The birds were chirping outside just like they have done every other evening the past one and a half years. Slaine laid face down on the bed hugging his pillow, tired and worn from the restless day which he had spent on pondering on the life he did not have. A dead man walking, that is what he was and felt like. His life in the prison made exclusively for him had nothing to offer other than Orange – or should he call him by his name Kaizuka Inaho now? – visiting him and the bullying from the guards. The bullying had calmed down considerably now after time had done what time does best; left most of the interest in bullying the hated young man behind. Slaine figured the guards did not find it interesting enough anymore to constantly breathe down his neck and comment on whatever he did and shove him around. It was too old and same now. Of course, that had not been an everyday occurrence and most of his days he had been left alone in his cell.
The more time had gone by the more freedom Slaine had gotten. He had no idea if Orang-, no, Kaizuka – got orders to slowly free him from his miserable days or if he did so on his own. He had gotten a little library where to pick whatever books he wanted, and if there was a book he wished to read Kaizuka would first approve it and then bring it with him during the next visit. Slaine got to visit the small atrium together accompanied by guards whenever he liked between the hours of 10 AM to 6 PM. Out there he had a small flowerbed where he grew flowers of different kinds. He avoided certain flowers though which would remind him of old joyful memories that now hurt enough to make his chest feel like exploding. The prin… He could not even think about her old title, even if she went by the title of empress now. She would always be the princess to him. Well, it was January now so the flowers would have been dead anyway. Whatever the reason for this freedom was Slaine figure he should not complain. At least it gave him some sort of relief from his exhausted mind which had the tendency to start spinning and coiling around the memories of his sins.
Now that he thought about it he had not seen Kaizuka for a several days. The young man would always visit him once per week, always the exact same hour. Punctuality seemed to be one of his strong sides; he was never too early and never too late no matter what the conditions outside may have been; may it be a typhoon or the hottest day on the year, he always made sure to visit him. So where had he gone now? Slaine almost regretted he had not played as much chess as they could have when Kaizuka visited. He had joined him a couple of times in a match and managed to win twice, but mostly he let Kaizuka update him on what had been going on outside whether Slaine wanted to hear it or not. Slaine listened halfheartedly to whatever updates Kaizuka brought with him, not paying too much attention since hearing about the conditions outside always hurt in some way or another. The recent update had been about difficulties with the people on Vers who still lived in the same conditions which Slaine had wanted to change by winning the war. He had for a brief moment felt adrenaline and disappointment well up in his chest and brain, and thought ‘I could have changed it!’ but then quickly hidden that thought deep inside his mind. He was sure Kaizuka had caught onto what Slaine had been thinking since he continued to mention that a meeting was to take place in February with all the big shots of both nations and come up with a plan.
A few hours went by and Slaine felt the drifting of sleep catch him slowly. Finally he would have a proper night’s sleep. It was unusual for him to actually get sleep during the nights since he slept most of the hours of the day to pass time with no goal ahead; nothing to look forward to. The days had blended into a big pile of nothingness and he was unsure of what day it was. He knew it was January from the New Years Eve rockets he had seen outside just recently. He cursed that evening due to the bangs and echoes. They had made him anxious and he had almost lost himself in panic due to flashbacks from the war he so eagerly had fought in. ‘It’s my 20th birthday soon’ he thought but then wondered if his birthday had already been. Not that it mattered, he was “dead” anyway and only a handful of people knew about him still being alive. He did not exactly expect to get any congratulations or birthday cards or presents from anyone, not even the princ…
“Damn it…” he sighed and frowned. His chest hurt again. He wished he could stop thinking just for a little while. This was exhausting him. “Stop and go to sleep,” he told himself with a whisper and pushed his face against the pillow. After a while of fighting back the thoughts he finally fell asleep.
He woke up with a start and sat up in the bed. He noticed his hand held someone else’s. He had no memory of that, and as he followed the navy blue sleeve up to the familiar face he let out a relieved sigh and let go of the hand.
“I see your reflexes are still on top,” the monotonous voice said. Kaizuka stood next to Slaine’s bed and he had clearly been trying to wake him up for a short while. “Get up.”
