It wasn’t long before Dimitri returned for them, just like he promised he would. Theo managed a small smile when he saw him, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a bad idea. It was already bad enough that he had allowed himself to feel so attached to Dimitri — why add more people to the mix? He remembered meeting Harmonia at the festival, and the twins, and he wondered how many more of them were there, and if they were all just as friendly in such an imposing way. He didn’t necessarily think he felt intimidated, but it was something close to that. What if he fucked something up?
Dimitri had parked his little truck in a small dirt lot at the end of the dock, and Theo took the passenger seat in the front. Shade seemed content in the bed, in fact rather excited by it, and it made Dimitri laugh a little. Theo could not look at him.
They drove down the road that Theo and Shade had walked down to get to town, but before they reached town they diverted down another dirt road that was hardly noticeable aside from the worn in tire tracks. The sun was setting and Dimitri drove a bit fast, the wind blowing through his shaggy dark hair. He caught Theo watching him and grinned his pleased little grin; Theo had the idea of flinging himself from the truck. He looked away and tucked his own hair out of his face and behind his ear, instead.
Along the road was mostly grass, and there were animals like Mila grazing about. “What are those called?” Shade asked curiously, leaning into the cab of the truck between the two of them.
“Imian sheep,” Dimitri answered, tipping his head a bit so that xe could hear him. “My family raises them.”
The fields of grass shifted into fields of wheat, most of them already harvested. The remainder of the wheat swayed in the breeze, long blue stalks tipped with fluffy yellow heads. They seemed to shimmer gold in the setting sunlight and Theo stared out at them, entranced. It was easy to imagine Dimitri and his siblings wiling away the days out here, tending to the animals and plants; it seemed to be the perfect place for him.
The farmhouse was bigger than Theo imagined it would be from Dimitri’s descriptions of it; perhaps he had just been being modest when he spoke of it. It was three stories tall and painted bright yellow, with a friendly white porch that seemed to wrap around the entirety of the house. Each window had blue shutters, all of them thrown open so that the late summer breeze could blow through the lace curtains that they were each adorned with. It was unlike anything that Theo had seen before; he was used to cramped apartments or hostels, or little huts made of brick and dirt. He thought again how well this place suited Dimitri.
Gravel crunched under the truck’s tires as they pulled up the drive and an old man sitting in a rocking chair on the porch lifted his hand to wave at them. There was a cat perched in his lap who didn’t seem to notice them. When the truck came to a stop Dimitri hopped out to help Shade out of the bed. Theo followed and fell in step behind the two of them as they made their way up to the porch.
“Hey, gramps,” he said to the old man as he bounded up the steps, and he leaned over to give him a kiss on the cheek.
“Dima, who are your friends?” the old man asked curiously. “Does your da’ know they’re coming for dinner?”
Dimitri laughed. “This is Theo and his business partner Shade. I’m repairing their ship, remember?” he answered. “And yes, he knows. Don’t worry.”
The old man nodded approvingly, still rocking gently in his chair. “Good, you know how he can get around mealtime,” he said with a little click of his tongue.
This made Dimitri laugh, and then he was leading Theo and Shade through the front door, a rickety old screen that clattered loudly behind them as it closed. Before they even stepped inside Theo could smell the meal cooking, and it was even stronger now. It smelled like meat and spices, something sharp like cinnamon, and it was near overwhelmingly homey. The hall that the front door opened into was wide and the walls lined with various family pictures, most of them candid shots. None of the frames matched and some of them were crooked, but there didn’t seem to be a speck of dust anywhere. There was a coat rack in the corner, the bin at the bottom filled with umbrellas, several pairs of rain boots lined the wall.
Theo felt more panic; this place felt more alien than anywhere else he had been in his life. He felt a hand gentle on his shoulder and turned to see Dimitri smiling kindly at him. It softened some of the panic, but then a new fear joined it too. Theo didn’t know how he managed to smile back.
“Is this you?” piped up Shade, leaning close to one of the pictures. Xe had been inspecting all of them curiously.
Dimitri let his hand fall from Theo’s shoulder and he walked over to see, and laughed. “Yeah. That’s me,” he answered.
Curious, Theo followed to look at the picture too, and it was of a child standing next to one of the Imian sheep, which towered over him, and he was smiling widely. He was missing his front teeth. But it was unmistakably Dimitri. “You’re so small,” Theo said, like he couldn’t believe it, and it made Dimitri laugh even more.
“Dima, is that you?” a voice called from one of the adjacent rooms, and a towering man with silver hair stepped out into the hall, wiping his hands on the apron he wore. “Ah!” he exclaimed at the sight of them. When he went on, there was a sort of play sternness to his voice. “You must be the ones who have been keeping our Dimitri so busy.”
