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Wanderers above the City of Dreams

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i.

Luminous mind, bright devil

Of absolute clusterings, of upright noon—:

Here we are at last, alone, without loneliness,

Far from the savage city’s delirium.

 

The day he meets Slaine for the first time, the sky is a perfect blue. His life is empty. Science is his steady companion, logic is the air he breathes. 

Slaine has the shining eyes of a demon from those old, haunting legends, stories already buried within the memories of his childhood.

(Inaho will look back one day. He will realize that this unbearable need, this endless hunger for freedom has vanished, because Slaine came into his life and smashed everything around him along his powerful path. Inaho will smile and he will picture the beginning of his adolescence as a straight road, immaculate, with not even a single turn or crossroad with choices presented at him to pick; the events that occurred at the orphanage had already prearranged every phase of his life—until the day Slaine arrived.)

#

Until he meets Slaine, Inaho describes himself as an intelligent 18-year-old student. He never claims to be normal, simply because there are many times where this world feels too small for him. Inaho can understand complicated physics theorems in the matter of seconds. The bullies at his school punch and kick out at him, and Inaho fights back. He isn’t expelled from school the day he breaks one of his bullies’ arms, since the board of directors refuse to let such a great opportunity pass; Inaho will probably be the first student to be accepted at the best university of the country.

#

Inaho’s head is throbbing with pain. The sky’s a light blue, stretching limitless above. There is a boy around his age in front of the drugstore. His hair so blond, it seems alight under the orange light of a setting sun. Bright green eyes rest on him. Something unexplainable happens then, on that small and humid afternoon street, for the first time in Inaho’s life: Inaho feels a shiver pass through his entire body the moment their eyes meet.

That person is leaning against the wall, watching Inaho with sharp interest. His clothes are well-worn, jeans and a leather jacket, hands shoved into the pockets. He is a student too, Inaho concludes, since a white shirt with an unrecognizable school logo is carefully tucked under his jeans, in a probably forbidden combination.

Inaho tears his gaze away, away from those eyes. Green. Inaho takes breaths, helpless, confused.A brilliant green. I have never…The probability of turning around and seeking those lucid eyes again makes Inaho stand stock-still. Since when can a mere glance evoke such… raging…emotions?

Yuki used to hold him close as a child after the bullies were done with him. He could never breathe when his sister hugged him so close, because it was uncomfortable, yet calming at the same time. That is exactly what happens right at that moment; he cannot breathe, cannot think, yet a calming feeling washes over him, the calmness that usually precedes tragedy and ruination.

He steps into the drugstore, aware that time has passed. He needs to buy the pills.

The mysterious outsider follows Inaho inside.

Something dark and deep stirs inside Inaho the moment he realizes they are alike; they are both strange, differentfrom the rest. Outsiders. Despite the faded jeans and Inaho’s crispy ironed school uniform, despite the unruly, blond mop of hair falling in front of the stranger’s bright eyes and Inaho’s immaculate appearance, something neglected, something hidden deep inside his soul finds recognition into the other.

Inaho blinks, extremely surprised by his own thoughts.

After that, Inaho is careful to catch glimpses of that leather jacket between stacks of canned products, and every iota of Inaho’s being is aware when the scratching noise of worn-out sneakers approaches him too close.

#

Inaho shows his prescription to the apothecary, pays, then gets out. He walks down the street. The leather jacket has disappeared from his peripheral vision.

The dull, burning pain that spreads under his skin after being kicked in the stomach is always unpleasant. That exactly is Inaho’s first thought after a boot connects with his stomach, his ribcage. Inaho kneels on the street. They managed to surprise me. They gathered more people, too. Their plans seem more intelligent this time…that could be a problem.

The gangs in his school are organized. Students seen as easy victims will be targeted and forced to give up everything valuable to them. Inaho wouldn’t mind if the ten gang members surrounding him took his money and left. However, their (not very intelligent) leader is standing in front of a kneeling Inaho now, holding the orange paper bag with his pills. Inaho hesitates. He cannot afford losing next month’s pills.

“I’ll go easy on you, Kaizuka!” His free hand grabs Inaho’s hair. He tugs at it, forces Inaho to raise his head. “Argh, come ooooon, don’t make that face!” Everyone laughs, apparently since there is the popular belief in his school that Inaho is an emotionless—

Freak!What do you need the pills for, huh?!”

Inaho sighs. The motion hurts his ribs. His mind devises plans. He will escape out of this situation in seconds. Violence, received or given, is nothing new to him. However, he refuses to draw further attention to himself, especially outside the relative safety of the school. Perhaps he is still being watched—

The leather jacket slides near, hiding in the shadows.

Inaho is falling.

That’s what it feels like. Within the next heartbeat, all blood leaves his face, and a cold feeling rushes through his veins, settling in his thrashing heart.

Unfortunately, the bullies sense his discomfort, and, thinking they are the source of Inaho’s distress, they attack.

#

Inaho does not make a sound during the whole ordeal. Ten against one. During every punch and kick, the blond young man watches from the shadows. He doesn’t make a move to help Inaho. Not that Inaho expected of him to. The bullies are weak and unimpressive, since they only manage to hit his ribs, and not his head or legs—until the leader loses his patience, it seems, and kicks Inaho under his chin—a weak, pained whine forces itself out of Inaho’s throat the moment his head snaps back and hits the cold concrete, and in the blinding, nauseating pain that follows, Inaho decides that he’s had enough.

He stands up. This is easy to do, since the circle of persons surrounding him has loosened, the gang members keeping their distance from him, many of them too young and inexperienced to be in a serious fight, many of them hesitating to attack a seemingly defenseless person.

Of course, they are wrong.

Inaho attacks the weakest persons first; he hits his opponents’ jaws with his arm slightly bent, sending them kneeling on the ground, unconscious. Usually, this procedure is enough to keep him out of trouble when he is outnumbered, since most people are scared of him after he uses it.

A few people flee after this, crying out in fear and carrying their semi-conscious friends. Still, the leader (whose name Inaho never caught) and four other persons decide to stay. His paper bag is thrown carelessly on the ground, as the leader screams incomprehensible insults at him, and then adds, “You will pay for that—that slap—you bitch!!”

Inaho blinks. “It wasn’t a slap. The method of ‘slapping’ requires the whole palm to make contact with the opponent’s face. Velocity and force are lost, that way. I used the bottom of my palm—it’s more convenient to cause concussions with this method.”

The sound of a motorbike echoes in the darkness. A slim, dark figure steps out of the mist. The streetlights’ glow is washing over him. It gilds his already golden hair, it snatches Inaho’s breath out of his lungs.

“Scram.”

When the gang refuses to obey, the stranger attacks with a viciousness that conceals years and years of abuse, ages of loneliness and misery.

Beneath the street lights in the narrow alley, Inaho stands still, watching the violence terrifically unfold in front of him.

#

When it’s over, Inaho says, “Leave us alone.”  He is obeyed. The groans of pain, the receding footsteps, everything disappears into the night, until only the two of them are left behind in the dim alley. It is now quiet. Inaho observes the glowing, savage light behind the stranger’s eyes, the bruises on his knuckles.

Inaho meets those eyes steadily. He also develops an instant dislike for the red and purple discolorations, marring that pale skin. The stranger walks gracefully toward Inaho’s orange paper bag, picks it up, and takes the bottle of pills out. His gaze stays focused for long seconds on the label, a label that includes Inaho’s full name and address.

“I need to know your name.” Inaho blurts, despite not wanting this sudden, aching interest for the other to show. “Since you now acquired private information about me.”

That gaze leaves the bottle and travels upwards, resting on Inaho’s face. Inaho’s mouth becomes dry. The first words the boy uses to address him are unusual, like the iridescence of his eyes. “Hypersomnia.”

“Excuse me?” Inaho is not used to other people’s words overwhelming him.

“It’s on your medicine’s label. Symptoms; hypersomnia. You don’t seem like a person to suffer from thatneurological disorder. I’d bet on insomnia. So…you are taking these in order to stay awake, Orange. I wonder why…?”

“Orange?”

“You did not want me to know your name, correct? Orange seems like a nice nickname, to me.”

Inaho narrows his eyes, betraying his reluctance to continue with this conversation—there is something predatory in the fluid way Slaine slats his head, observing him.“My name is Slaine, by the way. Slaine Troyard.” A pause. “Slaine Saazbaum Troyard.”

Is this supposed to be an introduction?Inaho is as unsure about this as of his earlier try at a general solution on the Köthe conjecture. He closes his eyes, trying to understand how the dialog should go on. He opens them, and Slaine’s eyes are shining with amusement.“Tapetum lucidum,” he blurts, and thinks Slaine will stare at him like most people do. Empty stares. Scowls are always meant to convince him he’s a…variant. Inaho breathes out. “…You don’t know what that is. Of course.”  

Slaine, on the other hand, only needs a few words to silence Inaho, very effectively. “Did you just try to compliment me?”

 Inaho blinks. “The color of your eyes.” Inaho remembers where he has last seen such brilliance. “Tigers and similar predators have such eyes.”

“You are an interesting person, Kaizuka Inaho.” Slaine smiles, and Inaho’s cheeks heat up. Inaho cannot explain this. For the first time in his life, Inaho cannot explain anything.

“Give me the pills.” Inaho warns.

“Come closer.” Slaine whispers. His lips are red, like cherries. They form a soft smile.

Inaho ignores the scorch of heat racing towards his belly, grabs Slaine’s hand, twists it behind his back, yet his heart lurches as Slaine meets the grey asphalt below with a low grunt. Inaho hesitates—that unforeseen, pulling emotion at his heart is not a familiar one. A second of hesitation is enough for his opponent, apparently, because something hard hits his leg from behind—Slaine kicked out at him—and Inaho is kneeling on the ground now, face-to-face with Slaine.

“Slaine.” The name feels unusual, satisfying, the way Inaho feels the syllables stretch out in his mouth.

Slaine drops the pills between them with a small laugh. “You are…an interesting person, Kaizuka Inaho.”

His laugh…My name, from his lips…“Are you my enemy?”

“Are you mine?” All mirth is gone from Slaine’s expression.

Yes, The logical part inside Inaho states. Yes, I am. However, Inaho denies this, sealing his already inescapable fate. “No. We are not enemies.”

“Yet.” Slaine adds, and again, seems amused.

Inaho gets up, holding his paper bag. “You own a motorcycle.”

“I race.”

Inaho narrows his eyes. “Illegal racing is noisy. I can hear it in the darkest parts of the night.”

That amused smile persists, it changes Slaine’s features in softer, more intelligent ways. It’s absurd, but it hurts Inaho’s heart.

“Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” Slaine says.

“I stay awake most nights, studying.”

“You stay awake to study.” Something like scorn or jealousy flashes behind Slaine’s eyes. “University?”

“Yes.”

“Why you, too?”

Inaho breathes out, because the more he talks to Slaine, the less air seems to be outside. “Why do you ask?”

“You are different from the rest.”

Outsider, Inaho thinks, and nods. People have whispered behind his back, too. Introverted. Intelligent. Quiet. Strange… Freak.

Did they also call you a freak? Inaho wants to ask, but Slaine is faster, “How did you conclude that my races are illegal?” Slaine’s eyes are bright with wonder, an almost childlike expression that vanishes in an instant.

“Your bike. It’s modified, most probably in illegal ways.”

“How does someone like you know…?”

“My sister owned one. She never had the money to repair it, so I had to learn how to fix it for her.”

“So, the formidable Kaizuka Inaho has a sister.”

Why is he smiling like this? It’s…strange. Inaho places his palm over his beating heart. “Yes. Yuki is an International Police officer.”

Slaine grimaces. He stops talking. Night has fallen, Inaho finds the silence unsettling, so he opts for the next best solution. Plus, he cannot believe how he forgot about it. “I must go.”

That catches Slaine’s attention. “Why?” He says, and sounds pained, and then seems surprised from his own words.

“I need to meet someone. I am not supposed to let her wait.”

Slaine blinks. “Is she important to you?”

“…Perhaps. She is in love with me.”

“Inaho-san!”

Both Inaho and Slaine freeze as the girl, dressed fully in white, comes running towards them, carefully sidestepping the puddles of dirt and mud in order not to ruin her pristine white heels. “Inaho-san, Calm told me you wanted to buy something from a store nearby! I did not want to wait, so I thought…!” She rushes towards Inaho, only to stop abruptly in her tracks when her dazed eyes take in Slaine.

“S-Slaine…” Her voice is trembling. “What are you doing here, Slaine?”

The brightness behind Slaine’s eyes is extinguished within moments. Darkness seems to wholly swallow Slaine, who is now pressing his mouth together, as if in immense pain. His eyes are bright slits, he cranes his neck to the side like a panther poised to strike, graceful and lethal.

The voice that comes out of Slaine’s throat is nothing like his previous, enticing tone. “Kaizuka Inaho, you bastard!”

Inside, Inaho throws his logic to the wind, Inaho silently panics. Tell me what I did wrong, he pleads, Tell me why you are like this. “You should learn to speak better to your superiors.” he says, and his voice is not trembling.

