CHAPTER SIX: PINK SUGAR UNDER THE STARS
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Theo did not nap deeply, but it felt nice to lie in a darkened room after spending the morning in a crowded marketplace. At first his mind would not still, he thought of Dimitri waiting for him on the ship when he returned from his walk, and how he smiled, his invitation to the festival that would be happening that evening… Theo rolled to his side and stared at the wall beside his bed for a little bit longer, before forcing his eyes to close. But all he could see in his mind was that smile, brighter than the sun.

He dozed, his mind going pleasantly blank after a while so that it was just darkness. Some far away thoughts wondered what Shade was doing, but they were too distant for him to hold onto, and they did not particularly concern him.

The next thing that he was aware of was the door to his quarters sliding open, and the light from the hall spilling inside. Theo shifted in bed, only rolling over enough to see Shade’s form blocking a bit of light from the hall. Xe turned the lights on, blinding Theo momentarily and he groaned, pressing his face back into his pillow.

“I believe we should head to town now,” Shade said from the doorway.

“What for?” Theo asked, his voice muffled by his pillow.

“Not one, but two people have invited us to partake in a cultural event,” Shade started, as-a-matter-of-factly. Theo knew that the shapes on xyr face would look smug as xe talked, so he didn’t bother turning to see. “I believe it would be rude of us to turn down such an invitation.”

Theo groaned again, pressing his face harder into his pillow as if it might help him disappear. “Since when are you such an expert on these things?” he asked, annoyed.

Shade did not answer right away, but Theo could hear xem shuffling around in his quarters now. “I have simply observed these things in other cultures,” xe answered, from the other side of the room now. And then, “Boss would have gone.”

It was a bit of a low blow, and it made Theo frown deeply into his pillow. “I am not Boss,” he replied sharply, although some of the sharpness was absorbed by how he had his face pressed into fabric and stuffing.

“No, you are not,” Shade said indifferently. Xe tossed something at Theo, the weight of it landed on his head, surprising him. His jacket. “But I would like to attend, and I think you should accompany me.”

Theo sat up, yanking his jacket off of his head and glared at Shade, but xe seemed unaffected by it. “And why would you like to attend?” he snapped, still annoyed.

“To observe,” Shade answered, as if the answer should have been obvious. “Please hurry, it would be rude to be late.” And then xe was turning to step from the quarters, leaving the door wide open.

Theo remained on his bed, glaring at the empty doorway. He didn’t understand Shade at all. He supposed it wasn’t beyond xem to show some interest in humanoid interactions; xe was always looking into the gossip streams and intently watching the people in the places that they visited for their work. And xe certainly had more opportunities to do this when Boss was running the operation, because Boss would have gone to such an event — with or without an invitation. As far as Theo was concerned, the less people he interacted with, the better.

After a moment longer he rose from his bed, his jacket tucked over his arm as he searched around for his boots. He told himself the sooner they got there, the sooner they could leave. But he also thought again of Dimitri standing in the airlock and smiling warmly, inviting him along, and he felt that fear-like response rise in his stomach.

They would definitely make it a quick visit.


The busyness of the town circle was visible long before Theo and Shade reached it, the noise of a loud dancing band drifting up to them as they made their way down the hill from the dock. Theo could feel the anxiety mounting in his chest, and he began to feel quite stupid, he should have been back on the ship, fixing or cleaning something, not wasting his time among strangers. He thought of the way Dimitri’s smile had widened when he saw him on the ship earlier and extended an invitation to the festival, and scowled.

If Shade could tell that he was nervous, xe did not say anything. The silence was slightly unnerving to Theo, who had become accustomed to Shade butting in whenever xe was curious about his humanity. When he looked at the android, xe had xyr face turned forward and the shapes were morphing brightly, excitedly.

The noise got louder as they got closer, and Theo shoved his hands into his jacket’s pockets, even though the temperature was still a little warm. The sun was nearly set, and it cast a beautiful pink glow over everything, but he hardly noticed. Now he could smell the food, the scent of fat and salt and sweetness drifting to him on the breeze. He hadn’t had much more than rations, and then the lunches Dimitri brought him since arriving, and his stomach growled anxiously at the idea of warm meat and fried desserts.