“What are you doing here?” Slaine mumbled and rubbed his eyes, annoyed. He had been sleeping so heavily and now that well needed sleep had been interrupted. “Get up? Why?” Without waiting for an answer he got up from the bed anyway and waited for further instructions. He had learned it was useless to argue with the young man in front of him.
Kaizuka held out a black military bag to Slaine and did not let him go with his gaze. Slaine stared at the bag and then at Kaizuka’s eye, switched over to the man’s eye patch and then back to the bag again, and took it.
“Change. We are heading out,” the young man said. Slaine stared at him in confusion.
“Out? Now? Why do I need to change if we’re going to the atrium?” Slaine asked. His voice was hoarse from the heavy sleep and dryness in his throat.
“We aren’t going to the atrium. We don’t have much time, so get changed. You can’t go out dressed like that,” Kaizuka answered and turned his eye toward Slaine’s blue prison clothes.
Slaine stared at him for a while, not sure what he meant. ‘Go out to somewhere that’s not the atrium?’ he thought and suddenly realized what Kaizuka meant, and his legs began to tremble beneath him.
“W-what!? Are you taking me…!?” he began but then lost his voice. He was in such shock he almost dropped the bag to the floor.
“As I informed you just now, we don’t have much time, so you should get changed now,” Kaizuka insisted without blinking.
Slaine took a deep breath and quickly opened the zipper to the bag and look inside. It contained black clothes and a cap and a pair of simple sneakers – also black. He put the bag onto the bed and was just about to pull his shirt off in a hurry, but then remembered…
“C-could you wait outside the cell?” he asked quietly. The tone in his voice sounded more hopeful than he intended it to and Kaizuka blinked the way he always did when he caught onto something that Slaine tried to hide. This time he nodded though and did not begin a session of questions and stepped outside the cell and turned his back to Slaine.
‘I guess that’s good enough’, Slaine thought and hurried to change his shirt into the black one. He had not revealed the scars on his back and chest to Kaizuka yet even if he had been locked up in this prison for almost two years now.
As he had finished tying the black sneakers he picked up the cap and stared at it.
“You got to be kidding me,” he said and stared at a little image of a cartoonish bat on the front of the cap.
Kaizuka turned around and looked at the cap in Slaine’s slender hand while Slaine stared at him with a frown.
“I thought you would appreciate a little harmless irony as a joke but I see you are not as open to it as I thought.”
“A bat? Really?” Slaine asked and pointed at the little bat. He had to admit it; he did appreciate it in some weird way. Without questioning Kaizuka’s choice of a joke he put the cap on and then stood ready for further instructions.
“Give me your hands,” Kaizuka said with his usual monotone voice. He picked up a pair of cuffs from the leather pocket strapped onto his belt and waited for Slaine.
Slaine was so used to the cold metallic cuffs that he automatically held out his wrists to the young man and let him cuff him. What surprised him was the other pair of ankle cuffs the young man pulled out. ‘So we are going out for real?’ he thought. Those were the same kind of cuffs that he had worn as he had been taken to this prison almost two years ago. He did not know if he should laugh or cry to the high security measures he had to submit to. Was he considered that dangerous still?
When Kaizuka finished he called for the guards who had the night watch, and they emerged from the dark corridor to grab Slaine’s both arms and move him out of the cell. The unfamiliar low thumping sound from the sneakers felt nice in Slaine’s ears, and the soft feeling of each step felt so different to the usual shoes he wore along with his prison clothes. Kaizuka walked in front of them and unlocked the door on their way out.
The moment Slaine saw the door to the outside world he stopped walking. Suddenly his heart jumped in his chest for a different reason than when Kaizuka had revealed they were heading out. Why were they heading out? Where would they take him? What would they do to him? Why now in the middle of the night? Suddenly the suspicion engulfed him and he bored his heels to the floor and stopped the guards. Kaizuka turned around and a slight questioning look crept over his expression.
