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Chasing the Moon

Chapter Text

Decambyr, 4497CC

“What are we meant to do about this?”

“I don’t know. There’s no standard procedure for when something like this happens! The last person was my grandmother…I barely knew her!”

“Aren’t you meant to know about these sorts of things?”

“I am, but it became very clear when I was young that I wasn’t going to be chosen at all. I don’t know what to do. No blood exchange was made…”

“So, what, you propose we ignore this? Oskar, how is that supposed to help anything? I’m no expert on the subject, but even I know that this is unusual. For any of the nine to show an interest, much less for it to be Vidunder…”

“I know, Astrid. I’m not saying that we should do nothing. But what does it prove?”

“It proves that our son is different to us. Different in a way that, for once, they actually respect. That woman predicted this, she said that something along these lines would happen!”

“She also predicted that I would ‘see my own heart in someone else’s hand’. I’m not sure that I’d put so much faith in her.”


“Astrid, we need to think long and hard about this. It does no-one any good to make a big fuss out of the whole thing. Our son wasn’t harmed, and nor was anyone else.”

“I know that…”

“Astrid, I love you to death. You know that. But I feel that we should just let this slide. There is no point scaring him about something which might never come to fruition.”

“Alright, we’ll let it slide. But I have to insist that he has his aptitude testing early.”

“Fair enough.”


“Yes, my love?”

“Does it scare you too? The idea of what this means?”

“…It does. I feel like it always will.”

Szwicza District,
Bibesti, Rela,
24th Maii, 4512CC

“Just focus on the very end of it. Don’t pay attention to me, just keep your eyes on the thread.”

A beat of silence passed. Nothing happened, and Feliciano let out a disappointed huff.

“I can’t do it!” he exclaimed, disappointment woven throughout his words. “I told you, I’m no good at it.”

Lovino frowned a little, lowering the bunch of threads he was holding in his hands. He had pulled them from the fraying ends of a few pieces of his clothing and tied them all together at one end. He had held them in front of his younger brother’s face and watched as Feliciano tried and failed to set them on fire. He schooled his expression into calm, trying not to let on how confused and, admittedly, disappointed that he was too. They’d been at it for weeks, yet his brother wasn’t improving.

His telekinesis was working fine – he had managed to lift a book with his mind on only their third day trying, but something about the Fuenar – the Syhvvanian gift to create and control fire, was elusive for his brother. Lovino could create flames as easily as he breathed, and make heat shimmer in waves off his body. But Feliciano was, for some reason, having trouble. His natural resistance to heat and fire was working fine (thank goodness), but he had yet to conjure even the smallest and most delicate of flames.

Lovino scooped up the book which he had propped against the door, peering at the page curiously. The book had been endlessly helpful, though Lovino was also drawing on his memories of being taught to try and help his younger brother. He frowned at the title; An Inclusive Summary of the Syhvvanian Rigelo. It was inclusive, all right, sometimes even to the point of annoyance. Sighing, he flipped through the many thick pages, eyes swerving down the text-crammed paragraphs. The tome had the occasional drawing or photo scattered here and there, but other than that, it at most times presented a huge wall of text.

Cursing softly, he let out a small noise of satisfaction as he finally came across the section he sought. Skimming over it, he nodded and peered at his brother over the top of the book. Feliciano had been plagued by anxiety and concern over not being able to summon fire, though Lovino had told him, several times, that it wasn’t unusual for a Vargas to have trouble

“Feli, listen to this.” He raised his voice slightly as his brother turned to him curiously. “Queen Isidora’s difficulty in utilising the Fuenar continued into her later life, even after the great control she was seen to be exerting over the Sopra kwistjoni. Conversely, her twin sister Elidora displayed great prowess in the use of the Fuenar, and limited responsiveness to any attempts to exercise telekinetic power.” He lowered the book. “See? It’s not unusual to struggle with one or the other. Besides, your control with your telekinesis is still pretty good, so you shouldn’t be worrying as much as you are.”

Feliciano sighed. “I know, I just…I want to be able to fight like you do.” Lovino’s expression softened.

“Hey now, you already fight like me. You’ve been getting better and better with hand-to-hand combat, remember? Just give yourself time. You’ve never done this before, so it’s not surprising that you’ve hit a few bumps in the road.” Feliciano heaved a great sigh but finally nodded.

“Okay, if you say so.” Lovino nodded softly, closing the book and shoving it to the side. He cast a look at the clock and cursed softly as he registered the time; 1:13 am. Feliciano followed his gaze, expression immediately crumpling into regret and apology. Lovino held up a hand to silence him.

“Don’t even start.” He groaned as he dragged himself to his feet. As part of their plan to lessen their criminal activity, Lovino had found two relatively decent jobs and been lucky enough to land both. It wasn’t a positive impact on his sleep schedule – one was at a factory, where he worked from 10 am to 7 pm; the second was working the graveyard shift at a small convenience store from 2 am to 7 am. The only time that he got to sleep nowadays was between 7 at night and 2 am, as well as a small catnap during the day if he was lucky. He had spent up three of those valuable sleep hours by trying to help his brother.

Feliciano still had a guilty look on his face. His younger brother had also succeeded in getting a job – he worked as a waiter at a small café a few blocks into the Veroda District. Though it made good money, Feliciano worked far fewer hours than Lovino, and for whatever reason, seemed to feel guilty over it.

Lovino wandered, somewhat dazed, around their apartment, pulling on some warmer clothes. In Bibesti, winter fell in the middle of the year, and the nights had been growing colder and colder for months. He pulled on the gloves and cap which he had been given for his 20th birthday, just a few months ago, as well as a worn-out scarf which let in just as much cold air as it kept out, and also dug out his boots from where he had kicked them off earlier. Almost instinctively, his hand went to his neck to ensure that the rose-gold pendant still hung there. He sighed in relief when he felt its familiar shape in his hand, and finally turned to go.   

“I’ll be back at 7, okay? Rest up a little, you have to work later, too. If you need anything, just ask Sadik.” Feliciano nodded. Lovino gave him the same lecture every day, but he was yet to ignore it.

Sighing, and trying to brace himself for five hours of boredom and likely emptiness, he made his way out.

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma
25th Maii

It was strange, looking around their small, cramped cell now, that they had once managed to fit seventeen people in here. It was cramped even now, and there was almost nothing even resembling privacy. Remembering that just seven weeks ago there had been several more people in here seemed bizarre. The cell still didn’t feel empty, even with so many gone.

Really, in hindsight, it should have been expected that one or more people wouldn’t stick around the whole time. But given the physical conditions of some of them, it was more likely that one of them would die or have to be evacuated due to injury or illness. The one thing, really, which Matthias hadn’t really anticipated…was that people would leave of their own free will.

Arthur had been the first to go.

He hadn’t jumped at the resistance’s offer immediately, which had surprised Matthias. He didn’t know the pirate immensely well, but he knew him well enough to see that what he desired, more than anything else, was simply to live. But after speaking to the intimidating Yanishman named Yao, the Pyndaphian had spent days in thoughtful silence, his expression often cast with conflict and rigid with indecision.

It had taken three days before he had quietly asked their guard if she would fetch the resistance’s callous-seeming leader. Not even a half hour later, the cell door had swung open, and Matthias had watched the Yanishman help Arthur down the corridor. The pirate had cast a single, mournful look back at them, but ultimately, he had made his decision. The blond, whether for better or worse, was now a worker in the resistance’s vast army.

The next to leave hadn’t been surprising. Matthias had seen how they’d clung to him in moments of fear, confusion and anger. Try as they might to display an image of independence and strength, every time the situation had turned bad, they had turned to him. Mei and Leon had spoken to the man, Yao, for hours, then taken a minute to farewell their crewmates, and had loyally followed their captain into the realm of rebel fighters.

The fourth…that had hurt a little. But Matthias had also, in a way, been anticipating it. Before the decision had been made, he’d looked conflicted and worried every day. Matthias had ignored it the first few times, determined to believe that he would stay with them. As a few days had passed, though, he had started to look more and more unhappy, joy brought only in the hours when a now-familiar face had appeared behind the bars. It wasn’t completely unexpected, and of everyone, Matthias understood his reasoning the best…but it had still stung to watch Alfred leave them as well.

They’d gone about a fortnight without anyone else leaving after that. Matthias had let himself believe that that was the end of it – no-one else would be tempted to leave. That was, until, he’d found out about Tori. More specifically, her odd connection to Lukas Bondevik. No-one had had a good explanation for the fact that she seemed to know him, save Feliks, who had murmured his suspicions to Matthias late one night. Their only other option had been to ask the Fynknian, which none of them had been keen on doing.

They hadn’t needed to ask, as it turned out, just wait, as he had shown up outside their cell one day, eyes fixed on the rough girl. Matthias remembered how the teen had knelt down, holding eye contact with her, as she had started to ask questions.

“Have we met before?”

“Yes. A long time ago, though. We knew each other when we were kids.”

It had continued along that thread for some time, before she came to what Matthias had initially dismissed as the most irrelevant of her questions.

“Is there anything significant about the word ‘vika’?”

“It was your nickname.” Tori’s brow had furrowed at that.

“…Nickname? How? My name is Tori.”

“That was another nickname.” Had been his short response. At her questioning look, he had elaborated. “Your full name, as I remember it, anyway, is Viktorija. You used both nicknames.”

Feliks had closed his eyes and let his head fall back at this point, and even Matthias had felt a small shockwave go through him. Tori, however, had been unaware of the significance of this, and had continued to ask questions.

“My first name was- is, Viktorija?”

“Yes.” He had paused then, watched her for a moment, then nodded. “Oh, you have amnesia. That explains it.”

“Do…do you know what my full name is?” she had asked, sounding tentative and hopeful. Lukas had nodded, reluctantly. It was clear just looking at Tori that she legitimately had forgotten her own name.

“Viktorija Kamile Laurinaitis. I may have remembered your middle name wrong, though, so don’t quote me on that.” She had nodded, clearly not realising what bombshell he had just dropped on all of them. Lukas had sighed. “Yes, you definitely have amnesia. I suppose it’s only fair to inform you that the Laurinaitis family – your family – are Daernic royalty.”

She had frozen then, looking completely bewildered. “What?” she’d asked, sounding shocked. “What did you say?”

In lieu of a response, Lukas had pulled a Cell from his pocket, drawn up her profile on the Index, and shown it to her. Tori had gone silent for a long time after that.

“You’re wrong.” She had said. “This…this is all wrong…”

“Then how do you explain knowing me?” Lukas had responded coolly. “The only Daernic person I ever knew was Viktorija Laurinaitis. We knew each other because there is a very close relationship between the three Free Courts. Our parents travelled to visit one another all the time, and they brought us with them.” Tori had looked to Feliks then as if he would deny everything that the Fynknian had been saying. Feliks had just sighed sadly and nodded.

Lukas had frowned at her. “You really don’t believe me.” He’d sat back for a moment, before rummaging around in his pockets. “Perhaps this will convince you.” With that, he had pulled, of all things, a rock from his coat. Tori’s eyes had gone to it immediately, expression transforming into something like…desperation.

“That…what is that?” she had croaked out, staring at it. Lukas had raised an eyebrow at her.

“Each of the royal families of the Free Courts has the power to manipulate an element. Syhvvanians control fire, Fynknians control water and Daernics control the earth.” He held up the rock. “You want it, don’t you?” she had nodded, still staring with an odd, mixed longing.

“What is it? Why…why do I want it so much?” she had asked. Lukas watched her a moment, then tossed the rock to her.

“It’s nothing special. It’s just a rock. The only thing which distinguishes it from every other rock on this planet is that that one came from Daerna. Though the gifts of a Free Court royal work wherever you go, they are always strongest when we’re on our home planets.” He had stood, brushing himself off a little. “You’re welcome to continue to deny who you really are, but when you finally get sick of lying to yourself, just ask for Yao or myself.” Without another word, he had turned on his heel and left.

Tori had vanished from their cell with Yao not even two days later. Matthias couldn’t blame her. To learn something so earth-shattering about yourself…if it was him, he would have gone to the one person who had answers as well. Besides, though she was fun and good in a fight, he hadn’t really been that close to her. Feliks had been the most disappointed of them by far, his low mood only buoyed briefly by the fact that Tori had kissed him on the cheek as she’d left.

For the next few weeks after that, they had lingered around their cell, trying to pass the time by playing card-games and sharing old stories. But card-games quickly got boring, and they all only had so many stories to share. They had all started to slowly lapse into depression. Then, about a fortnight after she had vanished, Tori had re-appeared outside their cell. Not to rejoin them inside, but to talk to them. She had told them about what life in the resistance was like. She’d obviously seen that they were all becoming depressed, because she had come back every day since, regaling them with stories of the people she met, and the weird gossip from around the base.

Try as he might to focus on her stories alone and be grateful for her efforts, he hadn’t been able to ignore that every day she saw them, she looked happier and happier. The resistance was treating her well, and she was clearly making friends quickly. Though he maintained a happy, pleasant, air, it was also obvious that Feliks grew a little more jealous with every mention of Lukas. Matthias felt for him.

It had been especially obvious after she had shown them the progress she had made. One of the Daernic gifts was earth, and Tori had delightedly shown them how she had learned to move rocks and soil through the air. It was an impressive display, without a doubt, but Feliks had looked downcast afterwards. Upon asking him, his answer had fairly stunned Matthias.

“Lukas can do things for her that I can’t. No matter what I do, I’d never be able to teach her how to do something like that. The fact is, I’m ordinary. They aren’t.”

Though boredom and depression had still reigned king even with Tori’s visits, Matthias had at least fallen into a sort of pattern. He had hoped that they would stay the same. He had, as with the others, failed to spot the longing glances cast out the window, the almost day-dreaming expression whenever Tori came around with her stories. He had failed to spot any signs that yet another one of his friends was wanting to leave, not for long-lost family or memories or tough-struck deals, but for the sheer desire to fight the Union.

He had spotted it far too late to change his mind, though. A fight had broken out between Gilbert and Vash which had left the albino with a deep, shiv-caused gash on his cheek and a bruised collarbone. The rebels had sent a medic along. Matthias had watched his friend’s face turn white after a tall, grey-skinned Garvich had walked into their cell. She had introduced herself to them as Ailseth, and given them a good lecture about fighting and all getting along, before giving Vash the all-clear and moving on to Gilbert. She had noticed his fear and tutted at him.

“Oh darling, no, I don’t care who your parents were. Come on now, let me see that cut.” She’d tended to a slowly-relaxing Gilbert, and even patted him gently on the top of the head before again warning them about fighting, and sweeping from the cell. He had seemed oddly still after that, and Matthias had finally risked a look over at his friend only to see a bizarre expression on his face.

Matthias had felt a lurching in his gut, combined with an overwhelming sense of denial. A constant stream of no, no, no, no had echoed around his head, almost mocking him. He hadn’t understood why, but a sort of fear, combined with a deep-seated sense of betrayal, had filled him. Gilbert had shifted a little then, and looked into his eyes, and Matthias understood what his intuition had seen before his conscious thought had. He had seen the same look in his eyes which had lingered in Alfred’s, and even Tori’s gazes.

“You want to leave, too?” he had said, in far angrier a tone than he had wanted. The others had all turned to stare at the two of them as Gilbert flinched and moved away, avoiding Matthias’ gaze guiltily.

“It was just a passing thought, okay? Calm down.” But Matthias knew that he was lying. He watched him like a hawk over the next few days, and he saw what he had failed to see before. Gilbert was very much so interested in joining the resistance.

It still took a week before he had begun to cautiously ask their occasional guard some questions. But Matthias was under no impression that he wouldn’t leave. He saw the longing whenever he heard stories of rebel exploits, and even the faltering and hesitant, but definitively present, admiration whenever the albino laid eyes on Alfred’s older brother. Eventually, Gilbert had given in to his own wants and had also slipped out the door, escorted by a rebel fighter who had looked delighted at his decision.

That had been three days ago, and Matthias still felt the sharp sting of betrayal, even now. He tilted his head back, pressing it to the cool stone behind him. Being locked up in here was beginning to drive him mad. The others seemed equally as unhappy as him, though they were admittedly grateful for space which they had gained through their friends leaving. There were eleven of them in the cell now, rather than the original seventeen.

He sighed. Their numbers had dwindled significantly in just the past seven weeks. In all of that time, the rebels had failed to come up with some sort of solution to their problem. It was becoming pretty clear to Matthias that, unless they came up with a plan, he was going to die in here.

“How many times do I have to tell you? It’s far too dangerous.”

“You said that you might let me go when I was older!”

“I-, Lukas, your birthday was all of a week ago. Nineteen isn’t very old at all.”

Lukas folded his arms, glaring at Yao. He had an insurmountable amount of respect for the man, it was true, and objectively speaking, he could understand why he was reluctant to let Lukas do what he wanted, but he was frustrated nonetheless. He had been begging Yao to let him do more for the rebel efforts in the past few weeks, and Yao had actually relented. He had amped up Lukas’ training with Nelia, and also made him do lessons on shooting with Tino.

He had also been involved in some more different projects around the rebel base. He had been permitted to join a convoy travelling out into the Gafadari Grasslands, though he had been a part of the explosives division, and as such hadn’t been permitted to go near the front lines other than laying bombs and building new ones. Lukas was itching to do more, though. He had been pressing and pressing Yao to let him be more involved, but the General was of the opinion that it was simply too risky.

“Think about it this way,” Yao said, “I let you go out into an active battle zone. Because of my orders, you are put into a high-danger situation. What could potentially happen if you were put in a high danger situation?” Lukas remained silent, knowing exactly what Yao was alluding to.

“You could die, Lukas, and that would be on me. Your death would be my fault. You need to remember that you can’t look out purely for yourself anymore. You’re one of the last surviving members of the Bondevik family. What would happen if you died?”

“What, because I’m the heir?” he asked. “Please. Emilia is just as much a Bondevik as I am. So long as one of us stays alive, it doesn’t really matter.”

Yao’s expression was odd, cool but also concerned. “Do you really care so little about your own life?”

“It’s not about that. It’s a simple fact that Emilia could just as easily do what I do now.”

“Lukas, I think you’ve failed to see how much your sister relies on you. Argue all you want but she is only 15 years old. For most of her life, you have been her primary guardian and carer. Everything that she’s learned, she’s learned from you. You yourself are independent, but I doubt that Emilia would fare half as well as yourself. You were always raised with the expectation that you would rule. Emilia wasn’t. She knows how to lead, but not how to be a leader. It is, quite frankly, cruel and presumptuous of you to try and force a role like that on her, simply because you want to be more involved.”

Lukas gritted his teeth, trying to maintain his calm composure. “Yao, do you want to know something about my parents?” he didn’t wait for an answer, instead, ploughing onwards. “They were good leaders, yes, and they were respected for their diplomatic skills. But while they were off having meetings with planetary leaders, the people of Fynkn were sharing their concerns about the Union. They knew that there was another plan of attack in the Union’s arsenal. But my parents refused to acknowledge what the people thought, and look what happened then.”

Yao was silent, watching him carefully. Lukas continued. “Sir, I understand why you don’t want me in the field, but you yourself have said that I’m a useful addition to your side. That I’m a weapon which could wreak havoc on the Union. So, let me wreak havoc. I know that I’m hardly going to win this war by myself, but if I can’t fight at all, what’s the purpose of having me here? Honestly, sir, if you had a high-grade rifle sitting around, you wouldn’t keep it locked up in a case, would you? You would use it, because it’s most helpful for fighting the enemy.”

A silence stretched between them for several minutes, before Yao finally spoke.

“……You have a lesson with Ali.” He murmured. “You know that he doesn’t appreciate tardiness.”

Without another word on the matter, Yao turned and marched from the tent. Lukas stared after him, stunned. After all that, and he wasn’t even going to speak to him? He forced down his anger and bitterness. Yao was stubborn, but he wasn’t invincible. Lukas was determined to convince him. He let out a groan of frustration, running his hands back and forth through his hair as he walked in the direction of the dirt practice grounds.

Lukas would never use his powers on the General, no, he wouldn’t ever stoop that low. But Yao couldn’t deny him forever; it was only a matter of time.


The stranger tilted her head up, up, up, gazing at the endless array of stars which blinkered across her vision. The sky still held some evidence of daylight – pale streaks on the horizon, not quite dismissed by time. But for the most part, darkness reigned. The stranger smiled, expression light and lyrical as she watched a ship land in the distance.

She swung her legs back and forth. She sat on a ledge, high above the ground. This part of town was normally quite empty, but even if the streets had been full, and everyone below would have mistaken her reason for being so high for jumping, the stranger knew that no-one would have tried to stop her. This city was uncaring, as were her people.

She turned her head, letting the cool wind caress her finely carved cheekbones as she pushed herself gently off the railing, and let herself fall soundlessly to the street. She landed on her feet, the wind softening her fall. The stranger crouched for a moment, observing the uneven, dirty cobblestone beneath her boot-clad feet. This city was old, but only here in the Altstadt did any sign of the place’s vast heritage remain.

She sighed. It was a pity, really. Anlohn had once been one of Incanda’s finest cities; a cobbled array of brightly painted buildings cast in stone and brick, and adorned with iron trestles. She had heard stories of what it had been like to walk down a street vibrant with colour and life, to smell the tang of salt on the air, and pluck herbs from the planting boxes which had once hung from every windowsill. The city had been rich and lively. Of course, economic hardship had brought reality to the once-happy civilians here. Practicality and necessity in an equal measure had transformed most of the city into an industrial hub. Only here, in the few, gate-bracketed suburbs which were known to the locals as the Altstadt had survived. The rest of the city was now a thriving centre of trade and commerce and resembled the sort of blocky metropolises seen on Reycass.

The stranger smiled, a little sadly. She had come here seeking something, but she knew now that it lingered in no corner of this planet. The Aldstadt had been her last stop – mostly for its beauty. She twisted her hand; and to an untrained eye, she appeared to pull a piece of paper from the air itself. Turning it over, the stranger sighed at the writing – small and bunched and messy to the point of ridicule. She ignored it, eyeing the small set of notes in one corner of the page. Nodding with satisfaction, she tossed the paper in the air, trusting the wind to send it away from prying eyes.

The stranger straightened up, cracking her fingers as she moved towards the bright blur she saw in the distance. This planet had let her reap no rewards, but perhaps another would. She turned her head upwards again, stars again dancing across her gaze. She closed her eyes, starting to slowly turn in a circle. When she opened them again, mind more restful than before, one star was caught firmly in the centre of her gaze. It burned a low amber colour and made her think of home. She sighed. Her own heart sung its choice, and her own desire to again walk the dirty but familiar streets cried out with a vicious cacophony.

She moved down the street, hoping that there was a berth available on a ship headed that way.

To her home and her sisters, then.

To Rela.

Chapter Text

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma
27th Maii

The bullet clipped the edge of the target, a loud metallic clang sounding out as it veered away to lie, forgotten, in the cracked red earth. Cursing, Alfred lowered his rifle and squinted at the range.

“You were off a little.” Matthew said, reaching over and adjusting his brother’s hold a little. “Try again.” Sighing a little at the relentlessness of the training but acknowledging the necessity, Alfred shifted into the firing position again, adjusted his angle for windage, and fired again. The bullet punched a clear hole through the lower edge of the target. Matthew grinned, and Alfred let out a shout of victory, pumping his fist energetically.

“Yes! I finally got one!” he said, grinning from ear to ear. Matthew raised an eyebrow at him.

“You did, well done. Now try hitting it again.” Alfred was almost immediately sobered by this, but obediently realigned his sights and pulled the trigger twice more. One of the bullets collided with the metal stand and sent sparks flying, but the other hit the target again. Matthew noted the trajectory of both, and nodded at him. “Okay, now you can really celebrate.” He said. “You might actually make a decent shot.”

Alfred grinned at the compliment, gratefully sliding out of the firing position and lying down next to his brother. While he had been squinting and sweating under the relentless Nymian sun, Matthew had been reclining against the two-foot cement wall designed to act as a prop for the heavy guns, holding a book above his head to ward off sunburn and casually muttering criticism. He groaned, trying and failing to reach for the book which Matthew was now fanning himself with. His brother wrinkled his nose, shoving him away.

“You’re covered with machine oil.” He said, holding the book even further out of his reach.

Alfred groaned again. “Because I had mechanics earlier this morning.” Matthew laughed at the agonised look on his face.

“You complain about mechanics now, but trust me, when you’re able to fix up ships and weapons, you’ll thank Dalisay and Gavrilo from the bottom of your heart.” Alfred huffed, disbelieving, but grinned and gave up trying to steal his brother’s book, flopping back in exhaustion as Matthew sat up a little. “I know that it’s a bit full on, but it’s just to teach you a bit of endurance and organisation. You won’t get far here at all if you can’t operate well on a tight schedule or under pressure.” Alfred nodded.

“Yeah, I get that, really, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still complain about it.”

“Fair enough; I complain about my jobs every day. I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I lectured you for doing the same.”

“So, complaining is still very much so on the table?”

“I’ve heard Yao bitch and moan from time to time.” Matthew laughed. “No one would bat an eye.”

“Yao? Seriously?”

“Oh yeah. He once threw a cup of hot coffee at someone because they were being so pretentious and self-absorbed.” Alfred laughed.

“Awesome.” Matthew nodded in agreement as Alfred continued. “Not that I don’t love sweating out in the sun, but is there any chance I could hit a shower soon?”

Matthew blinked, then a slow smile spread across his face. “Actually, I might have something even better.”

“You asshole! I’ll get you for that!” Alfred yelled, pelting after Kristian as the teenager recovered from his laughing fit and began to run, slipping and sliding over the red mud which coated the ground. Alfred staggered a little, sliding in the water, but continued his pursuit of the Iramese sniper.

He and Matthew had headed in the direction of the wooden practice arena. It was one of the few places where combat training could be private, and as such, it had become the place where Lukas Bondevik trained his abilities. Despite the rumours flying around the resistance, Lukas had still remained relatively on the down-low. He had abstained from getting involved in anything major in the weeks since whatever drama had gone down (Alfred knew only that there’d been a dispute between two major figures, one of which was Yao). Though of course, their crew had found out his identity due to Vash’s ingenuity, Alfred, and all of the others who had become part of the resistance, had been sworn to secrecy, under threat of death.

Alfred was happy enough with that deal. All he had to do was remember to use the surname ‘Christensen’ when referring to Lukas, and in return, he got to spend time with his brother and his other friends who had changed allegiances. He got to learn all sorts of things and make new friends from all around the Galaxy. Though he would filter his words if he was to visit his friends, he loved the resistance.

As a part of him being kept in line, Alfred had been one of the more unwilling volunteers on whom Lukas practiced his abilities. He and Matthew had arrived at the walled arena, expecting to help out with his training, only to come across Lukas and Kristian having an intense water-balloon fight. The pair, by their own admission, had been training, but had succumbed to the immense temptation to cool down. The day had been uncommonly hot, even for Nyma, it was true, and Alfred and Matthew had jumped right in as well.

And Kristian had just nailed him in the eye with a balloon. The arena’s red dirt ground had been well and truly drenched, with skids of mud now lining the space. Alfred cursed as he slipped again. Kristian seemed to be managing quite well in the mud and grime – perhaps due to the fact that the Iramese settlements were always inexplicably located near mudflats – and darted out of reach, laughing. Alfred slipped up again, cursing as his fingers dug into the thick mud on the ground.

Matthew had his hands full trying to deal with Lukas. The Fynknian was darting out of reach easily, using his powers to send massive walls of water flying. Alfred laughed out loud as his brother emerged from one such wave, hair soaked and plastered all over his face, spitting indignantly. Alfred finally managed to stagger off a patch of mud, and hurled a water balloon at Kristian. To his satisfaction and delight, it smacked the sniper directly between the eyes and made him slide backwards. Alfred let out a yelp as Kristian ran at him, obviously keen to even the score.

Yao watched them absently as they slipped and skidded around the muddy arena. He had been intending to meet Aelia by the communications tent to discuss a field agent who had reported some trouble, but found himself frozen as he silently watched the group of four. He felt like something was lodged in his throat as he watched them continue to run and yell joyfully.

Kristian was still a child…he had always thought that. He was only 17, of course he was still young. Lukas, also, he considered too young to fight. Nineteen was young, very young, though the rebellious Fynknian might not have seen it that way. But…

Alfred and Matthew, both of whom were over 20…they were children too. How many times had he trusted Matthew to go on dangerous missions and win the day for the resistance? How many times had he watched the blond pick off their enemies with a high-grade rifle? He felt oddly sick. Too young…they were all too young to have been dragged into this mess of a war. Yao leant against the wooden slats which bordered the arena, breathing deeply.

I’m a weapon which could wreak havoc on the Union. And Lukas was right about that, wasn’t he? But, he was too young to be involved in all of this.

And yet, how many times throughout history have the greatest and strongest fighters and rulers been young adults? Even teenagers? A lot. Lukas’ own father had ascended to the throne aged only 18, just a week after his mother, the Queen at the time, had died of a long-fought illness. Lukas was older now than his father had been then.

I know that I’m hardly going to win this war by myself, but if can’t fight at all, what’s the purpose of having me here?  

He made a good point. Why did he have to make a good point?

Yao’s own war with the Union had started when he was only about 26 years old. He had thought of himself as young and naïve then. If he had been young at 26…Lukas couldn’t go to war. He simply couldn’t.

He was only 19. Yet he saw the desecrated bodies of his parents when he was only 8. Is he not desensitised?

It would be so unsafe for him to go alone. To let him go into combat as a Fynknian person…he would stick out, without any doubt. Drawing attention to himself would result in death, and even Yao’s influence didn’t extend so far as to bring back the dead.

If I don’t let him fight, he’ll just run out when I’m not looking…

But there was hardly a way to fight a safe war. What Lukas needed was somewhere that he would be safe, where people would look out for him without his identity necessarily being known to them. There wasn’t really any place like that, though.

He wants to fight. Sending him into war was too dangerous, surely, especially given that Yao didn’t even know for sure how capable Lukas was in battle and other stressful situations.

What if that’s it? There is only one place where he can fight and make a difference, and not be unduly noticed. But I can’t send him there, not unless I know he’d be well prepared for it…

Yao sighed, burying his head in his hands briefly before raising his head again. He cast a single glance back at the mud-slick arena, where the quartet were still laughing with merriment. Straightening up, he marched toward the communications tent. He was surely late for his meeting with Aelia now, but he hoped that she wouldn’t mind terribly. An idea was forming in his head, and he let it stew. He needed a solution to this problem, and if his tired, beleaguered mind could create one, he would welcome it.

Arthur sighed as his boots met the hard-packed red dirt of Nyma’s Dragon-Tree forest again. The day was as hot as the weather meter on his borrowed ship had indicated, and though he had dressed lightly, he had already begun to sweat by the time Mei and Leon had followed him down. Leon’s tell-tale groan to his right told him that the Yanish teen was also disgruntled by the temperature. Shrugging off the heat, he nodded to Colonel Jakolin as she disembarked behind him.

They hadn’t meshed very well in the four days that they’d conducted the mission over, but he still felt a sense of respect for her. She was capable, strong-willed and very practical, and had been of great use while they’d been away. She nodded in return, marching off immediately to debrief with her superiors. Arthur’s lip curled at the thought.

Mei and Leon looked in her direction, expressions hesitant. A sense of obedience had been instilled in them from their earliest days, and he knew that they were both trying to combat the urge to follow Ines and conform to the resistance’s wants and expectations. He sighed quietly, then jerked his head in her direction, indicating that they should follow her. Leon turned and moved in that direction, though Mei hesitated a little. Arthur raised an eyebrow at her, maintaining the silence he had adopted since their re-entry into the planet’s atmosphere, and she verifiably scurried after Ines.

Though Arthur was perfectly content to flaunt the careful rules which his agreement with the resistance had been made under, he didn’t wish to get his young subordinates in trouble. He had been touched, beyond belief, when they had chosen to join the rebels alongside him. In his mind, at least, he was owed no loyalty by them, and yet they chose to display it at almost every opportunity. Though Mei was eager, and Leon clearly attempted to present a disinterested front, they were both equally devoted to remaining in his service. He didn’t understand their reasoning, but he appreciated the company.

One thing which he would never admit, even on threat of death, was that, even surrounded by wealth and resplendence, Arthur often got lonely. Mei and Leon were among the very few who could alleviate the heavy feeling that sometimes settled in his chest. Once upon a time, Francis had been one of those people, too. No longer, of course. Nowadays, all that Francis’ presence brought to Arthur was confusion and sorrow over a friendship that had been shattered due to things he didn’t understand even now.

Arthur did not turn in the same direction as his crew-mates; instead he crossed the large dirt plain which had slowly developed into a common area for rebels to spend time, making his way towards the area in the distance, where he could see the lines of residential containers and tents which housed the vast population of the resistance. He hunched his shoulders a little, bowing his head in an attempt to dispel any attention.

It didn’t work. He could feel the curious, roving stares of the rebels who caught sight of his hair, or his face, or even his clothing. Arthur was, to the majority of the people here, something of a curiosity. He was not a rebel, but he could no longer justifiably call himself a pirate anymore, as he now served a master other than his own greed and desires. He was alive enough to complete dangerous heists and dart around the system to perform complex tasks for the resistance, but dead enough that he required frequent check-ups by their head medic, Kabeeta, and that his eyes were carved hollows in his face.

He located the sources of a few of the stares, and met them, staring back with a challenging and unflinching vigour. Most people were surprised to see how much life still lingered in those eyes. Bright spheres of emerald, he had heard people say. Like a wildfire has been lit just behind the surface.

Most people looked away; others held it. He managed to muster up a bare sliver of respect for the latter group. It was hard to meet the gaze of a dying man and hold it. He admired their gall.

He was grateful when the heat on the back of his neck lessened, and he found himself inside the small, cramped tent which the rebels had managed to procure for him. They had decided from the start that having him share with someone else was not an option, and so he had been given his own tent, something which, as Arthur understood it, had annoyed younger recruits. He held no official position – he couldn’t even be considered a true member of the rebellion. Yet here he was, enjoying a privilege which most rebels didn’t even receive unless they had a significant rank. It made him smile a little.

He shrugged off the loose outer shirt which he had been wearing, running his hands up his forearms. The needle marks at the insides of his elbows had become more prominent in the last few weeks, mostly due to his change of medication to Kabeeta’s formula. Though it was clear in colour, it irritated his skin, and left signs of burst blood vessels and bleeding under the skin on his arms. As if he needed another physical sign that his body was on a time limit.

Wincing a little at the sight that he could expect, he turned and faced a floor-length mirror in the corner of his tent. He recoiled a little.

For Arthur, showing any weakness was as good as succumbing to it completely. It was why he hadn’t told any of his crew-mates that he was terminally ill. The pirate industry was constructed on skill; the more apt and capable you were, the more heists and missions you pulled off successfully, the more respect you gained from others. Arthur, as someone who had done things which most considered impossible – or, at the very least, extremely difficult – had gained a lot of respect from other pirates. It had been their guidance which had allowed him to them gather members for his crew. But, they had been his friends at times as well. He missed the odd companionship which came from being collectively hunted down by righteous governments and seen by the general public as wholly despicable. If they were to see him now, they would either admire him more for his lingering voracity, or immediately take advantage of him.

Malthecs, when taken regularly enough, had stayed the physical effects of Chalydrantis. He hadn’t looked, externally, like he was even sick. Kabeeta’s formula did no such thing. His veins were visible through his skin, and though she always overfed him, he had lost weight in the past six weeks. His cheekbones had been drawn into sharp relief. His eyes were dark and sunken, and his lips were cracked and bloody. However, the most obvious signs were his nails and hair. His hair, previously a mess of blond streaked with the tell-tale grey, was now completely changed. It was a fairly light grey in colour, though the colour wasn’t quite consistent throughout his head – a sign that it wasn’t natural greying. His finger and toenails now bore massive dark blotches on them – another unmistakeable sign of what he was suffering from. Even at his worst, in the past, he had never exceeded a few grey strands of hair and a pinhead-sized spot on his nails before. His appearance finally matched the disease which ravaged him internally.

But even with the grey hair, and the dark nails, and his thinning frame…there was a burning fire in his eyes. Though his skin was drawn tight over his muscle and bone, it was flushed with colour. Though his eyes were sunken, his near-constant headaches had disappeared, and only reappeared perhaps once or twice a week. His body looked weak but wasn’t. He could haul himself up the sides of buildings and run down long streets with just as much capability as he had during a ‘good’ period. Whatever Kabeeta’s solution was doing to him, it seemed to be working better than what Malthecs had done.

Sighing, Arthur pulled off his boots, wrinkling his nose a little at the dark colour of his toenails. He sat down with relief, and remained still for a moment, just letting his body relax and wind down a little. He considered the distance between his tent and the debriefing rooms, before deciding to simply take whatever punishment came his way for missing it. He knew that Yao – the only one whose opinion really mattered in this agreement of theirs – would care more that the mission had been a success than that Arthur had skipped debriefing. Let the high-ranked generals think whatever they wanted. He was doing exactly what they had agreed on. Arthur completed heists for them, and he got medication in return. He wasn’t going to go above and beyond for them.

Shaking his head a little, he pulled on a more comfortable pair of shoes, and set off towards the main medical tent in the base. He was yet to accept his reward for his latest mission.

Kabeeta Tripathi was a curiosity to Arthur. She was a rebel by definition and even occasionally by nature, and yet she fit none of the many stereotypes nor common imagery which Arthur had previously seen. When one thought of the term ‘rebel’ – or ‘terrorist’, which was the preferred name by the Union for those who dared to defy them – one tended to bring to mind the image of some scruffily-dressed person bearing a gun or other weapon. Though there were multitudes of scruffily-dressed people here, as well as those who never went anywhere unarmed, Kabeeta was a pleasant difference.

It was reasonable, Arthur supposed, that not every person who had joined the resistance was cut out to be a fighter. There were several people who Arthur had met in the time since he had made that deal with Yao who were political rivals, or conscientious objectors. People who opposed the Union’s political actions or defied laws designed to limit expression, but had never intended to pick up a gun and display their dissatisfaction with murder. Those people worked in other jobs around the resistance. They worked as analysts or communications officials, drove vehicles or took care of the children of fighters off on missions. Many volunteered to clean or cook food. Many more became medics, and patched people up when the war tore them up a little.

That was Kabeeta’s role – she was the head medic, meaning that she had supreme authority over anything related to medicine, surgery or the infirmary. She was the one who had created the advanced formula which he was trading his time and skills away for. And though he might resent that he had been roped into an agreement which the rebels knew he couldn’t well refuse, he couldn’t dislike Kabeeta.

Despite the glares which he sent in every direction (including hers) she was always warm and kind in her greetings and demeanour. She could be authoritative when she wanted to be, especially when someone’s life was on the line, but was for the most part a generally lovely person. She was efficient, and never took up more of his time than she needed, but was happy to talk to him. She had, in the past seven weeks, become one of the friendliest faces around here.

He didn’t know exactly where she was from. Normally, a person’s ethnicity could act at least partially as an indicator, but even on that front he was unsure. She had narrow eyes which were dark in colour like those of Yanish people, and hair which was either black or a very dark brown. She looked like she might have been from the Kyrs system, but her skin was a rich caramel colour. Her clothing didn’t help – her long hair was always tied back in a practical fashion, and she wore dark pants and shirts which were almost always hidden beneath medical scrubs. Like essentially everyone else at the resistance, she wore zip-up boots. She had the fairly strong remains of a curious accent, but Arthur was hesitant to ask her about her past. He guessed that he himself was an anomaly – most of his name was falsified, and his time living on Reycass had given him a Northern Reycausian accent which had replaced his existing Pyndaphian one. She had the right to secrecy, though he was still curious.

“I keep telling you, little musībata nirmātā, it’s not good to skip debriefings.” She scolded him as she rolled his sleeve up, eyes roving over the inside of his elbow. “I know that they must be boring – you are not the first to complain about them – but they are still important.”

“How are they important?” Arthur asked dryly as he watched her pick up a sanitised cloth and wipe his arm with it. “All we do is repeat details that they already know. In any case, Mei and Leon went to it – why would it be necessary to have me there as well?”

”Well, it isn’t the facts which count so much as it is your perspective on the events and your role in them.” Kabeeta said as she picked up a hypodermic syringe filled with the clear liquid keeping him alive. “You can’t expect poor Mei and Leon to remember everything they did as well as your role in the proceedings.” He winced a little. She made a fair point. “Besides,” she continued, examining the chamber to ensure that there were no oxygen bubbles inside, “the benefit of going would be more than that.” Kabeeta grasped his arm, locating a vein with ease due to how prominent they were on his arms. “Going to debriefing shows that you’re committed to this deal. It would soften Yao’s opinion of you, which might make him be a bit more forgiving about how often he sends you out on missions.”

As he was considering her statement, she plunged the needle directly into his arm. He just barely twitched at the sensation. It was a familiar pain, but pain nonetheless. She slowly pushed down the plunger, forcing the liquid into his body. She extracted it slowly, pressing a small pad of cotton to it.

“You really think that his opinion of me is going to change? He despises me.” Arthur said sharply. Kabeeta simply laughed.

“Oh, my child, you are wise for your age, that I will never deny, but you have no intelligence regarding Yao. You have not known him nearly long enough to read him. There are people here who have known him years and would never be able to guess what he was thinking.”

“Can you? Read him, I mean.” Arthur inquired. Kabeeta looked up at him as she wiped a small dot of blood from his arm.

“I have known him a long time. We met so long ago, that many forget he was even part of the resistance at the time. I would not claim to know him perfectly – better than others, certainly, but not perfectly – but I would hazard to say that I can tell what he thinks of certain people.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow. “Really? Give me an example.”

Kabeeta leant back a little, meeting his challenging gaze. “If you so wish.” She cast her gaze around, before it settled on a young man covered in mud, who was nursing his temple and grinning sheepishly. “Kristian Alekseev. He’s a young member of our sniper division. Yao is very grateful for his skill and drive, and Kristian has always been a loyal fighter. However,” she paused, surveying him for a minute, “he’s very young, only 17 years old. Yao fears what would happen if he sent him into the same sort of high-risk situations which he throws snipers like Tino into. He sees Kristian’s youth and recognises his eagerness to fight and do the right thing, but also recognises that, untempered, that enthusiasm could result in disaster. He normally has Matthew babysitting him. That’s why he’s kept him around here for the last few weeks. While Matthew is suspended, he has no-one to watch over him, so Yao’s kept him where he knows that he’s relatively safe.” She turned back to Arthur, laughing when she saw the stunned look on his face. She patted his shoulder gently.

“Yao doesn’t despise you. He respects your skill and capability in the field, and is probably grateful to have been able to strike such a deal with you. Though you’re a little stubborn and headstrong, yes, it’s nothing he hasn’t dealt with before. I think that he would really like it if you were a proper member of the rebellion, but would never stake his hopes in something like that. You two would get along well, I can tell.”

Arthur was silent, before he sighed. “Sure, whatever you say.” Kabeeta smiled, ruffling his hair a little.

“You’re all done. Come in again if your general condition changes, okay? Don’t leave it to Mei to rat you out because she’s concerned. Have a bit more responsibility for your own health.” She chided him. He sighed. She said something similar every time he was in here. He nodded reluctantly, and Kabeeta gave him a warm, motherly smile. “Alright get out of here.” he smiled wanly and hopped down from the bench he had been perched on, and made to leave the infirmary when he heard someone calling his name.

Turning, he blinked in surprise when he saw who was trying to catch his attention. It was Alfred, and Arthur had to press a hand to his mouth to hide his smile when he saw that, like Kristian, the blond was covered in mud. The energetic man ran up to him, beaming. Arthur raised an eyebrow, sweeping his gaze up and down indicatively. Alfred blushed.

“Yeah, I can explain that.” He said sheepishly. “We were having a water fight and all the dirt just turned into mud.”

“That is what tends to happen when dirt gets wet.” Arthur said shrewdly, still trying valiantly to suppress a smile. Alfred blushed further.

“Uh…yeah. Anyway, Kristian slipped over and banged his head pretty badly, so we brought him here. It’s only a minor concussion, luckily.” Arthur nodded.

“I see.” He said simply. “Sounds like your afternoon was very adventurous.”

“Hehe, yeah, it was pretty fun. Other than Kristian getting hurt, that is.” he amended. “How did your mission go?”

“Good, obviously. If it went badly I likely wouldn’t be standing here.” Alfred blinked, nodding as his mood seemed to deflate a little.

“Oh, yeah, right, heh, stupid of me to ask.” Arthur cursed himself. Why was he being so cold to Alfred? If anything, the former bounty hunter had been one of the few people who seemed to actually enjoy spending time with him. He could be a little too loud sometimes, but he was sweet, and had never done anything deliberately to irritate Arthur. He forced some of his usual clinical mask to disperse, and made his voice a little gentler.

“How’s your preliminary training coming along?” he asked, tone far softer than it had been previously. Alfred seemed to notice the change, and perked up a bit, happily explaining how he had been getting along in lessons on ship anatomy, shooting and basic first-aid as the pair walked out of the infirmary and into the falling night. Arthur couldn’t fight his smile when Alfred started to detail the water-turned-mud fight to him. Judging from his recollection, it had been quite wild. Arthur pulled the man back when he went to walk inside the dining hall, instead shoving him in the direction of the showers, declaring that he ‘wasn’t going to eat with someone who was so filthy’.

When Alfred returned (finally clean again), he seemed surprised to see Arthur still standing where he had been. Likely, he had probably expected the pirate to have gone inside already. Admittedly, Arthur had been tempted, but had recalled the slightly hurt look on Alfred’s face from earlier, and stayed in place for once. They walked in alongside each other, as Alfred continued to explain that Matthew was, technically, only a year and three days older than him, and that, come Juillat, Matthew would only be ‘two years older’ for three days. Arthur only half-followed whatever argument Alfred seemed to be trying to prove, but he found that nodding absently and humming occasionally sated the blond.

“Speaking of birthdays,” Alfred said as Arthur shook himself out of his stupor, “when’s yours? I can get you something if you want.” Arthur cringed guiltily. He had been very busy the past few weeks, and as such hadn’t spoken to the cheerful new rebel as much as the other would have liked. He had been so preoccupied with the numerous missions which Yao had been sending him out on that he hadn’t even realised that the date had passed until about three days after.

“Uh...” he scratched at the back of his neck, “A month ago?” Alfred’s jaw dropped open, and Arthur could see that he looked quite affronted.

“A month ago?” he said, voice pitched a little higher than normal. “You’ve been 24 for a month and you didn’t tell me?” Arthur was tempted to point out that he and Alfred had technically not even known each other for four months, and the only people that really knew his birthday were his family members, but kept quiet.

“I’ve been busy, you know. Besides, I didn’t think that anyone would particularly care. I don’t.”

Alfred looked floored by that information. “Why would I not care? We’re friends, aren’t we?”

Arthur blinked, and, looking into the baby blue eyes staring at him, he could do nothing other than nod. Alfred brightened at that.

“Well then, that means that I have to get you something!” he said brightly. “Like a book or a knife or something.” At this he trailed off, obviously thinking. “Nah, I’d have to get you something more awesome than that, especially since it’s for you.” Alfred had turned a vibrant shade of crimson by the time he had finished saying that sentence, and Arthur was trying to ignore the light fluttering in his stomach.

“You really don’t have to get me anything.” He murmured. Alfred shook his head, grin wide.

“Nope! You’re getting a present whether you like it or not!” he said cheerfully. Arthur rolled his eyes, but grinned again, and turned back to his meal, missing the dazed look which had appeared on Alfred’s face when he saw that he had managed to make the bitter pirate smile.

Chapter Text

‘Grounded’ Café, Veroda District,
Bibesti, Rela,
29th Maii

Feliciano looked up only momentarily as the door swung open again, bells jingling cheerfully. He turned his attention elsewhere again when he saw Arman, a friendly older worker who had been showing him how to work the coffee machines, move away to greet the customer. Sighing, he plucked several dirty cups from one of the tables, giving it a quick wipe-down as he walked to the kitchen to dump them in the sink.

The crew at ‘Grounded’ – the niche café at which Feliciano had acquired a job – was small and, until he had been hired, exclusively Relusian. He stuck out a fair bit as a result, and regulars and newcomers to the café alike gave him odd looks. To all outward appearances, he looked like a Jhobrasian teenager, mostly due to the fact that the true Syhvvanian red of his hair was obscured by dye. The others were all Relusian through and through, and though he was yet to get targeted in any racially-related way, the stares still made him uncomfortable.

The manager of the café was a lovely man named Nazer, who had been delighted to have someone so young invested in working in hospitality. Arman was one of Nazer’s close friends, and his long-time barista. Gossip among employees was also that Nazer was in love with him, and though Feliciano normally didn’t engage in rumours, he couldn’t deny how much traction that particular theory had. The café had two chefs; Enlik, a woman in her mid-forties who made excellent pastries, and Kairat, a 27-year-old who, in Feliciano’s opinion, had adopted it at his divine right to mock him at every turn. The only other employee was a girl named Aizhan, who acted as both a dishwasher and waitress. Now that Feliciano had joined the crew, he shared her duties, but most often than not found himself cleaning and stacking things.

Glancing at the clock, he sighed in relief. He only had another hour left until the café closed up for the night and he could go home and sleep. He was determined to not bother Lovino again – his older brother had started to get dark circles under his eyes from all of the sleep he lost by helping Feliciano try to use his pyrokinetic abilities. He was set in his decision to not bother his brother any more than necessary. It wasn’t Lovino’s fault that he was so useless, and couldn’t even manage to set a cotton thread on fire. He just didn’t understand what he was doing wrong. What did Lovino have, in fact, what had all of their ancestors had that he didn’t?

He sighed, plunging his hands into the large bucket of soapy water which had been set up in one sink, and started to scrub at dirty plates. It was no use to sit and ponder over it. If the solution was that simple, he would have figured it out already. At the very least, he thought, perking up a little, he had stashed enough pennies in his bag that he could buy something for his brother before he left work that day.

His brief good mood was crushed, however, when a familiar, deriding voice met his ears.

“Clean faster, won’t you? We only have an hour to close.” He didn’t even bother looking up. Kairat shifted closer to him, using his superior height to, quite literally, look down on him. “Come on, we really don’t have all day.” Feliciano sighed, not willing to deal with the older man’s complaints today. He obediently sped up, handing the plates to Kairat to be dried. The man seemed perturbed by his lack of reaction, and scowled, pointing out a small spot which he had missed. “You call this clean? Didn’t your parents ever teach you how to perform basic chores?”

Feliciano silently took the plate back and scrubbed the spot off. He had kept most details about himself secret, mostly because Kairat was nosy and Aizhan, though very friendly and much more welcoming, was also a very curious person by nature. As such, none of them were aware of several important things about him. His true identity went unsaid, as it would in any other situation, but they also had no clue that Lovino existed, that Feliciano was an orphan, or that he had technically never received a formal education.

By far the biggest secret he kept from them, though, was that he lived in the Szwicza District. Most inhabitants of the southern district didn’t care what people thought of their residence, but once you got far away enough from the area, opinions about it became unavoidable. It was the poorest district in all of Bibesti, being a fringe district. It also had the highest crime rate by far, and was considered extraordinarily dangerous by residents of the Veroda District. Most of them wouldn’t walk through there during the day, much less at night like Feliciano did every time he had work. The Veroda District had been a slap in the face for him. It was clean, orderly, beautiful and, above all, safe. Anyone could walk down the street at any hour and not fear robbery or rape or murder.

Residents of Veroda, which was what Nazer, Arman, Kairat, Elnik and Aizhan all were, could never imagine the danger in the Szwicza District. He had heard them all talking more than once about the horrible living conditions there. He agreed, but had felt oddly insulted by their words. It was clear that, at least to them, a resident of the Szwicza district was to be pitied as someone who was poor, lived a degenerate lifestyle, and would likely never leave the filthy area.

He didn’t deign to answer Kairat’s attempted slight, and continued to wash silently. Aizhan joined him after a while and started up a cheerful conversation with him about the dance classes which she had been taking. He floundered for a moment when she asked about his non-existent schooling.

“What’s your favourite class?” she had asked, curious and happy as always.

“Oh…uh, probably history.” He said, coming up with it on the spot. “I like learning about all of the old political leaders and such.” Aizhan had nodded enthusiastically.

“Yeah! I agree. It’s kind of a shame that the curriculum doesn’t let us learn about the Free Courts, though, especially since they’re right here in our system.” Feliciano had frozen up a little at that, but nodded and murmured in agreement before adopting silence for the rest of the night.

It was a relief when Nazer congratulated them on a day of work well done, and told them to go home for the night. Feliciano was glad to dart out the door, ensuring that he had grabbed his small coin purse, and checking that the knife Lovino had given him was again tucked into his belt. He raised a hand in farewell to Aizhan and Arman when he saw them walking off in the opposite direction.

He circled around a block, admiring the sheer cleanliness of this part of Bibesti, before reluctantly trudging back towards the Szwicza District. He had to work hard to clean himself up before going to work every day. If he had gone dressed as he always was, it would have been almost painfully obvious that he was from a poorer district. Kairat could mock him all he wanted, but even the snarky chef looked vaguely frightened at the mention of the place. It was where Feliciano lived and spent most of his time, and yet it terrified the chef. He often kept that thought close whenever the Relusian man was being especially unbearable.

The sun had set much more quickly than he had wanted it to. Winter began in a few days for Bibesti, and the days had been shrinking accordingly. Soon enough, it would be completely dark while he walked home. Already the streets were mostly shrouded in shadows. Shivering a little, he quickened his pace.

Crossing the boundary into Szwicza from the adjoined Calmas District rendered a physical change in Feliciano. His shoulders locked up, and his gaze immediately became active, roving across the street and connected alleyways, trying to determine if anyone lay in the shadows, waiting to strike. His hand drifted towards the knife at his belt, and his already swift pace sped up even more. Lovino normally had no trouble walking these streets, but Lovino looked more like a predator than a victim, and Feliciano knew that he was significantly less intimidating than his older brother.

He kept his senses tuned, listening out for any sign of a person as he sped down the streets. He inwardly cursed how far into the district their apartment was.

A loud noise to his right made him turn his entire body that way, looking out for any sign. He only realised his mistake when he felt hands seize him from behind. Lovino had told him about that old ruse – in which one member of a pair caused a distraction to draw their victim’s attention, while the other snuck up behind them and grabbed them. He struggled fiercely, throwing his weight in the other direction in an attempt to make them loosen or lose their grip on him. It didn’t work, though, and he felt a hand press itself over his mouth as he was dragged backwards into an alley.

He swung his legs wildly as his captor picked him up off the ground, feeling a sliver of satisfaction when his heel connected with something and the man let out a grunt of pain. He continued to writhe around wildly, trying to get his hand to the knife at his belt. The man’s accomplice hurried down, and Feliciano struck out at him with his feet as well. The man cursed, jumping away and sending him a vicious glare. Running out of options, he sunk his teeth into the hand clasped over his mouth. He heard a curse, and the hand vanished. A flash of pain across his temple just a moment later told him that the man had just hit him. The man wrapped his arms around him, clasping him in a backwards bear-hug, as the second of the two approached them.

Feliciano continued to wriggle around wildly, lashing out mostly with his feet, as his arms were now pinned to his sides. The second man sneered and lashed out at him in return. His right eye and lower lip were stinging and aching, though he continued to struggle. The man holding him shook him violently for a moment, before pulling his body even closer, pressing up against him.

“Listen here. You can give us your money right now, and we’ll be on our merry way, or you can continue to fight us. I promise, kiddo, if you do the latter, you’ll regret it.” Feliciano felt his attacker press his body even more against his. This time, though, he understood what the man was saying. He went completely still when he felt the robber’s erection pressed against the inside of his left thigh. The man let out a short laugh. “Oh yeah. Keep quiet, kiddo, and stop hitting me and my friend here, or I’ll fuck you raw and leave you for the vultures to pick up the scraps.” Feliciano remained completely still as the second man rifled through his pockets, withdrawing his coin purse and also pulling the knife from his belt.

“Now that I think about it,” the first man said as his friend indicated that that was all Feliciano had, “you really are a pretty little thing anyway. Why don’t I show you a good time?” Feliciano started to struggle again as the man pressed him up against a wall, breathing down his neck. “Come on now,” the man continued, “it’ll be fun. I can show you how it’s really done.” Feliciano thrust his knee upwards, and the man shouted a curse, staggering away a little.

He was unable to take more than a step away, though, before he was slammed back against the wall again. A sharp, intense pain manifested in his side, and he looked down, stunned to see the hilt of his own knife jutting from his torso. He half slid sideways before the man he’d hit grabbed him, forcing him back upright.

“You little shit.” He spat as he pinned him against the wall by his throat, pulling at his own trousers. “You won’t ever walk again once I’m done with you.” The knife was pulled roughly from his side and he nearly blacked out from pain before he was slammed onto the ground, the enraged robber crawling on top of him. He struggled feebly, pushing at the heavier man with his hands, vision spinning as his side burned with pain. He could feel the man’s hands roving, pulling at his clothes, and felt bile rise in his throat.

Distantly, he heard shouting from the other man, the accomplice. The man on top of him froze, and, somehow, the pressure on top of him was alleviated. By the time Feliciano’s vision had cleared sufficiently, they were both gone. Bewildered, he twisted around to see a trio of patrol officers walking out on the main street. He breathed out slowly. Those two must have been new to the Szwicza District. In any other part of Bibesti, law enforcement would stop an attack, but here in Szwicza, it was a different story. Just a few weeks ago, he’d heard a story of a group of officers who had come across someone who had been mugged. Rather than helping them or taking them to the hospital, they had gang-raped them.

Vision still blurry and breathing erratic, Feliciano flipped himself onto his stomach and forced himself to his feet. His hand drifted to his side, and it came away slick and red. Pressing a hand to the injury and hoping that nothing vital had been hit, he staggered onward in the direction of their apartment building.

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
30th Maii

Ayshe raised an eyebrow at the layout of the building. The floor plans had been retrieved by a nervous, Iramese pilot named Yelisa about an hour ago at her request, and Ayshe had spent nearly all of that time looking from the plans to Yao, and back to the plans again.

“It certainly doesn’t look like a highly-guarded communications centre.” She said. Yao nodded, frowning at the plans sternly.

“No, that it doesn’t. It’s good for us, though. Since the layout is fairly simple, it would be easy to navigate the inside. The real challenge comes with getting into the building in the first place. The outsides of the building are very heavily monitored, and they have three layers of guarded checkpoints.”

Ayshe whistled “Challenging indeed. What would we get out of infiltrating this place?”

Yao gave her a shrewd smile. “It’s a communications centre. If we plant a bug in their system, we’d be able to intercept their transmissions, and it would make undermining the Union all that much easier. We wouldn’t be able to act on every piece of information we receive, obviously, as they would cotton on fairly quickly, but it would be very helpful to have that option.” Ayshe nodded again, a grin stretching across her features.

“So, we go in, plant a bug, get out and reap the rewards?” Yao nodded. “Okay, well I’m in if you need any volunteers.”

“I knew that you would be.” Yao said quietly, frowning a little. Ayshe blinked, gazing at him in concern.

“Yao? Are you alright?” she asked, moving towards him.

“It’s going to be a dangerous mission, is all,” he said. Ayshe’s expression softened, and she clasped her hand over his own.

“I’ve done dangerous things before. I’ll pick a capable crew, don’t worry.” Yao was silent for a moment, and Ayshe saw his eyes fall to where her hand was placed over his. He withdrew his hand from hers, turning away a little. Quickly disguising the hurt on her face, she listened as he spoke.

“I was thinking, actually, that I would appoint a few people to go along myself.” He said, tone measured. Ayshe drew back a little, hurt rising up again. She nodded, though, forcing herself to regain her composure.

“Of course,” she said, tone losing its usual warmth. “As you see fit.” She turned on her heel and marched off, not giving him the chance to explain his sudden change in mood. He had been acting a little oddly lately, but she wasn’t brave enough to ask why. It always seemed to be whenever she tried any sort of physical contact or anything more…personal. He had been very withdrawn in the fortnight or so following his trial. She understood that. After what he had detailed on the stand…well, the idea that physical contact made him uncomfortable was completely expected. She had initially assumed that he had to recover from the traumatic experience of spilling the darkest aspects of his past, but it seemed to be a principle which applied only to her.

It hurt, far more than anything else, that she was the one he was choosing to not trust. They had been friends for years, ever since she’d rescued him from the Arbiter. In the early days of his recovery, she had always been by his side, something which even Arshad hadn’t been able to do. She wrapped her arms around herself. Perhaps that was it. Yao had loved Arshad, after all. The trial had likely only reminded him of that fact. He had once told her that his heart felt like it had been pushed to capacity. Clearly, she thought. If he has room for a dead man, and not me.

It was cruel to think that way, though. Yao had had an exceptionally hard life, and it was awful that she thought she had the right to a place in it. Nonetheless, her mood was low, and she walked towards the firing range with a drawn look on her face.

“…That’s an interesting group of people to choose for a mission, Yao.” Mohammed said, casting a sideways glance at him. “Are you sure that it’ll work? It is a very high-stakes operation.”

“I’ve been trying to reserve my judgement, but,” Octavia said, “even I’m not sure about this.”

“They’ll be fine. That crew or nothing.” Yao snapped, mood worn thin by the hurt look on Ayshe’s face he’d seen earlier. He had been trying to distance himself in order to preserve her feelings, and yet he had only ended up hurting them more. Octavia and Mohammed exchanged a look, but clearly picked up on Yao’s sour mood, and didn’t comment again.

Yao turned his gaze away, glaring at the table as Octavia picked up the list he’d compiled.

“So…Kirkland, his two subordinates, Ayshe, Lukas, Tino and the two recruits from the criminal group.” She set down the list again. “I’ll send out word that they’ve been drafted for a mission.” She hesitated for a moment, as if hoping that Yao would change his mind, but upon receiving silence, she turned and exited the tent. Mohammed looked as if he wanted to speak, but decided against it, bowing his head a little and following Octavia out.

Yao sighed, leaning back in his chair. He had been high-strung ever since the trial, and couldn’t seem to relax himself. Trying to deal with the stubbornness of Arthur Kirkland, in addition to Lukas’ increased desire to fight and the continuing issue of the criminals they had taken prisoner, had run him down. His troubles had only been further burdened by the uncomfortable realisation which he had come to not long after his trial. It had haunted him relentlessly since, however much he might try to deny its existence.

The group which he had chosen to go on this mission was a reckless choice. A part of him already regretted it, but another, louder part of his brain was satisfied. Try as he might to deny it, he felt as though he was sending away several of his problems at once. With Kirkland, Ayshe, Lukas and two of the criminals who had chosen to join their side out of the way, however briefly, he might actually get the chance to relax a little.

Though his real intentions were less than kind, Yao had actually had good reasons for picking the crew that he had. Kirkland had to prove himself worthy on a constant basis, and had already shown his aptitude in performing heists and break-ins. His input on the mission, in addition to that of his talented subordinates, would be invaluable. Ayshe was an excellent fighter and strategist. She would be able to find ways for all of their talents to be used to their fullest potential. She was going to be the leader of the mission, and Yao doubted that she would have any trouble handling the more reluctant crew-members. Lukas had been clamouring to be allowed to prove himself as a worthy fighter for weeks now. His skills, both natural and supernatural, could have many uses in this mission. If he proved to Yao that he was ready to go to war, Yao would actually consider sending him.

Tino was their best sniper by far, and could also easily keep the ex-pirates and former bounty-hunters in line. He was also friends with Lukas, and Yao knew that the man would look out for the harsh Fynknian and have his back if necessary. As for the two new recruits, well, Alfred was already showing promise. His aim wasn’t perfect, but he was a decent fighter. Yao wanted to see if he was made of the same steel as his brother. He already knew that the more bubbly man was fairly committed to their goals, but Yao wanted to ensure that he knew exactly what joining the resistance meant. He couldn’t let Matthew protect him forever. The second recruit had barely been a member of their infantry for two weeks, and already he had intrigued Yao. He was clearly a far superior fighter to Alfred, but had remained quiet and reserved. The way he unconsciously stiffened around Garvich told Yao what he needed to know about his parentage, but he wasn’t particularly worried. It would do both of the former criminals some good to get to see each other again, and, similar to Alfred, Yao wanted to see how well their newest fighter fared in a proper mission.

He was sorry that Matthew wouldn’t be able to join them, but his suspension ended tomorrow, and he knew that the man would quickly re-immerse himself in resistance combat life quickly enough. He leant back in his chair, running a hand back through his hair. Yao sighed. If they all made it back from the mission, he would try and talk to them all, he decided. It wasn’t fair of him to try and ignore his problems. That method had never worked before, and there was no reason it would work now.

Standing, he braced himself for the long night of planning to come.

Chapter Text

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
1st Jaune

“And in three…two…one…” Matthew let out a yell of joy and punched the air when the clock ticked over to show 11am. “I’m officially unsuspended!” he leapt to his feet, ignoring Abel’s amused expression as he grabbed his brown leather jacket from its spot on his bed, threw it on and practically sprinted outside.

“Calm down,” the tall man said as he followed Matthew out into the blinding light and heat outside. “I wouldn’t put it past the council to re-suspend you just for being too enthusiastic.” Matthew rolled his eyes, but slowed his steps enough for his friend to catch up. Matthew knew that he was smiling like an idiot, but he couldn’t help it. He knew that his punishment had been fair – extremely lenient, even – but that hadn’t detracted from the agony of being delegated to work in the kitchens or clean rooms all day. The few bright points in his suspension had been the few times which he had been allowed to work in the infirmary – that place was interesting and high-energy, at least – but they had been far in between.

Suspension wouldn’t have been so bad if it had just meant being restricted to within the rebel base. He had been punished with that before, and it often wasn’t even that bad. His suspension, however, had been tailored to fit his particular skills and schedule. Matthew was a combat fighter, so he had been banned from entering any munitions shed, using the firing range, touching or having any sort of weapon on his person, going to his flying lessons (he’d been forced to purely study theory, instead) and do any sort of task or mission assigned by a superior officer. It had limited him to, really, reading, studying and doing basic repairs. He had volunteered to help out in the kitchens and infirmary to keep himself from dying of boredom. He was a prolific reader, it was true, but his thirst for adventure ran deep. Being unable to engage in any missions, while his friends had continued to enjoy them, had almost driven him insane.

And poor Abel, whose own room was very close to his own, had suffered through the most incensed of Matthew’s complaints across the two months. Matthew had only found suspension bearable when he’d been told that his brother had chosen to join the resistance, and he was given permission to show him around. It had been frustrating to sit and watch as his brother shot targets while he himself wasn’t allowed, but he loved every minute of spending time with and getting to know Alfred better. The years of their separation had seemed to dissolve over the course of a few days. There were still countless things which Matthew didn’t know about Alfred, but they were now as tight-knit as they had been back in Beledent.

He sighed. He’d been informed that his brother was to be sent on his first-ever mission, and if Ayshe was to be believed, it was a dangerous one. He wished, more than almost anything else, that he was permitted to go along, but the mission had been proposed last night, and as he had been suspended at the time, he wasn’t allowed to take part.

If they’d only waited a day to propose the mission. He thought ruefully. If I had only managed to find another way to get Nesset out of the way.

He forced the thoughts away. He’d been plagued with guilt about killing Nesset for the last two months, even though he knew that it had been a necessary evil. Ending one life to save seventeen others – it seemed a more than fair trade-off, but the weight was heavy on Matthew’s heart. Dalisay, who had been Nesset’s mentor, had been understanding but distant ever since, and he mourned the loss of her warmth and kindness.

He looked up when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Abel was frowning at him.

“Hey, you okay? You went really quiet there.” Matthew smiled sadly but nodded.

“I’ll be alright, thanks Abel.” He murmured. “I’m just thinking too much.”

“As always.” Abel teased.

“Yeah, as always.”

Alfred sighed as Leon raised an eyebrow at him. Mei giggled a little at the agonised expression on his face as pressed his chin to the table, frowning at the wood.

“I’m serious. I need help with this. I want to get him something that he’ll actually like.”

“He really wouldn’t care at all if you didn’t get him anything, though,” Leon said. “His birthday was a month ago, for saints’ sake. He’s probably forgotten all about it.” Alfred shot him a look.

“Okay, you aren’t being helpful, Leon. I want to get Arthur something. Didn’t you guys do anything for him?”

Mei smiled a little. “Well…yes, but we did that near his actual birthday. I ducked into the city centre when he and Ali were reviewing some strategy and bought him a cake. He was a bit embarrassed by it, though.”

“Because Ali got really into singing ‘happy birthday’ for him,” Leon said. Mei shrugged.

“He is a really good singer, though. I thought it sounded very good.” Leon rolled his eyes affectionately, but couldn’t quite disguise a small smile. Alfred groaned.

“Well, that sounds okay! What am I supposed to do? You guys know him better than anyone else. I want to get him something which he’ll really like.” Mei was smiling widely.

“You really want him to like this present, don’t you?”

“Well…yeah, I thought that was obvious.” He muttered, cheeks flushing red. Mei sighed.

“I’ll admit, you’re fighting an uphill battle in that regard. He usually doesn’t like celebrating his birthday, and he definitely doesn’t normally like presents. If you want to get him something he’ll like or love, you’ll have to really knock it out of the park. You need to get him something which demonstrates more than a basic knowledge of his likes and dislikes.” She paused. “If you wanted an example, I guess, he wouldn’t be impressed if you got him a book because he loves reading, but he probably would appreciate a dinner out to a Gulasz restaurant, because that dish reminds him of his old home on Pyndaph.”

Alfred blinked, and let his head fall onto the table with a loud bang. “He’s going to hate whatever I get him.” Mei patted his head gently.

“I’m sure that he’ll appreciate the effort, no matter what you got him. Just try and think of the little things about Arthur. He appreciates an eye for detail. I once got away with buying him a present because he liked it so much.” Alfred looked up.

“What did you buy him?”

“Well, I noticed that he was always stressed on heists whenever we had to conceal ourselves behind some sort of wall, or we were feigning nonchalance and couldn’t look behind us to see if we were being followed. I bought him a full-finger ring with small mirrored plates on it. he can use it to look at almost any angle.”

Alfred gaped, feeling despondent. “That’s fucking genius,” he groaned, “but I don’t have your brain, Mei! I’ve only known him for like, 3 months. How am I supposed to find something which he’ll like, if he only really appreciates well-thought out gifts like that?”

“You’ll think of something. I know you will. After all,” she said, “he’s already fond of you, so you’d have an advantage over someone like, say, Natalya.” Alfred reddened at that, stomach fluttering a little. Arthur was fond of him? Mei smiled a little, obviously guessing at what he was thinking. Leon, who was equally perceptive, rolled his eyes again.

Alfred sighed. “Yeah, well, I’ll try, anyway.” He said as he stood. “You guys have heard about the mission coming up, right?” they both nodded.

“Yup. It’s your first one, isn’t it?” Mei said. Alfred nodded. She smiled. “Don’t be nervous. They’re sending a pretty high up fighter with us, so they’ll know what to do. Not to mention, Arthur knows how these things work. Nothing bad will happen.”

Alfred sighed. He wasn’t entirely sure that she was right, but chose to put both Arthur’s present and the impending mission out of his mind for now. Admittedly, he didn’t know who was going on this mission other than Arthur, Mei, Leon and himself, and was somewhat curious to find out. They’d been told that the mission leader would be having a meeting with them later that day, where they would be briefed on only the basic details before being given a day to prepare, and then departing. As Alfred understood it, they would be briefed in full while on the way there. It was a covert operation, it was true, and he was anxious to not mess it up. Not just for his brother’s sake, or his own – he liked the resistance, and wanted to help them if he could.

Alfred sighed, worries and doubts swirling around his head. Only time would tell if he was cut out to be a part of this movement, he supposed.

Szwicza District,
Bibesti, Rela,
1st Jaune

“You can’t honestly be thinking of going back to work tomorrow.” Lovino said, tone dismayed as he surveyed the damage done to Feliciano’s side again. “What if those assholes come back again? You won’t survive a second hit like that.”

Feliciano winced, obviously trying hard to keep his hands away from his side. Lovino was lucky, truly, that the wound wasn’t as deep as his own had been when he’d been stabbed back in mid-Janwir. His younger brother’s injury was similar, but much luckier than Lovino’s had been. The cut was shallower, for a start, as the man had stabbed him at an angle, and it had also easily missed any and all vital organs. If he’d been stabbed straight-on, Feliciano would likely be missing a kidney right now.

His brother could walk around, though bending and lifting things wasn’t really an option for him. That was part of Lovino’s conviction against him working tomorrow. Picking things up and moving heavy boxes was part of Feli’s job, and if he did it too soon, he would likely just tear the wound open again. Lovino had been lucky to have a bottle of Statica – a foul-tasting liquid which helped blood to clot – in the cupboard. A healthy cup full of the liquid on the open wound, and Lovino’s dodgy stitching, were all that was keeping the wound closed right now.

Feliciano, however, didn’t seem to agree with Lovino’s common sense.

“I can just explain to Nazer that I’ve hurt my side and that I can’t do any lifting or bending.” He said stubbornly. “If you can continue to work after getting stabbed, so can I.”

Lovino pinched the bridge of his nose. “Feli, I’m a lot more used to getting knifed in the gut than you are, okay? And even I took a few days off. Please, just until the 3rd. Do you really want to spend your birthday at work and in pain?” Feliciano turned 17 on the 2nd, which was tomorrow. Lovino, being a responsible and caring older brother, had already bought him something, and he was hoping that he could convince his brother to stay home on the day.

Feliciano, however, pouted, “You never take time off work, so I shouldn’t either.” Lovino had to try very hard to not slam his head into the wall at this.

“Feli, I’m your older brother. It’s my job to protect you and make sure that you’re taken care of. I only learned to fight in the first place to make sure that if anyone tried to fuck with you, I could take them out. Being a stubborn ass isn’t going to make you stronger. If that was the case, I would be able to take down the Union single-handedly.”

Feliciano did giggle a little at that. Lovino sighed. “Please, just stay home a few more days? If your boss is really so nice and understanding, just explain that you’re sick a need a few days off. If he fires you, we’ll fuck him up and find you a new job.”

Feliciano rolled his eyes “Fighting people isn’t always the solution, you know.”

Lovino shrugged. “It works well enough, I’ve found.”

“Okay, fine, I’ll stay off work until the 3rd.” Feliciano threw him a mischievous grin. “Though, you’d better make my birthday pretty great, if you want to top what I did for you on your 20th.”

Lovino grinned, “Challenge accepted,” he said, “prepare to be blown the fuck away.”

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
1st Jaune

“A mission? Like, an actual fucking mission?”

“Yup. You’re one of the ones who’s been selected to go along.”

“...Why in the system was I chosen?” Gilbert asked, gaping at Tino. The sniper shrugged.

“Fuck if I know. Alfred’s going too, if it makes you feel any better. I am as well, though I haven’t really been informed about who else.” Gilbert blinked in shock, nodding in a confused daze. Tino gave him a sympathetic smile, putting a hand on his shoulder. “It’ll be okay. Even if you aren’t the world’s best fighter, I’ll be hanging around in the eaves to shoot anyone who messes with you guys, so don’t worry.”

Gilbert actually did feel rather reassured by that – Tino was the best sniper in history for a reason – and felt himself relax a little. He nodded, a little less bewildered this time. Tino grinned. “Our meeting is starting soon, if I’m correct, so you might want to finish up here.” Gilbert looked back and surveyed the ship hangar. Upon discovering that he had a talent for mechanics and repairs, he had been thrown in here along with a cheerful woman named Dalisay and a grave Iramese man named Gavrilo, and told to start working.

He had only really joined the resistance about two weeks ago, so he had understood why they were being cautious about assigning him jobs and training. He had been given a few chances to try out his firing skills at the rifle range they had here, but he had already been deemed ‘competent’ with a weapon, and so had been thrown in somewhere that he was able to be useful. He had spent a week trying to ignore the suspicious or wary glances from everyone who came to the hangar. They had started to drop off a little, particularly from the people who he worked with on a regular basis.

Most of the mechanics greeted him fairly happily now, and he could manage to have casual conversations with most of them now. Gilbert was normally very outgoing, to the point of over-enthusiasm and exuberance, but the rebels made it hard to be sociable. The one real bright point of the last fortnight had been the times he got to spend with rebels he had met before. Elizabeta had been assigned to essentially babysit him and ensure that he was doing what he was told, and he found that he rather enjoyed her company. She was fierce and stubborn, but he was as well, and she was probably the closest thing he could call a friend here.

There were others, like Tino, who were always friendly and kind to him. Though Gilbert appreciated their hospitality, he had to admit that as nice as the sniper was, he was equally intimidating. His reputation would have done enough to establish him as frightening, but he complemented the image by carrying a loaded rifle with him almost everywhere he went. Tino was hardly physically intimidating – he barely brushed 5’6’’ height-wise – but Gilbert knew better than to judge him based on his appearance. He had managed to take down Berwald – who was 6’4’’ and probably weighed about twice as much as Tino – of all people. His cheerful demeanour and warm brown eyes couldn’t distract Gilbert from that fact.

Nonetheless, he was glad for the more cheerful company as he washed machine oil from his hands and arms and pulled on a new, much cleaner shirt. They were in the midst of discussing the adjustments which Dalisay had made to an x-wing fighter which had increased the ship’s acceleration by about 15% when they were intercepted by Matthew.

Gilbert felt his stomach flutter when he sighted the now familiar violet eyes and light blond curls. It was an almost instinctual reaction by now, try as he might to ignore the sensation. The blinding smile which the rebel had on his face didn’t help Gilbert’s flustered mood.

“Hey guys! Headed to your mission briefing, I assume?” Tino grinned at his friend and nodded.

“Yup! On our way now. Are you coming with us?”

Matthew smiled sadly. “I wish. Since the mission was proposed yesterday, I can’t go.”

“Oh, that’s right! Your suspension is finally over!” Tino said in delight. “I think Kristian was ready to cry with boredom, being stuck around here all the time.” Matthew laughed, scratching at the back of his neck.

“True. Well, since I’m now free, he can finally get back to the Gafadari front like he wants.” Matthew said. Tino nodded, and Gilbert felt instantly self-conscious when the blond’s gaze shifted from Tino to him. The sniper grinned, slapped him on the back and moved past him.

“Well, I’ll get going. Don’t hold him up too long, Matt.” Matthew rolled his eyes in Tino’s direction, but when he turned back to Gilbert, his expression and voice were warm.

“I’m really sorry that I haven’t been able to talk to you that much. The kitchen is a more hectic job than one would expect. I didn’t even hear that you’d joined us until a few days ago.”

Gilbert shrugged, hoping that his face wasn’t red. “It’s fine, really, I get that everyone here is pretty much always busy.”

“Seriously, though.” Matthew said, stepping forward and putting his hands on Gilbert’s shoulders. “I’m really glad that you chose to join us. You’re an amazing fighter, and I really think that you could do a lot of good here.” Gilbert flushed even more, averting his entire face in an attempt to retain some semblance of composure.

“Uh, yeah, I’ll do my best.” He murmured, wishing that he could ignore the fact that he’d just realised that Matthew was ever so slightly taller than him.

“Oi.” Matthew said. Gilbert felt his skin burn when Matthew grabbed his face in his hands and forced him to make eye contact. “You’ll be great. Maybe I could convince Yao to let us go on a mission together at some point.” Gilbert nodded a little, and was relieved when Matthew released his face. The rebel grinned. “Dalisay tells me that you’re a pretty good mechanic.” He felt his face heat up more.

“Ha, yeah, thanks.” he said, making more of an effort to not look a little less hopelessly flushed. “I’d really love to talk more,” he really would, to an extent that made him borderline concerned, “but I think that my meeting is starting soon. I don’t know who our senior officer is, but I really don’t want to piss them off so quickly.”

Matthew smiled, but stepped away a little. “I think you guys have Ayshe, and she’s pretty laid back, but yeah, you’re right. Good luck with the mission, anyway.” He said, turning to leave. Seized by an impulse, Gilbert called out to him.

“Hey!” he called, continuing when Matthew turned around to look at him inquiringly, “If I manage to come back alive, you’re buying me extra dessert from the dining hall.” Matthew laughed as Gilbert fought down the flush on his face.

“Fair enough!” he said, lifting a hand to wave as Gilbert moved in the direction of the briefing tent, only starting to slap at his hot cheeks when he was certain that the other man couldn’t see him. He cursed under his breath.

Gilbert wasn’t normally the ‘crushing’ type, but something about Alfred’s badass yet sweet older brother had made him quickly develop one. It was weird, in a way, since he had never really had any interest in Alfred, and yet had immediately been drawn to the brother who freakishly resembled him. There was just something so distinctly different about Matthew – he was level-headed and mature, and yet full of passion and kindness; he was a fierce fighter and toughened by years of fighting the Union, yet Gilbert had once spotted him nursing a small desert fox which had gotten injured near the firing range. He was very physically attractive, that was also true, but it was his genuine nature and dynamic personality which had drawn him in like a fish to a bait.

It wasn’t a good thing, in Gilbert’s mind. Every other romantic interest which he had ever had in the past had rather viciously rejected him – primarily due to his disturbing parentage. He didn’t blame them – he was an abomination, by the admissions of many people and legal systems. If anything, he should be grateful that he hadn’t ended up with a serious disability or other problem. According to most of the sources he had looked at, the probability of someone like him being born and growing up without serious physical or mental handicap was very small. He wouldn’t have been surprised if Matthew was just being nice to him on the basis of pity. He resented the idea, mainly because this crush was probably a lot stronger than most others he’d had in the past, but had to acknowledge the likelihood of it being the reality.

Sighing, high mood dropping a little, he pushed apart the tent flaps and walked inside.

He immediately surveyed the room, heart leaping with joy when he saw that Alfred was, in fact, a part of the mission as well. Tino was lounging against a desk, and winked at Gilbert knowingly when he saw him. A very beautiful woman, who Gilbert guessed to be Nymian, was seated at the far side of the room, frowning at a pad of notes. She looked up briefly as he came in, nodding to herself. He smiled a little when he saw Mei and Leon reclining in a pair of chairs, muttering to each other in Yanish. Gilbert quickly moved to stand by Alfred, who greeted him happily with a hug and a flurry of questions as they waited for something to happen.

A pair of tent flaps on the other side of the room flew open after another two minutes or so, and a disgruntled but much healthier-looking Arthur Kirkland strode in. Noting his entrance, the Nymian woman stood. She practically exuded confidence and authority, and Gilbert found the words dying in his throat as he turned his attention to her.

“Now that we’re all here,” she said, voice warm and husky, “we can finally begin.” Arthur didn’t look remotely ashamed at the fact that he had obviously been late, slumping into a chair next to Mei. Gilbert noted how Alfred’s gaze followed the pirate appreciatively, and privately reflected that he clearly wasn’t the only one with a crush.

“First of all, to those of you that don’t know, I am Admiral Ayshe Kartal. I am one of the most senior authority figures in the entire resistance, so if you came in here believing that this mission has been thrown together based on nothing, you are much mistaken. I have been assigned to lead this mission, and I have every intention for it to be a success.”

She surveyed them, and Gilbert felt himself recoil a little under her dark, intelligent gaze. She reminded him greatly of Yao – they had the same air of quiet authority and wisdom.

“Our mission is dangerous, but simple.” She gestured to a lit screen behind her. “This is the floor plan for the Xi Lan Ey Intelligence Centre. It’s a Yanish Union outpost on Reycass, and it manages some of the most important communications in the entire Union database, including many of the messages which pass between their sleeper agents and their managers. As I’m sure is easily understandable, it would be invaluable if we were able to intercept these conversations. Our task is to infiltrate the building, plant a bug which will give us access to the radio chatter, and get out completely undetected.”

Gilbert blinked. He had been confused before, but now he was positively dumbfounded. This was a serious, high-stakes mission. He understood even less than before why he had been chosen for this. Alfred also seemed to be confused, though Arthur had a cocky, almost bored expression on his face. He was staring at the floor plans with a sort of vicious hunger – to him, it was another obstacle to overcome, another safe to crack. Mei and Leon looked a little worried, though Tino was grinning.

“The eight of us have been picked by Yao to perform this mission, and we are going to do it successfully. I’m normally a forgiving person but in this case I will not tolerate failure. You’ll all be briefed further on the way, including our course of action to get into the building and plant the bug. You all have some sort of skill which Yao has deemed necessary for the success of this mission, so I expect you to treat this with all seriousness.”

Alfred was nodding, but Gilbert frowned a little. Eight? There were only seven of them in the room.

As if in response to his unspoken question, a voice rang out from behind Gilbert.

“Get in undetected, plant a bug and get out again. Seems doable.”

Alfred careened into Gilbert in shock as a young man seemed to materialise next to him. Blinking in surprise and shoving the blond off him, Gilbert observed the newcomer, recognition immediate and unwelcome. He took in the pale, sharp face and felt himself tense up a little.

“Doable is what we’re aiming for, Lukas.” Ayshe said as she turned back to the rest of the group, most of whom – save Tino and Alfred – were looking at the Fynknian curiously. “I am also expecting you all to exercise a fairly reasonable degree of obedience when I give you an order, and to at least attempt to get along well.” Her eyes flittered towards the prince as she said it. “You might be relying on one of the other people in this room in a few days’ time to save your life, so be friendly.” Ayshe’s tone was commanding, and Gilbert resigned himself to doing as she said. Tino merely grinned at the Admiral, saluting cockily.

“In case you weren’t aware, we ship out at 0500 hours tomorrow. You’ve all been given the rest of the day to pack any necessary clothes, weaponry or other tools, and rest up a little. I expect to see you all a half-hour early tomorrow. Try to get a good night’s sleep, because we’ll be jumping right into the thick of planning tomorrow.” Gilbert blinked at the abrupt and matter-of-fact tone in her voice. “I won’t tolerate bullshit on my ship, so don’t expect to be catered to.”

They all nodded, though Gilbert found himself glancing nervously at Lukas. He was younger, slimmer and shorter than Gilbert, yet he was undeniably off-putting. He was attractive, in a sense. He was certainly physical appealing, but there was a sort of dark, alluring energy about him. Of everyone going on this mission – the fierce Admiral, the self-preservationist pirate and the intimidating sniper – Lukas definitely freaked him out the most. The Fynknian made eye contact with him no sooner than the thought had left his head, as though he could read minds.

Right, he thought, he can do even that, can’t he?

The prince inclined his head at him slightly, eyes narrowing just the smallest bit. The look very clearly said, yes, and don’t you forget it.

Chapter Text

Szwicza District,
Bibesti, Rela,
2nd Jaune

Being a kind and considerate older brother, Lovino chose not to wake his younger brother up at the crack of dawn on his birthday. He trudged quietly into their apartment at 2am, stretching and suppressing a groan. His shift had been as dull as ever – the graveyard hours, as they were called, were appropriately named – he had seen a grand total of 17 people over the course of 5 hours. The store was located in a lesser populated part of the district, it was true, but even then, it had been a strangely quiet shift. He had spent almost the entire time aimlessly browsing the aisles, plucking a few different foodstuffs from the shelves and eating them while reading lists of ingredients.

His night shifts were normally quite dull.

He had had a few interesting visitors, however. One woman who was clearly on cocaine had wandered in, bought 15 bags of chips and left. Another young man who had been sober but lost had taken up 20 minutes of Lovino’s time by asking him for directions back to a university campus. His face had whitened considerably when Lovino had informed him that he was just a block or two away from the Szwicza District, which he had laughed at. The owner of this store had hired Lovino specifically because he was from Szwicza – he had counted on the fact that Lovino would be able to defend the store.

Indeed, on only his third night working there, someone had tried to rob the shop. Lovino had quickly dispatched them with a knife to the upper chest, and calmly wiped blood off his hands as he phoned both the police and his manager to explain that there’d been an attempted robbery. He would never forget the stunned look on his manager’s face when he had walked into his shop to see a dead body on the floor and one of his employees, hands bloodied, calmly talking to a police officer.

Lovino sighed quietly, dropping the bag that he took with him to work on the couch to soften the thump. He cast a lone glance over at his brother, tucked into bed and sleeping soundly. Feli was determined to return to work tomorrow, a prospect which Lovino did not approve of. He was reminded all too well of his own injury all those months before – the parallels seemed almost uncanny. Perhaps, Feliciano was becoming more and more like him. He shivered slightly, it was an unsettling thought.

Feli’s determination was strong, that was for sure, and he was ignoring what was best, as Lovino knew he himself did frequently. Honestly, he had been mugged, stabbed and nearly raped, yet he was most concerned about earning money. Lovino muffled a yawn behind his hand and quickly double-checked that the present he’d brought for his brother was still inside his bag.

Groaning with exhaustion, Lovino dismissed the idea of climbing into bed. The bunk bed they shared creaked and groaned like none other – it would wake his brother for sure. Resigning himself to a sore back and creaking joints, Lovino dragged a blanket onto the couch, and collapsed underneath it.

Lovino woke up barely a few hours later. He blearily looked over at the clock. 7:38am. Five hours, not bad.

He sat up, twisting around to crack his back, neck and fingers. Sighing in relief, he stood, glancing at the bunk bed. Feliciano was nowhere to be seen. Frowning slightly, he moved around their apartment, before hearing a tell-tale clatter from their kitchen. He had barely taken a step forward to move inside when his brother exited, blinking in surprise when he saw Lovino standing there.

“Lovi! I swear I need to attach a bell to you; you’re so quiet.” Lovino smiled a little as Feliciano hugged him.

“Happy 17th, Feli.” He chuckled. Feliciano pulled away, grinning. “Now, I have a few things for you.”

“You shouldn’t have bought me anything!” Feli exclaimed. Lovino raised an eyebrow at him, but didn’t respond, quickly retrieving his bag from the end of the couch and opening it. Despite his assurances that Lovino shouldn’t have gotten him anything, Feliciano still drifted over curiously, clearly intrigued.

Lovino pulled several packages from the depths of his bag, and struggled to resist a smile when he saw evident alarm on his brother’s face at how many of them there were. He handed him one, patting the space on the couch next to him. Feliciano took it begrudgingly and sat down, picking open the wrapping paper. He smiled radiantly when a switchblade rolled out. He had been asking for one, especially since he was attacked. Feliciano exclaimed in delight and hugged his brother. Smiling, Lovino gestured for him to open the rest.

Feliciano’s smile only widened as he unwrapped, one by one, a book which Lovino had seen him eyeing, a bright yellow wool beanie, a pair of fountain pens (Feliciano loved writing with them) a small sketchbook and a tin of wafer biscuits. He laughed at every stunned look and warm hug he received from his younger brother. Tensing a little and wondering if his final gift was appropriate or not, he retrieved a last package from his bag – this one wrapped in grey cloth.

Feliciano seemed to have picked up on his change in mood, and looked at the small object curiously when Lovino handed it to him. Unwrapping it, he seemed completely perplexed when a small spark lighter rolled out. Lovino sighed.

“You have no problem with control…you just have a problem with creating. Here,” he picked up the lighter and struck it. A small flame appeared at the top, “make it grow.” Feliciano leaned away a little, looking nervous.

“I don’t think I can.”

“Try, please.”

Feliciano sighed and gazed at the flame. He extended his hand toward it and twitched his fingers slightly. The flame doubled in size, glowing vibrantly. Feliciano nearly fell over in surprise, staring at it when Lovino whooped in victory. Testing his boundaries even more, Feliciano twisted his hand again and blinked in shock when the flame detached from the lighter and hung in the air, suspended perfectly as it continued to burn with no source. Making a small, beckoning gesture with his hand, Feliciano grinned in disbelief when the flame moved to engulf his hand.

Lovino smiled, glad that his idea had worked, as Feliciano watched the flame a moment more before clenching his flaming hand into a fist, extinguishing all of the fire. He vaulted himself a metre forward to hug Lovino, and he laughed, messing up his younger brother’s hair.

“Like I said. Your problem seems to be actually creating fire, not controlling it. until we can figure that out, this is a pretty good substitute.” Feliciano grinned, nodding.

“Thank you, Lovi.”


Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
2nd Jaune,

0430 hours

Alfred groaned, rubbing his eyes as he staggered into the docking bay of hangar 3. Peering around blearily, he was somewhat comforted to see that Gilbert looked just as exhausted as he did. Mei and Leon both looked rather tired, but were managing far better than himself. Arthur seemed fine, though given the semi-permanent status of the dark rings beneath his eyes, Alfred couldn’t be sure. Tino was beaming even at this early hour, sniper rifle slung over his shoulder as always.

The intimidating Admiral who was conducting their mission looked awake and alert. Yao was here, awake even though he wasn’t involved, and was talking to her. The admiral’s expression looked drawn and displeased in a way, but she was nodding along to whatever Yao was saying. Alfred slumped into a seat next to Gilbert, gazing up at the sleek hull of the ship which sat just a few dozen metres away. It wasn’t the biggest ship ever – a lightweight starship, or LWSS, if he was correct. It probably meant that they would have some room-sharing.

He sighed, the thought of bed appealing immensely to him. Alfred, in keeping with Admiral Kartal’s policy of taking this mission seriously, had packed his things last night, and even gone to the trouble of eating and getting to bed insanely early. The simple fact was that Alfred wasn’t a morning person, and he found the fact that Nyma’s normally vibrant cobalt sky was a dark shade of dawn grey borderline unacceptable. Gilbert was clearly as exhausted as he was, and greeted him with nothing more than a grunt of recognition when he sat down. Alfred cracked his neck loudly and leant on his hand, looking around.

There was a single ground crew which had been woken up to make final checks on the ship and all of the supplies onboard. He guessed that the resistance must usually have duties to be performed early in the morning, because they all looked alert and focused. He sighed, pressing his face to the blessedly cold metal wall of the hangar. This journey was going to be exhausting in addition to extremely dangerous.

“Hey, are you two even awake?” a sharp voice rang out to his right. Looking up and rubbing his eyes, Alfred felt his mood lift when he saw Arthur standing there. He grinned sleepily.

“I wish I wasn’t,” he said, “though if nothing exciting happens, I’ll be passed out on the floor soon.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow “I saw you go to bed early, though. Surely you slept long enough?”

Alfred laughed a little, cheeks flushing red, “Ahh, yeah, the morning and I have never really gotten along well.” Arthur laughed at that, and sat down next to him.

“I hear that,” he chuckled, “I’ve been a complete night owl most of my life. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve really managed to wake up before noon.” Alfred grinned, stomach tumbling giddily both at the sound of Arthur’s laugh and at his close proximity.

“How do you do it?” he asked in an exaggerated tone, leaning against the wall a little, as Arthur grinned.

“Alcohol, obviously.” He said, plastering a falsely-knowledgeable look on his face. “How else?”

Alfred laughed, shooting Arthur a radiant smile. “True, true.”

The moment was interrupted by a shout from the other side of the hangar – Ayshe.

“Everyone, get over here! We’re leaving in ten minutes!” the tall Nymian woman yelled. Arthur gave Alfred a look of clear exasperation, before jumping up off the seat and walking over to her. Groaning in resentment but acknowledging the necessity, Alfred followed.

Ayshe waited until they were all gathered around her. “Okay, so, as I said, we leave in ten minutes. If you need, you can take that time to contact anyone before we leave. We’re probably going to be gone on this thing for about two weeks, as we’ll need time beforehand and after the mission on Reycass. Again, I expect obedience to a fairly reasonable degree. This is an important mission, and you can be sure as hell that if it goes well there’ll be some rewards waiting for you. Please try to treat one another with respect. Again, I do not tolerate bullshit.”

She eyed them all sharply. “Get your gear on board, now. We aren’t privileged enough to all get our own rooms, so we’re gonna be sharing, two in each. Figure it out.”

She turned and marched over to a group of technicians gathered nearby. Tino raised an eyebrow.

“Damn. Ayshe’s normally pretty chill. She seems a little pissed off this morning.”

“Maybe because it’s not even 5 am yet?” Mei yawned. Tino grinned a little, but shook his head.

“Nah, Ayshe is normally up early anyway.” He murmured. “So, either the mission is getting to her or it’s something else.”

“What else would be stressing her out so much?” Lukas inquired. Alfred jumped a little. The guy seemed to materialise out of nowhere. Tino shrugged.

“No clue.” He said. “Anyway, we should probably do as she says and pick our rooms.”

Mei nodded. “Does Admiral Kartal get her own room, or is she sharing too?”

“She’s also sharing,” Tino said. He considered Mei for a moment. “Why don’t you room with her?” Mei nodded, a looking a little relieved to be sharing with another girl. Tino surveyed them all, before seizing Lukas by the arm. “We’re sharing.” The Fynknian just nodded simply.

Alfred had a moment of stark indecision as he debated between rooming with Gilbert or Arthur. On the one hand, Gilbert was one of his best friends, didn’t snore and was actually a very pleasant roommate, but on the other hand, sharing with Arthur would mean getting to spend more time with him.

And you’d just spend all of your time ogling him. A little, completely correct, voice murmured in his head. What would you do when he was changing-

Abruptly silencing the voice before his face could go too red, Alfred declared that he would share with Gilbert. That left Arthur and Leon together, which they both agreed was a good outcome.

Alfred, trying to disguise his embarrassment at his own thoughts, dragged Gilbert up the stairs with him so they could pick the best room. He underestimated how immature the others were, however, and found himself slammed against the doorway as Tino rocketed past, laughing in glee. Leon was close on his heels, and Alfred blushed as Arthur approached, eyebrow cocked in amusement. Sending him a smile which completely disarmed him, Arthur walked past him at a sensible pace.

Blinking in shock, he walked in after him, and wandered along the corridor to see if Gilbert, who had run in alongside Tino, had managed to snag them a good room.

He had, as it turned out, and it was Leon and Arthur who got stuck with the smallest one. The Yanish teen seemed uncharacteristically annoyed by this, while Arthur shrugged in disinterest.

Alfred grinned and high-fived the albino when he saw that he’d managed to not only get a decent-sized room, but also one with beds slighter larger than all of the others. Gilbert grinned proudly as they unpacked their things. Checking the time, Alfred sighed. They left in a few minutes, so there was no point in leaving to do anything now.

His thoughts were interrupted when someone knocked on the door. Turning, Alfred grinned when he saw his brother standing there. Matthew grinned, though he looked very tired.

“I thought I would see you guys off,” he said warmly, “especially since I’m not allowed to come along.” Alfred smiled.

“I wish you could. The rest of our crew are either sarcastic and bitter or intimidating and creepy.” Matthew raised an eyebrow, seeming to know exactly who he was referring to when he said ‘creepy’.

“Lukas is not creepy, Tino and Ayshe are really not that intimidating when you get to know them, and as for the others?” he shrugged, “You know them better than I do, so I won’t get involved there.” Alfred laughed a little, before walking to the door to hug his brother.

“Ayshe is enforcing a strict policy of respect and cooperation, so I don’t think we’ll even be given a chance to fight or argue.” Matthew laughed.

“Yeah, that sounds like Ayshe.”

Alfred frowned a little. “Tino said she seemed angry or upset about something. Do you know what it is?” Matthew gave him a sidelong look.

“Well, essentially, yes. It’s Yao, and though I don’t know the specifics, you should just tell Tino that. If he’s in the mood to explain, he will.” Matthew slapped him on the shoulder. “Anyway, good luck.” He looked over Alfred’s shoulder at Gilbert. “Both of you, take care of yourselves.”

Gilbert nodded, face looking a little red. Matthew smiled at them both again and walked back the way he’d come. Alfred shot a look at Gilbert. He had personally blushed enough in the past six or seven weeks to know exactly what it meant. Another knock on the door made Alfred jump in surprise.

It was Arthur. “We’re leaving now, just so you know. You might wanna get strapped down.” Alfred nodded, feeling red spread across his face and neck.

“Uhh, yeah, sure, um, okay, yeah, we will.”

Arthur nodded, walking in what was obviously the direction of the cockpit. Alfred risked a glance at Gilbert, who looked like he was trying not to laugh.

“If we don’t discuss my crush on Arthur, we also won’t discuss your crush on my brother.” He snapped. Gilbert blinked, looking very much so a deer caught in headlights.

“W-what? I, I don’t…” Alfred rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, and I’m Nymian.” He said sarcastically. “C’mon.” he gestured for him to follow, and moved down the length of the ship, towards the others.

Tori sighed, tucking loose strands of brown hair behind her ears as she tugged at the dull tunic she was wearing. Though she didn’t miss Aralos at all, she had been somewhat sorry to lose her old robes. She’d spent years wearing and repairing them when they’d gotten holes in them. They had become almost a signature part of her appearance. One item of clothing which she had been happy to receive was a pair of good, leather boots. The shoes she’d worn back on Aralos had always been weak-soled and ragged. Often, if she’d ever gotten into a scuffle, she had had to ditch her shoes just in order to move around properly and have a fair chance of winning.

She kicked gently at the red dirt beneath her feet, wincing a little at the bright glare which reflected off the vibrant earth. She’d had a tough week, admittedly. Visiting her friends who were still imprisoned had been even more difficult than usual. They had all looked more downcast and miserable since Gilbert had chosen to leave them. Tori knew none of them had been expecting his departure from their group, and it had obviously stung Matthias a lot. She had seen the albino around a bit, mostly in the ship hangars, and had been personally delighted when he’d made the decision to join the resistance.

A part of her felt guilty – he had been friends with Matthias and Francis and Antonio long before he had ever met her, but at the same time she rejoiced that more of the people she had quickly come to care for were joining her here.

Learning her true identity…it had been like a punch to the gut. Lukas was a very no-nonsense sort of person, and hadn’t given her feelings of shock, denial and confusion much consideration after he’d spoken to her. His explanations of her past and her family had been succinct and informative, without much room for speculation or concern. The only part of his explanation where he’d shown some measure of warmth or pity was when he had explained what he knew of their deaths.

“The Union made sure that all of our parents died horribly. The Vargas’ were lucky, in a sense; their mother and father were assassinated years before the Expansion even happened. Our parents were the first targets of the mercenaries who broke in, though, and they didn’t show them much mercy.”

She sighed. He hadn’t wanted to give her many details about her parents and had only divulged one fact about the deaths of his own – that he had been the first one to find their bodies. It stunned Tori, honestly, that he could talk about it in such a dismissive manner. Lukas wasn’t a very emotional person at all, so she supposed that he could just be hiding how he really felt, but it was still jarring.

Tori had been delighted that spending time with Lukas had helped her remember a few things. He had hypothesised that the crash on Aralos had left her with retrograde amnesia, and the completely unfamiliar environment which she had found herself in immediately afterwards had prevented any sort of recollections from taking place. After all, Aralos was a hot desert planet, whilst Daerna was lush and forested. She also hadn’t spoken the language when she’d first landed – she’d had to learn over time. It had only been when she was in her early teens that she had put together the pieces and realised that she had arrived during the Expansion. Even then, though, she had never suspected that she would be more than a grungy peasant girl.

Now that she was remembering more and more of her home, it seemed obvious that she had been special. Even without Lukas’ confirmation, she would have at least thought she’d been wealthy, from the memories of having servants alone. Since he’d told her about her true identity, Tori had been able to recall walking down the resplendent halls of what she assumed now was the palace in Daerna’s capital, as well as sitting in a parlour room and learning different subjects like mathematics and foreign languages. She remembered only brief flashes of her parents, though.

Her mother had been the oldest of the three Free Court leaders at the time – she had been two years older than Lukas’ father and nine years older than Carina Vargas – and Tori could remember that her mother had already borne a few grey hairs mixed among the dark brown, and laugh-lines had been etched deep around her eyes. Lukas had told her that her mother hadn’t been very fertile, so it had been feared that she wouldn’t be able to continue the Laurinaitis line. Her father, however, who had been younger than her mother by four years, had been quite the opposite. Even then, it had still taken her mother five years to conceive her. According to Lukas, many people on Daerna had been beyond relieved. Her birth had been met with planet-wide jubilation, and days of celebrations. It was almost surreal to think about. For so long, she had thought of herself as just another impoverished girl on Aralos, but when she was little more than a newborn, her existence had been celebrated with enthusiasm.

She remembered more of her father than her mother. It was only logical – her mother had been the royal one, and as such had been saddled with all sorts of political and economic duties. Her father had still had responsibilities, but he had also been able to spend a lot of time with his daughter. Her father had been a handsome man, she recalled, with hair even darker than her own, with a short beard speckled with grey to match. His eyes had been Daernic green like her own, but much darker, with the ring of colour around the pupil closer to copper in colour than her own gold. He had been Augustinas Kazlauskas before he had married her mother and taken her name. Though her memory was still full of vital holes, she remembered enough to miss him. He had been very good-humoured and compassionate, an advocate of equity – he and her mother had met during a protest against universities in Daerna’s capital which had been unfairly discriminating against people who weren’t of pure Daernic heritage.

An ordinary 19-year-old had gone to a protest over racial inequality, met the Queen of the planet and ended up marrying her just 4 years later. It gave Tori hope whenever she felt like she wasn’t going to be able to achieve anything. Lukas had shown her a photograph of her parents not long after they’d been married – her father had been 23, her mother 27. He had read aloud the small subtitle on the back.

“Queen Gabija Laurinaitis and her newly-wedded husband, Prince Regent Augustinas Laurinaitis.”     

They had both looked so happy in that photograph – her mother had been wearing her dark hair up and braided with flowers. Her father, who had positively towered over her, hadn’t even been looking at the camera, instead staring at his new wife with an expression that indicated both intense love and a sense of astonishment, as if he were wondering how he had managed to woo a Queen. Tori kept the photo on her person now. It was the only one she had of her parents which didn’t make her think of the fate which had awaited them. It brought her joy to see her parents young, happy and beautiful, despite what had happened to them.

She sighed. There was no point in dwelling times gone by. Tori loved her parents, but there was nothing that she could have done to save them. The best way for her to honour them, as Lukas had said, was to grow stronger and serve the planet she had been born to rule. It was a daunting idea, but perhaps, with Lukas to help explain the madness of her past and her future, she could manage it.

‘Grounded’ Café, Veroda District,
Bibesti, Rela,
3rd Jaune

Feliciano had been managing fairly well until Kairat’s usual unpleasant streak showed itself again.

Lovino had been incredibly reluctant to let him go back to work, but after downing an entire cup of Statica, redoing the bandaging and promising to be careful, Lovino had relented and let him go, though he had insisted to accompany him to the edge of the Szwicza District to prevent him getting attacked again. Feliciano had been very touched, and had been sure to keep his new switchblade and lighter in his pockets, in case he had to protect himself again.

Lovino had been very wary about the lighter.

“Just remember, our survival depends on us being cautious and secretive. Do not, and I repeat, do not use your Fuenar unless your life is in legitimate danger. If a body showed up with strange burn marks, if someone saw you –”

“We’d be doomed and probably captured by the Union and murdered. I know, Lovi. I promise that I would never do it unless absolutely necessary. I’m so bad at it anyway, I’d probably be better off fighting injured with a knife anyway.” Lovino had studied him for a while, as if trying to detect a lie, when he’d sighed, nodded, and dropped the matter.

Nazer had been very kind and understanding about Feliciano’s absence when he’d arrived at work that morning, and had merely made sure he was completely okay before ushering him back into the kitchen with a smile on his weathered face. Arman had brightened up upon seeing him back, and welcomed him with an enthusiastic handshake. One of their chefs, Enlik, had merely nodded in recognition and turned back to the spicy dish she was cooking.

Aizhan, the friendly girl who managed most waitressing duties, had greeted him with a hug. She was naturally curious, but had abstained from asking questions about why he had been away, for which he was grateful. The only person who hadn’t been happy with his return was Kairat, who had looked increasingly sour as the day progressed. The man had never liked him, but Feliciano could have sworn that, for reasons he didn’t know, Kairat was starting to dislike him more and more as time went on. The man had skirted around where Feliciano was washing up all day, growling and glowering, but was yet to do anything. He seemed to be waiting for Feliciano to slip up. Noting the anger on his face, Feliciano had tried all day to make sure that he did exactly as he was told, and didn’t unduly anger the tall Relusian.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to stay perfect forever.

Feliciano had been stacking dishes when Kairat had sidled up next to him to plug in a blender. He had accidentally brushed against the older man, and Kairat had turned on him with an unwarranted and blistering rage.

“You ever heard of personal space?” he snapped, glaring at him. Feliciano blinked, taken completely off guard. He really didn’t understand what he had done so wrong.

“Um, sorry, Kairat. I was just trying to stack dishes. It was an accident.” He murmured, shifting away a little.

“Well you should have waited until I had finished with the machine.”

Feliciano felt himself bristle a little. He really didn’t know what the older man’s problem was, and for once, he let his frustration show.

“I was here stacking dishes before you even came into the kitchen. If anything, you should have waited until I moved. I was nearly done anyway.” He snapped back. He could feel heat gathering in his chest. He very rarely got angry – in that respect, he was very different to his brother – and didn’t appreciate the emotion much. Kairat glared at him, straightening up to better look down on him.

“Are you fucking serious? I’ve worked here far longer than you have, not to mention, my job making food to give to customers tomorrow is more important than you stacking fucking dishes.”

Feliciano frowned. He couldn’t argue with Kairat’s second point, but he failed to see what the first had to do with anything. He was getting legitimately angry, he could tell. Feliciano’s fists were clenched, and he could feel them tingling slightly.

“So what? You’re wasting more time by being an ass about the existence of my arm.” Feliciano retorted. Aizhan, who had scurried out of the kitchen when the argument had begun, poked her head in the doorway, looking concerned. He was distracted by her reappearance for just long enough that he didn’t see Kairat’s elbow moving until it had already slammed forcefully into the side of his stomach.

He barely heard Aizhan’s yell of alarm; the wave of pain which surged through his side was intense. Feliciano staggered, hands flying towards his wound as his other side pressed into the cold metal of the sink. He distantly felt his knees go weak and hit the floor as he curled in on himself. His world narrowed down to the burning in his stomach, and the feel of his hands pressed against the area. He didn’t know how long passed like that, but when some of the pain-induced confusion dispersed, he realised that Aizhan was next to him, as was Arman.

He could hear yelling, and could feel fingers gently prying at his hands. He tensed his muscles, unwilling to let them touch his injury. He raised his head slightly, blinking. Nazer had also entered the room and was approaching him, and Enlik, standing to the side, looked concerned. Kairat had gone pale, though judging by his indignant expression, he was trying to convince the others that whatever had happened wasn’t his fault. Feliciano shifted his grip a little as the world righted itself. His fingers felt slick.

He found himself being ushered into a chair before he could even comprehend leaving the floor. Feliciano blinked. All of their faces seemed too close, speaking fast and loud. He felt tired. After what felt like an eternity, he could finally make out what they were trying to say to him.

“– could be serious! What were you thinking?” This remark was directed at Kairat, who cowered a little under Nazer’s harsh gaze, but somehow retained his reticent and obstinate attitude.

“I didn’t think that he’d collapse for no reason!” the man snapped, glowering. “He’s just putting it on to make you angry at me.” Nazer looked enraged at this. Feliciano’s attention was drawn away, however, as he felt Aizhan gently pull his hands away from his side. He winced when he heard her gasp, and followed her gaze. He was wearing a black shirt, so it wasn’t very obvious how bad his injury was. His hands, however, were slicked with red. Aizhan scurried away from him, presumably to get their medical kit. Feliciano focused on his breathing, trying to block out everything else, including the fact that Kairat and Nazer had both noticed the blood on his hands and fallen silent.

Feliciano tried in vain to keep his mind on anything else as Aizhan pulled his shirt up, wiped the blood from his side and started to tend to his wound. Her expression had shifted into one of horror the moment she laid eyes on it.

“This…this is a stab wound.” She stared at him. “You were stabbed?”

Feliciano winced, wishing he could move away but knowing he couldn’t without a great deal of pain.

“Uh…maybe?” he said, trying and failing to appear nonchalant. The others all looked stunned.

“W-what? Stabbed?” Arman said, looking very bewildered and frightened. “Here? Feliciano, if you really got stabbed, you need to report it.”

He looked up, puzzled. Nazer nodded.

“Yes, he’s right. Honestly…I honestly can’t believe that…in Veroda itself. The last time anyone was attacked here was over a year ago.” Feliciano groaned internally as he realised. They believed he had been attacked within the Veroda District, which was famous for having virtually no crime – a large contrast to some of Rela’s other crime-ridden districts.

“No…that’s really not…” he trailed off as Nazer began to list the crisis centres and mention the closest police station, and asked him where he had been stabbed.

“It’s better if you can remember where it happened, so that they can track down the maniac.” He said, as if he was referring to a serial killer rather than a dime-a-night mugger. Feliciano sighed, shifting slightly as Aizhan continued to stitch up his wound.

“No...Nazer, it’s fine, really.” He said. “It was a few days ago, anyway-”

“So, you haven’t reported it?” Kairat snapped, already back to glaring at him. “Well, you’re just endangering the rest of us, then.” He didn’t even have the time to argue against Kairat’s statement as Aizhan spoke up.

“These stitches are not professionally done. Oh god, Feli, have you not even gone to a real hospital?” He was about to try and scramble together an answer for that, when Kairat spoke up again.

“Why didn’t your parents take you to a hospital? Or inform the police? Are they complete savages? Have they no basic intelligence?” he spat. At that, his patience was finally gone. His hands were prickling, but he ignored the sensation as heat swooped and burned in his gut.

“First of all,” he snapped at Nazer and Kairat, “I wasn’t stabbed in the Veroda District at all, so calm down. Your perfect District is still crime-free. Second,” he hurled his next statement at Aizhan, “Unlike some of you, not everyone has the money to afford health insurance. I’d rather suffer through amateur medical work than pay out 7000 marks for someone else to do it slightly better. And third,” he turned to Kairat again, glaring with the full force of his anger, “my parents have been dead for over ten years, so don’t you dare say anything against them.”

The shop was completely silent as he sat back in his chair, anger already fading into shame at his outburst. The others looked shocked and, in a few cases, abashed. Nazer and Aizhan were avoiding his gaze, and Arman looked rather taken aback. Feliciano drew in a deep breath, already regretting his words.

“Fair enough, then,” Kairat said, unsurprisingly the first one to recover, “but…where were you stabbed, then?”

Feliciano sighed. “the Szwicza District.” Arman’s eyes basically bulged out of his head at that statement. Aizhan stiffened and gawked at him, and even Kairat seemed stunned.

“T-The Szwicza District?? Why in the system would you go there??” Arman exclaimed, looking shell-shocked.

“Honestly, if you were stupid enough to go to the most dangerous place on Rela, you deserved that stab wound.” Kairat snapped harshly. Feliciano sighed.

“I’m not some idiot who just wandered in or ducked inside the border on a dare, okay? I live there. I’ve lived there for six years.”

Yet again, all of his co-workers were rendered silent. Feliciano enjoyed the moment of silence, and leant back, wincing slightly as his wound stung painfully.

“……Oh,” Nazer said quietly, stepping back a little, “you…oh.” He sat on the nearest chair, looking like he was struggling internally with something.

“Yeah,” Feliciano said, “I’m one of those ‘dirty savages’ who actually has to live in the most dangerous part of Bibesti.” Arman winced. It was a phrase he had used a few times now to describe the inhabitants of the district. The others all seemed too stunned to speak, and Feliciano sighed. “Listen, it’s not a big deal, okay? I only got attacked because I let my guard down. No one would care about a violent mugging in Szwicza.”

“You’re a seventeen-year-old boy, you shouldn’t have to be worrying about ‘keeping your guard up’.” Nazer said, looking deeply saddened. Feliciano shrugged, feeling deeply uncomfortable.

“Not everyone gets to live in places as nice as the Veroda District. I’m sorry, but that’s just a fact. It doesn’t bother me. Living there isn’t nice but it also isn’t quite as horrible as everyone says it is.”

They were all silent, before Kairat spoke up, tone a little kinder than normal.

“How are you going to get home, then? You’re injured.”

Feliciano shrugged again. “I normally walk.”

“Alone?” Aizhan exclaimed, looking horrified. “But…but that’s so dangerous!”

“I’m normally okay. It is more dangerous at night, admittedly, but so is every other district. It’s never too bad as long as I get out of here at a reasonable time.”

Nazer threw a look at the clock. The whole drama had taken up about half an hour already. They had already stayed here longer than they normally did.

“It’s getting late.” He murmured. “Come now, Feliciano, there’s no way you can walk home alone.”

Feliciano fell silent, considering. He looked at the time again. It was true, in this state, he would probably just end up getting attacked again. He bit his lip.

“…I could call my brother.” He murmured. For what seemed like the 100th time that night, his co-workers blinked in shock.

“You have a brother?” Aizhan said, looking surprised. Feliciano looked at her.

“Of everything I’ve said tonight, that’s what shocks you the most?” Aizhan blushed but didn’t say anything more. Feliciano sighed. “Yes, I have a brother. I guess I could call him so he could help me get home?”

Nazer nodded. “That sounds like a good idea.”

It didn’t take long for Lovino to show up outside Grounded. In fact, Feliciano barely had time to recollect himself, sit back for a few minutes and quietly apologise for his outburst before the door swung open and his brother walked in.

Well, ‘walked’ was a generous term. Lovino looked tense, expression stormy and guarded. Verifiably marching inside, he was completely out of place in the clean, homey little café. Feliciano normally tried to clean himself up a little before coming to work, for the simple reason that Veroda was a more high-brow district than Szwicza. His brother hadn’t been so bothered – he was dressed in the same ragged clothes as always, and his hair was ruffled and messy. There was machine oil smudged on one of his cheeks, and grime under his fingernails. Nonetheless, Feliciano saw Aizhan immediately turn scarlet upon sighting him. It was no secret that his brother was extraordinarily attractive. Lovino had always said that he could thank their mother for that. He’d shown him a picture of her once. He was right – she had been incredibly beautiful, and Lovino resembled her immensely.

Even in his bedraggled state, he had still drawn the attention of all of Feliciano’s co-workers. He had to resist the urge to laugh at their facial expressions. His brother never failed to make himself the centre of attention, whether intentionally or not, that was for sure.

Feliciano had made the mistake of mentioning which one of his co-workers had injured him when he’d called his brother and spoken to him in Jhobrasian over the phone. Lovino’s gaze skimmed across all of their name badges, and his lip curled when he saw Kairat. The older man clearly understood the danger in his gaze, and stumbled back a little, looking a little frightened.

Lovino sent him a look likely to put the man in an early grave, then rushed to Feliciano’s side. He barely had to glance at Aizhan to make her dart away with a small yelp of fear. Feliciano would have laughed, but he knew such an action would only exacerbate the pain in his side, so he restrained himself.

“Uh…I’m glad that you were able to get here so quickly,” Nazer said, looking a little awkward, “I really didn’t want to send Feliciano home alone while he was hurt.”

“If your servers were less aggressive, he would be completely fine.” Lovino snapped at him, sending a glare at Kairat. Kairat held his hands up defensively, already with his cocky attitude back in place.

“Hey now, it was an accident. Your brother shouldn’t have been standing in my way.” Lovino stiffened, then rose slowly.

“I don’t know what sorts of things they teach you here, but do you honestly believe that I’m stupid enough to believe that his injury is this bad because you accidentally brushed against him?”

Kairat straightened up, confidence obviously returning when he observed that he was taller than Lovino. “In any case, what does it matter? He’ll be fine.” Lovino was silent. To the others in the shop, it must have appeared that his brother was lost for words. But Feliciano knew better, and he knew that his brother was getting close to drawing his dagger and sinking it hilt-deep into Kairat’s leg.

“Oh? So you think that a fucking stab wound is just another minor injury? You think he’ll just be able to walk it off?”

Kairat rolled his eyes. “His body will heal. In any case, shouldn’t you people be used to it? I hear that stabbings are a frequent thing among Szwicza’s lowlifes.”

Lovino nodded slightly, a sinister smile beginning to form on his face. “You think so?”

Before Kairat even had the chance to snap out another sharp remark, Lovino had crossed the space between them, drawn his knife and pressed it gently to the older man’s throat. The others all gasped, while Feliciano simply rolled his eyes. He had never thought of himself as particularly tough or battle-hardened, but compared to these guys, he might as well have been a grizzled military commander, for how easily they reacted to the smallest of things. Feliciano had had knives pressed to his throat more times than he could count, and he knew that his brother would never actually slit the man’s throat.

But Kairat blanched anyway, and went so still he resembled a statue.

“You should really know something; slitting throats is a more common practice than stabbing. As a ‘lowlife’ as you so deemed me, do you really think I’d hesitate to hurt a piece of self-important, arrogant trash like you?” Kairat said nothing, eyes on where Lovino’s fingers were curved around the handle of the knife. “If you ever lay so much as a finger on my brother again, I’ll fucking end you, okay bastard?” Kairat managed the barest of nods as Lovino drew the knife away, turned his back on the man and helped Feliciano to his feet.

The others watched them leave silently. Feliciano sighed a little as the cool night air hit his face. He had his arm draped across Lovino’s shoulders, while his brother was holding him around the waist.

“I’m going to be pretty annoyed if I have to go back in a few days and beg for my job back.” He said weakly. Lovino snorted as he half-carried him down the street.

“Oh well. I would rather you not work at all over you working in a place with an asshole like that.” His older brother said. “I want you to work somewhere that you’re appreciated. You’re my little brother, not another kitchen runt.”

Feliciano blinked back a few surprising tears and leaned his head slightly on his brother, grateful, more than anything else, that he would always have his brother by his side.

The stranger ran her hand gently down the doorframe. She could see it, feel it, almost smell it. The barest trace of heat on the wind stirred excitement in her belly. Her journey home had not been in vain, then.

She tilted her head upwards, regarded the storefront for a moment, then moved on. It was early – very early. It was more likely that her target had been to the small café only for a meal – they were unlikely to return there, though she concluded that it was wise to revisit the place again, just in case.

It was good to be home. Her garments had inspired much attention while she’d been on other planets, but here, she was a more recognisable sight. People paused in the streets to nod their heads or bow in respect, but there was none of the fear that people of Incanda or Rywan had displayed. She decided that she would return to the Citadel soon, to see her sisters and brothers-in-arms, but for now she was content to wander the streets of her home planet. She was somewhat disappointed that her targets lay here, in Bibesti. All her searching, and all she had to really do was wait at home for them to come to her? It seemed awfully unfair to her, especially when she had been so put out by her quest to find them.

She paused in front of a darkened storefront, observing her reflection. She looked the same as ever, save for her hair. Normally bearing a characteristic windswept look, it currently appeared a little lacklustre. She twitched her fingers upward, as if beckoning something. A gust of wind obediently surged upwards in front of her face, blowing loose locks of her hair out of place. She re-examined her reflection, now satisfied, and moved on.

She would continue her search later, but for now, she was happy to be home.

Chapter Text

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
2nd Jaune

After just barely keeping himself from passing out on the airfield while watching the ship fly away, Matthew trudged towards the mess tent, yawning so wide he feared he would accidentally dislocate his jaw. His brother seemed nervous but also keen for the mission, and Matthew once again cursed that he wasn’t able to go with them. He knew that Alfred was a capable fighter – he’d seen it himself while helping him assimilate into resistance life the past few weeks, but anxiety clawed at the edges of his thoughts nonetheless. Despite having been separated for a good 11 years or so, Matthew’s instinctual overprotective nature had flared up again. He couldn’t help but want to protect his younger brother from everything which might harm him.

It was stupid, really, especially given that Alfred was only a year younger than him. Even despite the small age gap, though, Alfred just seemed so much more innocent than Matthew did. He could fight well, yes, and was indeed a former criminal, but the violence which racked most of the universe nowadays still seemed to shock and surprise him, whereas Matthew addressed it with unsurprised disappointment. Even though he had seen some of the worst that the universe had to offer, Alfred still seemed to believe that it was constrained to certain places and people.

Matthew knew better. Darkness lingered in every corner of the universe, and anyone who was pushed the wrong way could fall under it’s shadow. He had seen more than one of his fellow fighters succumb to anger and hatred and savagery. It was a horrifying thing to see, but inevitable in a way.

He tried to push his thoughts away from his brother and the mission that he was embarking on. Ayshe was a very strong woman, and he would trust her with his life in an instant. Not to mention, Tino and Lukas were also on the mission, and he knew that they were very good at all kinds of combat. From what he had seen so far, Arthur Kirkland was also a force to be reckoned with, though that wasn’t a surprise, given his reputation. Considering his many talents, his young underlings would likely also be quite strong on their own, despite their young ages. Gilbert was a fighter who Matthew might, with a little convincing, admit was near his own level of aptitude, and a good friend of Alfred’s who would definitely protect him. So why did he feel so worried?

Perhaps it was the nature of the mission itself. Infiltrating intelligence centres was always dangerous, especially since they had so much more security. Matthew had gone on a few such missions himself, and they never failed to make his limbs tense up and stomach churn uncomfortably. More likely, he conceded to himself, it was the simple fact that this would be the first time they were separated since being reunited back in Maarch.

Already, Matthew felt strange about the whole thing. He and Alfred had been separated by force in the first place, anyway. It had never been something that either of them had wanted. And that separation had been very taxing for Matthew. They had grown up practically attached at the hip, and not necessarily because they were extremely similar or shared all of the same interests.

Their parents had never been kind to them, and it had taken Matthew a few years of being separated from them and seeing how other people treated their children to realise that what he and Alfred had endured had been abuse. They’d been subjected to endless cruelty by their parents, but since a lot of it hadn’t been physical, he hadn’t recognised it for what it was. Whenever he or Alfred had been hit or kicked by their parents, he had known it was wrong, but it took him a while to realise that the same was true of times when they kept them from going outside for weeks, or locked them up in dark closets for hours, or ruthlessly crushed their curiosity by outlawing the simple act of asking a question.

He sighed, rubbing his hands up and down his arms as he leant his head against the table which he had sat down at. It was too early for breakfast, but the front of the hall had a selection of packaged things to pick from so that those on the night shift wouldn’t be dying of starvation in the 12 hours between dinner and breakfast. Matthew had capitalised on said system more times than he could count whenever he was on a night shift.

Matthew let himself lie on the table for quite a while, only registering how much time had passed when people started to filter into the mess hall. Some newbies gave him an odd look, whilst others just shook their heads sympathetically, no doubt assuming that he had been assigned to a night shift and had been awake for many hours. He squeezed his eyes shut even tighter, completely unwilling to get up and face the tasks of the day yet.

Someone poked him in the head.

“Huhh?” he groaned, sliding his head up to pick out his company. His gaze met a pair of amused green and gold eyes. “Oh, it’s you.”

“A little sleepy there?” Tori teased, sliding onto the bench next to him and giving him a quizzical look. Matthew groaned in response, and she giggled. “I’m guessing that you got up to send them off?” at his nod, she sighed, “I was going to, but, you know, sleep.”

Matthew laughed at that, finally forcing his body into an upright position. “I can relate to that.” Tori smiled at him, looking a little nervous. Noting her anxiety, he shifted his casual grin into something a little more comforting and reassuring. “Are you ready for today?” he inquired. She shrugged, tucking a lock of dark hair behind her ear.

“I mean, I guess so? I’ll have to learn sooner or later I suppose.”

“You’ll do fine, I promise. Not to mention, Laila will be around just in case you go a little overboard or something.” Tori relaxed infinitesimally at that, nodding as she registered the usage of Emilia’s alias.

“Okay, that’s good. Who else will be there?” she asked, obviously trying to portray herself as being calmer than she actually was. Matthew frowned a little, trying to recall who else would be present for the exercise.

“I think Octavia and Elizabeta are coming along too. Since they’re Daernic too, they probably know a little about the topic.” Tori nodded, brow creasing when she noted the absence of a name she had obviously been expecting. “Is Yao not coming anymore?” she asked quietly, knowing that just the mention of the rebel leader was enough to draw attention to a conversation.

Matthew shook his head. “No, I think he’s off strategizing again. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with your friends.” Tori winced.

“I know that he doesn’t trust them much, or, well, at all, really, but they’re good people!” she protested. “I don’t think that they would sell me out to the Union.” Matthew nodded.

“I know that, and not just from what I got to know of you guys while we were bringing you back to Nyma, but the fact is that we’re far more worried about them outing Lukas than you. They know you, they care about you, but they have no sort of emotional attachment to Lukas, so I doubt they would feel bad about handing him in.”

“But even if he’s my friend-”

“Tori, they clearly all like and care for you, but I feel like they would only afford him the luxury of remaining hidden if it was someone else in your party insisting on it. I do hate to mention it, but you haven’t known them half as long as they’ve known each other.” Tori bit her lip and looked down.

“Yeah, I know that you’re right but…” she sighed, “I just wish that they could go free. Imprisonment is starting to really get to them.” Matthew nodded sadly.

“I know, but right now the executive decision on what happens to them rests with Yao. I would suggest that you plead their case to him.”

Tori nodded, then gestured to the food line. “Looks like breakfast’s finally started. Wanna grab some?” Matthew grinned, good mood restored, and nodded.

They discussed more trivial matters as they ate, ranging from the newest shipment of weapons which had been intercepted over in the Gafadari Grasslands, to how ridiculously cute Kristian had been when he’d shown up to morning briefing wearing one of Vlad’s shirts, and how impossibly red he had turned when he had realised his slip-up.

Tori was laughing and telling him a joke that she’d heard from Gilbert once when Elizabeta seemingly materialised by the side of their table, smiling encouragingly.

“Hey Liz,” Matthew said, “time to go, I assume?” grinning, Elizabeta nodded.

“Yeah, sorry to interrupt your meal, but Octavia wants to get out to the site before it gets too hot.” Matthew sighed.

“Fair enough,” he said, snagging the apple from his plate and biting into it as he stood. Tori hesitated for a moment before rising as well, putting her tray on one of the automated carts that zipped to and from the kitchen and turned back to them. Some of her nerves seemed to be returning, so Matthew re-deployed his most comforting smile.

“Come on, you’ll be fine,” Elizabeta assured her. “Now let’s go! We still have the whole trip there yet.” Tori forced a smile and nodded, following them outside.

Yao scowled again, trying to resist the urge to continue pacing around his tent. It was starting to feel like his life progressed immediately from one issue to another, leaving him no breathing room or time to lower his defences. His imprisonment and trial back in Maarch had taken up weeks of his time and worn him out both mentally and emotionally. When he had finally thought that he was in the clear, with his name cleared and the spy caught, he had been foolish enough to believe that he might actually get a break for once.

Yet, not even an hour after the decision made by the judges, he had had his current problem dumped into his lap. Yao heaved a great sigh and slumped onto his bed.

Eighteen people; nine bounty hunters, seven pirates, one assassin and a lost queen. Of the eighteen, six of them had voluntarily decided to shift their allegiances to the resistance, and one was lingering around the camp because his friends were still locked away. There were still eleven people locked within the cell block on the outskirts of their camp, and Yao had absolutely no idea what do with them.

Of the six that were now a part of their ranks, most were completely harmless. Having Tori in their midst was a huge step forward for the resistance, and Yao was greatly buoyed knowing that only the elusive Vargas brothers were still out of their reach. Matthew’s spirit had been completely restored by having his younger brother join them as well, and the younger man was so genuine that Yao had no reason to distrust him, though he was possessed of such an earnest congeniality that it honestly baffled Yao as to how one person could be so unfalteringly cheerful.

The other bounty hunter, Gilbert Beilschmidt, still seemed skittish and a little unsettled around camp, but Yao knew that that was due more to his parentage, and the related fear that the young man likely had of Garvich. He seemed to be relaxing a little, though, and was clearly a skilled mechanic and decent fighter to boot. Yao could see him being an asset in the future.

The only problematic one among the bunch that had joined them was Arthur Kirkland, and Yao hadn’t really been expecting anything different from the infamously volatile pirate. He was obstinate to a fault and tended to skirt very close to the line of what Yao deemed unacceptable, but he was incredible at pretty much everything that he had been ordered to do, and keeping that sort of talent close at hand was undeniably within the resistance’s best interests. Even with the Captain’s rough edges, though, he had benefitted them even further by inadvertently bringing with him the two young fighters that seemed so attached to him.

The two Yanish teens – Mei and Leon – seemed to have received training from Kirkland, given how similar their respective fighting styles were to his, and were obviously very fond of the man, though the boy tried to show it less than the girl did. Just like their boss, they had also quickly proven to be useful assets in a fight.

But it wasn’t those that had joined their cause that Yao was worried about. It was the ones who didn’t.

He could automatically dismiss Ivan Braginsky as any sort of threat. His bounty hunter friends had stopped him from finding out about Lukas in order to let him keep his liberty. It had surprised him, honestly, but it was an intelligent move on their part. The towering Ellmish man had been an odd sight around the grounds in the last few weeks, but had so far addressed everyone around camp with courtesy, and not enough curiosity for Yao to deem him a threat. He had helped lead the rebels back to where their ship had been left a few weeks earlier, which had finally allowed them to give the bounty hunters and pirates some of their personal effects.

Other than Braginsky and the six, however, the group posed a threat.

Yao sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he pulled out the notes that his top analysts had been able to draft up on the members of the group.

Roderich Edelstein; 27 years old, Incandan, and an underling of Arthur Kirkland. He was Gilbert’s cousin, and a talented fighter. He was more refined in nature than most of his colleagues, and seemed a little too clean-cut to be in such a profession. His date of birth was the 26th of Octava, 4484CC, and one of the only other stand-out factors about the man was that, according to public health records, his mother had died of Chalydrantis about 3 ½ years ago, and he had a teenaged brother. All-in-all, somewhat atypical for a pirate, but not exactly as eye-catching as his employer. Yao turned to the next file.

Yael Cohen; 20 years old – an Iramese woman with an impressive criminal record. There was even less information about her than there was for Roderich. The only details that stood out to Yao were that she apparently was a former underling of another pirate, Jack Kelly, and had a fondness for balisong knives.

Eduard Von Bock; 21 years old and a technological expert from Ellmin. He reportedly had had a role in some major crime syndicates who had broken through government firewalls in the past. He wasn’t much of a fighter, but could fend for himself if necessary. He constituted a good deal of Kirkland’s crew’s brainpower.

Natalya Arlovskaya; the last of the pirate crew still being kept prisoner. She was only 19, and the half-sister of Ivan Braginsky. She was a fighter if Yao had ever seen one, having ranked first numerous times in her hometown mixed martial arts and professional archery, shooting and knife-throwing competitions. So far, her criminal record was clean, but his sources had highlighted the profile of a prolific young criminal that they had linked to her; said profile had accrued a little over 117 criminal charges. Young Arlovskaya had been the one to plan the attack on Matthew, Lukas and Tino which had resulted in all of their identities being exposed. Yao carefully marked her as one to watch and set the file aside.

Next up was Berwald Oxenstierna. According to Yao’s notes, he was 23 – very soon to be 24 – and from Rywan like several of his comrades. The man was very physically imposing, though past educational records also indicated that he was rather intelligent as well. He had even managed to land a solid hit on Tino when the sniper had taken him down, which was an impressive feat. He didn’t seem to be quite as greed-driven as the others, but Yao was still cautious about him.

The sixth file that Yao extracted from the pile belonged to Antonio Fernandez Carriedo, a 22-year-old man from Jhobras. He had been part of the bounty hunters’ group for a few years now, and was a talented fighter. He had a far more sunny and warm persona than one would expect from a criminal, though he could be just as cold and callous as Yao at times, too. He had a few marks on his criminal record as well, but obviously didn’t frequent crime as much as some of his friends did.

The next profile was that of Louise Beilschmidt, the younger half-sister of Gilbert, and another of Roderich’s cousins. She was only 19 years old, and didn’t seem to have quite as active a role in the bounty hunters’ group as her brother did. She also seemed less attracted to criminal activity in general. She and her brother had clung together for years after their parents were murdered on Incanda, and her closeness with him was reflected by the indecisiveness that some of Yao’s underlings had stated she seemed to possess. A part of her seemed to be wanting to join the resistance with her brother, while the rest of her wasn’t sure. Indecision was better than outright denial, in any case, so Yao counted it as a win.

The next in the pile baffled him slightly. The man in the group with long blond hair, an unplaceable accent and blue eyes was, according to his file, Francis Bonnefoy, a 21-year-old man from Rywan who had since bounced around the galaxy a bit. The profile struck Yao as odd, though, because absolutely no record of the man existed prior to late October of 4506. At least in terms of a paper trail, Francis Bonnefoy had only existed for little under 6 years. It made no sense to Yao, and it was enough to set him on edge. It wasn’t uncommon for those in the criminal underworld to create new personas for themselves to avoid conviction for a crime, but if his papers were to be believed, Bonnefoy would only have been 16 at the time that the trail started. Yao wasn’t sure what sort of crime a 16-year-old could commit that could be so severe to resort to such measures, but he wasn’t sure that he wanted to know.

The next profile belonged to the group’s second-in-command, Feliks Lukasiewicz, a man who, according to Matthew and Tino, Tori was unfortunately very fond of. He was 19, and Pyndaphian, and had a criminal record dating back to when he was just 10. Unlike many of those in the group, who had obviously turned to a life of crime in a time of hardship or been forced to take the path, Lukasiewicz was one of the rare souls who was born into crime, raised by it, and flourished under its care. Yao had heard the stories from Matthew about how the kid had managed to take down a fully-grown Garvich even while severely injured and weak. Yao was simultaneously reluctant and curious to see what he would be capable of in a fight while at full health. Whereas some of the others in the group were clearly those who had ended up in the lifestyle of a criminal, Lukasiewicz had the harsh and calculating nature of someone trained in their profession and well-versed in violence. Tori’s evident fondness for the bounty hunter made the whole situation a lot more difficult, considering that, of all the prisoners, Lukasiewicz was one of the ones that Yao would be fastest to get rid of.

Sighing, Yao pulled out the second-to-last of the files after carefully marking Feliks’ as being ‘of concern’, not hesitating to add the same label to the folder on his lap. Vash Zwingli was a name that even Yao had heard before, and not the only one that he knew the man to be called by. From ‘Gold Cobra’ to ‘Silencer’ to ‘The Whispered Blade’, the criminal underworld – and civilian society – had many names for the assassin. His prowess was hardly a secret, and anyone with a brain knew that, should one want any sort of target to be eliminated, they should call on Vash Zwingli. The name had become even more saturated with infamy just two years ago, after he had apparently taken out some big-shot crime mogul in a casino shoot-em-up. It was an impressive, if not bloody, legacy for a man who was just 26 years old. It was almost certain that Vash Zwingli was not the man’s real name, so the file in front of Yao was essentially useless. He did know that the man was very intelligent, however. He had been the one to determine Lukas’ identity based on minimal evidence, after all. He was, in Yao’s mind, definitely one to be watched.

Grimacing in anticipation, Yao scooped the last file – arguably the most important one of them all, and the one that could, if the half-formed idea swirling around in the recesses of his mind came to fruition, solve this whole debacle.

He examined the photo of the cocky, grinning man on the front with an objective eye, taking in the features that he had already observed in real life – spiky blond hair, dark blue eyes and a crooked grin. Yao opened it fully, looking at the basic information that had been collected by his agents.

Matthias Kohler was 22 years old, and set to turn 23 in just a few days. He was born on the 5th of Jaune, 4489CC, in the town of Ålkskar on Rywan. According to the medical evaluations they had conducted a few weeks ago, he was 188cm tall – 6’2’’ – and was blood type A.

Beyond the surface, though, Matthias Kohler was a far more interesting man than his outward appearance would suggest. His criminal record was splashed with minor offences dating back years, though Yao knew that he had likely committed far more offences than his record indicated. He had the same sort of dangerous air that Feliks Lukasiewicz did, and considering that, even with his own prowess, Lukasiewicz wasn’t even this group’s leader, Kohler likely was even more capable than the Pyndaphian man was.

His subordinates had reported that the man had displayed a great deal of skill in the few combat scenarios they had observed him in, and in addition to brute strength also appeared to be very fast and agile. Being a bounty hunter, and presumably a very talented one at that, Kohler undoubtedly was also observant, calculating, intelligent and analytical. His age also meant that he likely had more training than most, if not all, of the other bounty hunters in his crew. It was clear just from observing their behaviour that Kohler had a certain amount of sway over the others. If he had enough sway, then Yao’s mad idea might actually work.

Sighing deeply again, he placed the file in the smaller of the two piles, and rubbed his eyes. His plan might only really work in the first place if the mission to the Xi Lan Ey Intelligence Centre worked out okay. He would wait a few days to propose the idea, and hopefully by then his next move would be a little clearer.

It didn’t happen very often, but it was times like this that Yao really hated his job.


Ror’a Plateau, Nyma
About 320 kilometres (200 miles) east of Draak Zafi Forra

Tori exhaled heavily as her knees slammed into the hard-packed dirt once again, choking a little on the reddish dust which had been kicked up into the air. She struggled to calm down her breathing and loosen the tightening knot in her chest. Her head was pounding, so much so that she didn’t register the approaching footsteps until they were right beside her.

She felt a hand rest between her shoulder blades, solid and comforting.

“Are you alright?” Emilia asked, tone obviously concerned, Tori drew another shaking breath and nodded.

“Y-yeah, I,” she gulped in more air, “I…think I’m doing something wrong. I can barely do anything that you’re telling me to, and it’s…it’s so damn tiring.”

Emilia chuckled. “I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much of when I first learned to use my gifts, but the exhaustion? Yeah, I remember that vividly. It’s normal.”

Tori frowned. “But I’ve already learned how to do this. I must have been taught by my mother when I was a kid, right?”

“Yeah, you definitely were, but do keep in mind that you haven’t used either of your gifts in, what? Eleven years? It makes sense that you’re a little rusty. Not to mention,” Emilia continued, pulling matted locks of hair off Tori’s forehead, “I feel like you probably also have a little bit of a mental block going on in there. You don’t remember learning this the first time. Because of that, you can’t even translate theoretical practice into actual practice, because none of that theoretical is there. You’re not building yourself from the ground up, you’re trying to dig yourself out of a basement.”

Tori snorted at the comparison, but smiled gratefully. “Okay, okay, fair enough. Well, in that case, how far am I to getting out of the basement?”

Emilia hummed. “I’d say that your head is nearly touching the ceiling.” Tori smiled again, and staggered to her feet, breathing deeply.

“Alright, let’s go again.”

Emilia took a half-step backwards. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah. How else will I improve, right?” Grinning at her response, Emilia retreated to a safe distance, fiddling with her long silver hair before dropping her hand and locking her gaze onto Tori.

“Alright, go!”

Tori closed her eyes, focusing intently on the earth about four metres in front of her. She focused on the feeling of the rough, uneven surface pressing into the thin soles of her boots, and, very slowly, she felt something register. Her awareness spread from the ground directly beneath her feet outwards, until she could feel the earth around her within a rough radius of maybe 5 metres or so.

It was an odd sensation to describe. It was almost like her sense of smell, if she were the subject producing a scent. The further away from her the target was, the weaker her sense of it was. It felt like another sense, in it’s own way. When Yao had found out (via research) that she could use the ground to detect movement and other things, he had recommended that she try to extend the ability. So far, she had been able to do it, though it was a slow process. Actually moving the earth as one massive entity was proving to be extremely difficult.

She had managed to move small, detached parts of the earth, like rocks and gravel, but trying to manipulate slabs of rock or create tremors was proving impossible, which wasn’t a good sign, especially considering that small rocks and gravel were unable to be much use in a fight. Her goal as of now was to try and put a crack in the surface of the ground. It was a small step, infinitely small, even, but Yao insisted that all process began with small steps rather than large bounds. So, for now, she was focusing on the small task.

Even small as it was, it was posing quite the challenge. Tori shifted her focus to the surface of the earth, but, just as it had happened a moment ago, she found herself swept up by the details. She could feel every groove, pebble, weed, layer of dust and every minute crack that a mixture of dryness and exposure to the sun had left in the ground. She could feel how the earth spread out in every direction, before, miles to her left, sweeping sharply up into a craggy mountain range. She could feel the minute pressure of Octavia, Elizabeta, Emilia and Matthew standing on the plateau about fifteen metres away. And, far, far below where she was standing, she could feel the pressures of tectonic plates shifting, moving at a pace much slower than was visually observable, and she could feel the immense pressure as they pushed and pushed and pushed-

“Tori!” she opened her eyes. She was on her knees again, Emilia once more beside her.

“Shit.” She cursed, rubbing her forehead. “How long was that?”

“About 15 minutes or so.” Emilia confessed. “I mean, it’s taking you longer to get distracted, at least?” Tori sighed.

“I know, but I wish that it didn’t happen at all. Ugh,” she buried her face in her hands, letting out a groan of frustration, “I wish that I could use my gifts like you and Lukas use yours.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it, Viktorija.” A voice called. Tori looked up as Octavia approached and leant down next to her, smiling. The Vice-General had consistently accompanied her whenever she had to train her gifts, and the sight of her face had quickly become more and more familiar and comforting. “Everything takes time. Just be patient and give yourself the opportunity to adjust. You’ve undergone a huge shift in just the last six weeks, so it’s no shock that it isn’t coming as fast to you as it otherwise might.”

Tori felt herself relax. “Yeah, I know, I just…” she sighed, “I just want to be useful? You know?”

Octavia smiled gently. “You already are. Now, I think that’s enough for one day, don’t you agree?” Tori opened her mouth to protest, but at Octavia’s gentle but firm look, she faltered, sighing again as she flopped backwards onto the ground, covering her eyes with her arm.

“Fiiiiiine.” She groaned, trying and failing to resist a smile when she heard Emilia snickering. Sitting up, she accepted the Fynknian girl’s helping hand and staggered to her feet.   

Dusting off her brown vest and black pants, Tori fell into step beside Emilia, grinning even as she panted with exertion.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Emilia started, “since it seems to be that a mental block is what’s stopping you from using your gifts, if you wanted, we could see if me helping you access your memories would help at all?”

Tori looked over at her, surprised.

“Do you really think that that might work?”

Emilia shrugged. “It might, it might not, but it’s worth a shot, right?”

Tori nodded. “Alright then, let’s try it.” She hastily added, “Another day, though. I’m beat.”

Emilia laughed. “Yeah, I can imagine. Come on! If we get back early, we get first dibs at dinner!” Grinning, the Fynknian immediately began to run towards the cargo truck that they had all taken out here, quickly jumping up into the back.

Smiling at the younger girl’s enthusiasm, Tori nodded to herself, and bolted after her.

Chapter Text

23UP, Riiko District
Bibesti, Rela,
 5th Jaune


There he was.

It had taken her days of searching before she had picked up the trail again. The faint traces at the café in Veroda had helped greatly on her mission, but it had been the scent on the wind – the smell of fire – that had attracted her here.

It wasn’t a surprise to find him here, just a few blocks from the most dangerous district on the entire planet. Szwicza was filled with every form of lowlife, but some people didn’t end up there by choice. She knew that, and felt sorry for those for couldn’t afford to live somewhere safe. She had patrolled around Szwicza before, as her way of trying to help the city and repay the many debts she owed. It was a desolate place, populated with the desperate and vindictive.

She exhaled slowly, running her gaze up and down the man through the window. His appearance looked somewhat washed-out – no doubt a result of the fluorescent lights in the ceiling that cast a cold, whitish light on everything in the store. His skin, which she could guess would be a much richer olive shade without the influence of the lights, was speckled at random with scars and small marks. She noted one scar in particular that curved around the outside of his right elbow, and wondered distantly what exactly he had done to receive it.

His eyes were less washed-out, being protected from the overhanging fluorescent sheen by his hair as they were, and she could see the bright amber colour of their depths. His eyelashes were long and full – another characteristic trait. His face was perhaps a little thinner than what was perfectly healthy, but she knew that it was only her trained eyes that picked up on such a fact. He had high cheekbones and a sharp jawline. She traced her own chin with her hand as she gazed at it.

His clothes were simple – a white shirt, dark pants and a small, dark apron which indicated that he was an employee. His feet were wrapped in worn, faded leather boots, the ends of which looked dangerously close to fraying apart.

His hair was black now, unnaturally so, of course. She had looked at old photos, and envisioned the actual colour. Dark burgundy, just like his beautiful mother. The resemblance was remarkable, actually. Carina would have been proud of her son, she knew.

The eyes were on her. She stilled. In her moment of focus, she had somehow become distracted. He was straightening up from his relaxed pose against the counter, the casual position of his lean body shifting into something that was more guarded and much warier. His eyes were locked onto hers, and the effect took her breath away.

He was beautiful, really. She doubted that she had ever seen a man more stunning, and didn’t think that she ever would again. It was…a shame.

Maintaining eye contact, she raised her right arm, curling her hand into a fist, leaving only her pinkie finger out, and placing it over her heart. She straightened her back and then bowed, a bend so carefully executed that her torso formed a perfect, 90° angle with her legs. She rose slowly, raising her eyes to meet his face again.

The pale colour of his face wasn’t from the lights this time, and she did nothing more before she turned on her heel and marched down the street.   

What. The. Fuck.

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma
5th Jaune

Matthias smiled a little as Feliks again nudged the small plate of cookies towards him.

“Seriously, thank you guys, but they were meant to be for you-”

“Nope, too bad, we don’t want them.” Feliks said firmly, trying to push the plate towards him again. Matthias sighed, but he couldn’t keep the smile off his face. Whenever the rebels fed them, they also tended to give them all small, sweet things to chase away the blandness of some of the food. For most of them, it was the best part of the day.

However, the ten others that he was still locked up in the cell with had insisted that he have all of theirs because-

“It’s your birthday!” Antonio protested. “We would be really shit friends if we didn’t do anything at all!”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that you guys need to give up your food for me.” Matthias protested. Berwald stared at him blankly, as did half the others, as though they couldn’t understand why he was refusing their (admittedly very tempting) offer.

“Just take it. It’ll make them shut the fuck up.” Vash growled, jabbing his thumb at Antonio, Francis and Feliks. Matthias snorted at the look of muted agony on Vash’s face as the three immediately began protesting his statement. Still chuckling, he reached out and accepted the plate, thanking them all profusely.

“So, 23 years young.” Francis teased. “Feeling old yet?”

Matthias glared at Francis. “In what world is 23 old?” Francis grinned.

“Mine, of course.”

“Francis, you turn 22 in like five weeks.”

“Says the one basically backing himself into a retirement home.”

Some of the others burst out laughing at this, while Matthias tried to maintain the look of insulted, melodramatic hurt on his face.

“I’m surrounded by assholes.” He said, grinning. Francis coked his head at him jokingly.

“You hadn’t figured that out already?” Matthias snorted, smacking him on the arm.   

“Whatever, jackass. Thank you, guys, really.”

The last two months had been tough. Their situation had only gotten weirder and more unpleasant when their friends had started to leave – though he couldn’t deny that the room it had freed up was very welcome – and, though they weren’t all people that he thought he would befriend, Matthias had actually gotten to know some of Kirkland’s crew quite well.

He would never claim to know them inside and out, but they had bonded over their pointless situation while they’d been imprisoned, and he would like to say that he could at least call them his friends, at this point. Ever since Arthur had left to take the rebels up on their deal, Matthias seemed to have somehow become the stand-in leader for the group of all eleven of them. His friends had always treated him like their boss, and after a few weeks, the pirates began to do the same thing.

By this point, any guard that came to their cell to distribute food or give them information seemed to know to address Matthias first. It was a weird responsibility to be given, but he didn’t mind it. His mother had always told him that he had the charisma to be a leader, and he had managed to lead his own crew fairly well so far.

Even though they had all been getting on better recently, the wide space was still good. Not only was it annoying to constantly have people crammed right next to him, but most of them had started doing small workouts every day, and being stuck right next to a sweating person in an already small and humid space was not pleasant.

Even with his attempts to maintain his own health, Matthias could feel himself getting weaker and weaker. He was sure that the others could feel it too. Their long confinement was beginning to seriously get to them all. The rebels had started to supply them all with Vitamin D supplements since it had been so long since they had seen the sun.

Matthias would have expected that sitting around in a cell with nothing to do but eat and sleep would have made him gain weight, but the opposite was happening. The rebels gave them medical check-ups every fortnight, and Matthias had been consistently losing weight since mid-Apryl. He supposed that it was in part due to muscle atrophy, and the oppressive heat and endless sweating probably didn’t help either. Since they weren’t out in the strong sunlight, they had all switched up their clothing style to as-long-as-it-covers-the-essentials-I-don’t-care-how-short-it-is, and also adopted the habit of lying flat on the ground to stay cool.

He honestly would have shot someone just to get to run around outside, and he had begun to glare jealously at the rebels who walked past their cell block. Most of the time, other than the daily workouts that they all subjected themselves to, they couldn’t really be bothered doing anything.

That was part of why Matthias had been legitimately surprised at their attempts to celebrate his birthday. They had all been gradually succumbing to the infuriating clutches of hopelessness and depression, and the fact that they were even attempting to do something for him was very sweet. Even if the day only made them all more aware of how much time had passed, it was a nice sentiment.

He sighed, resting his head on the cooler stone behind him as he took in the chattering of his friends. It was nice at times to detach himself from the conversation and just watch it happen around him. Matthias was an extrovert through and through, as anyone who knew him would testify, but even he felt the need to sit back and listen every now and then. It was nice to hear their voices, and the somewhat uplifted tone that they held today. It was certainly a welcome change from the dull helplessness that had plagued his friends’ voices only yesterday afternoon. He was getting sick of feeling so morose all the time, though he knew that he should probably have gotten used to it at this point.

He was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t even register that his friends’ voices had quietened down and then muted altogether until he opened his eyes to see Feliks staring resolutely at something – or someone – behind him. Since his back was pressed up against the bars, he could imagine that it was one of the rebels. Stiffening a little, he turned and looked up, immediately feeling his stomach plunge downwards.

It wasn’t the usual, smiling, short-haired Jhobrasian fighter who had informed them her name was Nelia, nor was it the young, dark-haired man called Kristian who took great interest in what Reycass was like. Matthias would have given anything for it to be Matthew swinging by again to update them on various sports results, or even the headstrong Daernic that had been the pirates’ prisoner before, who seemed to enjoying bringing up the reversal of their situations. He would have given just about anything to not have the cold, sharp-eyed leader of the resistance standing outside the bars, but Matthias sadly didn’t have much to give anymore.

The door swung open easily under the Yanish man’s gloved touch, and Francis shuffled out of the way, trying not to look as cowed as he obviously felt as the man – Yao – marched right past him. For a single moment of blind confusion, Matthias wondered if one of the others had decided to join the resistance too – it wasn’t impossible; he had seen Louise looking especially conflicted over the last two weeks, and he knew for a fact that some of Arthur’s subordinates were very fond of their waspish boss. That thought died a swift and silent death the moment that Yao turned his cold gaze on Matthias. There was a moment where the surprised voices of his friends faltered, and then died down completely when they noted the stare-down currently happening between Matthias and the tall Yanish man.

“Up.” Yao commanded, tone sharp and evidently not open for discussion on the matter. Matthias blinked at him, hoping that the fear he felt inside was well-hidden by his far more impassive expression. He noted that a heavily-armed woman with dark green eyes and brown hair – Daernic, judging by the rings of gold in her eyes – had entered the cell behind Yao. She was frowning at the group of them warningly, but overall presented a much less hostile image than the resistance’s enigmatic leader. He let his eyes rest on her for a moment as he debated his next words, and then turned to face Yao again.

“May I ask why?” he asked, tone cordial but laced with a harsh coldness. “I’m not about to come and join your merry band of murderers.” Yao’s eyes narrowed a little, but the edges of his mouth curved upwards ever so slightly.

“I was under no illusion that you sought to do so.” Yao said. “No, Mr Køhler, I wish to have a conversation with you.” Matthias quirked an eyebrow.

“A conversation?” He echoed sceptically. “I fail to see why we can’t have a conversation right here and now.” Yao’s gaze cut momentarily to the others in the cell, all of whom were silent and listening carefully, eyes trained on the encounter occurring before them.

“That was poorly phrased; I wish to have a conversation with you in private.” Matthias tilted his head upwards, transforming the jolt of nerves in his stomach into fuel for a sharp grin.

“A conversation about what, exactly? I’m sure that your cause is very noble, but I personally have no interest in it.” Yao smiled a little.

“Once again, Mr Køhler, I am not seeking to recruit you to our cause, though your gifts would be very welcomed here. Your friends have already proven themselves valuable assets.” Matthias leant forwards a little.

“How are our friends doing? If I may ask? We haven’t received much news on them since being locked in here.” Yao considered him.

“They may come up in conversation, though only if you would deign to begin one with me.” Yao said dryly. Matthias could hear the exasperation in his voice, but had to respect the man’s restraint. It would have been infinitely easier for Yao to have some of his rebels drag Matthias out of the cell by his hair, and yet he was choosing to instead request an audience with him. For the first time since his friends had started to filter through the doors, Matthias felt like a sliver of control had returned to his hands.

Knowing what the rebels said of Yao’s cunning and intelligence, though, that was likely his ploy. He shoved down the temptation to ask further about their friends, knowing that he was unlikely to get any answers as long as he was in the cell. A part of him ached to know what Yao wished to discuss with him, but his stubbornness overruled it easily.

“I’d rather not, thanks.” He said simply, leaning back and folding his arms. “I’ve made myself fairly clear on where I stand concerning light conversation with you, I think.”

The rebels had tried to coax them into talking for weeks now, undoubtedly in an attempt to either make them join their ranks or find something to use as leverage against them. They had all stayed silent and harsh in the face of the questioning, however. Matthias wasn’t about to negotiate with the people who had locked them away to rot for over 2 months now.

Yao tilted his head to the side. “You seek emancipation, do you not?” Matthias stiffened, but didn’t make eye contact.

“I think that I’ve made that clear, but I don’t want that if it means being forced into your service.”

Yao laughed. “Oh, please. I have far better things to bargain your servitude for.” Matthias barely had time to register the cold shock that travelled down his spine before Yao had continued, speaking two words that froze him more effectively than any blizzard could have done.

“Ivaana Petersen.” He said mildly, smile stretching wider as he observed the effect that it had on Matthias. “About 14 years old right now, given that her birthday’s in Novymbir, she was born originally in the far northern city of Belknad, Fynkn. She was only three years old when the Expansion happened, and it wiped out her entire family. She was part of the Hrinnskél tribal community.” Yao levelled a gaze at Matthias, who doubted that he had ever been so still in his whole life. “Shortly after the Expansion occurred, one of her parents’ friends got into contact with a couple that she knew who lived on Rywan with one child, plenty of space and enough love to take in a Fynknian orphan who had been smuggled off-world, something which can, under Union law, attract a prison sentence of up to 20 years.”

Yao was cold as he smiled slightly. “Care to finish the story for me, Mr Køhler?” Matthias wasn’t sure if he was breathing or not as he quietly shook his head.

“Don’t delude yourself into thinking that I’m going to try to use something as weak as your personal freedom for leverage when I have far more interesting things that we can discuss together.”

Matthias swallowed. “Noted.”

“Would you mind if we had that chat now? I can promise that you’ll hear about your friends, and perhaps a note or two on emancipation while we’re at it.”

Matthias stared at Yao for a long moment, wondering what part of hell this man had crawled out of. Objectively speaking, he knew that he shouldn’t let himself be intimidated. The rebellion were trying to help Fynknian and Daernic and Syhvvanian people. He wouldn’t have dared, right?

Looking at his face now, Matthias wasn’t so sure.

“Fine.” He murmured, trying to push some of his harsh bluster back into his voice. “but you’d better make it quick.” Yao nodded, the coldness vanishing from his face as easily as it had come.

“Very good. Come.” Matthias wasn’t happy to be ordered around like a disobedient pet, but he felt deeply shaken. In the back of his mind, he could hear Ivaana’s voice giggling over some petty thing or another, could almost feel the familiar press of her fingers digging into his arm as she attempted to get his attention to show him something. He shuddered, but followed Yao and the Daernic woman outside the cell nonetheless. The brunette woman fell into step behind him in the hallway, with Yao leading their mismatched band of three.

Though his light clothing had served him well inside his prison, it made him feel vulnerable out here, where both of his escorts were dressed from head to toe in combat-ready fabrics, with weapons hanging from their belts. He hunched his shoulders in a little, in an unconscious attempt to make his large form at least somewhat smaller. He caught himself as he did it, and forced his shoulders out again. It was an old habit from his childhood. He had long been told by his classmates that he was too tall, too broad, too bulky, until –

“I like you how you are, Matthi! It’s better to be big and strong than small and twiggy like me.”

“You aren’t twiggy, Ivaana, you’re just…”


“Yeah, growing. There’s nothing wrong with that either.”

“If you say so, Matthi.”

He cursed internally. He hadn’t spent much time letting his thoughts linger on his adoptive sister in the last few months, and yet a bare mention of her name was enough to have her childish, joyous voice clamouring in the back of his head again.

He missed her, so much.

Matthias was so swept up in his thoughts of vulnerability and innocent little sisters that he almost forgot to acknowledge the outside world. Almost.

It had been months since Matthias had felt the sun on his skin properly, and stepping outside the confines of the low, brick cell-block sent him stumbling back inside from the sheer brightness. He clamped his eyes shut, even as the rest of him hungered to step briefly back into the scorching warmth that had so briefly brushed over his skin before his eyes had caught up.

“Ahh,” Yao said, “My mistake. I forgot about the glare. Take a moment to adjust.”

“I was doing that already.” Matthias grumbled, slowly cracking his eyes open and widening them as soon as he no longer felt like his corneas were being slow-cooked. He cautiously stepped outside of the shade again, and felt his muscles unravel as the sun warmed his body, even though the sting of the red dirt beneath his feet was a little too sharp to be welcome.

“I understand that you must enjoy the sun after so long in captivity.” Yao said, his voice breaking Matthias from his pleased reverie, “but I feel that you will not be quite so enchanted when your feet are coated from heel to toe in blisters later. Believe me, the ground can get deceivingly hot.” Sighing at being hurried along again but recognising that the mild pain on the soles of his feet would only grow worse, he continued to follow Yao through the camp.

Though he had seen the rebel camp before, there was something rather different about seeing it during the day. When they’d first arrived, it had been dusk, and early dawn the morning that they had almost been executed. Even though it had been daylight when they were moved from the container to their current prison, they had been blindfolded, and as such, hadn’t been able to see much of anything. But now, with his eyesight unhindered and curiosity peaked, Matthias took in the space around him.

Walled tents in shades of khaki, olive and tan were scattered everywhere, the seemingly order-less arrangement punctuated occasionally with a table of munitions parts, or a row of sand-skimmers waiting to be put to use in Nyma’s sand-dune deserts. The place was teeming with activity, with people of all ages, species and races scurrying about with varying degrees of urgency. He could see some people relaxing and laughing alongside each other; others were bolting from place to place holding papers or weapons or tablets. The sheer frantic energy that infected the air was enough to make Matthias’ heart race. It reminded him distinctly of the old trading grounds in the Krios District, though the duties being performed here had a much less criminal nature than could be expected of south-eastern Reycass.

He twisted his head around, eager to observe more of the infamous rebellion that held dealt the Union so many harsh blows, but was intercepted by the Daernic woman following him, who roughly jabbed a pistol into his back.

“Keep moving, you aren’t here to gawk.” Matthias felt irritation simmer in his gut, but noted the harsh set of her face and conceded, turning back to face the front and follow Yao. The sheer number of people who nodded deferentially, raised a hand in greeting or called out happily was astounding. The guy seemed to be a pretty popular leader after all. But then, he probably didn’t go around threatening these peoples’ families, so that was understandable.

One man moved to speak to Yao, but upon noting Matthias and the Daernic woman, drew back and stepped out of the way. Yao threw the man a grin. “We’ll speak later, Mohammed.” The man nodded, casting Matthias a curious but not openly aggressive look, and moved away.

It was a relief to finally step back into the shade. Yao hadn’t been wrong when he had said that the ground got deceivingly hot, and despite how nice it had felt in the beginning, the sun’s heat had begun to make his neck and shoulders burn unpleasantly.

He glanced around at his news surroundings. The tent was long, with numerous rooms travelling off it’s length.

“This is where we conduct a lot of our…negotiations and other important endeavours that require more discretion.”

Matthias blinked in surprise, shuddering a little when he saw the rather obvious door to a cell. It looked to be connected to an actual building, rather than a tent.

“You aren’t just upgrading my accommodation from a group suite to a single, are you?” he asked faintly, eyes trained on the door. Yao followed his gaze and chuckled lowly, though the sound wasn’t comforting in the slightest.

“Oh, no, no, that cell is…otherwise occupied. We wouldn’t throw you in there.” As he spoke, Yao approached the door, which had a barred window set into it’s wooden surface, and rapped on the glass. Matthias didn’t bother approaching, not entirely sure that he wanted to see what was inside. Yao must have roused some sort of reaction, though, because the Yanish man grinned widely and stepped away, even as Matthias heard faint yelling from behind the door.

“Just ignore that. Zev rather enjoys complaining.” Yao said breezily as he moved past Matthias to a door down the end of the hallway, holding open the cloth so that Matthias and the Daernic woman could walk inside.

This room was much less unsettling. The tent was made of dark green fabric, tied down solidly to the ground to give the illusion of solid walls, even as a light wind buffeted them from outside. The ground, simple packed dirt had been evened out a great deal. A large, dark wood desk stood in the rough centre of the room, with a black chair seated behind in and a thin wool mat covering the ground below. There were two chairs poised in front of the desk. The desk itself held only a few files and papers on it’s surface, and what appeared to be a map of some sort of mountainous region. Behind the desk were a few low filing cabinets and old, seemingly discarded equipment. The woman gestured for Matthias to take a seat in one of the chairs in front of the desk.

The whole set-up made him feel so absurdly like a misbehaving child that he couldn’t hold back a snort. Rather than respond with anger, Yao grinned, a much more open and pleasant expression than he had had all day.

“Ahh, I know, right? This layout always makes me feel like a disinterested old school principal, ready to lecture students about bullying.” Matthias let his amusement die down a little, but he felt himself relax infinitesimally. It was good to be reminded that even a cold, calculating menace like this Yao had a humorous side to him. Matthias fixed him with an expectant look.

“Well? After all that you went through to get me in here, you had better have something good to say for it.” Yao arched a brow, and leaned back in his chair as the Daernic woman took a seat at the side of the room.

“I prefer to ease myself into difficult conversations.” He said simply as he straightened up again, clasping his gloved hands together. “First things first, the woman who accompanied us here is Vice General Octavia Papadopoulos.” Matthias looked over at her, and she bowed her head.

“A pleasure.” She said, looking distinctly like she meant the opposite. Matthias suppressed a grin.

“Now, if I recall so correctly, your main concerns were the statuses of your friends and the subject of your emancipation.” Yao continued. “I shall start with the former, as the latter ties in somewhat to the original reason I sought to speak with you.” He paused for a moment, as if trying to formulate his next words in his head. The Yanish man shrugged.

“What can I say? Your friends are all very talented, and so far have taken well to their respective roles in the resistance.”

“I want specifics.” Matthias demanded. Yao didn’t seem angry, or even perturbed, by his interruption, instead merely tipping his head in concession and continuing.

“Alfred works well with everyone that I place him with. He’s been spending most of his time being introduced to life here by Matthew, which is an arrangement that he seems to be very happy about. He shows particular promise in shooting and reconnaissance. Due to the fact that he was one of the first to leave, he has garnered more trust than some of the others, and as a result, I don’t think that it is normal to see him alone.”

“Is he happy?” Matthias asked. Yao paused, staring at his face as if measuring his reaction.

“He seems to be, though he would be the authority on that particular matter.” Matthias nodded, satisfied enough by the answer, and gestured for Yao to continue.

“Gilbert is already a remarkable gunsmith and mechanic, so he’s become quite in-demand for our engineers and munitions experts. Matthew has also been looking out for him over the last few weeks. His main problem seems to be in making eye contact with our Garvich fighters.” Matthias tensed.

“Is that an issue?” he snapped. Yao raised an eyebrow.

“Not even remotely. He’s been gathering a little more confidence with each day, though. He also seems to get along well with others. He seems happy, if a little jumpy around the aforementioned Garvich.” Yao sighed, and went on.

“Tori has had a focus placed on restoring as much of her memory as possible, and strengthening her gifts. She is royalty now, and she has much to learn about her own planet and people; any essential knowledge that the crash on Aralos robbed her of. She’s spent a lot of time with Lukas and Emilia, since they are our resident authorities on the subject. She seems to have taken to her new role with gusto. Her identity remains unknown to the wider rebellion; she is known as Tori Lurisanke here.”

“And what about Arthur and Mei and Leon?” Yao seemed a little surprised that Matthias worried after them too, but responded anyway.

“Arthur is as talented as he is good at being uncooperative, but the medicine we devised is working well so far. He’s stronger, and has already proven his value in missions. Mei and Leon spend as much time with him as they are able, and they, too, seem well. They seem to be happy as long as they are near their captain, anyway.”

Yao paused for a moment, looking like he was racking his brain for anything he had missed.

“Oh yes! Your friend Ivan has befriended many of our weapons designers. Something about getting a specially-weighted metal pipe?” Yao shook his head in bemusement even as Matthias grinned. “Anyway, he seems perfectly content, and none the wiser concerning either Lukas or Tori.” Yao looked at Matthias. “Is there anyone else that you’re overtly concerned about?”

“I don’t think so.” Matthias murmured as he leant his head back a little, trying to memorise the information to pass onto his friends. He closed briefly as he ran over the words in his head.

He felt the mood of the room shift abruptly – the lightness in his chest at hearing that his friends were well vanished, replaced by a clenching sensation that made his stomach lock up in anticipation.

“Octavia, if you would leave us alone.” Matthias opened his eyes in time to see the Vice-General nod respectfully to Yao, shoot one last cautious glance in Matthias’ direction and step out the door. Yao waited a long moment, surveying Matthias before standing from his place, bracing his hands on the desk.

“Mr Køhler, I will be frank. You can help me, and I can help you, but only if you are willing to make a few small sacrifices.”

“Sacrifices?” Matthias repeated, alarm in his voice as he stood from his chair, Yao’s previous subtle threats about Ivaana ringing in the back of his mind.

“Only small ones,” Yao said reassuringly, obviously picking up on what Matthias was thinking of, “For us to mutually benefit from this, I require your cooperation, some of your time, and a willingness on your part to give up your fairly safe position in the cell with your friends.” Matthias blinked. While he was relieved that his family wasn’t going to get involved, he still had no idea what was going on.

“And if I were to make those sacrifices…” Matthias began cautiously, “what would I expect in return?” Yao was silent for a moment, before he raised his head, looking uncertain even as he spoke his next words.

“Freedom for yourself and all of your friends.” The Yanish man said simply, brown eyes boring into Matthias’ own blue. “That is what I offer, in exchange for a fairly big favour from you.”

Matthias felt his heart stutter in his chest. Freedom? For him and all of his friends? His excited mind had already begun to contemplate it, and he hurriedly reeled himself in and painted a blank slate across his face again. “At what cost? You’ve made it very clear that you don’t like or trust us, so why would you offer us freedom now?”

Yao broke their eye contact and gazed to the right side of the tent, looking thoughtful. “I have succumbed to the wishes of one of my young fighters, who made a few too many good points and had just enough logical counters to my objections.” Matthias blinked, completely bewildered once more. Could this guy not just answer a question straight up?

“For the record,” Matthias turned his attention back to Yao as the man spoke again, “when I say that I require some of your time, I refer to several months, not a few days or weeks.” Matthias felt his stomach drop. A few months? Doing what exactly?

He asked as much, and Yao smiled ruefully, as if he couldn’t quite believe that he was in this position. Matthias felt resentment flare in his stomach, but forced himself to maintain a mask of composure and curiosity.

“You are an excellent fighter, Mr Køhler. You would not have garnered the reputation that you hold if you were not. You display remarkable observational skills, a high level of intelligence, a capacity to keep secrets and lie like a spy professionally trained. You are truly the definition of what it means to be a career criminal. You have spent years training and protecting your younger and less experienced friends. You were raised in rural Rywan, so you know how to survive off only what the land provides, to a degree. You are a fighter by every definition, and possess remarkable skill by any judgement.” Yao looked directly at him again.

“But, until yesterday morning, I still would not have considered you as a potential candidate for this task. In my mind, there were a thousand others better and more trustworthy. However, it was the information of your illegal little sister that finally convinced me to try my hand at getting you onboard. It was little Ivaana that made up my mind about whether or not I should risk it. Do you know why?”

Matthias stayed silent, but inclined his head in a gesture to continue. Yao sighed, raking back a few loose black locks of hair with his gloved hand.

“She had a little difficulty, when she first came to your family, speaking Rywanese, didn’t she?” Matthias nodded, watching the man keenly. “So, in order to ease her into things, you, and your parents, all decided to help her using her own language. I decided to risk this on you, Mr Køhler, because you speak fluent Fynknian, a skill that not many others can boast.”

Matthias shifted uncomfortably. “Okay, listen, before you get into what made you consider me for this, why don’t you explain exactly what this is?” Yao looked at him, before dropping his restless hand from his hair and nodding.

“Fair point.” Yao sat back down, and Matthias mirrored him. “You’ve met Lukas Bondevik, as I’m sure you’ll recall.” Matthias nodded.

“Yup. Cold guy. Not really much for conversation.” Seeing the somewhat guarded look on Yao’s face, he decided to push it a little. “Pretty face, though.” Yao frowned, and Matthias didn’t think he imagined the brief look of protectiveness that flashed across the Yanish man’s face.

“…Anyway,” Yao pushed on, throwing Matthias a disapproving look that actually cowed him a little, “He, unlike Tori, has spent years cultivating his gifts. He is a force to be reckoned with in battle, and has a brilliant mind to accompany it.” Matthias raised an eyebrow.

“High praise.” He commented. Yao made a face.

“Yes. Don’t let him know I said so.” Matthias bit back another amused snort. Yao sighed. “Recently, he has been pushing and pushing me to let him be more involved in the rebellion against the Union. I can more than understand his motive, after all, given what they have done to his family and planet, but he is still young, for all his talent, and though he has experienced many hardships, he is yet to fight in a true war.” Matthias raised an eyebrow.

“Why not just say that he’s too young to fight then?” Matthias asked. Yao’s expression slumped with exhaustion.

“I did,” he said mildly, looking vaguely irritated, as if he were recalling something rather vexing, “He waited until he had turned 19 to then say that he was old enough.”

Matthias frowned, “When was that?”

“About three weeks ago. His persistence is something to be admired.” Yao sighed. “Not to mention, there are accomplished fighters here that are younger than him, so pulling the whole age card wouldn’t have worked anyway.” Matthias hummed, waiting for Yao to continue.

“However…he makes good points. As much as I want to keep his family from coming to any more harm, he is a remarkable fighter, and could easily turn the tide in any fight. But I couldn’t in good conscience send him somewhere that his comrades would not offer him help or kindness, and nor would I feel comfortable sending him anywhere without some sort of protection, though he loathes the very idea.” Yao paused, looking hesitant. “Not to mention…given the nature of his gifts, he isn’t much help in a desert.”

Matthias’ mind ground to a halt as the pieces of what Yao was proposing began to come together in his head. The realisation hit him like a bullet train, and he saw Yao wince as he obviously gathered that Matthias knew his plan.

“You have to be fucking kidding me.” Yao held up a hand to silence him, looking a little pained.

“It isn’t ideal, but the one place where he might be able to make a real difference is also a place where he would by default be looked out for, if only by virtue of his ethnicity.”

“You…you want me…to…”

Yao sighed, both sounding and looking like he wanted nothing more than to chug a bottle of lighter fluid. “I want you to go to Fynkn with Lukas Bondevik, and keep him safe until I can be sure that he is capable enough to fight in an active warzone by himself.”

“Are you bullshitting me?”

“I wish I was, but no. You are capable of keeping him safe, and may just have enough stubbornness to rival his own. You speak fluent Fynknian, and you can keep your cool under pressure.” Yao sighed, looking more and more suicidal with every second that dragged by.

“And if I do it?” Matthias asked, still feeling overwhelmed.

“If you do it, then I will set you and your friends free, as I stated earlier. These are my terms, so you can either accept or reject them.” Yao stood again. “Lukas is currently occupied by a mission, but he and his teammates, if all goes well, should have returned home by the 19th of Jaune at the very latest. I would appreciate your answer by the end of the week, though, if you would be so kind.”

Matthias gawked at him, only remembering after a very long moment to shut his mouth. “You’re insane.” He said, laughing a little. Yao tilted his head.

“Most likely.” He said. “But do keep this in mind, Mr Køhler. Right now, you and your friends are little more than a waste of space and resources for us. If we cannot find a suitable use for you soon, we may be faced with no real option other than to get rid of you all. If you were to consider my offer, however, my patience might be extended.” Yao said, tone ominous. “It’s up to you.” He clapped a hand on Matthias’ shoulder. “Do think on it.” Matthias had barely more than a second to register that he had just been faced with a legitimate threat before the woman from earlier – Octavia, appeared and took him by the arm, pistol in hand again, steering him decisively back towards the cell full of his friends.

It was official – the rebels were fucking crazy.

Octavia stowed her pistol back into its holster as she sent another questioning look at Yao.

“I mean no disrespect, General, but if even the boy thinks this plan is mad, what makes you think that it will succeed?”

Yao smiled wryly. “Octavia, you can express your doubts to me. I wont be offended, I promise.” He saw the small flash of guilt cross her eyes before she could break eye contact, and he sighed. “How many times do I have to tell you? I hold you at fault for nothing concerning my trial. It was all our neighbour’s doing.” He glanced down the hall where the cell was. The angry yelling had long since progressed into pained screaming, and now fallen silent altogether. Yao pushed down the vicious satisfaction that it brought him.

“I know,” Octavia sighed, “But I still feel guilty.” Yao shook his head a little, but didn’t bother continuing trying to convince her otherwise. He knew that she would come to accept everything that had happened in time, and he didn’t wish to derail the process by being overly pushy on the topic.

“Do you know what the theory of familiarity is?” he asked. Octavia blinked, looking a little confused by the question.

“I don’t, but I have heard of it.” Yao smiled.

“It was a theory first posed by a Misori psychologist, and I personally feel that it has merit. Essentially, the greater that a person is acquainted with someone or something, the more familiar it becomes.” Octavia nodded.

“That sounds about right.” She agreed. Yao nodded.

“Well, this Misori psychologist extended this principle to people. Essentially, the more time that you spend around someone, the more familiar you become with them and their personality. They went on to pose the subsequent theory; the theory of acquaintance. The theory of acquaintance states that the more familiar a certain person or object is to someone, the more attached they will become to that thing. Of course, the theory is flawed, but I have found that the basic principle is true, especially when in regards to two people. Think about it; even if you start off hating someone, the longer you know them, the more you learn. Even if you don’t like them, if they were to vanish, that sense of familiarity would be gone, and you would worry for them.”

Octavia frowned. “So…you wager that the Køhler boy will become more fond of Lukas the more time they spend together?”

“Exactly. And, on a place like Fynkn, they would spend a lot of time together. Soldiers work in pairs there. As long as they stayed together, they would be around each other almost constantly.”

“Yao, you can’t hinge this whole mission on a set of psychological theorems…”

“I know. You think I am that misguided? I checked through Køhler’s known work records. In the majority of cases wherein the target had more than one interested buyer, Køhler always preferred to give them off to the buyer not affiliated with the Union.” Yao paused. “Octavia, his adoptive younger sister is from Fynkn. I somehow doubt that his family are frenetic Unionists, especially considering how gravely they are breaking the law by adopting young Ivaana. I am hoping that time on Fynkn; the site of his sister’s tragic youth, and one of the places where Unionists get the most vicious, we can temper his dislike of the Union into a legitimate hatred.”

Octavia was silent. “…That…is more reliable than the theories.” She conceded. Yao nodded.

“Have you seen the way that he interacts with his friends?” he didn’t wait for an answer before continuing. “He is their leader. They naturally gravitate towards him, and he holds considerably more sway in their group than they seem to even realise. If he were adamant about keeping information about Lukas and Emilia away from the Union, I feel like they would listen to him. Not to mention, if he should accept our offer, we will attempt to also slowly recruit his friends while he is gone. If that doesn’t succeed…”

Yao hesitated. He didn’t like to show his ruthless streak too often. It was one of the less pleasant but more useful gifts that Wuhan Ma – the man who had tortured him into near insanity on the SS Arbiter – had left him. But it was coming in useful more often than not nowadays.

“If that doesn’t succeed, if…if my plan should go awry…well, would anyone really be that surprised if we did end up just killing them?” Octavia made a small, surprised noise. “It isn’t that I want to. I would much rather use and utilise raw talent like theirs, but I will do what I must for this movement. It is an unpleasant last-resort I know, but it is the one we have.”

Octavia was quiet for a moment. “I agree.” Yao looked over at her. Her face was lifted somewhat, looking at once apprehensive and hopeful. “I pray that your plan does work, but if not, I will help you in any endeavour you require. I…I have faith that this may work, Yao.”

Yao smiled. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

Chapter Text

Szwicza District,
Bibesti, Rela
6th Jaune

“I’m telling you, Feli, I know what I saw. That girl somehow knows who I am.”

Feliciano frowned, feeling very frightened by the mere idea of their identities being known, but also wondering if his brother was overreacting a little.

“Are you certa-”

“YES!” Lovino bellowed, rounding on Feliciano with a blistering rage that caught him off guard. “If you ask me that one more fucking time I swear I’ll rip your tongue out.” Feliciano blinked, stunned. His brother had always had a temper – it was a Vargas family trait, but it had almost never been directed towards him. Feliciano swallowed. He could see regret cross his brother’s face the moment that the words were out of his mouth, but Lovino didn’t apologise.

“Sorry.” Feliciano murmured. “I just…I don’t get why that particular gesture is so worrying.” Lovino sighed, and Feliciano leant back slightly, anticipating another outburst, but his older brother simply slumped and sat on the couch, burying his face in his hands.

“That gesture – a closed fist with a pinkie extended – it’s a traditional Relusian gesture. They used it in deference to all royalty or nobility. When they greeted their own royalty, though, they would get down on the floor to bow. The straight-backed bow is reserved for foreign monarchs. That whole gesture is basically exactly what they used to use for Fynknian, Daernic and Syhvvanian royalty, back when Rela was also a Free Court.” Lovino slid his hands to under his chin, fixing Feliciano with a look that made him look absolutely miserable.

“I’m sorry for yelling, okay, but that woman knows who I am and I really think that our only course of action is to leave, as soon as possible.”

“But…” Feliciano fumbled, “why leave? She might know who you are, and me too by extension, but she’s just one person. Bibesti has over 30 million people living in it. What are the chances that she’ll actually track us down?” Lovino sighed, expression still hard and saddened.

“She’s not normal. Her clothes told me that much.” Lovino muttered. Feliciano blinked in confusion. His brother had given him as many details as he could about the woman’s appearance. According to Lovino, the woman was maybe around Feliciano’s own height – maybe about 5’8’’ or so – and had a very lean figure that indicated a high level of athleticism. She was typically Relusian – light olive skin, somewhat slanted eyes and dark hair. Her hair, he’d said, was very long, and had been braided back. Her eyes were very dark too – grey or black, his brother had approximated. But Lovino hadn’t mentioned anything about her clothing.

“What do you mean?” Feliciano asked. Lovino sighed.

“You know that Rela used to be one of the Free Courts, right?”

“…Yeah, what of it?”

“Well, just like our planet and Daerna and Fynkn, Rela was ruled by a monarchy, which, much like us, had gifts that allowed them to do supernatural things.” Lovino sighed. “Now, Rela transitioned into a constitutional monarchy in the late 3800s, and later transferred all governing power to the government. The royal family, or what was left of it, became normal civilians, just like everyone else.”

Feliciano nodded. “Yeah…it was the…uhh…Ahkmeri?”

“Close. The Akhmetov family. Now, they were still respected a lot, and were richer than other people, but had no political power to speak of. In the 4210s, the family decided to continue teaching their descendants how to use their gifts. The royal gifts get weaker the further a person is distanced from the actual royal family, but it takes a while for them to completely disappear. Since the Akhmetov family and all their relatives were no longer as closely connected to Rela as an entity, their gifts weakened much slower, and got spread around a lot more.”

