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A Friend In Need.

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"What would you say," Gregor asks, twirling an empty wine glass between his fingers, "if I asked you to take your clothes off and get into my bed?"

Ivan abruptly puts his own glass down. He's glad he's fully reclined on one of Gregor's very comfortable sofas, because otherwise he'd probably have fallen off. "Um. Probably do it? I mean, I'm up for it, I guess." He's never thought of Gregor that way, but he won't turn it down. "Can I ask why you, uh, want to know?"

"There's someone," Gregor says to the ceiling, not looking anywhere near Ivan. "I'd quite like to-- I think I've imagined myself in love with him for some time. But if I invited him to my bed, he'd do it to humor me. I know he would. And when I mentioned it to him, that there was someone I wanted, who didn't think of me like that, who'd do it to be kind, or worse, doing it thinking of his oath, he told me to find someone else. That I'd get over it pretty quickly as soon as I made the conscious decision to move on."

Okay. So Gregor wants someone probably older than him. Who told him to fuck it out of his system. And so Gregor settled on Ivan? Well, if Gregor wants someone who won't just do it because Gregor's the Emperor, then Ivan's probably a good choice. Ivan'll do it because he doesn't see any reason to say no to having sex with Gregor.

"Do you think he's right?" Ivan asks. He's never going to ask who it is. If Gregor was going to tell him, he would have, so Ivan's not going to pry. Ivan steadfastly refuses to think through any particular members of Gregor's court or government. And even more steadfastly refuses to wonder what Gregor had been doing with Count Vordrozda if Gregor had liked older men that way.

"I'm willing to give it a chance," Gregor says. "This isn't an order," he adds, because Gregor is the Emperor even when he's taking someone to bed, especially when he's taking someone to bed. "It's, ah, a suggestion."

Yeah, because even Imperial invitations are orders. Ivan shrugs. "Tell me how you want me," he says. "I should warn you, though, I've been dumped by every one of my girlfriends. Don't expect me to be great at this." But if all Gregor needs is for Ivan to lie there and pretend to be someone else, Ivan can do that. Ivan's great at pretending to be other people.

But it turns out that Gregor actually doesn't want him to pretend to be someone else. He gets Ivan on his back and kisses him gently and Ivan knows how to be gentle. This is probably nothing like what Gregor did before at school, but Ivan's never heard any rumors about what Gregor had gotten up to at school. They'd never overlapped and Ivan supposes that Gregor had chosen classmates who knew how to keep their mouths shut. Ivan understands that. It's what he would have done if he'd had three planets looking over his shoulder the way Gregor has. As it was, Ivan's never really had to care. He doesn't mind his reputation. It works for him.

And now it's apparently working for him by letting Gregor think that Ivan's willing to have sex with him without it being coercive. So, really, all that reputation-building was an excellent choice on Ivan's behalf. He'd congratulate himself if it were possible to fool himself that he'd done it on purpose.

Ivan keeps his eyes open as Gregor fucks his thighs, but can't help closing them as Gregor starts stroking Ivan's cock in rhythm with his thrusts. Gregor's really considerate. Ivan should have expected that. But he'd never actually thought he'd be where he is now, so it's not like he'd ever had any opportunity to think about what Gregor would be like in bed. And it's basically how Gregor is every other time. He really can't turn off being the Emperor. But he's a nice Emperor and he makes sure Ivan gets off before he does, and he lets Ivan stay the night.

Gregor's bedroom is guarded and monitored by Gregor's armsmen, not by ImpSec. Some last vestige of the Pretendership, Ivan was always given to understand, that last suspicion that ImpSec will turn on him. The limits of ImpSec's reach is where Gregor sleeps. It means that when Ivan wakes up, his uniform is ready for him, having been silently taken care of in the night, and there's breakfast, too. Ivan thinks the armsman-commander might approve of him, since instead of just a second portion of what the Emperor has, there's a few of Ivan's favorites sprinkled in as well. Ivan takes a moment to really, really, really wonder who Gregor had been pining over and if the armsmen had thought him dangerous. Ivan's probably the least dangerous person Gregor knows. He's certainly the least ambitious, and that all comes to the same thing in the capital.

"So did that get it out of your system?" Ivan asks, tucking in to some groats.

"Might need a few more attempts," Gregor replies.



The first time Ivan gets to be on top, it's part of Gregor's apology for running off on Komarr. Ivan, unlike all his relatives, had been at home, maintaining appearances and having nightmares about people deciding to take salic descent seriously. That bullshit had gotten his father killed and so Ivan is always first in line to remind people that it has no basis under Barrayaran law. Except Barrayaran law is held together by precedent and that precedent is winning wars. Dorca had inherited through his mother and had killed enough of his relatives to make it stick. Anything done once could be done twice...

But Gregor's back now, and his apology involves taking Ivan to a highly secluded Vorbarra property for a three-day retreat. Ivan actually owns a couple of these himself, inherited from Xav. Every time he goes to one of them, though, it's because his mother has organized a party and invited a lot of girls for him to meet. Ivan's never had the full vacation experience; he's always spent it dodging getting married.