“I… I can’t…” Slaine said quietly. He was afraid. He had not been outside ever since he got locked inside the prison. He had no idea what waited out there or what Kaizuka’s intentions with this outing were. A small voice inside his head screamed at him that he had turned pathetic because he found the prison to be a comforting place that protected him. Not until now did he realize what the prison had done to him, and now he was too scared to do anything about it. He shook his head and stared at the door behind Kaizuka and tried to back away from it. The guards forced him forward as Kaizuka continued to open the door and when the snowy and still night met Slaine’s eyes he panicked.
“No!” A few months back he had wished to die and had asked Kaizuka over and over again to let him, but since Kaizuka refused and reminded him of the empress’ wish for Slaine to stay safe he had given up on it. Now that the realization that he could be taken to a place to executed hit him the pulse beat hard and angry in his ears.
“Troyard,” Kaizuka said. “Don’t waste whatever little time we have.”
The guards forced him outside into the snowy landscape. They had to drag him in order to get him to the military van which waited outside, and he was forcefully shoved into the vehicle. Both guards sat down on both of his sides to prevent him from running and keep him in check if he would try anything, and Kaizuka took the seat in front of the wheel and started the van with a surprisingly low roar.
“Where are you taking me!?” Slaine yelled and pulled at the cuffs. The chain rattled violently and the guards had to grab his arms again to keep him still.
“Calm down, Troyard.” Kaizuka made a pause and looked at him through the rearview mirror. “No one will harm you.”
Slaine stared at the young man in the mirror and lost all his strength. He slumped against the seat and felt his mind go blank. He knew Kaizuka gave him that empty promise to keep him calm. Tears sprung to his eyes. He could not bother to wipe them away. He felt as small as when he had been taken in by the late Count Cruhteo as a child to become a servant after Slane’s father had died. ‘The time has come. Has the princess changed her mind?’ he thought and stared blankly at the floor of the van between his feet.
The drive took about an hour or so and Slaine spent the entire time in silence. He had nothing to say, and neither did Kaizuka. Slaine had come to the frightening conclusion that he had to accept the punishment for the sins he had committed. He had to accept that the princess had no reason to keep him alive anymore. She had changed her mind about him. Now he was truly dead to her. As he accepted it he looked out through the window and saw a barren landscape covered with snow. He had been taken to a rural place. Would that be his last resting place? The bed in his cell had never felt as welcoming as now. In just a little while he would be lying in the cold ground or be burned into ashes – whatever Kaizuka decided would be the best way to get rid of his remains. He took a shaky breath and surrendered to what would happen once he was taken out of the van.
Kaizuka turned off of the main road and onto a smaller one that took them deeper into the rural area. A building and fences came into Slaine’s field of view and some bright lights lit up something that looked like an entrance into whatever was contained inside the fenced area. Kaizuka pulled down the window and exchanged some papers and words with a guard at the gate, and then he drove into the area. Slaine lowered his gaze and closed his eyes. It was time. He prepared himself best he could; picked up the little pieces of courage he had left as the former Count Saazbaum Troyard, and the van came into a halt.
“We’re here,” he heard Kaizuka say from the driver’s seat.
Slaine opened his eyes and looked out through the window again, but this time his mind came to a brutal halt. He forgot about the courage he had tried to collect. He forgot about what was happening. He forgot about all his sins. He stared at a small plane made for two crewmembers that bathed in the strong lights from the spotlights. They were on a small runway.
“Let’s go, Troyard,” Kaizuka said and stepped out of the van onto the plowed runway and opened the door to the back seat.
Slaine stared at him and then at the plane. What was happening? Why was he staring at a plane waiting ready on a runway? What was the meaning behind this?
The guards showed him out of the van and Kaizuka stepped in front of Slaine and picked up the keys for his cuffs.
“If you try to run or turn violent I have given an order to the guards to chase you and hunt you down, and if that won’t be enough they will shoot you in your legs to stop you. Understood?” he said and waited for Slaine’s answer.
“What are we doing he-?”
“Do you understand me?”
Slaine stared at him for a couple of seconds and then nodded with confusion washing over him.
