Ambassador Vorpatril tried for dignity in all things; it was only fitting, after all. In a sense, he was no longer merely a superbly handsome epitome (paragon, really) of all things Vorish; he was Barryar, sitting at table, making sparkling conversation. It wouldn't do for a three-world empire to lose it and start screaming at the help, even in the comfort of his own home.
That was why, when he entered his study to find Dmitri the ImpSec Au Pair snoring on Ivan's priceless Time of Isolation divan, he counted backwards from ten, six or seven times. Because all six-foot-six of Dmitri was sprawled across the fainting couch, soaking spit into centuries-old velveteen, and Ivan's son was nowhere to be seen.
"Ahem," Ivan said politely. Dmitri snored on.
"Ahem," Ivan tried, infusing his voice with just a hint of his mother in a snit. Just a hint. He didn't want to peel the enamel from the poor boy's teeth, or cause all his hair to fall out.
Patience, Ivan. Patience. It's next to handsomeness. Or was that cleanliness? Or something.
Oh, for shit's sake.
"Oi, Dim-dim," Ivan said, deciding patience was for the middle class. He reached over and flicked Dmitri's ear, hard. He prudently stepped back several paces as Dmitri came awake in a flail of nerve-strikes and deadly kata that would have been more intimidating if the boy didn't have pillow marks all over his face and a line of drool dangling forlornly from his chin.
"Good morning," Ivan said cordially. "Or rather, good five in the afternoon. Where's my son, Dmitri?"
Dmitri looked at Ivan blearily. "Isn't he with you?"
"Dmitri," Ivan said, pleasantness personified. "Squeeze your big old clodhoppers into my shoes for a moment. How would you feel, under the circumstances, if you were me, and the man in charge of safeguarding your son - in fact, of guarding him with his life- didn't know where he was. Imagine how I feel, at this moment. Dmitri."
"Not... great?" Dmitri hazarded, wincing.
"You are correct. Where's Padma Shiv?"
"Oh god," Dmitri moaned into his hands. "He... he kept me up all night researching something about funerary customs on some planet you're going to next year... that, that little rat..."
"That's my son you're talking about," Ivan said, voice sliding an octave lower.
"Uh, sorry, milord," Dmitri said, flushing.
"Besides, until he grows into those big front teeth, he's really more like a beaver," and with his brain, he's more like a snake. "Get yourself prettied up, Shostakovich, we're going to go find him."
Ivan turned on his heel and went to go break the news to Tej.
Ivan remembered breaking the seal on Padma Shiv's uterine replicator, six years earlier, Tej by his side, Miles and Ekaterin and the Lady Alys watching from a respectful pace away, Mother's hands digging furrows into her palm as she itched, writhed to get her hands on her very first grandbaby.
It was... remarkably nerve-wracking, as the doctor handed him this... little being, swaddled in blue blankets, screaming bloody murder. Padma Shiv was (Ivan had been delighted, really, when he found out that Shiv was, in fact, the closest thing his father-in-law had to a legal name) an all-over brown color, with murky blue eyes that were sure to turn brown or gold.
"He looks..." Ivan groped blindly for the kind of things that parents, Fathers, were supposed to say at this moment. In that moment, Ivan could hardly fault his own father. Compared to the yoke of responsibility that had just descended from the heavens (or been pulled, wailing in outrage, from a metal can full of amniotic fluid), Ivan suspected a nerve disruptor bolt right to his brain stem would be something of a relief.
"Beautiful," Ivan said, holding his nine (going on a thousand) pound baby. "He's beautiful, Tej." He smiled weakly, to make her believe it.
"Hm," Tej said, reaching over and taking the howling bundle from Ivan, who felt his knees go wobbly from relief. "I think he looks like a booger that learned how to scream, but that's just my opinion." Tej's hesitant, radiant smile, though, gave lie to her words. Her sherry-gold eyes were anxious. He had never seen someone who looked so close to dying of jump lag and joy, simultaneously.