Gregor owns estates that are much nicer than the ones Ivan has, but the one he takes Ivan to is a converted hunting lodge. It's as cozy and intimate as Vorbarra family properties probably get and it's definitely not been used in years. The large bedroom looks out over a wild-grown garden probably from Ezar's day, and beyond that, Ivan can see deer through the forest. Gregor hates hunting, though, so Ivan's pretty sure this vacation is going to be long on wine and relaxation and Gregor finally finishing some books that have nothing to do with official briefing materials, with Ivan around to make sure that no Counts or Ministers decide to show up to complain to Gregor about a broken shoelace. Ivan's just glad he didn't have to do the scheduling for any of this. At HQ, Ivan's been roped in to helping organize the Birthday Review, which has been far more convoluted than anything that happens every single year ought to be. He'd be glad of the vacation from it even if it didn't come with Imperial luxury.

Gregor had given him a probably-highly-edited explanation of what he'd done on Komarr and how Miles had gotten him back, but what Ivan doesn't know, he can't tell anyone, and he thinks this is something that the fewer people who know, the better. The Emperor really shouldn't be able to just wander through Komarr and disappear. That his security hadn't noticed he was gone for several hours, that a thousand alarms hadn't gone off immediately... and on Komarr. Either Gregor had ordered his guards to be negligent or Illyan wasn't as paranoid as he always is. So something happened and Ivan is pretty sure he doesn't want to know. Miles definitely knows, but Miles can handle it. Ivan probably cannot handle it. Miles knows that if Gregor ever dies without heirs, Miles is getting killed immediately by the politics. Ivan might be made the Emperor first, then killed by the politics. Ivan'll pass, thanks.

And Gregor definitely knows that, so he's coaxed Ivan into bed like Gregor thinks Ivan is scared that Gregor will vanish if he stops looking at him, and then guided Ivan into place, exactly where Gregor wants him, like Gregor is graciously granting him a favor. It's probably meant to be a bribe. Ivan will take it; he's not of the generation who thinks that penetrating the Emperor is an act of disrespect so close that it might as well be actual treason.

Ivan's only done this a couple times, but it's not difficult. And maybe he has been infected by the prejudices of his ancestors, because it feels damn strange to do this to the Emperor. But Gregor's the one who brought it up, not Ivan, so Ivan's blameless in all of this.

It's pretty good, but it's been better. Ivan's not going to be asking to repeat this. It's better when it's Gregor pressing him down. It was worth a try, because, hey, Ivan will happily take bribes so he can stop forgetting how Gregor ran away from them all, but so long as Gregor's staying put, Ivan will be happy to go back to the status quo.

"If you ever want to decline," Gregor starts, when Ivan has his hand wrapped around Gregor's cock afterward, trying to tease a smile out of him and maybe another orgasm.

"Gregor, have I ever given any indication that I'm going to do that?" Ivan asks. He's had his moments of being scared of Gregor, but that's Gregor as the Emperor. That's a healthy fear, everyone has that one. Ivan doesn't think Gregor's going to be Imperially offended if Ivan doesn't want to sleep with him anymore. He knows Gregor. Gregor's not like that.

Gregor frowns at him. "It's important," he says.

"You're not going to string me up for not wanting to sleep with you anymore, you're not Vlad le Savante." But that's thoroughly killed the mood. Ivan rolls over and pillows his head on his arms.

"Some were a bit more closely related to me than that," Gregor says. He hesitantly rests a hand on Ivan's knee. "My father, for one."

Oh, right, that. It's not like Ivan's never heard the rumors. His mother'd even confirmed a few of them when she was telling Ivan what he absolutely was never allowed to do with his girlfriends. "You're not him, either." What the hell happened on Komarr that Gregor's so concerned about this? Did he take someone to bed and realize halfway through that they were only doing it because he was the Emperor? That can't have been the first time for that. Gregor's twenty-five.

"It would be very easy for me to be," Gregor says. He runs his fingers down Ivan's calves, down to his ankles. He rubs his thumb in circles around the bone. Gregor likes to tie him up sometimes. Ivan had never realized Gregor had felt guilty about that. "What would it take for you to say no to me?"

"I don't know, I like sex," Ivan says a bit petulantly. He's not Aunt Cordelia. He doesn't know how to talk about these kinds of things.

But Gregor laughs at him softly. "Ivan."

Ivan sighs. "Fine. On my word, I will tell you if you ask me for anything I don't want to do. Is that enough?" Gregor's always been clear that he's not the Emperor in bed, but only the Emperor really has the right to command Ivan's unconditional word of honor like this. Ivan's not pointing that out. It would just make everything more exasperating. Clearly something happened, something Gregor doesn't want to talk about, but that Gregor's still worrying about. But Ivan knows Gregor. Gregor doesn't have the kind of imagination to think up bed games that Ivan wouldn't be interested in. It's not like Gregor's raided the censorship office for confiscated pornography and is working down a list.

