In any meeting Arkady was cleared to attend along with the Prime Minister, Arkady took notes. Meetings above his security clearance tended to be the kind where note-taking was frowned upon anyway.
Of course, no one was going to tell the Prime Minister he couldn't have a pen and a pad of flimsies in front of him in any meeting. Right from the beginning--probably right from some beginning twenty years ago, with then-Lieutenant Koudelka wielding the pen--the Prime Minister had trusted his secretary to take the actual substantive notes, but inevitably he had his own thoughts to record. Sometimes, also, he just wanted something to do with his hands, or to look like he was taking a proposal seriously by scribbling things down while a minister was speaking.
Half the time what the Prime Minister was scribbling down was either completely unrelated to what was being said to him, or consisted of something like the word no, over and over, alternating through each of Barrayar's four languages. Sometimes he arranged them into interesting spiral or fractal patterns, or interlaced them to an unreadable density without ever quite allowing one written line to overlap another.
At the end of the day, the Prime Minister would hand Arkady the portfolio he'd had with him through the day's meetings, and Arkady would flip through the written-on flimsies to be sure he knew what should be done with each.
"Bullet points for that speech next week," he said, sitting very properly tonight in the chair in front of the desk. "I'll type those up and put them in the file. And a memo--ah, two memos. I'll draft these--"
"Tomorrow is soon enough." The Prime Minister was leaning back in his desk chair, eyes closed. Still thinking of a dozen things at once, Arkady knew, but at least at this hour some of them were getting to be anticipation of supper and an evening at home. "The second one is to go to everyone in the industrial ministries, from the Ministers themselves right down to their staff analysts."
Arkady nodded, unseen, but then it wasn't like the Prime Minister needed to see him to know Arkady would do his job. Addressing the memo that way was a strategic decision, meddling directly with the ministers' staffs and pointedly ignoring the rivalry between ministries that ought to be cooperating better. At least on the surface it was only about report-writing standards, so Arkady doubted the inevitably resulting flap would extend beyond the first half of next week.
The next flimsy had SIMON - SECURE written across the top, and Arkady reached across the Prime Minister's desk for a secure documents pack to be couriered over to ImpSec, sliding the sheet inside without reading any further down. "Just the one page for Captain Illyan, sir?"
"Oh, throw in the next one, too. It'll amuse him," the Prime Minister said.
The next page contained a handful of disjointed phrases--some of the stupider things the under-secretary had said--and then a sketched caricature of the under-secretary. Jole didn't even try to restrain a little laugh, and the Prime Minister's eyes opened, focusing warmly on Arkady.
Arkady ducked his head and slid the second sheet in with the first. "I can see why you want that to go by secure courier, sir."
He code-sealed the packet for Captain Illyan and balanced it on his knee, where he couldn't forget to take it out and hand it over to one of the ImpSec men in the outer office. The Prime Minister closed his eyes again, and Arkady flipped quickly through the rest of the flimsies, "The rest look like disposables--oh."
Arkady stared at the sheet in his hand. It was another drawing, but not the rough cartoon from the meeting with the under-secretary; this was a sketch of the Star Bridge in strongly inked lines, clean and perfect. There were little impressions--just a couple of pen-strokes each--of aircars flying above it, groundcars crossing, and boats on the river below. The near end of the bridge was visible, Arkady knew, from where the Prime Minister had been sitting during today's meeting at Vorhartung Castle, during which Arkady had frantically transcribed every word spoken because he knew he was missing eighty percent of the political undercurrents. Three quarters of the drawing must have been done from memory, but the proportions were precise. It was like looking at a holo, utterly unmistakable, and yet it must have been done in only a few minutes, while the Prime Minister's attention was elsewhere.
Arkady looked up to find the Prime Minister--no, Aral--watching him with a slight, puzzled frown. Arkady tugged the flimsy free from the rest and held it up with a smile. "It's a lovely piece of work, sir."
Aral looked suddenly sheepish, as though there were something unbearably private in a drawing of a bridge, or as if it were more embarrassing to have spent a period of enforced idleness making something beautiful, instead of multitasking or writing nyet-non-ochi-no in endless chains. "Not work, Lieutenant. Just scribbling. None of that needs to be kept."
"Sir," Arkady agreed, feeling an odd pang of sadness at the thought of feeding the sketch into the document recycler to be obliterated. "That's everything for tonight, then."
The Prime Minister stood up, stretched, and came around the desk to stand behind Arkady, settling both hands on Arkady's shoulders. Arkady tilted his head back--Aral raised his eyebrows in silent question--Arkady flicked a glance to the firmly-secured door.
"Yes," he said, right out loud.
Aral bent and gave Arkady an upside-down kiss goodnight, more than a peck but not particularly prolonged, awkwardly angled as they were.
"Yes," Aral agreed softly, and then his voice became sterner as he straightened up. "Don't stay all night, Lieutenant. I don't want to come in tomorrow morning and be hearing about those memos already."