"He's perfect," Alys said, reaching out a hesitant hand to touch Padma Shiv's fat cheek like it was a butterfly's wing she was trying not to crush. Ivan was alarmed to see tears standing in his mother's eyes.
"Good job, you two," Miles said, squeezing Ekaterin's hand and giving all and sundry a remarkably gloopy look. Oh god, Ivan could see the strange baby magic lowering the mean IQ of the gathering. Was he the only one immune? Was there something wrong with Ivan? He reassured himself that there couldn't possibly be. As always, it was the rest of the universe that was wrong.
"I remember the first day with our four," Miles said. "Ekatern, love, we still have all of those fertilized-"
"No, Miles," Ekaterin said firmly. Miles, dreams of genetic empire thwarted, asked if he could hold the little one.
"You'll have to get him away from Grandma," Tej said, grinning. Lady Alys had allowed Tej approximately nine seconds to bond with her newborn son, and then taken possession.
"Is it too early to talk prep schools?" Alys said, breaking off from cooing at her grandson.
"No, mother," Ivan said indulgently. Oh god, was the baby magic in his brain, too?
He grabbed Tej's hand, though, and didn't let go for quite some time.
Lady Vorpatril was in their bedroom, dressed in a clinging turquoise singlet, doing some very distracting deep bends and stretches. In addition to being peerless arm candy at thousands of formal receptions and galas, Ivan's magnificent wife had become an in-demand instructor in the diplomatic corps and (on the sly) ImpSec, teaching seminars on languages, etiquette, and formal dance. Every official residence on (so far) four planets had been filled to the brim with students, brought in from all over the Nexus.
"Ivan Xav," she said, doing something that made his pelvis ache in sympathy. "You look worried."
"I do not," Ivan said. "I am a diplomat. My body is my instrument, and always under my control. How dare you, wench."
"You've been in the room a whole fifteen seconds and haven't made one scandalous suggestion or lewd comment," Tej said serenely, twisting her arms and hips, somehow making the cracks and pops sound like a glissando of chimes. He figured it was a haut thing.
Drat, she was right.
"Our son is missing."
Tej sighed, standing smoothly, untwisting herself like a flower unfolding. "And where was Dmitri?"
"Sound asleep, and ruining our upholstery. I've got him prepping the groundcar, assuming he hasn't fallen on his sword."
"And ruin yet more of our soft furnishings?" Tej scoffed. "He best not. My performance review will be scathing."
"He'd be dead, love."
"Then I'll read it at his wake," Tej said. "Go find our son, Ivan. I'll prepare my Angry Mommy face."
Tej could joke as much as she liked, Ivan thought ruefully. He knew she was completely under the little sneak's spell, wrapped around his pudgy, conniving little finger. "Well, fine, but you'll owe me. It is your turn."
"No it isn't," Tej said. "I found him last time."
"No, you didn't. I'm the one who fetched him when they found him wandering the Embassy gardens during that shindig." The Cetagandan embassy, to be precise. Nobody was quite sure how the boy had managed to slip past two paranoid militaristic empires worth of diplomatic security.
"Emperor's Birthday, last month," Tej said. "I'm the one who dragged him, Sergei and Ezar out of the the koi pond, remember?"
Damn it, she was right. "Fine," Ivan said. "What was he doing in the koi pond, again?"
"God knows," Tej said. "What I don't understand is how he talked Gregor's sons into it. They're so much older than he is, shouldn't they know better?"
Any number of people who should know better did strange things around Padma Shiv, Ivan reflected. His son could bend reality to his whim, make you forget he was just a stumpy six-year-old. He reminded Ivan very strongly of... well. He supposed that some traits ran in the family, after all.
Ivan returned to his study, mostly to check to make sure Dmitri hadn't gone back to sleep. He turned to the comconsole, and dialed his special high priority number.
After a few minutes of fencing with a secretary, the bland, lined face of Guy Allegre came on the screen.
"Ambassador Vorpatril. He's missing again, isn't he?"
"'Fraid so. Where's my kid, Guy?"
