President Adai found it incredibly hard to admit to himself, after all these years of loyal service, but there was still something... animal about the man.
Fleet Commander Viral lay at his feet. The cause of his non-attendance at the cultural briefing was immediately apparent. The heavy curtains were drawn, allowing only the tiniest droplets of light the chance to bring the room to life, but as his eyes adjusted, Rossiu could see upon the floor a scattered mess of microchips, cracked plastic casing, and fine little wires like veins. The alarm clock was dead – comprehensively so. He took stock.
The room smelled rank, like a lion enclosure, and even after more than a decade inhabited by the same person, the room was sparely furnished at best. The floor was bare boards, and when lit, the only light must come from the single naked lightbulb, hanging from the ceiling like a threat. It was as if, despite his public actions, the creature still wasn't sure how to live as a human. There was food packaging discarded in a heap in the corner, far too close to a pile of clothing for Rossiu's neat-minded liking, but on a stand in the middle of the room, Viral had hung his uniform so that it touched nothing. Rossiu envisioned the care he must have taken, and re-realised that his Fleet Commander must have a difficult time handling clothing and other such human items. Those oversized claws were made for fighting, not housework. Of course, the operative word truly was 'made' – perhaps Lord Genome never envisioned his archive acting as an ambassador for peace.
Rossiu suppressed a sigh, and crouched beside Viral's mattress, about to wake him. He nearly lost an eye for his trouble, as the beastman swiped one enormous paw in his direction, muttering and baring his fangs as he did. Instinct screamed at Rossiu to flee, but he had always considered himself too intelligent to take the easy path above the right one. Just as he reached out to tap Viral on his bony shoulder, a low, threatening growl purred out from deep within his throat.
A bad dream had caused him to destroy the alarm clock and thus miss the meeting?
"Fleet Commander Viral," Rossiu ejaculated, trying to regain his reputed severity, and stood, glaring down. Viral's twitching movements regained composure, and he opened his eyes, resentful and tired.
"What. The hell. Are you doing in my apartment?"
It was almost refreshing for somebody to be so rude to him. These days he commanded more respect than Simon or Kamina ever had, by simple fact of distance. Only a handful of people in the higher echelons of the government had known him as a wide-eyed illiterate, frightened of the engulfing blue sky. Even his wife, in the early years of their marriage, had had to be chided at times for agreeing with him too easily. It didn't sit well with him. He had never chosen to be a leader.
There was, however, the fact of those eyes. They still had the power to make him uncomfortable – perhaps more so than ever, now that time was beginning to take its toll on the number of beastmen still living in their midst. Rossiu would be sad to see them go, should he live to be so old, but there was the minute comfort that he would one day never have to worry about his occasional all-too-human reactions to what his survival instinct still resolutely insisted were monsters. Cat-slit pupils in irises of a baleful yellow were looking up at him, demanding an answer. And he must give one.
"Commander," he boomed, "you were not in attendance at this morning's cultural briefing! Would you care to explain yourself?"
Viral's expression broke into one of panic and dismay. Rossiu felt guilt swallow him; for the sake of appearances, he had pretended not to have worked out why Viral had not showed up, but the beastman himself was still in the dark.
Put aside these things. Rossiu allowed himself a smile, and began again.
"You were having a nightmare, I believe. Your alarm clock is broken, and you had a good go at me before I woke you," he explained, in a less formal tone. Viral looked almost relieved, but then troubled once more.
"Sorry. Don't usually do that sort of thing. Behaviour not acceptable, etcetera etcetera," he muttered, meeting Rossiu's eyes briefly before fighting his way out of the tangled blankets to his feet. Naked and unashamed, he grabbed underwear from the pile of clothing, which Rossiu had assumed was awaiting laundering. As he stepped into it, the muscles of his skinny, scarred back moved swiftly, and he turned his head to Rossiu with a sudden curiosity.
"You got the key, I sent, then?"
"Yes," smiled Rossiu. "Almost like you were planning to be late."
