his hands over and down, along either side of By's spine.

By practically purred. "You are far too good at that, you know."

"I know," Ivan said, enjoying the hot spray on the back of his own neck.

"Did my cousin teach you that?"

"Yes," Ivan said, a bit shortly. He wished sometimes that By could distinguish between when it was appropriate to bring up Ivan's affair with Donna and when it most decidedly wasn't. In Ivan's opinion, any time they were naked definitely counted as inappropriate. He kept his mouth shut though, aware that they didn't have time for an argument (or sex, unfortunately), until By finally sighed and rolled his shoulders, signaling an end to the back-rub.

"I should dress," he said regretfully, turned to face Ivan. "Especially if we're taking separate cars." He said this last with just a hint of question in it.

"Yes, of course," Ivan said, as casually as possible.

"Right. I might be gone when you get out, then."

Ivan kissed him once, soundly, letting his hands settle on the curve of By's ass. By was an amazing kisser - Ivan prided himself on his skill in that area as well, but By considered himself an artist almost, with a vast repertoire. "See you tonight, then," By murmured when at last they pulled apart.

"Yeah," Ivan said, and hit the button to close the automatic door before too much steam could escape.

By was indeed gone by the time Ivan emerged from the bathroom. He donned his dress greens, since that evening's gathering was not quite formal enough for the parade reds and blues, and called for the car he'd hired for the evening. He usually drove his own groundcar, but the wine would be flowing freely at the Residence and he didn't want to have to worry about getting himself (or By) home at the end of the evening. Counts and their heirs had armsmen for such things; lesser Vor like Ivan (not that Ivan was a lesser Vor compared to anyone but, for instance, his Vorkosigan relations) had to shell out for it.

Gregor and Laisa were greeting people in the smallest of the three ballrooms when Ivan arrived. Laisa was smiling widely, her face positively lit with happiness as she accepted congratulations from each guest in turn. Ivan delivered his own, as well as a kiss on her cheek, and a solid handshake with Gregor, and then added, "And on behalf of all your heirs, I wish to be the first to say that it's about damn time."

Gregor shook his head. "You're not the first."

"Miles?"

Laisa nodded. "His tightbeam message beat you by three hours."

"Ah well," Ivan said with a shrug, and gave way for the next guests. "Congratulations again, both of you."

Ivan snagged a glass of wine off a passing tray and loaded up a plate full of goodies from the spread laid out on the long tables at the back of the ballroom. He scanned the crowd; tonight was mostly close personal friends. The milling guests were almost all people Ivan knew: the Koudelkas and their various attachments, except for Dono and Olivia (God, those girls had gotten paired off fast - one day they were all single, the next day Ivan had looked around and they were all taken); his mother and Illyan speaking to the Count and Countess Vorkosigan; and various other Vor lordlings milling about generally. No Byerly, yet, though. Not that Ivan and By could be seen too often in proximity at these things, not if they wanted to keep a lid on the matter. Ivan wished Miles weren't so inconveniently off-planet on his galactic honeymoon. Not that the little bugger hadn't earned it, but there were going to be about a hundred of these fetes in the next few monthsto celebrate the conception of the next Emperor of Barrayar, and Ivan was going to spend them trying to act like he wasn't having an affair with the biggest (perceived) town clown in Vorbarr Sultana. Ivan didn't know if he wanted his cousin around for the distraction or so he could ask him for covert ops tips, but either way, he wished Miles were home.

Well, sometimes he did. Other times he was just as glad Miles wasn't around to laugh himself sick over it all.

Byerly showed up eventually, with his cousin and Olivia, who was resplendent in a green that somehow made her eyes look more blue. Once they'd gone through the dwindling receiving line, Ivan grabbed a second glass of wine and made his way over, winding through the crowd. "Good evening," he said, kissing Olivia on the cheek.

By wore a suit more outlandishly red than anything Ivan had ever seen on a man. With his usual foppish grin he raised his glass to Ivan, who wondered, not for the first time, if playing the clown ever got old. He knew for a fact that playing the idiot certainly did, even if he considered it necessary for his survival. "Dono," Ivan added after a moment, when Dono didn't return the greeting.

Dono looked him up and down and gave him an appraising look in reply. Ivan blinked in bemusement. "Ivan," Dono said at last, smiling faintly. "You're looking well. Getting a bit of exercise these days?"

