"Father Frost! Father Frost!"
The combined weight of Miles and Ekaterin's twins hurtling at him at full speed nearly forced Ivan back into the sleigh he'd just emerged from. His breath escaped him with an audible grunt as Helen's compact body collided with his stomach - damn, she was turning out to be quite the little bruiser - but he grabbed the sleigh and righted himself in time to return their welcome.
"Oh ho!" he boomed cheerfully, then paused to spit out a tuft of false beard. "What do we have here? Two children hoping that Father Frost has come to bring them Winterfair presents?" Squeals of delight, no doubt enhanced by overindulgence in Ma Kosti's Winterfair treats and God-knows-what wild tales from their grandda Aral, made his ears ring.
Bending down, Ivan asked loud enough for those standing in the doorway of Vorkosigan House to hear, "Have they been good children this year?" He paused, then lowered his voice to a growl for dramatic effect. "Or have they been naughty?"
"We've been good, we've been good!" cried young Aral, tugging at Ivan's fur-trimmed sleeve. His eyes pleaded for generosity. "Please, Father Frost, let us have something from your sack."
"Well, I don't know. Let's see what your ma and da have to say." He called out to the adults waiting nearby, "Have your children earned their Winterfair gifts this year?"
A glint in his eyes, Miles rubbed his chin. "Hm. I seem to recall there was one time--"
"Da!" wailed Helen.
"They've been very well behaved, Father Frost," Ekaterin interjected, hastening to avert the approaching storm. "You may reward them from your sack as you deem appropriate."
Ivan exchanged a quick nod and a smile with her, then turned back to the sleigh. "Would you hand me those two parcels beneath the seat?" he murmured to the sleigh's secret occupant, buried beneath several blankets meant to provide both warmth against the cold night air and concealment from young prying eyes.
"Who are you talking to, Father Frost?" Aral asked, trying to see around Ivan into the sleigh. "Who's in there?"
Helen gasped. "Did you - is it - Ma, Da, come see, come see! Father Frost brought the Snow Maiden with him tonight!" Unprepared for this reaction, Ivan choked. "You've never brought her with you before! Can we see, please, I want to see her!" She tugged at the edge of his robe with such urgence she almost managed to pull him off balance.
Ivan glanced over his shoulder and saw Miles and Ekaterin, followed by the rest of their guests, approaching. Miles seemed torn between curiosity, apprehension, and annoyance. Ivan swore under his breath, then turned back to the sleigh. He hadn't planned on having to introduce his companion to anyone yet, much less his Vorkosigan relations. At least his mother and Illyan weren't here as well. "Would you mind?" he sheepishly asked, gesturing at the advancing crowd. "I promise I'll make it up to you later."
"Mind playing the part of the Snow Maiden?" The delight in her voice filled him with warm relief. "I wouldn't pass up an opportunity like this for the world."
"You're a life saver." He held out a hand to help her down from the sleigh, then turned once again to face - well, at this point it seemed to be a firing squad. "Um, let me introduce--"
"She's beautiful," Aral sighed before Ivan could get another word out.
Taken aback, he stared down at the little boy, who was gazing up at the woman standing beside Ivan in enchanted awe. "Thank you, my young lord," she said smoothly, playing the part as if she'd been born to it. She held the two wrapped presents before her. "Now, which one of these do you think is yours?"
"He's Aral, and I'm Helen," was the answer she got as Helen, too impatient to wait for her brother to find his tongue again, shouldered him aside and stepped forward. "Our names ought to be written on the tags."
"Ah yes, I see." She handed each child their present, giving them a pat on the cheek as she did so. His eyes widening, Aral's hand covered the spot she'd touched. "Happy Winterfair!"
Almost unconsciously, Ivan's hand touched his own cheek as he, too, gazed at her in wonder. Don't let this one get away, a voice said in his head.
Helen seemed less impressed than her brother. Her lips pursed in a frown Ivan recognized all too well, she asked, "Are you really the Snow Maiden?" Her eyes narrowed as she peered at Ivan. He coughed and looked away.
"What do you believe?" was the reply Helen got, accompanied by a gentle tap on the nose.