They began to pass others going to the festival, a few of them waved friendly greetings to them. Theo only nodded his head, and sometimes Shade would say, “Hello,” in response. When they entered the circle they saw that the tavern had been left wide open; the front of the building apparently on some sort of mechanism that could pull the walls apart, and several tables had been brought out for people to sit. Some people were already eating, with food that they had gathered from other tables. It seemed as if there was enough food to last for several seasons — at least for Theo, alone on the ship.

Where the usual stalls selling fruit and other goods were now stalls that held games, and the large band that they had heard on their way down was set up in front of the fountain playing a merry tune that people were dancing to. There was a pen off to the side, full of young versions of creatures like Mila, that children were gleefully taking turns riding in a slow circle.

“Theo!” a voice called, and both he and Shade turned to see Dimitri approaching them, his usual wide smile on his face. He threw a strong arm around Theo’s shoulders that almost knocked him over. “You made it!”

“Yeah,” Theo answered dumbly, turning his face away so that Dimitri would not see how he flustered. He felt stupid, but he did not shrug away the other man’s arm. There was something comforting in the weight of it; he thought he might need a drink.

“Theo requires sustenance,” Shade said in a friendly way, and Theo knew that the pink shapes on xyr face meant that xe was delighted by this display. “I, however, am simply here for the company.”

Dimitri laughed again. “Well, we have plenty of both,” he answered, and he began to steer Theo to one of the many tables weighed down with food. When they were there he dropped his arm, and Theo let out a soft sigh that only Shade would have noticed, if xe was paying attention. He picked up a plate and handed it over. “Here, you can have whatever you like.”

Theo took the plate and looked at the food, almost overwhelmed by the choices. He watched as Dimitri picked up a plate of his own, and began piling food on it — a mound of long yellow grain, sweet smelling ribs from an unknown animal, plenty of colorful vegetables, and a what seemed like a half dozen small knotted rolls that dripped with butter. When Dimitri saw his face at the amount of food he had managed on his plate, he laughed.

They moved along the table and Theo picked a few things that looked interesting — the knotted bread that Dimitri had chosen for his own plate, a small meat handpie, an ear of orange-colored corn. Once his plate was full they found an empty space at a table. Dimitri left for a moment into the tavern, and then returned with two tall glasses filled with a golden liquid that was a bit foamy at the top.

“It’s ale,” he explained, handing one of the glasses to Theo. “Made from the sweet wheat that my family grows.”

Theo took a sip of the drink, and then another. It was sweet and warming to his chest, not like any ale he had had in the past. Dimitri was already digging into his plate, apparently famished. Theo watched, amused for a moment, before he decided to start with the meat pie. The crust was crumbly and buttery, and small chopped vegetables had been mixed into the filling. He could have sighed, it was so good.

“What is this festival for?” Shade asked from beside Theo, where xe had sat and had been watching the people around them.

Dimitri wiped a bit of sauce from his mouth with a napkin before answering. “It is the end of the longest month in our calender. It isn’t quite the end of the harvest season, but the bulk of our work is over. So we celebrate,” he explained, sounding proud. “Of course, the work is a bit easier now than it was when the festival was first established, but it’s tradition.”

“I see,” Shade answered, turning xyr gaze back out to the revelers. Some of the dancers were in a line now, laughing and kicking their legs up. “This is a common occurrence in many farming communities.”

Theo listened two the two of them as they chatted aimlessly about the other traditions present on Imia II, not really compelled to add to the conversation. Dimitri was enthused to share, his hands waving wildly as he spoke, even if he held his glass or a piece of food from his plate. Shade retold a story from before Theo joined the ship, when Boss joined in on a similar festival and ended up being crowned as the Harvest King, and the story made Dimitri laugh loud and bright.

Eventually their plates and glasses were empty, and Theo felt a nice, heavy warmth in his stomach. He couldn’t tell if it was from the food and drink, or Dimitri’s company, but the alcohol had stifled a bit of his frustration nicely. When Dimitri excused himself to clear the plates and find them more drinks, Shade turned to Theo, looking pleased.