"No, sir," Arkady agreed. "I'll just file these and head home to eat a nutritionally balanced meal."
"I expect a report on all the holovids you watched," Aral said, still not stepping away, still not taking his hands from Arkady's shoulders.
"I take my position as your lifeline to popular culture very seriously, sir," Arkady agreed solemnly, and turned his head to press another short kiss to Aral's wrist, since it was still right there. Aral squeezed his shoulders and then turned away, and Arkady stood to follow him out to his own desk in the outer office. When Aral had cleared the next door Arkady called down to the armsman-driver to confirm the car was waiting as it should be, handed off the secure packet to the ImpSec man, and then sat down to attend to everything else.
He hardly took any paperwork home with him that night--just a stack of requisition forms for office supplies and one-third of a flimsy with all the words that had been written on it cut away, leaving only an unsigned sketch of the Star Bridge.
A few days later Arkady discovered a sketch of the Countess when he was sorting through the Prime Minister's scribbled flimsies at the end of the day. He didn't hold this one up; he didn't want to see Aral look sheepish or not-sheepish at what he'd drawn today.
He didn't recycle it, either. Arkady put it away in his documents case, and kept it until the next day, when they went to Vorkosigan House for lunch. With a few minutes left of the sacred hour, Arkady knocked on the door to the Count and Countess's rooms, and stuck his head inside when Aral called permission. They both gave him the same startled but cheerful smile. Arkady smiled hesitantly back.
"I was wondering if I could have a private word, milady."
"Of course," the Countess said at once, popping up to her feet, looking even more pleased with him than ever. He didn't often seek her out to speak to her alone.
Aral looked intrigued, standing up a beat behind the Countess. "I shall leave you to it, then."
He leaned across the table to kiss her in parting, and then came toward the door as Arkady edged further inside. He caught Arkady by the elbow, holding him still just long enough to kiss him as well--just a brief brush of lips, but Arkady's breath stopped entirely, and did not start again even when the door closed behind Aral.
"I think he's been looking for a chance to do that," Cordelia said, and Arkady felt his face go flame-hot as he turned to face her. "Lest you think it was a thoughtless gesture," she added with a wry smile. "You could ask him, of course, but--he probably meant that."
Arkady shook his head a little, not even trying to suppress a smile. "Speaking of things I could ask him about, but won't," he said, coming over to the luncheon table to prop his case on a chair. "I thought you might like to have this."
He pulled out the flimsy--carefully shorn of incriminating text, leaving only the sketch of the Countess. Seen side by side, the woman in the sketch looked a little younger than the real one. She had her chin in her hand and nearly the same wry smile the Countess had had just a moment ago, with one eyebrow skeptically raised. He offered it mutely to the Countess, and her eyes lit up like it was treasure. He felt instantly less foolish for tacking up Aral's sketch of the Star Bridge by his bed.
"He drew that yesterday. I think during a meeting with Minister Rastka, but it might have been Legrande and Vorlane."
"Legrande," the Countess said, beaming down at the flimsy. "It's that verbal tic of his--the non? after every second or third sentence. It drives Aral to distraction. I imagine he was picturing me laughing at him, which I do when I'm in the same room with both of them. It usually distracts Aral enough to carry on a civil conversation."
Arkady smiled, feeling pleasantly in on the joke. "He was exquisitely civil."
Cordelia looked up and smiled at him almost as brightly as she had at the flimsy. "Thank you for saving this, Arkady. Kou used to, back when he was Aral's secretary. Since then I never knew if Aral had stopped drawing in meetings, or if they were just protecting his dignity by destroying the evidence of his wandering mind."
Arkady felt the same pang again, thinking of all the intervening years of lost sketches.
"I kept one he did the other day," Arkady confided. "The Star Bridge, nothing personal, but he seemed a little--caught out, when I showed it to him."
Cordelia's smile changed a little--she looked wistful, or thoughtful at least. "He was the same way when I showed him one that Kou saved for me. I fear he thinks of it as a bad habit--it shows he's not utterly focused, you know."
"Here's his own hand against his heart," Arkady offered, and the Countess grinned, and Arkady was more than just in on the joke, now. It was the first moment he'd really felt like he shared Aral with her rather than just borrowing him and promising to return him without any scuffs. They agreed about him, knew something about him that he himself hardly knew.
Then Cordelia's thoughtful look took over from the smile. She glanced down at the sketch again and said, "Has he--he hasn't done any of you, then?"
Arkady bit his lip, trying to hide a flinch. He'd been trying not to think of that, trying not to be jealous of a few pen strokes. "Not that I've seen. But it would be dangerous, anyway, where people could see."
It was a thin argument, and they both knew it; Aral certainly wouldn't be drawing pictures of Cordelia--or writing down private observations for Simon, or skewering the people he was speaking to--if he thought anyone were going to dare jostle his elbow or peer over his shoulder.
"He used to draw properly," Cordelia said, and Arkady could hear her being careful, and flapped a hand to dismiss her words, but she worked her way to her own stop. "If you asked him, I'm sure...."