Feliciano, nodded, still failing to understand what his brother was getting at. Lovino sighed.

“Do you know what the gifts of the Relusian royal family were?”

“Uhh…” Feliciano trailed off, grinning sheepishly. Lovino rolled his eyes.

“Their gifts were called the Jel and the Faza. The Jel allowed them to manipulate wind and the air. The Faza allowed them to pass through solid objects. There’s a reason that people used to refer to Rela as the ‘Rock of the Winds’. Both of the royalty’s gifts, in their minds, were connected to air. One let them control it, and the other let them become it.” Lovino paused for a moment.

“Kind of like how people think our abilities are both connected to energy?” Feliciano asked. “Because we harness both heat and kinetic energy?” Lovino nodded.

“Exactly. Now, though they weren’t royal anymore, members of the Akhmetov family still wanted to serve the planet. So, they founded the Tapsiris Jel; the Order of the Wind. Those who still have the gifts work and train there. They’re basically a glorified police force nowadays. People here call them the Zephyrak. They stick out ridiculously; they all wear these fitted black uniforms designed to make sneaking around easier, with silver insignias on them.” Lovino swallowed. “The woman staring at me had that uniform on.”

Feliciano was silent, staring at his brother as he struggled to realise what that meant.

“So, this woman could-”

“She could travel around soundlessly with the help of the air, and walk through the strongest of walls.” Lovino shook his head. “If the Zephyrak were less honourable, I swear that every bank vault on Rela would be empty by now.”

“Oh…uhh…that’s bad.” Feliciano said, finally understanding Lovino’s fear and apprehension. Lovino raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah. It’s bad. She might want nothing from us, but if she thinks that we’re a threat in any way to Rela…well, she’d probably hunt us down and kill us.”

“Worse than a normal assassin.” Feliciano murmured.

“Yeah, worse than a normal assassin.” Lovino sighed.

Ta Cïtadel twrali Tapsiris Jel
(Citadel for the Order of the Wind)
Bibesti, Rela,
6th Jaune

The woman pulled the loose brown cloak that she had used to conceal her uniform from her body. It had been pure foolishness for her to have first confronted Prince Lovino while wearing the mark of her ancestry. He was likely intelligent, and, had he been on Rela for a long time now, probably knew what the silver insignia on the left breast meant.

She hung the cloak from one of the small hooks in the entryway to the Citadel, before proceeding through to the main dome. The Citadel had been her home since her very earliest memories, but the interior of the dome still left her breathless. It was vast, built of sandstone and rough-hewn, brown marble. The floor was tiled in traditional Relusian styles, an array of red, orange and black tiles that jumped and twisted across the smooth surface.

The dome itself sat above a solid strip of glass that let natural light into the main hall. The ceiling was decorated in similar styles of tiling, but with pale blues and dark greens and white marble inlaid into it’s surface. The walls of the circular room were decorated with numerous niches and coves holding different artefacts and books and traditional rugs. Dotted along the walls was the occasional door, each leading to a different part of the wider building.

She strode across the tiled floor, grateful for her black leather slippers; they had been specially made to allow her to move as quietly as possible, and not a single footstep echoed across the room. She cast a questioning glance around her. Had Mother Aimira lost her touch?

No sooner had the thought come to mind than she felt a sharp pain across the backs of her legs. She yelped and jumped away, spinning to face a small, haggard woman with silver hair and a long cane.

“Mother Aimira!” she exclaimed. “It’s been so long!”

“Long enough for you to lose your touch, it seems.” Mother Aimira barked. “Don’t think that you can scurry along here, making such noise, and not be punished!” she winced. She had though that she was being quiet, but then, Mother Aimira had always had especially good ears.

“I apologise, Mother Aimira.” She said, quickly bowing. “I will aim to rectify my shortcomings.” Mother Aimira simply grumbled. She waited a moment, wondering if Mother Aimira had forgotten the Quttiqtaw – their traditional welcoming for anyone who had been travelling. Mother Aimira sighed a moment later, however, and gently knocked her cane against both of her shoulders before planting it back on the ground,

“Inkar Elnari Akhmetov, I extend my welcome to you from your travels.” Inkar bowed her head again.

“Thank you, Mother Aimira.”

“Well, girl? Did you find anything of interest while you were out?”

Inkar’s mind flashed to the handsome Syhvvanian prince. “A few.” Mother Aimira smiled slightly.

“I will hear of them later. For now, go and meet your brothers and sisters.” Inkar smiled.

“I will, thank you, Mother.”

Inkar turned and marched towards one of the doors, taking care to be even quieter than before. Her mind briefly recalled the vibrant amber of Lovino Vargas’ eyes.

It really was a shame.

Meridide Neighbourhood, Priiko City,
North-Eastern Reycass,
7th Jaune

Lukas had only been on Reycass for about three days now, but he had already formulated an opinion of it; it fucking sucked. He voiced as much to Tino as the pair of them trudged down the wet and rapidly darkening streets. Sunset came earlier here than it did most other places; it was only 3 in the afternoon, and the yet the sky was already painted in a shade of polluted orange, attributable both to sunset and the ridiculous amounts of smog in the air.

Tino laughed. “It’s really not that bad. Just because you Fynknians are used to having beautiful, sprawling rural landscapes, doesn’t mean we all are.” Lukas rolled his eyes, but grinned faintly. Tino continued. “What exactly is it that you hate so much?”

Lukas shrugged. To be completely truthful, he wasn’t sure. The rampant amounts of black-market dealing and criminal activity that could be seen at a moment’s glance down to the street would have been unsettling, but Lukas had already seen that and more, and at a much younger age than he was now. The criminal activity didn’t bother him – couldn’t bother him – especially given that he was travelling with famous pirates and bounty hunters in tow.

The planet itself wasn’t exactly what he was used to; Fynkn was a sprawling mass of forests, glaciers, lakes, mountains and steppes, whilst Reycass was urbanised almost to a fault. The pollution around here was staggering, and Lukas had done little more than roll his eyes upon learning that Reycausian people held the highest rates of pulmonary diseases and disorders in the whole galaxy.

The weather wasn’t exactly a delight to be in either. It had rained heavily ever since they had handed on the 4th. Some areas of downtown Priiko had already been flooded, and Ayshe was on the lookout to find if Meridide was one of the neighbourhoods at risk. So far, it seemed like they would avoid the worst of the flooding.

Lukas shrugged, drawing the collar of his coat up around his ears. “I’m not sure. This place is just off-putting.” Tino hummed noncommittedly.

“Maybe. It could just be your nerves bleeding into everything else. I know that’s happened to me before. You’re so stressed about everything that go bad that you can’t think about the good, and that limited mindset extends into everything about the mission. I personally, don’t mind it here.”

“I could do with company that doesn’t flinch away from me every time I walk into a room.” Tino frowned sympathetically.

“Hey, hey, I don’t do that.”

“I know, but still.” Lukas grumbled. Most of the crew were no problem; Ayshe was constantly bringing up his gifts and ways that they could apply them in the mission set to occur soon, and Tino obviously, didn’t think they were unusual or off-putting in any way. Even the harsh pirate Captain, Arthur Kirkland, seemed to have nothing but sheer curiosity. He asked Lukas relentless questions about his powers, and Lukas had found that he actually enjoyed the Pyndaphian man’s company quite a lot. The feeling seemed to be mutual, judging by the casual manner in which Arthur had taken to sitting near him.

Arthur’s underlings had been cautious at first but, like their captain, their view of him had quickly switched to curious, and they also asked him a few questions every now and then. The girl, Mei, seemed to especially enjoy watching him make ice sculptures in the shapes of animals, which he always gifted to her. The boy, Leon, was more withdrawn, but also seemed to find his gifts more interesting than off-putting.

The albino gunsmith, Gilbert, displayed a general apathy towards Lukas in all circumstances, which wasn’t exactly the worst way he had been treated before. He wasn’t sure whether his presence unsettled the man or not, and didn’t want to violate his privacy to find out for certain. Alfred, as kind as he was, seemed to be unsure of the more unnatural aspect of Lukas’ royal blood. He tried very hard not to show it, but Lukas using his gifts put the man ill at ease. Lukas tried to not do it around him, just as Alfred tried to hide how he felt about someone controlling water and reading minds. They walked on metaphorical glass around each other, which Lukas regretted. Matthew was one of his closest friends, and Alfred was his brother, but he wasn’t going to force the guy to get along well with him.

Lukas sighed. “So, when are we set to enter Xi Lan Ey, again?”

“Well, that’s up to Ayshe, but I think that our first entry should be late tomorrow or early on the 9th. Those are the two rough times where security will be the lowest, and we’d need to do it by the 10th at the very latest if we’re to get off this planet before the 17th.”

Lukas nodded. Their mission was especially perilous because it involved entering the intelligence compound twice. Their first entry was intended to be so subtle that not even a single security camera picked up on their presence. They were supposed to plant devices that could record all the footage from the security cameras and copy information from the centre’s huge database without being detected, and then, about five days later, once the devices would have definitely collected the information they needed, they would go back in, retrieve them, and return to Nyma.

It was a tricky operation; trying to get into an extremely secure Union intelligence centre without being seen by anyone or anything would be near impossible, but they were going to try anyway. Tino looked over at him as they finally arrived in front of the tall residential building that held one of the resistance’s many small safehouses. He and Tino had been tasked with fetching a few more groceries, and the bags weighed heavily in his hands.

“You nervous?” Tino asked. Lukas hesitated. It would be so easy to lie and say that he wasn’t concerned about failure, but he knew that Tino wouldn’t think less of him for telling the truth.

“Yes.” He said. “It feels like there are far too many things that can go wrong.” Tino nodded.

“I feel the same.” He threw him a grin. “Don’t get too worked up, though. And just remember; I’ll have your back the whole time.” Lukas nodded. They had all been spilt into pairs and assigned a different way of getting into the facility and job to do when they were inside. Lukas was with Tino, which was a huge relief in itself. He had been more than a little worried that Ayshe would pair him up with Alfred or Gilbert.

“Final briefing is tonight, right?” Lukas inquired as they rode the lift upwards. Tino nodded.

“Yup. Let’s hope that it’s all good news.”

“Okay, I have a bit of bad news.” Ayshe said.

Lukas sighed deeply. Of course she does.

“The entrance that Lukas and Tino were originally going to be entering through begun maintenance this morning. It would be far too risky to get inside using it, so I’ve been working out alternate routes for you two.”

“Are there any suitable ones?” Tino asked. Ayshe nodded, wincing a little.

“Yes, I hope that neither of you is criminally unfit, though.” Lukas shrugged, and Tino grinned lightly. Looking a little relieved, Ayshe turned back to the blueprint of the facility spread out on the table. “Alright, everyone gather ‘round. We’re going to be starting the operation tomorrow at 1800 hours, so this will be the final whole-group briefing until we leave.”

Arthur and his subordinates wandered over to the table from where they’d been sitting together, and Alfred also drifted over from the kitchen, a piece of toast in his hand.

They all gazed down at the blueprints. The Xi Lan Ey Intelligence Centre sat about 20 miles outside of the city, and was a huge building with five above-ground floors and three subterranean levels. The building was hexagonal in shape, and the whole compound was surrounded by a thick park of trees and plants. The foliage was designed to make the building hard to see from the outside, and from the air. The outsides of the intelligence centre were painted a pale green, and most of the bricks were covered in ivy or other crawling plants. The roof had been designed to resemble the foliage around it.

There were no major security measures outside the actual facility, but the layers of authorisation inside the building were mind-blowing, as was the number of security cameras. Given that their aim was to remain completely undetected, this made things significantly harder.

“Alright.” Ayshe said. “As you already know, we’re going with the buddy system for this operation. I plan to stagger our respective entries into the building by about ten minutes each. Leon and I are Team A. We will enter first, through the south-eastern end of the building, at approximately 1800 hours, should all go to plan. Exactly ten minutes later, Team B – Gilbert and Mei – will enter the building through the north-eastern side. Remember, you two have the advantage of entering the building through a blind spot in the security detail, so you need to remember how to get to and from the entrance. You’ll be leading the rest of us through there later.” Gilbert and Mei exchanged a look and nodded. They had been surprised to be paired together, but Lukas knew that they would work well together.

“Now, Team C, Lukas and Tino. Since you can no longer enter through the north-eastern entrance, we’ll be dropping you off with Gilbert and Mei at the north-eastern end, making careful observation of the blind spot and surrounding security cameras, and then, you two will climb up to the roof and enter from there.”

Ayshe smiled briefly. “I know it’s going to be very difficult to climb up, but it should ease your passage to the next part of your task. You can enter the ventilation shafts directly from the roof, though you’ll have to do a bit of shimmying. It’s cliché, I know, but it’s the only effective way into the room you’re targeting.” Tino grinned. “I’ve found that they don’t do regular maintenance on their ventilation shafts, so hopefully, if you need to dislodge or remove a screen, they won’t notice. You’ll set off at exactly 1820, and you need to be up the wall and inside by 1840. I understand that that’s a tough thing to ask, but I have faith you can pull it off.” Lukas and Tino exchanged a look. Hopefully.

“And, of course, Team D – Alfred and Arthur – you two will enter from the western side and seek out the entrance to the basement. You two also have a rough task, since there are security cameras planted all along that wall. They only have a certain horizontal range, however, so you will need to observe and map out any blind spots or moments which might allow you to enter the building. You need to begin your entry at about 1830, and get inside as soon as possible.” The pair nodded.

“Once we are all inside the building,” Ayshe held up her wrist, on which was a thin band with a small face on it and a button on the side. It looked like a small watch. “We will all indicate so with a single click. Remember; one click to indicate that you’ve completed part of your mission, two clicks is a signal for help or that you may soon be compromised, three is to indicate that your cover is blown and you are running.” Lukas nodded. They had all been given the same small devices. The screen had eight little status bars, which recorded the signals sent out.

They had all been assigned a letter and number; the letter based on their team, and the number based on which of them was older. It was a pretty simple system; Ayshe was A1, Leon was A2, Gilbert was B1, Mei was B2, Tino was C1, Lukas himself was C2, Arthur was D1, and Alfred had been assigned D2. They had practiced using them earlier that day, with the record of the signals still visible on the screen, in the form of small circles. Lukas gave it a brief once-over.





It was a simple enough system; the small watch let them all keep track of how everyone was doing, and didn’t make any noise either, altering them via a small, soundless vibration. Lukas rather liked them, actually, and they would be useful when they couldn’t communicate via commlinks.

“Now,” Ayshe spoke up again, and Lukas hurriedly turned his attention back to her, “Compared to the rest of this, getting in will be the easy part. Hopefully, by now, you all know what your specific roles are on this mission, but let’s do a refresher for briefing’s sake.” She turned to Leon. “Leon, what is our role while we are inside the facility?”

Leon straightened up. “We are entering the facility via a south-eastern entrance, which will take us to the security sector of the facility. Our role is, while remaining completely out of sight, to make our way to the surveillance rooms and hardwire a visual and audio recording device to the mainframe of the security cameras in order to collect information about people entering and exiting the facility. Once we have done this and set up the recording via a remote console, we will travel towards the north-eastern exit, where we will hopefully meet Gilbert and Mei, and leave the facility.” Ayshe smiled.

“Very good. You listened well.” Leon flushed a little at the praise as she moved on. “Gilbert, Mei, what is your task?” they exchanged a glance, before Gilbert cleared his throat and spoke up.

“We’re going to enter the facility through the north-eastern side, and wait until we have received confirmation from everyone that they have entered the building. When we have done this, we are to find the electronic sector of the facility, and redirect power from the manual firewall programs to the security cameras. We then need to hide until we receive confirmation from Teams C and D that they have completed their tasks, and then direct the power back to the firewalls and make our way back to the blind spot to escort everyone out.”

Ayshe nodded. “Do keep in mind, your role will be difficult; the electronics sector is vital to the integrity of the rest of the facility, so there will be heightened security.” They both nodded.

“Now,” she continued, “Tino, Lukas, what is your task?”

Tino spoke up before Lukas had the chance. “We are going to enter via the north-eastern side like Gilbert and Mei. We will climb up the side of the building to the roof, and enter via the ventilation ducts. Once we reach the fourth floor, we will wait for confirmation from Gilbert and Mei that the firewalls have been weakened, and then enter the file and blueprint archives. We will install the ‘crackdown’ program created by our coders to break through the weaker firewall and plant a drive intended to copy the entirety of their file database. Once we have done this and received the signal from Alfred and Arthur that their task is done, we will also signal Gilbert and Mei, find our way towards the blind spot where they entered, and exit via the north-eastern side with the rest of you.” Ayshe nodded.

“Indeed you will. Alfred, Arthur, what will you two do?”

Arthur straightened up a little, cracking his knuckles absently, “We are going to enter through the western side, travel to the second of the two subterranean levels and locate their Confined Index server, which holds all known information, surveillance information and profiles on any people that the Union has deemed to be of interest. Like Lukas and Tino, we’ll plant a drive intended to copy the whole database, immediately signal Gilbert and Mei when we’ve accomplished that, make our way back up and find the exit on the north-eastern side.” Ayshe nodded.

“Okay, so you all know what you are to do when you get inside. Good. We will all be wearing Union uniforms, so at a glance, we should be fine, but under no circumstances should you get yourself into a situation where you are under close scrutiny. We will leave here at 1630 tomorrow, and we should be in position by 1730.” She paused. “I know that this is very dangerous, but if we act cautiously and keep our cool, we have a higher chance of succeeding.”

They all nodded, tension lying thick among them. Lukas was glad that Ayshe didn’t try to fool them into thinking that it would automatically go well. She was blunt, realistic. He liked that about her. They all dispersed not long after that, each off to distract themselves from what might happen tomorrow.

Alfred hesitated only briefly before he gently knocked on Arthur’s door. The pirate looked up, frown softening a little when he saw that it was Alfred who had come calling.

“Come in,” Arthur said, looking a little bemused but not irritated that Alfred had come to talk to him. Alfred grinned, shifting a little so that the package he had stowed under his jacket wasn’t quite so obvious as he sat on the edge of Arthur’s bed.

The place that they were staying was decent in size, but had obviously been made to fit as many people inside as possible. Arthur’s room was about as wide as a king bed, and maybe twice as long. A rickety single bed had been crammed as far into one corner as it possibly could be, with a small desk and chair set up at the end of it. The rest of the room was narrow enough that it was almost impossible to shimmy past when someone was sitting at the desk. Arthur obviously remembered this, and stood from the desk, tucking the chair in and moving to sit near the head of the bed. Smiling sheepishly, Alfred followed him.

“Sorry for interrupting.” he murmured. Arthur shook his head, carding a hand through his pale grey hair.

“I was just looking over the blueprints again. I don’t want to compromise the mission simply because we took a wrong turn.” Alfred grinned.

“Yeah, I feel like that wouldn’t go over well with Ayshe.” He chuckled, picking at a small bit of lint on the wool blanket. Arthur cocked his head slightly.

“So, what brings you to my very humble abode?” the pirate asked, gesturing to the incredibly small space. Alfred grinned, even as his foot bounced up and down nervously. He hoped that Arthur didn’t completely hate the gift that he had gotten him.

He had only bought it the day before, when he, Mei and Leon had gone out to explore downtown Priiko a little. It was very different to the Krios District, but just familiar enough to assuage some of the homesickness that Alfred had been feeling. They had wandered through lines of shops, while keeping careful watch of the pickpockets threading through the crowd and subtle vigil over their own wallets. He hadn’t been able to find Arthur anything, and had started to get legitimately distressed about it. Mei and Leon had been insistent that he need not get anything for the pirate, but that was beside the point.

They had wandered around for hours while Mei rattled off a list of things that she thought Arthur might like, until Alfred had felt his feet slowing next to the stall of a gunsmith. He had seen gunsmiths at work before, but as his gaze had raked over the rows of guns, many of which had antique exteriors but modern functions, his brain had murmured ‘Hey, Arthur might like something like this……’

He had been quick to ask Mei if Arthur liked guns, and her response had buoyed him immensely.

“Oh he loves them. He had a pair of gorgeous obsidian-laid revolvers before, but the resistance took them and they’re refusing to give them back. He misses them a ton.” Her eyes had lit up as she realised his plan, and had grinned encouragingly and tapped the glass of one case in particular. “He loves guns like this, and he especially loves it when his guns have a bit of flair.” Alfred had eagerly looked through the whole cabinet, and found his gaze being continually drawn towards one set in particular. After getting Mei and even Leon to officially approve them, he’d bought them and hidden them away in his things, waiting for an opportunity to gift them to the pirate.

“Well, as I recall. It was your birthday quite a few weeks ago,” Alfred grinned, ignoring the small sigh from Arthur.

“It was, and I told you, Alfred, you didn’t have to get me anything.” Alfred shrugged.

“Yeah, I heard you, but what’s the point of a birthday if you don’t get any gifts?”

“Aging?” Arthur asked. Alfred snorted a little.

“All right, true, but I wanted to get you something anyway!” Arthur blinked at him as if he were some sort of oddity, but his smile widened a little.

“You won’t be dissuaded, will you?” he sighed, though he didn’t look too beat up about it. Alfred grinned.

“Nope!” he reached into the inside of his coat and pulled out the mahogany box that Arthur’s gift had come in. “Hope you like it. I think I just about annoyed Mei and Leon to death with all my questions about what you would want.” Arthur chuckled softly, and Alfred tried to keep his face from going too red as Arthur took the box from him, brushing their fingers together as he did so.

“I think, given that they’re used to me by now, you can’t have irritated them that much.” Arthur said lightly, looking at the box curiously. Alfred bit his lip nervously as the pirate unlatched the front and opened it. Arthur’s eyes widened as he pulled the two guns from the velvet-lined box. It was a pair of short-barrelled shotguns, with antique-style exteriors made of polished wood and gold accents. The interior mechanisms were all modern and high-functioning, of course, but it was the aesthetic that mattered. The real eye-catcher of the guns, however, was the slender, Yanish-style dragons inlaid into the outside edges with jade. Arthur slowly ran his fingers over the jade dragons, lingering on the snarling jaws that paused about halfway along the barrel.

“Uhh, if you don’t like them, I can always find something else…” Alfred trailed off as Arthur shifted his attention from the guns to him. “Uhh…” Arthur carefully placed the guns back into their case and set it aside, before he reached out and seized Alfred’s hands, grinning widely.

“I love them, Alfred. Thank you so much.” Alfred immediately relaxed at his words.

“You…oh! You do! Oh, great! I was worried, you know, since you don’t really like getting presents, according to Mei and Leon…” he trailed off again, not wanting to start ranting embarrassingly. Arthur was smiling warmly at him.

“You’re very sweet, Alfred,” Arthur said, bright smile softening into something different, but no less happy or kind, “I can’t think of many people who would go to so much effort.” Alfred blushed deeply, rubbing at the back of his neck.

“Ah, well, you know…it’s nothing, really…” he said, blushing even more deeply as he saw Arthur’s mouth curve in amusement. He had no idea what to say to Arthur next, and was almost relieved when Gilbert stuck his head in the door to inform them that Ayshe wanted them to get to bed soon. The albino shot them a wicked grin as he left, which only exacerbated Alfred’s blush.

He stood, smiling bashfully at Arthur. “Well, uhh, I guess I should, uh, sleep, um…yeah.” Arthur was still smiling at him, but he stood as well, carefully relocating the gun box from his bed to the floor, making sure it was latched shut.

“Yes, I suppose we both should.” Arthur said. Alfred nodded, a few too many times for it be normal, and turned to go. “Alfred.” He paused, turning back to face Arthur as the pirate approached him.

Before he could react, Arthur stepped closer, leant up, and kissed the corner of Alfred’s mouth briefly before withdrawing again.

Well, if Alfred was red before, he was on the verge of death right now.

“I really do love them, thank you.” Arthur said sincerely. Alfred just nodded, trying desperately to keep any embarrassing noises from escaping his mouth. “Goodnight.”

“Yeah…goodnight.” He squeaked out in response, voice a good two octaves higher than it should be as he moved out of the doorway. He saw Arthur’s grin widen before he closed the door. Alfred stood there in shock for a moment, blinking in shock. Once what had just happened finally started to sink in properly, he felt a dumb, delighted grin spread across his face as he moved back to his own room.

That had gone far better than he had expected.

Chapter Text

Xi Lan Ey Intelligence Centre,
Outside Priiko City, Reycass,
8th Jaune

1748 HRS

Lukas fidgeted as he and Tino crouched in the shrubbery of the woods surrounding the Xi Lan Ey Intelligence Centre. The plant life was thicker than Lukas had anticipated it being, and couldn’t help but fear that the rustling of the branches would attract attention. Objectively speaking, he knew that there were no guards that patrolled these woods, but the fear was an old and persistent one. That wasn’t to say that he was keen to go inside the centre, but he certainly wouldn’t mind being out of this noisy and scratchy foliage.

Tino turned to him, brow furrowed ever so slightly in concentration. “You got everything?” he murmured, voice only barely audible. Though he had already done a personal inventory check twice before, he immediately set to checking, if only to have something to occupy his restless fingers.

He had dressed in a Unionist-style uniform, an oppressive thing made of stiff grey fabric. The jacket was double-breasted and held shut with gold fabric buttons, accented by a straight collar buttoned shut on the side. The pants were more fitted and straight-cut, transitioning smoothly into lace-up, black leather boots that came about halfway up his shins. His hands were, for now, ensconced in formal black gloves, and his hair was concealed under a military cap. He had been getting used to having his hair be it’s natural colour on Nyma, but since displaying his ethnicity here would mean immediate discovery and capture, he had dyed it black and combed it neatly to sit under his stiff grey cap. Tino, given how infamous he had become, had also had to disguise his appearance a little. His normally bright blond hair was light brown for the time being, and a pair of useless glasses sat on the end of his nose. He was dressed in the same thing as Lukas.

He forced his attention back to himself. He was wearing a large, loose fabric coat over his uniform, hoping to not get it dirty or ruined by climbing up the side of the building. Underneath the grey uniform jacket, he wore a simple black singlet, and had a small knife strapped to his upper right arm, just in case.

In terms of weaponry, he was well-stocked. Lukas had a small, full waterskin strapped around his waist; due to the style of the uniform jackets, which flared out a little at the bottom, it was almost too easy to hide. Ayshe had warned that using his Vesi should only occur in an absolute emergency. Lukas prayed that he didn’t need to use the water. He had a pair of sharp knives up each sleeve, strapped to his forearms, and also had a pair of brass knuckles concealed near his wrist. A backup disk drive was concealed in his shoe, as was an array of tools like a skeleton key, all-purpose key-card and a drive that could upload viruses to force doors open. He had a small flask of water hidden inside his uniform jacket, in addition to a small handgun with some spare ammo.

Lukas sucked in a breath. He was already sweating with nerves, and the operation hadn’t even started yet. He felt a pressure on his arm, and turned to see Tino smiling comfortingly at him.

“Stay calm,” he murmured, “we begin soon.” Lukas nodded, fixing his gaze at the thin, flat strip of concrete that he and Tino would need to scale in less than 20 minutes. It was thick with vines and ivy, but Ayshe had provided them both with devices that would temporarily fuse with the brick to help them climb. It was stashed in the pocket of the fabric overcoat that Lukas wore over his uniform, as were some grippy climbing gloves and a small pair of climbing picks.

Lukas shivered as he checked the time on the small device locked around his wrist. 1756. They were set to begin soon. He glanced ahead of them, where the silvery colour of Gilbert’s hair was only just visible in the thick darkness that filled the space around them. For the first time, Lukas blessed Reycass’ early sunsets. If they had been in Lukas’ birthplace of Oslaholm during the summer, night would have fallen only for a few hours each night. Lukas brushed his fingers over the water pouch strapped to his waist, feeling the slight movement that travelled through the liquid with every small way he adjusted his position.

Fixing his gaze on the white brick exterior of the centre, he took a deep breath and prepared himself. His signaller vibrated slightly. He looked down. 1800 hours.

And so it begins.

1800 HRS

Ayshe nodded at her wrist as she checked the time, beckoning to Leon as she cautiously straightened up from where she had been hunched in the foliage and crept forwards. She could hear the slight shuffling of young Leon behind her as they moved cautiously through the woods. They had camped far closer to the centre than all of the others had, since they had to set the schedule right for the mission to go smoothly. People underestimated the power and structure of having a basic timeline to go by. If all went well, they should all meet up at the blind spot on the north-eastern side by 2000 hours at the absolute latest. All of her subordinates understood that, should they not be present at the blind spot by that time, they would be left behind.

It was vicious treatment, but necessary. The mission was of vital importance – they couldn’t afford to lose the information they would pry from this facility. Ayshe reached behind her slowly to grab Leon and make him be still as she gazed up at the wall. Security cameras were dotted around the walls at random intervals, and she quickly memorised their positions as she and Leon crept as close to the tree line as they dared. They waited in silence. The movement patterns of these cameras was one of the few pieces of solid information that they had about the intricacies of Xi Lan Ey, so she knew roughly how much time they would have to reach the side. Arthur and Alfred would have far more trouble than they would.

Of the two cameras that they were in range of, one swivelled to the side, pointing away from them. Ayshe waited, breathless, as the other slowly began to move in the opposite direction as well, even as the other slowly began to move back towards them.

“Now,” she murmured, tugging Leon behind her as they silently bolted to the wall, pressing themselves up against the stone, where the cameras wouldn’t be able to see them. They stood, motionless, for a moment as their hearts pounded, before Ayshe slid her hand into her pocket and withdrew the small skeleton key from her pocket. The name was somewhat deceiving, given that the device wasn’t a key at all. It was a small, silvery cube, with one side dominated by a dark screen which analysed the shape of the keyhole, and the silver, ridged end opposite that, which rearranged itself to the shape dictated by the screen.

She pressed the black screen up to the keyhole for about ten seconds, withdrawing it when she felt the cube heat up a little. The other side clicked and whirred, parts shifting and compressing to form a peculiarly-shaped key. She slid it into the lock and twisted it, relief surging through her as the door clicked and swung open. She pocketed the skeleton key and slipped inside, Leon right on her heels. Ayshe closed the door carefully, and relocked it via the small latch on this side. She quickly surveyed their surroundings. They had entered the facility via a small maintenance room, which seemed to be filled with old pieces of equipment, dud electronic drives, spare radio parts and fraying cords and wires. She and Leon quickly shucked the camouflage robes which had kept them from sticking out in the woods, and she quickly unlocked the door which led to the rest of the facility. Ayshe raised her wrist and examined the small face of her signaller. 1808. Not bad. She quickly clicked the button on the side, signalling that she and Leon were inside, before motioning for him to do the same and then beckoning to the Yanish boy to join her by the door.

1808 HRS

Gilbert shifted a little as he felt the device clasped to his wrist vibrate slightly, blinking down at it as he saw Mei do the same in his peripheral vision. The little signal records had changed a little;

A1: O
A2: O

Ayshe and Leon were inside. Sighing a little, he shuffled on his feet, glancing back a little to where he could see Lukas and Tino almost completely concealed by the branches. He started a little when Mei gently touched his arm, tapping her device. He glanced at the time. 1810. It was their turn. He slowly straightened up, Mei doing the same, as they wove between the branches and bushes to the side of the brick building. They had been lucky to be assigned the north-eastern side. The blind spot was the safest place for them in the whole facility, and Gilbert didn’t exactly misunderstand why he and Mei had been assigned it.

Of everyone here, Gilbert had been part of the resistance for the least amount of time. It was only natural that Ayshe would have reservations about him that didn’t extend to everyone else. Mei was the youngest of the group, and though she was certainly capable, she had the least practical experience. Their job was based far more about subtlety than it was high-stakes sneaking like everyone else was. Normally, Gilbert would have felt indignant about not being trusted with a more important task, but in this case, he didn’t mind so much.

They darted from the tree-line to the brick wall, even though it was unnecessary, and Gilbert withdrew one of the skeleton keys that Ayshe had distributed to them all, double-checking the room on the condensed map he had stowed in his pocket, before pressing it to the side of a closed window high on the wall. Though these skeleton keys were normally used for locks, it was also possible to use them to pry windows open. He watched as the malleable side of the key shifted into a very thin, metallic panel, and he switched it around, sliding and jimmying the thin end into the place where the windowpane met the wall. A small click reached his ears, and Mei reached up, pressing her gloved hands to the glass and sliding the window soundlessly open, checking inside carefully to ensure that the room was deserted before they attempted to enter.

Gilbert nodded to himself, stowing the skeleton key away as he clasped his hands together and bent down a little, an invitation for Mei. She lightly stepped onto his hand and hoisted herself up into the windowsill and leant down again, holding out her hand. He reached up and grabbed her hand, bracing his feet on the wall and grabbing a small, outlying stone as she helped him scramble up and inside. He slid down to the ground inside, much less gracefully than she had done, and quickly closed the window behind them, though he didn’t lock it. They would need to get out quickly and quietly once they had all completed their respective tasks. They both quickly clicked their signallers and settled down a little, waiting for the others.

Mei had pulled her own copy of the floorplans from her pocket and was studying it. Gilbert sighed a little and straightened his uniform. Since their friends were still to enter the building, they couldn’t redirect power from the firewalls into the cameras until everyone else was inside. Gilbert leant his head back against the wall, and began to wait.

1815 HRS

Lukas looked down at his signaller as it vibrated again.

A1: O
A2: O
B1: O
B2: O

Gilbert and Mei had obviously succeeded in getting inside as well. He quickly pulled off the thick, formal gloves which he had been wearing and pulled on the climbing globes, also withdrawing his climbing picks and fuser and stowing them on his belt so he could reach them quickly. Tino did the same, as they silently watched the clock, waiting for it to tick over to 1820. They had to make a five-storey climb in less than ten minutes, and even though they were both very fit, it was unlikely to be easy.

Lukas drummed his fingers against his leg as he surveyed the wall they were about to climb, trying to note the areas where the vines were thinner, and what would be an easier climbing path. Tino cursed under his breath and stamped one foot on the ground twice. Lukas glanced at him curiously. The sniper shook his head a little.

“I am not looking forward to this.” He muttered. Lukas smiled, ever so slightly.

“And you think I am?” he breathed back. Tino chuckled quietly, pulling his own gloves on and ensuring that his pockets were all firmly closed.

“Let’s go.” Lukas checked the time as they approached the wall. 1819. By the time they reached the wall, it would be time for them to start climbing. Lukas swallowed nervously glancing from side to side through the thick branches as the white brick building loomed before them. The building was about 22 metres tall, meaning that he and Tino would have to climb up about 2.2 metres or more every minute to get to the top in time for Arthur and Alfred to enter. He exchanged one last look with Tino, pulling his climbing picks from his belt as the clock ticked over to 1820.

Tino moved first, quickly burying his pick into the thick mass of vines on the outside of the building, checking that they held before he stepped up and began to clamber upwards. Lukas shifted a little further to the right, to give him more room, and did the same. He didn’t enjoy the feeling of climbing up the vines; their surfaces were a little too smooth and slippery, and didn’t stick to the side as much as Lukas would have liked. Nonetheless, though he dragged himself upwards. They had a schedule to stick to, and Lukas was determined for this mission to go well.

He glanced at his signaller as he hauled himself just past the bottom of the windowsills of the second floor. 1824. Panic flooded through his veins. There was no way that they were going to make it to the top before 1830. Flattening his panic, Lukas shoved his heavy limbs into gear, picking up the pace until he had drawn level with Tino, who obviously had a lot more experience with climbing than Lukas did.

“Lukas.” Tino’s voice was quiet, but just audible. “Safety is more important than haste, alright? You do not want to fall from a height like this.” Lukas slowed a little, nodding even as he continued to move. Even though Tino was right, Lukas knew that the sniper didn’t want to be late either. He tried his best to keep pace with Tino, but couldn’t make himself climb faster when he saw the sniper draw ahead of himself. Lukas forced his attention away from their rapidly diminishing time, instead focusing on pulling his body up the completely vertical face of the facility.

He stumbled only briefly, when a deceivingly strong-looking vine gave way under his hands, but he caught himself quickly, suppressing the yelp pf surprise that had almost left his throat. Pausing for a moment, he drew in a deep breath, glancing down at the more than 16 metres between himself and the ground, and forced his attention back to his task.

The vines were a lot thinner around the top of the building, but Tino had already clambered over the edge when Lukas started to struggle to find decent places to dig his picks in, and simply leant over the edge, grabbed his forearms and hauled him up onto the roof beside him. The pair took a minute to breath in and out sharply, before they remembered themselves and quickly clicked their signallers to indicate that they had reached the top. Scrambling to their feet, Lukas and Tino both ditched their loose overcoats, climbing picks, grip gloves and fusers by the edge of the roof and darted towards the open top of a ventilation shaft.

1835 HRS

Arthur and Alfred were already well into plotting their dash from the treeline to the wall by the time their signallers vibrated for the third time that night. Arthur pursed his lips, glad that Lukas and Tino had made it up, and had miraculously done so within their allotted time limit, as well, but he was simultaneously focused on how on earth he and Alfred were meant to get to the wall. The gap between the ranges of the security cameras was very brief – only a few seconds, which made sense, given that the basement windows they were meant to enter through were right across from them. They had arrived at their position earlier than the others, and been mapping out the camera’s movement patterns for a while now.

“We’ll have to go one at a time.” Arthur muttered. “The camera on the left, when it swivels to face left, you need to sprint to the wall. I’ll wait for the next rotation.” Alfred blinked at him.


“Just do it.” Arthur said, ignoring the bundle of warmth that unfurled through his stomach at the sound of the nickname ‘Artie’. “I can run pretty fast, anyway. Keep your eyes on the cameras. Remember, keep right to the middle. The blind spot is only very narrow.” Alfred nodded, training his eyes on the cameras’ movements. Arthur watched them too, moving to rest his hand on Alfred’s forearm as he saw them moving to face in opposite directions. He pushed him gently, and Alfred darted to his feet, slipping across the stretch of green and pressing himself up to the wall faster than Arthur would have anticipated was possible. He shuffled slightly, raising himself from a squat into a crouch, ready for the cameras to move away again. He could see Alfred fiddling with the lock, undoubtedly using the skeleton key. The doorway was the one place that the cameras couldn’t detect, but it only had enough room for one, so Arthur had to wait until Alfred had unlocked the door and gone inside to make his own run across.

Alfred got the door open and swung it open, carefully looking around inside. Good, know your surroundings. He turned to Arthur and nodded. The coast was clear. Arthur glanced at the cameras, training his sights on them. He saw them painstakingly slide sideways, watching as the small strip that constituted a blind spot widened.

He shot upwards and across like a cheetah, darting through the door and colliding with Alfred’s warm, solid chest in his haste.

“Oof. Nice running.” Alfred said as Arthur extricated himself and clicked his signaller. “I didn’t know you could move so fast.” Arthur shot him a grin.

“I was a sprinter in high school.” He said by way of explanation. Alfred grinned, clicking his own signaller.

“That makes sense.” Arthur smiled a little, then inclined his head towards the door.

“Shall we?”

1837 HRS

Everyone was inside. Gilbert and Mei picked themselves up, quickly looking over their uniforms before silently cracking the door open and checking that the coast was clear. Gilbert ushered Mei out first before following silently and closing the door. He drew a small knife from his sleeve and left the smallest of scuffs on the white paint of the door, near the handle. Most of the doors were practically identical, so it made sense to leave a small mark to distinguish this door from all others.

The hallway that the room opened into was free of security cameras, thankfully, likely due to the fact that they were mostly store-rooms and break areas. Gilbert and Mei slunk along the hallway, adjusting their caps to ensure that they were tilted as far over their faces as was acceptable before proceeding into the next hallway; this one was dotted with security cameras staring down at them. They kept walking, professional and straight-backed, down the hall and into another room. They skirted around the outside of it, both hoping and praying that no-one would pick up on how small and young Mei was, before finally tumbling into another empty hallway.

They wound though the hallways and little off-shooting rooms until they finally came across a glass door through to a completely abandoned room. Gilbert pulled out the all-purpose key-card that Ayshe had given him and held it over the scanner. He sighed in relief as the door buzzed and swung open, and he and Mei slipped inside.

The room was full of huge servers that looked like they should be hooked up to computers, with wires and plugs everywhere. Mei darted down the servers to the left, while Gilbert moved to the right. Gilbert raked his eyes along the labels on the servers, until he located the one connected to the manual firewall systems. They were the strongest firewalls in the Galaxy, but they required a large amount of electricity to operate properly. By diverting some of that power, they could weaken the server’s ability to recognise threats – by which, of course, he meant their magical little drives. He heard Mei call out from the other side.

“I found the camera server!” she exclaimed. Gilbert nodded, and examined the screen on the server. Each server had huge, direct power cables connected to it that came from the floor. If they could divert the cables to the cameras, then they could easily weaken the firewall. They could just unplug them, because the facility had a failsafe system that would set off an alarm if any of the cables were unconnected for more than two minutes, but there was no failsafe to account for power being diverted from one server to another.

“The firewall server is over here.” He called back, frowning at the thick cables before glancing back to where he could see Mei poking her head out into the aisle. The distance between the two servers was about eight metres or so. Thinking, he stood and crossed to the corner of the room, where he could see additional equipment stacked up in an orderly manner. He rifled through it and grinned when he found what he was looking for. A huge, industrial adaptor, which he could use to plug two of the huge cables into one server. He hauled it up and carried it back over to the firewall server. Mei frowned at the bulky piece of equipment momentarily before she realised what it was, and grinned.

Gilbert knelt down and studied the cables fuelling the firewall server. There were three of them, each about as thick as his thigh. Surely removing one would be enough? The firewall was already delicate, so removing a third of it’s power source would undoubtedly make it slow down or work less effectively. He nodded to himself before ducking back to the corner to search through the pile again. The thick cables didn’t stretch very far, but the facility stocked extender cables for that very reason. His grin only widened when he pulled one from the pile and darted back. There were so many cables lying on the ground that Gilbert doubted anyone would notice their little alteration for quite a while.

He hurriedly unplugged one of the three thick cables attached to the server and attached the extender cord, darting over to Mei. She pulled one of the cables on the camera server out, quickly plugging it, along with the other end of the extender cable, into the adaptor, and slamming the device back into the side of the server. They waited breathlessly. A light flicked on above the adaptor, indicating that it was working. Gilbert sagged with relief. Mei whooped quietly, grinning widely. They both clicked once on their signallers, indicating that they had disconnected some of the power from the firewall server. Their jubilant mood froze, however, when they heard footsteps approaching.

They scrambled to their feet, pressing their backs to the server. Mei looked around briefly, then turned to Gilbert.

“What’s the time?” she murmured. Gilbert risked a glance at his signaller.

“1850.” He whispered. Mei nodded.

“Some workers would be on their breaks by now.” She breathed. “I have an idea. Do what I say.”

She pressed her back to the server’s surface and grabbed Gilbert, pulling him roughly so that he was standing right in front of her. Before he had time to ask her what was going on, she gripped his shoulders and jumped up, wrapping her legs around his waist. Taken completely off guard, he shifted his arms to support her. She shimmied back a little until she was once again pressed against the server, and he understood what she was doing.

“Play along.” She whispered, promptly grabbing the back of his neck and kissing him. It was by far one of the strangest things he had done, not least for the fact that Mei was only 15 years old, where he himself was 22, but he went along with it anyway. The footsteps grew louder, until, through the peripheral vision of his slitted eyes, he saw a tall figure in a dark uniform turn the corner and pause.

He heard a deep sigh. “Do you mind?” Gilbert heard Mei yelp in surprise as they separated, and also jumped as though he had just been startled, very nearly dropping Mei but instead managing to dump her gracelessly on her feet. He whirled around, bringing to mind the most embarrassing moments of his life in an attempt to make his face go red. The person who had ‘walked in on them’ was a tall, straight-backed woman with light brown hair pulled into a tight braid, and dark eyes. Gilbert expected severe anger, but the woman didn’t seem surprised; just exasperated.

“I understand that it is easy to become closely acquainted when working in close quarters as we do here,” the woman said, pinching the bridge of her nose, “but why must all of you come to the server room? I’m sure that there are other nooks and crannies you can wedge yourselves into.” Gilbert ducked his head, making himself the very image of embarrassed and flustered. Mei was hiding her flushed face in her hands. A good ploy, and it helped her to hide her age, as well.

The woman sighed. “Just get out.” Gilbert and Mei both muttered quiet apologies as they verifiably booked it out of the room, not slowing down until they were down another camera-less hallway. They paused and exchanged a glance. A laugh bubbled up in Gilbert’s throat, and though he suppressed the sound, he couldn’t stop the disbelieving grin that spread across his face.

“Well…that happened.” Mei said, which he thought summed it up pretty well.

1858 HRS

Ayshe smiled as she and Leon surveyed the camera room. The number of screens was innumerable, as was the sheer number of desks and people seated at them. The pair of them had managed to avoid detection by security cameras so far, and hadn’t attracted any attention within the camera room either.

Since the uniforms that they wore denoted that they were part of a maintenance crew, they were generally allowed everywhere, and, as Ayshe had discovered from extensive research before the mission had begun, the camera room malfunctioned a lot.

Leon walked over the main server, going over the main functions as they mumbled technobabble to one another to avoid suspicion. While Leon was fiddling with the monitor that all of the screens were hooked up to, Ayshe dropped into a crouch under the pretence of examining the wires, and shuffled sideways, until she was almost completely underneath an abandoned desk. Sliding forwards a little, she located one of the rogue, heavy-duty wires that the drive needed to be hooked up to. Angling her body so that the pocket with the drive in it was concealed from outside view, she quickly withdrew it from her pocket, connected it to the wire and waited a breathless moment for the light that indicated it was functional to switch on. She carefully taped over the light and slid it to the back of the bundle of wires under the desk, hiding it from plain view but not trying overtly hard to conceal it.

Ayshe slunk back out from under the desk and subtly shuffled back along the length of the wires to where Leon was now adjusting the resolution on the security cameras. She gently touched his arm and watched as he stood, flicking a switch likely for dramatic purposes, nodded to himself, and then followed her out the door.

They clicked their signallers simultaneously, and Ayshe threw him a smile, which he tentatively returned.

Their part in the mission was, for now, over.

1900 HRS

Lukas cursed, slowly reorienting himself. He and Tino had gotten the signal that the power from the firewall had been redirected by Mei and Gilbert, but he and Tino were still quite a ways away from the file archive room. To be more specific, they were both cramped, confused, and very much so still stuck in the ventilation system.

He pressed his hands against the cool metal of the duct he was currently trying to quietly shimmy through, trying to keep his feet elevated enough that the rubber didn’t squeak along the metal, but also not so high that they brushed the ceiling. Not to mention the small metal ridges that they had to carefully navigate themselves over, lest they cause the structure to creak and groan ominously. Lukas sighed. He would almost rather be back climbing up the wall than here right now.

Lukas slid forward a little, pressing his hands against the sides to control his speed. His and Tino’s goal was the fourth floor, where they would find a room containing a database filled with files, plans, reports and photos of great importance to the Union. They needed to plant a drive that would copy every last file from the database, and somehow get back to the south-eastern side where Gilbert and Mei had gotten inside.

The problem that they were currently facing was trying to find a way out of the vents so they could explore the fourth floor. The last thing that they wanted was to have to bust their way out of the vents; their mission was one more of stealth than it was haste. Lukas slid around a corner, glancing behind him to make sure that Tino was still following him, and shuffled further a little more, grateful when the slim shaft opened up into a wider compartment. Lukas shimmied up against the wall, drawing his knees to his chest. The compartment was tall enough that, seated on the ground, his head only just brushed the top. He saw Tino grin when he saw the larger space too, and the sniper slid in next to him, also folding his legs against his chest.

“Okay, do we have any idea where we are?” Lukas murmured, being as quiet as possible while still making his voice audible.

Tino frowned. “We’re still on the fourth floor, thank god, and if I haven’t gotten completely turned around, we should be getting close.” The blond pulled a small device from his pocket that Lukas saw was a compass. Tino nodded decisively as he saw it. “Yup, we’re on our way.”

“We need to speed up.” Lukas murmured. “Gilbert and Mei redirected the power more than ten minutes ago, and every minute we wait makes it more likely that someone will find their changes in the server room.” Tino nodded.

“Yeah. Let’s keep moving. Take the left up here.” He murmured. Sighing, Lukas slid back onto his stomach and started to shuffle through the next duct. They continued moving, Lukas taking Tino’s muttered directions as they moved slowly but silently.

He paused when he felt Tino’s hand close around his ankle. Looking back inquisitively, he saw Tino jabbing his finger towards a thin metal screen that closed off another section.

“That should lead almost directly to the database room.” Tino mumbled. “Can you peel the grate open?” Lukas shuffled back a little, and examined the grate. The edges were already disconnected from the side, likely due to age, and frowned. They couldn’t rip the whole grate off – it would indicate clear tampering. But if they made it look like the grate had started to come free on it’s own, there would be far less suspicion. As it was, it’s state of mild disrepair was already working in their favour. Lukas felt for the cap of the waterskin strapped to his wrist and unscrewed it, commanding a small stream of the water to slide out and curl around his palm. He could feel Tino’s curious eyes on him as he forced the water to slide between the grate and the side of the chute, and let it slowly but steadily work a gap between the two. When he was about sure that the grate would appear to have loosened from age, he carefully pushed the loose side of the grate.

The thin metal bent easily under his hand, and he sucked in a breath and forced himself under it. He felt the sharper edges of the metal bite into his neck a little, and withdrew a little before sliding his body completely past the grate, shuffling far enough up the chute that Tino also had room to move past it. As he watched Tino gently ease the bent side of the grate into place, he pressed an un-gloved hand to his neck. His fingers came away with a few drops of crimson sliding down their lengths. Frowning slightly, he lifted his uniform jacket with his clean hand and wiped the blood away on the singlet he wore underneath.

“You all right?” Tino asked, looking concerned. Lukas shrugged.

“Accidentally nicked myself on the sharp edge is all. I’ll be fine.”

They continued to creep forward until they reached a slatted grate in the side of the vent. Peering out carefully, Lukas grinned when he saw the database room that they had been looking for. The room was completely devoid of security cameras. It was one of the Union’s mistakes. Though these rooms were high-security, the information on display in the database room was highly confidential, and much too important to risk letting some average security guard watching the cameras pick up. Outside the room was about three different layers of security, but inside, there was nothing. There was no-one in the room either. They had well and truly struck gold, but they had to move quickly.

Lukas accepted the screwdriver that Tino handed him, and made quick work of the grate, pulling the metal piece into the ducts and placing it carefully to the side before he began to lever himself out. He hung by his hands from the outside of the vent, well aware that landing loudly would draw attention from the guards likely stationed outside the room. Thinking quickly, he reached out and located their minds. There were two of them, both female, and he gently eased his power into their minds.

You can’t hear a thing. He gently encouraged them, sending a brief prayer to the old Fynknian saints he had been raised with as he dropped to the floor. He landed in such a way that the noise he made was minimal, but even that made him freeze up.

But no-one came, and the door remained firmly shut. The guards outside were calm, and giving off no indication that they had heard anything out of ordinary. Lukas redid the process as Tino shimmied out and also landed on the floor. The guards, once more, heard nothing. Tino grinned at Lukas, obviously aware that it was his abilities helping them keep their cover, before they both hurried over to the database screens. Their drive was a little more complicated to install than Ayshe and Leon’s. As Tino bent down and began to sort through the wiring for an acceptable plug-in point, Lukas glanced down at his signaller.

A1: O-O
A2: O-O
B1: O-O
B2: O-O
C1: O
C2: O
D1: O
D2: O

Ayshe, Leon, Gilbert and Mei had completed the brunt of their missions already, which only made his anxiety rise. At the very least, he and Tino weren’t lagging too badly; Arthur and Alfred were yet to attach their driver to the Confined Index server which held the profiles of everyone deemed ‘of interest’ by the Union. Lukas frowned. They had to go down, to the subterranean levels, which posed quite a danger, given that there were less exits, should they be found.

Tino tapped his leg, indicating that he had found a suitable port. Lukas ducked down next to him, forcing his attention to their task. Tino pulled out the drive they were meant to attach, while Lukas plugged in the small screen that would help them get through the firewall and copy the files.

He quickly tapped on the button that Ayshe had indicated to him during their briefing sessions, and waited impatiently as the machine worked to get through the tough firewall that protected the database. Relief surged through his system when a small notification, indicating that the firewall had been cleared, popped up on the screen. Gilbert and Mei had done their job well. Lukas sifted down the options, quickly setting up the drive and making sure that he had selected the ‘copy and export all’ option for the files in the database. He waited tensely as the progress bar on the screen slowly inched along, before a confirmation signal appeared. Nodding in satisfaction, he carefully stowed the drive away under the power servers. Due to the sheer amount of files to be copied, it would take about two days for the drive to have everything, which was part of why they had to come back to retrieve their equipment.

Tino stood, looking satisfied but also a little concerned.

“How do we get back up?” he murmured, frowning at the ventilation shaft. Lukas glanced over as well, before sighing.

“Ayshe can get pissed off at me for using the Vesi later,” he grumbled. He had technically only been given permission to use the water he had been given to get through the grates, but he was sure that she would live. He summoned the water from the container on his waist with one hand, and beckoned Tino with the other. Tino approached, looking at the water suspended in the air with curiosity. It was odd, to watch water gently shift and undulate in the air. Lukas commanded it to spilt into two and wrap around Tino’s waist and legs. He tipped his head a little. “Sorry.”

He commanded the water to rise, and admired Tino’s restraint when the sniper let himself be carried upwards without a single sign of alarm or shock. He gently shoved Tino through the open grate and then released him, summoning the water back down to himself. He forced the water underneath his feet and then made it surge upwards and freeze, giving him a nice spire to ice to stand on top of as he clambered inside as quietly as possible and returned the water to the container. Tino was grinning as they both clicked their signallers.

“Nice job, Your Highness.” Lukas elbowed him as Tino carefully put the grate back into place.

“Shut up, let’s go.” He huffed, fighting back a grin even as he said it. They had barely begun to shuffle down the vent when their signallers vibrated. Lukas glanced down at it, feeling his stomach turn over as he registered the number of clicks.

That wasn’t good.

1913 HRS

Well, this isn’t ideal, Arthur thought as he dropped his hand from his signaller, glaring at the two small dots next to both his and Alfred’s labels that indicated they were in a spot of trouble.

He couldn’t help but glare at the small thing as he slid further back into the shadows. By the looks of it, the others were all going fine.

A1: O-O
A2: O-O
B1: O-O
B2: O-O
C1: O-O
C2: O-O
D1: O-OO
D2: O-OO

He and Alfred were the only ones who had sent out distress calls, and though he was glad that everyone else was operating smoothly, he couldn’t help but be a little resentful. It just always had to be him that got in trouble, didn’t it? Arthur bit back a curse as another guard marched past the place where he and Alfred had just managed to squeeze in together to hide. He could hear Alfred’s breathing, rapid and shallow, and knew that the blond was panicking.

Adjusting his position a little, Arthur placed his hand on Alfred’s chest, immediately feeling the younger man seize it in his own hands.

“We’ll be fine, okay? Just stay calm, Alfred. I need you to stay calm.” He saw Alfred nod in the low light, and gently shifted the position of his hand in Alfred’s so that they were holding hands. Alfred took several quiet but deep breaths, grip on Arthur tightening as he finally started to calm down a little.

“I’m sorry.” Alfred whispered, ever so quietly. Arthur blinked, frowning in surprise as he saw Alfred look away in embarrassment.

“Whatever for?” Arthur asked gently, not extricating his hand even though Alfred had calmed down considerably.

“It’s…um…the…uhh, the walls are too…” he drew in another deep breath, struggling to speak, but Arthur understood what he was trying to say.

“You’re claustrophobic?” he whispered. Alfred gulped, and nodded.

“I’m normally not, but in really small spaces like this…yeah.” Arthur felt his heart melt a little for the sweet boy in front of him who thought he had to apologise for being afraid, and squeezed his hand tighter.

“It’s completely alright, Alfred.” He murmured. “I understand. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid.” He had to wonder why it was only very small spaces that made Alfred react like this, especially given that he had been completely fine when they had been travelling through the narrow mountain passes on Nyma, but he put the thought aside. It could wait. Alfred relaxed a little.

“Really? You…you don’t mind?” Arthur shook his head.

“Not at all.” He considered his next words for a moment, before deciding that he trusted Alfred enough to tell him.

“I’m afraid of needles.” He murmured. Alfred shifted slightly, and Arthur could just see his surprise.

“But…all of your injections…”

“I hate every last one.” He murmured. “I used to have to get Mei and Leon to help me every week when I needed an injection, and Kabeeta has started giving me mild sedatives before my doses so I don’t lock up in fear when she comes near me with the needle.” Alfred stared at him. “My point is,” Arthur murmured, “everyone is afraid of something. Don’t feel weak because of it.” Alfred nodded, squeezing Arthur’s hand.

“Thank you.” He whispered, and Arthur could almost feel the gratitude in his voice. Arthur smiled a little.

“That’s alright. Now, shall we think up our next move?” Alfred nodded.

They had been caught off guard by the sheer amount of people on the floor that their target was on, and had had to duck into smaller storerooms multiple times to avoid being detected. They were very close to the Confined Index database that they were searching for, but a large room close by seemed to be holding some sort of meeting, hence the larger number of people.

Arthur and Alfred murmured back and forth to one another for a few minutes, until they had a semblance of a plan that they felt might work.

Arthur pulled a bunch of papers with different coding mechanisms on them and slipped from their hiding place, sifting through them and mumbling in Pyndaphian to appear deep in thought. For perhaps the first time, he was grateful for the fact that the Union hired so many Pyndaphians, because he wasn’t even spared a passing glance. He recalled something that one of his privateer friends had told him. Sometimes, looking like you know what you’re doing is more important than actually being able to do it.

That principle certainly proved accurate here, and as Alfred also slunk out, looking distinctly more professional and composed than he had earlier, and joined him, pointing out random parts of the paper and murmuring a few Pyndaphian phrases that Arthur had just drilled into his head, they attracted absolutely no attention from the people weaving through the hallway.

They slowly made their way closer and closer to the door into the Confined Index room, and Arthur ushered Alfred forward, murmuring for him to meet him in there. Alfred had just slipped past the door when someone grabbed Arthur by the arm. He tried his best not to freeze, quickly tapping out a further two signals on his signaller as he turned around. The person trying to get his attention was a short, slender man with dark hair and brown eyes. He was Misori, judging by his appearance, and looked a little nervous.

“Uhh, excuse me, sir,” he asked in heavily accented Common Standard, “do you know how to get to the refectory?” Arthur blinked in surprise, but relaxed, and nodded, quickly giving directions based on what he remembered from their maps. The man looked very relieved. “Thank you, sir.” He said, bowing deeply. “I am new here, is all.” Arthur waved a hand dismissively.

“It’s no trouble. Hurry on now.” He said, emphasizing his Pyndaphian accent. The young man nodded, looking a little embarrassed as he scurried off. Breathing out in relief, Arthur hurried to the door where Alfred had paused to wait for him.

“Directions.” He murmured when he was at the taller man’s side. “He wanted fucking directions.” Alfred grinned a little at that, and they made their way towards the door, with Arthur smoothly pulling his adjusted key-card from his pocket and swiping it at the door. It opened (blessedly) and they hurried down a dimly-lit hallway towards the database room.

The door at the end of the hallway opened up into a circular room with a bench that curved all the way around it’s wall, with computers and other devices located at random intervals. The main attraction of the room, however, was the huge screen that dominated the centre of the wall. Alfred hurried over to the screen as Arthur installed the firewall-breaker and watched it work it’s way through the tough program.

He grinned when the program opened up the files, and he watched as random pictures and files started to blink across the screen.

The smile slipped from his face briefly as a familiar picture flickered across the screen, and he hurriedly backtracked, staring at the photo. He heard Alfred calling out to him.

“Arthur? What is it?” he looked up, and saw alarm cross Alfred’s face; no doubt the other man could see how white his face had gone.

“Nothing.” He said, quickly starting the copying process and sliding the drive out of sight. Alfred reached out and curled a hand around Arthur’s wrist, and he couldn’t help but seek the comfort, interlacing their fingers. “I…I’ll tell you when we get out.” He managed. Alfred nodded, and gently led him out of the room, carefully switching off the display screen and exiting the room quietly.

1920 HRS

Mei looked nervously at the signaller on her wrist. They only had forty minutes before Ayshe had instructed them all to leave, and yet she and Gilbert were the only ones waiting near the blind spot. They had returned to the server room and reset the cables the minute that they had gotten confirmation from both Teams C and D that their tasks were complete, and quickly returned to the small storeroom that they’d entered the facility through.

“They’ll be fine.” Gilbert reassured her. She sighed. She couldn’t help it; she was seriously concerned, mostly for Arthur and Leon, of course, given that they were the ones closest to her, but she hoped that everyone got back safe and successful. Arthur and Alfred had obviously had a bit of a scare in the subterranean levels. She glanced at the current signal records, looking at Arthur’s in particular.

A1: O-O
A2: O-O
B1: O-O
B2: O-O
C1: O-O
C2: O-O
D2: O-OO-O

Arthur, being D1, had obviously encountered more trouble than Alfred, and she couldn’t help but fear what was going on. They had gotten another signal from them both that signalled that the driver for the Confined Index had been set up and hidden, but she was still anxious. She heard Gilbert stand behind her.

“Why don’t I go look for Ayshe and Leon?” he said. “You look a little too young to be an employee here.” Mei looked over at him, hesitating.

“We’re meant to stay in pairs.”

“Yeah, but Ayshe and Leon also don’t know the exact part of the south-eastern side that we’re hiding by. They’re probably nearby. If I can’t find them by 1930, I’ll come straight back, how about that?” Mei hesitated again, gnawing on her bottom lip with her teeth.

“…Okay, but please be careful.” He nodded.

“If I send a three-click-signal, run, okay? Don’t bother waiting.” Mei sighed, but nodded. She would rather not abandon her friends, but she knew that he wouldn’t appreciate her disobeying him. Nodding one last time and smiling reassuringly, Gilbert slipped out the door, leaving her alone in the dark.

1926 HRS

Ayshe had to move fast to clamp her hand over Leon’s mouth to stop him yelping in surprise when Gilbert appeared behind them. The albino held his hands up bashfully.

“Sorry, sorry. Though you guys could use a guide to the blind spot.” Ayshe glared at him. She had warned them all to stay in pairs, but she also couldn’t deny that she and Leon hadn’t been able to find the blind spot. She nodded, sighing deeply, and they followed Gilbert back to a small door to a storeroom. He gently swung it open, ducking away when a knife very nearly slit his throat open.

“I’m sorry!” Ayshe heard Mei whisper frantically to him. He waved his hands.

“It’s alright, I swear. Good fucking reflexes that you have there.” Gilbert complimented. Mei went a little red, but her embarrassment vanished when she spotted Ayshe and Leon as they slipped in the door. The slender Yanish girl was quick to dive on top of Leon and hug him, and smile widely at Ayshe, looking very relieved. Ayshe returned her smile.

“No sign of the others?” she inquired. Gilbert made a face and shook his head.

“Not yet, but they’ve all completed their tasks, so they hopefully shouldn’t take long.”

Gilbert was interrupted by an abrupt rapping on the window. They all jumped about a foot in the air as Gilbert slid the glass open, peering out at Lukas and Tino.

“Lukas! Tino! What on earth are you doing?” Ayshe hissed at them. Lukas shrugged helplessly.

“We thought that it might be safer to travel by the ventilation again, so we went back to the roof, grabbed our stuff and climbed back down.” The Fynknian explained, frowning into the room. “Is everyone back?”

“We’re waiting on Alfred and Arthur.” Ayshe muttered. Lukas frowned, but didn’t say anything.

“They have…22 minutes to get here.” Gilbert murmured. “They’d better hurry up.”

1942 HRS

Arthur had somehow expected that taking an elevator full of people up to the ground floor would mean the end of the mission, that they would automatically be picked out as not belonging, as being out-of-place or even straight up being declared imposters.

But…nothing happened.

They stood silently beside each other in the elevator, in which everyone else was also completely silent, and watched the numbers tick up.

-2, -1, 0…

When the doors opened, they stepped out, and Arthur had to almost physically restrain himself from grabbing Alfred’s warm hands again in disbelief as they continued to move down the hallway, easily passing by employees and security guards alike, and carefully angling their heads downwards slightly whenever they moved past security cameras. It seemed like it should be harder than it was, as they followed the floor plan handed to them by Ayshe, and found themselves in the south-eastern wing.

They wandered down a few hallways before locating the one where Mei and Gilbert would have entered, and felt relief flooding their systems as they saw the lean figure of Ayshe casually leaning on one of the doors. She looked up as they approached, and straightened up immediately, gesturing to them as they darted over and slipped inside the room. Their entry was met by relief and joy from the others. Arthur laughed quietly as Mei ran to hug him and Leon lingered back for a moment, playing up the angsty teenager card before also moving to hug him. He could see Alfred grinning at Gilbert as they ensured that they were both okay.

“Alright,” Ayshe gently interrupted, “I understand that we’re all relieved to be okay and undetected, but we need to get out of here.” They all snapped to attention, nodding seriously. They all carefully climbed back out the window, helped to the ground by Lukas and Tino outside before Ayshe relocked the window and stepped away. Moving one by one, they darted across the small stretch of green between the walls and the woods. Arthur reached out for Alfred and squeezed his hand before running across, pausing by the tree-line to wait for him.

When the grinning blond jogged up next to him, Arthur didn’t even have to move before Alfred had reached out and grabbed his hand. Arthur smiled happily, entwining their fingers as he glanced back at the building they had just managed to bug, and turned away, following Alfred through the foliage.

Chapter Text

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
10th Jaune

Yao drew in a deep breath as he pressed a hand to his temples. He had been having trouble concentrating for the last few days, and he’d started to drift into inattention even in the middle of conversations. He had wondered if it was a result of fatigue or even heatstroke, but he had taken the last few nights off to actually sleep, and even gone to see Kabeeta, but physically, there was nothing wrong with him.

Even during his conversation with young Matthias Køhler, he had felt off-kilter and struggled to keep his mind in the conversation. It had eased up eventually, and he had been able to focus on Octavia when speaking with her, but it was starting to concern him. His mind had been drifting off course more and more often for the last few months, whether he meant it to or not. As if that weren’t enough, the odd feeling had started to affect his emotions as well.

He had shown almost no emotion; had been able to feel almost nothing when he was told that three young recruits had been killed in a training accident, but had felt close to lashing out in blistering rage when Octavia had told him that they had fallen short their construction quota of long-range sniper rifles by only two. He felt all over the place, both exhausted and manic with energy, sad yet borne aloft by an inexplicable, burgeoning hope.

He didn’t have either the time or will to go and see Kabeeta about it, though, so he forced the feelings down and threw himself back into his work, like he normally did. He shook his head. He felt like the stability that he had built up over the years had been knocked off it’s alignment after his trial. The raw vulnerability of having his secrets and shames exposed to so many people, in addition to immediately having to face the person who had outright betrayed and deceived him had shaken him deeply. But Yao was normally able to get over things like that. It seemed, right now, that he was getting worse and worse as time went on.

Yao combed some loose locks of hair back from his forehead with his bare hand, wrinkling his nose and withdrawing his hand when he noted how greasy his hair felt. He felt like it hadn’t been too long since he’d properly showered and washed his hair, but the oil on his fingers would disagree. Sighing, he pushed himself up and moved towards the bathrooms, keen to be properly clean again.

There was a young woman waiting for him when he emerged and Yao stilled, glad that he had pulled his gloves back on in the bathroom rather than waiting to get back into his office. He blinked for a moment, confused, but smiled as she turned and he recognised her.

“Nelia, how can I help you?” the Jhobrasian woman smiled warmly.

“Well, I was told to deliver a message to you.” She said, smile shifting into something more bashful as he raised one eyebrow curiously.

“I see. What message, may I ask?” Nelia sighed.

“Well, I was on guarding duty for the prisoners in cell block E, and their leader? Uhh, Matthias? He asked me to pass a message on for him.” Yao straightened up. He had started to give up hope that the Rywanese bounty hunter would even bother to respond to his offer, so, even if it was a negative answer, the man had at least deigned to respond at all.


“Uhh,” Nelia blushed a little, “He…um…used rather strong language…”

“I promise I won’t be offended.” He said gently, smiling a little. Nelia sighed.

“Okay then, well, to quote him, um, ‘Okay, fucking fine, I’ll go along with your batshit plan, you crazy manipulative fucker’.” She looked down as Yao snorted.

“Thank you, Nelia. If you could bring him to my office, I would be very grateful.” She nodded, still looking a little embarrassed by the message, which Yao couldn’t help but be rather amused by. He strode across the open common space, returning to his office with a sigh. He resolutely avoided looking at anyone with bronze skin and dark hair; he had been seeing Ayshe in every Nymian person that he walked past, and it was starting to get to him.

They had received news just yesterday that the first part of the mission had been successful, and that they had gone undetected. Yao was glad, but not very surprised. He had chosen Ayshe for the mission for that exact reason; she made even seemingly hopeless situations look bright, and could turn a mission doomed to fail into a resolute success. He had been too harsh with her before she and the others had left, and he regretted his actions now. I’ll apologise to her when she gets back, properly, in person. He could only hope that she didn’t hold it against him.

He sat behind his desk, wishing that he could go and sleep. There was a reason that he normally only slept a few hours a night or just stayed awake; he had trained himself into surviving on small amounts of sleep, so when he slept a normal night’s worth, he was left wanting more sleep, feeling groggy and disoriented. Combined with his lack of focus over the last few weeks, and the overall quality of his work had been slipping dangerously.

Yao rolled his shoulders back as Nelia escorted the grumpy blond man in the door and into the chair that he had occupied about five days previously. There were dark smudges under his eyes which indicated that he hadn’t been sleeping much, and the resigned scowl on his face told Yao all that he needed to know about his willingness in this agreement.

“Good evening, Mr Køhler.” He said simply. The blond heaved a sigh, not bothering to return the greeting. Yao resisted the urge to roll his eyes, but continued to speak, a smile stretching across his face despite himself. “I got your message.”

A smirk broke through the scowl on Matthias’ face, and Yao leant back a little, satisfied as some of the tension in the room dispersed. “It was a little crudely worded, but I got the basic gist of things.” Yao continued. “So, you’ve decided to cooperate, then. Why?” Matthias sighed, kicking his bare feet at the empty air.

“Because, my friends are suffering. Being locked up for so long? Its fucking killing them. We made a mistake, trying to escape from your subordinates, alright, we get it. But just because of that, just because we found out your little secret, doesn’t mean that we should spend the rest of our lives, however long that is, suffering for it. I don’t want to go to Fynkn. I don’t really care about fighting the Union or protecting some royal brat, but it gives my friends the chance to walk free again, so I’ll do it.” Yao stayed silent, watching him carefully.

“How noble.” He said carefully. Matthias glared at him, obviously not fond of his tone. “I do mean that, too, Mr Køhler. Not many people would put themselves through hardship and trial for their friends.” Matthias looked away.

“Yeah, whatever. So what now? Do I just go back to our cell and wait until your little prince comes back?” Yao shook his head.

“No. your time in captivity has weakened you, even I can see that much. You’ll be allowed to spend your remaining time here outside, regaining your strength, brushing up on your Fynknian, anything really that needs to be done.”

"Jeg trenger ikke å øve min Fynknyi" Matthias spat. Yao raised an eyebrow.

"Jeg er glad for det"  Yao responded smoothly, making the blond blink in surprise. Yao smiled slightly. This would make things go a lot more smoothly. “Of course, we will also need to have you fitted for warmer clothes, and taught about the sort of conditions you can expect on Fynkn.” Yao inclined his head a little. “I’m very glad that you decided to help us out.” Matthias opened his mouth to say something, but Yao beat him to it. “I realise that you aren’t doing this for us, but I’m thanking you as a courtesy.” Matthias slammed his mouth shut, looking irritated but not quite as angry as he had before. Yao was silent for a moment, ignoring the odd whispering in the back of his mind and the bizarre surge of emotion that flooded through his system. He really needed to sleep.

“Nelia.” He called to the Jhobrasian woman. She had stood far enough away to not hear their conversation, but close enough to hear Yao if he called for her. He waited until she had entered the room to continue. “Our friend has deigned to cooperate with us. Octavia knows the specifics, so kindly just explain the situation to her and she can handle it from there.” Nelia nodded, ducking her head slightly.

“Yes sir.” She said, ushering Matthias out the door, leaving Yao to his own thoughts.

Dangerous very dangerous this is so dangerous you’re mad for doing this you’re absolutely mad, one intrusive thought screamed at him. Blinking abruptly at its suddenness and uncharacteristic negativity, Yao took a deep breath in, trying to banish it to the depths of his consciousness and let his mind drift away a little. Køhler was cunning, but he was far from stupid. If he cared enough about his friends to go through with this, then it was unlikely that he would jeopardise it by trying to hurt Lukas. And, in any case, Lukas could definitely protect himself against one bounty hunter, no matter how highly trained.

You’re making mistakes so so many mistakes you really think that you know what you’re doing you don’t know what you’re doing-

“Shut up, me.” Yao sighed wearily, shaking his head a little to rid himself of the nagging in his mind. “I do not need negativity right now.” He sighed, glancing over at the clock and blinking when he noted that it had been about an hour since he had met Nelia outside the bathrooms. His conversation with Køhler had only taken up about 15 minutes or so. He…hadn’t been sitting here for over 40 minutes, had he?

That’s ridiculous. His brain murmured. There was no way. No, he shook his head. No doubt, he had read the clock wrong earlier. Shaking off the chill that had settled into his bones, Yao stood, ignoring how deeply unsettled he felt as he quickly left his tent.

Merdide Neighbourhood, Priiko City
North-Eastern Reycass
10th Jaune

Alfred groaned as he stretched, sighing in relief as he felt his back crack satisfyingly and resolutely ignoring the disgusted look on Leon’s face when he heard the noise. The last few days had been a bizarre change of pace from just before their first infiltration of Xi Lan Ey. Before the mission had taken place, the atmosphere around their temporary lodgings had been tense and anxious, and they had all had their minds fixed on the mission.

Their second planned infiltration of the building, however, didn’t rely on nearly as much stealth as their first one did. They still needed to be subtle, so that they could escape without being captured, but if they were detected this time, it wouldn’t really matter since they already had the information they needed. Everyone was a lot more relaxed now, and had been absently discussing what they were going to do when they got back to Nyma.

It had been about nine at night when they had gotten back from Xi Lan Ey, and they had spent a long time debriefing and explaining what had happened during the mission. He and Arthur had had to spend a while working through why exactly they had triggered their alarms while getting to the database room. Apparently it had spooked Ayshe and the others quite badly, but they were all relieved to hear that the situation hadn’t gone south.

The whole group had lost their minds laughing when they heard about how Gilbert and Mei had avoided arousing suspicion, though Alfred hadn’t missed the over-protective frown on Arthur’s face as he stared down Gilbert. It was sweet, in Alfred’s mind, that he cared so much about his subordinates. Ayshe hadn’t been pleased to hear that Lukas had used his water manipulation to get himself and Tino out, but the sniper had stepped in to explain that there was no other way that they could have gotten out of the room without alerting security. She had calmed down a little after that.

By the time they had finished their debriefing, it had been almost 2am and they had all wanted nothing more than to go to sleep. It had been a relief when Ayshe finally dismissed them. Alfred had thought that he would be too anxious to sleep, still full of adrenaline from the mission, but had passed out just minutes after climbing into bed, and hadn’t woken up until 2 in the afternoon. When he had trudged outside, only Ayshe, Leon and Gilbert had been awake. Lukas and Tino had been so exhausted as a result of their climbs up and down the side of the facility, and shimmying through the ventilation that they hadn’t woken up until about three hours after Alfred.

They had all been so groggy and mentally worn out that they hadn’t done much other than eat and relax; reading books and even watching tv to look out for any reports of a break-in at the intelligence centre. Alfred had ended up going back to bed at about 1 am or so, though he woke up at the fairly reasonable hour of 11am that morning. By that time, they had been running low on a few different foodstuffs, so Alfred had gone with Lukas to go and get more.

He didn’t think that Lukas himself was creepy – a little withdrawn and quiet, but hey, so was Berwald, and he wasn’t off-putting at all. The guy’s abilities weren’t that creepy either (though, admittedly, he didn’t love the idea of having someone poke around in his head) but they were unsettling. He knew that he would get over it eventually, but he could tell that he’d already hurt Lukas a little by being flinchy on the subject in the first place, which he regretted a lot.

When he and Lukas had returned with more food, Mei and Leon had been quick to start cooking food for everyone. They had spent some more time going over their roles for the second break-in in a few days’ time, ensured that the drives were all still working properly via the use of a remote monitor, and continued to re-study the floorplans of the facility and study the new guard rotations for their second entry.

They had been so busy ever since the first break-in that Alfred hadn’t really gotten the chance to properly talk to Arthur. He had no idea where they stood right now, and wasn’t entirely sure if the pirate even wanted to talk to him. Everything that had happened during the mission, from Arthur calming him down when he got scared, to holding hands so much, even to Arthur kissing his cheek the night before the mission…they hadn’t talked about any of it. It made Alfred a little nervous, because, well, he liked Arthur, a lot, but he had no idea if Arthur felt the same way. He didn’t want to force the pirate to have a conversation about it if he didn’t want to, though, so Alfred had resigned himself to existing in eternal limbo with the blond.

At least, he had resigned himself to such until Arthur asked to talk to him. The request was a little surprising, honestly, but he wasn’t about to decline it. Alfred tugged at the hem of his shirt nervously. He was seated on the end of Arthur’s bed again, fiddling with his clothes and studying the beige walls probably a little more closely than was necessarily required. He heard Arthur sigh quietly, and decided to kickstart the conversation.

“So…uhh…why did you want to talk to me?” Alfred asked. Arthur looked up, emerald green eyes wide and blinking in surprise.

“Well…” Arthur hesitated. Alfred could almost see the moment that he chose to change the topic in his mind. “You…I wanted to know why you acted how you did at the facility. I mean…there’s nothing wrong with being claustrophobic, of course, but you were fine in the mountains so I guess I was just wondering…why did you react in the facility but not in the mountain passes?”

Alfred hummed under his breath. It wasn’t that he was opposed to answering the question, but he certainly hadn’t been expecting it. He probably should have; Arthur was wickedly observant.

“Well, I wouldn’t say that I’m like a normal claustrophobic, actually. Any confined space is alright but it’s just when my body is all cramped up against the sides that I freak out.” Arthur was watching him intently. Alfred sighed.

“Well, I’ll have to explain a few things first, so bear with me.” Alfred muttered, clearing his throat slightly. “Alright so, you know Matthew, right?” Arthur nodded. “Yup, he’s my brother, older than me by little over a year. We were raised in Beledent on Rywan, and, well, to be completely honest, our parents were really shitty. They never let us talk or ask questions; if we did anything other than hide away in our rooms and be quiet, we’d normally get knocked around a bit.” Alfred saw Arthur clench his fists a little at that, and smiled sadly.

“Anyway…yeah, they really didn’t love us or care about us at all.” He murmured. “When the Expansion happened, well, Beledent had a really big Fynknian population, so they rounded them all up and planned to deport them back to Fynkn, despite the fact that they all had valid visas and papers and stuff. The day that they all broke out and rioted was one of the few days that my parents took Mattie and I out into the marketplace. Matt got separated from us in all the chaos, and my parents didn’t really try that hard to find him.” Arthur nodded sadly.

“After a few months…well, they noticed exactly how much cheaper it was having one less child, so, they, uhh…they decided to get rid of me too.” Arthur’s eyes were wide and horrified, and Alfred reached out and squeezed his hand gently. “They took me to an orphanage in Karkira City and left me there.” Arthur stiffened even more, and Alfred gently brushed his thumb over the back of his hand. “The people who worked at the orphanage…they weren’t kind. It was clear that they didn’t get paid much and just kept the job because they had no other option. Anyway…whenever one of the kids was bad, they used to lock us in these small wooden trunks. They only had the smallest gaps in them for air and light, and if you ever yelled out or threw a fuss while inside one, they used to kick the box around until you stopped.” He shrugged. “I was a loud kid. I liked to talk to people. I got thrown in there a lot.”

“Oh…Alfred…” Arthur murmured quietly, enclosing Alfred’s hand in both of his own. “That’s…well…how could they do that to little children?” Alfred shrugged.

“I don’t know, but being in small little space always reminds me of those chests. It’s stupid, I know-”

“It isn’t stupid.” Arthur declared, grip tightening. “Not even remotely.” He paused for a moment. “My childhood wasn’t like that, not even close, so I won’t act like I know what it was like, but…you didn’t deserve that, and I hope you realise that.” Alfred smiled.

“Yeah…it took me a while to accept that they were the ones at fault…thank you, Artie.” Arthur smiled gently. Alfred sucked in a deep breath, focusing on the feel of his hand enclosed between Arthur’s, memorising the feeling unless what he said next ruined it. “Can I ask? …What…um……what exactly are we?” Arthur looked at him. “I mean, we get along really well as friends but…this is like the tenth time that you’ve held my hand.”

Arthur chuckled quietly. “Well, that depends…what exactly is it that you want from me?”

Alfred swallowed. “Well, that’s the thing, you know? You don’t owe me anything, and I would never act like I have the right to demand anything from you, because I don’t, and that’s just wrong, but you kinda give off weird signals sometimes and I don’t know if I’m getting your vibe right or if I’m just dumb so-”

“You aren’t dumb, Alfred.” Arthur cut in elegantly. “But…let me ask you this. What signals do you think I’ve been giving off?” Alfred blinked, flushing.

“Well, you…um, you sometimes…uhh…flirt?” he immediately felt his face redden and prayed for the ground to open up and let him descend straight into hell. Arthur was smirking a little.

“I…flirt……Right…anything else?”

“Well…” Alfred trailed off, staring at Arthur. He didn’t seem to be repulsed by the direction that the conversation was going in. His mind ran over the conversation that they had just had, as well as every other nice thing the man had done for him. Calming him down when the rebels took him captive, helping redo the bandages on his leg after Matthew stabbed him, comforting him last night, always listening even when he knew that he was being an idiot. The list was endless. “I…” he trailed off, swallowing. Don’t be a wimp. “I…I just really wanna kiss you, actually.” He said, his voice sounding a little hoarse. He didn’t dare meet Arthur’s eyes, turning his attention to one part of his shirt hem that was starting to fray. He felt warmth on the sides of his face, and realised that Arthur was cupping his jaw in his hands.

“I’m really glad that you just said that.” Arthur whispered, sliding one hand back so that his fingers were curled in Alfred’s hair. “Are you sure that you mean it? You want to kiss a nine-fingered, Chalydrantis-ridden pirate?” Alfred sucked in a breath, nodding. Arthur watched him for a long moment, gently brushing his thumb over his cheek. “Alright then.”

Then they were actually kissing, instead of just talking about it.

Arthur was incredibly warm, though the feel of his fingers sliding through Alfred’s hair made him shiver, and he couldn’t help but press himself closer to the pirate. He wound his arms around Arthur’s waist and pulled him in. The older man didn’t seem troubled by it, simply shifting his legs so that he could properly sit on Alfred’s lap. His mouth was warm and soft pressed against his own, intoxicating and heady. Alfred felt dizzy when their mouths both opened up a little, the feeling hotter and wetter than it had been before. One of Arthur’s hands strayed from Alfred’s hair to his shoulder, before looping around so that he was holding Alfred’s body up against his own.

Oh my god I’m gonna die happy, Alfred’s brain joyfully supplied as he felt Arthur nip his bottom lip a little. His thoughts were racing and tumbling over each other in a euphoric haze, each screaming about the feel of Arthur’s muscles through his shirt or the faint taste of coffee on his lips. It wasn’t long after that, though, that Arthur decided to introduce his tongue to the equation, and the small amount of cognitive function that Alfred still had ground to a total and complete halt.

They finally surfaced for air at some point after that, breathing deeply and feeling thoroughly kiss-bitten. Arthur chuckled softly, leaning his forehead against Alfred’s. Alfred tightened his grip on Arthur’s middle ever so slightly, almost afraid that he was going to run away.

“Was that a one-time thing? Or…” Alfred trailed off, immediately regretting that he had asked the question. Arthur looked down at him, as if he were considering his words.

“Hmm……nope.” He said, kissing Alfred again. “I intend…” Cue another kiss. “To do this…” he dragged his teeth along Alfred’s bottom lip again, drawing a keening noise from the overwhelmed bounty hunter, “…as much as possible.” Then he pressed their lips together properly, and Alfred decided that it was best to stop asking questions.

Ror’a Plateau
About 320 kilometres (200 miles) east of Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma
12th Jaune

“Not bad.” Kari commented as she stretched her arm out and rotated it. The worst of the pain was gone now, though a twinge here and there told her that it still needed to heal a little. Tori was watching her anxiously, guilt all over her features even though she hadn’t done anything.

“Are you sure? I can try again.” Kari grinned, tossing her fair hair over her shoulder as the Daernic girl continued to fuss over her.

“It feels a lot better, I promise. You’re getting good at this.” Tori smiled a little, though she sighed nonetheless.

“Thanks. I just wish that there was another way for me to learn. You guys shouldn’t have to go through this just so I can improve.” Kari giggled a little.

“You know, I helped Lukas train his gifts a little, too. I let him put me in a coma, for saints’ sake. A dislocated shoulder is nothing.” Tori looked doubtful, but didn’t press the issue any further.

For the last few weeks, Matthew and Emilia, with the supervision of Octavia, had been helping Tori train her abilities, but when they had seen her back at her usual place at the dining hall, she had been invited to come along too, which she was more than happy to do. She had been sent off to conduct a bit of reconnaissance in the Gafadari Grasslands, and though she was always happy to work, she had missed being around the hustle and bustle of normal resistance life.

Finding out that she had missed out on helping Tori train her had been deeply irritating. Kari had always had the future of the Free Courts as one of her top priorities, so helping Tori train was just a way of her fulfilling that. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the Daernic royal gifts, Tori was a little harder to help.

The gifts of the Daernic royal family were known as the Dovana, and, like those of the Syhvvanian and Fynknian royal families, were quite powerful. Like the other two remaining Free Courts, the Laurinaitis family had traditionally had mastery over one element – earth. From what Elizabeta and Octavia had explained to her, the Daernic people called this ability the Zeme, and it was one of the more powerful abilities in the Free Court royal arsenal. The other of the two gifts was the ability to heal others, dubbed the Gijimas. Since Tori had been having trouble with manipulating the earth, it was the other of her gifts that they were currently trying to train.

 Kari had had no problem with the idea of helping Tori learn how to heal people, until Octavia had turned and asked if she would be willing to have her arm popped out of it’s socket. It was a testament to the sheer bizarreness of her life that the question hadn’t even fazed her, nor had it been the strangest thing that she had ever been asked.

Tori was obviously a lot better at healing than she was at using the earth, luckily for Kari, though continually dislocating her own shoulder was starting to seriously hurt. She wasn’t the only one sucking up their pain and complaints to help, though.

Upon seeing Tori rise from her place next to Kari, Matthew sighed a little and withdrew his knife from his belt, wincing only a little as he pressed it into the skin of his arm, near his elbow, and dragged it across. Red spilled outwards, dripping down his arm in a steady stream. Tori sighed, crossing the short distance to him and laying her fingers gently on his arm near the injury. There was a beat of silence before the sides of the cut knitted themselves back together, and the stream of red ceased. Matthew hummed in satisfaction, wiping the blood on his arm away, leaving only the slightest red mark, akin to a scratch, to show that he had ever been hurt.

“Alright, I think that that’s enough for one day.” Octavia cut in when Tori swayed slightly. “I think you should all head back. I’ll collect the gear.”

“You sure?” Matthew asked. Octavia nodded, smiling a little.

“I’ve watched you two dislocate your bones and cut yourselves open for the last two hours. I think I can handle packing up some gear.” Matthew relaxed a little, grinning.

“Well, if you’re sure. Thanks, Octavia.” The Daernic Vice-general smiled, and began to pick up the scattered medical equipment lying around the ground. Matthew smiled softly. Though the trial itself had been a horrific affair, it had had some legitimately good results. Yao’s leadership and loyalty had not come into question even remotely ever since Maarch, and it had made all of the resistance’s highest-ranking members a lot more bearable.

Octavia had obviously taken the time after the trial to self-reflect, not only on how she had treated Yao and neglected to notice the real threat, but also on how she operated as a leader and Vice-General. The result had been a massive improvement in her overall demeanour, role and image to the rest of the resistance. Matthew didn’t think he was wrong in believing that she had taken a few cues from how Yao conducted himself and analysed situations before creating a suitable plan in response.

She had already been an effective leader, and a good person, too, if misguided on rare occasions, but her ability to self-reflect, grow and improve herself was making Matthew really like her. He admired her a lot more now for acknowledging her own mistakes than he had previously when she tried to portray herself as infallible. It was nice to see that even the people he learned from weren’t above taking a lesson to heart.

Matthew’s thoughts drifted to Alfred as he followed Kari and Tori back to one of the trucks they had taken out here. The mission to Xi Lan Ey was half-way done, with only the second infiltration and retrieval left. Despite having been suspended when the mission was declared, Yao had still kept him in the loop of what the venture entailed. It was comforting to know that his brother had done well in their first mission inside. Their first entry had been so critical, according to Yao, because, had the staff of Xi Lan Ey realised they had a break-in, they would have conducted top-to-bottom searches of the entire facility, and quickly pulled the plug on the drives intended to collect information from their database.

Their second entry, however, didn’t matter nearly as much. Since the drives would have already collected a shit-ton of information, all that mattered was getting them out safely. Subtlety and discretion weren’t the main focus. They would have a much easier time of it.

Xi Lan Ey Intelligence Centre,
Outside Priiko City, Reycass
13th Jaune

Tino sighed as the three security guards in front of the door dropped like flies, unconsciousness immediately taking hold of each of them. “You could be a little more subtle.”

Lukas looked up, brow furrowed as he withdrew his extended hand. “Ayshe said that discretion wasn’t necessary.” Tino rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, and Alfred and Arthur also insisted that they haven’t spent the last three days making out and thinking about fucking each other. Do you believe them?” Lukas rolled his eyes. That had been a minor revelation of the last few days, brought about when the pair had emerged from Arthur’s room flushed and very rumpled, with Alfred looking like he was ready to take to the skies with joy while Arthur had asked for a sandwich in deadpan.

Gilbert had practically doubled over cackling at them, while Mei clapped her hands together in excitement and Leon just rolled his eyes. Ayshe hadn’t seemed to care, though knowing how observant she was, she had definitely noticed. Tino personally was happy for them. They went well together. Lukas, much like Ayshe, had appeared to have been disinterested with the whole affair. Tino had still caught the small smirk on his face when he’d turned away, though. Evidently, despite all appearances to the contrary, Lukas was happy for them too.

“I feel like there is a distinct difference between that situation and this one.” Lukas pointed out. “We’re near the blind spot, no-one will see.”

“Do you really want the Union to know that you’re alive and kicking though? And with the resistance, much less.” Tino pointed out. Lukas scowled, but didn’t try to fight him further on the topic. “I think you should use your gifts, of course, but maybe not where there are over 200 cameras linked directly to a Union server.” Lukas hesitated, and then frowned more. Tino knew him well enough by now to know that it meant he had won.

“Yeah, whatever. Yao probably wouldn’t let me get involved in anything even if that did happen.” Tino shot him a look.

“He let you come on this mission.”

“Because he wanted to get me out of his hair for a while. I’m no idiot, Tino. I know that you being paired up with me wasn’t a coincidence, and neither was him sending his best Admiral to lead this mission.” Tino winced.

“Well, in all fairness, I think that he was trying to get Ayshe away from him as well.” Tino shrugged. “He likes to throw his problems a good distance away and run while he has the chance. He’ll definitely be working at it behind the scenes, but he doesn’t like it when people get up in his face about things. Mentioning it once or twice would have sufficed, even if it seems like he isn’t responding. That’s just who Yao is.” Lukas inclined his head a little, indicating that he was listening as they clambered through a window set into the wall and proceeded down the hall.