Ivan frowned as repressively as possible. "Yes," he said shortly. "Thank you." He shot By a look, but By was busy selecting from the buffet table and didn't seem to notice. Or chose not to; Ivan simply never knew. Ivan sighed and wished for Miles again. Miles probably could have parsed the raised eyebrows and the inscrutable looks in fifteen seconds flat - not that he'd have necessarily shared the information with Ivan, since his cousin preferred to watch him wiggle like a worm on a hook. Once he'd tired of that, though, he usually got around to delivering Ivan's clue. But no, with him off gallivanting about on Earth, Ivan was left to fend for himself. This had worked just fine in the old days, when Ivan was dating women and there was no intrigue involved, but his life had gotten immeasurably more complicated since he'd started sleeping with Byerly.

Fortunately, before things could get any stranger, they were called into dinner. Ivan exchanged an eyebrow quirk with By and took up his seat next to his - oh hell - mother and across from - oh bloody hell - the Count and Countess Vorkosigan.

Cordelia Vorkosigan scared Ivan more than just about anyone else in Vorbarr Sultana these days, including his mother. Ivan was confident that after a decade and a half of tolerating (barely) her son's heterosexual exploits, his mother would never consider the possibility that Ivan might be sleeping with someone rather less female these days. Countess Vorkosigan on the other hand, would have no problems at all stretching her imagination in that particular direction if something prompted her to. Ivan didn't know how she could possibly find out about him and By, but she was Betan and he was half-convinced that she'd just know, almost by magic. She wouldn't tell anyone else, that much was certain, but the idea of anyone knowing made Ivan start hyperventilating. It was bad enough that By had told Dono, not that Ivan had really expected otherwise. Dono and By were like him and Miles, and if Miles had been on-planet Ivan was pretty sure he'd have told him. Eventually.

Ivan still hadn't had that conversation with anyone. He thought he probably should - he thought By wanted him to - but he hadn't.

Dinner passed without incident, thank God, and even the dancing started off all right. Ivan partnered Martya for most of the evening, since Enrique had proven himself incapable of learning so much as a mirror dance, and in between he and By drifted in and out of each other's orbits. Toward the end of the evening the music changed, becoming slower in tempo, and people starting to pair off. Gregor and Laisa said their good nights and departed, and Martya finally abandoned him to get her toes stepped on by Enrique. Ivan leaned against the wall and wondered if he should leave - By would follow soon after and within an hour they could be back at his apartment, having a lot more fun than he was now.

Five minutes later, Ivan was sorely wishing he'd followed his instincts.

"Ivan," Dono said, appearing at his shoulder with a smile and a glass of wine. Ivan accepted both rather warily. "Lovely party, isn't it? Are you having a good time?"

"I suppose," Ivan said, getting more suspicious by the moment.

"I'm sure you're quite relieved as well, now that Gregor and Laisa have an Imperial scion safely in the can."

Ivan narrowed his eyes. "I've have to be as mad as most of your relatives not to be. What's going on, Dono? And don't play coy with me," he added. "You weren't good at it as a woman and you're even worse at it now."

Dono nodded, the cheerful facade falling away. "You and my cousin," he said bluntly, leaning in and lowering his voice. "You worry me."

Ivan shifted from one foot to the other. "I don't see why we would."

"Because I know you, Ivan," Dono said, frowning. "I slept with you, too, once upon a time, and I know you, and I worry for By."

"Excuse me," Ivan said indignantly, "but first of all, you slept with me ten years ago - what in the hell makes you think you know me now? And secondly, I fail to see how this is any of your business."

"It's my business because when you decide that this is -" Dono gestured vaguely - "too hard, not what you want, what have you, then I will be the one to pick up the pieces."

Ivan glowered. "I think you're making a lot of assumptions there, Dono."

"Maybe. But I'm just telling you what I see - what By and I both see."

Ivan clenched his jaw. So he'd been tag-teamed. Wonderful. "Which is?"

Dono crossed his arms over his chest and pinned Ivan with a stern glare. "You're afraid, Ivan. You've been afraid since this whole thing started. You haven't told anyone about the two of you, you didn't even want Byerly to tell me. You're afraid, and what's more, you're ashamed."

"I'm not," Ivan protested, stung.

