Flynn wet his lips, turning around in front of the mirror to examine the fall of his new uniform. The fit was flawless, the fabric thick and comfortable, and the new armor he wore was both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. He couldn't find a thing wrong with it.
Except for the red. Deep, rusting red, the color of neglected iron, a nail forgotten in the street. Flynn had been emblazoned with blue for years now: cornflower blue, azure blue, aquamarine green and blue. That was his color, what he was accustomed to, something that he had started to feel identified him, not only in the hearts and minds of the people around him, but to himself.
And this red... the color of drying blood...
This was Alexei's color.
And this uniform, that fit him so perfectly, was Alexei's uniform.
Flynn gazed at his reflection for a moment longer, feeling very far away from it.
A knock at the door wrenched his attention away from the mirror. "Come in," he called.
The door opened quickly and quietly, and Ioder slipped into the room unceremoniously, closing the door just as quickly behind him. Flynn turned, eyes widening, and started to kneel, but the younger man waved him off impatiently.
"I don't need any more of that," he said dryly. "There's been enough bowing and Your Majestying to last me a lifetime, and I haven't even been crowned yet. Tell me you won't join their ranks."
It was a simple request, the desired response clear, but Flynn's gaze lingered on Ioder for a long beat in silence. He, too, looked different; his familiar earthy colors, greens and browns, were gone. There was nothing simple about Ioder's new garb, dark leggings and layers of silken shirts, white and red, and his shoulders slung with an ornately decorated red jacket with gold trim and black fixtures. It was every inch the look of an emperor, and although Flynn had privately thought of him as the Emperor since long before it was made official, seeing it so obviously made him feel like those trappings merited some special treatment -- some Your Majestying, some bowing.
Ioder's expression shifted, his amusement and engagement falling away, replaced with his more familiar serene expression. "You too, then?"
Flynn abruptly felt very guilty, and glanced away, straightening self-consciously. His face felt warm. "I wish I could offer you some advice, Master Ioder. But as you might have noticed, I'm in a similar situation..."
Footsteps, and then Ioder drew up alongside him, and Flynn could tell from his reflection that he had managed to say the right thing, and the awkward greeting had been set aside. They stood together in front of the mirror; a study in what was, really, much too much red.
"I had noticed. I came to see if you were handling it any better." Ioder tilted his head to the side slightly. "You look uncomfortable."
Flynn shifted before admitting, "This uniform just feels -- wrong. I suppose that I was expecting it to be in blue..."
Ioder smiled, reluctant. "Red is the signature color of the Emperor and his household. The Commandant and the royal guard must have always worn red, to mark their service to the Emperor."
He had known that, on some level. Red wasn't really Alexei's color, after all. It was simply the color he and his men had worn. An association that had been in place long before he had become Commandant, long before any of them had been alive. Think of it as the Emperor's color, not Alexei's color. The Emperor's color, not Alexei's color.
But Ioder himself didn't look right in red, either.
"I understand." The words came out heavier than he meant for them to, and Flynn shook his head, dispelling the dark mood. "Is it-- Ah, is it customary to have this exact uniform? I know that the officers' uniforms were allowed to have a more personalized style, but this is the same cut..."
The Emperor made a thoughtful noise, stepping in and adjusting the fall of the cloak around Flynn's shoulders. He said, "No, I think that was more laziness on the part of some tailor. And I don't think we should encourage that." He gave Flynn a quick smile. "I'm sure that we can find a compromise between your personal style and something befitting the rank of Commandant."
Flynn wet his lips and smiled back. "That sounds perfect. But do you think it can be ready by tomorrow?"
He didn't have the words or the will to describe the anxiety that stirred deep inside him when he thought about going out there and formally accepting his title at the coronation while dressed in Alexei's color -- Alexei's uniform -- a young idealist commoner who wanted to change the world. There was a time when all he'd wanted was to be that man. But now the thought of people looking at him and seeing Alexei... Thinking of what Yuri would see...
Would that be his future? Was he doomed to fail again and again in achieving his goals? Would he become frustrated and jaded, torn apart by resentment? What would happen to him then?
"I know it can be. If I give them the word." Ioder beamed, and Flynn tried not to think about the poor tailor that he was so casually going to send into panics.
"And maybe, someday, we can work on the color," the other man added, thoughtful.
Flynn's gaze lifted to his face.
Ioder murmured, "We're going to be working together for quite some time, after all. And right now, we're bound by tradition. We can't just start turning things upside-down the moment we step into our positions. You and I both know the resistance that we'll meet if we come right out of the gate -- too young, too inexperienced, too unpopular with the established authority -- and demand that everything change to meet our personal desires.
"But we both want the same thing. I know that we do." Ioder ducked his head a little; he was still so close that Flynn could smell the clean scent of his hair, the cinnamon that he took with his tea. "And so, someday, when we don't have to fight quite so hard... Maybe we can change things."
Like the color of the uniform? Like more than that; like the self-righteous conceit of the aristocracy; like the harsh economic divide that plagued Zaphias.
"I would like that," Flynn said, watching him.
There was a level of comfort here, of trust. Ioder was at ease with him, himself instead of what formality and position dictated that he be; and Flynn was beginning to think that even though Ioder was Emperor, perhaps he, too, could shed the mantle of authority that he had never wanted for himself and begin to be just Flynn.
"We might as well make the best of things," Ioder said, stepping back and looking at their reflections, side-by-side in the mirror once more. "Since we're both stuck with them."
The words were grim but his smile was real, light and sincere. Flynn found himself smiling to match it.
A partner. Someone with the power to change this empire, who would work together with him to do it; who shared in his priorities and his beliefs. Someone for whom he'd been searching for a long time.
"Congratulations on your promotion, Flynn."
"Thank you, Master Ioder!"
And for the first time it really felt like something to celebrate; not just something that had been shoved at him in the midst of a crisis because they had no one else, not just a poor replacement for a man who had left both sullied the position and set the bar to reach for in the eyes of everyone who would judge him. It felt like a privilege.
"And may I say," he added, ducking his head, "that it is an honor to be working with you. I'm looking forward to it."
Ioder laughed. "Flattery, Commandant?"
"No, I didn't--"
"Because in that case..." Ioder winked at him, slipping back through the door. "...I think a dark blue trim for your new uniform wouldn't draw much attention."