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The Secrets We Keep

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Ivan didn't know if he was going to make it through the entire party. He'd known, when he'd gotten dressed for the evening and headed out the door of his flat, that tonight was going to be a bad one, but at the time he'd honestly thought it would only be a little bad. Something he was used to powering through for work, assisted by surreptitious use of anti-anxiety meds. It would be a bad night, but manageable, all consequences of too many events he tried not to think about, mostly courtesy his cousin Miles and his horrible adventures.

As far as Ivan knew, Miles didn't even know how his escapades had left their damage on Ivan – and Ivan was determined to keep it that way. He preferred that no one knew except his doctor, who prescribed the anxiety meds, painkillers for the headaches, and occasional sleeping pill.

For years Ivan had managed to keep up appearances, mostly by reinforcing his life-long determination to not get involved with anything political, avoiding scandal and intrigue – except when Miles happened, of course. People other than his cousin left him alone when matters grew complicated, they called him shallow and carefree when really he just wanted to stay home where it was quiet and safe.

The moment he'd stepped into Vorhallinger's ballroom, filled with all the High Society Vor that he absolutely did not want to socialise with, he'd known the evening was going to be worse than just manageable. The noise and the lights kicked off his headache immediately and the choice between copious wine or more meds was a hard one. Ultimately he made the responsible decision and excused himself to the bathroom where he swallowed a couple more pills. He stopped and left a simple request of one of the serving staff, to please only bring him non-alcoholic drinks. He knew he could trust them – Lady Vorhallinger was a wonderful woman and her staff loved her, they'd do anything to help her host the best party possible.

He drank fruit-flavored water all night and circled the party slowly, stopping only to talk to those he could trust to keep things trivial – social gossip about the next season's opera and symphonic offerings, tittering over sexual scandals amongst the city's musicians and artists, and no one who cared much at all about politics beyond what Lady Whomever was wearing and how could her husband have afforded it.

It was simple to join in on those conversations, Ivan always managed to pick up all the interesting gossip, along with a host of boring gossip besides. And since he'd had long-since trained most others to not bother asking him about his views on political happenings, he was only ever asked for his opinion on who was sleeping with whom, and should they really be performing Prince Igor again, the fourth time in five years, don't you think the director needs to do something else.

There were still those who tried for something of more substance, hoping for some insight or just a connection to his more-invested relatives. But Ivan had been doing this sort of thing since birth, and deflecting questions was easy. Most people believed that Ivan had no opinions on anything except which lady might next like a dance. Even such things as the open post of the orchestra's conductor was something Ivan gave no voice on, because prominent job openings were always political in the capital city.

All Ivan needed was for someone to get a job because someone else thought the Emperor's cousin approved.

He wished, halfway through the evening, that he'd opted for wine instead. His head was not getting better – not much worse, for which he was grateful. But he was woefully not-drunk and as such every word, every step, every light-hearted laugh was making him want to crawl under the blankets of his bed and stay there forever.

When his hands began to shake he stopped dancing, clasping them behind his back and foregoing more food or drink. He walked slowly, making a circuit of some he would have preferred to avoid, but with whom he could stand and talk and no one would look at him too closely. The older set was debating galactic weather machines versus letting nature do what it was meant to, producing hardy young men and women instead of 'soft, delicate galactics'. Ivan honestly had no idea how he would have voted if given the chance, but he knew the matter was being argued in several quarters. For once he genuinely had no idea how Gregor felt about them, only that he was giving the committee an extra year to develop their proposal.

So much of the planet was unused, was the argument, because terraforming hadn't quite taken over. Barrayaran plants were too hardy – or poisonous – and swathes of wilderness were untouched after hundreds of years and potential resources were being left untapped. But conservationists and the older generation who didn't see the harm in a blizzard now and again argued against it, and as the impact would be planet-wide, everyone was agreed they should be sure they'd taken all matters into account.

Fortunately, Ivan could nod along with surviving hot summers in full uniform without complaint (until later, in the barracks), and agreed that there was nothing wrong with using technology to better insulate homes against the cold.