Dono shook his head. "You are. Let me tell you something, Ivan." Dono stepped closer; he'd been tall for a woman, and he hardly had to lift his chin at all to meet Ivan's eyes. "Barrayar does not like difference. I knew that as a woman and I know it even better now, as a man. Being different on Barrayar takes guts - just ask your cousin. Frankly, I think you've spent your life being exactly what Barrayar loves - a tall, handsome, heterosexual soldier - and I don't think you have the guts to stop."

Ivan was still gaping when Dono raised his eyebrows at him, turned on his heel, and strode away. Abruptly he snapped his mouth shut with an audible clack. His gaze swept the room until it landed on By, who stood against the far wall, mirroring his pose. Their eyes met.

Byerly had seen it all. Damn him.

Ivan set his glass on the sideboard and strode out of the ballroom.

*~*~*


Ivan honestly wasn't sure By would show up that night. He was less sure if he even wanted him to, but he didn't call and tell him not to. Instead he poured himself a drink, sat down on his sofa, and turned on the holovid. It was a late night local newsfeed, carrying coverage of the event at the Residence, albeit only the outside of it. He sipped his drink and kept an eye on his chrono. At 2600, he decided, he'd assume By wasn't coming and go to bed.

At 2545, he heard a key in the lock. He flicked the holovid off and drained his drink but didn't get up.

"So," By said, shutting the door behind him. "I take it my interfering cousin spoke to you."

"Whatever gave you that idea?" Ivan asked, pushing himself to his feet.

"Ivan -"

"Did the two of you set that up ahead of time?" Ivan asked, turning to face By. He faltered slightly; By didn't seem angry - somehow Ivan had expected him to be angry, maybe because Ivan himself was fucking pissed, but he wasn't. He seemed sort of tired and a bit sad, but not angry.

Damn it. Tired and a bit sad was a lot harder to fight with.

"No," By said.

"I find that hard to believe."

"Believe what you want. I'm not particularly happy with Dono for sticking his nose in where it doesn't belong." By drew a deep breath. "But I think he's right."

"What," Ivan said, "you think the reason I haven't told everyone and my mother about us is because I'm either afraid or ashamed?"

By raised his eyebrows. "Is it not?"

Ivan mouthed wordlessly for a minute, trying to re-find either his moral high ground or his anger - both, preferably. But they seemed to have fled along with any verbal skills he'd once possessed. "No," he finally managed.

"Then why haven't you told people?"

"Because - because it's complicated," Ivan said. "Don't tell me it's not complicated."

"I'm not," By said. "And for the record, I don't care that much. I've been homosexual on Barrayar my entire life, Ivan, and I know that it's hard, and to get hit with it at thirty-two is even harder, so I don't care if you tell people or not. If you're afraid, that's fine. Maybe you should be. If you're ashamed . . ." By paused. "Well, that's something else."

"Right," Ivan said, staring down at his shoes. He cleared his throat. "I'm not."

"Ivan . . ."

Ivan jerked his head up to By's eyes. "I'm not, all right? I'm not ashamed of us. Or you." He swallowed. "I like us. And you. I just don't - I don't know what to do."

"I know," By said quietly, stepping forward. "And you don't have to. Dono was just looking out for my well-being." He smiled, though it seemed rather forced. "He knows both of us too well, maybe, to think this is ever actually going to work."

Ivan didn't know what to say to that. It wasn't like any of his relationships with women had ever worked out either, and they'd been considerably less complicated.

"Anyway," By said, "I thought I should come by to say all that, but maybe I should go now."

"You don't have to," Ivan said quickly.

"I know," By said, and hit Ivan with a shadow of his usual smirk, "but my reputation as a town clown is suffering because of us, I must say, and your mother is going to start to notice when my veritable font of information dries up. I could use a night out."

Ivan winced at the mention of his mother. "Right," he said. "Well, then, I guess I'll see you tomorrow."

By nodded and reached out to pull Ivan towards him by the front of his shirt. He kissed him until Ivan's head swam and he forgot every single reason he might have ever had to feel ambivalent about any of this. Which had probably been By's goal all along, come to think of it. But somewhere along the line Ivan thought By lost track of it, too, because the kiss went on much longer than he'd expected, considering By had been on his way out the door, and the next thing Ivan knew he was on his back on the couch, with By's knee wedged between his legs, and they were both considerably less clothed than they had been.