The last thing he recalls before he passes out is Slaine’s hand, forming a fist, coming with great vehemence towards his face.

#

The first one to notice next morning is his classmate, Calm. He rushes like a panicked chicken and places his hand on Inaho’s shoulder, a gesture Inaho dislikes. No matter if it comes from a friend or a foe, Inaho dislikes being touched. He narrows his unhurt eye when Calm shouts, “Inaho! What happened to your eye?!”

“I met someone.”

“Ehhh?” Inko has arrived now, followed by a flustered Nina. Rayet is there too, simply watching carefully over the conversation, apparently drawing her own conclusions.

“Who is the bastard that punched you?!” Calm insists, very angry. Inaho appreciates it, that his friends always care about his wellbeing, and always defend him when it comes to the results of him protecting his wellbeing from the school bullies.

Asseylum arrives too, at the less crowded corner of their schoolyard where they always gather in the mornings, always followed by a restless Eddelrittuo. She addresses Inaho’s friends and explains how Slaine punched him and she helped Inaho get to the hospital. She places a delicate hand on Inaho’s shoulder like Calm did, and the gesture also does nothing to pacify Inaho. No matter how hard he tries, Inaho never feels happy, being next to Asseylum.

Furthermore, Asseylum was very reluctant to answer his questions last night. The only fact Inaho managed to gather is that Slaine was Asseylum’s childhood friend and neighbor for many years, until something went wrong and Slaine moved away, and they lost contact.

#

Weeks pass. Inaho spends his time between school, walking towards his apartment, studying inside his apartment, and talking with his sister a few minutes each night, ensuring her he’s alright. Her current mission has her located overseas for the next six months, so Inaho takes the initiative to never mention the day he first met Slaine. His eye heals with time, the eyepatch is unneeded. Asseylum wants to eat ice-cream and visit the movies, but Inaho always turns her down; he needs to study.

Yet Inaho cannot forget about Slaine. His lean, muscled, lithe body. The soft, almost tender way he smiled, the contrast of the purple bruises on his pale skin, which Inaho ached to touch. The way Slaine laughed… 

How can all of this be alluring?

#

It’s night and he’s returning from the convenience store, carrying dozens of eggs, when he sees Slaine hunched and sitting on the corner of a dark street. He does not know why he stops. He does not know why he drops his bags and his voice sounds so soft when he says to a still hunched Slaine, “I found you, Slaine Troyard.”

Within moments, Slaine is shoving him against the wall, Inaho tries to punch him, Slaine catches his wrist in an iron grip. Slaine whispers, “Why are you two together.”

Slaine’s fingers are hot around his wrist. Inaho shivers. Still, a revelation flashes through Inaho’s mind. “Asseylum…she rejected you.”

“She was the one person that kept me sane during my—tch.”

“Violence is a weak way for expressing yourself, Slaine Troyard.”

“It’s the only way I have left!!”

Thunder cracks above their heads, Slaine is pinning his shoulder against the wall, seething with vehemence. Inaho thinks about the mathematics test he has tomorrow, and how he cannot afford to lose it. If his shoulder gets dislocated or injured in any way, he will make sure to find Slaine and have his revenge. He looks up, at the old and moss-soiled rooftops surrounding the alley. Rain starts falling. They are fully soaked and Slaine’s touch is cold when Inaho admits, “We are not dating.”

“W-What?”

“I only agreed being her friend because my sister insisted. Her family is rich.”

Instead of letting him go, Slaine digs his fingers harder into his shoulder. Inaho suppresses a wince. “What did you just say?!”

Slaine’s green eyes are lucid and wild and seem to steal away all that’s left of Inaho’s breath. “Technically, we have never kissed—“

“Are you toying with her feelings?!”

“I am not. It is simple; she loves me. I, on the other hand, do not.”

Slaine makes an inhumane sound. His fist hits the wall, next to Inaho’s head. “Get lost,” he whispers, raindrops gliding down his face. Or tears. Inaho can’t know. Slaine’s knuckles are bleeding, red liquid soaking the filthy brick wall. Inaho’s heart reacts violently to this.

Inaho detaches his body from the wall and disappears into the dark night, walking away, far away from Slaine Troyard.

#

After that second meeting, Inaho is certain of one fact: there are no descriptions in this world available for the raging emotions hidden inside the depths of Slaine Troyard’s eyes.

#

Slaine is waiting for him outside his school. He is leaning against his motorcycle. Inaho’s friends look strangely at him when he says, “I need to go” and approaches Slaine in a hurried pace. Asseylum tries to speak, but Inaho silences her simply by walking away.

“You came.” Inaho says, and feels an immeasurable wave of sadness flood him when it becomes evident that Slaine’s fair strands are hiding a purple-red laceration across his left temple.

Slaine looks away. “I decided to take a day off from work and follow you here.”

Work…? “You memorized my school’s name from my uniform.”

Slaine’s eyelashes flutter close. Under the rich midday light, Slaine’s profile resembles that of a statue, quiet in his regality. His lips are red again, and they begin to shape words, and Inaho needs some time to understand Slaine’s question: “Inaho…You don’t use those pills for studying, do you?”

Survival instinct kicks in, and Inaho says, “I need to go.” He turns and starts walking away—

“Wait!” Slaine’s hand is resting on his shoulder, slender yet heavy. Slaine’s warmth sips into his skin, and Inaho shivers. Again. What is this…warmth…inside of me? Slaine keeps talking, “It doesn’t matter now. Wanna go to the arcade?”

 Inaho blinks. “I have to study. Furthermore, videogames are unrealistic, and a loss of time.”

A snort. “Aren’t you curious about life in the city? Or perhaps the possible high score you can reach? The neon lights that get dimmer during the night, the laughter of all people having fun? Aren’t you hungry after hours and hours of studying?”

That, Inaho is. “Yes, I am hungry.”

Slaine laughs and the air around them suddenly feels richer.

#

They decide to eat in a fast-food restaurant full of people Inaho’s age and younger. Slaine orders a hamburger and eats it within seconds; he must have been very hungry. Inaho tries to finish his own meal—salad with eggs, a fish sandwich, a glass of (not very fresh) orange juice—Inaho makes a mental note to invite Slaine over and cook fried eggs, one day. “You need to eat healthier. A hamburger does not contain all the necessary vitamins and nutrients your body needs each day.”

The small red plastic table is separating them, yet Slaine’s leg is brushing his own underneath, and that serves as a bit of a warm distraction until Slaine answers, absentmindedly, “I despise caviar, and the filet mignon sometimes feels like a stone when one gets into a fistfight.”

Inaho blinks. “You are being sarcastic.”

“Indeed, Kaizuka Inaho.” Slaine’s lopsided smile is tender. Inaho cannot understand how such beauty can be almost painful. He keeps wondering how time can still flow onwards after the world has witnessed such a miracle. What…is wrong with me…?

“We should go.” Inaho says, and belatedly realizes that while he meant home, he used a relatively useless word; he used ‘we’. Still, if Inaho judges from Slaine’s smile, Slaine misunderstood this suggestion completely.

“To the arcade, then.” Slaine says, and Inaho, for some mysterious, incomprehensible reason, doesn’t bother to correct him.

#

Billiards and games, flashing, colorful lights and electronic sounds are everywhere around him. The music is superfluous. And the people. People mostly around his age and older, Inaho concludes from their glazed eyes and the way they keep shouting in loss or jubilation each time a game round ends. The beeping noises the games produce are very loud.

Inaho instantly dislikes the arcade.

Slaine spares him one glance, sighs, and starts walking towards the exit.

His lips are stretched into a tired smile.

#

It’s only been a few seconds since they stepped outside, and Slaine has already attracted unwanted attention. People start surrounding them—they are twelve, this time. Chaotic, turbulent emotions rage inside a silent Inaho. He dislikes it all; Slaine’s sad loneliness, the memory of the lacerations, the red-purple bruises.

“Yo, Troyard.” That man’s haircut is…strange.

“Trillram.” Slaine hisses, then steps next to Inaho, determined, their hands almost brushing. It’s unsettling. The street is illuminated from the arcade lights, the night is warm, people keep walking up and down the street everywhere around them, chatting pleasantly. Inaho’s logic is shattered just by the soft, warm touch of Slaine’s hand against his own. Such reassuring proximity is a distraction. Inaho’s heart is beating so fast. He belatedly realizes that they are surrounded, and there is no escape as the street gang leads them towards a quieter, emptier side-street.

“Does Saazbaum know about this?” Slaine says, voice cold. “Gathering up this many people to come lynch me…your punishment will be harsh.”

“Shut up, you filthy dog!” Trillram barks, and Inaho steps forward, furious—only for Slaine’s palm to rest on his shoulder, stopping him. “It’s alright.” Slaine whispers.

“It’s not alright.” Inaho whispers back, relaxing against Slaine’s hand. Slaine’s hair is brushing his cheek, soft as silk. “Never.”

The alley is dark. But Slaine meets his eyes, and the emotions there feel like a punch to the stomach. “Thank you,” he whispers brokenly, almost pressing his nose and mouth into Inaho’s neck, just below his ear, before he pulls away. The strangest thing happens: a yearning so deep consumes Inaho, it paralyzes him, it renders him incapable of logical thought.

Trillram is shouting, “I told you, didn’t I?! It’s personal! There’s no way you can take out this many! If you keep quiet—well, you might just get away with only a broken bone or two. What do you say, Troyard?”

“You will never earn Saazbaum’s trust with those antics, Trillram.” Slaine says, expression calm.

“Oh really? Tell me then, who’s that guy with you, Troyard?”

“Not any of your business.” Slaine spits out. 

Trillram is interested now, smiling sardonically. “I wonder how he’ll scream if I break his legs?”

“We are obviously outnumbered.” Inaho states, merely an excuse to lean closer to Slaine, breathe in the faint scent of him. “Is he dangerous?”

“Extortion, theft, transporting stolen goods…” Slaine breathes out, “He has done all of this. And worse.”

“Murder?”

Slaine looks away. “Perhaps.” The next words are whispered, surely meant to be unspoken, unheard. “As if I’ll ever find out how Cruhteo died…”

Inaho aches to chase away the shadows hidden in Slaine’s eyes. “Don’t you have somewhere else to be, Slaine Troyard?”

“What?”

Success.“I need to boil eggs, for instance.”

“Have you gone mad?!”

Even Trillram seems bewildered. Inaho’s plan worked perfectly.

“Run!” Inaho’s shout snaps Slaine out of his reverie, and they start running, running so fast his legs start to burn. They run through dark alleys and brightly lit streets, they push people out of the way, they jump over trash cans, followed very closely by Trillram and his ‘friends’, who are now angrily swaying metal bats around, a few steps behind them. It all ends when Slaine catches Inaho’s sleeve and pulls him towards the road that leads to the arcade, where his motorbike is still (thankfully) standing.

It takes Slaine a few seconds to jump on his bike. “Sit behind me! Hold on tight!”

Inaho hesitates.

“Please!” Slaine is in agony. Every bit of his serene demeanor is lost, gone. His eyes are large, burning with concern. Inaho glances at a very enraged Trillram, just a few steps away from them, swinging a metal bat around, insane with rage.

“Let me drive.” Inaho says.

“Are you insane?!”

We have no time. Inaho grabs the single helmet on Slaine’s bike, puts it on, and somehow manages to climb on the bike, start the engine with Slaine now sitting behind him, and blast forward in the last seconds before Trillram’s metal bat hits Slaine on the head.

#

“How do you know how to drive like this?!!” Slaine’s arms are like a vice grip around his waist, hot and firm, and they cut off Inaho’s breath. The engine roars flawlessly as they dash through the empty streets, avoiding the sparse cars and traffic lights. Inaho has never used such a light bike before, and he contributes it to Slaine’s added weight, that he can steer the bike into the needed direction effortlessly. 

“Hold on tight!” Inaho shouts back against the raging wind, hoping Slaine will finally listen and stop talking.

Until he realizes his mistake, and stops the bike almost immediately, certain that he has put a large distance between them and Trillram’s gang.

Slaine flails his arms around. “What happened now?!”

“Don’t shout.” Inaho says, taking off the helmet. “You might wake people up.” He gets off the bike, only to climb again behind Slaine, handing the driver’s position to him.

They are on a small road with half-abandoned industrial buildings. The street lights are old and flickering, but still enough for Inaho to notice how impossibly green Slaine’s eyes are when he turns to look at Inaho, dazed.

Slaine starts the engine. “W-Why did you stop?”

“You were not wearing a helmet.”

“Eh?”

“It is against the law—“

He is cut off by Slaine’s loud, jubilant laughter, resonating through Inaho’s entire body with the gentle hum of the motorbike’s engine. Slaine is smiling as they charge, wild and free, through the barely lit night streets.

#

No one is on the streets; chances of being under surveillance after all those years are very low, but Inaho cannot risk it, allowing Slaine to approach his apartment. “Stop here.” Inaho says, after ensuring they are indeed near the area of the city that includes his neighborhood. The rumble of the engine slows, then dies. Inaho gets off, and just stands there, holding the helmet in his limp fingers. They stare at each other.

