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While we still breathe

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„So... the school year is almost over.“ His ears burned hot and embarrassed. A year that changed many things. He had gained many new friends. Rai. As awkward as he may be, he was still a friend. He learned many things about the Headmaster. Regis, who was just as awkward. Raskreia. She was awkward too. Actually, almost all of his new friends were awkward, but it was alright. He also could be very awkward at times. Like now. Seira... She was the prettiest girl in the universe, there could not be any doubt about it. The way she moved... the way she talked... always with purpose, but not silent to the point of uncomfortable. Summer break lied ahead. Of course, he still would hang out with his friends. Go and play games, get ramyeon (hopefully the headmaster would allow them to come outside schooltime too!) and enjoy the good weather. Maybe they all could go to the pool at some point. However... there was something he needed to ask. This was his chance. Be cool. Had he ever seen Seira hanging out with someone?
Be brave, he told himself and swallowed.

„I wanted to ask whether you want to go have ice cream at some point.“ His palms were sweaty. Would she say yes? Would she go out with him?  "I mean.... just the two of us?" 
Seira was quiet, as usual. Shinwoo never could exactly tell what was going on in that head of hers. Was she going to reject him now? Did he mess up? Shit, he should not have asked just like that. Maybe he made her uncomfortable, Maybe she did not like him that way. Maybe he had asked too soon. Maybe she was seeing someone already. Why did he ask her? Now he made her uncomfortable! Say something, Seira! Anything! Just don't look at me like that!

„I mean- if you-“
She interrupted him with the same soft grace she did everything else. A single whisper from her could silence out the whole world screaming at once. Did she just...? Shit! Play it cool! Don't ruin it! He laughed nervously to fill the silence. Unlike his new friends, he did not quite know how to deal with awkward silences.
„That's... awesome! So... uhm... guess we will see then? Are you going on holiday anywhere?“
„I don't know yet.“
„But you will still find time to go out with me? And will you guys hang out with us? We could, uh, go to the pool or something. And maybe headmaster could drive to the beach with us...“

That conversation lingered on in her head. She had noticed a bead of sweat on his forehead. His cheeks were flushed red, and she could hear his heart, too. It often seemed to beat faster around her. Quiet she may be, but not ignorant. This was no situation she would wish for her friends: to be torn between two things you care about. There was Rael, a clan leader, a future. Rael, who had grown up so much, who had gone through so much. Yet... there was also Shinwoo.. a role model of courage. Genuine, honest courage and the strive to protect his friends at all costs. One could not help but appreciate him. To be cherished by two you care about, two you would not want to hurt. Two who have been hurt enough already.

It was no easy choice, yet a choice she wanted to make nonetheless. To make both of them wait for an answer would be a cruelty they did not need.

Rael would understand. He must understand – a clean leader she might be... and yet, Sir Raizel had shown them all a world they never knew before. A world where anything was possible. Maybe even love would be possible, though she would not go as far as to call it that. Buds of a flower that endured a hard winter, the warmth of a first love. Not one that would last forever (no human lasted forever), but memories that would stay with her until the end of time. She would cherish them, hold them dear. A first 'date' as they called it. A date with a boy who, if he were noble, would be the worthiest of them all.




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„...In the experience of this investigator, his story is unparalleled in the history of shipwrecks. Very few castaways can claim to have survived so long at sea as Mr. Patel, and none in the company of an adult Bengal tiger.“ She closed the book gently. „.... What do you think? Which story is true? The first one, or the second? …. Roctis? Are you even listening to me?“
Only half. He had caught half of the story, his mind wandering freely under the sheltering dome of the willow's branches. Hours they had spent here under the tree – leisurely, she had read out loud to him, sprawled out in the tall grass by the tree's roots – he had sat next to her, leaning back against the sturdy trunk. Between the breeze of this extraordinarily warm April day and the sweet sound of her voice, he had felt at peace in a way he hadn't in ages. These cherished moments of secret peace he found with someone he should not be seeing for a multitude of reasons.

“The second story, obviously,” he replied eventually. The woman propped herself up on her elbows and eyed him critically.
“But the first one is true in his heart.”
“In his heart. Doesn't make it less of a lie, though.”
“Roctis Kravei, have you no romance in your soul? This is a beautiful story of survival, of faith and of growth.”
He snickered dryly. “Janna Lucretia Drosia, you are incorrigible. People tell themselves all kinds of lies to keep going. It might sound better, but it's still a lie.”

