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The Unknown Land

Chapter Text

 

“If we had tried to understand each other sooner… how different would things be for us?”

Slaine is silent for a while and Inaho thinks he has fallen asleep, until Slaine answers,

“Does it really matter? And what would be different?”

Before Inaho has the chance to answer, Slaine chuckles darkly.  

“You were my enemy. I shot you. You lost an eye because of me…!” Slaine sighs. “I hated you… It never occurred to me that you would make me, despite all that I’ve done- that you would make me feel that… peaceful.” Slaine sighs, again. “We’ve reached this place. That’s all that matters to me, now. I don’t really know how things could be different.”

Your scars, Inaho thinks, after the warmth in his chest from Slaine’s words subsides just a little. Physical and mental. Your bloodstained hands. And so many other—

“Orange. I can’t see you right now in the dark, but I think I can hear the gears in your brain turning and turning. Give the poor thing a rest. Extensive overuse might damage it, you know. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already damaged, if we count all the empty gazes I’ve caught you with, today.”

Inaho ignores Slaine’s comment. “My brain is not a kat.”

“Oh, really? Because I thought—”

“Slaine, I wish things were different.”

Chapter Text

It is not even dark outside yet, and Inaho is tired. The bright lights above the hospital corridor are making him dizzy, so he hurries on his way to his room. He spent too much time in the library reading newspapers. Again. Yuki would not be pleased, if she found out. He dislikes this place, the sterile smell, the gray plastic corridors, the endless white walls. The recuperative sessions have taken their toll upon his body—and brain. It has been exactly one and a half year after the attack on Saazbaum’s Landing Castle, and he is still getting used to the lingering throbbing that expands around his new cybernetic eye, every time he oversteps his limits.

Inaho spent a lot of time trying to reach this state of acceptable functionality. He doesn’t believe in luck per se, but it was extraordinary, the way the bullet entered his skull and didn’t cause instant death. His instant death. In the first months after he woke up from his coma all kinds of electronic devices were forbidden, as the strain caused to his brain from the screen brightness and the process of reading would delay him in his recovery. It was yesterday when, finally, the doctors gave their permission for Inaho to regain access to his tablet. Yuki visited earlier today, and she returned it to him. Inaho reassured her that he will not ‘remain glued on it like a moth to a flame.’ She proceeded in explaining to him that she found a ‘cute dating site’ for military members around his age, that he should use his tablet for actual communication with girls if he is too shy to speak to them directly, but somewhere along her chatter about marrying into a rich family Inaho pretended to be asleep, so she left earlier than usual.

Inaho reaches his room and lies on his bed, pressing the power button of his trusted device. The last time he remembered using it was a few hours before the last operation and the loss of his eye, where he left it charging in his room aboard the Deucalion. The battery is one of the best quality, so Inaho hopes there is still some power left, due to its automatic shutdown after an unused period of one day.

The screen lights up, and Inaho chest feels lighter when he sees that almost fifty percent of the battery’s power is still there. He types his password while his mind already tries to recall the notes he needs to—

His line of thoughts is cut abruptly short when he notices the immense amount of messages in his inbox. The hospital does not allow any kind of network communication, so Inaho suspects that the messages must have arrived during the time he left his tablet in Deucalion. The logical explanation would be that they are some kind of advertising or spam messages. But how? Inaho has always been careful about these things. Except if someone took hold of his tablet before Yuki did…but that would be impossible, since the password and the software behind it are too difficult to crack, or so Inaho developed them.

Inaho sorts his unread messages from the oldest to the most recent, and as he scrolls down with his finger on the screen, Inaho reaches a conclusion: all messages are either written in some kind of code, or they are just pure gibberish. The first massage is dated exactly one day before Saazbaum’s Landing Castle fell.  The second and third message arrived after a few minutes, and as Inaho scrolls down once again, he realizes that every message on his screen arrived at the same day. Normally, Inaho would delete everything, but he has a suspicion that something isn’t quite right. He returns to the first message. The date it was sent is exactly the same as it arrived.

From: $#-+9&^%@*

To: $#-+9&^%@*

The sender’s name seems the same as the receiver’s—maybe his own name? Inaho tries to think if this illegible writing structure represents any known kind of coding, but his brain is still too tired from today, and he doesn’t have the patience to wait until tomorrow after he has rested to decipher this—if it’s even a cipher.

Aware of the danger of potential malware, Inaho opens the message. It’s a risky move, but nothing unusual happens. 

From: $#-+9&^%@*

To: $#-+9&^%@*

#$&* &*(@^#$& !^@#*

As his mind returns to his previous conclusion, Inaho opens the second message. It was sent a few minutes after the first.

From: #&^#  &(%

To: #&^#  &(%

+(&^$%b&^*

Inaho opens five more. They all have the same code(?) on the sender’s and receiver’s name, even if the symbols change. Did someone truly got a hold of his tablet and planned this? First of all, Inaho’s account is strictly confidential; he received a new one after he became an official member of the army. Secondly, every message sent through the army network is controlled and monitored, and Yuki would have mentioned if anything was amiss. Except…if the messages did not arrive through a known network.