Kaizuka unlocked the cuffs and gave the guards the sign to back away slightly. Kaizuka studied Slaine for a few seconds before he stepped aside and motioned to Slaine to walk toward the plane. Slaine, with no understanding to what was happening and why, did as he was told. With insecure steps he came closer to the plane while Kaizuka followed him close behind.
“That is model Z-901.b, a successful prototype with aldnoah as its propellant, the first earth made plane driven by an aldnoah drive,” Kaizuka explained. “It was possible thanks to your father’s work and with some help from Empress Asseylum and her staff.”
Slaine stared at it and was almost too afraid to get any closer to it.
“Y-you took me out here to … to show it to me?” Slaine asked and finally took the last step which granted him the closeness to be able to reach and touch the hull of the plane.
“Yes, and also to let you pilot it until early dawn,” the monotonous voice said close behind him. And then the voice turned almost into a whisper and Slaine felt a breath against his ear and heard Kaizuka word: “Happy birthday.”
Slaine’s eyes widened and he spun around to stare at the younger male. Did he hear correct? Tears of relief that there was no execution to be taken place, and an overwhelming feeling of surprise, sprung to his eyes and his legs shook yet again beneath him.
“Wh-what did you just…?”
“We have exactly three hours and 38 minutes before I have to take you back. We should get going,” Kaizuka said while he checked the watch on his wrist. Slaine continued to stare at him and Kaizuka stared back, clearly waiting for Slaine to move. But he was completely unable to move. “You do remember how to pilot an aldnoah propelled plane, correct?” Kaizuka asked after a while. Slaine nodded entirely dumbfounded. “The steering is the same as to the Sky Carrier you have piloted before.”
“Is this s-some sort of test?” Slaine finally asked with a whisper and dried his tears from his now blushing cheeks. The winter cold had begun to bite at his skin.
“Am I really allowed this?”
“The Empress of Vers wished to give you this as a birthday gift.”
“B-but you were the one to wish me happy birthday. You didn’t say it was from her.”
Kaizuka’s expression softened a little and blinked again like he had noticed something worth to register in Slaine’s reaction.
“She isn’t the only one who wants to remember you on your birthday. We should get going now and not waste your time.”
“But no one remembered me last yea-“ Slaine began but Kaizuka climbed up into the back seat of the plane.
“I will be sitting behind you and keep an eye on your controls. If you do anything that is against my orders I will immediately take control of the plane. Since this is a prototype it is intended to be used as a training aircraft. It was designed so that the second crew member could take over the controls if a student would do anything to endanger the safety.”
Kaizuka strapped himself to the seat and looked over to Slaine and waited, and Slaine understood it was his time to get into the pilot seat. He climbed into the aircraft with adrenaline pumping in his veins, and he strapped himself into the seat and put on the radio headset. The cockpit’s canopy closed and shielded them from the winter cold outside. Two runway crew members began spraying the aircraft with a liquid with high pressure hoses. The familiar monotonous voice spoke right into Slaine’s ear through the headset:
“They are spraying the aircraft with deicing fluids. Otherwise the cold and moisture in the air will begin to form ice on the aircraft.”
“I thought this was more advanced than that,” Slaine commented, butterflies beginning to flutter in his stomach.
“This is a prototype. No unnecessary resources can be afforded to be used on prototypes right now,” Kaizuka answered. “You will pilot according to my orders. I will report back to the tower every ten minutes and I will take care of the radio communication. Understood?”
Slaine put his hands onto the controls on either side of him, just like in the Sky Carriers he used to pilot. He relaxed and let the feeling of the pilot seat sink in, and the crew members outside hurried off of the runway with their equipment.
“Understood,” he answered with content in his voice for the first time in almost two years.
He heard Kaizuka call the tower and ask for permission to take off, and Slaine listened to the unknown female voice that answered him and gave him permission.
“Zulu, 9, 0, 1, Bravo. Start the aldnoah drive,” Slaine heard Kaizuka’s command in his headset.
“Zulu, 9, 0, 1, Bravo. Starting the aldnoah drive,” he complied.
The aircraft woke up with a soft humming noise coming from the machinery. It was like music to Slaine’s ears.