She had sat up entirely by now, her index finger traced the back of the book she had brought. Again and again did she try – but he was too old for stories of tigers and Gods, too old to be told that this rotten world was good at heart. A part of him thought that she was too old too, by now, but this was not the time and place to be openly bitter. No. Let there be one light in this night sky. One single light that reminded him that not everyone in this world was looking for power. Not everyone was ready to spill blood to get what they want - he was always torn between considering her to be extraordinarily stupid and outstandingly courageous. Either way, she was always overwhelmingly refreshing - left him feeling like new life has been breathed into him. 
This was the strangest thing and a sentiment he could not quite describe - maybe it was one he did not want to describe. Here, away from the Union, away from Ignes, away from everything, he felt as though he could breathe. Roctis leaned over and brushed aside a golden strand of hair. There was no good in arguing with her, He had almost accepted it by now. The only cure for naivety was experience. One would think that, approaching fourteen hundred years, she would have plenty of that. Ignes did. No. He had sworn himself that he would not think of her. Didn't he deserve a few hours of such a kind of freedom every couple of weeks during their secret encounters? 

"Please tell me... is father still claiming to be the leader of the clan?"
"Yes. And from what I gathered, the majority of the clan acknowledges him too."
“And they doubt nothing?! Can't they feel that he is not the leader?”
“In their hearts it's true.” He almost smirked, pleased with that comeback that put an angry scowl on her face. How do you like your own poison, girl? “The Drosia clan was never particularly strong. Besides, even before Edian died, he was the one your people turned to. And you are only her niece, after all. It's no surprise they acknowledge him as her successor.”
“... he tangles himself in this web of lies,” she mumbled. “With only one way out...”
“I know.” He cut her short, not to be rude, but to spare her the pain of voicing the truth they both knew. “I know,” he repeated slowly.

He remained seated for a few minutes, watching her pace up and down for a moment. “When will I see you again?” They never met for long – while no one might be watching for her absence, he was well aware of the possibility that someone might have an eye on his movements. This was a risk he did not need... yet one he took anyway, like an old fool... or a young fool who did not know better, maybe.
Janna stopped pacing. “... It's dangerous to go to the same place twice, isn't it? … Very well. Next month. In New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. That's where I will see you again. The fifth of May, two in the noon, at sunset.” She smirked. “Yes. Call it a riddle – or maybe the way to go.”
He gave a little nod. Whatever she meant, he would figure it out eventually. Art... ah, of course she would choose such a place! Slowly, he stepped closer. “Then... it's goodbye again...”
She gazed up at him as though she might be waiting for something.
“It is. I enjoy our meetings.”
“I do too.”
He was a wilted tree that suddenly had greened again. Boldly, he leaned in.
Shyness was the privilege of boys.



Chapter Text

„Are you alright?“
One simple question that could mean anything – and just right off the bat, Lunark had no answer for him. The past few weeks were so eventful. Their old Lord, Muzaka, had risen from the dead and their current Lord betrayed their people. So many warriors were lost... So many civilians, too. So much bloodshed... and for what? Has it all been pointless, in the end? Slowly, she turned her head away from him.
„Don't worry, I will be fine.“
He might have an energy similar to theirs – but he was still not one of them. The Noblesse cared much about this human... and Ignes, that bitch be damned for all eternity, had put him through the same hell as many of her own people. Had she not helped him? Had she and Kentas not risked much to help this man? Has it been worth it? Lunark noticed the sound of fabric crumpling as he sat on the rock next to her. A quiet afternoon, the calm they all desperately needed. A moment of respite from a world that would not let them catch a break.

 Eventually, the grey-haired man broke the silence. Almost unfortunantely – she did not mind it, after everything that happened. „Your people... they are strong. I don't meant just in fighting.“
What else did he mean, then? Lunark shook her head. „You were there. You saw it with your own two eyes – the way we destroyed ourselves. The way we sacrificed those weaker than us. The warriors have given up on themselves. We are without Lord. We are nothing.“
„And you still did not give up. You are still fighting.“
Lunark glanced away. His words... spoke to her, in a way. Yes. They were still fighting this desperate battle. A struggle for survival the nobles must know too. This world did not need them anymore - this world did not want them anymore. It did not want people like him either: mutants. He was neither human nor werewolf, he belonged nowhere. Should she ask? She dismissed the idea right away - they weren't that familiar. If anything, they were strangers. And yet... a part of her could not deny that he was more than just slightly intriguing. Kentas had called him a fairly pleasant company. Whatever that might mean, really. 
"We are fighting... and what for? In the end, it's always the Nobles. Or Frankenstein. Or Noblesse. If we cannot even defend our own people... what right do we have to exist at all?"
"You are there. That's your right."
You are there. As if it could ever be that simple - or could it? She turned to look at him. This sounded wiser than someone who appeared as young than him. In werewolf years.. in noble years... she was not sure whether he was old in human terms or not.
"That's what Rai taught me. We don't need an excuse to live."