Inaho decides to change the order of messages and view the last ones. After the order changes, his breath gets stuck in his lungs.

From: Kaizuka Inaho

To: Kaizuka Inaho

Subject: I hope this one reaches you.

The last ten messages are legible, at least from the first glimpse. Inaho tries to remember if he did send anything like this to himself, but all that comes forward is the persistent throbbing around his eye. Inaho tries to relax, and after a couple of minutes he opens the oldest of the legible messages.

 

From: K  i    ka I a    o

To: K  i    ka I a    o

n  o  t        b   t

Another writes:

don’t shoot Bat down

And another:

Bat is not your enemy

Inaho’s blood freezes in his veins. He frowns. Not just any bat. Bat. That Vers pilot. Slaine Troyard.

The message must be referring to the day he and Troyard fought together against the Hellas. Inaho’s head is throbbing with pain now, but he ignores it. This is too complicated for a simple farce. Who sent these? Who else heard about the Martian’s nickname? Why not shoot him? Is this propaganda? His mind overflows with questions, but Inaho decides to read the last and seemingly longest message, if he compares its data with the previous ones. It is the only one with an attachment.

From: Kaizuka Inaho

To: Kaizuka Inaho

Subject: I hope this one reaches you.

There was nothing else, so Inaho touches the attachment, and a pulse of dread rushes through his body when a small bubble icon appears.

Please type the correct answer into the box.

As soon as Inaho finishes reading it, a question appears. There is also a countdown of thirty seconds. Inaho hesitates for a while, still not trusting the sender or source of the message, but his mind has already come forward with the answer: it’s his mother’s last name. As soon as he types in the correct answer, another question appears, and when Inaho answers there is another, and this goes on for a while.

As the questions go on, Inaho realizes that they are all very personal. There are questions that only he can answer, and the time limit seems to exist for safety purposes, as he only needs a couple of seconds to respond. It seems as if the message is strictly confidential, addressed only to him. As he types in the name of his imaginary friend during his years in the orphanage, Inaho tries to convince himself that whoever sent this either knows how to read minds or has spied on him during all his life.

After answering another question, Inaho observes his screen with wide eyes as a small pixelated cartoon animal that resembles a bat (?) flies in, unfolding a piece of paper that says, CONGRATULATIONS!

And then, a document opens on his screen.

 

Inaho,

This is your future self, Kaizuka Inaho. I’m writing this message seven years into your future.

If you are reading this, it means that the Aldnoah Quantum Communication System (AQCS) is functioning correctly. Was the test accurate enough? I drew the cartoon myself, if you must know. AQCS is a secret project. I will not elaborate much; you must only comprehend that that it’s highly possible you will not receive any more messages from me.

AQCS is still a prototype and can send messages exactly seven years into the past. The previous amount of messages you received were all from me, trying to prevent you from shooting down Slaine Troyard. I was a bit desperate about this, so I took no measures of protection. Also, finding the correct decoding for the transmission of the messages took me a lot of time. 99% of the messages must’ve arrived at your tablet in an illegible state because of this.

I later realized that all these messages I’ve already sent during the last year would not reach you, not until you charged your tablet in a machine that operates with an Aldnoah Drive, in your case, Deucalion. The technology of Aldnoah is what makes these messages able to transverse time. When I comprehended this, I realized that I had enough time until you charged your tablet inside Deucalion to write my last message, which you are now reading.

Inaho stops reading and takes a few deep breaths. It takes much effort to understand what exactly is going on. He decides to keep reading. He will try to understand everything when he reaches the end.

 

You went aboard Deucalion only after you fought the Hellas and then shot Slaine down. The day before the attack on Saazbaum’s Landing Castle you finally charged your tablet, (as I did more than seven years ago). Your tablet then received the messages I’ve been sending every day during the last two years and the one I’m writing now (probably all during the same day).

For all these reasons, it was impossible for me to warn you about all things that happened to you beforehand.

I’m sorry for your loses. And I’m sorry about your eye, but you will gain much from its loss.

As you must have probably realized, this technology and messages are for your eyes only. I don’t trust anyone more than you, in your timeline. I have no way of contacting young Slaine. You are the only one I can persuade that this is no Martian propaganda or anything similar.

Having knowledge of the future is a heavy weight that I’m placing upon your shoulders, Inaho. But I won’t apologize for this. Things will get worse soon, so I will try to help you in every way I can.

Your mission will not be simple: You must prevent the Third Interplanetary War.

You must trust me, Inaho. You and Slaine Troyard will play a major role during the events that will cause this devastating conflict.

You must be having doubts about my statement. You are tired from the everyday examinations, and the Second War is still going on around you, yet here I am asking you for more. At least you got your tablet back today. I still remember the day I received it at the hospital. Yuki kept bothering me about a dating site and I pretended to be asleep to make her go away. She always had an unusual interest for my love life, but I’m sure you’ve already experienced all of her efforts to find me (a wealthy) someone. Be careful though, she will make a profile for you on this site and demand that you’ll answer all of the responses.

Now, let’s get to the point.

Sometime in the next four years of your timeline, Slaine Troyard will die. His death will be the trigger for another Interplanetary War, much more devastating than the one you are going through right now. The relations between Earth and Mars will be permanently severed. Earth will be fighting every day, trying to escape a fate similar to the Moon’s. 