“Slaine Troyard.” The words leave Inaho’s mouth, thickened and raw. “Who are you?”

Slaine is silent. He gently takes the helmet from Inaho’s hands, places it over his head. “So that I won’t break any laws.” he murmurs, but there is mirth hidden in his voice.

“Another time.” Inaho says, aching to touch, to empathize, “I will ensure your actions will fulfill that statement.”

Slaine draws a lingering breath. “Another time... all the nights and the streets will be ours.”

Inaho sees it, the promise concealed within Slaine’s words, and he feels like burning up, his heart thrashing faster. “Yes. We’ll meet again, Slaine Troyard.” he breathes out, almost smiling, and then reluctantly turns his back to Slaine and recedes into the safety of the night.

#

A few nights pass, and Slaine is nowhere to be found. Inaho dreams about Slaine’s face a lot, during those nights…nights full of a sad solitude and the summer’s heat…

#

The sounds of a motorcycle fill the night. Inaho raises his head from his quantum physics book. Another sound; sharper, nearer. A rock against his window.

Inaho opens the window, staring down at Slaine, who is sitting on his bike, waving his hand at Inaho in a mock salute. He frowns. Within the next seconds, he puts on his jacket, then rushes down the stairs and out onto the street.

It’s absurd, yet Slaine’s proximity literally cuts off his breath. In mathematics, one can take a finite figure and divide its content infinitely. The content stays almost unchanged, but the action itself goes on forever. Potential infinity. That’s what Slaine makes him feel. The future. Slaine’s behavior, his careless attitude towards life, his rampant yet addictive passions, his quiet profile, thoseeyes, all these small details, they never stop extorting new, troubled emotions out of him.

Inaho wishes to compress his wildly beating heart. He recognizes the pure, vibrant emotion: joy. From seeing Slaine again. Inaho keeps his face blank. “Slaine. It’s late.”

Slaine seems incredibly pleased with his reaction. “Do you even know how to laugh?”

 “My friends are wondering why I’m talking to you.” Inaho sighs. “Since you punched me in the eye.”

Slaine is serious. “Forget about your friends.”

“Do you always speak words that you do not mean, Slaine Troyard?”

Slaine growls, “…Come. Enough with the studying.”

“Why are you here at this hour?” Inaho asks.

“It’s only 5am!”

“Slaine.”

Slaine smiles. “We are going to the beach.”

Inaho starts disliking this. He glances around the street, ensuring they are not being watched. “How did you find my apartment?”

“Eh? Remember where you asked me to stop my bike last time…? We were just a few streets away. Your window is the only one lit, in all three neighborhoods in this area.”

Inaho’s heart thumps. “You searched through three neighborhoods for my apartment?”

Slaine’s cheeks are pink, even under the faint yellow street lights. “…With my bike, searching tends to get faster.” Slaine’s eyes brighten up. “Now, stop with the questions already! Come on, Inaho. Come with me.

And just like that, Inaho’s protests wither in his mouth.

#

The beach is nothing unusual. They sit on the cold, wet sand, and watch in silence as the deep red colors of the sunrise rise over the horizon of darkness, spreading an orange glow across the cloudy sky. 

Two gulls keep circling the air overhead, their harsh cries echoing through the emptiness of the seashore. Inaho observes as the gulls fly higher, towards a tall, black cliff... a prickling, hot feeling travels under his skin; Slaine is beholding him in consternation. Inaho turns, catching Slaine with wide eyes and the intake of a breath. The vulnerability exposed in Slaine’s gaze robs Inaho completely out of words. The only thing he can say, is, “That is a steep cliff.”

“It used to be a waterfall.”

That interests Inaho.

“I came here often as a child. Usually after…”

“After?” Inaho repeats.

The solitude and sadness dissolve behind Slaine’s eyes. “There is a Chinese legend, about a dragon’s gate located on the top of a waterfall cascading from a legendary mountain. A carp managed to leap over the gate. He was transformed into a legendary dragon, and flew off into the sky…”

“Motorbikes lack wings, Slaine.”

Slaine’s gaze pierces his heart.

“Is freedom the reason you’re racing?”

“You should know better than me, Kaizuka Inaho, how freedom is nothing but a temporary illusion.”

Inaho wishes he could find an argument, anything, to confront that statement. His mind is blank. His thoughts get lost on the refined line of Slaine’s profile, facing the horizon. He notices a very faint white line across Slaine’s cheek, an old scar. His heart constricts. The breeze is dancing through Slaine’s hair. 

Why are you doing this, Slaine Troyard?Inaho never speaks. Making yourself miserable. Risking your life every day on the streets.

Slaine smiles. “Your taste in music must suck.”

“…I don’t listen to music. There is no point losing time over analyzing endless patterns of melodies that are practically useless.”

It’s impossible, yet Slaine’s calm laughter resounds in the empty beach like all the melodies Inaho never heard in his life, all the music he previously spurned. “Oh, Inaho. I figured so. And this…this needs immediate improvement.” Slaine stands up, and Inaho mirrors him. “Come.” Slaine says yet again, eyes dancing with mirth.

“Where are we going?”

“To my place.” Slaine’s cheeks turn pink.

“Do you always invite people over like this?”

“Do you ever stop with the questions?” Red blooms across Slaine’s cheeks, now. “No. I told you before. You’re interesting—special.”

Should I trust him? Yet his eyes…they resemble oceans…green and blue, in equal amounts…

“I-Inaho?”

Inaho’s eyelids flutter close. Slaine’s fine features are very distracting. “Slaine, I need to study.”

“Do you, really? You seem intelligent enough to be able to understand it all without—“

Inaho’s voice is hard as steel. “Failing my exams is not an option.”

Slaine turns, his gaze lingering on the horizon, following the silver-winged gulls that keep flying in perpetual circles overhead. He is hesitant to answer, but when he does, his voice is smooth. “You can study at my house, then.”

Inaho blinks. “Okay.” He says, aware of the slow-spreading warmth across his skin—because Slaine just invited him to his home, meaning Slaine wants to spend more time in his presence—and all of it is unexpected, yet extremely pleasant.

#

Inaho has no expectations from Slaine’s apartment. The building is ashen-grey, the paint stripped from the walls at places. Most windows in the building are barred, broken, or simply missing altogether. Cheap takeaway restaurants and hotels surround Slaine’s neighborhood, the neon lights of their signs flickering in the early gray morning sky. The whole building looks cramped, restricted, too old and useless.

There is no elevator, so they climb six creaking, wooden staircases to reach Slaine’s door.

Stepping inside, Inaho immediately notices the sparse furniture. It is apparently a two-room apartment, with a bathroom. The main room contains a small fridge and a sink, and next to them are a small, very clean oven, a table and a chair.

“Sit.” Slaine says, and Inaho sits on the single red plastic chair next to the small kitchen table. Slaine disappears behind another door—probably the bedroom— and returns with a wooden stool, places it near the small table, then boils some water.

Before Inaho has a chance to talk, Slaine serves him tea. Inaho appreciates it. Slaine sits opposite him and turns his head towards the soft light pouring in from the single kitchen window, and Inaho swallows in enthrallment; Slaine’s eyelashes lower a fraction, his slender fingers glide around his red teacup. Inaho cannot look away. They sit in silence until Slaine says, “I can laugh with you, you know. It feels as if feelings locked inside too long are pouring out of me…”

Inaho raises his head and looks at Slaine bathed in light, truly looksat him. At his honest, large eyes. At his faded jeans, the hole on Slaine’s pullover, just underneath Slaine’s elbow. Slaine’s hair, which is so long it brushes against his pale neck and falls like strands of gold onto his forehead, covering the bruises there, the pale arches of Slaine’s eyebrows. Inaho’s hands tremble a bit. He wants to touch. He wants—

Inaho glances away from Slaine’s red mouth. He snaps out of that hypnotic trance. Slaine is blushing. Inaho’s hands tighten into fists. It hurts, and ignoring that smothering emotion, almost violent in its intensity, is not something easy to achieve. Yet Inaho does it, because Inaho was always best at overcoming impossible circumstances in his life—until, of course, the moment Slaine arrived.

#

A few days pass.

Inaho and Slaine are sprawled on the floor of Slaine’s tiny apartment, listening to music and studying, respectively. Correction; Inaho is trying his hardest to study. He keeps stealing small glances, observing how Slaine is playing a game on a grey portable electronic console, one long, warm leg draped loosely over Inaho’s. Inaho finds it extremely nonsensical, losing time over a screen much smaller than his palm, trying to make a mustached character with a hat, who is made of black electronic dots, jump over ledges and into endless pipelines.

After dropping the console with an exasperated sigh—the character has zero lives left—Slaine asks Inaho to tutor him in math.

“Why?” Inaho knows by now that Slaine is a year older than him, and therefore no longer required to attend school. Slaine sometimes wears his old school uniform when the common washing machine of the building he lives breaks down—it usually takes days to fix.

“I want to be able to exactly calculate the velocity and the acceleration of my bike. For my races.”

Slaine is very intelligent. His mind is brilliant, and he can understand Inaho’s explanations in the first seconds of Inaho’s clumsy efforts to explain himself, whether they are talking about aerodynamics, theoretical physics, biological principles, etcetera. Slaine can understand everything.

Still, he is most happy while being free of society’s obligations and expectations. Under the sun…after a race…his eyes…

“Okay.” Inaho represses that sweet, tender pull at his heart. He does not lose any time. “A bike must lean in order to maintain balance in a turn. An increased speed or a reduced radius requires more lean. In this example, the centrifugal and gravitational forces are—“  Noticing Slaine’s narrowed eyes, Inaho stops, voice soft. “If there is anything you don’t understand, tell me. I’ll try to change the approach of the explanation.”

Slaine’s eyes brighten up. “Thank you, Orange.” Slaine bumps his shoulder slightly against Inaho’s. Inaho’s cheeks fill with color. (He recalls the day Slaine coincidentally saw him buying the pills in the orange bag again, the way Slaine’s cheeks reddened as he shouted, “Orange!”) 

Already addicted to the warmth of Slaine’s shoulder against his own, Inaho mutters, “You are welcome, Bat,” and Slaine’s smile is tender and blissful.

(Slaine’s motorbike is black, therefore he had to repay Slaine’s somewhat endearing attempt at a nickname with one of his own.)

#

Weeks pass.

Those afternoons where Inaho stays at Slaine’s apartment seem, impossibly, endless and very short at the same time. They talk, words flowing endlessly between them. It amazes Inaho, how much Slaine can understand him. When they are sated and full from talking, Slaine usually stays inside and listens to music. If Inaho is not studying, he will step outside, onto the apartment’s small balcony. The music carries on in the background, a constant reassurance of Slaine’s presence in his life. On the balcony, alone, Inaho takes in the surrounding world; the old graffiti on the walls, the sound of motorcycles echoing from somewhere far away. The city lights and white buildings, stretching almost as far as the dark horizon. The cats, lingering on the streets, always half-asleep.

“Inaho.”

Slaine always calls for him after darkness sets.

“I’m here.” Inaho says, and steps again into the tiny (yet increasingly comfortable) apartment.

#

Slaine’s mathematical approach to bicycle mechanics improves significantly, in time. Their shoulders touch as they both lie on the floor, Inaho’s books spread between them. Sounds of motorbikes are heard in the distance. Slaine insists on solving one of Inaho’s mathematical problems. Inaho keeps noticing how with each movement of the pencil on the paper, Slaine’s pale hair sweeps back and forth, just a bit…that simple bizarre detail is enough to fill him with warmth…calming him…he yawns.

The pencil drops on the floor. “Inaho…are you alright?”

Realizing that he has not felt so tired, so—relaxed— in years, Inaho’s pulse rises. “I am fine.”

Slaine looks away when he asks, voice even, “Are you still taking those pills?”

“Yes.” The air suddenly seems too thin in the room, forcing Inaho to draw a long, unsteady breath. “I do.”

Slaine seems broken when he turns, abruptly, never talking, yet the question is so clear in those eyes as if it was spoken out loud in the small room. 

“Slaine, you don’t seem to understand. I—“

Slaine cuts him off. “Sleep here. It’s too late for you to go home, either way—you need to sleep.”

Inaho is glad. He plays the game gladly, “First of all, I have school tomorrow. Your apartment is further away from my school than mine. Secondly, you do not have any excess room in your house for me. Where could I sleep?” An image flashes through his suddenly dazed mind; Slaine, warm and sated, lying next to him, those golden curls spread on the pillow, green eyes focused on him only, with their fingers intertwined and their breaths mingling— “No. Furthermore…I have school tomorrow.”

Slaine stares at Inaho as if he just sprouted a second head. “You already mentioned that. Are you sure you’re feeling alright?”

“…I am fine.”

“You can sleep in my bed, Inaho.” Slaine’s voice is deeper than usual. Husky. Inaho cannot believe Slaine just spoke those words. Slaine’s fingers are curled into loose fists—Slaine’s knuckles are very pale, and Inaho fixes his gaze upon them and still cannot believe Slaine just spoke those words. Gaze fixed on Slaine’s graceful hands, heat racing down his nape, Inaho says, “And where will you sleep?”

