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Noctis Equi (Horses of the Night)

Chapter Text

O lente, lente currite, noctis equi.

 

 

Kaizuka Inaho believes he possesses a strictly logical approach to life.

There are multiple reasons that led him to the decision of illegally freeing Slaine Troyard from prison. First, Slaine Troyard was falsely charged of one major crime: starting the Second Interplanetary War. Inaho spent the first two years after the war researching into Troyard’s past, and he concluded that Slaine Troyard was merely a helpless servant during the outbreak of the War.

Secondly, Slaine Troyard’s incarceration is inhumane. Three years ago, Emperor Klancain officially gave permission to Troyard’s guards to use force “only when the prisoner refuses to eat”. There are always legal loopholes, however, even with an Emperor’s order. Furthermore, bored and war-corrupted humans tend to show sadistic tendencies towards people they consider inferior, Inaho has noticed, and that is exactly what happened in Troyard’s case. It’s been five years since the end of the war, and any attempt Inaho made during the last two years to improve Slaine Troyard’s situation has failed spectacularly.  

(Inaho clearly remembers one incident he randomly witnessed during one of his unannounced visits; in the common bathrooms, Slaine’s head forced in an unnatural angle, the guard’s hand yanking at blond hair, only for Slaine’s face to be submerged under the fluids again. The way Slaine’s green eyes blazed with a scorching defiance the second before the toilet water and feces covered his face again.)

Of course, Inaho immediately stopped the incident and prosecuted the responsible guard, only for ten more to appear later and take the man’s place.

Inaho is a rational person. He has observed and evaluated the angry scars splitting Troyard’s skin, he has researched into the number of people Troyard has personally ordered to be harmed during the war; he has discovered orders that spared citizens and unarmed soldiers from harm. He has spoken to once lower servants during Troyard’s reign, and has concluded that Slaine Troyard once expressed his desire to destroy Earth, though never acted on it. There is one word that many former lower-class Vers servants used to describe Troyard, and to Inaho’s slight bewilderment, the word was kind.

Troyard is so thin, his cheekbones are threatening to split his skin apart; his breaths are fast and short, and he always dozes off during their non-existent chess matches.

Still, Slaine Troyard is a convicted criminal. And for the first time in his life, Inaho stands in front of a dilemma that threatens to tear his own logic apart.

Still, Kaizuka Inaho is also secretly pleased with his ability to calculate and judge dangerous situations. In order to escape that mental dilemma, he spends weeks studying law books, ignoring Yuki’s obvious confusion.

Inaho is certain of one fact; he has understood the pain and torture Troyard went through during his imprisonment, and he also knows Troyard must have endured other forms of torture on Vers, judging from his scars. Consulting the law books, Inaho calculates how many years Troyard must spend in prison for his crimes, and subtracts the torture Troyard experienced in prison from those years.

Inaho judges that five years of incarceration are enough.

He then finds a way to anonymously purchase a wide piece of fertile land in another continent, amid forgotten mountains and endless green plains. Wild animals like bears and elks roam through those lands, and after the war, wild horses have also been spotted by the few locals. In the middle of his newly purchased piece of land stands an old wooden ranch house. The nearest town is on the other side of the mountain, so Slaine Troyard will almost certainly not be recognized.

#

His plan is so simple, it’s almost ridiculous. After he ensures he has a good alibi for the next two days, he sprays sleeping gas into the prison ventilating systems at night, deactivates all cameras, unlocks Troyard’s cell, drags his sleeping (and dangerously weightless) body over his shoulder and then steps across the corridor, away from the cell they once tried to play their chess matches, and outside into the clear, warm summer night.

#

Since he knows how to pilot a small plane from his kat training, Inaho places a drugged Slaine Troyard into the said plane he has previously purchased. It takes him fourteen hours to reach their destination, and when they arrive, Inaho remembers he has also purchased an old car, a half-dead cow and the few chickens belonging to the house—he almost lands on them with his plane, the chickens scattering away, producing loud noises.

Dusk is slowly approaching, so he cannot see very well, especially with his tired eye. Troyard is half-asleep now, the effects of the drugs are slowly wearing away. He calls Inaho’s name, once. Inaho hastily stumbles through the house, finds a room that appears to be a bedroom, drops Troyard’s body on the mattress. For a single second, he notices how Troyard’s pale eyelashes quiver as if in pain, how Troyard’s fingers, long and elegant, wrap protectively around his pendant.

Inaho steps out of the room without even glancing back.

#

After he unloads enough food to last Troyard for a few months and enough money to last him for a year, night has fallen. Inaho ensures that the security cameras and the tracking device are in working order, and then steps outside, throwing a last glance at the wooden veranda.

A piercing sound reverberates through the frosty air. Inaho feels the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He slides his gaze upwards—

The valley around him is swallowed by darkness. The clouds are obscuring the brightening gray moonlight, but it is enough for his vision to distinguish ten shadows materializing through the dark trees, in the distance. They are big; stone-still.

Horses.

They are standing at the edge of the black woods, breathing. Inaho has the illogical thought that they are silently judging him. For abandoning Slaine Troyard. For failing to understand and stop his abuse in the past. For witnessing the feces dripping down Slaine face, yet never asking him about the abuse again.

His heart is pounding.

A horse snorts and jerks its head, and the sound of hooves hitting against stones announces their leaving.

Inaho closes his eye, needs a second to breathe calmly again. He boards his plane and wonders how Yuki will react when he gets home and announces to her that his operation—his alibi—has been successful.

After all, his eye has started bothering him regularly during the last few months.

#

The UFE reacts strongly to Troyard’s escape, though no one suspects Inaho, and since only about fifty people on Vers and Earth are still aware that Slaine Troyard is alive, the search for Troyard is extremely slow and produces no results.

During the next months, Inaho regularly checks the cameras to see if Slaine Troyard is still alive, and a small part of him is pleased to see that Troyard has managed to fatten the malnourished cow and himself, too, to an acceptable weight. 

Slaine Troyard leaves the premises of his house only once and returns a few hours later, with agricultural tools and seeds which soon produce cabbages and tomatoes. The day the first blade of grass raises itself above the soil, a vibrant green similar to the green of Slaine’s irises, Slaine slowly digs his fingers into the dirt, kneeling on the ground.

The cameras have no sound. However, as Slaine throws his head back and opens his mouth, laughing as the sun pours bright light onto his smiling face, Inaho finds himself madly longing to hear that sound.

#

After Slaine’s ‘escape’, Inaho and his sister move to the UFE capital, and Inaho manages to get a promotion and an office job, which still keeps him pleasantly occupied, while he tries to write his own formulae about Aldnoah’s behavior, Aldnoah’s potential physical laws.

He has stopped his once regular observations of Troyard’s life. Troyard seems…happy, living alone on that vast, peaceful wilderness. He has not made any attempts to contact the outer world, or leave the ranch house, and possibly has not even discovered the cameras Inaho placed there two years ago.

Troyard’s days are slow, peaceful, and quiet.

His own life is quiet, too. Inaho meets with his friends regularly. Yuki keeps reminding him that he should marry someone rich. Asseylum visits him often, discussing with him the difficulties of diplomacy between UFE and Vers, and other, more private matters, like Klancain’s slight dissatisfaction of her reluctance to have a baby. Asseylum’s cheeks are red when she voices such stories, though Inaho listens, since Asseylum is an ally—a friend.

Yuki is very happy with Asseylum’s visits, and strongly encourages Inaho to meet with her in places like expensive restaurants, movie theaters, amusement parks, hotels, and similar locations.

#

There will be nights where his eye will hurt, and he will find himself unable to fall asleep, or reach any logical deductions about his work on Aldnoah, or Asseylum’s constantly growing interest in him.

At such nights, Inaho will stare at the city lights outside his window. He will remember the horses. He will remember Slaine Troyard, sleeping, alone in that quiet, dark room.

#

Two years later

Inaho steps into his apartment, a bit dizzy from today’s drive home. Yuki greets him, “Naaaao! Asseylum called! You should call her back!”

Inaho sits down in order to take off his shoes. The edges of his vision are darkening. “She must have used the unofficial channel.”

Yuki, smiling, steps out of her room and meets him on the corridor, seemingly very excited. “Yes. Nao, I need to tell you—she spoke to me about her marriage. She is unhappy. I am not supposed to be telling you this, but—but she wants to discuss something very important with you.”

Inaho takes a breath. He sums the first thirty Fibonacci numbers. The simple ones. It takes him seven seconds, much longer than usual. However, the light-headedness is gone. “Her marriage and therefore the political stability on Vers is the only matter important to Asseylum.”

Yuki’s gaze becomes softer. “Not any longer, Nao…”

Behind the eyepatch, his eyelid keeps twitching. It is annoying. “You are concealing your point.”

Yuki puffs her cheeks. “You are unbelievable! I can’t believe you haven’t noticed, all these years! Even poor Inko has noticed!”

“The physical nature of Aldnoah and my research interest me more than other situations or emotions, Yuki.” Except… Slaine’s glare flashes through his memories. Slaine’s bared teeth. The way Slaine’s hair stuck on his face, wet and brown from the toilet waste.

“Asseylum is in love with you, Nao.”

“…How did you reach that conclusion?”

“She confessed that to me. She…confessed that marrying Klancain was the choice of her mind, not her heart. She said that her heart…belongs to someone else. To you, Nao.”

Inaho blinks. One possibility is, yes, that Asseylum is in love with him. That could explain her eagerness to meet him, that many times during the last few months. As for him…the fondness he once developed for Asseylum has not diminished, though it hasn’t grown stronger, either. Marriage…should he marry Asseylum? A marriage with her could establish a good Earth-Vers relationship…especially if he manages to become a General. Such a marriage would ensure with a higher possibility that peace could be secured than the current political situation, and the lies about Slaine Troyard’s past, and his death.

Still…Inaho meets his plan of marrying Asseylum with indifference.

“Nao?”

“Yuki-nee. Have you ever felt…as if something is missing from your life?”

Yuki’s face is serious. She sits down on the floor, next to him. “Nao, is something wrong?”

The words escape. “Slaine Troyard. Do you believe he was treated fairly in his life?”

“Why should I be thinking of that murderer?” Yuki spits out the word with malice. “He even had the guts to escape. No. Let’s hope he’s dead. I will never forgive him for what he has done to you.”

Some tapes of Troyard’s announcements during the war survived the destruction of the Moon Base. Troyard’s eyes always expressed such immense emotions. Rage. Pride. Hatred. Pain. Love. Inaho yearns for that understanding—understanding the world those eyes have witnessed, understanding Slaine’s tortured past, Slaine’s uncertain future. He has never before met a person expressing emotions in such intense, passionate ways.

In prison, Slaine was empty.

Yuki is talking, and his eye is hurting. “Perhaps you want to live alone? I would gladly move out of our apartment, Nao!  It was you that persisted we could live together to lower the costs…but we have enough money now…”

“That’s not the point. Something else is missing. Still, I cannot point it out.”

“…Are you unhappy, Nao?”

How is happiness defined, he wants to say, but Yuki is not the right person to answer that, perhaps no one is, so instead he says, “Thank you for your concern, Yuki-nee. I will call Asseylum now.”

After all, the war is over. The world is at peace. His friends are alive, his sister is happy, and Asseylum has her attention solely focused on him.

The constantly growing, piercing pain behind his eye is Inaho’s only concern.

#

He agrees to meet Asseylum on the lobby of the most expensive hotel in the UFE capital. There is a charity party going on right now, Asseylum is the one that invited him. Bright red, rich carpets adorn the floors, and golden chandeliers hang from the ceilings, a glass of champagne is forced into his hand and people are smiling at him, taking pictures with him, greeting Earth’s savior.

Inaho feels empty. According to his calculations, the food inside the room right now would be enough to feed an orphanage for two months.

Inaho remembers the cold, bare cell Troyard lived in for five years. No windows. No light. He recalls the smell from the prison toilets. He recalls the worn mattress he dropped Slaine’s unconscious body, the old ranch, the horses, condemning him for the lives he never managed to save during the war; Slaine’s life, perhaps, too.

What am I thinking?

He can feel each heartbeat drumming against his temples. 

Asseylum descends from the grand staircase. Klancain is not accompanying her, this time. She smiles at him, dressed in a white dress, her skin also white, so white it hurts his eyes. The light is hurting his eyes.

Asseylum is standing next to him, though her voice comes as if from a distance. “Inaho-san! I’m so happy to see you!” She clasps her hands in delight.

“A-Asseylum.”

Asseylum ignores his atypical stuttering, smiling more brightly at him. “How are you, Inaho-san? I missed you so much!”

“We met two days ago.”

She giggles, “And the movie your sister picked for us was wonderful!”

“I completed approximately 17 reports since yesterday. Did you read them? The UFE orphanages are in need of more provisions, so General Hakinnen ordered for less rations to be vended to Vers. The Emperor, your husband, disapproved that move. He is threatening with Aldnoah sanctions, which will regress the Interplanetary political relationships. What is your opinion on this subject? Should I use my position and order—“

“Inaho-san, wait.”

Inaho stops talking.

“This is confidential information. After the party, you can visit me in my private rooms and inform me about the—“

“Do you want to be informed of the current political situation, or do you want to kiss me?”

Asseylum’s face turns crimson and she almost drops the glass of champagne she is holding. “K-kiss…?” She whispers, “Inaho-san, I…I admit that my feelings for you have grown deeper—are you certain—”

“Y-You w-want to meet…alone. W-Why?” Stuttering again, why…

“I…” Asseylum’s mouth opens, but Inaho never hears the answer. The throbbing pain is getting more and more intense. Inaho bites his tongue in order to avoid shouting. His right leg hurts, feels cold and stiff. Inaho drags it against the floor, his vision blurring; he groans, his mouth filling with a sour fluid. He tries to reach a chair and walk in a straight line, the objects surrounding him won’t obey the laws of physics—everything begins swaying violently around him.

He throws up.

The last thing Inaho registers is the painful impact of his body with the red carpet, and the screams resounding around him.

