Chapter 1: something old, something new
Slaine had taken her decision well, all things considered. He had asked – well, begged – her to reconsider, because it was her life’s happiness she was sacrificing. He didn’t want to see her using her marriage as a political tool. Asseylum had just turned her sweet smile on him and assured him she was aware and willing. “If we can have peace, I will be happy.”
He had turned to Inaho then, hoping that someone else could make her understand, but the brunet had been completely useless, only telling her to choose the most logical option. If they hadn’t been stuck on the same warship for the next six months, dragging each other out of the crossfire in the last legs of the war, Slaine would have refused to speak to him, just on principle.
It took another three months after the last of the opposition had been stamped out by the joint UFE-Vers army before the wedding date was finalized, and Slaine excused himself from staring at wedding dresses with Asseylum to take a breath of fresh air. He didn’t mind the monotony, but he would have to go through the process again later for his own tuxedo, and he had learned long ago that five minutes of silence alone did wonders for refreshing the mind.
“Shouldn’t you be inside?”
Slaine looked up at the familiar soft voice, and he smiled wryly at Inaho as the brunet came to a stop in front of him. “She already has a favourite, she just hasn’t realized it.”
Inaho just nodded, apparently satisfied with that. “You’re not bored?” Slaine briefly wondered if Inaho had only asked because Slaine had volunteered to be in Asseylum’s retinue for this outing.
“I’ve had worse on Vers,” he said lightly – that much was true. Slaine turned and pulled open the door, watching the brown eyes flick to him before Inaho brushed past him. He followed after, letting it shut quietly behind him. “I hope you’re going to give this some thought and not just take the first one you see.”
“Does it matter? It only has to fit.”
“Of course it matters!” The brunet seemed unmoved by his vehemence, and Slaine crossed his arms, continuing threateningly, “I swear, if you show up at the wedding wearing orange, so help me.”
Inaho’s expression shifted, looking almost amused. “You’ll just have to take it off me.”
They both started a little when the curtains into the back room drew open and the sales associate approached with a polite smile. She wasn’t the same one who had been working with Asseylum, and he supposed that was only logical. “I’m sorry for the wait. Are you both here for tuxedos?” He nodded, pulling away from where he had been unknowingly leaning towards Inaho. “I can help you with that; did you have anything in mind?”
Slaine glanced over at Inaho, who only shrugged a shoulder unhelpfully. They were the first of the groomsmen to arrive, and Klancain hadn’t mentioned any preferences. He turned back to her with an apologetic smile. “Would you have suggestions?”
It turned out that she did have suits in mind after a quick once over the both of them, and Slaine was more than happy to let her make the decision for him. A few measurements and a few minutes later, she was back with clothes bags heaped over her arms. It felt a bit odd to have her hang up the outfit in the changing room before gesturing him in, having spent years doing much the same as a servant, but he just smiled and thanked her.
It was close enough to formal Versian clothes for him to sort out the pieces of clothing and change into them, but he was glad the bowtie was already done up. He pulled aside the heavy curtain and slowly stepped out, feeling self-conscious. The salesperson gave him a reassuring smile, but it didn’t help. At the sound of rings skidding on the railing of the room beside his, he turned to Inaho, opening his mouth to ask for the brunet’s opinion only to find himself tongue-tied.
“You two look wonderful!” she said delightedly, “Those contrasting colours, you match perfectly! The wedding photos will look spectacular.” Slaine whipped his head around to stare at her incredulously, face aflame, but now he couldn’t find his voice.
“He’s pretty enough.”
He gave Inaho a look of horror, not sure how to take the almost thoughtful expression, and then blurted out desperately, “We’re groomsmen!”
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” That she looked very embarrassed was a small consolation Slaine couldn’t focus on over the way his skin pricked with heat. “I thought– I just overheard you two talking when you came in, and – You make such a good couple.” She wrung her hands nervously before taking half a step back, looking like she’d very much like to run in mortification. “I will get a proper set for you, I’m so sorry.”
With that quickly she retreated, and Slaine was left standing awkwardly beside Inaho, his face still too hot. Thankfully Inaho’s phone buzzed before either of them had to speak, and the brunet was distracted, tapping away at the screen with a slight frown. Slaine tried to keep his attention on the painting hanging on the wall, but he found himself glancing at Inaho out of the corner of his eye instead.
The white tuxedo did look good on the brunet, the clean cut following the lithe body beneath, and the light grey pinstripe vest inside matched the fancy tie well. It was just as well that it was a three piece; he was sure Inaho would find some way of wearing a sweater under it otherwise.
He hadn’t realized he had laughed until Inaho looked up and caught his gaze. “Something funny?”
“Just thinking of how weak you are to the cold,” Slaine answered honestly. It was hard not to laugh at how the brunet seemed to have just remembered that the room wasn’t above a toasty twenty-five degrees and started pulling down the sleeves of the suit in vain.
“I have an orange sweater,” Inaho said, seemingly to no one, but Slaine could see the brown eyes watching him from under the lashes.
“You wouldn’t dare.” He turned to face Inaho, but at that moment the salesperson came running into the room, and then Slaine was too busy trying to reassure the poor employee her mistake was forgiven as she pressed the new outfits into their hands.
As he walked into the changing room, he tried to convince himself that Inaho wasn’t actually smirking, the brown eyes holding a spark of rare mischievousness, and pulled the curtains shut.
Slaine felt like he had seen more of a Terran city in the last few months than he had in his whole childhood on Earth. The royal pair was busy, so busy, but Asseylum wanted to spend as much time as she could with the friends she had made on Earth before she inevitably returned to Vers. She invited them on her trips to the mall, the museums, the park or even just on walks around the base where the Deucalion was docked.
It made him slightly anxious that each time they were forgoing bodyguards for holographic disguises, but there was no arguing that it was more inconspicuous than a full retinue. Like this, with Klancain on Asseylum’s right and Eddelrittuo on her left, and Inko and Nina peering over her shoulders, they looked no different than the other people in the city.
There was no denying that the Count and the Empress made a wonderful couple, either.
He guiltily looked away, ashamed of that thought, and found himself staring into calm brown eyes. Inaho had a habit of ignoring his tablet to do a sweep of their surroundings every now and then, walking half a step slower than the others; Slaine still wasn’t entirely sure if it was to avoid being jostled or make it easier to keep an eye on everyone. He only knew he was guilty of doing the same.
Something must have shown on his face, because Inaho broke their usual silence for the first time.
“What will you do when she leaves?” Inaho wasn’t looking at him now, the brown eyes on Asseylum as she laughed delightedly at something Inko had said.
“Follow her, of course.”
Inaho’s brows drew together slightly; the brunet was displeased with his answer, then. Slaine thought it went without saying. “Will she make you a Count?”
“I can’t fill a position like that!” he laughed, shaking his head, “It requires cunning, decisiveness, resources, ” he unwillingly thought of the late Crutheo, and he almost stumbled when he continued, “and strictness.”
“I disagree,” Inaho’s voice was flat, but Slaine knew it was just the matter-of-fact tone, “You’re resourceful, and you have a talent for reading people. I believe you can muster a considerable support base with charisma alone.”
“Thank you,” he smiled, warmed by the vote of confidence, “I’m content just to be by the Prin- Empress’ side.”
“What are you going to do about the Martians who abuse you?”
Slaine started, shooting Asseylum a panicked glance; she was still preoccupied with the display in the storefront. “How did–?”
Inaho followed his gaze before turning back to him. “Your reactions are too extreme for a mere personality trait, and your behaviour matches symptoms from long term abuse.”