Soon enough, however, the conversation turned to allocations and imperial budgets, and Ivan excused himself as smoothly as he could. Lord Vortolmen gave a snort as Ivan stepped away, with a pointed comment that of course Ivan would leave now. Ivan shrugged, offered a deprecating grin, and left.

It wasn't quite late enough he could leave the party without someone asking him about it tomorrow. He had no real idea what his mother would have done here, other than be seen, and for that Ivan simply had to be here. She hadn't given him any instructions, subtle or otherwise, beyond go to the party and stay long enough to make the “right” impression. He knew that meant 'don't be noticed for doing something unusual,' which meant staying as long as he used to at these sort of parties.

Unless he found someone to leave with, he was stuck here for at least another hour. Trouble was, Ivan didn't want to go home with anyone and there was no one here that he knew would provide him with cover. He'd known a few ladies in the past, who for one reason or another wanted to be seen leaving with someone it was assumed they'd be sleeping with, but who gladly dropped Ivan off at his flat instead. A more complicated dance than just finding someone to have sex with and preventing even more gossip from stirring; Ivan had the no energy nor desire for either.

He was tired of all of it, for the same reasons his pocket held vials of painkillers and anxiety meds, why his hands were shaking worse, now, to the point someone would notice if he didn't do something soon. Why he'd even come at all was the fault of his mother – unable to attend for reasons she wouldn't elaborate on, which meant Imp Sec, and between offering to help with whatever they were doing and attending a party in his mother's stead, Ivan would choose the party every single time.

But the night was growing old too slowly for his comfort, and Ivan wanted to sit, wanted to find a couch and just throw himself down on it and close his eyes. Had he been drinking, he could have feigned a drunken stupor, or excused himself to go vomit in the bathroom and simply not return.

A hand touched his sleeve and Ivan nearly jerked away, controlling himself to look over, pretending not to have been startled. A young woman was standing there, one of the catering staff brought in to help for the event. Her nametag said 'Brandice' and sported the logo of the catering company. Ivan's mother had recommended the company to Lady Vorhallinger, but honestly had no idea if that meant anything.

“I'm sorry to bother you, Lord Vorpatril, but I wonder if you could give me a hand with something?” Brandice tilted her head in the direction of the kitchens, smiling and relaxed like there was nothing amiss with her request. Ivan agreed, though his heart clenched. Secret meetings meant even more time spent doing things instead of going home to try to sleep. Had he been younger, Ivan might have thought the young lady was asking for an quick assignation in the back rooms, but he was a bit too old to bed a twenty year old without causing the sort of scandalised gossip he tried to avoid nowadays.

She led him through the kitchens and past the pantry, into a short hallway near the delivery doors. There she stopped, and smiled up at him, pleased and polite as though nothing nefarious at all was occurring. There was no one else present and for a second Ivan thought even more of kidnapping and being drugged – and his head felt bad enough that he might even trade a concussion later for being unconscious now. Brandice gestured towards the door and said, “There's a taxi waiting.”

Ivan tensed. A taxi might be better than an Imperial car, come to whisk him away to whatever. He steeled himself, wishing briefly he'd thought to bring a stunner. He paused, wondering if Brandice was in on it or was just an unlucky accomplice given a simple errand.

“Oh!” Brandice held a hand to her mouth, then laughed. “I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking – Lady Vorhallinger said your mother asked us. To, you know. She said if you asked for no alcohol it meant you were taking your meds, and might need to leave early. If you were drinking heavily, we were supposed to get you upstairs, into bed.” Her cheeks colored. “Not like that, I mean.”

Ivan found himself relaxing a bit. Not good to hear that his mother knew. How could she know except from his doctor, but as the doc wouldn't have told her directly – that meant Imp Sec. They'd have all his medical files, and if his mother had read them... goodness knew who else had. Not Miles, probably, else he'd have been coming around constantly, trying to apologise and make up for things. Ivan shuddered.

But maybe this meant there was really just a taxi out there waiting to take him home early. “Thank you.” Ivan reached out and took the woman's hand, squeezing it carefully. His hands were shaking worse, now, but he didn't much care if she knew. She gave a quick curtsey, not entirely warranted, and left. Ivan headed out the double doors, and indeed found the waiting taxi.

