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Slaine wakes up. His ticking wooden clock at his nightstand reads 6am. He drags his cold limbs out of bed. The scars are a pulling, twisted mess. His head swirls with anticipation and dread. The days are always long, fascinating. His life is reduced to that; the opening of old wounds, marveling as the blood constantly reappears, red and warm. An omen of life.

The war isn’t over yet. That alone terrifies him.

He watches the sunrise every day during the long train ride and it’s beautiful. Full of hope.

*

The House is old. Creaking wooden floors. Moldy basement, cold and dry walls. The patients’ rooms open with the same key.  He always hides it deep in his pocket. Every outer door must be locked, every window closed, except the ones leading to the enclosed garden and the music room. The dusty wooden piano sits in a corner, waiting in vain for the capable hands of a musician. Sometimes, when Slaine is buried in paperwork, a patient will play the piano and the music echoing through the old corridor will be the most beautiful thing to happen in the day. At these moments, Slaine is free.

“Your job is to make them healthy enough to hold a gun.” The previous doctor told him, handing over the key; a single key for every wooden door. “War is brewing in the South. If anyone of those failures can stop howling for three seconds straight and stand on their own two legs, they are discharged and enlisted.”

*

That is his life. Long train rides, walking in the cold. Treading though the barren field. Unlocking the door, and for the next ten hours, taking care of the mentally ill inside the House. People deemed dangerous for society, for themselves. Nevertheless, unbearably human. After that, Slaine will stand for minutes on the cold train platform, waiting. Waiting for the steam engine towards the city, perhaps, or for his life to become something even quieter. After the slow train ride, he will walk back to his apartment. He will sleep, exhausted.

A coward.

*

They gave him the option; war, or this. As it turned out, this, the House, is the only thing giving meaning to his life right now.

His white coat has a hole near the armpit. There are screams, every morning, every afternoon. Fights, forced body contact, verbal assault. He carries scratches and bruises—shallower than the ones from Cruhteo’s ministrations. Lost in delusion or dissociation, people might unknowingly attack. However, Slaine is not afraid. Nighttime must be worse, but Slaine is not there. No one is there, for them. An intricate sadness fills Slaine’s veins. He wants to help those people. Some are beyond help, he knows. Still, some get better, some leave this place and thank him and become cannon fodder for the war. And Slaine hates himself for it.

*

The sunrise fills the horizon with gold; orange clouds, pink and purple velvets draped across the blue skies. Someone knocks on the main door that day, and when Slaine opens it, two military officers of the Northern army drag another poor soul inside.

His shoulders are hunched. He is filthy, caked mud and blood in his hair. Hair so black, ebony, the color of void, the feathers of a proud crow. Bruises color his tanned skin, a sick orange color forming around purple. Slaine hastily pulls on a pair of gloves, feels the plastic sting his skin in his haste. An eyepatch covers that left eye. There are signs of infection around the orbit. Slaine reaches out, carefully, his purpose to examine, to help—

An officer slaps his hand away.

Slaine swallows the outburst of rage clawing at his throat.

“A lost cause.” One of the high-ranked officers drawls, then spits on the black hair. The translucent blob trickles across a pale cheek. They drag him inside the house, under the curious gaze of some patients, open an empty room, throw him inside. The man stays curled up near the wall. Disturbingly immobile.

“I need to examine him.” Slaine forces out the words.

“This one? He’s mute.” They tell him, three stars shining across their shoulders. “He gouged his own eye out, then ate it.” Slaine snaps his gaze towards the hunched man.

One blood-red eye is staring at him. Watching. It’s the wild, raw stare of a captive animal, locked behind bars. The man has fine features. Lips shaped like temptation.

Slaine cuts his thoughts abruptly short.

The kick in the head is fast and violent. The officer’s boot is dirty. More mud trickles down that smooth skin, mercilessly, like black tears. Wide shoulders slump forward. Slaine’s fingers slowly curl into fists. “Keep this door locked.” The officer says, “And starve him to death. He’s useless.”

*

In another place and another time, Slaine wouldn’t be alone. Alone in life, alone when he wakes up shaking from the occasional nightmare in a cold bed, alone when the scars of his life hurt enough to dampen his breathing.

