Miss Kaizuka’s eyes never leave the programme as she drags Slaine from the car and through the moonlit carpark. Slaine isn’t sure which of them will trip first – the person who isn’t watching where they’re going, or the person trying to walk in heels for the first time. He stumbles along, always prepared for a quick and painful introduction with the ground or the sound of his dress ripping. He also keeps his other hand on his head, to hold the blue rose clipped to his hair in place as it bobs around with each step he takes. But the only sounds are the clicking of their ridiculous shoes – he could already feel the blisters, how did women endure this farce of footwear – and Miss Kaizuka’s stream of worried chatter:
“I can’t believe they took so long to let you out, and then that blocked road, really, couldn’t they do construction some other day, it’s insane, we’ve missed nearly everything…”
Slaine knows that they’re only three hours late for a five-hour event that will probably go overtime, but he can’t say anything because all his willpower is currently dedicated to maintaining his balance as he haphazardly follows his chaperone. He’s quite certain that he would have fallen if it wasn’t for the woman’s surprisingly firm grip, but eventually he calls out, “Miss Kaizuka, please, I’m not sure I can keep up.”
The woman turns immediately, looking so concerned and apologetic that Slaine feels immediately guilty for his selfish request. “I’m so sorry, S- Elaine. It must be hard walking in heels for the first time. I’ll go slower; we’re already late so there’s really no need to rush.”
Beaming at him, she lets go of his hand and waits until Slaine has caught up before she starts walking at a more sedate pace, adding, “And you can call me Yuki-nee.”
Slaine frowns. “Doesn’t that suffix mean-”
Before he can ask his question, Slaine realises that they are already at the entrance of the theatre. Two guards in UFE uniforms flank the revolving doors, but they seem to recognise Yuki, giving her friendly smiles that she happily returns. One of the women cast a curious glance in Slaine’s direction as Yuki digs in her purse for their invitations and identification. He can feel the guard’s gaze on him and can’t help but feel embarrassed to be seen in a dress, even with a combination of Aldnoah and judiciously applied makeup – Yuki had insisted that it wasn’t that much , Slaine already had quite a bit of natural beauty, really, she’s jealous of how fair his skin is and those eyes are absolutely gorgeous, really she isn’t surprised at all. When Slaine had enquired as to what she wasn’t surprised at, she’d hushed him and asked his opinion on what lipstick to use.
Slaine waits for the guard to realise that this is Slaine Troyard, tyrant of the second interplanetary war, standing right there waiting for a bullet between the eyes. Not for the first time does he wonder why his Aldnoah disguise isn’t something more drastically different from his normal appearance; all he has are slightly wider hips and a slightly softer curve to his jawline. His hair is also part of the illusion, but it’s the exact same shade as his real hair and he doubts having it in a braided chignon will add to the deception. But there is only open curiosity in the woman’s eyes, without any hint of alarm. Just as Slaine starts to breathe easy, her companion gasps and his heart speeds up again, a wild story of how he forced Yuki to escort him here ready on the tip of his tongue.
The other guard looks him up and down in open surprise and Slaine knows that this is it, the ruse is up, he should never have been let out of his cell – then she giggles, which is definitely not the reaction he expected a trained soldier to have when confronted with a mass murderer. Oblivious to his mounting confusion, the guard turns to Yuki and asks, “Really? Wow.”
“I know,” Yuki agrees, her expression slightly smug. “I was worried for him at first, but I should have known that Nao wouldn’t fail to impress!”
“Hah, give him my congratulations,” the guard replies, unlocking the door. As Slaine walks past her, his pulse still going a mile a minute, she remarks, “I love your hair and dress.”
“Thank you,” Slaine mumbles. He doesn’t miss the way the other guard immediately questions her companion on what happened; there is much giggling and gasping as they put their heads together and discuss… the thing that Slaine doesn’t understand at all. What he does know is that it has something to do with him, and possibly the information in his identification document. He tries to sneak a glance at it before Yuki can fold the papers back up and put them into her purse.
Yuki pretends not to notice, but Slaine can see the way she quickly shuffles the sheets so that the one with his information is underneath. An usher hastens over to check their tickets – again, Yuki holds the cards in a way that hides Slaine’s ticket from his view.
