Where does a queen wolf give birth? went the old joke, usually buried under a list of hens in henhouses and horses in stables. The punchline was, of course, 'where she damn well please.' Ivan had shuffled it out of his repertoire when he hit his thirteenth year of age, though not before bludgeoning everyone he was introduced to with it for a few years before that. He couldn't figure out why his mother hadn't smothered him before he even reached double digits.
When Miles first dragged him into the map room where Lord Colonel Vortugalov's sister had chosen to den, he could only think of how they were never going to get the heavy, gag-inducing musk of cooped-up wolf and puppy piss out of the priceless old maps. Which he wouldn't have cared about but the planned week of history lessons in this room had only been rescheduled, not annulled.
"Hallo, the wolf den!"
Benedikt Vortugalov was keeping the she-wolf company, seated on a stool and tirelessly nudging the puppies back over the wooden barrier that ineffectually tried to keep them confined under the conference table, where the russet queen lay stretched out. From nose to tail-tip the beast must be longer than Ivan could reach with a hand up over his head.
"Look at her, isn't she gorgeous," Miles said in what he thought was a whisper, eyes gleaming and hands rubbing at each other in a gesture of grabby excitement Ivan wasn't sure he even noticed. His cousin was so excited, he even seemed to miss the way Benedikt's eyes narrowed.
Ivan could see it coming like an avalanche; Benedikt was a third year student and they were only firsties, but they were Vor; if that were all he would have lorded his status as the wolf's brother's nephew, sure, but ultimately tolerated the visit. Wolves ought to bond where they willed, and it was bad for pack blood to only allow them to bond in-House.
The second his mutie freak of a cousin was unilaterally uninvited from visiting the cubs, things were going to explode -- noisily, hostilely, and all over the place -- and if there was one place ever where Ivan did not want explosions, it was in a closed room with a nursing she-wolf.
"Hi, Tugalov!" he said, grinning. He moved up to the young man, hand held out for a shake, and hoped the she-wolf wouldn't feel the need to inform someone not her bondmate that he was not meaning the smile one bit. "We heard you've been shut in here for hours, aren't you bored to death yet?"
"Patril," Benedikt returned, dark eyes still narrow -- but by that time Ivan was holding out a satchel of hard candies his mother had sent him and that he'd been planning to keep to himself, darn it, and once he'd fished one out with a startled little thanks it was too late to throw out his runty mutant of a cousin out of hand; the insult to Ivan would have been too great.
Miles crouched by the barrier of planks, eyes gleaming as the she-wolf stared back at him with terrifying golden eyes.
"Don't touch," Benedikt grunted pointlessly; Miles was thankfully too engrossed in the wolf to care to point out he'd had no intention. Ivan rustled the candy bag to tempt Benedikt to take another. He hadn't been at dinner, Miles had pointed out; he must be famished by now.
The cubs were almost all awake now, jumping against the planks to try to get Miles' scent, and Ivan grimaced a little hearing all those tiny, cat-sharp claws scrabbling on wood, those high-pitched yips. He supposed they were cute enough, but young animals were tons of work, and then they grew up into boy-eating monsters. Or Miles-eating, dear lord, the she-wolf must have massed three times his weight. When she extricated herself from the den, her long body sinuously slipping out and then standing up straight, Ivan stiffened a little. When his cousin sat (mostly) straight on his haunches she was taller at the shoulder than he was.
"Hello," Miles said in a quiet, gentle voice he never used on anyone but his parents' Petya and Adrian. "I bring greetings from the Volkosigan pack, my lady."
Ivan could never tell if the wolves ever answered Miles, or if he'd decided to talk at them and guesstimate their answers, as he did so many people. Always a dangerous business with Miles, allowing him to lead a conversation that much, but then again if there was one type of creature that wouldn't let itself be lead around...
At any rate the queen wolf merely sniffed at his shoulder before stretching from back toes to impressive maw and wandering toward her water bowl. Ivan watched her pass and tried to tell himself he'd seen bigger. Like the Count his Uncle's Vasily -- no, wait, it wasn't. Err.
One of the cubs tumbled out, and another; black-furred balls of fuzz. "Will you look at that," Miles mumbled, "such big pups for their age, and already with the characteristic Volktugalov white mask; you're a gorgeous pair, aren't you..."
Ivan wasn't surprised when Benedikt's frown smoothed a little. Like Miles hadn't flattered his House pride for exactly that result. The puppies explored Miles' polished boots, leaving gnawed-up little dents. Ivan grimaced at the thought of how much polishing this was going to take to erase. Miles seemed honestly delighted, though.