However, that day, the day of the orange-colored sunrise, Slaine continues to defy his orders with a renewed satisfaction. He ensures the most psychotic patients are not near. He carries the half-unconscious man under the water pipe in the single bathroom. Slaine cuts the dark blue clothes—five soiled stars on the shoulders— with a professional hastiness. The skin underneath is hot to the touch, smooth. Colorless lips part with a groan. The man has lost much blood. The water turns dark crimson as it twirls down the drain, mixed with feces and mud. The eyepatch is removed. The damage is horrifying.

Slaine concentrates. The smell of urine, combined with rotten flesh. The inflamed area is hastily disinfected. The—

A hand closes around his throat, cutting off the cool air. Squeezing. Slaine’s eyes snap wide. Adrenaline floods him, he kicks and struggles, and the one-eyed man opens that pale mouth and says a word in the Southern language, and Slaine, whose vision is turning dark around the edges, understands. He understands the secrecy and the mystery and the five stars on the filthy blue uniform. The full lips seen in colorless newspaper photographs. A flaring hatred is born inside him, devouring him, because this is Kaizuka Inaho, the head of command of the Southern Army, the man who persuaded the peaceful Princess Asseylum to abandon her people—abandon Slaine’s hopes when he was just an orphan serving her in the palace—and defect to the South, triggering the start of another war.

He wants to despise Kaizuka Inaho, because he’s the living proof of all evil in this world—the newspaper propaganda says so—again and again—slaughtering and killing and attacking him right now—the hand around his throat loses strength and Kaizuka slumps forward, consciousness lost.

Air returning to his lungs is a blessing. Standing on the crossroads of time, Slaine falls on his knees on the filthy bathroom tiles and laughs soundlessly, tired, so tired of that dark, bottomless emotion.

In another time, another place, he would be a soldier and Kaizuka Inaho would be his enemy.

Perhaps…this time…Kaizuka will be his salvation.

The war is awful. His government is awful. The South—Kaizuka—must be awful, too. But someone needs to win, and everyone knows it’s going to be the South, with Kaizuka’s outstanding intelligence—it’s whispered in the trains, on the misty city streets, between the mouths of the starved, scared people: it’s a matter of time. It’s always a matter of time.  

It is treason, it is the truth.

(They do not murder the seriously ill in the South, Slaine has heard. They do not discriminate. They do not starve their own people.)

A patient howls in misery and Slaine closes his eyes, defeated, his decision overwhelming him, pulling him into deeper levels of despair.

That afternoon, when all doors and windows are locked, when the restlessness of the patients has abated before reaching another peak, Slaine slips inside Kaizuka Inaho’s room, cradles that dark head in his palm—silken locks, without the mud and blood, soft— and feeds him some lukewarm, salty soup.

*

Much later, Slaine leans his forehead against the window of the train as it slips under the millions of stars through the darkness towards the city, and he closes his eyes in misery. The choices feel impossible, the burden too solid and dark; treason or cowardice, death or life.

*

Days pass. Kaizuka has developed a fever. The grey, woolen institute uniform Slaine dressed Kaizuka in while he was unconscious—it is almost black with sweat. The red welts around his cauterized wound disagree with the hypothesis of a self-inflicted injury, Slaine writes with elegant, careful letters on his journal, and the ink is dark, but not darker than the mystery behind that sentence.

Slaine tries to minimize some of the symptoms of mental illness, yet during the restless days, it’s a rather futile struggle. A patient almost punches him and destroys a window; Slaine exploits the syringe and the man falls into a deep, tranquilized sleep. The last time Slaine asked the nearest military base for help, the soldiers’ assistanceleft permanent bloodstains on the walls.

He has never called for help since then.

*

Slaine’s fingertips rest on Kaizuka’s wrist; his pulse is steady and strong. Slaine is sitting on the sweaty, tangled bedsheets, as that red eye snaps open and stares at him, lucid and wild.

Kaizuka abruptly sits up. Slaine slowly removes his hand. Fights to stay still.

“Are you Kaizuka Inaho?” The name is bitter on his tongue, a curse.

There’s no answer. Kaizuka averts his gaze.

“This is the 27th Asylum of the Northern Empire for the mentally ill.”

Nothing.

“My name is Slaine Troyard. I am a doctor. From this day onwards, I am responsible for your health. Breakfast is every day at 7, lunch at 12, dinner at 7. The war has made food scarce, but we’re managing.”

Kaizuka Inaho is so still, almost catatonic.