#

One week later

“I called you here in order to discuss the results of the tissue biopsy. As you can recall, the MRI showed a ring-encasing lesion in your frontal left lobe. That appearance was not specific. However…the histologic study of your brain, Kaizuka-san, showed pleomorphic tumor cells. The artificial eye implant you used during the war might have been the cause for an underlying tumorous growth, which is now starting to expand, showing the first symptoms: vision problems such as visual field loss, weakness on one side of the body which might later progress into contralateral paralysis—your right leg, Kaizuka-san, will be affected first. Other symptoms include slurred speech, which will progress into aphasia...”

Inaho’s stares at the doctor’s desk, not thinking of anything in particular.

#

The most common length of survival following diagnosis is 5 to 7 months, with fewer than 1% of people surviving longer than a year. Without treatment survival is typically 3 months.

Inaho stares at his tablet’s screen until his eye starts to hurt.

Alone, sitting in his car after the doctor’s appointment, his fingers wrapped firmly around the wheel, Inaho decides to forgo treatment.  

There is no point in avoiding the inevitable.

#

Inaho thinks and thinks, coldly analyzing his options and his choices.

According to most medical books, the last stage of his illness will be especially…difficult…to handle. Logically thinking, neither Yuki nor his friends should bear that burden, watching helplessly as his life melts away on an expensive hospital bed. As a result, he must disappear. Later, after he finds the suitable place to wait for the end of his life, he will write the clarifying letters and his will.

#

The same afternoon, Inaho returns to the doctor and pays him, in order to keep his diagnosis confidential. The man’s face reddens at the insult, though he accepts the ridiculously high sum of money. Inaho manages to find an illegal way to gain access to a large amount of pills, among them many sedatives and painkillers. He buys extra warm clothing with very long sleeves, and provisions, and hides large amounts of cash in his bag.

The same night, he informs Yuki that the results of his biopsy were normal, and as tears of joy fill his sister’s eyes, Inaho’s heart thrashes in his chest when he informs her of his plan to go away ‘on a holiday’ for a few weeks.

His plan is missing only one part. His destination.

#

The sun is rising from the horizon as Inaho knocks on Slaine Troyard’s door.

During his long journey, Inaho almost gives up on his task two times; the dizziness returns, and the pills barely help. He manages to land safely however, and hides his plane deep into the woods, camouflaging it and taking precautions, so that it will not be easily discovered. Even in the case it is, cameras he leaves active on the plane will allow him to decide his next move.

For now, he keeps waiting, bag in hand, on Troyard’s veranda, for the door to open.

He feels sick.

#

Slaine Troyard has changed. His blond hair is not disheveled and entangled. His eyes are very green, shining with his shock. His cheeks are glowing in the light of the morning sun, and his face seems healthy, radiant. 

It cuts off Inaho’s breath—or perhaps the reason is the sudden nausea that overwhelms him, and he almost empties the contents of his stomach onto Troyard’s wooden porch.

“Slaine.” That’s all he can say. Slaine Troyard’s name. And then he passes out.

#

When his consciousness returns, his head is hurting, but not much. He is sitting on a couch in what appears to be a living room. The contents of a bag—clothes, money, pills, some other necessities—are emptied, yet arranged neatly, on the coffee table in front of him.

Those are mine.

Inaho’s gaze sweeps the room. The walls are made of wood. His head is hurting. There are paintings hanging from the walls. Red and black are the colors mostly used. There are kerosene lanterns in various colors stored at the southeast corner of the room. It must be the south-east corner, since the sun is on his right side. Or not? Inaho’s thoughts feel sluggish. He tries to recall the first 45 digits of Euler’s number, and he succeeds. He tries to remember what has occurred in the last 24 hours, and slowly, agonizingly, his memories return.

Along with a coldness so horrible, it seeps under his skin and into his bones. However…

There is a dog sitting on the southwest corner—Is it the southwest corner?...Since when have I started doubting my logic? Where am I? Why is the dog here?

The dog barks. Inaho jerks.

“Calm down.”

Ah. “Troyard.”

“Don’t you have anything else to say?”

“S-Slaine Troyard.”

Slaine seems impatient. He is standing next to the dog, his palm stroking the dog’s head, in a pattern that the animal obviously enjoys. The dog, Inaho notices, has signs of an old trauma across his muzzle, running from the corner of its eye to its cheek. Some fur is also missing from the front of its leg. Inaho’s attention returns to Troyard. Slaine Troyard is wearing a dark green plaid shirt and jeans. His eyes are burning with anger.

“Calm down, Kaizuka. You are upsetting him.” The dog has started rumbling, showing its teeth.

Inaho comprehends that the harsh breaths resounding in the room are coming from him, not the dog. His eye feels like melting from the pain. With shaking hands, he reaches for a bottle of pills on the table, opens it, swallows the yellow-green capsule.

Eventually, the pain fades away.

Meanwhile, Troyard has led the dog outside. Inaho’s hearing is, as of now, still intact; he hears how Slaine murmurs affectionately a few words to the dog, sending it away. Inaho has never heard Troyard’s voice reach anything alike that smooth, warm tone. The door closes, and Slaine Troyard comes to stand, tall and imposing, in front of him.

Inaho takes a breath. Not only has Troyard gained more weight, his shoulders are broader—his physical state must be exceptional. It is a total transformation from the living skeleton Slaine once was.

“You might have given me my freedom—but I don’t owe you anything.” Troyard exhales. “The Empress has obviously forgotten about my existence; the world believes I am dead. For once I can live my life in quietness. And then you come. What is it, now? Is this the early outbreak of the Third War?”

Inaho talks, barely. “In the beginning, I had various symptoms of a neurological disorder. Subsequently, I lost consciousness.”

Troyard sneers. “Yes, I already reached that conclusion on my own. You are obviously not here in that state to arrest me.”

“…I was rushed to the hospital where doctors examined me…”

Troyard snaps, angry, “Get to the point already, Kaizuka!”

“The cause is a tumor in my brain.”

There is a miniscule change in Troyard’s regal posture; loss of confidence.

“It might start affecting my liver soon.”

“I see.”

“And my kidneys. And my lungs.”

Slaine sighs. “How much—“

“Not much.”

“How much.”

Inaho blinks. “Four months. Approximately.”

Slaine eyes flutter close. He is silent.

“Soon, I will lose my sight. I will lose the ability to stand and walk, I will lose control of my pharyngeal muscles, and eventually, all my respiratory functions will cease. Before that happens, however, the pain will be…unbearable.”

Troyard’s hard gaze is scrutinizing him. “Denial.”

“What do you mean? Be more specific, Slaine Troyard.”

“You’re obviously in denial. Tch, Kaizuka. You fool. Coming here, of all places.” Slaine wipes his hand over his mouth. “This will be troublesome. You have a sister, don’t you? Friends? Why don’t you—”

“The process of my death will be humiliating. The only solution is to avoid them—they must not witness whatever is to come.”

“You have a family…you have people that love you…and you are running away from them?” Slaine scowls. “You idiot.”

“I have come here with an offer; I will pay you.”

“Pay me?” Troyard growls, “I don’t need your corrupted UFE money, Kaizuka.”

“You do. You will take the money in order to survive.”

“You have no right to command me, Kaizuka Inaho.” Troyard seems livid, barely containing an outburst.

“Since you are officially a prisoner of war, I technically have the right to command you.”

“Kaizuka.”

Inaho raises his voice, impatient. “Listen to me, Slaine Troyard!”

“No.”

“Troyard—“

“NO!”  Slaine screams. The dog starts barking, outside. “Pay someone else to watch you die!! Why on Earth and Vers does it have to be me?!”

Inaho feels sick. “You are the only person I’ve met that understands…what it means to be…subjected, to death.” Again, that icy feeling flowing through his veins. Inaho ignores it. “To be humiliated. To be reduced…to a human carcass. To feel…helpless.”

His words have the same effect on Troyard that a bullet could have. Troyard takes a step back, eyes wide with what it seems to be…shock. Pain.

Inaho blinks and composes himself. “You will provide me with food, Slaine Troyard, and a place to sleep. If I am in too much pain, you will provide me with an empty room, so that I can use my sedatives and—“

Troyard explodes, “Are you insane?! They will arrest me for murder if they find your body here! And if the fact that I am still alive leaks out—the consequences will be catastrophic!”

“They won’t find us.” Inaho hands over his tablet to Troyard. After all, it is useless to him now. He will not communicate with the outer world any longer, he does not have the time left to write his own theorems and do research on Aldnoah, and discounts will be useless if he buys the products but dies before he can consume them.

“Are you…are these…encrypted files? I can’t believe you planned all of this…”

“Four different propositions on how you can destroy any evidence of my stay here without being discovered. First of all, there is the possibility of burning—“

“Wait, wait. Slow down, Kaizuka. We are not on the battlefield. Calm down, or your reckless actions will destroy us both, this time.”

“Are you referring to our cooperation over Tanegashima? My actions were not in the least reckless—“

“Be silent, Kaizuka, or I’ll kick you out!”

Inaho sighs. Perhaps it wasn’t wise of me, to come here. However…“I was your enemy.”

“Finally, something that makes sense!” Troyard clenches his fists. “I hated you. The fact that you saved my life…multiple times…isn’t much of a determent for me, to act upon my warning; to kick you out and let you die peacefully from the cold.” Troyard is breathing harshly now; his eyes are narrowed to bright slits.

“Exactly. Nevertheless, if you let me stay, you will witness my death.”

Slaine avoids his gaze. “A-As if I care if you are alive or dead.”

“You are a criminal, Slaine Troyard. Yet I have given you freedom.”

“Freedom? Freedom wasn’t even my choice, Kaizuka! I never asked for it. You brought me here, and then you left. You left me here alone in the cold—“

“You won’t refuse my offer.” Inaho snaps, Since witnessing my death will be enough to satisfy you.”

All fight is gone from Troyard’s posture. He seems strangely…calm. “Is that what you think of me? After all those years we spent…never mind.” He sighs. “What are we even doing? Whatever do you want from me, Kaizuka?”

“I don’t know.” Inaho answers angrily, “The only fact I am certain of is that, in approximately four months, I won’t be alive anymore. Now, do you accept my offer?”

“You have lost all hope, haven’t you?” There is sadness behind Slaine’s eyes, now. Inaho doesn’t know what to do of it. “Tch, Kaizuka.”

Slaine Troyard walks into another room—the kitchen, Inaho can tell from a glance through the open door—and returns with a wooden chair, which he places in front of the couch. The back of the chair is facing Inaho. Troyard sits, legs spread, hands crossed and resting on the chair’s back. He holds Inaho’s gaze for many long, silent seconds.

Inaho blinks. Perhaps I need to calm down. Yet, Troyard has changed. He is behaving neither as an oppressive Vers Count, nor as someone broken, as he behaved during his imprisonment. He seems… confident, yet graceful. What caused this change?

Slaine rests his chin on his crossed arms. His red lips tighten a bit, perhaps in annoyance, before he speaks, “Use the room on the end of that corridor. There is only one bathroom, so always knock before you enter.”

“Good.”

“There is more. I have…” A sigh. “I occasionally take care of wounded, orphaned, or abused animals, here.”

“I fail to understand how that’s associated with my situation.”

Slaine sighs, again. “You’ve already met Sirius, my dog. I also have a cat—are you paying attention?”

Why is he telling me all this? “Yes.”

“I am currently sheltering and feeding some puppies, which I found abandoned in a sealed plastic bag, next to a river a long distance from here. I am also working on two horses together with Sleipnir—“

Slaine’s monologue is of no particular interest to Inaho, though the last part catches his attention immediately. “What?”

“My horse. Her name is Sleipnir.”

Inaho blinks. “…I see. According to Norse mythology, Sleipnir is Odin’s horse.”

“It is described in ancient texts as the best of all horses.” Slaine does something unpredicted; he smiles. His eyes are…warm. “And she is. She is the best of all horses. I found her malnourished, plagued by pneumonia and an eye infection. Her last owner must have been a violent monster…but she escaped…she survived.”

“Why?”

“Why she’s the best? Or why did I name her after your Kataphrakt?”

“The second part.”

It must be the light, though Inaho is under the impression that Slaine’s cheeks darken a bit. “You will understand when you see her. As ridiculous as it sounds, you two…have some similarities.” The bright midday sun is chasing the shadows from the room. Slaine turns his face away from the light, maintaining for a second a strange, melancholic expression.

“You have no reason to keep telling me all this useless information.”

The ex-Count sighs in exasperation. “You really are insufferable. My point, Kaizuka Inaho, is very important.” Troyard’s eyes are suddenly ablaze, a reminder of the danger, the threat he once posed on the battlefield. “If you ever scare or harm any of those animals, I am kicking you out of this house. This isn’t an empty threat.”

“…Why do you care so much about those animals?”

“I don’t expect you to understand. Now, leave me alone. I need to think.”

Inaho stands up, momentarily closes his eye as a wave of faintness makes him waver, gathers his pills and clothing—he leaves the money on the table, since it’s useless to him now—and walks toward his room.

#

A few days pass. Inaho eats the food he cooks for himself, he uses the small bathroom only at night, he takes his pills and sits in the dimness of his room, staring at the wall, counting the minutes away, or thinking about the letters he has yet to write.

Slaine is mostly outside, presumably taking care of his animals.

#

Slaine barges into his room one morning, throwing the door wide open, cheeks flushed with anger. “Enough with this foolishness!”

“I asked for silence and privacy. Are you incapable of respecting that?”

“You and Sleipnir. Forget everything I said about your similarities. You two are so…different. She is stubborn, yes. But she is ready to enjoy life, Kaizuka! She keeps throwing herself each day into the fight for survival—while you—the only thing you do is sit and mop your nonexistent tears.” Slaine spits out the last words with malice.

“I told you before, Slaine Troyard. My death is inevitable. There is nothing to be done. I have to sit and wait until—“

“Until everything is over?! You’ll just sit and do nothing?!”