Inaho’s eye is hurting so bad, he has trouble reading further. He does not know if any of this is true. It could be all a farce. A trap. A Martian scheme. But the person writing all of this knows him too well. As absurd as it sounds, the most likely explanation is that this person—this person that even knows the most unimportant or deeply secret details of Inaho’s life—it can only be Inaho himself.

However, Inaho’s mind refuses to accept it.

In the following paragraphs, I’ll chronicle the major events that are about to happen, and suggestions on how you can change the future. Your main objective will be this:  You must, at all costs, ensure that Slaine Troyard does not rise within the ranks of the Martian nobility.

Please listen to me. Someone, once, asked me to save Slaine—I devoted myself to this cause, but I am not sure, and I will probably never know if I succeeded.  

But you can do it. There is still time to stop him. Slaine once selflessly defended Asseylum and her wish for peace. He disregarded his wellbeing. The cost always stayed with him. He did not betray her. But he then betrayed his beliefs. 

I do not know if my timeline will continue after you change the future. Everything in my time might be erased. Or it can be that the line of time will split and you will create another path for yourself, where people I care about will still be alive, despite not being here beside me. But for once in my life, I wanted to be selfish. Maybe you will understand why, in time.

You are not alone in this. I will give you something powerful, something humanity always yearned to acquire: knowledge about the future.

I only hope that you’ll succeed.

Your future self,

Kaizuka Inaho

PS Slaine might be very determined, but he abhors cockroaches. I won’t give you any further suggestions, but maybe you can use this weakness to your advantage, somehow.

Inaho wonders again if this is all a farce. Could Calm have planned all of this? But the questions at the beginning… Inaho takes a long, calming breath.

A large text divided into many paragraphs follows. His eye is throbbing with pain, however, so he decides to take a small break.

His first thought is, Why Slaine Troyard? Why should he save him? True, Inaho pulled a gun on Troyard, but he also lost his eye because of him. What information did he manage to gather on Slaine Troyard? He knows that Troyard was born on Earth. His father was a scientist investigating Aldnoah. According to Yuki’s reports, Slaine is supporting Saazbaum, who is still waging war against Earth. Saazbaum was the ‘mastermind’ behind Seylum’s assassination. And he may have even succeeded in killing her, as her whereabouts are currently unknown.

Slaine should be…evil.

Why will his death even trigger a third war? Will he rise within the Count’s ranks, and then take control of the Martian Empire? Will he become such an important figure, that when he dies, the impact of his death will cause another, much more devastating war?

Inaho sighs, heavily.

He then spends a few minutes reading the first two paragraphs his future self has written. The way they are written surprises him; Future Inaho(?) (Kaizuka, Inaho thinks) does not lead him or dictate him into anything. The events described are plain, and Kaizuka skipped conveying the parts that are of no importance. Inaho learns about Lemrina, and that Seylum is alive. The latter makes his chest feel lighter. However, the mental strain of today’s absurd event makes his head pound painfully in the tempo of his heartbeat. After rereading the main message at least ten times, Inaho decides to sleep. He will analyze the last part with the huge text tomorrow, and will try to reach a logical deduction about all of this.

Sleep does not come easily, but after Inaho’s mind has found at least fourteen different reasons not to trust the messages, he finally falls asleep.

#

Inaho spends the rest four days until his discharge from the hospital studying the first two of Kaizuka’s suggestions. He can’t read for a long time without taking small breaks, as his cybernetic eye is still bothering him. In a large corner of his mind, he still doesn’t trust anything, fearing all of this is an elaborate Martian plan in order to make him personally stop Bat—Slaine Troyard, so that the schemers can take his place.

However, he discreetly asks Yuki if there was any unusual data or messages arriving at his account before and during his time in the hospital. After she investigates it the next day at the Headquarters, she denies it. According to the military, he hasn’t received a single message during the time all of Kaizuka’s messages arrived. As she falls asleep one day on the chair next to his bed, he borrows her phone in an attempt to log into his account from another device, and the result truly surprises him; there are no messages from Kaizuka at all in his mailbox.

Inaho is sure that his tablet is the solution to his questions. The sender of the messages emphasized that the messages could only reach Inaho’s tablet. Could it be that the sender, if he truly is Inaho from the future, used the same device to send them?

There is a way to check if these messages truly arrived from the future: Inaho will ignore Kaizuka’s first suggestion about changing a major event. He will then compare the events afterwards, to see if they unfolded as Kaizuka describes them.

#

Four days full of hospital boredom quickly pass away. On his last night in the hospital, Inaho decides to keep quiet about Kaizuka’s messages. Be it military or his friends, they don’t need to know about such an uncertain and bizarre plan, not until Inaho tries to figure out the authenticity of it. There is also something else that doesn’t feel right. The message feels too personal. Inaho also has the suspicion that Kaizuka cares about Troyard, for some reason. It is as if the underlying purpose of the message is to ‘save Slaine’ and as result, avoid another war. It is as if Future Inaho’s—Kaizuka’s priorities are different from what Inaho imagines.