"I give you my word as well," Gregor says seriously, which is nice, but Ivan doesn't need it. Ivan's his vassal. Gregor's promised him his protection. If that means protection from Gregor himself, well, Ivan trusts Gregor. He doesn't trust anyone the way he trusts Gregor. Uncle Aral might forget about him. Miles might spend his life accidentally in the service of some plot or another. If Gregor gets him killed, it will be deliberate and it will serve the empire. Ivan is Vor, that's enough for him.

And if Ivan really wouldn't mind if Gregor would actually give him orders in bed, orders that he's oath-bound to obey, he's definitely not bringing that up any time soon. Maybe later, but not now. Gregor might refuse to have anything more to do with him, might think he's mocking him. But Ivan knows who he's sleeping with. It really doesn't bother him. He really hopes this guilt doesn't last. Gregor's too good in bed to get caught up in doubts like that. Maybe Ivan can wear him down. It will be a service to his Emperor and to everyone his Emperor sleeps with in the future. It's practically his duty as Vor.



"Gregor's really discreet," Miles is saying. Ivan forces himself to pay attention. "Do you know if he has any lovers?"

"Why would I know?" Ivan asks, doing an excellent job at baffled. Ivan had learned an important lesson from what happened when they were seventeen. Childhood was over, it was time to grow up, boy. Even if he wasn't sleeping with Gregor himself, even if he did know who that hypothetical Imperial lover was, he would still never tell Miles. The Emperor's lover is political. Ivan Vorpatril is not political. And to remain completely unpolitical, he has to know far too much politics. It's the only way to reliably stay away from them. And Ivan is very good at staying away from them. But just because he knows about them doesn't mean he ever tells anyone he does. That would defeat the purpose.

"You're in the capital," Miles says, like that's a reasonable reason for Ivan to know. And it is, but Ivan won't tell Miles that he's right. There's no way Ivan would know who Gregor was sleeping with if it wasn't himself.

"So are your parents," Ivan says. "They talk to Gregor much more than I do." Although Ivan's not actually sure that's true. Uncle Aral certainly talks to Gregor more often than Ivan does, but he doesn't know about Aunt Cordelia. But he wouldn't be surprised. Ivan and Gregor don't really tend to talk when they're alone together. Sure, Ivan's always around to fill a seat at a function or event, but Gregor's always busy at those. It's not like Ivan's got an official position in Gregor's orbit other than as wastrel cousin.

"My father doesn't want to know and my mother would never tell me," Miles says. "Privacy, you know."

"Okay, then let it be private," Ivan replies. He can understand why Uncle Aral wouldn't want to know. If Uncle Aral knows about it, he might have to do something about it. There's probably a lot of things Uncle Aral doesn't want to know about. But Uncle Aral definitely knows about Ivan. Uncle Aral had had to come to the Residence to wake Gregor up once in the middle of the night. Gregor had gone out to his private sitting room to meet him, and Ivan, knowing that it was all far above his clearance level, had just gone back to sleep, but Uncle Aral had still been there in the morning when Ivan had had to leave. Uncle Aral had kindly pretended not to notice and has never said a word to Ivan about it. Ivan likes to delude himself that Uncle Aral thinks that Ivan was just sleeping off a hangover, while somehow also being in Gregor's bed. It means he can keep looking Uncle Aral in the eye.

"Gregor lives his life under such a microscope," Miles muses. "It must be hard for him, with ImpSec watching. He's so reserved. He doesn't strike me as an exhibitionist."

Three nights ago, Gregor had tied Ivan's hands behind his back and made him watch as Gregor stroked himself with long, fluid motions until Ivan was begging. And Miles thinks Gregor's shy. And maybe Gregor was shy, when they started it, but it's been six years. He's gotten over it.

But Ivan's probably biased. Gregor's performed for audiences his entire life. It's about time he found an audience he liked.

"If you really want to know, you could ask him," Ivan suggests. There's no danger; he knows Miles isn't going to. Miles likes a mystery and he likes solving it himself. He also, of course, would never consider Ivan to be the answer to a mystery. Ivan's a resource to be mined or used, has been ever since Miles's first scheme. Miles doesn't think Ivan the type to seduce the Emperor. Which is true, Ivan has never seduced the Emperor. Gregor takes the lead on everything they do and Ivan is perfectly fine with that.

"But then he'd know I want to know," Miles says, like that's sensible. Ivan will never understand his cousin. Miles clearly does want to know. He might consider it a matter of fairness; Gregor needs to know who his relatives are sleeping with as a basic security matter. Miles might consider turn-about to be fair play.

"Well, I'm not asking him," Ivan says. Miles gets that look on his face like Ivan is an epic disappointment to the family line. But being mediocre is hardly a crime and more people want to kill Miles than want to kill Ivan, so Ivan's coming out ahead in any comparison based on basic sense.

"I'll figure this out," Miles mutters, mostly to himself, but then goes back to talking about his own girlfriend and Ivan goes back to tuning him mostly out. They have a system, him and Miles. It works great for them.