 “There is nothing I can do, Slaine Troyard.”

“We all die, Kaizuka Inaho. We die forgotten, and bitter, and wretched in our agony. But we also die rich with memories, and people we loved, mountains and oceans we travelled, places that are therefore ours, forever.”

“…I fail to understand your point.”

Slaine groans, “Will you die alone and miserable, or will you do something against the misery of your life, and finally live?”

Half of my brain will be destroyed until next month. Living is not an option, Troyard.”

“Okay.” Troyard’s exhale is long. “Alright.” He pushes his palms against his face, his back moving with each of his breaths. “You should at least get out of this…depressive…state. Follow me.”

“Troyard—“

“I won’t take no for an answer, Kaizuka Inaho. Get up. And open those damned windows, your room has the smell of humidity.”

#

The horse has a dark scar where its right eye should’ve been. It contrasts its brown coloring. Troyard is keeping the animal close to him as it produces strange sounds, its good left eye fixed on Inaho. Its breaths are very fast. The white of the horse’s eye is showing, the pupil is close to the outer corner. The horse’s stare is a bit…unsettling.

Troyard is caressing the horse with a gentleness Inaho believed him incapable to express.

“She is afraid of you.” Troyard murmurs. “Stand back. Don’t move.”

They are outside. Inaho notices the woods where he spotted the ten horses towards the north of their position. Towards the south, an endless green plane expands until it meets huge mountains, which are surrounding the whole area. He can’t tell how far the mountains are. Due to the loss of his eye and his perception of dimensions, Inaho finds it difficult to calculate distances and sometimes avoid objects in his path. So how…?

“Don’t step to her blind side.”

“Slaine Troyard.”

Troyard turns his attention away from the horse. “Speak quieter.”

“The horse is half-blind.”

Troyard understands the unasked question. “She relies on me for half her vision.”

Inaho blinks, interested.

“If the horse trusts you enough, it is possible. The bond between us is strong…” Another caress. Troyard’s eyes are shining. “She is a hard worker. She helps me with the other horses, and always stays calm. She can charge as fast and far as any other horse, despite the loss of her eye.”

“Charge?”

“If you go fast enough you can’t hear anything but the wind blasting in your ears and the vibrations of the hooves through your body. It’s…incredible. Scary. Horses are powerful creatures; their strength is immense…and beautiful.”

Again. He is expressing so many emotions.

The horse moves.

“Wait. Wait until she comes to you.”

“You are taking many precautions.” Inaho analyzes the situation. “The animal must be aggressive.”

“No, no.”

“Then…?”

Troyard momentarily hesitates. “Many abused horses are like abused people. They trust no one and expect the worst.”  Slaine pauses, bright eyes fixed on the horizon, and Inaho can’t help but think of Slaine’s past. “However…patience, compassion…love, if they are fortunate enough…it can help them overcome their pasts.”

Inaho ponders on this.

#

They stand, waiting for the horse to move, for a long time. Eventually, the horse approaches Inaho, and again Inaho’s predictions turn false. Slaine takes Inaho’s palm and places it on the neck of his horse. “Feel her breathe.”

Inaho barely stops himself from taking a step back. The horse is moving, breathing calmly under their connected palms. Slaine’s hand is warm.

They gaze at each other. Inaho’s heart thuds, once.

Slaine whispers, “Feel her strength.”

“Why are you doing this, Slaine Troyard?”

A sigh. Slaine breaks eye contact. “What do you love, Kaizuka Inaho?”

“Love?”

“Say something. Anything.”

“I...”

The horse jerks its head. On reflex, Inaho removes his hand.

Troyard guides the horse away. Always holding the reins, he turns his gaze towards the faraway, massive white mountains. “Until that fourth month arrives, then, think about it. You should find something that makes life worth living. Only then does this forsaken world have some meaning.”

“P-Perhaps—”

“Kaizuka?”

Inaho sits down, feeling sick. “I suppose…I am missing something. I have always been missing it.” Inaho clenches his fists, grasping at the frail blades of grass. “It’s…difficult to explain.”

Slaine looks at him for a long, silent moment. The sun is shining behind Slaine’s hair. The golden strands turn to white, and Slaine, just for a moment, seems…different.

Unlike anyone Inaho has ever known.

The horse nudges Slaine Troyard with its head. Troyard rests his cheek against the neck of his horse, closing his eyes. Inaho watches as the horse closes its single eye, too. Troyard wraps his fingers around his pendant when he says, “There are horses in those woods. Wild horses. They will only come near during the night.” Inaho silently agrees, and a frown mars Slaine’s features as he whispers, “I fear that someone…something…is hunting them. Killing them.”

Inaho is still nauseous. He grits his teeth, talks. “For what reason…are you telling me…all of this…u—this useless—” Inaho frowns.

Troyard throws him a strange glance. “This useless information?” He sighs. He lifts his head towards the wide blue sky. “Kaizuka…I don’t know.”

The next moment, after a dexterous and fast move, Troyard is sitting on his horse. “Stay outside. Sirius is inside; don’t approach the animals, they are not used to your scent yet.” The horse snorts, shaking its head, as Troyard guides it, his back now turned to a sitting Inaho. “The sun will be good for you, Kaizuka.”

Wrong, Slaine Troyard. There is no scientific evidence that sunlight reduces the growth of tumorous cells, Inaho thinks, though cannot talk because of his headache.  

Troyard has put some distance between them when the horse starts to run faster, faster. A sound echoes through the valley, clear and smooth; Slaine’s laughter.

Inaho remembers; Kaizuka…I don’t know.

“That was also a lie, Slaine Troyard.” Inaho breathes out, sitting on the field. The pain has faded away somewhat. The sun is shining, warming up his face. The grass is cool beneath his fingertips. Slaine is far away, a dark spot on the horizon.

Inaho thinks of the one-eyed horse, and the wild, exhilarated way it rushed forward, running at full gallop under Slaine’s support.

Chapter Text

“How are you? You need some water, don’t you? Since that idiot Kaizuka came, I left you here alone, almost forgot to water—“

“Are you talking to yourself?”

Slaine sighs, by now accustomed to Kaizuka’s constant presence in his life. At least he has left his room and hasn’t slipped back into that state of self-pity. “…No. I am conversing with my plants.”

“Ah. Do they answer?”

“No. They are shy. Is there a problem with that?”

“If your plants ever answer, please inform me. I’d be interested if such a situation occurs.”

“Ha. Well done, Kaizuka, I thought you incapable of this.”

“Incapable of what? Please specify, Slaine.”

Insufferable… Slaine mutters under his breath, and…is that a smirk on Kaizuka’s face? “You know what I’m talking about.”

“Yes. You implied I am incapable of irony. Why?”

“…I don’t know. I guess I was wrong concerning many things, about you…” A sigh. “Never mind. Tell me what you want from me. You obviously came here for a reason.”

“I had a thought.”

“Amazing.” Slaine says, dryly.

“Now it’s you who’s insufferable.”

Slaine abruptly stands up, throwing the gardening gloves on the ground. The sun is bright today and Kaizuka is ready for a fight. “Alright, alright! Now, please, just tell me what you want from my life, Kaizuka!”

“I want to help.” Kaizuka says, that half-amused expression now gone. “I...thought about it. For the months remaining, I must serve a purpose.”

Must?”

“I need a purpose.” Inaho states.

“…The horses’ excrements need to be piled up and removed from the stables. Can you do that?”

“Yes.”

“It is no easy work, and you are weak enough. If you lose consciousness and land face-first in the filth, I won’t be able to find you fast enough and ensure the waste doesn’t give you an infection. And at the end of the day, you will smell, and the odor will take hours to go away. Are you sure about that?”

Inaho’s previous haughtiness is now gone, vanished. “Yes.”

“…What if I refuse?”

“Please.”

It’s a humble word, yet so powerful, coming from Inaho like this. Slaine considers that. Kaizuka Inaho, hero of the Earth; the man who, according to the false knowledge of the public, executed Slaine Saazbaum Troyard. The war hero who eliminated the source of all evil.

Kaizuka Inaho, the brilliant, talented UFE pilot reduced to begging for a chance to shovel horse shit into piles, in order to feel useful.

“Kaizuka…” Pity, hate, revulsion…did it matter any longer? Kaizuka Inaho will be dead in a few months, and Slaine will finally have the calmness that his whole life never bestowed him with. “Kaizuka. Always close the door of the stables when you are done. Always.”

Inaho nods, aware of Slaine’s vehemence. If the door stays open, the horses might flee. They might find their deaths out in the wild.

“When do I start?”

Watching Inaho slowly approach the stables makes Slaine’s chest tighten—a mysterious, unpleasant feeling. “Wait.”

Kaizuka turns.

“Can you cook?”

#

The meal is fantastic.

Kaizuka spent about half the afternoon in the kitchen, and the result—grilled chicken breasts with pasta, all under a creamy, rich sauce, with a layer of melted cheese—is amazing. 

They eat dinner in silence together, and this translates into thirty minutes of Kaizuka staring at his plate and Slaine staring at his own plate too, while the only sounds that echo in the kitchen are the clinking noises of fork and knife hitting the plates.

Still, Slaine doesn’t regret his decision at all. 

Slaine feels a warm brush of fur sliding against his ankle; paws are playfully assaulting the ends of his jeans. Without looking down he knows it’s Aria, she will probably be moving towards Kaizuka’s feet—which means that Inaho will soon get his first taste of what it means to own a cat. Unlike the friendly and attention-seeking Aria, Sirius is sleeping outside, still unaccustomed to Kaizuka’s presence. A few seconds pass.

Inaho drops his fork and jerks. Slaine’s smile widens. Well done, my girl.

#

The next day, Kaizuka finds him in the stables, feeding the puppies milk. Inaho asks him if he will take care of the chickens, next.

“Wild chickens like those around us lay eggs in a distance of a few weeks. And they do not need my help—“

“What about the eggs?”

Slaine sighs. Whatever is wrong with him? “What about the eggs, Kaizuka?”

“Do you eat all of them?”

“…Sometimes. If I’m hungry. If I’m not, the additional few, I can sell at the nearest town.”

“You sell the additional eggs.”

“Only sometimes. Whatever is wrong with you?”

“…Nothing.”

Slaine ignores Inaho’s strange questions. Winter is slowly approaching. The stables are clean and warm as of now, but as soon as winter sets in, his work will increase a lot. He picks up the first of the two puppies, the one which is whimpering, and carefully guides the bottle into the puppy’s open muzzle.

Inaho is standing there, looking at him, hands resting at his sides, fingers slightly curled and protected from the cold by those ridiculously long sleeves. Kaizuka’s hair is a bit damp, sticking on his forehead because of the morning’s humidity. There is something familiar about Inaho standing there like this, patient and attentive, as if he’s been doing this all his life, watching after Slaine while he’s feeding puppies. Slaine cannot understand why tries to initiate conversation with a silent Kaizuka.

“I love books.”

“I see.”

Slaine almost sighs in disappointment. Until Inaho’s voice resounds in the wooden shed, hesitant. “…What kind of books?”

“Everything. From Kat manuals to poetry.”

“Did you have the time to read while on Vers?”

He is obsessed to learn about my life on Vers. “Indeed, I did.”

“I see.” Pause. “Did you buy your books from the nearest town?”

“Yes. Kaizuka, hold him for a bit.” Slaine hands the puppy over to Inaho, remembering too late that Kaizuka must have probably never held an animal in his life. Well, a first time for everything. “People haven’t recognized me, if that’s what you are wondering—“

“No, I decided to...leave you…in this place, since I was aware that the locals wouldn’t be able to recognize you. They are mostly isolated from the outside world.”

‘Leave me’, you call it... Slaine notices how the puppy has settled into Kaizuka’s embrace, into the warmth of his hands. It blinks sleepily, yawning once. “Hold him, Kaizuka, while I feed his brother.”

“How old are they?”

“A few weeks old.”

During the last few days, Kaizuka has started caring more about the animals in the vicinity, asking questions about them. He wordlessly holds the puppy while Slaine soothes the other one.

“Slaine. About the excess eggs—“ Kaizuka stops talking and Slaine realizes why: the puppy is licking his cheek.

“Someone likes you, Orange.” How much he enjoys Inaho’s bewildered blinking.

Inaho is silent. He says, in the end, “They are orphans.”

“Yes.” Slaine answers, and that sadness fills him again, that disappointment against the same world that hates him, that has every reason to hate him. “Someone tried to drown them.”

“But they are safe now.” The puppy places it’s paw on Inaho’s eyepatch. Inaho wraps his well-formed hands around the puppy, holding it tighter. “Careful.” he murmurs, and smiles a little, and Slaine just stares at him, and feels as if the sadness melts away, as if that constant weight in his chest lifts up a bit, and just for a moment, Slaine can finally breathe after many, many suffocating years.

#

Later in the day:

“Slaine, I need to talk to you about the excess eggs.”

“The eggs?”

“I can pay you for them.”

“…You have an obsession with eggs, haven’t you.”

“The word ‘obsession’ is an exaggeration.”

Sighs. “I don’t need your money, Inaho. Just…make sure you use them wisely.”

“I see. Do you prefer omelets or scrambled eggs?”

“…You seem pretty accustomed to this.”

“Yuki.”

“She likes omelets?”

“Yes.” Inaho looks out of the window.

“Why did you leave everyone behind, Kaizuka?”

Inaho, uncharacteristically, stays silent.

“There is still time to go back.”

Slaine doesn’t know what to expect. Words like ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m scared’ seem equally likely to leave Inaho’s mouth as the words ‘I arrived to the conclusion that both my family and friends will benefit more from my death if it happens without their knowledge’.

Yet Inaho doesn’t talk. He just stares out of the window, at the wild horses that have now appeared again, standing at the edge of the dark woods and watching, always watching.

#

There is a field with sunflowers near the ranch house. In the long afternoons, Slaine leaves Inaho alone and goes riding, free and laughing with the wind ruffling his hair. He forgets, then. Forgets about Vers, and the sadness in his life, he forgets about the loneliness and the agony of being different, he forgets about being false and evil and hated by the world for it.

