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Dress Sense (Or the Importance of Being Shabby)

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It had been a long night, on top of a long day, following on from a very long week, Simon told himself. And his ImpSec man had spilled an entire tray of drinks down the front of the Escobaran ambassador's suit, in the middle of the first actual visit from Escobar to Barrayar since the Escobaran War. And the Lord Regent had had to make a lot of apologies, and the trade negotiations the next day would probably be that much more difficult, all because of an avoidable slip up.

In other words, Lady Alys' scathing and methodical flaying of the ImpSec officer in question was entirely justified, if a little … enthusiastic. He hung back, allowing her to let fly at the hapless Lieutenant. It was his man, but this was her domain, after all.

"And you, Captain Illyan!" Lady Alys said, whirling.

Caught entirely off-guard, he instinctively unfolded himself from his usual holding-up-a-wall position and straightened to attention, before he realised that she wasn't actually his commanding officer. He tried for polite attentiveness instead, but his spine was quite insistent on reminding him that Lady Alys on the warpath was as unstoppable a force as Captain Negri. He inclined his head, narrowly catching himself before he saluted. "Yes, milady?"

She ran - raked - her eyes over his outfit, with a keenness matched only by the most fanatic of drill sergeants back at officer's training, and sighed. "Your wardrobe, Captain Illyan. What am I supposed to do with you?"

He gave his ImpSec men a glare out of the corner of his eye. They took the cue and backed away quickly, fleeing while their commander sacrificed himself to distract the rampaging Vor lady.

"It's a civilian suit," he pointed out, in what he hoped was a reasonable tone. "I was given to understand that we were discouraged from wearing military uniforms in this setting, and since Aral wanted me in attendance…"

"It's not the fact that it's civilian that's the problem. You look like you're going to a funeral. And the suit looks like it's seen better days. Much better days. Also - forgive the bluntness, it's been a terrible day, but it looks like you're wearing a sack."

He opened his mouth once, then shut it, then opened it again. "I needed a jacket that was a size larger in order to carry all the concealed holsters and commlinks."

Lady Alys sighed again and shook her head at him, like he was a particularly problematic child. He resisted the urge to shrink. He might admire her terribly, but honestly, he was the Chief of Imperial Security. The ImpSec Chief did not flinch.

"I'd like to recommend a tailor to you," she said. "He's used to working with you Security types, and knows all about the need for concealed equipment."

He could tell that she was restraining herself from reminding him of the need to look presentable at these occasions. Manners were probably the only thing holding her in check right now, and they were just barely winning. Long night, he reminded himself. Long night, long day, and still a long, long negotiation ahead.

"That would be most helpful," he said, as politely and mildly as he could.

Lady Alys gave him a smile that promptly took the sting out of the entire dressing down. "Thank you, Captain," she said.

"Milady," he replied.

*

Predictably, there was a Komarran bomb threat, followed by a rash of Cetagandan espionage activity, and he simply had no time to check out the tailor. Which was how he found himself on the eve of another Escobaran ministerial visit, still without a suit.

He ran out to buy one, paying a little more attention to the fit this time. It looked better than the last one, at least to his untrained eye. At least it didn't have stray threads and didn't hang off his shoulders. So he was thoroughly surprised when Lady Alys cornered him after the reception, to give him an exasperated look.

"I didn't have time to get it tailored," he pointed out.

"I can see that," Lady Alys said.

"Alright," he said, folding his arms and leaning against the wall. "What's wrong with this one?"

"For starters," Lady Alys pointed out, "It's about twenty years out of date. You also look like a waiter. And you still look like you're going to a funeral."

He raised his eyebrows. "No comments about the fit, at least."

"I'm not even going to start on the fit."

Oh, so much for that.

"Alright," he said, conceding defeat. "I'll get a new one."

"That would be most appreciated, Captain Illyan."

"Simon," he said, feeling strangely bold. "Do call me Simon."

Lady Alys raised her eyebrows.

*

He went for his first fitting, and the suit was, he had to admit, very stylish. The material too, was finer than what he was used to. Unfortunately, he promptly ripped the seam of the trousers upon the first roundhouse kick, and the tailor was most apologetic. Then there was an outbreak of unrest in Vortala's District, and he simply didn't have time for the second fitting.

He bought another suit from the nearest store just before the visit to Komarr. Military uniforms were not actually discouraged this time, but he'd found that civilian wear tended to have its advantages. People had a tendency to underrate him, and talk within his hearing. Plus, with the entire Barrayaran delegation going in civvies, out of deference to the fact that relations with Komarr were still a little raw, he didn't want to stick out like a sore thumb.

He ran into Lady Alys in the corridor just before the reception, and her horrified expression was actually a little amusing this time. "Is something the matter?" he asked.

She shook her head, mutely.