"You know, strictly speaking, it's really a misuse of Imperial resources, to use ImpSec to keep track of a toddler," Guy said. "I spend more time and man-hours keeping track of your son than I do all of Gregor's children combined. And there's five of them."
"It takes a village," Ivan said, spreading a hand helplessly. "Or a village and an impossibly vast counterintelligence network. You got any clues, or would you like me to kick up the kind of wobbly only an extremely senior member of the diplomatic corps can raise when his son - who is, what, seventh in line for the throne?- goes missing?"
"Try the gelato place," Guy said, giving Ivan a dirty look before breaking the connection. Ivan grinned. Who knew - besides Miles- that it was fun being in charge?
Returning to the living room, he found a moderately more alert-looking Dmitri awaiting him, twitching and hangdog.
"Come along, sonny. We're off to that ice cream parlor down near the old Caravanserai."
"I don't know how he keeps getting past me," Dmitri mumbled as he followed in Ivan's wake.
"Simple. He's smarter than you, Dmitri. And he's smarter than me," Ivan said. "We've got maybe two more years until he figures it out. We're really in trouble then."
The funeral of the great Moira Ghem-Estif was a subdued affair. Tej was quiet, of course, for some weeks after receiving the news, but she had revered and worshiped her grandmother; love, it seemed, had been rather thin on the ground. The whole clan had gathered in the massive tropical arboretum that Shiv had built for his half-haut queen. Ivan kept his arm around Tej; Padma Shiv, two years old and gabbling merrily for hours on end, was being persuaded with candies not to climb his uncle Jet like a tree for five minutes and behave.
The old woman, still unshakably beautiful in her formal robes, floating in a opalescent force-bubble, looked... peaceful. Serene. When the bubble went opaque with white-hot flame, he squeezed Tej closer to him. Across the pyre, he saw Shiv do the same with Undine.
He reflected on a note he had received that morning, a bequest from the haut's own hand. It was written on vellum, of all things, inked with characters of such perfection that Ivan was sure he could hang the scroll in a museum.
I am sorry, it read.
I just couldn't help myself.
The haut, you see, had handled the gene-cleaning and modification of Padma Shiv herself.
Ivan cursed the baby magic, oh how he cursed it.
He walked into the ice cream parlor like the wrath of God, face schooled to sternness. He had managed to summon some actual ire, on the drive over. It all went completely to bits when Padma Shiv, sitting at a table with a beleaguered-looking man in civvies and in the middle of plowing into a trencher of pistachio ice cream the size of a kettledrum, looked up and cried "Da!" with such obvious joy.
Ivan oofed as Padma Shiv barreled into him. It wasn't fair, it just wasn't. He knew his son was a conniving little mindgamer, he knew it down to the marrow of his bones. But all Padma Shiv had to do was hug Ivan, or call him da in that joyous little-boy voice, and Ivan would forget everything he knew, and his mind and body would fill up with love like brandy saturating a cake. It wasn't fair. It was obscene.
"Son," Ivan said, tousling Padma Shiv's reddish curls. Padma Shiv's eyes, giant topaz lanterns in his face, gazed up at Ivan and he cursed his weakness.
"Da da da da-"
"May your poor old father ask what, exactly, you're doing here? You know it's not safe to leave the house."
"But it was safe," Padma Shiv said firmly. "I had an ImpSec agent with me. Say hello to Brikowski," Padma Shiv said, pointing at the man in plainclothes at the table, cadging a spoonful of ice cream.
"You also did not have permission to leave the house," Ivan said, scowling at Brikowski. "You worried me, and your mother, and poor Dmitri."
"He doesn't look worried. He's asleep," Padma Shiv said, pointing behind Ivan. Sure enough, you could see Dmitri snoozing in the car through the glass doors of the ice cream parlor.
"Damn it, Dmitri," Ivan said.
"I'm sorry," Padma Shiv said, voice small.
"No, you aren't," Ivan said wearily. "You always say it, and you never are. How in the hell did you know this guy," Ivan waved his hand, "was Impsec anyway?"