“Please,” the sound barely came out in a whisper, “don’t tell her.”
“I don’t plan to, unless it interferes with your condition,” the brunet said, and there was a pause that Slaine almost missed before Inaho continued on, “There are other options if you stay.”
He hadn’t noticed that they had steadily trailed further and further behind the others until they stopped walking altogether. The brown eyes met him stare for stare, although Slaine wasn’t sure what emotion kept him locked in place. He was probably reading too much into it – it wasn’t even a promise of a place to belong, just an offhanded suggestion – but there was a welling of gratitude in his chest all the same, and it gave him such a warm feeling.
“Thank you,” he said earnestly, smiling gratefully at Inaho.
“I was only–”
“Inaho! Slaine-kun!” Nina called back to them; the group was already at the end of the block. “We’re going to leave you behind!”
Inaho gave Slaine a look he couldn’t decipher, despite all the practice he had in the last year. “You should consider all your options before you make a decision.”
“I will,” he said, and he wasn’t sure what made him add teasingly, “You forget I’m the one who can follow your absurd way of thinking; I always think of the options.”
“You get too emotional.”
“And you are too rational,” he shot back automatically – they had been having this argument for months.
“Make sure you won’t regret it,” the brown eyes bore into his, “Seylum-san chose what she believed she could live with.”
The lack of the usual response threw Slaine off, and all he could only manage was, “I know.”
The brunet only nodded before starting forward again, but Slaine found that he didn’t need to stretch his stride to catch up this time.
There was only so much to do on a grounded warship in peace time, and being a servant unattached to a master didn’t help. Slaine filled his time with the only thing he had available when Asseylum wasn’t venturing out, and continued doing maintenance on his Sky Carrier and Inaho’s Kataphrakt.
An absentminded half a dozen turns of the screwdriver Slaine knew by heart had the one of Sleipnir’s dash panels back in place, and he started up the monitor he had been working on, staring at the green text and moving bars as it booted up. He couldn’t imagine trying to pilot one of the Terran Kataphrakts.
Slaine cycled through the feeds and spotted his plane, haphazardly strapped onto a mismatched pair of hydraulic jacks. The Sky Carrier still bore the marks from when Inaho had shot it down, although the insides fared better now – he only had a regulation repair kit and Terran parts that didn’t quite fit at the time. He should have just had the plane replaced when Klancain and Mazuurek joined them, but he was used to the feel of this one, knew exactly how it reacted with the weight of the orange trainer docked to it and the way it protested when he pushed it to its limits.
Inaho had shrugged and said that the scratched hull just made it easier to identify.
At the call of his name, he looked up through the cockpit hatch, unsurprised to see Inaho peering down at him. It was the frequency of visits like this that made Slaine wonder if the brunet wasn’t the same, drifting now that the fighting was over.
“One second,” he said, holding the screwdriver between his teeth as he gripped the lip of the hatch and pulled himself up, almost misjudging the distance and knocking their heads together. Inaho narrowly avoided him by just tilting his head away, looking a bit like a disgruntled cat. Slaine smiled apologetically before sitting back at a more appropriate distance, taking the screwdriver and putting it back into the toolbox. “Was there something you needed?”
“I thought you might be bored.” Inaho held out a book for him, and Slaine quickly stripped off his gloves, mindful of the grease stains that could ruin the paper cover.
“I can borrow it?” Slaine asked as he examined the title; a collection of fairytales, from northern Europe. It wasn’t something he would have thought Inaho was interested in.
“It’s for you.”
His head snapped up in surprise, but Inaho didn’t take back the words. Slaine examined the cover more carefully, running his fingers along the spine almost reverently. “Was this what you wandered off to get last time we were out?”
“My Sleipnir is better maintained than when there were five others assigned to it. You’ll run out of things to do eventually.”
“I will take that as a compliment,” he said with a smile, and then he let his gaze drop back to the book. The heft of it in his hands made him nostalgic. “There was a library in Count Crutheo’s Landing Castle. I had permission to read the books, but I haven’t owned one since my father and I left Earth.” He hadn’t gotten a gift for longer, but put the thought aside.
“You enjoy reading?” There was almost an intrigued lilt to the normally flat voice, and Slaine looked up with a smile.
“Books have a lot to teach people, and sometimes it’s nice to be away for a while, even if it’s only in your head.” He glanced down at the book, feeling inexplicably nervous suddenly. “There isn’t anything I can give in re–”
“It’s fine,” Inaho interrupted him calmly, “It just reminded me of you.”
The words gave him the strangest urge to blush – a reaction that he was slightly alarmed to note was happening more and more often. “There must be something,” he insisted, and fidgeted in the moment of silence as Inaho seemed to consider it.
“Play chess with me.”
Slaine tried to hide his grimace, but from the way Inaho’s lips twitched in amusement, he wasn’t very successful. “Must it be chess?”
“You never said it had to be fun for you.”
He hadn’t. “Alright,” Slaine agreed with a wry smile.
“I’ll wait for you in my room.”
Slaine nodded absently, running through the list of things he had wanted to check today in his mind. “I’ll be there once I’m done here.” Inaho apparently took that to be the end of the conversation, the quiet footsteps as the brunet made his way down the scaffolding pulling Slaine’s attention back.
“You really should get this repainted, Inaho,” Slaine called out, leaning to the side to look around the orange shoulder of the Kataphrakt. “It really is an eyesore.”
Inaho stopped to give the machine an evaluating look. “I think it’s fine.”
“You would think that,” he laughed and shook his head with a smile. His gaze dropped to the book again, and he carefully ran his fingertips along the spine, trying to quell the warmth bubbling in his chest. Slaine could only hope he wouldn’t have drained all the kindness from Inaho before the brunet got bored of him.
The day of the wedding was already looming on the horizon when the Empress found out that dance wasn’t a common skill among her Terran guests, and naturally it meant she felt obliged to provide lessons to atone for her assumption.
“You’ve never danced?” Slaine found himself asking incredulously, even while a part of him realized that assuming Inaho could do anything under the sun was a dangerous habit to fall into.
“It never came up in hand-to-hand,” Inaho answered, deadpan, and Slaine let the brunet have that one, “Inko tried to teach me once, but she said I was hopeless.” Slaine glanced at where Inko was standing beside Nina and other others, an instructor teaching them the basic steps, and wondered if he should tell Inaho that the girl probably had another goal. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
“I volunteered to help, actually,” Slaine answered absently, absorbed in trying to guess what dance they were attempting to learn, and then he backpedalled embarrassedly, “I had a bit of training when I was in Vers. The Empress needed a partner closer to her height, and she asked for me.”
Slaine blinked owlishly. “Pardon?”
“They won’t have time to teach us all.” Inaho pointedly looked at the two instructors busily weaving through the pairs, correcting posture and footwork.
“I only know how to dance the male part,” he protested reflexively.
“That’s alright.” The brunet was the calm picture of confidence. “I’ll reverse it.”
“Of course.” Slaine had to fight the urge to roll his eyes, but there really was no reason to refuse; he turned to face Inaho fully, and the brunet mirrored him. “They’ll probably just leave it at the box step – it’s a good start for the time they have.” Taking a step forward into Inaho’s personal space, he took the brunet’s right hand in his left, and rested his right on the brunet’s back just above the waist.
