Note: This was written originally as a gift-fic for a good friend of mine. She wanted something not in the timeline of the series, and hurt/comfort. I'm fascinated by Sophia-as-Empress and how she would run her government, and I think that may have bogged the narrative down a bit, haha. This also seems like it could serve as a jumping off point for a longer fic, but I have... shall we say, other plans? (That I will probably never get around to, but they involve Sophia with a knife and Vincent in a masquerade costume.)
It's been three months since the few pockets of lingering Guild resistance began to fight back. After a year of peace and integration of many of the Guild survivors into the towns and cities, this renewed threat has everybody on edge, from Norkia to the capital. The empress tosses and turns in her sleep, and the head of her navy itches to be everywhere at once instead of remaining in the palace to direct his forces. The Guild attacks in small waves, pointed strikes that take out claudia mining operations and resupply zeppelins. Their ships are beginning to show signs of wear, but they're still fast and piloted by experienced fighters. The Guild has gone to ground, fleeing the air and taking up residence in the deep canyons where water once flowed, so many lifetimes ago. They take on the heraldry and symbolism of the old water serpents.
The nobles are clamoring for protection, loud and insistent, and Sophia Forrester sits on her throne and tries not to rub her temples or pinch the bridge of her nose in irritation. The people, she reminds them. The people need us to be strong and protect them. But the nobles want whole suspected Guild bases burned and destroyed, no matter how unstable it would make the canyon walls that support the towns and cities. They balk at the idea of returning to true military service, and Sophia has to fight the urge to strip them all of rank for cowardice and lack of chivalry.
It's during a lull in the nobles' addresses when Admiral Alzey pushes through the great hall doors. His face is ashen pale and he's accompanied by two aides who look a mix of grim and terrified. Sophia fights the urge to stand and rush to him, take her friend's hand and pull him to a seat. She waits for him to approach and kneel, instead.
Their roles sometimes grow very heavy.
"Your Imperial Majesty," he begins after a deep, shaking breath. She can see his shoulders tremble then still, becoming rigid with his forced control. "Guild insurgents have taken out two of the new Urbanus ships. As far as we know, there are no survivors."
There's a dark murmur passing through the assembled nobility, and Sophia's hand tightens on the arm of her throne. She closes her eyes a moment, then nods and looks up at Prime Minister Mad-Thane. His mouth is a thin line, nearly hidden by his whiskers, and his eyes aren't focused. He's thinking, calculating losses in both money and morale.
I'm so sorry, Vince, she wants to whisper, because those ships are like his children, those crews hand-picked by him, those tactics and advances in technology that should have protected them at least half his ideas. Instead, she can only clear her throat and say, "I see. Do we have any idea if they managed to take any Guild vessels down with them?"
"Preliminary reports indicate that they did not," Vincent says, and his voice has an edge of anger.
Sophia searches his face. Its ashiness nearly hides the dark fury and pain there, emotions she somewhat understands. The intensity confuses her, though, just as his inability to hide it does.
She straightens her spine and begins questioning him about time, place, current Alliance presence in the area. He answers everything, His aides remain quiet, unneeded except as supportive presences on either side of him. Finally, he reaches the end of all he can tell and bows his head and asks his leave.
Sophia rises from her throne. "Of course, Admiral. Lords and ladies- this session is adjourned until further notice. The throne must attend to this matter." She glances down. Vincent is looking at her through his lashes, still kneeling before her, and she slides her fingers into a series of familiar movements. Meet me in my office. It's how they speak past the roles when the need arises. At his slight nod, Sophia gathers up her skirts and glides from the room with slipper-muffled steps. She ignores the displeased and frightened shouts coming from her nobles, the barely concealed demands that she stay and attend to their matters.
Duke Mad-Thane remains to settle the room. She is ever-grateful for his support and his easy familiarity with dealing with his fellows.
She's waylaid by aides and servants (servants who she still feels awkward around, even after a year, because she would much rather have subordinates like on a ship - they behave differently, retain more of a sense of independence, and don't envy or dislike her for her rank quite as much), and she's nearly running by the time she's finally in sight of her office door and her guards. There's a faint bubbling sound and the scent of freshly brewing coffee coming from the room, and she takes a deep breath, straightening her skirt. Vincent's already here, and given his earlier expression, he's making coffee more to keep his hands busy than to enjoy it.