“O-On the couch.”

Lifting his head, Inaho realizes what a mistake this was. Slaine’s eyes are large, bright. Even Slaine’s ears are red. “You have no couch, Slaine...”

“I—I’ll buy one.”

“Bat, you have no money.”

Slaine’s face is crimson. “I’ll win the next race!”

“Bat—“

“Please! ”

Yes. Inaho feels like burning up at the thought of sleeping between Slaine’s sheets, Slaine’s warm skin pressed against his own, Slaine’s lips— “No, not today. But…someday soon. I promise.” Inaho says, and meets Slaine’s startled gaze.

“Y-You…”

“I promise.” Inaho calmly repeats, and thinks of long afternoons spent together, lying on the floor either in satisfying conversation or calming silence, and long evenings where he stares at the setting sun from Slaine’s balcony, the orange light fading away behind the skyscrapers and the city lights, and the long nights where he sleeps next to Slaine, Slaine’s warm body in his arms, and all the night terrors and the damaging childhood memories are gone, scattered away like the millions of stars in the sky above.

#

“I grew up in an orphanage. My parents died when I was still an infant. Inko’s parents took care of us after the orphanage, until we could legally live alone.” Inaho says to Slaine one afternoon while they are out, eating fast food again, and Slaine almost chokes on his soft drink. (Slaine loves sweet things, Inaho has noticed, after all those months of eating together—being together. Slaine also loves eating strawberries.)

Inaho finds himself unable to say more. Slaine stays silent. They are sitting next to the shop’s large glass wall, watching as people walk up and down the busy main road. Snowflakes are drifting down, landing on the dirty pavement and melting away into nothingness.

“Where is your father?” Inaho asks.

Slaine’s posture straightens with a subtle hesitation, and his eyes sadden. “He died when I was 14. A man named Cruhteo became my guardian after that. He…had a tendency to get violent. So I left. As you already know, I earn enough from the racing bets…every once in a while, I work at that construction company near your school. Enough money to pay for a couch…and convince a certain stubborn Orange to sleep there.”

Slaine smiles, and it’s addicting.

As they part ways, Inaho cannot help but recall the emptiness in Slaine’s eyes, during the two sentences he uttered, concerning Cruhteo.

#

Asseylum has mostly stopped with her efforts, trying to get overly close to him. Inaho appreciates this, yet cannot understand why his friends view his increasingly growing friendship with Slaine as something…bad.

School is monotonous, yet science is not. Inaho devotes himself to becoming better each day that passes by, and is content just observing his friends talk and gossip during the school breaks. Asseylum confides to him one day that she has started dating Klancain, who is a university student. They are alone in the schoolyard, just after classes are over. Inaho takes his time talking to her, since Slaine is at work and won’t be picking him up from school today.

With flushed cheeks and moist eyes, Asseylum asks him, “Do you regret it, Inaho-san?”

“I believe that I don’t understand the question.”

Asseylum has something vulnerable in her eyes. A secret?

“I am talking about Slaine Troyard, Inaho-san.”

Inaho blinks. “What is there to regret about Slaine?” He is perfect.

Asseylum’s eyes widen at his casual mention of Slaine’s name. Her next words are very strange, and full of silent accusation: “Knowing him.”

“I don’t.” Inaho boldly answers, and then they’re silent. Klancain arrives soon, and shakes hands with Inaho, then takes Asseylum away.

Inaho stands in the empty schoolyard, alone, for long and painful minutes, trying to understand.

He reaches no conclusion, so he decides to continue with his life as it is, and then wait for the answers to inevitably arrive.

#

In the beginning of January, Slaine invites Inaho to dinner. It’s a small Italian restaurant called ‘Papa Saaz’, tucked into the end of a narrow street in the center of the city, equipped with black tables, black chairs with comfortable red velvet cushions, a wooden bar with endless multi-colored bottles and a large, golden-framed mirror. They eat, and talk, and Slaine smiles and laughs a lot, that afternoon. Once, their fingertips touch across the table, both reaching for the bottle of red wine at the same time. Slaine blushes and then looks at Inaho as if he’s staring at the most fascinating thing in the world, eyes bright and honest. It makes Inaho shiver. 

It makes Inaho happy.

They are still seated after dessert, staring silently at each other over the red-and-white tablecloth, through the dim atmosphere and the candlelight. Only then does Slaine say, with cheeks flushed a mesmerizing red from laughter and from the wine, “Well, Happy Birthday to me, I guess.”

The world stops. “Slaine. Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I could have—“

“The only present I needed tonight was your company, Orange.” Slaine whispers.

In the same breath, Inaho raises his head and looks at Slaine. Slaine slides his hand across the table, palm down. Those long, talented fingers, the shape of those pale knuckles; small, insignificant details that Inaho cannot get out of his mind, no matter how much or how hard he tries; during school, during the time spent with his friends, during the long nights when he’s alone and cannot fall asleep, when he cannot find the same peace he finds sleeping on Slaine’s couch. Inaho is left staring at Slaine’s hand, not knowing what—not knowing how. His heart is beating, fervently. Analyzing the situation, ensuring this is what Slaine needs, what Slaine wants, Inaho raises his hand from where it rests on his lap and reaches out, slowly—

“Slaine?”

The deep, surprised voice over his shoulder makes Inaho turn around in alarm. A tall, middle-aged man with dark brown hair and the beginnings of wrinkles around his small eyes is staring at them in what appears to be…bewilderment.

For a single moment, Slaine is devoid of all expressions. Yet his eyes soften, and then he gets up from his chair and tells Inaho that he will be back soon, and then follows the man to the bar, where they exchange a few sentences. The man seems too happy, seeing Slaine again.

 ‘Happy’ is an underestimation. He seems…jubilant.

Sparing a glance at Inaho, the man nods, and then pats Slaine once, on the shoulder, and just like that, he is gone, disappearing behind a door near the end of the bar.

Inaho doesn’t know how to evaluate all this new information about Slaine, yet when Slaine returns to their table with a smile brighter than the sun, Inaho assumes that no harm was done to Slaine, and lets the matter rest.

Later, when they part ways near Inaho’s apartment, Slaine breaks his contented silence. “Inaho, one day I’m going to introduce—“

“I know.” Inaho blurts out, and then says nothing more when Slaine nods, eyes brimming with emotions.

Slaine whispers, “Thank you so much for today.”

Inaho smiles, just a bit, and then he reaches out, and he curls his fingers around Slaine’s for a few warm, elating seconds. Refusing to look at Slaine’s expression, Inaho lets go and says “Goodnight, Slaine.” Inaho starts walking toward his apartment, heart soaring with joy, and with the realization that, for him, Slaine is the most important person in the world.

#

At Inaho’s birthday, his friends surprise him with a cake at school, which they later eat in Inaho’s apartment. Eddelrittuo is too busy to come. The rest of his friends are there; Calm and Rayet decide to put some music on, fighting over the choice of the song. Inko and Nina chatter comfortably with Asseylum in Inaho’s living room, and Inaho is left alone, staring at the wall, wondering when Slaine will come by.

Inaho’s pulse jumps when the bell rings. He stands up and opens the door—and then too many things happen at once. Slaine steps into the living room, Asseylum’s face turns pale as she whispers, Slaine, and Calm shouts, “No way?! The guy that had the nerve to punch Inaho in the eye?!”

Nina says, “Why did you invite him here, Inaho?”

Slaine hears the words, stills, shoves the bag he is carrying in Inaho’s arms and wishes Inaho a happy birthday, adding, “It’s a book about the association between mathematics and music. You’ll like it.” Before Inaho can say more than Slaine’s name, Slaine says, expression pained, “I will ruin your party, Inaho.”

“Never. Come in—”

“Are you still friends with Slaine, Inaho-san?” Asseylum has approached them, and Slaine cannot even bring himself to look at her, Inaho notices.

“I am.” Inaho says, annoyed, “You still need to tell me what happened between the two of you—“

“Another time, Inaho. Let’s walk together, later. Goodbye.” Slaine says, and disappears down the stairs without another word, leaving a hole in Inaho’s heart.

#

“It’s been too long since I lost my dreams, Inaho.”

Inaho’s friends left hours ago. Slaine returned to his apartment, refusing to talk much. They are walking through the empty city park, orange-brown leaves crumbling under their feet, scarves wrapped around their necks, when Slaine speaks those words. 

“I met Asseylum when I was a child.” Slaine says, “We were both under Cruhteo’s care. Her parents died when she was young, and her grandfather was too old to take care of her. Cruhteo treated her like…a princess, while…he did not behave the same, to me. To this day, I don’t know why. I never spoke to her about…what Cruhteo did to me. Until one day…I left them, and never returned again. She must have thought I betrayed her…”

“Asseylum is afraid of you.” Inaho states, and watches as Slaine’s expression crumbles into pain.

“Two years ago, someone set Cruhteo’s house alight while he was still inside.” Slaine says, and fixes his gaze somewhere over Inaho’s shoulder, the memories obviously painful and unpleasant.

Inaho almost stops on his tracks. “Asseylum believes you were the culprit.”

“Yes.” Slaine says. “After Cruhteo died…Asseylum had nowhere to go. But eventually she managed to rent a place on her own…and she kept contact with Klancain, Cruhteo’s son…who was enrolled in a boarding school during all the years we lived with Cruhteo. To this day…the police…are still searching for the culprit.”

At that moment, Inaho recalls the dark-haired, middle-aged man in the Italian restaurant, and his silent…protectiveness…over Slaine. Could it be? However…how powerful is that man, to escape justice, despite executing such a crime?

“How did you survive, after leaving Crutheo?”

“Let’s not talk about this now, Inaho…”

“Why?”

Slaine sighs. “You turned 19, today. I am 20 years old. Yet…”

“Yes?”

“Our youth” Slaine says, “is gone.”

Inaho does not deny it. It is a fact; he and Slaine will never be able to live their lives with the same innocence and comfort that Asseylum, Calm, Nina and Inko already do. “…You could always leave this city.” Inaho says. “Go abroad.”

Slaine’s fingers clench on the metal loops of the tall barrier, separating the park from the outer world. “And do what? Pursue my dreams? I have no dreams left, Kaizuka Inaho.”

“Soon, the Streets will no longer welcome you. Trillram has attacked you twice during the last three weeks.” Slaine regards him with carefully concealed amazement. I always know. Inaho thinks, I care about you. So much. He feels lost, gazing at brilliant shades of green for longer than mere seconds. He forces himself to focus. “But you are intelligent, Slaine Troyard, and therefore can find a profession that suits you.”

“A tie and a desk, you mean. Not happening, Kaizuka! I am not like you. Carrying on with my life as if nothing happened—”

Inaho blinks. For some reason, Slaine’s accusatory ‘you’prickles his heart. For the first time since they met, Slaine’s words get lost on him. Inaho starts walking towards the park’s exit, the cold winter wind stinging his face, and for a few intolerable seconds, the only sounds that can be heard are Slaine’s shaky breaths, and the rustling of rotten leaves under his own feet.

A hand grabs him, warm fingers wrapped around his wrist, and Inaho’s first thought is to eliminate the threat. Yet Slaine lets go immediately, and says, “Something happened to you in that orphanage.”

Slaine seems ready to cry. Inaho stares at the dark-grey clouds covering the skies, ignoring Slaine and analyzing the possible weather patterns. It will rain.

“I can tell. People might say they cannot understand your emotions, but one needs to be blind after spending some time near you to not understand that…you are hurting. What happened, Inaho?”

It’s as if his mouth has a will of its own. “I have the fear…that someday, my past will find me.”

“Do…do people pity you for it, Orange?”

“Bat—” Slaine is so close, his breath is hitting Inaho’s cheek. Inaho feels lightheaded, “Why—are you asking?”

“Because it’s always in the back of their eyes when looking at me. Gazes of contempt…of ridicule…of pity. And I am tired. I am tired of those gazes.”

Inaho wants to touch Slaine’s cheek with his palm. He doesn’t. “I know.”

“I know that right now, there’s nothing left of my future. But you—you have a future so great, so brilliant, lying ahead of you, Inaho! The things you can do—”

“No. Slaine, that is not true.”

“What are you talking about? I am ruined.”

No.And your statement that there is nothing left of your future; that is not true. You are intelligent and capable of greatness.”

“And what do youknow, Kaizuka Inaho?” Slaine says, voice acidic, “Happiness—the future—devoting yourself to a greater cause—having someone to love, someone that accepts you no matter how lost or damaged you are... Do you ever thinkabout such things?”

Inaho tries to stay calm. “There is no point in losing time on speculations about the future, when the present is all that matters.”

“That’s not what I am talking about!” Slaine snarls, “Don’t you understand?I am in—“

Another voice cuts into their argument, “Understand what, Troyard?”, and Slaine’s face loses all its color.

#

We are surrounded…again. Inaho judges the situation, coolly, analytically. Trillram is not leading them. If not Trillram’s gang…Who are they?