“Stand up straight, and put your hand on my shoulder,” he instructed, subtly shifting so Inaho was slightly to his right. It took more concentration than it should have to ignore the feel of moving muscle under his hand, or the light weight on his shoulder. “Keep your chin up – don’t look down.” Slaine smiled when the brown eyes met his, one eyebrow raised so slightly he might have missed it if he wasn’t so close. “You can’t stare at your feet the whole time; you might as well learn not to from the start.”
Inaho nodded, apparently seeing his logic. “And then?”
“I would tell you to smile,” he trailed off pointedly, keeping an innocent smile on his face.
“Is that wise,” the raised eyebrow was back, but there was the faintest answering curve to the soft lips, “considering your feet are so close to mine?”
“You’re not that petty,” Slaine laughed – he would expect retribution in some other form. “The steps are simple, and there’s only six.” He moved his left foot forward slowly, and felt Inaho respond by taking a step back with his right. “One,” he counted off, and brought his other foot forward, pleased when the brunet shuffled the other back, “two, three,” he finished as he brought his left foot to join his right side by side.
“And the last three are backwards for the opposite legs?” Inaho caught on, and Slaine nodded, taking a step back with his right to cycle through the motions, the brunet following without trouble. He kept count out loud for five more repetitions, speeding up each time until it was closer to the speed of a normal dance.
“Amifumi-san said you were hopeless?” he asked idly as he started from the beginning again, surprised if only at how pleased he was at the brunet’s progress. That they worked well together was a given; they had a year on the battlefield to prove that.
“I didn’t see a point in it.” The answer came with a shrug, and Slaine bit back a laugh at the image of the poor girl trying to drag an extra unenthusiastic Inaho around into a dance.
“She must have had a reason.” Other than the obvious, but Slaine was not going to be the one to tell the brunet.
“There were rumours that the class next to ours planned to give free food from their stall if you could dance. It was the cultural festival,” Inaho elaborated, possibly at the confused look that crossed Slaine’s face, “all the classes put up some sort of display.”
“Ah, I see. Here, turn a little to the right as you move,” he guided Inaho into the turns, changing them from moving in a square to a lazy circle, “Couldn’t you have humoured her?”
“She could have asked Calm.” The conversation seemed to have made the brunet’s concentration a little lax, posture relaxing until the shoulders were ever so slightly hunched. “It was a baseless rumour regardless.”
“You have to keep your back straight,” Slaine murmured, amused, moving his hand to run down Inaho’s spine in a reminder. It startled him as much as it did Inaho when the brunet almost missed a step, and Slaine stepped forward without thinking and pulled Inaho against his chest to keep them both from falling over.
For a moment Slaine stood there frozen, dumbly wondering how there could be flecks of red in the brown of Inaho’s eyes, but in the next he tried to untangle himself, his whole body heating up in embarrassment. Before he could stutter out an apology, Inaho’s hands tightened their hold on him, stopping him from pulling away. “Sorry, I tripped. Keep going.”
Slaine heard himself make some assenting noise after clearing his throat, and they were back in the closed position, at the proper distance apart. He counted out loud the rhythm once before he started moving again, and as Inaho seamlessly followed him, he tried to forget how, for a second, he couldn’t tell if it was his own heart pounding in his chest or Inaho’s beating against his.
There was only one person on the Deucalion who could walk so quietly on the scaffolding, but old habit had him keeping his head bent over his book, pretending not to have heard. It was the same old habits that had him sitting out of sight on a crate rather than in more sensible areas.
“There is an actual lounge area.” Inaho was right above him, but Slaine only tipped his head back to give the brunet a smile.
“It’s quieter here,” he answered – it wasn’t quite a lie. “How did you find me?”
“You weren’t in your room.” If Inaho found it pathetic that Slaine only had two usual haunts, the brunet said nothing, just pulling out the book tucked under his arm and offering to Slaine. “I asked Nina for recommendations.”
“Another book?” he asked, surprised, but he took it carefully. The cover said that it was a novel following the epic romance between a vampire and a priest; it seemed like an odd choice, but he was grateful all the same. “You’re spoiling me.”
“Two books hardly constitutes spoiling you,” Inaho commented, and Slaine bit back the response that plenty of people on Vers would have disagreed. “They will be cleaning up the mess hall soon.”
Slaine nodded and stood, climbing through the railing with the books tucked against his chest. “You haven’t eaten yet?”
“No, I had some things to do.”
They left the hanger together, Inaho immersed in whatever was on his phone, and Slaine gently put his hand on Inaho’s lower back to steer the brunet out of the way of the oncoming engineers returning back to work. He gave them a smile as they passed, and they nodded stiffly back to him.
“Ah, Inaho, Slaine-kun!” He turned and spotted Inko with Nina, and if her smile was still a little awkward around him, Slaine didn’t mind. He had weathered worse.
“We were just heading to the mess hall, would you like to join us?” he asked politely, knowing Inaho would as likely as not just walk on with a mere nod in greeting.
“We ate, thanks,” Inko’s smile was a little more natural this time, “The Empress said that she wanted to see what we thought about her menu for the wedding, but I’m not sure what good it would do to ask us. I mean, she’s royalty.” She laughed a little nervously.
“Even Vers nobility don’t have access to many Earth foods; she has only heard of a lot it,” Slaine explained with a reassuring smile, “It’s probably difficult for her to find the balance between our palates.”
Inko nodded with new understanding in her wide eyes, but he found his attention diverted by the way Nina was giving his new book an odd look. Slaine held it out for her. “Would you like to see it?”
“Oh, no, it’s alright,” she held her hands up in front of her, shaking them along with her head to emphasize her words. “I was just – Did you get that from Inaho?”
“Yes?” Slaine felt strangely out of the loop as he glanced at Inaho only to see the brunet look away.
“Kaizuka Inaho-kun!” Nina said excitedly, startling Slaine into whipping his head back to her, and for some reason Inko straightened up with an almost horrified expression, cheeks flushing, “Are you–”
“Nina!” Inko hissed desperately as she clapped her hand over her friend’s mouth, which only told Slaine that whatever it was about, it had to be very embarrassing. She started walking backwards with Nina almost like it was a hostage situation, and he could only watch with a confused tilt to his head as they made it halfway down the hall before Nina managed to pull off the hand over her mouth.
“It’s a good one!” Nina called with an enthusiastic wave, “Read it at night!” Slaine just nodded, nonplussed. Was it a horror story?
Inaho was watching them too, the familiar displeased little furrow between the brunet’s brows, but when Inaho turned to him, Slaine saw the expression smooth out. “The mess hall,” was only short prompt Slaine got, but he nodded with a smile and continued down the corridor.
In a way that was almost alarmingly predictable, they spent more time bickering over strategies in hypothetical scenarios than actually eating. The novelty of not having his opinion dismissed still hadn’t worn off, and Inaho never cared if Slaine pointed out faults, as long as it was a sound argument.
Well, sound according to Inaho’s definition.
“Do you want to really lose your eye this time?” Slaine interrupted the brunet’s plan irritably with a frown, “It was your stupid luck that made it miss last time.”
“It wasn’t luck,” Inaho countered calmly, “You banked at the last moment, and the lance missed my cockpit.”
“Missed dead centre,” he corrected empathetically, reining in the childish urge to point with his fork to underline how serious he was, “Yuki-san was furious with me for going along with that crazy scheme. The shrapnel could have killed you if it had been any closer, or came at you from a different angle; you could have lost your eye. You are ridiculously reckless.”
“As are you.” The quiet voice was almost warm with something that sounded horribly like affection, and the quirk of the lips could only be a fond smile.