And again, there’s the reaction. The usher, a gangly teenager who doesn’t fit quite right into his tuxedo, openly gapes at Slaine. His eyes linger unsettlingly long on Slaine’s chest; it is still flat, but the bunched satin ruffles on his dress hide it. The cloth is a bit heavy, but the rest of the dress is shimmering midnight-blue charmeuse so the whole outfit doesn’t weigh too much to be uncomfortable. Slaine coughs politely and the usher thankfully gets the hint, peeling his eyes away from Slaine so he could lead them through the building and up a flight of stairs. Slaine silently curses each one, resisting the urge to kick his heels off.
They’re next to the auditorium; Slaine can hear a thunderous applause through the walls along with the occasional whoop of appreciation. Yuki groans. “I was hoping we’d catch Darzana’s rock performance. We have to hurry – Nao’s up next!”
The usher opens a door and they step inside. Their booth appears to be a private one with an excellent view. It’s empty, but the rest of the room is packed: there are five levels, each filled with rows of chairs, each row filled with people still cheering for the previous act. Slaine looks to the stage to see a woman with bobbed brown hair effortlessly catch a rose out of mid-air and offer it to her guitarist, a short-haired Asian woman. The latter accepts it and they wave as they walk offstage.
Slaine sits down, careful to hold his long dress so that it doesn’t get caught under him. Yuki doesn’t have this problem, since her own dress is a short black affair that doesn’t even reach her knees. Slaine is envious.
The door opens, making Slaine jump. A girl around his own age sits down next to him with a relieved sigh; she all but melts into the plush chair, forming such a picture of harrowed exhaustion that Slaine decides to wait instead of introducing himself. He’s not that sure who he’s supposed to be anyway – he knows his false name, but asking for clearer details had resulted in Yuki answering ‘just leave it to me’ with such overbearing confidence that Slaine had only nodded weakly and dropped the subject.
Evidently not having forgotten her promise, Yuki wastes no time in leaning over him the moment the girl gives him a curious look, saying, “Inko, this is Elaine!”
Inko’s jaw drops the moment she hears the name. So she’s heard of him - or more accurately, the person he’s pretending to be. He simply offers a smile.
Inko squeals. Her enthusiastic handshake is strong enough to be measured on the Richter scale. As she lets go of Slaine’s numbed fingers, she declares, “You’re so pretty, Elaine!”
“Thank you?” Slaine says.
Inko seems to interpret the uncertainty in his voice as doubt about his own beauty. In a voice edged with steel she tells him, “You are absolutely gorgeous. Inaho’s so lucky, and I’m going to make sure to tell him. If he doesn’t appreciate you just tell me, okay? I’ll get it through to him!”
Inaho’s lucky the two of us didn’t burnt to a crisp in the atmosphere, Slaine thinks. Outwardly he just nods and smiles. There’s a dangerous glint in Inko’s eyes; Slaine feels a pang of guilt, wondering if she somehow blames his apparent low self-esteem on Inaho. For some reason.
I’m not beautiful , he wants to tell her. Not the real me, with my scars and my bloody past. Nobody would call me beautiful.
There’s a ding sound and Inko leaps to her feet, checking the screen of her phone. “I’m so sorry, I need to go. Thanks for coming – you’ve done a lot to help out war orphans and recovery efforts across the world. And I’m so happy to meet you, Elaine. Your earrings match your eyes really well! Bye!”
With that, Inko left.
Slaine blinks. He’d forgotten about the pair of aquamarines he wore. The earrings themselves were clip-on, but the stones were real. He hadn’t believed it when Yuki first took them out of their case. She’d waved her hands and said something about getting dolled up for a big night out; he hadn’t really paid attention… come to think of it, his dress was probably expensive as well – an unnecessary expense when he was using Aldnoah anyway – and from the way Inko had spoken, someone had also paid for his tickets. Slaine frowns. “Wait… contribution?”
“Yeah, this whole concert is a charity event for the group that Inko started. It’s amazing how quickly it got off the ground; Count Mazurek really helped out there! Still, it’s crazy to think that it’s only been a year.” Yuki’s smile gains something of a melancholy air. “Crazy to think that we were all fighting for our lives less than three years ago.”