"Time to go back inside, children," Ekaterin murmured before Helen could work herself up to an argument. "Your grandmother has hot cider waiting to warm you up." She herded Aral and Helen away from the sleigh and into the care of Mark and Kareen, who led them inside. Mark darted a roguish grin over his shoulder before shaking his head and closing the door behind them.
"Ivan, Ivan, Ivan," Miles was saying before they were barely out of earshot. "You--"
"Hey now, Coz," Ivan spluttered indignantly. "I didn't--"
Once again, Ekaterin came to the rescue, holding out her hand to Ivan's companion with a warm and friendly smile. "Thank you so much for helping Ivan tonight. It's such a treat for the children to get a visit from Father Frost on Winterfair's Eve, and you made it all the more special for them." Ekaterin glanced up and down, taking in her attire. "I'd invite you inside, but you're dressed as though you have other plans."
Ivan remembered his manners just in time. "Yeah, we're headed out for dinner as soon as I can change out of this get-up." He indicated the Father Frost robes, boots, hat, and beard he'd donned for the occasion, just as he had every Winterfair since the twins' birth. "I'm really sorry about this, but since I've got the sleigh and horses until midnight, I thought I'd make the most of it, you know?" He ignored the scathing look Miles gave him. "Are we still on for tomorrow?"
"Of course." Ekaterin nodded towards his companion. "Bring your friend, too."
A half-choked laugh escaped him. "Yeah. Right." He leaned down to exchange a kiss on the cheek with Ekaterin, then jerked his chin up at Miles, who was no doubt plotting some sort of diabolical revenge. "Happy Winterfair!"
"Happy Winterfair, Ivan." Ekaterin and Miles stepped back to give Ivan room to help his date into the sleigh, then climb back in himself and take up the reins. "Be sure to wave as you go." Ekaterin gestured towards one of the windows, where two small faces were pressed against the glass, watching every move.
Ivan removed his hat with a flourish and executed a grandiose bow for his audience, then sat down, took up the reins again, and clucked to the horses. "Happy Winterfair to all, and to all a good night!" he called out as the sleigh trundled past the house, its runners crunching over the snow. Beside him, his date raised her arm high to wave to Aral and Helen as she, too called out Winterfair greetings.
As they passed the gatehouse, Ivan slumped back against the cushions. "Damn, that was a near miss." He turned to his companion and gave her an apologetic grin. "Sorry about that. I hope you didn't mind."
By way of response, she snuggled against him, leaning her head against his shoulder and resting her warm hand on top of his thigh, and sighed, her breath causing wisps of hair on his fake beard to flutter. "Don't apologize at all, Ivan. I thought it was wonderful."
"Yeah?" He transferred the reins to one hand so he could drape his other arm around her, bringing her closer to him.
"Mm-hm. Puts you in a completely different light. I hadn't taken you for the sort to dress up and play Father Frost for someone else's children."
Not quite sure what to make of that, Ivan shrugged. "They're my cousin Miles', so it's no great trouble. They're great kids, actually." He didn't allow himself to dwell too long on the thought that they were probably as close as he'd ever get to having children of his own.
"I bet you're their favorite honorary uncle, too."
"I hope so. I've got some pretty stiff competition, though. Not many children get to claim the emperor of Barrayar among their honorary uncles."
"Perhaps, but I doubt that Emperor Gregor dresses up as Father Frost for anyone but his own children."
Ivan laughed. "Not even that! He gets one of his older Armsmen to do it." He guided the sleigh to a spot alongside the front of his building and reined the horses to a stop, then turned to his date. "You can come up if you like, but it should only take me a minute or two to change out of this and into something more appropriate." He gave her a rakish grin. "When I come back, I can warm you up."
Her eyes crinkled in amusement. "Who could refuse an invitation like that?" Before Ivan could climb out of the sleigh, though, she'd grabbed his arm to hold him there, then leaned forward to give him a long, breathtaking kiss.
"What was that for?" he managed to get out when she drew back.
She pressed her palm against his cheek and brushed her lips across the tip of his nose, then said something that thrilled Ivan to his very bones: "If you're still playing Father Frost next Winterfair, I'd love to be your Snow Maiden again."