"Missed the whole meeting, then, did I?"
"It ended more than an hour ago. I had to attend to business before I could come and see what had happened to you."
With extraordinary delicacy, Viral removed the uniform from its stand, and pulled it on with a military precision. Of course, Rossiu realised, feeling foolish, the huge hands would be relatively little inconvenience to someone who'd used them all his life.
Still, he would bet money that Viral couldn't drink from a teacup.
"Didn't do it on purpose," Viral muttered, raking his claws through his hair. "Sent you the key because no-one else has one. Got to have someone know where I am if shit goes wrong."
Not that anything really bad could happen to an immortal being, Rossiu thought. If it had been anybody else with his impeccable punctuality record, he would probably have sent a runner immediately to see if he was hurt.
That... felt unfair, somehow, despite the obvious logic.
"Don't worry," he said, at last. "I'll have a copy of the briefing papers sent to you, and if you have any questions, I'm sure you can ask Ranka."
Viral nodded curtly, and pulled on his boots, lacing them with a fierce and elegant swiftness. His breath caught audibly in his throat for just a moment, and Rossiu wondered what he was thinking.
"Viral... if you want to take a moment, that's fine. I don't know if you remember what you were dreaming about, but you seemed rather troubled."
"I'm fine," growled Viral, but wouldn't meet his eyes.
"I won't have my men out there without proper nourishment," said Rossiu decisively, and strode into the kitchen. Ignoring the general squalor, he retrieved a relatively clean-looking glass, and filled it with water. Light suddenly flowed into the room, and as he walked back out, he saw Viral had opened the curtains, and was looking down over the city.
"Take this," said Rossiu, trying not to lose his authoritative tone again. "You will have breakfast at least before I allow you to leave for work."
Viral regarded the water warily, then seized the glass from his superior and drank it down in a single, impressive gulp. He abandoned the glass on the windowsill, and made for the door.
"Stop," said Rossiu sternly. "One glass of water does not a breakfast make."
Grumbling and muttering, Viral slumped into his kitchen, and Rossiu could hear him banging about. It might have just been his imagination, but he had seemed... unstable. Even compared with his usual self. Taking a few minutes to eat something might help Viral to gain his composure. In any case, he was late already – why did he mind so much that Rossiu was keeping him from his work? He moved quietly towards the kitchen to observe him, and found that Viral was leaning against the counter, eating a cold sausage. There were two more on a plate beside him. His old enemy was staring into the middle distance, at something Rossiu felt suddenly too young to ever be able to find. Could it be Tepperin?
Sometimes they were just too different from one another. The lives they each thought they had been born to had vanished from this wide earth, and it seemed that they were just muddling through, taking the path of least resistance. Can the president really be so aimless?
It was work that kept him from questioning things too often. Perhaps Viral had been seeking to lose himself in the same way this morning.
Viral finished the last sausage, and ran the back of his furred hand over his eyes, sighing.
What, to a monster, could be a nightmare?
"I went back last night," said Viral, steadily avoiding eye contact. Rossiu started – he hadn't realised that Viral knew he was being watched.
"You went where?" he asked, cautiously making his way into the kitchen.
"Never talked about it with anyone. Don't know if it happened the same for everyone. When we were fighting the anti-spirals, I was... somewhere else, for a bit."
Rossiu nodded, slightly. Darry had told him everything.
Viral looked haunted. "It wouldn't have been so bad if it didn't feel so fucking real. I thought I'd been there all my life. It was – stupid, childish. I just... I just went back there for a bit, in my dreams last night. That's all. That's why I missed the meeting."
Rossiu looked at him, trying to catch his far-away gaze. "What did you see?"
"Don't worry about it," said Viral, abruptly shifting his weight from the counter and making for the door. He paused, his back to Rossiu. His tone was calm, and his voice subdued.
Viral stood up straight, and held his head high. And walked out of the door, ready to sublimate his urges into being the best damn diplomat the multiverse had ever seen.