"I saw him four times in the last three months," Padma Shiv said. "He was an usher at the concert we went to with Aunt Ekaterin, and he was shopping for bonsai trees when we went to that garden festival, and he was serving snow cones at the Emperor's Birthday, and he was driving the courier van when you got that delivery from Gregor," Padma Shiv said.
"Is that true, Brikowski?" Ivan asked.
"Sir, I'm, ah, undercover?"
"You're blown like the wind, sonny. Is my son correct?"
"Marvelous," Ivan said.
"I tailed him here once I saw him wandering. I was in line behind him and he asked me if I wanted anything," Brikowski said sheepishly. "I don't know how he saw me following him. I'm trained."
"Easy," Padma Shiv said excitedly "I did a loop-de-loop through an alley, and he followed me, and I went to the park and he sat and fed the ducks, it was so funny, he was always looking somewhere else but at me. And he's not the only one," Padma Shiv said. He beckoned his father; Ivan obligingly leaned down.
"The man serving ice cream is ImpSec too, and I think that woman behind you with the book, she hasn't pressed a button for a new page in twenty-seven minutes. Here." Ivan didn't move quite fast enough as Padma Shiv reached out and activated the screamer on Ivan's wristcom. Sure enough, Brikowski and the ice cream man jerked suddenly, wincing at the sudden noise blasted directly into their ear bones by a sub-neural implant. Ivan didn't turn, but heard a woman curse and a porcelain cup break.
"Don't do that," Ivan said, deactivating the alarm.
"See?" Padma said, delighted.
"You're in trouble," Ivan said. "So, so much trouble. Padma Shiv..."
"Yes?" Ivan's son said, wilting.
"Just... get in the car," Ivan said, shaking his head. "We'll discuss this when we get home."
Padma Shiv, drooping like a day-old lily, left the parlor. Ivan could hear Dmitri meet him halfway to the car, squabbling like a frightened goose.
"Box that up for me," Ivan said to the ImpSec Ice Cream Man, who was determinedly looking at his shoes. "And tell me, does the Rum Raisin have actual rum in it?"
"Uh, yes sir," the man said.
"I'll take a liter. No, two," Ivan said, squeezing his eyes shut.
Even as a baby, Padma Shiv had been... alarming. Always watching, always listening. He'd started talking early, and often. He was always making noise, tying up the world in little knots with words, even before he had any.
And when he began walking, god, what a nightmare. The only thing worse, Ivan meditated glumly, than raising baby Miles, was raising baby Miles who could walk. Ivan couldn't steal the battery pack out of Padma Shiv's float chair, as he'd done with Miles as a little boy when Ivan longed for peace and quiet. Ivan cherished the memory of his cousin's howls of outrage; it remained his sole victory of note.
Damn you, Ghem-Estif.
"Ambassador Vorpatril, sir," Pym said with a middling bow as Ivan entered.
"Yes, yes, very good, let's dispense with the pleasantries." Ivan said, handing the sternly elderly armsman his coat. "Where can I find my cousin, and something alcoholic? No preference on the order, but make it fast."
"Try the west garden,"
"And my alcohol?" Ivan said plaintively.
"Forthcoming, my lord."
"Excellent," Ivan said, and set off in pursuit.
Dropping the little rat off at home had been a trial. Tej had been waiting in their elegant foyer, Angry Mommy face firmly in place, to grab her reprobate son by the scruff and drag him off for a telling-off to end all telling-offs. Padma Shiv had begun spinning a web of damage control before he was even through the door. Ivan couldn't listen, he had to make himself scarce.
He stepped into the gardens, which were in ecstatic bloom even this late in the season. Ivan began a purposeful march; when he cut through a large, formal gazebo used for musicians and catering trays during formal events, he surprised his nephew Alex and a reedy blond kid he dimly recognized as one of the upteen Vorbretten kids.
"Oh, uh, Uncle Ivan," sixteen-year-old Alex said standing suddenly and sending his blond friend crashing to the ground, blushing furious scarlet for no reason Ivan could see. Although...
