It would be a terrible idea to kiss Simon, no matter how much he wants to.
Aral stares at his newly minted Chief of Imperial Security, chattering animatedly with Admiral Kanzian, and Cordelia nudges his elbow. He glances at her, and she jerks her chin in Simon's direction. The signal is clear.
"I can't," he all but hisses in frustration at her, and not for the first time. "I'm his commanding officer."
Cordelia rolls her eyes. "Then ask him first, you big silly. Barrayarans!"
Oh, if only things were that simple. Simon would never say no, of course - but Aral would never know if he were saying yes to Aral Vorkosigan, the person, or Aral Vorkosigan, Regent of Barrayar.
"Do you need me to act as baba for you two?" Cordelia continues.
"No!" Aral says sharply. A bit too sharply. Simon and Kanzian glance around from their conversation. Aral gives them a 'carry on' gesture. Simon's gaze lingers on him a little longer than Kanzian's, and he can't tell if it's concern, or something more.
"Then find out," Cordelia says. "And if you're too shy and retiring to ask him flat out, you can try finding out in more subtle ways."
Even after all this time, it's not always easy to follow her chain of thought. "What manner of subtle ways?"
"It's called dating, love. Finding out more about each other. Flowers and dinners and candlelight?"
Aral entertains the mental image for a while. Then shakes his head violently. "We're in the middle of a war, Cordelia!"
"So?" Cordelia says. "Best time for it. Endorphins. It'll do everyone a world of good."
"I can get my endorphins from elsewhere," Aral growls, and Cordelia smirks at him. He manages to successfully distract her, and the subject doesn't come up again for a long while. Aral chalks it down as a win in his book.
When things are settled in the capital, and all the funerals are over, Vorbarr Sultana settles into one of the quietest Winterfairs in recent history. Kou and Drou marry, to a great deal of celebration and a great deal more alcohol, and sometime in the course of the evening, Aral finds himself holding up a wall next to Simon Illyan.
Simon is frowning, listening to his earbug. The report must be not be great, because he grimaces and crinkles his nose. Aral thinks, right then, that he's very glad he stopped drinking after the second glass of maplemead, because the urge to kiss his Security Chief full on the mouth is very nearly overwhelming. Weddings are romantic occasions and Cordelia would smile and wink and say 'I told you so', but the rest of Vorbarr Sultana, he thinks, would not be so amused.
He settles for reaching over to pull Simon's earbug out of his ear, and is rewarded by a startled and utterly bewildered look. "A good commander knows the value of delegation," Aral says sagely. "You've been working like a dog and you look dead on your feet. I want you off duty for the rest of the night, Simon."
Simon stares at the earpiece, and blinks. His brown eyes are very wide. "Is that an order, sir?"
"Consider it one," Aral says. And an invitation, he doesn't say.
"Um?" Simon says, clearly missing the hint. Aral considers pocketing the earbug, but Simon is casting helpless glances at it, and Aral can appreciate the need to clean up loose ends before clocking out for the night. He sighs and hands it back.
"Five minutes," he says. "And then off duty, you understand?"
"Yes sir." The look of profound relief that sweeps over Simon's face when he takes device back makes Aral want to kiss him all over again.
He should have known that Cordelia wouldn't let matters rest so easily. He arrives at the small, informal dining room one night to find Simon hovering in his dress greens and eying the table with some nervousness.
"Simon?" Aral asks. "Did you have something to report?"
Simon glances quizzically at him, as though he's just asked the wrong question. Strange, when Simon's the one looking for him. "I thought Cordelia would be here," Simon mumbles.
"Ah, she said she had some business to attend to tonight. Dinner with Alys, or somewhat. Were you looking for her?"
Simon's taken on a vaguely alarmed look. He gestures vaguely at the table, which, Aral has just noticed, is set for two. "She invited me to dinner."
Cordelia's sly smile at him before she'd left for her dinner makes a whole lot more sense now. As does Simon's obvious awkwardness. Aral thinks of comments about candlelight dinners and groans mentally. He will have to get her back for this.
"If it helps," Aral says brightly, "She somehow forgot to inform me that you were coming to dinner."
"Ah, maybe I got the date wrong," Simon says, looking visibly relieved. "Must have misheard."
"With that chip?" Aral says, still too brightly. "Try again, Simon. And since you're already here, sit down."
Simon obeys automatically. Aral takes his seat, noting for the first time that there even is a candelabra set out in the middle of the table. Someone's bothered to prepare. His move is the signal for the liveried servants to start serving, and Simon's worried look freezes into some kind of shellshocked expression as he realises that Aral has just neatly trapped him into the dinner, and there's absolutely no polite way of backing out now.