That night, Gregor has Ivan over for a card game with Henri Vorvolk and his new countess. The Vorvolks leave at midnight and then Gregor presses Ivan into the mattress, his fingers wrapped around Ivan's wrists. Ivan really likes having Gregor's hands on his, it's grounding. Everyone else might think Ivan eager to be a traitor, tempted by power, but Gregor doesn't. The one time Ivan's hand so much as accidentally brushed the back of Gregor's during sex, Ivan had all but fallen out of bed apologizing. Gregor hadn't taken it seriously. Ivan hadn't been joking.

Gregor's the one man on the planet who has never given his oath to anyone. He doesn't know what it feels like to have that oath repeated here. Sometimes Gregor leaves finger bruises on Ivan's skin. Ivan figures that's part of the reason why uniform collars are so high. He's not complaining. He's reaping all the benefits of them. It's really great benefits. Gregor's incredibly focused and it's incredible to have all that intensity pointed at him.

Tonight, Ivan gets on his hands and knees, absently licking his lips as he looks up at Gregor. Gregor runs his hand smoothly down Ivan's back, dipping between his legs for a moment, before his thumb starts idly tracing patterns on the skin of Ivan's upper thigh. Ivan whimpers and does his best not to move into the caress. Gregor rewards him by scraping his nails down Ivan's back and all over his arms and makes him come long before Gregor's done with him.

Gregor has about an inch and a half of height on Ivan, but Ivan's much broader and Gregor really likes his muscles. This isn't the first time Gregor's seen how long Ivan can hold himself up and endure what the Emperor pleases. And Ivan won't fail. Only the best for the Emperor. It takes a lot out of him but leaves him sated in a way very few things do. It's for Gregor and it's for the Emperor. They're the same person, but it's for them both, it's for the man who invited Ivan to his bed and it's for the man who holds Ivan's oath.

"Miles is curious about your methods of stress relief," Ivan tells him afterward. He can only stay the night if the servants have seen him drinking heavily. He doesn't think he put on too good a performance, so he should probably be taking his leave. After this long, there are definitely a lot of people who know, but Gregor likes to keep the secret just to those sworn directly to him. To everyone else, Ivan is merely the drunken wastrel cousin, which is exactly how Ivan prefers it. But it's midwinter and Ivan's tired and he doesn't like the thought of leaving Gregor's warm bed to go out into the snow just to wake up in a few hours and head over to Headquarters.

"Is he focused enough that I should provide him a distraction?" Gregor asks, fingertips dancing idly across Ivan's hip. Gregor's distractions for Miles always include orders for his mercenary fleet, though, and Miles hasn't had home leave in a while. Ivan should be charitable toward his cousin.

On the other hand, Miles seems to prefer his mercenary fleet to being on Barrayar. There are times when Ivan is inclined to agree with him. Being with Gregor is nice. Being around Vorbarr Sultana often isn't.

"He might just be bored," Ivan says, "but he also might have been concerned about you. It's hard to tell with him."

"I'll have him over and reassure him that I'm still sane," Gregor says and he's joking, but he's also clearly not. That's the problem with having the Emperor raised by the survivors of Yuri's massacre; he thinks about it too much. The risk with Gregor is never him sending out death squads, it would be him running away from home and leaving the rest of them to sort the death squads out for themselves. As a random example.

"I can vouch for your continued sanity," Ivan says, patting Gregor on the thigh. He yawns.

"Stay the night," Gregor offers, amused. "I won't be cruel enough to send you out into the snow."

"You're the kindest of Emperors," Ivan assures him, then rolls over and falls asleep.



Ivan stumbles home from Earth completely prepared to never leave the planet again if that's what it means. He knows what to expect from Barrayar. Clones aren't on that list. It's not fair to throw clones at him after this long.

He endures the debriefing from Uncle Aral, which is bad, and then he endures the debriefing from Aunt Cordelia, which is worse. Then Gregor wants him to report. Ivan is really, really sorry he was glad when he was assigned to Earth after an assassination attempt got too close. He's learned his lesson. Assassination attempts on Barrayar are a whole lot better than ones on Earth. He'll pick those, thanks.

"He's not actually a Vorkosigan," Ivan complains to Gregor after Gregor has satisfied himself as to all the details that Ivan couldn't put in a written report. "We could dig up Dorca the Just and clone him and that wouldn't be anything other than disgusting. It doesn't make him anything."

"The head of the House decides who's in it," Gregor says mildly. "If Count Vorkosigan claims him, he's a Vorkosigan."

"Ugh," Ivan says. It's true, that's the worst part. Aunt Cordelia would claim any clone as her own, he's had that made perfectly clear to him. It doesn't matter if the clone had nearly murdered Ivan. Ivan's really been trying not to feel insulted by this. His life ranked below an unknown, murderous clone's, ugh. "At least he'd never get through the Counts."

"From every report, it seems he has no interest in doing so," Gregor says. "The plan was assassination, not have him handle administrative affairs in Hassadar. And he now seems to have little interest in coming to Barrayar and we're making preparations for if he changes his mind. Relax, Ivan."