"Still planning to go out?" Ivan managed in between nips along Byerly's jaw.

"I should - people are going to wonder -"

"Let them."

By grinned suddenly. "You know you're only saying that because you're practically humping my leg."

"And your point is?"

"Right. To hell with them."

*~*~*


Ivan hated to admit it, but By was right. Deciding "to hell with them" seemed easy enough when he was distracted by By himself, but the next morning, when Ivan was back at his Ops desk and By was out doing whatever it was that he did all day - Ivan still wasn't very clear on what exactly that was - it was a lot harder. He looked around his office and tried to imagine what it would be like if everyone here knew. Granted, there were men in the service who leaned that way - more than a few, even - but that was less than reassuring when Ivan recalled some of the jokes he'd heard made about such officers over the years. He'd been the butt of enough jokes, thank you very much.

And who could he talk to about this, after all? There was By - but he had a vested interest, and really, it just made Ivan feel guilty. Because By was right - everyone knew about him; everyone had always known about him, even going back to when they were kids. But Ivan had spent his young adulthood chasing every pretty young thing with a Vor attached to her name (and, truthfully, a few without) in Vorbarr Sultana, and that gave him some cover. People didn't have to know about him the way they knew about By, and he could keep it that way for a good, long while if he wanted without anyone ever even thinking to wonder. The thought was damn tempting.

Except , how fair was that to By? And maybe, eventually, By might get tired of waiting for Ivan to pull his head out of his ass. Ivan found himself remarkably alarmed by that idea, but that just brought him straight back to the question of who, exactly, he could talk to about all of this. By was out, Dono was out (Ivan shuddered) - and there was the end of the list of people who knew. So, all right, he had to consider people he'd have to tell but who might not take his head off (not his mother) or laugh too hard - though really, there was no hope there, whoever it was would laugh no matter what. Miles was off planet, the idea of talking about this with Simon made Ivan's ears burn, and that left, well, Aunt Cordelia.

She would be only too pleased, Ivan thought rather glumly. She'd be positively gleeful in fact, and Ivan wasn't at all sure he could take that right now. He didn't know how to describe how he felt about the whole thing, but gleeful he was not. And frankly, though she'd lived on Barrayar for over thirty years now, he just didn't think she could quite empathize with his position. On Beta, being . . . whatever he was, wouldn't be a problem. But he didn't live on Beta, he wasn't Betan, and a problem it was quickly becoming. At least inside Ivan's head.

He wanted an insider's opinion, he decided. Someone who knew Barrayar inside and out, someone who knew Ivan himself, and someone who wouldn't take his head off. That list was remarkably short. In fact, Ivan realized with a certain horror, there was only one person on it. Ivan gulped. Then he pulled a mark out of his pocket.

Heads was Aunt Cordelia, tails was her husband. Because hell would freeze over before Ivan talked to them together.

He dallied at this desk that afternoon, earning himself odd stares from superiors and subordinates alike who were used to him ducking out at 1800 on the dot unless there was some sort of crisis in the works. But at last his inbox was empty and he was stuck facing the question of whether he should call Vorkosigan House to make sure the count was in. Finally he decided he wanted the element of surprise on his side as much as possible. He'd be the first to admit that he hadn't learned much in thirty-two years, but he had learned that when facing a Vorkosigan - any Vorkosigan - it was best to assume any and all tactical advantages available to you.

Twilight was beginning to fade when Pym admitted him to the black and white foyer. "Good evening, Lord Ivan," Pym said, bowing him in with a lift of the eyebrows.

"Evening, Pym. Is the count in?" Ivan half-hoped he wasn't.

"Yes, he and the countess were just finishing dinner with Nikki. Shall I tell him you're here?"

"Yes, please." Pym showed him to the library to wait, and Ivan sat - first on the sofa, and then in an armchair, until at last he decided he was too nervous to sit and distracted himself by perusing the collection of antique books on the walls. He'd never paid them much attention before, since book discs were cheaper, more efficient, and much more portable, not to mention that Ivan made it a general rule not to read anything written before the end of the Time of the Isolation. But old Piotr had liked his books and Miles had taken up the hobby himself recently, Ivan dimly remembered his cousin telling him. Part of Miles's gradual and somewhat alarming transformation both before and since his marriage.