“My office is the last door at the end of the right corridor. Knock if you need anything. I’ve already administered some medication to help with the pain and inflammation.”

Slaine stands up. Before he leaves the room, he narrates the end of the disgusting story: “The reason I’m alone, Kaizuka Inaho? The war. A bomb” one of yours, I believe“destroyed half of the House a few months ago. Many perished in the fire. Doctors and nurses are more valuable in the frontlines, therefore not one of my dead colleagues was replaced, and I—“

I am alone.

Slaine swallows the acidic words down his throat. He turns and leaves. He does not lock the door. Unlike the military’s regulations for this asylum, Slaine never locks the doors. He won’t allow this House to be turned into another moldy prison.

Later, he sits behind his wooden desk. Another fear is added to the deepest recesses of his mind: Kaizuka Inaho might be a sane, vicious war prisoner. He is the commander of the Southern army. The most powerful man of the enemy country, trapped in the North—calculatedly driven to insanity, and death.

If Kaizuka isn’t mentally ill, someone else is responsible for the removal of his eye.

Slaine’s blood boils with disgust at that thought. He combs his hands through his hair in desperation.

*

A new dawn cracks the dark sky, spilling light across the horizon. Slaine unlocks the main door of the House, locks it behind him. He walks through the empty, dark corridor. The candles are extinguished. A pleasant melody echoes in the air, coming from the piano room. Slaine steps inside. A patient of many months is sitting at the piano—crimson drops land on the ivory piano keys, red on white. Slaine inhales in trepidation. The old man’s mouth is sewn shut.

“He did it himself.” A woman patient says, observing. “It seemed fun. Fun like the village fair. Wonderful things can happen at the village fair.” 

“I see.” Slaine says, slowly approaching the bleeding man. Another person steps inside the room; Slaine hears the footsteps, hopes they won’t raise the aggression levels higher. “Why don’t you—“

“Shut up!” The woman shouts. “Don’t bullshit me, or I’ll punch you.”

“Punching people is not a good idea.” Slaine speaks, calmly. “It’s breakfast time. Why don’t you try the fresh bread I brought this morning?”

“Fine, fine. Bread.” The woman leaves the room. Slaine tries to coax the elderly patient to stand up and let him treat the wounds.

He belatedly realizes that he is not alone; Kaizuka Inaho has witnessed the whole exchange. Nothing happens. Slaine leads the bleeding man away.

*

Slaine might talk to Kaizuka Inaho sometimes. It’s a shameful, desperate attempt at communication. Their language is not the same. The man is always curled up, a silent animal, asleep or carefully prowling. It’s undignified, yet for Slaine, necessary, because he’s slowly, carefully drowning in the darkness. He talks about the war, the unfairness of life. How he only knew kindness from one person; Princess Asseylum. The prejudice and hatred he endured because of his Southern heritage—he wasn’t born in the North, but instead moved here with his father as a child.

Sometimes Kaizuka looks at him as if he can understand everything. The deep, dark sorrow, hiding inside. All of Slaine’s innocent hopes; all of his impossible dreams.

*

The garden is white. Frozen with snow. Stalactites have formed on the metal fence enclosing it, teeth prepared to bite. Slaine is supervising the patients, their one hour of sunshine—the lack of it, in the Northern winter. Kaizuka Inaho comes, and sits next to Slaine, his warm shoulder barely touching his own. 

“I’m sorry.” Kaizuka Inaho says to him, and Slaine’s heart thuds against his ribcage like the wings of caged bird trying to flee. “For attacking you and deceiving you; I am genuinely sorry.”

Slaine cannot hide his fear. It pulls his features tight.

“Don’t be afraid.”

“My language.” Slaine mutters, at a loss, curling his hands, “You understand—“

“They want to kill me. But you won’t be the one pulling the trigger.”

“I’m not a soldier.”

“You have never killed?” Kaizuka is close, so close Slaine can see the fine lines at the edge of his eye. “You have never killed.”

“I’m not—“ Hot mortification, for no reason, fills Slaine’s cheeks. He snaps, “You’ve killed thousands!”

“Not thousands.”

Slaine bites his lip, furious. Snowflakes are dancing all around them.

“You are trying to save them.” Kaizuka repeats the words carefully, “You are trying to save them all, and your name is Slaine Troyard.”

Slaine’s lungs fill with cold air and trepidation.

“I am not insane.” Kaizuka Inaho says, and a deep, dark pit opens behind Slaine’s breastbone.