“For the record,” Slaine cleared his throat and looked away, “I’m never going to do that again.” He noticed the kitchen staff eyeing them from behind the counter, and he began shoveling his neglected food into his mouth instead, grateful for the distraction to cool his heated face. Keeping his gaze glued to his plate meant he couldn’t see Inaho’s expression, but he could see that the brunet had resumed eating too.
Somehow, they finished their food before the kitchen crew threw them out. Slaine anticipated the way Inaho turned to walk off without much ado, already checking something on his phone, but the way the brunet stopped and half-turned was unexpected – his instincts told him that it was a calculated move, and it put him on alert.
He may trust Inaho with his life, but he was also distinctly aware that the brunet repaid teasing in kind.
“Don’t get the book dirty.”
“I won’t,” he promised uncertainly, the statement coming out more like a question, but Inaho apparently felt there was no need to elaborate, and Slaine was alone in the hall with the books tucked against his chest.
He wasted no time in getting started, huddled on his cot with a flashlight. The book was surprisingly interesting despite the storyline it followed, and he found himself intrigued by where the story would take the well-rounded characters. It took three nights of reading to make him suspicious of the nature of the novel, and another before he stumbled onto the first sex scene.
Slaine quickly put the book down – carefully, because it was still one of the few things he owned – and tried not to jump out of bed to throttle Inaho for casually handing him erotica like it was nothing.
The thought only reminded him that Inaho had asked Nina for recommendations, and at least the embarrassment helped keep him from trudging down the hall for murder. He wasn’t sure who he would be more embarrassed to see the next morning, Inaho or Nina.
It was high time to call it a day, and he set the novel on top of the collection of fairytales and shimmied under the blanket. It would probably be more awkward seeing Nina, he decided as he closed his eyes – Inaho, at least, he had never seen as innocent.
The wedding venue was bustling with people, and trying to find Inaho was turning out to be a daunting task. It wasn’t like Slaine was needed elsewhere, though, and it was a small favour in relation to the kindness that Yuki had shown him.
“Inaho?” Slaine peered into the fifth room he had tried this afternoon, and he was relieved that the brunet was actually in this one. He stepped inside, happy to see that Inaho hadn’t actually made good on his threat of wearing an orange sweater under his suit jacket. He didn’t want to examine too closely his interest in wrestling the brunet out of any clothes, terrible or not. “No one knew where you were.”
“Slaine,” the brunet greeted him evenly, “It’s still early.”
“You can’t hide out here until the ceremony; Yuki-san was looking for–” Slaine cut himself off midsentence, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. “Is that an orange handkerchief?”
He reached out without waiting for a reply, pulling the offending piece of fabric out of Inaho’s breast pocket and pointedly ignoring what passed as an innocent look on the brunet’s face. A quick glance around the room net him the white handkerchief that was supposed to be part of the outfit, and Slaine folded and slipped it into the pocket with a practiced hand. “Don’t think I’ve forgiven you for that book.”
“It’s customary for boys to share porn.” Inaho answered without batting an eye, and Slaine tried to fight down the heat creeping up his neck. “At least, Calm seems to think so.”
“Please don’t listen to Calm-san about these things,” he sighed, straightening out Inaho’s collar.
“But you did enjoy it.”
Slaine flushed. “It was an engaging story, yes.”
“Mmm.” The noise was noncommittal, almost distracted, and Slaine looked up from the creases on the brunet’s collar to find the brown eyes staring at him. He brought his fingers uncertainly to his mouth, wondering if he had missed some crumbs from lunch. The movement seemed to snap Inaho out of it, and the brunet blinked, turning to check Slaine’s handiwork in the mirror without comment. Slaine tried batting the brunet’s hands away from loosening the tie, only to have Inaho push them away.
He huffed when it quickly dissolved into childish shoving. “Come on, your sister is waiting,” Slaine said, grabbing Inaho’s arm and pulling the brunet away from the mirror and out the door. He had expected more of a protest, but Inaho gave in relatively easily, matching pace with him by the end of the hall. His hold loosened and slid to rest more comfortably around the brunet’s wrist, but Inaho didn’t protest or point it out, so Slaine didn’t either.
It was automatic to move to the side when one of the servants walked by with his arms full of flowers for the centrepieces, and Slaine smiled politely when their eyes met. The man nodded to the both of them. “You and your date look wonderful, sir.”
Slaine found his voice too late, the man already around the corner when he finally managed, “We’re not–” Helplessly he turned to Inaho, but the brunet hadn’t seemed to be paying attention, fiddling with his phone using only one hand. Sighing quietly to himself, he started walking again.
They encountered three more misled servants before he had reached the courtyard – the fact that Inaho left him to explain tried his patience more than having to correct perfect strangers. Slaine tried to peer around all the people enjoying the gardens, but he couldn’t find the older Kaizuka.
Slaine felt the arm in his grasp shift, but Inaho’s hand closed around his own before he could let go, and then it was hold on or lose his way in the crowd.
“Nao-kun!” Slaine heard Yuki before he saw her, breaking away from the group she had been talking to and pulling Inaho into a hug, “It looks so good on you!” She released her brother and turned a smile to him. “You look dashing, Slaine-kun!”
“Slaine is too young for you, Yuki-nee.”
“Inaho!” he hissed indignantly, feeling his face heat.
Yuki just rolled her eyes. “I’ve been trying to find you a girlfriend!” At the word, Slaine felt hyperaware of the hand still holding onto his, and shifting his grip only got Inaho to hold on tighter. He glanced uncertainly at Inaho, but all he got was an unreadable look in return.
“You should worry about finding a partner for yourself,” Inaho countered evenly.
It was in the middle of Yuki’s tirade about how she was trying her best to soothe over what had to be her brother’s devastated heart that Slaine heard the melodic call of his name, and he turned his head quickly to see the Empress walk up towards them. She was wearing white, although it wasn’t her actual wedding dress – white had always fit her far better than any other colour.
“Your Majesty!” he started in surprise, “Shouldn’t you be getting ready?”
“I wanted to talk to you before the ceremony began, Slaine.” Asseylum nodded politely at Inaho and Yuki with a smile. “I hope you’ve found enjoyable company.”
The older Kaizuka’s face suddenly split into a grin and she placed her hands on her brother’s shoulders. “I was just about to introduce Nao-kun to a few people, so we’ll leave you to talk alone!” She spun Inaho around and the brunet’s hand slipped out of Slaine's grip. The brown eyes met his, but before Slaine could even open his mouth, Yuki had started them off in a seemingly random direction.
His hand now felt unreasonably cold, and he curled his fingers in to warm them. “Yuki-san seems to be enjoying herself,” he commented a bit dryly as he watched the way Inaho argued with his sister, pushing aside his confusion at the protest that had been on the tip of his tongue.
“She does,” Asseylum laughed quietly, but her green eyes were solemn when she turned back to him.
“Is something the matter?” Slaine asked, slightly alarmed.
Asseylum took his hand in both of hers, a familiar metal weight landing in the middle of his palm, and Slaine numbly responded in kind. “I know you have grievances about this marriage, and I understand your concern,” she smiled and didn’t let him look away, “I’ve known Klancain for many years, and he is a dear friend of mine. I don’t love him, not yet – but I can imagine myself walking the same path with him, for the rest of my life, and he can with me.” She gave his hand a squeeze, like she really wished her feelings would convey to him. “It is the best that could happen. So please, don’t worry about me.”
She didn’t shine any less bright, but it almost felt like he finally saw past the image of the fragile girl he had been trying to protect from everything – maybe even herself. “I understand, Your Majesty.” Her green eyes searched his for a moment, as if making sure.