"Ivan," the count said, and Ivan turned, startled, feeling as though he'd been caught doing something wrong. He supposed it was only natural; the count had pretty much been the bogeyman of his childhood, there to say, "Boo!" whenever his mother deemed it necessary.

" Sir," Ivan returned, and swallowed. His palms were sweating. The count was about as old Vor as it was possible to be these days, married to Aunt Cordelia or no. Maybe this hadn't been such a good idea after all.

"This is a bit of a surprise, I must say. We don't often see you when Miles isn't home. I hope you don't mind my asking if everything is all right."

"Er," Ivan said. "Maybe we should sit." The count's eyebrows shot up and Ivan added hastily, "Everything's fine, I mean, but this might - might take a bit."

"All right." To Ivan's relief, the count closed the door to the library. He claimed the armchair while Ivan was still dithering, leaving Ivan the sofa. Ivan sat and rubbed his hands on the knees of his trousers. "What's on your mind, boy?"

Ivan took a deep breath and stared at the coffee table. "Okay. First of all, I guess I should tell you that I've been having an affair with Byerly Vorrutyer for the last three months."

Ivan expected some immediate reaction here. So when five full seconds went by in silence, he looked up, just in time to see the count blink at him. Then he blinked again, his mouth hanging half open. "I'm sorry," he said at last. "I could have sworn I just heard you say -"

"You did."

"Byerly Vorrutyer."

"Yeah."

"I - all right."

Ivan frowned. "All right?"

"Yes. Well," the count added, "I can't say as I would have necessarily expected it, nor, perhaps, do I applaud your taste, but all right."

Ivan frowned, unaccountably annoyed. "There's nothing wrong with By. It's just his relatives that are loony." I know the feeling, he managed to refrain from adding out loud.

From the look the count gave him, Ivan thought he knew perfectly well what he was thinking. "Very well, then. You're sleeping with Byerly Vorrutyer. Was I next on your list of people to inform or was there some other point to this visit? If it's the former, I can tell you right now that Cordelia will be most irritated at being left out of the loop."

"Uh," Ivan said, wondering why he didn't feel any less nervous now that he'd said it. He'd said it, out loud, for the first time to someone that wasn't his own reflection in a mirror.

The count raised his eyebrows. "I see. I think. Are you sure you don't want me to fetch Cordelia?"

"No," Ivan said, shaking his head. "No, I - no."

"All right," the count said, but rose anyway. "Tea, then, perhaps?"

Ivan rather wished for something stronger, but he realized that probably wasn't a very smart idea. By the time Pym brought the tea, as well as a selection of Ma Kosti pastries that Ivan wasn't quite too nervous to enjoy, Ivan was feeling somewhat steadier. At least his hands didn't shake as he added a splash of milk to his own, and the sweating had mostly stopped as well. God, if this was what it was going to be like every time Ivan told someone, By would just have to learn to live with the secrecy, because Ivan's nerves couldn't take this on a regular basis.

"All right," the count said, once Pym had withdrawn. "Let's begin at the beginning. What are you doing here, Ivan?"

Ivan blew out a sigh. "I . . . don't really know. I guess I wanted your advice."

"On what, exactly?"

Good question. How to be homosexual - or bisexual or whatever - on Barrayar, Ivan guessed, not that he had any reason to think the count would be able to tell him that. He blew on his tea some more, procrastinated on answering by sipping, and eventually ended up spilling the whole story about what had happened at the ball the night before. The count listened, nodding occasionally, and Ivan felt a certain tightness across the back of his neck loosen. The count had never had time for Ivan the way he'd had for Miles and Gregor; he'd certainly had ample excuse for it, too, what with running the planet, raising the emperor, and dealing with Miles's problems all through Ivan's childhood. Ivan had never really thought he'd missed out on much - who in their right mind wanted any more of that sort of attention, he'd always thought - but for the first time, he started to wonder. Maybe it'd been there for the taking all along, and he'd just had never bothered.

"Anyway," he said, winding down at last, "I thought - I don't know. I needed to talk to someone, and you were on the very short list I made of people I didn't think would kill me."

"I see," the count said, setting his empty teacup aside. "Well. That's quite an impressive quandary you're in."