“Your eye…?”

“Your superior officers.” Inaho answers, devoid of emotions.

“I am sorry.” Slaine whispers, carding his fingers through his hair.

“Don’t be.” A warm hand touches his shoulder. The contact is gone within a second. Slaine’s head snaps up.

“You tend to do that, when sad. Carding your fingers…through your hair.”

A pulse of warmth echoes through Slaine, and it’s agony, pure agony.

Inaho stands up, walking toward the House. “I have never harmed civilians, Slaine Troyard. I will never harm you.” With those last words, he goes inside.

*

Slaine has a sad past. Filled with abuse. Some days he feels the evil hiding inside of him. And some nights he cries from the exhaustion; emotional or not.

Something changes, in Inaho’s proximity, throughout their heated discussions, their silent walks in the white garden. During the next days, Slaine steps out of the House and walks through the barren field towards the train station, and the stars are shining above and the air is moist and crisp, and he feels alive and victorious.

*

“Is it true?” Slaine asks one day, after wrapping a fresh bandage over Inaho’s empty eye socket. They talk every day, all day long. Inaho helps him with the patients, too, the pills and documentation and feeding and cleaning. “That in the South, you don’t harm…people like them.”

“We don’t harm the innocent, the elderly, or the ill. Unlike the North.” The last words are tainted with disgust. The warm rays of the sun spill through the iron barred window in Slaine’s office. The light shines on that dark, dark hair.  

“One day, I will end this war.” Inaho states.

Slaine does not answer. Inaho’s wounds have long closed. If he intends to end this war, he should revolt, threaten Slaine to set him free, and then leave, leave this miserable House and miserable country and miserable Slaine—behind.

Forever.

They are walking side by side on the corridor now, just outside the room. It is sudden; a patient grabs Slaine from the lapels of his white coat, demanding to be discharged. Slaine sighs, then answers ‘No, I cannot allow this’. Before his admission, the patient was running through the snow wearing absolutely nothing, believing that the cold air would purify him. It is a constant struggle for Slaine, convincing the man through their talks to dress warm. Therefore, letting him outside could possibly mean his death.

The patient starts shouting and swearing, shaking Slaine badly—Slaine curls his fingers around one of the syringes in the pocket of his coat—seeing the closed fist too late—rushing towards his face—Slaine’s eyes go wide, his heart climbs up his throat, it is Cruhteo again, never-ending curse, bone-crushing pain and misery and—he needs to stay calm, stay calm—

Kaizuka Inaho grabs the man’s arm, tightens his hold until his knuckles turn white. Smooth and silent. His face is expressionless. It’s an adequate distraction, so Slaine sinks the needle into the patient’s arm and watches as the aggression rapidly abates.

“Come inside.” Slaine croaks, and together they step into Slaine’s office again, where Slaine disposes of the needle with a trembling hand.

Inaho’s fingers curl, warm, around his wrist.

Slaine recoils more violently than he did minutes ago, threatened by a punch.

Inaho—since when did Kaizuka become Inaho?—does not react. “I needed to check your pulse. I apologize for startling you.”

Slaine drops on his chair, sighing. “Some patients refuse the medication. In my opinion…it is within their rights. Yet sometimes the pills help, against the psychotic symptoms…the delusions and aggressive outbursts.”

Inaho says, “You are not afraid.”

Slaine chuckles, darkly. “I am afraid of many, many things.”

“Yet you remain calm at the prospect of danger.”

This conversation is ridiculous. “What danger?”

“The man who sewed his mouth. The woman who almost hit you. This man, too, today…he is dangerous. The people inside this house, they are all dangerous.”

Slaine hunches forward, sliding his fingers through his hair—he stops at Inaho’s…amused?... expression. “Not all of them. Yet all of them are ill. They are not responsible for their actions.”

“You are alone.” Inaho whispers, and Slaine represses a sad smile. What does this mean, ‘alone’? In this House? In his life? In his wretched destiny?

“I have a family.” Inaho says. Slaine’s skin warms with surprise. “A sister. Her name is Yuki. She and my friends are waiting for me, back home. I am certain that one day, she’d like to meet you.”