Sleipnir runs through the flowers as if that’s her only pleasure in this life. The golden sunlight is spilling everywhere around them, and freedom is something within reach, almost tangible in the soft breeze. Then Sleipnir stops, and Slaine can feel how strong and steady she is breathing, how her powerful muscles tremble under his grip. Slaine lets his gaze wander over the high mountains in the distance, until the sunset arrives. He likes staring at the sunsets, always marveling at the beauty of their polychromatic skies.

Only during the slower, calmer ride home does Slaine allow himself to think of Kaizuka Inaho; his patient expressions, his long and silent gazes, the way he sits near Slaine and seems to be content with Slaine’s silent company. The calm yet confident way he uses to approach the horses, opening his hands as if they are a shelter for the scared animals.

Many times has Slaine wondered, during those silent rides home; how would Inaho’s arms feel around his body…

#

When Slaine returns from his ride that evening, Inaho is lying on the kitchen floor, breathing. The food is burned.

Slaine’s heart summersaults in his chest, yet he is slow when he kneels next to Inaho’s motionless body.  “Are you in pain?”

Inaho opens his eye. “No.”, Inaho lies. Inaho fixes him with that gaze. That crimson nightmare full of loneliness, and immense tenacity.

“Kaizuka Inaho.” Slaine whispers, and his voice is small and careful, because he knows enough of pain; he knows enough of loneliness to understand that Inaho is tired, that Inaho has almost given up; Inaho is enduring the same kind of punishment Slaine once suffered. 

But he can’t offer comfort to Kaizuka. Who is he, soothing away the troubles of his once greatest enemy? Acceptance, perhaps. He should accept that Kaizuka Inaho will no longer be in the world, in the next few years. That part should be easy. After all, Slaine felt dead inside for years.

Slaine exhales. He helps Inaho sit on a chair in the corner of the main room, next to the kerosene lamps.

Slaine stands there awkwardly, not knowing what to say or do.

“We can talk.” Inaho says, having swallowed his pills.

“About what?”

“About your life on Vers.”

“A very interesting conversation subject, indeed.” Slaine says, dryly. Inaho’s state has probably shaken him up more than he has realized. “Congratulations on your choice.”

“One question, Slaine Troyard.” The line of Inaho’s mouth hardens, the way it always does when he dislikes something. Perhaps it’s the following words: “You owe me at least that much.”

Anger starts heating Slaine’s blood. “Do I have to repeat myself? I never asked for you to set me free—”

“I held onto your Kataphrakt as we fell on Earth.”

“I didn’t ask for it either, Kaizuka.”

Inaho sighs, the fingertips of his left hand coming to rest on his eyepatch. “There must have been a reason for your self-destructive behavior. I’d like to know about that.”

“I don’t want to talk about it, dammit!”

It’s an outburst. Yet Inaho’s features soften. Slaine has carefully noticed that expression; it’s exactly the same when Inaho tries to approach a horse that’s frightened of him, when Inaho lays his palm on the animal’s neck and tries to make it accustomed to his presence.

His anger dissipates. “This is pointless.” Slaine says, and proceeds to clean up the burned mess of food in his kitchen.

Inaho remains sited on the chair in the dim living room, shoulders hunched. Inaho keeps staring at his palms, folded on his lap. Slaine shivers. His heart feels crushed. He can’t understand why.

#

It happens one sunny day when he’s not paying much attention to his surroundings—or perhaps, he is more used to the silent, constant presence of Inaho in his life: Inaho helps him anytime he can with the puppies, the horses, the gardening, the cleaning of the house and the stables—so Slaine doesn’t notice until it’s too late. He is working outside, repairing a fence, when the hotness of the sun becomes too much.

Slaine takes off his shirt, his sweat drips down his naked back.

“You were whipped.” Inaho says.

He almost jerks. “Among other things.” Slaine focuses his gaze onto the frail blades of grass growing near the fence—he needs to focus on the vivid green in order to forget those memories; the bite of the whip across his skin, the sick thud of Cruhteo’s cane meeting his skull.

At Inaho’s touch, Slaine shivers. He closes his eyes. Inaho’s hand moves towards the small of his back—Inaho’s touch is so hot. So careful.

“Stop this.”

“I’m s—“

“Don’t say it if you don’t mean it, Kaizuka.”

At this, Inaho removes his hand and comes to stand before him, gaze hard. “How long has this been going on?”

He will be dead soon, A small voice inside Slaine whispers. Why not trust him? Why not reveal the torture, the abuse, all that haunting past? Perhaps he might be able to understand.

“You know nothing about me.” Slaine spits out, and continues working on the fence, a false bitterness pooling inside his heart.

However, Slaine has been ignoring one thing; Inaho’s stubbornness. It keeps growing and blooming like a cactus flower each day that goes by, each day Inaho’s health deteriorates, each day Inaho’s stamina diminishes. “…Too quick to judge and form false conclusions.”

“Excuse me?”

“I won that war between us, Slaine Troyard, because I tend to depend less on my feelings and more on my logic—”

Slaine drops the tools on the ground, the fence now forgotten. “And Tanegashima? What do you have to say about Tanegashima? What do you have to say about the time you took my hand, falling down on Earth with me? All the times you kept visiting me, in that miserable excuse of a prison? Was that your logic, Kaizuka Inaho?”

Kaizuka’s features become blank, devoid of emotions, and by now Slaine knows this is all a mask, a foolish pretense. “Saving you was Asseylum’s wish. I merely complied with it.”

“Certainly.” Slaine mocks him. You saw me cry and sob… “Well, let me make this clear for you, Kaizuka Inaho; no one can save me.”

“Why?”

Slaine wants to burst out laughing. Perhaps Inaho seems so upset because he has noticed, how much his own hands are shaking. Slaine tries to hide it, but it’s too late. Perhaps a deep, lost part of his soul remembers what it was like before the trembling started, before the nightmares started, before the pain became an everyday, long-suffering ritual. Well, let him notice, a cruel part inside Slaine whispers. Nothing matters any longer. “Every day, the guards urinated on me. I suppose Cruhteo was too noble to do that. Behave like the dog he persuaded me I was.”

Kaizuka is silent. Then:

“Asseylum begged me. In the end, I agreed with her wish. I tried.” Kaizuka looks pale. “I tried to save you.”

Is this your way of telling me…No. As if you ever cared. Slaine continues speaking truths, not even knowing why or where this sudden, burning need to speak comes from. “I was merely a child, Kaizuka. Cruhteo would beat me until I saw my own blood dripping on the floor. Do you still believe I need your help—“

Slaine stops, horrified by the extent of information he revealed. Being angry at Inaho is not an excuse; there were times in his life he was constantly angry, constantly scared and hurt, yet managed to impeccably control his emotions, never letting a single tear slip out for fear of making Princess Asseylum worry about him; for fear of igniting Cruhteo’s rage again, for fear of being discovered when he played the fool to the eyes of Princess Lemrina.

Why is Inaho so different?

Why are his emotions so difficult to control, when Inaho is near?

“Slaine. Slaine Troyard.”

He belatedly realizes Inaho keeps repeating his name, a frown marring his features. “What exactly did Cruhteo do to you, Slaine?”

None has ever asked him that question before. Anxiety begins to slowly slip under his skin. He showed me what hell means, Slaine wants to answer. He humiliated me. Uncalled for, hot tears rise behind his eyes, and Slaine’s first reaction is to panic, which makes him paralyzed with shame; he cannot believe this is happening; he is tearing up, again, in front of Kaizuka Inaho.

All is still.  

Then, to his immense surprise, Kaizuka Inaho takes his hand. Kaizuka sits against the half-broken fence and Slaine follows, responding like a fool to Inaho’s soft touch. Slaine focuses on the feeling of his naked back scrapping against the hard fence, he focuses his attention on the cool grass, pliable and thriving against his palms. What was supposed to be tears now stops. Inaho’s clothed shoulder is warm where it touches his own.

“Let me stay this time, Slaine Troyard.”

“I don’t need you to stay!” Slaine growls, wiping at the moisture with his free hand. You are the one who is alone and afraid, Slaine wants to say, You are the one who is suffering, but deep inside, he knows that isn’t true.

Both of them are alone, and afraid, and tired from a war that took too much from them and gave them back too little.

#

They sit outside like this until the sun spreads a deep, blood-red color across the horizon, until the first stars shyly appear overhead. Slaine thinks of Inaho’s hand, cold and clammy, still wrapped around his own. He thinks of Vers, and the years he spent suffering, a slave and an emperor, losing everything he once loved.

#

That night, Kaizuka Inaho is smiling during dinner.

So Slaine asks, “What are you thinking about?”

“Eggs.”

“Eh?”

“Eggs are…more complicated than I once thought.”

“…Are you sure you are feeling alright?”

 “Yesterday, I did my research on eggs. I borrowed your books. I learned that the process of producing an egg requires much energy and labor from the animal.”

Slaine blinks.

“Eggs represent life.”, Kaizuka adds.

“Oh. Yes, that’s true.”

The conversation ends there, but it could be considered the first unbiased (and bizarre) conversation Slaine managed to complete with Inaho.

Soon, Kaizuka Inaho starts feeding the chickens every single day.

#

After a week of this ritual, a certain white chicken always comes running after Inaho around the yard. She jumps on his lap when he kneels to spread the chicken food better.

Slaine cannot explain why this is happening. Could it be that Kaizuka especially likes the eggs from that particular chicken and therefore, feeds her more? Slaine hasn’t found any evidence that supports that theory, however.

#

Slaine is cleaning the stables again when he notices a strange thing. Inaho is sitting down in the grass in the distance and two chickens come up behind him—one on one side, one on the other. Inaho gently scratches them under their wings and they make cooing sounds and close their eyes and lay down.

Slaine cannot believe his eyes.

#

The same night, at dinner—river eel grilled over charcoal and lacquered with a sweet barbecue sauce, which Inaho cooked and which is delicious— Slaine brings up the chicken matter.

Inaho’s cheeks color, just a bit. “At first, I thought that being near the chickens would result into production of more eggs. However…this is not the case.”

He is certainly obsessed with eggs… Something similar to a chuckle rises up Slaine’s throat. Inaho looks at him with interest, and Slaine averts his gaze, suddenly too self-conscious to be caught smiling by Kaizuka.

After a few silent seconds, Inaho says, “The white chicken. She definitely prefers being near me, than away from me.”

“She makes the rest of them look like a bunch of rude snobs. Avoiding Kaizuka Inaho, the greatest UFE pilot of all times.” Slaine says, and his mouth curves a little at the corner.

Inaho stops eating, looks at him, and under the flickering light of the candles his expression seems much gentler than it actually is.

Or at least that’s what Slaine keeps repeating to himself later that night, when he’s lying in his bed and at the verges of sleep, and his mind cannot stop returning back to that moment, back when Inaho smiled back through the candlelight and Slaine’s chest filled with warm.

#

The next day, Slaine finds Inaho vomiting in the bathroom.

“Come. Get up.”

He doesn’t.

“Get up.”

Inaho is sitting on the floor, shivering, not listening.

“Why are we alive, Slaine Troyard?”

“They say fight for peace, but what is that?”

“What?”

Slaine’s thoughts wander listlessly towards the past, towards the years his father was still alive, towards the years filled with long, slow evenings spent lying on a couch and reading his favorite children books, the snowy mornings where the sun reflected on endless spaces of untouched whiteness, the strawberry sandwiches his father prepared for that picnic…and the afternoons he spent starving, with his father locked in his study room, obsessed with his research.

“My father could never answer that question for me, either…”

Inaho uses a towel to wipe at his mouth. “The purpose of life?”

“Inaho, no matter how hard you’ll think about it, you are not going to find an answer to such questions. I know. I’ve tried.”

“Tried?”

“I had 10 years of trying...10 years of searching for a place I could belong.”

“You used a very specific number.”

“My father died when I was 14. After that…” Hell began. He stops. What am I doing? Telling Kaizuka my pathetic life story?

“I need to clean this up.”

Slaine snaps out of his thoughts. Inaho is pointing to the once contents of his stomach, now everywhere on the floor and inside the toilet. Apparently Inaho wasn’t too fast when reaching the bathroom.

 A sigh. He keeps sighing more and more since Kaizuka’s arrival. “I’ll do it. Now, get up. Go lie down.”

“…In that case, I will cook dinner tomorrow afternoon.”

“Eggs?”

“No. Something with strawberries.”

As I thought. Kaizuka is extremely observant. Slaine thinks back to a few days ago, when he found a bush of wild strawberries near the river. He was too happy that day, sharing the wild strawberries with Inaho.

Slaine can only say, Strawberries.”

Inaho inclines his head, as if accepting Slaine’s silent thanks. “A Japanese recipe. It is also Yuki’s favorite.”

His sister…Tch. Having a family, and throwing it all away like this.

“Right now, you are angry. Why? I know it’s not about me dirtying your bathroom.”

Well, add more to ‘extremely observant’. He’s…remarkable. “You have abandoned both friends and family to come here. And I was alone most of my life, Inaho.” It’s the first time Slaine is admitting this out loud; it’s not a pleasant feeling.

Inaho’s answer is unforeseen. “You are not alone.” Inaho blinks, “Not now.”

The silence feels oppressing. It’s Inaho, again, who breaks it. “You love animals. And strawberries. The morning mist, as it surrounds this house.” Inaho stops, as if thinking. He closes his eye. His face is very white. He whispers, “And the sunsets...”

“That is correct, Kaizuka Inaho.” Slaine’s chest feels light, as if the quality of the air surrounding them has changed, becoming warmer, gentler.

Kaizuka opens his eye and nods, the edge of his mouth almost trembling into a smile. He then frowns.

“Slaine, I need my—“

“Yes, I’ll bring your pills. Two yellow-green ones and a white one.”

“You have noticed.”

“Indeed I have. Come on, Inaho. Get up.” A pause. “Inaho?” Slaine’s voice is edging a bit on desperation, he belatedly understands.