But this is just an assumption.

Inaho grabs his tablet once again, before going to sleep. There is a date two weeks from now, where the first ‘major event’, according to Kaizuka, will take place.

Before the conflict between Trident base and Marineros Base, Lemrina will shut down Slaine’s Kataphrakt’s Aldnoah Drive. Find a way to prevent her from restarting the Tharsis.

Inaho knows that there is no way he can communicate with a Martian representative, far less the fake princess (if Kaizuka’s words are genuine) for the next few weeks—the communications through Earth’s satellites are still not fully functional, as the Martians are advancing across North and South America. And preventing Slaine’s Kataphrakt from restarting hardly seems like a major event…if he compares it to the next events described. Maybe Kaizuka knew that Inaho would be too suspicious, so he planned this beforehand… Inaho closes his eyes, trying to relax. This won’t help right now.

His eyes return once again on a sentence that makes him swallow in discomfort. During the battle between Marineros and Trident bases, Slaine Troyard will kill Count Saazbaum.  

He presses his palm over his left eye. It hurts, again. It is the main reason he still hasn’t managed to read further into the large text that holds an uncertain future, somewhere among the torrent of black and white pixels on his tablet screen.

As Inaho brushes his teeth and gets ready to sleep, a single thought can’t leave his mind.

There is only one thing among Kaizuka’s words that truly makes sense; Slaine Troyard must be stopped at all costs.  

Chapter Text

Slaine narrows his eyes, a feral snarl stretching his mouth.

“What are you doing here again? I thought it was high time you got bored of this façade and finally decided to leave me alone.”

“I was away for two weeks on a…special event. You weren’t told? I personally asked the warden to inform you.”

“Well, he didn’t. And why did you even come back? I had a very good time without you, here. Silence. Peace of mind.” Slaine spits the words as if they taste bitter.

“The warden informed me that you collapsed, yesterday.”

Slaine shrugs his shoulders.

“Slaine. Did you refuse your meals, again? You have already lost a lot of weight. It will seriously affect your health if you keep refusing nourishment.” Dealing with an unresponsive Slaine is always worse than dealing with an angry Slaine. At least when he’s angry, Slaine will talk. He will voice some of his feelings. He will try to insult Inaho, he will try to some of his own bitterness at him. Inaho will gladly accept all of this, if it means that Slaine will become less bitter, less saddened, less defeated.

What terrifies him most, however, is walking once again into the prison early one morning and finding an unconscious Slaine with a crimson snake running down his arm and on the bathroom tiles. Afterwards, when Slaine was lying stabilized in the infirmary, Inaho found out that the guard on duty had been purposely neglecting his task. The man refused to talk to him about why he didn’t call for help as Slaine had, for an hour, locked himself inside the only place inside the prison without any kind of surveillance. The guard mysteriously disappeared after his discharge. Inaho tried to investigate, but all of his traces were lost, as if the man was just a ghost, an illusion. But such disappearances could only be possible when people with power were behind them.

Inaho sets the chessboard on the table. They play.

Inaho tries to decide during the game if he should respect Asseylum’s naive wish and inform Slaine about her marriage to Count Klancain or keep silent and continue pursuing Slaine’s king in their small black and white checkered world. He keeps repeating the lists of pros and cons in his mind.

Slaine still contemplates his move. He only has three pawns, a bishop and his king left on the board. At least today, Slaine’s game is much better than last time.

Inaho wishes he knew what exactly he should say, in order to start that kind of conversation. Asseylum’s marriage. Slaine was extremely loyal to her, once, or so Eddelrittuo told Inaho after the marriage. Did he ever have feelings for her? Or even worse, did he love her? Does he hold onto these feelings even now? Inaho closes his eye and sighs. He feels like suffocating.  He then looks at the thin, hunched young man who looks as if he’s carrying the world on his shoulders, weary and depressed.

Slaine stays silent, head lowered, completely withdrawn to himself and the chessboard.

This long silence is all it takes to push Inaho’s mind into a much deeper place he wants to avoid at all costs—it’s been a year, and he recently realized that he cares too much about Slaine. He feels drawn to him, as if he has swallowed a magnet that keeps pulling him closer, only to crash onto the immovable steel wall that Slaine raises around himself.

He takes a deep breath, ready to start explaining that he was away for two weeks in order to attend Asseylum’s marriage. (His main reason for attending and leaving Slaine alone for such a long time was to try and talk to her alone about Slaine’s situation. Asseylum listened to him, trying to view everything from her usual optimistic point of view, but Inaho was unable to make her understand that the situation needed more realism than optimism. After Asseylum hurriedly excused herself to join her husband, Inaho understood that Slaine’s wellbeing was entirely his own responsibility, now.)

As it seems, Slaine is already a step ahead.

“You had to attend her marriage. That’s why you were gone.”

Inaho looks up in surprise.

“What? The guards were talking about it. But I think they were telling the truth, this time.”

“The truth?”

“Honestly, Kaizuka? The guards you sent away used to tell me I planned her assassination. Threatened her to marry me, when I was a Martian Count. I also abused her, apparently. Tied her up and—“

“Slaine, please stop this.”