“I know that, but…I want to be useful, and he isn’t letting me.” Lukas muttered. Tino looked over at him sympathetically.

“He will, just give him enough time to spin together some crazy scheme. He’s probably already done that, and he’ll spring it on you when we get back.” Tino reasoned. “I mean, I get that you’re frustrated, but…Yao has a lot to deal with, and not just from the resistance.” Lukas frowned as he used his powers to ‘convince’ a female worker that she couldn’t see or hear anything as they walked past.

“What do you mean?” Tino shrugged.

“I don’t think the trial was good for him. He’s been a little off ever since, don’t you think?” Lukas nodded a little.

“Yeah…when I was looking through everyone’s minds to find the spy, I saw a few flashes of what was in his.” Lukas flinched. “Not pleasant.” Tino winced.

“Yeah, I doubt it would be. I don’t envy you. It’s up here.” he gestured as they quickly climbed a staircase to the fourth floor and ducked down a side corridor towards where they had left the drive little under five days ago. They had received a notification that the drives were all finished collecting data earlier that day, and had quickly worked out their plan to re-enter the facility.

They had been assigned to the same pairs and areas as the first time. Tino could only hope that Arthur and Alfred were focussing on the mission and not each other.

Lukas raised his hand, and Tino watched the two guards in front of the door to the server collapse. It was more effective than any chloroform or other sedative, and the effect was broken only when Lukas said it was. He could also prevent them from remembering their faces. As it was, they had pulled biker masks over the bottoms of their faces to prevent their faces from being filmed properly by the security cameras. Lukas’s hair was still dyed black, so they didn’t need to worry about the Union seeing that he was Fynknian. Due to how Lukas had been raising and positioning his hand, it appeared, to all outward appearances, that he was holding something in his hand which was knocking the guards out. It was all for show, of course, since Lukas didn’t need his hands to control minds.

They slipped inside, and Lukas ducked over to the drive, still faithfully plugged into the server under a desk, checking that it had been collecting information before hurriedly removing it and wrapping it in the thick, wool scarf they had brought, stuffing it inside his jacket. Tino watched the door carefully, fingers curled around the handle of a pistol. You could never be too cautious in a place like this.

Lukas nodded at Tino once he was ready, and they slunk from the room, stepping over the unconscious guards, with Lukas pausing momentarily to ensure he wiped all memories of the brief encounter from their minds before they proceeded.

Tino never really appreciated how slow being sneaky could be. Where the mission had taken them almost two hours just a few days ago, it now took about fifteen minutes in all. They jogged down the stairs and past the few guards that they hadn’t bothered knocking unconscious, brushing off the confusion as the Unionists slowly realised that they weren’t meant to be there. Ducking through the window they had originally entered the building though – the same one that Gilbert and Mei had entered through last time – they left the facility unscathed and significantly less stressed than they had last time.

Moving quietly through the woods, they were pleasantly surprised to find Arthur and Alfred already waiting – thankfully with their mouths separate from one another – and paused to wait for Ayshe and Leon. Since Gilbert and Mei didn’t really have a job to do this time around, they had lingered back at the apartment, getting the ship ready for departure. They had all voted on the issue, and decided that leaving as soon as possible was a good decision. They had revised their infiltration tactics that morning as they folded clothes and stowed away weaponry.

Arthur tensed, standing from where he’d been talking softly with Alfred. Tino followed his gaze as Lukas and Alfred also came to attention.

“That isn’t Ayshe.” Arthur murmured, right before a guard dressed in the bland grey of a legitimate Unionist stepped into the small space that they had been waiting in.

 The man’s hands were reaching for a gun before they had all even reacted properly to his presence, and just as Tino stumbled backwards, fingers seeking his own weapon, Lukas threw his hands out. Tino understood what he had done right before Lukas himself seemed to realise. The Fynknian didn’t need his hands to control minds, but he used them constantly whenever he made water bend to his will. And, Tino reflected as his heart sunk and nausea stirred in the pit of his stomach, the human body was composed predominantly of water.

The man had stilled with a revolver in his hands, arm bent as he had no doubt intended to lift it and shoot them. Judging by his alignment, Alfred had been his first target. His face was locked in a bizarre expression; still, but with the beginnings of fear etched into the features, as if his mind had just started to recognise what was going on as he froze.

Lukas hadn’t frozen him in a sheet of ice, and Tino couldn’t honestly say whether that would have been better or worse. No, Lukas had frozen the man himself. More specifically; the water in his body.

The guard’s skin had already turned grey, with purple spider-webbing patterns etched all over. His veins stood out on his skin as if they had been placed just under the surface. The blood in them had frozen, marking out their shape. His skin was already turning dark underneath the fine layer of frost that lay atop his skin, his frame stiff and unyielding. Tino didn’t know if he was dead yet or not.

He was shaken to his senses by a thudding noise which, on quick inspection, proved to be Lukas. Tino momentarily worried that he had overexerted himself, or fainted from shock, but the Fynknian was well and truly alive, if looking more shell-shocked and horrified than Tino had ever seen him before.

“We…we need to…” Arthur trailed off, staring at the frozen guard in a mixture of fascination and repulsion. The pirate swallowed, resolutely turning away from the horrific sight as he tugged a stunned Alfred to his feet. “We need you to unfreeze him. It’ll be obvious what happened and who did it if we leave him like this.” Lukas didn’t respond, staring at the man in unreserved horror. “Lukas.” Arthur said his name firmly, and the 19-year-old looked over at him, face white. “Melt him.”

For a long moment, Tino feared that Lukas was shutting down, but he extended his arm and clenched his fist. Steam curled off the man’s skin, and the now-definitively-dead man crumpled, the ice no longer holding him up. Tino stared at Lukas, concern overriding all of his other senses. They were pulled from their shocked reverie by Ayshe and Leon entering the space, looking triumphant for all of one second before they took in the scene and stopped short.

Lukas was starting to look like he was going to be sick. Tino extended a hand carefully. “Lukas-”

The teen staggered to his feet, turned on his heel and bolted through the trees. Tino withdrew his hand. Well. Ayshe seemed to have grasped the situation, but Leon looked confused. Ayshe gestured in the direction that Lukas had just gone.

“Make sure he doesn’t get himself hurt.” She murmured quietly. As he turned away, he saw her kneel next to the body with a knife in her hands, no doubt to fabricate some other cause of death. Sighing deeply, Tino took off after Lukas.

“It could have been so much worse, you know.” Arthur murmured. Lukas stiffened, but didn’t look at him. “He would have shot Alfred if you hadn’t stepped in.”

“That doesn’t mean that I wanted to kill him.” Lukas whispered. He felt Arthur put a hand on his back.

Tino had tracked him down quickly after he had run off. The sniper hadn’t said much, just sat close by him as he started shaking, and dragging his dyed hair back from his mouth when he had given into the nausea and vomited into the bushes. Lukas hadn’t expected it to help, but it had, in a way, just having someone nearby who wasn’t frightened of him, despite what he had just done.

They had dragged him back to the apartment, and he’d had bags shoved into his hands and had his shaking body escorted into one of the seats on the ship as they took off and left Reycass behind, but he hadn’t really felt any of it.

“People rarely want to kill.” Arthur said, sounding like he knew Lukas’ guilt all too well. “But sometimes, it proves necessary. If you hadn’t killed him, he would have killed some of us. I know that he can be irritating at times, but I’m glad that you didn’t let Alfred die.” Lukas chuckled a little, even though the sound came out a little hoarse and wet from silent tears.

“It’s not that I haven’t killed anyone before…saints know I probably have, but I’ve never seen it so close. I’ve given people lethal wounds before but I’ve never stuck around to watch them die.” Arthur tilted his head a little.

“This is the first time you’ve really seen the consequences of your actions, then. You aren’t used to it.” Arthur shrugged. “There’s nothing wrong with that. Lukas, you reacted instinctively, and you saved us from exposure by doing it. I’ve seen people die in worse ways, so trust me when I say that it could have been worse. The guy probably didn’t feel much, anyway.”

Lukas looked over at him. “Have you killed people in worse ways?” Arthur gave him a wry look.

“Absolutely. I can give you five examples off the top of my head. Do you want to hear one?”

Lukas dropped his chin onto his arms. “I don’t want to, but for the sake of personal healing and all that, I feel like I probably have to.” Arthur smiled again.

“One of my subordinates once betrayed me; he sold various governments after my head information about me and my ship. He poked his nose in places that he shouldn’t have. He found out that I had Chalydrantis, actually. He was going to expose me for that, and ensure that I wasn’t able to take treatment any more.” Arthur smiled grimly, expression taking on an unsettled edge. “I was so angry and scared that I decided I had to get rid of him.” He hesitated. “I did dark things back then; I got ill so often that I was so convinced that my Chalydrantis was outsmarting my body and that I was going to die soon. I didn’t think that I had much to lose.”

Lukas waited, silent and tense, for Arthur to continue. The pirate made eye contact with him. “I cut his arms open and pulled his nerves out. I cut and pulled at them until he was screaming and crying for mercy. I disconnected the vertebrae of his spine until he couldn’t feel anything below his waist, and then slit his throat. I slowly killed him for hours.” Arthur frowned a little. “That incident alone has probably put me far past redemption. I’m not saying this because I’m trying to be nice, I’m saying it because it’s a fact. He could have died in a worse way.”

“He probably had a family.” Lukas murmured. Arthur raised an eyebrow.

“Who? The man you killed, or the one I did?” Lukas looked up.


Arthur turned away, and shrugged. “Didn’t you have one too, once upon a time?”

Sickening noises drawn from a memory echoed around the back of Lukas’ mind; bones snapping and a horrible, wet, gurgling. “Once upon a time.” Arthur shrugged.

“An eye for an eye. The people who killed your parents were Union. That guard was, too.” Lukas shrugged.

“I guess so.” Arthur nodded briefly, then stood. “Don’t let it get to you.” Lukas sighed.

“Yeah, yeah…thanks, Arthur.” The pirate shrugged with one shoulder.

“You’re welcome.”

Lukas drew his folded knees tighter to his chest as the pirate left the room, gazing out at the vast array of stars that met his vision through the window. They glowed and winked gently at him, and he rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth.

He glanced up as the door slid open again, this time revealing – to his immense surprise – Alfred. The former bounty hunter looked a little lost, like he didn’t entirely know what he was doing there, but he crossed the room and sat down next to Lukas anyway.

They sat in total silence for a while, both admiring the stars as their ship surged through space, back to Nyma.

“……Thank you.” Alfred murmured. The words startled Lukas from his peaceful haze, and he looked at Alfred in shock and confusion. Alfred made eye contact with him, a crooked smile stretching across his face. “I mean it. That guy…he was aiming for me. I’d be dead if you hadn’t acted. Even Tino was caught off-guard, and that guy’s vigilant as all hell.”

Lukas stayed silent for a while, unsure of how to respond. “…I thought that you found me creepy.” Alfred winced, and sighed, leaning back.

“I mean, I’m not exactly used to watching water fly through the air or people get knocked unconscious through the sheer power of will, but that’s my backwards Rywanese childhood speaking. It’s not your fault that I’m not used to seeing anything spectacular. I’ll get used to it.”

Lukas shrugged. “You don’t have to make yourself see me as normal.” Alfred looked over at him, frowning a little.

“Dude…your family has been around and doing these things for how long? 5000 years? Longer than that even? What you do is more normal than a lot of what I do. I mean…bounty hunting wasn’t a booming business way back then. It wasn’t a business at all!” Alfred was gesturing wildly as he explained, and Lukas had to shift away a little to avoid getting slapped by a wayward hand.

“Alright…I get the point.” Lukas sighed. Alfred grinned, lowering his hands.

“Seriously man. Gimme a few weeks and I’ll be right. I mean, it took me a few hours to accept that the brother I thought was dead was alive and kicking and a rebel badass. I can accept this too. If I don’t, Tori would probably find a way to hurl me into the atmosphere with those earth powers she has anyway.” Lukas cracked a smile.

“I don’t think she can quite manage that yet.”

“Can’t she? Excellent. Looks like I won’t get personally acquainted with an asteroid belt too quickly then.” Lukas couldn’t help it; he laughed. It wasn’t something that he did very often, a fact that wasn’t lost on most people who spoke to him. Alfred was grinning. Lukas calmed down a little as they resumed their star-gazing.

“Thank you, Alfred.”

“I really didn’t do anythi-”

“Just accept my gratitude.”


The silence had resumed, but it wasn’t so awkward, and, Lukas realised, he didn’t feel quite so guilty anymore.

Chapter Text

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma
15th Jaune

Matthias had only agreed to go along with the psychotic plan that the rebels had posed to him a few days ago, but he was already feeling infinitely better than he had in the cell. It made guilt surge up inside, because while he got to enjoy the sunlight and open space, his friends were still cramped together in the dark and the filth.

I’m out here to help them, he reminded himself, if I protect the little Fynknian prince, then we all get to go home. He repeated the sentiment over and over in his mind, but couldn’t stop the sheer joy that flooded through his system when he woke in the morning to find clean clothes on the end of his bed. Even the act of showering; once something he had taken almost criminally for granted, was borderline euphoric. He didn’t want to go back to being imprisoned, so he took his role as a soon-to-be glorified bodyguard with grace.

Matthias sighed, glancing at his reflection in the mirror. He had noticed his own weight loss over the last two months, but hadn’t realised how some of the grime caked into his skin had disguised it. The lines of his face were a lot sharper now, his cheeks a little hollow and his cheekbones more prominent. The dips between the bones of his hands were deeper now, and the outline of his ribs was visible – something that was normally only so visible when he was stretching. He had dark smudges under his eyes indicative both of his lack of sleep and weight loss. His entire body was leaner now, and he couldn’t say that he liked the change. His hair was longer too, and a little too haphazard for his liking. He was glad to not have to endure the irritating scrub on his face that had been growing out for weeks, though. The simple joy of not constantly smelling like sweat and must was overwhelming.

That wasn’t to say that his newfound freedom was real freedom, though. He had been kept to a tight schedule since he’d been ‘freed’ from the cell. Ever since he had consented to Yao’s insane idea, he had been watched carefully. For the most part, it was the intimidating Daernic general, Octavia, who had been watching over him. She had taken him to get new clothes and toiletries, and had even let him collect his confiscated weapons from their storerooms when he asked. She had locked them securely in a trunk not long after, but Matthias felt better just knowing that they were nearby.

Rather than letting him eat in the large dining pavilion with everyone else, Octavia had retrieved meals for the both of them and eaten with him inside his tent. While they did that, she had quizzed him on different aspects of life and culture on Fynkn. She insisted that it was important for him to know, but he failed to see why. He was there to oversee the Bondevik kid and nothing else. Maybe shoot a gun or two and stop the guy from getting himself killed. He doubted that he would want to stick around after he had done his time.

He doubted that it mattered what the names of the Fynknian gifts were, or any of the random tid-bits about Oskar and Astrid Bondevik that got drilled into his head or whatever in the Galaxy a ‘Hellig’ was – but he listened and (mostly) committed them to memory anyway. If he was going to go to Fynkn, he might as well have as easy a time as possible. Besides, better to be unchained and talking about the culture of an arctic planet than be alone and confined to his room. He had been given a small tent to live in while he waited for his new companion to get back from whatever mission he was on, and, objectively speaking, it was small, but after spending two months sharing a space just under twice the size with more than ten people, he couldn’t care less.

Though Matthias had committed himself to hours of moping and complaining the moment he left the cell, he had found his mood improving every day that he was out of the prison. The fresh air and sunlight and space to move around took the majority of the edge off his irritation. Even Octavia wasn’t that bad; she’d eased up on the glares since he’d agreed to the plan, and actually was a good conversationalist. Matthias loved his friends, yes, but that was an area that some of them were severely lacking in.

He had been surprised but a little touched to see that the food they ate in the dining pavilion was exactly the same as what he and his friends had all been given. Evidently, though their treatment hadn’t been ideal, the rebels weren’t going out of their way to make them miserable.

Matthias groaned quietly, running a hand through his hair before tugging the leather boots that the Resistance had given him onto his feet and started tightening the laces. One thing he would not be thanking the resistance for was their incessant love of interrupting perfectly good sleep cycles. Octavia had taken it upon herself to rouse him from his sleep at 6am each morning, citing the excuse that he had a lot of things to do before he ever set foot on Fynkn. He had no doubt that there was reasoning behind her actions, but that didn’t quite excuse the vindictive joy that he saw in her eyes whenever she ripped his covers off and cheerfully told him to get his ass into gear.

He glanced over at the clock that Octavia had nailed to the side-table with the excuse that ‘you aren’t gonna show up to anything on time if I don’t’. 6:30am. He rolled his eyes but stood anyway, giving himself a brief once-over in the mirror before marching out the side of his tent.

Octavia was waiting, as usual, looking impeccable in her grey, three-quarter sleeves shirt, dark pants, boots and brown cargo vest. Her hair was pulled into an updo, as usual, and she was grinning malevolently.

“Have a good sleep?” she asked, tone gently mocking.

“Oh, fuck off.” He groaned, dragging his hand across his face. Octavia laughed.

“Deal with it. On Fynkn they operate as a proper military. I’m just preparing you for the early wake up calls you’ll get there anyway.” Matthias rolled his eyes, but fell into step next to her as she began to walk away.

“Whatever. So, what new hell is on my agenda today?” he asked. Octavia grinned.

“Well, Yao wants to talk to you, first up, and then we have some more combat training and a bit of other stuff we need to go over.” Matthias sighed. The last thing he wanted to do was talk to Yao, but he knew that he really didn’t have any other choice here.

“Ugh, fine. What ‘other stuff’ will we be going over?” Octavia grinned.

“Oh, you know, stuff about the royals and social structure on Fynkn. All your favourite things.” Actually, on second thought, seeing Yao didn’t sound like such a bad thing. The guy was intimidating, and somewhat unnerving, but he was at least engaging.

Octavia laughed at the mildly disgusted look on Matthias’ face and jerked her head in the direction that Matthias now knew Yao’s tent to be. He sighed, but followed her without further complaint.

Yao’s tent looked much the same as it had the previous two times he had been in there, though the files spread across the dark wood desk looked a little messier and more haphazard than they had before. Yao himself was sitting at his chair, one leg folded over the other, eyes flying back and forth across the page of some sort of report. Matthias frowned a little. By the looks of the place and the guy himself, Yao hadn’t slept at all last night. His hair was messy, with numerous locks of black hair escaping from his braid, which looked like it needed to have been redone maybe two days ago. His face looked a little pale, but his expression was neutral, and the dark circles under his eyes were minimal. Octavia cocked her head to the side slightly.

“Yao? I brought Køhler to see you.” Yao’s head snapped up, a more relaxed expression crossing his face.

“Ah, really?” the Yanish man examined his clock curiously. “I suppose I stayed up later than I intended.”

“Please tell me that you slept last night.” Octavia groaned. Yao threw her a grin; a shockingly bright one for someone that Matthias was fairly sure was insomniac, and waved off her concerns – literally.

“I’ve survived on no sleep before. Besides, take it as truth or not, but I legitimately don’t feel tired.” Octavia raised an eyebrow at that, but, as she seemingly inspected Yao and found no obvious signs of extreme fatigue, dropped the issue.

“Alright, but please fix up your hair, Yao. And, maybe change clothes?” Yao glanced down at himself curiously, like he hadn’t even realised how rumpled and dishevelled his clothes looked. In the same breath he glanced at a mirror on the wall, mouth twisting wryly as he took in the state of his hair.

“That’s fair.” He chuckled, pulling his hair out of it’s braid. “Octavia, you may stay for this, by the way.” Matthias watched as Yao quickly combed his gloved fingers through his long hair before pulling it into a neat high ponytail. Octavia nodded, stance relaxing a little. Yao made eye contact with Matthias.

“Now, Octavia, Mr Køhler, I feel like it is relevant to mention that I have received news from our friends currently in absentia.” Octavia straightened up, as did Matthias. He cared little for the mission itself, and the prince that he was soon to have to protect, but he had been worried for his friends. Yao observed both of their reactions carefully before he continued. “They have successfully completed their mission and are en-route back here as we speak.” Matthias saw Octavia relax in his peripheral vision, and felt some of his own anxiety die down a little. It was a relief to know that his friends were okay.

“I hope that I will get a more in-depth update on that later?” Octavia inquired. Yao smiled slightly and nodded.

“Of course, Vice General. Now, as I am sure you are aware, the success and completion of their mission means that our own agreement will soon come into effect.” Yao had an odd manner about him today; something restless and energetic that seemed to have seized his body and mind. The normally collected, aloof man was softly drumming his fingers along the surface of his desk, and his gaze flittered between Matthias and Octavia, never resting on one of them for quite long enough. Matthias frowned. The guy probably wasn’t tired because he was hopped up on too much caffeine. Octavia seemed to have come to roughly the same conclusion, and looked exasperated.

“Anyway,” Yao continued, looking momentarily like he had to force himself back on topic, “If Lukas consents to the terms I have set, which I highly doubt that he would refuse, I would provide him a few days to recuperate before sending you two off to Fynkn. Now, one important aspect of this which Octavia has yet to mention to you is that, as long as you are on Fynkn, you are to keep Lukas’ identity as secret as possible.”

Matthias stared at him. “But…wait, what? He’s Fynknian fucking royalty, and you don’t even want to tell them that he’s there? Where’s the logic in that?” Yao sighed.

“The biggest weakness that the Fynknian rebel front has is their technology. They have not been able to enjoy the advances made in technology in the last eleven years. The equipment that they have managed to smuggle away from the Union is more rudimentary than what we have here. Fynkn never previously had to fear invasion or espionage or the subtler elements of warfare. Though they have adapted to the physical demands of battle well enough, the more delicate pieces of technology required are still severely lacking.” Matthias stared at him, puzzled. Yao sighed.

“They communicate frequently by radios, and there is nothing wrong with that, per se, but the wavelengths they use to communicate are not as hard to break through as we would like. The Union is commonly able to find their frequencies, listen in on their plans or even track down the broadcast signal and deal severe blows to rebel efforts. The Union despises Fynknians with a passion, but their hatred of the average person there does not even come close to expressing how vehemently they despise the Bondevik family in particular.” Matthias frowned.

“Well…why? Weren’t they just kids when the whole Expansion happened anyway?”

Yao tilted his head. “Yes, but that doesn’t stop them. They murdered Lukas and Emilia’s parents in cold blood, after all. Their resentment extends to the whole family, regardless of age or actual guilt in any perceived slights. The guards who assassinated the king and queen of Fynkn in 4501 were intending to seek out their children and kill them too.”

Matthias was fairly indifferent on this whole matter, and had no real knowledge or legitimate passion for Fynkn save the group of people that had produced his spunky younger sister, but a chill curled around his spine nonetheless. He did the math silently. The Expansion had been eleven years ago, so the prince and princess would have been…eight and five respectively. The idea was mildly nauseating.

“Wait…you said that they intended to kill them…why didn’t they?” Yao shrugged, frowning.

“The timeline of what happened on the day that Fynkn was invaded have always been a little foggy…the group sent to kill the royal family succeeded in assassinating the king and queen, but for some reason left the palace and returned over an hour later, after everyone knew what was happening and could get the prince and princess away. No one knows why, but I don’t suppose it really matters.” Matthias shrugged.

“In any case,” Yao said, hands beginning to continue their gentle drumming on the table, “if the Union were to find out that Lukas was on Fynkn, they would redouble their efforts to flush out the rebels. As it is, they are avoiding the Union’s full fury through subtlety and a guerrilla warfare approach as opposed to open battlefield tactics. If they were hit by a massive number of the Union’s forces, they would either be forced completely underground or wiped out completely. Right now, the Union does not quite consider them a big enough threat to devote too much manpower on them. If Lukas were there and they discovered that, though, their view of the rebels would certainly change.” Matthias nodded a little. It made sense. From what he understood of the capabilities of the Bondevik family, the gifts they had were quite powerful, and Lukas was especially.

“Okay, so I can’t tell anyone who he is, got it.” Yao nodded, looking a little relieved.

“He’s going to be going under his existing alias of Lukas Christensen. You will be going as yourself, though we are holding up the charade that you are part of the resistance.” Matthias raised an eyebrow.

“Fine, I guess I can deal with that. I have to say, though, you aren’t even going to change his first name? Won’t people get suspicious of someone the same age and with the same name as their royalty?” Yao smiled a little, and shook his head.

“No, actually. Fynknians adore the Bondevik family like you wouldn’t believe. Whenever a member of the royal family is born and named, that name booms in popularity for other children being born. It’s the case especially for the firstborn child. I mean, the name Lukas increased in popularity by over 94% after he was born in 4493. We’ve altered his files to make him two months younger on paper than he actually is, so it can easily be explained away. Lots of people name their children after royals. It’s seen by some as bringing luck or favour to that child.” Matthias huffed, reluctantly impressed.

“Okay, fine…so he’s gonna be Lukas Christensen to everyone on Fynkn, then?” Yao nodded.

“Yes. The name Christensen isn’t overtly common, but a far cry from rare or noble as well. It will help him blend in. I’ll be telling him to refrain from using his gifts openly, too, of course. That would be a dead giveaway.” Matthias nodded along with what Yao said.

“Okay, okay, I think I get it.” He murmured. Yao hummed softly, restless fingers shifting to twist the ends of his ponytail.

“You’ll get a full briefing when Lukas is back, of course, but those are the basics. Now,” he stood from his place to shuffle through some of the other files on his desk, gaze shifting and roving almost too quickly, “I understand that you both have other duties to attend to.” Matthias sighed in relief and stood, ready to leave. Octavia hesitated a little, frowning at Yao.

“Yao…” she trailed off as the man turned to face her, eyebrow cocked inquisitively. “…Nothing. I’ll see you later.” He looked curious, but didn’t press the issue, and Matthias followed Octavia out.

Szwicza-Riiko District Border,
Bibesti, Rela,
15th Jaune

Lovino could guess who the hand on his arm belonged to, and that was why he cursed the fact that he actually stopped. He was only a few metres from the barred wall and bare stretch of tarmac that indicated the barrier that separated the Riiko and Szwicza Districts from one another. Riiko was hardly less dangerous or depraved than Szwicza, but even they tried to limit the association between the two.

The barest of glances into his peripheral vision showed him a flash of light olive skin and dark hair. The lithe body attached to the hand wrapped around his forearm was clothed in fitted black. Lovino turned to face the woman that had plagued his footsteps for the last two weeks, and scowled.

“Oh, you. Can I help you with something?” the woman tilted her head to the side a little, gaze roving over him curiously. He had to admit, upon further inspection, that she was rather beautiful. The black accentuated her narrow face, dark, slanted brows and elegant facial structure. Her hair, carefully pulled back into a long braid, was thick and held the signs of being wavy when free. He committed every detail of her face to memory.

She was only a little shorter than him – definitely taller than Feliciano – and her body was built like that of a gymnast. Considering the demands of her profession and it’s foundations, that wasn’t unexpected. The brown of her eyes was warmer than he had expected. Even her expression was shockingly neutral, bare of malice or even deceit.

“I think you can, actually. May I say first, though, that it is a pleasure to meet you, Prince Lovino” She said, dipping into a low bow. She spoke in the common standard, with a heavy Relusian accent that made the sounds of her vowels shift and curl. Lovino narrowed his eyes. She cleared her throat a little before she continued. “I’ve been looking for you for quite a while, your majesty.”

“I can’t say that the feeling is mutual.” Lovino spat, ignoring the shudder – one-part horror and another part satisfaction – that ran up his spine when she addressed him by his proper title. “So, tell me, right here and now, what do you want?”

She smiled sadly. “I want you and any companions of yours to leave Rela, and never return as long as you should live.” Lovino stared at her, stunned for a moment, before remembering himself.

“And why the fuck should I do that?” he snapped in response.

“Because you are a danger to this planet and her people. As someone sworn to protect and serve both of those things, I am only doing my duty.”

“Fuck your duty, I haven’t done anything to hurt this planet. I’m trying to stay under the radar here.” The woman sighed.

“Do you recall, back in mid-Maarch, that the monetary bond on the profiles of all five Free Court heirs increased by approximately 10 billion marks?” Lovino stiffened, keenly tempted to abandon the conversation. He was kept in place only due to his own curiosity.

“I recall, yes. What about it?” he snapped.

“It was increased because of some trouble on Syhvva. More and more rebel groups are popping up there, despite what’s at stake. You and your younger brother are a beacon of hope for them, so it is unsurprising that the Union wants you suppressed. They are willing to pay out huge sums of money to get you in their custody.” Lovino frowned.

“…When my profile was updated, it also showed information that my brother and I had been on Incanda…do you know how…?” the woman pursed her lips and shook her head.

“I don’t know; some outside source looking for a bonus, I’m guessing. I initially sought you out to warn you. Rela and Syhvva were once sisters in arms, and I thought it was only right that I try to lend you aid. However, when I discovered that your place of refuge was in fact Rela…well…you pose a severe danger to any area and its population simply by being there. I am sworn to protect my people, as I would have done had my family not abdicated the throne. I would protect them as you would protect your own people. It is a shame, really. I would have liked to help you, but my home and my people come first.”

Lovino clenched his jaw, thinking her words over. She seemed genuine, or at least didn’t seem to be openly hostile, but he had never been an overtly trusting person, and he didn’t think that he would start now.

“And if we don’t leave? We aren’t exactly loaded with money, you know. I can’t just run around freely like you seem to be able to do.” The woman bit her lip.

“I know that, but I want you off this planet.”

“And if I don’t want to leave?”

She straightened up, and her eyes narrowed a little. Lovino had to resist the urge to step backwards. She practically emanated danger.

“Then you will live with regret for making that decision for the rest of your life, however long that may be. I would recommend heeding my warning, my prince. I will give you one and a half weeks, until the 25th, but after that I want you gone. Take my offer or leave it. Your choice.”

With that, she turned sharply on her heel and marched away, leaving Lovino staring after her, stunned and a little impressed, but rather irritated. Like he didn’t know how much danger he and Feliciano were in, and how much danger anyway close to them could be. He knew that. He knew it very well. That didn’t mean that this girl had the right to make them leave. He shuddered. Lovino had no doubt that she could force them to leave or, as she had implied, remove them as a threat entirely. He didn’t really want to face that sort of adversary head-on. Sighing deeply, Lovino turned towards the entrance to the Szwicza District and began to wander back to the apartment slowly, stomach sinking further with every step.

Why couldn’t his life ever be easy?

Onboard the LWSS Veritas
About 90,000 kilometres away from Nyma,
17th Jaune

“How much longer, again?” Alfred asked impatiently, gaze roving over the console absently. He wasn’t overly well-versed in technology, especially in the area of navigation and mechanics. That was far more Gilbert’s area of expertise, or even Louise’s. Alfred hadn’t had much exposure to vehicles or inter-planetary crafts for the majority of his life, and even now that he used them a fair amount, he wasn’t good at operating them or deciphering the lines of code and other messages appearing on the console screen.

Ayshe, who was standing next to him, sighed, looking a little exasperated. Since they had been able to re-enter Xi Lan Ey much earlier than they had anticipated, their arrival back would also, hopefully, be much earlier. “That is what I am trying to figure out, Alfred, if you would allow me a moment to determine just that.” Appropriately cowed, Alfred fell silent and watched as Ayshe looked over the monitor. She let out a small hum, then pointed at the screen.

“Okay, well, we’re about 90,000 kilometres away from Nyma right now, meaning that we should be passing by Nikat Minor soon.” She noticed his look of confusion and smiled. “It’s one of Nyma’s minor asteroid belts.” At his grin and nod of comprehension, Ayshe continued.

“Judging by the average speed of our craft and assuming that we encounter no sort of difficulties in entering the atmosphere or landing at base…we probably have about two hours or so until we arrive. Not long at all.” Alfred brightened at this news.

“Oh, okay! That sounds good. Sorry for being so annoying earlier.” Ayshe shook her head a little.

“It’s fine, Alfred. I understand how irritating it can be to get cooped up in a spaceship for too long. In all honesty, I’m not super fond of long space trips either.” Alfred blinked in surprise at her.

“But…you’re one of the resistance’s admirals…you lead a bunch of space-craft!” Ayshe grinned conspiratorially.

“I know, which is why most people don’t know that I dislike travelling in them for too long. Kindly don’t spread that around.” Alfred laughed.

“I won’t, promise. Why do you dislike long space trips?” Ayshe shrugged.

“Well, I was raised on Nyma, I’m sure my appearance and accent can tell you that much, and I spent the vast majority of my childhood running around my village and causing trouble. I lived up in the mountains so climbing came easier than walking to me, and I grew up with very few solid buildings around. Being on a ship, well…it’s essentially the opposite. All smooth surfaces and impersonal technology. I was raised outside so being cooped up has never sat well with me.” Alfred nodded a little.

“I’m a little claustrophobic in really confined spaces, but that’s more because of other stuff. Are you from the Sulig Mountains or somewhere else?” Ayshe smiled a little, obviously reminiscing as she leant against the console casually.

“I am from the Sulig, though I don’t go there as much anymore. Some people in my tribe weren’t very happy that I chose to join the resistance. It was seen by some as taking a side in a foreign conflict, even though what the Union does has repercussions across the whole Galaxy. I wanted to help other people, so I joined because of that.” She frowned a little. “I never asked. I know that you were interested in the resistance because of Matthew, but why else did you join?”

Alfred hummed quietly. “Well, I got interested at first because of Matt, you’re right about that, but the more I thought about it, well, the more appealing it was. I’ve never been a fan of the Union. They’ve got great policies and everything, yeah, what with trying to open up trade and stuff, and their way of life is also pretty nice, but they’re so aggressive about it. They refuse to accept any system that isn’t their own. I mean, they started to despise the Free Courts because of a few little legislative disagreements, didn’t they?” Ayshe sighed.

“Well, let’s just say that the Free Courts had their name for a reason. Slavery was banned in every form on Daerna, Syhvva and Fynkn. Indentured labour was outlawed as well, and their maintenance of labour unions and worker’s rights groups was unparalleled. The Union, conversely, gains a great deal of money from allowing the slave trade to continue. To most people inside the Union, slavery is normal and acceptable. To everyone in the Free Courts, it was repugnant. They refused to allow slave traders to pass through trade routes that they owned and maintained, and also passed laws stating that any enslaved person who stepped foot on one of their planets would automatically be granted their full rights and complete freedom.”

Alfred blinked. “Damn, they really hated it, didn’t they?” Ayshe nodded.

“Oh, hell yeah. The Union ordered all of their slaver groups to stay away from the Free Courts, expecting them to fail economically, but they flourished instead. Slaves saw how good life could be in a place without forced servitude, and it caused a lot of problems in places close to the Free Courts. I guess, after a while, the Union wanted to flex it’s muscles and show everyone that it’s way of life was superior, no matter how prosperous their competitors were.”

“And that was the Expansion?”

“Yup. It was one of the many reasons that it happened, but undisputedly one of them. Add on trade disagreements, aggressive inter-planetary policies and immense tension between delegates and the Laurinaitis, Bondevik and Vargas families and, well, yeah, the Union lashed out.” Alfred winced.

“I’ve heard some pretty horrible things about the Expansion. I mean, I was in Beledent on Rywan when the huge riots happened, but I know a lot of stuff happened everywhere else too.” Ayshe winced.

“God, yeah, the Beledent riots were pretty bad, but rumour has it that things were a hundred times worse on the actual Free Courts themselves. There’s a lot of misinformation and guesswork about what exactly happened on those planets, but most people seem to agree that a lot of violence was involved. I mean, Lukas and Tori’s parents were all murdered, so that gives you an idea.”

Alfred was about to open his mouth to ask another question when the console beeped gently. Ayshe turned, looking over it.

“Ahh, I need to signal headquarters and let them know that we’re incoming. They need to set up debriefing and a runway for us to land on.” Alfred nodded.

“Oh, so you gotta signal a Vice-General or something?” Ayshe’s jaw stiffened.

“Actually, Yao told me to alert him directly when we were returning, so I had better signal him.” Alfred noted the tension in her frame and frowned.

“You alright? Did Yao piss you off or something?” Ayshe let out a low, humourless laugh.

“He…he’s an idiot, honestly. An absolute genius, yes, but also an idiot. I love him to death but-” Ayshe cut herself off, mouth slamming shut as she glanced over at Alfred, immediately giving off the impression of someone who had just said something they hadn’t meant to. Alfred smiled softly.

“Well I, uhh, I won’t tell him you said that, anyway.” Ayshe was silent for another moment before sighing.

“Yeah, I…did not mean to say that.” She turned back to the console and tapped out a few sequences, obviously alerting the rebels to their arrival. Ayshe tugged at a few strands of her hair, adjusting her updo as she crossed the space from the console to Alfred. She patted him on the shoulder.

“Be glad, kiddo, that you’ve found yourself someone willing to talk to you and tell you how they feel. Kirkland, by my observation, anyway, is both taken with you and happy to express it. There’s nothing wrong with being private but…”

“But when getting information is like pulling teeth, it’s a little aggravating?” Alfred suggested. Ayshe laughed.

“My, my, you are an observant one. And correct, too.” She smiled softly at him. “Take care of that caustic pirate of yours. You really bring out his soft side.” The admiral moved past him quietly, leaving Alfred alone to reflect on everything that she had said.

Chapter Text

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
17th Jaune

“And that is why you should always check cannon chambers before you put the heavyweight ammunition inside.” Tino finished the story cheerfully as Lukas and Mei stared at him, no small amount of concern writ on their features as they exchanged a mildly disturbed look.

“Because you might kill a pigeon?” Lukas said. Tino nodded.

“Because you might kill a pigeon.” He affirmed, tugging more of their tightly packed bags out of the storage units and dumping them on the ground. Lukas and Mei glanced at one another again, dual expressions of what the fuck? plastered in place as they moved forward to help the sniper unpack the ship. Lukas wasn’t entirely sure whether he preferred Tino’s stories of morbid humour over Ayshe’s cool lectures and war stories, but it definitely beat doing work in stony silence with Leon or listening to Arthur’s ragged coughing fits.

Lukas located his packs in the mess of bags and slung them across his shoulders. The weight was tough but familiar enough that it wasn’t uncomfortable, and he gently rubbed his fingers across the loose threads as he waited for Tino and Mei to also find their things. It felt good to be back on somewhat familiar turf. The mission on Xi Lan Ey had been stressful, and the incident with the guard at their second entry had shaken Lukas a great deal. His sleep had been fitful ever since, and he hoped that he might be able to sleep a little better somewhere that he was familiar with.

The little pep-talks from Arthur and Alfred had helped immensely too. It felt good knowing that his friends didn’t look at him differently because of what he had done. He had doubted that people like Arthur and Tino would, but Alfred and the others he had been less sure of.

The more he thought about it, the more it felt like his guilt about the matter had less to do with the fact that he had killed the man and more to do with how he had killed him. The Fynknian lahjöf were sacred, gifts that had been passed down through generations and generations of his forebears. They had been esteemed and held as a sign of the most honoured people on the entire planet. For his father, they hadn’t been a party trick to employ whenever it suited him; he had used it only with very careful consideration and discretion. His mother had found their gifts remarkable but had urged Lukas to never overuse them.

They were powerful and sacred, and he had used them to kill someone. There were very few of his ancestors who were known to have done the same, and of those few, most were infamous or outright disliked by the rest of his family.

Perhaps he would end up like his great-great-great-great grandfather, Kormak Bondevik, who was well known by his own people as ‘the Butcher King’, murdered countless people and had been overthrown and murdered by his own daughter, Eleni, when she was 17 years old. He shuddered a little as some of his self-taught history lessons about their long-term feud and the violent coup that occurred came to mind. Hopefully not.

He trudged back towards the main camp with his bags slung across his shoulders, squinting through the sun. Even though he had generally found Reycass to be unpleasant, the colder weather had made for a nice reprieve from Nyma’s unrelenting heat and dryness. Just a few moments under the sun was enough to make him sweat. As someone who had been born, raised and practically made for the cold, he couldn’t say that he was loving the return to an eternal summer. He would have killed for a cool breeze or an hour of snow.

Lukas shifted his attention away from the weather as he heard voices up ahead. Glancing to his right, he saw Yao jogging over to the group. He seemed to be visually parsing through their group, until his gaze landed and stuck on Lukas. He felt a shiver go down his spine. Yao’s expression was unreadable, but he had an odd energy about him that didn’t sit quite well with Lukas. Perhaps Ayshe had told him about what had happened at Xi Lan Ey and he was angry at Lukas for using his gifts. Maybe he had decided that it wasn’t wise to involve Lukas in missions and high-stakes assignments anymore. He felt dread claw at the pit of his stomach.

And yet, even as Lukas’ mind began to wander down concerned paths, Yao didn’t appear angry. If anything, he looked happier and happier as they approached. By the time Lukas was within earshot, Yao’s mood seemed to have flipped so dramatically it was jarring. The Yanish man was smiling, but the way he was smiling looked like he was just barely containing himself. He looked remarkably excited, especially considering that the mission hadn’t gone as well as it could have, with a surprising amount of energy about him. His whole demeanour, while obviously positive, seemed a little out-of-character. Lukas frowned, just catching Tino blinking and looking a little baffled in his peripheral vision as Yao came up to them.

“You’re all back!” he exclaimed, still smiling. No one save Lukas, Tino and Ayshe seemed to have noticed anything out of the ordinary. Arthur grunted in response and Alfred grinned, looking excited and cheerful. Ayshe nodded.

“Yes, and mostly successful, as well.” Ayshe was smiling, but Lukas could see some underlying caution in her expression. “You seem very happy.” Yao smiled.

“Well, we’ve acquired a huge amount of information to use against the Union. I feel I have the right to be pleased about that.” Ayshe nodded.

“I assume that you want us to head to debriefing, then?” she said. Yao hummed lowly, gaze jumping from Ayshe to the rest of them to their ship and back again. Lukas frowned. It wasn’t bad to see Yao have so much energy for once, but it was definitely unusual. He wondered if their success was fuelling it, or something else.

“Yes, that sounds like a good idea, though, Ayshe.” His gaze finally settled on her, his expression softening minutely – just enough for someone with Lukas’ abilities of emotional perception to pick up on. “I wish to speak to you first. Also, Lukas, I need to talk to you after debriefing, as well.” Lukas stiffened at this, but nodded regardless. Ayshe was looking over Yao carefully, lips pursed before her fondness for him obviously won out and she nodded as well. Lukas saw Alfred grin when that happened, and frowned. What on earth was he so happy about?

Forcing the issue out of his mind – it really wasn’t any of his business anyway – he followed the others towards the debriefing tent.

Ayshe followed Yao back to his tent, trying to ignore the small questions gnawing at the back of her mind as she stepped over the vast roots of the dragon trees. She was tired, of course, but any conversation with Yao automatically overruled her desire for rest, at least in terms of importance. Her was her boss, so she had to prioritise his commands and plans over her own sleep, though he would vehemently disagree with that. The one thing that she really hated, though, was that when she went along with what he wanted without thinking, it was only in part due to her being his underling.

She cursed herself internally for spilling to Alfred yesterday. She got the impression that he wouldn’t spread around what she had said – he seemed like a genuine kid, and had certainly been sincere when he had promised to keep it secret – but it was still stupid of her to have said it. She had been exhausted, and had forgotten to filter her words. It was something that she obviously had to work on. Exposing any sort of weakness was extremely unwise, not to mention dangerous.

At least I didn’t spill that little tidbit in front of Yao, she thought. Now that would have been a real disaster. Yao was, as she liked to say, a genius, but also a complete idiot. It was endearing in a way, but endlessly frustrating in another. There were countless times that she would have thought that he was flirting with her, but he was so naturally charismatic that she had no real way of knowing. Ayshe certainly wasn’t about to go and ask. She would never try to push her own feelings onto someone else, especially if they were unrequited.

She stepped under Yao’s arm as he held the curtained door open for her, murmuring her thanks. She didn’t hesitate to move over to his bed and sit down on it. They had spent so many hours talking away in this tent that she no longer needed an invitation to sit. Yao smiled softly, his energy a little more toned down than it had been at the airfield, as he moved to sit on the edge of the low table nearby.

They maintained a comfortable for a few moments, before Ayshe chose to speak up. “So, I assume that you want to know about the mission, then?” Yao hesitated a moment, before he smiled softly and shook his head.

“No, not really, I…I wanted to apologise to you, actually.” Ayshe blinked in shock.

“Apologise?” he nodded.

“I hurt you, before you left. I really didn’t mean to, but you know that I’ve never been good at dealing with things like that. I didn’t even give you the dignity of explaining myself. I just sent you away so I could stop feeling guilty.” Ayshe looked down. It was such a small thing, such a petty thing to be upset over. She recalled the night clearly; they had been discussing Xi Lan Ey, and she had placed her hand over his, but it hadn’t taken him long to pull away. She had no right to be upset; no right to act like it was something he had to do or should even feel compelled to do. The fact that he had been distant since hadn’t helped with her guilt, though, so hearing him apologise hurt a little.

“No, no, Yao…you have so much on your plate, I really shouldn’t expect you to cater to my feelings. You don’t have the time to worry about whether or not you’ve hurt me. You shouldn’t take time out of your day to think about that.” Yao looked at her.

“But I want to, Ayshe. I care about what you think and how you feel, and I’ll gladly take time out of my day for that.” She drew in a breath, warmth spreading through her chest at his words. Yao’s eyes were so warm and kind that she had to look away, out of fear that she would stare into them forever. He sighed gently. “Things…are about to change. I made plans while you were away.” Ayshe looked up.

“What sort of plans?” she asked. Yao smiled wryly.

“I’m going to send Lukas to Fynkn.” He said quietly. “It’s risky, but I feel like it can work.” Ayshe stiffened a little, but quickly relaxed again, sighing.

“I’m sure you have the whole thing mapped out.” She murmured. “Why now, though?” Yao shrugged, eyes angled down as he slowly reached across the small gap between them and gently took her hand.

“I guess I’m just feeling a little impulsive this week.” He murmured, gently interlacing their fingers. Her heart skipped a beat as she briefly considered whether or not she should try to do what her mind was urging. It could ruin the moment, of course, but…

She gently reached over, and tugged the edge of Yao’s glove down a little. He cocked his head slightly, head lowering a little even as his eyes met hers. They held eye contact for a moment before he reached down. She withdrew her hand, afraid that she had offended him, only to feel relieved as he slowly peeled his left glove off, revealing the horrific, skinless mess of his left hand. He considered his hand for a moment, as if analysing it. Ayshe reached out again and took his hand, interlacing their fingers without care for the rough and bizarre feel of his exposed muscles, bones and tendons. He relaxed a little, the tension slowly bleeding from his shoulders.

“I don’t deserve you, you know.” He murmured. A small smile graced his lips as she looked up at him, and she let out a small huff of air.

“You deserve to get what you want, no matter who or what that is.” She said earnestly. Yao was still for a moment, before smiling again.

“Good,” he said, grip tightening ever so slightly, “because I am rather fond of you.”

Her breath caught a little, and she leaned forward slightly, leaning her forehead against his.

“I’m glad that I’m not alone in that sentiment.” She confessed softly. He smiled again. They stayed like that for a long moment, before Ayshe sighed, filled with regret, and pulled away. “I should get to debriefing.” Yao sighed.

“Yes, I suppose you should.” Ayshe hesitated by the door. While she was delighted that he seemed to be displaying feelings similar to her own, his earlier behaviour had been odd, and she had completely forgotten to ask him about it.

“Yao…are you alright?” she had to try hard to not avert her gaze when he made eye contact again. He shrugged, looking a little unsure.

“I’ve just been feeling a little impulsive recently.” He repeated, turning away. “You do have debriefing to get to, Ayshe.” She hesitated, almost wanting to apologise and take his hand again, but fully aware of the fact that he would likely reject her for it. She dipped her head a little, and quickly left his tent, missing the somewhat worried look that crossed over Yao’s face as she turned her back.

By the time Ayshe trudged into the debriefing room, Lukas had already listened to Leon explain the bulk of what Team A had done at Xi Lan Ey, and had finished with the rehashing of his own experience on the mission. He glanced over at Ayshe as she came in, expression mildly troubled. Lukas frowned. He wanted to ask, or even poke around inside her head to see what had happened with Yao, but he didn’t want to violate her privacy like that. He respected and liked Ayshe a great deal, and judging by the way she and Yao interacted with one another, the conversation could have been very personal.

He turned away from her, eyes returning to Leon as the teen finished his explanation of his and Ayshe’s second infiltration of Xi Lan Ey. The admiral took a seat near Lukas quietly, looking a little pensive. Lukas pushed his growing curiosity out of his mind and focussed on Alfred’s explanation of his and Arthur’s infiltration of the lower levels. Lukas wasn’t surprised that Alfred had elected to take up the task of explaining, given how reticent and stubborn Arthur was when it came to debriefing. Lukas was fairly certain that the pirate was only in the debriefing room because Alfred had turned on the charm and begged him to come.

Ayshe pitched in on occasion to clarify details and give her own overview of the mission as a whole. As the commander who had overseen the entire operation, her input was valuable, so they spent the better half of the next thirty minutes listening to her own report. Lukas let his mind wander as Gilbert and Mei explained their role in tandem. Yao had said that he wanted to talk to him, but hadn’t exactly specified what it was about. It was enough to make him a little concerned. He knew that Yao was unlikely to be truly angry – apparently, Lukas was yet to see him as such, and should be very glad of that – but he was wasn’t exactly keen to deal with his disappointment either. He slumped down a little in his chair as they wrapped up their debriefing, staring firmly ahead with his jaw set harshly. Tino shot him a concerned look, but he shrugged it off.

Their debriefer – Aelia Gabras – tapped her fingers against the table she had been leaning against. “Well, I think that that’s everything, if no-one had anything else to-”

The curtain behind her was whipped open, and Yao strode through, looking around sharply before his gaze settled on Lukas.

“Good, you’re here. Are you done, Aelia?” Aelia blinked, looking a little taken aback before she nodded.

“Yes, but, um, Yao-”

“I’ll need to appropriate this room for a little while. I’m sorry, Aelia, but it is necessary.” He said, tone apologetic. “If everyone save Lukas can leave, I’d be appreciative.” Tino stood from his seat and booked it out of the room immediately, a soldier to the very end. Mei and Leon exchanged a look, shrugged, and left as well. Arthur, looking supremely disinterested, moved to leave, before pausing and looking at Alfred expectantly – he was waiting for him. Alfred evidently realised this as well, and grinned hugely before bounding over to Arthur’s side and following him out. Gilbert grabbed his bag – he had been too lazy to go to his tent first – and also left, throwing up a sarcastic peace sign as he exited.

Ayshe hesitated, looking at Yao curiously as Aelia left. Yao looked over at her, expression softening like it always did when she was in his line of sight.

“You can stay, of course, Ayshe.” She relaxed, smiling softly before she took a seat not far from Lukas, who was still locked up with dread. Yao pulled a small communicator from his pocket. “Octavia, if you could bring both Køhler and yourself to Tent 36 as quickly as possible? Thank you.” He dropped the communicator back into his pocket, folding his arms behind his back and scrutinising Lukas. “While we wait for some others to join us, I would like to discuss what happened at Xi Lan Ey.”

Lukas groaned, head slumping back onto his shoulders. “I know that I shouldn’t have used my gifts, okay, I know, but-”

“Are you okay?” Yao interrupted, watching him carefully. Lukas’ mouth slammed shut as he blinked in confusion. Yao continued. “I heard from Ayshe that you were rather shaken up by the whole incident, and I want to know if you are afraid that it will affect you long-term.”

“I…” Lukas trailed off. “I was just shocked, in a way. I feel more guilty about the fact that I used my gifts to kill someone than I do about committing the murder itself.” Yao hummed, leaning forward a little.

“Why, exactly?” Lukas shrugged, picking at a loose thread on his jacket.

“Well…he was going to kill Alfred…probably more than just him, actually, if I hadn’t done what I did. I just…I regret that I had to resort to my gifts to kill him. They’re supposed to be sacred, as stupid as that sounds…” Yao shook his head lightly.

“It’s not stupid at all, but, Lukas, I must ask, how much of your own family’s history do you know?” Lukas looked up, puzzled.

“Quite a lot. Why?”

“Well, are you the first person in your family who used their gifts to kill?”


“That’s right. Numbers of your ancestors did the same. Queen Laksand, King Mjirnis, Princess Sofya…”

“Kormak the Butcher.” Lukas shot back. Yao nodded.

“Oh, yes, he was a piece of work. And he was killed by his daughter, Eleni, in order to bring his reign of terror to an end. My point is, Lukas, sacred they might be, but using the lahjöf to kill is neither rare nor as bad as you seem to think. I am not trying to undermine your beliefs in regards to your own abilities. Saints know you know a lot more about them than I do, but you shouldn’t feel guilty. You killed to save a life, and I feel like the old Fynknian saints would not disapprove of that.” Lukas sighed, nodding a little. Yao hummed.

“I’ve been meaning to ask, but I’ve never really known how to broach the subject…how much of your culture have you actually managed to hold onto?” Yao asked, tone inquisitive. Lukas shrugged.

“I still remember a lot, I mean…Emilia and I tried to stay connected to our home even though we weren’t there, but I don’t really know how well we managed that, objectively speaking.” Yao nodded slowly as he processed what Lukas was saying.

“I see…my question is, in relation to Fynknian people who have remained on Fynkn their whole lives, would you stand out in comparison?” Lukas shrugged, starting to feel a little frustrated.

“How the hell would I know?” he snapped. “And why does it matter?” Yao smiled, reached under the desk, and picked something else. He tossed it to Lukas, who caught it awkwardly and turned it over in his hands, frowning.

“Boots?” he asked. “I mean, thanks? But why are you giving me these?” he examined them. They were a little taller than he was used to wearing, coming to maybe his mid-calf. They were made of thick, strong black leather, with very thick insulation and tight black laces. The grooves on the bottom were very deep and bizarrely layered. Yao was smiling.

“Those are Venkater boots. They’re very well-made ones, too, so do take care of them. They’re designed to insulate while also remaining very pliable and easy to move in. The soles are designed to have a strong grip while also preventing the grooves from getting cluttered up with sediment from the ground. They’re very well-liked around here, of course, though this isn’t exactly the environment for them.” Lukas raised an eyebrow. Both Yao and Ayshe were exchanging small looks.

“I don’t follow.” He said. Yao’s expression turned a little pensive and expectant.

“They work best in ice and snow. They’re originally from Rinka on Fynkn, so they are the best that you’re gonna get.” Lukas stared at him. Yao stared back, looking a little amused. “Well, you could look a little more excited. If you find a pair of shoes that can tread in snow better than those, sue me.” Lukas frowned a little, confusion rising as he felt his heart start to race just a little.

“Well what good are snow boots to me?” Yao rolled his eyes.

“Not now, of course. They’ll be more useful on Fynkn, so don’t go wearing them down just yet.”

Lukas jerked so roughly that he nearly dropped the boots on the ground. He could feel that his eyes were ridiculously wide, and that his expression was probably frozen into a look of burgeoning hope, but he didn’t particularly care. Yao smiled softly, and took a seat nearby.

“You…you made a very good point, when you said that you would be more useful in the field than sitting around here on Nyma. I thought it about it a lot, and, well, if you were going to go anyway, I would want you to go home. Fynknians look out for each other, especially in the case of the rebels. You would be safe, or at least safer there than any other active warzone. I know I’m not always a good listener, but I think I managed okay this time.” Lukas was still silent and gawking at Yao, his mind failing to catch up with what he was hearing.

“You…you’re actually…” he stammered out, unable to get over his shock. Yao nodded.

“I’ve chosen to send you to Fynkn to fight.” Yao confirmed. “You’re capable enough that I trust you with that now. However,” he held a hand up as Lukas went to speak again, “regardless of what you think of your position or importance or even your perceived expendability, you are not disposable in the slightest. I want to know that you will be protected, directly, and fairly well. For that reason, I’m going to be sending someone with you. Their mission is to keep watch of you and make sure you don’t act too recklessly or get into a life-or-death situation. I do trust you, Lukas, I do, but I do not trust everyone on Fynkn, so for that reason, it is necessary. You can either go to Fynkn with a protector, or stay here without one. It’s your choice.”

Lukas exhaled. He wasn’t keen at the idea of being watched like a hawk or looked after by some glorified bodyguard, but at the same time…he couldn’t stand not doing something for his planet and his people. Even if he was being ghosted by some elite fighter, it was better than sitting idle. He sighed.

“I…I’ll go to Fynkn. Bodyguard included.” He said murmured. Yao smiled softly.

“I guessed that you would say that.” He said, just as voices began to filter into the tent from inside. “Now, in doing this, I must warn you, I am killing two birds with one stone. You get to go to Fynkn and fight-” the curtain behind him opened, revealing Octavia hauling along a tall, disgruntled blonde behind her, “and Mr Køhler here has the opportunity to win his friends’ freedom.” He turned back to Lukas. “I hope you don’t object.”

It was then that Lukas recognised the tall man. He was one of the bounty hunters that had been taken captive. One of the ones that had been present when the clever assassin had figured out his identity. The bounty hunter who – he recalled, as the man raised his head a little and shifted his face more into the light – had even gone so far as to attempt to flirt with him. Lukas scowled a little, folding his arms as he threw the bounty hunter a somewhat unimpressed look.

“I mean…it could be worse.” The bounty hunter scowled at him, and Lukas decided that, just this once, he would allow his petty streak to shine. “Not much worse, but still.” Yao sighed, Octavia snorted and Ayshe grinned. The bounty hunter was looking him up and down, obviously scrutinising him. Lukas shifted a little, somewhat uncomfortable under the unfamiliar man’s gaze, but quickly returned the sentiment.

The guy was tall, first off – maybe 6’2’’ or so – which put him at almost half a foot taller than Lukas. He had a somewhat heavier build, too, with shoulders much broader than Lukas. Lukas shrugged it off. He’d never cared much for height or body type. His only concern was the potential disparity between their physical capabilities. The last thing he wanted was to be less apt than a damned bounty hunter who clearly didn’t want to be involved in the situation.

The guy was fairly handsome, that he had to admit, with his wild golden hair, dark blue eyes and a strong jawline to boot. Lukas noted his frame, and realised with a pang that the guy was noticeably thinner than he had been when they’d first interacted in Maarch. Clearly, imprisonment had not agreed with him. He felt the smallest sliver of sympathy for the guy, but not enough for him to overlook the obvious discontent that the guy was feeling.

“This gentleman is Matthias Køhler, the leader of the little band of bounty hunters that we incarcerated. I’ve promised him that if he protects you and looks out for you on Fynkn until I say so, I will free his friends.” Lukas glanced over at Yao, a little alarmed. He was going to free all of the criminals they had been holding? Even though they knew about him? Yao gave him a look, one which clearly said trust me on this. Lukas sighed, but nodded.

“Yeah, and you’d better deliver on that promise if I have to escort this infant everywhere.” Lukas scowled.

“I’m sorry, infant?” he snapped. “I’m quite clearly not a child.” The bounty hunter – Køhler – smirked.

“You seem to whine like one enough, so I thought it was fitting.” Lukas rolled his eyes.

“Well, I might not be an infant, but you appear to have the maturity of one.”

Køhler cocked his head to the side. “Funny, I thought you grew up out of the palace?” Lukas frowned, irritation rising.

“I did, primarily. What does that have to do with anything?”

“I’m just saying, if you didn’t grow up in the palace, why do you act like you have every silver spoon in the system shoved up your ass?” Lukas looked over at him sharply, anger beginning to bubble below the surface.

“Well that’s still better than acting like I was raised by a pair of starved dogs.”

Køhler grinned and put his hands on his hips. “Well, well then, you have quite the tongue on you. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?” Lukas rolled his eyes.

“No, she’s dead. But I’ll happily call you out on your bullshit with it.” The bounty hunter whistled.

“I didn’t know that they taught children to curse so young.”

“I’m nineteen years old you insufferable ass-”

“You’re nineteen?” the blond exclaimed, cutting him off mid-insult. “You’re shitting me.” Lukas scowled.

“What, do you want my fucking birth certificate or something? Yes, I’m nineteen.” Køhler raised an eyebrow.

“Fucking how? You look about sixteen.” Lukas sighed, completely and utterly done with the conversation.

“Oh, chronic malnutrition and poverty, I guess.” The bounty hunter frowned at him a little, but didn’t retort with another sharp comment. Lukas seemed to have legitimate cowed him.

“Are you two done? Or….??” Lukas froze, at that moment remembering that he and the bounty hunter weren’t alone in the room. He turned to look at his three superiors. Yao had his head in his hands and Octavia looked very exasperated. Ayshe, the one who had asked the question, looked a little like someone drowning on dry land. He chose not to answer, disregarding Køhler’s amused snort from behind him. Yao heaved a huge sigh.

“Well, I must admit, I don’t think anyone has ever made me regret an idea so much so quickly. Two minutes; that must be some kind of record. Well done, you two.” Lukas felt a stab of apprehension go through him.

“I…this doesn’t mean that I can’t go anymore, does it?” he murmured. Yao sighed.

“Oh, of course you’re still going. It looks like you’re both in for an unpleasant trip, but you’re both still going. You leave tomorrow at noon, so you might want to try and get along a little better before then.” Lukas frowned, displeasure increasing when he saw the smirk on the bounty hunter’s face. The man saw him looking and winked again.

“Oh, don’t worry darling, I’ll keep you safe.” He purred, tone mocking to the last. Lukas scowled.

“I feel like us spending more time together isn’t wise, considering that I’m already restraining myself from shoving these new boots up his ass.” Lukas growled. The bounty hunter laughed, but he didn’t fail to notice that the taller man also took a half-step backwards.

“So hostile.” He teased.

“Oh, just you wait-”

“Lukas.” He cut himself off, looking over at Yao’s disapproving frown. The bounty hunter huffed.

“Do I really have to take care of this bratty little kid?” he asked, tone irritated. Lukas was dying inside to snap back at him, but he restrained himself. Yao already didn’t seem that impressed with his behaviour thus far, and the last thing he wanted was to be seen as too immature to go to Fynkn.

“Yes.” Yao snapped, frowning at the guy. “Now, if you two would stop snarking at each other, I need to explain what is actually going to happen when you are on Fynkn.” They both fell silent. Yao sighed. “Okay, thank you. Now, things are going to be a little complicated when you are on Fynkn, so bear with me here.” He eyed them carefully, and when they maintained their silence, continued.

“Tomorrow, you two are both going to be departing for Fynkn. A few other Fynknian rebels who were briefly trained and housed here will be going with you, along with a lot of supplies. The rebels have a constant stream of new recruits coming in, so you two won’t stand out too much. We are also known for sending the occasional soldier to bolster their forces. Matthias, that is what you will be pretending to be.” The blond wrinkled his nose a little but didn’t speak.

“You are both aware of the sort of climate that Fynkn has to offer, I’m sure. It is a primarily mountainous environment, which can be very difficult to navigate and survive, much less fight in. The rebels take a guerrilla warfare approach, which helps somewhat, but it is still a challenging place to be. It is customary that the rebels train anyone that joins their cause looking to fight, both for combat and survival reasons. You two will not be exempt from that when you arrive. I’m not sure how long that preliminary training takes, but given your respective skill levels, I would wager that you two would be kept in training for no longer than a month or so. When that training ends, most recruits are placed in pairs and then assigned to squads which then do reconnaissance, rescue, supply runs and combat.” Yao eyed them.

“Lukas, I will need to you to convince them to place Matthias and yourself into a pair. There’s no point in me creating this plan if you two are only together for a month.” Lukas clenched his jaw but nodded. The bounty hunter was looking at him curiously, gaze unreadable. Yao straightened up. “After that, well, I expect you two to work as a team. Matthias, your only job here is to protect Lukas. Lukas, your job is to try and tolerate Matthias’ presence.” Yao ignored the blond’s irritated protests at that and ploughed onwards.

“Now, I am expecting you two to try and act at least civilly towards each other. I don’t care if you don’t agree on every last thing, but I am asking that you afford one another a certain degree of mutual respect. You both have reasons for being involved here, and I want you to acknowledge that.” Lukas sighed, but nodded anyway.

“Now, the leader of the Fynknian Rebel Front is a former military researcher named Galina Hansen. She is a formidable woman and truly a force to be reckoned with. She built the Fynknian rebellion from the ground up. She is also determined to see Fynkn restored to it’s former state. Her commitment and bravery are very commendable, and most Fynknians see her as their best hope of beating the Union.” Lukas could hear the admiration in Yao’s voice as he spoke.

“I haven’t seen her in about five years, but she isn’t the type to change much. From what I remember, she will do anything to protect the royal family or anything affiliated with them. Unfortunately, this would put quite the dent in your plans to fight, Lukas, since she would be fiercely against allowing you to fight.” Lukas’ heart sank a little. Yao noticed his alarm and rushed to reassure him.

“That being said, I want to at least give you the chance to prove your worth in a battlefield, so we’re going to have to lie a little to Commander Hansen.” Lukas blinked, realising what Yao was saying.

“I’m going under an alias again?” Yao nodded.

“Yes. You’ll go under the guise of Lukas Christensen again, the same alias you use here. We’ve spent a good amount of time adding to your files and information in order to make you as believable as possible. As I have already explained to Matthias here, Lukas became a much more common name after you were born, so it is not too incriminating. To maintain that façade, of course, you will also be pretending to be a bit younger than you actually are. I think you can do it because, as Matthias said more bluntly earlier, you do look a little younger than you are, so again, it shouldn’t be a hard deception to manage.” Lukas nodded, still feeling a little prickly about that. Yao eyed them both carefully. “I don’t want to give you two too much information, since most recruits are not well-versed about rebel life or their leadership. Galina Hansen is the one figure that everyone knows of, but other than that, most rebels with significant influence stay under the radar.” Yao clapped his gloved hands together. “Okay, any questions?”

Lukas shook his head, and the bounty hunter also stayed silent. Yao nodded. “Good. You have tonight to pack your warmest clothes and anything else that you might want. This placement could shape up to be a long one.” Lukas didn’t miss the way that Køhler’s mouth jerked at that – it clearly wasn’t something that he was hoping for.

“Get a lot of sleep, you two. You’ll need it.” They nodded, the bounty hunter looking distinctly more glum than Lukas as he was shepherded out of the tent by Octavia. Ayshe was smiling softly, and raised her hand in farewell as she also slipped outside. Lukas hesitated.

“Yao…” the man looked up, gaze curious.

“Yes, Lukas?” he said. “Do you object to the plan?” Lukas opened his mouth to speak, but found no appropriate words to say. He rocked backwards and forwards on his feet before his gratitude overwhelmed his pride and he darted forward to hug Yao around the middle.

“Thank you.” He said, voice muffled somewhat from where part of his mouth was pressed against Yao’s jacket. Yao was still, clearly unsure how to handle the situation.

“I…” Lukas felt Yao’s hands cautiously land on his upper back, before the older man relaxed into the motion a little and hugged him back. “I’m glad that you’re happy.” Lukas sighed. He knew that it was strange of him – he was technically hugging his boss, after all – but the gesture felt so familiar and familial that he couldn’t help himself. Hugging Yao reminded him of how his own father would wrap him up tight in his arms and swing him around when he was a child.

He reluctantly pulled away, averting his gaze. He could see Yao smiling at him gently in his peripheral vision.

“I meant it, you know, when I said that you would need some sleep.” Yao said, effortlessly breaking the silence and easing the building awkwardness. Lukas nodded, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Yeah, I know, I know.”

Lukas Bondevik was…interesting. Peculiar? Matthias shook his head as he shifted through his clothes, picking out anything long sleeved or warm and setting them aside. He didn’t exactly know what words would be best to describe the prickly young prince. He certainly wasn’t like what Matthias had expected.

Regardless of the Expansion and it’s repercussions, a part of him had expected a stuck up kid stuffed to the brim with his own self-importance. But in real life? The kid seemed a little grouchy and proud, but he didn’t have the ridiculous airs of arrogance that even low-ranked lords that Matthias had met in the past seemed to have.

It was stupid of him to have expected someone who was royal in terms of behaviour as well as bloodline, especially given that he hadn’t been raised in that environment for most of his life. Not to mention, Tori was nothing like that, and she was royalty as well. She had the whole retrograde amnesia thing going on as well, but regardless.

The guy wasn’t…overly unpleasant. He was witty, that was for sure, and had a quick reaction time, but he didn’t seem like someone that Matthias would outright despise. If he was being completely honest, Matthias thought that he might have taken some of his anger about the situation he was in out on the prince. Maybe he would apologise for it later. Maybe.

He evaluated a pair of thickly-insulated boots that he had rarely worn before decisively placing them in the luggage pile. Octavia had warned him about the temperature range on Fynkn, and it wasn’t exactly promising. Matthias did love the cold, but even he demanded that it be in moderation. Fynkn was essentially a winter wonderland all year round. The only place on the entire planet that ever got hot was the very north pole. It was there that Ivaana was from. Her tribe were the only people on the whole planet that didn’t have starkly pale skin and white hair.

His thoughts drifted to the prince again. He screamed ‘Fynknian’ with every fibre of his appearance. From the fair skin, untouched by a tan despite him apparently having lived on Nyma for months now, to the white hair and dark blue eyes, he stuck out sorely. The guy wasn’t unpleasant to look at; rather the opposite, actually, but it interested Matthias to see how he differed from Ivaana. His little sister had olive skin, light brown hair and pale blue eyes. But then, the Hrinnskél people were an anomaly on Fynkn.

Sighing, Matthias took a seat on his bed. He had always hoped that his sister would get to go back to her home planet one day. It felt wrong that he got to see it before she did. He sighed. He didn’t want to be a teenager’s bodyguard, or a soldier for the Fynknian rebels, but he was doing this to free his friends. As long as he could get them out of the prison that they were stuck in, this would all be worth it.


Lukas had just about finished packing when Kari came into his tent. He looked up, caught sight of the drawn look on her face, and knew immediately that she knew what he was doing. He paused, gently putting down the clothes he had been holding. She looked completely lost, and unsure of how to begin.


“You’ll be fine, won’t you?” he paused, unsure of how to respond. The way she said it, it sounded both like a question and like she was trying to reassure herself of it.

“I…I’ll try my best.” He said weakly. Kari’s hands were shaking slightly.

“I’ve been on Fynkn, before, as a fighter. Most people there know who I am, actually. It……Lukas, it is not a pleasant place to go, not anymore. The sorts of things that the Union does to our people…it’s…I don’t want you to have to see those sorts of things.” She clasped her hands together. “I don’t want you to be in danger.”

“Kari…” he said gently. “I…I’m not eight years old anymore.”

She drew in a shaky breath, then laughed. “No, you aren’t, are you?” she looked away. “God, I am being stupid, aren’t I? You, you can fight, you can take care of yourself. I know that. You did that for years without any help from anyone. Now you’ll even have someone to keep you safe, but I’m still being stupid and getting worried about this.” He swallowed and reached out to her a little.

“No, Kari, you’re not…” she raised her head, eyes glittering with unshed tears, then moved forward and wrapped him tight in a hug.

“Keep yourself alive, okay? That’s all I need you to do. Please just keep yourself alive for me.”

Lukas nodded. “I…of course. I’ll be back in a few months, I swear.” Kari sniffed, grip tightening a little. After a minute or two, Kari detached herself from him, smiling weakly.

“You need some help packing?” she asked, voice husky.

Lukas smiled gently, and nodded.

Oslaholm, Fynkn,
13th Janwir, 4498CC
(14 years ago)

Astrid gently combed her hands through her son’s hair, looking up fearfully at the woman with the measuring device clasped in her hands. The reading was still displayed on the screen, easy for them all to see. The woman was staring at Lukas with an expression of open curiosity and amazement. Astrid tightened her grip on him ever so slightly. It was the smallest of movements, but was obviously enough to catch the woman’s attention. She stiffened, turning away with a murmured apology.

Astrid glanced over at Oskar, who looked more pensive and drawn than she had ever seen him, gaze fixed resolutely on the number on the screen; 1,847.

“It shouldn’t be possible.” He murmured, breaking the almost complete silence in the room. “If his score outdoes even King Delmar’s-”

“It could explain the appearance of the Hellig last month, your majesty.” The woman said gently. “Such power would easily draw in such creatures.” Oskar hummed.

“Mind how you refer to them.” He said, tone gentle rather than disparaging. The woman straightened up, paling a little, and nodded.

“I meant no offence.” She said. Oskar shook his head.

“I know, and you didn’t not offend me. I meant it only as a point of reference for the future.” He sighed, rolling his shoulders. Astrid frowned. His left scapula hadn’t been the same since he had fractured it a few years ago, and she could tell that it was troubling him again. “What exactly does this mean for our son, Corporal?” the woman blinked.

“The scale is a measure of aggregate power only. I won’t lie, 1,847 is a very high score, a record-maker, in fact, but if the Hellig are drawn to him, it is not solely because of the strength of his gifts, but rather other factors in his personality and spirit which may be emerging. The bond between a Hellig and a Bondevik is a spiritual one, after all.” Oskar nodded.

“What details were you given about the Hellig that entered the palace, Corporal?” the woman hummed.

“Not much, your majesty. I know only that it did no harm to anyone in the palace.” Oskar nodded.

“Were you also told that that very same Hellig spent an hour entertaining my son in the palace gardens?” the woman looked astonished.

“I did not know that, your majesty.”

“And were you told that the Hellig which acted so vastly out of character was Vidunder, well known as the most violent of the nine and the most reclusive of them all, save Formynder herself?” the woman had gone white.

“No, your majesty, I was not informed of that.” Oskar hummed again, rolling his shoulder once more. Astrid frowned, but didn’t say anything.

“What is your take on that? Why would they come here?” the woman hesitated.

“I hesitate to make assumptions, your majesty, but I might guess that it would be in part due to legitimate interest on their parts.”

Astrid sucked in a breath, hugging her four-year-old son even closer. He looked up at her, blue eyes wide with childlike wonder and confusion. She smiled warmly at him, combing his fluffy white hair off his forehead and praying that the slight tremor in her hand wasn’t noticeable.

“Would you recommend taking action on this, Corporal?” the woman hesitated.

“I…I would not, your majesty. It is not wise to rush instances such as this. It may just be idle interest. Making the assumption that they find him worthy could even be seen as insulting, and I would recommend you avoid doing such a thing.” Oskar nodded, sighing.

“Very well. Thank you for your time, Corporal. This has been enlightening.” The woman nodded, bowing deeply.

“It is my honour, your majesty.” She took her leave quietly, scooping the machine from the tables as she left. The door shut silently as Astrid picked Lukas up and propped him on her hip as she made her way to her husband’s side.

“Everything will be okay, Oskar.” She said, gently tapping on his shoulder. “It’s nothing to worry about.” Oskar sighed, leaning back a little and staring up at her adoringly.

“I wish I had your self-assuredness.” He murmured. “I hope this doesn’t get out of hand.” Astrid nodded.

“That Corporal seems genuine. She won’t spread this around, and our staff wouldn’t dare do it either.” Oskar nodded.

“I suppose you’re right.” His expression brightened as he looked over at Lukas, who still looked very confused by the conversation that was happening. “Is your arm okay now?” Lukas pouted, rubbing at his arm where the needle had pierced it just a few minutes ago. Astrid could never get over how quiet and cooperative a child he was. Emilia would kick and scream at the first sign of something she didn’t like, but Lukas was remarkably level-headed, for a four-year-old.

“Yes papa, but I’d feel better with some sweet cakes.” He sent Oskar a sidelong glance that made him laugh. The king of Fynkn smiled, all tension leaving his body as he smiled at his son and gently took him from his wife’s arms.

“Alright, fair enough. Sweet cakes it is.” He shot a smile over his son’s head at Astrid, who was grinning. “I will see you later, my love, but for now, we have a kitchen to raid.” Lukas squirmed in excitement as Oskar carted him off towards the kitchens. Astrid sighed quietly. Being married to royalty wasn’t easy, but sometimes it was really worth it.

Chapter Text

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
18th Jaune

Alfred only found out that one of his best friends in the universe would be on another planet for several months right before he left. Upon discovering that news, he had decided that absolutely fucking booking it to Matthias’ tent to say goodbye was necessary. To his delight, Gilbert and Tori joined him in this venture, and the three of them spent a good ten minutes weaving through lines of tents in order to track down the outlandish blond.

Alfred cursed internally. He had been so caught up with Arthur in the last few days that he had forgotten to check up on his other friends. And he did love Arthur, of course he did, but he shouldn’t have placed absolutely all of his attention on him. There were other people he cared about as well.

Their ruffled trio finally stumbled into the small area that Yao had told them Matthias had been staying in, and looked around desperately, none of them having so much as a clue of which one was supposed to be his.

“Guys?” a confused voice said from behind them. They spun around, shouting in delight when they realised that the voice had belonged to no other than Matthias himself. Their leader looked rather puzzled but not displeased when they rushed to hug him, though he did push them off after a moment, citing the fact that he did, in fact, need oxygen to live.

“Dang, you all need to calm down a little. You’re acting like I’m about to be executed.” He scoffed, though he looked a bit touched by their actions. Alfred pouted.

“Dude, you’re leaving! How long are you gonna be gone? Where are you going? Why? Are you part of the resistance now or what? Are you going with anyone?” anyone else would have blinked and been absolutely overwhelmed by Alfred’s tirade of questioning, but Matthias knew him, and very well at that, so he didn’t look surprised.

“According to Yao I’ll be gone a few months, I’m going to Fynkn to protect that royal brat, not because I’m part of the resistance, but because he said that he would free us all if I did.” They all took a moment to take that in.

“I didn’t even know that Lukas was leaving.” Tori mused. Matthias shrugged.

“He got told yesterday. I’m pretty sure I knew before he did.” Alfred frowned.

“But dude…Fynkn is so far away, and isn’t it super dangerous?” Matthias sighed.

“I mean…yeah, that’s why Yao doesn’t want to send the Bondevik kid alone. I’m a little more dispensable, I guess, so I have to stop him from getting himself killed.” They all fell silent, before Gilbert spoke up.

“Why on earth would you agree to something like that?” Matthias sighed.

“Again, Yao promised that if I went along with his scheme that he would free those of us that are still imprisoned, so I’m doing it for them. You guys might have forgotten about them but I haven’t.” they all fell silent, before Matthias bit his lip. “I…I’m sorry, that wasn’t fair.” Alfred shook his head.

“It’s okay man. You’re not wrong, after all.” He muttered. Gilbert smiled slightly.

“Yeah. Alfred’s been too occupied making out with Captain Kirkland to think about much else.” Alfred made an undignified squawking noise as Tori’s mouth dropped open and Matthias’ eyes went comically wide.

“Wait, really?” Tori asked, rounding on Alfred. “When the hell did that happen?” Alfred stammered incoherently, subconsciously planning to murder Gilbert at the first opportunity as he tried to give a somewhat understandable answer.

“While we were on our mission.” Gilbert said, rolling his eyes. “You should have seen them.” Matthias was laughing.

“Well, congrats, I guess. Honestly, in hindsight I’m not too surprised by that.” Matthias chuckled. Alfred spluttered, face red, and decided to get one up on Gilbert.

“Well he’s spent all his time since joining up gawking at my brother!” he said, jabbing a thumb at Gilbert, who immediately flushed red and made a noise reminiscent of a beached whale.

“Fuck you! I have not!” Gilbert said, face going even redder even as he vehemently denied having a crush on Matthew. Alfred rolled his eyes.

“Oh please, you’re even more obvious than I was!” Alfred retorted.

“Al, I do not have a crush on your brother!”

“Oh? That’s a shame. You’re kinda cute.” Gilbert froze, the blush on his face spreading rapidly to his neck and ears as they all spun and saw Matthew standing there with a breezy grin on his face, Lukas Bondevik in tow. Gilbert stammered a little, looking completely and utterly overwhelmed as Matthew chuckled and turned his gaze on Matthias.

“Sorry to interrupt, but you guys are leaving in about twenty minutes.” Alfred saw Matthias’ gaze shift from Matthew to Lukas, and a slight amount of apprehension cross his features.

“Fine then.” Matthias said. “I just need to grab my stuff.” Alfred saw Lukas run his eyes over them all, and frown slightly before speaking.

“Just…say goodbye to your friends. Matthew and I can grab your luggage.” Matthias raised an eyebrow.

“Oh? Why are you in such a friendly mood this morning?” Lukas wordlessly gave him the finger and marched past him. Matthias looked politely baffled but also somewhat pleased as he nodded to himself and then turned back to them. They were all silent for a moment, before Alfred darted forward and hugged him.

“Try not to get yourself killed, alright? Stick by Lukas, he can kill people with his mind.” Matthias blinked, looking a little alarmed.

“Err…got it. I’ll try not to piss him off more than I already have.” Matthias said, not looking overly reassured. Gilbert stepped up to hug him next. Alfred didn’t hear what they said to each other, but Matthias looked a little happier when they separated. Tori had to do a little jump to wrap her hands around Matthias’ shoulders, but she managed it.

“You’ll be fine, I know it. Lukas can be a bit cold at times, but when he warms up to you he’s a really good person. Just try to get along?” Matthias laughed, and nodded.

“Okay, okay, I’ll try.” Tori grinned as she stepped away again, turning when she saw Lukas and Matthew emerge from Matthias’ tent with all his things draped over their backs and shoulders. She darted over and hugged Lukas, murmuring something to him too. Alfred saw him nod and separate from her, saying something in return. Matthias approached them slowly, taking some of his things from Lukas and Matthew with muttered thanks, slinging them across his broad shoulders. He tossed them a wide smile, showing none of the uncertainty that he might have felt, and followed Matthew and Lukas away.

Lukas was silent as they walked towards the airfield. He still had one of his new companion’s bags slung over his shoulder, and was casually tugging at a loose thread on the side. He saw Matthew glance at both of them before clearing his throat.

“I’m gonna go ahead and see how the flight preparations are coming along.” He sent them a rakish grin. “Try not to tear one another apart just yet.” Before either of them could protest, the other man had darted off towards the airfield. Lukas sighed. He expected to be immediately barraged with more sharp comments, mockery and childish insults, and was surprised when Køhler remained completely silent.

Lukas glanced at his face in his peripheral vision. The taller man looked drawn and a little wary. His emotions were clear even without the ability to read minds; he was a little afraid, but completely unwilling to show it. Lukas sighed. He and this bounty hunter would be forced to rely on one another for the next few months, so it probably wasn’t ideal that their last real conversation before going to Fynkn was them hurling insults at one another.

“Listen…” he said, averting his gaze when the bounty hunter looked over at him, “I won’t lie. I don’t want to have someone constantly breathing down my neck. I can take care of myself and the only reason that Yao is refusing to see that is because he’s stupidly overprotective of things. I don’t want to have a bodyguard or be forced to spend a bunch of time with a stranger.” The other man was silent. Lukas sighed again, and continued. “But…I don’t have anything against you personally. I don’t think either of us wants to be in this situation. You’re doing this to free your friends, right?” the bounty hunter nodded. “Well, my point is, we’re both doing this because it’s better than the alternative. Me being able to fight with a bodyguard is preferable to staying on Nyma forever, just like you cooperating with the resistance for several months is preferable over staying trapped in a cell forever.”

“I’m aware of that.” The bounty hunter cut in. “What’s your point?” Lukas sighed.

“My point is, though neither of us wants to be in this exact situation, we’re stuck with it anyway. I think we were both taking out our frustrations about this whole mess on each other yesterday. Again, I have nothing against you, I just think it’ll be a little easier for us both if we stop seeing each other as the problem here.” The other man was silent, before humming quietly.

“You make a good point.” He conceded. “I didn’t really mean to offend you so much yesterday.” The man sent him a grin. “Though, you shouldn’t be so easy to tease.” Lukas rolled his eyes, but he didn’t feel half as irritated as he had yesterday.

“Well, bounty hunter? Do you think we can tolerate each other for a few months?” Lukas said. The man shrugged.

“I suppose so. And my name is Matthias, by the way, little princeling.”

“Well if you want me to call you Matthias then you can’t call me ‘little princeling’. That’s a little hypocritical.”

“How about good old ‘Bondevik’? Or ‘Christensen’, since that’s your alias, right?” Lukas raised an eyebrow.

“Fine. Køhler.” He retorted. The taller man grinned.

“That works too, I guess.”

Szwicza District,
Bibesti, Rela,
18th Jaune

Lovino muttered a curse as he shifted through the stack. He had looked through every last nook and cranny of their apartment where he had stashed money over the last six years, but the amount that his search had turned up was much smaller than he would have wanted. Even as he shuffled through the meagre number of notes, he was recalling moments that he had dug into their stash to pay for another month of rent or some extra food if Feli had been looking thinner than usual when they were younger.

He slumped against the moth-eaten couch, counting the notes under his breath. There was nowhere near enough for them to leave the planet and then establish an even somewhat decent life anywhere. Lovino had had to work hard as fuck to get the place they had now, and it was still a complete shithole. He growled. Why the fuck did they have to up and leave just because that psychotic glorified beat cop? He groaned. He didn’t want to leave, he didn’t want to listen to that woman…but she would kill them if they didn’t go, and living in poverty or even being homeless again was a better option than being dead.

Lovino let out a shuddering sigh. For the first time in maybe eight years, he was finding himself on the verge of tears. He buried his face in his hands, trying to force the emotions back. He knew that there was no shame in crying, but he didn’t have the time to feel sorry for himself. For his own sake, and, more importantly, for Feli’s as well, he needed to scrounge up as much money in the next week as he could. He cursed. He had tried to move away from pickpocketing and mugging and street-fighting not only because he wanted to stay under the radar but because he wanted to be a better person too. It looked like that little endeavour of his was going to have to be thrown out the window.

“Lovi?” Feliciano’s voice was quiet. Lovino had explained the whole situation to him shortly after the woman had approached him, and he seemed even more fearful of the whole debacle than Lovino was. He cursed internally as he felt wetness on his cheeks and hands, and felt a sob bursting to escape his throat. He hated feeling so weak and helpless, especially when he had his younger brother to take care of as well. He needed to be strong, not for himself, but for Feliciano.

Lovino felt gentle hands rest on his forearms, carefully moving his fingers away from his face. Feliciano’s face crumpled in sympathy when he saw the tears running down his brother’s face, and didn’t hesitate to wrap him in a hug. Lovino;s breath hitched, a lone sob escaping his mouth as he slumped into Feliciano’s hold.

“Everything will work out okay, Lovi.” His little brother murmured softly. “I don’t mind leaving. As long as we stay together, it doesn’t matter where we are, right?”

Lovino sniffed, pulling away a little to wipe at his face. He chuckled softly.

“I don’t understand how you can be so optimistic, even now. I don’t know how you do it.”

Feliciano shrugged, smiling softly. “Because I know that it’s true. They can throw what they want at us but as long as we’re together, we can beat them. We’ll be fine, so don’t worry about it.”

Lovino chuckled, voice husky. “When did our roles reverse?” Feliciano smiled softly.

“I just thought…you’ve spent your whole life taking care of me, so it’s only right that I return the favour, yeah?” Lovino rolled his eyes good-naturedly, hugging him again.

“That’s not at all how it works, but alright then.” He pulled away after another moment, smiling weakly.

“You wanna show me what progress you’ve made with the Fuenar?” he asked. Feliciano immediately brightened, rushing to find his lighter as his brother grinned.

Onboard the LWSS Vexer,
In open space,
19th Jaune

Lukas gazed out the window idly. The captain had informed them that they would arrive early in the morning tomorrow, but he felt too restless to sleep. The ship that they were travelling in was a lot bulkier than he was used to. Fynkn was only a system or so over from Nyma, but it was taking them longer than usual to get there because of the ship’s slowness. It made him antsy, but another part of him was grateful.

He hadn’t been back to Fynkn since the Expansion; since the Union had murdered his parents and plunged his entire life into chaos. Since he had been forced to run for his life at the young age of eight, and take care of a sister who had known even less than he had. On occasion, he allowed himself to wonder what his life would be like, had the Expansion never happened. He would have been raised in the palace, of course, by his very-much-so living parents, and…well, he probably wouldn’t have been the same person that he was now.

He would have grown up being taught languages and foreign policy and all number of other relevant topics. He would have accompanied his parents to state dinners and been encouraged to go out and spend time with his subjects, delighting them with his mere presence. His life would have been what the life of royalty was normally like.

He…probably would not have had too many friends, given the security that had plagued the Bondeviks since the assassination of Carina Vargas. The Queen of Syhvva had been murdered before Emilia had even been born, and yet her death had altered the Free Courts irreversibly in the years before the Expansion. Lukas himself didn’t remember the day much. His mother had been heavily pregnant – just two months away from giving birth, and he himself hadn’t even been three yet. Most of what he remembered he felt that he had accidentally plucked from his parents’ memories; they had both been remarkably close to Carina Vargas, and the event had shaken them both to their core.

Elacenza, Syhvva,
7th Apryl, 4496CC,
(16 years ago)

Lukas idly reached over and tugged gently on Lovino’s hair. He didn’t know how else he was supposed to gain his friend’s attention, even though it seemed to annoy the four-year-old a little.

“Owwwww!” Lovino said, mouth turning down at the corners as his small hands moved up to grab at the sore spot on his head. “That hurts!”. Lukas slumped a little, upset. He hadn’t meant to hurt his friend. Lovino and him hadn’t known each other for very long, but he liked him. Sometimes when he got excited sparks would fly from his hands, even though Lovino’s mama said that wasn’t supposed to happen until he was older, and his hair was red!

“Lukas, honey, don’t pull Lovi’s hair.” His mama said, gently combing her hand through his hair. Lukas pouted. He used to do that to mama, but it never bothered her. He wasn’t allowed to do that right now – her stomach was really big, so she was probably sick – and she couldn’t pick him up as easily.

“Sowwy.” He said softly. “I wanna-ed talk to you.” Lovino huffed, arms folded grumpily but not looking half as angry anymore.

“Then call my name. It’s easy.” Lukas beamed, nodding as all of his sadness was forgotten. Lovino rubbed his nose. “So what’d you wanna say?” Lukas sighed softly.

“How much longer till we eat?” Lukas asked. His stomach was hurting, and he assumed that it was because he was hungry. Lovino shrugged.

“We need to wait for mama and papa to get back first.” He said. “Then they have to do their dumb adult talking thing.” Lukas groaned. Their parents were always talking. Lovino nodded, obviously in agreement with Lukas’ groan of disappointment, and plucked up the small toy wolf that Lukas’ parents had bought him. There were wolves everywhere on Fynkn, and he loved the toy greatly. He liked Lovino because he didn’t mess up his wolf at all. He was careful with it.

Lovino gently placed the wolf toy in Lukas’ arms, taking care to make sure it didn’t fall, before plucking up another toy, a small stuffed lion, and nestling it under his arm.

“It won’t be long now.” He insisted. “Their pay-rade is almost over.” He struggled over the word. Lukas’ mama smiled.

“Par-ade, darling.” She said, gently ruffling Lovino’s red hair. “And he’s right. We don’t have much longer now to wait.” Lukas nodded, frowning a little. His stomach was still hurting, and he felt oddly like crying. Nothing bad had happened to him – Lovino had declared earlier that they were best friends, he had his wolf, and food was coming soon – but he felt very upset. He sniffled slightly, hugging his wolf tightly.

His mama was frowning now, and she opened her arms up for him to crawl into. “Honey, what’s wrong?” Lukas sniffled, tears running down his face.

“I don’t know!” he wailed. “I just feel bad!” his mother looked more and more concerned now.

“Do you mean you feel sick?” she tried, gently rubbing his head as Lovino watched their encounter silently, with wide eyes. He shook his head.

“No, everyone else is making me sad!” he said, sniffing again. His mama frowned.

“Everyone else-” she was cut off as the doors to the room they were in flew open, and Lukas’ papa strode in. He wasn’t walking like he normally did, calm and slow so that Lukas could keep up. He was moving fast, with big, long steps. Lukas’ mama jumped a little, looking surprised. “Oskar, what-” then she fell silent. Lukas peered around her sheet of white-blond hair to look at his papa, still sniffing. His papa’s face was whiter than his hair, and he was shaking slightly. Was he sick? Lukas got sick sometimes-

“Take Lovino and Lukas out of here. And find Prince Feliciano as well.” Lukas’ papa said to a servant nearby. The man looked alarmed, but darted over to Lovino and gently took his hand, taking Lukas from his mama when she handed him over. Lukas’ mama looked worried now.