She doesn’t mention how they’d been fighting him less than three years ago, but Slaine can read it in the slump of her shoulders and the distant look in her eyes.
“I feel like a dead man shouldn’t have to pay for tickets,” Slaine says with mock contempt, in a satirical parody of the refined voice of a Versian count. The nasally voice succeeds in chasing away the heavy atmosphere - Yuki cracks a smile that Slaine mirrors.
“ Inaho’s the one that paid for our tickets,” Yuki replies, chuckling.
Slaine grins. “Out of generosity, or to ensure that at least two audience members that won’t walk out during his performance?”
His comment earns him a light punch on his bare shoulder – Yuki hits surprisingly hard. Although, his skin wouldn’t have been marred even if she’d hit him for real; the Aldnoah disguise has smoothed out all the scars and blemishes on his skin, leaving it creamy white and spotless.
“Nao worked really hard on this song. He’s actually a good singer,” Yuki tells Slaine over the sound of Inaho’s act being announced, and the cheering that followed the introduction. The sound of clapping becomes deafening as Inaho himself appears onstage. The lights dim. A spotlight flicks on, with Inaho standing in the middle of its beam.
It’s almost odd to see the man out of his blue military coat; Inaho is wearing a white jacket with a black shirt… and a bright orange neck scarf that clashed with his otherwise monotone outfit. Slaine suppresses a groan. Ignoring that garish addition, the casual clothes look nice on Inaho. It’s easy to forget how young the man is. He has eyes that would have been doe-like if it wasn’t for that permanent fish-eyed stare, cheeks with a certain youthful softness to them, an enviably healthy complexion – but that wasn’t Slaine’s fault, there was only so much sun you could get in prison…
Slaine doesn’t notice the music until Inaho starts singing. It’s not a fast song, and pleasantly familiar. It’s not until the piano is joined by guitars during the chorus that Slaine recognises the tune. But something nags at him. He turns to Yuki, intending to ask her for the programme, to see her frowning as well.
“He’s not putting enough energy into it,” she moans, head in her hands. Slaine listens – it’s true. Inaho hits all the notes perfectly and doesn’t stumble on any of the words, but the song lacks emotion. Inaho sounds as if he’s reciting a speech to instrumental accompaniment. Technically flawless, but lacking heart. Typical. Slaine isn’t sure why Yuki looks so surprised. Now chewing her lip in worry, the woman says, “I thought he told me he’d found a way to fix it.”
Slaine makes a vague noise of acknowledgement, but his mind is elsewhere. Now that he’s paying careful attention to the song, he realises what he’d found strange before. The original lyrics used female pronouns - Inaho is clearly using male ones. The song wasn’t strictly romantic... perhaps he’s going to dedicate it to someone specific afterwards?
When he hears Inaho sing the next verse, he wonders if he’d remembered wrong.
“ I’m saying there’s no need for your isolation,
Since I hold you in adoration,
Your laugh is warm and your eyes, they glow,
Reminds me that there’s room to grow. ”
“Miss Yuki, can I borrow your phone?” Slaine asks. It’s a mark of immense trust when the woman hands it over to him, unlocked, still preoccupied by her brother’s wooden performance. Slaine quickly looks up the lyrics. There’s no doubt that they’re changed. But why?
Slaine turns his attention back to the stage. Inaho is turning his head, still singing, but obviously scanning the crowd. Before Slaine can wonder what he’s looking for, Yuki grabs his arms and hauls him up to the balcony, waving frantically. Inaho’s eye snap to them immediately.
His voice falters. He stares, mouth hanging slightly open, eye widened with surprise, the hand holding the microphone slowly dropping to his side.
“Um,” Slaine says. If they’d somehow managed to get him out in the public without Inaho’s knowledge, he’s, he’s… Slaine isn’t certain what he’s going to do. Laugh hysterically, maybe. Then leap over the balcony and end the trouble before it starts. Beside him, Yuki appears to be absolutely ecstatic – her smile almost outshone the stage lights.