Slaine shrugs. “What did you expect? For me to cry because of her marriage?”

“I am not sure. I expected you to be upset, so I was trying to find a way to convey the news to you in a way that would make you less…upset.”

Slaine’s eyes are sad. “Does it matter?”

Inaho pauses, but then moves a pawn. “Would it be better for you if you had learned the news from me?”

“Why do you care, anyway? And you’ve been coming here since…ten months?”

Inaho nods. “Almost eleven.”

“Almost a year…” Slaine is silent for a bit, lost in his thoughts. He then lifts his head, glaring at Inaho. “Tell me, Orange…” (Inaho knows by now that Slaine calls him so when he is annoyed about something, mostly Inaho himself) “…are you so pathetic you don’t have anything better to do with your life?”

“You mean, going to the wedding? It was boring, indeed.”

Slaine groans. “Now you’re being oblivious on purpose.”

“…As you know, I quit the military. Or rather, the decision was mutual.”

At this Slaine’s gaze lingers a bit on the left side of his face, on Inaho’s eyepatch, then quickly moves away. Slaine is not a good actor. His emotions are becoming more and more transparent each day that goes by—or maybe it is Inaho that tries so hard to read the blond young man, and each day he gets better in recognizing Slaine’s emotions from his body language.

“But,” Inaho continues, “it was my own choice. Only I am responsible for this, and no one else.” He looks Slaine in the eyes when he says so. “And, if you want an answer to your first inquiry, I don’t believe visiting you makes me pathetic. That’s somewhat of an immature and rushed characterization.”

“Really? What does visiting me makes you, then?”

Content. “It makes me…hopeful.”

Slaine’s eyes are wide. “What are you talking about? Where do you even see hope inside this place?!”

Inaho doesn’t exactly want to answer this, but he says, “One can roughly compare it to the molecules in the air around us. If you can’t perceive something, it doesn’t automatically mean that it does not exist.”

Slaine lowers his head, and a dark chuckle escapes his mouth. Inaho’s attention is now solely focused on Slaine. “Do you know who Klancain is?”

The question makes Inaho ponder. “A Vers Count? The new Martian Emperor?”

“You surely can do better than that, Orange. You can be an idiot, but sometimes, unfortunately, your assumptions can be accurate.”

The nickname is spoken in a mocking, but nearly patient way. Inaho tries to connect Klancain and Slaine in his mind, and the step in-between is…Cruhteo. “Cruhteo’s son.”

“I did not cry, Kaizuka, when I heard that her…Majesty got married. I laughed. Oh, I laughed. But it doesn’t matter anymore.”

Inaho narrows his eye. What are you trying to tell me, Slaine?

“If you ask me about hope, I will answer with irony. Life is just a bad quirk of fate, for me.” 

It is the first time since Slaine’s tears that they have spoken about Asseylum, and Slaine seems to chew out her title with difficulty. Some of his past… enthusiasm when he used to mention her is gone now, faded away.

They soon return to their game, and after Inaho leaves the prison and gets inside the vehicle waiting for him near the entrance, Yuki asks him if everything went well.

“I am not sure if it’s better or worse than what I expected.” Inaho says, and truly means it.

Slaine was placed under Cruhteo’s care after his father died… Asseylum mentioned this, once. Why does Klancain marrying Asseylum bother you more than Asseylum getting married, Slaine?

#

It’s been almost a year since Inaho started visiting Slaine in prison. At first, Slaine would tolerate him and play (mostly one-sided) games of chess with him, sometimes staying silent, sometimes giving one-word answers to Inaho’s questions or statements. Slaine would ask for news of Asseylum or Lemrina, but after a few weeks however he stopped caring for the world outside his dim prison and Inaho stayed silent.

Everything started to change when Slaine broke down in tears, the moment Inaho conveyed Asseylum’s wish to him.

Slaine’s tears, for some reason, wouldn’t leave his mind after that. During the two weeks that would pass between each of his visit, Inaho would find himself being distracted. It could be early in the morning when he was brushing his teeth and sleep was still making his eyelids heavy, or deep in the night where he was lying in bed, just a step outside the realm of sleep. Memories of the war would visit him, then. It could be in the middle of Yuki’s long monologues usually taking place in their little kitchen, where he would look outside the window and watch the blue sky, and it would remind him of the Rayleigh scattering and that of Slaine.

He would be visiting his friends in the UFE Headquarters, and Calm, Rayet, Inko or Nina would mention Asseylum, and his mind would immediately link her to Slaine. Rayet asked him once if he was tired or ‘fed up’, since now the war was over and Inaho was declared useless to the military, with the loss of his eye. (The official paper, of course, used more official, respectful and complicated words, but the undertone was the same.) Inaho hesitated for a bit, but then nodded. He was glad the war was over. He wouldn’t want to return to a new battlefield. He was tired of fighting. He was tired of the journalists’ obsession with him. But somewhere deep inside he knew, it was not tiredness or dullness that made him want to return to that underground cell.

Once per two weeks became once a week, and then twice a week, and then day after day. Sometimes he would even visit twice the same day. Slaine’s moods were like the weather; cold and silent one day, then burning with anger another.