Of the six men approaching from the park’s entrance, only one is vaguely familiar to Inaho: the leader of his school’s gang—the same person Slaine mercilessly attacked in the alley near the drugstore, an incident that occurred almost half a year ago.

“Hey, Kaizuka!” The man proceeds to speak about Inaho’s sexual preferences in a not very polite manner. (Inaho is not sure himself about his sexual preferences. Still, he has a suspicion that his only sexual preference is Slaine, if that makes any sense. He cannot understand why everyone bullying him seems so interested in that specific part of his life, a part which Inaho never cared about.)

“Listen carefully, Kaizuka!” A smile. “I want you to meet a friend of mine.”

The man steps aside, only to reveal another gang member standing behind him, making Inaho reassess his assumption on their opponent’s numbers; they are seven, not six. With Slaine at his side…easily manageable.

His neck is thick, his knuckles are swollen, his nose has been broken before. “Slaine.”  He is dangerous.

Slaine, standing always next to Inaho, stiffens. Words are excessive between them. Slaine understands. “He insulted you.”

“Slaine.We should finish this fast, with no delays. It’s important that we leave them uninjured.”

Inaho takes a step forward. His opponent attacks, fast and merciless. He aimed for my head…he is no amateur. There is a ring of people surrounding them, shouting and swearing, Inaho cannot see Slaine. He avoids his opponent’s first punch, sidestepping to the side, breathing in the cool winter air, clenching his fingers, slightly bending his body in a defensive stance. Another punch, which Inaho avoids.  The man hits again, but Inaho blocks the man’s arm with his forearm, then uses the momentum of his turned body to throw a well-landed punch, which sends the man kneeling on the ground—Ah.

The man’s eyes roll up inside his skull. Slowly, the law of gravity takes over. From his kneeling position, the man starts leaning forward, until he tumbles face first onto the ground, the action effectively silencing the people surrounding them.

He lost consciousness…

The intense, burning pain that follows is something Inaho hasn’t experienced since many years. I hit him too hard. I should’ve been more careful…

Inaho grunts, and Slaine is immediately by his side. “Inaho!”

“My hand…”

Someone shouts, “You took him out with one punch and you complain about your own hand?!!”

Inaho blinks. “Bone matrix is mostly made up of an inorganic mineral, calcium phosphate, in the chemical arrangement termed calcium hydroxyapatite.”

Slaine snarls, “Human bone is tough. You could throw a punch on someone’s skull, and break your own hand.”

Their opponents seem infuriated. They let them go, yet Inaho knows that revenge will come soon.

#

That afternoon, after their visit to the hospital, Inaho is very pleased to know his hand is not broken. Slaine insists on walking with him a bit, since the night is, according to Slaine’s words, quietand beautiful and full of miracles. For Inaho, Slaine’s proximity is perfection. Stars are shimmering above their heads, the broken lights doing nothing to illuminate their path as they walk through the city park.

It’s the reason Inaho does not register they are surrounded until it’s too late. Both Trillram’s men and the school bullies.

They actually possess the intellect to cooperate. Interesting.

Trillram’s smile is hard. “Yo, Troyard.”

Inaho takes a step forward, only for Slaine to grab his arm, restraining him. “No.”

Inaho’s expression must reflect his inner annoyance, because Slaine sighs. “…Go away, Inaho. You have class tomorrow. Your hand is hurt. I will deal with them.”

“I will not leave you alone—“

“Go away. In return…one day… you should tell me how you learned to fight that way.” Slaine’s hand lingers over Inaho’s wrist splint.

Inaho is silent.

Slaine’s smile is sad.“The streets are where I belong, Inaho. And no one can take that from me.”

Trillram is shouting things like, “You asshole! You’ve got some nerve! Who the hell do you think owns the streets you have the nerve to walk upon? Don’t think you’ll be able to walk home this time!”

Inaho narrows his eyes. “Slaine. This won’t end with you unhurt.”

“It’s not about being unhurt. It’s about who’ll end upless unhurt.”

Inaho’s heart climbs up his throat. “You are throwing your life away.”

Slaine’s eyes never conceal his sadness. “Do you hate violence that much?”

“I can’t condone this, watching you constantly get hurt.

“Any danger I’ll face will be easier to overcome if I know you’ll be waiting for me.” Slaine’s warm whispers hits Inaho’s ear and the heat bursts through his veins, consuming him whole.

“Hey! What the hell are you two whispering?! Pay a little respect to us over here!!”

Inaho knows that a vicious, rampaging monster is hiding inside both of them. Inaho has managed to ignore those memories, the bitter feelings, he has managed to smother them and go on with his life. But Slaine…Slaine is fighting every day from the darkness within him, for freedom.

“…Take care of yourself, Slaine.”

Slaine smiles.

Inaho turns and disappears without another word into the night.

#

Slaine calls him the same night, and with a soft exhalation, explains that he managed to escape mostly unscathed from the fight, but that he’ll need some time to rest, I’ll call you again after a week has passed, alright, Orange?Inaho swallows back the questions. He assures Slaine that he will be waiting near the school entrance, in a week, the moment the final bell rings.

Slaine laughs and Inaho slowly closes his eyes, committing the sound to memory.

#

Inaho’s strong desperation to understand Slaine has worn off, with time. Still, bits of Slaine’s painful past keep emerging, shattering Inaho’s illusions about any happiness Slaine might’ve experienced as a child, and that knowledge hurts. It hurts so much, Inaho sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, because his few, rare dreams are full of violence and Slaine, those two sometimes inexplicably bound in his mind.

#

Slaine always sleeps with the blanket wrapped around his waist. His eyelids sometimes tremor when he’s in deep sleep. Even during the hottest nights, Slaine’s lean torso probably remains hidden under a thin shirt while sleeping.

Inaho knows all of this from the single night he logically decided to study in Slaine’s bedroom, since it is the most illuminated room at night, with all the light coming in from the takeaway restaurants. The single lightbulb in the main room was broken, so Inaho took his notes into the bedroom and studied under the streetlight, arms perched on Slaine’s windowsill.

Slaine opened his eyes once, saw Inaho, smiled, and slept on.

#

Inaho sees the scars for the first time during a quiet winter night—Slaine forgot to wear a shirt.

Inaho is studying in the kitchen, as he hears Slaine groan in the bedroom. Concerned, he carefully walks toward the room, opening the door the moment the thin blanket slides off Slaine’s shoulders, revealing—

Inaho takes a breath because he cannot believe the immense amount of pain that was carved with violence onto Slaine’s skin.

Long, raised scars. White and red. They run across the entirety of Slaine’s torso—Inaho’s heart jumps up his throat when he realizes Slaine has woken up and is now staring at him—very still—through the dim room. Slaine inhales sharply, sits up on the mattress—

“Slaine.” Inaho murmurs, face blank of emotions, and Slaine’s shoulders visibly sag, tension gone.

Slaine drops his head onto his palms. Inaho almost grunts when more scars become visible now, on the area of skin just below Slaine’s nape— at that moment, Inaho feels a burning, painful desire rise within him—the need to caress Slaine’s skin, whose scars shine under the glowing light of the moon, the need to offer something he never knew he could offer; consolation.

Inaho takes a step forward. Another one. Slaine is unmoving, hiding behind his hands, so Inaho sits on the edge of the mattress, careful and attentive.

“He called it ‘discipline’.” Slaine whispers. His breathing is short. Fast. “I…I cannot—“

“It’s okay, Slaine. It’s all right.”

Slaine raises his head, and the misery in his eyes makes Inaho ready to shed tears. Are you sure?Slaine is asking, Are you sure?

“Yes. It’s okay.” Inaho says. “We can talk in the morning. We can talk another time. It’s—” He stops. He does not know if he’s trying to calm himself or Slaine, at that point.

Slaine nods, and then, after a few minutes have elapsed where neither of them speaks or moves, Slaine whispers, “I think I’ll sleep...”

“Yes. Sleep.” Inaho takes a breath, forces his fists to unclench—he’s been gripping the bedsheets with all his strength, so much his fingers started to hurt—and gets up. As he slowly approaches the open bedroom door, Slaine whispers, “Thank you.”, and Inaho tries to understand what for, and then tries to assure himself that for tonight, he has done enough.

#

The storm outside is growing furious, the wind is screaming, tearing apart the silence of the night. When Inaho opens the door to Slaine’s apartment (Slaine has long ago given him a spare key), the first thing he notices are the blood stains on the wall—Inaho analyzes their pattern; someone used the wall as support, drugging himself inside—Slaine.

Inaho barges into Slaine’s bedroom. Slaine is lying on the bed, shivering, face bruised and forehead brown with dried blood. Inaho doesn’t lose a second.

“Are you awake? Can you hear me? Nod if you can, Slaine.” The words leave his mouth fast and jumbled.

Slaine groans.

Inaho places his hand on Slaine’s forehead, assessing his temperature. “Are you nauseous? Do you have chills?”

Slaine opens his mouth and tries to get up. Inaho is there to support him. He opens the nightstand drawer with Slaine’s supply of medicine, places a pill between Slaine’s lips, observes that Slaine swallows it safely. “Lay down. This will stop the inflammation. It’s also a painkiller.”

Slaine’s knuckles are swollen and bloodied again.

“Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this, Slaine?”

Slaine speaks with short, clipped breaths. “Because this is the only way…I can feel alive. The pain…the agony…the excitement. My heart is beating so fast it might burst. That’s a proper race. That’s life.” Slaine’s eyes are glazed, feverish. “There’s no such thing as complete freedom, Kaizuka Inaho.”

“…Forget about this for now. You need to sleep. Lie down.” Inaho gets rid of Slaine’s bloodied shirt. Slaine’s skin is very hot under his hands. The scars on his back are shining like silver in the moonlight. Inaho runs his hands very carefully over Slaine’s skin, across that endless expanse of ridges and smooth depressions, until he is sure no wounds are there.

“You have gentle hands.” Slaine whispers. “Very gentle.”

Inaho needs a moment. For that moment, he allows his forehead to rest against Slaine’s hair, expression vacant. “This can’t go on forever, Slaine Troyard.” No matter how many times he whispers Slaine’s name, Inaho never gets used to it. It feels different every single time.

Slaine’s knuckles brush against his cheek. “You are so sad.”

“Because of you.”

“And what would you do, instead? If you could run away from this city?

The ache in Inaho’s throat mellows before he whispers, “If I could run away…”I would take revenge for you. Inaho thinks. For you and for me.

Slaine is inaudibly mumbling now, clutching Inaho’s hand in his own. “Let me sleep. Be quiet…”

“I’m always quiet.”

“That’s not something to be proud of, Inaho…” Slaine chuckles, half-asleep, always smiling. Then the smile is gone. “Perhaps…I have allowed myself to be vulnerable in front of you…because I trust you. I trust you so much...”

Inaho feels the deepest sadness gnawing at his insides. A new, weird and breathtaking desire to kneel next to Slaine and place his hand on his head, stroking his hair as he sleeps, is born right that silent moment.

“Do you want anything?”

“You.” Slaine breathes out, holding Inaho’s fingers to his lips. “Only you.”

#

Slaine sleeps. His lean fingers loosen their hold. Inaho’s hand slips free. Inaho wets a towel with lukewarm water, wipes the dried blood off Slaine’s face. He leaves Slaine’s side and leans against the single window of that old apartment which feels more and more like home each day that passes by. The streets are dark below, the fluorescent lamps from the closed take-out restaurants serve nothing to compel the night away. Inaho knows that his future with many dark nights lies ahead, unsure and beguiling, yet always full with Slaine. 

This must be the ‘youth’ Slaine was taking about…Inaho sighs. But for me…isn’t it impossible to understand something lost, such a long time ago…?

#

It’s March.

It’s the day Yuki is supposed to return from a year spent abroad. (Inaho has informed Yuki about Slaine’s existence. Unfortunately for him, Inko’s mother has spoken with her about Inaho’s eye injury, and the culprit; Slaine Troyard, the infamous ‘good-for-nothing’, as Yuki described him through the telephone. Yuki scolded Inaho for taking that much time to tell her about his eye. To his question why she didn’t mention anything before, Yuki answered that she wanted for Inaho to approach her first on that subject. Inaho sighed.)

That day after school, Inaho’s friends insist they go shopping together. Klancain joins them, accompanying Asseylum. Usually, clothes leave Inaho totally unimpressed; he only cares about cleanliness, the logical combination of colors, and the warmth long sleeves provide. However, remembering the holes in Slaine’s pullover, remembering how he was empty-handed on Slaine’s birthday, Inaho has decided a long time ago to buy a warm, comfortable pullover and gift it to Slaine.

They pass many shop windows, every possible kind of female clothing combination in display. Inaho quickly gets bored, constantly listening to Inko’s or Nina’s exclamations of joy for finding another piece of clothing they want to try on, so he keeps staring at the pavement, absentminded, remembering Slaine’s blood-matted hair, and Slaine’s reaction the next morning; a mix of shame, anger, and regret for allowing Inaho to witness him like this.