To his surprise and confusion, Slaine sees Inaho break into a smile as well. If his sister’s smile is a spotlight beam, then Inaho’s smile can be compared to the soft light of a new dawn. It’s warm and natural and beautiful in its understatement. Slaine finds himself smiling back. There’s a tug on his arm. Yuki makes a gesture. Feeling slightly embarrassed, Slaine gives Inaho a small wave as well. Inaho’s smile widens – just by a little bit, but enough to be unmissable. People in the audience are turning in their seats to follow Inaho’s gaze. They point to the balcony and whisper to one another, pointing. Slaine quickly sits back down. Will people recognise him? His heart pounds against his ribs; its thunderous beating is all that he can hear until the music swells as the song reached the chorus.
That’s when Inaho starts singing again.
“But tell me, did the wind sweep you off your feet?
Did you finally get the chance to dance along the light of day
And head back to the Milky Way?
And tell me, did Venus blow your mind?
Was it everything you wanted to find?
And did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there?”
Gasps of surprise ripple through the crowd. Slaine finds himself shocked as well: the change in Inaho’s singing is astounding. Each question brims with emotion – woven with a longing that spoke of true affection, a heartfelt desire that gave the music life. As if Inaho really is searching for an answer. Did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there?
There’s no doubt about who he’s singing to.
Inaho’s eye hasn’t left Slaine since he found him.
Slaine realises that he’s been staring at Inaho as if transfixed, too. Right now, nothing else is important enough for his attention. Just the song – his song, one sung just for him, to him – and the spotlight and the overwhelming feeling of happiness in his chest that crescendos with the music and Inaho, Inaho, Inaho-
He turns at the sound of his name to see Yuki looking worried and holding out a packet of tissues; when he blinks, he feels warm tears rolling down his cheeks and after that the flood of emotion takes him. He sobs as Yuki wraps an arm around him and asks if he’s okay – and he is, he tries to communicate that but it’s hard when simply breathing properly hard and all he manages is a series of jerky nods. When he’s regained control of himself, he manages to mumble, “I don’t deserve this.”
“You do,” Yuki says. She puts up a threatening finger before he can protest and continues, “But Nao’s told me about how you don’t believe that. And if my stubborn brother can’t get through to you, then I don’t stand a chance.”
Slaine glances at Inaho again. He’s still singing, although his brows are creased in worry; Yuki spares a moment to give him two big thumbs-ups. But Inaho’s reverted to his unfeeling, technical performance again, too distracted to make the song sparkle. Slaine realises that he must have noticed him crying,so he gives Inaho a smile of encouragement and claps his hands together silently. I enjoy your singing .
Inaho nods. He begins to sing in earnest once more, with such sweetness and energy in his voice that Slaine feels the urge to join in. Several people in the audience already have. But even with their voices, Slaine can still pick out the altered words, the altered meaning, altered song…
“And tell me, did you fall for a shooting star,
One without a permanent scar?
And did you miss me while you were looking for yourself?”
Of all the memories to bring up. Although, falling into the atmosphere together and ending up on a moonlit beach sounded rather romantic on paper.
Beside him, Yuki coughs - a polite, slightly awkward sound meant to get his attention.
“You make him happy. I’ll be honest with you: I really wish that it was someone else. But it’s you, Slaine.” Yuki speaks slowly, as if she was saying this for herself as much as for him. Without warning, she fixes him with a glare, as fierce as a warring goddess preparing to unleash punishment on the sinful. “ He deserves this. The least you could do is look at whatever’s been brewing between the two of you these few years and give yourselves a chance.”
There’s a very small, annoyingly proud part of him that’s demanding why Inaho thought it was appropriate to discuss the thing that’s been growing between the two of them with his sister, when Slaine himself has been ignoring it for... ever since…
When did he first fall in love with Inaho Kaizuka?
Slaine figures that it’s probably one of those things he’ll never know. Somewhere, somehow, hatred had turned to anger to realisation to understanding to friendship. And then ‘enjoying the conversations he had with Kaizuka’ had turned to ‘smiling to himself as he recalled past conversations with Inaho’ and ‘actively planning future conversations with Inaho’. The realisation that Inaho had never hated him turned to taking notice of the fact that Inaho went out of the way to make him comfortable, to help him, to see him every month and tell him inane things about his own life because he knew that Slaine didn’t have a life of his own.