 Why did this notion feel so deeply, thoroughly radical to her? It stood against the beliefs of warriors – the survival of the fittest, the rule of the strong. Might makes right. The weak being sacrificed for the strong... even if she had condemned Maduke's actions as abominable... deep in her heart, she and almost all of her people believed the same, even if they would follow this dogma to lesser extremes than he'd pushed. This was a truth they once held to be evident. A truth that might no longer apply in this new world. In this new world, the werewolf warriors were almost entirely gone, the nobles at their weakest... and the humans were at their strongest. Their modifications, once but perverted aberrations, could now stand up to them. The world had changed - and it seemed as though her people had failed to change with it. 

She watched him rise again. Oh no. Lost in thought, she had no mind to answer him at all. However, she got no opportunity to say something (even if she had nothing to say. Maybe she should not say anything at all, then).

„I am tired. Do you want to grab a coffee? I don't know whether you people drink coffee, but... I think I wouldn't mind your company.“

The tiniest hint of a smile appeared on his lips. Lunark's attention was focused on the small scar on the left. It made him look... quite handsome, actually. She returned that little smile.

„I think I wouldn't mind your company either.“




Chapter Text

He was not made to be Lord. He never has been – to be a Lord you needed more than just power and Muzaka knew he lacked that something he could not quite describe. Always something else to do. Always something else to turn his attention to. Rai... Ashleen... The light of his life and his best friend. There were others, too. Garda. You often forget what you have when it's too close for you to see. She, his most loyal companion and friend.
There she was. Her auburn hair looked almost entirely red in this light. From here, he could barely hear what she was saying. His time was over, and hers as well. If it were up to him, he would offer the position of Lord to Lunark or Kentas. They deserved it most – loyal warriors, not only strong but courageous as well.

It wasn't that he was not grateful to Frankenstein. One should not be ungrateful for having one's life saved... and yet... he did not feel satisfied. Empty in a way maybe no one could really understand without having been in the same position as he was now. They were done talking. All three of them glanced at him - but only Garda approached. Oh Garda. His oldest friend, even before he had met Raizel. She needed no words to know how he felt - their eyes met and he knew: she knew. Maybe she did not understand it all, but he was sure that she had an inkling of how he must feel. It could not be too difficult, he figured: to understand his mad, burning rage was more difficult than his beleaguered exhaustion now.

“Why are things never easy, huh?” He glanced up to her. His silent shadow, some would say. Fools who did not understand that it did not take a whole load of words to support someone. Like Raizel, Garda did not speak much unless she had reason to. After a moment of silence, he tilted his head towards the empty chair where Frankenstein usually sat. Too many tubes and needles connected to his arms, legs and abdomen. All of them were necessary.

“You know, you are my oldest friend. I can always rely on you.” A little smile, worn. But could he open up, too? Put into words what he himself could not even begin to describe? Maybe he should. Not that it would brig him peace... but he felt as though she, out of all people, deserved to know. Muzaka was not unaware of her – he was sure it was more than just his own vanity that made him feel as though a part of her hoped she might be more than just his friend and companion.
“... I was ready to die. I went wild. Shit. How can anyone not go wild? When you lose what you love the most... When you lose everything... when you hurt to the point of forgetting yourself...” He had hurt to the point of forgetting her, too. He forgot her, forgot Rai, forgot his people. In the face of this indescribable pain, he had felt nothing but helpless, blind rage. Centuries later, he still could feel its last echoes, embers that reminded him of the all-consuming wildfire they once were. 

  “I thought... I should give it back to him. The life force he lost when he stopped me. I should give it back to him and then... my time is over, Garda. I am old. This is the new world, with no place for me.”

“It's alright,” she said all of a sudden. So much gentleness, so much softness. A whispered caress, one that soothed his soul momentarily. To be looked at with such tenderness... There it was, this old affection a part of him always had for her. He could feel the tips of her fingers brushing over the back of his hand.

“Our people still need you.... I still need you.”
“... I am tired. I am tired, Garda. So tired. I let go of everything when I made that choice...”
Live. Please live, Lord Muzaka. That's all we ask of you.”
He shifted slightly – so that his fingertips touched hers. Ever since Ashleen died... his heart has been dead and buried six feet under. Yet still... there was a part of him left that wanted to believe that it was not all over. He was still needed.

“I won't forget you this time, Garda. I promise. I see you, here, before my eyes. I can finally see you.”



