Aral had never exactly talked about Ges to Cordelia, with the exception of a few elliptical remarks. Those had mostly made Cordelia glad that her own unfortunate romantic choices hadn't involved a vicious sadist, and also that Aral still appreciated that they were unfortunate. Sometimes she felt that Barrayarans – particularly Barrayaran men – had trouble recognizing that anything bad had happened unless it played out on an operatic scale and involved someone being drenched in literal blood.
It caught her by surprise, then, when in the middle of her teasing list of suggestions for where they might spend a hypothetical evening free of state duties – she couldn't resist tweaking Aral just a little sometimes, and anyway it made the times when she actually did bend propriety seem reasonable by comparison – he stopped letting them roll off him like water and said, "I went there with Ges, once. I'd rather not repeat the experience."
"Of course not," Cordelia said immediately, wondering at the same time where this was intended to go. Aral didn't do anything without a reason, particularly not talk about subjects that were firmly taboo on Barrayar and probably extremely personally messy to contemplate. She sat up on the bed and waited, afraid that anything she said would spoil it.
Aral spoke without turning away from the window, looking out over the carefully-curated lawn. "Is it that you forgive me for it because I have other redeeming qualities, or …" He trailed off as if unable to even frame the rest of the sentence.
"You have many redeeming qualities. And of course I forgive you for loving someone who turned out to be the very opposite of what you hoped. I don't for a moment think that you loved him because he was cruel."
"No," Aral said, finally turning to face her. "No, never that. I hoped … well. I was a fool."
"You're hardly the only one," Cordelia said. "If there's some knack to picking your first lover well, I wish it for Miles, but I don't think he can hope to inherit it from either of us."
Aral's mouth quirked in a smile. "You realize it makes my blood run cold when you mention 'first lover' and 'Miles' so casually in the same sentence."
It made Cordelia's blood run colder to think that he might not have one, but she put thought that firmly aside. If Miles found Barrayar insurmountably chilling to romance when he was grown, Barrayar wasn't the entire galaxy.
"If I grant that Miles may remain chaste until he marries if he himself makes the informed choice to do so, can we return to the matter at hand?"
Aral shrugged in unconvincing casualness. "If you hadn't loved me first – for whatever reasons–"
"False modesty doesn't become you."
"I'm just not enough of a fool to think that love is rational. If you'd known when you met me, though, would it have put you off at once that I …"
"Known about Ges Vorrutyer, or known that you have a sexual interest in men?" She had to admit that Ges would probably have put her off if he'd been her first example of Aral's taste in friends, especially if she'd met him under the same circumstances.
"The latter," Aral managed.
That was a far easier question. "I wouldn't have thought much about it. There are some people who are particularly interested in bisexual partners as a preference. But as far as I'm concerned it–" Doesn't matter, she was about to say, and then saw the trap in the words, one simple phrase that would dismiss years of secret misery. She might not entirely understand them, but she wanted to, or at least she intended to, even if understanding wasn't guaranteed to be pleasant. "Isn't something I care about one way or the other."
"I wouldn't wish you any different, love. Except–" She was about to say happier, and stopped herself again. That was true, but not necessarily most to the point. "Except that I wish you hadn't had to lie so often."
He nodded, taking that in. "I'm not enough of an idealist to believe that Ges wouldn't have become … what he became … if he hadn't known he was twisted to start with. But … that poison was working in him for a long time. I can't help believing it made things worse."
"Barrayar poisons its children," Cordelia said. She resolved fiercely that she would never let Miles fill himself with self-hatred for what he was, not while she had breath. "And poison does no one any good, whether they were pleasant people to start with or not." She looked up at Aral, feeling the same fierce protectiveness. But he was a grown man, and the product of his own choices, as hard and terrible as she found some of them. "I wouldn't wish you any different," she said. "It makes you more human."
He let out a half-amused breath. "Feet of clay?"
"Say rather a failure to fit entirely into the mold of the perfect Vor lord. Which I find more interesting and flexible and on the whole human than the perfect Vor lord. That mold turns out stiff necks."
"Hmm," Aral said, probably as close to an acknowledgment that she was right as she was going to get.
"You could tell me about it, you know," she said. "Not necessarily about him," she added quickly, "although that too, if you want. But in general."
"In general," he said, shaking his head as if he found that hard to fathom.
What it's been like for you, she nearly said, but then that wasn't the place to start, was it? Something more pleasant, to be generally encouraging. "It won't bother me or make me jealous. I suppose it would if I seriously thought you'd prefer someone else, but I don't believe that – you weren't eating your heart out about anyone in particular when I met you, I don't think."
"And I don't consider it a crime to look. If you want to tell me about your favorite midnight fantasies of fellating one of your lieutenants–" Aral made a strangled noise. "–I'd tell you that I can't arrange that, precisely, but you might come over here and do something distinctly related."
Aral went down on his knees by the bed at once, as if in relief at being back on safer territory. "Certainly related in spirit," he said.
"And then I could return the favor, and call you 'sir' if you like – or would you prefer to call me 'sir'?"
A number of complicated expressions passed across Aral's face, although she was fairly certain that at least one of them was desire. "You're not a substitute," he said eventually. "A solution, possibly. Never a substitute."
"I know that, love," she said, resting her hand in his hair. "But I can't be all things you might ever want; who could?" She refrained from saying that he couldn't be all things she might ever want, either; he was too vulnerable at the moment to hear it as anything but reproach. "And there's no harm in an active fantasy life."
"A very private active fantasy life," he said cautioningly, but there was definitely interest on his face. He traced a line up her knee with his fingers.
"Think of it as a form of rebellion that doesn't involve going to scandalous clubs."
"My rebellion, or yours?"
"Whichever you'd prefer," Cordelia said. She was content to be the voice of his inner tempter. "Shall I keep my boots on?"
He traced a line up the back of her ankle. "You're not wearing boots."
"When I put them on," she said patiently. "So that you can do terrible scandalous things involving bending your brother-officer over … something, I think the writing desk is about the right height, don't you? ... which I will enjoy tremendously, and will promptly tell you if I don't." She stroked his cheek, tracing the scar gently with her fingertips.
"Leave them on," he said, his hand moving purposefully up her thigh.