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Fingers in the Notches on Your Spine

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"And," Cordelia said, when Aral paused to actually eat the bite of food he'd been waving around on the end of his fork as he spoke, "he's devastatingly attractive, too."

The other shoe dropped, just like that, after a mere four days of waiting. Aral looked down at his plate and kept chewing, considering his options. He could hardly make a flat denial or even a protestation of ignorance.

Jole was devastatingly attractive as a purely objective fact, and Aral was aware he'd been talking about him for at least five solid minutes now. This was hardly the first time he'd gone on at length about Jole--about any number of men, over the years. He'd never felt he couldn't, not for decades now, not with Cordelia. He was safe with Cordelia.

But she'd been plotting something for four days and now he knew what it was. She had said we're all on the same side that night in the library, hadn't she, as if....

He set down his cutlery and rubbed his forehead. It had been years since they'd had a proper culture-clash fight. He'd thought they'd run out of topics on which to have them, after twenty years, but in retrospect he had no idea why he'd thought that. He'd never particularly suspected himself of optimism.

"Dear Captain," he said a bit wearily, not bothering to glance around the room. They were perfectly alone. Cordelia wouldn't have said it if they weren't; she knew which ambushes she had to spring in private.

Cordelia didn't say anything further; he looked up to see her watching him, gauging how far along they were in the unspoken argument. She didn't bother reiterating her observation, or clarifying it. They both knew it was an opening gambit, and Aral couldn't even find it in himself to disbelieve just what her endgame might be. He'd said enough things, here and there, for her to have grasped an outline of how things were for him and Ges, before the worst, and that there had been other men. And he was perfectly aware that marriage, on Beta Colony, was a rather more... flexible arrangement.

He tried to think of anything he might ever said that indicated to her that he would prefer something more Betan. Why now, after twenty years? Why Jole, after all the men he'd babbled about over the years? That was the part he couldn't reason out alone.

"Why do you mention it?" he asked at last, because he couldn't break a lifetime's habit of avoiding referring to any of this directly, and he knew she'd know what he was really asking.

Cordelia tilted her head a little, searching his face. Aral dropped his hands to his lap--his food had lost all appeal, while his wineglass had gained altogether too much.

"Because I delight in your happiness," Cordelia said finally, and he believed her absolutely and without reservation.

Aral gave in to terrible manners and propped his elbows on the table, the better to bury his face in his hands.

"I am happy," he said, without raising his head. He might not be giving a very credible image of it at the moment, but he was telling her the truth, and she would know it as he had known when she told him. Barrayar was at peace. He had Gregor's trust, and his own faith in Gregor was daily rewarded. Miles was doing well at the Academy. The District was in no worse a state of chaos than usual. He had Cordelia. He didn't need anything or anyone more. He was happy.

"I wouldn't bring it up as a cure if you weren't," Cordelia assured him. "But there isn't a ceiling on happiness, love. You can always have more."

Aral's shoulders jumped, and he decided that the breath that caught in the center of his chest was probably a laugh, silent and suppressed though it was. He looked up at Cordelia.

"I can always have another ulcer," he pointed out. "I can always have more worry about destabilizing the government with a personal scandal, to say nothing of utterly destroying the career of a brilliant man I..."

He could see Cordelia's attention sharpen, waiting to hear what verb he'd use there, so he dredged up a bit of saving humor and sangfroid and said evenly, "Find devastatingly attractive, yes."

Cordelia flashed a startled grin at that--he could still surprise her, now and again--and then looked down at her own plate. Aral braced himself for the next argument, but she said, "I suppose you're right. I let the idea of it run away with me. Of course it would be an excessive risk."

Aral opened and closed his mouth and finally, though it was entirely foolish, said, "It would."

And if Cordelia had acknowledged the inanity of his words when she looked up--if she had let slip the least hint of triumph--he could have hardened himself against the obvious manipulation, or at least told himself he was. It was obvious manipulation, regardless, but after all this time that hardly counted anymore. They were too transparent to each other to resent familiar tactics. Very much.

For all that, Cordelia looked so genuinely, so very quietly and unobtrusively disappointed--when had she started setting her standards for Barrayar low enough that they rarely disappointed her anymore?--that it still cut him to the quick when she said, "Of course. I know."

Hours later, Aral sat up in bed watching Cordelia undress. When she came to bed he opened his arms, and she smiled and cuddled up against him without hesitation, letting him hold on. He tried not to hold her as tightly as he was tempted to, running one hand gently through her hair instead. The red was well-mixed with silver these days--though a man in the singular position to hold Cordelia close could spot the places where red roots impossibly sprouted silver hairs.