“Um, yes?” Theo said, feeling suddenly very small, like he had at the festival meeting Harmonia.
The man laughed and held out his hand for Theo to shake, and then to Shade. “Well, thank you,” he said. “Come, we’re almost ready.” And without waiting for them, he turned back into the room he had come from.
When Theo looked at Dimitri he had an unreadable look on his face, but when their eyes met he was smiling again. He nodded his head toward the room his father had disappeared into. “Don’t look so scared, Theo,” he said, and Theo hadn’t realized Dimitri knew him well enough to know the expression of nervousness that he wore. It was slightly unnerving. “They’re not that bad.”
“Theo does not like new people,” Shade offered, not unkindly, the shapes on xyr face still delighted.
Dimitri hummed thoughtfully. “You like me well enough,” he inquired, although his voice was light. “At least, I’d like to think so.”
Theo did not know what to say, he just frowned slightly, which seemed to amuse both of his companions. Dimitri reached for his hand, which caught him off guard enough that he couldn’t object to being pulled into the other room.
The kitchen was large and bright green, the wood cabinets natural and light. It seemed as if everyone turned to look at them when they entered, and Dimitri dropped Theo’s hand under everyone’s gaze. His father was back at the stove, checking something in the oven, and Harmonia stood with Lux preparing a salad at the counter. Misha and Yura were getting place settings out of the cupboard to bring into an adjacent room. There were two that Theo did not recognize, a woman and another man who were sitting at the table chatting with each other while folding cloth napkins.
“Oh, hello, Theo! Shade!” said Lux, breaking the silence. “What a pleasant surprise.” Their voice was gentle, and Theo believed what they said. “How nice to have someone else who hasn’t grown up on this farm here for dinner.”
The woman at the table laughed and rose from where she was sitting. She was just as tall as the others, and somehow more imposing that any of the men that Theo had met yet. She looked just like Harmonia, he face just a bit more lined with age, and there were streaks of silver in her dark hair. So this was where all the familial resemblance came from, then.
“Welcome,” she said as she stepped toward them, and her voice was smooth and kind. Just like Dimitri’s father had, she reached her hand out to shake both of their hands. “I’m Adella, Dimitri’s mother, have you met the others?”
“Mostly,” Shade said, in lieu of Theo answering. He was grateful. “If not — we are fast learners.”
Adella laughed gently and then leaned to give Dimitri a kiss on the cheek. “Why don’t you show them to the table? I’m sure you’re all tired from working so hard on that ship.”
Dimitri nodded and led them through the kitchen through another doorway which opened into a cozy looking dining room, the walls painted blue and covered in more photographs and other decorations. There was a long table in the middle of the room that the twins had set plates and glasses out on; Theo noticed that some of them did not match. There were more than a dozen places set out and it made him pause nervously, but Dimitri had pulled out a chair for him with a dramatic flourish and Theo couldn’t help but smile.
“How large is your family anyway?” Shade asked, counting place settings as xe took the seat next to Theo.
Dimitri groaned as he took the seat on the other side of Theo, but he was smiling. “Much too big,” he answered, leaning on his elbow. “What about you Theo?”
“Uh, no,” Theo answered lamely. “I mean, I don’t have any family.”
Dimitri frowned for a moment, but it quickly dissipated as he leaned to nudge his shoulder against Theo’s. “That’s okay, probably saves you some stress.”
Theo smiled meekly, and at that moment Harmonia and Lux entered the dining room, each carrying a bowl that they set on the table before taking a seat across from the three of them. Soon after that Adella and the man Theo had not been introduced to yet entered with the napkins and silverware, which they round the table to neatly place out. Adella took the head of the table, and the man took the seat next to her. They were chatting about work on the farm.
“Who is that?” Shade asked, a question Theo guessed xe would be asking a lot this evening.
“My second father,” Dimitri answered, straightening the napkin that his mother had laid out in front of him.
More people began to file in from other rooms of the house, chatting loudly amongst each other. Dimitri whispered to Shade and Theo their names — Cousin Nadla, her husband Dao, their child Nina, Aunt Jo, Grandma Cora — the list seemed nearly endless, and there was no way Theo was going to remember all of them. But they all smiled politely at him, some even said hello, exchanged pleasantries. Theo did not feel trapped, exactly, but overwhelmed.
When he looked at Dimitri, the engineer would smile gently, and it would soothe him slightly.
Eventually Dimitri’s father — the one in the apron — entered the room with a platter that held the largest roast bird that Theo had ever seen. After he set it on the table he took the last empty seat beside Adella. “We have guests today,” he said, sounding pleased, and everyone turned to glance at Theo and Shade. “Please welcome them as you would each other.”