He couldn’t explain it. Yuki thought that it was pity or similar negative feelings that made him come back to this dark place, again and again. Inaho knew she was wrong, but never commented on it.

#

After all this time, Inaho never had a chance to learn about Slaine’s real objective. He still doesn’t know anything about it. About Slaine, his past, his personality. He does know, however, about many other things.

He knows that Slaine is extremely conscious of everyone around him. When sitting opposite of him while playing chess, Inaho sometimes feels as if Slaine is a wild animal, fearful of his surroundings and untrusting towards everyone, yet unable to strike if someone gets too close.

He knows that Slaine was verbally harassed and possibly physically abused by some of the guards, and the blond young man did not even mention it once. It was Inaho that overheard them by chance and then did a full investigation and replaced all perpetrators by other officers he personally selected. He interrogated the abusing guards, to no great results. Finally, he made sure that the guards’ careers were permanently terminated, no matter what new occupation they would choose. He wanted to press charges against them, if it wasn’t for the fact that Slaine is officially dead and his imprisonment confidential. What shocked him most however was Slaine’s apathy when he was being insulted in the worst possible way. As Inaho turned around the corner and broke the circle of men surrounding the young man and reached out to him, he was met only with a blank, defeated gaze. 

He knows that Slaine was depressive and unsuccessfully attempted suicide. What scared him most was that Slaine gave no indication of doing so, and Inaho did not understand or was blind to mention to a professional that Slaine’s anguish run that deep.

Things began to change, then. Slaine was put under constant surveillance and he visited the infirmary four times a week, for check-ups and antidepressant medication. The last was not Inaho’s preferable choice, but bringing another trusted person, and a psychiatrist moreover in prison was rejected from the board responsible for Slaine’s imprisonment.

He knows that Slaine’s chest and back are badly scarred; Inaho visited once when Slaine happened to be in the infirmary, as a part of his earlier check-ups.  When he saw Slaine’s naked torso through the transparent infirmary doors, his heart constricted painfully in his chest and a sudden, unexpected rage flared inside of him, as he realized from their pattern that the scars were deliberate; someone had done this to Slaine.

And Slaine caught him staring in that first, unfortunate second of surprise and refused to speak to him for five days. Inaho apologized, tried to make Slaine feel more comfortable by arranging things so that when Slaine was without his shirt, only the two people of the medical personnel would be around. He managed to stop the medication that only made Slaine sleepy and unresponsive. He finally discovered that Slaine did not have a moment without privacy, even in the bathroom, because of his attempt. He was furious, and managed after a lot of negotiations with the warden and the board to remove the cameras from there.

Inaho did not research the scars, respecting Slaine’s privacy. He convinced himself from the memory of the few seconds that they were old, most probably caused by a whip, so he eliminated some of his suspicions about physical abuse from the guards. He wanted to forget the shocking moment, but it took many nights for the memory to leave his mind as he tried falling asleep on his bed, in his new house close to Slaine’s prison. The way the scars crossed one another and split apart. The discoloration of Slaine’s skin. Inaho did not want to think about the number of times Slaine must’ve been struck, or about the pain, physical and mental, hiding beneath.

#

Sometimes, he catches himself wondering if Asseylum knows about Slaine’s past. Slaine’s empty gaze when he was being surrounded and called names, his flinching when a guard made a sudden movement close to him, Inaho observed all of this and much more, and he reached the conclusion that Slaine must have been physically abused in his past, not even mentioning his scars, which betrayed a brutal whipping. Weren’t they childhood friends, once? …As friendly a princess and a Terran on Mars can get. Did she even know that Slaine was being mistreated?

After Slaine’s imprisonment, three months needed to pass for Inaho to understand that Asseylum was purposely ignoring every attempt of his to contact her. She would be busy with planning her wedding or visiting the Aldnoah Reactor #3 building site. Her maids would inform Inaho that she would be ill and her throat would hurt too much to speak, or traveling for charity purposes around the Earth for a ridiculously long period.

Inaho was, and is, disappointed in her. Yes, of course she has other, more urgent matters than Slaine’s deteriorating state to take care of. She might not be ready to face Slaine, yet. But it is not only her absence that is bothering Inaho. Asseylum needs to mature as a person and a capable leader, yet Inaho observes with a bit of sadness as time goes by that she behaves more and more as an immature and insecure person. She is the key political figure of Mars, yet during their brief conversations Inaho realized that she has barely any knowledge about her people or her subordinates’ ambitions. Martian Counts are still, after a year, occupying Earth’s territory, and the negotiations never end. She uses her Aldnoah rights too freely and generously for her own good -when trading them for resources with the UFE- and sometimes she cares more about Earth’s problems than the wellbeing of her people on Mars. Furthermore, she cannot keep trusting and forgiving the same Counts that were once and are sometimes still hostile against her.

Asseylum also did not mention anything about Slaine to him the sparse times they had a chance to talk, usually on charity events or similar social gatherings—which Inaho usually avoids like the plague, but started attending after he realized that it was the only way to speak directly to Asseylum. When Inaho recently managed to talk to her about Slaine in the party after her wedding, she even admitted that it was Slaine who inspired in her a future where Earth and Mars would coexist in peace. True, she could lead any ambitious journalist that is stalking her to Slaine and that would be disastrous, or she might be still hesitant about visiting but still, Inaho can’t comprehend her reasons.