She raps her knuckles once against the wood, then pushes the door open and slips in, leaving the guards in the hallway. She's struggled to keep her office to herself, with guards and servants only on the outside, never within. She lost the battle for her private rooms, but this- she keeps as close to her shipboard office as possible. The walls are stone instead of metal, and there's a high window instead of a porthole, but she's maintained the sparse furnishings and few decorative touches.
Vincent is sitting on one of the low couches, arms braced on his knees, staring at the percolating coffee. He barely glances up at her as she closes the door and comes to sit at his side.
"Vince," she says, softly, and he lifts his head with a sighed breath.
"Those were my ships," he mumbles.
She nods and places a hand on his shoulder. "I know." And she does, she knows very well what it is to lose a ship- but she doesn't have the same familiarity with losing ships as he does. It's more abstract to her. The Empress of Anatoray loses ships; Sophia Forrester loses the Silvana. There is a difference, there, and he seems to see it too, because he shakes his head.
"You," he says softly, "weren't with me at the Dragon's Fangs."
She quirks a brow, fighting to keep her lips from curling into a smile. "I was on the end that sank your fleet."
"You weren't with me." He glares over at her, and she drops her hand, brief amusement drowned in embarrassment and shame. "You were against me. And I didn't- I didn't know you were there."
"Would it have made a difference?"
She tilts her head, watching as his expression goes from angry to empty. He probably would have lost everything, she thinks, because she knows he can't raise a hand against her, can barely raise his voice.
"It doesn't matter," she says, shaking her head and reaching out to him again. This time, her hand settles atop his where he clutches the edge of the couch. She strokes her fingers along the gloved back of his hand, willing him to relax. If anything, he seems to tense more. "I'm sorry for bringing that up."
"It's just-" He sighs, sitting back and pushing his hands into his hair. "If I had been there, Sophia- if I'd been in command, maybe- we would have at least taken down a few Guild ships."
"But I would have lost my Admiral," she reminds him, moving to kneel before the low table and begin serving the coffee. "Perhaps you would have triumphed- or maybe you wouldn't have. We don't know why we lost them yet. It might have been a surprise attack."
"They should have been paying more attention, then. They lost me my ships-"
"We've lost so many ships these last few months," she sighs, holding out a cup and saucer to him with surprisingly steady hands.
"But these were Urbanus ships. Mine."
There's a small part of her, the Empress part, that wants to remind him that the whole navy is his and that he shouldn't play favorites. Instead, she just presses the drink into his hands, watches him as he exhales to cool the surface and then takes a sip. She's learned, over the last year, how he takes his coffee, and she can see by the way his shoulders loosen and his spine curves that he's appreciating it.
He takes another, deeper drink, his eyes sliding closed. The tension in his jaw fades, and she thinks she might even see a faint smile flicker across his lips.
When he opens his eyes again, he looks down at her, frowning again. "You shouldn't be kneeling like that, your Highness."
"The table is too low to do anything else," she shrugs, but she does rise to her feet after pouring herself a cup and augmenting it heavily with cream and sugar. He grimaces at her additions, and she simply smiles placidly, the same response she always uses. This familiar pattern, this break, clears the air between them. She sits down next to him, close enough that her hip brushes his for a moment.
They drink in silence, savoring the distraction, until Sophia finally glances over to him. "Better?"
"A little," he confesses. "Less angry." He seems almost surprised, and at her questioning look, he shrugs. "Caffeine usually stings a wounded heart."
She laughs, nudging at his boot with her slippered toe. "You know this from experience?"
"Very well." He looks back down at his coffee, gazing at his reflection. Lost in thought.
She keeps miss-stepping, it seems, and she closes her eyes to think. What he needs are not jokes or corrections. He needs instead support, a ready ear. Something that he's always offered her in the past, but she somehow seems unable to give. He's never needed it before. Alex never needed it before. She can take orders and act, she can dispel unease and tension, she can lead an alliance that makes up almost the entire world-
But it takes a great deal of thought and effort to set aside her cup and rest her hand on his elbow.
"I'm afraid I keep mocking you- I don't mean to." It's simply how they interact, teasing and smiling and drinking coffee, making fun out of their heavy burdens. It's a relationship she's sometimes confused by, altogether new and unfamiliar, but it's kept her going for this first long year.
"I know," he murmurs, finishing his coffee and then setting it aside. "Maybe- perhaps I should go."
"Go?" The word is leaden and ashy in her mouth.
"Pace, like I usually do. Glare at a wall. You know, handle it like a nobleman would."