“I am nauseous. I cannot get up.” Inaho admits. “As of this moment.”

“Ever stubborn, aren’t you?” Slaine’s breath feels heavy. “Okay. Alright, lean on me.”

With Inaho’s arm draped around his shoulders, they manage to walk, side by side, towards the bedroom. Inaho brings his free arm over his stomach. Slaine’s shoulders endure the searing heat of Inaho’s arm resting there—either Inaho has fever, or the casual, harmless touch of another person is much warmer than Slaine ever imagined.

Only when Slaine returns with Inaho’s pills does he realize it was his own room they walked in, his own bed he tucked Inaho in—not Inaho’s.

#

It is night when the door of his room opens, and Inaho approaches.

“What are you doing here?”

Inaho twins his fingers into Slaine’s hair, pulling his face up to Slaine’s and covers Slaine’s mouth with his own, forcing Slaine to almost choke on air in his shock. At Inaho’s kiss, warm dampness immediately starts between his legs.

The moment Slaine comes, he jerks awake, eyes wide in shock, his bed a mess, his fingers grasping fistfuls of the sheets, his body pulled tight with released tension. 

#

A few days pass in relative calmness, with Slaine trying his best to forget that dream. Until Inaho approaches him one morning after breakfast, saying, “Slaine. Last night, I…dreamed about you. About us.”

“Oh.” Pause. “Should I be concerned? Did your dreams express any unconscious and hostile desires against me that I should be aware of?”

“No.”

The answer comes too fast.

Why do I find Kaizuka’s dream wanderings interesting? “Was it a nightmare?”

 “…Not exactly.”

“A good dream, then.”

Inaho is just looking at him, with that gaze. He is so unexpressive, except from his eyes. That color, every time, it’s all-consuming; burning.

“You should be glad. I don’t even get those anymore.”

A huff of breath escapes Kaizuka. It could be described as a miniscule attempt at a laugh.

“Why is that funny?”

“Because I can’t believe that, Slaine Troyard.”

“Oh, really? Did you arrive to the conclusion that memories of my pathetic life refuse to return to me in the form of nightmares? In that case, I must say your idiotic logic has completely failed you, this time.”

“No. Slaine, you are misunderstanding.”

“How on Earth and Vers am I misunderstanding, when you won’t even reveal what you dreamed about!”

Inaho’s next question catches him so off guard, he almost sits down in order to comprehend it: “How many lovers did you have in your life, Slaine Troyard?”

“…Eh?”

“How many lovers—“

“I heard you, Inaho!” Slaine runs his palm over his face. “Whatever will I do with you…”

“I can explain.”

“Then explain. How is my love life associated with your dream—“  He jerks his head, meeting that crimson, scorching gaze. “No.”

Inaho is so calm. “Yes.”

I should be horrified. Why am I not horrified, Kaizuka just admitted he dreamed about us—well, to hell with it. “I never had a lover in my life.”

Kaizuka blinks. “Impossible.”

“Impossible?”

“You are beautiful.”

The words hit him hard. For the length of many heartbeats, Slaine cannot find the will to talk. “Wh-what do you mean by that.” He lowers his head, hating the betraying warmth on his cheeks. No one has ever spoken to him like that in his life.

“Your appearance. Your character. Everything about you is…exceptional.”

His hands are shaking. He closes them into tight fists. “I-Inaho, are you sure your head is still unaffected?”

“What I have observed during the last four weeks of my stay here is the truth.”

 “Five years!! I refused to talk to you, I snarled at you, I hated you with all my soul. And it took you just four weeks to find out the truth?!”

“We never had the chance to talk while you were in prison.”

Slaine slams his hand on the kitchen table. “Did you believe I’d be eager to wake up every day in a stinking cell, being beaten by the guards, being forced to bathe in my own shit, and then make idle chat with you, the man responsible for everything I lost?!”

“I was wrong about you. I always was.”

“You’re insane…”

“I am not. I simply do not have the time. Slaine.”

The less Inaho talks, the more emotional his words are. His own name sounds pleading, yet hopeful and fragile, coming from Inaho’s mouth. An attempt at reconciliation. Slaine is surprised that he has reached this point, being able to fully recognize what Inaho is yearning to express, despite always failing at expressing it.

His anger dissipates, replaced by a soft melancholy. “You are bad at expressing your emotions, aren’t you, Kaizuka...”

“No. I am simply not used to it. There is a difference.”

Any strength for arguments Slaine has left is gone. Despite his own wishes, his voice sounds like Inaho’s now; hesitant and hopeful. For the first time since Inaho arrived here, Slaine really looks at him. The soft, round lips. That stubborn lock of ebony hair that always seems determined to fall across Inaho’s forehead. Red, crimson red, which is haunting Slaine’s thoughts when he is not so careful, and he’s burned.

“…Why did you dream about me, Inaho?”

“I believed you might have an answer to that question.”

“Why?”

“I have seen how you keep looking at me.”

His stomach drops. “What?”

“Slaine; in my dream, you kissed me.”

One glance at Inaho’s mouth is enough. Slaine can imagine it; the soft corners, the inviting shape. Warmth fills Slaine’s chest. The rush of emotions is so sudden, so extreme, he needs to breathe, he needs to get out of this room, he needs to get away from Inaho, away from this silent threat. That’s exactly what he is. He will never understand. He will never understand me.

Slaine stomps outside the room, not gracing Inaho with a word.

#

The next two weeks are excruciating. Inaho tries talking to him about that silly dream, and Slaine keeps avoiding him.

Slaine’s dreams are full of Inaho, and kisses, and…more. So much more. His hands have explored the shape of Inaho’s body a thousand times, his lips know too well that fraction of skin under Inaho’s bellybutton that makes Inaho release a breathy sigh each time Slaine kisses it—all in his dreams.

It’s a slow, painful realization: He wants Inaho. He wants Inaho so much, he can’t stand it.

#

One morning, Slaine keeps gawking at the kitchen table. Inaho follows his gaze. There is a bowl with oranges there.

“What are those, exactly?”

“Fruit of the citrus species, commonly known as oranges.”

Slaine sighs, trying to be patient. “Congratulations, you can see.”

“Indeed, I still can.”

Slaine swallows, successfully chastised. “That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

Inaho brings a long sleeve near his nose, as if he’s hiding a smile. His voice is rich with amusement, warm. “I know, Slaine.”

“What exactly are those oranges doing here, Kaizuka?”

“You’ll see.” Inaho says, then picks up the cat—Aria enjoys very much rubbing her tail against Kaizuka’s ankles, and as far as Slaine understands, Kaizuka has no objections to that behavior either.

#

Slaine is brushing Sleipnir’s tail when Inaho steps into the stables to feed the puppies. They greet the newcomer with wagging tails and happy sounds. Inaho does not pick them up or hold them close as Slaine often does (or, if he ever does, Slaine is not around to witness that). Instead, Inaho prefers feeding them, and later offering his hands as a source of warmth the two puppies can rub against.

Inaho speaks, quietly, since the puppies are now asleep.

“…Yes, Orange? What did you say?”

“Will they remember?”

Slaine stops in the middle of Sleipnir’s grooming. She neighs, hits the ground once with her hove, playfully, unaware of the turmoil deep inside Slaine’s heart. Why is Kaizuka asking such a question? “

That they were almost dead?” Slaine contemplates on this. “They are too young, Inaho. They’ve only had a couple of weeks of living in this world…and only a few days inside the sealed plastic bag…so maybe they’ll never remember.” He steps into Sleipnir’s good side, rest his cheek against her neck. He feels her breathe. Inaho is looking at him. The moment lasts long. Slaine closes his eyes, asking, “Do you wish you could forget, Kaizuka Inaho?”

Inaho is silent. “Do you, Slaine Troyard?”

For some reason, Slaine thinks of Saazbaum, then. “Sometimes I do.” he says, then meets Inaho’s patient gaze again, and swallows that aching lump in his throat.

#

Slaine is fixing the fence outside again when Inaho comes to stand next to him.

“Did something happen?”

“You will exhaust both of us if you keep running away like this. And I don’t have the strength to pursue you forever, Slaine Troyard.”

Slaine drops his tools on the ground. He starts walking towards the house, hotness blooming across his cheeks, until Inaho comes to stand before him, blocking his way.

“Forever?” Slaine hisses, clenching his hands into fists. “You have months.”

“Since I arrived here, 11 weeks have passed. That’s  77 days and nights … 1,848 hours ... that’s 7,761,600 heartbeats from each of us.”   

“You count your days…with heartbeats…?”

“It’s a sign I’m still alive.”

“…Something’s wrong. Tell me, Kaizuka.”

 Inaho is quiet, but Slaine knows him too well by now; his posture is emitting flight, as if he didn’t expect of Slaine to push so much into this comfort zone. “Slaine, when you are close, my heart—“

Slaine quickly averts his gaze, he tries to concentrate on the small yellow flowers there at his feet, he ignores the sudden rush of warmth that pools at his stomach, colors his cheeks.

“—my heart aches.”

Kaizuka Inaho is silent. He is really waiting for an answer, Slaine thinks, and his eyes widen. It’s a whisper, “You really are so different from what I once thought.”

“Recognizing my own emotions is sometimes difficult, for me.”

“Oh really?” Slaine says, trying to sound ironic. His mouth is parched. His hands are trembling. He is fighting the urge to flee, to step away from the obvious softness of Inaho’s mouth, the inviting tenderness of Inaho’s touch.

 “You once told me I should find something worth living for.”

“S-so?” How simply can Kaizuka reduce him to an incoherent mess of emotions.

Inaho’s fingers wrap around his wrist, branding Slaine with fire. It harshly spreads along his veins. Slaine swallows his breath.

“I have not found it. Yet I can say with certainty that I am drawn towards you, Slaine, in ways that are impossible to explain.”

Slaine takes a step back and Inaho lets go. Being an Emperor taught him that certain cold masks need to be put on at certain circumstances. “You are talking like this because you are about to die.”

It’s miniscule, almost impossible to detect. The only reason Slaine realizes Inaho’s mouth has tightened in apprehension lies in the hours they have spent together, nursing the puppies, feeding the horses, working silently side by side, between the wooden walls of this house or outside, under the graceful and warm light of the mountain sun.

Slaine steps inside the house, yet Inaho follows him.

“This is my first time…developing such feelings for another person.”

All protests wither in Slaine’s mouth. He turns and feels like something inside him is melting, disappearing. “What do you mean by that.”

“Even if I wasn’t about to die, I’d ask you to kiss me.”

“Inaho. No.” Slaine shuts his eyes tight. “No. You are not yourself. And I can’t do it.”

“Why?”

Slaine groans, yet the words slip out, sad and unbridled. “Because the joy of loving another person was long ago stolen from me.”

“You are confusing love with kindness, Slaine Troyard.”

No. If…If I’m kissing you, I’m not doing it out of kindness or pity.” What did I just…

“So I was correct. You are drawn toward me.”

“I never said that!”

“You are blushing.”

“No, Kaizuka.” Slaine is aware that his cheeks are on fire, though this is not his biggest problem at the moment. And then something unexpected happens; Sirius barges inside the room, yelping, followed by Aria, who keeps hissing and showing her teeth at him.

Slaine sighs, and goes to separate those two, temporarily relieved that they provide a temporary distraction, a way to escape from Kaizuka’s relentless pull.

#

Next morning at breakfast, Slaine stares at the oranges on his table and thinks of their bitter-sweet, almost savory taste.

He finally understands why Inaho put them there.

#

One night, the horses appear again. Slaine calls Inaho, who is feeding the puppies in the stable, and they stare at them together, until they disappear again into the approaching mist. They eat dinner, as usual, chatting a bit about Kats and physics. Afterwards, Aria stays in his lap, so he keeps caressing and praising her. Inaho stays in the room, reading. The windows are relentlessly hit by the rain outside.

Time flows and their gazes meet across the silent room, Slaine with the cat in his hands, Inaho with the book forgotten on his lap.

Slaine looks away, looks at the cat, her fur is tangled, she must have been playing outside, but Inaho’s gaze is still burning him, is still hauntingly lonely.

Slaine puts the cat down. He gets up and crosses the room and kneels on the couch next to Inaho, inclining his head just before the moment their mouths meet in the first kiss.

Inaho’s lips are closed, yet so soft. Warm. For all the pain in his life, Slaine did not believe anything could feel so good. Exhilaration runs through Slaine’s veins, soon replaced by a feeling so deep, so strong, as if it’s no longer night and the sun has already risen, warming him, shedding light into each dark and hidden part of Slaine’s soul.

Yet Inaho isn’t surprised. He meets each of Slaine’s slow kisses with confidence, yet quiet acceptance, and as their mouths move together in warmth Inaho grabs at Slaine’s pullover and pulls him close, and a joy so wild rises and expands inside Slaine’s chest, he wraps his arms around Inaho’s neck, stretching himself along Inaho’s lean body, smiling into the kiss without even realizing it.

#

Time flows, and Inaho breaks away from the kiss.

“I’m out of breath. And nauseous.”

“What should I do?”

 “Stay.”

“Like this?”

“Yes. Hold me.”

#

Slaine awakes to find Inaho fast asleep, his arms wrapped around Slaine’s waist, and blankets wrapped around both of them.

He realizes that something woke him up; it’s Sirius. Howling.

Slaine disentangles himself from a barely awake Inaho and runs outside. Sirius is sitting in front of an open stable door. Slaine rushes inside.

Sleipnir is gone.

#

Slaine barges into the house, fuming. “Where is she?!”

Kaizuka jerks awake.

“Kaizuka!”

Inaho throws the blankets off and gets up in a single motion, probably a reminder of his military training. The fast movement leaves him swaying and almost falling, though Slaine is extremely angry to notice that. He grabs Inaho’s collar, yanking it upwards, forcing Inaho to tilt his head back in order to breathe (Stop it, a part of him says, stop it, he is suffering enough already, but Slaine cannot stop.)