“I sincerely hope that you will find your own happiness, Slaine.”
“I am happiest at your side,” he replied without hesitation, and watched her shake her head gently.
“It brings me great joy that you think so, but you deserve to live for yourself as well,” she said, and her smile was tinged with such sadness. “Please learn to love yourself, my dear friend.”
The bells over the church began ringing, tones solemn and deep. Eddelrittuo appeared at Asseylum’s elbow, quiet and unobtrusive as all servants had been trained. “Your Majesty,” she prompted quietly. The Empress nodded to her once, and with a dip of her head that was far too much courtesy towards a mere servant like him, she gave his hand one last squeeze before letting go. She disappeared quickly into the crowd of people slowly filing into the church, but Slaine stood there for a moment more, staring at the familiar groves and lines on his father’s pendant.
If he was a bit quieter when he took his place at the wings of the altar with the other groomsmen, no one noticed – or at least, Inaho didn’t comment, just giving him another one of those unreadable looks.
It didn’t matter anyway, because when the doors opened, all eyes turned to watch Asseylum enter. The white dress was stunning with its lace and ruffles, but it was her posture that gave it the grace and regal air. She was every inch the Empress as she walked down the aisle without anyone holding her arm, her ladies-in-waiting holding up the elegant train of her dress.
Asseylum wasn’t marrying for love, but she was right; she did look very happy as she came up to the altar, her eyes on her soon to be husband. Nothing was forced when Klancain offered a hand and she accepted it. Slaine found himself tearing up, and when he tried to wipe surreptitiously at his eyes, a hand on his arm made him stop, and he looked over to see Inaho was holding the blasted orange handkerchief out to him.
Slaine took it because he knew Inaho wouldn’t withdraw an offer once it was made, and as he wiped his eyes he caught a scent mixed in with the detergent, feeling inexplicably familiar and safe. Carefully he placed it into his pocket, beside the familiar weight of the necklace, and turned back to the couple at the altar. They looked perfect as the church bells rang after their vows, and they drew together for a kiss.
Once the cheers and clapping died down, the guests were guided to the venue for the dinner, but the newly wed couple had barely stepped out of the church before the photographer cornered them. Asseylum and Klancain weathered the attention with good grace, and Slaine could see that the smile they shared was genuine. The other groomsmen and bridesmaids lingered about as he did; most were from Vers, and none of them eager to leave their new Empress unguarded.
“The group shot is next; look sharp!” The photographer enthusiastically arranged them all to her liking, immediately pulling out Inaho for the edge – Slaine tried to hide his smile at the slight frown on the brunet’s face. He went to stand beside Inaho, knowing his height wasn’t anything to brag about, and he watched curiously as the photographer waved them closer and closer until their shoulders brushed familiarly.
They went to the dinner together like that, side by side and bumping shoulders occasionally. Slaine was unsurprised to find that he had been seated with the others from the Deucalion, and he let the lively conversation wash over him until the best man’s speech marked the beginning of the dance.
“I thought you’d be more upset.”
“Hmm?” Slaine hummed distractedly, watching the way Asseylum laughed at something Klancain had said as they twirled on the dance floor for the first dance. “About what?”
“Seylum-san getting married,” Inaho was watching him intently when Slaine turned to look, “You love her.”
He felt his face heat, grateful that the brunet’s voice was quiet enough that no one else at the table could hear. “She saved my life, of course she’s important to me!” He glanced back at the Empress, the light catching on her hair ornament making him look away. “To have her regard me as a friend is more than I deserve.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone approach the table, and he fell quiet, drawing back to a more respectable distance from the brunet. It made him sympathetic to see the glance Inko gave Inaho when the man asked for a dance, but Nina patted her encouragingly on the back and gave her a thumbs up. Inaho didn’t seem to have noticed the look, seeming to be checking the time on his phone.
“You should at least try to pretend you’re enjoying yourself,” Slaine said without thinking once the man had left with Inko.
The brown eyes cut to him, and Inaho rested the phone in his lap. “I’m not good at pretending.”
“At least dance once.” He looked over to where Calm was awkwardly dancing with a Vers lady who obviously found his lack of skill amusing. “You’ll waste all that hard work.”
Inaho eyed him dubiously, but to Slaine’s surprise, the brunet actually stood – and then dropped into a passable rendition of the bow that Vers nobility use, left hand extended to him. “Then will you give me this dance?”
“I didn’t mean ‘ask me’,” Slaine said with a laugh, but Inaho didn’t move.
“There’s no one else I want to dance with.”
It was his turn to stare incredulously at the brunet. “I –“ Slaine started, but his mind was blanking out on him. He tentatively placed his right hand in Inaho’s, distinctly aware of the softness of the skin under his gloveless fingers, and let the brunet draw him to the edge of the dance floor. It should have been expected when they turned to face each other, but the feeling of Inaho’s other hand settling lightly on his waist almost made him jump. He averted his eyes and forced himself to settle down, taking in a few deep breaths to calm his sudden nerves. The warmth that seemed to bleed through his clothes helped.
Slaine didn’t want to examine the reason too closely.
“I’ll lead, Bat,” Inaho said firmly, brown eyes staring up confidently at him.
He nodded and focused on the music, doing a three count quietly. Inaho moved as he finished, seamlessly guiding them onto the dance floor between the spinning couples. It wasn’t horribly shocking that the brunet managed to convert the steps to the male part, and he followed instinctively. It took a minute, but eventually he relaxed, content to let Inaho lead him wherever.
That seemed to be what Inaho had been waiting for, because the brunet broke their silence. “You were worried about the arrangement.”
It took Slaine a moment to realize what the brunet was talking about, and that at some time he had begun staring at Inaho’s mouth. “I wasn’t sure he was being genuine.”
“You’ve changed your mind?”
“The Empress said that she thinks she could come to love him, and that he thought the same of her,” he said, and paused to push slightly against the shoulder under his hand, steering them away from a less coordinated pair. “She thinks that it’s the best that could happen to her.”
Inaho nodded. “In her position, marriage is a powerful tool, and can only be used once.”
It almost made him laugh; of course the brunet would understand. Smiling, he continued, “If she thinks she can find happiness with him, even if it’s not right away, there’s nothing I can say.”
“Then you’re free.” The brown eyes caught and held his gaze, the intensity sending a shiver down his spine. The necklace in his pocket suddenly felt much heavier than it was.
“I’ve always been,” Slaine answered unthinkingly. Inaho pulled him a bit closer, stepped a little further back, and Slaine followed immediately. The sweep of someone’s dress just brush against the back of his legs. He still hadn’t pulled back to the proper distance when he added curiously, “I’ve never seen you so interested in anything.”
“I won’t know if I don’t ask.”
“What do you think, then?” he asked quietly.
Inaho gave him a look that made it difficult to tell if the brunet was pretending to be dense on purpose. “The choice isn’t mine to make.”
“I meant marriage in general,” Slaine played along, amused.
“If you could imagine spending the rest of your life with them, then that’s what it is.” There was a pause, the brown eyes watching him with something that made his stomach knot in a way that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. “Sexual attraction I understand is a component too.”
Slaine felt a blush flooding his cheeks, and he glanced away, only to find himself staring at Inaho’s mouth again. “Generally, yes.”
“You seem nervous.” The music slipped into a slow love song, and Inaho slowed their steps accordingly.
“I’m not,” he protested, and he scrambled for something else to talk about when Inaho raised a skeptical eyebrow at him. He took in a deep breath and caught the scent again. “Are you wearing cologne?”