Arkady raised an eyebrow and then shook his head. It was an unaskable question, because the picture wasn't what he wanted, wasn't what he'd had to work at not being jealous of for the last day. He could ask Aral to draw him, and Aral would indulge him. He could never ask Aral do you think of me when you should be thinking of something else? without destroying the very thing he wanted.
Cordelia tilted her head, studying him, and Arkady looked down, sealing his case up again. "I'd best be going. The afternoon's schedule won't bear pushing."
"Oh," Cordelia said, "I think you'll find it always bears more pushing than you think it will."
Arkady looked up at that, and Cordelia smiled again, shrugged, and tapped the edge of the flimsy against the flat of her palm. "I'll go put this away. And thank you, again, Arkady."
Arkady nodded and let himself out, and discovered Aral just down the corridor, chatting amiably, hands in pockets, with Armsman Pym, who did not bat an eyelash when Arkady emerged alone from the Count and Countess's private rooms. Arkady gave a slightly apologetic smile to the armsman, who nodded--compactly replying to Arkady's expression and redirecting Aral's attention, all in one minute gesture.
Aral turned and started toward Arkady, meeting him at the top of the stairs. He gave Arkady an intent look, but didn't ask anything, even by his expression. Arkady said simply, "Yes."
He laid no particular stress on it--not a question or an answer, just the word. Aral smiled and said, "Yes. Onward, Lieutenant."
Arkady grinned at the Prime Minister. "Sir."
A couple of days later, Arkady came in early and then found out that there had been some traffic foulup that exceeded even the commute-managing powers of the Prime Minister's armsmen and ImpSec perimeter. Arkady pushed the morning schedule a bit and then sat at his desk, waiting. His gaze fell on the portfolio he would hand to the Prime Minister as they headed to his first meeting of the day. There was a copy of the day's schedule inside, a few utterly redundant lists of things to remember for various meetings, and then a stack of blank sheets and the Prime Minister's pen.
Arkady glanced at his chrono yet again and then made his move. He flipped open the portfolio, picked up the pen, and pulled the top flimsy on the stack over to himself. His own artistic training had been limited to strategic sketching--maps and wormhole models, the occasional electrical or engineering diagram--but it had left him with a very good grasp of straight lines and right angles, which was nearly all he needed. He drew a series of double-outlined boxes of various sizes across the page, then, after a moment's critical evaluation, added some stray curlicues to indicate embellishments.
Aral would get the idea, he thought. A wall of empty frames.
Arkady slipped the page under a couple of blank ones in the portfolio, put the pen back into its clip, and stood up just as the forward ImpSec man came through the door to the outer office.
Arkady saw the moment Aral found the marked-up flimsy. His shoulders straightened, his head tilted, and he tapped his pen thoughtfully against the top of his portfolio. The minister sitting across from him stuttered.
Then Aral made a small, decisive movement; the scratch of the pen was audible in the second of silence. The minister took up his line of argument again. Arkady hid a smile and went back to taking notes.
Aral offered him the portfolio with a look Arkady couldn't quite read--too amused to be stern, maybe. Arkady filed it away for future reference, and took the portfolio. Before he could open it, Aral said, "You'll know what to do with it, we don't need to review that."
"Sir," Arkady agreed, and tucked the portfolio under his arm, perching on the edge of Aral's desk to go over the rest of the day. Aral stayed where he was, within easy arm's reach, and when they'd finished that, Aral leaned in and kissed him without hesitating, without looking around or waiting to be certain of him.
Arkady smiled into the kiss, and Aral's hand curved around his elbow. He tapped a finger against the portfolio and said, "You can be really quite distracting, Lieutenant."
"Just trying to remind you that I've got the note-taking covered, sir," Arkady murmured, feeling more breathless than the kiss could quite justify.
Aral smiled and turned away, and this time Arkady stayed where he was rather than follow him out immediately. Aral glanced back at the doorway and smiled. He shut the door firmly behind him, leaving Arkady in the certain privacy of the inner office.
Arkady flipped open the portfolio, turned over two blank pages, and froze.
Three of the frames had been sketched with tiny landscapes--a view of the Dendarii Mountains from the vantage of Vorkosigan Surleau, which Arkady had come to recognize very readily. A view of the Great Square, with only one window marked out on all the buildings, showing the Prime Minister's office. Vorkosigan House.
The largest square was a sketch of Arkady, looking back over his shoulder. There was no line of a collar on the back of his neck, and his bare shoulder was just a curving line that vanished into the frame's edge. His hair was a mess, going every which way. The look on his drawn self's face made Arkady's cheeks heat--there was nothing overtly sexual in it, but he recognized that particular look of half-smiling challenge. He knew what Aral had been remembering when he drew this.
Distracted by those memories, it took a moment for Arkady to grasp the rest of the message. All the other frames were filled with four words, repeated over and over in spirals and diagonals and in every direction.
Da. Oui. Ne. Yes.