And Inaho was extremely surprised when, during the seventh month of Slaine’s imprisonment and some days after his attempt, the newly risen Count Vornt came into contact with him and verified that he and other four people acted as Asseylum’s representatives for the ‘Troyard case’. Inaho is engaged in a constant, merciless battle with them since the day he found out that their reformations were not only harming Slaine, but also making his imprisonment unbearable. Inaho realized that Slaine’s wellbeing was not their concern, and they would be happy if they could get rid of the fragile, dangerous lie that is Slaine’s existence.

Inaho gathered facts and facts, made long lists in his mind.

A year passed, a depressing and sad year.

Inaho has a new house by the sea that he shares with Yuki, endless free time in his hands as he is rarely consulted by Magbaredge or anyone else from the Deucalion about a serious matter, but no peace of mind. He does not need it, actually.

He cares. Not out of pity or duty.

Sometimes, the cry of seagulls can be heard from an open window. Slaine’s eyes will shine for a second…only for this emotion, whatever it is, to fade out again.

Inaho needed a lot of time to understand that he wants to see that spark of hope again and again, watch it flare to life.

#

“Good morning, Slaine.”

Slaine nods, lost in the mysterious world of his thoughts. Inaho would give much, very much to find out about it.

So today is a quiet day. Inaho sits down. He doesn’t know how Slaine will react to the news. Maybe he will snap out of this...isolation.

Inaho has many times asked permission for Slaine to be allowed outside, but each time it has been promptly rejected. So he was bewildered when, yesterday, the board decided to accept some of Inaho’s old requests.

 “You were given permission to go outside. The board of directors and the warden agreed on it, as long as you are under someone’s constant supervision.  I volunteered. I can accompany you to strolls along the seashore. But a guard can also take my place, if you wish.”

Slaine lifts his head. “They allowed this?”

Inaho nods, for once thankful that Slaine did not express any kind of displeasure about this. “You can go tomorrow, if you want. There will be no close surveillance, under the condition that someone will constantly stay by your side, as I mentioned before.” Inaho moves his knight, not expecting an answer, but the words that leave Slaine’s mouth reform his whole world.

“…Thank you.”

Inaho swiftly lifts his head from the chessboard and regards Slaine, trying to keep his expression blank. The air suddenly feels lighter and it’s much easier to breathe.

“I truly want to make your imprisonment more comfortable for you.”

Slaine shrugs his shoulders, his head bowed, his eyes suddenly void of emotions. A few months ago, Slaine would lash out and say things like, ‘Then you should end it. Permanently.’ or  ‘I wouldn’t need to suffer here in the first place, if it wasn’t for you.’ Inaho honestly has no idea which reaction is better for Slaine.

“The beach will be enclosed with electric wire. You cannot step beyond that limit.”

Slaine nods.

“Slaine, I want to be sure that you will not use this as an opportunity—“

“To escape? Kill myself? No, I won’t. I just want to look up and watch the sky as a whole again. Apparently, this is too much to ask.” Slaine’s eyes are sullen and red, Inaho notices, as their gazes meet.  

Inaho isn’t convinced. He wonders if he should use handcuffs tomorrow; they might prevent Slaine from harming himself. But that, on the other side, would mean betraying the little trust that Slaine just offered him...

 “I don’t want to live for her Majesty, anymore.” Slaine suddenly says. “If I have to live, I want to live for myself.” He clenches his fists and his voice is soft, and bit broken. “For the first time in my life, I want to live for myself. And then I’ll decide if it’s a life worth living.”

Inaho regards him in silence, his pulse running fast in his veins.

“Does it seem strange to you, that I’ve decided to talk? Isn’t that the reason you keep coming here? If I talk, will you leave me alone?”

“No. And no again, it isn’t. But I can listen, if you want to continue.”

“Does it even matter?”

It matters to me, Inaho thinks. Instead, “I can listen...”

Slaine closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

“All my life, I had nothing. And then, one day, I became the most powerful person on Mars. Do you realize what this means? They needed a proof of violence in order to listen. The Orbital Knights recognized me and respected me for what I was after I destroyed Trident Base and killed Marylcian. You should have seen the Counts’ faces. They were afraid. Afraid of the same Terran scum they used to kick around all the previous years.”

 Inaho waits.

“I can understand them. The Counts’ hatred, Mr. Harklight’s kindness, her Majesty’s disappointment. But there is one thing I can’t.” Slaine’s gaze is sharp, serious. “Tell me. Why did you risk your life to save me? Why did you take my kat’s hand while we were falling? Was it because of what her...Majesty told you? And why, why on Earth do you keep returning here?”

Oh no. “…Slaine.”

“Well?”

 “Don’t move. Stay still.”

“What are you talking ab—hey! What— no! Get it off me, get it OFF!!”

The next seconds are a small pandemonium, where Slaine manages to frantically wipe away the insect that landed on his face and escape towards the corner of the room, and Inaho swiftly follows him to see if he’s unharmed. In an unusual way, he was saved from answering the same unwanted question Inaho keeps repeating to himself.