“No.” Inaho tipped his head to the side. “Should I have?”
“N-No, I didn’t mean it like that,” he shook his head empathically, a bit mortified that it was Inaho’s own scent that he found comforting, “You don’t need it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Inaho said flatly, the slightest of quirks to his lips, and Slaine bowed his head forward to hide his face. “You were the one who told me not to look down.”
“Just be quiet, Inaho,” he said sullenly, and a puff of air that might have been a laugh ruffled his hair. He felt the brunet shift them slightly to avoid another couple, the hand on his waist shifting up his back. It was probably the closest he had ever been to being hugged.
“I looked up how to dip someone,” Inaho stated causally out of the blue, but there was the slightest of smirks on the brunet’s face when Slaine whipped his head to stare incredulously.
“You are not doing that to me.”
“It’s simple enough.”
“No,” he said with more insistence, and he wasn’t above using his height and weight to wrestle the lead from the brunet. The brown eyes flicked down to their feet like Inaho was considering how to overcome a troublesome obstacle. “I hope you’re not considering close combat.”
Inaho looked up at him, and Slaine was shaking his head even before he heard the words. “Why not?”
“It’s a dance. You’ll flip me into the other people.”
“I won’t,” the deadpan seriousness against the absurdity was exactly Inaho’s brand of humour, “It’s a simple takedown.”
“I won’t make it easy for you,” Slaine laughed, and the brown eyes took on a mischievous glint.
“It’s not the size that matters, it’s how you use it.”
Slaine felt himself flush as he tried to stutter out some sort of response to the innuendo, but before he knew it his right foot was hooked out from under him. He tightened his hold on Inaho with a yelp, feeling his fall stop midway by the arm at his waist.
Everyone’s eyes were on them, but he couldn’t look away from Inaho’s gaze. The brunet seemed frozen for a moment, and Slaine himself barely managed an uncertain whisper. “Inaho?”
Inaho blinked and pulled him up as the music faded, steadying him. Slaine pulled back embarrassedly, but the brunet kept their hands joined as they dropped into a bow along with the other couples, and he didn’t know what to think of the lingering touch. He glanced away and found Inko staring at them, and he turned his gaze to the floor.
“You should have danced more,” Slaine said quietly, ashamed that it didn’t make him feel more guilty for having essentially robbed the poor girl of an opportunity, “Someone else must have wanted to be your partner.”
“There’s no one else I wanted to dance with,” Inaho repeated, holding Slaine’s gaze with a seriousness that didn’t leave room for him to misinterpret.
Reflex made him reach out and catch the thing flying towards them. It wasn’t until his fingers had already closed around it that he realized it was the bouquet, and he saw Asseylum up on the dais, hands empty. He glanced at Inaho in panic and saw that the brunet’s hands were right where the flowers should have fallen.
Flushing, he carefully placed the bouquet into the waiting hands. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to–”
“It’s fine.” Inaho looked over the flowers and pulled a blue one out, expression unusually intent as the brunet carefully tucked it behind Slaine’s ear. He was sure he had to be blushing harder than he ever had before in his life.
“What are you doing?” His voice shot embarrassingly high as he reached up only to have Inaho catch his hand before he could dislodge the mockery.
“Be mine, Slaine.” His breath caught as he watched Inaho bring his fingers to soft lips, the touch so gentle as it brushed his left ring finger. “Will you marry me?”
Shocked silence blanketed the room. Inaho didn’t seem to notice, seemingly content just to hold onto his hand like this and wait for his answer. Dozens of questions flashed through Slaine’s mind, a bunch of what are you thinking and are you insane and why me amidst a jumble of feelings, but all that came out of his mouth was a breathless, “Yes.”
Slaine hadn’t realized he was rambling until Asseylum muffled a giggle, and then he averted his gaze, mortification flooding his cheeks with heat. “I’m sorry, I must have been boring you.”
“Not at all,” she said good-naturedly, but even through the screen her amusement was blatant, “You truly do think about him a lot.”
“I wouldn’t have to if he actually helped me,” Slaine grumbled in an attempt to hide his embarrassment, and he was relieved that Asseylum was kind enough to let the teasing opportunity go.
“I would have loved to stay and help you.” Her smile faded a little around the edges. “But there is much that needs to be done on Vers. I’m afraid I had not tried hard enough to learn about my people.”
Slaine straightened up in his seat, the protest out of his mouth before he had even thought about it. “You’re doing your best!”
“Thank you, Slaine.” She brightened, but he could tell she didn’t agree. “Klancain is teaching me to see what had been kept from me. I’m very grateful for him.”
“I’m glad to hear he’s supporting you,” he said sincerely, worries eased by the thought.
“He and I still find it easy to be candid with each other, even after all this time.” Asseylum laughed a little, her hand covering her mouth modestly. “We’re nowhere close to the level of honesty between you and Inaho-san, though.”
Abruptly reminded, Slaine deflated slightly. “I don’t think it’s a good thing.”
“Why not? You trust him.” He opened his mouth to object – he trusted a lot of people – but she wasn’t done. “It’s rare to see you rely on someone, and you complement each other so well. He’s good for you.”
“We argue so much I think there is a betting pool for when we break up.”
“That’s ill becoming of them.” Her features turned stern with disapproval, but her expression softened almost immediately. “Slaine, I’ve never seen you laugh or smile as much as you do around him.”
“It was a joke,” he said as he plastered on a smile. Not that he doubted the betting pool existed. “You don’t have to worry.”
Asseylum stared at him without a word, long enough that Slaine began to shift uncomfortably. “But something is wrong,” she concluded, and his smile slipped. One of her hands reached out and touched the screen as if trying to comfort him despite the distance between them. “Have you talked to him?”
Slaine shook his head. “He’s been traveling to a lot of meetings.”
“I’m sorry.” Slaine was glad she didn’t outright ask what was wrong; he didn’t think he could survive the embarrassment of having to admit aloud that the last three days were the longest he and Inaho had been apart, and he was missing the brunet. “I can send someone to help you in my stead; I’m sure they will at least ease your burden.”
“Tha– Ah!” He nearly jumped out of his seat in his shock when arms wound around his shoulders from behind, and he whipped his head around to unapologetic brown eyes. “Don’t do that!”
“You like cuddling,” Inaho said in a tone that was almost bemused, and Slaine felt himself blush as Asseylum laughed.
“I’m sure you have much to discuss,” she said good-naturedly, “I won’t keep you.”
“Please take care, Your Majesty.”
“You too, Slaine,” Asseylum smiled, and her green eyes flickered over his shoulder, an almost mischievous glint coming into them, “and you, Inaho-san.”
He felt Inaho nod from where the brunet’s cheek was mashed against the side of his head, and the video call cut off on Asseylum’s serene smile. “You came back early,” Slaine said, and then winced at how accusatory it sounded. Thankfully Inaho didn’t seem to notice.
“I left earlier to pick up our rings.” Slaine shook his head as he watched Inaho pull out the small velvet box – ‘left earlier’ probably meant more coercing than the phrase could ever imply. It was the first time he got to see the rings though, and a feeling of excitement and anticipation coiled in his chest as Inaho opened the box.
The designs themselves were nothing special, a single groove in the middle and an inconspicuous stone set snug within, but Slaine stared. The dark metal with the unique inner glow couldn’t have come from anywhere but the materials used to make Sky Carriers, and in ring form the tint seemed almost supernatural against the blue green of the aquamarine. Its twin sat in stark contrast, silver metal polished to a shine, and if the other was from his plane –
“You disliked the orange, so I thought it would be best not to paint it. The alloy wasn’t designed to hold a shine, so the finish will wear off over time, but it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Slaine reached out and ran a fingertip along the silver ring, watching the way the light played off the metal and the small garnet embedded in it.