“…san? Inaho-san!”

Klancain and most of his friends are walking further ahead, so Inaho snaps out of his thoughts and turns to face Asseylum, walking next to him, her arms behind her back. “Are you still friends with Slaine, Inaho-san?”

“We are…more than that.”

She seems puzzled. “He is dangerous, Inaho-san. He was my childhood friend, so gentle and kind to everyone around him…but then he changed…”

Slaine never spoke to her about the abuse... “Perhaps there was a reason for his change.”

“I don’t know, Inaho-san…After Dr. Troyard died, Slaine was adopted by a dear friend of my grandfather. Crutheo took care of me since I was born, because my grandfather was always too busy! And that’s how I met Klancain…”

She never stops talking about Klancain, yet refuses to talk about her closest childhood friend. “Yes, I know.” Inaho says, a bit irritated, and doesn’t even register the violent change in his emotions. “I know everything. Still, I fail to understand how you keep suspecting Slaine for a crime he never committed.”

Asseylum blinks, pink lips frozen in a perfectly shaped ‘o’. “I-Inaho-san, Slaine is a criminal!”

“That’s not answering my question.”

“B-But the newspapers—“

That interests Inaho. “Which newspaper wrote an article on the incident?”

Asseylum tells him.

Both are famous and widely circulated newspapers, so assuming their integrity can be trusted…I need to read those articles.

He hastens his steps, until he falls into line with Rayet, Inko and Nina, and announces to them what he wants to do; buy a top-quality pullover and then leave for the city’s major library—where the past editions of those newspapers are kept. 

#

Ties with the underground…the house was set ablaze…Crutheo was found murdered…he had an adopted son who had disappeared months before the incident.

“Slaine…”

Discovered illegal possessions in the unburned basement of his house. Torture devices. Inaho looks closer at the photo; a black and white photo of a police officer holding

Inaho lets the newspaper drop.

The memories of Slaine’s scars assault him mercilessly. Inaho kneels on the floor and holds his head between his hands, because it hurts so much, it’s making him sick.

#

That afternoon, Inaho leaves his books at his own apartment and knocks on Slaine’s door.

Slaine opens the door with a brush in hand, hair perfectly tangled, wet at the tips, the water droplets turning everything golden. Inaho concludes that Slaine’s light blue shirt was put on in a haste; a pale stripe of skin is visible just above Slaine’s grey sweatpants. The thud of arousal steals Inaho’s breath away.

“Bat, this is for you.” Inaho breathes out, and shoves the shopping bag into Slaine’s arms, like Slaine once did with his own present. “Happy Birthday.”

Slaine drops his brush. “Eh?”

#

After Slaine puts on his new, dark blue pullover, Inaho observes the result: dark blue suits Slaine very much. Inaho is perfectly satisfied with the result.

“Is it warm enough?”

Slaine nods, and whispers, flushing, “Thank you, Inaho.”

They are both sitting at the kitchen table, and Inaho dares run his fingertips over Slaine’s (covered) forearm. The wool has already absorbed Slaine’s body heat. It feels soft and warm under Inaho’s fingertips. “Are the sleeves long enough?”

Slaine opens those red lips and a clear, amused laugh fills the tiny room.

“What is the matter?”

Slaine is smiling when he says, “I was born in a northern country, Kaizuka Inaho, during a snow blizzard. I’m used to the cold.”

“You shouldn’t.” Inaho is very serious. “Cold is…unpleasant.”

Slaine rests his cheek on his palm, and says nothing, smiling at Inaho with bright, serene eyes. 

“Dark colors suit you extremely well.”

Slaine’s eyes widen a bit, “Y-You think so?”

Inaho gets up from the stool he’s sitting, approaches the red chair and Slaine, sitting on it. He wants to be 100% certain that the size fits, so he places both palms on Slaine’s waist. Slaine inhales sharply. Inaho hesitates.

Slaine swallows. “N-No, go on.”

Inaho’s fingers circle Slaine’s ribs and he says, “You’re thin. You are taller than me, but thinner.” He drags his hands downwards, a bit concerned at the protruding ribs he can feel as his palms travel towards Slaine’s hipbones.

Slaine jerks, as if burned.

“Is everything alright?”

Slaine’s mouth is half-open, he lets out a warm, little gasp. “Y-Yes.”

Inaho lets his hands rest by his sides now, takes a step back. Slaine is looking away from him, so Inaho ignores the coil of heat and tightness between his legs, sits on the stool opposite Slaine and speaks about things that need to be said. “I was in the library today. Slaine. We need to talk. I found a newspaper article—“

Something withers away behind Slaine’s eyes. “Has it ever happened to you, seeing a white light at night, thinking it’s the full moon, and trying to reach it? Well, it always happened to me as a child. Sometimes, I left Cruhteo’s house and walked for what seemed like ages in order to catch a glimpse of the moon through the city buildings...as I reached the end of the road, I saw it was a lamp, that illuminated, as always, the dark and empty road.”

“What are you—”

“Cruhteo was racist and abusive. One moment we would be eating, and the next he would raise his fork, and tell me, ‘Give me your hand’.Sometimes it would be an empty threat, sometimes not. But I would always stay quiet, because I knew that any noise would aggravate Cruhteo further.”

Inaho doesn’t know what to say. “Have you ever spoken to anyone about this?”

“No.”

“Slaine—“

“I was on a ski vacation once, with Cruhteo and his former war buddies. It was my first time skiing. I was terrified of any consequences if I fell face-first into the snow in front of his friends, ridiculing him in some way. I kept moving forward, trying so hard, his friends wouldn’t believe when he told them I had never even been on top of a snowy mountain before. They said I was a ski prodigy, Inaho, but that was wrong. I was only a stupid, scared child, trying to avoid inescapable punishments.”

The sun has set a few hours ago. Slaine did not turn on the light, resulting into the dim glow in the room. Slaine’s face seems melancholic, covered with the shadows. Slaine rests his elbows on the kitchen table and threads fine fingers through his hair. Inaho’s chest is heavy with an unbearable weight.

Inaho forces himself to speak.  “…What happened after you left Cruhteo’s house?”

“I lived on the Streets for a year…until I met my guardian.”

“Guardian?”

“His name is Saazbaum.”

Saazbaum…one moment.“He owns the ‘Papa Saaz’ restaurant?”

“Yes. He was a friend of Crutheo’s…with former ties to the military. And…other organizations.”

Inaho’s eyes narrow. “Criminal organizations.” As I suspected. Saazbaum was the one to burn Cruhteo’s house down…probably an act of revenge. For Slaine?

“…You could call it that, too. But Saazbaum is the one I run to if I’m in deep trouble. Hasn’t happened many times, but…” Slaine sighs. “He offered to pay for my university, too…”

“You declined.”

“His money would be wasted on me, Inaho.”

Inaho is sad.

“That gaze again…why are you so sad?” Before Inaho opens his mouth to answer, Slaine snaps, “Never mind. Your sister doesn’t like me. Your friends don’t like me. You—you can go home, if you want. All I ever do is trouble you, after all.”

Inaho remains patient. “Slaine, why should I care about the world’s opinion, when I have you?”

Slaine freezes, eyes wide with shock.

“Slaine Troyard, I want to stay. I care about you.”

“Me too.” Fast, sudden tears blur Slaine’s eyes. “I think I care about you too much, Inaho.” His trembling hand covers his mouth. “I-I don’t know what this feeling is. I really don’t know, I only know it hurts, and the whole world will be against it if they find out.”

“Slaine—“

“It’s much too early, and I’m very confused and very scared. But you’re everything I’ve sworn to love, Inaho. Every promise I made to myself as a child. Do you understand? They must be worth it, I said, worthy of it. And you are, Kaizuka Inaho. And I want to cry at the amazement of it, of finding someone that understands me, yet I am terrified, of your rejection, of the ridicule in the eyes of everyone I know, of the disbelief in their grimacing faces.”

Inaho wants to hug Slaine close.

Slaine’s voice is coarse, he has wrapped his arms around himself, “I didn’t mean for this to happen. Please—please believe me.”

“I love you.”

Slaine is startled into silence. Until, “W-What?”

Inaho fails. The second time, it cannot be hidden. “Slaine Troyard, I love you.”

“Y-You…really do…?”

Inaho doesn’t know how to do this. Only the flickering neon lights of the cheap takeaway restaurants illuminate Slaine’s apartment. His heart feels smashed. But he leans forward, supporting his body with his elbows on the small table, closing that separating distance. And finally, after all those months, after all that abysmal longing, in a moment of perfect triumph, he closes his eyes and finds his purpose, and places his mouth over the soft, cherry-red lips of a speechless Slaine.

#

Slaine’s lips tremble as they kiss, as if he fears that one wrong movement will ruin everything. Inaho knows. Inaho does not mind. Slaine’s mouth on his own makes him shiver, too. So he tries to soothe Slaine with soft, careful kisses, cautiously cupping Slaine’s face, Inaho tries to ensure him that tonight, nothing will be wrong, nothing will be impossible, as long as they stay like this, together.

#

They lie on Slaine’s bed, kissing.

Inaho’s hands find Slaine’s, his fingers slipping into the spaces between Slaine’s fingers, grasping tight. They hold each other. Inaho’s happiness soars. Slaine’s lips are forming soundless words, his mouth slowly grazes Inaho’s, pulling at Inaho’s heart. Slaine’s knees draw up, he is arching his back, unbearably lost in pleasure. They are both new to this, but it doesn’t stop them from reaching out, trying, feeling. Slaine lifts his hands as if to push Inaho away, but instead his trembling fingers curve around Inaho’s head, tugging at his hair, bringing their mouths together. They kiss hungrily, breathlessly, and the only thing Inaho’s mesmerized mind can register are Slaine’s sighs, Slaine’s groans of pleasure, Slaine, who is always whispering between kisses, words that are too quiet, too jumbled to be heard, yet so tender, they are instantly understood.

Something constantly ignored and neglected, something hidden deep inside Inaho’s soul finally understands.

#

Before Inaho falls asleep, tired and sated, arms wrapped around Slaine and mouth tingling and swollen from their kisses, Slaine whispers,

“Have you ever witnessed someone crying in their sleep? It’s disturbing.”

A stripe of moonlight falls on Slaine’s cheek, and Inaho stops himself from touching it. No, I can’t.

“Inaho.”

Inaho’s thumb slides across Slaine’s cheekbone. The contact is warm. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because you are suffering, Inaho.”

Inaho withdraws his hand. “…I’ve slept about thirty times on your couch, and I was always awake before you.” That’s the truth. Inaho then lies, “Your conclusion seems unstable, to me.”

“Something is wrong, Inaho.” Slaine sounds very sad.

Inaho is silent.

Slaine sighs. “And now, you are silent. You are never silent.” 

Inaho doesn’t want to answer.

“Why did you start taking those pills in the first place, Inaho?”

“I witnessed incidents that I shouldn’t.” And, brilliantly, Inaho answers the question without actually answering anything. “The exact mechanism of dreaming is still unknown, yet my assumption is that most nights, the memories submerge from my subconscious, disturbing my sleep. The pills alter the chemical structure of my brain by reducing the production of melatonin, therefore increasing my circadian rhythm over the 24-hour margin.” 

Slaine tightens his arms around Inaho, and Inaho reciprocates the motion, tired and sleepy. “Orange, do you—“

“No. I don’t even remember most of it, either way.” Another lie.

Now it’s Slaine’s turn to be silent.

“This is useless, Slaine. We should sleep.”

Slaine sighs, yet as Inaho’s fingers start threading caresses through his hair (so soft and fine), Slaine smiles, half of his mouth buried into the pillow, closes those brilliant eyes, and eventually falls asleep.

Inaho stays awake, Slaine in his arms, staring blankly at the room’s occasionally bright corners, yet relishing every moment of their being together, like this. The patterns of the neon lights outside change into faster flickering rhythms, until morning comes and the lights fade away, and Inaho is still awake, relaxed and warm with Slaine’s face hidden into the curve of his neck, satisfied with life as he has never been before.

#

Inaho goes to school next day. The world seems ignorant of the tumult in his heart. Inaho feels like an observer, walking on the streets, at school; he observes how Calm and Rayet and Inko and Nina and Asseylum continue talking, teasing each other and gossiping as if nothing important has happened in their lives. For the first time in his life, he cannot fully concentrate while solving mathematical problems, since the memory of Slaine’s warm lips sliding across his own makes overwhelming emotions bloom in his chest.

#

When he gets home that night, sounds like the broken engine of a motorbike start coming from far away. It takes him a few seconds to realize the source of the noises. Inaho calls Slaine.

His palm stays on the cold window glass and his dark reflection. “Outside, they are using fireworks. I can hear them. But I can’t see them.”

“Have you ever been to a summer festival?” Slaine’s voice sounds different when they’re on the phone, yet Inaho allows himself to close his eyes and savor it, always.

“Not recently.”

“We should go, one day.”

“One day.” Inaho repeats, and the promise rings loud through his empty apartment.

“You know, Inaho. I used to go to those summer festivals with my mom.”