Chapter Text

Ignes always thought that werewolves smelled like wet dog. Once, that scent had been offensive to her senses, though she had dulled to that, always surrounded by them. One of them... his natural scent of dog mixed with an intense stench of musk and something she could not quite identify. One of the scientists had called it manly with a nervous giggle and Ignes understood why she despised it so. That old coat he always wore, sometimes with a cane that should have stayed in the previous millenium. He probably had that coat since then, too. However, despite all of her personal aversion - he was useful. Who else would offer her protection from the wrath of the Noblesse? The Union? As if. The Union was a dying horse, no point in beating it. 

“Ignes. How is your work progressing?” She set down a scalpel she meant to inspect. Around him, she must behave. 
Ignes smiled politely. “I am getting started with the tests for the awakening of Titan.” That monster. What kind of a Lord would do that? Should he not be the greatest protector of his people? Instead, on his orders they died. However, this was their wish. They chose their Lord and they would follow him – was she in a place to object? She, too, benefited from this after all.

“Good. Good. And the laboratory is sufficient?” The table of tools stood between them. She noticed that he wasn't wearing gloves. His fingertips trailed over the once sterile surface of the steel table. Well, that would need cleaning again.
“Yes.” He took three steps to the right, she took two steps to the left. She never has been comfortable with him - the gaze of his yellow eyes was too intense for her. Besides, he was too tall anyway. Now, however, something felt different. She needed his favour - and so she was the one who must show restraint. Because otherwise, there would be no one left in this world who might become her ally. 

“Good. Good,” he repeated, clearly distracted. He had not come here to find out whether she was settling in well in his laboratories. What else was he here for? For a few moments, she remained stood still.

“I know that the past few months have been... a strain on you. First the loss of your uncle...” Right. Uncle Zarga. She had almost forgotten about him. He had come too close and she pulled away, walking over to another table to get a document she did not really need right now.
“... and your father, too.” She felt a pair of hands resting on her shoulders heavily and a shiver ran down her spine – not one of the good kind. He stood too close behind her, his hands felt as though they weighed a ton each. Go away. Go away, don't touch me. 

"Thank you for your support," she answered through grit teeth. Stay calm, stay smooth. How much she hated it. He took his hands away and she turned around enough to catch a glimpse of him. Their eyes met. There it was, that strange expression he sometimes held when looking at her. What was it? That intense stare that made her shudder with some quiet distress she could not express. When father was still there... no man would have dared look at her like that. 

“Just so you know...” She noticed his hand moving towards her from the corners of her eye and she shifted in the opposite direction, from one foot unto the other, trapped between him and the table. Don't touch me! She felt as though she was close to sweating or swearing.
“... I will be there for you, if you need anything.”

And he did not mean more test subjects.



Chapter Text

To enter eternal sleep would be so easy. Maybe it was even the best thing she could do now - before she would be swallowed by the darkness of the spear again, before the Noblesse would put her down like a rabid dog, shouldn't she choose to die on her own, instead? Chained she might be, beneath what must be Frankenstein's laboratory, but her soul was still free. However... one single thread still tethered her to this world. Though she may have lost all battles... one single spark of home remained. Only a brief glimpse had reminded her of everything. Back then, she had to flee... though this time...Oh how disgraceful! She'd begged him -  (Allow me to see her one more time!) and she could not possibly tell whether he would even relay her request to her or not... and whether she would even bother... To see a traitor.. to come here and see her.... The last person in the world she cared about. Ignes could not possibly think of anyone else. No one who had not been taken from her by the cold, dreadful hands of death. 
Each time she heard steps or voices, her heart seemed to skip a beat. Could it be her? Was she coming? Would she see her again?
In this dark cell, Ignes lost all track of time, slipping in and out of consciousness. The nightmares of the abyss she had been forced into or the dread of being awake, what did it matter? Often, she even considered to give up on that one last little gleam of hope. The Lord would not come. Raskreia would not come. It was all hopeless, the world was nothing but darkness now. There was nothing left for her, now that she knew that death was not the worst fate one could meet. 

One day, however, it might be night, she was not sure, she heard another kind of steps. They were not a pattern she was familiar with. Hope flared up in her chest, a sudden fire brought to life by the soft draft of air caused by the door opening. There she was, Ignes could see her well in the dim light that fell into the cell from the lamps behind her. A majestic sight, even without a sword in hand. What did she feel, seeing the Lord before her? Was it happiness? Hope? Why had she even called her forward if there was nothing to say? And still, despite the absurdity of it, Ignes found herself smiling. 

