Testing the waters is more necessary than anything.
Yao had insisted on personally handling the observatory when he'd first come to power three years ago, and it was still an excellent choice, in his opinion.
It was a science in deadly things. Careful calculations were needed in order to ensure the Middle fleet didn't accidentally drift into a gravity well, the disruptions caused by the other fleets, or the deadliest of all, pulled into a nebula.
Nebulas were taught to be feared from the earliest of ages. Just a few years ago, the Celestial Knights had been decimated by a nebula reaching critical mass and their own carelessness. Now, their remaining population had all but dissolved into the Russian, Lower European, and ex-Satellite fleets. The so-called leader, an albino with a newly strained grin and a metal right arm, had supposedly taken refuge with the Axis starships.
It was the greatest fall from grace anyone had heard of, and Yao was determined to keep his people far away from any such fate.
Such was why he had agreed to allowing assigned members of the Russian fleet to watch him as he worked. It was a sign of trust to allow another group's members into a fleet's main observatory, and was a large step along the path to cementing their alliance. Yao thought it was just so they could steal his technology, but he didn't say so.
'Well, I'm done here,' he announced, brushing off his hands. 'If you'd come with me, we can go to dinner.'
'I thought a speech was first,' a large man commented calmly. Yao turned to him as he stepped forward, reminding himself not to immediately order him back.
'We thought you might be hungry,' Yao corrected, blindly tapping out a message to Kiku to postpone his speech until after dinner while his hands were hidden in his pockets.
'I was looking forward to hearing the speech,' the man said again. His voice was rather high for such an imposing figure.
'And you will hear it,' Yao assured, before turning away. Behind him, the ambassadors fell in step.
Halfway out the door, the large man stepped in beside him and gently took his arm. His strength was evident even from such a gentle touch, silently warning him not to pull away.
'Please let go of me, Mr…?'
Without answering, he withdrew Yao's hand from his pocket, the communication device still attached. Yao reddened. The man glanced down, then calmly returned Yao's gaze.
When Yao sat down to eat, his arm was still stiff. Kiku had graciously agreed to make his speech after dinner. Yao didn't tell him that it was useless now, since the only person it would have proved wrong was invulnerable.
On his left, the large Russian delegate was not partaking in the conversation.
'Do you not like the food?' Yao asked, silently praying it was not so.
'The food is very good. I do not like the subject of discussion,' Braginsky replied. Yao forced a laugh.
'Of course. You've probably heard all about the tax evasions on property lately.'
'I have, indeed, but that is not why I am bored.' Braginsky waved it off, focusing intensely on the black-haired leader. 'I would rather be talking about you.'
Yao nearly flinched in surprise. 'Me?'
'You, yes.' Braginsky's violet eyes were coldly interested. 'Tell me about yourself, starting with your name.'
'You already know my name,' Yao bluffed. Braginsky smiled.
'But I'd rather hear it from you.'
'Yao Wang,' Yao said, and turned to his food. 'And you?'
'You already know my name, do you not?' he said. 'What do you want with our technology?'
Yao's blood ran cold. He mentally catalogued every scrap of information he and the Middle fleet had volunteered over the past three days and found it too much and still seemingly impossible to glean such a thing from at the same time.
'You can tell me, Yao,' Braginsky assured, close enough for Yao to catch the scent of his scarf, heady like wine, lightened by the notes of flowers and deepened again by metal. 'I won't tell anyone else.'
'We want nothing to do with your technology,' Yao breathed. Braginsky's smile widened.
'As long as you say so.'
Without another word, he turned back to his food. Yao suddenly noticed he'd been leaning back, nearly toppling onto Kiku. The slight, quiet man looked over worriedly, and Yao offered him a strained smile. Braginsky was odd, certainly, but Yao felt like he would keep his promise not to tell.
By now, he was talking to an unusually somber Im Yong Soo. Yao settled back into his meal with periodic glances at the intimidating Russian man, who seemed to anticipate them every time.
Yao had memorized Kiku's welcoming speech weeks in advance, and the young man certainly had his peculiar way with words, but he found himself so distracted by Braginsky's quiet, random chuckles that almost missed the cues to applaud. Every error and slip-up in this disastrous day had been his fault, and Yao felt helpless to do anything.
'Of all the alliances to make,' he complained to Kiku. 'We could have gone with the EU fleet. They have much less ships, yes, but more people.'
'You know I have close ties with the Axis,' Kiku interjected. 'Also, they would surely take your withdrawal of support with little happiness, to say the least.'
'You know I'm just venting, Kiku, seriously. Of course we're keeping an alliance with the Russian Union. We need their ships and we need their technology. I'm just creeped out by Braginsky.'
'Ivan Braginsky?' Kiku asked.
'Yes, yes. Ivan Braginsky. The one sitting next to me during dinner.'
Kiku looked slightly uncomfortable. 'I'm sorry, you're saying that they have assigned Ivan Braginsky to you?'
'Yes, why?' Yao asked.