“I have no family.” Slaine murmurs, gazing out of the barred window. The sky is grey. A thunderstorm is approaching. Endless minutes, waiting for the train. Endless hours, lying in bed, thinking about Inaho. Thinking about a life where he meets Inaho’s family. Where the train ride goes on and on, where he crosses half a continent, beyond mountains and rivers and cities, until he steps out of the carriage and there’s Inaho at the train station, waiting for him with that rare smile. The sky will be an endless blue, that day; Slaine knows.

“A home, then?” Inaho asks. He sounds…different. Softer. Careful.

Slaine closes his eyes. He longs for Inaho’s voice. It is always so calm and smooth; a sea without waves, a sky without clouds.

He could listen to Inaho until the end of time.

“I have no place to call home.” Slaine whispers, and he feels small. So small.

*

Time flies. Their discussions are feeding a fire inside Slaine, warm and bright, destroying the coldness of loneliness. Inaho’s lingering glances are alluring, eloquent of something deep and content.

Inaho is the enemy. But Slaine cannot stay silent. Since he started talking to Inaho, he cannot stay silent anymore. He cannot suffer silently anymore.

*

“Why did you accept this position?” Inaho asks, one day.

“It was that option or war,” Slaine mutters, “and I’m a coward.”

“Who said this?” Inaho asks, sharp like broken glass. When Slaine does not answer in his shock—when did that word slip out, how could Inaho know about Cruhteo, about the things that happened in that basement?—Inaho grabs his arm and this time, Slaine does not flinch. His gaze rises to meet Inaho’s. “No, Slaine Troyard. That is one thing you will never be.”

The telephone rings. Slaine should have known. The sunrise today was sick, a broken orange color, distorted through the clouds. He distances himself from Inaho’s warmth, picks up the receiver.

“Have you been feeding him?” They ask through the telephone line. Slaine does not answer.

“You’ve been feeding him.” They say, and Slaine feels the blood drain from his face. He glances at Inaho’s broad back, the lithe curve of his body, leaning against the opposite wall. Quiet and calm, warm red gaze resting on Slaine’s notes.

“Kill him. If you don’t kill him today,” they say, “We will find you. We will make you suffer so much, you’ll be begging for that bullet through the brain.”

*

“Let’s take a walk.” Slaine suggests after he hangs up.

“In the garden?”

Slaine feels a sudden calmness; light flowing through his veins. He recalls the field, surrounding the House. “Through the fields.”

*

A white and mournful mist is covering the fields. They take a stroll towards the woods, dark and empty, away from the House.

“Your sister is waiting for you, back in your country.” Slaine whispers, “You should go to her.”

Inaho does not immediately answer. “Walk with me,” he says, and when Slaine hesitates, “Your values are precious to you. You give those people hope. But I was never lost, Slaine Troyard. I was never yours to treat. Now, tell me what’s wrong.”

“Let us not pretend. You are free.” Slaine flushes, gaze turning towards the dark woods. The corner of his mouth trembles, smiling in vain. “You’ve always been.”

They are standing at the edge of the field, where the forest begins. All Inaho needs to do is rush forward, run through the darkness of the forest and he will be gone, gone forever. Something sad and tortured unfurls within Slaine.

Slaine can barely avert his gaze from Inaho.

“Slaine—”

Slaine breaks. “Do not look at me like that,” he snaps.

“Be careful, Slaine.” Inaho’s palm rests on the scarred bark of a tree, and Slaine thinks of his own skin, twisted and wasted—and still, still he burns and aches for that touch.

“Will I see you again?” He is always longing, longing for something impossible.

Inaho smiles. A small smile. It’s beautiful. “One day.”

Desperation claws at Slaine’s chest.

“One day,” Inaho repeats, “I promise.” He walks away. He stops. “Slaine,” he says.

“Go.” Slaine whispers, “Leave.” Inaho’s glance over his shoulder is the most heart-rending thing Slaine has ever seen. “Leave!”Slaine shouts.

Inaho turns around, takes two steps and his hands are hot on Slaine’s cheeks, he is cupping Slaine’s head between his palms, and Inaho is kissing him.

It is hard and quick, almost violent, over before it even began.

Slaine fists his hands into Inaho’s uniform, pulls him closer, doesn’t even realize it—

“You are brilliant.” Inaho whispers, murmurs softly like a lullaby against his cheekbone, “I’ve never met a braver man—”

“I’m not—”

“You are—”

And they are kissing again, longer this time, and it’s the most beautiful, most desperate thing. Everything is dizzying, the world is spinning, Inaho’s body, his mouth is the shelter, his words the rocks against the tides of misery in this world.