Sleipnir is gone.”

“Last night—Troyard, not so hard—you called…I came inside. We kissed—I now remember—I forgot that I did not shut the door of the stables.”

Slaine lets go, snarling, “You disgust me. You and your petty plans of revenge.”

“Slaine Troyard, the incident was unplanned. It was a mistake.”

“Mistake or not, you killed her. The thunderstorm erased all her traces! She’ll never be able to survive out there alone, not with that…thing in the woods—” A crashing wave of emotions drowns him, steals off his breath, because he had enough loss already in his life, and the thought of losing someone dear to him once again is tearing his heart apart. He is incoherent and a mess, he knows, but he can’t stop himself from shaking Inaho hard, pouring out all that grief and rage, all the pain that has a constant presence in his life.

“Slaine. Slaine Troyard, stop this.”

Inaho sounds so weak.

“Slaine. I have forgotten all Fibonacci numbers. I have forgotten the special sequence of actions for starting the engine of a Kataphrakt. I have forgotten too much. I—my brain must be at the beginning of a degenerating state. I believed that by helping you with the animals, I could train myself to adapt into new situations, but—but it seems that everything was useless. I…am turning into someone…something…useless.”

Slaine glances at Kaizuka’s pale face and he lets go, disgusted, he lets Inaho drop on a boneless heap on the floor and gets out of the house, slamming the door behind him.

#

“The world hates me.”

The room is dark, and Slaine is sitting on a chair, not touching his unfinished meal. Inaho retreated into his room since the incident occurred, a few hours ago.

“Lemrina and Harklight are gone. The Moon Base is gone. The rooms where I spent the afternoons eating with C-Count Saazbaum are gone…”

Sirius is resting his head on Slaine’s knees, looking up at him with those dark, moist eyes. He whimpers, as if sharing his pain.

“Kaizuka is ill.” Slaine whispers, one palm covering his face. The other comes to rest on Sirius’ head, stroking. The whimpers won’t stop. “And I don’t know what to do.”

#

Five minutes later, Slaine rushes upstairs and finds Inaho sitting on the floor, eye opening the moment Slaine barges into the room, the moment Slaine drops on his knees on the floor and takes Inaho into his arms.

Kaizuka Inaho is shivering, or perhaps he is the one shivering, the one mad with pain. Slaine clings onto Inaho, his fingers digging and clutching at Inaho’s clothes, Inaho’s scent is making him want to sob, Inaho’s lips on his throat are burning him.

Inaho’s hands come to rest on his hair, in a silly attempt at comfort, they come to rest on his back, pulling their bodies closer.

“I’m sorry.” Inaho whispers, and Slaine breaks down.

Yet this time, he knows how much Inaho means it. And this time, he is not ashamed of those tears.

Chapter Text

 

***

 

 

The next few days make their once reluctant conversations cease. Despite that, they slip into a more comfortable companionship. They will stand side by side preparing breakfast each morning, they will clean the stables together, feed the animals, they will lie side by side on Slaine’s bed at night, sometimes without even touching.

Inaho doesn’t complain.

Sometimes, Slaine will cry because of Sleipnir, and her loss.

#

The day Sleipnir returns, Sirius the dog barges into Slaine’s room—the room they mutually decided to share—and wakes them both very early in the morning.

Slaine follows the dog out of the room, and after a few minutes he starts shouting Inaho’s name, along with fervent, ecstatic exclamations such as, “She’s back!!!”

#

A week later, Slaine starts behaving strangely during dinner. Inaho knows something is bothering Slaine. He has carefully observed Slaine’s habits and stances for the many weeks since he arrived to the cottage—especially since his own symptoms haven’t worsened. As Slaine pushes his vegetables around his plate for the fifth time that night, Inaho decides to speak.

“You will not solve whatever is bothering you by staying idle.”

Slaine fixes his bright gaze on Inaho. “You know me too well, Orange…”

“What is the matter?”

Slaine swallows. “Sleipnir. I believe…she is…my horse is…”

Inaho waits.

“Eh…pregnant.” Slaine stammers.

Inaho blinks. “Horses are mammals, and like all mammals give birth to live offspring—“

“Stop with that silliness, Orange! Of course they do, I know that!”

“I don’t understand the problem.” Inaho says, “You can provide your horse with enough space and food—“

 “I just don’t understand how!!” Slaine shouts.

Inaho blinks. “Did you never learn about sexual reproduction? The male inserts his—“

No!” Slaine shouts, “That’s not—that’s not what I meant, Kaizuka! Of course I know—“

“Why are you embarrassed? She probably met a male horse while being lost in the forest.” Inaho says. He then remembers the books he was reading during the last few weeks. “…I believe the correct terminology is ‘stallion’.”

“St—“ Slaine coughs, then exhales. “We’re never having this conversation again.” He starts filling his mouth with vegetables.

“Humans can have sex too.” Inaho says, and Slaine almost chokes on his vegetables. After Slaine swallows and looks at him, something strange and tender twists in Inaho’s chest. He and Slaine have kissed many times, since that first time on the couch, more than two weeks ago. But never more than that.

Inaho never thought much about it.

Slaine’s cheeks have gained an interesting, vibrant red color.

“We could have sex too.” Inaho rephrases his…request, perhaps. Slaine puts his fork down—he was clutching it very tightly in his hand—and sighs.

“I cannot believe I’m inquiring this, but…” Another sigh. “Do you even…know how, Orange?”

“Only from some vulgar jokes the UFE officers used to tell.” Inaho says. He wonders if Slaine ever had any experience. He doesn’t ask.

He feels strangely comfortable, discussing everything with Slaine. Slaine seems a bit embarrassed, yet comfortable too.

“W-We don’t have protection.” Slaine mutters. “Wouldn’t that be—dangerous? Especially…for you?”

Inaho thinks about it. “I don’t know.” he says, and the discussion ends there.

#

Since Inaho’s health prevents him from staying on the back of a horse for longer than a few minutes before becoming nauseous, Slaine tells him one day, ‘Let us use the old car instead. There is a place I want to show you’.

#

It is a flower field.

Everything seems bright and warm; Inaho notices every color—bright yellow from the sunflowers, purple from a few lavenders, red from poppies, then pink, orange…flowers unknown to him, details he could never name.

And green, there’s green everywhere, the dark trees surrounding the valley, menacing in the distance, the softer green colors of the grass, the blue sky expanding above, yet none capable of imitating the brilliance of colors, blue and green, mixing in Slaine’s irises.

Slaine holds out his hand, placing it on the dark brown bark of a tree. “This is the smell of the mountain air.”  The scent of dry air and cool grass is indeed irresistible. “I was born in a Northern country…and the snowy mountains have stayed inside me for a long, long time…ever since I was a child…”

“It is—interesting.”

“Orange.”

“Yes?”

“Do you want to try something…different?” Slaines eyes are gleaming playfully.

Inaho nods.

Slaine starts running.

One single, daring glance over his broad shoulder is enough; Inaho pursues.

Yes, Inaho has a life-changing thought, at that moment—he will always pursue.

#

They fall on the hard soil, panting, lying side by side, legs tangled together, hands sliding up and down each other’s clothed ribs as they kiss and kiss and kiss. Slaine tastes of salt, barely, and his lips are so soft, and every time Inaho kisses him it drags a sob out of Slaine’s lips.

Inaho refuses to seek a logical approach as to why the events currently unfolding in front of his eyes are happening, events during which he is a mute body, accepting his fate, a broken puppet with cut strings, lying on his back and staring at the bluest skies above as Slaine keeps panting over him. All thoughts escape him.

(Oblivion…

Eternity…

Nothing exists in this world, anymore.

Except—)

—Slaine’s hot touch, Slaine’s hands, roaming like frenzied birds all over his body—

Then it's hard to keep track of what exactly happens. The logical sense of the world gets blurred when Slaine pulls Inaho to him, slides his hands under Inaho’s shirt—wanting more skin, perhaps, frantic with need now, the jade-green eyes are blazing and as the sunlight catches his tousled hair Slaine glows at last like the snowy mountaintops surrounding this forgotten valley—solid and immovable and radiant—beautiful—more beautiful than anything Inaho has ever known.

The light summer breeze is dancing through the flowers and Slaine’s hands are tracing his ribs and Inaho’s body shudders—

A quiver of exultation rushes through him, and Inaho doesn’t know what to do, but Slaine seems to understand, as if he can savor their youth once again, meeting in another world and introducing Inaho to a vigorous game, where Slaine knows the rules much better than Inaho does— Slaine seems to understand and encourage more out of him, out of his tired body, more of this strange, thundering, impossible sensation.

So Inaho settles closer on Slaine’s lap, lets him run his hands down his back and kiss his neck—his cheek, his eyelid—before the balance tips over when Slaine tries to remove his shirt and they both fall on the hard ground, the scars on Slaine’s back moving restlessly under Inaho’s hands, and Slaine is grunting, perhaps because of Inaho’s unwillingness to detach his hands from Slaine’s golden hair, and also Slaine’s unwillingness to detach his lips from Inaho’s collarbone. Slaine’s hand catches fabric and Inaho’s shirt is gone, too, and Slaine’s starts biting and sucking and dipping his head to lick a wet path from Inaho’s collarbone to a nipple—

Slaine does something with his scorching mouth. It makes Inaho arch off the ground, his closed lips crushing the sound coming from his lungs.

They roll on their sides, the position letting Slaine slip a thigh between Inaho’s legs—letting him move his hard erection against Inaho’s leg, desperate motions, Slaine’s hands are clutching Inaho’s body hard against his own, so close Inaho cannot breathe properly, the column of Slaine’s pale throat is moving as Slaine muffles his quiet sobs into Inaho’s chest—Slaine sounds almost—upset.

Inaho cannot know if Slaine is lost in pleasure or—

Inaho tries to straighten his back and calm Slaine down, carding fingers through his hair, tilting his face more against his own naked chest and murmuring, “Slaine” into the blonde, tangled strands. “Slaine, that’s enough. Slaine.” He touches Slaine’s back, rubs a soothing line across the path of a scar. “Enough.”

“Quiet, Orange.” Slaine’s reply is soft and muffled against Inaho’s chest.

“Your touch...” Inaho can only say.

“I know.” Slaine’s breathing slows, his hands resting on the small of Inaho’s back. His ear is resting flat against Inaho’s chest. “Your heart is beating so fast…like a rabbit’s.” His green eyes are moist as he looks up.

Inaho is hit by an emotion—unbearably strong—but Slaine leans in for a kiss, and Inaho lets it happen, this indescribable, soft motion between their lips, capable of eliciting such intense reactions from his body.

Slaine shudders, nuzzles up to the skin below Inaho’s jaw. “What do you suppose…shall happen today…between us?” he asks, mouthing towards Inaho’s neck, tongue hot into the dip of tender skin between Inaho’s collarbones. Inaho bathes in heat.

“I have no—“

Slaine’s motions stop. “Experience? Neither have I.”

“Yet you researched into it.”

Slaine blinks. “How…?”

“The day after we had that discussion. About sex. You drove to the closest town, with the excuse of selling the eggs, but it took you an extra hour to come back.” To me.“I presume that you were searching for information on the safety of some…actions…especially regarding people under treatment—“

“I did.” Slaine says, and looks away. “And…yes. It’s safe.”

“Do you want sex?” Inaho asks.

“D-Do you?” Slaine’s eyes, once again, trying to see into his soul.

“Perhaps.” Inaho answers.

“That’s a half-assed answer, Kaizuka Inaho.” Slaine’s eyes glimmer with mirth. “Or is it really the truth?”

“I believe that neither my physical nor my mental health will be gravely affected if we have sex.” Inaho says, “And your eagerness confirms my beliefs. Therefore, technically, I have no objections—“ Inaho stops, thinks, then repeats, “I have no objections.”

Why is Slaine smiling? “You have no objections. Technically, I have no objections either.” Slaine is not smiling, now. He sounds…tender. “We will do whatever you want, Inaho.”

The use of his first name makes Inaho’s eye slide shut. He knows exactly what is happening. Slaine is trying to pry impossible answers out of him. His sexuality…it was a blurred area in his life, and he was happy with this blur, until it was lifted approximately 10 minutes ago.

“I want” Inaho says, “you.”

Slaine regards him in silence. “Then you should…lie down. I-I want to try something.”

#

They are naked.

The sunlight is falling on the mess of scars on Slaine’s chest, and Inaho stays lying on a carefully laid blanket on the ground, immovable, watching carefully the muscles of Slaine’s hand rise and fall under his skin as Slaine fumbles with the cork of a small bottle, pouring oil onto his right hand, some of it slipping over them and dripping onto Inaho’s bellybutton.

Inaho jerks. His erection follows the movement of his body, and Slaine smiles devilishly at him.

Slaine moves to sit more comfortably astride Inaho’s waist. Their gazes meet, communicating a silent reassurance. Slaine’s knees sink in the grass on either side of Inaho, his right hand reaches between his legs—behind Slaine’s flushed erection—Inaho is not very sure about the procedure happening at that moment, yet he sees how Slaine’s eyes flutter shut and his red, full mouth opens in—pleasure. Inaho distracts himself; he rests his gaze on the blond hair between Slaine’s legs, thinks how coarse it is. Every little detail—the yellow flowers surrounding them, the single white cloud in the sky, the song of the birds—he focuses on everything, anything else besides Slaine and his lean, well-formed shoulders and their motions of his hands.

Heat flushes all over Inaho as he watches Slaine move his hand away, the flush in Slaine’s cheeks spreading down his neck and even on his chest, reducing the contrast between soft skin and scar tissue.

“Slaine.” Inaho says, not recognizing his own voice.

Slaine’s hands are scorching when he grips Inaho, and Inaho buries his hands in the blanket and almost tears it apart as his body moves towards Slaine as if on its own volition. Slaine hovers over him—then sinks down on Inaho, thighs trembling as Inaho’s erection slides further into him.