"Ah well, if Verusha doesn't mind." Benedikt looked away from the she-wolf, who glanced back his way and then turned, unconcerned, to her food bowl. The young man looked up at him, an eyebrow arched. "Well then, Patril. She won't mind if you say hello."
Ivan was not especially looking to bond, but that was somewhat hard to admit in public, especially at the Military Academy. Not many men ended up bonded in adulthood, maybe one man out of five, maybe even one out of eight, and there was no shame in not being chosen -- but not even wanting to be?
Ivan knew he was lazy and selfish and had no house spirit, no sense of debt toward the pack. And how could he, raised fatherless and closer to a pack not his own than to the cousins who bore his name?
(They hadn't been there much more than what propriety indicated and the Vorkosigans had, and if he felt only a slight bit more like Vorkosigan pack that was his own business. But at any rate he was not going to bond, no way, no how. When he was given liberty he wanted to be dazzling young ladies with his uniform, not cubsitting.)
"They're too young to choose yet," Miles said, voice neutral, eyes teasing, "aren't they?"
"Mnh, I gather, yes. Not for another couple of months."
Alright, fine. Ivan sighed, put the candies safely on the table, and crouched. The black puppies were play-fighting all over Miles' boots, not interested in a random new person.
There was a third one moving behind the planks, not whining, not making any noise, any attempt to join in on the fun. Ivan tilted his head; it tilted its head back at him.
Well, it didn't look too wild. He rested a hand on the plank, let it come up to sniff or not as it willed.
It wasn't russet like its mother or black like its siblings; it was a muddle of grays and browns, markings faded, indistinct, and no white muzzle either.
"Old-pelted, hm," Miles commented. Ivan tried not to roll his eyes at the jargon, he knew Miles was trying to drop as many reminders that he was Pack-born into the conversation as was feasible without being blatant.
Or any more blatant than he already was.
Not that the Vorkosigan pack was very big at all, counting six wolves total; and without a breeding female it was never going to get any bigger. Armsman Esterhazy's sister was almost white with age now; their only hope was for Miles to bring home a sister.
Ivan was pretty sure all the cubs so far were male. Maybe the sleeping russet one back there, but the wild-wolf colored one was currently licking its parts so Ivan could be fairly certain of his thesis.
Boy, it would be kind of nice if he were bendy enough to do that.
... And on that note it was time to abscond back to the dorms before Miles decided to smuggle the pair of blacks into his shirt.
"Damn, I forgot my candies," he muttered as they were walking back. Miles only patted his arm with fake sympathy and kept walking with a wide, smug grin on his face. "Oh. Oh, you twisted little fiend, you were planning to use them as bribes all along, weren't you."
"I have to admit I was happily surprised when you took them out without any prompting! Good sense of initiative, Ivan."
If Ivan hadn't been trained out of it since early childhood he would have given that brat a noogie to remember.
"You owe me a new bag," he grumbled instead, "and I sure hope you won't need me to pay the next passer's fee, because you'll damn well be on your own!"
A week later he was carrying dinner for Benedikt Vortugalov, since Miles had, as he had taken great pains to explain at length, his own hands full with Verusha Volktugalov's, and did he want Miles dropping it all on the ground and the she-wolf hunting Ivan's favorite cousin down to feast on his bones in revenge.
Technically Ivan hadn't provided the human's dinner, so he supposed he wasn't paying and couldn't make good on his word. Damn Miles, anyway.
The cubs were rowdier, the stink worse. Russet cub turned out to be a fourth male. Wild-pelted cub spent half his time hiding from his noisy brothers behind Ivan's boots and the rest having his ears used as teething toys. Poor little guy.
He was probably going to grow up to reach Ivan's hips. Runt of the litter indeed.
The third week Miles delightedly explained to Ivan all the subtleties of Verusha's scent-name, which the queen wolf had honored him with. Ivan could only think about the damp smell of rot in some corner of the room he hadn't been able to locate. At this rate they were going to have to burn the maps.
The fourth week there were other wolfbrother hopefuls visiting -- "Three weeks late on us!" as Miles muttered under his breath at Ivan before he charged in with teeth bared in what was only remotely a smile. Ivan went back to smoothing Benedikt's metaphorical ruffled fur, which the presence of witnesses had put back up.
The thing was, Miles had spent three weeks on befriending the black cubs, but they were cubs, and fearless ones; they didn't really feel a need to limit their interaction only to people they knew well. The russet one was orbiting one of the Vor third-years; the blacks were just about everywhere, and moved so fast sometimes it seemed like they were triplets or more.
The old-wolf-colored one didn't like all the petting and he especially disliked the way they all charged in from above to pick him up. He reacted to that same he would have reacted to an eagle; running to hide under Mom, behind Benedikt, or under the stool Ivan had appropriated.