Ivan's eyes instantly noted Alex's collar, which was undone, and his shirt, which was half unbuttoned. His hair, which was rumpled. The really really flat look the blond - Sebastien, the second son, Ivan's mind helpfully supplied- was giving Ivan.
"Oh, uh, sorry to um..." Ivan's brain put his mouth on lockdown; a diplomatic trick that had averted any number of incidents and occasional wars.
"We were just-" Alex began and Ivan held up a hand.
"None of my business," Ivan said. "And, really kid. This is your uncle Ivan. I'm married to a Jacksonian. My brother in law is Byerly."
Alex went red again, and looked like he wanted to die of embarrassment.
"Appropos of nothing, there's also a stripped mattress in attic number three, where nobody ever goes," Ivan said, to nobody in particular. "Also, use some depilatory creme on your neck, it's got anti-inflammatories in it."
Alex's splotchy blush did not, unfortunately, do anything to conceal the fresh hicky on his neck. Sebastien, who seemed entirely more at ease, examined his fingernails and held his mouth taut; Ivan suspected he was trying not to laugh.
"Um, thanks," Alex said in a tiny voice. At that, Sebastien did laugh, somewhere between a giggle and a snort. Ivan excused himself, and followed the boys with his eyes as they made, he suspected, a direct b-line for attic number three.
Oh god. Puberty. Padma Shiv was going to go through it at some point, wasn't he? Ivan couldn't be Cool Uncle Ivan to his own son, could he?
Ivan was alarmed to discover his brain stun-locking itself into some kind of paternalistic feedback loop. He wanted the kid to be grown up, but never make any mistakes. He wanted his son to succeed and he wanted his son to never, ever, ever be hurt by anything or anyone. His brain wanted his independence back but his heart wanted to petrify Padma Shiv in amber so nothing bad could ever happen to him.
"Oh god," Ivan said aloud, stopping dead on the flagstone path and putting his face in his hands at a sudden agonizing thought. "My son is going to have sex with people!"
Ivan looked up to find Miles staring at him mildly from a stone bench, resting his face on his cane and giving Ivan the look he'd been giving Ivan for close to fifty years; basically, how dumb could Ivan be and still achieve respiration?
"Oh, hello Miles," Ivan said. "I'm, uh."
"Daddy troubles?" Miles asked mildly, raising a brow.
"Someday my son will have sex," Ivan said, trying to keep the terror out of his voice.
"Aha," Miles said. "Should I assume that you've already ordered something to drink?"
"Yes, and where's the liquor kept, Vorkosigan Surleau?" Ivan said.
"Come along, come along," Miles said, rising to his feet with a groan. "We'll take this to the Yellow Parlor."
"He's just like you," Ivan said, taking a belt of mead.
"Brilliant?" Miles said, taking a sip of his own.
"Yes, goddamn you to hell. He's smarter than me, Miles."
"Who isn't?" Miles asked innocently, and held up his hands in response to Ivan's black glare. "Oh, fine, yes, yes, just kidding, but you really have to stop setting me up for that. We've got forty years of interpersonal inertia to overcome."
"Fight it," Ivan said dourly.
Miles made the cross-your-heart gesture.
"Miles, you're my friend. My best friend -the best friend I could ever ask for- and you're my brother, too. But I did not sign up to be responsible for Tiny You for twenty years. I did not. I'm an ambassador, Miles. I read things before I sign them."
Well, he did now, anyway, after he accidentally ceded sovereignty that one time.
"I'm trying to figure out if you're accusing me of making time with your wife or having magic powers," Miles said, vastly amused.
"When you're involved in everything, people get to blame you for everything," Ivan said, topping himself off. "It's a consequence of your meddlesome lifestyle. So: your fault."
"What did you want out of a child?" Miles asked. "Would you want him to be just like you?"
Ivan opened his mouth to say yes, and paused. Would he want a tiny baby Ivan? Would he have to watch his own failings from the outside? Ivan wasn't sure he would.
"I could have handled four kids just like me," Miles said ruefully. "I had it all planned out. Can you imagine what I could have done with four little subordinate clones? I'd rule the universe."
"Why would you be the one in charge?" Ivan asked.