It all happens very slowly—yet so fast. Slaine’s lips open and someone moans harshly—the sound seems to slip into Inaho’s dazed and fevered consciousness from very far away. The tightness, heat and pleasure are overwhelmingly unbearable—Slaine moves and Inaho throws his head back, chokes on thin air, and everything turns into a white explosion of pleasure.

“Inaho!”

Inaho opens his eye. Slaine’s face is hovering over his own, very near, his beautiful features twisted with worry. They are no longer connected. “Inaho, are you alright?!”

“Yes?”

 Slaine blinks. “Wait, you…y-you…! I thought you were—I was so worried, but you—argh, I can’t believe this!”

“Yes, it was too fast. We should try again.” Inaho says, very serious. “Now.”

#

They try, and try again.

Inaho’s favorite moment is when Slaine presses into him—they are lying on their sides, bodies perfectly aligned, his muscles are strained from all the previous movement and preparation and he can feel the hard earth below him and the smell of Slaine’s body, Slaine’s body heat surrounding and enveloping him like a safe harbor after the greatest of storms—and then Slaine is slipping into him and his consciousness gets fractured into many fragments—it is a mix of pain and something indescribable like pleasure— half of his taut body is pressed against the soft fabric of the blanket beneath them, Slaine’s hot body blanketing his own. Slaine keeps murmuring “Are you alright?” to himself more than anyone, because Inaho is incapable of talking right that moment, and he can only focus on Slaine’s hard and hot presence inside of him, and the shaping of Slaines’ mouth to his shoulder, breathing, kissing there.

Slaine’s free hand, the one not touching his erection, is curled into a fist near Inaho’s mouth—between the constant, slow draw of Slaine in and out of him, Inaho manages to breathe properly and lean his head forward, press his cheek desperately against that curled hand—kiss it, kiss Slaine’s unfurling fingers while Slaine lets out a sob, and Slaine’s hand smells like the earth, and therefore, Inaho decides, like life. Inaho opens his mouth and twirls his tongue around Slaine’s fingers, sucks them into his mouth—and at that moment Slaine moans something brokenly, perhaps words of affection and his name, Inaho, Inaho, and hastens his pace, hips hitching forward, sinking deeper, leading Inaho into a realm of endless bliss.

#

When Slaine comes, he makes a little sound, the uneven skin expanding unevenly over Inaho’s back, damp forehead pressed to the dip between Inaho’s shoulder blades—Slaine’s arms come to rest around his midsection, as if holding onto Inaho is the only thing that keeps him from being broken, coming apart, and as the mountain breeze rushes between their cooling bodies, Slaine sucks a light kiss on Inaho’s cheek and Inaho bucks into Slaine’s sweaty palm—both of their hands now, a tight circle—and he comes, hard, covering their entwined fingers—clenching around Slaine, who keeps moaning Inaho’s name like a deep imploration for mercy.

#

Inaho’s elbows eventually give away, he sprawls over the blanket—Slaine a warm presence next to him, and the aftermaths of pleasure are humming all over through his exhausted, pleased body.

Everything sounds and seems faraway, the gently swaying of the flowers near his face under the breeze, Slaine’s soft exhales, the rumble of his stomach—because intense and passionate movement tends to consume lots of energy—and the quiet, low cadence of Slaine’s voice, asking, something like, “…all right?”

A hand comes to rest on his cooling back—I kissed it, Inaho thinks, and feels…something, brilliant and light, at this thought. Slaine’s hand brushes a sweaty strand of hair away from his face, so Inaho turns to face him, and there he is, Slaine Troyard, lying on his side with an elbow resting on the blanket and supporting his blond, intelligent head.

“I am fine.” Inaho says.

Slaine’s mouth curls at the corner, pleased.

The mountains are shining under the sun, behind his shoulder.

#

“Give me your hand.” Inaho says, as they lie sprawled, side by side, on the endless field, with the sky bright and vast above them.

Slaine slides his hand across the blanket, until it reaches Inaho’s. Inaho’s fingers climb over Slaine’s—Slaine turns his hand in Inaho’s hold and their hands stay interlocked. Slaine tugs a bit at the hold—capturing more of Inaho’s already arrested attention: Slaine is staring high up towards the sky, therefore presenting Inaho with the soft lines of his profile, the red, flushed color of his cheekbones and his lips…

“What do you think will happen tomorrow?” Slaine whispers.

“Life.” Inaho answers. “And perhaps…”

“Perhaps?” Slaine turns his head to his right.

“Love.” Inaho says.

That moment, if only for a few seconds, Slaine’s eyes contain an entire world of emotions. Until the light fades away as quickly as it emerged.

“You make me forget, sometimes…” Slaine whispers.

“Forget?”

“That miracles are impossible.” Slaine says, and turns his gaze again to the boundless sky.

#

“I just don’t understand.” Slaine says the next day, as Inaho is reading the usual book on horses.

Slaine is sitting on a chair, opposite Inaho.

Slaine’s bright pupils are slightly dilated, lips parted. His hands jerk forward, awkwardly, as if he wants to curl his fingers around Inaho’s waist; the pulse full of warmth that rushes through Inaho at this thought is unexpected. Slaine never touches him, however. His arms drop to his sides like tired birds.

Inaho stands up, places the book on the kitchen table and walks toward Slaine. He threads his fingers through Slaine’s blond strands, pushing them back, away from his eyes. He feels lightheaded, but not in a sick way. His heart is racing. Slaine is staring at him, unmoving, and there is such vulnerability in those green depths, Inaho feels like sinking into it, into the uncertainty and fear behind Slaine’s large eyes.  

“Why me?” Slaine asks, quietly.

“Because you are what I had lost from the start. But I found you now, Slaine Troyard. And perhaps it’s not too late…”

Slaine’s eyes moisten. “It is too late.”

“You are not my enemy anymore, so not everything is lost.”

Slaine makes a sound that snaps Inaho’s heart in two.

“Slaine—“

“Don’t talk. You’ll make it—worse. I can’t—”

There are tearstains hitting the wooden floor, sipping into the dark, twisted texture of the wood.

Inaho hugs Slaine tightly.

 

Chapter Text

“What are you cooking?” Slaine steps inside the kitchen. The sun hits Inaho’s profile, painting a bright stripe across his cheek. Slaine wraps his arms around Inaho’s waist, resting his chin on Inaho’s shoulder. He buries his nose in Inaho’s hair. The scent of sunlight and spice. Aria the cat is curled and sleeping soundly on the couch, Sirius is outside, barking and chasing happily after a chicken.

“Be patient and you will find out.” Inaho says.

“Why must you always be so stubborn—“

Inaho turns in his arms, silences Slaine with a kiss. Surprise floods Slaine, and with it a feeling so deep and tender, it makes him sigh. Until he digs his fingers into the fabric of Inaho’s clothes and tugs, leaning back against the kitchen counter, pulling Inaho with him.

More often than not, Slaine is convinced he does not deserve this. A sunlit kitchen, a home, someone to hold him close. During his lonely past he was sure no one would want to touch him intimately. Everything changed, however, since stubborn, annoying Kaizuka Inaho decided to barge again into his life and destroy everything—only to build upon the destruction, with such trust and intimacy, and emotions Slaine has never experienced before.

Climbing up the stairs and onto the bed isn’t prearranged, like everything else in their lives, during the last 10 months. Slaine lies on the hard mattress, chest pressed against Inaho’s, the oh-so-familiar warm palm drifting between his legs, brushing over Slaine’s hardening arousal.

Slaine’s hips jerk forward, sharply, seeking warm pleasure. Inaho smiles against Slaine’s lips.

Slaine slides his fingers into Inaho’s hair, and Inaho makes the most fantastic, soft sound when they kiss. Slaine closes his eyes, loses himself in the sensations, the soft kisses that slowly deepen. Warm hands slide under Slaine’s pullover, then curl at the ends. Slaine sits up, breathless, so Inaho can remove the annoying obstacle. At last, skin against skin. A surge of pure desire makes Slaine groan against Inaho’s mouth. The eyepatch is gone, discarded on the floor, the rest of their clothing follows soon.

Inaho always caresses Slaine’s scars—before, during, or after reaching his peak of pleasure, it doesn’t matter. Even within the middle of the night when he thinks Slaine is asleep, he tries with his hands to express words he has never said, emotions that stay forever silent between them.

Slaine reaches out a hand to cup Inaho’s cheek. His voice is soft, hoarse. “You should remember your limits, Orange.”

Inaho stares at him. Wordlessly, Inaho turns his head—Slaine’s palm is covering his mouth now—Inaho kisses it. He whispers something, lost onto Slaine’s skin, and Slaine’s chest feels too tight to answer.

Warm lips press against the scars on Slaine’s chest. Slaine inhales sharply at the tender gesture, Inaho’s tongue briefly tastes the skin there, kissing it gently. Slaine blinks away the moisture in his eyes. He curls his fingers around the nape of Inaho’s neck, pulling him back into another kiss. As Slaine sucks Inaho’s bottom lip between his own, he feels Inaho’s hand reach between them, wrapping hot around him—Slaine nearly comes right then and there—suddenly Inaho’s hand is gone and Inaho is pushing at him, urging him to lie down.

Slaine dares a glance at Inaho’s arousal, thick and hard, wondering how Inaho might want this, between them, today.

“On your side.” Inaho says, and Slaine swallows, the desire scorching him. Slaine does as Inaho asks, and his eyes widen in surprise when Inaho comes to lie behind him, kissing Slaine’s shoulder, and there’s something hot and hard pressing along sensitive skin, settling right between the curves of Slaine’s ass.

“Orange—“

“Shh.” Inaho says, then splays his fingers onto Slaine’s naked stomach, pulling him closer, the other hand grabbing onto Slaine’s thigh, no, higher, holding him still. Inaho’s fingers are trembling, biting into Slaine’s flesh as he starts moving, mercilessly, dragging his arousal over—

“What are you doing?!” Slaine gasps, completely bewildered, completely aroused. The part where Inaho is moving against is oversensitive. Slaine can feel everything. They have never done this before, and Slaine suspects that Kaizuka’s analytical mind has reached the same conclusion hours ago, and has planned each second of this—this absolutely ridiculous, silly, erotic thing. Slaine’s lips part in a silent protest, a silent plea for more. He feels the hottest part of Inaho grind against him again, and he must curl his fingers into the bedsheets, swallowing his moans. Never touching himself. Because as soon as Inaho is done with this—this silliness, Slaine is going to make him pay. Slaine’s cheeks are on fire, he is shivering with desire, and the moment Inaho shudders and unleashes the warm, sticky fluid all over Slaine’s back, Slaine needs to catch his breath—he is so hard.

He shouldn't, but he does. He turns around, facing Inaho, that soft smile. He doesn’t know why, or how. The next moment, his lips are savagely pressed against Inaho’s.

A sound escapes Inaho’s throat, a small, content moan Slaine has never heard before. As though magnetized, Slaine presses his body flush against Inaho’s, arms circling and closing around Inaho’s waist, ceaselessly caressing those tanned shoulders.

“I want to feel you.” Inaho whispers against Slaine’s cheek, and Slaine feels a lump rise up his throat. He swallows, then nods, wordlessly, and kisses Inaho again. He feels fingers threading through his hair, stroking, cupping his cheek, making his head tilt to the side. Slaine’s eyes are closed, yet he senses the change in positions, the way Inaho’s body slides silently under his own, the way Inaho’s thighs part, for Slaine to settle between them.  

Inaho slides his palms up against Slaine’s sides, fingertips lingering over his ribcage. Slaine squirms, hips rolling so he can rub himself down against the sheets, the fire consuming. “That tickles.”

Inaho repeats the motion, almost expressionless.

“Are you trying to anger me, Kaizuka Inaho? You’ll need to use better tactics than that.”

“Last night,” Inaho says, without a flicker of emotion, “I was on top, but I went too slow. Today you should go faster. Harder.”

Slaine rolls his eyes, pulse rising. “Last night you were dizzy and half-asleep. You wanted to top, then nearly collapsed on me!”

“I want you.” Inaho orders, “Right now.”

“You aren’t a General anymore, Orange. Not in this bed, not anywhere in this world.” Slaine says, happy with his revenge plan, yet the words are soft. “No. Slow, it is.”

“Bat.”Inaho snaps. He tries to sit up, but Slaine tugs on Inaho’s legs to make him slide closer to him. Tanned skin and quivering muscles, all under Slaine’s wandering, reverent hands.

“I came up with an effective and logical solution for tonight.” Inaho’s voice is flat, doused with coolness, as Slaine’s fingers slowly sink into Inaho’s hot body. “You—are constantly—destroying my plans, Slaine Troyard.” A jerk, as Slaine touches a sensitive place. Inaho’s fingers curl into the sheets, pulling. “Freeing you—Bat, freeing you—“

“Best thing that ever happened to you?” Slaine is enjoying this too much. He drawls, “Yes, yes. I can see that.”

Inaho shudders, pleasure mixed with annoyance. The words are cold, fake. “Freeing you was a mistake.”

“Was it?” Slaine smiles. As Inaho simply sighs in acquiescence, Slaine aligns himself and presses forward.

Inaho is silent now, quivering a bit, his body relaxing, accepting. Slaine cannot hold back a quiet moan. He is enveloped in tight heat—it’s indescribable, how amazing, how impossible this feels, each and every time. Inaho, his mouth open with pleasure, his hands wrapped around Slaine’s shoulders, accepting him for what he is. It’s a miracle.

Slaine moves, careful, and both shudder. A soft sound leaves Inaho’s lips, something like a laugh. “You are too slow, Bat. Slow and boring.”

Slaine’s entire body is trembling with boundless pleasure. He rolls his eyes, ignoring Inaho. When Slaine moves again, he tries to be slow, so very slow… he almost has a heart attack when something heavy lands on his torso, knocking out the little breath he has in his chest. Within three seconds, Inaho has straddled him, hands gripping Slaine’s shoulders and pressing them into the mattress.

As if Slaine has the will to fight back.  “What are you—Orange! You won’t be able to get out of bed tomorrow—argh!”