One of the details that Ivan hadn't put into a report was that he's started having nightmares about Miles stabbing him. He's not going to be relaxing any time soon. This is really not the welcome home that Ivan had been hoping for throughout his sojourn on Earth. For one, he'd hoped it would involve less politics and more wine.

"I'm not leaving this planet again," Ivan says. Then, belatedly, he adds, "unless you tell me to, of course." Every time he's left the planet, there's been something. Ivan's not interested in what happens the next time. His luck is too bad. At least he's pretty sure they didn't call him back all the way from Earth to report, just to send him back there again. Gregor's not that cruel.

"I can find room for you back at HQ," Gregor reassures him. "Or elsewhere, if you want to leave the capital without having to leave the planet."

"No, I missed my apartment too much," Ivan says. And also missed Gregor's, but that's probably not something he should say. He doesn't make the first move with Gregor. Gregor arranges his own social calendar. "And the capital's not too bad. I've got perspective now."

"Yes, I've found that galactic experience can sharpen that," Gregor says dryly. "With mine, I nearly got killed for something other than being the Emperor. It was novel."

"Exactly. I expected to get assassinated by drowning in politics. I didn't expect to nearly get assassinated by drowning in water." Ivan shudders.

Gregor frowns at him in concern. "If it helps you feel better, you have my permission to consider nearly dying in a Komarran plot to be political."

"You know what I mean," Ivan says, dismissing that. "It's not exactly getting dragged off into an alleyway and being killed for who my grandmother was, or being set up on a treason charge because I talked to the wrong person at a bar, or getting on the wrong side of someone with a grudge against you or Uncle Aral. It doesn't count if it's a galactic."

Gregor hides a laugh. Well, at least Ivan's worries are amusing Gregor. He pours Ivan some brandy. "I see you need some help calming down."

"And if I'm going to die in battle with some galactic," Ivan says, warming to the topic, "I don't want to be a disgrace to my name. Ugh, getting kidnapped and nearly murdered, they won't make a holodrama about that. The last stand of Ivan Vorpatril needs to involve a lot more glory. At least if I'm sent in with the cavalry to put down a revolt for you, I'll know I'm doing it." He stares at the alcohol and then drinks it. He does feel a little better. "I wasn't expecting Komarrans," he complains. His mother had hoped that Earth would expand his horizons. Well, Ivan's horizons have been expanded. They've been expanded so far, they've collapsed and nearly strangled him. Apparently clones will do that to you.

"Aside from your commanding officer, of course," Gregor says, and now he's just humoring Ivan. That's fine, Ivan could use some humoring right now.

"Galeni was decent," Ivan says. "Is he in any trouble over this?" Galeni had still been on Earth when Ivan had been recalled, but didn't seem to know how much longer he'd stay there. Galeni had seemed certain he'd be put up on charges. If the Vorkosigans are going to come in force for the clone, Ivan should probably do the same for Galeni.

"ImpSec has other things to be angry about," Gregor says. "Your Galeni has taken a hit to his reputation, but his career will survive. He'll have an interview with Illyan, but the head of ImpSec Komarr has already volunteered to take him and rehabilitate him, far away from any Vorkosigans."

Right, because Vorkosigans don't tend to show up on Komarr unannounced. Galeni will probably appreciate that. "He really didn't know his father was still alive," Ivan says.

"I have Miles's full report," Gregor says. Oh, right. Miles had also liked Galeni. But Miles had also liked the clone, so his judgment is completely suspect. Family loyalty is one thing, but it doesn't extend to family that some Komarran decided to create for you. But Ivan's never going to convince any Vorkosigan of that.

"And he didn't know about the clone," Ivan says. Which leads him to the other question he's been dealing with. "How didn't we know about the clone? Are anyone else's biological samples sitting around waiting to be taken? Is this just another way Miles is special?" Gregor's samples are probably all locked up in a vault behind code locks and old fashioned heavy keys. Ivan needs to believe that they are. He can't even imagine what could happen if Gregor's samples got out.

"We unfortunately do not have eyes into every Jacksonian factory," Gregor says, ruthlessly exercising the Imperial pronoun at Ivan, who doesn't deserve that just for asking questions. "A deficit that ImpSec will strive to correct."

Ivan bets Illyan is going to love that. Even in Ivan's previous lowly positions at HQ, he couldn't ignore the screams when ImpSec wanted budget increases. But Barrayar's hardly funding their own wars at the moment, so why not keep funding Illyan's secret ones against Cetaganda instead. But the General Staff hate that, and even lowly lieutenants can get caught in the cross-fire if they're not careful. Ivan's always tried to be careful.

"You sure you won't just assassinate the little bastard?" Ivan asks plaintively. He already knows the answer is no. The Vorkosigans have made that perfectly clear.

"Cordelia claims him as a son," Gregor says kindly. "You don't have to claim him as a cousin, but I'm afraid you'll have to get used to it, Ivan."