'It's a rather odd choice,' Kiku said carefully. Yao prodded him, but he would say nothing more.
The next day, Kiku brought more bad news.
'Two of your ambassadors have been reassigned by request.'
Yao had a sinking feeling who the remaining one was. 'By who's request?' he asked.
'An Ivan Braginsky's,' Kiku said stiffly. 'He wished to escort you himself.'
'Oh, the tour of their observatory, their speech, their dinner,' Yao groaned. He'd known the date for weeks, but he'd completely forgotten about it in the face of Braginsky's violet eyes and strange attention.
'Yes.' Kiku's demeanour softened momentarily. 'Would you like me to come with you? I'm sure I can request-'
'It will be seen as weakness, Honda!' Yao said. 'Ivan Braginsky is a strange man, but he is nothing I cannot handle.'
'As long as you're confident in your abilities,' Kiku said, again emotionless. Yao pressed his lips together, but could find no way to apologize smoothly.
'When does the orientation start?'
'Two hours,' Kiku said without checking his device. The silence stretched. Kiku cleared his throat, calmness a thin film between them. 'Yao?'
His successor's eyes met his, flickering with apprehensive fear. 'May the stars come together for you.'
Yao looked away, battling with a riot in his chest. 'I'm glad to see you've finally picked up a few of my proverbs.'
When he looked back, Kiku was gone.
Ivan was dressed much more casually today, in a heavy beige coat, dark green pants, and leather gloves, a stark difference from yesterday's darker, fur-trimmed coat. His scarf remained around his neck. Yao had the feeling that he would be extremely hard-pressed to remove that one accessory, and had no intention to test so.
'Hello, Yao!' Ivan beamed. 'I am here to escort you to our observatory, yes?'
'Of course,' Yao said, bowing, suddenly aware of the brightness of his red silks against this starkly wintery starship. Ivan watched him as he rose and started off down a long hallway.
Yao did, silently resenting the utter control Ivan always seemed to be in. The Middle fleet was the one who had initiated the alliance, Ivan should feel at least obliged to treat him as an equal. Then, Yao, walking slightly too far to be dignified, realized that Ivan did. It was just something about him that threatened subservience.
He was a natural leader but took no such position, which Yao had come to learn did not mean laziness so much as manipulation.
Ivan stopped at a door identical to the others that spotted the hall and pushed it inwards. Yao stepped inside and the entire sky was made of stars.
It was impossible to stop a small gasp. Rumours had abounded of the Russian fleet's main observatory, but Yao had never paid heed. He wished he had now, just so he could feel them shatter, standing under the stretching glass.
'This is our observatory,' Ivan said, standing in front of the door. 'It is magnificent, yes?'
'It is,' Yao agreed readily, turning to him, a million questions ready. Ivan's eyes were alight with almost childish joy. He drew closer, and Yao suddenly felt how cold the air in the observatory was in comparison to Ivan in his proximity, and then his hand, strangely soft, as it caressed his face.
'You outshine any mere star I could have stumbled upon,' he whispered, then retreated. The space his hand had been was cold in his absence.
'Nobleman Yao, you are a lucky find in the courts of the Middle fleet, and lucky indeed to have found me. Not all of my soldiers would have shown you such kindnesses.' His hand gently pinched at Yao's red silk shirt, tugging him closer. 'Of course, red is a colour for luck.'
A second hand pressed against Yao's back, guiding him closer until their chests were flush. His eyes were not entirely violet, but almost blue at this distance, making Yao reconsider his idea that he'd had them modified. Ivan Braginsky really did just have piercing violet eyes.
'I saw Earth,' Ivan murmured. 'I was born on Earth.'
Then he released Yao, gently pushing him away with an amused smile. Yao gasped for a breath he didn't know he was holding, frantically smoothing his clothes.
'The dinner is soon.'
Yao was alone at dinner. Ivan sat calmly next to him, making no conversation. Yao's head was spinning. Ivan was one of the First generations. They'd supposed to all have died by now, stripped away by the diseases they inhaled or age, unless…
Yao snuck a look at the large man and found him looking back. He broke their gaze first, trying to reconvene his thoughts. Ivan didn't look old enough to have fought in the wars that had ravaged the surface and stripped the air of oxygen with bioweapons. He could be lying, or he could have been born shortly before the first starships took to space.
Yao was confused about Ivan, but mostly he was just jealous. The Middle fleet leader had never set foot on solid ground and was never expected to. He was part of the Second generations, conscripted from birth to pilot the starships towards humanity's future home. If Ivan had touched the soil of a planet, breathed real air, even if it was scorched and rancid...what Yao wouldn't give for that.
Yao was born just years after the spaceships fled, and that was what made the loss of what he'd never known so much more bitter. To those who said one cannot miss what they have never known, to those who preach that what one doesn't know would never hurt them before making decisions, Yao scoffed. Earth was a phantom limb to him, a pain not in the way a missing arm was painful but in the way being born without such a thing was.
Nine times out of ten the waters are bearable, anyways.
:: Looking at normal things upside down and finding them alien