They came out of jump near Sergyar, where they then proceeded to sit in orbit as the rest of the fleet stretched on beyond them.
'Why orbit?' Simon had asked, since they didn't teach planetary astrophysics to boys that they plucked out of rural Academy schools. 'Why not maintain a position clear of planet, cut the lag to the front while we're at it? We're all jostling for position here.'
'Orbit because we can let Sergyar's gravity do our work for us,' Vorkosigan replied absently; to him, Simon thought, the study of bodies in motion must be second-nature. 'Otherwise we would be fighting constant drift and wasting fuel resources to do so.'
Simon nodded; Vorkosigan lapsed into silence.
To Vorkosigan's credit, neither his rank (however knocked back or restored, this was still the youngest Admiral in fleet history) nor his surname kept him from offering, in response to each of Simon's questions, an answer. Not stock answers, either, meant for Ezar Vorbarra or the Ministry of Political Education - it seemed that Vorkosigan could hardly be damned what either of those planetary bodies thought. As long as not caught in a moment of anger, Vorkosigan was never less than considered. Noblesse oblige or good officering or both, Simon supposed.
At some point, Vorkosigan pushed his flimsies away and said, 'I'm going for a walk.'
Simon followed him. The rank and file let the Commodore through without a thought for his tail: the Vorkosigan name was, in itself, enough of a red mark; shadow enough to black out other shadows.
Instead of the tacroom or the gym, Vorkosigan took them to the viewing deck. Sergyar beneath them was awash with a dull but natural planet-glow: it had no real artificial light build-up to speak of. The fleet itself was brighter, a glittering loop that fenced the orbital ring first before trailing off in a bright line towards the nexus.
Vorkosigan looked out over all of it and said nothing.
'You don't seem satisfied by our preparations, sir,' Simon offered. Vorkosigan, while in possession of too much lip when directed to his superiors, was circumspect around most of his subordinates; it made for either spectacular records, or exceedingly dull ones.
'They're doing as good a job as they know how to do,' murmured Vorkosigan, one of his inward-looking and obscure replies. It certainly wasn't the first time Simon felt that there was some set of high Vor references that he wasn't privy to: that the whole reason Emperor Ezar wanted his reports verbatim was so that he could pick apart and gloss over Vorkosigan's choice of words.
'We have both Admirals Vorhalas and Vorrutyer - where do you find them lacking, sir?' That earned Simon a look, and Vorkosigan snorted. Simon nodded in acknowledgement of the point. 'Sorry, sir. You have your job - and I have mine.'
'I was Rulf's commanding officer, once,' Vorkosigan shrugged, choosing to answer instead of deflect. 'I'll always feel, to some degree, responsible for him. As for Vorrutyer -' He scoffed, but quietly. 'Ges is an excellent defensive tactician.'
Simon looked at the armada. 'This is an offensive position.'
They fell back into silence.
'You know, sir,' Simon said, after they watched a fourth ship make the jump. 'I always thought it was madness that we ever installed viewing galleries like these on spaceships.'
'Oh?' Vorkosigan, interested, leaned back to catch his eye.
Simon rapped the backs of his knuckles against the wide viewport. 'Yes. Like bashing out windows into the parts of a ship that are meant to be underwater.'
Vorkosigan barked out a laugh, but then apparently seemed to take time to think about it. 'Perhaps,' he said after a while, 'more than the thought of disaster itself, it's the thought of not being able to see disaster oncoming that frightens us.'
In much the same way that they had broken him back to Captain, they broke him a second time back to Admiral. Simon never thought he'd ever see a serviceman take a pair of yellow tabs with contempt, but Vorkosigan had managed it. He'd accepted the field promotion with both contempt and resignation, and though he performed his duties with - hah! - admirable comportment, there was something hollowed out in him. Simon'd seen enough of Negri's other agents - the ones that were sent into the flesh service - to recognise that particular emptiness.
Escobar eventually dropped out behind them, a problem for politicians now, not soldiers. As they sat in orbit above Barrayar, waiting for a shuttle to take them back planetside, Vorkosigan said to him, 'I'll be retiring, once this is done.'
Most would've seen the promotion as a stepping stone to redeeming their careers. Maybe at forty-something, Vorkosigan was done with ambition: but Simon doubted that - doubted Vorkosigan had ever had ambition to begin with. Loyalty to his Emperor, yes; will enough to match Ezar's will and see it done, yes; ambition? No.