“What’s happening?” she asked, tone low and worried. Lukas’ papa looked harried and so, so sad. When he turned to face Lukas’ mama next, Lukas could see that he was crying.

He didn’t hear what he said next, but he did whimper when he spotted the servant coming in the door. They had a lot of red on them, and they were shaking too.

The servant holding him and Lovino rushed them out the doors, and he didn’t see anything else after that.

Lukas sighed, pressing his forehead to the cold glass in front of him. Carina Vargas and her husband Marco had been assassinated during a parade that day, leaving their two children orphaned and forcing Carina’s father, Romulus, to re-take the throne. From what Lukas had heard, the man had been hit the hardest by Carina’s death – she was his daughter, after all – and hadn’t been a very strong presence in his grandsons’ lives. It made Lukas feel sad for Lovino and Feliciano.

Lovino had loved his parents, and having that role stripped away and not really ever being filled again hadn’t been good for him. The small temper he had had as a child had only grown worse over time, and his anger had fuelled the already premature appearance of his gifts, to the point that, when Lukas next got to see him in person, when he was five years old, Lovino had already been able to set his entire body on fire.

And Prince Feliciano? He had only been a baby – just ten months old when his parents died. He had never had time to adapt to having a parental figure in his life, especially since their grandfather didn’t seem to spend much time with them, so he had latched onto his older brother, and become ridiculously clingy where he was involved.

At times, it made Lukas resent Romulus Vargas a little. He had stepped up to take care of Syhvva and her people again, but he hadn’t been able to do the same for his own family members. He hadn’t died in the Expansion – as far as Lukas was aware, he was still being held hostage and used as a bargaining chip to force the Syhvvanian people into obedience. He could understand, though. All throughout his childhood, Lukas had listened to people on Syhvva go on an on about how much Lovino resembled his mother. Even as a child, looking between pictures of the two, the similarity was striking. He had her amber eyes and dark hair and fine facial structure. He honestly, in some pictures, looked simply like a short-haired or gender-swapped version of Carina. Lukas understood that that must be painful for Romulus to go through – to see his dead daughter in his young grandson certainly explained why he had stayed distant. And yet…

Well, Lukas’s own parents had adored Carina. She had been his father’s long-term companion and one of his mother’s best friends. They had loved her like she was a member of their own family, and had extended that love to her husband Marco when they got married. And surely, it would have been painful to see Lovino for them as well, when he so resembled their friend, but they had gone out of their way to talk to him and make him feel loved.

Lovino had once, when Lukas was seven and he was eight, admitted that he liked it when Lukas and his family visited Fynkn. When Lukas had asked why, he had shrugged and responded. “Because, it makes me feel like my parents are back or something.”

Being able to understand Romulus Vargas’ feelings didn’t excuse his actions, though. Lukas had always petitioned his parents to let them visit Syhvva more often, or let Prince Lovino stay with them. The Prince had been one of his best friends, in addition to Viktorija, and he liked seeing him happy. When the Expansion happened, Lovino had been only nine, yet he had seemed so sad even before the invasion occurred.

Lukas rubbed his forehead. It was stupid of him to miss someone that he had known when he was a child, but he missed Lovino regardless. He was happy to have Tori back, of course, but they had never seen her as much when they were children. It was customary on Daerna for the royal family to have only one child per generation, since they had had some insane wars over succession in the past, so she had been protected like crazy. Lukas had Emilia and Lovino had had his brother Feliciano, but Tori, having no siblings, and no-one to take up the throne if she were to die, was watched like a hawk.

“Oi.” A voice behind him said. Lukas clenched his jaw. He recognised it, sadly. He spun around to face the bounty hunter who would be watching his back on Fynkn. Matthias Køhler looked remarkably unconcerned about the fact that they weren’t far from Fynkn, or about to enter an active warzone. In fact, the bounty hunter looked relaxed. He was wearing a loose sweatshirt with long black pants, his hair messy and bags under his eyes. “Captain said that curfew will be enforced in like twenty minutes. Might wanna grab some sleep. We probably won’t get much on Fynkn.” Lukas nodded.

“Got it.” He murmured, shifting to stare out the window again. Køhler moved to stand beside him, jabbing a finger out at what looked like a distant, pale blue star.

“That’s it.” He said simply. “We’ll be there in the morning. I mean it. Sleep. I don’t wanna have to lug you around all day because you’re only half-conscious.” Lukas scowled, folding his arms.

“Fine. If you insist.” Køhler grinned, and god did Lukas want to slap that smug look off his face.

“Take your time, your majesty.” He teased. Lukas smacked him.

“You moron. I don’t see any royalty around here, do you?” Køhler sighed, then shook his head.

“True. You’re a real jackass, aren’t you?” Lukas glowered at him. Regardless of the agreement that they had made to have at least some respect for each other, it was far too easy for their personalities to clash.

“Do you want to die tonight, Køhler?” he growled. The bounty hunter grinned, expression shifting into something bizarre. Lukas made a face. “What the fuck is going on with your expression?”

“Oh? Nothing. I’m just remembering that Alfred mentioned you can kill people with your mind.” He said casually. “Anyway, good night jackass.” Lukas rolled his eyes as the bounty hunter walked off, perhaps a little faster than he otherwise would have done. He gazed out the window for another moment before sighing and stepping away. As much as he hated to admit it, the blond was right; he would need sleep for tomorrow.

Sending one last look at the distant speck that was his home planet, he turned away and headed towards his room.

Blå Ren Insurgent Training Camp
Fenyir Region, Fynkn,
19th Jaune

Matthias gripped the overhead handle as the ship hurtled towards through the atmosphere, flying in such bizarre and twisting patterns that it was making him nauseous. One of the Fynknians who had been recovering on Nyma had already stepped away from the entrance to vomit a few times, and he felt dangerously close to joining her. Infuriatingly, Bondevik looked not only like he was distinctly not nauseous, but rather calm as well, despite the sickening dives and lunges that the ship was taking towards the surface.

They had had everything explained to them; the Union actively monitored Fynkn’s atmosphere for any incoming or outgoing aircraft. It was illegal for Fynknians to leave the planet, which made it hard for the resistance to offer help sometimes. Nonetheless, it was possible to get in if you had a very talented pilot with you. Yao had decided to send none other than Atalaya Somero, the resistance’s best fighter pilot, to take them to Fynkn, so in that regard, they didn’t have to worry, but it was still very dangerous. The Union cared more about ships leaving than entering, but they still could track entering ships to see if they could locate the resistance. For that reason, they also weren’t going to be dropped right at the rebels’ doorstep.

Atalaya looked remarkably calm despite the tension of the situation. He could hear her humming the familiar tune of a Jhobrasian folk song as she jerked the gearsticks to make the ship plunge vertically downwards. They had all been called into the cockpit, with Atalaya citing the reason being that the cockpit was the part of the ship least likely to get blown-up mid-flight by the Union. A delightful thought.

Matthias grabbed the back of Atalaya’s chair, stomach rolling unpleasantly, as she guided the small travel pod that they had taken down to the surface through a horrifyingly narrow rock tunnel, before bursting out the other side, slowing down considerably. Matthias swallowed thickly, but took the time to actually get a good first look at Fynkn. Before, they had been travelling so fast that he hadn’t been able to see anything, but now, he could actually take in the landscape.

Where Nyma had been reaches of red sand and scraggly trees on occasion, the Feynir region of Fynkn was the opposite. Like a lot of the planet, it was mountainous, with vast grey and black peaks blanketed in white snow stretching away into the distance. The few stretches of flat land were far between and not great in size; far, far, below them he could flat stretches littered with sections of thick fir trees and the bend of a silver river, through which thick chunks of ice were lazily drifting. Everything was covered in snow, with more yet being dumped down from the sky. The flakes landed on the glass screen that they were looking out of, forming a thin layer within a few moments. Atalaya flicked a switch to heat the glass and remove the snow, before quickly guiding the ship around one of the mountain peaks that Matthias had been admiring.

On the other side was a vast stretch of blue, traversing from the top of the mountain to almost the bottom, like a slice of the mountain had been removed and the ice implanted in it’s place. Matthias gawked, unembarrassed by the way that his mouth slackened and fell open. He saw one of the Fynknian rebels that had come with them grinning.

“That’s Blå Ren.” She said in smooth Fynknian. “’The Blue Sheer’ in Common Standard.” She said, switching to said language. “It’s a glacier.” Matthias stared.

“That’s a glacier?” he exclaimed. “But…it’s huge!” the girl grinned.

“Uh huh. It’s not even the biggest glacier that our planet has. Better get used to seeing them.” Matthias shook his head in astonishment, turning back to face the front as the ship glided downwards, towards the top of the mountain and Blå Ren. He glanced over at Bondevik. In his own excitement at seeing the surface, he hadn’t spared a though for how the kid must feel. After all, he hadn’t seen his home planet in years.

His eyes were wide, expression oddly open and gentle, like he was taking in everything at once and trying to commit it all to memory. He looked so…nostalgic. Happy, too. His wonder-filled gaze slowly shifted from the glass to Matthias, and just like that, his expression locked up. The joy and familiarity vanished, hidden behind his usual expression of stoicism and vague irritation. He clenched his jaw slightly, and Matthias directed his attention elsewhere as Atalaya gently guided the ship down to land. They were near the top of Blå Ren, and Matthias could already anticipate that some exercise was about to happen.

“Alright, everyone rugged up?” Atalaya asked cheerfully. They all nodded, even as Matthias pulled his scarf closer around his neck. “Good. Temperature meter says that it’s about -10°C out there right now. Pretty temperate for the top of a mountain.” Matthias sighed, rolling his eyes as he followed the disembarking Fynknians outside.

The cold hit him like a physical thing. It sunk effortlessly through the thick layers of clothing that he was wearing and sent goose-bumps jumping to life across his arms, legs and neck. He felt the hairs on his body stand up in protest to the cold, and he immediately shuddering.

“Fuck.” he ground out, moving a gloved hand to cover his mouth as cold air brushed against them brutally. “Please tell me that it isn’t always like this.” Bondevik shrugged, but one of the Fynknian girls grinned apologetically.

“You get used to it eventually?” she said looking amused. Matthias cursed again and quickly set himself in motion, helping the others unload the supplies that the resistance had sent along. It was mostly shipments of medical supplies, weapons and some extra clothes and blankets for refugees, but it was seriously heavily. He grunted as he dragged it down to the snow-blanketed ground. Bondevik appeared behind him and starting helping the others tie them onto wheeled platforms.

“We aren’t going to scale the mountain down, are we?” he asked the teen. Bondevik glanced over at him, shrugging.

“I have no idea, honestly. I hope not.” Matthias huffed out a weak laugh, glad that the kid could at least agree with him on some things. They finished loading up everything, before grabbing their own luggage and throwing it on top. Matthias glanced around, puzzled.

“Now what?” he asked. The Fynknian girl exchanged a grin with the other rebel, a tall guy with silver hair.

“Follow us.” She said simply, taking hold of one end of the wheeled platform and dragging it closer to the rock wall. Matthias and the others moved to help, and they managed to push through the rapidly deepening snow to get the supplies to the rock wall. The girl detached herself from the group and moved around, running her hands over the rock until she obviously found something, and slipped her hand inside, pressing at something. A loud clanking noise echoed out like a gunshot, making them all flinch and step back a little. A loud whirring met their ears, and Matthias glanced around, confused, until the girl grinned and pointed to a wide crevice in the rock that they hadn’t yet noticed. He could see a rough, thoroughly beaten and battered metal door, which was slowly rising up. Matthias’ awestruck, confused brain momentarily entertained the idea that the rebels had somehow set up base inside a mountain, until beyond the door, he saw a rusted platform shudder to a stop roughly level with the ground outside.

It’s an elevator, he realised. The rebels had somehow managed to make an elevator inside a mountain peak. He sent a shocked, confused look at the girl, who laughed.

“I’ll explain how they managed that when you’ve been cleared. For now, though, get in.”

Matthias was too shocked to even argue, wordlessly helping shove the platform inside the elevator and climb inside beside it. Bondevik was pressed in close behind him, elbows brushing against Matthias’ back. He glanced over at the prince again, who also looked impressed and curious about the elevator.

“It’s a little jerky, so don’t be alarmed by that.” The girl said cheerfully as the doors slammed shut.

Jerky was an understatement. The caged box felt like it was being shaken by hurricane-like winds as it rapidly descended through the rough-hewn tunnel. Closer inspection of the walls proved that the tunnel had, in fact, been carved out of the ice rather than the stone, which made a lot more sense. The sheer face of the Blå Ren glacier hid an entire elevator shaft. He had to wonder how they had managed it.

The elevator finally shuddered to a stop after maybe three solid minutes of downwards travel, with Matthias still feeling like his brain was rattling around inside his skull. The girl stepped clambered to the front of the group as the doors slid open. It was a good thing she did, in fact, as the moment that the light hit his face, Matthias also found a rifle shoved right under his nose.

“Corporal Viktorsen, nice to see you again.” A mild voice said in Fynknian. Matthias mentally switched over from Common Standard to the language as his ears registered it. The girl didn’t seem at all troubled or even surprised by the presence of a gun in her face.

“It is nice to see you, two, Captain Thomassen.” She said cheerily. “The elevator is working better than it did last time.” The Captain commanding the soldiers with guns in their faces tilted her head slightly, and Matthias was able to properly see her face; strong, proud features complemented by dark grey hair pulled back tightly and light blue eyes. She looked middle-aged.

“Oh?” the Captain said. “Did you have an unpleasant experience last time?” the girl, Corporal Viktorsen, grinned.

“Well, one of the cable ties snapped and we plunged ten metres straight down. I broke my leg, remember? You sent me to Nyma for recuperation.” The woman watched the Corporal carefully for a moment before nodding, and the soldier holding a gun in her face lowered it and nodded his head respectfully. Matthias realised that that had been a test – the rebels seeing if she was who she claimed to be.

“I remember. And who are your companions?” Matthias’ gaze flickered briefly back to the butt of the rifle in his face as the Corporal continued.

“Well, I’m sure you remember Ardis here. He’s finally recovered from that nasty virus. And these two-” she reached out and tapped both Matthias and Lukas Bondevik on the shoulders, “these are newcomers! Both sent straight from the resistance!” the Captain frowned.

“I see. Do they have identification papers or any kind?” the girl nodded. She had told them to hand over their papers before they landed, but hadn’t explained why. The Corporal pulled two folders from her coat and handed them over quickly. The Captain took one, and a young man standing nearby took the other. She flipped it open and looked over the papers inside, before glancing up and scrutinising Bondevik. “Lukas Christensen, correct?” he nodded, and Matthias mentally committed the alias to memory. The first name was easy, given it was the same, but he needed to be careful about the surname from now on. Bondevik nodded calmly, looking no more than slightly irritated with the gun pressed against his throat. The Captain handed his file to the young male soldier standing nearby who had been perusing Matthias’ file.

“Lance Corporal Makensen, do we have reports of a Lukas Christensen being sent by the resistance?” the young man nodded.

“Yes, Captain. We received the transmission early yesterday, as is customary for General Wang. We also have a record indicating the arrival of Matthias Køhler,” he nodded at Matthias as the soldier pressing a gun against Bondevik’s throat lowered their weapon, “so they are both accounted for.” The Captain nodded, looking at Matthias curiously.

“Mr Køhler, you are not Fynknian.”

“Well spotted.” He said dryly. He heard Bondevik exhale loudly behind him, clearly exasperated. The Captain’s eyebrow quirked upwards but she didn’t respond to his comment.

“Why are you here?” Matthias rolled his shoulders absently.

“Because the General ordered me to come here.” He said simply. It wasn’t the full truth, but it wasn’t a lie either. The Captain eyed him carefully, before nodding.

“I can’t say that we have many Rywanese soldiers, but I won’t say we aren’t grateful for them.” She raised a hand and the soldiers still holding up guns lowered them immediately and stowed them on their backs. “I apologise for the abruptness. It is for security reasons, I’m sure you can understand.” Matthias nodded, sending a half-hearted glare at the soldier who had pointed their gun at him. She turned to the soldiers behind her. “Bring the supplies to the general distribution area, and send a reminder to the transmissions office to thank General Wang for his assistance. Makensen, take those files to Anga.” She turned back to face them, still intimidating but much less threatening now.

“I am Captain Malin Thomassen,” she said, ducking her head a little, “I am one of the commanding officers at this training camp, in addition to being one of the squad leaders for the guerrilla groups.” The girl frowned.

“Why aren’t you on the battlefield, Captain?” she asked. Malin winced.

“I am in need of some new soldiers to bolster my squad’s numbers.” The girl fell silent, looking upset. Evidently, she either knew the people of Malin’s squad or was part of it. Malin turned to them. “Hopefully, some of the new recruits actually demonstrate some promise.” She turned on her heel. “Viktorsen, Christensen, Køhler, follow me, please.”

They followed her obediently as she marched off. Matthias gawked around at the rebel training camp. They were located at the base of Blå Ren, in the shadow of the mountain, which was practically impossible to reach from the air – he understood the need for the elevator now, that was for sure – and actually looked pretty advanced. It certainly had a more permanent feel to it than the resistance camp on Nyma did.

The buildings were built low to the ground, constructed from dark brick and oiled timber designed to keep the heat in. The windows were all tightly closed, with the curtains also drawn shut in a lot of cases. The entire place was buzzing with activity – people wearing thick coats were rushing to and from buildings and training grounds. It was jarring to see how many were holding weapons. Lots of people from the resistance carried weapons everywhere as well, but there were also refugees and non-combatants on Nyma who abstained from such a thing. Here, everyone that he could see was decked out with guns on their hips or slung across their shoulders and knives strapped to their thighs. Fynkn was an active warzone, he supposed. It made sense for people to be more vigilant here than they were on Nyma.

The camp looked fairly large; he could see large spaces enclosed by the walls of buildings that definitely looked like they would be used to train recruits, and through the narrow passages of rock, more rows of buildings and bunkers were visible. And this was only a training camp. He shook his head in mild astonishment. Octavia hadn’t been wrong when she had warned him that the rebels on Fynkn didn’t fuck around. Captain Malin was looking over her shoulder at them as she walked, obviously trying to gauge their reactions. She paused in front of a low building that actually had it’s front door propped open by a small rock.

“You two going to be processed here, to ensure that you are actually who you say you are. It is purely a safety precaution; we have full faith in the resistance and General Wang, but also an intimate understanding of how talented and manipulative the Union can be.” Matthias nodded. He had never been the Union’s greatest fan, in all honesty, but even for the die-hard supporters, it wasn’t hard to see that they often sacrificed morals for the sake of victory.

Malin pushed the door open, showing them into a small room with dark wood walls and a rough floor. It was hardly warmer in here than it was outside, but the subtraction of the vicious wind-chill was certainly a welcome change. The walls across with them were lined with filing cabinets and computer consoles. Several closed doors, with signs written in Fynknian, obviously led to other areas of the facility. The only person inside was a middle-aged woman wearing a long, thick coat made of blue wool. She looked up as they came in, and nodded.

“Good morning, Malin. New recruits to be processed?” Malin nodded.

“Yes, Anga. Lukas Christensen and Matthias Køhler.” She said. “Do you have the files I told Makensen to give you?” the woman nodded.

“Yes. I’ll do the Rywani first.” She said kindly. Matthias looked at her warily. Malin sighed, tossing her hair back a little.

“Well, the information will do you no good if you aren’t here to help us, so I might as well explain. This is Anga Lindholm. She is a relative of the Bondevik family and, as a result, has some mild abilities similar to the Sjeltanker. She will be able to tell if you are being truthful or not.” Matthias blinked in surprise. Bondevik looked curious.

“Really? How are you related?” he asked. The woman, Anga, smiled.

“My mother was Rina, sister to Queen Vetmar. Vetmar was the mother of King Oskar, who was my cousin, rest his soul. My abilities are not strong, but they are present nonetheless.”

“That’s still amazing, though.” Matthias said, not an ounce of dishonesty in his voice as he said it. Anga smiled.

“You should meet my nieces.” She said simply. Before he had time to react to that, she beckoned him over. “Come now. It won’t take long.” Matthias hesitated for a moment, but obeyed, sitting down on the chair she indicated. “Now, roll up your sleeve and hold out your arm.” Matthias blinked in confusion. Anga smiled, quickly explaining. “My abilities, though they work well enough, require physical contact. True Bondeviks need nothing of the sort.” Matthias nodded, frowning slightly as he did what she said and extended his bare arm to her.

Anga reached out, curling her fingers around his wrist and gripping it tightly.

“Now. Is your name Matthias Magnus Køhler?” he nodded. “And your birthdate is the 5th of Jaune – oh my, well a very belated happy birthday to you – of 4489CC?” he gave the affirmative again. She adjusted her grip slightly and continued. “And you are 23 years old?”

“Yup.” He said, wincing as her nails dug into his skin a little.

“And you were sent here by the resistance?”


She asked him a few more absent questions, all of which he answered honestly, before finally releasing his arm from her grip, picking up his file and writing something on it in Fynknian.

“Excellent. Well, Mr Køhler is entirely telling the truth, so he is fine to start the preliminary training tomorrow. Now, Mr Christensen, if you would.” At this, a spike of apprehension flew through Matthias. Even though Yao had sent him here as himself, he most certainly had not done the same with Bondevik. The kid was a walking collation of deception. Nonetheless, he looked calm as he pushed his sleeve up to expose his pale forearm and extended it to the woman.

He didn’t look even remotely alarmed as she grabbed his wrist like she had Matthias.

“Your name is Lukas Sigard Christensen?”


“Your birthdate is the 17th of Jaune – my, my, happy late birthday to yourself as well, named after the crown prince, were you?” Bondevik nodded wordlessly. “And you were born in 4493CC?” He nodded once more.

“And you were sent here by the resistance?”


“Have you ever been affiliated with the Union in any way?”


“Are you lying to me, at all?” Bondevik sent her a wry look.


Anga smiled as she released him. “100% honest as well. You’re both cleared to go.” Malin nodded, bowing to Anga.

“Thank you, Anga.” She turned to Matthias and Bondevik again. “Alright, you two, come with me.” They obediently followed her, with Bondevik firmly ignoring Matthias’ curious looks and even the way he jabbed him in the side to get his attention. The only response he got in response to his efforts was a quelling glare as they followed Malin back out into the cold. Matthias sighed, resigning himself to bugging the kid about how he had tricked the woman later. He continued to look around as Malin led them underneath part of another brick building and into an open space. The space was rather large, about 50 metres across each way, and was bracketed by three-storey, dark-wood buildings on all sides, with little wooden arched openings on each side. Malin paused and spun around to speak again.

“This is the training barracks for our new recruits. Since you two are rather late arrivals, we don’t have time to do aptitude testing for either of you, so you’ll both be housed in Block D. it’s the only one with space left.” she gestured to the southern building of the four.

“Training starts tomorrow. You’ll be taught skills pertaining to combat and survival in Fynkn’s harsh environment. We’ll also teach you how to operate as a proper member of a military. You future placements will depend on your performance in this preliminary training. If you prove average or below average skills, you may be assigned to do further training at another location. If you do better than average or have some skill, you may be posted to an outcropping base or trade route. If you demonstrate remarkable skill, you may be placed directly in one of the guerrilla squads that actively work in the field. It all depends on your showing here, so you can’t afford to be slack.”

Malin raised an eyebrow at them. “Any questions?” they shook their heads. “Good. You should find uniform stashes in each building. Find one that fits you well enough. Wake-up call is 0600 hours. Be prepared to undergo some pretty intense training.” They both nodded. “Now, go on. You’re in Block D, remember. What time is wake-up call tomorrow?”

“0600 hours.” They both repeated blearily. Malin nodded.

“Good.” She turned on her heel and marched off, leaving them standing in the middle of the snow-covered meeting area. Bondevik immediately turned around to head towards Block D. Matthias sighed, jogging to catch up with him.

“How the hell did you trick that lady back there?” he asked. “You made her believe you were telling the truth.” Bondevik sighed.

“You really are a moron, aren’t you?” The Fynknian said, looking exasperated. “I have the Sjeltanker, which allows me to manipulate people’s minds. All I had to do was make her think that she was listening to the truth. It’s not that hard.” Matthias shook his head, a little impressed and also a little disturbed.

“You don’t have to be a jackass just because I don’t know every little thing about this place.” He snapped, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I’d like to see you do a quick-recall test on Rywanese culture and history.” Bondevik shot him a glare, but didn’t respond. Matthias sighed, regardless of the peace they had agreed to (mostly) uphold, it didn’t look like they would be all buddy-buddy anytime soon.

Chapter Text

Blå Ren Insurgent Training Camp,
Fenyir Region, Fynkn,
20th Jaune

Lukas was woken by the harsh blaring of an overhead alarm, and immediately wished he could dive deeper into his covers and ignore it. Unfortunately, he had been relegated to the top bunk, so the alarm was going off about half a metre away from his face, meaning that even the softest and thickest blankets were unlikely to be able to drown out the noise. He groaned slightly, glancing over at the digital clock that was pinned up to the wall, in clear view of everyone. 0600 hours. Well, they were punctual, if nothing else. Everyone else in the room had started to get up and get dressed so, grumbling in irritation, Lukas started to do the same.

The barracks were…exactly along the lines of what he had expected. Rows and rows of uncomfortable bunks stacked three beds high in buildings with white-plaster walls and very little insulation. The barracks were co-ed, but the women had been placed down one end, while men had been put down the other. They had been warned about being intimate with any other recruits, though from what Lukas had seen so far, everyone was too tired to think about sex by the time they got back to their bunks.

He and Køhler had been briefly introduced to the whole unit yesterday afternoon, as their training had ended. As it turned out, the batch of recruits that they had joined had begun their preliminary training about two weeks ago. According to the person on the bunk below Lukas, so far it had been basic physicality and fitness training. They had also dabbled in using guns and other weapons, but Lukas wasn’t concerned; he was in good shape already – working with the resistance had ensured that – and he knew very well how to use weapons. He understood the necessity, though. A lot of the people wanting to learn to fight, by their own admission, were farmers or students or even former prisoners. Most of them didn’t have the skills required to fight a war.

He had already managed to pick out a few outliers in the group. There was one heavy-set man of maybe 22 years named Kors Justsen who seemed to believe that he was by far the best fighter in the group. He had spent a good deal of time outlining why he was going to be selected to go straight to the squads. The sad thing was, for all his unpleasantness and egotistical behaviour, he wasn’t wrong. Most of the other recruits were hardly even in shape, much less able to fight like he could. Another anomaly of the group was a girl named Riya Kristoff, who seemed small and slight and almost entirely defenceless, and yet who seemed to garner respect and deference from everyone. Only Kors ever seemed to be anything approaching disrespectful to her, but even then, he didn’t outright mock or insult her like he did everyone else.

Lukas tumbled onto the floor, glad that he had managed to land on his feet as he collected himself. Køhler, who was on the bottom bunk of the same bed as him, looked up at him blearily.

“Can I go home yet?” the Rywanese man groaned, rubbing his face. Lukas rolled his eyes, tugging on the man’s sleeve. No matter how well they did in this training, they needed to be assigned to the same place, and being assigned at all meant them both participating in this training. The taller man rolled his eyes but stumbled out of bed regardless, immediately dwarfing Lukas as he straightened up. Lukas shifted over to the chest where they were all storing their uniforms, and tugged his out of it’s small marked compartment.

“Not quite yet.” He said simply, pulling the slightly overlarge grey sweatshirt that he had been given as pyjamas over his head. One of the most unnerving things to happen so far had happened last night, when Lukas had found himself and Køhler being subtly watched by the people around them as they undressed. One of the friendlier recruits – Ansel – had explained that they were trying to size them up, and see if they were threats to their own positions. Lukas had found it a little creepy, in all honesty, and he was especially glad that he was avoiding scrutiny this morning as he quickly pulled on his drab olive training uniform.

The uniforms were one of the few other things that Køhler and he would agree on. They were awful. Made of a scratchy fabric the colour of green olives, they were horrendous to even stand still in, much less do arduous physical activity in. They consisted of a double-breasted jacket and long pants. Underneath, they were expected to wear thermals and then singlet shirts underneath those again. They were allowed to wear whatever shoes they wanted, which was a relief to Lukas as he pulled his new Venkater boots on. His feet would be warm at least.

Køhler looked like he was appreciating the temperatures today about as much as he had yesterday; his expression was stony, and his arms were wrapped firmly around his middle, shaking slightly. They had all been given thick wool socks and gloves, thankfully, so they weren’t going to succumb to frostbite on their very first day, but it was clear that most of the people here weren’t built for this level of cold. Lukas didn’t find it pleasant, since they were a little underdressed for the weather, but he wasn’t actively suffering either. There was an old adage he recalled hearing as a child. He didn’t remember the exact wording, but the basic gist was that the cold didn’t affect Bondeviks. He used to dismiss it as rubbish, but looking at how everyone else was shuddering while he himself felt fine, Lukas wondered if there was some truth to it as he quickly laced up his boots.

“Alright, everyone dressed?” a loud voice called out over the top of the low murmuring that filled the barracks. The noise quieted down as they all turned their attention to the doors. “Good. Let’s move.”

Sergeant Runar Kolden was the commanding officer for Block D, and by far seemed to be the most intense of them all. As Lukas had discovered, when a large enough batch of recruits had been collected, they were given aptitude testing that lasted several days, before being sorted into four groups, which corresponded with the Block that they were then sorted into. All four covered the basic skills required to be an effective soldier, but focussed slightly more on different areas.

Block A was for those with a strong combat background but who lacked on areas like strategy, survival skills and theoretical areas. They focussed on strengthening those areas. Block B was for those who came from a distinctly non-athletic background, who were good with theory and strategizing, and tried to give them some battlefield skills. Since their strengths were in battle strategy and command, they tended to follow lines of work such as that. Block C were the medics and helpers; people who didn’t have the disposition to kill or take up active combat, but were able and willing to be involved in warzones and help others. They were also focussing on athleticism, since a medic that couldn’t run fast wasn’t much use. Block D was…everyone else. People who didn’t have any remarkable skills but who wanted to help out with the rebellion. Lukas and Matthias had been placed there because it was the only block that didn’t require additional testing that also had spaces left.

Ansel – Lukas’ friendly bedfellow – had explained what happened after preliminary training. Most people from Block A were assigned to squads, to go into guerrilla warfare areas and take down the Union piece by piece. Block B tended to go into the areas of communication, technology, espionage, trade and command. Block C tended to go to areas to help refugees, former prisoners and wounded soldiers, as well as do supply runs. Block D were the foot soldiers sent wherever they were needed.

Lukas already knew what area he wanted to go into – he had heard numerous stories from Kari about the guerrilla fighters on Fynkn. They were the ones that travelled through Fynkn’s more remote, dangerous areas; the ones who freed imprisoned civilians and helped set up outposts. The ones who engaged with the Union directly without the danger of open territory. He wanted to be one, badly, but he wasn’t in Block A. He shouldn’t worry, according to Ansel, since all of the commanding officers knew that he and Køhler had been placed here for sheer convenience, they would be judged as they went through the training, since they weren’t evaluated prior to starting.

Well, hopefully they would be. According to Ansel, though Sergeant Kolden was a hardass, he was also a little on the lazy side, meaning that Lukas would have to try and really stand out if it meant getting into a guerrilla squad. He cracked his neck idly, internally snickering at the way Køhler wrinkled his nose in disgust at that, and followed the others out into the harsh sunlight.

The snow on the ground reflected the sun easily, which made the landscape unbelievably glary. Lukas squinted against the harsh light burning into his eyelids, sighing as the cold wind hit him a moment later. He found the change refreshing after spending a whole night inhaling other people’s carbon dioxide, but everyone around him reacted with shock and disgust to the temperature.

He saw Køhler curl his lip in distaste as he folded his arms in an attempt to shield his body from the wind. His attention returned to the front as Sergeant Kolden began to speak.

“It is 0623 hours. It took you hopeless morons twenty-three whole minutes to get ready. By the time you are dispatched from here, I want you to be able to completely suit up in about five. Block A are already out doing their morning PT, and they were woken up at the same time as you!” the recruits at the front of the crowd winced. Sergeant Kolden did tend to speak on the loud side, and Lukas could hear him perfectly even while stuck solidly in the middle of the crowd. The volume at the front must be staggering.

“Your routine this morning involves a five-kilometre run marked out with red flags every thirty metres.” He pointed out the start and finish line that had been marked out in the snow with black dye. “When you finish that, you will return here and do thirty sit-ups and fifty push-ups.” He gestured to the wide space between the four barrack buildings. “Anyone outside the fastest fifty runners will do an extra ten of each. If you vomit, keep going. We don’t have time to hold your hair back and pat your shoulder. Got it?” they all nodded, grumbling a little. “Alright, go!”

The group set out, some making the foolish decision of rushing ahead to try and avoid having to do the extra sit-ups and push-ups. Lukas rolled his eyes, settling into a pace that he knew he could maintain for the whole duration of the run. He had made a point of staying in shape over the years. It was what had helped him survive in the resistance. He swore that 96% of the people there had a six-pack, so being athletic had helped a lot, especially where his training with Nelia had been involved. He did miss meeting up with her every morning to spar. She was an excellent teacher, and his combat ability had increased ten-fold under her tutelage. Hopefully, while he was here, he would get to put what he had learned to the test.

The route that had been mapped out was actually rather scenic, Lukas noted. It gave a view of the lower mountain peaks that slipped on until the horizon, as well as some of the coniferous forest that they hadn’t been able to see from above yesterday. In the far distance, he could see a glimmering silver shape that he guessed must be a lake, and admired the slender mountain peaks bracketed by wispy white clouds.

As they continued to run along the track, more and more people began to fall behind. Lukas passed people who were panting and puffing to a ridiculous extent. Lukas frowned a little at that. His chest was starting to get a little tight, but he knew that actual exhaustion wouldn’t set in for quite a while. Running really wasn’t that difficult, though he guessed that everyone’s skill sets here were probably rather varied. By the time he passed the marker that indicated he only had a kilometre to go, he was almost completely alone on the track. He knew that he wasn’t first, but he hoped that he was at least in the top twenty. He could definitely do the extra exercises, but it wasn’t him that needed that workout.

He skidded to a stop at the black line they had started at, panting, only to look up and see that he was the second person back. Sergeant Kolden was there, of course, with a rather stupefied look on his face as he examined Lukas. Standing beside him, looking a little out of breath but not overly tired, was Køhler. Lukas cursed internally, his previous concerns about the differences in their physical capabilities returning to the fore of his mind. Køhler was decently taller than him, so part of his quicker time would have been due to his longer legs and consequently longer strides. His mind was still whirring over it as Kolden got over his shock and looked at the sheet he was holding.

“Christensen, second…alright then.” He said, still sounding a little confused. Lukas raised an eyebrow, not sure if he should feel offended by that or not, but brushed it off. He didn’t care nearly enough about Kolden to be worried about what his opinion of Lukas was. He turned away, making eye contact with Køhler who, in contrast to Kolden, looked a little impressed.

“Not bad Christensen.” He commented, and Lukas was satisfied to hear that he was a little breathless. “I’m surprised you could keep up on those short little legs of yours.”

Lukas gave him the finger, glowering. “And how the fuck did you get back so quickly, Køhler? I know that you aren’t smart enough to have found a shortcut.” The bounty hunter grinned.

“I was my school’s long-distance running champion four years straight.” He said, tone cocky. “I went to district competitions and everything. It’s one of my many talents.” Lukas raised an eyebrow.

“I don’t think having an ego larger than the Feynir region counts as a talent.” He shot back. Køhler just grinned again. God, he was infuriating. He was prevented from speaking further by the appearance of Block D’s third-place runner. It was the mysterious girl that everyone respected, Riya Kristoff. Her expression looked unfazed, and her breathing didn’t seem even remotely out of key. Lukas blinked. Sergeant Kolden looked like he had swallowed something very unpleasant as he wrote her name down. For a moment, Lukas wondered if the sergeant had something against her, but when the man turned a little, Lukas could see something in his expression that looked almost…sad.

“Nice job, Kristoff.” The sergeant commented idly. Riya nodded simply, looking at Lukas and Køhler curiously before turning away and sitting in the snow, legs folded.

The rest of the runners trickled in slowly, until the last of them, sweating and cursing, appeared. Sergeant Kolden, obviously having recovered from the brief period where he showed actual kindness to a person, barked at them all to get to the meeting area and start their other exercises. Lukas, having enjoyed a good rest for about fifteen minutes or so, was unbothered as he did the prescribed sit-ups and push-ups, trying to ignore the sounds of grunting and complaining around him. He finished the exercises quickly – once again, though, slower than Køhler – and stood, ignoring the sergeant’s curious gaze again as he marked things down on his clipboard.

“When you’re done, go on to breakfast.” Sergeant Kolden said, nodding them away absently. Lukas rolled his back but sighed in relief, not even realising that he had fallen into step beside Køhler.

“You’re fitter than you look.” Køhler noted absently, hands shoved in his pockets and shoulders hunched forward. Lukas hummed. “Not as fit as me, of course.” Køhler continued after a moment, tone arrogant. Lukas rolled his eyes, elbowing the bounty hunter hard in the side.

“You know, you could have exempted the second part and actually just given me a compliment.” Lukas said. “Is it not in your nature to be a nice person?” Køhler made a face.

“You say that like you would pay me compliments all the time.”

“I’m not the sort of person to do that.” Lukas said idly. “But, just to show you how it’s meant to be done, fine. You have excellent form while you run. I saw you at the beginning of the track.” Køhler shot him a look – evidently, he was actually surprised.

“I know.” The taller man said after a while. Lukas rolled his eyes again – he seemed to be doing that a lot recently.

“Moron.” He sighed. Køhler gave him an egotistical grin.

“Jackass.” He replied cheerfully.

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
21st Jaune

Yao couldn’t sleep.

He shouldn’t have been surprised – it was hardly an unusual occurrence, or anything even approaching revolutionary, but for some reason his insomnia was proving especially unbearable tonight. He sat up in bed, dragging his hands over his face and groaning. He despised not being able to sleep, especially when he wanted to.

He stood, being careful to minimise noise even though he was completely alone. He rubbed at his eyes, combing loose locks of hair back from his face as he pondered briefly over what could have woken him. He had been drifting in and out of sleep for a few hours now, and the switching was proving to be more irritating than just staying awake all night.

It probably wouldn’t have too serious of an effect on him, anyway. He might have some dark bags that Ayshe or Octavia would chastise him over, but he probably wouldn’t even feel too tired. He had been needing less and less sleep lately, which was an irritation to Octavia but a delight to him.

He untied his hair from the loose braid that it was still stuck in, combing his fingers through it absently. He hungered for something to do, but knew that his options would be limited at this time of night. Yao glanced at the clock. 3:31am. Yes, he was probably the only non-night shift person awake right now. He had sacrificed some of his night-time duties to other officials like Aelia Gabras, Jamael Laroussi and Mohammed Hassan at Ayshe and Kabeeta’s combined request. They had chastised him consistently over how little sleep he got, and how he needed to take better care of himself. He had surrendered because he knew how stubborn they were, and didn’t want to fight such intimidating women. Well, he had also agreed because he couldn’t stand to see that concerned look in Ayshe’s eyes, but that was irrelevant.

His head jerked to the side, heart fluttering, as he heard a noise from outside. A low rustling met his ears and he swallowed, alarm flaring up. It was probably only animals moving around – they were in the wilderness, after all – but it could also be something more sinister. Moving carefully and quietly, he reached for the stand of weaponry that stood close to his bed, and withdrew one of the traditional jian knives that sat on top. His heart was hammering as he slowly drew one section of his tent open.

The area around his tent was empty, and he cursed, letting himself relax infinitesimally as he stepped outside and did a quick lap of his tent. There was no-one there, and he couldn’t even spot the animal that had likely made the noises in the first place. He scowled, glaring at the nearby bushes as if they had personally inflicted harm on him. He was becoming paranoid. His alarm system would have gone off if someone had stepped through the perimeter anyway. Yao lowered the knife and rubbed his face. Perhaps he did need sleep. More rustling met the edges of his earshot, but a quick glance in the direction he thought they were coming from yielded the view of another empty stretch of dirt speckled with small plants.

Maybe he could see Kabeeta about getting some medication to help him sleep. She would certainly welcome him seeking out help for such a thing. He was always so reluctant to talk to anyone about what he was going through. He surveyed the ground again. Maybe he could get some of the bushes near his tent removed. If he was going to be so sensitive that simple rustling would wake him, it might be best if he removed the distraction at it’s source. Resolving to do both of those things later in the day, he retreated back into his tent, ignoring the rustling that continued as he walked back inside.

“Sleeping medication?” Kabeeta asked, looking surprised. “I can’t say that I was expecting this…you’re normally so reluctant to admit that anything is wrong.”

Yao sighed, wringing his gloved hands together, absently recalling how warm Ayshe’s hand had been on his when she had pulled his glove off. He did hate showing his hands off to people, but he felt like he would hate it a little less if she had her hand slotted into one of his.

“Yes, I know, Kabeeta, but I think that if I’m no longer going to actively work at night, I might as well sleep like how you and Ayshe are always bugging me to do.” Kabeeta smiled.

“I agree, but I’m happy to see you finally following my advice.” She chuckled. “Did she threaten you with death again?” Yao smiled.

“No, she didn’t, but I thought…well, she bugs me about it all the time. I might as well put her mind at peace, if nothing else.” Kabeeta smiled, expression warm and open in every sense of the word.

“I see. You really love her, don’t you?” Yao inhaled sharply, trying to conceal the extent of his shock at Kabeeta’s statement.

“I don’t think that’s an appropriate way of looking at it-” he said. Kabeeta waved a hand dismissively, effortlessly cutting him off.

“I know what I said.” Kabeeta said. “I wasn’t the one who made the assumption that I was referring to romantic love, though.” Yao sighed, trying to ignore the victorious look on her face.

“I despise you.” He sighed as the doctor laughed.

“Yes, I’m sure you do.” She replied as she shuffled around some small vials of pills on the shelves, pulling some down and examining their labels. “I wouldn’t stress about it, though. The feeling is obviously mutual, though whether you want to act on it or not is up to you two.” Yao looked over at her, frowning slightly.

“What do you mean?” Kabeeta shrugged.

“The relationship dynamic that you two have would work regardless of the nature of your relationship. Whatever feels right to you is what you should do. Don’t try to force anything. You guys are so close that it would take something pretty huge to ever break you apart, though.” He sighed, thinking over her words as she extracted a bottle from the shelf and made a small, victorious noise before tossing it to him. “This should work.”

Yao skimmed the label before nodding, curling his fingers around the pill bottle. “Got it. Thanks, Kabeeta.” She smiled warmly.

“Any time, Yao.”

He stowed the bottle in his pocket, letting his eyes adjust to the glare for a moment as he stepped outside. His thoughts strayed towards Lukas and Matthias Køhler. He had no idea what was going to happen on Fynkn; from now until the day that one or both of them came back, he was blind. He had no spies on Fynkn – he trusted Galina Hansen enough that he didn’t think he needed them. Even asking Galina about what was going on down there would make her suspicious. She knew about his talent for and love of schemes, so she would immediately try to sniff out anyone planted by the resistance. They respected each other a lot, but Galina was never a fan of mysteries.

He groaned quietly. While he was happy to be giving Lukas the opportunity to fight for his people and (hopefully) be giving Mr Køhler an opportunity to change the views he had of the resistance and the Union, the whole situation was out of his hands now.

“Yao!” his head jerked up as he spun, already knowing who was calling as he felt himself instinctively relaxing and his expression softening. Ayshe ran up to him, smiling gently. He couldn’t help but smile as well.

“Ayshe.” He said, dipping his head a little jokingly. “What can I help you with?” she grinned.

“Is it wrong for me to want to spend time with my best friend?” she asked, tone warm and eyes sparkling. Yao had to force himself to look away, he was so enraptured by her happiness for a moment. He smiled.

“No, I suppose not.” He mused. “How have the assignments over on Xexei been doing?” Ayshe nodded.

“Very well. I have a source who indicates that they might have found a slave wanting to join up.” Yao nodded.

“We’ll have to look into that. Even if they change their mind later, it’s still worth trying to help free them anyway.” Ayshe nodded.

“That’s what I was thinking.” She said, smiling. “What about you? Have you been feeling better?” Yao rolled his eyes playfully at her.

“I was never sick in the first place, you know.” He said. “Just a little hyper, I think.” Ayshe raised an eyebrow, reaching up to poke at his hair.

“Not hyper enough to remember to clean your hair, obviously.” She snorted. “Come on, Yao, I swear your self-care has degraded immensely in the last few months.” Yao frowned, reaching up to also feel his hair. He felt like he had washed it recently, but a quick examination in a nearby mirror made his nose wrinkle a little. Clearly, he was already in need of another shower. He shook it off.

“Well, I do have something that might cheer you up a little.” He said, pulling the bottle of pills from his pocket and showing them to her. Ayshe blinked, looking confused for a moment before she read the label.

“…used to treat sleeping difficulties and insomnia…Yao!” she exclaimed the last word, looking delighted as he stowed the bottle away again. “Really?” he sighed, nodding.

“I figured…well…you wanted me to sleep more anyway, and since I have no more night duties…I might as well…” he trailed off. Ayshe looked so touched that he felt his stomach flip pleasantly. Her expression melted into a smile and she moved over and looped her arms around his shoulders, hugging him. He smiled, relaxing immediately as he hugged her back.

“I’m proud of you.” She murmured into his ear. “I know it isn’t easy to ask for help.” He sighed.

“It…it isn’t. Thank you, Ayshe.”

“You’re very welcome.”

Travel Office, Mina District,
Bibesti, Rela,
21st Jaune

Lovino scowled, expression growing more and more irritated as he noted the sheer number of people at the transit office that morning. He had no clue why so many people were suddenly keen to leave Bibesti, but he had never seen numbers like this; the queue to get into the travel office backed out into the street and halfway around the block. He cursed. The office closed in an hour – there was no way that he would be able to get served before then. He wasn’t the only one feeling anxious. The back half of the line all had drawn expressions and tense shoulders.

He frowned. There was obviously something going on here that he didn’t know about – it couldn’t be just that the office had a sale going on and everyone here wanted in. Lovino had been around this area at peak hour and barely half the people had been around. Another detail that caught his eye was the appearance of most people in the line. Unlike what he normally saw at offices for inter-national or inter-planetary travel, these people looked…like him. They looked poor. So why were they all looking to go on vacation?

He sighed. He only had four days until the Zephyrak’s deadline, and, as much as he hated to bow to her demands, he didn’t want to put Feliciano or himself in danger needlessly. They had spent a lot of time on Rela, but the woman was right about one thing – it was dangerous for them to spend a lot of time anywhere, much less to settle and get comfortable. They had even been reckless enough to use their real names (bar the surname) while living here. They might have leased and continued to rent their apartment under false names, but all of the people who knew them knew them by their real names.

Lovino would have whipped himself for that, had he not remembered exactly what it had been like when they’d arrived in Rela. He had been fourteen; Feliciano eleven, and he had been sick of running and hiding. He had known not to lease their apartment under a name even remotely similar to his real one, but when he had introduced himself to their neighbour Sadik, he had slipped up and used his real name. No consequences had ever come of it, so he hadn’t seen the harm.

He got the feeling that he had made a mistake in using his real name with Vash. The assassin was calculating to a fault. Lovino didn’t doubt that he knew they were Syhvvanian – given that he knew their real names and ages, as well, he probably knew that they were royalty as well. There wasn’t really anything he could do about it, though. Vash had been missing for months on his mission with the group who had sought him out, and Lovino was yet to have anyone come after his head (exempting the Zephyrak, of course), so he didn’t think that the man cared much for telling the Union about them.

He stretched up on his toes, wishing that he were only a few inches taller so he could see if the cause of the frenzy was at the ticket office. It didn’t look any different to normal, though. He frowned. What was going on here? He sighed, glancing at the people in the line. They all looked desperate to get to the front, even though the majority likely wouldn’t. Pushing down his dislike of strangers, he approached a man in the line.

“Oi.” He asked. The man spun to face him, looking a little afraid as he took in Lovino’s rough appearance. Lovino forced himself to relax his shoulders and make his resting scowl a little more neutral. “What the hell is going on? Why is everyone so desperate to get a ticket out of Bibesti?” the man stared at him a moment before his jaw slackened a little.

“You haven’t heard?” the man said, expression crumpling into something fearful and wary. “Local travel ministers have been saying that there are pirates incoming in the next few days.” Lovino frowned. Rela had planet-wide atmosphere guards. How on earth would pirates be able to get in? He asked as much, and the man sighed. “They mostly have light-weight starships, so they can rush right past all of the security. Not to mention, the High Council allows them three days of free reign per year in exchange for a policy of complete avoidance for the rest of the time.” Lovino blinked.

He had heard about the ‘Three Day Reign’ before, but he and Feliciano had never been present on Rela for it, or, if they had been, they hadn’t been in Bibesti. He had known that it was something that no one enjoyed, and so had maintained a reasonable distance whenever it approached. And he had certainly not known that it involved pirates.

“Alright.” He said slowly. “So why is everyone booking it right now? I mean no offence, but I don’t think that 99% of the people here can afford it.” The man sighed, running a hand over his thinning hair.

“We can’t, but in the last two years, they’ve almost exclusively targeted Rela’s poorest sections. Since we don’t have as much security, it’s a lot easier to loot and rape and murder in the poor sectors. Say, where do you live?” Lovino hesitated a moment.

“Uhh, Szwicza.” Lovino hunched his shoulder as the people around him, who had obviously been listening in, turned bodily to gawk at him. The man blinked, looking horrified, before reaching out to seize his arm.

“My god, you need to get out! They always go for Szwizca above all other districts. The danger there will be tenfold what it normally is!” Lovino sucked in a breath as the words registered, and he felt his stomach turn over. The man looked over at the office. “Maybe if we explain your situation-”

“Alright, that’s it, we’re ceasing trading hours for today!” one of the workers in the shop yelled out, prompting a chorus of responses ranging from angry to frustrated to scared to hysterical. Lovino stepped away from the crowd as it swelled and surged forward, countless people trying to restore their hope of leaving the city before the pirates descended on it. Lovino slowly turned to the man, who was watching the ticket office with dismay, but not making a effort to rush forwards with everyone else.

“Sir…” he trailed off. “When are they expected to come? The pirates, I mean?” the man looked over at him, expression sad.

“The…25th? I think?” Lovino swallowed, tasting acid on his tongue.

The world really hated him, didn’t it?

Onboard the SS Larcenist,
Outer Space
22nd Jaune

The woman consulted her watch, humming softly to herself as she registered the time. Only a few more days. Only a few more days. Only a few more days.

It was going to be so much fun this year. Bibesti was always a radiant city, and it saddened her somewhat that everyone closed themselves up whenever she and her crew came knocking around. It was nice, though, not having police step in to stop her from having her fun.

They tended to get involved if a Relusian citizen was in dire danger of losing life or limb, or if they were going a little bit overboard, but other than that, they let she and her crew have a lot of fun. Of course, it helped that they liked to target the poorest regions of Bibesti rather than somewhere like, say, the Veroda district. People also made such a fuss when rich people got gutted, but the poor? They could have been cannon fodder for all that the rich cared. She grinned. Ah, the apathy of the wealthy. It was a beautiful thing at times.

She sighed. The Three Day Reign was quickly shaping up to be the highlight of her year. She had seen no-one but her crew members, their prisoners and their victims for so long, she felt like she was going insane. She missed her friends; other pirate Captains who knew what it was like to have to break up fights with their surbordinates and try to divvy up the spoils of a good fight equally while still showing clear favour to certain underlings.

She would have killed to even have run into someone she didn’t like much. Cahya Maharani was a bitch but saints, did she have some good stories. She had gone to the Red Pike more often than she usually did – the swanky anchorage held a bar that was frequented by the best pirates in the business, but the most pleasant of the faces she normally saw there had all been absent.

She had made arrangements to see if she had anyone of interest to sell to Jack, but that appointment was still weeks and weeks and weeks away. She missed her rough friend. Not to mention Arthur. The sour Pyndaphian was one of the people she found most bearable, yet he seemed to have dropped off everyone’s radars in Fybwari, along with his entire crew.

She rolled her neck, picking at the sleeves of her elaborate red coat. She adored the thing, but hadn’t had the chance to show Arthur or Jack yet. They would both approve. They shared her flair for drama.

“Captain Dirie?” A voice behind her said. She spun, facing one of her newer recruits, who looked nearly scared to death to be speaking to her directly. How cute.

“Yes?” she asked, tone casual but laced with danger – it would do this little one good to remember to show her deference. He blanched, hands shaking a little. She smiled slightly, which only seemed to make him even more scared.

“I-I apolog-gise for d-disturbing you, uh, b-but you have an uh-upcoming call with B-Bibesti’s travel m-minister soon.” She smiled, reaching out to gently pat the man’s cheek, making sure her long, sharp nails grazed his skin a little.

“Thank you, darling.” She purred. “I’ll be right there.” She dug the sharp edges of her nails slightly into his cheek, smile deepening as she saw five small spots of blood appear on his cheek. To his credit, he didn’t flinch, wince or make a single noise, though his face did go even more pale. She retracted her hand and waved him off, sticking her slightly bloody nail-tips into her mouth as he turned and verifiably bolted for the exit. The taste of metal filled her mouth, and she grinned.

Bibesti would prove a worthy pillage, indeed.

Chapter Text

Blå Ren Insurgent Training Camp,
Feynir Region, Fynkn,
23rd Jaune

Matthias was seriously beginning to think that Lukas Bondevik wasn’t human, and he had only known him for about six days. The guy was just…offputting. In almost every sense of the word. He was odd to be around for long periods of time, and sadly, ‘long periods of time spent around Lukas Bondevik’ was essentially his new job description.

The guy could just be oddly…robotic? That was the best way that Matthias could think to himself to describe it. He had believed, initially, that he could at least have some fun in winding the guy up; their very first meeting had indicated that he wasn’t always so cool and composed, but as the days here had passed, the Fynknian had emotionally withdrawn even more and more. He still engaged in the little habit that the two of them had gotten into with insulting each other. Bondevik would begin every one of these little interactions by calling Matthias a moron, and he would respond in a timely manner and call the prince a jackass.

But the rest of the time? Bondevik put his head forward and did the tasks they were told to do by Sergeant Kolden, and did them to the best of his ability, as well. He didn’t rise to the bait when Matthias teased him; in fact, he rarely engaged him in conversation anymore. Matthias couldn’t say that he missed the insults, glares and frequent rude gestures that the prince used to aim in his direction, but, given that it was his job to look after someone who barely spoke to him, he found himself actually feeling a little lonely.

The other recruits were nice enough; Ansel, who had the bunk between Bondevik and himself, was always a good conversationalist, and he had even somewhat befriended the muscular brawler from Block A known as Kors Justsen, who had looked horrified and insulted by the fact that Matthias had been put in Block D.

“Screw the convenience!” Kors had yelled, slapping Matthias on the back. “You should be up in Block A with us! We’re the ones who actually know how to fight, after all!” Matthias had shrugged at that, but laughed along with them. The people in Block A were far more his cup of tea, in all honesty. He knew that he was probably just missing his friends and projecting onto the people around him, but he felt a lot more home with them. Bondevik was the irritating blot at the edge of his vision, always there and not necessarily bothering him but existing as a distraction nonetheless. Every time that he started to enjoy himself a little, or feel a little more accepted by the people around him, he would remember exactly why he was there. He was on Fynkn in the first place to protect the little prince, and as irritating an oath as it was, he had agreed to it.

And he had no way of getting out of his promise, either, save dying. He had sworn to fulfil his assigned duty in protecting the prince in exchange for his friends’ freedom, and he was going to follow through with it no matter how unpleasant and offputting his charge could be. Matthias was gradually getting more irritated by the situation, though, because, from what he had seen, Bondevik didn’t need anyone to protect him. The guy was a good six inches shorter than him, and also about 18 kilograms lighter, but he nipped at Matthias’ heels in every exercise that they did. If the kid got some proper food in him and did a little more endurance training, Matthias didn’t doubt that he could probably beat him. It really was impressive, given what he had gathered thus far about the prince’s life up to this point.

Admittedly, it was very easy to pity him. Yes, he might have been royalty, and raised in decadence unimaginable to most people for the first eight years of his life, but the minute that was over, he had endured things a lot harder than what most others would ever face.

Most of the other recruits had looked shocked and a little sympathetic when Bondevik had admitted that he had been shuttled off-world during the Expansion. From what Matthias had been told, though it seemed backwards, being outside of Fynkn had actually been an objectively worse situation than staying put. Ansel had tried to explain it to him.

“Well, basically, yeah, you’re away from the Union, but you’re still being hunted down just as much. It’s illegal for Fynknians to reside anywhere except for Fynkn, or to leave the planet without express permission, which is never given, mind you, so anyone off-world is actually committing a crime. They kill some people if they find them far away enough. Here, though, if you keep your head down and do whatever they want you to, you’ll generally be left alone. Not to mention, well, anyone off of Fynkn would be completely cut off from the rest of their life. Friends, family, culture, language…all of it. You would have to constantly hide who you were, or always be on the move. If you’re on Fynkn, you at least still have your home and your loved ones with you, and if you work hard you can provide for yourself. The vast majority of escapees that I’ve met, though, they say that they constantly suffered from homelessness or poverty or even starvation. It’s not a situation that I would want to be in, so I salute him for surviving that.”

Judging by Bondevik’s slender frame and smaller-than-average height, starvation and malnutrition had definitely been part of his past; likely to a large extent, to have influenced him as much as it had. The kid was only nineteen, but still. Matthias couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for him. Being one of the only two surviving members of the royal family would have made everything harder by tenfold. Ansel had explained how even members of low-ranked noble families had had to constantly run and always stay on their toes and look out for enemies. Being royalty would have been harder still, not to mention that, unlike the vast majority of escapees, Bondevik hadn’t had an adult to help him.

It did soften Matthias’ view of the cold prince somewhat, and did explain in part why he was reticent to a fault and so unwilling to even make light conversation most of the time, but Matthias supposed that he could have turned out worse than he did.

His cold nature reminded Matthias of one of the other interesting people in Block D; Riya Kristoff. She was very physically fit, normally coming in third to Matthias and Bondevik’s own first and second placements in physical exercises, but exceedingly quiet.

She was one of the few Fynknians that Matthias had seen who didn’t have blond hair. According to Ansel, she was reportedly part-Syhvvanian, which Matthias found easy to believe. Her hair was a dark, dull burgundy that was normally pulled up into a simple ponytail. Her skin was shockingly pale, even more so than the other, fully Fynknian recruits, and her eyes were the colour of ice chips; such a light, bright and cool blue that it was hard to look at them for too long. Her features were petite and almost elvish, but almost always drawn and stern in a way that made her face look longer than it was. He hadn’t seen her crack a smile or laugh once since she had been here. Granted, Bondevik did the same, but with her, it felt deeper, as if she couldn’t force herself to feel the happiness necessary to smile. Matthias had asked Ansel exactly what her deal was, but he had just winced.

“It’s not a pleasant story. I don’t really want to go and tell it, at least not right now.”

Matthias had dropped the issue, but the girl was certainly a curiosity. He had heard the term de fengslinger thrown around her a lot, but he wasn’t entirely sure what it meant. Matthias spoke fluent Fynknian, yes, but from what he could see, that word was a recent development in the language. He could easily identify the root of the word – fengsling, which meant detention, but even with that context he didn’t know exactly what they were talking about. He had shrugged it off after a brief period of curiosity. It didn’t really matter that much, he supposed. She had never done anything to him, after all, and he had nothing against her, so why get involved?

Matthias sighed, digging his hands into the deep bough of snow in front of him, seeking out the dummies that they had been told to search for. They were simulating avalanche rescues, and while it was undeniably useful, he was starting to get sick of kneeling in the snow and feeling his knees and shins slowly go numb. He dug down more, sighing in relief when he was able to pull out the dummy he had been looking for.

He glanced across the stretch of snow-coated land that everyone else was scattered around. This was one of the first exercises that he hadn’t been first to finish in. That had been Bondevik, for once, though Matthias suspected cheating on his part. The guy could control water – he had probably just mentally sifted through the snow until he had located the dummy-sized gap. The prince was sitting by the side, looking thoroughly bored. Another two were finished as well, but by their own admission, they both had been involved in rescue operations before, so they knew exactly what signs to look for and how to locate survivors in a disaster zone.

Matthias trudged over to them, tossing his dummy onto the small pile the others had started with a satisfying thwack before slumping down in the snow with the others. One of the former rescue workers struck up a conversation which he engaged in enthusiastically, and happily gave him tips and what signs to look for. He listened with interest as the rest of the group trickled over, with the last few receiving a strike across the back of the head and a lecture – as was customary for Kolden – before they were all nudged to their feet and urged back towards the meeting area.

Once they had all arranged themselves into messy but serviceable lines, Sergeant Kolden began to speak.

“Alright. As you may be aware, from this day onward, you only have another five weeks of preliminary training before you will be assigned to specific areas. For some of you, those assignments will mean doing espionage. For some others, it will mean meeting the Union head on in the field. From now until the day you will be assigned, you will be run off your goddamn feet. It will make these last three weeks look like a breezy summer camp. For that reason, you’ve all been given the afternoon off to have a last little relax and spend time with your significant others or families before you enter the most gruelling section of your training. So, go on, and enjoy yourselves while you still have the chance to. Dismissed.”

The lines dissolved, most people darting over to their friends to delightedly discuss this new development, while some others absolutely booked it out of the meeting place, obviously off to see people or have fun with the free time they had been given. Matthias rolled his shoulder back gently. He had no relatives to see, and the people he was most friendly with were in Block A, so he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with himself.

His eyes lingered briefly on Riya Kristoff for a moment out of pure curiosity, before his gaze wandered and fell on Bondevik. The nineteen-year-old looked a little annoyed, completely in contrast to everyone else, and turned on his heel to march off. Matthias sighed. They hadn’t spoken since the day before yesterday, and as much as he dreaded it, he should be able to at least hold a conversation with the guy before they were assigned to spend months together.

“Oi jackass.” He said, wandering towards him with his hands stuffed in his pockets. “Why the sour look? Are you allergic to holidays?” the prince stilled, expression darkening.

“Must you try to rile me up at every opportunity?” the Fynknian snapped, eyes cold. “It’s so immature I’m amazed that your friends didn’t try to re-enrol you in primary school. Assuming that you ever went in the first place, of course, though that might be a bit too much for you to handle.” Matthias frowned, feeling a small amount of anger surge up inside. Okay, yes, he liked to tease, but it really wasn’t worth such a harsh reaction.

“I was just wondering.” He said, hoping that the prince couldn’t hear the small amount of hurt in his voice. “You looked so fucking miserable I guess I was curious as to why. Annoyed that you don’t have any family to run off to?”

Matthias’ brain only caught up with his mouth after the words had already been said, and god, did he feel like the world’s biggest ass when he realised what exactly he had just blurted out. He liked to think that he was the sort of person who knew what lines were unacceptable to cross, but given that he had just taken a running leap over the line designated for fucking orphans, he was probably wrong about that.

Bondevik, at first, didn’t look like he was going to react. He was still, frame locked up tightly. His expression didn’t look like it was going to change. For a moment, it looked like he, similar to Matthias, was in complete disbelief at what sentence had just been said. But, alas, he quickly absorbed Matthias’ words. His expression changed so subtly that he wondered if he had been watching properly, but with the adjustment of just a few muscles, his expression shifted from bemused and neutral to cold and harsh.

“No, Køhler, I don’t. In case you’re yet to be educated about what happened during the Expansion, they were murdered. I guess you don’t have that same problem, though, given how freely you talk about it.” Matthias stared at him, certain that his horror at his own words was showing on his face and desperately wishing that he could go back in time a few seconds and punch himself in the face. He knew that he could be tone-deaf at times, but this far outstripped his idiocy from the past.

“I…” he trailed off, fumbling mentally and trying to figure what on earth he could say to at least somewhat save the situation. “I am so sorry, I did not mean that…” Bondevik watched him callously.

“Then why say it?” the prince asked, tone cold and sharp as the knife strapped to his thigh. Matthias stuttered helplessly.

“I…I don’t know…I’m an idiot…” he trailed off again. Bondevik watched him for a long moment, before raising his hand and briefly clenching it into a fist. A shot of cold sliced through Matthias’ nose, abruptly replaced by heat as blood started to run down his face. He realised with a shock what had happened. The guy had snap-frozen the blood in his nose, making it expand and consequently burst the vessel walls before melting it again. Matthias let out a yelp, hand flying up to his face. Bondevik lowered his fist, expression shifting ever so slightly. Suddenly, he didn’t look half as scary as he did sad. With a shock that hit him harder than his intense nosebleed, Matthias realised that he might have actually hurt the icy Fynknian.

Bondevik turned on his heel and marched away, Matthias watching him hopelessly. It seemed that, rather than try and preserve the few positive interactions that they had been able to have, he had carelessly sunk the ship that was their burgeoning acquaintance.

Lukas knew that Matthias Køhler couldn’t read minds, nor could he detect the emotions of those around him. He certainly couldn’t read the smallest inflections on the planes of other peoples’ faces, or even make a guess at what was bothering them deep down.

Yet, somehow, in that small, simple comment about Lukas’ parents, he had somehow cut through right to what had been bothering Lukas ever since they landed on Fynkn.

He had thought that being on his home planet, the place where he was born and raised before the Union so rudely busted down their door and took away everything that he had known up to that point, would have put his worries at rest. He had assumed that the restlessness that plagued him at times would finally go away now that he had a role and a place to perform it. He had thought that the ghosts which he had dragged all over the Galaxy might finally be put to sleep.

He had been idiotic to think such a thing. The ghosts that had been haunting him were born here. Why on earth would they leave him alone now that he was closer to them than ever?

He had been experienced small instances of déjà vu at first – small things concerning the weather or food or even topics of conversation, and that had been bearable, enjoyable even. It had reinforced that this was his home. This was his planet, his culture, his people. Yes, Lukas had enjoyed the déjà vu at first. But it had quickly progressed into something more. His life prior to the Expansion had changed from being a side thought to occupying the brunt of his thoughts.

But last night had been the worst night of all. He had relived things that he wanted nothing more than to bury once and for all. It had been years since he had dreamed of the night that his parents died, but last night he had experienced it all over again.

And with Lukas, dreams were never normal – they were always lucid, and if they weren’t memories or even sequences that verged on psychic, they were the frightening things that his mind plucked from the heads of people around him. For years, he had only really accidentally stolen dreams from Emilia’s head, and maybe the occasional homeless person if they were sleeping rough, but he hadn’t had so many heads to pluck things from in years. He had initially been afraid that he would take too much from his comrades’ heads, but after his memories of the Expansion had started to well and truly brighten and repeat in his head, he had wished that he was stealing other peoples’ thoughts and imaginations.

Astrid and Oskar Bondevik had always been a tough topic of conversation with Lukas. He loved them, of course he did, but he also recognised that they had been deeply flawed human beings – he himself was one. He missed them, but thought that he had come to terms with their deaths and how they had died years ago. So why were their memories still haunting him, even now?

He wasn’t even that angry at Køhler – he was big and dumb and clumsy in his words, but Lukas had been able to detect his emotions throughout their encounter. He had meant his apology, and quite frankly, the sheer amount of regret and guilt the bounty hunter had felt after making that remark was staggering. He meant well, and Lukas knew that, but he would give it a few days before trying to talk to him again.

He sighed. He had found himself a small ledge near Block B to sit and ponder life on, and was rather enjoying the view. He remembered the exact wording of Køhler’s remark; Annoyed that you don’t have any family to run off to?

That wasn’t entirely true, he mused. The presence of Anga Lindholm when they had been processed was proof enough of that. He remembered her words when Køhler had remarked on her abilities. You should see my nieces.

He had never been very well acquainted with her nieces – they were his second cousins, so the relation wasn’t very strong, not to mention that they had never lived in Oslaholm, and had always been a few years older than him. He had only met them a few times before the Expansion. Lukas shrugged it off. They wouldn’t recognise him now, and even if their abilities were stronger than he remembered, he would make sure to make himself verifiably invisible to them.

Lukas ran a hand through his hair. He felt so tired. Not necessarily physically, but definitely emotionally. This week had been rather taxing on him, though he knew that things were about to get a lot harder. He would force himself through it, though. He needed to get into one of those guerrilla squads, and he also needed Køhler to get himself into one as well. He tilted his head and surveyed the landscape absently, gaze drawn away when he saw a flash of warm colours among all the blue, white and grey.

It was the quiet girl from Block D. Riya Kristoff was seated on one of the other ledges of the building, knees drawn up to her chest and her expression pensive. He watched her for a moment. She was about fifty metres away from him, and didn’t seem to have noticed his presence. He gently nudged at her mind, subtly prompting her to realise that she wasn’t alone. Her head snapped up, looking around and spotting him within a moment or two. Her gaze was harder to stand than he had expected. Lukas hesitated a moment, before slowly raising his hand and waving in greeting. Kristoff looked baffled for a moment before she also raised her hand and mirrored the gesture.

Lukas lowered his arm and stood, moving back towards the stairs to go down to the ground. She seemed like a person best left to their own thoughts.

Szwicza District,
Bibesti, Rela,
25th Jaune

Lovino could feel his heart hammering incessantly in his chest. His head felt as though his brain was pushing itself against the inside of his skull, and his stomach was twisting unpleasantly. He had felt sick and out of order ever since he had woken up this morning.

It was the day. Their deadline. The day that the Zephyrak had told them to get out of Rela by. They had no tickets to get off the planet or even out of the city, barely enough money to buy a transit into the atmosphere, and less than eight hours until the day was up. They were out of options and time. The only thing that Lovino could really think to do was to sneak onto a ship, but even then, that would be difficult. Back in Janwir, after he had killed two guards upon their return from Incanda, security had been heightened around all ports, making it almost impossible to stow away on a ship.

He cursed. He had made Feliciano stuff his most important possessions into a small rucksack, and had done the same himself, but even with all their belongings packed away, they were at a standstill. He had no clue what he was meant to do now. Feliciano shared his obvious concern and anxiety, but he had been spending all morning trying to calm Lovino down.

“I’m sure it will all be fine, fratello, I mean…it’ll be hard to get onto a ship, but we can at least try, right?” Lovino sighed. He had been to every travel office around. All ships were jam-packed with people trying to get away from Bibesti before the impending pirates could drop in, so there was not a single vessel with spare seats. Perhaps the Zephyrak had been trying to help, in a roundabout way, by getting them out before the Three Day’s Reign, but she had also made it hard for an impoverished guy like him to get any reasonable transport away from Rela by giving him the deadline that she did.

He let out a shuddering sigh. “Feli, you know I appreciate your optimism, a lot, but right now, it is really misplaced.” Feliciano fell silent, dropping onto the couch next to Lovino.

“I know it is.” He murmured. “But…we can’t just give up now, can we?” Lovino shrugged. He was tired; tired of running, tired of hiding, tired of being forced out and uprooted every time he felt remotely safe, tired of being someone and something that he wasn’t. He wanted to go home, but he hadn’t one for years now. They were being forced to leave the one place that they had really settled, and Syhvva hadn’t really felt like home since before their parents died.

He really just wished that there was someone else to tell him what to do. He wished that he had parents to order him around and chide him when he made a mistake or was unnecessarily cruel to his brother. He wished that he didn’t have to be responsible for everything all the time. Lovino was an independent person, but sometimes, even he just wanted to be a follower, rather than planner, leader and authority figure all in one.

Even as a child, he had been made to be more independent. His parents’ deaths, and especially that of his mother, had left a power void. It had been up to the people to either choose him, a mere four-year-old boy at the time, or his aging grandfather, to take up rule of Syhvva in her stead. The people had, of course, swung in the favour of his grandfather, not necessarily because they had any ill will against him, but because they thought it absurd to burden a child with so much power and responsibility.

The move had made the one parental figure that Lovino and Feliciano had left in a constant state of busyness, exhaustion and at times, anger. He hadn’t wanted to spend time with the child who so reminded him of his deceased daughter – Lovino’s resemblance to her was absolutely extraordinary – and so had generally avoided them. Feliciano had been his favourite, which had never bothered Lovino so much, but there was a big difference between favouring one child over another and spending time with only one and completely excluding the other.

He had accepted the excuses at first. He’s still mourning your mother. You look so much like her it can be hard for him. Feliciano is only a baby, he needs more attention because he’s so little. You’re a big boy now, aren’t you? Don’t you worry about it, Prince Lovino. You have studies to do anyway. But after a while, the reasons that Romulus Vargas had for outright avoiding his oldest grandchild became a little less clear. Lovino came to understand that the distance that he had mandated between them when he was a child had turned into a general disinterest, bordering on apathy.

Lovino could have endured that. He had his brother, who still looked at him like he was the one who got the sun to wake up in the morning, and the palace staff had always been very kind and nurturing towards him. He had been very close friends with Lukas Bondevik as well, and the Fynknian prince had visited a lot, often bringing his wonderful parents in tow. They treated him so kindly that he often was left counting down the days until their next visit. He could have endured his grandfather’s disinterest with him because he had people who had cared.

But the problem with his grandfather was that he had tended to believe the worst palace reports about Lovino’s behaviour, no matter how infrequent they were. Lovino would act up once in a blue moon, and yet those occasions were the only times that his grandfather chose to pay attention. A streak of perfect behaviour and excellent grades in his schooling for ten months straight weren’t of interest to Romulus Vargas. A single instance in which lovino had lost his temper or sent sparks shooting from his fingers when he was specifically banned from using his gifts, however, were.

He remembered one instance in particular. He had gotten in trouble for losing control of his Fuenar and accidentally setting fire to a desk. Lovino himself had been more traumatised by the event than anyone else. His teacher had been quick to sweep him into a hug and insist that it wasn’t his fault, even if it went against proper protocol for teaching staff. However, since she answered to his grandfather, she had been obliged to report the incident. The next day had seen Lovino dragged into the throne room by a reluctant-looking guard to be screamed at by his grandfather. He’d been accused of being reckless and stupid, and playing around with his gifts like they were toys. Lovino had tried to explain that it was an accident, that he had been startled and reacted instinctively, but that hadn’t stopped his grandfather from descending the steps to loom over him, or reach out and grab his arm in a tight grip, or eventually lose his patience and hit him in the face.

Lovino barely even remembered the feel of his grandfather’s hand against his skin, but he did clearly recall the complete and utter silence that had descended over the throne room after that. He remembered the way his teacher had started forward, looking ready to start a fight before being dragged back by a guard. He did remember how he had desperately kept himself from crying, wanting, more than anything, to just not get hit again.

It would have been impressive, if he was able to legitimately say that he didn’t resent his grandfather. It would have meant that he had put the horrible treatment he had received behind him, and forgiven a man who was clearly still grieving even years after the fact, exhausted and full of anxiety and concern for his planet.

But he couldn’t. He resented his grandfather. It had been years and he still regarded him with distaste. Lovino had seen people grieve. He had done it himself, and he never would have done what his grandfather did. Regardless of how bad he was feeling, the old man should have been able to realise how much his grandchildren were hurting too. Instead, he had focussed on himself. And somehow, that man, rather than the kind and warm Astrid and Oskar Bondevik, or the wildly entertaining Augustinas Laurinaitis or his doting wife Gabija, was the only known royal survivor of the Expansion.

It wasn’t fair, but it was the reality anyway. Lovino didn’t know why he was thinking of his grandfather at a time like this, but he dismissed the thoughts anyway. He had better things to do than worry about the past.

Feliciano watched his brother pace around the room. He had been locked in silent thought for about an hour now, but so far wasn’t yielding any of the ideas that looked to be swimming around in his head. Feliciano drummed his fingers gently against the carpet. He glanced at the window. The sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon. They didn’t have a lot of time left. He hesitated, before deciding that he had to interrupt his brother’s musing.


“We can’t get out of Bibesti.” Lovino interrupted, the haze behind his eyes vanishing as he focused on Feliciano. “There’s no way that we’ll be able to, given the lack of transport available.” Feliciano nodded slowly.

“I know…so…what are we meant to do, then? The Zephyrak is going to hunt us down.” Lovino nodded.

“We probably can’t kill her. She can make objects pass right through her, so fighting is useless…” Lovino trailed off, sighing. “I hate to say this, but we need to run. And I mean literally, by the way. This woman is probably fast, and with the wind helping her she’ll be even faster, but the streets will be in chaos tonight. We probably won’t escape her, but we can at least make this hard for her.” Feliciano hesitated for a long moment, before bowing his head slightly and nodding.

“Okay. We’ll run.” He looked up at his older brother. “As long as we’re together, we’ll be fine.” Lovino nodded, smiling softly.

“Exactly. As long as we’re together, we’ll get through this.” Lovino echoed. Feliciano smiled weakly.

“So, what do we do now?” he asked. Lovino sighed, moving over to sit on the floor next to him.

“Now, we wait.”

They didn’t have to wait long.

It must be nice, Lovino thought, to have gifts regarded by most as supernatural, and to actually be able to use those gifts without fear of being captured and sold for billions of marks. It must also be nice to be able to fly up 176 storeys through the air and land on someone’s balcony, and then use the same powers you just used to fly upwards alarmingly fast to blast their door off its hinges, and barge inside.

It really must be nice. He thought weakly as he staggered backwards, shoving Feliciano behind him as the Zephyrak advanced on him, expression drawn and harsh.

“I gave you a deadline, your majesty. Given that you are still here, it looks like you have chosen not to follow it.” Lovino tensed, clenching his jaw.

“I’m not a fan of punctuality, I will admit, though I will say that we technically have four hours left until the 25th is over, so you’re early, if anything.” The girl growled.

“If you were going to leave, you would be gone by now.” She said. Lovino sighed, clenching and unclenching his fists.

“I tried, believe me. There was no possible, affordable way for us to get off this planet before your stupid deadline. We tried to abide by your rules, but you were the one whose demands were unreasonable.” The woman watched him, expression cold.

“I regret to do this, your majesty, I truly do, but for the sake of my people and my planet, I have to.” Lovino straightened up.

“I understand that you have a duty to perform, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to make it easy for you.”

Lovino saw the muscles in her arms tense as she moved her hands, but he was just as fast. At the same time that a blast of air came surging towards them with the force of a bullet train, Lovino swept his hands in an arc and sent a wave of flame soaring in her direction. The two collided harshly, and sent hot air and sparks flying in all directions through the apartment. The force of the air sent Lovino and Feliciano skidding backwards, and even knocked the Zephyrak back a little.

There was a beat of silence as each side composed themselves. Lovino glanced at his brother, who looked a little shocked. Feliciano had never seen Lovino use his abilities with offensive intent before. He might have been a problem child to his grandfather, but he could fight with his gifts better than the old man ever could have. Lovino exhaled.

“Sorry.” He said, before sending a jet of flame towards her. The Zephyrak leapt out of the way, landing with the poise of a professional gymnast. Lovino let out a shaky breath. Parts of their apartment were on fire. It really was time for them to leave. His hand drifted to his neck, to the rose gold pendant that Feliciano had given him for his 20th birthday. He understood the Zephyrak’s motivations very well, but he had things he needed to protect. He turned to Feliciano, and spoke in Syhvvanian. “Get onto the balcony.” Feliciano stared at him, glancing at the Zephyrak, who looked tense and wary as she sized him up properly, but quickly obeyed.

Lovino shifted his body so that he was between his brother and the Zephyrak, baring his teeth in a vicious grin.

“Well, come on. Is that the best you can do?”

It felt like a dance, the way they moved and dived around the alternating blasts of wind and fire. Lovino sent flames that glowed and roared like great beasts hurtling towards the Zephyrak, and in return she would grace him with winds that howled and surged like vicious birds of prey. She slammed him against the walls and made his bones crack and groan with the force that she shoved him to the floor, and he made her nearly break her neck avoiding his flames and shriek in pain when the fire lapped over her skin and left vibrant red burns in their wake.

He loosed a broken, aching breath as she slammed him against one of their plaster walls hard enough to break a hole through it. Lovino crumpled, his whole body screaming but his reflexes perfectly intact as he raised a fist and sent her flying across the room with his telekinesis. She glowered and, with a low hissing noise, passed right through the wall before lunging back in when he released her. So, she could make herself intangible. Noted.

Lovino swept his hand upwards, making the whole floor ignite as she conjured winds to lift her away from the burning wood and carpet. He staggered backwards. The room was becoming thick with smoke, and he could see that the Zephyrak was being thrown off because of it. He choked on it. The Vargas family was designed to endure fire, not necessarily its products.

He swept his gaze around. The apartment that he and Feliciano had called home for the last six years was ablaze. Furniture that they had sat on just hours ago was blackened and still smouldering. A small sob escaped his throat. This was the closest thing to home that he had ever had, and he was sending it up in smoke.

Forcing himself to take advantage of the Zephyrak’s disoriented state, he darted outside to where Feliciano was perched on the balcony, looking just as scared of the huge drop to the ground as he did of the burning apartment and angry Zephyrak behind them. Lovino stuck his head out over the railing. They could take the fire escape down, even if it would give the woman an easy opportunity to catch up with them, or could shimmy across the building. Both options were rather dangerous, though.

He looked down, trying to ignore the brief vertigo that seized him. Far, far below, was a large stone fountain normally used by children in the summer to play in. The water was stagnant, so no-one ever drank from it. They were so high up that, even had the fountain been very deep, they still would have been absolutely pancaked. Lovino cursed. The building’s fire alarm was going off now, loud and insistent in his ear. They couldn’t escape back through the building and endanger innocent civilians, so their only option was to go out.

Feliciano seemed to have realised this too, and was staring at Lovino in terror. They both spun around when the door slammed open, the angry and now slightly singed Zephyrak stepping out to join them on the balcony. Lovino stared at her, realising how easily he had let them be cornered as she raised her hands again. She was going to blast them right off the balcony and let them fall 176 storeys to what would undoubtedly be an immediate death.

Well, Lovino had always been a fan of the idea that one should seize their own destiny. And besides, they were out of options. He prayed that his telekinesis was strong enough as he pressed himself against the railing, clambered up onto the metal, grabbed his brother’s hand, and jumped.

There was nothing quite like plummeting from a height of about 800 metres directly down to the ground with nothing to hold onto them. Feliciano was screaming, rightfully so, whereas Lovino felt oddly numb as gravity dragged them downwards. He twisted in mid-air, catching sight of his younger brother’s terrified face as the ground surged up to meet them. I won’t let anything happen to you. He thought. As long as we’re together, we’re okay, remember?

Lovino sucked in as much air as he could while tumbling to the ground at terminal velocity, threw his hands out and unleashed every ounce of telekinetic power that he had.

He felt weightless for a brief moment as their descent slowed to a non-lethal speed, but gravity returned just a moment later, and they dropped like stones the remaining seven metres between them and the fountain near their apartment building, sending water flying over the rim of the fountain as they sunk rapidly through the water.

Lovino surfaced with a choked gasp as he desperately drew air into his lungs, heart hammering and vision blurring and spinning uncontrollably. He could hear Feliciano coughing and retching nearby. He felt a hand close around his arm and drag him forwards. He stumbled over the rim of the fountain and slumped onto the ground beside his brother.

He had done it. He’d actually done it. He had managed to completely stop them in mid-air when they had been travelling at a speed of about 47 metres per second. He blindly reached out, fumbling for his brother.

“A-are, you, are you okay?” he choked out. He heard Feliciano gasp.

“Yeah.” He said, sounding just as breathless and stunned. “We…we’re both okay…” he trailed off disbelievingly.

Lovino rubbed his eyes as he forced himself to his feet. As amazing as them surviving had been, the Zephyrak was still after them. He blinked a few times, spinning around to face his brother as Feliciano clambered to his feet, and felt his stomach drop to his toes.

“Oh…shit…fuck…shit…no, no, no…” he muttered, staring at his brother in horror. Feliciano was unharmed but, oh god, Lovino had completely forgotten…their hair. Feliciano looked up at Lovino and obviously realised their problem, face paling. The vivid red of Feliciano’s hair was showing through, rivulets of black running down his shoulders and neck. Glancing down at himself, Lovino could also see dye running down his body, stripping him of the only major disguise that he really needed.

Feliciano shook his head, darting forward to grab Lovino’s hand and drag him away.

“We…we can focus on it later. For now, we need to run, remember?” Lovino staggered after him, feeling numb with fear before his brain caught up with the situation and his feet started to run. He nodded, more to himself than to Feliciano, as they darted down a narrow alley and ploughed through the darkest little nooks and crannies that the Szwicza District had to offer.

Lovino threw a look over his shoulder, looking up to where their apartment was. The blaze had started to spread to other nearby apartments, and he felt a brief stab of guilt. He hoped that Sadik and their other neighbours could get out in time. Their balcony was empty – the Zephyrak was on the move again. He shuddered a little, but kept on moving.

He frowned at his brother. Feliciano had taken his pack back at the apartment when he had been gearing up to fight, and still had it slung over his shoulders with his own things.

“I can take my stuff.” Lovino said, voice crackly. Feliciano shook his head.

“Focus on keeping her away from us.” He said firmly. “I can manage. It isn’t heavy.” Lovino nodded, steering his brother down another small path between two rundown buildings. The streets normally had at least some people moving around, but tonight, they were completely abandoned.

For some reason, Lovino’s mind didn’t recall exactly why until the burst of raucous laughter came from the next street over, and he glimpsed the person that caused it. He seized Feliciano by the back of his shirt the moment that he spotted the long blue frock coat and thigh holster of the man, pressing them both into a narrow alcove. He cursed. He was an idiot. In his panic about the Zephyrak, he had completely forgotten about the Three-Day Reign. The city, and the Szwicza District in particular, was currently infested with pirates.

Feliciano had evidently realised as well, and looked concerned. Lovino cursed, trying to soothe the small shaking in his right hand. The pirates that came for the Three-Day Reign were not like the ones that Vash had housed in his apartment. These were the killers and sadists and the truly evil ones. And right now, he and Feliciano were very visibly Syhvvanian, and would quite obviously fetch a high price, either dead or alive.

A noise from the alley behind them had Lovino whipping around, and cursing again when he saw the Zephyrak slowly stalking towards them. Their only options were to face the Zephyrak, who would likely kill them, or run into the main street and face the pirates, who would likely kill them. It was a lose-lose situation. His heart was in his mouth as he quietly looked around to see if they had another mode of escape. The Zephyrak had slowed down considerably; she had obviously also remembered the pirates, and was looking to avoid their attention.

Lovino felt a gentle arm nudge him in the side. Feliciano, looking pale but determined, was pointing towards a dark corner across from them, where, Lovino could now see, there was a rusted fire escape leading up to the roof. He squeezed his younger brother’s hand to communicate that he had seen it too, and looked from side to side. The Zephyrak seemed on edge…maybe…

He focused on a small pail he could see up the far end of the alley, in the opposite direction to them. He knocked it over, grabbing Feliciano and dragging them both rapidly over to the ladder when the Zephyrak whirled around to investigate the noise. He nudged Feliciano, urging him to climb up first. The thing looked prone to clanging and creaking, so they would have to make this quick. Feliciano clambered up onto the lowest rung and climbed, moving carefully so as to generate as little noise as possible. Lovino followed him, taking care to step in the same places that his brother had. The ladder let out a loud groan as he scrambled onto the roof, and they both bolted to the far edge of the roof, sliding down the sloped edge until they were standing on the rim of the tiles, about a metre away from the edge of the building next door.

Lovino didn’t want to risk having Feliciano fall, so he seized him with his mind and sent him over the edge that way, ignoring the stunned and surprised look on his brother’s face as he leapt over manually. He shuffled over to a part of the roof that sloped inwards a little, and dragged his brother in next to him.

“What are we meant to do now?” Feliciano whispered, voice so quiet that Lovino had to strain a little to hear him. He exhaled shakily, still feeling a little off-kilter from the jump to the fountain.

“I don’t know.” He breathed back. “It’s the Zephyrak in one direction and very hostile pirates in the other.” Feliciano bit his lip. Most of the dye had leached out of his hair by now, and the bright coppery colour he was born with was back. Lovino absently reached out and ran a hand through it. He hadn’t gotten to see his brother’s natural appearance in so long, it felt good to see him like this. Feliciano smiled at him sadly.

“The pirates will try to capture and sell us if they find us, won’t they?” Feliciano murmured. Lovino sighed, but nodded.

“Yeah. Even if we’re sold just as normal civilians, we’d fetch a good price, given that we aren’t meant to live outside of Syhvva.” He swallowed. “But the Zephyrak is going to kill us, so…”

Feliciano looked down, the last dregs of optimism finally dying from his eyes. Their situation was well and truly hopeless. Lovino sighed.

“Feli…” he hesitated. He knew that his brother would fight him, but it had to be done. “I…have an idea.” His brother looked at him as he swallowed, knowing that Feliciano wasn’t going to like this at all.

“I…I’m going to distract them to get them off our tail.” Feliciano was shaking his head already.

“No, absolutely not. Lovino-” Lovino sighed.

“Listen, Feli, they’re gonna find us sooner or later anyway. If we don’t move, we’ll end up facing both Zephyrak and pirate at the same time, which I am not keen to do, may I say. We’re not gonna be separated, okay, but we’ll just travel by different avenues, alright? I’ll go by the street, you travel by rooftop.”

Feliciano looked vehemently against this plan, quickly starting to protest the minute that Lovino closed his mouth. He reached out and clapped his palm over his brother’s mouth.

“Just…please just trust me on this. Okay? I’m not intending to go anywhere, I promise. It’s just so we can observe the area better, and so that if we do get caught, it’s one rather than both of us.” Feliciano hesitated for a long moment before nodding. Lovino sighed in relief. “Alright. And, one more thing. If I get captured, Feli, I need you to promise me that you won’t try to help me. Promise me that you’ll run away and hide and keep yourself safe.” Feliciano stared at him in horror.

“Lovi, I can’t-”

Please, Fratellino? Please?” Feliciano stared at him, looking devastated, before nodding very slowly. Lovino sighed again, nodding to himself. He climbed to his feet, smiling at Feliciano reassuringly before turning and running to the edge of the roof, surveying the street. If he had to take his chances, he would rather be sold than killed.

Lovino spread his arms and leapt down, using his telekinesis to slow his fall again as he landed carefully. He straightened up and looked around. He wasn’t necessarily going to be aiming to get captured. If fact, if he could avoid it, that would be great. He didn’t like the idea of Feliciano being alone, even though he knew that he would be able to handle it.

He just needed to disperse the attention being focused on this area. By drawing out both the Zephyrak and the pirates, he could help Feli fly under the radar, and hopefully, meet up with him later in the city somewhere. He glanced around. His first task was the Zephyrak. She had been close on their heels earlier, but where was she now? He glanced up towards the rooftop where he had left Feliciano.

He crossed the street, eying the alleys nearby carefully. She had been so vigilant in hunting them before, so there was no way she had just given up-

Lovino’s instincts barely gave him enough time to dodge as the woman leapt down at him from above. He rolled and came up on his feet, falling into a fighting stance as he faced her. She dusted herself off, frowning.

“Where’s your little brother?” she asked. Lovino bared his teeth in a wordless grin, and swung at her.

He couldn’t use his gifts here, he just couldn’t. It was the sure-fire way to draw attention and get both of them sold to the Union for billions of marks, but he could still throw a good punch, so that was what he did. The Zephyrak seemed to be so surprised by his use of actual physical force that she didn’t block in time. His blow landed hard on her solar plexus, and he heard the air leave her lungs in a rush as she gasped in pain.

He darted backwards to avoid her arm as it lashed out, knife in hand, cursing as he realised that he’d been a tad too slow, and her blade had grazed his torso. Lovino darted out of her way again, body shifting more than he had intended it to. He landed well clear of her strike, and, as he felt an invisible force loosen around his waist, he understood.

Be careful, Feliciano, you brilliant bastard. He thought as he parried her strikes again, drawing his own knife from his belt as he squared off against her. She was a brilliant fighter, that he would readily admit and, had they not been at each other’s throats, he would have liked to get tips from her. In another life, maybe, he thought sadly as he struck out at her, his knife glancing off the arm-guards she was wearing.

