Ivan and Miles were sitting on the second floor landing of the grand staircase in the Imperial Residence. They were pressed up against the balustrade to watch the preparations for the Winterfair Celebration.
They should have been in the nursery, but all the nursery staff had either been given time off for the holiday or drafted into helping with the preparations. The one elderly nanny who was to watch them had got sick just that day. With Miles’ delicate health only well people were allowed around him, in case he caught something and had to go back to ImpMil again. As they were living in the Imperial Residence, all staff had to be thoroughly vetted by Imperial Security, which made bringing in last-minute staff substitutes a challenge. A recently retired governess was to come supervise them, but she hadn’t arrived yet, having to travel into Vorbarr Sultana from out in her rural District.
So they got to be in the middle of the action, as long as they stayed out from underfoot by pressing right up against the balustrade, leaving the passageway clear.
It was a lot better than the boring old nursery.
Later there would be some activities that they and the children of the guests who were also staying at the Residence could participate in, but until then it was either in the nursery with Gregor’s old governess, or they could be with the other children and those kids’ nannies. Unfortunately, most of the kids, and a lot of the adults too, were mean to Miles because his body was messed up by his crooked bones. Ivan always ended up in a fight trying to protect Miles, because his bones were too fragile for him to protect himself.
Ivan didn’t understand what about Miles made other kids and even adults dislike him so much. Ivan felt sorry for Miles because he couldn’t walk and was in a lot of pain a lot of the time, but Miles himself was nice enough, usually. If he was cranky it was probably because he couldn’t walk or was in pain. But most of the time Miles was just really smart and could talk just about anyone into doing just about anything for him. Miles’ plans were usually fun - like getting the latest model spaceships for them to build and fly, or the best holovid games to play, or extra pastries at snacktime. And he always included Ivan when he was around, so Ivan benefitted too.
So now here were Ivan and Miles, out of the way and in the thick of everything. They saw the decorations go up and the brilliant lights go on, watched the food and drink set out on their marvelous platters and bowls and carafes, and looked at the men and women in their fanciest uniforms and gowns.
Finally everything and everyone was in place for receiving the guests and the activity quieted down. Tante Cordelia stopped by them, crouching down to be eye level with Ivan (she’d have to lie on the floor with her hands propping up her head to be eye level with Miles. Usually she held him or sat him in a chair instead, but sometimes she did lay down if they were playing).
“Well, boys, Ma Dovski is still a few minutes away, and I have to go be Lady Regent Consort now, or whoever it is I’m supposed to be today,” she told them.
Ivan giggled at the thought of Tante Cordelia not knowing who she was supposed to be. Gregor sometimes changed when he went from playing with them to being Emperor; but, like Maman, Tante Cordelia was always herself. He stopped his giggles as she went on speaking.
“So here’s the deal, boys - Miles, are you listening?” she asked sharply.
Miles nodded emphatically, his big grey eyes matching hers.
“You two can stay here, quietly, and watch as the guests arrive. Keep your feet up!” Both boys sometimes dangled their legs through the balusters, but that was unseemly and too likely to draw attention.
“Yes, Tante,” “Yes, Mother,” they chorused.
“Miles, do not move away and do not climb down the stairs! Not even one step! Ivan, if Miles tries to go anywhere, you pick him up and hold him in your lap, do you understand?”
Miles gasped indignantly, but Ivan nodded solemnly. “I understand, Tante Cordelia.”
“Good. Miles,” she said, looking at his stubborn, frowning face, “Ivan won’t have to hold you if you behave yourself, got it?”
“Yes, Mother. I’ll stay right here. You can trust me!” he added with a big grin.
Tante Cordelia snorted and shook her head slightly, but smiled fondly at her son. She ruffled his hair and patted Ivan on the shoulder as she stood up. “Ma Dovski will be here soon. Behave yourselves!”
“We will, Mother.” Miles beamed up at her.
“Enjoy the party,” added Ivan politely. She waved at them as she walked to the head of the stairs. She tramped down the steps, muttering something about skirts as she awkwardly held them out of her way.
For a long time they stayed there in the shadowed landing, watching as the guests arrived, the men in their parade dress or House uniforms, all different colours; the women’s gowns a rainbow of beautiful hues. They were received by the Vorbarra Armsmen, somber and correct in their black and silver uniforms, who directed them to the large room where Gregor and Uncle Aral and Tante Cordelia would be.