Slaine’s knees buckle.

The kiss ends, warm arms tighten their hold around him. “Have you eaten today?” Inaho whispers and he sounds breathless and worried, and Slaine shakes his head in denial, his fingers are shaking, Inaho curls an arm around his waist and carefully lowers him on the solid ground, on the place where the field ends and the forest begins, and the sky is an infinite blue expanding above, as in Slaine’s most intimate dreams.

“Inaho.” Slaine whispers. He is lying on the hard ground and his thoughts are burning, This is wrong, he’s the enemy. He’d never. I am doomed. He’s a soldier, he’s a General. He hurts for me, he hurts so much, he understands.  

He feels Inaho’s mouth slide over his own, slowly, and his eyes fall shut. He hears Inaho breathe, Inaho’s thumb brushing across his cheekbone and it’s like melting.    

And for the first time in his life, he wants. He needs.

He is free. Under the endless sky, he isfree.

He feels powerful in a way he’s never felt before. Slaine struggles against the confines of destiny and reaches out, dragging Inaho close until they are kissing, kissing, kissing. He tugs at the lapels of Inaho’s jacket, and Inaho’s hands slide under his shirt and caress his middle, carefully, and Slaine is too far gone to think about the scars, until he sees a flicker of deep sorrow in Inaho’s gaze, gone before it’s communicated.

“Who did this to you?” Inaho whispers between kisses, “Who did this?” and Slaine relaxes against the cold ground, takes Inaho’s hand in his own and slides it under his shirt, over his stomach, between his legs.

Inaho bites his lip hard enough to sting. Fingers curl around him, massaging him softly, and Slaine gasps at the pleasure, trembles, drags his heels across the ground. Fingers, his own, fumble with a belt buckle. Inaho stops dragging his mouth up Slaine’s throat in shock, exposed. Slaine’s own pants and underwear are off, off, hanging uselessly from one ankle, he’s his own undoing once again.

“Slaine.” Inaho groans, heavy between his thighs, breath hot on Slaine’s cheek, dissolving the chillness of the mist.

I may not live to see another day, Slaine thinks, and the realization almost brings tears to his eyes. The mist curls around them, protective. Instead, he whispers, “Please.”

Inaho thumb moves across Slaine’s cheek. He guides Slaine’s hair back—gently, gently—with just his fingertips.

“Slaine.” Inaho whispers in adoration, and it’s too much, too much—

Please.” Slaine croaks, and knows from the soldiers’ vulgarity and sad descriptions how it works, how it’s supposed to be, and wonders if it will hurt as much as he expects. He wonders if the wonder and agony rippling over Inaho’s expression are true. He wonders if it feels like this for Inaho, too, like his heart cracking in two. Like his flesh splitting apart, as Inaho eases inside, and his gasp is a surrender and a blessing and a punishment, all in one.

Hard and fast and violent must be what he expected. Inaho stills, inside, and says something, so tender, touching his forehead on Slaine’s. Slaine cannot breathe. He fists a hand in Inaho’s hair and Inaho lets him, waiting, mouthing words against his cheek, it’s okay,Slaine,breathe,the murmur blanketing Slaine’s own heartbeat. Inaho is trembling. Their gazes meet. Inaho looks at him like he’d speak a thousand words, like he’s too afraid of speaking. Slaine wonders if such devastating intimacy is ordinary, if he, too, should be afraid of it. Inaho buries his fingers in Slaine’s hair, cradling his head, as he drags out. He eases in and Slaine can hear himself gasp, a half-word, a curse. 

“I hurt you.” Inaho whispers. “I’m s—“

“You’d—“ Slaine struggles, Inaho slides deeper and it’s too much, “never.” It truly is too much. Slaine lets his head fall back, makes a sound. The sky is blue overhead. He remembers his dream of finding Inaho, one day, after the war and sorrow. He realizes he’s there already; the sky is blue, bright blue. He wants to laugh and cry. He’s alive.

“Did you just…” Inaho sounds slightly out of breath, “…laugh?”

“The ground is cold, hurry.” Slaine blurts out, but instead he means, hurry,hurry, they will kill you, I cannot bear it.

And Inaho strokes both hands along the outside of his thighs, grips his hips as he shifts forward— 

—and Slaine understands burning, marvelous pleasure.