Lovino shuffled backwards, breathing hard. His torso had taken quite the beating back at their apartment; he was fairly certain he had a cracked rib or two, and it was making movement and breathing difficult.

Deciding that he had already drawn out this fight more than he should have, Lovino sheathed his knife and bolted away from the Zephyrak, hurtling down a narrow alley. If he maintained a good enough distance, maybe he could avoid fighting her again. She was clearly the more talented warrior here, and with injuries like his, he couldn’t hope to fight her for much longer. He didn’t want to die at her hands, even if the alternative was-

A pair of hands reached out and grabbed Lovino, dragging him down a darkened street.


That was the alternative.


Chapter Text

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
25th Jaune

Octavia rolled her shoulders absently, casting a concerned look at Yao as she waited for him to finish signing off on a mission that one of her underlings had requested. He looked a little frazzled, and she was yet to identify exactly why. As far as she knew, nothing had yet changed on Fynkn to create tension or concern, and neither had any other missions recently. Even in saying that, though, Yao did always know big news before she or anyone else did, so it was a possibility that something had happened.

But as she looked at him now, she wasn’t even entirely certain that it was tension or stress plaguing him this morning. His shoulders were loose, and his muscles relaxed. He tended to clench his jaw when he was extremely anxious or stressed and trying desperately not to show it, but he looked thoroughly unbothered in that department today. Yet there was something off about him. He had a bizarre, frenetic energy about him; his eyes were a little wider than they normally would be, and his gaze was flying up and down the files on his desk and around the room as if possessed of an inane desire to commit everything he saw to memory.

His left hand – the one not occupied by a pen, was moving ceaselessly across the desk, fingers tapping out an unidentifiable rhythm as his left leg also jogged up and down. He was oddly energetic today, but Octavia didn’t feel uncomfortable enough to ask why. Though he had forgiven her for the bad judgement call she’d made back in Maarch, she found it hard to forgive herself as well.

Her gut had rebelled at the idea of attacking him, she recalled, and it didn’t surprise her much that it had. Yao had always been a good person, and even with her suspicions back then she had hesitated to do anything about them. Even now, months later, she feared what it would look like if she tried to question or challenge him even in the smallest of ways. It would be all too easy to assume that she was trying to usurp his authority again.

She folded her arms, closing her mouth resolutely and leaning back a little. If there was something major going on, it was down to Yao’s discretion to decide if she should know or not, and it wasn’t right of her to question that. She had done enough to try and damage his image, and she definitely shouldn’t try to do anything more. Even though it had been months since the trial, the atmosphere around the resistance was still different to what it had been before. There was a heightened level of suspicion and fear and prejudice and Octavia despised that she was to blame for it. Their investigation had shown discrepancies in Zev Batbayaryn’s files that would have come to light in just a few weeks. Had she not been so keen to jump the gun and point fingers held aloft by baseless accusations, they would have outed him as the spy without the added drama of Yao being put under fire.

Yao himself said that Octavia wasn’t to blame, that she had been under the thumb of a master manipulator with no qualms about playing on her desperate passion for the rebellion and her compassion for her underlings. Zev had been trained for years by the Union to infiltrate the Resistance and turn them against each other. He had almost succeeded, too. As everyone seemed to say, it wasn’t her fault. She had been one of his victims, too.

But she disagreed. She always had the choice of who to trust, of who to confide in and listen to. It had been completely of her volition that she had turned on Yao and successfully manipulated a large amount of the resistance to do the same. Though Zev might have coaxed her suspicions and encouraged her fear, she had made the executive decision to split the resistance near in two. Though he had whispered in her ear for months and washed away the last of her concerns, it was Octavia that was ultimately to blame for what had happened. It was her fault that he had almost gone free, had it not been for the skills of Lukas Bondevik. It was her fault that the haunting darkness in Yao’s eyes – something which had been there since she had first met him six years ago – had deepened gradually since the trial had ended.

She knew that being forced to testify about the torture that he had suffered was bringing back every bad memory that he had likely tried to suppress. She was probably the reason he was losing sleep, to the point that he had to use medication – she had spotted the pill bottle on his desk when she had ducked inside to ask a question – and Octavia loathed it.

She had put herself even further in his debt than she had already been in with what she had done back in Maarch, and no-one’s assurances that she wasn’t to blame did nothing to help. She wondered what her sister would have said. Helena had been so much wiser, more intelligent and capable than Octavia was. And she had been friends with Yao. She likely wouldn’t have approved of her friend being locked in prison by her younger sister.

Octavia had never seen them interact in person; she had only met Yao right after her sister was killed in 4506, but it was clear, at least on Yao’s end, that there had been a lot of love and respect between them. That much was clear alone from how much Yao had risked to respect her sister’s – and her whole people’s – beliefs.

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma
10th Maii, 4506CC

(6 years ago)

Octavia shoved through the crowds of people milling around, ignoring the murmuring that had swept across the resistance like a tidal wave, crushing the loud shouts and teasing that were normally carried on the air. Her lungs felt like they were constricting, like iron bands were being tightened around them as the air was slowly forced outwards.

She had heard the news – Mohammed had come by her tent two days ago to gently ask her sit down and explain that the mission to Apollomina to collect documents from their old base had gone wrong, that the abandoned outpost hadn’t been abandoned after all, and that the team that had gone had been bombarded by a legion of steel bullets, and that one of those bullets had torn directly through her older sister’s head. She had heard the news, and witnessed the subduement of the entire resistance as the news had spread yesterday like wildfire. She had heard it, she had heard it, but now she had to see it as well. Her stomach was tipping and pitching like a ship at sea in a storm. She didn’t want to see it, but she knew that she would never rest if she didn’t.

Arshad moved behind her, silent and morose, as he had been for the last few days. Helena had been one of his closest friends and confidantes for the last five years. They had hit it off immediately when Helena and Octavia arrived on their old base at Apollomina – more victims of the Union’s aggression and arrogance – and her sister’s position had skyrocketed in just a few years. She was one of the High Council’s most trusted faces, other than Arshad himself, of course, and no-one seemed to be able to believe that she was gone.

She ignored the concerned looks that Arshad was sending her as she continued to bodily slam people out of the way, storming through the crowds without thought for their own grief or curiosity. This moment didn’t belong to them, it belonged to her. It didn’t even belong to Arshad, though he had joined her in her immeasurable grief in the last few days. He and Helena had been close, yes, but the bond of two close friends lasting several years had no traction on the bond between two sisters which had, up until that point, lasted Octavia’s whole lifetime.

There was no way to equate his grief with hers, though she knew that he was hurting as well. She didn’t have the selflessness to comfort him when her own heart was being torn to shreds. No, empathy had been her sister’s strong suit.

“Octavia.” Arshad murmured as he sped up a little to draw level with her. She internally cursed how long his legs were. “Octavia, you know that they aren’t going to be bringing anything good.” She shook her head. She knew that, of course – the surviving crew had been moving non-stop for the last three days, not pausing to even shower or sleep. They needed to rest and recuperate. They had lost their commanding officer, and judging by the tidbits of information that she had been able to snatch up when walking past High Council meetings, the crew had all seen it happen.

“I know, Arshad. You don’t need to tell me that.” She spoke through gritted teeth, hoping that the shake in her hands wasn’t as noticeable as it felt. She heard the leader of the resistance sigh.

“They would have had to leave her there, Octavia.” He murmured. She drew in a shuddering breath.

“I know that, too, Arshad. I just want to talk to them.” Arshad was silent for a moment.

“I understand, but keep in mind that they’re all exhausted and probably traumatised as well. Questioning them relentlessly might not yield the answers you’re looking for.”

Oh Arshad. He had such a way with words. He was trying to balance his desire to let her learn more about her sister’s passing with the fatigued crew’s need for sleep and recovery, all the while managing to frame the statement in such a way that didn’t make her feel guilty. He deserved the position that he had, that was for sure.

She drew in another shuddering breath and kept moving. It was her sister’s body being left behind that hurt the most. Burial was an extremely important custom on Daerna. Their whole culture involved connection to the earth and nature. Their royal family being able to manipulate the earth only solidified their ties to the natural world. The Union loved nothing more than to dismiss that custom. They did the same with Syhvvanians, almost all of whom were cremated after they died. They took great pleasure in disposing of their remains in the most disrespectful way that they could. Her sister’s body would likely be burned or dismembered or dissolved in acid or even tossed into the sea to rot, rather than being returned to the ground from which all life had once sprung.

Octavia wiped furiously at the tears budding in the corners of her eyes as her steps finally began to slow. She would not cry, damn it. Her sister deserved the strength that she had always displayed in life.

 The ship had finally landed, and though hundreds of people were milling around nearby, there was an odd area of space around the ship where no-one seemed to want to enter. It was like an invisible barrier was keeping everyone back. The door of the ship was open, but no one had exited yet. She could imagine what they were doing inside.

Octavia herself had been on missions gone sour before, and there was always a moment when one hesitated to leave the ship and face their failure upon returning to the resistance. Most people felt ashamed, like they should have done better. No doubt, the people inside that ship didn’t want to face the silent stares and the crying and the judgement that everyone would throw their way even though Arshad had made sure to acknowledge the fact that they had been outgunned twenty to one on that mission and hadn’t had a fighting chance at all.

Octavia stood at the fore of the group, watching silently. The people around her seemed to finally notice her presence, and some drew away a little, expression crinkling in sadness and sympathy. Arshad stepped up beside her, putting a hand on her shoulder and squeezing gently. She leaned into the touch, seeking the comfort while desperately trying to keep her expression neutral. After what seemed like an eternity, someone exited the ship.

It was Ali Ghafoor, looking more run-down and worn than she had ever seen him. His eyes were puffy and red-rimmed – he had been crying a lot – and his clothes were rumpled and dirty. There were a few spots of blood on his right sleeve, but she could see the edges of a bandage pocking out from under the material, and knew that it was probably his own. Following him down the stairs was a fair-haired fighter whose name Octavia didn’t know. She, too, looked so exhausted and wrecked that she wouldn’t have been surprised if the woman had crumpled on the spot.

 A few more people followed Ali and the pale woman down, but Octavia didn’t really focus. Ali’s gaze was on her; she could feel it, and when she tilted her head over to look at him, he looked away, shame and sadness and guilt painted all over his face. Octavia only shifted her attention away from him when she heard the person next to her make a small noise of disgust and huff to their other neighbour.

“You have to wonder if they were shooting to kill if it was there.” Octavai frowned at the woman’s hostile tone – and her baffling use of the term ‘it’ – and turned her attention back to the ship. The last of the surviving crew had exited the ship, and Octavia felt a surge of repulsion surge through her – aimed at the snapping woman next to her – when she noted his appearance.

“Keep your mouth shut.” She murmured to the woman. “You’ve done less for this movement than he has.” The woman turned, looking ready to start an argument, before she realised who she was talking to, turned white, and stammered out an apology before shuffling away and falling silent. Octavia looked to the front again.

She had never met Blackbird before – even though he was a friend of her sister’s and by all rumours she had heard, Arshad’s paramour as well – but there was no mistaking him. They had almost no recruits from the Kyrs system, given how strong the Union’s presence was, there, but even in the few they did have, they had exactly one Yanish member, and that was Blackbird.

She had to wonder how the woman next to her had even recognised him, given the state that he was in.

He was taller than she had expected, honestly, standing a little higher than Ali, but did have the athletic build that she had come to expect from the stories she had heard. His long, dark hair was pulled into a ponytail, though many strands had fallen free, giving him a rather messy look. His clothes were filthy – he evidently hadn’t changed them since the mission – and he was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt splattered with blood and dirt, dark pants, boots, gloves and a loose scarf around his neck.

His face was pale, with dark, long-dried blood coated on the left side of his face and scarf, and congealed throughout some of his hair. A line of bruises marched their way up the right side of his face, starting at his jaw – he must have been punched or struck at some point – and ending at a dark miscolouration just below his right eye. His lip was split and by the looks of his right arm, which was bandaged from top to bottom, he had received damage there as well.

Despite the injuries he had – by the looks of them, the worst of the whole crew – he didn’t look as exhausted as they did, nor quite as worn. Octavia saw Arshad give a little start when he saw Blackbird, and watched the leader of the resistance absently for a few seconds as he looked Blackbird up and down, as if committing to memory where his injuries were. Arshad swallowed, obviously having finished his inspection, and stepped forward. The low murmuring of the crowds behind Octavia ceased. Ali stepped forwards as well, looking stricken.

“Arshad-” he said, voice small and devastated.

“It’s okay, Ali.” Arshad said, tone so soft and gentle that Octavia almost couldn’t pick up on it. “It’s all going to be okay. It isn’t your fault.” Ali’s expression crumpled again, tears running down his face as he shook his head a little, rubbing his face with the back of his arm.

“You don’t understand, it is, I could have done so much more-”

“What happened happened. There is no one here who can turn back time, so all we can do now is deal with it.” Arshad looked upset as well. “It won’t be easy, but I don’t think that Helend would have wanted us to fall apart over her.” Ali let out a shuddering breath, burying his face in his hands. He raised it after a moment, looking in Octavia’s direction. Her mouth went dry.

“I’m sorry, Octavia, I’m so so sorry…” from behind where Ali stood, Blackbird straightened up and moved forward, taking Ali’s arm to pull him back a little.

“That’s enough, Ali.” He said. His voice was a little deeper than Octavia expected, tone cool and composed, even as she detected a hint of strain.

“Don’t order him around.” One man standing near the front of the crowds snapped viciously. Octavia turned, baffled as the man moved forwards more, jabbing a finger at Blackbird. “You have nothing to do with this whole thing. Step away.” Blackbird stiffened slightly, but released Ali’s arm and stepped back a little. Octavia couldn’t help but regret it, though. Ali’s words, his heartfelt, unnecessary apology, had brought her frighteningly close to tears. Blackbird’s intervention was the only reason she wasn’t bawling right now.

Arshad turned to face the man, and even Octavia wasn’t so distracted by her grief to ignore the growing anger on his face.

“I feel it would be more accurate to say that you have no say in this conversation, Corporal Lieferman.” Arshad intoned, expression disapproving. The Corporal scoffed.

“I don’t and he does?” he snapped, pointing at Blackbird again. Arshad sighed, looking exhausted.

“Step away, Corporal. This was a private conversation anyway.” The Corporal sneered at Blackbird, but stepped backwards, grumbling in dissatisfaction. Ali shook his head slightly.

“No, no, Yao is right. I shouldn’t have…I apologise for my conduct.” The man continued to wipe his face, looking even more despondent than before. Arshad sighed quietly, but turned to Ali and continued to speak.

“We’ll have a commemoration ceremony in a few days, and you all need to be debriefed, but I must insist that you all sleep and get treated for your injuries first.” Octavia swallowed. A commemoration ceremony; it was what Daernic people did in place of a funeral when there was no body to bury. Blackbird gave a little start, as if something had just come to mind, and spoke up again.

“Actually, Arshad-” he said.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” The Corporal snapped. “He’s a general, you disrespectful ass. Show some deference.” Blackbird paused, surveying the man carefully.

“Have I done something to offend you, Corporal?” he asked simply, looking legitimately curious about the answer. Octavia had to admire his composure and restraint. Arshad cut in as the Corporal opened his mouth.

“May I remind you, Corporal, that you have no part in this conversation?” he said, tone now very irritated. The Corporal glared, expression becoming purely venomous.

“I’m not allowed to be a part of the conversation but the fucking yinka is?” he snapped. Arshad’s expression hardened. Octavia’s mouth dropped open as the slur met her ears. It was a foul word – the kind that even the most hardcore racists didn’t tend to touch, but Blackbird didn’t look overtly troubled by it. He spoke over Arshad as the Nymian opened his mouth to no doubt chew out the Corporal.

“Ahh, so that’s it. Thank you for your valuable contribution to this discussion, but I must say, if you wanted to hurl racist insults at me, you could have done it at any other time. Arshad is the only one who cares, so you picked the only bad time to do that. Moving on,” he said, steamrolling over Arshad’s continued spluttering and shocked expression and making eye contact with Octavia, expression softening into something much sadder, “I just wanted to amend Arshad’s statement. You can have a proper funeral for your sister, Ms Papadopoulos. We were able to bring her body with us.” He withdrew a key from his pocket – evidently for the storage room on the ship - and handed it to her. She took it, hand shaking slightly, and nodded as tears finally spilled over her eyelids and ran down her face. She clutched the key to her chest, breathing deeply as she nodded.

Blackbird dipped his head to her slightly and moved past her a little, obviously wanting to go and shower – the sheer amount of blood on him was staggering. Octavia turned half an ear back to the crew as she heard Arshad exclaim in surprise.

“What? How in the system did you manage that? You said that you were pinned down completely!” Ali bit his lip and nodded.

“We were, but…” Blackbird had paused now, half-turned to the conversation behind him. Ali sighed, throwing a pointed look at the Yanish man, “well, Yao insisted on going back inside to get her.” Octavia felt like the bottom on her stomach had dropped off as she, along with the dozens of people that had heard that statement, to stare at the tall man who currently had his mouth twisted into an expression that clearly demonstrated his disdain with the attention. Octavia gawked at him.

“But…” she murmured. “why would you risk so much to…” Blackbird – Yao? Was that his name? – sighed, pivoting to face her.

“You bury your dead.” He said bluntly. “Isn’t it quite important, to do that?” she nodded numbly. Yao shrugged. “Well…yeah.” He trailed off, evidently unaware of how to finish the statement. He sent a look at Arshad. “Can I go now?” he gestured to the blood covering him. “I’ve been covered in other people’s blood for three days.” Arshad nodded, looking startled as Yao grunted and moved through the crowd. Octavia stared after him, as the realisation fully sunk in.

He brought her sister home.

And after doing something like that for her, she never should have doubted him in the first place. And the fact that she had distrusted him regardless would hang dark and heavy over her head for a long time yet.

Blå Ren Insurgent Training Camp,
Feynir Region, Fynkn,
25th Jaune

Lukas poked his fork absently at the shapeless mass of food on his plate. It didn’t necessarily taste too bad, but the texture and appearance of the stuff – whatever it was meant to be – was enough of a turnoff for him to quickly lose his appetite. He dropped his fork and folded his arms, glancing down the table.

His friendly bunkmate Ansel was seated beside him and engaging in an enthusiastic conversation with the people around him. Across from Lukas was the quiet girl, Riya Kristoff, who also didn’t seem to appreciate the food very much. He glanced to the left. Køhler was sitting about five spaces down from him, hemmed in on either side by the loud, bulked up combat soldiers from Block A. Despite the fact that they were all talking cheerfully, and that Lukas knew for a fact that Køhler got along with them very well, he looked absolutely miserable. His head was turned down, towards the table and his fingers were drumming against the wood absently. His mouth was turned down in displeasure and his shoulders slumped.

Lukas sighed to himself. Køhler had been avoiding him for about two days now, and it was starting to feel a little ridiculous. Yes, he had said something hurtful and senseless, but he had also immediately apologised for it, and obviously felt a lot of regret. Guilt was basically emanating from him, and had been since their unpleasant conversation. To be fair to the bounty hunter, Lukas had been unpleasant as well, and had also been distant and avoiding him for the last few days before he had lashed out. They had both contributed to making the situation worse.

He watched as Køhler looked up a little, eyes drifting back in his direction before he saw Lukas looking at him. The blond’s eyes widened, and he looked away immediately, guilt shrouding his features. Lukas sighed. They couldn’t go on like this, they really couldn’t. Even if meant cornering the taller man later, after training, Lukas was going to talk to him.

He groaned quietly, rubbing at the back of his neck as Sergeant Kolden yelled at them to get up and exit the low-ceilinged dining hall and go back into the cold. Lukas stamped his boots on the ground to loosen snow from their soles, scowling as he folded his arms tightly against his chest. Kolden hadn’t been lying when he had warned that the training was going to get harder. The exercises they had been doing were relentless – Lukas was probably one of the fittest people in the whole Block, yet he dropped like a deadweight into his bed at night and didn’t stir again until the morning alarms went off. His bad dreams had continued, but they failed to rouse him from sleep like they had before, which was something of a relief.

He groaned as Kolden ordered them towards one of the many death-trap obstacle courses scattered around the training camp, and took off towards it with everyone else. These courses were some of the things that he was best at, but they were still ridiculously tiring. He elegantly sprinted past some people straggling up one of the first obstacles – a network of pipe-like sections that they were supposed to climb up, and slid up on top of the small metal platform above. He’d spent years climbing up walls and fire escapes and dingy, half-rusted piping on the sides of buildings, so this particular exercise was easy for him.

Lukas scrambled over to the next obstacle with the rest of the Block behind him, with only the part-Syhvvanian girl, Riya Kristoff, even remotely close to him in terms of distance. He made eye contact with her as he started to throw himself over the next obstacle – large hurdle like structures, and dared to smile a little. She slowed a little, eyes narrowing before her back straightened and her pace quickened. Lukas’ smile grew as he turned back to his task. Evidently, she had accepted his smile as a challenge of sorts.

Even though he hadn’t been intending to start a competition with the Kristoff girl, he found himself having fun as he picked up the pace and threw himself into the activities and obstacles with even more vigour than before, determined to beat his new opponent.

He pulled ahead of her in every challenge, save the last one. There was a hundred-metre stretch between the obstacle course and the finish line where Kolden was standing and, as Lukas had discovered in the last few days, though he and Køhler outperformed her in distance running, sprinting as an activity belonged to Riya Kristoff. She passed him easily, gracefully drawing to a stop next to Kolden as he sighed in defeat and jogged the rest of the way. Kolden marked down their names thoughtfully.

“Okay then…Christensen finished first for the actual obstacle course, but Kristoff gets gold for the overall time. Well done, you two.” He wandered away a little to observe those still struggling through the course, and Lukas turned to Riya.

“You…are way too fast a runner.” He said, huffing slightly with exertion. She turned to look at him, expression a little less severe than it normally was, her ice-chip eyes boring into him nonetheless.

“No, I prefer to think that you’re just too slow.” She responded, and though her tone was neutral, Lukas could feel that she was a little amused. He shrugged.

“Probably.” He made eye contact with her again, and could have sworn that he saw the edge of her mouth twitch upwards slightly before she extended her hand.

“Riya Kristoff.” She said, shaking his hand. Lukas nodded slightly.

“Lukas Christensen.” He replied casually. It had been years since his tongue stuttered over an alias, so it came out smoothly. She nodded, her dark, dull-red hair slipping off her shoulder as she did.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance.” She murmured.

Lukas made a point of seeking out Køhler after training was finally over. He really wasn’t sure that he had the energy – his whole body was aching and his mind was sluggish – but he knew that it needed to be done. He wove through the crowds of mingling people in Block D after shucking off his uniform in favour of the clothes he had been sleeping in recently, and snagged the blond’s sleeve, tugging insistently.

Køhler turned around, neutral expression dropping the minute that he saw Lukas. He opened his mouth, that hopelessly guilty look dawning on his face again, but Lukas cut his off.

“Meet me outside in ten minutes.” He said. “And don’t you dare skip out on me.” He turned on his heel and marched away, ducking into the bathroom to clean his teeth and stare at the abysmal state of his hair before quickly returning to his bunk to neaten up the sheets a little. After about nine minutes had passed, he wove through the crowds of people everywhere and ducked out the door, stepping barefoot into snow. The cold didn’t bother him in the slightest, and he sighed a little in relief at the soothing feel of it on his toes.

He only had to wait a minute or so before the door quietly swung open again and Køhler stepped outside to join him.

They were completely silent, with Lukas standing still and relaxed while Køhler shuffled awkwardly, looking very nervous. He finally broke the silence with a loud sigh. Køhler stilled at the noise. Lukas rubbed the back of his neck.

“I’m going to be straightforward about this, because I don’t like to dance around issues like this. My parents, and, more specifically, the subject of their deaths, is one of the few topics that I actually do get really defensive about. You touched a nerve when you said what you did a few days ago, as I’m sure you’re already aware.” Køhler winced, looking and – from what Lukas could tell – feeling ashamed as he broke eye contact and scuffed his boot-toe against the ground. Lukas studied the ground, hesitating as he debated what to say next. “I…I found my parents’ bodies, did you know that?”

Køhler sucked in a breath, looking shocked when Lukas raised his head to look at him next.

“I…didn’t know that. I’m so sorry.” Lukas shrugged one shoulder, drawing a circle in the snow with his toes.

“I don’t exactly advertise the fact, I will say. And I do dislike talking about them, due in equal part to my attachment to them and the trauma that I was probably left with from that event, but I’m not completely opposed to it. I’ll admit that I probably brought your irritation on myself, at least a little bit.” To Lukas’ surprise, the bounty hunter chose this moment to speak up.

“What? No! I was being an ass and you aren’t to blame for that. You should never blame yourself for someone else’s actions.” Lukas shrugged again.

“I know, but I haven’t exactly been making any real attempts to properly talk to you. You’re an extrovert – my continual quietness probably isn’t very engaging for you.” He paused for a moment, looking back over at him. “I can sense emotions, you know. I know that you were feeling a little lonely.” The taller man sighed quietly, rubbing his fingers over his chin absently.

“You…aren’t wrong about that.” He admitted, frowning. “But that doesn’t even remotely excuse what I said to you, okay?” he hesitated a moment, dragging in a breath. “Look, I am so, so sorry for what I said. I didn’t mean it. I wanted to hurt you and my mind went right to the one thing that I thought might get past your impenetrable shell.” He looked down. “I was an ass and a horrendous human being. I’m sorry that I brought up your parents, and I wish that I could do something to make it right. You didn’t deserve that. I’m a grown-ass man, I should be able to handle things like this in a mature way. Yes, I might have been a little irritated and lonely, but that doesn’t excuse it.” Lukas listened in silence, nodding.

“Well, thank you. I forgive you. Just don’t go around talking about my family like that again and I think we’ll be fine.” Køhler nodded vigorously.

“Yeah, of course, I won’t, promise. Again, dude, I’m so sorry.” Lukas looked over at him. Køhler’s expression was so open and earnest that he felt himself melt a little. He nodded.

“I know. It’s okay.” He murmured. “Saints, our relationship really hasn’t started out so well, has it?” Køhler laughed softly.

“Yeah, we’re a little dysfunctional, aren’t we?” he chuckled. “Let’s try to get better at that.” Lukas nodded, gazing back at the door.

“We should probably go back in now. I personally want to get as much sleep as possible.” Køhler nodded in agreement, biting his lip.

“Yeah. Agreed. And…Bondevik?” he murmured Lukas’ real surname so quietly that Lukas himself barely heard it, “Thank you…for forgiving me.” Lukas rolled his shoulders back and inclined his head a little.

“You’re welcome.” He said, turning on his heel to step back over the threshold of the barracks and go to his bunk, where more restless sleep awaited him.

Szwicza District,
Bibesti, Rela,
26th Jaune

It was rare, in all honesty, for Feliciano to feel numb.

He was emotional. He always had been. He’d never had a secure parental figure in his life, so he tended to get protective of whatever positive role models he had been given.

Most of the time, Feliciano was happy. He smiled as much as he could, because if he was happy, he should show it! The times that he felt scared or sad or even angry were very few and very far in between, not to mention that, whenever he was something other than happy, the emotion never seemed to be that strong. He was hard-wired for happiness, no matter what circumstances.

It seemed bizarre, especially given his past and upbringing. Where his brother had resolutely been locked out by their grandfather – he had failed to mention it whenever the man came up, but Feliciano remembered well enough – meanwhile Feliciano had aimlessly drifted between people while growing up.

With no parents to cling to, he had taken to anyone offering even the slightest suggestion of warmth or love. Sometimes it had been his grandfather, other times a friendly palace servant or one of his tutors. No one had seemed to be able to really say no to him when he was little, so Feliciano had never seen anything wrong with it. He hadn’t been reprimanded for anything too harshly as a child either – his mistakes were forgiven and brushed off, because he could afford to make them.

He had been sheltered from the bad sides that emotions could take, so he hadn’t ever really learned what they looked like, nor had he frequently felt them himself. He hadn’t had a childhood where he felt a range of emotions like anger, and grief and frustration. As a result, he almost felt like he was malfunctioning whenever he felt them. Being raised off of Syhvva had helped a lot, but he still felt disjointed at times whenever simple content wasn’t his primary emotion.

His brother was the opposite – he had endured a childhood composed of loneliness and doubt and anger and sadness – he found it hard to feel really happy about things, though he had gotten better over the years. Their emotional spectrums were both precarious and unbalanced, predominantly because of how they had been raised, and so neither of them was perfectly level at any one time.

But never before had Feliciano just felt…empty.

The books he had read that all claimed to contain a masterful summation of human emotions were lying. The texts and tomes that had spoken endless paragraphs on the acts of feeling and loving and hurting didn’t understand their own topics. They couldn’t possibly come close to reaching across the void that had opened up in Feliciano’s chest cavity to explain what he was feeling.

Void was too shallow a word, cavern inaccurate and flawed, chasm incapable of defining the emotions, or lack thereof, that had enshrouded him in their cold arms since last night. There was no known word in any language that Feliciano’s tongue knew how to speak that even came close to placing a name on this emptiness, or would be able to start appreciating it’s depth and vastness. Because every word that came to mind seemed feeble, weak and incorrect in every way at expressing the nothingness.

Feliciano knew what it felt to be overwhelmed. He knew happiness and joy and also fear and sadness. He knew what it felt like to have thoughts running at a pace that could outstrip the fastest of runners, and his heart hammering more determinedly than a jackhammer. He understood adrenaline and the sensation of being completely in over his head. He knew the feeling of drowning – metaphorical and physical, and understood well how a feeling could become so tangible that it hung heavy like a chain around one’s neck or pushed down so strongly that you might have believed a leaden weight to have taken up residence in your chest.

He knew those feelings, understood them and accepted them as a part of life. Emotion was human, it was raw and beautiful and the most intense thing that had no palpable physical source nor cause. He could deal with emotions. It wasn’t emotions that bothered him so.

No. Feliciano lacked them. He could have screamed, cried, hyperventilated for shock and fear when he saw his brother being seized by a pair of bronzed arms and dragged down an alley. He could have unleashed a telekinetic hell upon the group that had hauled him off, yelling and kicking wildly.

But his brother had told him not to interfere, and if there was one thing that Feliciano had been taught as a child, it was to obey those who knew better than you did. His brother told him to stay, so he had remained motionless on the rooftop, watching silently as his brother was dragged off, beyond the limits of his sight, and as the Zephyrak had withdrawn quietly, looking a little stunned, before turning on her heel and marching further into the city.

He had kept himself pressed against the hard, crimped roof tiles until he could feel the barest brushes of warmth on the back of his neck that indicated the sun was rising. Only then had he slowly risen from his place of silent, agonised vigil, rearranged his and his brother’s belongings into one bag, and descended from the roof.

It had taken him an hour or so to realise that he wasn’t feeling anything. That wasn’t to say that he had watched his brother get dragged away by pirates and was disinterested, or uncaring.

It was like his capacity to feel had been stripped away and taken along with his brother. Every scrap of every emotion was gone; anger had taken a field day and vacated the front of his chest where it normally would have burned in the aftermath of something like this; hopelessness was refusing to attend the banquet in his head, citing that it’s presence was unnecessary where it had already been so closely acquainted; even fear had abandoned him and strode down the street, refusing to let his heart race or palms sweat when loud noises rang out from alleyways or shouts echoed across city blocks.

Everything that he could and should have been feeling refused to come to the surface. He should be angry. He should feel hopeless. He should be afraid. But instead, where those emotions might have once raged and screamed, there existed not even a heavy weight to denote his loss. Rather, he felt nothing. He couldn’t process why, but given that he could still barely even process the what that was causing this, it wasn’t a surprise.

Feliciano remembered hands, far too large to be ignored, attached to a man far too strong to resist, and the yelp of surprise that had torn itself free of his brother’s mouth as he was pulled sideways. He paused, forcing himself to think as he looked around. He was in a street. Not the same street that he had been on earlier. Not the same one where the pirates had taken Lovino-


Feliciano felt his mouth flood with saliva, and delicately placed the pack he held down on the ground before pivoting to vomit on the street. His throat should have been burning; his tastebuds should have been recoiling at the taste of bitter acid on his stomach; his eyes should have been tearing up. Maybe they were, and he just couldn’t tell. He wiped his mouth on his already-grubby sleeve and straightened up, recollecting the pack and moving on.

His insides rolled unpleasantly, but the sensation felt distant and disconnected, like his mind was refusing to acknowledge it as belonging to the body he was attached to. His legs took him down a narrow side street and his chest turned sideways so he could slip through a very narrow gap between two buildings. His ears picked up on yelling and the sounds of trouble, and gently steered his body away, somewhere mildly safer.

His eyes roved over the buildings and streets around him and searched for a place to take refuge, but his mind remained empty and hollow, not so much as the slightest amount of static disturbing the stillness. He missed the buzz, but even the act of missing it drew no response from the rest of his body, nor did it inspire any singular thought to pass through his mind.

His body moved towards a small window set low against the concrete. It could be jimmied open, and he could probably fit through if he exhaled while he clambered through.

Feliciano wasn’t aware either of his acts of jimmying the window open, nor of climbing through. When his brain allowed him to understand what was around him again, he was inside, pressed against the wall of a dingy basement with scrapes on his hands, arms and a low aching sensation across his lower stomach. His legs drew themselves up to his chest, and his arms folded themselves around them. His head lowered, forehead pressed against his knees.

He still felt nothing.

Feliciano didn’t know how much time passed when he decided to move. It could have been days or mere hours, but when he did, something had returned to him. Some small measure of feeling, extracted from the ashen ruins of his emotions, had slithered back to keep him company. His stomach ached, and he briefly registered the sensation before his brain let him process it. He was…hungry?

It seemed absurd, but he rummaged through their bags anyway, extracting only a few small food items when noting the meagre amount that was there to begin with. Once the ache in his gut had dulled a little, he stood and gathered up his things, also pausing to remove something from his brother’s bag. He inhaled slowly as he pulled the black wool beanie over his hair, tucking away every last strand of his vibrantly red hair. A brief look out of the damaged window revealed what looked like dawn breaking outside.

He had missed a whole day, sequestered down here with the nothing.

He didn’t even have the capacity to feel shocked or upset by that. He hadn’t gotten enough of himself back yet.

Feliciano slid gracelessly out of the window and clambered to his feet, brushing the grime from the ground off his hands on his pants before turning down the alley and moving forwards. This was the second day of the Three-day Reign. Judging by the positioning of the sun that he squinted against, he still had about 42 hours of this to endure, assuming that the Reign was exactly 72 hours long. He sighed slightly, something small and bothersome that the back of his mind identified as irritation nudging against his consciousness.

He would deal with whatever came; he could manage that much.

The second day of the Reign wasn’t nearly as exciting as the first. All it took for him to avoid detection by the pirate gangs wandering around and laughing raucously was to keep quiet and stay in small alcoves or niches as he moved further towards the boundary between the Szwicza and Riiko Districts. Szwicza was the most dangerous place to be right now, so it was best if he got out as soon as possible.

Feliciano absently glanced up and down another street, focusing more because of the rapidly dimming light. The normal public lighting didn’t turn on during the Reign, since the Joğarı keñes – Rela’s governmental authority – assumed that most of them would get broken anyway.

The sun was setting rapidly, and Feliciano knew that he would have to find somewhere to rest fairly soon, or else he would be put at danger of suffering the same fate as his brother. His stomach twisted violently as the thought came to mind, and he leaned on the wall briefly as he gagged. Feliciano didn’t vomit, but he almost felt that he would have better for it if he had. He swallowed thickly, forcing himself back onto his own feet again. He was starting to feel a few more things now, but he almost felt that the nothing might have been better suited for his current situation.

He was about to cross the street, having spotted no adversaries, when movement at the far end of the street caught his eye. It was a person – dressed in black.

Something inside him – perhaps his reason or common sense or correct judgement – stopped working, and he turned down the street and began to approach them. His stomach was twisting again, but he didn’t feel the urge to be sick. Feliciano pressed himself closer to the wall, determined to remain hidden until he could get a positive reading on their identity. He shifted closer. The figure was a woman, judging by their frame. His heart rate picked up, for the first time since Lovino had been dragged down an alley. He slunk into the shadows and repositioned himself, aiming to observe.

The woman turned slightly, and he clenched his fists.

It was her. The Zephyrak who had been after them. The only reason that they had left the sanctuary of their apartment. The only reason that they had been on the streets on one of the three most dangerous nights of the year. The only reason that Lovino had been anyway near pirates to begin with. He felt something deep inside, a familiar prickling as something other than hunger returned to him.

Anger seeped into his body slowly as he followed her down winding streets. It came back piece by piece, fitting oddly inside him, as it always had. He wasn’t used to anger, or any strong emotions, but for now, he welcomed it with open arms, begging it’s companionship as he followed the woman towards what looked like a sewer entrance.

Where anger was concerned, Feliciano saw it as having two sides; hatred and passion. He didn’t know that he hated the woman he was following, but he certainly felt passionately about what she had caused. She was the reason they were out here, with their home of six years smouldering on the other side of the district. She was the reason that his brother had been grabbed and pulled away and abducted from the streets. She was the reason that Feliciano was-


He felt the word in his bones as he slid down a narrow shaft, finally alerting the woman to his presence as he dropped into the murky, tepid water behind her. She spun around, but her face was almost invisible in the near-complete darkness of the sewer.

Silence reigned for a minute between them as Feliciano’s anger continued to rise steadily, heart thundering in response to the fury that filled the nothing in his chest.

“It’s you. The little one.” The woman said, voice dispassionate. Feliciano felt the anger flare as she spoke, the prickling sensation in his chest increasing into a crackling, curling feeling, like his muscles were all tensing up in preparation for a fight. Feliciano let out a shaky breath.

“You’re the reason that my brother was taken by those pirates.” He said. His voice shook slightly, though not from fear, and he felt his hands shaking slightly, jittery as if from nerves even when all he felt was layer upon layer of fresh rage taking over him.

“What a shame.”

And those words, spoken so callously by the woman responsible for taking away his home, his safety, and finally his world – those words broke down the last defences that disassociation had given Feliciano that day. Rage was a tidal wave consuming his whole being, filling every crevice of his body as he felt his whole body respond to the emotion building up inside. A sharp feeling shot down his arms, as he recalled something his brother had taught him.

Most people say that the Fuenar and the Sopra Kwistjoni are what all members of the Vargas family have in common, but I would disagree with that. What distinguishes us is anger. We’re the angriest, most wrathful people on Syhvva. Our people used to be hunters and warlords – our anger was why we’re royalty in the first place. Whether you’re patient or not, short-tempered or fucking saintly, every member of the Vargas family has a lot of anger.

And Feliciano’s raging mind only had time to think Oh, that’s what I was missing, then, as the woman stepped forward towards him, knife appearing at her side as he raised his prickling arms, barely blinking as they burst into flame.

Chapter Text

Szwizca District,
Bibesti, Rela,
27th Jaune

Inkar had never put too much thought into how she would die.

She saw life as a divine gift, given by her mother and father and intended for her to make the most of. She had striven, always, to be bold and adventurous, to take advantage of every opportunity that came her way and to never shy away from a challenge or a problem. Being raised with her brothers and sisters in arms at the Citadel had reaffirmed this, year in and year out of the short 24 years she had lived.

She had lived bravely, she had defended her planet and her people with everything that she had, and Inkar had always felt proud to call herself one of the Zephyrak and a defender of the Relusian people. But, for the first time, she wasn’t sure that the decision she had made was the right one. She had watched how Lovino Vargas had fought, and she had been impressed. He was strong, and brave, and he deserved more than the ugly lot that his family had been cast in life. But, all throughout their fight in their apartment, and later in the streets, she had never gotten the impression that he wanted her dead.

The impression she got from his younger brother was a little different.

She didn’t think that the thoughts actively travelling through Feliciano Vargas’ head were specifically concerned with killing her, but she knew that the teenager was filled with enough vitriolic fury and raw skill to do it by accident. And judging by how angry he was, she doubted that he would regret it much even if he did kill her, at least not straight away.

She threw herself away from another surge of blazing flame, cursing as she felt drops of sweat slide down her face and into the disgusting sewage that she was throwing herself into. The kid didn’t seem to know how to use his powers very well; he was running on pure rage and adrenaline, lashing out wildly in her direction.

Inkar cursed again. She had made a mistake in trying to drive the Vargas brothers off Rela. She had been acting in her planet’s best interest, but she couldn’t deny that, even as she had approached Lovino Vargas to tell him to leave, she had felt guilty. The two brothers had undoubtedly been pushed off every planet they had settled on so far, forced to hide and sneak about to avoid capture and death. She knew that she had been cruel, but, of course, hindsight was always the best teacher.

She ducked again, wincing as a stray flame seared her right hand, dropping low, knees dampening in the filthy water as she slid sideways. Inkar risked a look at the younger Vargas brother. His expression wasn’t as angry as she would have expected – no, he looked far more heartbroken than anything else – eyes drowned in grief even as his mouth twisted in frustration. That made her stop dead still. He was just a boy, only about sixteen or seventeen, if her memory served her correctly.

Inkar dropped her hands, feeling her stomach twist. “I’m so sorry.” She murmured. She hadn’t realised exactly what she was taking away when she had driven Lovino Vargas onto the streets yesterday, but she might understand now.

The younger Vargas paused, arms still raised and glowing with heat. A part of Inkar expected more fire regardless, so she was surprised when he lowered his arms, shaking, before pressing them to his face as a wrecked, anguished sob tore itself free of his throat. Inkar had never heard such a despondent, raw sound before, and it sent goosebumps snaking up her arms and legs. The boy hunched forward a little, pressing one hand to his mouth as he sniffled. She took a half-step backwards, uncertain. His shoulders were shaking, expression crumpled in immense grief. Inkar felt her heart twist in her chest.

“H-he w-w-was e-ev-every-th-thing t-to m-me!” Feliciano sobbed. “I c-can’t…I d-don’t know w-what t-to do w-without him!” Inkar swallowed, trying to push down the guilt that had steadily begun rising in her chest. She bit her lip. Though there was no guarantee that his brother was dead, there was no guarantee that he was still alive, either.

“I’m sorry.” She repeated quietly. “I was just trying to protect my planet.” Feliciano sniffed.

“Because we were always such a huge threat to it before?” he asked, tone anguished. Inkar jerked back as if she had been slapped, mouth turning downwards in displeasure. She had initially been seeking to lend the brothers aid, until she had found out that they were housed on Rela. She had been aiming to help them because…

Well, because long ago, her family and theirs had been tight knit; the closest of friends and allies, and the brothers had had everything taken from them, and they deserved a chance.

But now she realised that she had been wrong. They hadn’t lost everything – they’d had each other, and rather than the Union, it was her that was responsible for that being torn from their hands. Inkar sucked in a deep breath.

“I wasn’t thinking…about the pirates.” She murmured. “I was so absorbed in the situation that I forgot about the Three Day’s Reign.” Feliciano sighed, folding his arms protectively around himself as he moved to sit on the low stone bank of the sewer.

“Yeah, Lovino forgot too,” he said, tone sorrowful, “we both did.” Inkar stared at him for a moment, hesitating, before she joined him on the ledge. He didn’t react negatively to her proximity, so she assumed he was fine with it. She sighed.

“I really am sorry.” She said. “I wasn’t thinking about anyone but my people.” Feliciano sighed.

“How is it that you manage to be both selfish and selfless at the same time?” he murmured, smiling sadly. “That’s not fair.” Inkar mirrored his sad look, and gently ran her boot over the water, watching ripples spread through the disgusting, murky sludge. She sighed. She had made a grievous mistake, an error resulting in something awful. She had wronged two innocent people. The mantra oft repeated by Mother Aimira echoed around in her head.

“The only one responsible for your mistakes is you. In any situation where your mistakes affect someone else, you should prostrate yourself before them and do whatever you must to amend the damage.”

It was one of the long-time teachings of the Citadel, and if there was one thing Inkar was, it was a loyal soldier.

“Listen, Feliciano – may I call you Feliciano?” he nodded, and she continued. “Your brother was detained by the pirates due to my own fault. In cases where a Zephyrak’s actions result in some sort of damage to an innocent party, it is customary for us to offer that person aid in whatever way they require it. If you would accept it, I would like to offer you help to make up for the pain I have caused you and your brother.” Feliciano blinked at her, looking surprised.

“You want to help me?” he said. “What side are you on??”

“I made a mistake in hunting you two down, and I am sorry. I would like to make amends. Is there any way I can help you?” Feliciano stared at her for a long moment, before something in his eyes shifted.

“Okay then. You can help me get my brother back from those pirates. Does that sound reasonable?” Inkar nodded. She had been expecting something along those lines.

“Fair enough. I am Inkar, by the way.” Feliciano nodded.

“Got it. So, Inkar, do you have any idea where my older brother would be?” Inkar frowned slightly.

“I have a fairly good idea…”

Onboard the SS Larcenist,
Anchored above Bibesti, Rela,
27th Jaune

The Captain smiled at her reflection, adjusting the string of black pearls she had torn off a half-dead pregnant woman in the Kirkos District. She turned to the side slightly, admiring their gentle sheen and the way they complimented her dark skin and vibrant scarlet coat. Her gaze slid sideways, to the open glass panel in the side of her room that currently gave her a view of the vast sprawl of Bibesti.

It was a nice enough city, she supposed, but far too large. The poor districts grew exponentially each year while the rich ones stayed about the same size. The city would be overwhelmed by a tide of people living in slums and shanties soon enough, if the growing numbers were not tempered a little.

That was what Rela’s transport minister had told her three days ago when he had requested a video conversation with her.

“If you are set on committing such atrocious acts within the bounds of the city, at least target areas where populations are not falling. We are trying to preserve Bibesti’s status as an evolving city, after all.”

She scoffed at the thought. The only places where the population wasn’t gradually falling was in the slums. Though he maintained an air of morality and unambiguous disgust in her actions and choice of career, he was just as bad.

She tried to ease the process where possible. For the poorest of the poorest, she had instructed her underlings that death should be quick and relatively painless. For those who had a little more money to throw around…well, if her subordinates decided that a little carnal fun or senseless violence was in order, she had given them leave to do as they wished. The woman whose pearls she had taken was the daughter of a wealthy heiress who was arrogant enough to believe that money protected her. She deserved what she got.

A low buzzing from the electronic console near her bedside drew her attention, and she abandoned her admiration of her spoils to investigate the source. A smile stretched wide across her face as she realised what it was. A request for a video-call, from none other than Jack Kelly. She allowed the request, waiting for the video screen on her wall to start working.

A grinning, ruggedly handsome face appeared on her screen, before it’s owner leant back a little. She smiled.

“Jack, good to see you again.” Jack Kelly grinned. He was one of the most nefarious pirates out there, and yet even his victims couldn’t help but swoon when he showed up. Blessed with warm olive skin, a square jaw, wavy brown hair speckled with sun-bleached blond strands, a handful of freckles splashed across his nose, bright emerald eyes and an unplaceable accent which she personally theorised was from the Far Reaches, he was one of the most charming criminals running around the Galaxy right now.

“Captain Barkhado Dirie,” he said, grin widening as he placed a hand over his heart, “It is bloody marvellous to see you again. Top job with your hair today, I like it.” Barkhado rolled her eyes. Her hair looked the same as it always did; knit into numerous small braids, interwoven with gold thread, jewels and tiny feathers, and pulled into a high ponytail. She grinned regardless, showing her slightly pointed front teeth.

“Thank you, Jack. You look…exactly the same.” The handsome pirate grinned, dipping his jaw a little.

“I’ll take what compliments I can from you, Barkhado.” Jack said, smirking. “How’re things down in Rela? Having fun with your little minions?”

“It’s been fun.” She indicated the pearl necklace. “I got these this morning.” Jack whistled.

“Nice. I’m sorry about bailing, by the way. One of my underlings had to duck to a hospital to shove out another little ankle biter.” Barkhado blinked. Noting her confusion, Jack snorted. “Kid, Barkhado, a damn kid, alright.” She shook her head. The origin of most of Jack’s phrases were lost on her. Other than the fact that he had been friends with Arthur Kirkland at one point, and that his criminal record had been extensive even before he became a pirate, she didn’t know too much about him.

“It’s your loss.” She said smoothly. “The pluck is good this year.” Jack grinned.

“Get me something nice, won’t you?” she hummed.

“What’s the point? I won’t be seeing you for so long that anything really good would have spoiled by then.” Jack’s grin widened.

“But that’s what I was ringing about! See, I postponed our meeting because Neki was meant to have her baby then, but the little bugger is premature, you see, so I can push our little appointment forward a few weeks.” Barkhado leant forward, eyebrow quirked curiously even as she began to smile wider.

“Oh? How much sooner can we meet then?” she asked. Jack grinned, scratching his chin with the hilt of a knife.

“Three weeks, perhaps?” he asked, smiling coyly. “At the Red Pike, like old times?”

“Minus dear Arthur, of course.” She lamented. Jack sighed.

“Yeah. No clue where the guy’s buggered off to, in all honesty.” Jack said. “But what do you say? We can meet up, grab some lunch and talk over some trade deals?” a malicious grin spread across his face. “I know that you’ll have some good stuff for me after the Reign.” Barkhado grinned.

“That I will. Send the details along to me later, won’t you?” Jack nodded, smiling.

“Of course. A pleasure to see you, as always, Barkhado.” She nodded.

“And you,” she said, tone much warmer than it normally was, “I should probably see what pretty little things my subordinates are dragging to my doorstep.” With a final wave, Jack’s rugged face vanished from the video screen. Barkhado grinned. It seemed that she would get to see her friend soon after all.

A loud knocking rang out from her door. She looked up sharply, before pressing the button to let the door slide open. One of her subordinates was standing there. She relaxed infinitesimally – he was one of the ones she genuinely liked.

“Yes?” she drawled, pulling a knife from her belt and absently tossing it up and down. Her subordinate didn’t even flinch at this, dipping his head a little in deference.

“Sorry for disturbing you, Captain, but the crew has reassembled to show off their spoils. We await your presence and judgement.” Barkhado felt her good mood improve even further. There was nothing she loved more than seeing what treasures her subordinates had collected during the Reign.

“Lead the way.” She said, voice dripping with anticipation.

The main hangar of the ship was buzzing when she entered, and Barkhado felt her stomach flip with excitement as she ran her eyes over the heaps of riches and spoils she could see piled up on the floor and slung under the arms and over the shoulders of her underlings. They had done well already, and the Reign was only half done.

She marched up to the raised dais near the front of the room, wicked grin in place. They fell silent as she did so, watching, some gleefully and others in a more subdued way. She tilted her head to the side.

“Well? Who wants to show off first?”

“I will!” one of her favoured underlings piped up, grinning as he hauled forwards a large leathery suitcase. “Found a woman in Kirko fleeing with all of her riches stuffed into this suitcase.” He flipped it open, revealing rows upon rows of what looked to be inherited jewellery. Barkhado sucked in a breath, grinning.

“May I, Santos?” she asked him. He nodded, gesturing to the suitcase. She stepped forwards, wandering over to the case and sifting through the contents. There were countless pieces of undoubtedly priceless jewels. She extracted a glittering, emerald and obsidian necklace, examining it with a feral grin in place. “I might hold onto this one for now, Santos. I’d appreciate a deeper look in the future.”

“Of course, Captain.” Santos said, dipping his head as he swung the suitcase closed. Barkhado stashed the glittering necklace into her pocket and moved back to the front.

They came forward one by one, some hauls more impressive than others. She roamed her eyes greedily over jewels, fine clothing, piles of coins, paintings, even cuts of exotic meats and other food stolen from Bibesti’s best delis and cafés. Her grin turned dark and menacing when her subordinates brought forward their more unusual treasures. Rather than gold and riches, she was greeted with the sight of coolers stuffed full of organs ripped directly from bodies, with human bones that they could polish and sharpen into blades and craft into jewellery. She listened with interest to their stories of the pillage as well, as they recounted murders and rapes and true reigns of terror. When they were all done, however, she turned her gaze on one subordinate who had remained silent the entire time.

“Klaus, do you have nothing to offer to this fine parade of victory?” she asked, tone turning icier as she spoke. Klaus dipped his head in deference.

“I do, Captain, but I wished to see everyone else’s collections first.” He grinned, dusting off the worn blue frock-coat he was wearing. “And I’m proud to say that, in terms of net worth, mine is the most precious.” He reached behind him and dragged forwards…a person? Barkhado tilted her head to the side slightly. They were male, judging by their frame, and Klaus had bound him by the hands, which were tightly fastened behind him, had a rope slightly more loosely wrapped around his legs, and a bag twisted tight around his head. Barkhado raised an eyebrow.

“Now now now, my dear Klaus. You know that we can’t sell free citizens as slaves. It’s the law.” Her subordinates laughed at the sarcasm, but the smile on Klaus’ face didn’t falter as he seized his prisoner by the back of his shirt and hauled him forwards, until he stood only a few metres away from her.

“I am aware of that, my Captain, but I feel like the traders will take less offence with this specific citizen.” He untied the bag looped around the man’s neck and yanked it off. Barkhado blinked as – of all colours – red came into her vision. She stared, before a great grin stretched across her face and she let out a delighted noise, clapping her hands together.

“Oh, marvellous!” she exclaimed as she stepped forwards a little to examine the deep burgundy of the prisoner’s hair. “Oh, my, Klaus, you’ve done well this time.” Klaus dipped his head slightly.

“Thank you, Captain. I’m glad that you’re pleased with my find.” She let out a giggle, high and, as she had been told, oddly menacing. She strode forward the last few metres between her and the chained boy on the ground, taking a fistful of his hair and yanking his head upwards, examining his face and eyes.

“Ohh, my, what a pretty face, too,” she purred, “and those eyes!” the boy squirmed, averting his gaze from hers. She stared at the rich, amber shade of the boy’s eyes. She hadn’t been lying when she’d said he was pretty, too. She doubted that she had seen a face so perfectly structured before, nor so wonderfully complimented by it’s colouring. The olive skin, dark and long eyelashes, amber eyes and red hair. She purred again. “You win, Klaus. An excellent find.”

Klaus nodded again, smiling triumphantly as he stepped back into line with the others. Barkhado dropped the boy’s head, circing him. “My, my, my. A Syhvvanian. You’ll fetch a brilliant price on the market. I’d wager twice the normal rate for the ethnicity alone. If you factor in that delicious face and body of yours, well, we’ll be able to celebrate quite richly.” She straightened up, snapping her fingers. “Take him to the cell on level 2, near my chambers. We’ll put him into general holding later.” She shot the boy a look. “I’d like to have a chat first.”

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
27th Jaune

Emilia couldn’t even lie to herself anymore; she missed her brother.

It had only been a week since he had taken off to fight on their home planet with one of the bounty hunters who knew his identity, but she was already feeling a deep ache in her chest. It was the kind that she used to associate with homesickness, but it manifested now that Lukas was gone.

She supposed it made a kind of sense. He had been her shelter, her safety and protector since she was five years old, and he was on an entirely different planet. It made her feel a little strange, in all honesty.

Emilia knew that she should just get over it – he was doing something important in helping their people and fighting the Union head on, and she had her own problems to worry about – but she couldn’t help the melancholy that rose up inside her when she realised that she wouldn’t be hearing Lukas’ snarky responses to everything, or seeing him roll his eyes in exasperation, for quite a while. Yao had dodged the question when she had marched over to ask how long Lukas would be on Fynkn, but Octavia had admitted that it could end up being months until he came back. Emilia folded her arms around her. Months on a planet full of hostile Union agents who would stop at nothing to kill her brother if they knew who he was. It wasn’t a comforting thought.

At the very least, she had been able to celebrate her sixteenth birthday with him. It had fallen the day before he was set to leave, and he had careened into the tent she shared with two other female recruits holding a cake he’d stolen from the kitchen in one hand and a small bag of presents in the other. Her roommates had simply thrown her a grin and left, leaving Emilia to spend time alone with her brother.

They’d spent hours seated together on the carpet, talking about everything and nothing as they had munched on lemon cake and Emilia had eagerly torn into the presents her brother had gotten her. She had exclaimed in delight over the padded gloves he’d gotten her for the hand-to-hand combat training she did with Nelia, and grinned when she had pulled a small metal tag emblazoned with their family crest and Lukas had helped her attach it to her existing dog-tags. Not all of the presents had been from him; he had also handed her a gilded bronze knife from Ali, with a note attached to it that promise he would train her in it’s use soon, as well as a verifiable truckload of chocolates from Tino, and a very heartwarming letter of thanks and biker mask from Tori.

Even Matthew had managed to hunt down a badass pair of moon-crescent earrings and also gifted them to her. It had almost made her eyes well up, seeing how many people cared that she was becoming a year older. Just last year, it had only been Lukas and her celebrating together. In fact, it had been her first birthday since she was five years old that she had gotten something from someone other than Lukas. That, combined with the weight of the knowledge that her brother would leave the next day, had sent her into tears. Lukas had sat and hugged her for a good hour, but even that hadn’t managed to quite dispel the heaviness in her chest that had persisted for the last week.

She wished that she could just talk to her brother. Even hearing his voice – laden with irritation and delivered in a flawless deadpan – would have made her feel better. At the very least, though, she wasn’t alone. She had her friends, not to mention the rebels who had been mentoring her, if she needed help or felt upset. Emilia hadn’t had such things for a long time, so it often took her a minute to remember that they were options, too.

Emilia stretched, wincing as her shoulder let out a small cracking noise. She had training later with Ali, but for now, she was free to do as she wished, and she desperately wanted a distraction. She cast her mind towards her friends, thoughts immediately settling on Tori. The other girl never seemed to mind her younger age, and was always keen to talk. Casting her mind around the camp, Emilia sifted absently through people’s minds until she found the Daernic princess’s.

Tori felt indecisive, and Emilia wondered why as she wove her way through tents to locate her friend’s. Raising a hand, she flapped the tent ‘door’, which essentially counted as knocking here.

“Come in!” Tori called out. Ducking inside, Emilia looked around, curious, until she spotted Tori curled up on the edge of her bed, a cell clutched in her hand. Tori grinned when she saw Emilia. “Lia, hey! How are you?” Emilia smiled, moving to sit next to her.

“I’m fine, but what about you? You feel a little…anxious, almost.” Tori winced, smile turning a little sad as she drummed her fingers on the cell’s gleaming, flat surface.

“Damn you and your awesome mind-reading skills.” She chuckled. “I was hoping to hide that fact from you.” Emilia frowned slightly.

“What’s up?” she asked. Tori sighed, tucking a loose lock of her hair behind her ear.

“I…I was planning to look at my profile. On the Index, that is. I’m kinda curious of what the Union is advertising about me, but…” she trailed off, staring at the dark screen. “I don’t know why, but I feel a little scared to see.”

Emilia smiled sympathetically. Tori had been slow to fully accept that she was royalty, and a lot of aspects of it still seemed very foreign to the Daernic girl. She had taken it like a champ, in all honesty, when Lukas had dumped the information of her real identity on her back in Apryl. Emilia didn’t think that she would have been able to handle the situation even half as well as Tori had, and yet the older girl still seemed to doubt herself so much, even when she had no reason to.

Emilia shuffled closer to her. “It’s not as bad as it seems, actually. Lukas showed me mine when I was about 11. It was scary to think about, but, really, that profile is there and being seen by people whether you look at it or not. Seeing it would just make you aware of what it says.”

Tori bit her lip, but smiled and nodded. “I guess you’re right.” She hesitated a moment longer, then held out her hand. “I think that I literally need someone to hold my hand throughout this.” Smiling, Emilia took her hand and squeezed it comfortingly as Tori flicked the cell on and searched for her own name. The profile appeared at the top of the listings immediately and, sucking in a tense breath, Tori opened it.

FULL NAME:                 Viktorija Kamile Laurinaitis

BIRTHDATE:                 16th Fybwari, 4493CC

AGE:                             19

GENDER:                      Female

ETHNICITY:                  Daernic

HEIGHT:                       Between 5’3’’ and 5’7’’ (genetic estimation only)

PHYSICAL TRAITS:        Dark brown hair, fair skin (potentially somewhat browned from sun exposure), freckles (at last sighting), and ethnically consistent green eyes with a gold circle flaring out from the pupils.


STATUS:                       Crown Princess of Daerna. Status unknown as of Maii 4512CC

MONETARY BOND:     55,000,000,000 |MK| (55 Billion Standard Marks*)

NOTES:                        Daughter of late Queen Gabija Laurinaitis of Daerna and Prince Regent Augustinas Laurinaitis. Wanted for suspected collaboration and involvement with rebel terrorist cells and potential incitement of uprising, insurgency and violence in the Union Republic of Daerna. Last sighting occurred during the Union Intervention of 4501CC.
Monetary bond/’bounty’ is current as of the 16th of Maarch, 4512CC. Minor monetary rewards may be applicable for information pertaining to the subject.

*Amount may vary depending on current exchange rates

“It’s…not as bad as I thought.” She said, sounding relieved. “I mean, they’re offering an absurd amount of money for me, of course, but it’s not slapped with banners telling people to hunt me down and kill me, at least.” Emilia grinned.
She looked over it silently. Emilia skimmed it – she had read it before anyway – and watched her friend carefully. Tori tightened her grip on Emilia’s hand briefly, but then seemed to relax a little.

“I suspect that if the Union could get away with that, they would’ve.” She said. “You feeling alright?”

Tori nodded. “Yeah. Thanks, Lia.” Emilia shrugged.

“What are friends for?” she said, smiling. Tori grinned back, squeezing her hand briefly again before letting go and standing up, stowing the cell on her bedside table.

“You busy for the rest of the day?” Tori asked. Emilia sighed.

“I have training with Ali in about two hours, but other than that, no, not really.” Tori spun around, grinning.

“Alright then. You are going to meet my other friends.” 

“You know we love you, Tori, but when you said you were bringing a surprise I was expecting, like, food.” Tori huffed out a disbelieving breath, shooting Antonio a look as the Jhobrasian grinned, tilting his head in Emilia’s direction. “No offence, princess.” Emilia shrugged, looking unbothered.

“I mean, mood.” Tori rolled her eyes as Antonio brightened up, grinning at the Fynknian girl in delight.

“Try to at least act like meeting royalty is a novelty, Antonio.” She sighed. Feliks piped up.

“In our defence, she’s like, the third royal figure we’ve met. It’s not quite as ‘wow’ the third time.”

“That’s what she said.” Antonio muttered. Natalya audibly groaned, picking up a discarded shoe and tossing it at his head. Tori tried and failed to stifle a grin. She had almost forgotten how fun her criminal friends were. With how hectic her schedule had gotten recently, she hadn’t been able to visit them as much, to her own disappointment. She liked to let loose a little around them, and drop the formalities that were necessary outside this cell block.

Francis cleared his throat a little. “Have you heard anything from Matthias?” Tori frowned a little, looking down.

“No, nothing yet. But they’ve only been gone a week, so I doubt that much has happened. I’m honestly just wondering how well they’re getting along.” Emilia snorted.

“I don’t mean to make you all miserable, but my brother is one of the most emotionally reticent and stubborn people I know. I get along with him for sheer necessity and convenience. From what I’ve seen of your friend, he looks very outgoing and cheery. I don’t think they’ll be best buddies.” Tori sighed.

“Yeah, I kinda guessed that. They don’t really have compatible personalities. I mean, they seem to have the same knack for intuition and reasoning, but other than that they might as well be polar opposites.” Francis laughed.

“Well, it’s not our problem, I guess.” He mused. “Do tell us if you get any news, though?” Tori nodded vigorously.

“Of course!” she exclaimed. “Don’t be so confident that they would even tell me what’s going on, though. Yao’s been even more cagey than usual recently.” Tori turned to Feliks.

“So, how are you guys doing? The cell isn’t getting you guys down too much, is it?” Feliks shrugged, shifting his arms to settle them across his knees as he leant forward a little. Tori made eye contact with him, repeating over and over in the back of her head that she was not going to stare at the muscles in his arms. She had class, goddamn it.

“It’s alright, I suppose. A lot quieter without Matthias, of course, but that’s to be expected. How’re things on your end?” Tori broke eye contact with him to glance at Emilia.

“Good. Very hectic. Alfred and Gilbert were enlisted to help fix up a ship I think. They’d be here, otherwise.” Feliks nodded his head, running a hand back through his blond hair (Tori focussed on the wall behind him to avoid eyeing the sharp line of his jaw, and it was a fascinating wall, yes).

“Sounds like they’re settling in okay then.” He murmured. Roderich leant forwards.

“And what about our deranged captain?” the Incandan drawled. “Do you know how he’s doing?”

Tori felt her heart race with excitement as she realised, they didn’t know. She looked over at Emilia, who grinned widely. She pointed at the Fynknian girl.

“Do you know…?” Emilia nodded.

“Ohhh yeahh I do. Lukas told me when he got back.” She was smiling. “He knows I love gossip even though he says he despises it.” Tori grinned. Everyone was staring at the two of them, looking baffled and confused.

“What? Did I miss something?” Francis asked, looking between them. Tori laughed.

“Oh, Alfred and Arthur are dating now.” She said. “It’s actually adorable.”

Natalya huffed. “Well, that’s the least surprising thing I’ve heard all year. Those two were practically undressing one another with their eyes anyway. It was only a matter of time.” Roderich just rolled his eyes.

“I can’t say that I find this a shocking revelation either, though thank you for the update, Tori.” He said politely, inclining his head a little. Tori found her gaze landing back on Feliks, who was grinning.

“Alfred, that sneaky little shit.” Feliks said, shaking his head. “Good for him, anyway. I wish I had that kind of luck in the romance department.” She made eye contact with him again as he looked up, and felt her cheeks go a little warm as she looked away. The only people not overtly celebrating the news were Berwald – who never reacted to anything anyway, Vash – who obviously couldn’t care less, and Francis – whose expression wasn’t necessarily hostile, but was definitely a little strained. Tori winced. She knew that he and Arthur had a complicated history, so he probably wasn’t celebrating the fact that someone he disliked was now with one of his close friends.

She turned away, blinking in surprise when she saw how much the light had shifted since their conversation had begun. Tori sighed.

“Sorry to cut this short, but I gotta get going. I have duties over at the med tent.” Emilia glanced at her watch and made a face.

“Ugh, yeah, I gotta go train with Ali in about ten minutes, so I should head off too.” She turned to the cell door. “Nice to meet you all.” They all raised their hands in farewell, murmuring their goodbyes. Tori hesitated, before crouching down next to the bars where Feliks was sitting.

“Anyway, I’ll come by again when I can.” She said. Feliks blinked, a warm smile spreading across his face.

“I look forward to it, princess.” He said. Tori nodded, turning to hide the slight flush in her cheeks at the nickname, and stood, following Emilia out.

After a few moments, she decided to breach the subject. “So, how are they, really?” introducing Emilia to her friends hadn’t been her only objective. Tori knew that her friends underexaggerated their feelings and conditions for her peace of mind. As someone who could read minds and emotions as easily as one could a book, Emilia was key to helping figure out what they really meant. The Fynknian girl sighed.

“They…aren’t doing that well. Most of them are starting to slip into depression, if I’m being completely honest. They feel like their situation is hopeless. You being there made them a lot happier, but overall, no, they aren’t doing so well.” Tori bit her lip, looking down.

“They really are nice people, though.” Emilia said, in an obvious attempt to cheer her up. “They seem cool.” Tori forced a smile.

“Yeah, they are.” They walked together in silence for a few minutes before Emilia piped up again.

“And I gotta agree with you. That blond guy does have nice muscles.” Tori felt heat flood into her face, and yelped, smacking Emilia on the arm as the Fynknian laughed.

“Oh my god shut up shut upppppp.” She groaned, burying her face in her hands. Emilia continued to laugh.

“I’m sorry, you were just so vocal about that.” Tori grumbled something unintelligible as Emilia grinned and looped their arms together as she leant over to whisper in Tori’s ear. “Oh, and by the way? He likes you too.”

With a final grin, Emilia disengaged her arm from Tori’s and sprinted off to training, leaving a very flushed and very pleased Daernic girl behind her.

Blå Ren Insurgent Training Camp,
Feynir Region, Fynkn
28th Jaune

In the nine days that Lukas had been on Fynkn, he felt like he had gotten a pretty good impression of what everyone else in Block D was like. Though having the ability to detect and manipulate other people’s emotions was an added bonus, Lukas had always been good at telling how people were feeling. He could read the smallest tells and twitches of people’s facial expressions, and pick up on how they were feeling with minimal evidence. He had always been a very perceptive person, and he prided himself on it. He considered his evaluations of people to be quite accurate.

So far, what he had been able to gather of Riya Kristoff was that she was exceedingly quiet, competitive when the situation called for it, interacted with almost no-one save when it was absolutely necessary, and despite holding herself with dignity, didn’t seem to have any sort of desire to seek company outside of her own and didn’t seem to see much merit in the general pursuit of happiness.

So, when she chose to sit down right across the table from him at dinner, he was more than a little baffled. They hadn’t interacted much since their little competition in training two days ago, save the occasional nod of recognition or maybe a curious look on Kristoff’s part from across the hall during mealtimes. She tended to be the sort to enter the hall for meals almost dead-last and sit only at the seats that were left, showing no sort of preference for any one person or table. If she had the option, she tended to remove herself as much from everyone else as was possible.

So, her willingly sitting right across from him was bizarre, especially given that he had arrived rather early, and the dining hall was still very empty, with a treasure trove of free spaces in which one could sequester themselves away. And yet, the dark-haired girl chose to dump her tray right across from him and slump into the adjoined seat, nodding to him in recognition. Lukas blinked at her, a little taken aback but not irritated by her presence. He dug his fork back into the sad excuse for pork that sat on his plate, turning it over slowly before he felt compelled to actually question her presence.

“I thought you were more fond of solitude?” he asked simply, letting his gaze drift from his meal to Kristoff’s face after a moment. Kristoff shrugged, stabbing an unidentifiable vegetable with her fork and sticking it in her mouth, chewing for a few moments before answering.

“I normally am.” She responsed simply. Lukas raised an eyebrow.

“I see.” He didn’t bother asking any more questions – she didn’t seem to be in the mood to be questioned. He turned his attention back to his meal. “You know, I was told that this is pork, but I’m not entirely sure that they’re telling the truth.” Kristoff hummed quietly, nodding a little.

“Yes, I must admit that this meat appears more similar to rat than it does pork.” Lukas wrinkled his nose good-naturedly, shrugging.

“I mean, probably not the worst thing I’ve ever had, but still not overtly appetising.” He said, chewing another portion of the tough meat thoughtfully. Kristoff tilted her head at him.

“Oh, that’s right. You were lang av verden, weren’t you?” Lukas hummed. He had heard the phrase before, and quickly linked it back to people like himself. Lang av verden – long off-world; meaning, in this context, Fynknians who had escaped the planet during the Expansion and avoided the oppression that everyone else had suffered since. Not that their situation had been much better, in all honesty. Lukas still remembered the long days that he had spent starved out of his mind, crawling into small stone alcoves with Emilia to escape cold weather and the twisted crooks who enjoyed hunting down children to torment.

“Yup.” He said, popping the ‘p’ gently. “I don’t know much of what life was like here, but it was not fun being off-world.” Kristoff inclined her head, sipping at the bitter, dark coffee in her cup.

“Yeah, it wasn’t too good here, either.” She said simply, sculling down more of the coffee. Unsure of how to continue the conversation, or even if he should, Lukas fell silent, poking at his food with disinterest as the room started to fill with more people. All of the Blocks ate together, and he couldn’t deny that it was interesting to observe the people from the other buildings.

Block A were a noisy bunch; rambunctious and full of energy. They specialised in combat training, so they were all lean and corded with muscle. It seemed to be normal fare among them to have facial or neck scars, or some sort of remnant from another type of gruesome injury. They were all sharp smiles and eager boasts and looks just a little too threatening to be harmless. Even though, in terms of training, Lukas would rather be learning combat, he couldn’t say that he regretted not being in Block A.

Block B were the strategists and thinkers. They seemed to be an intellectual bunch, and Lukas had got along with everyone from there that he had met so far, though he had noted a few that clearly thought themselves superior to everyone else, and Lukas couldn’t stand people like that. A lot of them seemed to be generally queasy where battle was concerned, though they did just fine in physical training.

Block C were the medics. They didn’t do as much physical training as the rest of them did, and spent the majority of their time in training, learning how to stitch gashes and suture wounds and amputate frostbitten limbs with remarkable efficiency. They learned how to run fast and sure-footed, how to duck low to avoid rifle fire and how to keep cool under pressure. Most of them were fairly mild people, each with either a good dosage of compassion or a desire to not do actual fighting.

Lukas hadn’t really spent much time with anyone outside of Block D, in all honesty. They were a good group of people, and he didn’t often feel like associating with the more self-absorbed types found in Blocks A and B, and was hardly around those from C Block enough to really care about them. He found himself often enough in the company of his bunkmate, Ansel, his babysitter Køhler and, more recently, Riya Kristoff, to never really feel like he was lacking in companions.

As if on cue, Køhler dropped into the seat next to him, shooting Kristoff a brief, puzzled look and nodding neutrally at Lukas as he poked at his meal, making a face as he did so.

They had still been a little on edge around each other yesterday, but things finally seemed to be cooling down a little between them. Lukas couldn’t help but be relieved that they weren’t at as fierce odds as they had been at a few days prior. They were stuck here together, so they might as well get over it. The Rywanese man actually wasn’t a bad conversationalist, once he got going, though Lukas had the habit of tuning him out a little. He talked a little too much.

He watched Køhler grimace at the food for a few moments before Sergeant Kalis, the muscular, intimidating brute of a man who overlooked Block A, stood up and yelled to get everyone’s attention. The sound of conversation bled out of the hall gradually as everyone turned to look at him curiously. Lukas furrowed his brow, noting that Kristoff looked just as confused as he did. He exchanged a look with her before turning his attention fully to the Sergeant.

Kalis grumbled a little, running a hand through his rangy silver hair. “Alright listen up, everybody. We have some important news to tell you.” Lukas let his gaze slide from Kalis over to the other Sergeants. Kolden looked like he was trying to swallow something very unpleasant, expression twisted in distaste. The two other Sergeants – Honna, who took care of Block B’s strategists, and Lubok, who managed the medics of C – also looked displeased and, if Lukas was reading their expressions correctly – worried. He frowned. Whatever was going on, it clearly was something that none of the Sergeants were happy with.

“In the last few weeks, our active soldier numbers have gone into a deficit. Essentially, there are more people injured than there are actively fighting. As you can imagine, this is bad. Guerrilla squads have been hit pretty hard as well. Due to this, Kommandor Hansen has handed down an order to fast-track your training. Instead of another five weeks of training, you will have three. I know this is sudden,” he said, raising his voice over the uprising of noise from the recruits, “but it is necessary. Due to it being the most important aspect of your training, Blocks A and D will be moving directly into combat training, starting today. Sorry kids, but they need your help.”

Sergeant Kalis stepped away, face stony, as the hall erupted into noises of confusion, shock, and in some cases, fear. Lukas blinked in surprise as Køhler grunted non-commitedly beside him.

“At least we won’t be stuck here for a whole month.” The bounty hunter murmured. Lukas sent him a measured look, then shrugged.

“I suppose. It’ll be interesting to see how everyone else handles the combat training, though.”

“I’m willing to bet that they’ll fail miserably at it.” Kristoff interjected. When Lukas looked over at her, she shrugged. “Most people here are farmers. They’re hardly elite.” Lukas inclined his head in a slight nod.

“Yes, I guess you’re right.” He murmured.

“Block D! Up and at ‘em! We have a shit-ton of training to get through in the next few weeks!” Kolden yelled. Køhler groaned, shoving his tray away and standing up, shooting Lukas a miserable look.

“Fuck I want out of this.” He groaned. Lukas rolled his eyes.

“Deal with it, moron.” He said simply. Køhler sighed.

“Jackass.” Lukas turned away, but not quite fast enough to miss the burgeoning smile on the bounty hunter’s face.

Chapter Text

Onboard the SS Larcenist,
Anchored above Bibesti, Rela,
28th Jaune

Lovino was already awake by the time that the pirates came for him again. He pressed himself against the cold metal walls, wishing more than anything that he could slide through the metal and disappear. He wondered what it would be like to have gifts like the Zephyraks; to be able to slip through solid objects and fall through the sky knowing that the wind would catch you was probably a comforting thought. He shuddered, pressing his back against the wall even as the rivulets of nails dug into his skin a little.

He had been completely unsure of why the intimidating pirate Captain had wanted to talk to him privately, but that mystery had solved itself very quickly. The tall, dark-skinned woman had simply spent several minutes gazing at his eyes, muttering to herself about whether or not she should carve one of them out as a souvenir, before simply sating herself by cutting out a chunk of his hair and slicing one of his arms open to taste his blood. She had proceeded to then pull a dark wool beanie from her pocket and cover every last strand of his hair with it, stating that only she wanted to see it from then on.

He didn’t think he had ever met anyone so disturbed.

He feared similar treatment this morning, in all honesty. Lovino hadn’t slept all night out of fear that one of them would catch him off guard or attack him. He had heard stories of what some pirates did to their prisoners, and he did not want to be on the receiving end.

The door to the exceedingly small and dark cell was thrown open, the tall, dark-haired man who had originally captured him – Klaus – strode inside, grinning as he stuck his hands in his pockets.

“Good morning, my fine little catch.” He crooned, reaching out a hand to run through Lovino’s hair. “I must say, Barkhado was right. You are a pretty little thing.” Lovino’s expression morphed into a scowl as he jerked his head away from the man’s hand. Klaus chuckled. “Being difficult won’t get you anywhere. Come on.” He seized Lovino by the collar and dragged him to his feet, hauling him out the door.

Lovino took the opportunity to look around the ship as he was dragged around. It had dark metal walls and linoleum floors clearly designed to be easy to clean. He swallowed. The ship must be large, given how many flights of stairs he staggered down – definitely about five storeys or so. He wrinkled his nose as they descended onto a flat, dark floor. The only light around came from above, in the stairwell. They were right in the bowels of the ship. He grimaced as he was dragged down a dark, musty hallway by Klaus, who was whistling softly under his breath.

They approached a thick-set metal door. Lovino strained his ears, and could hear a low murmuring coming from behind it. Klaus stepped forwards and wrenched it open, all noises immediately ceasing as he did so. Lovino was just able to catch a glimpse of a room full of bedraggled, miserable looking people before Klaus transferred his grip from his shirt to his neck.

“Morning.” The pirate said cheerfully. “Got a new friend for you all.” And with that, he tightened his grip on Lovino’s neck, digging his nails into his skin painfully before tossing him forwards onto the hard metal floor. His head slammed into the metal hard, and he winced, refusing to give the pirate the satisfaction of hearing any sounds of pain. He heard the door slam shut behind him, and tried to twist his body around a little, head ringing and vision spinning.

“Try not to move for a second. Here.” A voice nearby said in what he absently realised was not the Common Standard, but rather Jhobrasian. He flinched away on sheer instinct, immediately regretting the movement as a flash of pain cleaved through his temples. He groaned, setting his head back on the floor. He felt gentle hands touching his wrists, before the tight handcuffs that had been latched around his arms for two days loosened, and finally fell away. He pulled his arms sluggishly back to the front, rubbing at the raw spots on his wrists.

He felt the gentle hands on him again, this time on his back as he was carefully levered into a sitting position. Blinking hard, Lovino rubbed at his eyes, finally focussing on the space around him. The hands belonged to a slender, olive-skinned girl with immensely frizzy black hair and a wry sort of face. She wasn’t conventionally attractive, but she looked tough. She raised an eyebrow at him, brown eyes wide and sparkling with curiosity.

“Ste et visu mordes cuses.” She said to an older man sitting beside her, who was also watching Lovino with interest. He nodded, extending a hand to poke at some of the dark bruising on Lovino’s jaw. He flinched backwards again, out of his reach as his brain struggled to place the language that the girl had switched to for the old man. He got the basic gist of what she had said – he looks half-dead – but for whatever reason couldn’t place the words’ origin. They definitely didn’t sound Jhobrasian. The girl turned to him, and switched to yet another language – Common Standard.

“Hello there. As you may have realised, you’re onboard a pirate ship. The SS Larcenist, if you specifics, belonging to pirate Captain Barkhado Dirie. Scourge of the East Systems and all that junk.” She swept an arm out to indicate the dirty, dark hangar they were in. “These are the dazzling accommodation options. We have the floor, sitting against the wall and even more floor.”

“Ela, enough.” One of the other prisoners piped up. “The guy just got a hard hit to the brain, you really think he wants to hear your floor jokes?” the girl – Ela, apparently – rolled her eyes.

“Back off, Miqez.” She turned back to him, gaze settling on the dark wool beanie that was somehow still in place on his head. “But you aren’t wrong, I guess. Probably should check for a concussion, huh?” she reached out, fingers brushing against the wool. Lovino shifted backwards again. She paused, scrutinising him. “Whatever is under there can’t be that bad, buddy. I mean look at Morell here – he’s had Chalydrantis for three months and he’s happy as anything!” Lovino glanced over at the man she was pointing at, who was characteristically silver-haired and frowning deeply, and raised an eyebrow. He slid one of his own hands under the wool to touch where he had hit his head. It was a little tender, but certainly didn’t feel like a concussion. He felt a slickness on his fingers and winced. So, he hadn’t escaped injury after all, it seemed.

The girl was staring at him expectantly, before sighing and sliding forwards on her knees on the metal floor, reaching up with two hands and peeling the beanie from his head herself. She paused, looking shocked as his dark red hair came into view. The old man beside her blinked, but murmured something in his bizarre tongue before shuffling forward as well. He gently ushered the girl aside and probed at the tender spot on Lovino’s skull, before pulling a clean cloth from his pocket and pressing it to the bleeding spot, pressing down just enough to make it sting. Lovino winced, but didn’t make any other noises. The man made a gesture, and he reached up to hold the cloth against his own head.

“Ste et soro man vin coros abstas et sonok sou. The man murmured to the girl. She flinched a little.

“I know, morfather.” She said, switching back to Common Standard. She peered at Lovino with interest, leaning forwards a little. “I will say, though, I’ve never seen a real-life Syhvvanian before.”

“We’re in short supply.” Lovino said dryly. The girl grinned.

“Oooh so you can talk, huh?” Lovino made a face, re-adjusting the cloth slightly. The girl smiled. “My name’s Eladina Gonzalez. I’m the only person here with a sense of humour, in case you couldn’t tell that already.” She smiled again. “Have you got a name, or did that little head injury knock it out of your memory?”

Lovino hesitated. He couldn’t risk using anything resembling his real name here. The pirates were sharp – they wouldn’t miss a detail like that. His hesitation – which quickly moulded into a simple silence – didn’t seem to put off the girl. She just shrugged.

“Not the sharing type? That’s fine. I’m gonna call you Red, because the hair. Nice to meet you, Red.” Lovino blinked, but nodded slowly.

“Alright then. Sounds good enough.”

Eladina grinned. “This place is shit. Completely and utterly. Let’s see how long it takes to break us, hmm?”

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
30th Jaune

Gilbert cursed softly, withdrawing his hand from the inner engine and shaking it a little, frowning. He’d been called over to do maintenance work on a ship whose engine kept overheating mid-flight, even though all of the systems designed to keep the engine at a constant temperature were apparently still perfectly functional. He shook his head in bewilderment. The engine was still hot, despite the fact that the ship had been off and stationary for about two days. He had puzzled over it for hours yesterday with other engineers, and had returned today to give it a closer look. Squinting, he leaned down further, while still trying to avoid the inner parts of the machine, some of which were glowing red-hot.

He tapped on the side of one of the other nearby systems – the engine cooler, which, judging by it’s outer appearance, was completely functional. Brow furrowed, he tapped at the small row of flashing lights on top, all of which indicated that the system was turned on and operational.

“Can you see anything?” his rebel overseer – Elizabeta – asked, frowning from her place on the ground near the ship. He shook his head.

“The cooling systems are apparently all in perfect working condition, but some parts in here are glowing with heat, so either the original assessment of the cooling systems was wrong, or there’s something else seriously wrong with this engine.” Elizabeta hummed, and when he tilted his head to look at her, she was frowning.

“Why don’t you try giving the cooling systems another look?” she said. “I’m not entirely sure who did the original assessment, but mistakes can always be made, even by the most experienced engineers.” Gilbert nodded, propping himself up on his elbows and wiping some sweat from his brow. The sheer size of the ship meant that the engine, in it’s entirety, was about three metres high and four across, housed in the front of the ship near the cockpit. Normally, he would have slid right inside to get as close as possible, but the heat made that particular task impossible.

Groaning, he leant forward more, screwing the top of the cooler system open, and immediately felt his confusion disperse as he pried the screen that protected the internal workings off. Engineers and mechanics didn’t normally like to tamper with cooling systems – they were very important and, in this type of ship, could be very temperamental at times. The last thing he wanted was to break the machine completely and leave the craft permanently grounded. But just a cursory glance at the coolers made it clear that they were malfunctioning, regardless of what the external lights indicated.

“Liz!” he called as he stretched his arm out to prod gently at some of the wiring. “You were right; the cooling system is fucked.”

He heard her sigh. “That makes sense. Can you fix it?” he frowned, evaluating the damage visually.

“Maybe? It looks pretty severe, and the systems in these ships are outdated and frustrating as hell to fix.” She huffed.

“Ugh, great. Well, if you feel up to it, please let me know, because I really don’t wanna have to ask Kani for help. He’s arrogant enough already.” Gilbert couldn’t hold back his snort of laughter. The head engineer was a little too inflated in terms of ego, that was true. He himself usually feigned having more arrogance than he actually did, if only because it was an easy way to hide what he was thinking.

“I’ll see what I can do.” He said. “But I make no promises.” Elizabeta grinned at him.

“Awesome. Thanks dude.” He shrugged in response and ducked to look at the cooling systems. He heard her walk away a little, but ignored her, fiddling with the wires and knobs inside the cooling system mainframe.

“Question.” She piped up again after a few minutes of silence. “Do you know what the engineers are gonna use these empty storage shells for? Because some members of the infantry were looking to recycle the parts. All of the munitions makers are keen to get their hands on more scraps for the nail bombs, too.” Gilbert listened with half an ear, tinkering with the engine.

“I’m not sure, honestly. You’d have to ask Kani about that.” He heard Elizabeta huff again.

“What about this?” he glanced in her direction, too quickly to get a proper look, but shrugged anyway.

“I dunno.”

“You didn’t even look, rookie.” She said, sounding vaguely irritated. Gilbert straightened up a little, twisting around more to look. It was huge chunk of warped steel – once part of a tank – that had been dragged back from an old battlefield to be remade into something new by the resistance’s engineers and mechanics. He shrugged again, absently reaching for his screwdriver.

“Again, I don- SHIT.” He yelped as he yanked his hand out of the engine and cradled it against his chest. In reaching for the screwdriver – still propped on top of the cooling system – he had accidentally brushed against the red-hot upper engine that he had been avoiding all afternoon. He heard Elizabeta drop the warped sheet of metal with a clang as she rushed over.

“Oh saints, are you alright?” she asked, jogging to the side of the ship. Gilbert hissed through his teeth as he climbed down the ladder propper against the side of the ship, turning his hand over and wincing when he saw the the damage. From his wrist to the knuckles of his pinkie and ring fingers on his right hand, a swath of skin was burned bright red, with raw edges. Blisters, angry and painful, were already starting to rise. Elizabeta winced in sympathy when she saw the damage. “Oooh fuck, that isn’t good.” She summarised aptly. “Come on, med tent for you.”

Gilbert followed her through the camp, weaving through tents as the pain in his hand got worse and worse. He considered himself able to take pain pretty well, but the burn on his hand was like nothing else he’d gotten before, and his eyes were tearing up with the pain. Elizabeta’s face was full of sympathy as she ushered him into the cool, shaded tent, looking around quickly.

“What’s the issue today, Liz?” the head medic, Kabeeta, said, sounding a little tired as she called to them over the low murmur of noise in the tent. Elizabeta smiled wryly as she saw her, jabbing a finger at Gilbert.

“Pretty bad burn from that overheated engine in Hangar B.” she explained, Kabeeta winced in sympathy as she glanced at him.

“Ahh, sorry to hear that. I think Matthew’s on duty today, so he should be able to help you with that.” Despite the pain, Gilbert’s stomach flipped a little. He hadn’t spoken to Matthew since that humiliating incident when Matthias had been leaving, and he had blurted out – right in front of the guy – that he definitely didn’t have a crush on him, and had immediately disproved his own statement by blushing red as a tomato when the taller man had flirted with him. This wasn’t exactly how he had imagined their next conversation going.

Elizabeta, however, knew nothing of his internal dilemma, and grinned in relief.

“Oh, awesome. Come on, Matt’ll be able to patch you up just fine.” Kabeeta nodded, as if to back up her statement, and pointed them in the direction of the other wing of the med tent. Gilbert tried to calm the nerves in his stomach as Elizabeta pulled the tent flap separating the two wings apart and called out. “Matt! I got a burn for you.”

Gilbert’s gaze met a pair of bright lilac eyes as Matthew, who had been talking to some poor, bedridden soul, straightened up. The rebel blinked, looking surprised, before his expression shifted into an effortless, warm smile. Gilbert felt some of his anxiety ease.

“Damn, that’s not good.” Matthew said as he approached and took a look at Gilbert’s hand. “It was the overheated engine, you say?” Elizabeta gave the affirmative. Matthew moved closer, gently taking Gilbert’s hand, being careful to avoid the aggrieved areas as he examined it closesly.

“Yikes. You aren’t the first one to get burned by that insane thing, either. Don’t worry, I can fix it up.” Matthew released his hand and turned to a stand of drawers, rummaging through them. “Liz, can you fill a bowl with some cold water, please?” Elizabeta jumped to the task, as Gilbert watched Matthew move. The rebel smiled comfortingly at him over his shoulder. “It might take a while to heal, but it should be fine given a few weeks.”

Elizabeta approached carefully with the bowl of water. Matthew smiled. “Ahh, great. Thanks Liz. Just submerge your hand in there for a while.” Gilbert sat on the edge of an empty bed and did as Matthew said, hissing a little when the burn first made contact with the cool water. Matthew approached and sat on the bed next to Gilbert. “So, how did this happen? Did you just brush your hand against the engine by accident?” Gilbert winced and nodded.

“Uh, yeah, I got distracted for a moment.” He said. Elizabeta sighed.

“Correction. I distracted him and he hurt his hand.” She shrugged when he looked at her. “What? I should have waited for you to stop working.” Gilbert sighed and shot her a look, but didn’t bother arguing. He had come to learn how viciously stubborn the Daernic girl was, and didn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of her tirades.

“Well, whoever’s fault it was, it doesn’t really matter.” Matthew said, giving them both a chastening look. “It’s happened now. The best we can do is try to alleviate the damage.” He nodded at Gilbert’s hand. “Could you lift your hand out for a second?” he did as Matthew said, expression crumpling in horror when he saw that some of the aggrieved skin was starting to peel off. Matthew hummed and examined it. ”Looks like it’s a second-degree burn. Should take a few weeks to heal, but it shouldn’t give you long-term complications. Gilbert frowned at his hand.

“Is it going to scar?” he asked. Matthew winced, pulling a pair of tweezers from the small stash of medical gear he had beside him and gently examined the burn.

“By the looks of it, probably, but it shouldn’t be too bad. Just a mild discolouration.” Gilbert wrinkled his nose, but didn’t say anything more. Matthew looked over at him again. “Sorry to say it, but this peeling skin is going to have to come off. Liz, can you prepare a sterile bandage for me please? Non-stick, if you would. And some rubbing alcohol, too.” Elizabeta nodded and ducked off to do just that as Matthew held Gilbert’s hand up a little higher, squinting at it before gently taking a hold of one part of peeling skin with the tweezers and pulling. Gilbert clenched his other hand into a fist as pain lanced across his hand. Matthew winced in sympathy. “Sorry. I’ll try to be quick about it.”