Ivan sometimes envied Gregor getting to be in the middle of the Celebration, but Gregor said it was actually really boring and tedious, having to stand tall and still most of the time, and smile politely until his cheeks ached, and try to understand what the adults were saying, and especially try not to sound like an idiot when he spoke, so he mostly kept quiet. Very boring and very tedious, he said.
They hadn’t had time yet to get bored watching when most of the guests had finished arriving.
“Shift over, Ivan,” urged Miles in a whisper.
Except Ivan always forgot how quickly Miles got bored. “Why?” he asked.
“So we can see into the big room where everyone is! If we go right over by the stairs --”
“You’re not to go on the stairs! Tante specifically said --”
“Not on the stairs. Next to them.” Miles started to crawl around Ivan.
Ivan got up quickly and went to the stairs. He stopped with his back to them, facing Miles, who was still working his way along the landing. “You stay on this side,” he ordered, pointing to the floor in front of him, away from the steps.
“All right,” said Miles agreeably. Which was kind of weird; usually Miles was the bossy one and didn’t take orders from Ivan. He always said he was older than Ivan, but even if that was true, which Ivan doubted, it wasn’t by much, and anyway Ivan was twice as big.
Ivan watched Miles for a minute, but he didn’t move, just sat peering through the balusters across the hall into the room where everyone was. Ivan sat down next to him.
Unfortunately, even from their new viewpoint things got boring pretty quickly. Mostly all they could see were the Armsmen at the door and an occasional ImpSec man pretending to be a waiter.
“Ivan,” said Miles, “if we could look over the railing we could see a lot more.”
“But we can’t.” Ivan frowned. Even if he stood on tiptoes he couldn’t see over the railing of the balustrade. It was too high.
“If you put me on your shoulders I could,” suggested Miles.
Ivan’s frown deepened. “I don’t think --”
“But if you’re not strong enough to hold me, I understand.” Miles heaved a big sigh and turned away.
Ivan rolled his eyes dramatically. “Of course I’m strong enough! I’m really strong! Besides, you don’t weigh very much,” he said dismissively. “But --”
“Prove it then,” demanded Miles, turning towards him and holding out his arms.
“Fine! I will!” Ivan stood and picked up Miles, who must have gained weight since last week, because he seemed heavier than Ivan remembered. Miles scrambled and Ivan lifted and they got him sitting on Ivan’s shoulders, with Miles resting his hands on the railing.
“Ooh, this is so much better!” crowed Miles, leaning forward.
“I guess it is for you,” muttered Ivan. His own face was squished into the heavy stone balustrade and he couldn’t see anything.
“I’ll tell you what’s happening,” said Miles cheerfully. He nattered on about everyone and everything as Ivan shifted uncomfortably underneath him. “Oh!” exclaimed Miles, interrupting himself. “Am I getting too heavy?” Before Ivan could gather enough breath to deny it, Miles continued. “If I shift to sit on the railing, you could hold me much more comfortably, and also look for yourself.” Putting action to words, Miles swung one leg over the railing.
Alarmed, Ivan kept a firm grip on Miles’ waist so he wouldn’t fall. “Miles, wait!” he urged, as the boy drew his other leg over Ivan’s head and across the railing. But Miles didn’t listen (when did he listen?) and now he was sitting pretty on the wide stone railing, legs dangling down in front. Ivan still gripped his waist tightly. Maybe tight enough to hurt. Would serve him right, if it did hurt. Ivan had seen Miles fall from numerous things numerous times and break numerous bones, and he didn’t even want to imagine Miles’ body falling down to the stone floor a long flight below them. He shuddered and gripped harder. “You’re not supposed to dangle your legs!” he said.
“All right,” agreed Miles, pulling them up. It looked a little awkward, but the railing was wide enough for Miles’ small body. Ivan couldn’t think of another argument. He was almost afraid to try to pull Miles down to the landing. What if Miles fought him and slipped and got hurt? It would all be Ivan’s fault and no one would ever forgive him.
Besides, Ivan had a good grip on Miles’ waist and wasn’t going to let him fall.
After a moment, while Miles continued his narration, Ivan stepped onto the lower railing between the balusters. This raised him up enough so he could see over the top as well, and get an even better grip on Miles. Even if his feet slipped from the lower railing, it would only be back onto the landing, and Miles would fall on top of him instead of the floor, so no one would get hurt.