"A nobleman would rant and rave to whoever was present, willing to listen or not," she reminds him.
"True," he agrees, and rubs at his temples. "I- you'll promise to just- listen, this time?"
He nods, then leans back, staring up at the ceiling. "It really is just that they were my ships," he says, after a moment. "And that I wasn't there. I've- I've felt so impotent since this whole mess started, and you've kept me caged here." She has to fight down the urge to argue that point. "Every ship we lose, I think, what if I'd been there? And then I lose my ships, and I wasn't there, and they go down without taking any of the enemy with them. I need to be out there, fighting. I don't want to be like all of the nobles, cowering and telling you to fix things. I want to be fighting."
Vincent chafes, she knows, under the strictures of his position, the history of it, how he's surrounded always by men of high birth. He's always struggled against it. Marius pulled him into the Academy despite his lack of 'good' blood, training him to be an officer, loyal to the Prime Minister and separate from the rest of the political landscape. Vincent had always been set apart. He still is. And yet she forces him to stay by her side and run her military because she doesn't trust anybody else. She doesn't know anybody who could do a better job.
"I'm sorry," she whispers.
He shakes his head. "I don't blame you. I mean- part of me does, part of me doesn't want to be here, but then I'd have to leave you with only Mad-Thane. And I don't- I don't particularly want to die, either, fighting the Guild or not." His smile is dry and vicious. "I'm a coward, just like them, huh? And I'm getting angry because somebody is messing with my things, just like they do."
Sophia turns in her seat, reaches out to catch his face between her palms. They so rarely touch skin to skin that the feel of his flesh and the prickling of his stubble sends a shock through her. He stills as well, only nervously meeting her eyes.
"You," she says softly, "are not like them. You are like Admiral Vincent Alzey. And that's the only person you're like. Don't destroy yourself from both ends, Vince. I need you here, but, more importantly, I need you alive. Even if that means I send you on assignment to keep you from pacing to death." He's not Alex Rowe, either, but his skin is warm against hers, and she buried her captain long ago. It's Vincent who she keeps close now.
He flushes, reaching up with one hand to gingerly touch her fingers, her wrist.
"I need to know what's going on out there," she says, dropping her voice. "If you would like it, I will give you the commission of going out into the field and finding them, figuring out what they play at. All I ask is that, when you know, you come back to me."
"That's not appropriate for an Admiral," he offers, weakly, but she can see how his eyes dance and some of the color (beneath his still-hovering blush) returns to his face. "And," he adds, as if an afterthought, "this really isn't, either." His fingers fold around hers and leans in, kissing her in a light, fluttery motion, unsure and excited and eager.
She blinks rapidly, making a small sound as he pulls away and slides her hands from his face with a light touch. He looks sheepish.
"Th- that was a thank you," he explains when she can't manage to find his words. "Your Highness."
"Oh." She tilts her head, peering at him, and he shifts, squirming, running a hand through his hair again. Its usual slicked-back precision is ruined, and light-brown waves fall into his eyes.
"Sophia-" He can't find words, either, and so he moves to begin disassembling the coffee brewer.
"You promise to come back, right?"
He pauses, glancing up at her, and then nods. "Of course."
Sophia thinks a moment, then touches his shoulder, drawing him back up a little. She leans in and fits her lips against his, unable to help her small smile when he gasps her name and cups her jaw, sliding a gloved thumb across her cheek. All his nervousness seems to melt away, and she wonders for the first time if this has been what's made them so awkward around each other, dancing and joking and barely touching. She's been so caught up in roles and ruling that it never occurred to her that he might be watching out for her as more than an old friend.
She needs him to come back, but she needs him more to be him. He's supported her through Alex's death, through the stabilization of the Alliance, through sending out expeditions to the Blue Planet, and through this most recent threat. He's stood at her side, and this intimacy, this shifting so their legs touch and their hands slide over fabric and skin, makes her feel lighter and freer than she has in many, many years. She sighs against his lips.
He tentatively wraps his arms around her and draws her close. She breaks the kiss and smiles up at him, and he smiles back, boyish and thrilled.
"You had better come back," she says, lifting her chin slightly, "because if they take my Admiral from me, I am not going to be a pleasant Empress to deal with."
He laughs softly, wonderingly, and brushes a stray strand of hair from her forehead, tucking it into her headdress. "Your Admiral, my Empress?" When she nods, he kisses her again, murmuring her name as she murmurs his.