"So, since you're here." He may not be entirely pleased at being set up in this manner, but he's not going to forego an opportunity just because he's peeved. "Let's talk."
Simon's practically sitting to attention. Aral can see him computing things in his head, trying to figure out what's going on, and whether he's in trouble. He opens his mouth, then shuts it again, then asks, very diplomatically, "What about?"
Aral suppresses the urge to sigh. "Well, Cordelia obviously felt that we had some catching up to do. How are things, Simon? Really?" He holds up a hand to forestall the no doubt very important security concerns about to come pouring out of Simon's mouth. "No, no work tonight. For once, you can leave security at the door."
Simon looks flummoxed.
"Personally, Simon," Aral elaborates, trying to be as patient as he can. "I was asking about your personal life."
Simon frowns a bit and scratches the back of his head. "I'm very well, sir, thanks for asking."
Aral gives him a very patient stare.
Simon twitches a bit. "Really, there's nothing terribly exciting to report. Oh, the doctors said I need to cut down on coffee before I get an ulcer."
Aral sighs mentally. "So, tell me about yourself. What do you do in your free time?"
"What free time?" Simon asks, and blinks innocently at him. Aral nearly sighs out loud, when Simon breaks into a small smile. It seems that he has a sense of humour, after all. "I tried some gardening," he says, then shrugs, the smile turning sheepish. "All my plants died."
Aral shakes his head, smiling back at him as the salad course is served. "Let me guess. You wouldn't have forgotten to water them, so did you decide in the middle of the night that they were potential weaknesses in your security network and have them terminated with extreme prejudice?"
"They were supposed to be able to survive without watering for a week. A claim which didn't live up under actual, field conditions." Simon pokes at the salad with his fork, his expression intent. Aral wonders if the green reminds him of his dead plants. "What about you, sir?"
"Reading's a favourite," Aral says. "Though lately, I've found that the Residence gardens do make for a nice stroll - well, you would know all about that."
Simon winces slightly, no doubt thinking of the myriad of security concerns.
"I'm surprised, however," Aral continues, as nonchalantly as he can. "Is there no one you're seeing on the side? I don't demand that my officers be celibate."
Simon glances up briefly from his salad, chewing thoughtfully, and Aral holds his breath for a second. "Afraid not," Simon says, then turns his attention back on his food.
"Surely not?" Aral pushes. "It's not like you're not good looking. And Alys tells me that with your promotion, you're one of the most eligible young men in Vorbarr Sultana right now."
Wordlessly, Simon taps his forehead with the hand that's not holding his fork.
"Ah," Aral says.
"Plus, I'm sure that any relationship would go the way of my plants," Simon says lightly.
"Not any," Aral feels compelled to point out. "What if there was someone who didn't mind the chip?" He plants his elbows on the table, steeples his fingers, and watches Simon over the top of them. As intently and intensely as he can. He's practically smouldering.
"They'd be a rare find indeed," Simon says. "The food is excellent, by the way." He glances in askance at Aral's relatively untouched plate.
Aral watches the hint sail right past its target to slam into the wall beyond. "Yes," he sighs. "The food is very good."
He sends Simon flowers.
When he runs into Simon rushing them down to the impromptu forensics lab that has taken over one of the Residence's many storerooms, he thinks that maybe it was a bad idea to send them anonymously.
The chocolate he sends meets almost the same fate. Almost, but not quite. When Aral drops by Simon's Residence office, he finds that Simon only sent half of them for testing. Progress, of a sort. Maybe.
"Chocolate?" Simon asks, holding out the box to him. "They're really good."
"This is from one of the top confectionery stores in Vorbarr Sultana," Aral says, making a show of examining the box. "A gift?"
"An anonymous one. They keep turning up. At this rate, I'd probably have to assume that I have some kind of secret admirer."
"Someone who perhaps doesn't mind the chip?" Aral suggests.
"I should have it traced," Simon frowns. "It might be a prelude to something bigger and nastier. A possible attempt to get at you, through me. Or perhaps it's some form of covert communication to someone in my office." He stares suspiciously at the truffles. "A secret message? With a box of sixteen, it would be possible to devise a system--"
"Sometimes, Simon, a box of chocolates is just a box of chocolates," Aral says.
"And sometimes it isn't," Simon argues. "If there's a security threat in all of this, I'm duty bound to seek it out."
Aral resists the urge to beat his head gently against the wall.
In the end, Simon actually has the flowers traced. Aral finds this out when Simon drops into his office one morning and asks, "Sir, why are you sending me roses?"
He's impressed, despite himself. His agents had assured him that it would be quite untraceable. Clearly, ImpSec is doing its job well. "It's a gesture of appreciation," he says.