Cordelia had begun graying her hair artificially when Miles was about five years old, after Alys had explained to her that "I was already in my thirties when Miles was born" was actually a more or less acceptable explanation for not having more children. Cordelia had seized upon the idea that she was, by Barrayaran standards, entering middle age--though her Betan genes guaranteed that she wouldn't naturally come to such a state for decades yet. She'd made herself artificially old enough to be Aral's wife, to fit in on Barrayar. If Aral was lucky, he'd live so long that he would hold her in middle age until, when it was safe to emerge, she'd have come to it herself. She was like a satellite trapped forever in twilight, in geosynchronous orbit just behind the dark-line of a turning world.

She'd chosen it, of course. Aral wouldn't dare wish that she'd chosen differently, but there it was. She'd given up the prime of her life to be a middle-aged Barrayaran. And tonight when she'd suggested he could be a little more Betan he hadn't even let her tease him about it, or even imagine it. He hadn't even gathered the courage to say no to her, or to tell her that he was afraid of what she suggested. The words she'd spoken still rang in his ears, reminding him that he hadn't said as much to her.

"Cordelia," he murmured, his fingers still running through her hair, her head heavy on his shoulder but her breathing not yet evened out into sleep. "I delight in your happiness."

Her response was electric; he'd have sworn he felt her hair stand up at the roots for the instant before she sat up, shaking free of his hold.

"Oh," she said, her gray eyes wide and halfway to horrified. "Aral, darling, no. Not like that. It wasn't a test, or a--no, I absolutely forbid you to seduce your secretary to make me happy."

Aral exhaled, offering her a wry smile. "I won't."

Cordelia shook her head and came back to him, looping her arms around his shoulders and tugging him down to let her hold him as he had her. He complied with the ease of long practice, settling his head against the softness of her breasts, knowing he could trust this much of his weight to her. She ran a hand through his hair as he had through hers.

He closed his eyes and considered. If it hadn't been that....

"I realize all your experience of extramarital relationships has been unreservedly negative," Cordelia said, her tone warmer and gentler than her scrupulously exact words. "I really shouldn't have sprung the idea on you like that. I should have known it would wind you up all the wrong way."

Aral sighed, settling one hand against her ribcage, the spot that curved just as if it were made for the size of his hand. "All I can think is that I'd kill any man who touched you that way. I... always assumed that was a mutual feeling with us. But I suppose you're still not as bloodthirsty as all that, for all our bad influence on you."

Cordelia laughed a little, which made Aral smile despite his utter seriousness. He knew she wasn't laughing because she didn't believe him, and sure enough she said, "I know that. I knew that before you proposed. I think I knew that before I properly knew who you were. And while I certainly don’t want you killing anyone, that never crosses my mind. It's a relief for me to have found you and know I needn't look anywhere else. You give me everything I want, love, absolutely everything I need. But I've always known you had interests beyond me. I knew you wouldn't betray your name's word to me, of course, but I knew you looked and I didn't mind it at all. I don't mind. Heaven knows I already share you with Barrayar."

He could fill in the rest of her argument easily enough--sharing him with just one other person would make little enough difference to her, and it wouldn't be a betrayal of his marriage-oath if she were not betrayed but... surely there was a better word than complicit? Cooperative, perhaps. Encouraging. Matchmaking.

That still left the question of why now, and why Jole. He cast his mind back to four nights ago, to the moment when he'd turned and seen Cordelia watching him with that unmistakable plotting gleam in her eye. She'd had a faint, fading blush on her face, too, as if she'd seen...

Aral tried to think of what she could have seen; he'd mussed Jole's hair and cursed himself for being too familiar an instant later, moved away and turned his back to Jole. Cordelia, from her vantage point by the door, would have been able to see Jole at that moment when Aral carefully wasn't looking at him.

"Oh, damn," Aral said, realizing what she carefully hadn't said, what he wasn't meant to know about Jole unless he meant to do something about it--unless he meant to share the same danger. He felt his own face go hot, days after the fact, his chest tightening again with the crushing weight of certainty. "Jole."

"Shh," Cordelia said, and Aral gritted his teeth before he realized the sound was more soothing than admonitory. "It's not a criminal tendency anymore, it's not so bad."

Aral closed his eyes, and tried to replace decades of instincts with his knowledge of Gregor's decree of two years ago--a document which, if not actually dictated by Cordelia, surely bore all her intellectual and moral hallmarks. For six crucial years she'd had the direction of Gregor's education, and for the better part of twenty she'd been the closest thing the emperor had to a mother. Barrayar was just starting to realize what power she'd wielded in that overlooked interstice.

"That's why now," he said quietly. "That's why him."

Cordelia kissed his temple and said not one incriminating word about any man he'd known and admired in the last twenty years. Aral forced himself not to speculate about the past, nor about the future. He turned in Cordelia's arms and kissed her mouth, seeking reassurance beyond words, and she gave it to him beyond what he could ever deserve, as she always had.