He climbed in and the driver gave Ivan's address for confirmation. Ivan just said yes, and with that he relaxed completely, leaning his head back on the seat and closing his eyes.

What seemed like a moment later the driver was saying they had arrived, and Ivan lifted his head to see them parked to the side of his building. When he tried to hand over his card, the driver waved him off, saying that the fare had been paid. Paid by the palace, he said, impressed by the sizable tip he'd apparently gotten. Which – not what Ivan wanted to hear, but maybe it answered the question of where his mother was this evening.

He dragged himself out of the car, telling himself it didn't matter, because he didn't want to know anything about it. Hell, if Gregor himself had paid for Ivan's taxi, he would just be grateful and hope nobody told him anything about what was going on.

Ivan headed upstairs and let himself into his flat, leaving the lights off. His headache seemed to be pounding less, finally, and he shucked his clothes and left them lying on the floor. Thank goodness for modern, galactic technology that let him get the wrinkles out of his clothes. So much more vital than weather machines, in his opinion.

Resisting the very fleeting urge to check for messages on his comconsole, Ivan walked over to his bed and let himself fall onto it. Rolling over only to wrap the blankets around him, Ivan closed his eyes, and was relieved when sleep came to him quickly.

~ ~ ~

The next day he woke late, ate a small breakfast of tea and toast, and spent the day wrapped up in a blanket on the couch. Reading a bit and napping, he'd checked for messages in the mid-afternoon and had none. He avoided the daily news and put on some music, and when it was close enough to call it bedtime, he'd gone to bed without ever really feeling like he'd gotten out of it.

The following day there was a note from his mother, inviting him to lunch. His head didn't hurt anymore – it felt like it might be a good day after all of his rest the day before, so he'd responded in the positive and gone over, knocking on her door exactly on time.

She smiled when he arrived, let him kiss her check and took him into the kitchen for a small, family meal. As she served, she asked Ivan to tell her about the party. Ivan still had no clue what he'd been there for, but he dutifully told her everything he'd seen, overheard, or said. She never asked for additional detail, which was a relief that he hadn't missed something important but also gave him no clue as to what he'd supposed to have been observing.

After he was done she seemed pleased, then proceeded to talk about the concert she was going to next weekend with Simon, then showed him all the newest photos of the infant prince that Ivan probably also had in his private inbox, comparing his growth and daily advancements to Miles' own babies, diverging as expected into comparisons of Ivan at the same age. She never once gave him a hint as to any of what was going on, and Ivan was silently grateful. What he didn't know, he couldn't worry over. As it was, he'd spent a few hours being social and hadn't created any problems and all it had cost him was a headache and a day spent on the couch – which happened sometimes anyway so at least he'd done his mother her favor and made her happy with him.

When Ivan went home, it was with a box of leftover sweetbreads and a bag of ground coffee she insisted he try – no caffeine, she said, and some herbal something or other that made it restful, which was suspicious of course, but Ivan said nothing about it.

When he got home he felt almost as relaxed as he had the evening before, and he set up his coffee maker and made himself a cup.

It's pretty good, he sent the simple message to his mother. Much better than the herbal tea his doctor had suggested which tasted like grass and Ivan had thrown out. He'd double-checked his meds sheet while the coffee percolated and sure enough what his mother had given him was known to be safe with what he was taking.

Well. He supposed he didn't mind too much if his mother knew about the neuroses and damages in his brain, since apparently she wasn't going to cluck over him, or lecture him about things he couldn't control. Nice that Miles had Ekaterin and the kids to keep him occupied now; he hadn't pestered Ivan for help in a long time. Most of his calls now were about the twins, and they were getting old enough to be interesting, running around and getting into trouble that Ivan didn't even have to encourage them in.

So all in all, it was a fairly decent weekend. And a good day, still, so maybe he'd take advantage and invite himself over to one of his cousins' for dinner, either Gregor and Laisa and let them make him coo over the baby or he could run the twins ragged, get them dropped off to bed early and earn himself some gratitude. Babies were cute and he knew Gregor and Laisa would be happy to see him, but Miles would be good for a plate from Ma Kosti, which was definitely a deciding factor.

He sent off a quick note to let Miles' staff to expect him, and headed home to grab a quick nap before subjecting himself to two toddlers.