'I'm sorry, sir,' Simon said. Vorkosigan exhaled quietly through his nose at that, obviously amused. 'I meant less upon your retirement,' Simon corrected. 'More that: you won't be rid of me that easily. No one will believe you, about retirement. Not with Prince Serg and Admiral Vorrutyer out of the picture, and the War Party soon to collapse in on itself.'
'When did you learn politics, Lieutenant?' Vorkosigan growled, but he was smiling. 'If you're not careful, you'll grow a shadow of your own.'
Simon shrugged. 'In order to survive in yours, sir? It was learn, or die.'
Vorkosigan, who was sprawled neatly in his bunk, raised one hand in a shrug and closed his eyes.
Simon, who was in a chair pressed up against a wall, parroted the motion. 'You could apply for a visa to Beta.'
'Not this year. Not next year.'
'You could cite political asylum,' said Simon, carefully.
Vorkosigan cracked open one eye. He seemed to consider whether this was a test, and Simon, belatedly, realised that - considering the chip - any record of this would make this a test. 'My judo is rusty,' was Vorkosigan's cryptic answer.
'Ah,' Simon said, and wondered if he would have to create separate files - one for Vorkosigan answering to Ezar through him, and one for Vorkosigan praying to Naismith through him also: little psalms not meant for any god to hear.
When salvation did arrive to spare Simon from the extended duty of watching Aral Vorkosigan drink himself to death, it came from up above and was almost enough to make him a believing man.
'There's a Betan courier that says it's carrying a very important manifest, and the pilot won't tell us what's on that damned manifest because he says it's for your eyes only,' the docking official said to Simon over the comms. 'Said that it was you or Negri, and I'm sure as hell not calling Negri.'
'Patch me in,' said Simon, not daring to hope until Cordelia's voice flickered over the line.
'Lieutenant?' she asked.
'Captain Naismith,' Simon swore. 'What the hell is going on here?'
'It's a long story,' she said, half-hysterical even to his ears. 'Tell me, Illyan, is it easier to get a Barrayaran visa if I claim political asylum or-'
'Captain,' Simon cut her off. 'If you're here for the reason that I think you're here for, you won't need a visa - you'll be a Barrayaran subject before we can process any sort of paperwork.'
She laughed again, though this time without so much of the madness, or so much of the relief. 'It's not your Emperor I want to be subject to, Illyan.'
'Part of the package, I'm afraid,' Simon shot back, and surprised himself to find himself grinning. 'I'll come up and get you from the port. Did you bring anything to get married in, or will you need to go shopping?'
'If you're so certain he'll have me, Lieutenant,' she replied, strangely uncertain for a woman who'd just jumped two systems to fall into the black hole Vorkosigan.
'Have you?' Simon said, closing his eyes in relief. 'The better question may be, my lady, will you have him?'
It wasn't until after he'd put down and climbed into his flyer that Simon realised he'd called her, pre-emptively, my lady.
And afterwards - after he'd been gifted by Ezar to Vorkosigan; after Vordarian'd tried to rip their planet apart with his Pretendership; after Negri'd died and left him with a warren of old secrets; after he'd stood down Count Piotr; after he'd watched Miles Vorkosigan be born; after all of those things, Simon sat down to dinner and said, 'I shouldn't be sitting down to dinner.'
'Why?' Cordelia asked him, as she laid out in front of him something that smelled much better, Simon was forced to admit, than anything that came out of ImpSec HQ's lacklustre cafeteria.
'Because -' he started, then reconsidered and gave up while he was still ahead. He leaned his elbows against the table and canted his body towards her, appealing. 'There are many reasons. Barrayaran reasons. Do you want the short list, or the long list?'
'I know you well enough by now, Simon, to know that everything is on your long list.' Cordelia, undeterred, was still piling food onto his plate. Simon, semi-hysterically, wondered if she was going to top it off with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds.
'My lord,' he said, turning to Aral instead in some appeal towards authority or sanity.
Aral simply opened his palm, that old shrug. Simon sighed, and turned back to Cordelia. 'Because, my lady, I came here to debrief Lord Vorkosigan, not to be sat down for a meal. Because, my lady, the Chief of Imperial Security can hardly be seen to be dining personally with the Lord Regent - not when ImpSec is the one body that the Regent does not and should not command. Because, my lady, Vorkosigans are already considered king-killers and king-makers.'