He doesn’t remember what he’d been more horrified by: the fact that he’d had the gall to fall in love with Inaho Kaizuka, a man with freedom and a future, or the fact that Inaho had fallen in love with someone like him.
Having someone like him bring another person happiness had to be some sort of…
Slaine glances at the blue rose where it had fallen into his lap, possibly while he was crying. He runs his fingers down the silky petals. It’s a real flower. He doesn’t have any doubts as to who picked it out.
Slaine laughs. For him to find someone to love him, after everything he’d done, was nothing short of a miracle.
“And did you finally get the chance to dance along the light of day?
And did you fall for a shooting star, fall for a shooting star?
You don’t have to be lonely, just be with me here.”
The song ends just as Slaine finishes fixing the rose back into place. Feeling slightly giddy, Slaine jumps up to give a standing ovation – he’s the first to clap, but the auditorium is quickly filled with the sound of thunderous applause and cheers. Unsurprisingly, Inaho seems to have eyes only for Slaine.
In the heat of the moment, Slaine decides to lean out from the balcony to blow Inaho a kiss. The man’s look of shock is well worth it: Inaho drops the mic, which lets out a deafening screech. The crowd groans. Inko hurries onstage and has to give Inaho a few nudges of increasing intensity to snap him out of his stupor; he begins to walk back to the wings, only to be grabbed by Inko because he’s forgotten to bow, which he does, to some chuckles from the audience. Slaine finds himself chuckling along with them.
Inko announces the next act, but Slaine can’t bring himself to focus. And there’s not much need to. After all, he’s certain that Inaho’s act is the only one that he’ll remember – and that he’ll remember it for the rest of his life.
If anyone's wondering, the song is Drops of Jupiter - I happen think Inaho's version is more similar to Matt McAndrew's cover, but it's obviously up to the reader to imagine what his voice sounds like. This particular story happens to take place in the same universe as "Hero's Reward", although I'm reluctant to call it a series.
‘Elaine’ finds himself laughing at something absolutely inane that Calm said, the sort of joke too crude to share with a Count and too casually personal to share with a servant or prisoner. It can’t have been that funny if he’s forgotten already. Maybe it’s because of the free champagne.
Or maybe it’s because Inaho’s arm is wrapped around his own, their hands intertwined comfortably at their sides, keeping each other close. As his glass is refilled and emptied and the night wears on, Slaine catches himself leaning against Inaho’s shoulder, much to the amusement – and from Calm, mock jealousy – of Inaho’s friends. After the concert, the evening has become a blur of finger food, champagne and good companionship for Slaine; throughout it all, Inaho is a steady, warm presence at his side.
He’s aware of a sudden hush in the ambient chatter. Instinct tells him to straighten up. He does, shaking his head to clear it of the pleasant fuzz. The crowd ripples and sways like grass disturbed by wind until it parts to reveal Empress Asseylum Vers Allusia and the Prince-Consort.
Slaine catches himself just before he bows and manages to curtsey with reasonable success. He’s rather disappointed to see Yuki-nee giving a neat bow out of the corner of his eye.
Asseylum greets her friends warmly by name while Prince-Consort Klancain gives them polite smiles. Then, she moves to Slaine. He turns to Inaho, frowning slightly in a silent question. Inaho shakes his head, the movement so small that only Slaine can catch it. Inko quickly introduces him by his false name.
“Hello, Miss Elaine. It’s truly a pleasure to meet you,” the Empress says. Her eyes flicker to where Inaho’s hand has slid around Slaine’s waist – the sly scoundrel must have done it after shaking hands with the Prince-Consort. “If you don’t mind my asking… what is your relationship with General Kaizuka?”
Slaine thinks back to how, just after the last performance ended, he’d demanded to see his invitation. With a cheeky grin, Yuki-nee had handed it to him.
And he’d read: ‘VIP – General Inaho Kaizuka’s…’
With a genuine, exhilarated smile, Slaine answers, “I’m his lover.”
And so the curtains fall.