“You cut up my plane?” They were the first words that managed to tumble out of his mouth, the emotions that was bubbling up making it hard to think at all.
“I thought you wouldn’t mind, considering the sentimental value.” Inaho almost looked uncertain, and Slaine couldn’t help but laugh. “I suppose that means I was right?”
“Asking questions you know the answers to is rude,” he reminded the brunet patiently, but there was no heat in it.
“I was under the impression you thought I don’t have manners.”
“Ninety percent of the time, yes.”
The comment slid off like Inaho hadn’t even heard, the brunet taking the silver ring out of its velvet bed. “The size should be correct, but just in case.” Inaho took Slaine’s left hand and slid the band onto his ring finger with an ease that really shouldn’t have been there. Slaine snatched his hand back out of embarrassment and cradled it with his other. The metal was a cold reminder of how warm Inaho’s touch was, and then he couldn’t bring himself to wrench the ring off like he had intended.
“We have to get the suits next,” he said hurriedly, hoping to divert Inaho’s attention.
“Yuki-nee already bought you a dress.”
“What!?” He was standing before he realized it, but Inaho only straightened to avoid colliding with him. The brunet moved to calmly perch on the edge of the desk in front of Slaine instead.
“She will be terribly disappointed if you don’t wear it.”
“I –” Slaine couldn’t think of anything to say, because Yuki had always been nothing but kind to him –
“It was a joke, Slaine.” The soft voice cut through his thoughts, and Slaine blinked back to the present. The brown eyes watched him with that flicker of amusement, and Slaine was too relieved to throttle Inaho for that joke. “She didn’t have your measurements.”
A long moment of staring passed before Slaine could formulate words.
“Please tell me your sister didn’t actually want to get me a dress.”
Inaho didn’t bat an eye, dutifully parroting with a shrug, “Yuki-nee didn’t actually want to get you a dress.”
Slaine sat down again and buried his face in his hands with a groan. Why had he wanted to see Inaho again?
“She is somehow convinced that I seduced you,” Inaho sounded puzzled, for once, “You should be prepared for that next time you see her.” He could only groan in response. “Slaine.” Inaho pulled his hands away from his face, waiting until he finally looked up before speaking. “You’re unusually stressed.”
“And who was it that left me to plan a whole wedding by myself?”
Inaho didn’t look the least apologetic. “We can always elope.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“We can live in a cottage by the sea,” Inaho continued like he hadn’t heard, “Maybe Tanegashima.” Slaine just stared incredulously at Inaho before the brunet finally shook his head. “I don’t see why you’re fighting me on eloping.”
“We can’t just leave.” Slaine resisted the urge to throw his hands up into the air, both still caught in Inaho’s warm hold.
The brunet tilted his head. “You’ve sent the invitations already?”
“Well, no,” he hesitated, “but they already know we’re getting married. They would be offended.”
“If it’s private they can’t complain. The choice is ours.” Slaine bit his lip, guilt welling up at the thought of the Empress. Inaho seemed to notice, the smallest of frowns making it into the usually bland expression. “We can arrange for Seylum-san to attend regardless, if you want.”
“Wouldn’t you want Yuki-san to be there?” he asked, knowing he wasn’t being quite fair.
“I want to join my life to yours.” The brown eyes met his gaze straight on, not letting him look away. “Whether someone is there to see a ceremony doesn’t matter to me.”
Slaine felt heat flood his face and he quickly looked away. “How can you just say something like that?”
“I’m just saying the truth.” Inaho’s thumb was drawing light circles against the back of his hand. “If you’re tired, I’ll arrange everything.”
“I’d rather plan with you so I know it’s not some reckless stunt,” he shot back, feeling more steady than he had for days, and Inaho’s lips quirked up ever so slightly. “You would think using your Sleipnir to crash your own wedding would be a good idea.”
“If you are waiting for me, it would be.” It was hard to tell if Inaho was just humouring him, but the ridiculous thought of running away from his own wedding put him in a better mood.
“That just proves my point,” Slaine shook his head, “We would never be able to show our faces again.”
Inaho didn’t look worried. “We can find some corner of Earth to live.”
“Not Tanegashima,” Slaine insisted, trying not to grin.
“No,” the brunet agreed easily, “It’s not habitable. The base was decommissioned.”
Slaine laughed and leaned forward, tilting his head up to press his mouth against Inaho’s. He pulled back just as quickly, flushing – it had been an impulse, the first time he had initiated anything intimate. The brunet recovered from the shock faster than Slaine did from his frozen embarrassment, hand reaching out to cup his jaw. The brown eyes locked with his, sending the familiar mix of anticipation and anxiety through his stomach, his heart already thumping out a faster beat.
Inaho drew him in, joining their lips in a lingering press of heat without looking away. The predatory undercurrent to the gaze summoned a heavy blush to Slaine’s face, flustered nerves telling him flight while arousal told him fight, to pull the brunet closer. He took a breath only to have it caught in an audible gasp at the warm fingers curving at the back of his neck, Inaho’s other hand tipping his face upwards.
With a noise deep in his throat, Slaine pulled back slightly in hopes of catching his breath, slowing down the racing beat of his pulse, losing the tingling that was making his chest tight, but Inaho only followed him and slanted an open mouth against his. The brown eyes pinned him down more firmly than any hand could, and Slaine felt himself give in, hands coming up to desperately grasp at Inaho’s arm and at the front of the crisp dress shirt. He responded more strongly, and the heat made his mind hazy, eyelids slipping closed with pleasure.
He had completely lost track of time when Inaho finally broke the kiss, opening his eyes with the sluggishness of a dreamer. “We have to at least let the Empress know,” he said quietly, breathless.
Inaho nodded, hand sliding back into Slaine’s hair to tangle in the strands. “I’ll find a place. A honeymoon is a special occasion.”
Slaine didn’t resist when Inaho pressed him against the chair and leaned in for another kiss.
Slaine shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The waiting room wasn’t exactly bustling, but there were others – other couples – as well, and it was just embarrassing knowing they were all here for the same thing. The silver ring on his finger almost seemed to burn, he was so hyperaware of it. He glanced surreptitiously to the side, unsurprised that Inaho looked the same as usual, although the brunet seemed to have gotten a new habit of twisting the dark band around his finger idly, almost as if unconscious of doing it.
Slaine stood when Inaho did, feeling unduly nervous when the lady handed them the documents with a smile. “We’ve updated your family registry. Congratulations, sir.”
“Thank you,” Slaine managed, because he knew Inaho wouldn’t say anything. It was equal parts embarrassing and comforting when Inaho grabbed his hand and led him out the building. The impatience was probably as close to eager as the brunet could get, and it was sort of cute.
The truck was where they had left it, standing out from the surroundings the only way a military vehicle in the middle of the city could, but there was no helping it. They could hardly rent a car, Inaho already toeing the line by driving without an actual civilian license.
Thankfully the city fell behind them without any problems, and Slaine let himself slowly relax as he took in the sights, rolling down the window to feel the wind against his face. It was a comfortable silence, filling the hours with a sort of quiet warmth he never felt with anyone else.
Slaine sat up straighter in his seat when the scenery began to change, the small houses and trees of the suburbs thinning slightly, and he felt his eyes widen at the glimpses of sparkling blue beyond. He didn’t get to ask before Inaho was turning onto the road that ran along the water, and Slaine leaned against the car door.