“You are smiling,” xe said, not a mean accusation, but it made the expression falter on Theo’s face.

“So?” he asked.

Shade’s shoulders moved in a little shrug, the best xe could manage in xyr android body. “It seems as if you are enjoying yourself, even if you are not speaking.”

“I think you two are speaking enough for all of us,” Theo answered, only a little grumpy.

At that Dimitri returned with their drinks, and he passed one of the glasses to Theo. “Let’s play some games,” the engineer suggested with a broad, expectant smile.

Theo looked at Shade and then shrugged, rising from the bench he was sitting at. “Sure, why not,” he said, and he and Shade followed Dimitri to a long booth where children were throwing rings at glass bottles of various sizes. He watched as Dimitri set his glass on the booth and was handed a stack of his own rings, but his aim was not particularly good. Theo smiled and sipped on his drink while Dimitri cursed — to the delight of the children around him — thinking how ridiculous he looked standing there, towering over all of the other players and failing miserably. His consolation prize was a long pastry treat, coated in sparkling sugar.

“Aww, little Dima,” came a pleasant deep voice as they stepped away from the booth, Dimitri alternating between his drink and dessert. “Another failed attempt at the ring toss?”

A woman somehow taller and broader than Dimitri approached them, Lux holding onto her arm proudly. The woman reached out with her free hand to ruffle Dimitri’s hair, but judging by the smile on his face he didn’t seem to mind. “Theo, Shade, this is my sister Harmonia,” he said cheerily. “You’ve met Lux?”

“Yes,” Theo said, trying for a small smile. The ale made it a bit easier, but it was slightly surreal to be around so many people much taller than him. “Thank you for the sandwiches,” he added, looking at Harmonia.

She smiled widely, and it was easy to see the family resemblance. “Come by the house sometime, we can cook you a real meal,” she answered with a little wink.

“I am sure that would be welcome,” Shade butted in, the shapes on xyr face looking positively delighted at the invitation. “Theo mostly lives on rations, which I have come to understand for most humanoids is not particularly ideal.”

All but Theo laughed, his face going a bit red with embarrassment. They were not being unkind, but it made him feel like a child. Dimitri had finished his dessert and tossed his arm around Theo’s shoulders again. “We can’t stand for that!” he declared, his cheeks rosy with drink. “You must join us while you are here. No more bachelor dining for you. I won’t allow it.”

“Father wouldn’t either,” Harmonia said with a little click of her tongue. “I’m surprised he hasn’t brought the meal to your ship yet.”

“Now, now,” Lux interrupted, their musical voice dancing on the air. “Look at the boy, you’re making him nervous.” They offered Theo a sympathetic smile, which somehow worked in spite of the rows of teeth in their mouth. “Don’t mind the Crofts, Theo, they are much too friendly at times.”

This made Harmonia and Dimitri laugh again, and Dimitri lowered his arm. “Perhaps, but man cannot live on rations alone,” he argued, almost mock serious.

“Now you sound like father,” Harmonia said with a laugh. “Come on Lux, let’s leave these boys to their games. I want to dance.”

Lux shot another sympathetic smile in Theo’s direction before they were being pulled by Harmonia to the group of people dancing. Theo watched the two of them disappear into the crowd, sipping on his ale. When he could no longer see them he looked back at Dimitri, who was watching him and smiling gently.

“Come on,” Dimitri said. “That one’s rigged anyway. Let’s try something else.”

They made their way around the ring of stalls, Dimitri pausing at each one to try the games. There were more games than Theo had seen before — ball throwing games, dart throwing games, even one with pretend laser pistols. Theo didn’t care to try any of them, but it was fun to watch Dimitri try, and especially entertaining when a child a fraction of his size beat him at whatever they were playing. Theo absently wondered if he was letting the children win. Either way, the engineer didn’t seem to care if he walked away empty handed. He did win a soft scarf, hand knit with blue and cream colored yarn at the dart game, which he wrapped neatly around Theo’s neck. “The color looks better on you,” he declared, before disappearing to find them more drinks.