“I don’t care about tomorrow.” Inaho says, and moves.

Slaine cannot take a breath. “You—you…!”

“I have long stopped caring about tomorrow.” Inaho whispers, again. Slaine closes his eyes, surrendering to the sensation, to the impossibility of this; Inaho, warm and safe in his bed.

Inaho whispers something just underneath Slaine’s collarbone, something that sounds very close to I love you, and Slaine ignores the faded whisper in favor of a moan.

#

Thunder cracks across the sky, splitting the darkness in two. Slaine jerks awake.

“It’s six a.m.” Inaho’s sleepy voice indicates that he just woke up, too. Inaho’s hand is resting indulgently over Slaine’s belly, warm fingertips slowly tracing the scars there. Slaine shivers. It has nothing to do with the cold. Inaho presses a soft kiss against the curve of Slaine’s shoulder.

Slaine has long admitted to himself, the past ten months they have spent sleeping together, waking up together in the same bed; he never thought Kaizuka Inaho capable of expressing such careful tenderness.

“I have a bad feeling.” Slaine says, and Inaho sits up—the sheets pooling around his body, and Slaine must suppress a pang of lust. Images from a few hours ago flood his memories, warm and passionate and tender all at the same time…since that first time on the field, under the warm sun, they have slept together many times, they have shared countless kisses, yet no one has uttered the dreadful words; that one day, the end will come.

However, Inaho’s health hasn’t deteriorated. Miracle or not, Slaine doesn’t know what to think. Except from the random spells of nausea and dizziness, Inaho almost seems…healthy. Slaine has to admit it:

They are happy.

Since a pregnant Sleipnir returned, and with Inaho at his side, Slaine has never been so happy in his life. However, a single moment is enough to tear to shreds any fragile flicker of happiness; a sound, long and full of pain, is heard from the stables below.

“Sleipnir.” Inaho says, and Slaine cannot get dressed fast enough before he tears the bedroom door open and rushes downstairs.

Sirius is pacing in front of the closed stables door, barking.

 #

The birth is difficult. Sleipnir is suffering. Slaine is drenched in blood and fluids, the moment Inaho appears at the stables’ wooden door.

“How is she?”

“Help me.” Slaine can only say, tired and broken, and Inaho is instantly at his side.

#

The horses are hitting the floor with their hooves, shaking their manes nervously, as the smell of blood lingers in the air. Sirius is barking. Slaine cannot understand. He is breathing air into the motionless foal, while Inaho stares.

He knows that his knowledge is insufficient and coming from old, tattered books about horses.

He knows that Inaho won’t help Sleipnir, because Sleipnir has died.

Sleipnir’s offspring takes it’s very first breath. Tries to stand on wobbly legs. Slaine is kneeling on the blood-soaked floor, his spine curved, his eyes wide. His shoulder jerks when Inaho’s hand rests there. Inaho’s hand stays, unmoving, touching him.

“Everything I love dies.” Slaine whispers, and then looks up at Inaho. Inaho’s blurred face. Slaine blinks. He slides his wrist across his cheek, sees his skin moist with tears.

He cannot do this anymore.

Slaine leaves the stables and runs into the rain; his knees hit the mud, he looks down at his hands; grime and blood. He screams, once, into the darkness of the night. He curls into himself. Another hoarse cry leaves his mouth, a violent emotion that makes his throat feel raw.

He hurts for Sleipnir’s death, he hurts for Inaho. It’s a dark, deep pain. He hurts for everything; the miserable childhood years, the abuse on Vers, the family he lost, twice, the endless hurt that stalks him wherever he tries to even catch a glimmer of happiness in his dark, twisted world.

Something strong and solid embraces him. Slaine presses his palms against Inaho’s chest at first, against the warmth and consolation of Inaho’s arms, he pushes Inaho away, the soft skin and tender, careful hands, because all he sees and smells and breathes near Inaho is death; cold, clear death.

It’s unbearable.

Inaho hugs him so tightly, his fingers are digging into Slaine’s back, hurting him. Slaine throws back his head, distorts his features, helplessly. He opens his mouth with a cry.

They stay like this for a long time.

#

“The newborn is healthy. I fed it, according to the book’s instructions.” Inaho says, placing another log into the fireplace. Dawn has arrived, a few sunrays appearing shyly through the fogged windows. The fire awakens, licks the wood, destroying it. Inaho wraps a warmly clothed Slaine in a thick blanket. Slaine remembers a shower, Inaho snatching wet clothes from his shivering hands. He stays silent, sitting on the couch, unable to move. Sirius is resting his head on his knee, whimpering. Aria the cat, and every other animal Slaine owns, were moved to the clean stables with food and water. Sleipnir is resting, forever, in a place among the dark woods. Inaho did everything, smeared his clothes with mud and soil. Slaine couldn’t bear to watch, but he went and stood there, next to Inaho, and suffered.

“Why me, Inaho?” Slaine whispers.

Inaho stops washing the dishes, and comes to sit next to Slaine on the couch. “I cannot answer everything. If you’re going to add that I could have been in a relationship with anyone else, my answer is clear: only you, Slaine Troyard.”

“Why are you doing all of this—everything—for me?” Slaine cannot even understand what kind of words are leaving his mouth right now. “I—I don’t understand. You want…good things. What good did you see in me—I have nothing good left to offer, Inaho. Nothing.”

Inaho leans closer, presses a kiss against Slaine’s damp hair. “You once asked me.” Inaho breathes out, near Slaine’s ear.

What do you love, Kaizuka Inaho?

“No, no.” Slaine whispers, and knows that the words ring false, untrue. “You shouldn’t talk like that.” Inaho kisses him again, on his temple. Slaine wants to cry. “A few months. You said a few months.” Slaine says, hoarsely. “When you first came here. A few months, but it’s almost been a year.” Slaine turns his head, meets that dark red eye. “Is this a miracle?”

“I don’t know, Slaine. When I first arrived here…I was lost. I was afraid of everything. Of life, and of death. Nevertheless…throughout my life, throughout the war and loss…I’ve only been certain of one thing.”

“Don’t say it.” Slaine can feel the tears, trickling down his cheeks.

Inaho’s hand covers his own. “Slaine.”

“Don’t say it!” Slaine snaps, hiding his face into Inaho’s chest. So pathetic.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I don’t—“

Inaho hugs him tightly.

#

“Inaho.” Slaine is resting his head on Inaho’s lap, half asleep. Inaho’s fingers never stop caressing his hair.

“Hmm?”

“For you, I’d try it.”

“Try what?”

“A life without…pain.”

Inaho’s movements stop. He answers, calmly, “Let us try, then.”

The words feel like a lie.

#

Slaine’s breaths become slower, calmer. Inaho leaves his side. He kneels, pets Sirius on the head, once. He returns to the kitchen counter, his steps slow. It’s a routine by now; Inaho, swallowing a pill every night before washing the dishes. But Sleipnir is gone; they stayed awake all night; time flows strangely, reality seems distorted. And Kaizuka Inaho is constantly in pain. Every day, eleven months. Slaine lets his eyes drift shut. He can’t believe it. He can’t. Sleipnir—

There’s a loud sound, like a bang, like plates shattering. Slaine jerks, he gets up, hands shaking. “Inaho?”

No answer. Dread fills Slaine, settles like a cold, dark stone inside his chest, cutting off his breath. He’s at Inaho’s side before he has realized how his feet carried him there; Inaho is sitting on the floor, eye closed.

“To answer your numerous questions, Bat: I am fine.”

“You liar.” Slaine snaps, his knees hitting the floor in disbelief, his arm supporting Inaho’s shoulders, the other cradling Inaho’s cheek, brushing his thumb across cold skin. “Inaho. Inaho!

Inaho breathes out, his shoulders sagging, and the words that leave his mouth seem forced and practiced. “Slaine. I need to tell you something.” It’s silent for a moment, and Slaine realizes he’s breathing so fast, the corners of his vision are turning black. “Stay calm.” Inaho says, and Slaine wants to growl, to shake Inaho and scream, until Inaho says, “I can’t see.”

“I’m taking you to a hospital.” Slaine vomits the words, not realizing their meaning. He tugs Inaho closer, his fingers won’t stop caressing Inaho’s hair, almost frantically. “This—this stupid farce of yours ends, right now. Do you hear me? I’m driving you to the hospital.”

Inaho seems so tired. “They will arrest you. Execute you.”

Slaine explodes, “Do I seem like I care?!”

“…I will accept your offer. Only if you leave me and walk away. Survive.”

“Shut up. You’re sick. You have no say in this.” Slaine stands up, and he’s suddenly calm, calmer than he has ever been in his life. He grabs Inaho’s forearms, tries to make him stand up.

“Stop sounding like a tyrant. It never suited you.” Inaho coughs. “Unlike that crimson uniform.”

Slaine closes his eyes in despair, since Inaho always knows how to stab exactly where it hurts. He tries to make Inaho stand, again.

“Stop this. They will arrest you.” Inaho says. Resisting. “Stop destroying yourself.” Inaho takes a long, sharp breath. Almost like struggling, like he’s in pain. “You did it for Asseylum, you did it for Vers. I refuse to watch you destroy yourself again. Not even for my sake.”

“Damn you, Kaizuka Inaho!” Slaine lets Inaho sag down again, on the floor, he drags his fingers through his pale hair, and the feeling in his chest expands and expands, consuming him whole, destroying him. “What are you suggesting?! That I should drop you there, alone, terrified, and simply…leave? Just like that?!” Slaine turns to face Inaho, and he sees everything he hasn’t observed, during the last few hours; the ashen skin, pulled tightly across Inaho’s features, the dark circle under that red eye, the obvious fatigue wearing down Inaho’s bones. His knees hit the floor, he gathers Inaho in his arms, shaking him gently, tears leaking from his eyes. “You don’t have to face this on your own. Do you understand? You are not alone. I won’t abandon you. I will never abandon you, do you understand me?”

 Inaho’s hand searches for him. It settles on Slaine’s shoulder. Inaho’s finger slips under the collar of Slaine’s pullover, stroking the skin there. Slaine sobs, once. “I once did exactly the same to you, Slaine. Or did you forget?”

How could Slaine ever forget? Once, years ago, he broke down sobbing, and Inaho wordlessly left the room. It wasn’t abandonment, back then. But the next time, oh, the next time after years of daily visits and quiet chess matches and silent conversations was so much worse. Waking up in a cold, dark, empty room. Shouting in fear. Dragging his hurt, drugged, emancipated body across the old, wooden floor. Tearing the door of the filthy room open, only to find himself in an unoccupied house, in a dark, foreign country. Yet he knew, he knew his greatest nemesis, Kaizuka Inaho, was behind this. He cursed and swore and hurt Inaho in his mind a thousand times…before the dawn arrived, before, for the first time in years, he witnessed the clear blue sky stretching endless overhead, and the sun displaying how each blade of grass across the surrounding fields danced in the wind.

Inaho is talking. “When you leave me there…there’s a high probability…” Inaho grits his teeth. “…that I will never see you again.”

The horrible truth, of what Inaho is implying.

“Perhaps it is my punishment, Slaine Troyard…for believing I could save the world.”

“Shut up, shut up.” Slaine’s forehead rests on Inaho’s, the tears dripping onto Inaho’s cheeks. Slaine’s voice sounds like it passed through a shredder. “There’s no punishment, there’s nothing, nothing but you and me.”  

“I want to believe that.” Inaho’s hand is rubbing gentle circles onto the skin of Slaine’s shoulder. “I've known you since I was fifteen years old, Slaine Troyard. Yet sometimes I think I've known you through much more; through death, and life. All that we have to bear.”

Slaine can only shake his head, holding Inaho closer, closer. He keeps blinking, clearing the tears from his eyes.

“Ask me.” Inaho whispers. “Ask me…”

“What—“ Slaine swallows the lump down his aching throat. His voice is hoarse with emotion. “What do you love, Kaizuka Inaho?”

Inaho smiles, lying there on the kitchen floor, eye drifting close. His lips move. There’s no sound.

You.

#

The hours pass in a blur.

It hurts, it hurts so much.

Slaine remembers, sitting on his couch and staring at the wall. The long, horrible drive. The way he carefully lowered Inaho on a chair in the emergency room of the closest hospital. Inaho’s breaths were fast and shallow. Slaine shouted for help.

It is a big city. Unlike the villages near the valley Slaine kept visiting, selling and buying his supplies, this city was heavily destroyed during the war.

When they saw him, Slaine Saazbaum Troyard, even the doctors started staring. Whispering.

Inaho grabbed his hand so tightly.

Survive.

Inaho squeezed his hand, once, twice; then he let go.

You.

Like in a dream, Slaine walked away, away from the white corridor, the automatic doors closing behind him, the chillness of the morning attacking his shivering body.

You.

#

He remembers.

Inaho, lying on the blanket on his stomach, carefree, chewing on a cookie. Slaine secretly staring at him over his open book. And then birds flew overhead and Inaho looked up at them, and Slaine noticed Inaho’s neck, and how he wanted to kiss Inaho on the place between his collarbones.

#

There’s a knock on the door. More knocks, fast and violent. Slaine recalls the sound of a firing machinegun.

They’ve found him.

This is it, Slaine thinks, this is where everything ends.

It doesn’t matter. Nothing does. He has lost everything.

With weary steps, Slaine ignores Sirius’ frantic barking and drags himself to the door. He knows, he will fall on his knees and beg them to leave the animals unharmed. There’s so much they have already suffered. So much violence. His nape is cold with sweat. He wants to throw up. His hands are shaking so badly, it takes him a few seconds to grasp the handle, then open the door.

Everything stops.

That soft smile, that gaze which holds the crimson color of the approaching dawn. He seems…so healthy.

“Slaine.”

Slaine remembers, so many months ago, the morning Kaizuka Inaho first knocked on this door. Only this time, Inaho’s warm mouth covers his own, and for a moment, just a moment, Slaine becomes lost in the exquisite sensation of his skin becoming too tight for his body.

“I’m home.”

To be continued…