"If he ever shows up on this planet, I'm slamming my door in his face," Ivan grumbles, but he lets it go.

Gregor's lip twitch. Well, always good to be amusing. "I will certainly allow that, so long as you keep your revenge only to that."

Well, that's not the most self-denying Imperial order Ivan's ever gotten, but that's including the ones he's gotten in the bedroom. Ivan would be happier to be ordered not to touch himself than to not be allowed to throttle the clone. But that's not up to him. "Yes, sire."

"Excellent," Gregor says, standing. "Will you stay for dinner? It's just my South Continent administrator and his officials and their families. You'll fit right in."

Ivan's got six invitations for parties tonight waiting for him back home. He also has his mother wanting to set him up with some nice girls now that he's back from Earth. But families probably means unmarried daughters, so Ivan's mother will certainly approve of Gregor throwing Ivan in their paths. Gregor definitely knows how to plot to serve all purposes. "By knowing nothing about the South Continent, you mean?"

"Precisely," Gregor says.

"Terraforming going badly?" Ivan guesses.

"We'll talk about it over dinner," Gregor says, which means yes. Gregor gets to own the South Continent because no one had extra resources to terraform it before the Betans arrived, and after that, no one had the army to kick Gregor off of it. It's how Gregor also gets to own Sergyar, but Ivan thinks Gregor would be willing to give Sergyar away as a gift to anyone who'd sit still long enough. But they're both so big that he can't really make anyone the Count of either one of them, so he's probably stuck having the money come out of his own purse forever.

Gregor's pretty scathing over dinner, well, scathing by the standards of a formal dinner. Some of the comments don't seem to hit their marks, so Ivan guesses Gregor's going to be shouting at them tomorrow also, just to make sure it all sinks in. But Ivan exerts himself to be charming to, yes, the three unmarried daughters, and also their mothers. Only one of them has been to Vorbarr Sultana before, so Ivan offers to show them around, an offer that is accepted with alacrity. There, his mother should approve of that.

"Go on up ahead of me," Gregor says to Ivan before finishing up with his guests. Ivan nods and makes a quick exit. He's good at following orders, that Ivan Vorpatril.

The armsmen know him far too well by now. There's a little tray set out with blueberry pastries for the Emperor and small brillberry tarts for Ivan. Ivan decides not to think about that too much as he gets himself ready in the Emperor's bedroom. Is there a protocol for whenever Ivan is around? Does someone keep an eye on him at supper and see what he likes? It's been years and the kitchen always seems to keep up with what Ivan's current preferences are. It's a weird kind of spying, Ivan decides. He's just too used to the normal kind to be inured to this kind. The Vorkosigans probably take it for granted as much as Gregor does. Ivan's only ever had this as a visitor. He's not used to it.

Ivan gets his uniform off and then he settles down on the bed, waiting for Gregor to show up and tell him how he wants him. Gregor's done some minor redecorating since Ivan had last been here; the nightstand is new and there's more detritus scattered around, presumably by design since it hasn't been tidied away. Last time Ivan had been here, the Imperial bedchamber had been spotless and Ivan had gotten to memorize the woodgrain all over again as Gregor fucked him so slowly and thoroughly, Ivan had still been feeling it on the jump ship.

Ivan's not sure what Gregor's going to be in the mood for now. He'd been in fine form at dinner and inclined to tease before that. Ivan doesn't know what that's going to add up to, but it should be fun.

By the time Gregor shows up, Ivan's idly stroking his cock, not getting too far ahead of himself but more than willing to get into the right mood. Gregor stops at the door, staring at him with an inscrutable expression on his face, then he finishes his sentence to his senior armsman and wishes him goodnight before closing the door firmly behind him.

"I have missed you," Gregor admits, a little too much honesty coloring his voice. Ivan looks down and away, not sure how to handle that much emotion. Well, it's good to know that Gregor's glad he's alive? "Ivan. Eyes on me."

Ivan watches as Gregor gets undressed and Ivan can't think of anything other than welcome home. Now this is the kind of thing he'd been thinking of during that long, long, really really long, endless ride home.

Gregor closes the distance and cups Ivan's cheek. His thumb strokes over Ivan's lips and Ivan opens his mouth obediently. Gregor slips two fingers inside for a brief moment, but then tips Ivan's head backwards. Ivan closes his eyes as Gregor trails his hand down Ivan's neck, caresses his collarbone, then pushes insistently in the center of his chest. Ivan lets himself fall backward onto the bed and then Gregor straddles him.

The first orgasm is rushed, Gregor's long fingers around Ivan's cock, forcing it from him with no quarter given. Ivan gurgles something even he can't understand and Gregor laughs softly at him. He makes a show of wiping his hands clean on a rag from his nightstand and Ivan can't stop looking at him. Gregor was right; he's missed this so much. The second one is more languid; Gregor has him between his legs. Getting to suck the Emperor's dick is always a genuine pleasure, and Gregor always lets him touch himself while he does it. And then Gregor forces a third orgasm from him, as if just to make it clear that he's home now and that means he gets to have good sex, as an incentive not to leave again.