“Aldnoah drive running.”
“Aldnoah drive running, roger,” Kaizuka answered.
Goosebumps made him shudder for a moment. Kaizuka gave him the orders and Slaine complied and followed them. He could not wait to get into the air. He steered the aircraft to the referred runway and waited for the permission to push the aircraft up to speed. After a short communication exchange with the tower the air space was clear and Kaizuka ordered Slaine to takeoff.
The ground was a bit unsteady from the ice and made the aircraft vibrate in protest, and for a moment Slaine doubted himself. Did he truly remember how to fly? He pushed the doubt back with the memory that air was his element and always had been the moment he learned how to pilot a Sky Carrier. He pushed the drive into proper speed and felt the wind tug at the wings. In two seconds the aircraft took the right amount of wind under its wings and the wheels left the ground. Finally.
“Ascend to altitude 900 meters,” Kaizuka’s calm voice spoke in the headset.
“Ascending to altitude 900 meters,” Slaine complied and did as he was ordered to.
He could not even begin to explain how wonderful this felt. Freedom was never as palpable to him as up in the air.
“Altitude 900 meters,” he said, and Kaizuka complied and gave the next order:
Slaine felt a pang of déjà vu, but complied and navigated the aircraft to route 1-7-5. They were going slightly in a south south east direction. He had the feeling he had gotten the same order from Kaizuka before. That is when Kaizuka continued:
“Back at the island of Tanegashima, when one of the Hellas’ fists came toward us… You remember that?”
Slaine was taken by surprise by the sudden change of conversation topic. How could he forget that tense moment?
“1-7-5 is the route that I asked you to take when one of Hellas’ fists were chasing us.”
Slaine smiled with a frown.
“I thought I remembered that from somewhere.” The aircraft had taken the turn and the instruments showed route 1-7-5. “On route 1-7-5.”
“On route 1-7-5, roger.”
Slaine was slowly getting back the sense of life he had been without for a long time. For the first time in a while he smiled and chuckled.
“Remember when Hellas came toward us after we destroyed its fists, and you panicked?” he said with a grin.
“I panicked? You yelled at me to shoot it down with rounds that couldn’t even scratch it since you couldn’t dodge.”
“You were too heavy!”
“You dodged anyway.”
“That was a crazy emergency stunt. I barely got us back up.”
“Show me that same stunt again.”
“But it’s too dangerous to…!”
“It’s an order.”
Slaine held his breath. What was Kaizuka planning to accomplish? They could die if Slaine tried to take on the difficult stunt he had made in a stressed situation years before. Slaine had not been in a plane for years, and now he was ordered to make a dangerous stunt?
“It might get us killed,” he finally said.
“I know you are capable enough to follow through with the order without killing us.”
Slaine envied Kaizuka’s ability to be perfectly calm when he himself was stressed out and nervous. It seemed like it had always been that way; Kaizuka was the calm and reasonable one while Slaine was the one to react with passionate emotions.
“You trust me that much? If I would let the plane free-fall to low enough altitude not even you would be able to pull it up,” Slaine said with a lower tone in his voice, almost threatening.
“I can determine from your reactions earlier that you wouldn’t throw this moment of piloting a aircraft made possible by your father’s research, away.”
Kaizuka’s words hit as sharply as the lashes from the late Count Cruhteo’s cane and whip. Slaine felt how his heart squeezed tightly in his chest. He knew Kaizuka was right. Slaine could not even dream of throwing this moment away like that.
“Okay,” he breathed. “I will act in accordance to your order.”
He stalled the engine and the g-force acceleration hit their organs while the plane fell freely from the sky. Slaine counted quietly in his mind and kept an eye on the instruments, and once he felt the plane had free-fallen long enough he pulled the plane up. The plane vibrated and protested violently – just like the Sky Carried had done – and Slaine got it up by force. And so he had replicated the stunt from years before and it had left his heart beating like a sledge hammer in his chest.
“You did well, Troyard. Thank you. We have lost a lot of altitude. Make an Immelmann turn back up to 900 meters. Route 3-5-5,” followed the next order.