Cordelia let him finish, and then seemed to wait for the last of his words to drip off into silence before she carried on. 'Tell me, Simon, when was the last time you had a break?'
'Couldn't say,' Simon said primly and out of sheer defiance.
Cordelia looked unconvinced. Aral looked like he wanted to put his chin in his hands. 'The last time you went on vacation?' prompted Cordelia. 'The last time you stepped away from HQ for more than eight hours to do something other than just collapse into your bed?'
'Eight hours for sleep, ma'am?' Simon asked, raising an eyebrow. 'Such an extravagance would not be tolerated.'
'He has apartments above HQ,' Aral provided unhelpfully. 'Cuts down on transit.'
Simon crossed his arms over his chest and glared.
Cordelia put one finger on the far edge of his plate and nudged it closer towards him. 'For all love, Simon,' she said, with accusingly gentle tones. 'Is ImpSec so poorly paid that we could ransom your honour with one warm meal?'
'On particularly bad days,' Aral commented, 'we finish our security briefing in fifteen minutes instead of forty-five, and he'll sleep on the couch while I catch up on my reading.'
'Damn you, sir,' Simon said faintly, but with some real anger. 'I try to keep you safe.'
'I try to remind you that, of all the men on Barrayar, I still trust you to doubt me most and shoot me first,' Aral shot back, eyes ablaze. 'They might call you my dog, but you are never my slave. Shut up and eat, Simon, unless you want to test it for poison first.'
'Too late,' Simon said sharply, but he picked up his fork, and he picked up his knife.
He was older when he next saw Escobar dwindle glitteringly away in the range of the viewport of a ship. Cordelia was with him; they had come on separate errands - her diplomatic, him professional - but were leaving conveniently bundled on a single courier.
'What did you think?' she asked him.
'Of the conference I attended?' Simon asked. 'Or of Escobar?'
'One, the other, neither, neither,' she said, smiling. 'You don't often have this look on your face.'
'The look like you want something,' Cordelia said. 'You learned to wipe it away years ago, when you looked at Aral.' He stiffened, but she waved it off. 'It was well done. When we first started up, you know, I thought that if we didn't learn how to disguise our eyes better we'd be in trouble, and so we were. And I don't say it was well done because I don't see the depth of respect and admiration you have for him, Simon, or because I'd begrudge you him - just that you're right.'
'Am I, finally?' Simon muttered, forcing the blush from his cheeks.
'You are, occasionally,' Cordelia laughed as she linked an arm through his unresisting one. 'Barrayar would've taken anything the two of you built up between each other and twisted it up. Two years into my arrival and I couldn't see it: ten years and I'm glad neither of you let it twist you up into... strange shapes.' She had a distant expression, and Simon remembered that she, too, had not seen Escobar in some time.
He settled for patting the back of her hand and saying nothing.
'So?' she asked after a moment.
'What is it that you want?'
'Something as impossible as Aral,' Simon said, finding it in him to laugh. 'The building that houses the Investigatif Federale.'
'It's made entirely out of glass.'
The second day after returning to HQ, Simon found a package for him.
'Personal delivery, sir,' his desk man said.
Simon restrained himself until he was alone in his office, then slit the brown packaging open and smiled at the framed picture inside. He found someone to hammer a nail into his wall, and hung it up, the one thing in his office that was his and his alone.
'Hello, Simon,' they'd said to him when he and Alys came off their ship, and before he could protest or question it they had him in a groundcar and then on a boat heading out into the anonymous ocean, Jole at the helm.
'I feel like this is the start of some bad barracks joke,' Simon commented, feeling oddly exposed in shorts cut off at the knee and not, even now, in possession of quite all of his memories. 'An admiral, a commodore, and a captain get onto a boat...'
Aral snorted. Jole smiled. Cordelia laughed. Alys passed him a tube of sun protectant, and looked at him until Simon tugged up his shirt.
'Let me help you,' Aral said, like a born strategist knowing just when to strike, and he seized up the tube and spread his hands across Simon's back, hotter than any sun.
Simon tilted his head back and said to Aral, 'I don't remember this,' helpless because what if he'd forgotten being touched like this, even once?
'There was nothing you could remember,' Aral rumbled. 'There was nothing you could forget.'