Miles stared off for a moment, then shuddered. "Unsettling thought."
"More than one of you gives me nightmares, and there's already two of you," Ivan said sourly. "No, three. That's just not even fair."
"Instead, I got four children who are just like... themselves. It's very upsetting," Miles said. "I can't pretend I understand Alex. He... always seems to be hiding something from me."
"Um," Ivan said noncommittally. That was between Alex and his father. Besides, ratting out someone else's teenage sexual hijinks would qualify Ivan for the Hypocrite of the Millennium award. Ivan had an on-again, off-again relationship with self awareness, but that much was clear.
"You know what I've never understood?" Miles said pensively. "How my parents could have ever let me go. Go to the academy, where I didn't belong. Go on all those missions, where I could have died. Where I did die, that one time. And still, they let me go."
"You were an adult, they couldn't have stopped you."
"Was I?" Miles asked, rhetorically. "It's funny. I remember how old I felt at twenty, and now I see twenty year old and I just see... giant pink babies. Alex is sixteen and it's like I pull him out of the uterine replicator every morning."
"Tell me about it. And maybe my parents couldn't have stopped me, but they could have torn me apart trying. I thought about it awhile," Miles said. "Like, a long while. Then I talked to Ekaterin about it, and she cleared it up in about four minutes."
"Sounds like her. Smart woman, your wife."
"What she said was that... ultimately, it doesn't matter. You love your children because you love them. And they're going to be who they are, and you can fight it, but all you'll get at the end of the day is a headache and a kid who hates you," Miles said. "My parents always knew who I was. They gave me the space."
"More like they pulled the pin out of the grenade and ran," Ivan said, grinning.
"True," Miles said. "But it's too late. And even if it's terrifying - and God, why did I think I understood fear in my soldiering days- you wouldn't wish him... different. Unmade. Would you?"
"No," Ivan said quietly. "He is really extremely annoying, though."
"But you love him."
"But I love him."
"Go home, Ivan," Miles said.
"Fine. But you're not the boss of me, Vorkosigan."
"I ceded rights to that golden-eyed genius years ago," Miles said. He held up his right hand and wiggled the pinky at Ivan. "Right here. That's where you're going to live, for the rest of your life. Wrapped around his little finger."
Ivan showed Miles a different finger, and they were still bandying insults back and forth as Miles walked him to the door.
Hours later, Padma Shiv was asleep, sprawled across Ivan's lap. Some dreadful animated movie featuring dancing peasantry and talking mice had just wrapped up, and Ivan knew the refrain would lurk in his mind for days, weeks. Years. He'd be senile in a nursing home and still have dreams of singing woodland creatures. Padma Shiv had big handfuls of Ivan's shirt clenched in his little fists. Ivan stroked his hair.
"He's so cute when he's quiet," Tej said, snuggled up against Ivan's other side. Life was... pretty perfect, in that moment.
"He's pretty cute when he's awake," Ivan said, smiling fondly down at his son. "Have you ever thought of having more?"
In response, Tej uncurled a little, grabbed Ivan by the chin, and gave him the kind of kiss that would be accompanied by swelling strings and triumphant horns in the movie they'd just suffered through. By the end of it, Ivan was a little cross-eyed.
"My Ivan Xav," Tej said adoringly. "My love. My light in the shadows, my water in the desert. If you ever suggest that again, even in jest, I will drop you with a needler."
"Just checking," Ivan said.
"Boom, right between the eyes," Tej replied.
"Oh, come on, not the face."
"I had to make sure you knew I was serious," Tej said, kissing him again.
"Noted. So, what do you think the odds are on him staying asleep while we get off this couch, go to the bedroom, and make - "
"Make what, Da?" Padma Shiv said, eyes opening.
"How old does he have to be before we can give him sleeptimers without hurting his cognitive development?" Tej said, squeezing her eyes shut.
"Sixteen!" Padma Shiv said, brightly.
"Aha," Tej said.
"It'll be here before you know it," Ivan said, giving Padma Shiv's hair another ruffle, giving Tej another grin.