"Come now, milady. It's obvious you disapprove of my suit. Is it the fit?" he enquired.

"It's grey, Simon," Lady Alys sighed, like that explained everything.

"It doesn't look like I'm going to a funeral, at least," he pointed out. "What's wrong with grey?"

"Apart from the fact that it doesn't actually look like it's grey, but rather a black that was washed one too many times?" Despite her exasperated tone, the corner of her mouth twitched. "And your tie doesn't match it. The fit is better, yes, except that the moment you raise your arms a little, I can actually see that you've strapped a stunner holster to your back."

"You can?" Simon muttered, trying to look behind him. "Blast. Well, I'll just prop up a wall the entire night. No one needs to know."

Lady Alys gave him a suspicious look at the lightness of his tone. "Are you enjoying this?"

He gave her a wide-eyed stare of complete innocence. "We should be going, milady. We don't want to be late." He offered her his arm.

"It's Alys," she said, and took his arm.

*

The next time, he didn't even bother to set up an appointment with the tailor. It was, after all, much easier and much more entertaining to buy a suit off the rack.

"It's blue," Alys said.

"You objected to grey and to black," he pointed out.

"Your hair is brown."

He blinked. "And?"

"Blue just isn't your colour, Simon."

"Right," he said.

*

"Are you playing games with me?" Alys demanded.

They were in the Residence gardens, and it was late enough that even the drunken revellers had cleared out. It was remarkably peaceful, after all the carousing at the Emperor's birthday, and the lights were very pretty. Romantic, even. "Milady?" he said, with studied innocence.

"A yellow tie? Really?"

"You've pointed out before that my taste in clothing is remarkably drab," he said.

"It's hideous," Alys said, shaking her head. "I'd rather drab than … that."

"I'll just have to get rid of it," he replied, yanking the tie off and unbuttoning the top button of his shirt. For a moment, he could have sworn that Alys' eyes lingered on his throat, but when he re-ran the image, he found that he couldn't be sure.

"Burn it, Simon, please," Alys said fervently.

"Your wish is, as ever, my command," he said, and bowed over her hand.

*

"No, Simon. Bow ties haven't been in fashion on Barrayar for the last thirty years."

"They are on Earth, though. Apparently they're going through some kind of retro phase. Also, we had a galactic visitor who assured me that they were … what's the word he used? Cool."

"Barrayaran culture and Earth culture are somewhat different. Thank God."

"So, no bow ties, then?"

"Most emphatically not."

*

"I thought I'd try green, for a change. What do you think?"

"It would almost work, except that it's made of tweed."

"What's wrong with tweed? It's a cold winter."

"Simon."

"Yes, milady?"

"You are almost certainly having me on."

"Am I?"

*

"Velvet? That's an entirely new fashion disaster I hadn't come across before."

"Thank you, Alys. I thought you might like it."

*

Trouble was, he thought, as he shrugged on the only suit that Alys had ever deemed 'acceptable' (if boring), he honestly didn't know what she was looking out for. Even after all this time.

He could have found out quite easily, if he just caved and went to her tailor, but where was the fun in that?

*

He was wearing a charcoal grey suit when she came to his flat.

"I remember that," she said, very softly, fingering the material.

He blinked at her, and stared down at it. "I don't," he admitted, just as softly. "But it was in the bag." A bag which contained his entire life, apparently. Most of which he didn't actually remember. He found himself waving a hand uselessly at his temple, trying to recall images from a chip that wasn't there any more.

"You wore it two years ago, at the Emperor's birthday," Alys said, her voice tight. "I told you that you were finally getting it right."

"Ah," he said, chasing the ethereal, elusive threads of organic memory. He thought he saw a scene, in his mind's eye, of Alys' approving smile. The thread continued, curling around another, stray one, and he thought he might have made a mental note to make sure that he got it wrong the next time. It was so very hazy that it was impossible to tell whether it was a dream or a memory. "I suppose that means it's acceptable."

"The tie, though," she said, shaking her head, reaching up to brush a finger across the fabric. "The tie is--"

"--Hideous," he finished for her, catching her hands between his, and looking intently at her. "That, I actually remember. And wore it for precisely that reason."

"Ah, the long overdue confession," Alys said. "I knew you were up to something." Her gaze became a little sharper as she considered him. "You are a terrible man, Simon Illyan."

He laughed softly, kissing her knuckles.

"Dare I ask… why?" Alys said. "Not that it wasn't entertaining, after I decided you were a lost cause." She looked utterly radiant, he thought. Dressed, as always, to perfection. Next to her, felt positively shabby. Perhaps it was time for him to give in and make that long overdue appointment with her tailor. He had, after all, accomplished his mission - with distinction, no less.

"Why?" he said with a smile. Alys' fingers curled around his, and they were very warm. "I would have thought that was obvious. How else was I supposed to catch your attention?"

Fin.