Shade remained mostly silent, watching them and the crowd, occasionally piping up with tips for Dimitri to excel better at the games. Of course it did not matter, Dimitri still laughed when he lost, pretending to growl at whichever child beat him.

Theo noticed he seemed to be quite popular among the inhabitants here; people kept coming up to say hello, inquire on the ship’s repair, or the farm, and other seemingly meaningless things. More of the Croft family found them, two identical brothers named Yura and Misha who were also larger than Dimitri and both holding stuffed prizes from games that they had won earlier. They teased Dimitri for his attempts, but then they were off too, to find dancing partners.

To Theo’s great relief, Dimitri did not seem too interested in dancing. Once they had tried all the games, and were both equally plied with sweet ale, Dimitri left to find them something sweet and fatty to eat.

“I think I will head back to the ship now,” Shade said while they waited beside the tavern. “I am afraid this body is becoming quite uncomfortable.”

“What?” Theo asked, his voice nearing panic. “I’ll go with you.”

“No, stay,” Shade answered, quite gently, the shapes on xyr face slow and blue and comforting. “You are enjoying yourself.” Xe held up a hand to stop Theo from arguing. “And I think Dimitri would be quite upset if you just disappeared on him.”

Theo frowned deeply, wondering why Shade should care if Dimitri were disappointed or not. But he supposed they still had a lot of work to do on the ship, and it would be impolite to disappear and expect work to carry on pleasantly… “Fine,” he grumbled. “I won’t be much longer.”

Shade only shrugged before turning to leave. “It is no matter to me,” xe answered. “Stay out as late as you want.”

When xe was gone, Theo felt foolish standing there alone, watching people laugh and talk with each other as they passed by. But it wasn’t long before he spied Dimitri heading back to him, with two more drinks in his hands and a plate of something covered in a pink powdery sugar balanced precariously on his arm. “Where’s Shade?” he asked, passing one of the drinks to Theo very carefully.

“Xe needed to go back to the ship,” Theo answered. “It’s about time for xem to plug in.”

Dimitri chuckled a bit, although Theo couldn’t understand why. “Well,” the engineer started. “I’m glad you haven’t left me quite yet. Come on, I have something to show you.”

At that he turned, still holding the plate of treats and his own drink and Theo followed, slightly curious. He had to walk carefully; he hadn’t had this much to drink in quite some time, and it seemed that his balance was a little off. But the ale had made him feel warm and pleasant, and he couldn’t find anything to complain about as Dimitri lead him away from the town circle, away from all of the noise, in a direction he hadn’t explored yet. They walked on a cobbled path for a bit, but eventually Dimitri turned from the path down a narrow trail.

Eventually the trail ended at a gated fence, but this didn’t deter Dimitri. He balanced the plate he held on his cup and opened the gate, letting Theo walk through first. He paused as Dimitri latched the gate again so that he could take the lead again. Here the path was surrounded by large old trees, but it led out into a clearing where there was a calm, flat lake. The stars, and Imia I, reflected perfectly on the surface as if they were suspended in the water, and it seemed to stretch out into the dark, like it would go on forever.

“Wow,” Theo said after a moment, and he looked at Dimitri who beamed like he was proud of himself. “It’s beautiful.”

Dimitri nodded and led Theo to the water’s edge, where he promptly sat, a bit ungracefully — although he did not spill his drink or the plate. Theo followed and sat beside him, careful so he wouldn’t fall over. He nearly lost his balance but Dimitri reached out to hold his elbow, laughing gently.

“You’re a lightweight,” he observed.

“I don’t drink,” Theo answered. He nodded at the plate that was now in the grass. “What’s that?”

“Imian pancake,” Dimitri answered, carefully setting his glass down so that he could tear a piece of the treat off to hand to Theo. “Try it.”

Theo took the piece offered to him, noticing how the pink sugar clung to Dimitri’s fingers. The dough was fried and soft, a little bit greasy, but the sugar was where all the flavor was. He couldn’t have described the taste much more than saying it was sweet, but it was like biting into a sugared cloud. He hummed in appreciation and devoured the rest of the piece, washing it down with more ale.