Afterward, Gregor rubs circles into Ivan's shoulders as if he'd just untied them, and Ivan feels relaxed down to the bone for the first time in a very long time, certainly since before Miles showed up on Earth, dragging his mercenary fleet with him.

"I love this planet," Ivan murmurs.

Gregor laughs softly at him. "I'm going to remind you that you said that in another week."

Ivan vaguely waves a hand at him. "Yeah, yeah. Point taken."



The secret has mostly been kept through a heavy amount of audacity. Who would ever think that the Emperor is sleeping with Ivan Vorpatril? But Ivan supposes he can't be too surprised his mother knows, he's just not sure if he should place his bets on Gregor telling her, Simon Illyan telling her, or her figuring it out herself through some kind of maternal magic. It's probably the magic.

Also, Ivan thinks, he should really re-consider his definition of 'secret' when he can name more than twenty people who know.

"I trust you will provide Dr. Toscane all possible support," she says frostily, and Ivan doesn't deserve this, he really doesn't. He didn't do anything. "And that none of this will interfere."

"Trust me, I'm really, really, really in favor of Gregor getting married," Ivan tells her. And it's a love match, so even if all the kids are coming out of replicators, Gregor probably doesn't need a lover anymore. Ivan's fine with that. He doesn't mind being permanently replaced. He's sure Gregor found another willing participant when Ivan had been on embassy duty, and Ivan's probably not the only one even when he's in the capital; Ivan's never asked. It's never been relevant. And Ivan's really glad that Gregor's gotten over whatever infatuation he'd had before and been able to fall in love again. Ivan has no objections to any of this. He doesn't know why his mother thinks he does.

...except his mother's been trying to get Ivan married, too, and Ivan's been resisting even dating for the last few years, and, uh, wow, it has been ten years since Gregor first invited him into his bedroom, hasn't it. Ivan hadn't noticed.

Ivan has no idea how to tell his mother that he just doesn't want to get married right now. It's not that he's been holding out because he's in love with Gregor or anything like that; it's entirely that Gregor's the Emperor and doesn't have an heir. Ivan likes sex. He definitely likes sex with Gregor. But, more importantly, he also likes not having any of his own kids making the question of succession even worse. No matter what Ivan does, his kids are always going to be dealing with salic descent bullshit and Ivan is not going to ever underestimate how dangerous that is. He'd be fine never having any kids at all, but he's not ever going to tell his mother that. She wants grandchildren. But Ivan's reluctance to give them to her has nothing to do with not wanting Gregor to be married. Ivan really, really, really wants Gregor to be married.

But no matter how Ivan tries to explain himself, his mother remains incredibly unconvinced. He's not sure how he can convince her other than by continuing on as he was always going to, so Ivan goes into his first private meeting with Gregor and Laisa as ready as he'll ever be to encourage Imperial matrimony.

And then Gregor presses a glass of the good wine into Ivan's hand, and if the Emperor ever gives you something, you take it, so Ivan is in the middle of swallowing when Gregor says, "I told Laisa about us," and Ivan chokes.

"Um." Ivan manages, eyes watering. Well, he supposes it's good that Gregor and Laisa are discussing old lovers. Aunt Cordelia always says communication is important. Not that Ivan should ever assume Laisa has had old lovers, because you always assume a Vor bride is a virgin at her wedding, that's just good manners and avoiding being challenged to duels, and even though Laisa isn't Vor, she's about to become Vor, so it's all the same thing.

"She's interested in inviting you as well," Gregor says and Ivan looks around the room desperately for ImpSec or one of Gregor's armsmen to burst out and arrest him for listening to this. All he sees is Laisa relaxed on a chair, smiling at him. And she's certainly extremely attractive, but she's also about to marry Gregor. Ivan is not allowed to look at her the way he is now automatically looking at her. He should probably be executed for looking at her the way he is now automatically looking at her.

"Gregor tells me that you have no problems saying no to him," Laisa says and she's looking at Ivan the same way he'd been looking at her, which is only fair. "I hope you won't have problems saying no to me as well."

"I don't need an answer now," Gregor says from behind Ivan and Ivan's familiar with what comes from him saying things to Ivan's back. Gregor saying things to Ivan's back is how Ivan ends up tied to headboards. This is exactly why you're never supposed to turn your back on the Emperor. It gives him ideas.

And Ivan's not going to say no. Ivan's always up for anything, Gregor knows that. Well, except for politics. And some of Miles's crazier schemes. And small, dark spaces. But other than those, Ivan's game.

"The answer's always yes," Ivan says.

"Good, that's settled," Gregor says and, well, his word is law. Ivan's not going to fight it. If Gregor is sure, and Laisa is sure, then there's no problem here. Ivan's not going to object. He has ten years of history showing that he's up for whatever Gregor wants. He's willing to expand that to include whatever Laisa wants.