“Ignes Kravei. You have asked for me. Why?” Her tone... Ignes never has been good at discerning what Raskreia thought. Unlike her little self, the Lord always had an admirably strong grip over her own emotions... Ignes saw nothing in that steely gaze of hers – no anger, not yet, no pity, but that was to be expected... Nothing. It did not matter. She had not asked for her to find hope, redemption, forgiveness, or anything of the likes.
“I told Sir Raizel that I will enter eternal sleep once I have seen you,” she said softly, in case he had not told the Lord himself already. “... I want to see you again. Call me selfish, but that is all I want from you. To see you again.”

Whatever the Lord might be thinking, she had no way to tell. After a few moments of silence, Raskreia finally found a way to react. “Why?” One single, simple question with a most complicated answer – and yet, at the same time, that answer was as easy as any answer given before.  Helplessly, Ignes chuckled. She must be mad. Yes, mad, there was no other explanation. Yet... in the light of everything.. in the greater scheme of things... It did not matter. Nothing mattered anymore when you knew you will die soon.
“Because I wanted to tell you that I love you. I always did. I always loved you. And I always will. Whatever an 'always' might mean from a woman standing with one foot in her grave.”

Did Raskreia flinch? Did something in her face move? For the fraction of a second, Ignes could swear that this mask of cold composure slip. She wanted to laugh. Laugh, because it was liberating. Yes, it felt good to say it out loud. These feelings she always had felt, in a way. For almost a solid minute, the Lord stood before her silently. Then, slowly, she stepped closer and crouched down before her – in this position, Raskreia was still taller than Ignes, sitting with her back against the wall, arms restrained to keep her just right in place. All of a sudden, Ignes struggled looking her in the eye.
“You selfish woman, Ignes,” the Lord finally said. 
"I am not saying this to save my hide. Believe me or not. I am not expecting a pardon from you, or anything."
"There is no pardon for the things you did."
"I know. Call me selfish. I am selfish. Cold and selfish. I wanted to see you anyway."
"Selfish, but not cold." 

 Ignes' head dropped. Of course... Though Raskreia might be the only person she still cared about... there was no person in this world left who cared about her. Had she, in some sick, twisted little corner of her sad little soul hoped that Raskreia might feel the same? Had she hoped that maybe, just maybe, she found one sympathetic soul in the one she had admired and desired for the longest time? In a way, she was certain Raskreia must be the love of her life, there were no other candidates. None she would honestly consider. Sad, wasn't it? In the end, her father was the only one who ever loved her. She should not hope for anything from Raskreia.
When the Lord raised her hand, Ignes half expected to receive violence, yet she felt tenderness instead - with gentle fingertips, Raskreia wiped away a single tear that Ignes had not even noticed before it was too late. I am so lonely, Raskreia. Save me. This world is so cold, so empty. 
"I cannot save you. No one can." Raskreia stated a truth that could not be any more obvious. By now, Ignes understood it too. Helplessly, she leaned into that single little touch that threatened to tear down all of her being. She wanted to crumble into her, cry a thousand tears for Raskreia to wipe away if only it meant she would get to feel that touch again. 
"I don't want you to save me," Ignes whispered. If she dared to turn her head and kiss the palm of the Lord's hand ... what would happen? She did not have the courage. Instead, she finally mustered up the strength to lift her gaze to meet the Lord's. Raskreia's eyes held a tenderness she could not quite describe. It was a tender pity, a compassion she did not deserve. No, she did not even deserve the right to have the Lord's hand resting against her cheek like that. She should not get to lean her head against her, and yet, this single touch ... it made the wait worth it. The anxiety of wondering whether she would come or not... Days and weeks in awful, hardly bearable suspense... 

Slowly, the Lord leaned forward and placed her lips against Ignes' forehead. A little sob escaped her, shoulders twitching as she tried to keep it in. Hold me. Hold me tightly and never let me go. Let me melt into your arms.
“I believe you,” Raskreia muttered against the top of her head, arms placed around her. Within these seconds, Ignes could feel herself falling apart. All the walls she had built for herself collapsed. Raskreia had given her more than she ever would have dared to ask for after everything that happened.

“I cannot pardon you. The things you did cannot be forgiven... But if Eternal Sleep is what you seek, you shall be allowed to return to Lukedonia one more times, to find peace as a leader of the clan. This is the only thing I can do for you.”
It had tormented her, knowing that her father did not find rest according to the customs of their people. He died far away from the sea. Helplessly, she nodded, leaning into Raskreia's half-embrace. Her voice soothed her soul.

“Thank you,” she whispered. And indeed, for the first time in her life, she felt genuine gratitude.