"They're vultures," Ivan muttered to him, letting his hand dangle. The cub butted his head into his palm. It didn't fit nicely in there anymore; another month and not even Ivan's spread fingers would span the widest part of his skull.
Huh, someone must have recently re-greased the hinges of that camp stool. Or was someone out of the usual oil for their swords?
The sixth week the russet one chose Stas Vorliebling and one of the black ones chose Francois Marcelin, who was as prole as a prole can be, and not even an Armsman's family either. Ivan had a feeling Benedikt and his uncle the Colonel didn't know whether to be relieved he hadn't chosen a mutie with such cumbersome political ties or horrified he hadn't chosen a Vor.
The competition for the last black one and the wild-pelted one went fierce. The black slutted it up all over the room, for two third-years and three seconds and the one and only Miles. The runt didn't even come out from under his mother anymore. Ivan sat by Benedikt and made boring, predictable, safe small talk about school courses and professors and anything that was not wolf-or-politics-related. He could tell the man was thanking him in his heart of hearts; he must be so tired of being courted indirectly. That and of seeing cubs from his father's own queen going to strangers while he remained wolfless.
"--And if you have old Colonel Vordiannes in Ground Techniques, I swear on all that is holy do not bring up the Battle of -- yes, Verusha?"
Ivan blinked at his conversation partner, turned to follow his stare. The she-wolf was in their faces, white muzzle of a height with Ivan's nose as he sat.
She was staring at him.
Like breaking a bottle of perfume under him, lilac and alcohol smacked him in the nose, making his eyes water. "Phew!" he went, waving his hand before his nose, and then felt stupid. It wasn't the first time he'd had a wolf try to speak to him, Aunt Cordelia's Adrian was a chatty sort...
It wasn't the first time he'd smelled his own wolf-name. If never this stinkily.
"Um. Yes? Me?"
A confused, blurred impression of a bumbling teenage cub came to him, tripping over its paws chasing a butterfly and smacking into a tree. The cub smelled like lilac, in case that would have been too subtle for Ivan.
"... Why, thank you, Lady." The queen wolf growled quietly under her breath, but more out of mild annoyance than anger. Ivan cringed a little. "Can I... help you?" He hoped not.
Behind them, two young men had the salt-and-pepper-and-tree-bark cub shared across their laps and were petting him all over as they exchanged pleasantly barbed quips. Miles was the only one who'd stopped stealth-arguing to stare at the queen and at Ivan so far, but his expression was so strange Ivan couldn't decipher it.
Verusha turned away and waded into the group of hopefuls, making all young men fall silent. Under their baffled stares she closed her maw on the wild-pelted cub's neck and lifted him off the laps he'd been shared across. He was getting too big for it, his butt dragging on the floor, but he curled up obligingly to let his mother move him around.
She deposited him on Ivan's feet, and he thought vaguely that he'd never heard of a cat that brought back such monstrous mice.
The cub's eyes were turning a very banal brown. As Ivan could see when he met them.
Wet decay -- forest leaves after the rain, it smelled like autumn. The cub smelled like autumn. Autumn and... steel and metal grease, hidden in the leaves, the sharp stink of an old, forgotten, still-deadly trap.
"Bear trap?" he hazarded. "Bear trap in dead leaves. Huh."
The cub placed his chin on Ivan's knee. Ivan obediently started petting.
Damn it. His Lady Mother was going to be delighted. All those new... responsibilities.
A puff of lilac perfume filled his nose, a sense of anxiousness, of refusal. Ivan scratched gently behind huge fluffy ears.
You better help me flirt with the ladies, furball, he thought at his wolf, and wondered what Uncle Aral would think of him getting wolfed. Probably he would despair of the cub's taste.
The second black cub chose Benedikt, once he was done flirting to his heart's content. Wasn't like Benedikt had been going anywhere after all, right, no need to hurry.
Miles spent the next year alternately grouching at Ivan to his face about the unfairness of the world and teaching his wolf to fetch and carry a hundred household items by name, dig escape tunnels and hide the telltale loose earth mounds, sing (of a sort) several operas, open locked doors and thieve bottles from Uncle Aral's liquor cabinet. Paddy (Padma Volkpatril the Third) showed, alas, no interest in learning the best way to tackle and disarm any armed opponent, though he at least took fairly well to Miles' hopefully-to-stay-useless teaching of the way to handle a grenade or a nerve disruptor without accidentally discharging it in his own maw.
Paddy might be a runt with a very common coat, but he was a Volkpatril, and Ivan always made sure to have him brushed until he shone, and let Mother accessorize all his harnesses. Turned out Paddy didn't mind having his fuzzy belly petted by pretty ladies, so long as Ivan was there to guide their hands and show them how.