It was a much better view, Ivan had to admit. Miles was still narrating what he could see, but Ivan wasn’t paying him much attention. He was watching for himself now. Miles could talk endlessly about anything. “Oh, hey, isn’t that -- ?” said Miles, and leaned forward.
Disaster struck. Miles’ legs slipped back off the railing to the front. With his head leaning forward too, his whole body began to slide down the front of the balustrade.
Ivan’s grip was still firm around Miles, and it tightened even more as he felt him slipping. He found himself holding Miles’ left shoulder with one hand under his armpit, and pressing Miles’ torso back against the balusters with his other arm tight across Miles’ chest. Ivan’s feet lifted off the lower railing until his weight was resting on his armpits on the top railing. He was uncomfortable and terrified and he was not going to let go.
“Ow,” squeaked Miles.
There was a commotion in the hall and then Uncle Aral was bounding up the stairs in three great strides and he leaned over Ivan and grabbed Miles and lifted him to his chest and Miles buried his face in Uncle Aral’s neck.
With Miles’ counterbalancing weight gone, Ivan fell backwards onto the landing, where a pair of adult arms caught him and kept him upright until he found his feet. Ivan saw the black and silver uniform but didn’t have time to thank the Armsman because Uncle Aral was yelling at him.
Though not yelling yelling, because when Uncle Aral got angry he became quieter and quieter and it was the most terrifying thing ever, as if you were farther and farther away until you were in the deepest darkest dungeon where no one would ever find you again.
In a harsh whisper that rang in Ivan’s head, Uncle Aral was saying, "You idiot boy! Five minutes --! We ask you to watch Miles for five bloody minutes and all you can think to do is fling him over the railing --”
Vor don’t cry Vor don’t cry Vor don’t cry, thought Ivan frantically. “I’m sorry,” he said through his choked-up throat. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
“For God’s sake, Alys, get your idiot child away from me. He’s about to start bawling and I’ve had it with him.”
Maman was coming quickly towards him, moving as beautifully graceful as ever. Her face had the stiff stillness to it that she got when she was really furious. Ivan shrank in on himself even as he reached for her hand. “I’m sorry,” he tried to say, but the thick tears overflowed down his face.
Her hand was gentle as she took his, and her glare turned on Uncle Aral. She seemed about to say something to him, but stopped herself. She led Ivan away down the corridor without saying anything. They turned to walk down another long corridor until Maman opened a door to a small room and led Ivan inside. There wasn’t much in the room, just several mismatched chairs. Maman sat Ivan in one as she sat next to him in another.
She took hold of his shoulders, gently, and asked, “Are you all right?” She still looked sort of angry but mostly concerned.
Ivan nodded. His tears had stopped during the walk. “I wasn’t hurt, Maman,” he tried to say, but his voice was all thick.
“Where is your handkerchief?” she asked.
Ivan dug it out of its pocket and wiped his face and blew his nose.
“Better,” said Maman, smiling a little.
Ivan tried to smile back, but it was wavery. “I’m really sorry,” he said earnestly.
“I know,” she said softly. “Tell me what happened.”
He did, and Maman didn’t get angry at him, but her lips tightened. “I’m sorry--” he added.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “No one should expect a five-year-old to look after another child the same age. Especially if that other child is Miles Vorkosigan.”
“I shouldn’t have picked him up.”
She sighed. “No, you shouldn’t have. You shouldn’t do everything Miles tells you to. You have to think for yourself.”
Ivan hung his head. “I know.”
“You’ll learn, Ivan,” she said, stroking his hair. “That’s what childhood is for, learning.”
“Is Miles going to be all right?” he asked. “Did I break any of his bones?”
“Let’s go to the infirmary and find out.”
The infirmary was pretty well stocked, not just because of Miles but also because it was the Emperor’s Residence. It was because of Miles, though, that they all were very familiar with it. Even if you thought you were completely lost in the sprawling Residence, if you just thought of going to the infirmary you found that you could make your way there.
It was also because of Miles that the patient’s room had a comfortable armchair and sofa for parents and visitors. Only Tante Cordelia was in the room, however, waiting calmly in the chair. She looked surprised to see Maman and then concerned to see Ivan. “Ivan! My dear, are you all right?”
“Yes, I didn’t get hurt,” he said. “I’m really sorry about Miles,” he added, hanging his head.
Tante Cordelia sighed. “It’s all right, Ivan. Aral overreacted. I apologize on his behalf. There were several Armsmen in the hall able to intervene if there was a problem. One of them came to notify us when they saw Miles up on the railing. Two of them went to catch Miles when he started to slip --”
“I didn’t let him fall! I wouldn’t!”