"I sent them for testing," Simon says, looking utterly chagrined. "Perhaps you shouldn't have sent them anonymously. The chocolates too, then?"
Aral gives him an even stare.
"Oh," Simon says, and Aral thinks at last, almost fancying that he can see the little lightbulb popping up over Simon's head.
"Do you think you could pass me the address of the shop?" Simon says.
"You're useless," Cordelia declares, then vows to take matters into her own hands.
"Simon," Cordelia says, from where she's hovering in the doorway.
He glances up, tearing his attention away from the endless reports on his commconsole. "Milady," he says, and smiles. "I hear Miles' surgery went well."
"That it did." She smiles, looking relieved. It's been a hard few weeks of waiting, but at least the first round of tests and treatments are over. For a time there, they seemed endless. They can all rest a little easier, for now.
"Won't you come in?" he asks. He isn't sure why she's here. He doesn't see much of her or Aral these days, given that whatever free time they have is usually taken up with Miles.
She accepts his invitation and moves in, taking a seat. "There was something I wanted to talk to you about."
He puts aside his work and gives her his full attention. "How can I help you?"
"Aral likes you," she says, without preamble.
He blinks a little; this isn't what he expected. "I'm glad, milady," he says, wondering where she's going with this, then decides she must be talking about work. "But really, I'm just doing my job."
"I'm not talking about professionally - though he does think you're doing a fine job," Cordelia explains. "I meant personally."
"Oh," Simon thinks of a particularly awkward dinner with the Lord Regent, and feels a pang of relief that he obviously didn't screw that up too badly.
But he still isn't sure where this is going, and some of the blankness must show on his face, because Cordelia continues, still in that too-calm voice, "When I say 'like', I mean Aral actually has a huge wooby crush on you."
"A what?" His chip tells him that his voice has never gone so shrill on any occasion that it can recall.
"Flowers, Simon. Chocolates. It's all very traditional on Barrayar, or so Aral assures me."
Well, in hindsight, yes. "But he's the Lord Regent!"
"And he's also Aral," Cordelia says, sounding a little exasperated now. "Really, for someone who's so clever at unwinding mysteries…"
"But he has you," Simon protests weakly.
"Who was the one who set up that dinner between the two of you? That took quite some finessing." He's not imagining it. This time, Cordelia really is rolling her eyes. "I have no issue with it. I'm asking what you think." She mutters something that might have been I've seen the way you look at him.
Right. Beta Colony. True blue Betan from Beta Colony. "What I think?" he tries to avoid the question, then gives in at the level look that Cordelia is sending his way. Whole armies would surrender at that look. "I think that if there was anyone, yes, it would be probably be Ara-- Lo-- the Re-- Aral. But he's …"
Harbouring a massive crush on him, apparently. Simon's head is still swimming from that revelation. He can't believe he's actually having this conversation and pinches himself just to make sure.
"Is that a 'yes', then?" Cordelia says, brutally forthright. "Because you can say no, you know. Aral's a big boy, he can take it."
Simon can't speak. His voice has left the planet without him, and his throat is a desert. He's pretty sure that Cordelia's just made a terrible pun - no, two terrible puns - there, but her expression is so serious that it's impossible to tell.
"I can see why he thinks you're cute," Cordelia sighs, "But really, that deer in the headlights expression is better placed on, well, a deer. Now, answer the question, Simon. Please."
"It's not a no," he whispers, and then wants to slide under the table from sheer embarrassment. Moments later, he does just that as Cordelia breaks out into a huge grin.
"There, that wasn't so hard, was it?" She reaches under his desk to haul him out. "Now, do you want to tell Aral, or shall I?"
He can tell from the gleam in her eye that there's no escaping this one.
"You know," Aral says from beside him, and Simon can't believe he's actually here, with one of Aral's arms still wrapped around his shoulders, fingers treading in the hair at the nape of his neck, sated and comfortable and stupidly happy. Cordelia's given him room, stating that his poor, backward Barrayaran brain would probably suffer a meltdown at the thought of a threesome. Unfortunately, he rather thinks she's right. For now, anyway.
"Hm?" he says, when Aral doesn't finish the sentence automatically.
This close, he can feel the rumble of laughter that starts in Aral's chest. "Maybe the reason why there isn't anyone in your life isn't because of the chip."
He groans softly. "Don't."
"Maybe," Aral continues mercilessly, "It's because you can't recognise a clue even when it's dropped from orbital height."
"Shut up," Simon mutters.
"Make me," Aral shoots back, challenging, and Simon gives him a look, before proceeding to do precisely that.