“Good?” Dimitri asked, breaking off a piece of the pancake for himself. “It’s one of my favorite things we make for the festival.” He ate the piece in almost a single bite, licking the sugar off of his fingers.

“I’ve never had anything like it,” Theo admitted, reaching to tear another piece of the treat.

Dimitri seemed pleased again, and he stretched out his legs with a small, comforted sigh. “This is my favorite place,” he said after a moment of silence, looking out over the water. “Sometimes, when the planet is in view, it’s big enough to fill the whole lake.”

Theo didn’t say anything, just watched Dimitri as he spoke. He still looked so handsome in the darkness, with only the light from Imia I and the stars around them on the edges of his face, reflecting in his eyes. That feeling of danger returned; Theo took another sip of his drink.

He couldn’t imagine growing up in a place like this; his childhood was spent on a busy space port, all cold metal and strange faces. Even his parents’ faces had been strange to him back then. He hadn’t been an outcast exactly, but from an early age it was easier for him to take himself to the outskirts, where he could be more comfortable with himself.

“Sliver for your thoughts?” Dimitri said, and Theo realized that the silence had stretched out, and he had been gazing out at the water.

“Oh,” he said awkwardly, looking down into his glass. “I was just thinking this moon isn’t so bad.”

Dimitri laughed and split the rest of the pancake in half for them. “Yeah, I like it here,” he said. And then as if he could read Theo’s thoughts he went on, “Where are you from?”

“Far away,” Theo answered, not intentionally trying to be cryptic. But he didn’t like to think of his past, or any of his life, really. There hadn’t been anything spectacular in it, nothing that would have made Dimitri smile his sweet smile. He didn’t know why he went on to clarify, “A station, close the the Uma Nebula.”

“That is far away,” Dimitri agreed. After another silence he let out a little whistle. “A space station, huh? No grass?”
Theo laughed a little. “No, no grass.”

Dimitri hummed thoughtfully as he finished his portion of the pancake. “A lot of stars, though.”

Theo looked at him again, and Dimitri was watching him a bit expectantly. He looked away, out to the stars that were here, reflected in the water. They were different than the stars he grew up with, but not that different. “Yeah,” he finally said.

There was another stretch of silence between them, until Dimitri flopped back to lie in the grass with a little thud. He had abandoned his empty glass and stretched his arms above his head; he looked like a large cat, stretching in the middle of an afternoon nap. He closed his eyes and Theo felt brave enough to look at him for a bit longer, the shape of his face, how the light reflected off of his long lashes, how his mouth was still curled into a contented little smile. He looked so peaceful.

He looked away then, before Dimitri caught him staring, and finished off his own drink. He felt dizzy, but it was a good sort of dizzy that he didn’t indulge in often. When he drank it was never like this, with the company of someone else who laughed and smiled. They hadn’t even talked about the ship repairs all evening, a thought that dawned on him so suddenly it almost made him nervous. This was dangerous territory.

When Theo looked back at Dimitri, he realized the engineer had been watching him, but he did not look away like Theo would have. The intensity of his gaze made Theo’s face go warm, and he was grateful for the darkness so that Dimitri would not see.

“What?” Theo asked nervously, and it made Dimitri laugh.

“Nothing,” he said, tipping his face away so that he was looking back at the stars. “You just always look so serious. So tense.”

Theo stared at him a moment longer, before setting his own now empty glass down to lie in the grass beside him. The motion made him even dizzier and he let out a little groan that made Dimitri laugh again. From this angle, it felt like the sky might swallow them whole, right where they lay. Theo clasped his hands together and rested them on his stomach, feeling the movement of his breath, and when he tipped his head to look at Dimitri he saw that he was already looking at him.

“Better?” Dimitri asked, and he seemed very close.

“Maybe,” Theo answered, feeling nervous enough that he had to look away. He didn’t know what to do with himself, or what to say, so to fill the silence he simply asked, “Do your stars have names?”

Dimitri chuckled again, looking back out into the sky. “Yeah,” he said, and Theo could hear the smile in his voice even without looking at him. “I’ll tell you about them.”

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