Ivan hunched. "Believe me, I know."

"Not as impressive as some of Miles's, but nonetheless." The count leaned back in his chair and eyed Ivan in a way that made him wonder if he shouldn't have gone with Cordelia after all. "May I ask why you're coming to me about this? And not, say, Cordelia?"

"I flipped a coin," Ivan muttered.

"Ah." The count folded his hands and cast him a thoughtful look. "Ivan, has Byerly ever mentioned a relation of his named Ges?"

Ivan squinted. "Uh, I think so. First cousin once removed. Or possibly second. One of the crazier ones, I think, with a nasty streak a mile wide."

The count nodded. "An apt description." He leaned forward and clasped his hands together. "Ivan, I'm going to tell you something that Miles doesn't know. Gregor doesn't know. Cordelia knows, but we almost never talk about it. In my twenties, right after my first wife died, I spent several months sleeping with Ges Vorrutyer."

Ivan gaped. He kept trying to shut his mouth, but he couldn't quite seem to manage it. Finally he blurted out, "Really?"

The count barked a laugh. "Yes, I'm afraid. It was one of my worst decisions at a time in my life when I was more or less out to destroy myself and anyone who might be standing next to me. " He sighed. "I managed to escape, though I've never been quite certain how. The grace of God, I think Cordelia would say. Ges, on the other hand . . . well, I can't claim all the credit there, he certainly had a hand in his own destruction, but I didn't help. But you see why I asked why you came to me, of all people. You've never heard anything?"

Ivan shook his head. "No. But then - you said it was a bad decision -"

The count nodded. "Though not," he added rather hastily, "in and of itself for the reasons you're thinking. Ges was a particularly brutal type of parasite. I'm sure that whatever faults Byerly may have, they are not the same as Ges's."

That much was certainly true. Byerly was maddening, on occasion, but that was about the worst it got. And Ivan sort of enjoyed the madness, God help him. He nodded, considering. "And how did you - did people know? About the two of you?"

"Oh yes. It was a traditionally Vorish 'secret scandal.' Provided hours of entertainment for everyone, I'm sure, or at least those who weren't busy trying to talk sense into me." The count paused. "But that isn't what you meant, is it?"

"No," Ivan said, glaring at his teacup. "Not really. I suppose it shouldn't bother me if people do know."

"It didn't bother me," the count said, "but then, nothing much did back then."

"Right," Ivan said, and sat up suddenly feeling faintly indignant. "And that's the difference - I'm not some kid out on a self-destructive binge, I have a life, you know, and a career that I don't really want to wreck - what does By have to lose? Nothing! Everyone knows and he doesn't have any visible means of employment anyway. So it's completely unfair that I'm suddenly the bad guy here, dammit." Ivan crossed his arms over his chest and slumped back on the sofa. There, that was the moral high ground he'd been grasping for desperately last night with By. Honestly, who did Dono think he was? Insane Vorrutyers, the lot of them. Just because Ivan wasn't as crazy as they were, that somehow made him the villain.

The count, he noticed eventually, was looking at him with his eyebrows raised. "Ivan, I don't think either Dono or By expects you to take out an ad on the holovid."

"Well, I damn well hope not."

The count smiled. "I was being facetious." Ivan scowled. He hadn't been. "All I meant was, surely there must be some middle ground? Unless you really would rather that no one know."

Ivan shrugged. "It's not really that I'd rather no one know. It's just that it's easier that way."

"For you, you mean."

"Well, yeah."

"But not, it seems, for By."

Ivan shook his head. "I don't think that's it for him. He doesn't really care how many people know. It's more that he wants to know that I - I -" Ivan gestured vaguely. Then he leaned over and buried his face in his hands. This had been a bad, bad idea.

"Won't run off with some twenty -year-old Vor virgin because it's easier?"

"Yeah," Ivan said, into his hands.

"Well, I think that's fair."

"Yeah," Ivan said again, guiltily, and raised his head. "God, I swear, Uncle Aral, I don't know how this happened. How the hell did I end up with Byerly Vorrutyer?"

"A question," the count said, pushing himself to his feet, "to which I would dearly love the answer. But if we're to have that conversation, then I think a bottle of very good red is in order, don't you?" He didn't wait for Ivan to answer, which was just as well because Ivan himself was too busy gaping. "Excuse me while I ask Pym to fetch us something suitable."