He did try, Gilbert could see that, but he was still fighting back tears and breathing raggedly within a minute or so. Matthew drew away a little, frowning when he saw Gilbert’s other hand. He’d had it clenched in a fist so tightly that his fingernails were starting to cut into the skin. Matthew took ahold of Gilbert’s hand and placed it on his own knee.

“Dig your nails into me, not yourself. I think you’ve acquired enough hand injuries today already, hmm?” Gilbert hesitated, but nodded, trying to force his attention away from the pain in his hand and instead focus on the warmth of Matthew’s leg under his hand. Elizabeta ducked back into the room a few moments later, immediately wincing when she saw the look on Gilbert’s face as Matthew made quick work of his hand. Gilbert tried not to grip Matthew’s leg too hard, but he found himself digging his nails in regardless.

Matthew dropped the tweezers, having finally finished removing all of the peeling skin, and picked up the bottle of rubbing alcohol Elizabeta had brought him. Quick as a flash, he doused the burn in alcohol, and before Gilbert even had time to register the pain, he pressed a sterile bandage to the burn and began wrapping it in gauze. Gilbert dragged in a deep breath, ducking his head a little. He felt Matthew rub the back of his uninjured hand.

“All done now. You did well.” He murmured, voice soft and comforting. Gilbert smiled weakly, still wincing as his hand continued to sting. Matthew continued his gentle ministrations on the back of Gilbert’s uninjured hand, before letting his hand rest on top. Gilbert felt his face warm a little, but he didn’t pull away.

“Thanks for patching me up.” He said, letting his smile get a little bigger. Matthew shrugged.

“No worries. Just come to me in about two days or so to change the bandage. It’ll probably scar, but it won’t be too bad.” He nodded, and after a moment of silence, Matthew took his hand off Gilbert’s and started to clean up the medical supplies scattered around them.

“Seriously, thanks.” Gilbert said sincerely. “It’s feeling a lot better now.” Matthew smiled warmly as Gilbert continued. “I didn’t know that you did medical shifts.”

Matthew shrugged. “I come around here on occasion. It’s a nice break from all of the combat training and yelling everywhere else. People here are a little calmer, at least most of the time. You should come along and join me sometime.”

Gilbert gave a sheepish grin. “I would, but I don’t know too much about first aid, or, well, anything medical really.” Matthew shrugged.

“I can teach you, if you want. They are useful skills to have and besides, it’ll be fun.” Gilbert felt his face warm a little. He debated it for a minute. There was no doubt in his mind anymore that he was seriously crushing on Matthew, and there was a part of him that murmured that it was strange to date the brother of one of his closest friends. On the other hand, Alfred himself had violated the weird, unspoken code of dating certain people when he’d gotten together with Arthur, someone who Francis hated more than almost anyone else. If that was acceptable, then this was too. Besides, there was nothing illegal about spending time with someone to learn new skills. He smiled a little.

“Alright, why not?” and at his confirmation, Matthew’s face broke into the most radiant smile that Gilbert had ever seen. His positively melting brain was just cognizant enough to form a single thought as he smiled back.

Saints I’m screwed.

31st Jaune

“All I’m saying is, you could definitely do better, you know.”

Alfred shifted uncomfortably, noting the awkward silence in the rest of the room as Francis stared him down.

“Listen, man, I know that you two have a complicated history, but that’s not really any of my business-”

“If you’re choosing to side with him on the matter, then you’re making it your business.”

“I don’t even know what the matter is!” Alfred exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air. “And I’m not siding with anyone. He hasn’t given me any more details than you have, as a matter of fact.”

Francis wrinkled his nose. “You still chose to get involved with him, though.” Alfred sighed.

He had thought that ducking by the cell block to visit his friends would make for a nice change of pace from the hustle and bustle of resistance life that had become his new normal. Even though it hadn’t been long since he’d returned from the Xi Lan Ey mission, no one had bothered to give him time to rest. Nor had anyone else on the mission had the chance to slow down, either. Matthias and Lukas had been sent off to Fynkn, for saints’ sake, and everyone else had dived headfirst back into normal duties. Just yesterday, Gilbert had injured his hand trying to repair a messed-up ship engine. Tino had gone off on some sniper mission, soon to return.

It had made seeing Arthur a lot more difficult, of course, since he was being shuttled around to fulfil his end of the bargain that he’d dealt with the resistance, but they managed. Just getting to sit next to the pirate and feel the Pyndaphian sigh in exasperation before moving to fix his wayward hair or nudge his leg with his own to get his attention was exhilarating. Getting to tumble around in each other’s beds and kiss until they felt bruised was another bonus.

He’d had the time of his life being with Arthur, and he knew that his friends would find out about the relationship eventually. Matthew had materialised by his side not even a day after they had gotten back from Xi Lan Ey, screeching “use protection!” in his ear so loudly that he had flinched himself into a stack of barrels. His brother had died of laughter while he had yelled in indignation, before conceding and helping him get up and fix up the pile. He’d continued to make teasing comments for hours until dinner, and fulfilled all of Alfred’s worst nightmares when he had spotted Arthur, marched over to him and insisted on talking them through safe sex all throughout dinner. The pirate had taken it in good spirits, though, and seemed to have found the whole thing hilarious, much in contrast to Alfred, who was too embarrassed to so much as stand near Arthur when Matthew was in the vicinity. His brother had approached him later to say, in all seriousness, that he was happy for him, but Alfred couldn’t understand why he couldn’t have just started with that.

The point was, Alfred wasn’t ashamed of being with Arthur, not even remotely, and hadn’t even stopped to think about his new boyfriend’s complicated history with Francis before going to visit his friends. He’d gone so far as to drag down Mei, Leon and Gilbert to come with him, all three of whom were standing awkwardly behind him. He had hoped that no-one would have anything more than teasing comments about Arthur to hurl in his direction, and for the most part, that was true. But the minute that there was a gap in the conversation, Francis had voiced his disapproval.

It wasn’t like Alfred had no idea where Francis was coming from. He knew that the pair had had a huge falling out several years ago, and that it obviously still stung both of them, a lot. But neither of them was really forthcoming about the incident itself. All that he had been able to glean so far was that it had something to do with Arthur’s job, but even that confused him. The pirate hadn’t even been a pirate at the time. In fact, Alfred knew shockingly little about their relationship in general. If they had once been romantically involved, he might have understood all the feelings of betrayal and anger that Francis was giving off, but both of them vehemently denied that they had ever been like that with one another.

He didn’t know how they met, or how long they’d known each other before their falling out. Alfred was good at reading people – a lot better than he usually let on, and there were a few things that were a bit telling. In his mind, the two had been very close, even without a romantic element to their relationship. If they had been only casual friends, the deep rift between them wouldn’t be such a touchy topic for them both. They had been close, and something had driven them apart, and their initial bond was strong enough that even now they were affected by it. But that raised even more questions; if they had been so close, then what on earth had been strong enough to drive them to hate each other?

He could have speculated all day, but Alfred normally stopped himself from doing that, because it was their business, not his. He had always respected Francis’ privacy even when he was bursting to ask questions, and had expected his friend to do the same.

Evidently, he had asked too much.

“I don’t think that that’s fair, Francis. I’ve never so much as asked about whatever sort of argument you two are having. I’m my own person with my own life, okay? I don’t need to hate someone just because my friends might.” Francis glowered at the ground. Alfred exchanged a look with Feliks, who looked immensely uncomfortable. The Pyndaphian shrugged, looking helpless. Alfred sighed again. “I mean, I get why you aren’t happy, dude. I’m not going to apologise, but I do understand why you’re angry at me. The thing is, I don’t even know what he did to offend you so much, so I don’t know if I should feel angry on your behalf or anything.”

Francis made a sound of disgust and tossed his hair back. “The fact that he’s contributing to the sorts of disgusting industries that he does should be reason enough.” Alfred frowned.

“I don’t mean to burst your bubble, dude, but…we’re criminals too. We’ve done some shady and messed up things, too.” Francis shook his head.

“Yes, I know, but even then, there are certain things we haven’t touched.” Alfred glanced back at Mei and Leon, curious to see how they were taking this. They both seemed to be close to Arthur, after all. Mei looked a little uncomfortable, but it was Leon whose expression surprised Alfred. He looked…tense?

“Seriously, Francis, what has he done that you hate so much?” the blond scowled.

“Oh, only sell slaves and profit off the misery of human beings, among numerous other things.” Francis snapped. “Make the criminal argument all you want, Alfred. We’ve never sold slaves.” Alfred sighed.

“Yeah…true…but we’ve dealt with people who own and sell them, so I don’t see what the big-”

“That’s different to actually taking part in the process, though.” Francis remarked sharply. “He was a slave driver, remember?”

“Yeah, I remember, but he was only doing that to get money to afford his treatment. You know that.” Francis folded his arms.

“I don’t care what it was for. He still made the active decision to take up that job and do those things. Desperation doesn’t factor into it. He supported that damn industry for years and he continues to do so.”

Behind Alfred, Leon straightened up. “Shut it, bounty hunter, he does not.”

“He does too.”

“The fuck he does. You haven’t spoken to him regularly for over five years, and yet you claim to know what he does better than us? We’re with him almost every day, jackass. I think I would know if he were supporting the slave industry.” Francis snorted.

“Right, because he would confide all of his business ventures to a seventeen-year-old. Makes sense.” Leon stepped forward, fists clenched and teeth gritted. Alfred blinked. He didn’t think that he’d ever seen the young Yanishman this angry.

“You don’t know him. He doesn’t support slavery.”

“Then why did he work as a slave driver when he was younger?”

“He needed medicine because he was fucking dying, and they had the capacity to provide it. How can you say that desperation doesn’t play into this situation? He never would have worked there if he hadn’t been sick, you know.”

“Doubtful. He’s morally bankrupt anyway. How would illness affect that?” Leon narrowed his eyes, and stepped closer to the bars.

“He’d lean far more towards freeing slaves than he would selling them, I know that much. Your brief experience with him five years ago doesn’t demonstrate who he is as a person.”

“In what way, exactly?” Alfred had never heard Francis use so much poison in his voice, including when he spoke to Arthur, and while he was glad that the attention was off him, he couldn’t help but be alarmed by how rapidly the hostility seemed to be escalating.

“He had just been diagnosed with an incurable disease with a 100% fatality rate, and probably slapped with an expected survival time of three to six months. I’d be pretty scared and worried if that was me. And I would probably also be desperate enough to do pretty much anything to buy myself a little more time, including sacrificing my morals.”

“That isn’t an excuse.” Francis spat. Leon glared at him.

“Don’t talk like you still know him.”

“I know him well enough.”

“No, you don’t, because otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” Leon snapped back, chest heaving.

“Oh? Where the hell is your proof, then?”

Leon’s demeanour changed so suddenly it almost gave Alfred whiplash. The tension drained from his shoulders, the animosity from his expression and his fists unclenched. Suddenly, he was cold and still and strangely lacking in emotion. Alfred felt his stomach turn a little.

“Because, like I said. I know things about him that you don’t.”

“Do tell.”

Some of the anger came back into Leon’s expression, and he began to speak.

“I know that he doesn’t support the slave industry because, on the only occasion in his life that he ever bought slaves, he immediately set them free, and scammed the auction-holder out of all the money they had earned that day. Those aren’t the actions of someone who holds a high opinion of people who sell other people.” Francis clenched his jaw briefly.

“Oh, truly?”

Yes. That’s a fact, and you can’t erase it. Your animosity towards him doesn’t get rid of the fact that he did that. Your misguided belief that he loves the slave industry doesn’t erase the fact that he got banned from auctions on Xexei for the exact reason that he would show up, outbid everyone else for the youngest slaves, and immediately give them back their freedom. And since you’re so focused on facts, bounty hunter, do you know how I know this?”

Francis rolled his eyes. “It is because he trusts you oh so very much?” Leon exchanged a look with Mei. The young girl nodded, and Leon drew in a deep breath before stepping closer.

Leon knelt down so that he was level with Francis.

“No. I know this because two of the slaves he freed – the first two, in fact – knew that they wanted to repay him, somehow. He had given them lives that they had never imagined. He got them names and identification numbers and everything they needed to be real people, rather than property. He did it all at a pure economic loss for himself – he hadn’t figured out the scamming trick just yet – so he gained nothing from it. Do you know what they did?”

Francis was frowning, not so much angry as unsettled, and shrugged.

“Well, they had no idea at first. They had no money, no information, no sort of worldly treasure to give him in exchange for the gift they’d received. He kept trying to get them into school and give them money for an apartment to rent, but they were determined. It took a while before they realised what they could do. Arthur’s a pirate, we all know that. He does heists and daring escapes and massive thefts. He needs talented people to do those things. Even though they didn’t have any money for him, these two slaves realised that they were small, and fast, and very agile. They learned fast and easily picked up on how to use weapons. They insisted that they repay their debt with work. Arthur refused to accept it.”

Alfred felt like a tight band was constricting his chest. “And?” he asked weakly. Francis was completely silent. Leon looked up at him and shrugged.

“And, Mei and I were too stubborn to take no for an answer, and we’ve been with him ever since.” He turned back to Francis. “Go ahead, bounty hunter. Look me in the eyes and tell me that Arthur Kirkland loves the slave industry. I first got sold for sex and entertainment when I was six years old. I know what a real slaver looks like, and he isn’t one. Don’t you dare try to claim otherwise.”

The entire cell block was silent, half of them gaping at Leon in shock and the other half with brows crinkled in horror. Leon stood silently, folding his arms. His hands were shaking slightly.

“I don’t think I deserved such a dedicated defence.” A voice behind Alfred said weakly. He spun around to see Arthur standing there, expression full of dismay. “God, Leon, I’ve dealt with slander before, you didn’t need to prostrate yourself for my sake.” The teen shrugged, eyes downcast. Francis was staring at Arthur.

“Is that true?” the man asked, voice a little coarse. Arthur winced.

Mei and Leon had become unbearably precious to Arthur in the short time that he had known them, and they had become so strong and independent that there were days that he struggled not to tear up. But their strength now didn’t make him forget how they had met; how they had come into his service in the first place. And it hurt to think about, still.

He sighed, knelt down near the bars of the cell, and started to explain.

General Auction,
Bonder’s District of Gali City, Xexei,
17th Septombre, 4509CC

(Nearly 3 years ago)

Arthur tossed his head in irritation, swatting absently at a fly buzzing around nearby. He raised an eyebrow at the man beside him, who looked a little overwhelmed to have been tasked with showing a pirate around the Bonder’s District. Arthur had already garnered a decent name for himself in just under two years in the piracy business, but he wasn’t yet well-known enough for people to recognise him on sight. It was a good combination; he enjoyed being dismissed casually based on appearance, and immediately watching people blanch after he was then introduced.

He rubbed at his hair. He’d had a close call last month, and had suffered from a few grey strands speckled among all the blond for several days before he’d managed to buy more malthecs. It was an irritating cycle, but he felt like he was finally getting used to it.

Two years and four months, he reminded himself. That was how long he’d stuck around after his initial Chalydrantis diagnosis. He intended to stick around for as long as possible.

Arthur hadn’t spoken to his family since he’d run off to become a pirate. He’d been living here, on Xexei, shortly before he had done so, and hadn’t had too much contact with them regardless, but he had cut himself off completely. The last person he had seen was Colin, who had merely scrunched his nose up when he’d caught sight of his new identification papers.

“Kirkland?” his older brother had asked sharply. “So, is our surname not good enough for you now?”

It was, and it always had been, but, as Colin had failed to realise then and had hopefully come to terms with now, whenever a new criminal appeared in the system, the first people that got targeted by the authorities were their families. He had only wanted to spare them the hassle. Besides, they had found cutting him off completely easy enough. He had told only Colin and his wife – Arthur’s sister in law – Niamh, about his diagnosis, and they had promised not to rush off and tell the rest of his family before he could break the news to them. He wouldn’t be surprised if they had given in and told them by now. It had been two years, which was a long time to keep a secret like that.

Arthur tilted his head and surveyed the area around him. It was bustling with people today, for reasons that his useless guide had stammered out to him half an hour ago. Today was the general auction, he said. Slavers from all around the Galaxy would come to show off their wares and try to sell them for as high a price as possible. Countless wooden stages, with marked out areas for bidders to stand, were gathered around. Most had boards standing adjacent to the entrance stating what slavers would be coming by. He ran his gaze absently down the lists. There were some big names there, for sure. His lip curled a little when he noted the name ‘Hamide Boushab’ on one of them. She was notorious, and not in a good way, for how she treated her slaves.

He frowned as he looked around. Some auctions were taking place already, and he winced when he saw the small, huddled figures of the slaves standing up on the wooden platforms. Most looked miserable, resigned or scared. There were the rare few – the brainwashed ones – who looked almost proud to be standing, waiting to be bought. He shook his head. This was a disturbed industry indeed.

He walked further, eventually turning around and glaring his guide down until the man scurried off to help someone else. The guy had been far too annoying, far too anxious, for Arthur’s tastes, and he was sick of him.

He stretched languidly, frowning at the high prices being shouted out by bidders around him. It seemed bizarre, borderline dystopian, that a monetary value was so readily placed on human lives, but he supposed, that could be his foreign upbringing talking. Regardless of his different culture, though, he found the process disparaged, and definitely lacking in humanity.

He moved further. Arthur had come here to seek out a certain old contact of his, not necessarily to ogle the wares or scoff at the creatures that would buy another person. He needed to stay focussed.

A somewhat familiar face caught his eye, and his footsteps slowed as he scowled.

Lord Manquin was an immensely tall man, with rich Metteoan skin and elaborately decorated hair and clothes. Arthur didn’t know him personally, but he knew enough about the man that his stomach turned when he saw him. The Lord was known for his inter-planetary dealings, mostly with Reycausian merchants, his trade of silk and satin and, above all, his love of snuff. The man was rich enough to buy slaves as he pleased, and also, living within the Union, well within his rights to then kill those slaves as he pleased.

The one redeeming aspect of the situation (if there was one) was that he was extremely picky – he was so particular about what slaves to buy, rape and murder that it sometimes took him years to hunt down a single one worthy of his interest. It disgusted Arthur to no end, but at the very least, there weren’t hordes of slaves being murdered for Lord Manquin’s pleasure every year.

Right now, though, and unfortunately for whoever was on the receiving end, Lord Manquin looked…interested. His eyes were wide and alight with intrigue. Arthur pressed a hand to his mouth. There was obviously some slave who had caught the lord’s eye, and knowing what he did of the man’s gargantuan wealth and bidding prowess, they would soon belong to him. He went to move past, overhearing what the lord said as he did so.

“…Just…perfect. So pretty and slight, but not too skinny. And young…I like them young…yes, number fifteen.” Arthur didn’t know why his head turned to examine the auction being attended by Manquin, but it did, and he stopped dead in his tracks.

The slave who had come under the lord’s scrutiny was…a kid. The number ‘fifteen’ was printed onto a card slung around his neck, and in all honesty, he looked around about that age. He was, as Lord Manquin had disturbingly put, slender and slight. And very young. He was Yanish, Arthur could see that easily from this distance, but it wasn’t that that struck Arthur as different about him. Granted, it was strange to see Yanish slaves, but besides that. Where the other slaves were standing with bowed heads and shaking shoulders, the teenager stood tall, head tilted up and eyes scanning the crowd with an almost accusatory gaze. He didn’t look happy to be sold, or resigned. He looked angry. A fire burned low in his eyes. Arthur watched him for a moment.

“And now, bidding for number fifteen.” The auctioneer announced. Arthur saw Lord Manquin’s mouth twist into a grin.

He didn’t know why he marched over to the entrance, or tossed the entrance fee at the operator, or grabbed a paddle, but the predatory look in Manquin’s gaze made his stomach turn. The kid stepped forwards, expression stony.

“As you can see, this specimen is on the young side!” the auctioneer winked. Disgusting. “Fifteen years of age, by our estimations. Yanish, so a rare treat for those of you who like Kyrs people! Slender frame and good bone structure. Pretty good health history, and he has been trained!” That made Arthur’s stomach turn even more. After all, there was only one way to train a sex slave.

“We’ll start bids at 80,000 marks!” the man exclaimed. About thirty paddles shot into the air. The auctioneer grinned, and behind him, the man who must be the slaver, also smiled darkly.

“How about 100,000? 100,000 marks for number fifteen?” Arthur watched as the paddles diminished slowly. Yet every time, without fail, Lord Manquin lifted his high and outbid the others. Arthur felt sick, watching the price climb and the number of bidders drop. The fire burning in the teenager’s eyes was faltering. He obviously recognised Lord Manquin. And, try as he might not to show it, he was obviously scared.

“How about one million? One million marks? Anyone?” Manquin stuck his paddle up eagerly, smiling darkly when no-one else moved to challenge him.

“I see bidder 73 going for one million marks. Anyone else? Going once? Going twi-”

Arthur made his decision in a split second and stuck his paddle in the air. The auctioneer turned his eyes on him. “Oh! Bidder 104! What claim will you make?”

“1.1 million.” He said, making eye contact with Manquin as he said it.

“1.2 million.” Manquin shot back, looking a little frazzled. Arthur stared him down. He looked between Manquin, and the boy, whose eyes were on him now, almost frantic. To him, Arthur was just another slave-owner, but he wasn’t immediately recognisable as a slave-owner who killed their slaves for fun. In that boy’s eyes, he was somehow a beacon of hope. A memory nudged at him, of someone else who once had looked at him like he was their saviour, like he had rescued them from desolation and given them hope.

Go away, Francis. He thought, before sticking his paddle up again.

“1.4.” Arthur choked out. He would need to get a loan from Barkhado, at this rate. He did have the money to pay, but it would almost completely clean him out.  Lord Manquin was staring at him, but the lord clenched his fists and lowered his paddle.

“Number fifteen, for 1.4 million marks? Going once? Going twice?” the auctioneer paused, glancing at Lord Manquin again before slamming the gavel down. “Sold! To bidder 104 for 1.4 million marks!” the slaver was grinning unapologetically. The boy on stage looked a little relieved, but some of his earlier standoffishness had come back. The slaver marched over to him and dragged the teen off the stage. Arthur watched as Lord Manquin gave him a dirty look and marched out of the auction, looking deeply disgruntled.

Arthur moved closer to the side of the room as the auction continued. He had no idea what had come over him, but he was now the owner of a slave, it seemed. It sat heavy and foul in his stomach. Helping transport slaves had been bad enough. Now he owned one? He sighed, watching as the procession continued. His attention was piqued again, however, when a small girl was pulled across the stage.

“Number forty-six! Twelve years old, female, and the third of our Yanish wares! Pretty, agile, and, for those interested, also a virgin!” the girl flinched at that statement, biting her lip. She looked like she was trying not to cry. He examined her. She looked badly underfed. Her hair was immensely long, hanging past her waist. She was little more than a child. Arthur examined the leaflet he had plucked from the entrance, which had brief descriptions of all the slaves being sold. He skimmed the whole list. She was the youngest one being sold. The second youngest was the one that Arthur now officially owned.

He still remembered what life had been like when he was twelve. He had developed a fascination with frogs and his older brothers had entertained his interest by going with him down to the river to look for them and catch tadpoles. His mother had mussed his hair up every day before he ran off to school, and lectured him about wearing warm clothes when winter came around. It was almost winter here, too. That girl didn’t look very warm.

His arm moved of it’s own accord, and his mouth made words come out, too, he was pretty sure of that as well. By the time the auctioneer called that the auction had come to a close, Arthur was the owner of two slaves, one worth 1.4 million marks, and the other 900,000. He felt oddly numb. He checked over his bank balance as he moved to the stage, where they had stated he could officially buy his wares. He had enough, just, for both of them. He might have to sacrifice a fortnight of malthecs or quickly do another heist, but he could afford them both.

Arthur paid silently. The boy and girl were standing so close together that they might as well as been one person. Judging by the way they were clinging to each other, they knew one another. He bit his lip as he was handed all of the documentation and paperwork that the slaver had on them, and tried his hardest not to flinch away when the slaver clapped him on the back, and thanked him for his business.

Arthur glanced at the two slaves. He had been handed a chain that they were both attached to. They looked uncertain, and a little scared, but they followed him anyway. They didn’t really have a choice.

His mind raced as he struggled to think of somewhere that he could take them. Somewhere with food and warm beds. He had been living out of his ship for the last few months, alone except for the occasions where Roderich chose to come along with him. He didn’t have the supplies to keep these kids happy and healthy. He cursed internally. What had he been thinking? Buying two slaves for a combined value of over 2 million marks, just because he felt sorry for them. He thought that he had quashed the lingering softness inside him, but evidently not.

He turned to glance at them again. The girl was shuddering with cold. He paused, pulling his heavy black coat off and draping it over her shoulders. She jerked away in surprise, looking at him in bewilderment. Arthur frowned, but kept walking. They followed, after a brief pause.

He ended up outside a three-star travel lodge that looked decent enough to house two people for the night. He asked for a room quietly. The woman didn’t so much as blink at the two slaves. Living on Xexei, which was well known as the Kyrs System’s slave capital, had probably desensitised her. The room they had been given was small, but clean and warm. He ushered the two slaves inside and cranked up the heater. They were both shaking slighty, and he pretended to not realise that it wasn’t from cold.

“My name is Arthur.” He said quietly, after a moment of complete silence. “…Do you two have names, at all?” they both stared at him, like they couldn’t comprehend what he was saying. The boy, slowly, shook his head. Arthur tried to ignore the sharp twisting in his stomach as pity surged through him. “…right. Okay then. Well,” he gave them both a quick once-over. “I’m going out to buy a few things. Just…stay here.” Scooping the key up off the side-table he had dumped it on, he stepped out the door and closed it firmly behind him.

Two hours in Xexei’s shopping district left him with bags of clothes in what he roughly approximated to be the boy and girl’s sizes, in addition to some food. He himself hadn’t eaten in about three days, so he snacked on the way back. Maybe that was why he had recklessly gone and bought them. He was probably delirious from hunger. Arthur thought about the situation more clearly as he walked back to the hotel. He didn’t intend on having slaves, for any reason. His only objective in buying them had been to save the boy from being killed by Manquin, and to save the girl from the pedophiles who had undoubtedly been among those bidding for her, so he supposed that the only other mode of action was to set them free. There was no law against it; since he now owned them, he could do what he wanted, and that included giving them citizen status.

Arthur browsed absently through sites about freeing slaves as he did so. There was a government office that dealt with manumission, and according to the information about the offices, it was open all week. He would give them tomorrow to sleep and eat, and rest up a little, and then take them both to get new identities.

He only hoped that they would cooperate with him.

Arthur didn’t think that clothing had ever been met with so much open surprise and wariness before. Though the girl immediately moved to investigate the things that Arthur pulled from the bags, the boy hung back, looking conflicted. The girl scooped up a white shirt with long sleeves, pressing it to her face before looking up at Arthur.

“Is…this…” she trailed off, watching him warily and only continuing when he motioned for her to do so. “For…me?” he nodded, kneeling down to pull the clothes out of their bags.

“Yes.” He said. “I tried to get things in your size, but…” he frowned. “They might be a little big.” She nodded, picking up a pair of black pants and simple slippers. She gave him another look, as if asking if those choices were okay. He nodded, heart breaking a little more as she beamed in joy. The boy slunk forwards slowly, picking up a few pieces of clothing and looking over them, almost seeming puzzled. Arthur frowned a little.

“They’re……long.” The boy remarked, turning the clothes over. Arthur’s frown deepened.

“Of course they are. It’s winter.” The boy looked at him, still confused.

“You don’t want to display us?” he asked sharply. Arthur blanched.

“No.” he said firmly. “I want you two to be clean and warm.” He nodded in the direction of the bathroom. “If you want, you can both have a shower and get dressed.” The girl smiled again, but the boy was frowning.

“’If we want’?” he asked. “Why are you asking us? You tell us what to do.” Arthur blinked.

“Because I’m not going to force you to do something you don’t want to do. So yes, if you want, you can go and shower and get dressed.” The boy stared at him, hugging the bundle of clothes that he had chosen into his chest and nodding a little. The girl ducked into the bathroom.

Arthur pulled up his cell and also extracted the pile of documents that the slaver had handed him on the two. It should be fairly easy to make identification documents for them. He also opened up a site on names. It had millions upon millions of entries, but he could at least give the pair an idea. The two teens both showered and emerged looking much cleaner, wearing the new clothes Arthur had gotten them. He was right – the clothes on the girl were too big, but the boy’s fit alright.

He nodded at them both as they moved to sit on the one bed in the room. He saw them exchange a look in his peripheral vision, but neither said anything. He paused and set his cell down, biting his lip as he looked over them both.

“Is there anything that the two of you want?” the boy stiffened.

“In what context?” he asked defensively. Arthur blinked.

“In…any context? I mean, are you hungry? Cold? Do you want me to buy anything else for you?” the boy, once again, looked completely perplexed by Arthur’s words, but fell silent. The girl looked like she wanted to say something, but stayed silent. “Girl, what is it? I can tell that you want to say something.” She bit her lip.

“It’s nothing.” She said. Her voice was so quiet that Arthur had to strain to hear it. He sighed. These two were a piece of work.

“I promise, whatever it is, I won’t get offended. Just tell me.” The girl hesitated again, fiddling with her long hair.

“I…I would like to cut my hair.” She said, voice small. “I don’t like having it long like this. Master Kimo made me grow it out.” Arthur watched her a moment, then shrugged and stood.

“Alright then.” He approached her and gathered her (ridiculously) long hair in one hand, then extracted a knife from his belt with the other. He measured it so about the bottom of her jaw, and sliced it off. The girl jerked in surprise as he absently shook out the bottom of it in an attempt to root out loose strands of hair. “There.” He said as he stood, tossing the hair in the rubbish before turning to face her and evaluate his work. “I agree. That’s much better. I can take you to get it cut properly tomorrow, if you want, but that’ll do for now.” The girl brushed her fingers along the somewhat uneven ends of her hair, expression wide with shock.

Arthur sighed, returning to his chair before crossing his legs. He scooped up his cell, found the site with names that he had been looking through, and handed it to the boy. “I’ll be honest with you. I never intended to buy any slaves. Frankly, the whole industry is disturbing. I felt sorry for you both, and I had the money to stop you from getting sold to a snuffer and a pedophile, respectively. I don’t want slaves, so I’ll take you to the manumission office tomorrow and get you new identities.” The boy had frozen as Arthur indicated the cell. “You can find a name that you like on there. I don’t really care.” They were both gawking at him by the time he was done.

“You…” the boy trailed off. “You’re setting us…free?” Arthur nodded.

“Well, I have no use for either of you, so why not?” the pair still stared at him, the girl raising her hands to her face in shock. He shrugged, uncomfortable with the scrutiny. “It’s not a big deal.” The boy made a spluttering noise.

“I know how much money you paid for me. That kind of money doesn’t fall from trees. You’re saying that you paid that much just to let us go?” Arthur tilted his head to the side.

“I’m a pirate, I can steal that amount back in a month or two. If you would prefer that I sell you back to the slavers, I will.” The boy fell silent. Arthur turned away, as the two quietly turned to the cell. There was silence for a few moments, before the girl spoke up.

“Umm, sir……” he looked over at her. She flushed and looked away. “We…we aren’t very good readers, is all.” Arthur blinked, cursing himself mentally as he moved over to them and took the cell.

“Would you like me to read them out?” he asked. They both nodded slowly.

He sat there for a few hours with them, reading out names and writing down the ones that they seemed to like a lot. He ordered some food to be sent up to the room and watched silently as they ate hungrily. They seemed a little more relaxed now, if only marginally. Arthur surveyed the room as they finished up their food. The bed could hold two easily, but he didn’t want to share a bed with them. It crossed a line he never wanted to cross with these two. Resigning himself to a less than comfortable night, he spread some spare blankets out on the floor and lay down. They both paused, staring at him for a moment before slowly moving to keep eating.

He booked in an appointment at the manumission office as the two cleaned up after themselves and – still hesitating as if they would be in trouble – climbed under the covers of the bed.

“Have you two decided on any names?” Arthur dared to ask. There was silence before the girl stuck her head over the edge of the bed.

“Umm.” She blushed. “I liked the third name you wrote down. Mei?” he nodded. It suited her. He looked at the boy.

“I like it. What about you?” the boy was silent for a long moment.

“……Leon.” He answered finally. “I like Leon.” Arthur nodded.

“Alright then. We’ll get going early, so try to get some sleep.” He turned over, on his side, and let his exhaustion carry him into a deep sleep. He was too heavy a sleeper to hear the two discussing the day, and far too unconscious to ever feel the gentle touch of the girl – now Mei – and the boy – now Leon – on his shoulder as they murmured endless thanks.

The whole room was silent, trying to comprehend everything that the pirate had just told them. Leon and Mei’s expressions were neutral, but everyone could see the warmth in their eyes as they looked at their captain.

Arthur sighed, and looked at Francis again.

“Listen, Francis. I don’t care if you have a grudge against me. I really don’t. You can take as much animosity out on me as you want. But don’t you dare go after them. Your anger is directed at me, so don’t go ahead and start making collateral. Mei has nothing to do with this, neither does Leon, and Alfred most certainly doesn’t either. So, keep your gripes either to yourself or bring them to me.”

And with that, Arthur stood and turned on his heel, marching out of the cell block with his faithful underlings right behind him.

Chapter Text

Blå Ren Insurgent Training Camp,
Feynir Region, Fynkn,
1st Juillat

Matthias ducked under Ansel’s clumsy swing, sighing a little as he easily lashed upwards with his foot and knocked the smaller man on his back. Ansel wheezed out a breath.

“Ugh, why did I have to be paired with you?” he groaned as Matthias murmured an apology and helped him to his feet. Ansel brushed himself off, wincing a little as he rubbed over what were obviously sensitive spots. The shorter man sighed, putting his hands on his hips and squinting around at the other pairs of fighting recruits. Matthias knew that they should probably keep going; Kolden wanted them to train as intensively as possible, since their time was going to be cut short, but he also took the opportunity to look around at how everyone else was going.

Riya Kristoff’s assertion that most people here would be terrible fighters had been correct. Matthias had grown up in a safe area, but moving to a crime cess-pool like Reycass had made combat skills a bare necessity for survival, and it shocked him that, even in an occupied, active warzone like Fynkn, there were people who still didn’t know how to throw a proper punch. He supposed that such skills weren’t really necessary if you kept your head down and didn’t tangle with either the Union or the rebels, but it was still somewhat jarring.

But where the general populace of Block D seemed to fall short in terms of combat ability, there were a few that stood out.

Matthias himself seemed to be one of the best fighters in the block, leading more of his friends in Block A to lament that he wasn’t training with them instead, but he was pleasantly surprised to see that he wasn’t the only one who knew how to fight. Ansel himself was alright, but he lacked the general bodily strength to overpower Matthias, and given that Matthias was a good half-foot taller than him, that made sense.

Riya Kristoff, who had become one of his frequent dinner-buddies sheerly through their shared proximity to Bondevik, was an incredible fighter. She showed raw strength and skill, and he had watched her slam three people to the ground from a distance just this morning. The only thing holding her back was her tendency to never shed the long, olive green coat they all wore. Everyone else took the first opportunity to toss it off to give them more movement and help them cool down. The temperatures today were milder than they’d been all week; only -3°C as opposed to the usual -10 or even -15°C, so Matthias wasn’t as afraid of frostbite as he was usually. Almost everyone had shed the drab coats, but Kristoff was stubbornly keeping hers on. He could sweat beading on her brow, even at the large distance he was at, and winced in sympathy.

There were two others in Block D that weren’t bad fighters too; Calla Modark and Hanne Shumser. They were both vicious and seemed, like him, a lot more suited for Block A than D. When he had asked Calla why they were in Block D, they had simply shrugged and responded.

“I’d rather not be surrounded by the loud brawlers that make up Block A.” He had gotten a bit of a stink-eye from them at that point. “I know you get along well with them, but you aren’t like most of the people there. You value things other than punching and kicking.” Matthias had not been prepared to get a sudden, deep observation from a random Fynknian rebel, but Calla hadn’t acted like it was anything out of the normal for them to do. Matthias had gotten a gentle pat on the shoulder, and the rebel had wandered off to find Hanne. As far he knew, they were fairly good friends.

Hanne was a remarkably strong woman who rivalled him in height and sheer dumb luck. They got along very well, and it delighted Matthias to no end to watch her toss grown men around like ragdolls. She was widely considered one of the best assets of Block D, and from what Matthias had heard, he was too. It wasn’t hard to distinguish who actually knew what they were doing from those who were only learning. Close to 80% of Block D fell into the latter category, and it was a little disappointing to see.

But if the majority of Fynkn’s future soldiers were lacking in basic strength and skills, their prince more than made up for their deficits.

Matthias didn’t know what he expected from Lukas Bondevik, really. They had been here for almost two weeks, and the guy managed to surprise him constantly. The kid was a little shorter than average – 5’8’’ to what seemed to be an average 5’10’’ here – and lined with muscle despite still technically being underweight. He was wickedly intelligent and a little intimidating and somewhat offputting most of the time. He was more capable than he looked, and despite having the charisma of a rock, seemed to be charming enough to attract the most reticent person in the Block into being his friend. He was witty and sarcastic and endlessly fun to annoy, but the one thing he had never really struck Matthias as was a physical force to be reckoned with.

He was fast, and agile, and definitely stronger than most people here. But Matthias had never really viewed him as being toss-people-twice-his-height-and-weight-over-his-shoulder-without-breaking-a-sweat strong. The guy seemed to have enough integrity to not use his abilities to help him, too, so it was his raw strength shining through when he fought people.

For the brackets, they had been allocated an hour to fight four people each, with everyone split up into groups of five to cycle through, with one person sitting out as two other pairs fought. The group that Bondevik was in were all finished, and sitting quietly on the sidelines, with everyone but the prince himself nursing bruises or sprains. The entire field of fighters had paused in their tracks to watch in silent shock and awe as the feisty teen had taken down Elin Markus, better known as ‘Block D’s giant’ – primarily for the fact that he was 6’8’’ and weighed about double what Bondevik did.

It had been unsettling, sure, to watch someone so small and seemingly unassuming take down someone so much larger than them with what almost looked like minimal effort, but it had also been impressive as hell. Elin Markus might not have been an excellent fighter, but his sheer size normally put people off well enough. A part of Matthias was dying to fight Bondevik now, not for any desire to do the kid harm, but definitely to see if he could come close to overtaking the Fynknian.

The takedown had had other effects, too, though. Some of the looks aimed at the prince now held wariness, and in some cases, budding hostility. There were a lot of people who wanted to make something of themselves, and anyone better than them posed a threat. Even though he had definitely caught the attention of Sergeant Kolden like he wanted, it looked like Bondevik was also making enemies for himself. Matthias shook his head a little. As the person tasked with guarding the kid, any enemies he made automatically would mean trouble for Matthias as well. It certainly didn’t bode well that people within the rebels themselves seemed to be starting to dislike him.

Matthias grumbled to himself as he lined himself back up against Ansel and prepared to strike again. The smaller man groaned but did the same. Focussing on the prince would hardly help him right now. He countered as Ansel attempted to lunge once more, easily fending the smaller man off.

Thankfully for Ansel’s already bruised body (and Matthias’ waning patience), Kolden called them all over after a few more minutes, sighing as he ran a hand across his scruffy, unshaved chin. Matthias couldn’t help but feel the smallest pang of sympathy for the guy. He was trying to shove five weeks’ worth of training down their throats in three, and most of the recruits had been untalented already, even without the burden of a smaller time to train. He couldn’t imagine that the Sergeant was having an easy time. He glanced around as they all assembled into messy but serviceable lines. Bondevik had his head tilted slightly, lending an ear to Riya Kristoff, who seemed to be talking to him. He raised an eyebrow. Those two had certainly started to get along well. They did have similar personalities, he supposed, so it only made sense.

“Alright, listen carefully, because I’m about to break down what’s gonna happen in the next two and a half weeks. Now, while you guys have been training, we’ve been analysing and judging you based on your skills and general capability in a field setting. Very recently, several guerrilla squads were hit hard; they lost a few members. If you’re aiming to be put in one of those, then you’re gonna be competing with all of Block A for the honour, so don’t get your hopes up.” He cleared his throat, and Matthias could have sworn that the sergeant eyed Bondevik and Kristoff for a moment before continuing.

“Now, our observations of you are important. We’re gonna be ranking you guys in terms of your raw ability and how useful you’ll be in given situations. All sorts of things, from teamwork skills to individual combat capabilities, are going to be assessed. We’ll have some officials coming in from other bases to help out with that, so don’t worry about not getting watched closely enough. In a week’s time, you will be sorted according to whatever rankings we assign you and paired up with people who have roughly the same level of skill as you. As part of your combat training, you’ll fight each person, and your ranking will be adjusted accordingly after each fight. At the end of your newly shortened training period, your final rankings will be used to determine where you’ll go.” He stared at them all, expression severe. “This is important, so put your all in, Block D. Don’t disappoint me. Dismissed.”

Matthias sighed, rubbing at the back of his neck before wearily trooping away, back towards the barracks. He didn’t have much to do other than sit around on his bed, really. It was kinda sad that his life had already become so routine. Glancing around, he raised an eyebrow when he saw Bondevik and Kristoff parting, with the prince he was tasked with caring for looking a little despondent. Frowning, he wandered over to him.

“What’s up with you?” he asked once he was within the Fynknian’s earshot. Bondevik looked up, expression hardly easing when he saw Matthias.

“Nothing.” He muttered, picking at some balls of lint clinging to the edges of his wool gloves. Matthias hesitated. He really should just walk back to the barracks and let Bondevik brood as he pleased, but part of him also knew that, if he let the kid stew, his mood would only get worse.

“Oh, come on. You wouldn’t look so sour if nothing was wrong. I mean, you normally look displeased with everyone and everything around you, but usually not to this extent.” Bondevik looked up, scowling.

“Can’t you just piss off?” Matthias stuck his hands in his pockets, shaking his head with a carefree grin on his face.

“Nope. Matthias the Therapist only appears once in a blue moon. Take advantage of him while you can.” Bondevik raised an eyebrow, but sighed after a very long moment.

“Everyone is going to be trying their hardest to get into those guerrilla squads, especially those morons in Block A. They spend all of their time doing combat training, unlike us, so it’s unlikely that, up against some of them, I’d be able to win and be put in a squad like I want.” Matthias hummed.

“I mean, I get where your concerns are coming from, man, really, I do. But…honestly? Even if you aren’t doing combat training constantly, you’re probably a great deal better at fighting than most of them are, anyway. I mean, I haven’t seen anyone from Block A shoulder-flip Elin Markus in one move, so.” Matthias surprised himself with his words. He hadn’t meant to compliment the prince so much, but had just been speaking honestly. Even Bondevik looked a little taken off-guard. Matthias threw a grin back onto his face. “What? Surprised that I can actually be nice?”

Bondevik narrowed his eyes slightly, but the rest of his expression indicated good humour. “No, just surprised that you didn’t somehow turn it into a compliment for yourself. But thank you, anyway.” Matthias grinned and rested his hand on the shorter man’s shoulder.

“For real, don’t worry about it. You’ll do fine.” Bondevik nodded again, and Matthias removed his hand after a moment.

“I hope so. Thanks, Matthias.” He nodded and grinned.

“Eh, you’re welcome. Anyway, I’m gonna go and nap.” Bondevik’s mouth quirked sideways just slightly, in what might have been a shadow of a grin. Matthias blinked in surprise. He had never seen the prince appear anything but stoic and mildly unimpressed. The change suited him.

“That sounds like a solid plan.” Bondevik said, folding his arms and scuffing his boot-tip in the snow. “I might jump on that bandwagon a little later, in all honesty.” Matthias nodded, grinning, and raised a hand in farewell as he wandered back towards the barracks.

It took him a solid five minutes to realise that Bondevik had actually referred to him by his first name during that exchange, and that realisation stopped him right in his tracks, blinking in utter surprise, as his brain struggled to process him being called anything other than ‘Køhler’ or ‘moron’. Shooting a look over his shoulder to see if Bondevik was still standing in the courtyard yielded nothing, though. The prince was long gone.

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
1st Juillat

“I still can’t believe that we share a birthday.” Matthew commented as he bit into another sugar-dusted cake. Leon smiled as he reached for another one himself, shrugging.

“I mean, technically speaking, I don’t remember when my actual birthday was, so I just chose this date randomly.” Matthew shrugged, looking unbothered.

“Eh, doesn’t matter, we’re birthday buddies for life now. You can never escape.” Leon rolled his eyes good-naturedly.

Truth be told, he liked Matthew quite a lot. The guy had seemed completely unbothered when he had found out that Leon and Mei used to be slaves, and hadn’t treated them any differently than he had before he knew. He also got along quite well with their captain, which was a trait he always appreciated in someone. The guy was intelligent, and capable, and, had he not had as strong a moral compass as he did, Leon thought he would have made a fine pirate.

Mei huffed. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a birthday buddy, in all honesty.” Matthew looked over at her curiously.

“Oh? When’s your birthday?” she shrugged.

“I chose the 25th of Octava.” She said simply. Matthew frowned, obviously thinking.

“Hmm. I mean, I think Ines Jakolin’s birthday might be then, too? I’m not sure, though. Either then or Jaune.” Mei raised an eyebrow.

“That’s not helpful.”

“Shut up, I’m trying.”

Leon grinned, shoving another small cake in his mouth to stifle a laugh. They had gotten into the kitchen’s stores – with permission and help from Tino, who was on duty that day – and taken a whole stash of the small sweets. It had originally been just him, Mei and Matthew, who had been disproportionately excited when Mei had let slip that it was his birthday, but they had quickly found themselves joined in the endeavour by Arthur, Alfred, Gilbert and Elizabeta. They, along with Tino, were currently all holed up in a disused storage container, seated on blankets with only light from rustic old lanterns to guide their movements. It was oddly comforting, and rather pleasant.

A low, metallic thud rang out as someone knocked on the outside of the shed. Elizabeta, who was seated closest to the door, jumped a little, and immediately punched Gilbert when he snickered at her for being startled. She clambered to her feet and cautiously opened the door, exclaiming in delight before opening the door wider, revealing two women standing there, both grinning.

There was a chorus of greetings and smiles as the two – Tori, who Leon still remembered from when she’d been part of the bounty hunters’ crew and a shorter, younger Fynknian girl – navigated their way around the lanterns and shuffled around looking for seats. The Fynknian girl tiptoed over to Matthew and hugged him, shoving a package into his face.

“I had no idea what to get you so please don’t judge me.” Matthew laughed.

“I wouldn’t dream of it. Thank you, Emilia.” The girl smiled, before glancing around the group and huffing.

“Really? None of you can manage to make room?” she shook her head, looking irritated. Leon, noting the space next to him, shuffled over a little and patted the ground.

“There’s some space here.” He said. She looked up, smiling slightly before moving to sit down next to him.

“Thanks.” She said, shooting an accusatory look around at the others seated in the circle. “At least someone here is friendly.” Leon bit back more laughter as the others rolled their eyes and began to contest her statement. The Fynknian rolled her eyes right back at them and turned to him. “Now, I don’t think that we’ve actually met before.” Leon blinked, but then smiled wryly and nodded.

“Oh, that’s true. I’m Leon Zhang.” She nodded, smiling, extending a hand for him to shake.

“Emilia Bondevik.” Leon nodded.

“Ahh. I’ve met your brother Lukas. I went on the Xi Lan Ey mission with him.” Emilia nodded, grinning.

“Oh, you poor thing.” Leon laughed, sudden and surprised.

“Ahh, it wasn’t that bad.” He said. “He’s a hell of a fighter, I’ll tell you that.” An image of a purpled, frozen face, eyes blown wide in surprise in pain and an extended hand, grasping a gun coated in frost, flashed through his mind. Emilia nodded.

“Well, I can’t say that I’m up to the same standard, though I’m trying to be.” She shrugged. “That’s why I’m stuck here, I suppose.” Leon nodded, absently noting her slight figure.

“Well, if it helps at all, you look far more suited to knives than big guns or other weapons. If you want to improve, you should focus on that.” Emilia hummed, glancing at him with her brow furrowed in curiosity.

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Kirkos District,
Bibesti, Rela,
2nd Juillat

Feliciano made a face as he stepped around yet another body, already deep in the clutches of decomposition. He made sure to breathe solely through his mouth, not trusting himself to smell the rot and not be sick. He glanced to the right, where Inkar was walking beside him, looking around with a mildly sorrowful expression. He knew that these were her people; citizens that she had sworn an oath to protect and guard, but he found himself not feeling as sorry for her as he probably should. She could have been protecting these people instead of hunting him and Lovino down, but she had made her choice.

He cast his eyes upwards, where until a few days ago a large ship had hung in the sky, casting a shadow over the sections that it had been pillaging. He sighed. The Reign had ended about four days ago, but the city had only just started to clean up the aftermath. Hospitals had been overwhelmed with victims of rape and violence in the last week, so the main goal for many people had been lending aid and support. While mourning for individual victims was being conducted in the richer districts of the city, in places like Szwicza and Kirkos, mass graves were being prepped for the unknown and unloved bodies littered in the streets and holed up in thoroughly looted apartments. Feliciano made a face. He could certainly see how resentment of the rich and powerful came about so easily.

He cast a sideways look at Inkar again.

“Is there any possible way of us finding out where the pirates are headed?” he asked. She glanced over at him. She had already shared as much as she knew about the pirate groups attacking the city with him. According to her, they had two major possibilities in terms of who had actually kidnapped Lovino; Cahya Maharani or Barkhado Dirie. They both boasted impressive forces of underlings and a great deal of infamy – Feliciano had heard of both of them and wasn’t very happy about that fact.

Cahya Maharani was a Lysi pirate with a chip on her shoulder to rival the Union’s. Her crew was composed of some of the most foul, reckless and downright criminal people that the systems had ever seen. Maharani herself was apparently a reasonable person, if a little unsettling. She had laid waste to the Hemmi, Valgard and Szwicza districts during the Reign, so it was entirely possible that she or a member of her crew was responsible for taking Lovino. Of course, they couldn’t really say for certain. Maharani’s crew all wore distinctive gold lapel pins to identify them. Neither Feliciano nor Inkar had gotten a good enough look at the pirates that night to see if they had them on.

Their other option was Barkhado Dirie. She was from the Far Reaches, and had connections with numerous other big-name pirates. Kirkland, Santos, Kelly…the list was endless. She was also known for her penchant to pluck people from the streets and not return them. Dirie’s connections to the slaving industry, as a result, were also very well known. Her crew was just as formidable as Maharani’s, in all honesty. It turned his stomach to think of Lovino being in the grasps of either of them.

“Where we go next depends on which one we pin our bets on.” Inkar responded, frowning thoughtfully. “Let’s face it, we have no way of knowing which one actually took your brother, so we have to consider which one to persue. It’s a 50-50 chance.” Feliciano drew in a deep breath. Even with such even chances, he didn’t want to risk persuing the wrong person.

“Is there no way that we can find both of them?” he pleaded. Inkar looked over at him, pausing and sighing.

“Well…I make no promises, but Dirie is so well-known and audacious that tracking her down is easy. Maharani is still in the city right now, of that I’m certain, but she’s slippery as all hell. If we give her the chance to get away, she will.” Feliciano nodded, considering it.

“Well, what would you recommend, then?”

Inkar hummed. “We can go after Maharani first. She’ll be lurking around the city somewhere. If we ask the right people the right questions, we should be able to find her easily enough. If she doesn’t have him, we go after Dirie. She’s more high-profile, and rarely shies from the spotlight. It would be a lot easier to find her.” He nodded.

“Alright then. We’ll look for Maharani first. Where do we start?”

She made eye contact with him. “The Citadel. We always monitor the streets during the Reign. If anyone can help us find her and her crew, it’s my brothers and sisters in arms.” He hesitated. He was wary enough about trusting Inkar, but going into the Citadel, the literal home of Bibesti’s Zephyrak, was an even less appealing prospect.

If things went south, he could always fight his way out, he supposed. Feliciano nodded slowly.

“Fine, we’ll go to your Citadel.” Inkar paused.

“I know you don’t trust me, Feliciano, and frankly you have no reason to, but I am trying to make amends here. I wouldn’t jeopardise that.” He stared at her, keeping his expression flat and empty, like his brother did when talking his way through an unpleasant situation.

“I know. If you don’t mind, we should get going. I want my brother back as soon as possible.”

Inkar frowned a little, mouth turning down at the corners, but nodded and indicated a narrow alley.

“I’ll lead the way.”

Blå Ren Insurgent Training Camp,
Feynir Region, Fynkn,
3rd Juillat

There was screaming and blood and he wanted to be sick because it was all so horrible and he didn’t know why this was happening but then someone was looking right at him it was one of them they had a knife no no no please no just go away please go away leave me alone-

Lukas jerked awake sharply, breath leaving him in a rush as his hands shook and he struggled to draw some much-needed oxygen into his lungs. He sat up in bed, careful to avoid striking his head on the ceiling above him, wrapping his arms around himself as he ran a trembling hand down his face.

Damn it.

He had thought, foolishly, that he had begun to grasp the nightmares, to move past them and hopefully start to avoid them altogether. The last two nights of peaceful sleep had been too good to be permanent, and he should have known it. He withdrew his hand from his neck only a moment after resting it there, wrinkling his nose at the feel of sweat slick on his skin. His eyes were burning slightly, and he rubbed at them angrily. Showing his emotions had never been a strong suit of his, and he doubted that a few bad dreams would encourage him to be more open. Really, he was just glad that he had managed to avoid screaming or crying out in his sleep so far. His dreams were flying under everyone else’s radars, for which he was grateful. He knew he was proud, and he didn’t trust anyone here enough to let them see how he was feeling.

Lukas drew his knees up to his chest, pressing his cool forehead against them as he breathed in and out deeply. He would have done almost anything to know why this was happening. It made no sense to him. It wasn’t as though he was stupid enough to think that he was somehow immune to trauma or lasting emotional pain, no, but the fact was that, even as he had struggled to work through the ordeal of the Expansion when he was younger, it had never amounted to nightmares like these.

He had been positively wrecked after the Expansion. He had been scared, only eight years old and not sure how to keep his little sister safe. He had been forced from his home and watched the city where he had been raised burn down as servants fled with him. He had been completely alone and without any help from someone older and all the while plagued by thoughts of his parents-

Lukas slammed his hands to his temples, forcing that thought violently from his head. No, no, no. He refused to visit the nightmares in daylight. He refused to let them control the hours he was awake, as well as those where he was asleep. He let out a shuddering breath, swallowing thickly as nausea twisted his stomach into a knot. A low aching spread through his gut as the feeling worsened, and he hurriedly clambered down from the top bunk, pressing a hand to his mouth as he forewent shoes and ducked outside.

His stomach heaved but his oesophagus refused to yield anything. Groaning quietly, he glanced around at the deck of the barracks, and the door before shaking his head dismally and sticking two fingers down his throat. He would feel sick and miserable all day otherwise, he had come to find. Harshly jabbing at his gag reflex sent bile surging up into his mouth, and he doubled over to vomit into the fresh snow. This wasn’t exactly how he had planned on starting his morning, but there was little he could do about it now. Spitting and wiping at his mouth, Lukas toed at the clean snow to hide the mess he had made and sighed, gazing around.

It was early – still far too early for their usual wake-up call. Squinting at the sky, he could see a hint of orange on the horizon, but other than that, it was a stretch of pale mauve and grey-blue shades. It couldn’t have possibly been later than 4am, by his estimation. Even with his stomach settling and the last tremors of fear and horror fading from his body, Lukas knew that he wasn’t going to be able to sleep. A low wind danced across the rough deck where he sat, reminding him that he had run out here with little more than a long-sleeved shirt, hoodie and a pair of three-quarter cotton pants to keep him warm. Despite that, he didn’t feel overtly cold. Glancing absently up at the thermometer posted next to the door, he startled. It was -7°C, which, though indicating that today would be a lot warmer than they’d experienced thusfar, seemed inconsistent with Lukas’ lack of discomfort.

The old adage which had been eluding his memory came back to him at that moment. It’s a blizzard to the king. A simple, short statement that essentially communicated the sentiment of ‘it’s no bother at all’. People tended to change the gender of the subject depending on who was ruling Fynkn at the time, so king and queen were easily interchanged. He hummed slightly, considering the words. Most adages had a good, or at least a long-lasting, message behind them. Perhaps that one did too.

He was about to stand and go back inside to distract himself until it was time to start training, when the door swung open. Blinking in surprise, he watched as a slender figure made their way out, breathing heavy and ragged. Lukas’s gaze immediately caught on the exposed skin of their shoulders and upper back. Scars, looking far too much like those that one would acquire from getting whipped, lashed agrily across the skin, raised and harrowing. He stilled, forcing his eyes away from the sight, completely unsure of how to proceed here. It was only when the figure inclined their head and stepped back a little, closer to Lukas, that he recognised Riya Kristoff. Her whole body was shuddering, breath stuttering dangerously. Her hands were in constant motion, clenching into fists and then relaxing in rapid succession.

Lukas felt embarrassment cloud him. He wasn’t sure how to communicate to her that he was here. She didn’t seem like she would take kindly to that. However, Riya didn’t even seem to be aware that he was there. She was still shaking. He realised, with a start, that she was having a panic attack.

Fuck preserving her pride, then. He thought before clambering to his feet and moving over to her. He kept a distance, unsure of whether he should touch her or not. A brief glimpse into her emotions exposed him to a raw tide of anxiety and concern and sheer dread. He hesitated, hanging back still, before he made his decision up. Gently, he used his powers to work his way around her wild emotions and, carefully started to make them shrink. He didn’t dare suppress them, or get rid of them entirely, but he eased the burden just enough for her to come back to her senses.

“Riya?” he asked gently. She spun around, the wide, defensive look in her eyes and her expression softening fractionally when she realised who was speaking to her. Her breathing shuddered again, and he slowly moved forwards a little, placing his hands on her shoulders to ground her. She reached up and curled her hands tightly around his wrists, but she didn’t try to remove them. “Just breathe.” He coaxed softly. He removed one of her hands from his wrist and moved it to his side, where she could feel the in-and-out motions of his ribs. “In time with me, okay?” she nodded, but still looked a little wild-eyed.

He was sure to breathe in slowly, hold it for a moment or two, and take his time exhaling. Riya slowly started to match his rhythm, until her breathing had reverted to a normal pace, and some colour was starting to come back to her face. He gently removed his hand from her shoulder, and she withdrew her hand from his side quickly, folding her arms around herself. A beat of silence passed.

“You…you aren’t going to ask?” Lukas sucked in a breath. He had heard Riya speak a lot more often in the last few days, but he had never heard her speak with such a raw, vulnerable tone. Her voice cracked in the middle of her sentence. He shook his head.

“It’s not my business.” He said. She stared at him for a moment, nodding slowly. He pulled off his hoodie and offered it to her when he saw the goosebumps on her arms. She hesitated a moment, eyes flickering to her arms. His eyes followed hers and he felt the weight in his stomach grow heavier when he saw more brutal scars, likely also whip-inflicted, on the skin before slowly extending a hand and accepting it.

“A-aren’t you c-cold?” she asked, stuttering slightly over the words. He hesitated a moment, then shrugged.

“I…I’m from Oslaholm, originally, and you know what the climate is like there. Cold doesn’t bother me so much.” She nodded, still reviewing him with a critical eye, as if she was trying to spot any sign of discomfort.

“I guess that makes sense.” Riya eyed him almost distrustfully. “I suppose it’s been a long time since you were home, right?” he nodded, but paused. Her eyes had an almost pleading look in them. She was lingering by the edge of the deck despite the fact that she was obviously freezing. Riya clearly didn’t want to go back inside yet. He held up a finger.

“Wait here a second.” He swung the door open and stepped inside again. Approaching his bunk, he almost jumped out his skin when Køhler shifted and cracked an eye open.

“Hmm?” the blond man made a noise. “Hvad er der med dig?” Lukas’s brain momentarily screeched to a halt as he tried to interpret the soft Rywanese. The small part of his brain that remembered his lessons in the language when he was a child hurled enough comprehension forwards that he realised his protector was essentially saying ‘what’s wrong with you?’ and rolled his eyes.

“Nothing. Go back to sleep, Matthias.” Lukas bit back a small noise of surprise at his own words. That made the second time in three days that he had accidentally referred to the bounty hunter by his first name. He had done it just two days ago, and upon realising his slip-up, had promptly booked it out of the area to avoid being teased by the older man. He had received a searching look from him at dinner, but Lukas had ultimately avoided an awkward conversation after that, for which he was glad. Luckily, the other man seemed too tired to realise what he had said, and simply snuggled down further into his blankets and started to snore softly.

Sighing in relief, Lukas retrieved his blanket from his bed and darted back outside to Riya. She blinked at him and the blanket in surprise. He moved over, near the door, and sat down, gesturing to the space next to him in a welcoming move. Riya raised an eyebrow, but moved to sit beside him regardless. He spread the blanket over the two of them, nodding to himself in satisfaction when he saw how much Riya relaxed once she was warm again.

 “Thank you.” She said after a few minutes of silence. He looked over at her in surprise.

“You’re welcome, though I don’t think I did much.” She shrugged.

“The only two other people who have witnessed me acting like that have asked relentless questions about it. You didn’t, so thank you.” Lukas stared at the sky, and the growing patch of orange in the distance.

“Well, like I said, it’s really none of my business.” She inclined her head and stared at him for a moment, dark red hair spilling across her shoulders, but nodded after a moment.

“Okay then. If you don’t mind me being a bit of a hypocrite, what were you doing out so early?”

He looked at her for a moment. “Same reason as you, I think. You missed me throwing up by a minute or two.” She winced in a way that conveyed empathy rather than sympathy, and he distantly wondered how severe her panic attacks got. “I wasn’t so much panicking as I was nauseous, though.” She nodded after a moment. He didn’t know why, but he felt oddly free to talk about what he was going through with her. She hardly had any reason to judge, and even if she did, Riya didn’t strike Lukas as the type. He swallowed. “It’s nightmares. They’re starting to drive me crazy, honestly, with all the sleep I’ve been losing.”

She was looking at him now, frowning gently. “That doesn’t sound good. Have you tried getting sleeping meds from Sergeant Kolden?” he shook his head.

“I don’t want to risk them making me sluggish in training. My metabolism has never been the most stable.” She hummed gently, voicing her agreement.

“If you want to share your personal horror story, I’d be open to sharing mine.” She murmured, ducking her head a little when he turned to look at her. “I usually don’t talk about it, but I wouldn’t mind telling you, I don’t think.”

Lukas hesitated for a moment, but then nodded.

“Alright then.” He said softly. Riya shuffled a little, and when he looked up next, she had angled her body towards him, obviously ready to listen. He could feel the words poised on his tongue, the trauma behind his recurring dreams. I found my parents’ bodies. They felt bitter and wrong to say. He looked at Riya. She seemed like an honest person. If she was going to be honest with him, it was only fair that he was honest with her too.

“I…I watched my parents die, during the Expansion.” He said. The truth tasted acrid, but a weight lifted from his shoulders. It had been a long time since he had admitted that to someone. Saying that he found their bodies was usually enough to get more pity and melancholic looks than he could handle. He could hardly imagine the horror that the whole truth would warrant. Riya’s brow creased, and her mouth turned downwards, but it wasn’t a look of sympathy. It was sad, undoubtedly so, but she wasn’t pitying him.

“I watched them die and for years I’ve thought that I had come to terms with it, but ever since coming back here, I’ve been having nightmares about it.” he shook his head. “I…I don’t know if I can deal with watching it over and over in my sleep. It’s getting impossible to deal with.” He felt warmth on his arm, before Riya had her hands wrapped around one of his. She waited a moment to speak.

“I know what it’s like, to watch people die, though admittedly usually not directly. I won’t pretend to know what your experience was like, but have you considered that the reason you’re thinking about it so much is because you’re now on Fynkn?”

He frowned in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“You’re lang av verden. You haven’t been on Fynkn for years and, if I’m guessing correctly, the last time you were was the Expansion. If that’s when your parents died, then those are some of the last memories you have of Fynkn. Your mind is probably trying to reconcile the differences between Fynkn now and Fynkn then, and those memories are the most recent ones your subconscious can draw on.” He blinked, looking at her with surprise. She smiled when she noted his expression. “My uncle studied mental and cognitive theory for years. He used to tell me all the interesting tidbits.” He nodded.

“Well, that makes sense, I suppose.” He said. Silence stretched between them and as he shifted his gaze to look over at her, his eyes caught on part of her shoulder that was exposed, a slew of raised scars visible on them. He didn’t dare reach out and touch her, but she noticed his attention anyway. She smiled ruefully.

“I suppose it’s my turn to share, right?” Lukas looked at her face, looked at the deep sadness lingering in her eyes.

“You don’t need to.” He said. She shook her head.

“I know. But I should.” She settled back against the wall. “I should warn you, though. It’s a long one, and it’s not a happy one either. Since you’re lang av verden, most of this will be new to you.” Lukas watched her carefully, but he couldn’t see or feel any emotion that indicated she felt obliged to speak. She legitimately wanted to. He rearranged himself into a more comfortable position, and then nodded. She drew in a deep breath.

“There’s a reason they call me de fengslinger.”

Chapter Text

Alta-Vaan Registration Camp, Outside Keda City
Korosi’ak Region, Fynkn

7th Septombre, 4501CC
(11 years ago)

Riya had no idea what was going on. Her father had his arm looped around her shoulders, hugging her close to his side, obviously reluctant to let her go. A shudder passed down her spine. She hadn’t been dressed for the cold when her parents had roused her from her sleep and taken her outside, and the thin cardigan that she had been able to grab wasn’t nearly warm enough. She would have asked one of her parents for something warmer, but neither of them had been able to get any coats or scarves. Her mother was rubbing her hands together, her whole body shuddering. Riya pressed herself closer to her father’s leg. He smiled down at her, but even the warmth in his expression was unable to hide the strain in his eyes.

Riya huffed, looking around. They weren’t the only ones moving, though. Crowds of people on her street had also been ordered to get out of their houses and start walking. She just wished she knew why. Riya wasn’t stupid; she might have only been 10 years old, but she wasn’t stupid. She knew that things had changed a lot recently, ever since the soldiers dressed in dark green had invaded their streets and replaced the familiar, Fynknian faces that she knew. She knew that it had something to do with why she wasn’t allowed to go out anymore, and why, if she ever mentioned the royal family, her parents’ forced smiles would die and her mother would stifle sobs. She knew that something big had happened to her home, but no-one seemed to want to share what it was.

Riya sighed, rubbing at her eyes. She was exhausted, and wanted nothing more than to go to bed. She tugged on her father’s arm.

“Dad,” she murmured, keeping her voice low like everyone else was, “where are we going?”

His brow furrowed. “We’re just going to get registered, honey. They’re doing it so they can keep track of everyone. Then we can go back home.” Riya scrunched up her nose.

“How long will that take?”

“I don’t know sweetheart, but we have to do it, okay? It’s very important.”

Riya sighed but nodded. Her father had worked in a few government departments before, and she had heard enough about processes and procedures that she knew they were important, even as dull and time-consuming as they could be. She shivered a little more, pressing closer to her father.

She looked up as some voices from the front of the line filtered back to her. Blinking wearily, she focussed on the building in front of them. It appeared to be somewhat hastily constructed, made primarily of dark wood and with brick foundations. She could see guards stationed around the area, each dressed in the uniform that her parents had already drilled into her to avoid. She glanced at their faces. Most of them were Yanish, that much she knew, and could see by their faces. It was interesting to her. She had been taught about other cultures and races, of course, but she had never really seen them in person.

The line of people halted suddenly, and it was only by virtue of her father’s hand on her shoulder that she didn’t run into the person in front of her. Her father leant down to whisper in her ear as her mother moved closer and took wrapped Riya’s hand in her own.

“We just need to wait to get processed now.” He murmured, smiling comfortingly. She forced herself to smile back. Right, she could do that.

The time started to slip away from her. They must have stood in the cold for two hours before they made their way to the front of the slowly advancing line. Riya swallowed as her parents moved to line up on either side of her; her father in front of her and her mother behind. Her father spoke for a few minutes, and did a few other things at the desk, and then stepped away, gesturing for Riya to step up to the front. Swallowing, she did as he bid.

The man seated at the desk had a harsh face but warm enough eyes. Some of the more severe lines in his face eased when he sighted her. He leant forward a little to make eye contact with her.

“Hello. You are Riya Kristoff, yes?” he said in heavily accented and somewhat broken Fynknian. She nodded shyly, eyes to the ground. He smiled slightly obviously trying to put her at ease despite the situation. “And what is your birthday, Riya?”

“14th of Maii.” She murmured as he wrote it down. “In 4491.” She added quickly. He nodded again, smiling slightly. He had her confirm her parents and address next, and then picked up a small, odd-looking machine. Riya shied away a little, but her mother gently held her in place by the shoulders. The man smiled gently.

“It’s okay, come closer, I’ll show you what it does.” Still wary but undeniably curious, Riya shuffled back forwards. He turned it on it’s side to show her. It looked almost like a box with a handle on one side, with a meter similar to a speedometer on the face, and a small digital screen next to it, obviously designed to display numbers. A handle that looked kind of like a joystick was on the left side of the machine, perpendicular to the rectangular face. On the other side was what looked like a small, dark cylinder with an odd, small knob on top attached to both the main structure and the cylinder by a red cable. He unscrewed the knob and pulled it out, revealing a long, very sharp looking needle. “Now, we use this little contraption to test people’s blood. It can indicate it they are royal or noble, which is important for us to know.” Riya blinked.

“How can you tell?” she asked, wariness vanishing as she examined the machine.

“Well, your royal family has those powers, you know? And most noble houses have a decent enough trace amount of those same powers, even if they aren’t necessarily related to the royal family. Since it’s passed on genetically, it can be detected by this little machine. Lots of Fynknians have very small trace amounts as well, but it’s only if you get a big amount that it’s important.” He gave her an apologetic look. “I’m going to need to take some of your blood with this needle, I’m sorry. It won’t hurt too much.” Riya swallowed, but still gently offered her arm when her mother murmured for her to do so. The prick of the needle made her tear up, but she forced herself not to cry. The man smiled comfortingly as he put the needle back into the cylinder and flicked a switch on the side. The machine let out a small whirring noise as he placed it down on the table. Riya looked at it again, feeling weird about the fact that it was testing her blood.

“How can you tell if they’re noble?” she inquired. He looked up again.

“Well, the machine gives us a number. It uses a scale from 0 to 2000, you see. 0 is the lowest, so it would probably be the sort of score that I would get, and 2000 would mean that they have the strongest possible manifestation of royal powers. Most normal Fynknians score under 300, most nobles fall between about 400 and 700, and most royalty sit in around the 900 to 1200 range.” She blinked up at him.

“Has anyone got higher than that?” he nodded.

“Yes, of course. There was a royal named King Delmar, I believe, who got about 1700. But he was the strongest Bondevik in a long time, if I remember correctly.” The machine hummed, and he picked it up again, before turning it to show her. “You see? 170. That’s pretty standard.”

He wrote it down, and then nodded at her, smiling softly. “Okay, that’s you done. Go wait with your father, alright?” she nodded, smiling before scurrying off to stand next to her father, who squeezed her shoulder warmly.

“What score did you get Dad?” she asked curiously. He smiled.

“Only 85. I’m about as far from royal as you could get.”

Her mother was a lot quicker to get away from the desk, and rubbed her arm where the needle had stabbed her. Riya asked her the same question.

“235, sweetheart.” Her mother said. “Still definitively ordinary.” It was only as they were ushered away and told that they could now return home that she thought to question what they had just been through.

“Mama, why were they testing our blood for royalness anyway?” her mother looked down at her, smiling sadly. Her mother’s family had always loved the royal family, and nobility, and it had made her sad whenever they were even brought up nowadays.

“They’re trying to find the prince and princess, darling.” She explained softly. “They didn’t find them in the palace, so they thought a normal family might have taken them in.” Riya nodded.

“Oh, okay then. Did a normal family take them in?” her mother shrugged.

“I don’t know, darling. I hope not.” Riya blinked.

“Why not?” her mother shrugged.

“Because those soldiers aren’t going to be nice to the family if they do find them.” She said simply. Riya paused. That man who had talked to her had been nice, but, she supposed, they couldn’t all be like that.

(They really weren’t. He was the nicest person she ever met from the Union.)

(And the only nice one.)

Lukas was watching her carefully. He hummed softly.

“Are you sure you want to keep going?” he asked quietly. She started a little. His voice was always just a little deeper than one would expect from looking at him. She nodded.

Keda City,
Korosi’ak Region, Fynkn

Augynt, 4504CC
(8 years ago)

Riya ducked under the frost-laden chicken wire of Sami’s yard, being sure to place her feet solid and flat on the icy ground as she plucked a loose leaf from her hair and discarded it. She huffed, watching her breath mist in front of her as she stuffed the lumpy bundle in her arms under her malformed wool sweater. Glancing quickly from side to side and deeming the road clear, she jogged across the front of the yard and stepped out onto the street, marching purposefully towards her own house, praying that the small cluster of guards that she could now see at the street kept to themselves.

The tightness in her chest relaxed somewhat as she jumped into her own yard. It seemed that, today at least, she wasn’t going to be bothered. She threw open the wind-battered door and strolled inside.

“Honestly, Riya, can’t you be a little more gentle with that door? Saints help us if we need it replaced.” Her Aunt Sibbe remarked, sticking her head out from the corner. “How did you do today?” Riya yanked the bundle out from under her sweater and dumped it on the cluttered kitchen counter, slicing it open with the dull copped knife on her belt easily. Her Aunt peered inside and visibly relaxed; a whole leg of salted meat, about 6 onions, 4 loaves of flatbread and numerous other small food items. Sibbe kissed her on the cheek. “Good girl. Did you have any trouble on the way back?”

Riya shook her head. “None. There were some guards down the street but none of them seemed interested in bugging me.” Sibbe nodded.

“Yes, we have a pretty good rotation this quarter. I will say, though, I’m dreading when they get replaced in Octava.” Riya grinned.

“You always dread the guard changing, Auntie. Calm down a little, yeah?” Sibbe rolled her eyes but smiled.

“Go off and find your cousins. Malene and Niklas have been waiting for you.” She grinned at her aunt and kicked off her boots, setting off to track down her little cousins. Little Malene and Niklas were only 5 and 3 respectively, and they were quite possibly the cutest things she had ever seen.

She stepped around a stack of Uncle Edvard’s papers and research books, being careful not to disturb the precarious pile.

Her family’s house had been pushed to it’s absolute capacity not long after the Union had consolidated their power in Fynkn in 4502CC. Her family had a lot of relatives who had lived in Oslaholm, their planet’s capital and the former seat of their royal family. As more and more troops had arrived in the capital, it had steadily become more and more dangerous and miserable to live in the once beautiful and wealthy city. Her relatives; her aunt Sibbe and Uncle Kjartan, had uprooted themselves and their four children – Jesper, Lotte, Malene and Niklas - to come and live temporarily with Riya’s parents and maternal grandmother. In addition to them, her Uncle Edvard and his two children – Nella and Cato – had also come along. It was good for her, really, that their grandmother’s house was already so spacious. With 14 people under one roof, it could sometimes get a little bit hectic just to move around, much less live comfortably.

But they managed to make it work, at least most of the time. Food was always a little tight, and Riya had sacrificed more than one meal to ensure that the smallest and most vulnerable of her cousins got a proper amount of food, but it was nice to have her family around her.

“Reee!!” a small, very excited voice called out. Already grinning, Riya turned as Niklas, her three-year-old cousin with the brightest, warmest eyes you would ever see, came stumbling down the hall with his huge stuffed wolf in one hand and what she recognised as one of Sibbe’s scarves clutched in the other. She bent down and scooped him up into a hug as he giggled madly.

“Hello my little lion.” She said, tickling him a little as he laughed and twisted to get away from her. “How have you been today?” he giggled and grinned at her.

“Good! Mally and I played dragons and princesses again!”

“Oh? And were you the fearsome dragon or the fair maiden in need?”

“I was the princess! Mally makes a better dragon anyway. She can growl!” Riya laughed. Yes, Malene’s growling was rather realistic. She had once frightened Sibbe, her own mother, into thinking that were was some sort of wild animal hiding under their stairs outside. She bounced her small cousin up and down, eliciting more laughter from him.

“Well, let’s go and find Mally, yeah?”

“So have Niklas and Malene exhausted you enough, or are you willing to help me chop some wood?” Riya glanced up from the book she had been reading, smiling at her cousin. Nella was one of her only cousins that was around her own age – Nella was only a year older than she was – and it was always nice to spend time with her. She grinned in response to Nella’s shrewd smile and stood.

“Of course Nel.”

Working with Nella was always a peaceful task. They normally kept quiet, exchanging the occasional piece of conversation or a small anecdote or minor complaint. The weighty feel of the axe in her hand and methodical swing as it sliced evenly through wood was oddly calming. Riya smiled slightly, tossing her hair out of her eyes. She knew that she didn’t look like a typical Fynknian, with her red hair and all, but she had been taught all of the essential skills of how to be one. Chopping wood, clearing snow, starting fires and learning how to calm undomesticated wolves had been half her childhood.

“Riya, stop.”

She looked up in surprise, only to see Nella gazing at something over her shoulder. Heart stuttering in fear, she spun around, axe still clutched in her hands. A bedraggled, bloodied young man was crouched by the tree-line of the forest near their house. She tightened her grip for a moment, exchanging a look with Nella as her cousin stepped up beside her and placed a warning hand on her arm. The man seemed to be breathing heavily. In the distance, she heard a loud siren noise. Almost simultaneously, the man lifted his head and incidentally exposed the small brand on the jacket he wore.

The door to the house burst open and their Uncle Edvard stumbled out along with Riya’s father Arns, murmuring that they should get inside and stay there while the anti-opprørere, as they were known by locals, did their work, stopping in their tracks when they spotted the man. The stranger staggered to his feet, and it was only then that Riya noticed the grisly gunshot wound on his stomach.

Within a second she had connected the dots. An injured man, definitely Fynknian, wearing the brand of the old army’s Second Division, a branch which had famously defected and posited an uprising against the Union, and the sirens ringing out loudly, belonging to the anti-opprørere, the Union’s specialist suppressionists-

A rebel

Her thoughts had barely reached that conclusion before her father and Uncle evidently reached a conclusion of their own. There was a moment when the five of them all stood perfectly still, Uncle Edvard and her father staring at the rebel and Nella and her staring at them and the rebel splitting his attention between them all. Then Arns and Edvard were moving forward. In a few moments they had the young man’s arms hooked over their shoulders and were hauling him towards the house. Nella and Riya took the hint, throwing down their axes and bolting after them, wood forgotten.

Riya slammed the back door shut and locked it once everyone was inside. Her father shifted the young man’s weight off himself and gestured to Nella, who immediately moved to take his place.

“Edvard, Nella, get him downstairs. Staunch that bleeding. Riya, with me please.” She followed her father obediently as he washed his hands clean of any blood and examined his clothes to ensure that he was clean. He pulled an assortment of vegetables from the cupboard and shoved a cutting board and knife into her hands after grabbing one of each for himself.

“What are we doing?” she asked as she followed his lead and began to chop them.

“Looking busy.” He said. They worked for about 10 minutes before the sound of harsh knocking rang out from the front door. She froze, but her father patted her on the shoulder, murmuring a low, “Keep going, I’ll handle this.” As he set down his own knife and made his way over to answer the door. She continued to chop, straining her ears as she heard someone questions him in rough and disjointed Fynknian. Her father answered politely, not too quickly and not too slowly either. After a few minutes, she heard retreating footsteps down the stairs and the door close. Her father touched her on the arm as he entered the kitchen again. “We’re clear. That was close, though.” She set down the knife, nodding.

They were both silent for a moment, before simultaneously realising what had them so concerned in the first place. Her father led the way.

The cellar was small. It had always been small. The ceiling sagged a little, and the walls were little more than hard-packed dirt, but it was large enough to squeeze a few articles of furniture into, and suitable enough a place to hang out when one was bored or sick of everyone else in the house. Now, it was a medical room.

Nella and Edvard had pulled out a fold-out table they normally kept against the wall, and shoved everything else into the corners of the room. The young man was laid flat on the table, hand pressed firmly down on his side where he was bleeding. Nella looked relieved when Riya and her father appeared. Edvard nodded in approval.

“No trouble then?” Arns shook his head, and he sighed in relief. “In that case, then, I’d like some help. The boy’s going to need some amateur surgery.”

“Tonje is going to kill me.” Riya’s father murmured. She winced. It was true that her mother wasn’t always so forgiving of his impulsive streak, and this far outdid anything else he had done before. At the very least, Uncle Edvard had been in on it too, so her attention and by extension, yelling, would be directed at two people rather than one.

Riya and Nella were forced out of the cellar while Arns and Edvard worked to save the rebel boy. They sat on the ground in front of the door, both a little too shocked and shaken to make conversation with one another. Her thoughts drifted to the boy, and whether he would live or not. Time would tell, she supposed. She couldn’t help but be grateful that they had avoided trouble with the Unionists. They were a nasty bunch.

(As it turned out, Riya’s mother didn’t kill her father. Tonje Kristoff spent a good amount of time fretting and scowling, but for once she and her husband were in agreement)

(The boy spent a whole night and day asleep, but he didn’t die. He lived a long time after that day.)

(And she was wrong. The Union did catch up with them. It just took a little longer than she had thought it would.)

Lukas reached over and took Riya’s hands. She shuffled a little closer to him, appreciating the warmth he provided. She hadn’t told this story before. It was freeing and terrifying at the same time.

She kept going.

Keda City,
Koro’siak Region, Fynkn,

22nd Decambyr, 4504CC
(8 years ago)

“Anders, just because I told you that you’re allowed to come upstairs now, doesn’t mean that you should do it this often.” Riya suppressed her grin, exchanging a look with Nella and her Aunt Sibbe as Tonje lectured Anders.

“I know, Mrs Kristoff, but it’s getting unbearable to be stuck downstairs so often.”

“You’ll have to deal with it.” Tonje responded, but everyone could see that her resolve was cracking. “And I’ve told you, Tonje is fine.”

And there it was. Her ability to resist Anders’ unrelenting charms was gone. Riya rolled her eyes.

Anders Nese had staggered, beaten and bloodied, into their lives about four and a half months ago. Though a pleasant and charming young man, who had given them all some fascinating pieces of information about how the insurgency against the union was actually going, his lust for adventure was evident. Being cooped up didn’t sit well with the guy, and he was always trying to bargain for what freedoms he could.

The bullet wound in his stomach had kept him to firm bed rest for over a month. It had been a very severe wound, one that someone wouldn’t normally have survived outside of a hospital, and Anders was always sure to sing praises of Riya’s family for that. Even throughout most of Septombre and Octava, he had been taking it easy. He had managed to accumulate a few more rights – as strictly dictated by Tonje – throughout Novymbir, and now that Decambyr was almost through, he was clearly confident that he was ready to go and rejoin his comrades in the north. He made for a very persuasive person, which made it hard for everyone to say no to him.

He was a very attractive young man – silvery hair that fell in graceful waves, light eyes in glacial blue tones and a fine facial structure only contributed to it. He was 20 years old, older than Riya had estimated when he had first been taken into their house. Other insurgents had come and gone from their house in the time that he had stayed with them – taking Anders in had started up a dangerous habit for the Kristoff and Kildahl families – and it was obviously starting to aggravate him that he was never able to go with them.

Nella placed a placating hand on his arm. “We need to make sure that the wound is healed, Anders, or you’ll just set yourself up for more time in bed.” He smiled genially at Nella, and Riya raised an eyebrow as her cousin flushed a little. She had nothing against Anders – he was a good guy, but he was 20 and Nella was 15. Riya knew for a fact that her father had pulled Anders aside when it became clear that Nella liked him to explain that she was a teenage girl and he was a grown man. Her father had seemed more than satisfied with his response, apparently.

Anders was always kind, but he kept a measured distance with both Riya and Nella. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust him, but he had made it clear that he didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, especially given that they had both had enough negative experiences of getting leered at by Union guards on the streets. She knew that Anders could always tell when it had happened to one of them, and Uncle Edvard had had to physically restrain him more than once so that he didn’t barge out onto the street to fight them.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Anders shrugged, rising from his place on the couch to move into the kitchen. “Kjartan! Do you want any help with dinner?” Riya’s other uncle gave the affirmative and Anders disappeared around the corner, no doubt to assist in their tiny kitchen.

Riya turned a scrutinising gaze on Nella, who flushed under her accusing gaze. She elbowed her cousin. “Stop looking at me like that.”

“I will when you stop looking at Anders like that. Come on Nella, you don’t want Dad and Uncle Edvard throwing him onto the street, do you?” Nella grumbled a little, but shook her head.


Riya grinned in amusement.

(It was one of the last times she would smile for a long time.)

(By then, they were on the scent.)

Lukas was tense. She knew that he could tell something bad was coming. She regarded him. He was remarkably perceptive. He reminded her a little of Anders, actually. She shook her head, dismissing the thoughts.

The hard part was coming up now.

Keda City,
Koro’siak Region, Fynkn

3rd Janwir, 4505CC
(7 years ago)

Aiding or abetting a rebel or insurgent was a crime. The harshest one that someone could commit in Union-occupied Fynkn. It was so severe that no matter how much one supported the rebellion, most would never dare lift a finger to help them.

The saddest part though? The thing that was making Riya’s chest tighten and her stomach churn?

Anders was going to leave in three days. Her family had all come to terms with that, and he had reached out to an old contact of his who had been able to relay across a time and place to meet for him to get back to the rebels. He had started to pack up the meagre possessions he had come to them with in addition to everything they had bought him over time.

The Union only conducted random sweeps twice a year. Why did they have to do it today?

Riya watched helplessly as her father’s head was yet again slammed harshly against the wall, so hard this time that it left a dent in the plaster. Her mother was sobbing, and everyone else seemed mute with terror and confusion. Her little cousins didn’t seem to be able to grasp what was happening. She swallowed down a sob. Nella was next to her, pressed against the wall by the bad end of a rifle. She was shaking.

Anders’ entire face was covered in blood. His nose was definitely broken, as was his jaw and perhaps even his eye sockets too. He had been stabbed twice in the side, and Riya watched the dark stain slowly spread across his clothes. Shaking, she turned her gaze on the head anti-opprørere. He was tall, with his black hair cropped short and dressed in a dark green uniform that, until he had started to brutalise Anders, had been impeccable. His mouth was stretched into an unsettling grin. His name was Jiahao Qin, by his own admission.

“I think it’s time that we escort you all to your new homes, don’t you think?” he asked. Perhaps one of the more intimidating things about him was that his Fynknian was perfect; fluent, unfaltering and enunciated to a T. He didn’t stutter or fumble over words; his every threat was cool and calm and delivered with maximum shock value. He gestured to one of the men behind him. “You, Wuhan Ma, take the rebel to the truck, if you can do so without losing him, that is.” The man paused, scowling. Qin grinned at the look on his face. “Oh, come now, I know that you’re used to the security measures of the Arbiter, but I don’t think Nese will give you much trouble.” Qin looked down at Anders’ bloody face again. “And don’t get too distracted by his pretty face. I’ve heard that was another failing of yours.”

The other anti-opprørere scowled, but didn’t comment, stepping forward to haul Anders to his feet and drag him outside, where Riya could see heavy-set trucks ready to take them away. Her stomach turned. She absently noted that her smallest cousin, Niklas, had wet himself from fear. Shaking, she reached for Nella’s hand, who grabbed her and squeezed tight. They would stay together, if it was possible, she would stay with at least one member of her family.

(Later, she almost regretted that she did remain with so many members of her family. It was always easier to hear about someone’s death than witness it first-hand, after all.)

Lukas was silent for a moment.

“So, de fengslinger?” he inquired. She shrugged, pulling their shared blanket up to her chin.

“People under detention. People who have been captured by the Union and thrown in labour camps for the various ‘crimes’ that they’ve committed.”

Lukas hesitated. “You don’t need to say anything more.”

“I know.”

“You still want to?”

“If you’re still willing to listen.”

“……I am.”

Sens-Min Labour Internment Camp,
Koro’siak Region, Fynkn

12th Jullat, 4505CC
(7 years ago)

Riya slumped down onto the lumpy mattress next to Nella, her whole body aching and shaking with exhaustion. Sixteen straight hours of work wasn’t something that her body was made for, especially given that she was only 14 years old and very much so underfed right now. Nella stirred next to her, blinking wearily.

“You okay?” she croaked out. Riya nodded.

“Yeah. You?” Nella nodded. They were too tired to have normal conversations anymore, but they seemed to have gotten closer than they were before, which Riya appreciated.

Her family had been split up a little when the Union had captured them. Riya and her father had managed to stay together, and Nella had managed to stay with her father, Edvard, and her younger brother, Cato. Riya’s mother was in another camp, as was Anders. Her Aunt Sibbe, along with her oldest children, Jesper and Lotte, had also been carted away to another camp. Her husband, Kjartan, however, was also in Riya and Nella’s camp, with his two young children Malene and Niklas. Their family had almost been severed in half but most of them had someone else to rely on.

Life in Sens-Min was hard but not impossible if you kept your head down and kept to yourself.

She turned her head when her uncle Kjartan coughed.

“You okay, Uncle Kjar?” he nodded, drawing Malene and Niklas close.

“I’m okay Riya. They had you on the axing rotation today, I’m guessing?” she nodded. He shook his head. “I don’t understand how they can inflict that on children. I would switch with you if I were able…”

“It’s okay, Uncle Kjar. I only have another two days, anyway. I can manage.”

Life in Sens-Min was hard, but not impossible. That was what Riya told herself every day. She had her family with her. They could do this. They would make it out alive.

She had been a blind, oblivious, naïve idiot when she was 14.

Her Uncle Kjar, who had always picked her up and swung her around when he saw her no matter how tall she had gotten, died less than six months after that conversation.

Lukas looked like he wanted to say something. She sent him a pleading look.

“Please, just let me get through this.”

He remained silent.

2nd Maarch, 4507CC
(5 years ago)

“She needs food.” Nella insisted, tossing her filthy hair over her shoulder. Riya nodded.

“I can see that, Nel, but there’s no way they would give us any for her if they knew it was going to end up in her stomach.” Nella shook her head, hopeless and confused. Riya drew her smallest cousins close. Ever since Kjartan had succumbed to a lung condition early last year, Malene and Niklas had slept curled up against Riya and Nella. They were too young for any of this. Malene was only 8 years old. She was young, far too young, to be getting starved to death.

Poor little Mally had made the mistake of biting a soldier when he had tried to force her face into her own vomit after her exhaustion and nausea had gotten to her and she had been sick on the job. They were depriving her of food as a punishment, as if trying to shove an 8 year old’s face into a pool of vomit wasn’t awful and deprived enough.

Nella was silent. They had tried everything, begging and bartering and even trying to smuggle food out of the eating hall for her. Every one of their attempts had resulted in failure, and in Mally having her sentence extended. There was no two ways around it – their cousin was going to follow her father into the grave soon enough if they didn’t do anything.

Riya looked at her cousin, who was still quiet, chewing on her bottom lip anxiously. “I might have an idea,” she said after a long moment. Riya perked up.

“Excellent. I’ll help.” Nella shook her head firmly.

“No, it’ll be best if I do this alone, I think.” She looked up, then nodded again, like she was tryning to reassure herself of something. “I’ll be back in a while.”

Nella was gone for well over an hour and a half. Riya tried not to let her anxiety and fears get to her, but by the time her cousin wandered back into their barracks, she was on the verge of panic. Nella smiled weakly, and held up a small, heavy loaf of bread and a bottle of water.

“Success.” She croaked out, hurrying to Malene’s side to give her the food. After she was fed, watered and thoroughly passed out on her mattress, Riya quietly turned to Nella.

“What did you do to get that?” she asked. Nella remained silent.

“Does it matter?” Riya hissed quietly through her teeth.

“Yes, it matters. Nel…” her cousin wrapped her arms around her middle, expression crumpling as tears started to run down her face.

“I…I let them…” she trailed off, but Riya understood. She threw her arms around her cousin and held her close as she broke down and sobbed. She didn’t bother with platitudes. She knew there was no way to make this situation better.