He was so absorbed it took him a moment to even realize the car had stopped, and he hurried to scramble out as Inaho did, automatically taking the luggage that the brunet handed him. His feet were rooted to the ground as he stared up at the little house – he hadn’t thought Inaho was serious when he had mentioned a cottage by the sea.
“It’s rented,” Inaho’s quiet voice got him moving again, although he couldn’t help glancing around as he stepped inside. “I wouldn’t buy our house without asking you.” It wasn’t a villa by any means, but it had an openness that made it seem larger than it was; a small living room, a cozy open kitchen to the side, a bedroom beyond a half open door. Slaine followed Inaho into the bedroom and absently set the suitcase down beside the brunet’s, attention completely taken by the window that stretched across the wall.
The view was incredible, looking right out at the ocean with nothing to obscure or ruin it. The green grass rolled gently down to a beach that had the finest sand Slaine had seen, but there was nothing else. Just the sea stretching to meet the blue sky, sun dancing on gentle waves.
Slaine opened the window and stared out into the ocean, feeling the breeze pull gently at his hair.
“You can go if you want.”
There was a soft thud behind him, and Slaine looked over his shoulder, watching Inaho deftly flick open the locks on the suitcases. He gave the ocean a longing look, but he turned away from it. “Come with me later?”
Inaho stared at him long enough to make him blush, but the brunet nodded. Slaine drifted over and pulled out the plastic bag of toiletries; the rented house at least explained why they had brought so much stuff. He went to set things up, toothbrushes into the cheap plastic cups that had survived the year with them on the Deucalion. He was almost done when Inaho broke the silence.
“What is this?” The tone took a moment to place, never having heard Inaho sound utterly perplexed before.
Slaine peeked out of the bathroom at the question and froze at the lingerie top dangling from Inaho’s hand. He would have very much liked to spontaneously combust from the fierce flush on his face. “The Empress gave it to me before she left. As a wedding gift.” Inaho only raised an eyebrow, brown eyes flicking to the clothes and back to him, and it only made him more flustered. “The store cleric told her it was an Earth custom. I think she didn't to tell them I was male.”
He hoped that was enough to satisfy Inaho’s curiosity; he didn’t have an answer for why he brought it along with him. Slaine almost breathed a sigh of relief when Inaho just nodded and put the sheer fabric down onto the bed, smoothing it out in a motion that was more habit than anything.
“You would look good in it.”
Slaine shook his head, wanting to drop the topic as soon as possible. “You don’t know that.”
“Then wear it for me.” Inaho’s voice was as even as always, but the brown eyes were dark in a way that sent an answering shiver down Slaine’s spine.
His ears burned as he looked away, embarrassed. “I– ” Inaho stopped in front of him, and even though they weren’t touching, he could almost feel the warmth from the brunet. Slaine swallowed, and managed, “Later.”
But it was nothing like the way Inaho’s hand seemed to leave a heated trail down his arm as the brunet leaned in. “Later.” The word hit the shell of his ear, and his breath stuttered in his chest. Slaine felt almost confused when Inaho pulled away just as quickly, fingers intertwined with his. “The tide is out; we can find the tidal pools and see what you can name.”
He nodded dumbly, the weight of anticipation leaving him disoriented, and he stumbled along behind, stuffing his feet into his shoes when it was obvious Inaho didn’t intend to let him go.
Inaho lead them down the gentle slope to the beach, the grass springy and soft. The sand was as fine as it had looked from the window, and Slaine had barely taken a few steps before his shoes began to fill, a couple grains at a time. Inaho shifted their route so that they were walking just at the edge of the wet sand, the water stopping barely a breath away from the brunet’s feet when the waves came in.
The ocean was a stretching blue from below and above, the sun swiftly making its way down to meet them, but Slaine found his attention going to Inaho instead. He took in the way the brunet looked straight forward with an unwavering gaze, the usual bland expression softened into quiet contentment, and was hit with the realization that he might prefer Inaho to the landscape all around them.
The brown eyes turned to him, and Slaine felt himself flush with the irrational fear that Inaho somehow knew what he was thinking. Inaho watched him for a moment, but when the brunet spoke it was mercifully not about his staring. “Take your shoes off.” He stumbled half a step when Inaho stopped abruptly to kick off shoes, and he hurriedly followed suit. He managed not a moment too soon, their interlinked hands leading him straight into the water.
It was a strange feeling to be splashing through the ocean with Inaho by his side, an unexpected callback to that night at Tanegashima. Slaine found himself smiling, revelling at the difference of the warm water against the memory. He looked up from the waves tugging at his legs to find Inaho watching him, gaze soft, and he was once again in awe of the twist of fate that had brought them together. “Why did you come back for me? You said I was the enemy.”
The look Inaho gave him was full of quiet disbelief at him asking the question he had never cared to ask before, when he had been soaking and exhausted and powerless that night.
“I thought you might have information that could help us.” Inaho’s reply was blunt and pragmatic, and somehow that was more comforting than any sugar-coated excuse.
Slaine squeezed the hand in his grip in a silent thank you. “It’s a good thing Asseylum vouched for me, then.”
“Torture is prohibited by the Geneva Convention,” Inaho answered without hesitation, like it explained everything, “There wasn’t anyone on the Deucalion trained for that sort of an interrogation anyway.”
“Not even Magbaredge?” he offered teasingly, knowing how often Inaho butted heads with the Captain. A corner of the brunet’s lips quirked up.
“I doubt you would have talked anyway.” There was a breath, but Inaho hesitated uncharacteristically for a moment. Slaine tilted his head questioningly at the contemplative frown. “But we did work well together. Maybe I was curious.”
“I’m glad you came,” Slaine said sincerely, and he felt the soothing circles Inaho started drawing on the back of his hand.
“I am too.”
Slaine was used to bluntness from Inaho, but the emotions in the three words made warmth settle in his chest and heat on his cheeks. Inaho’s free hand came up to skim fingertips against his flushed skin, and a small smile settled onto the brunet’s face.
He closed the distance between them without thinking. The brown eyes widened for the space of a blink, and then softened, the hand shifting to rest against Slaine’s jaw. The way Inaho gently responded made the kiss almost sweet, the simple contact drawing pleasant tingles. Slaine made a content hum, winding his free hand around Inaho’s waist, and sighed happily when he was rewarded with fingers in his hair. When Inaho’s mouth parted slowly, he mirrored it without thought. His breath stuttered as a tongue languidly snaked against his own, his hand twitching in Inaho’s grip, and the innocent tingles turned into electric heat down his spine.
The needy noise that escaped his throat when Inaho’s teeth purposefully grazed his lower lip was embarrassing enough that Slaine pulled back. Inaho let him go with a kiss to the corner of his mouth, eyes dark. The look made his pulse jump.
“Maybe we could look at the tidal pools tomorrow,” Slaine said as steadily as he could, but there was nothing to be done about his blush. The brown eyes sharpened predatorily.
“We’ll head back.” Inaho tugged him in again, the press of lips quick but with no less promise. Slaine bobbed his head in agreement, letting Inaho lead the way.
As they splashed out of the water, he glanced surreptitiously at Inaho’s face, remembering the brief flash of desire in the brown eyes earlier, the way they changed between the heavy weight of interest and attention and fondness. In the privacy of his mind, he could admit to liking that look.
Maybe with time, he’d be able to admit it to Inaho too.
_(：3 」∠ )_ I'm finally done. Thank you so much for reading!