“…We have never spoken about your mother before.”

“She was withering away, being with my dad. The day she wanted to leave—I was so young, yet I understood that an imminent disaster was about to happen. My heart lurched, fluttered in my chest. I could’ve—“ Slaine takes a breath. “The moment she looked back at me, before she left—I could’ve told her this, I could have stopped her. I understood just from her words, the tone of her voice. But I didn’t. I let her go down her road, her own road. And she—“ Slaine whispers, “She was gone, Kaizuka. Gone. And I w-was...”

“You are not alone anymore.” Inaho says to the headset, and doesn’t hang up, not even when Slaine’s breathing starts to change and become faster, and faster.

“You know…for many, many nights, I curled up in my bed and cried, alone…until you came and showed me that crying isn’t shameful…” The pattern of Slaine’s breathing has slowed down. “So Inaho—come again. Tomorrow. Please. I-If you want to, that is.”

“Yes. Yes, of course I will, Slaine. You are…very important to me.”

“Y-You too.” Slaine mutters, and Inaho can seehim blush even if they are separated by half a sleeping city. Slaine’s voice is enough to make him smile: “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

Inaho’s smile widens. “See you tomorrow, Slaine.”

#

They decide to cook together, the next day. Eggs and rice and chicken. Slaine cannot convince him into using a strawberry flavored jam, as it will considerably change the consistency of the food. Inaho will never forget as long as he lives how Slaine smiled after the meal was eaten—a full and warm smile, radiating happiness.

“I’m so full.” Slaine’s long eyelashes flutter as he half-closes his eyes in satisfaction. “Next time, we should cook something with strawberries.”

“Eggs cannot be combined with strawberries, Slaine.”

“Oh, really? I think you’re lying.” Slaine says, serious, “So, if you want to continue being invited to my mansion, don’t you dare cook eggs again.” A smile.

“My heart is breaking, Slaine.”

The moment Slaine realizes Inaho is being (uncharacteristically) ironic, he laughs loudly, then chases him around the room with a pillow in hand. Inaho runs in circles in their little kitchen, smiling, wondering since when his life has become so…devastatingly different.

#

They go to the beach, again. Slaine leaves his bike away from the sand. They walk along the shore and watch the sun go down, hand in hand, holding their shoes with their free, hooked fingers.

“Nothing else is so realistically beautiful.” Slaine whispers, just when a bright, orange path shines across the waters, leading straight to the hiding sun. “It’s like flames soaring over the gray clouds…there is something savage hidden in all sunsets.”

“Why do you say that?”

Silence. “Crutheo hated sunsets.” Slaine looks away. “Cruhteo hated everything. When Asseylum insisted that we come to the beach…he used to take it out on me. He hated me. But what he hated most here was that bar…” Slaine’s expression brightens. “Oh, how could I forget.” Slaine tightens his hold around Inaho’s hand. “Come. I want to show you something.”

#

They stand in front of the old, wooden building, which is right at the seashore's end.  Inaho blinks.

“Is that a gay bar?”

Slaine sighs. “It looks abandoned...”

“They will tear down the building soon.”

“How do you know that?”

Inaho slats his head, showing Slaine the sign.

“Were you here before, Slaine?”

“N-no, I…years ago, there would be music, dance…t-the colors were nice.”

“Colors are an illusion our brain creates from light patterns in order to make sense of the world.”

“Well,” Slaine whispers, “The world never made any sense to me until I met you, so…”

The wind rises, spreading sand everywhere. Inaho slides his hands around Slaine’s head, tugs him close and presses a hard kiss on his lips. Slaine groans. He slips his fingers into Inaho’s hair and never lets go.

Afterwards, they race towards the sunset, erasing darkness.

#

Introduction to Slaine’s adopted father happens in the most bizarre of ways. Not three days pass after Inaho kisses Slaine for the first time, and a gang is trying to attack them again, on the alley near the drugstore.

Inaho manages to make most of the members flee, while Slaine finishes off his opponent with a single kick. That’s where Saazbaum finds them.

Slaine jumps and his knee hits the man’s face. The man groans and flees. Inaho speaks up. “That was—“

“Disgusting.” Saazbaum steps out of the shadows.

Slaine freezes. “They attacked me first, father.”

“Then you should have run.”

Fists clenched, as if the fight is ongoing, Slaine’s voice drips venom. “Cruhteo never gave me the chance to run.”

Saazbaum grimaces. His gaze sweeps to the side, meeting Inaho’s stare. “Who are you? You were with Slaine at the restaurant. You seem unlike the usual street thugs surrounding my son.”

“Kaizuka Inaho. Nice to meet you.”

Saazbaum takes a step closer, places his large palm on Slaine’s back. Slaine does not tense up; the opposite. Slaine is happy.

“Hmm…at least you know the word ‘politeness’. Are you Slaine’s friend?”

“We are lovers.” Inaho says, and Slaine chokes on thin air.

#

The same night, after they follow Saazbaum to his restaurant, eat with him, answer his amused questions, then say goodbye, promising him to come by tomorrow, Inaho decides to invite Slaine to his apartment.

Slaine insists on watching a movie.

#

“This is boring.” Movies, much less romance movies, could never pique Inaho’s interest, since they were always very inaccurate and unnecessarily melodramatic. “Plus, I cannot understand why the woman agreed to marrying him. He is…” An idiot.“…Simple.”

Slaine leans against him, humming. They are huddled together under a blanket on Inaho’s couch. “Why? They were able to find love, and were honest enough to recognize it and cherish it. Few people are so fortunate, Orange.”

Inaho runs his fingers through Slaine’s hair. “Your father is kind.”

Slaine stills. He doesn’t look at him when answering. “You are the first person I introduced to my father.”

They look at each other.

Because you are my dearest love, says the actor in the movie then, and Inaho thinks, That’s certainly something Slaine would say.

Slaine is staring at him, his eyes full of emotions, full of those words.

“Slaine.” Inaho says. He relaxes as he feels Slaine’s hand slide from his waist to the side of his ribs in a lazy caress. Slaine’s breathing deepens. Inaho reaches out and draws Slaine to him with slow, careful tenderness.

“I can’t bear it when you look so sad.” Slaine whispers.

Inaho is breathing faster. “I am not sad.”

“There’s always sorrow deep behind your eyes. It’s never gone.” Slaine cups Inaho’s nape with his free hand. “It makes me want to soothe you.” Slaine’s fingertips travel down his cheek, burning him. “I’ve dreamed of holding you close every single night…”

“Touch me.” Is all Inaho can say, before he starts choking up.

And Slaine kisses him.

#

It’s in a state of partial undress that Yuki finds them.

The door opens—which, unfortunately, is facing the couch they are lying upon—and Inaho’s sister steps inside, calling out loud, “Naooo, I’m hooome!”

Slaine lets out a mortified sound.

Yuki only needs three seconds to understand the scene unfolding in front of her.

How…how could I have forgotten?

Yuki sees Slaine, and says, “Leave this house. Now.”

#

Yuki—“

“He is the one that attacked you, isn’t he? The one Inko’s mother warned me about?”

“Yes.” Slaine is already gone, but Inaho declares, “I love Slaine. Nothing you will say is going to change that.”

Yuki seems very tired. “Why…? Why does it have to be him, Inaho?”

“You don’t understand. Gender is irrelevant. Only Slaine matters.”

Yuki ignores him. “Do you think it will feel nice, walking in public and having fingers pointed at you?”

Inaho grimaces. “Sis, as long as you accept him, I will not care—“

“I—I sometimes can’t understand you, Inaho! I was away for six months, guilty for leaving you alone, I couldn’t sleep at night, fearing something had happened to you while I was away, not knowing if you’re properly taking care of yourself, or if—if you were having trouble with those hideous people again, and you…!”

“Sis, calm down. The court never called for me while you were abroad, either way.”

Yuki shouts, “I cannot calm down, Nao!!” Yuki’s tears make Inaho take a few steps back. “What were you doing while I was away, anyway?!”

If Inaho had the time, he would have sat next to his sister, explained to her everything about Slaine Troyard, everything about the miracles Slaine Troyard can achieve, with his fine hands and hole-riddled pullovers, his golden hair and unfathomable eyes, his sharp mind and blazing attitude towards life.

But he cannot explain now, first of all because Yuki is very upset and no matter what arguments he uses now, his sister won’t understand, and secondly, because Slaine left his apartment a few minutes ago, head bowed in misery, green eyes moist with tears.

“Yuki, I’ll be back tomorrow.”

“Wha— NAO!!”

Inaho gets out of their apartment, closes the door behind him, and starts walking, faster and faster, until he breaks into a run, he runs after Slaine with all his being.

#

Slaine is hunched over the river’s railing, staring at the dark waters. Before Inaho comes to stand next to him, Slaine whispers, always staring at the darkness, “Should we even be together?”

“Why are you saying that?”

Slaine’s green eyes, when he turns to him, are full of misery. “We are both too alone, Inaho.”

“You have your father—“

“It doesn’t matter. You are surrounded by friends and family, yet you suffer alone.”

Inaho clenches his fists. “…Yes.”

Slaine’s hand curls over his clenched hand, soothing, slowly coaxing Inaho out of it. Their fingers interlace. “I was alone too, until you came. Do you understand? I thought—I’d never have someone to love me.”

Inaho’s head snaps up. “Why are you saying this, Slaine?”

“I am not worthy of you, Inaho.”

“You are.”

Slaine pulls away. “No! Society will laugh at us, because of…what we believe in. I cannot do this to you!” Slaine swipes his palm over his face. “You want to become a scientist, correct? Howwill you ever achieve this, when all of those important people for your career will judge you…because of me?”

Why are you saying those things? Inaho wants to ask, but there is no point. He already knows the answer. “…I once thought that definitions exist for every single thing in this world. But I was wrong. Slaine, what I feel for you…it has no definitions. It has no end. You are brilliantly intelligent, deep, and loyal, and you are beautiful, and it saddens me to no end that you cannot understand this.”

There is dark, endless pain in the depths of Slaine’s eyes. It scares Inaho, it makes him even sadder in his attempt to explain himself. It is strange; speaking to Slaine, yet speaking to his younger self too, at the same time.

Inaho turns and looks at the silent river below, flowing. “It’s alright. We are young, and certainly, there is much more to understand in this world.” Inaho lifts his eyes, can only gaze at Slaine through the distance between them. “However…you were the same…the same with me. You were hurt by something…and as a result, you tried to find your place in the world much earlier than one should. But there is nothing wrong with that, Slaine.”

Slaine starts sobbing. Even after he stops as abruptly as he started, tears keep leaking from Slaine’s eyes; he wipes them away with a harsh swipe of his sleeve.

There is silence, until, “I-I sometimes wonder what’s drawing me to you…Perhaps what I’ve always been seeking is…infinite patience…and gentleness…” Slaine covers his face with the back of his hand, and Inaho lets him be, because the moment is too strong for words. “I-Inaho...” Slaine mutters, between sharp breaths. Inaho understands. He unwraps his arms from Slaine’s shoulders. He takes Slaine’s hand in his own and starts walking.

Slowly, steadily, he leads Slaine on the way towards their home.

#

“What do you want, Slaine?” Inaho whispers to him that night, when they are hidden away from the world, safe in the darkness within Slaine’s apartment.

“I want to love…without fear.” The last words catch in Slaine’s mouth. Inaho realizes with a wave of heat flooding his senses that Slaine’s mouth is very close. The moonlight slipping through the window allows Inaho to stare into Slaine’s eyes, hopeful, and large with an unspoken invitation.

Love…without fear.

That desperate emotion that always comes when being near Slaine fills Inaho’s chest until he’s speechless. It hurts so much he cannot take a breath—until his lips find Slaine’s, warm and open, so he pushes forward, slanting his mouth over Slaine’s until he is kissed back, until their bodies sink into Slaine’s old mattress and only their gasps echo in the dark room.

#

“Touch me.” Slaine whispers, “Inaho. Inaho.”

Inaho’s hips jerk forward, pleasure blooming from the friction. He can feel it. Slaine is hard too, and each second after this realization seems heavy with anticipation, with the need to come closer, closer.

When his naked body touches Slaine’s for the first time, Inaho thinks he might go mad. The heat consumes him whole. It leaves him shaking uncontrollably, trying to drink Slaine’s gasps and moans, right from the moment they escape out of those red, swollen lips, until they are both lost, helplessly, into endless reigns of pleasure.

#

Inaho sleeps many times in Slaine’s bed, after that night.

Morning always comes with a bright calmness, and Inaho’s mind is clear the moment he opens his eyes. When Inaho wakes up, Slaine is usually sleeping in the cocoon of blankets, legs interlaced with Inaho’s. His hair is spread out on the pillow, ruffled from every night’s…activities. His hands seem misleadingly fragile, folded close to his body, curled up next to his mouth. Heat slides all over Inaho’s skin each time he remembers how good those lips feel, especially the night before, on his mouth, on his stomach, afterwards, when Inaho’s hands were on Slaine’s knees, gently pushing them apart, and their gazes held for only a heated moment until Inaho dipped his head low and Slaine arched his head back and released a hoarse moan—

Watching Slaine sleep, Inaho always smiles at the memories, and his heart fills with warmth. 