He can hardly hear himself, just gasps and half-swallowed words and the friction of the cold grass, burning against his back. He is close, closer every time Inaho slides inside him, the pain of earlier blooming into this heat and tightness inside him that is all-consuming and bright, so bright and intense he can hardly speak.

Inaho kisses his temple, whispers against his lips, and the rest of it gets lost because Slaine comes, sobbing into Inaho’s shoulder—all the stars in the sky couldn’t compare, heat so bright rushing through his core and limbs and—having Inaho close, so close inside, he wants this forever—his fingers digging into Inaho’s shoulders—Inaho slows and kisses him and his lips are trembling—pulsing deep inside—

When he finds himself again, when he can breathe again, Inaho is lying next to him on the cold soil. Inaho is flushed, his dark hair a mess. He turns towards Slaine and they look at each other in silence.

Slaine.” Inaho whispers eventually, and Slaine smiles.

*

They have dressed, and are standing side by side when Slaine whispers, “Run.”

“We can run. Together.” So vulnerable.

“I shouldn’t be—I cannot run. I will only slow you down.” Slaine admits, “The scars hurt.”

Inaho’s expressions clouds. “Don’t you want revenge? For everything that was done to you?”

Slaine glances at the black treetops. “The man who scarred me is dead.”

“They will punish you.”

“I told them long ago that you are dead.” Slaine lies. “I made you suffer so much, and then you started begging, so I put a bullet in your brain. I can be a scheming megalomaniac too, if I want to, Inaho.” His smile is genuine, sweet, coming from the heart.

Slaine sees it for the first time; the pain and fear Inaho holds inside, an immense reflection to his own. Inaho’s expression crumbles.

Slaine kisses him, soothes. Inaho kisses back, desperately, like Slaine is his life, the air he breathes. Slaine breaks the kiss, too soon,yet presses close again, buries his head in Inaho’s shoulder. Inaho lets him, a hand curling around his shoulders, and the two of them just stand there. A crow cries mournfully through the mist. Slaine pulls back, and finds Inaho regarding him with an intensity that is impossible to describe.

Slaine pushes Inaho away. “Go.”

*

Slaine cannot leave. He cannot get his feet to move, to carry him back, towards the House. He stands, alone, on the vastness of the empty field, and stares at the starry, starry sky; tears flowing down his cheeks.

*

He returns to the House. They find him. They make him suffer so much.

(They were waiting for him. They make him wish he’d given up years ago, right after the whipping and electrocution at Cruhteo’s hands. Slaine screams. The ropes cut into his wrists and he remembers how Inaho whispered his name; like salvation, like life. He wonders if the promise of love is worth of such agony.)

He does not realize he’s begging until he does.

*

*

*

Slaine dreams about him. Yearns for him. Warm arms holding him tight, rocking him carefully in an embrace.

“Slaine. Slaine!

Unconsciousness drags him down, towards muddy, delirious depths.

*

I know it’s been weeks, Slaine.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I came back with help as fast as I could.

This is my sister, Yuki.

We’ll be taking care of you.

We’re going home.

*

Slaine wakes up and stares out of an unfamiliar window. The bed is soft and warm. It’s raining outside, a soft pitter-patter. Everything hurts. The soaked road is shimmering, reflecting the street lights, it’s like a river set on fire, not a destructive fire but a fire with a low, warm glow, beautiful.

“Slaine.”

Slaine turns his head. Inaho is sitting on the bed, near him, smiling.

“Welcome home.”

*

After a year, the war is over. Peace flourishes. There is no North and South, not anymore. Slaine goes back to work—in a controlled, respectful, clean environment, with a team consisting of three other doctors and ten nurses. He sometimes thinks about the House, everything he experienced there. None of the House’s patients survived—the doctor who took his position after him was responsible for that. The corridors are clean and empty now.

He lives in his own apartment. Inaho sleeps over every single day, unless he’s away on diplomatic missions. The sky is cloudless, most of the days—but it also rains, sometimes.

Slaine is happy.

It took them time to be intimate again, after everything that happened, the scars and the torture and the humiliation, yet Slaine does not regret it. He regrets nothing.

Every day, he wakes up and sees Inaho lying next to him; smiling at him, that small, lovely smile.  Every night, he falls asleep in Inaho’s embrace.

He is never alone, never again.

And he couldn’t be happier even if he wanted to.