It's seven months after the wedding before Gregor summons him for drinks. Ivan figures that's long enough for the initial honeymoon to fade and for Gregor to start offering pet Vor lords as sex toys for his wife's entertainment. Ivan arrives like it's any other occasion, but he can't help a little frisson of excitement, especially once Laisa waves them toward the bedroom.

"Captain Vorpatril," Gregor says, his hands going to Ivan's collar, "I think it's time you were out of uniform."

Ivan tips his head back and keeps his hands low, letting Gregor do whatever he likes. And what Gregor likes is biting him right below where his uniform collar sits. Aware that this is probably meant to be a show, Ivan keeps his eyes open, the better to gauge the audience. Gregor bites down where Ivan's neck meets his shoulder and Ivan whimpers. Laisa seems to like what she sees, because she comes over to the side and makes her husband bend down to kiss her while Gregor's fingers dig into Ivan's hip.

And then Laisa is kissing Ivan and that's really nice, too. Ivan barely notices Gregor getting him out of his clothing, he's too busy sandwiched between them. And then Gregor is getting Laisa undressed as well, kissing each newly-revealed inch of skin and Ivan is staring, he can't help staring. She's beautiful. She's his Empress. Ivan would do anything she wants him to.

But there is one issue, one hazy thought reaching up into Ivan's brain. Ivan catches Gregor's arm as Laisa makes herself comfortable on the bed. "My dick can't go anywhere near inside her," Ivan whispers urgently. "Seriously, Gregor. Your armsmen will burst in and kill me for actual treason." Ivan's not Miles. He doesn't make a hobby of treason. He's always been aware that Gregor's armsmen monitor everything that happens in Gregor's bedroom, but that everything has never involved something so dangerous.

"You worry too much," Gregor tells him, and then has Ivan put his mouth between Laisa's legs. Oh good, Gregor has a plan. Ivan might not be as good at talking as Miles is, but Ivan still prides himself on being really good with his mouth.

Gregor busies himself while Ivan's mouth is occupied and then Gregor slides into him in one long, steady thrust. Ivan's fingers dig into the bedsheets for purchase and he tries to keep his mind on the task at hand, on his Empress, as his Emperor takes his pleasure as well. This is amazing and he has no idea how he ended up here, but he has no complaints, none at all. Laisa's making breathy little noises above him, and Gregor's kissing Laisa again over his head, and Ivan's never been so happy to be caught in the middle of anything.

Afterwards, Ivan finds himself relegated to the end of the bed while Gregor and Laisa keep acting like newlyweds. It probably was too early for them to invite him, he thinks philosophically, pillowing his head on his hands and watching. But he has no complaints. It's good to see Gregor happy and, more importantly, happily married. Ivan really doesn't see why his mother was so worried. Gregor and Laisa are great together.

Ivan starts dozing off, waking up only when strong fingers card through his hair. "Did we wear you out, Ivan?" Gregor asks, amused.

"Never," Ivan denies with more vehemence than accuracy.

Laisa's reclined against the pillows, her hand resting idly on Gregor's leg. "Any regrets?" she asks. "Or would you accept another invitation?"

"It would be my deepest honor, my lady," Ivan says gallantly. He knows it won't be soon. Gregor and Laisa had still been very caught up in each other. Ivan had been a fun addition for them, he hopes, but he doesn't expect to be called back soon. But he'll be happy to come if they do call him back. This was a lot of fun.

Laisa grins. "Oh, good. You know, you're much more attractive than Henri Vorvolk."

"Yes, I am," Ivan preens, while internally, his mind is whirling. Vorvolk? There can really be only one reason Laisa would bring him up in this context, but the mind rebels. Gregor had been interested in Henri Vorvolk? That's who Gregor had been using Ivan to get over? Well, Ivan supposes there's no accounting for taste. And Gregor had been pretty young at the time. And, Ivan dubiously thinks, he's always been told the heart wants who the heart wants. He supposes it's possible for someone to want Henri Vorvolk. Someone had even married him, after all. But Gregor? He can't imagine that. Except that Gregor apparently could, enough that Laisa had considered if she'd be willing to occasionally open up her marital bed to Vorvolk if Gregor had been bedding him instead of Ivan. But it boggles the mind. Ivan's mind is boggled.

Although now that he's thinking about it, and can't stop thinking about it, he supposes it makes a certain amount of sense. Vorvolk's certainly the sort to become panicked when asked for relationship advice and blurt out some nonsense about getting over a crush through sheer willpower and a lot of casual sex. But, in fairness to Vorvolk, it does seem to eventually have worked for Gregor. Ivan's still got some souvenir groats from the Imperial Wedding to prove it.

It seems Gregor's forgotten that Ivan never knew about Vorvolk, because he just chuckles, and tugs some more at Ivan's hair until he's kissing Ivan. Ivan relaxes into it and then reluctantly sits up. He really should be going.

Gregor kisses him one more time while Ivan gets his uniform on, and then Laisa demands another kiss, pulling Ivan down to meet her on the bed. And then he's strolling out the bedroom door like this is nothing unusual at all.

He whistles jauntily as he makes his way to where his groundcar is waiting. He really does love this planet sometimes.