After he spoke he began to carve the great bird he brought out, and everyone began talking amongst themselves again. There was talk of each other’s work for the day, what stream they would be viewing this evening, and more things that Theo did not understand. Bowls and platters of food were passed around so that they could serve themselves, and Dimitri helpfully told Theo what each item was. A carafe of sparkling clear wine was passed around as well, and Dimitri poured a glass for Theo. Shade was involved in an energetic conversation with the child who was sat beside xem, and had many questions.
“Lula, don’t be so rude!” the child’s mother exclaimed, but Shade held up xyr hand gently.
“I do not mind,” xe said, sounding pleased, the shapes on xyr face bright and happy.
“Theo,” Harmonia said from across the table, the first to speak directly to him since they had begun dining. “Dimitri hasn’t been boring you too much with his blabbering?” Her voice was teasing; Lux was smiling gently. “He likes to go on sometimes; I’m sure you’ve noticed by now.”
“No,” Theo answered, glancing at Dimitri who was looking down at his plate. “He’s been… quite welcome.” It was hardly admitting to anything, but it still felt too honest, and he wanted to run away. There was that fear in his stomach again, knotting tightly. He reached for his wine.
“See, Harmonia?” Dimitri said, sounding a bit smug, but there was still an uncertainty in his voice that Theo didn’t recognize. “Some people appreciate my company.” He might as well have stuck out his tongue at her.
Lux giggled musically at this, and Harmonia rolled her eyes, but she was still smiling too. “Well, there’s someone for everyone,” she said nonchalantly, and then she yelped in pain and shot a look at Lux, who was peacefully eating a buttered roll and paying her no attention.
Yura — or was it Misha? — inquired on the repairs, which Theo said were going well and Dimitri chimed in to proudly say that they were ahead of schedule. A young boy leaned across the table to ask Theo about bugs, catching him off guard, which made everyone around them laugh.
It was strange, Theo thought, to be included so easily in such a large gathering. Nothing like this had ever happened to him, at least not in any near memory. The Croft family opened their doors, and did not treat him like a stranger, or a pariah. He thought if he hadn’t spoken at all no one would have minded. It was a warm sort of feeling that he didn’t understand, and while it didn’t frighten him as much as Dimitri’s smile it was a strange, surreal sensation. What did he have to offer them? It didn’t seem to matter. He was simply there, and that was enough.
The rest of the dinner passed without much incident, and he mostly chatted with Harmonia and Lux — in his own stop and start way. If they noticed that he felt awkward, they didn’t say anything about it. Dimitri seemed to relax a bit too, although Theo didn’t understand why he had any reason not to be relaxed. Shade continued to be thrilled chatting away with everyone, anyone who came by to say hello. Xe was much better at this than Theo ever could be.
Once the meal was complete and everyone was full of food and drink, family members started to disperse in other areas of the house. While Shade continued to entertain the children, Theo helped Dimitri clear the plates, much to Adella’s delight. However, once it was time to start washing them she shooed them both out of the kitchen.
“Get out of here, you two,” she said, swatting Dimitri with a hand towel. “Why don’t you show Theo and Shade the barn.” She was smiling, but she still said this with a bit of disdain, and then called the twins in to do the dishes instead.
‘The barn,’ as it turned out, was the family’s second barn that Dimitri had taken over with his collection of odd starship parts. It was a walk away from the house, but the air had cooled and felt nice on Theo’s wine-flushed cheeks. Shade stayed at the house, enjoying the attention from the Croft family, and hardly seemed to notice them when Theo said that they were going for a walk, and would xe like to join them? This time Harmonia and Lux did see them leave together, but Theo didn’t understand the looks on their faces as they passed them on the porch.
Dimitri led him down a path that wrapped around the side of the house. He didn’t say anything at first, just looked straight ahead with an expression on his face that seemed too serious and out of place. Theo didn’t understand, and he looked away to watch his feet as they walked.
“I should say thank you,” Dimitri piped up when they were nearly to the barn, and when Theo looked at him now he was smiling.
“I would have been the one stuck with the dishes if you weren’t here.”
Theo laughed softly. “Then you’re welcome, I guess,” he said, the lightness in his voice surprising him.
At the barn, Dimitri pushed the door open easily and searched the wall in the dark for a light switch. When everything lit up, Theo was caught a bit off guard; he had never seen so many ship parts in one space. They were organized fairly neatly, considering this barn had clearly not been built to house them, and he began to wander the space to look at everything. “No wonder they sent us to you,” he said absently after a moment. “You could open your own shop.”
Dimitri laughed and shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I could,” he answered casually, as if it were completely normal for him to have such a huge collection of random parts. “Mom doesn’t like it so much,” he added.