 

ii.

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength;

loving someone deeply gives you courage.

 

Yuki is talking. Endlessly. “…You might be assigned a date the week just before your exams. I will speak to the lawyers. It might be possible we can reassign it... Do you agree, Nao?”

“What?” To be honest, Inaho is not paying much attention to Yuki’s words. His mind is occupied by yesterday’s images of Slaine, lying in bed, red lips opening with a moan as Inaho kissed a path of golden curls, downwards, and then—

“Nao! You’re not even paying attention to what I’m saying! It’s been three months since you’ve started seeing Slaine, and your brain is gone half the time—“

“I met Slaine long before that. It’s technically been three months since you barged into the living room while I was undressing Slaine, and Slaine was—“

Yuki’s face resembles a tomato. “Please stop! Stop!” She’s frantically shaking her hands, “I don’t want to know the details, Nao!”

Inaho is cooking omelet for Yuki in their kitchen, thinking about Slaine (as always). Inaho’s final exams are approaching. Slaine suggested it first, and afterwards they reached the mutual decision to gradually lessen the time they spend together, so Inaho can concentrate more on his studies.

Yuki grabs the steaming pan out of his hand, expression serious. “Nao, we need to talk. About the date of the hearing.”

Ah.

Perhaps that miniscule change on his features becomes evident, betraying his fear and anxiety, because Yuki drags a kitchen chair next to him. She sits on it, and asks, face contorted with empathy and concern, “Does Slaine know?”

“He doesn’t.” Inaho states, and it’s the truth. “I never used any opportunity presented to me to raise that subject.” Inaho wants to smile, suddenly. A tragic smile. “Perhaps I’m concerned about Slaine’s reaction…or my own. But that’s irrelevant right now, Yuki-nee. My exams matter more than an unimportant court visit.”

Yuki and his friends were reluctant to accept their relationship, in the beginning. For Inaho, their opinions did not matter. Three months have passed since the night Yuki found them together, and in those three months, Inaho learned much about Slaine, and life.

He learned about happiness.

Yet from the very moment he met Slaine, Inaho always had the premonition that something terrible was about to happen. Slaine’s arrival into his life proved him wrong, yet the circumstances surrounding his past didn’t.

Yuki is unhappy. “Nao…”

“Plus, the judges must be cognizant of all evidence, by now. There were other victims. My testimony will add very few details to the amount of evidence that already exists.”

Yuki sighs, long and sad. “We talked about this almost a year ago, just before I left to go aboard, Nao. The doctor that prescribed your pills also agreed; you need to let go. And in order to do that, you need to give that testimony. Legally, it’s the only way you can distance yourself from…those people.”

Inaho is silent, looking at the floor. “There is a possibility that the psychological pressure from my exams and that testimony might result into a catastrophe,” Inaho says.

Yuki hugs him close, and Inaho tries his best to relax against her familiar, comforting warmth. “I won’t let that happen to you, Nao.” Yuki whispers.

This time, Inaho smiles a little. “I know, sis.” Still…

#

“Inaho-san?”

Inaho continues solving the mathematical equations, not paying Asseylum and her worried face any attention. Heavy rain is hitting the school windows. Most of the class decided to have their lunch indoors. A new judge set the date of his hearing the day before his final mathematics exam.

“Inaho-san, you look so pale.”

“It’s nothing.” Inaho says, focuses his gaze on the arrays of numbers arranged before him, while grinding his teeth.

“Inaho-san?” She sounds hurt.

“Leave him alone, we also couldn’t take a word out of him, today.” Rayet shouts, sitting in the opposite corner of the classroom, opening her bento box, surrounded by the rest of Inaho’s friends. “No matter how much we tried, he wouldn’t tell us what’s troubling him. That’s his way of warning us. He obviously wants to be left alone.”

Asseylum leaves his side, and Inaho is grateful for the solitude.

Yet at the same time, his soul longs for Slaine.

#

The day comes, and Inaho wears a dark-blue suit and a black tie. Yuki drives him to the court, and Inaho testifies.

After that, he is unable to focus on anything other than the past.

#

The night before his final exams, Slaine calls to wish him good luck.

Come here. Inaho wants to say, Come here and take the pain away. However, despite having comforted Slaine in the past, Inaho has no idea how to comfort himself, or how to ask for that sense of peace that Slaine always manages to bring with him. It’s an irrefutable fact; Slaine’s proximity calms his heart.

I love you, Slaine says at some point, and Inaho rests his head against the wall, closing his eyes in surrender.

“Tomorrow night at the festival”, Inaho says, “Meet me near the river. We need to talk.”

#

Under the brilliant moon, fireworks are shattering the darkness overhead, filling the world with short, bright explosions, their ephemeral colors. There are people everywhere. If not for the prospect of meeting Slaine, Inaho would hate the place. Inaho continues walking, avoiding physical contact with the cheerful, drunk, partying people all around him.

Until he finds Slaine.

Slaine is waiting, next to the river, for him. His pale hair is obscuring his face, yet Inaho knows it’s him. The casual way Slaine is leaning against the black rail, head tipped slightly backward, gazing at the starry sky. The leather jacket, providing protection against the night’s cool air. Fireworks explode again overhead. The bright colors are turning the dark waters into fluid gold. The moment Slaine sees Inaho, his features change and express something exuberant; his smile is radiating joy. Slaine steps towards him.

“I purposely failed my exams.” Inaho says.

“Inaho?” Slaine is serious. “What happened?”

“A new judge reopened my case.”

Slaine takes Inaho by the hand and pulls him away from the crowds, away from the celebrating world.

When they are in a quiet, dark street, away from people and loud noises, Inaho, for the first time in his life, cannot hold it inside anymore.

“I am nauseous.” Inaho whispers, then leans against Slaine, staggering.

#

After he wakes up, Inaho realizes someone placed him on his bed. He’s lying over the covers, still in his clothes. He’s in his old apartment, where Yuki is now living. He vaguely remembers Slaine half-carrying, half-dragging him home.

There are voices coming from the living room.

Inaho stands up, head groggy with tiredness, yet not nausea.

“I am very worried about Nao...” Yuki is saying, but before Slaine can answer anything, Inaho steps inside the room. Slaine and Yuki, now sitting on the couch opposite the TV, become very silent. Inaho knows what Yuki will tell Slaine.

The only thing he can now say is, “Tell him the truth. I will make tea.”

The kitchen is not separated from the living room, so Inaho watches and hears as Yuki says, “In that orphanage, Inaho was victim of harsh abuse. Last week…he had to speak to the court because of it.”

Slaine doesn’t say anything. He is hunched on the couch, his elbows supporting his body.

“Slaine.” Inaho says to Slaine then, standing behind the door and putting on his jacket, the tea forgotten.

Slaine lifts his head, and Inaho looks away from those eyes. He can’t bear the emotions exposed there.

“Come.” Inaho says, “Let’s go home.”

#

When they are inside their apartment, sitting in the tiny kitchen, Slaine opens his mouth, closes it, then finally speaks. “What exactly happened to you? Did they beat you?”

“Yes. Every day.”

“And you answered with violence.”

“Yes.”

Slaine is pale. “Was it just…kicks and punches?”

“No. That’s not what exactly happened, Slaine.”

“Then what happened?”

Inaho thinks that if not Slaine, then there is no other person in this world that will understand. Inaho sighs and starts talking.

He tells Slaine everything.

#

Slaine is silent for a long time after that.

“I’m sorry.”

“Inaho, why—are you apologizing?”

“I don’t know. This was not something done to me willingly.”

“I—I just–I never –” He’s shaking. “Inaho—oh, Inaho.” Something breaks inside Slaine Troyard, then. Inaho witnesses it. He sees the desperation, the vicious, aggressive, rampaging monster losing control and dying, inside. He stares silently as Slaine’s knees give away and he drops on the floor, tears leaking out his eyes.

Inaho cannot stand watching this.

“I have to go.” He leaves Slaine with that whisper and quietly closes the door behind him. Outside, leaves are twirling, ceaselessly, falling from the skies. Inaho looks up. His eyes are stinging. If that happened from the vicious wind or Slaine’s reaction…he is not interested to know.

The night is dark. Inaho starts walking towards Yuki’s apartment, seeking out the shadows.

Except.

Inaho stops on his tracks, his fists clenched at his sides.

He turns around, starts running, he runs up the twelve staircases until he reaches Slaine’s apartment on the sixth floor, and panting, he bangs on the door, which opens within the next few seconds.

Inaho wraps his arms around Slaine’s trembling body and pulls him close, so close, he can feel Slaine’s scars moving against his chest, with every one of Slaine’s fast breaths. “You are more upset about this than I am. It is in the past, Slaine. It is gone. I learned long ago not to…remember…everything.”

“Inaho. Inaho.” Slaine’s face is twisted with rage. “I will find those fuckers and killthem.”

“No. Stay with me.”

Slaine’s eyes are wide, full of tears.

“Stay.” Inaho almost begs, and Slaine presses his lips together, nods, while a single tear slips free and slides downwards, towards the corner of Slaine’s mouth. Inaho brushes a kiss over Slaine’s ear, a slightly awkward gesture. He rests his head against Slaine’s, his cheek brushing against the slick moisture. He holds Slaine so tight, his arms become numb. “Stay.”

Slaine whispers, “I will stay with you always.”

At that moment, with Slaine’s arms wrapped around him, Inaho takes a long breath, like a person who’s been underwater for a long time, finally reaching the surface again. The constant pressure on his lungs now long gone, forgotten.

For the first time in years, Inaho feels free.

#

Epilogue:10 years later

Will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

 

Returning home after Slaine’s birthday party (which took place in Saazbaum’s restaurant, as always), they decide to walk along the river. It is a quiet, gentle night. Yuki and his friends all attended, together with Asseylum, Klancain, and their newborn son.

Inaho slides his hand over Slaine’s, seeking a moment of warmth and cover against the merciless winter wind. “They offered me a job overseas…it might take two years to complete. But the work can be done from here, too. I will merely take less money for it.”

Slaine shrugs, avoiding Inaho’s gaze. “Do what you want.”

“We can think about it.”

That makes Slaine turn, eyes bright, “You mean—you want me to come with you? Abroad?”

“I don’t see a problem.” Inaho wants to kiss those lips, now reddened from the cold. “Wasn’t that always your wish, Slaine Troyard?”

Slaine seems puzzled.

“To escape from this city.”

“Well—“ Slaine starts saying, yet is interrupted by a young man with his following gang, who start approaching them stealthily, coming out of the shadows.

“Yo—“

Slaine spares a look at him and says, “Get lost.”

The man looks back at them. His face pales. He mutters, “Kaizuka…and T-Troyard?”

Slaine sighs.

“Bat. Patience. You should go easy on them.”

#

After the gang flees, Slaine, now (almost) a head taller than Inaho, sighs, again. “The city stays unchanging as always. Perhaps going away for one or two years wouldn’t be so bad…”

Inaho smiles, a bit. “Slaine Troyard. You became a legend on those streets, back then.”

“Did I?”

“Yes. Do you remember that night where Trillram found us—”

It’s been so many years, yet Slaine still pales each time Inaho mentions that night. “Always. Because you called Saazbaum. You saved my life. And I stopped hiding from him what Trillram did to me…”

“Don’t use words that are mine, Bat. You were the one that saved my life.”

“Oh, really, Orange? Just your life? Because I wasn’t the one begging the other to stay and help gather the eggs that were not broken—my father was even forced to come out of his restaurant and help you pick up the eggs from the street, I still cannot believe how he agreed to do this—”

“That was a desperate situation, Slaine. Furthermore, Saazbaum enjoys eating my omelets, unlike—” Inaho closes his mouth.

Something amusing shines behind Slaine’s eyes. “Unlike me? Well, Orange, I want you to hug me.”

Inaho does, a bit confused on Slaine’s motives.

“You are not going to tell me no tonight, are you? It’s my birthday, after all.”

“No.” Inaho says.

“Are you sure?”

Inaho nods. I wonder what the purpose of this strange behavior is…

“I want you to give me something for my birthday.”

Inaho blinks. “Whatever you want.”

Under the street lights, Slaine’s eyes are sparkling playfully. “Whatever I want? Do you promise?”

“I promise.”

“It might be a strange request…the strangest you’ve ever heard. Are you alright with that, Kaizuka Inaho?”

“Slaine. Just tell me what you want.”

“W-What if I don’t want to eat eggs for breakfast tomorrow?”

Inaoh sighs. I knew it would eventually come down to this. “Then we won’t eat eggs for breakfast tomorrow.”

Slaine laughs with elation, and Inaho smiles, thinking that since he met Slaine, his life has been nothing else than a never-ending miracle. He leans forward and kisses Slaine, just because he can.

After the kiss, they start walking through the dark streets and towards their home, hand in hand, happy and fully sated with life; because that yearning for love, that aching longing for someone to understand and be there, always, has finally been fulfilled.