It was well after midnight when Ivan finally fumbled his key card out and let himself into his apartment. He dropped the card and the contents of his pockets onto the table in the front hallway, stumbled into the living room and stubbed his toe on the sofa, and hopped, swearing, into the kitchen, where he finally achieved his ultimate goal of opening the refrigeration unit and pouring himself a glass of water. Mission accomplished, he moved on to assembling a sandwich with vat protein and far more mayonnaise than he usually allowed himself, at least since he'd turned thirty and realized that even he couldn't eat like an eighteen year old forever. He was in the middle of taking the first enormous bite when he looked up and saw By standing in the doorway with a god-awful frilly bathrobe on the sleeves wrapped around him.

Ivan swallowed. "Sorry. Did I wake you up?"

"Only if you were the one tripping over the couch and swearing."

"Sorry. Didn't think you'd be here. Sandwich?"

"No, thank you. Where did you think I'd be?"

Ivan gestured, rather messily, with the sandwich. "Out. Doing what you do. To have something to tell m'mother."

"Ah. Well, things were frightfully dull tonight, I'm afraid. Which reminds me - where were you? I expected you to be home hours ago."

"I," Ivan said, with some degree of pride that he couldn't quite account for, "was drinking with Uncle Aral."

By paused in the act of opening the refrigeration unit. "You mean Count Vorkosigan."

Ivan nodded, swallowed his bite of sandwich, and drank some more water. "Did you know he had an affair with your cousin Ges?"

By abruptly lost interest in the contents of Ivan's fridge. He closed the door and leaned against it. "Yes. I didn't think you did, though."

"I didn't. But now I do. Know what else?"

Something in By's pose - and it was definitely a pose - was getting warier by the second, and he didn't answer Ivan, just raised an eyebrow. But that was all right, Ivan knew just what to say. "I told him. About us," he clarified, just in case.

By blinked. People were doing that a lot at him tonight, Ivan thought. Aral had blinked at him a lot when Ivan had told him about how he and By had gotten together at Dono and Olivia's wedding. "You did?"

"Yes!" Ivan said triumphantly. "And you know who else I'm going to tell?"

"I'm afraid to ask."

"M'mother!"

"Yes," By sighed, "that's why I was afraid to ask. Ivan," he stepped closer, "you don't have to do that."

"Aral said there's a middle ground. Between the holovid and the closet. I think Mama lives there, don't you?"

By blinked again. "That depends. Is this middle ground tastefully decorated?"

"Sure, why not?"

"Right," By said. "Look, Ivan - I know Dono and I both said some things last night and I didn't - I don't want you to feel like you have to tell anyone." He paused. "Especially your mother."

Ivan frowned and contemplatively popped his last bite of sandwich into his mouth. By pressed another glass of water into his hand and he took a long sip before saying, "You don't want me to tell my mother?"

By sighed and leaned against the kitchen counter. "I don't care who you tell. Much, anyway, though if you're really going to tell your mother, I'd appreciate a warning. I just . . ." He shrugged. "I don't want to be something you're ashamed of."

"You're not," Ivan said, rather stung. "I told you that last night."

"I know." By took the empty water glass away and set it on the counter, leaned in, and kissed him - almost chastely, which was a bit odd, Ivan reflected, because he was used to By's kisses going from zero to filthy in under five seconds. "I know," he repeated, pulling away. "And though I'm not sure I'd have chosen Count Vorkosigan of all people, especially considering that you didn't know about him and Ges, I'm glad you told him. It means something."

Ivan nodded and leaned his forehead against By's. He was feeling rather more sober now, but also suddenly exhausted. "It wasn't as horrible as I thought it'd be. Which isn't to say it was much fun. I didn't know my hands could sweat like that."

"And you want to tell your mother?"

Ivan shuddered. "Good point." He closed his eyes briefly. "I'm terrible at this, By. I'm sure Dono has told you all about exactly how terrible I am at this. But, but I won't -" He paused. "If I screw us up," he said, more firmly, "it won't be because I'm ashamed of us."

By pulled away and grinned at him. "Well, then, what more can I ask?"

Ivan returned the grin, exhaustion forgotten in a burst of sudden, unaccountable happiness. "Blow job?"

Fin.