When Riya realised that Lukas was shaking, she thought for a moment that he was colder than he had let on earlier, and moved to shuffle more of the blanket over to him. She had already stolen his hoodie, after all, so it was only fair that he got a large percentage of the blanket. He was taller and broader than her, after all.

Before she could move, though, she realised that he wasn’t cold.

He was shaking with rage.

Riya started slightly. His hands were balled into fists, and his jaw was clenched so hard that she honestly feared he would crack some of his teeth. He drew in a shaky breath, obviously trying to keep his emotions in check. Once he had calmed down enough, she just nodded sadly.

“Believe me, I know.”

5th Maii, 4507CC
(5 years ago)

Nella screamed. It was equally a sound of anguish and horror as it was sadness and rage. Riya sat beside her, numb to the core. Nella’s screaming woke the others in their barracks, and she could hear the telltale sound of footsteps coming from soldiers outside, no doubt a group sent to investigate the commotion. Riya sobbed, her own grief muted but just as potent. She placed her hand on Malene’s chest again, not even sure why she bothered.

She was just as cold, hard and dead as she had been when they’d woken up.

The doors at the far end of the building opened, soldiers marching in and barking at the people still waking up to get off their asses and outside. One of them marched up and examined the still-wailing Nella, and Malene’s impossibly small body. He grunted something in Yanish into the radio strapped to his lapel and stepped forward. He briefly pressed his fingers against Malene’s neck, where a pulse had previously beat away, before withdrawing. He picked up one of Nella’s discarded blankets and spread it over Mally’s body

One of the other guards approached and seized Nella by the shoulders; another did the same to Riya just a moment later, and they were both hauled gracelessly away from their dead cousin. Riya began to struggle, thrashing around and lashing out with her arms angrily. They couldn’t take Mally away, they just couldn’t. She had watched her grow up for the last six years. Did that mean nothing now?

Nella had gone limp and was letting the guards carry her outside, expression so void of emotion that Riya knew she was going into shock. Letting her efforts cease, she slumped in defeat and let herself be dragged away from a little girl’s corpse.

Things were significantly harder after that. Life at Sens-Min was not easy, nor was it survivable. She had already sacrificed two family members to the horrors of the labour camp so far, and she shuddered at the thought of losing more.

Niklas didn’t seem to grasp that his big sister was gone. He kept turning his wide, dark eyes on Riya and asked where Mally went, and if she was coming back. Nella stopped answering him altogether, and Riya did her best to explain death to him. She didn’t think that he understood.

He developed a cough in late Augynt, followed quickly by pain in his stomach and back. He became nauseous, and vomited the small amounts of food that the guards actually bothered to give them. A slight warm feeling to his cheeks developed into a fever of 41°C. He was only diagnosed with typhus three days before his little body succumbed to it.

Riya, Nella, Arns, Edvard and Cato all sat together for an hour, mourning their sweet little relatives. Riya’s father scrounged up an old candle and lit it for two minutes before blowing it out. She spent the night wrapped in her father’s arms, crying.

Lukas’ hand on her shoulder was tentative. His anger had faded and given way to sadness. It wasn’t pity. It was understanding. He knew what it was like to lose someone.

She leant into his touch, and moved on.

27th Fybwari, 4508CC
(4 years ago)

Riya didn’t doubt that 4508CC was the worst year of her life. But the first half of the year was a breed of brutal that she would never forget.

A new guard started working at Sens-Min, going by the name of Yimu Han. He was in maybe his thirties, with, if what she had picked up from his conversations with other guards, two children. Han initially only stuck out to her because he paid her attention. He dragged her out of a lineup one morning, staring at her quizzically. Like the unsettling guard who had captured her family – Jiahao Qin – his Fynknian was flawless.

“You’re Fynknian?” he had exclaimed in confusion. She nodded curtly. He tipped his head to the side slightly. “Peculiar. I thought Fynknians were supposed to have pale hair. Why don’t you?”

“My grandmother was Syhvvanian, sir.” She said, tone racked with exhaustion and disinterest. Han hummed.

“I see.” His gaze raked over her, and she abruptly felt like it was dangerous to stand near him. She leant back slightly, just enough to give herself some space, whilst not alerting him to what she was doing. “I wanted to ask, how fast can you run?”

Something she learned quickly; Yimu Han was the worst person she had ever met. He had made them clear the common space, and had her stand at one end, facing the other wall. Han had plucked four soldiers out of the rabble to stand on the wall to her left, perpendicular to her.

“There’s a game we used to play, over in Seshok-Ro.” When the other guards had enquired as to the game’s name, he had smiled. “It’s called Shoot Straight. It’s not hard. A prisoner runs as fast as they can towards the other end, and the guards on the sidelines shoot straight ahead as they pass and try to hit them.” Riya’s blood had gone cold. Nella, relegated to the side with everyone else, was gaping in horror. Riya’s mind raced. The distance between her and the other wall was about 60 metres. That was a decent enough distance to get shot in. Granted, there were only four guards on the sidelines, but she knew that they would aim to kill. Most of the people who worked here were sadistic bastards, and she knew they wouldn’t think twice about it.

“For today, we will try to shoot the mongrel.” Han said, voice still level and calm. He smiled at Riya. “I hope you are a fast runner.”

The small, exclamatory noise that Lukas made in the back of his throat made her look up again. She smiled wryly.

“Rumours about the Shoot Straight game spread to pretty much every labour camp. They use it as a threat elsewhere, if I’ve heard correctly. News of it even made it back here.” She gestured to the training grounds. “That’s why Kolden always looks like he’s sucked on a lemon when I sprint. I had to be a good runner, and he knows how I got those skills.”

Lukas looked horrified. She shrugged his hoodie partially off and shoved the back of her shirt down a little, pointing to an impossibly straight groove across her back. “I wasn’t good the first few times I did it. Some of them scraped me, but I lived. I became Han’s personal favourite. Called me his ‘champion’ and made me run every day of the week.” She felt the barest brush of Lukas’ fingers on her scar before they withdrew and she pulled her shirt and hoodie back up. His expression looked borderline tortured.

She pulled the blanket closer and ploughed onwards.

12th Apryl, 4508CC
(4 years ago)

One month before Riya’s 17th birthday, she was assigned to a late shift.

She never did late shifts. Especially not since Han had come along, because he always wanted his ‘champion’ to be well rested to give them a good show in the mornings. Her skin crawled. She knew that there was some reason for that.

The reason, as it turned out, was Yimu Han himself.

She finished early; there were still about thirty minutes left until curfew, so she was keen to book it back to her barracks and get some extra sleep. She was stopped in her tracks by Han. He smiled at her. She hated that smile. She hated him, honestly. She hated all of them, and yet she was surrounded by Unionists at every turn.

“Hello my little Champion.” He purred. “How did the late shift treat you?” she took a step back, stomach turning. “I know this is short notice, but I don’t think that you’ll be running tomorrow morning.” That statement caught her by surprise.

“I won’t be?” she questioned, brow furrowing in suspicion. “Why not?” Han shrugged.

“Can I not give my champion a little break every now and then?” he said. His tone was innocent, but the look in his eyes was malicious, and his body language made him look like a predator poised to strike. He moved forward, swinging an arm around her shoulders and squeezing her. “I can’t have you ruining your pretty little body too much.” She squirmed in his grasp, a shiver going up her spine.

He began to lead her, pulling her across the common grounds even as she struggled to get away from him. “Stop fighting me, little mongrel. I just want to talk to you for a few minutes.” She found herself being steered inside one of the guards’ buildings, and into a room. It was shockingly warm. Riya hadn’t felt the heat of a fire in so long she had almost forgotten the sensation.

She was clearly in Han’s private rooms. The walls were panelled in wood. A bed was pushed up against one wall, and a large mahogany desk sat in a corner, covered in papers and files. A brown bearskin decorated his floor. She stepped back as the door closed behind her. Her hands were shaking slightly, so she his them behind her back. Han was watching her carefully. His gaze was heavy, sliding tellingly from her face down to the rest of her body. Her skin crawled, and she took another step back.

He walked forwards abruptly, and she could only take a few more steps backward until the backs of her legs hit the front of his desk. He paused, cocking his head at her.

“Come now, Riya, don’t be so resistant. We only have 25 minutes.”

He was taller than her. He was older than her. He was stronger than her.  

She scratched at his eyes and lashed out with her feet and used her elbows and knees to try and keep him back, but ultimately, she was no match. Her struggling was little more than a waste of energy. For all her fighting, she still ended up lain flat on the brown bearskin on the floor, pinned underneath him, head close enough to the flames that her cheeks were seared as he thrust violently into her.

She didn’t know if she was meant to cry or not. It hurt. It definitely hurt, and on more than just a physical level, but her body just wouldn’t let her. She felt disconnected from everything; from her body, the situation, everything. Han bit her neck, no doubt adding to the bruises she would have from earlier when he had wrapped his hands around her throat and squeezed.

“You should feel honoured.” He murmured into her ear, not slowing his relentless pace. “I’m very picky when it comes to incubators.” His tight hold on her hips tightened and he surged forward and gasped and then he relaxed and then she realised what had happened. She didn’t move as he pulled out of her and buttoned up his pants, feeling numb all over. He seized her coat and hauled her to her feet. Her thighs felt slick. “Go to bed, my little champion. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

She must have made her way back to the barracks somehow, and staggered to her mattress, curled up near to those of Nella and her father. She heard her father stir as she crumpled onto the mattress.

”Riya?” he murmured. She was silent for a long moment.

“Dad…?” she responded, voice broken. He sat up immediately, fumbling for the small torch he had been given to work in mines a few miles away. He flicked it on. The light blinded her for a moment. He was staring at her, expression deeply concerned. She realised she was shaking. He reached out to touch her arm gently, and she drew away to avoid the contact. Her dress rode up a little. There was blood all over her legs. He saw it.

There was a moment of complete silence, before her father gently asked. “Who?”

“Han.” She murmured. He nodded, his whole body shaking.

He shook Nella awake, silent as they both helped her to clean herself up and change clothes. He didn’t say another word at all. In fact, it was one of the last things Riya ever heard him say.


Riya didn’t know Lukas Christensen well, but she felt she could trust him. She also felt that she could read his emotions by now. He was very careful with them, but if you knew what to look for, it was possible to understand what he was feeling.

Right now? He was deathly quiet. He didn’t offer apologies, or condolences, and he didn’t try to touch her but didn’t move away either.

He was angry. Angrier than he had been earlier. Far, far angrier.

His hands were still clenched into fists. His knuckles had turned white, but a flash of red caught her off guard, gently taking his hands, she turned them over. His nails were digging so deep into his palms that he had cut right through the skin. Blood was streaked across his hands. She was silent, unsure of how to continue.

“It was a long time ago.” She murmured. Lukas exhaled.

“That doesn’t change a damn thing and you know it.”

“What will you do if I tell you that I’ve moved on from it?” he raised his eyes, and Riya felt her blood run cold. She knew it wasn’t directed at her, but the look in his eyes went beyond murder.

“Then I would say that it is wonderful to hear that, but it won’t stop me.” She fell silent.

“If you don’t want to hear any more then I’ll stop.”

“Riya…you lived through all of this. If I can’t manage to sit through hearing about it, then I may as well leave. I could never aspire to be on the same level of strength that you are, I know, but you trusted me enough to tell me this. Saying this is helping you. So, keep talking, please.”

She watched his face for a moment, and hesitated, but after a moment, she did continue.

13th Apryl, 4508CC
(4 years ago)

Riya’s father had never been one to sit quietly and watch injustice happen. Never. She should have stopped him. She should have.

She was in a state of shock. She couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, couldn’t do anything but stare at the ceiling. Nella was by her side the whole time. When the wake-up call came around, she stood feeling like death. Nella was holding her hand as they walked out into the yard.

Han was standing where he always did. His eyes somehow found her in the masses. He smiled. She gagged. Nella yanked her hair back from her face as she vomited up sour bile, rubbing her back. She didn’t comment on it, but Riya could feel the rage of the stare she sent Han as her cousin wrapped her in a hug and pulled her over to her side.

When they were sent to their work stations, she went through the motions, grateful that they had been ingrained in her by now. She could have done this work in her sleep. Her father was about two spaces down the conveyor line from her. Riya heard some talking at the entrance, and then felt her father’s hand on her arm. She turned, perplexed. His face was drawn.

“Riya. I love you more than anything in the world, never forget that. Take care of yourself, and never stop fighting. You deserve more than this, and I’m sorry that I couldn’t be the one to give it to you. I’ll give you what I can.” He cupped her face in his hands, and kissed her forehead. “I love you, Riya. I love you so much.” Then he stepped away from her and she turned and Han was there and he was walking towards her but her father moved faster.

Then Han was on the ground and her father had buried something sharp and metal into his back and then he was moving again as guards rushed him and stabbed something else into Han’s left eye and Han screamed-

And then her father was being dragged off Han and hauled to his feet. Han was crying out in pain, one hand clutching his face as blood gushed from his (hopefully) wrecked eye. The hand was hovering by his side, near where her father had stabbed him the first time. Riya stared.

One of them pulled out a gun and aimed it at her father. She turned away. A gunshot cracked the air open.

Lukas was silent. He didn’t seem to know what to say.

Riya didn’t know either, so she kept going instead.

18th Jaune, 4508CC
(4 years ago)

Life lost a lot of it’s meaning after her father was gone. She had Nella, and she still had Uncle Edvard and Cato, who assigned themselves as her personal guards as often as possible. It wasn’t necessary. Her father’s first strike had severely damaged Han’s spine. He couldn’t walk without being in immense pain. His second strike had obliterated Han’s left eye, and given him just enough damage to his brain that most days the former commander was struck down with incurable migraines. Riya laughed for the first time in three years when she heard that.

Life became very black and white. There were things she wanted, and things she didn’t. When nausea started to grip her and her stomach seemed to swell a little, she stole bleach from the guards’ quarters and drank half a litre of it. She lived, barely, but Han’s microscopic vermin didn’t. She had never been so relieved to bleed. Satisfied, she went back to work in the camp and didn’t put herself in trouble. The guards were wary of her now. That one smiled like a beast when Han was attacked, they said, something cold and evil lives in her eyes.

She didn’t mind the stories. They kept the guards away from her and by extension their hands and mouths.

Riya learned to just exist. She left the job of living for the people who had reasons to.

19th Octava, 4509CC
(3 years ago)

When Riya was 18, her cousin Cato, her loving, proud, strong cousin Cato, was beaten to death in front of her.

He had defended a young woman from the same treatment Han had subjected Riya to, and he had been beaten to death for it. Riya picked up a sharp-tipped rock, twisted on her heel and sprinted across the field to her dying cousin. The guards owned guns and knives and other weapons, but Riya owned sprinting. She had spent enough time playing Shoot Straight that she could move from one place to another with remarkable speed.

They never saw her coming. She didn’t kill the guard whose head she slammed the sharpened rock into, but she cracked his skull and made him bleed a lot.

They couldn’t punish her with death, since she hadn’t injured the guard greviously enough to warrant such a measure. Besides, they all resented her. Death was an escape route. They wanted her to suffer.

At noon, three days after Cato’s death, they stripped her shirt off, tied her hands to a post above her head, and took to her back with a whip.

The lashes blended together in a haze of pain and dizziness after a while. She watched blood run down her arms and chest as they untied her and shoved her in Nella’s direction. Grieving her brother as she might have been, Nella was an attentive carer from beginning to end.

It was just them and Edvard now. Uncle Kjartan, Malene, Niklas, Riya’s father Arns, and now Cato. Their band of eight had been reduced to three in just four short years.

About three months after that, the guards announced that some prisoners would be randomly selected to go to another labour camp. Edvard and Nella were both on the list. Riya hugged them both goodbye and resigned herself to dying alone.

3rd Apryl, 4511CC
(1 year ago)

Was she supposed to be impressed?

News of rebel victories had buoyed the spirits of everyone in the camp except Riya. Seeing them in person wasn’t as liberating as she had expected. Seeing the Union guards who had tormented her for so long dead on the ground was a nice touch, but she didn’t feel too bothered by the situation.

So, she was free. Fucking excellent. One of the younger rebels who approached her seemed a little baffled by her reticence and disinterest. He was ushered away, and she found herself looking at a more impressive figure.

A tall woman stood before her, wearing a blood-stained coat. Her hair was a rich shade of silvery grey, and her expression was hardened with years of suffering. It was a familiar expression. Riya wore it daily. The woman extended her hand. Riya took it.

“Thank you for being so patient with us.” The woman said. Riya nodded, eying her curiously. The woman smiled. “Forgive me. I am Kommandor Galina Hansen. I would be honoured if you would accompany us out of this shithole.”

Riya followed her.

Lukas looked like he was glad it was over. Riya sat silently, waiting to hear something. She didn’t know what. A verdict on her life story?

“Is it okay if I hug you?” he asked, voice wavering. She looked up, and nodded.

She normally didn’t like being hugged much, but Lukas was a grounding presence. He was warm and solid and unintrusive despite being pressed up against her.

“If I had only been on Fynkn…I could…I could have stopped it…I could have stopped them…” Riya scoffed, drawing away a little to look him in the eyes.

“Are you a one-man army now? There’s nothing you could have done, Lukas, so don’t place this blame on yourself.” He hesitated, still looking guilty – which was an absurd way to feel, in her opinion – before nodding slowly and separating from her.

They sat there for another few moments, appreciating the golden colour of the sunrise dawning on the horizon. Riya stood first, plucking the blanket off them both and folding it, handing it back to Lukas as he also clambered to his feet.

“Thank you, for telling me.” Lukas murmured. Riya shrugged, then, for the first time in a long time, smiled, genuinely.

“Thank you for listening.”

They both wandered back inside, going their respective ways to their bunks. It was no more than ten minutes after that, though, that alarms blared all around the room and Kolden barged inside, hollering at them to get up.

Lukas caught Riya’s eye from across the room.

She didn’t look quite so sad anymore.

Chapter Text

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
5th Juillat

Yao rubbed at his temples, gazing around in irritation at his subordinates. He respected a lot of the people in this room, but he couldn’t really say that he liked a lot of them. The only people here who he found tolerable were Octavia and Mohammed, and they both looked just as worn down and sick of today as he did. It was a dire statement that they were all so fed up with the situation; they had only been here for an hour. He glanced at Octavia, who was writing notes down in a booklet, brow furrowed in what he guessed was concentration and frustration in equal measures. Mohammed was slumped back in his seat, expression vaguely displeased.

Yao sighed. Normally he could deal with meetings like these, as dull and infuriating as they could be at times, but today was proving more difficult than usual.

Is everyone here useless? He questioned silently. It was honestly starting to feel like he was one of the only people here who actually knew what they were doing. He groaned softly, the noise not going unnoticed by Octavia as he rubbed at his temples with more vigour. This whole debacle was giving him a headache.

It was a relief like none other when the meeting was finally called to a close. He didn’t bother remaining to answer questions or discuss strategies with anyone like he normally did. Ignoring the shocked looks on Octavia and Mohammed’s faces, he slipped out of the tent and marched off, shaking his head to dispel the low ringing that the meeting had left in his head. He wanted nothing more than to sleep the headache away, but his body was humming with energy. Besides, even with medication, sleeping was still proving a difficult task. He had found himself roused by more scratching and rustling noises, even though he had pulled up the plants nearest to his tent by the roots to prevent the sound. He had no clue what was causing it, or why he couldn’t seem to get rid of it. He shook his head a little. He couldn’t spend time worrying about all of that right now.

He turned to Octavia, who had been following him at a safe distance. He pointedly ignored the concern that lingered on her face. “Octavia, would you hunt down Captain Kirkland for me, please? I have a few queries to make.” She looked puzzled by the request, but nodded, peeling away from his side to find the surly pirate.

He could feel Mohammed’s eyes on the back of his neck, and shuddered slightly, before deciding to bite the bullet, turning to him.

“Did you need something, Mohammed?” the Vice-General shook his head, frowning at Yao slightly.

“There’s something troubling you,” he said gently, “what is it?” Yao frowned, feeling a spike of irritation despite his colleague’s well-meant words.

“I’m fine, Mohammed. I don’t need people questioning my capacity to lead.” Mohammed blinked.

“I wasn’t trying to question your capacities, Yao, I was merely saying-”

“I don’t care what you were trying to say, Mohammed. You have duties to attend to, do you not?” he didn’t miss the momentary shock on the Nymian man’s face, but Mohammed kept his mouth shut, nodding neutrally before turning on his heel and marching away. Yao sighed. He had no clue why his temper was so short today, but he couldn’t seem to keep his emotions in check like they should be.

Shaking his head a little more violently this time, he set off to the main meeting tent, brain buzzing over what he had to discuss with Arthur Kirkland. He had many plans laid out in his head, and it was time for some of them to come to fruition.

“So, can you explain why I’ve been dragged in here?” Arthur asked, tone dull and laced with frustration. He had actually been having a very good morning, until Octavia Papadopoulos had hunted him down and delivered the news that Yao wanted to see him.

First of all, he had woken up beside Alfred, which was proving to be a more delightful experience the more it happened, not least because they had managed to break down the final barrier of physical intimacy between them just the night before. Arthur still was slightly confounded by the fact that Alfred had been so embarrassed to admit that he had never slept with anyone before. As he had been very upfront in telling his boyfriend, what did it matter? In his own personal opinion, as long as you were comfortable and ready, it didn’t matter if you lost your virginity at 15 or 50, or even if you lost it at all.

He had wasted no time in teasing Alfred’s blushing over their shared nakedness that morning and laughing even more when Alfred’s only response had been to make a flustered noise and sink underneath their sheets. Arthur had been quick to tug the sheets down and climb on top of him again, which had resulted in Alfred turning red again, though the cause was not embarrassment, in that instance. That had ended in them both being distracted by the other for close to an hour before Arthur had forced his kiss-bitten and thoroughly relaxed body out of bed and into the shower, insisting to a whining Alfred that no, they could not share to ‘save water’, given that he actually had things to do that day.

Even getting dressed and hunting down his gear had been a nicer experience than normal. Alfred’s possessions had been slowly making their way into Arthur’s room ever since they had gotten back from Xi Lan Ey, but it was only that morning that he had realised the split was almost 50/50. It was more accurate to call his room ‘theirs’ at this rate, and that thought, something which might have once made him scrunch his face up in discomfort, now only made him happy.

After Alfred had insisted on passionately kissing him goodbye, he had been assigned to work in the munitions tent, which had proved entertaining and, dare he say it, fun, especially after a spunky demolitions expert, who had cheerfully introduced himself as Vladimir Popescu, had blown up half his workstation and walked away from the wreckage grinning like a maniac and babbling about improvements while a slight Iramese boy – Kristian, if Arthur remembered right – had doused the area with a fire extinguisher and thoroughly chewed the older boy out. It had made for an interesting morning shift.

After that, despite having missed lunch helping clean up the mess in the munitions tent, Mei and Leon had grabbed food for him, and he had been happy to sit slumped against the trunk with them munching away while Mei told him some more of the jokes that she had learnt from Gilbert and Leon also made a comment about helping the Fynknian princess with her knifework.

Once they had all finished eating, Arthur had been able to do a tour through his old ship, which, while under the custody of the resistance, was getting repairs and improvements made to it. It felt odd seeing the Mutiny under the control of others, but he couldn’t deny that his ship was getting a much-needed upgrade. Overall, his day had been a pretty good one, at least until Octavia had come jogging up to him to explain that Yao wanted to talk to him.

He sighed, scratching at the back of his neck as he ran a cautious eye across Yao’s face and body. The man was not relaxed, not even remotely. Though his face was oddly void of emotion, a blank slate peppered not even with the usual creases and inclinations that would otherwise indicate what the General was thinking and feeling, his body was tense, every muscle wound up tight enough to snap.

The Yanishman didn’t seem to be faring too well, Arthur noted. His eyes were lacklustre and ringed with dark circles that indicated a severe lack of sleep. His skin seemed drawn just a little tighter over the bones of his face than it normally was. Octavia, who had moved to stand by his side, was frowning at him slightly, concern crossing her features before she smoothed her expression back into one of slick professionalism. Yao watched him carefully for a moment, eyes sharp and analytical as ever despite his appearance. He straightened up in his chair a little.

“You are a pirate, Captain Kirkland.”

“Oh, well spotted.” He snorted, raising an eyebrow. Yao paused, lips pressed together thinly. Arthur let his next jibe die in his throat. The man was clearly not in the mood to play around today.

“As a pirate,” he continued after a moment of cold, heavy silence, “you have numerous connections with society’s most detested undesirables.” He leant forward in his chair slightly. “Other pirates, assassins, slavers and many more. Someone in your position of infamy would most certainly be able to reach out to a large number of acquaintances and connections, I would presume.” Arthur shifted slightly, frowning but not denying the statement. It was no lie that his years as one of piracy’s most well-known names had led to him establishing business and personal connections with a wide and diverse multitude of people.

“What of it?” he remarked, curious to get to the bottom of what Yao was getting at. Yao watched him for a moment.

“It wouldn’t be especially hard for you to ask your contacts for help to locate a particularly hard-to-locate person, would it?” Arthur considered the statement.

“I suppose not, no. We are rather talented at finding wanted people, after all.”

Yao nodded. “I see. Sit down, Mr Kirkland.” Arthur raised an eyebrow, but complied. This was probably one of the oddest conversations he had had with Yao so far, and he couldn’t say that he liked the change very much. Yao hummed softly under his breath before returning his attention to Arthur. “How well acquainted are your contacts with the slave industry?”

Arthur felt his stomach turn over. It had been years since he had had any definitive relationship with the slaving industry, and even then, it was a relationship borne of necessity rather than interest or support. Yet he felt guilty even thinking about the friends he had that actively contributed to the vile trade. The recent reminder of how Mei and Leon had come into his service only deepened the heavy feeling in his gut.

“That depends on what contacts you’re inquiring about, but I do know some who are almost constantly involved with it.” he answered. Yao nodded slowly, eyeing him before adjusting the cuffs of his gloves and folding his arms.

“Did you know, Mr Kirkland, that we receive about 400 messages a year from people in the slaving industry?” Arthur blinked in surprise and confusion, and Yao smiled sharply. “Not from slavers, of course. From the slaves themselves. We have lost count of how many slaves have come to us asking if a life of servitude and suffering can be exchanged for one of freedom.” He looked up. “Every time, we tell them the same thing. Of course it can. It’s not easy to free slaves, but it is possible, and we try to do so as much as possible. I grew up in the Union, so slavery was never something that seemed inherently alien to me, but it has never been a pleasant reality for me.” He cocked his head a little. “As I understand it, this is reportedly something we can agree on.”

Arthur closed his eyes briefly. He had no idea how the information about Mei and Leon had made it’s way to Yao’s ears so quickly, but he shouldn’t have been surprised that it did. He opened them again and fixed them on Yao.

“I’ve never advocated the slave industry, though I will admit that I did work within it very briefly to afford treatment. I have to ask, what does this have to do with me?” Yao smiled.

“Have you ever heard of Hamide Boushab?” he asked. Arthur scrunched up his nose.

“I lived on Xexei for 4 years. I’m well aware of her, yes.” Yao nodded, a small, callous laugh slipping from his lips.

“Ah, yes. Hamide is a nightmare to deal with even among the worst of slavers. She owns and trains in excess of 15,000 of them right now, if my estimates are correct. Do you know anything about her security measures?” sighing slightly, Arthur nodded. Anyone who had even heard of Hamide Boushab in passing knew how careful she was with keeping her wares locked away. “Well,” Yao continued, “we received a plea from an anonymous slave who is currently under the jurisdiction of Boushab. Because of those security measures, we do not know their name, age, location or even what planet they are on. They were able to pass a few pieces of information along the lines about their former owners and auctions, but everything else was stringently removed by security censors.”

“Boushab is talented at shutting her slaves up.” Arthur muttered. Yao nodded.

“Indeed. Now, I would say that this makes it impossible for us to extract this slave and free them, were it not for the fact that most of the auctions they mentioned were attended by pirates. I know that you do not engage with the slave industry except to undermine it’s integrity, which I do admire, but many people you know do engage, and frequently enough that they may be able to lend us aid in finding this slave. If we have a location, we can free them.”

“So how do I play into this?” Arthur inquired. Yao leant forward again, eyes glittering with that odd, frantic energy that he had been displaying recently.

“Simple. I want you to find contacts of yours who would be able to narrow down this slave’s identifier, and by extension, their current owner and where they are being kept. I want you, for at least a while, to really be a pirate again.” Arthur frowned a little and leant back in his chair.

“So, what would this entail, exactly?” Yao shrugged.

“Most likely, it would involve finding a contact or two, contacting them and meeting up to ask them to search for this slave, and proposing payment in return.” Arthur drummed his fingers on the arms of the chair he had settled into.

“Fine, I’ll do it. I make no promises that any of my old acquaintances would be able to find this slave, though.” Yao shrugged.

“I won’t hold it against you if that is the case. Thank you for your cooperation, Mr Kirkland. I will allow you some time to consider it, but do you have any contacts that come to mind at the present moment?”

Arthur didn’t even have to think about it. “Barkhado Dirie. She’s dealt with the slave industry for years now. She goes to almost every auction there is and sacks cities whenever the opportunity is presented. It would be easy for her to track down a slave like the one you’re looking for.”

Yao nodded thoughtfully, processing the information. “Do you have any way of contacting her?”

Arthur shrugged. “She usually liked to dance around with me. She was never direct with anyone but Jack. I could make contact with some connections of mine and see when she’s next expected to anchor her ship, but there’s no point in trying to hunt her down while she’s on the move. Her fleet is one of the fastest in the Galaxy. There’s a reason she’s managed to evade law enforcement for so long. She expects to be swarmed by people whenever she stops somewhere, so she might not be too averse to speaking with me.” That was an understatement if Arthur had ever made one. Barkhado had long had an odd interest in him, going out of her way to attempt seduction and friendship in equal measure.

Yao nodded. “I see. Try to find when and where she is next expected to make a stop and report back to me. I will start considering who may make a worthwhile match to go with you.” Arthur nodded and stood.

“Is that all, sir?” he asked. Yao nodded.

“It is, though, I must say, formalities don’t suit you, do they?” Arthur allowed himself a wry grin. It was true that he tended to screw his face up a little when forced to defer to others. Yao smiled softly, shaking his head. “If we are to be on tolerable terms, just Yao will do.” Arthur nodded. Yao’s grin widened. “And given that in the circumstances, I am your superior, I will permit myself to simply call you ‘Arthur’. Constantly saying ‘Mr Kirkland’ is getting rather exhausting, I must say.” Arthur rolled his eyes, but in a good-natured way. He didn’t really care what the man called him, and he was just glad to not have to simper anymore. Yao dismissed him and he marched from the tent feeling a little less drained than he usually did after talks with the General.

He hadn’t spoken to Barkhado in a while, but, as mad as she could be, a part of him was eager to reconnect with the industry that had kept him alive for the last six years. His friends were inherently bad people, but he was hardly better than they were. It would be nice to catch up with someone of his own moral standing for once. He cared about Alfred, he really did, but the boy really was too kind for him.

Ta Cïtadel twrali Tapsiris Jel (Citadel for the Order of the Wind)
Tamyir District, Bibesti, Rela,
6th Juillat

Every second she spent with Feliciano Vargas was tense and heavy with the distrust and resentment that the prince felt towards her, and she wished that she could find a reason to fault his feelings. The truth was, though, Inkar didn’t think that she had the right to consider the boy to be in the wrong anymore. She had done irrevocable damage; that was why she had sworn to help him reclaim his captured brother in the first place.

Inkar regretted ever taking an interest in the pair, and regretted even further her decision to seek them out. Even in the earlier days of her search, she had made mistakes that had lead the brothers closer and closer to danger. It was shortly after Lovino Vargas had been plucked from the street that one of her brothers-in-arms, Nizyan, had admitted to sharing information with Union soldiers that she had mentioned in Maarch. She had sensed the burning fire that dwelled within them both while on Incanda, and mentioned it to him not long after. He had gone to the Union authorities who were concerned by such matters, and not even a week later, the profiles of all five royal heirs to the Free Court thrones had seen a 10-billion-mark increase each in their going rate.

It made her sick to her stomach. Even when her mission had been concerned with helping rather than harming, she had brought pain and anxiety to the pair. She didn’t have the strength to admit to Feliciano that this indiscretion, too, was her fault. She had aggrieved him too extenstively already.

The prince kept his face carefully blank and seemed more concerned with the concealment of his vibrant hair than he did addressing what horrors his brother might be suffering, but Inkar knew better than to be deceived by all his outward appearances. He was suffering, mourning as if his brother were already dead. And it made sense to her that he should. They were, from what brief glimpses she had caught into their relationship, extraordinarily close. Had it not been for the context and history on which their bond was built, and the body language they had used with one another, Inkar may have in another situation misconstrued the relationship as an inappropriate and sexual one. It wasn’t obviously, but their familiarity was extensive enough that one might make such a mistake.

Inkar shook her head. She had hoped that proximity with the younger Vargas brother may slowly blunt his resentment of her, but their days of slow travel through the ravaged lower districts had been plagued by silence and more coldness than she had expected a boy made of flames to be capable of. She did not deserve his kindness or consideration, this she knew, but his continued detestment of her had served as a useful tool to continually beat down what self-regard she had. In her mission to protect Rela, she had inexcuseably harmed members of the family that had once been family in all but blood to her ancestors. It was criminal.

She was pulled from her thoughts as they turned down another corner and onto a wider street. They had entered the Tamyir District yesterday, which, though still sacked by the pirates, had not been as extensively ruined as Szwicza, Kirkos and Calmas had. Tamyir sat almost at the very centre of Bibesti, and was a district of almost perfect middle ground. It held neither the high houses and wealthy politicians of districts like Veroda, Sinnë and Dalk, but also was not plagued by the rife murder, rape and assault characteristic of Szwicza and Kirkos. It was a district of labourers and honest people, and best represented the average demographics of Rela. It was for this, and it’s central position, that it had been chosen as the home of the Zephyrak.

She and Feliciano had been attracting more and more attention the deeper they went into the district, and the closer they came to the Citadel. Well, Feliciano had been attracting attention. He tended to trail after her a little, close enough to keep her in his line of sight and follow her path to their shared goal, but not so close that it was immediately identifiable that they were travelling together. He had a much rougher appearance than those of Tamyir, and it was clear that he didn’t belong. Normally, the people here would not make comments, no matter how dirty or disparaged a person appeared, but the sole exception to that was Szwiczans. They spoke a different way, walked a different way, even surveyed the terrain in a different way to everyone else in Bibesti, and everyone here knew what that looked like.

He drew unease and alarm from the people he passed, less for the dirt on his face and the knife strapped to his belt than for the dark look on his features, and the sharp readiness in his stance. He was a fighter, and everyone could see it. Most fighters in this city came from one place.

Inkar glanced over her shoulder at him just as someone standing on the side of the road stepped up to him and grasped his arm. She came to a complete halt, immediately turning as Feliciano reflexively tried to yank his arm free of the stranger’s grip. The man tightened his grip, and Inkar watched in baffled horror as several others stepped closer to him, frowning.

“You aren’t from here, are you?” the man asked. Feliciano frowned, tugging his arm more insistently. The prince was fierce enough, despite his gentle temperament, to have pulled free on a normal day, but Inkar knew he was not at his best. He was tired of walking, weak from a lack of food and worn down by anxiety over his brother. She shook herself and marched forward.

“Yeah? Sue me.” Feliciano said, though the phrase came out as more defensive than angry due to the wide, worried set of his eyes.

“We don’t welcome criminals here. You violence-mongers can stay back in Szwicza. Our district is healing right now. We don’t need anyone to slow that process down.” Feliciano stared at the man, something like anger flickering briefly over his face before he resumed his efforts at freeing his arm.

“Sér.” She said, stepping closer to him. “Unhand him.” The man swivelled, and, upon sighting her uniform, immediately released Feliciano.

“Apologies, my viscount.” He said, bowing his head in deference. “I only wished to safeguard Tamyir from further damage.” Inkar tilted her chin up a little.

“You make many assumptions about him, Sér. He is here because I inflicted damage upon his own person and the person of his brother. He is here by my will and invitation, so I may correct a wrong of my own doing. He holds no fault.” Feliciano blinked at her. The man looked a little surprised, but bowed his head again.

“I see. Forgive me for my rashness, my viscount.” He turned to Feliciano, and bowed again. “Forgive my harshness and prejudiced mind, stranger. I did not mean any personal harm or offence.” Feliciano looked a little taken off guard, but just shook his head and murmured an acceptance of the apology. The man stepped away, bowed again and slipped back through the crowd. Inkar watched him until he had disappeared into the crowd, then pivoted and continued to move in the direction of the Citadel.

“You really have sway with them.” Feliciano murmured, stepping up to walk beside her for once. Inkar shrugged.

“We safeguard them. They show us respect for our service to them, though we ask no reward in return.” Feliciano hummed.

“You and your comrades being the descendants of Rela’s old royals probably doesn’t hurt their view of you either.” She inclined her head, but didn’t respond verbally to the statement. They continued to walk, until the street widened out further, finally exposing a vast building. The Citadel. Inkar felt some of the tension in her bones easing, and cast a look towards Feliciano to see his reaction. He looked impressed. Regardless of his well-warranted ill-will towards her, the Citadel was one of Rela’s most striking sites for a reason.

It was huge, built of massives swathes of white chalcedony and coastally-harvested sandstone. The Citadel’s main structure, a gargantuan, circular building, was surrounded by smaller, circular rooms with blue domed roofs. Massive towers constructed of sandstone were dotted around the premises, each of them standing higher than the lower buildings of the Citadel.

She strode across the busy marketplace sprawled over the open dais in front of the Citadel, not slowing her step as she and Feliciano moved towards the entrance. The massive doors, constructed she knew of a dark red teak wood, swung open of their own volition as she stepped up to them. A gentle breeze from within lifted the loose hairs from her face and brushed some of the dust from her uniform. Smiling for the first time in days, she led the prince inside.

The entrance hall was as impressive as ever; a huge, circular room with an extravagantly tiled floor and walls adorned with alcoves. The ceiling, high and domed, was decorated with vivid paintings of Rela’s history. She saw Feliciano looking up at the ceiling in her peripheral vision, and she braced herself as the gentle breeze dancing across her skin fell still and stagnant.

“Inkar.” A cool voice echoed out. “You bring a visitor.” She frowned a little. Of all the people who could have come to greet her at the gates, Zubaira would not have been her first choice. Her sister-in-arms was frowning, her too-pretty face filled with displeasure as she surveyed Feliciano. Zubaira tossed her head back a little, her short hair shifting slightly with the movement. She eyed Inkar. “Do explain yourself, sister, before I have Mother Aimira called down here.” Inkar bristled a little.

“I made a mistake, one which has dearly cost this young man. I aim only to live by the principles preached by our forefathers, and lend assistance where possible in order to amend my idiocy.” Zubaira hesitated, and Inkar could see that she had caught the other girl’s attention. The older Zephyrak examined Feliciano again.

“Normally, sister, lending aid does not extend to allowing a basqa inside our most sacred space.” Inkar stiffened slightly, Basqa. Other. Zubaira knew that Feliciano wasn’t Relusian. She levelled a look at her sister.

“These are extenuating circumstances.” She said. Zubaira frowned, then twitched her fingers slightly. A sharp, cold wind whipped through Inkar’s hair, and she heard it rattle through the alcoves, producing a low, hollow sound. Inkar gritted her teeth. Zubaira shrugged apologetically.

“Mother Aimira should be informed of this.” She said by way of explanation.

Inkar sighed as Feliciano shot her a bewildered look. She should have known it was coming. She herself had been taught to always call upon the Zephyrak Supreme if anything seemed amiss. Zubaira was only doing her sworn duty. Luckily for them, Mother Aimira was hardly known for her tardiness. Within three minutes of Zubaira summoning her, the intimidating woman was entering the entrance hall from one of the side doors, expression furrowed as she approached.

“Ahh, Zubaira, Inkar. I see why I was summoned.” She cast a curious look at Feliciano, but turned back to her underlings. “Kindly explain the situation.” Inkar gave her essentially the same spiel she had just given Zubaira. Mother Aimira hummed, looking over Feliciano with a small frown on her face. “I will say, child. We do not appreciate coverings meant to conceal unless they are worn for personal or religious reasons. If that cap is not so firmly attached to your scalp for either reason, kindly remove it.” Feliciano narrowed his eyes, before glancing at Inkar. She nodded gently, and he pulled the dark wool beanie off, exposing the vibrant red of his hair.

Zubaira sucked in a breath behind her, and Mother Aimira nodded slightly. “I see. There is a little more to this situation that you initially made clear. In what way did you wrong this boy?” Inkar hung her head slightly.

“My actions resulted in his brother being captured by some of the pirates sacking the city, Mother Aimira. They were the only company that the other had in the whole world. I seek to help him find his brother and amend the separation that I forced upon them.” Mother Aimira scrutinised Feliciano as she continued speaking to Inkar.

“Whatever possessed you to act in such a way that he and his brother were separated?” she inquired, glancing briefly at Inkar before continuing her examination of Feliciano. Inkar flinched.

“I believed that they may pose a threat to the safety of Rela and her people. I attempted to exterminate them after they refused to leave the planet.” She said. “I was incorrect and deeply misguided, and I apologise for such foolishness.” Mother Aimira turned her gaze back on Inkar.

“The fact of his ethnicity makes this whole situation a lot harder to swallow. Normally, I would be wholeheartedly in favour of your practising the values of the Citadel, and lending him aid, however, such an action would put you at great risk. Syhvvanians are not looked upon kindly in many parts of the Galaxy.” Inkar bowed her head.

“I know, Mother Aimira. I am aware of the risks, but I am prepared to take them.”

Mother Aimira shook her head. “I don’t know if I can allow you to do this to yourself, Inkar. You are among our very best. I would hate to see such talent and skill squandered.” Inkar bristled.

“Squandered? Mother Aimira, were Syhvvanians not once our brothers and sisters through the bond shared by our ruling houses? It was the same bond that Daerna, Syhvva and Fynkn still share and I refuse to believe that I should not at the very least owe the same duty to them as I do to Rela’s own people.” Mother Aimira sighed.

“Times have changed, Inkar. The Free Courts are not the same as they were 200, 50 or even 10 years ago. Rela is not the same either.” Inkar felt desperation bubbling up in her chest.  She silently cast a look at Feliciano, wordlessly asking him a question. The easing of the crease between his brows answered the unspoken question for her, and she stepped forward and took Mother Aimira’s hand.

“Please, Mother Aimira. He is deserving of my aid. I cannot in good conscience turn my back on him.” Mother Aimira shook her head and pulled her hand free of Inkar’s hold. She stepped forward, towards Feliciano, with an apologetic look on her face.

“I’m sorry, young man, but I will not risk one of the Ahkmetov family’s most powerful descendants for a cause so dangerous.” She turned to go, but as she did, Feliciano reached out and grabbed her wrist.

“Wait, please-” he murmured, eyes pained. Mother Aimira stopped dead in her tracks, shifting her arm so that she and Feliciano were gripping one another’s wrists. Her grip tightened, and her eyes widened. She stared at him, maintaining eye contact for a long moment before abruptly releasing him. She was silent for a moment.

“Very well. Inkar, you may lend him any aid you see fit, and provide whatever services the Citadel has dominion over to aid you.” Zubaira blinked in shock as Inkar bowed deeply.

“Thank you, Mother Aimira.” She said, gratitude painting her words. Zubaira straightened up, looking bewildered.

“Mother Aimira, you cannot just-” she started, only to be cut off.

“Rela has broken faith with Syhvva’s people in the past, many times. We stood by idly as they were invaded and pillaged during the Expansion, it is true. We have neglected the common people of Syhvva many a time and shall do it consistently into the future, I suspect. But let it never be said that we have neglected those who were once our brothers.” She turned and eyed Feliciano, Inkar and Zubaira. “The common man on Syhvva is not our brother or sister, Inkar. I shall break faith with them. But the House of Ahkmetov held a bond forged over three millennia with their royal family. I shall never allow it to be said that I have neglected the needs of the Vargas family.” She made eye contact with Feliciano. “The resources of the Citadel are yours to use as necessary, your majesty. Knowledge of your presence shall not become known outside these walls, that I can promise you. Inkar, serve him well.” Without another word on the matter, Mother Aimira turned and marched back through the way she had come, leaving three people in varying states of astonishment behind her.

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
8th Juillat

Feliks watched the ladybug carefully make it’s way over his leg, navigating a tricky route over a twisting scar that skirted around his knee, and slowly make it’s way up to his thigh. He gently placed his thumb in it’s path and watched it pause, consider whether or not to climb his finger, and eventually decide against it, turning around to move the other way. He watched it absently crawl back down his leg, navigating the forest of hairs before it scuttled onto his bare feet. It tickled a little, but he willed himself to be still. He had been watching it flitter around the room and explore his leg for over two hours now. If that wasn’t a testament to his complete and utter boredom, he really didn’t know what was.

Vash had joined in his absent observation of the ladybug, looking equally as despondent and vaguely suicidal as Feliks felt. They exchanged a glance as the ladybug departed Feliks’ foot and landed on the windowsill. Feliks would have laughed at the utterly deadened look in Vash’s eyes if he didn’t feel – and probably look – exactly the same way. He sighed, tipping his head back against the wall. Entertainment was hard to come by nowadays in their little prison, and their previously steady but subtle descent into depression had taken a nosedive. Francis didn’t even bother getting out of bed most days, and even Antonio’s seemingly endless cheer and good spirit had been ravaged by months of incarceration. Feliks shook his head. They would have more to do if they were just in a regular prison, and he couldn’t say that he wouldn’t welcome the change.

The sound of footsteps down the hall had them all sitting up and blinking in awareness. The only thing that was able to rouse them all from their fatigued states was visitors. Whether it was one of the rebels stopping by to deliver recent intergalactic news or one of their friends giving them an update on their new endeavours, anyone whose face Feliks didn’t spend endless hours staring at was welcome. A part of him wished that it was Tori coming to visit. Her presence was always the one that managed to brighten his day the most, and who kept him from falling back into his depressed funk for the longest. She had stopped by just two days ago, though, and he knew he couldn’t be so lucky as to expect her back so soon.

His deduction was correct, and though it wasn’t the feisty Daernic princess he had grown so fond of, he still grinned like a maniac. Gilbert’s face would always be welcome. It seemed odd to think back on how frequently they used to fight and bicker amongst themselves. Feliks usually found himself missing the obnoxious albino’s presence in the cell with them. He missed the jokes and the casual way that he managed to flirt with and insult people in the same sentence. He had become hyper-aware of people in the last few months, and so it only took Feliks a few seconds to notice the bandage wrapped around one of Gilbert’s hands. He raised an eyebrow after returning the Incandan’s greeting.

“What happened to your hand?” he inquired. Gilbert blinked, grinning sheepishly as he glanced at his hand.

“Oh, yeah, I was trying to fix an engine with a fucked up cooling system, and I accidentally brushed up against part of it that was red-fucking-hot, so yeah, burns ensued.” Feliks winced in sympathy, ignoring Antonio and Francis’ simultaneous snorts of derision. Gilbert rolled his eyes. “My hand was bandaged the last time I was here, too, you know. You’re all just unobservant dumbasses.” Feliks laughed.

“In our defence, the last time you were here, things got very dramatic very quickly.” Feliks noted Francis’ wince in the corner of his eye. Gilbert gave a shrewd grin, also evidently recalling Leon’s angry tirade and the very unwelcome revelation that he and Mei used to be slaves. Feliks decided to steer the conversation away from the topic. Francis hated the slave industry with a passion unlike that which Feliks had ever seen. Knowing that he had accused a former slave of supporting a slave driver was probably a bitter pill for him.

“Have they had you excused from work ever since, then?” Feliks asked, nodding to his hand. Gilbert laughed, shaking his head.

“Ugh, I wish. Nah, they’ve given me a break from working on ships for the next few weeks, though. I’ve been working on some more finnicky projects since then.” Feliks knew the shine in Gilbert’s eyes very well; it appeared whenever the albino stumbled upon something of interest to him, something he saw as worthy of consuming his attention for a considerable amount of time.

“Anything interesting in particular?” Gilbert jumped at the opportunity to elaborate.

“Hell yeah! One of the mechanics works almost exclusively on bionic and mechanical prosthetics, and she’s been showing me how they work! She’s trying to refine their nerve-allocation models right now, but they’re still really upmarket; more refined and effective than most other ones you could get.” Feliks nodded, looking at Gilbert with interest.

“Nerve-allocation models? What the hell are those?” Antonio piped up, looking legitimately curious. Gilbert’s grin widened even more, and he looked like he was legitimately trying to stop himself from bouncing up and down.

“They link the receptors in the bionic model into your actual nerve endings in whatever limb got severed. They respond to the electrical impulses and move like a regular arm or leg would. You can’t feel it, of course, but you can control it as well as a normal limb. They’re ridiculously expensive on the normal markets, but here they’re made for anyone who wants them and was unfortunate enough to lose a limb.” Feliks blinked in surprise. He didn’t know much about bionic limbs, but he could assume that it was an arduous and complex process to make them, especially the specific models that Gilbert was so enamoured. To give them out for free was a surprising move, but he supposed that it only made sense that the resistance would want to keep their most capable fighters battle-ready, even if they had lost a limb.

“Damn,” Francis let out a low whistle, “that’s impressive.” Gilbert nodded enthusiastically.

“Mhmm. And the bionic engineers told me that I can start learning how to make them soon, if I’m interested in it. It’s a real delicate process, but since I know both biology and technology, they think I could have a talent for it.” Feliks smiled, glad to hear that his friend was having his skills recognised properly by the rebels.

“Well, if I ever get one of my limbs ripped off, I’ll come to you for a replacement.” Feliks quipped. Gilbert grinned.

“Yeah, you do that. Anyway, enough about that,” Gilbert said, moving off the topic even though it was clear he could have gone on about it all day, “how are you guys doing?”

Feliks shrugged. “Well, Vash and I watched a ladybug crawl over my leg for two hours, so.”

Gilbert looked like he didn’t know what to do with that statement. Vash elaborated for him.

“We’re dying of boredom and I’m just about ready to slit my wrists.” The assassin said, tone dull and gaze flat. Gilbert flinched at that, his cheerfulness evaporated. Feliks would have cursed the loss of his friend’s happiness, but it was the truth. It would have been blatantly false to imply that they were all doing fine and enjoying themselves in here.

“You know I wish that I could do something, but…”

“But that power rests with that asshole Yao, I know.” Feliks sighed. “Don’t worry about it, Gilbert, there isn’t much you can do for us right now.”

“That is true, but I can, so perhaps stop insulting my boss.” A voice said from behind Gilbert. They all jumped in surprise as Tino Väinämoïnen materialised from behind the albino, looking mildly amused at their expressions of surprise, shock and confusion. The sniper gave them a lopsided but charming grin, and moved forward to join Gilbert in front of the bars of their cell. He crouched down to be on their level.

“What do you mean?” Roderich inquired, eyeing the blond distrustfully. Väinämoïnen grinned.

“Well, Yao has recognised that being cooped up for some long with no reprieve is taking a serious toll on you all, so he’s decided that, for two hours a day, if you so choose, you will be allowed outside. Of course,” he held up a hand as some of them leapt to their feet in shock and excitement, “you are going to make yourselves useful. You can act as sparring partners for some of our younger and more inexperienced trainees, and against each other, if you so wish.”

They all stared at him silently, wondering if the offer was really good enough to be true. Väinämoïnen cocked his head to the side. “So? You want in or not?”

They all nodded enthusiastically. The sniper nodded once to himself, looking satisfied. “Good. Now, we know it’s been a long time since you were out of your cell,” that was an understatement, “but we can’t in good faith let you all out at once. We don’t know if you’re going to be well behaved enough to manage. Five of you can come today, and the other five can go tomorrow. You can decide among yourselves who gets to go first.” He stood up straight. “Do hurry up. I’ll give you a few minutes but I don’t like waiting too long.”

Feliks turned to the others, all of whom looked a little shocked and surprised. Only five of them would be allowed to go this afternoon. He sighed, feeling his stomach sink. He was willing to stay in this hell of a prison for another day if it meant his friends could experience sun on their skin and fresh air quicker.

Talking seemed to erupt between them all at the exact same moment, before being cut short a moment later when someone shouted over the rest of them.

“Everyone shut the fuck up!” Natalya shouted, looking pleased when everyone slammed their mouths shut and turned to face her. “We are not going to argue like children about who gets to go out first. In my opinion, it’s obvious.” She surveyed them all. “There are people in here who have suffered far more from being stuck inside so long than others. Take that into account instead of your own selfishness.” She tilted her chin up. “I don’t give a shit who the other two are, but in my opinion, Feliks, Vash and Francis should all go.” The three she mentioned stared at her. She shrugged standoffishly. “It bothers you three a lot, being stuck in here. It’s fucking obvious.”

No-one really wanted to fight Natalya, so a series of low murmurs of agreement filtered through the room. Feliks’ weak protests were shot down viciously by Natalya’s glare, and he sat back, silent and willing to accept his fate.

In the end, it was somehow worked out that Feliks, Vash, Francis, Louise and Berwald would all go first, with Natalya, Antonio, Roderich, Yael and Eduard going tomorrow. Antonio didn’t seem upset by not leaving at the same time as the rest of his crew, and just shrugged, wishing them well as they were herded out of the cell by Väinämoïnen and another two rebels they recognised – Kari and Nelia were their names, Feliks was pretty sure.

Feliks hadn’t spent too much time on his feet recently, and he winced as his knees and ankles cracked unsettlingly as he walked. He rolled his shoulders as he was ushered towards the exit. He felt his heartrate accelerate a little as, for the first time in three months, he was able to step outside.

It was afternoon, so the ground wasn’t scorching hot like it would have been in the morning. His toes dug into the hard-packed red dirt a little, and he took in a deep breath, inhaling sharply as fresh air filtered through his mouth and lungs. A gentle breeze was sweeping across the plains where the rebel camp was, and Feliks could have sobbed for how good it felt on his skin. The sky was a deep, blue-mauve colour, and though it wasn’t like the skies of Pyndaph and Reycass that he was more used to, it still made his mouth stretch into a wide smile. The warmth on his skin made his breath stutter. Sunlight hadn’t touched his skin properly in months. He saw Väinämoïnen shake his head a little.

“I know it’s nice to finally be outside again, but come on, you need to move.” The gentle pressure of the sniper’s hand on his back finally forced his legs into motion. They followed the blond through the camp, looking around in curiosity and amazement at the rebels at work. Eventually, they came to a large, seemingly circular wall made of brick and wood. It was about twenty metres high, with a large set of doors to enter. The rebels ushered them inside. Feliks blinked in surprise. It was an arena, clearly designed to act as a training ground which could also provide a measure of privacy. They weren’t the only ones there; he could see a group of people standing a fair way away, talking amongst themselves. The restraints that the rebels had tied loosely around his wrists was removed, and he rubbed the raw spots as he glanced around. Before his head even had time to snap to the right, however, he found the barrel of a gun pressed against his throat.

Glancing sideways in sharp panic, he froze when he saw the cold Yanishman – Yao – standing there calmly, rifle in his hands and finger brushing gently along the trigger. The other four had noticed his situation and fallen silent, all looking frightened and wary. Francis looked ready to pounce on the man and attack him. Feliks swallowed. Yao smiled.

“Keep in mind that you are here out of our good will. We are making the decision to trust you with giving you some free time outside. If you step out of line, you will pay for it, understand?” they all nodded, albeit Feliks did so very cautiously. Yao nodded, then lowered his rifle and slung it across his back, waving a hand. “Good. Enjoy yourselves.” He said, marching out of the arena. Feliks gently massaged the place that the gun had been pressing into his skin, sharing a bewildered look with the others before turning to look at the people that they would apparently be helping to train.

He spotted one of the people from before rushing over to them, but as they got closer, his lingering anxiety vanished. Even with the very recent threat on his life hanging over his head, Feliks could do little but grin as Tori ran towards him and jumped up, wrapping her arms around him in a proper hug. He huffed out a laugh and reciprocated the gesture, praying that his weary body would not betray exactly how touch-starved he had become in the last few months. Tori bounced backwards, throwing him a dazzling smile before moving to hug the others. He smiled again, looking at the others of the group. Arthur, Mei, Leon, Elizabeta and Emilia Bondevik seemed to be the ones who they were being put up against. He raised an eyebrow. None of them exactly struck him as being inexperienced or in need or extra training.

“I demand a rematch.” He heard Väinämoïnen say behind him. He turned to see the sniper jabbing a long staff at Berwald, eyes narrowed. Berwald looked perplexed by this.

“But you won.” The blond smiled sinisterly.

“Yes, but you got a good hit in, which never happens. Come on, rematch big guy.” Berwald still looked confused, but followed him anyway. Feliks grinned. That would surely be an interesting match. He saw Arthur eye Francis sharply for a moment before turning to Vash and asking if he would like to spar. Mei skipped over to Francis just a moment later to ask if he would like to fight with her. Leon had paired up with Emilia Bondevik, and looked a little cowed at the idea of fighting the fierce-seeming Fynknian. A tap on his shoulder made him turn. Tori grinned at him.

“I hope you aren’t too rusty?” Feliks grinned, winking at her.

“I’m still good enough to give you a real fight.” He challenged, mimicking her as she shifted into a combat stance.

“Admittedly, I was not expecting this to be your first move.” Octavia said as she and Yao watched the pairs fight. Yao shrugged, eyes roving over the group, lingering pointedly on their captives.

“The game I’m playing with them is a very delicate one, Octavia.” He said. “If I move too quickly, they’ll realise what my motive is and turn away, but if I give them liberties, bit by bit, integrate them gradually enough that it seems natural all the while fostering sympathy for our cause among them…”

“You may be able to recruit them all instead of killing them.” Octavia finished. “It’s a bold move, Yao, and a very risky one at that.”

“Dear Octavia, everything we do here is bold and risky. I’d rather not execute ten innocent people but I will do so if I am unsuccessful. But it would be rather defeatist to not even try to get them on our side, don’t you think?”

Octavia hummed. “I suppose so. You are the boss, so if you’re willing to try, then I’ll follow you.”

Yao nodded, smiling slightly. “I’m glad to hear that I’ll have your support. This won’t be an easy endeavour, but I feel like this group could be useful to us.”

“Let’s hope that you’re right.”

Chapter Text

Blå Ren Insurgent Training Camp,
Feynir Region, Fynkn,
10th Juillat

“Have you checked your allocations yet?” Matthias panted as he ducked away from Riya, biting back a curse when her knife almost sliced right through his eyebrow. She frowned slightly, shaking her head as she stepped back, spinning the sharp blade in her hands.

“Not yet, no. I don’t think it really matters.” She said nonchalantly. “I’m not overly bothered about where I get assigned, as long as I can do some good.” He nodded as he fell back into a defensive stance. They had been paired up and told to work on defending themselves while unarmed and facing someone with a weapon. He had managed to avoid getting slashed by Riya so far, and he didn’t really want to break his lucky streak. He envied that she could afford to be so blasé about where she was assigned after training. Unlike Riya, he didn’t really get to choose where he went. Yao had been rather blunt about the fact that he needed to get assigned to wherever Bondevik was assigned, since his whole purpose here was to protect the guy.

He ducked again as Riya sliced at his head, lashing out with his foot and striking her solidly in the abdomen. She wheezed, and, recognising the sound of air being forced out of someone’s lungs, took the opportunity to slam his elbow into the side of her head, knocking her to the ground. She groaned, rubbing at the spot as she dropped the knife and raised her hands in a surrendering gesture.

“Oww, okay, I yield.” Matthias grinned apologetically and offered her a hand, which she accepted. He pulled her to her feet and took a moment to breathe as she dusted snow off her uniform, looking mildly disgruntled. He wouldn’t have pinned her as the sort of person that he would enjoy talking to, but here he was. Matthias had noted a profound change in her behaviour in the last few days. The slump in her shoulders wasn’t so heavy; like she had freed herself of a large weight. She had spoken up more and even offered a witty comment when one of their overseer officers had made an error. She had even deigned to speak to Matthias more, too, which he appreciated. Riya had a dry sense of humour, but none of Bondevik’s haughtiness to accompany it. She was, by Matthias’ excellent deduction, cool. He didn’t mind her company, and was glad to see that she didn’t seem to mind his either.

Riya had been very graceful in gently correcting some parts of his Fynknian grammar that were rusty or a little rudimentary. He was grateful to her for that; he knew that his vocabulary wasn’t as volumous as it could be; he had only learned the language to accommodate the needs of a small child, of course, so it made sense that he wasn’t totally up to date. She was an excellent teacher, not minding in the slightest when he asked her to repeat a word or clarify his pronunciation.

But if she seemed to enjoy his company at times, Riya seemed to also go out of her way to seek out Bondevik. They had spent a lot of time together recently; that was only the real reason why Matthias had started to get to know her – by proxy. He didn’t care in the slightest, but he couldn’t deny that he was curious about why they had suddenly become so inseparable, but it wasn’t his business, and he liked to think that he had more than learnt his lesson about getting to the bottom of a personal matter when Bondevik was involved. The memory of his own sharp words concerning the prince’s parents made him cringe. He had been forgiven, for which he was very grateful, but he doubted that he had ever said something more insensitive and offensive in his life. This planet was really messing with him.

Matthias could have sworn that both he and Riya breathed a sigh of relief when Sergeant Kolden ordered them to stop fighting. He threw her a grin, and felt his mood lift when she responded in kind, albeit only slightly. Whatever it was that had made her happier and freer with her thoughts, he was happy for her. They collected the various weapons that they had been practicing with and dumped them into the huge barrels that the Sergeant had indicated.

“Any of you who don’t know your first allocations, check them now!” Kolden roared over the rabble. Riya rolled her eyes, but jerked her head in the direction of the allocations board in a motion that said come with me?

Matthias nodded and drifted after her as she shoved her way through the crowd. The odd fascination and borderline fear that most people here had of Riya remained, even with her more sociable and friendly behaviour. He couldn’t help but roll his eyes at them. Yeah, she was a stoic badass, but she was also only human. He had seen some similar reactions to Bondevik, but something told him that that was an instinctual reaction. He had crazy-ass powers that could kill everyone here no problem, from what he had heard, so it was unsurprising that the guy gave off an aura of danger.

Riya was humming, running her finger down the listings until she located her name. She frowned, peeling away from the board and nodding at Matthias. He squeezed out of the crowd, staggering a little in the slushy snow before righting himself.

They had been allocated a partner who was to be their sparring match for their final examinations. They would have to perform about three fights each, each of which would be determined based on their skills and ability level. The way they performed in these fights would determine where they would go after their training was over. It was the difference between being marked as a common soldier and becoming an esteemed member of a guerrilla squad. The distinction was more important to some people than others, but there were enough people who cared that meant the fight to get into a squad would be a bloody one. It was the goal of most people in Block A, and most Block D trainees weren’t expected to ever get close. It was a little grating, but he supposed that the trainees had been divied up for a reason.

“Good or bad?” he asked. Riya tilted her head slightly.

“Gori Halsif.” She said simply. “He’s an underfed runt of a guy. I should be fine. I never asked, who are you up against first?”

Matthias winced, grinning guiltily. “Ansel. I don’t wanna insult the guy but…”

“You’ll win easily.” Riya finished, raising an eyebrow. “That isn’t insulting. I’ve seen him fight, it’s fact.” Matthias sighed, rubbing the back of his neck.

“I mean…yeah, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean you should say it.” he muttered. Riya raised her eyebrows again, looking amused before moving past him.

“Whatever you say. Come on, I need your help with something.” Frowning in confusion, he followed her.

“I fail to see how I can help here.” Matthias muttered to Riya, frowning as he watched Bondevik pace around the abandoned training ground. “Or why.” Riya gave him a pointed look. It was the sort of expression that communicated a sentiment similar to holy shit you are so stupid why do I even bother, which he did not appreciate much. He scowled right back, and she rolled her eyes. For whatever reason, Riya had decided that this conversation was conducted best while they were crouching behind a large stack of boxes, looking for all the world like a pair of complete fucking weirdos.

“He’s stressed out about getting a guerrilla squad, even though I think he’ll be completely fine. Just tell him what I’ve been trying to drill into his head for the last two days.” He looked at her incredulously.

“What in the system makes you think that he’s going to listen to me? Especially if he’s been ignoring you.” The prince seemed to be much closer friends with Riya. He and Matthias barely got along well. They were getting better now, sure, but he would hardly call them friends. Riya frowned.

“Well, for one, he does actually listen to what you have to say, despite all appearances to the contrary, and, well, you’ve known him longer than I have, haven’t you?”

“Well, yeah, by like a few days. We met right before we left the resistance, so it’s not too significant a difference. I don’t know why everyone is under the assumption that we’ve known each other way longer.”

Riya raised her eyebrow – she really did love doing that, didn’t she? “Probably because you two spend a lot of time together even though your personalities are almost completely opposite to one another and you fight every ten seconds?” Matthias snapped his mouth shut. He could hardly explain that he was almost literally contractually fucking obligated to stay in Bondevik’s vicinity, because that would just open up a whole new line of questioning.

“He’s the only other person here from the resistance. It’s nice to talk to someone who isn’t entirely in the Fynknian rebel mindset. And to talk to someone who knows that temperatures above 0°C exist.” Riya rolled her eyes – another habit of hers.

“Well I guess I understand that. In all honesty, though, that isn’t the conclusion that most other people seem to have drawn.” Matthias blinked.

“I’m sorry, people have already drawn conclusions about us? Do explain.”

“I thought we were here to talk to Lukas.”

“Well that can wait. You can’t drop something like that on me and then not answer me, so come on, explain.” Riya gave him a look, the one that indicated it was something that she clearly thought he should know. He bristled internally. Why was everyone here faster on the uptake than he was? It was starting to get very irritating.

“You really can’t figure it out?” she said. He gave her a blank look, and Riya sighed. “You’re both hopeless. Honestly. You’re both young, rather attractive and only a few years apart in age. You spend a lot of time together even though your personalities don’t seem to be compatible at all.” He waited another moment for her to finish, which she clearly wanted to do despite the exasperation on her face. “Oh my saints, everyone here thinks you two are fucking.”

Matthias blinked. “Oh. Ah, okay then.” It made sense, in a twisted way. “I mean, incorrect, but I can kinda see where people would get that impression.” Riya sighed.

“Yeah, no shit.”

“We aren’t, though.”

“Thanks for the clarification.” She said dryly. “Good luck convincing everyone else that, though.”

“I mean, I wouldn’t fuck him anyway, even if I did have the time or privacy to do so.” He said, waving vaguely in Lukas’ direction. Riya was staring at him. Her silence unnerved him, and when he looked at her face, he saw something oddly like a smile threatening to fully break out over her face.

“Got it, excellent, I’m so glad that this conversation is continuing.” She said after a long moment. “But…” she trailed off, “I don’t mean to incriminate you here, but are you sure that you’re being entirely honest there?” Matthias just about fell over.

“Yes, I’m sure!” she stared at him, and he stared back. He wasn’t sure what she wanted out of him, but he wasn’t about to go and lie just to appease her. “Alright, listen, I can understand where people get the impression that we’re…closer…than we actually are, but that is just flat out false. From an objective standpoint, purely objective, I will admit that he’s an attractive guy, I mean, I saw Calla eying him one day and from what I’ve seen, they’re only interested in women. But regardless of objective beauty, I am not attracted to him.” He shrugged, ignoring the look of great amusement on Riya’s face. “I can understand why others find him attractive, but I am not on that same wavelength, okay? I swear, if I ever stop seeing him as anything but a proud jackass, I will let you know.” Riya bit her lip, looking like she was stifling a grin.

“And it is that charm that will help you break him out of this funk.” She shoved him forward and he had to wave his hands around like helicopter blades to keep himself from falling onto his face. He threw a glare at her over his shoulder and reached back, shoving her by the shoulders so that she also overbalanced and landed in the snow. She yelped in indignation and attempted to get her feet out from under her to kick him. Matthias ended up knocked on his ass too, batting off her feet with his gloved hands. Riya was grinning like a maniac, but her expression froze when she glanced over Matthias’ shoulder.

“Well, hi there Lukas.” She said simply. Matthias whirled around, blinking sheepishly when he saw Lukas standing not even a metre away, looking thoroughly confused and unimpressed. Without another word, she kicked Matthias forcefully enough in the chest that he fell backwards against Lukas’ legs, scrambled to her feet, gave them both a mock salute and ran off. Matthias gawked, mentally filing Riya under ‘is a complete and utter little shit’ in his head.

Realising that his back was still pressed against Lukas’ legs, he shuffled away, tipping his head up and grinning in a way that he hoped didn’t look too guilty. He must have failed, because the prince’s frown deepened.

“What in the hell were you doing?” he asked, tone dull and humourless. Matthias scratched his head.

“Okay, before I go into an in-depth explanation, the whole crouching behind boxes was 100% Riya’s idea.” Lukas looked a little disbelieving at that, but he didn’t openly discredit what Matthias was saying, for which he was grateful.

“Why are you here? I assumed you would be napping, or something.”

“Hey, I don’t spend all of my time sleeping.” Lukas raised an eyebrow. “…Shut up.” Matthias grumbled. “I got into the habit while I was imprisoned by the rebels.” He fell silent, watching as Lukas’ expression softened fractionally. “As for why I’m here, well, you’re kinda starting to worry Riya and I.” the prince looked downright startled at that. He folded his arms, looking a little disbelieving.

“…Why?” he said after a long moment. “What reason do either of you possibly have to be worried about me?” his voice sounded a little smaller than it usually did, and Matthias hesitated. The Fynknian looked oddly…vulnerable like this. The part of him that conducted all protective instincts – usually reserved for his sister Ivaana and some of his younger friends – surged up a little.

“Riya told that me you’re freaking out over getting into a guerrilla squad.” He said, making his voice a little quieter and gentler than it normally was. “You shouldn’t be stressing yourself out so much.” Lukas sighed.

“And why the hell not?” he snapped. “being in a squad is the best way for me to actually make a difference. It’s what I’ve been aiming for, for months now. I’ve waited 11 years to come back here and fight, and I can’t have my chance squandered because I couldn’t beat someone in hand-to-hand combat.”

Matthias sighed, before getting to his feet and frowning reprimandingly at the much shorter man. “Listen up, I know that you’re really set on getting into one of the squads, but come on, Lukas, you’re one of the best fighters in Block D. I have no doubts that you’ll be able to smash most of the people you get paired up with. You’re underestimating your own abilities by a lot.”

Lukas stared at him, before his frown eased a little. “I see you’ve actually called me by my first name.” Matthias blinked, going over his words in his head. He sighed.

“Yeah, I guess I did.” He muttered. “It’s just…” his hand hovered awkwardly for a minute before he said a silent ‘fuck it’ and placed it on the Fynknian’s shoulder. “You’ll be fine. Losing your mind stressing out about it isn’t going to help you get any better at actually fighting, now is it?”

Lukas sighed, and shook his head. “Yeah, I guess not.” He looked up at Matthias, making proper eye contact. He blinked. He had never really taken the time to properly look at Lukas’ eyes before, but he could see now that the deep blue colour wasn’t perfect. A crescent of silver interrupted the dark hue in his left eye. The mark was odd, but it didn’t have an unpleasant effect. “I thought Matthias the Therapist only appears once in a blue moon?” he teased. “This is twice in one week.” Matthias grinned, dropping his hand from the prince’s shoulder.

“Well, he’ll be unavailable for a long time, so this is just making up for that.” He said, punching Lukas gently in the shoulder. “For real, though, you’ll be fine. We all will; you, Riya and I.” Lukas hummed.

“Who are you fighting first?” he asked. Matthias smiled sheepishly again.

“Uhh, Ansel. Riya is confident that I’ll get through to the next round.” Lukas huffed out a breath which may have, potentially, been actual laughter.

“I’m up against Elin Markus again.” He said. Matthias laughed.

“Then you really will be fine. You took him out easy just a few days ago! Seriously, stop stressing, you psychopath.” Lukas rolled his eyes.

“Anxiety and concern are perfectly healthy reactions to life’s respective stressors.” He says. Matthias rolled his eyes.

“Yeah yeah yeah, go ahead and use your big fancy words. I’m going to go grab some coffee and fight Riya for abandoning me. You’re welcome to join me if you want.” Lukas watched him, bewildered, for a moment before stuffing his hands in his pockets, and trailing after him.

Resistance Headquarters,
Draak-Zafi Forra, Nyma,
10th Juillat

Yao skimmed the paper, nodding at Arthur as the pirate relaxed a little.

“The Red Pike.” He said. “It sounds familiar.”

“It’s a bar and anchorage.” The pirate explained. “Quite popular among the Galaxy’s more lawless citizens.” Yao gave him a razor-thin smile.

“I see. You would have fit in quite well, then?” Kirkland didn’t rise to the bait, just smiling slightly.

“Very well. My contact said that Barkhado has made plans to stop by there on the 20th. She’s got a few trade deals and meetups to coordinate, knowing her.” Yao frowned, folding his hands.

“Well, she’ll hopefully be able to give you an audience, too, then.” Arthur nodded.

“She will. She has a tendency to prioritise her friends over stuffy businessmen, luckily for me. It’s been months since I was on anyone’s radar, though, so she’ll probably be surprised to even see me. Dirie gets talkative; I can’t promise that it’ll be an in-and-out mission.” Yao nodded.

“We aren’t going to bother relying on stealth and speed, here, so take as long as you need. We’ll need Dirie’s insight and connections to find this slave.” Arthur nodded again.

“Have you decided who I’m going with? On this mission, I mean.” The pirate asked. Yao leant back in his chair. He had given it a lot of thought, but wasn’t really any closer to making a final decision.

“I’m still undecided, but you’ll leave here on the 18th to get to the Red Pike in time. I’ll think over it some more. Oh, and Arthur,” the pirate paused, looking at him expectantly, “can you bring Vash Zwingli here? I need to speak with him.” The blond looked bewildered, but nodded slowly, departing Yao’s tent in the direction of their cell blocks. Yao sighed. He wasn’t pleased about the news he had to deliver to the assassin, but he was glad to have an excuse to talk to the man.

Back in early Maii, he had pushed and pressed his analysts and researchers to find out as much about their captives as they possibly could. They had compiled all of the information into comprehensive files which he had been very diligent in memorising. He had asked that they be updated with information regularly where possible. One surprising nugget of intel that they had dug up was the address that Zwingli worked out of. He wasn’t sure what he expected, but a dingy apartment in the Szwicza District didn’t seem right. He was an assassin, and a very good one at that. He earned hundreds of thousands of marks for every kill. Why he lived in such a dilapidated and dangerous area was beyond Yao, but he had told his reconnaissance team to keep an eye on the property anyway. They had come to him a few days ago with the news that the floor of the building that Zwingli lived in, along with several above and below it, had been engulfed in a huge fire. The man’s apartment was likely completely destroyed. He felt obligated to at least inform the assassin of this, and maybe answer some of his other nagging questions in the process.

The scowling blond was steered into his tent only a moment later by Arthur, looking thoroughly disgruntled.

“Ah, thank you, Arthur. Find whatever else you can on Barkhado Dirie and get back to me tomorrow.” He watched Zwingli as he spoke to the pirate, and raised an eyebrow when he saw him stiffen at the mention of Barkhado Dirie. She was rather well known, Yao supposed, but the burning, unidentifiable emotion in his eyes made him pause. Yao waited until Arthur exited the tent, and gestured to the chair. The assassin was still for a long moment before reluctantly sitting down. Yao drummed his gloves fingers on the desk for a moment. “Thank you for joining me, Mr Zwingli.” The blond scowled again.

“It isn’t as though I had much of a choice.” He muttered. Yao hummed in mild agreement, then reached into one of his desk drawers and withdrew the cell which had the pictures of the burnt-out building on it. He handed it over and watched as Vash sifted through the pictures, a frown taking over his features. “What’s this?” he asked. Yao sighed.

“I’m sorry to inform you of this, but my subordinates delivered the news a few days ago that a massive fire somehow broke out in your apartment building. Most of your floor, in additional to several others, were destroyed.” Vash stared at the pictures, brow furrowing.

“Where did the fire start?” he asked. Yao sighed, taking back the cell when Vash handed it to him.

“Only a few apartments down from your own, I believe.” He said simply. Vash’s expression twisted, and Yao watched in confusion and intrigue as he clearly tried to wrestle his face into something more neutral. The fire meant something to him, Yao realised. He didn’t seem wholeheartedly concerned about the destruction of his personal property. He frowned, leaning forward a little. “You seem a little disturbed about this.” Vash paused and looked up.

“I’m not.” He said, tone level despite the obvious tension that Yao registered in his shoulders. He raised an eyebrow.

“If you are going to lie to me, Mr Zwingli, you might want to try a little harder.” He said delicately. The assassin glared at him. “I will say, you are quite the enigma. I know that your name is not your real name, at least not in it’s entirety. It would be blatantly foolish to operate in the business that you do using your real name.” he leant back in his chair, kicking one leg over the other and staring at the ceiling absently. “I know that Mr Kirkland does the same, as do many others, undoubtedly. Even despite your careful anonymity, though, it’s not hard to get information on you. You aren’t as careful as you might think.” He clasped his hands and eyed the blond.

“For example, I know that you always demand large sums in exchange for your service, and still live in one of the poorest parts of Bibesti. You were intelligent enough to surmise Lukas Bondevik’s identity based on minimal evidence, and afterwards showed immense interest in him despite claiming that you didn’t want to kill or sell him. You seem unbothered by the fact that your apartment went up in flames, and yet you actively asked after the origin of the fire rather than if any of your possessions could be saved. Judging by your reaction when I was speaking to Arthur, you have a dislike of Barkhado Dirie. You are a curious young man, indeed.”

Vash scowled at this. “You sure seem interested in me, General.” Yao smiled thinly.

“I only had you brought here so that I could inform you of what happened to your apartment.” He tilted his head to the side. “But I am inclined to ask you to stay. You do interest me, Mr Zwingli.” Vash huffed, but didn’t respond. Yao studied his face. He looked like there was something burning right beneath the surface, something he wanted to say. “Is there anything I can help you with? You look like there’s something you want to say.”

Vash sighed. “You want to help the Free Courts, don’t you?” Yao nodded. “Why, exactly?”

“Because the Union murdered and displaced millions of people when they took over the Free Courts. Their actions were a vile act against a whole horde of people, an act which never should have been tolerated by so many other planets. A lot of our members are from the Free Courts, you can’t have failed to notice that. We aim to get them their homes back. As the only real stalwart anti-slavery planets in the Galaxy, they always supported our agenda against the Union.”

Vash hummed. “And what about their royals? What do you intend to do with the Bondevik siblings and Tori Laurinaitis now that you have them?” Yao blinked.

“I intend to help them get their homes back, and I would be happy to see them installed on their respective thrones in my lifetime. We lend a great deal of aid to any Free Court rebel cells that ask for it.” Vash looked up.

“So, they’re the ends to your political agenda? Is that it?” Yao stiffened.

“Though useful they may be, make no mistake, Mr Zwingli, I care about them deeply as individuals as well. They are all only young, and I only want to help them gain back what the Union unlawfully ripped from their hands.” Vash stayed silent, looking deep in thought. Yao sighed. “You see to be very interested in the royals, why?”

Vash went rigid, and Yao could practically see his thoughts sprinting rapidly behind his eyes. The assassin seemed to weigh what he would say next for a moment, before the tension drained from his shoulders and he slumped in his seat a little.

“You really want to help them? The royals? You don’t just want to sell them off to the Union for a profit?” Yao shook his head.

“Let me assure you, Mr Zwingli, if I had any intention to selling them off to the Union, I would be hundreds of billions of marks richer.” He spread his arms. “Do I look that rich to you?”

The assassin was silent once more. “……You’re telling the truth. You really just want to help them…” Yao nodded, watching him carefully.

“I do.” He said honestly. Vash sighed, resting his head in his hands.

“…I would bet that my neighbours caused that fire. I have no idea why, but I’m almost certain that it was them.” He said, voice quiet and faltering, as if he was unsure of whether he wanted to disclose this information evev as he gave it. Yao cocked his head to the side.

“And why would your neighbours start a fire in your apartment building?” he asked. Vash sighed, folding his arms.

“Back when I figured out who Lukas Bondevik was, I didn’t show interest because I wanted to sell him off to the Union like your lackeys assumed. I just wanted to talk to him.”

“Why?” Yao questioned. Vash looked up, green eyes making contact with Yao’s brown.

“Lovino and Feliciano Vargas were among my neighbours.” He ground out. He jerked his head towards the Cell lying on the table. “I’d bet good money that it was one of them that started that fire, though why they would I don’t know.” He muttered. Yao was completely still, letting the new information sink in.

“How did you know it was them?” he asked quietly. Vash winced.

“They kept their names the same, which wasn’t as foolish a move as one would believe. The combination of names for siblings became incredibly common for Jhobrasian people after Queen Carina named them both, which is what they were disguising themselves as. I heard then speaking in Syhvvanian one night.” He shrugged. “I did a lot of digging, found a picture of the old queen. Lovino looks astonishingly similar to her. I guessed that was who they were. I guess that news about the fire confirms it.” Yao stared at him, trying to dispel the wave of unwelcome anger that surged up inside him. He should be relieved by this news, elated even. But all he could feel was harsh, blinding anger that this information had been kept from him.

This man owes you no loyalty, so it’s foolish to assume that he would have told you if not pressed, one half of his brain murmured.

He’s crossed a line, you should punish him for keeping such important information from you, another voice muttered malevolently into his ear. He rubbed his hands over both his ears, wishing that the act could dispel the erratic whispers.

“And you didn’t think it was important to inform me of this?” he said, tone undercut with irritation. The second voice cackled victoriously. He clenched his hands into fists under his desk. His knee was jogging up and down but he couldn’t be bothered stopping it. Vash frowned.

“Believe me, General, I owe no loyalty to the Union, but I owe none to you either. I care more about their safety and wellbeing than I do about the resistance’s martyr act and political agenda.” Yao sat up a little straighter.

“Oh? You are concerned for them?” Vash’s face shut down, all emotion from a moment before vanishing, locked behind an impenetrable mask. Yao ignored the stab of vicious satisfaction that rose inside him at that moment. “That’s good to know. Though I must say, Mr Zwingli, I am rather disappointed in your lack of proactivity. If you are willing to share more information about your Syhvvanian friends, I may consider letting you help look for them, but for now, I think it would be best if I returned you to your cell.” Zwingli clenched his jaw but didn’t say anything.

Yao rose from his chair and moved around his desk, grabbing the blond by his upper arm and dragging him from the tent, towards the cell block. “If you want to say anything more on the matter, feel free to send for me, or even anything on Barkhado Dirie, for that matter.” Vash went rigid again, stumbling slightly as Yao steered him forwards roughly, ”Oh, yes, I saw your reaction when you heard her name. Acquainted, are you?” he inquired. Vash scowled.

“She took something important from me.” He growled. Yao raised an eyebrow.

“Oh? Why?”

“I shot her mentor, a big crime boss called Okeriete Abara. She didn’t take kindly to it, and decided that she would take something in return.” He frowned. “She swore to return it if I paid her the amount of money that Abara had in his bank account at the time that he died.”

“And how much money was that?” Vash’s eyes dimmed and the corners of his mouth turned down.

“Over 13 million marks.” He said, tone dark. Yao nodded in sudden understanding.

“So, all of the money you earn from your clients…”

“Goes to her, yes, but she’s stalling now that I’m getting close. She sets ridiculous limits for me to meet and hesitates to see me.” Yao hummed.

“Have you ever considered that she may have destroyed this precious thing of yours already and just be draining you of your money?” Vash looked down.

“I have.”


He looked up again. “And if she has, then I’ll track her down and mount her head on the prow of her ship.”

“This thing she stole must be quite important to you.”

Yao only caught the assassin’s next words because he was so close to him. As it was, he doubted that they really were intended for him.

“She is.”

Onboard the SS Larcenist,
Outer Space,
12th Juillat

Lovino twisted his torso around, sighing as he felt pressure release and a loud, mildly sickening crack met his ears. He relaxed again, rotating his feet to accomplish the same goal with his ankles. Eladina watched him with mild disgust.

“Isn’t that the sort of thing that ends up giving you osteoporosis or something?” she asked. Lovino blinked at her, frowning in utter confusion.

“I don’t know what the fuck they’re teaching you on Jhobras, but I don’t think that’s right.” She shrugged, not looking even remotely upset to be both wrong and verbally vilified. In the awful twelve or so days that he had spent on Barkhado Dirie’s ship, one thing he had learned was that Eladina Gonzalez was unfalteringly cheerful. Even though he had been reticent to a fault and completely unwilling to reveal anymore information other than his ethnicity and age, she hadn’t been bothered by it at all, and had compensated for his lack of sharing by telling him an inordinately large amount of things about herself. She reminded him of Feliciano, if he had a little less discretion.

He knew that she was 18 years old and from Jhobras, that her mother’s name was Gabriéla and her father’s name was Santin. He knew that she used to have a dog called Mopsy and she lived in a town right by a river. She had grown up swimming and fishing there with her family. She had no sisters but one older brother, Alejandro, who hadn’t been at the house the day that slavers came to find new victims. Eladina had spoken at length about her favourite books, movies, singers and even what musicals she thought were worth spending time on. She had talked his ear off for the better part of his imprisonment here, but he couldn’t bring himself to be annoyed by it. She had a soothing voice, and a wicked sense of humour. She cracked jokes that warranted groans and gasps from everyone in the container and grins from Lovino.

But he was yet to yield any information on himself. She still called him Red because he didn’t want to let anyone know his name and he was too tired to remember a proper alias. ‘Red’ suited him just fine, for now. He had caved and admitted, after her relentless questioning, that he was 20 years old. Lovino had expected that providing a small piece of information would make her more curious, but her interest had been sated, and she had seemed glad to know just one more thing about him.

One of the other prisoners had explained that her curiosity was due to him being Syhvvanian. He couldn’t blame her. The other prisoners had been enraptured by his hair and eyes for days after he had first been dumped in here. He couldn’t blame them. Seeing anyone from the Free Courts was a novelty like none other these days.

Lovino sighed. He would give anything to get off this ship, but he wasn’t foolish enough to try. He had been using his telekinesis to get a feel for the ship as a whole, and it may as well have been a maze. It seemed that he would be stuck in this filthy hold, with these strange people, until further notice. He was glad to at least have Eladina’s continued babbling to distract him from the hopelessness of the situation.

He sat up straight as the metal door creaked and groaned and swung open. It wasn’t Dirie herself, thank goodness, but one of her underlings, dragging a young girl behind him.

“If it was up to me, you’d have been thrown in here permanently by now.” The man sneered at the girl before hurling her to the floor. “Enjoy your stay.” He slammed the door shut, and the girl pushed herself up into a sitting position. Lovino studied her. She only looked young; maybe thirteen or fourteen at most. She was remarkably skinny, and rather pale. She had dirty blond hair that fell to her shoulders and bright green eyes. Lovino was immediately struck with intense feelings of déjà vu.

She looked around hesitantly. Eladina brightened and waved cheerfully.

“Hey! I see that you’re back again.” The girl quickly shuffled over to Eladina’s side, looking a little frightened by the other prisoners. She nodded quietly, biting her lip.

“Yeah, I’m back.” She murmured. Her voice was so quiet and small that Lovino had to strain his ears to hear it. She looked so slight and fragile that he could almost feel his ingrained protective instincts kicking in. The girl looked up and made eye contact with him, blinking in surprise as she noted his ethnicity for the first time. He squirmed a little after her staring became prolonged, and she snapped out of it, blushing furiously.

“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude…” he shook his head a little.

“It’s okay, don’t worry. I’ve gotten far worse treatment while here.” He said. It had been his plan to not ask her any questions, but her familiarity was really bugging him. “I feel like I know you from somewhere. You look familiar.” The girl blinked.

“Oh, really? I’ve been Dirie’s prisoner for the last two years, so I don’t think so.” He huffed.

“Yikes, I guess not, then.” Eladina grinned from behind the girl’s shoulder.

“Good to see you two getting along well.” She jerked her head at the girl. “This is Liliana Keller. Lili, meet Red. That’s not his real name, but he refuses to tell me what it actually is, so I’ve dubbed him Red for now.” Lovino hummed and nodded at the girl.

“Do you not like your real name?” she asked curiously, her voice gaining a little volume as her previous shyness melted away a bit.

“It’s not that I don’t like it, kid, it’s just that I would rather that people I barely know aren’t aware of what it is.” She nodded, looking like she understood.

“That makes sense. My brother does that too.” She said simply, her face closing off a little. Another wave of vague recognition registered in the back of Lovino’s mind as he examined the carefully blank look, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why. He ran over her words in his head.

“You have a brother?” he asked in interest. “Older or younger?”

She smiled, albeit a little sadly. “Oh, older, by about 13 years, too.” Lovino raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t that he had never met siblings with such a large age gap, but it was hardly common either. The girl – Liliana – grinned conspiratorily and leant forward a little. “Just between you and me, he was an accident.” Lovino snorted, moving to hide his grin behind his hand. Eladina laughed openly and unabashedly. Liliana relaxed a little, a very small and very hesitant smile appearing on her face.

“I have a younger brother.” Lovino admitted. “But he’s only two years younger than me.” He gave Liliana a pointed look. “A much smaller age gap, I’m sure you’ll agree.” The girl nodded, smiling shyly. He felt the smallest surge of his protective nature rearing it’s head. She looked prone to break at the slightest touch. She reminded him of what Feliciano had been like when he was younger. Lovino felt an abrupt stab of sadness well up inside him. He wished that his brother was by his side. They had never been apart for this long. He forced himself to focus back on Liliana.

“Where did they take you from?” she asked gently. “Even pirates aren’t daring enough to go to Syhvva.”

“The Szwicza District, in Bibesti.” Liliana blinked.

“On Rela?” she questioned. At his nod of affirmation, her expression turned a little sad. “I wish I had known we were over Rela. My brother lives in the Szwicza District too.” The back of Lovino’s mind started to scream at him. A thousand tiny clues were scratching at his consciousness. Blond hair, green eyes, what sounded like the remnants of a Pyndaphian accent, a brother who lived in Szwicza who was 13 years older than her, which, judging by the fact that this girl barely looked to be a teenager, was probably between 25 to 27 years old…

“Vash Zwingli.” He muttered suddenly. The girl froze, whirling around from where she had turned to talk to Eladina to face him again.

“What did you say?” she asked, her voice shaking a little. Lovino’s gaze narrowed in on her. It was easy to see the resemblance, now that he had the assassin’s face at the front of his mind.

“Vash Zwingli.” He repeated. “Is that your brother?” She hesitated, but nodded slowly, looking a little afraid. He could not fucking believe this. A troubling though made itself known. If this was Vash’s little sister, then why was she here? He shoved that question to the side for now, focusing on her. She looked scared. His heart melted. “Don’t look so worried. He’s a friend of mine, and one of my neighbours as well.” She relaxed immensely, her expression shifting from apprehension to curiosity.

“When you say that you were a ‘friend’ of his…” she trailed off. Lovino caught her meaning. Evidently, she knew about her brother’s occupation.

“As in he came to my apartment and drank tea with me and listened to my brother complain about the price of ginger.” He assured her. She relaxed a lot, and then she genuinely smiled. Liliana stuck her hand out, and he accepted it, shaking it.

“Well then it’s nice to meet you. I know Eladina introduced me before, but you can just call me Lili, if you want.” He nodded, recalling also that Eladina had said that her surname was 'Keller'. He knew that Vash Zwingli was probably not the man’s real name, so it made for an interesting tidbit of information.

“Nice to meet you.” He hesitated. He wanted to stay under the radar, but there was someone right in front of him that he had a connection to. She might have been Vash’s sister, but he didn’t know if he wanted to tell her his real name just this moment. Lili shook her head and smiled.

“You don’t need to tell me your name. You only just met me, after all. I’ll make do with calling you Red for now.” He smiled softly at her. Lovino didn’t thank her, but he knew th