“Ah,” Theo said, now understanding the tone of her voice as she shooed them out of the kitchen. He stopped at a workbench to inspect a computer panel that was clearly in the process of being repaired. “Where did you get it all?”
“Here and there,” Dimitri said, walking over to him. “That’ll be for your ship.”
Theo looked over at him and smiled, once again too aware of how close he was standing now, close enough that he could reach for him if he wanted— The thought came to him so suddenly that he had to look away, back at the workbench. “Here and there,” he repeated, a bit in awe. “But why?”
Dimitri hummed gently, like he was thinking. “I dunno’,” he finally settled on. “I like starships.”
Theo looked back at him, curious. “So why are you here, then?”
Now Dimitri seemed to be surprised, and he blinked at Theo before looking away. “This is my home,” he settled on, and he looked a bit uncomfortable. Theo felt guilty for saying anything at all. Dimitri let out a little sigh and scuffed his boot against the ground. “I mean, that was the plan, I suppose. After school to find an engineering job or something. But… I came back home instead.” He shrugged, and Theo thought maybe there was more to the story, but he wouldn’t push it.
“Well, it is nice here,” Theo offered, and Dimitri smiled at the ground.
“Yeah,” he agreed.
Theo started to wander again, and he could feel Dimitri watching him as he stopped to inspect glass screens and massive sub-light engines, and everything in between. He tried to ignore the feeling of his gaze, and when he had lapped the barn he looked back to see Dimitri watching him expectantly. “You’re mad,” Theo decided with a little laugh, and Dimitri laughed too.
“Yeah,” he agreed again, with a small shrug. “Come here.” He nodded his head to a ladder that lead up into a loft Theo suspected normally would hold hay. He followed Dimitri up the ladder to see that the engineer had already made himself comfortable in a large captain’s chair. Theo stood at the top of the ladder for a moment before he laughed again, in spite of himself.
“What?” Dimitri asked, grinning wide, and he patted the arm of the near matching chair beside him.
Against his better judgment, Theo clambered into the loft and plopped into the chair with a little sigh. It was much more comfortable than the current captain’s chair in his own bridge. He stretched his legs out and looked over at Dimitri, who was watching him with a gentle, little smile. The alarms went off in Theo’s brain again, that this was dangerous, but there was also the urge to ignore them, because Dimitri looked so sweet with his head tipped like that— He looked away.
“So what about you?” Dimitri asked after a moment. “Why an exterminator in that big research vessel?”
Theo looked at him, his smile faltering for a second before he looked away again and pulled his knees to his chest. “It wasn’t my idea,” he finally answered, looking across to the loft opposite them at a row of unknown parts. He didn’t want to say anything at all, he didn’t want to talk about himself, so he didn’t know why he went on to say, “I inherited the business, I guess.”
Dimitri hummed like he understood, even though Theo thought that there was no way he could understand. He had the scary thought that he wanted to tell him everything, and just like the idea that he could reach out and touch Dimitri, it caught him off guard. It wouldn’t do any good anyway, he told himself. He would be leaving in a matter of weeks.
“There it is again,” Dimitri commented gently, and Theo looked at him, puzzled. “That look. So serious.”
Theo tried to smile, and it only made Dimitri chuckle a bit.
“It’s okay,” the engineer said. “It looks good on you.”
Theo didn’t know what to say, but he could feel his face get warm again, and he felt foolish. Stop it, he told himself, but it didn’t keep his heart from pattering stupidly, or his thoughts from thinking how Dimitri’s hand felt when he pulled him into the dining room at the farmhouse. He stared across at the other loft, but Dimitri didn’t seem to mind the silence.
When he finally gathered the courage to look at him again, the other man had his head tipped back and his eyes were closed. Theo smiled and rested his head against the chair he was in, stretching his legs out again. It felt safer to look at Dimitri like this, like he wouldn’t get caught, even though he was sure that he wasn’t quite asleep. And in another brief lapse in judgment Theo lifted his hand like he might take Dimitri’s hand in it, but the engineer let out a little sigh that startled him.
“We should head back,” he said, without opening his eyes. By the time he looked over at Theo, he was cradling his hand at his chest trying to not look suspicious. Dimitri didn’t seem to notice. “We have an early morning.”
Dimitri climbed down first and Theo followed seconds later, nearly missing the last rung of the ladder. Dimitri caught him before he fell, his hand at the small of his back. Theo thought that his touch lingered, but then it was gone, and they were both left smiling a bit sheepishly. The walk back to the house was quiet, Theo kept his hands shoved in his pockets because it felt safer that way — stop it, stop it, stop it, he told himself on a loop, but it didn’t seem to be working.