When Aral finally saw Jole in person at the ceremony, he could feel his eyes widening in surprise.
Granted, Aral wasn’t focusing on Jole’s picture when he went over the report, but the young man was simply one of the best-looking people Aral had even seen, let alone met, and Aral had seen plenty of beautiful people in his 60 plus years of life. Jole just looked like the perfect specimen of a Viking warrior, what with his height and his blond hair and blue eyes. And the intelligence in Jole’s eyes only added to the intensity of his gaze.
Oh, Jole was already quite the looker on the image in the report, and Aral did notice it, but had focused on the rest of the report instead. Jole's bravery had saved both his ship and her captain, in quite a spectacular manner. The ship was in orbit, trying to leave, but the airlock wasn’t disengaging properly. Jole was the only one around to fix it, despite not being an engineer. The captain and two commodores recommended Jole for a medal, along with a few other young officers for other acts of bravery, pending the prime minister’s approval. And Aral had approved all of them without delay.
But now that he was at the ceremony, it was a completely different matter. Aral strode up to the few young officers about to be decorated and they all came to attention and saluted stiffly. Aral shook each of their right hand, automatically making small talk. He rather disliked such empty talk, despite being an expert on it by now.
Aral used the opportunity to ask Jole about his background, starting with “I heard you were born in the countryside?”
Jole nodded. “Yes, sir, but I left the moment I got into the Academy and haven’t really gone back since. I wanted to see more of Barrayar, and perhaps the rest of the empire.”
Aral chuckled. “In other words, you were eager for ship duty.” He saw Jole trying to figure out how to respond and patted the young man’s shoulder. “I was, too, at your age.” Rather an understatement, coming from him.
“I know, sir. We still talk about how you were the youngest man to get an admiralship at 36.”
And there it was again, his reputation preceding him. Aral pushed the direction of the conversation back on Jole. “And how about you? Is an admiralship one of your ambitions?” Jole was about to answer when Aral’s secretary came up and signalled that the ceremony was about to begin.
Throughout the conversation, Aral couldn’t chase away the feeling that he was taking advantage of the situation, as Jole would probably assume it was the prime minister making small talk and not Aral trying to find out about the object of his, well, desire.
Aral stepped up to the podium and gave his speech, about how brave those few young officers were, how grateful for their service the empire was, and how wonderful it was to see this new crop of soldiers. There was also a bunch of other stuff that Aral forgot the moment he spouted it, despite having memorized the speech. Finally the only thing left to do was to pin the medal on each and every one of the well-deserving recipients.
The first two medals were a breeze, but then it was Jole’s turn. Aral swallowed, picked up the medal, and almost got lost in Jole’s bright, calm eyes. It prompted a “Sir?” from the young man, and Aral shook his head a little. He went through the motions of pinning the medal on Jole and shaking his hand.
The rest of the ceremony went by in a blur, and soon Aral was being escorted out of the building, though he felt Jole’s blue-eyed gaze throughout. The moment he sat down in his ground car, he pulled up Jole’s file. Quite impressive indeed, and not just because of Jole’s latest bout of bravery. With a young officer this brilliant, it would be a criminal waste of talent not to snatch him up for a position on someone’s staff at headquarters. He was at the right spot in his career to need staff experience to be promoted, and a Vorbarr Sultana position would give him the best opportunities.
Just that moment, Aral’s secretary keyed open the door and climbed in, carrying a stack flimsies, probably something for Aral to sign. Aral could feel the proverbial lightbulb light up over his head. Of course. His secretary was overdue for a promotion anyways.
Even with Cordelia’s semi-permission, Aral had never acted on any of his little crushes. Somehow they were never over women, though he did find many of them sexually attractive. And most of the men were heterosexual, at least according to their files. And for those who weren’t, it would be a gross abuse of power, for who could refuse the regent or the prime minister?
And really, he was completely satisfied with his current sex life with his dear captain.
And of course, a small voice in the back of his head kept whispering that he was too old for all these young men, who were getting younger and younger as time went by. Not that he’d intentionally surrounded himself with handsome young men, but if a competent staffer also happened to be quite handsome, well, that was simply a bonus.
Aral grimaced. Oh, who was he kidding? He had pretty much manoeuvred Jole into a position of easy access the moment Jole’s injuries had healed. Fortunately, Jole probably hadn’t noticed the prime minister intermittently making calf eyes at him.