“An Immelmann? You are testing me, aren’t you, Orange!?”
“Once you have done the maneuver I want you to show me, I will let you stretch your wings the way you want,” Kaizuka said with his usual emotionless voice, but then he continued to say with a voice that sounded like he was smiling: “… Bat.”
For some reason Slaine found Kaizuka’s smile contagious because now he was smiling too. Suddenly the cap he wore radiated more irony than earlier and he knocked the cap back a little with his finger and smiled brighter.
“An Immelmann turn to altitude 900 meters, route 3-5-5,” he said and slowed the speed, lifted the plane’s nose up toward the starry sky and ascended again, and once he was up at the proper altitude he made a half loop which resulted the plane flying upside down, and then made a half roll back to normal and leveled out perfectly onto the route Kaizuka had requested.
“Thank you. As I promised you get to do whatever you want now for the remaining of the time. I will give you routes you will relate to, but anything else is up to you, Bat,” Kaizuka’s voice said. It felt like a tantalizing whisper in Slaine’s ear.
Slaine made a double barrel roll and smiled until his cheeks ached. He felt so free. So happy. He wished he could stay in the air for the rest of his life. Having lost everything and not had anything left to fight for had dulled his mind but now he was bursting with life.
“Orange… Why did you make me do those maneuvers?” He had to ask the question.
“Because I can’t recreate them myself,” was the answer.
Slaine was surprised.
“You can’t fly?”
“You are quick to react properly while in an aircraft even if it might be considered dangerous. If we would have fought in Earth’s aerospace where I had to worry about gravity I probably would have lost to you. It’s not the same thing as maneuvering in space.”
Slaine was taken aback.
“The way you maneuvered at Tanegashima proved your capability as a pilot. I am a decent pilot, but not as skilled as you.”
“Is that why you asked me to recreate the emergency stunt earlier? To prove a point?”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
“Worked how? By boosting up my confidence?” Slaine chuckled.
“Exactly,” came the bluntest answer Slaine had ever heard.
“An Immelmann turn is an easy maneuver. Let me show you more difficult ones, Orange.”
“Go ahead, Bat.”
The hours reserved for Slaine to stretch his wings went quickly by. Slaine mastered the sky with flawless maneuvers and proved again and again that the aircraft was like an extension of his body which he controlled with an iron grip. He lectured Kaizuka in piloting and how to work with the machinery and momentums – showed him and let him try them out himself from where he sat behind him. When the time was up and Kaizuka ordered him to descend onto the runway Slaine’s heart grew heavy. When would he be allowed to do something as risky as this? He got to taste freedom for a little moment but once they landed he would be taken back to his cell again with not freedom at all.
The aircraft kissed the runway gently as its wheels hit the ground during the landing; it made the aircraft bounce slightly off the ground, and then it finally accepted the touch and the wheels planted themselves onto the ground. Slaine slowed the engine down and activated the braking system, and then steered the aircraft back to where it had been waiting for his arrival. The canopy opened and Kaizuka climbed out of the aircraft first, and then waited for Slaine to do the same. Slaine took a moment to let the recent hours sink in and caressed the interior of the cockpit before he finally managed to say goodbye and climbed out into the chilly morning. The guards were walking toward them and Slaine figured he had one chance to thank the younger man according to his raging emotions before they would cuff him again.
“Orange…” he said hesitantly. Kaizuka looked at him with that blank stare, but before he had the time to blink Slaine threw his arms around Kaizuka’s neck and pulled him tightly close to him. The guards were quick to react but Kaizuka signed for them to step back.
“I’m still taller than you,” Slaine said quietly with a smile.
“Is that why you hug me – to make a remark of my height?”
“You know it’s not. I just had to point that out. Thank you… Inaho.”
Slaine felt the other male’s arms coil around his waist and hug him back.
“As to your question earlier,” Inaho said quietly, his voice muffled against Slaine’s shoulder. “I asked the Empress to let you fly.”
Slaine felt his heart jump for short second and he could not stop himself from hugging him tighter. From being a dead man he felt slightly more alive after the night.