Tante smiled. “I know. Another Armsman was about to relieve you of Miles when Aral snatched him away first. Miles told me it was all his own idea, so any injuries he’s incurred are his own fault.”
That’s what Ivan thought, too, but knew better than to say so. “Is he hurt very bad?” he asked.
“Not too badly, we think. His left shoulder was dislocated - again - and they’ve put it back in place. They don’t think any of the shoulder bones fractured, but they’re concerned about the joint development, with how easily it dislocates.” She sighed. “As usual. Right now they’re reviewing the scans of his ribs and debating what to do about them. Cracked ribs are always such a challenge.” She sighed again.
“No threat to the lungs?” asked Maman.
“No, no; no serious breaks. Just those hairline fractures.”
“So, he hurts a lot right now but he’s going to be all right?” Ivan tried to sum up.
Tante smiled at him. “Yes, pretty much. Although with the painkillers he’s not even hurting too much right now. He probably will later.”
Just then Miles himself was brought in on his float pallet and laid on the bed. His shoulder and arm were all bound up in a sling and he was wearing his padded vest brace thing to protect his ribs. While Tante and Maman talked to the doctor, Ivan went over to Miles. He was sleeping and his face looked peaceful and slack, not tight with the little pain lines he often had after an injury. Tante was right; the painkillers were working. They probably were the kind that made him sleepy too, because the most important thing for Miles’ injuries was always to keep him still and resting. He had such a hard time staying still.
“Ivan?” Tante got his attention. “Miles will probably be sleeping for most of the rest of the day. You can go play with the other children if you like. Aral’s already back with Gregor. I’ll stay here with Miles.”
Maman nodded in agreement. “Your cousins will be here. I’ll be returning to the Celebration, too.” Maman had to - that was her job, hosting parties for the Emperor.
Ivan thought about joining his cousins - Maman’s nieces and nephews. They were fun, usually, and they could walk and run and do normal things, and you didn’t have to be super careful not to hurt them or let them get hurt. But they often teased him about his “mutie” cousin (he was related to Miles on his father’s side). Today he really didn’t want to have to deal with that.
“Can I stay here with Miles?” he asked. “I promise I’ll behave.”
Both Tante and Maman smiled at him. “Of course you will, love.” Maman looked over to Tante, who nodded and shrugged. “We’ll keep each other company while Miles sleeps,” she said. Maman gave Ivan a quick kiss on his cheek and then left in a swirl of skirts.
Tante Cordelia talked with him some, but afterwards he couldn’t remember what about, because he fell asleep on the comfortable sofa not long after Maman left. When he woke up, Gregor was standing by the bed, talking with Miles, who was awake. “Can Ivan come too?” said Miles, seeing Ivan sit up.
Gregor turned to smile at Ivan. “Of course. In fact, We require and request his presence.”
“Come to what?” asked Ivan, wary and still a bit groggy.
“The fireworks!” exclaimed Miles, practically bouncing in his excitement. “They’re going to float me out to the balcony so we can watch the midnight fireworks!”
“If you can refrain from injuring yourself,” warned Tante Cordelia. “You need to lie still to heal.”
“I’ll will! I’ll be good!” Miles reassured her by waving his unfettered right arm.
“Uh-huh,” said Tante, skeptically. “Well, you will, because your father and I will be there too, along with Gregor and his retinue of Armsmen.”
Miles’ float was angled up and plumped with pillows so he could watch the fireworks display in comfort. Ivan, along with Gregor and everyone else, got to stand and crane their necks to watch the highest bursts, but Ivan didn’t mind at all. He’d never been allowed to see the midnight fireworks displays before. But previously, he’d always joined in the children’s festivities throughout the evening before being put to bed, instead of sleeping for several hours all the way through those.
There was a pause in the display as they readied for the last set of extra-special fireworks. Ivan finally remembered his manners and moved to stand next to Gregor. “Thanks for inviting me up here to watch,” he said.
Gregor smiled down at him. “Thanks for looking after my foster brother,” he said, putting an arm around his shoulders. “And for keeping him and my foster mother company in the infirmary.”
Ivan hung his head. “I didn’t do such a good job of either of those things,” he admitted.
Gregor squeezed his shoulders. “You were there for them. Sometimes that’s the best we can do.”
Ivan nodded and looked up as the brilliant fireworks began bursting across the skies once again.