No, being in constant close quarters with Jole hadn’t diminished the effect of his good looks on Aral at all. And on top of that, Jole did turn out to be as brilliant as he first appeared and the best aide Aral’d ever had. Thank goodness Aral could always regain his wits quickly enough to sound wise and coherent in Jole’s presence, even when he didn’t feel it.
In fact, Aral needed those quick wits right now, as Jole looked up from his stack of flimsies and handed one of them to Aral.
“Sir, this one is from the imperial farmers’ association. They ask if we can either raise the tariff on coffee beans from Earth or let them grow the coffee plants themselves.”
Aral sighed, scanning through the flimsy. Coffee beans were the first plant that Earth patented as Nexus-wide trade was established, and they had vigorously sued anyone who’d grown the plant on the sly. “Earth has never allowed anyone to grow the coffee plants themselves. Why would they treat us any different?”
“Sir, If you look here,” Jole answered, pointing at the flimsy, “it says —”
Aral looked up inadvertently and found Jole’s beautiful face centimeters from his. “Jole,” he barely had the breath to murmur.
Jole turned to face him. “Yes, sir?” he said, equally breathlessly.
The “sir” jolted Aral out of his reverie. “Nothing. Uh, can you get me the reader over there?”
Jole’s eager look disappeared immediately. “Of course, sir,” he said, an expression of disappointment fleeting through his face.
Aral felt a burst of giddiness at Jole’s look. Could it be --? Aral knew Jole had had “relations” with men -- and also a number of girlfriends -- from the invasive and exhaustive background check on the young man. But was Jole attracted to Aral in particular, or to the idea of the prime minister?
Maybe it was time to consult Cordelia.
After a long talk with Cordelia last night, Aral felt refreshed as he arrived at work. His dear captain always set him straight. She even offered to play matchmaker for him, which he immediately declined. Betans. Though he was going to miss her for the next month, what with her going to Beta to visit her family.
He was still trying to figure out how to approach Jole in such a way that the young man would feel comfortable refusing, if he chose, when everything simply fell into his lap.
It turned out that Jole was not only courageous on spaceships.
Jole showed up looking worried but determined. With a stack of flimsies in hand, as usual, but the puffiness under his eyes belied his perfectly coiffed hair.
“Sir, I have something to tell you. And if you want to fire me, then at least I will have the satisfaction of having spoken my mind.”
“Fire you?! What secret do you harbor that warrants letting you go? I do hope you know that you’re invaluable to me -- and therefore, to the day to day running of the Empire?” Aral hesitated, then added, “This isn’t because of your occasional dalliances with men, is it? I assure you, no one around here cares.” Not that I would have any ground to do so, Aral almost said.
“What? How did you— I’ve never said—”
“Oh, it was in your background check. And trust me, we were quite thorough.”
“Ah.” Jole put the stack of flimsies down onto the desk. “Well, I, I can’t work with you anymore, sir. It’s a torture —”
It was Aral’s turn to feel taken aback. “Torture? I’m sorry that you feel we’ve mistreated you, Jole, but torture is surely an exaggeration. I thought we’ve treated you well, here.”
“Sir, would you let me finish! It’s a torture to work with you, knowing that you think of me only as your secretary. I--” Jole looked down and then raised his head again. “I love you, sir. And if you want to fire me for it, so be it.”
Aral stared at Jole for a moment, unable to keep his smile down. “Jole, surely you know how I feel about you. I was afraid that you’d think of me as some old geezer trying to use my position to take advantage of you.”
“Sir, I hoped, but didn’t dare dream—”
“Oh, shut up and come here.” Aral took the two strides necessary to close the distance and kissed Jole. The young man stood still for a moment, probably in a bit of a shock, then eagerly kissed Aral back, his arms winding around Aral’s shoulders.
They were both breathing hard by the time they let go of each other.
“What about the Countess?” Jole finally asked.
“She tried to play matchmaker for us, actually. So I think she’d approve.” Aral pecked Jole on the lips once more and let him go. “So, will you stay on this job?”
“For as long as you want me to, sir,” Jole answered, the corners of his lips twitching.
“You don’t have to call me ‘sir’ when we’re alone, Oliver,” Aral pointed out, openly smiling. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Absolutely nothing, si— Aral.”
“Good. We can talk about us then. Now go back out and do your job, Lieutenant Jole.”
“Yes, sir!” Jole saluted sharply, answering Aral’s grin with one of his own. Then he turned around and marched out with a spring in his step.
Aral shook his head to clear it, then focused on his work once again.