This isn’t a wasp? “…It is just a cockroach.”

“I hate cockroaches.” Slaine hisses. “And this one can fly!”

Inaho approaches the poor insect carefully, Slaine just a step behind him. Inaho remembers seeing a few cockroaches in his orphanage, but they were smaller than this one and couldn’t fly. It then dawns on him that has found one of Slaine’s weaknesses. A shame he could not flood the Tharsis’ cockpit with cockroaches during their past battles. He realizes that his past self would have hypothetically done it without hesitation, but after Slaine’s reaction today, Inaho will make sure that all cockroaches in the vicinity will be driven away. Still, the image of a huge Tharsis crazily bouncing around in space is a bit amusing.

“Was that a smile?! A-are you making fun of me?!”

 “No, I would never mock a fear of yours. I just realized how faster the war would have ended if I could use this to my advantage, somehow. A cockroach in the small cockpit of your Tharsis and you would’ve been rendered incapable of engaging in any kind of battle.”

“You…! Oh, w-will you shut up! We have to DO something about that flying…thing!”

“It’s an insect, technically.”

“…What?

“An insect. Cockroaches actually belong to the same order with termites, as their genetic—”

“Whatever, who even cares, just go!!” Slaine’s hands are suddenly on his back, warm and solid, pushing him forward. He takes a step, and the warmth is then gone.

So Inaho walks toward the table and the little brown insect that is crawling across it. After two steps however, he realizes that the cockroach is definitely larger than it first seemed from a distance… Much larger. Approximately more than half the length of his palm…  It is moving his antennae, and then starts producing a menacing hissing noise, that somehow makes Inaho swallow in discomfort and (he admits it) a bit of...aversion. He is aware of the fact that this is just an insect, just a...very large, slimy brown insect with spiky, hairy legs and long antennae, that could at any moment land on his face as it did with Slaine…not even mentioning all the microorganisms and antigens that it must be carrying on its legs…

It’s impossible. 

He considers his options. He can either try…fighting it or accept Slaine’s mockery for his failure. The decision is simple.

“I can’t.”

Slaine sighs heavily behind his back.

“I won’t kill an innocent…animal.”

Animal? Are you serious?! Since when did a disgusting insect become an innocent animal?”

“But all insects are animals. They are all multicellular, eukaryotic organisms— ”

 “Alright, alright!”  Slaine raises his hands in a gesture of exasperation. “You are insufferable! Alright, then let’s find another way to get rid of it!”

The cockroach jumps to the edge of the table, and Inaho’s instinct kicks in, so he takes an involuntary step backwards and bumps onto Slaine’s chest.

Inaho turns to face him, and their faces are so close, he can feel Slaine’s quick, warm breaths on his cheek. “I…apologize.”

Slaine steps back, putting some distance between their bodies. He looks down at Inaho, narrowing his eyes. “Admit it. You are repulsed by it, too.”

Inaho notices how bright the color of Slaine’s eyes is, how flushed his cheeks are. “Alright…I am. It’s extraordinary. I was never repulsed by a cockroach or another insect before, but it seems that this particular—“

It’s coming!!” Slaine’s voice is a bit high-pitched.

The cockroach takes flight. Inaho feels all of a sudden as if piloting his Sleipnir once again, a bit anxious and with sharp reflexes in the face of an unexpected attack. As the insect keeps flying straight at them Slaine yells in alarm and retreats, Inaho hastily walks backwards in order to avoid the fast approaching cockroach but he somehow steps unto Slaine’s foot and they fall in a heap of tangled limbs on the floor as the door opens with a bang and two heavily armed guards rush inside, pointing guns and staring at them in shock.

The cockroach gracefully lands on the wall, just where their heads were before. At least they managed to dodge it.

“Get off. You’re heavy.” Slaine’s muffled voice comes from under him, and Inaho hastily gets on his feet, while reassuring the guards that everything is alright, and Slaine wasn’t being hostile. Slaine gets up and stands next to him, fidgeting a bit, repeatedly throwing hateful glances at the insect.

After Inaho explains what happened, he realizes that the guards are trying their best to keep a straight face, but still a snigger or two escape.

The cockroach is captured by the guards, imprisoned in an empty plastic cup but then released outside, after Inaho insists (with a bit of a wounded pride) that its life should be spared.

The next day, the guards that cross his way avert their gazes. One of the guards, a young woman with short, copper hair and freckles named Marina Berti (whom Inaho chose to replace one of the guards he fired), greets him when she escorts him to the usual room where Slaine is waiting, and as they arrive she reassures him that she is also hates cockroaches and it is no big deal if somebody is afraid of them.

Inaho forgot that their heroic attempts to avoid/fight the cockroach were recorded, and the footage was probably leaked around the personnel and even reached the eyes of the board.

He then thinks that he’s lucky Count Vornt doesn’t possess long antennae or hairy legs—well, actually, he isn’t sure about the last one, but one could say that the man is a pest. Anyway, he will make sure to get permission from the council and hire an insect exterminator as soon as possible, because he can’t stand the thought of Slaine being alone in his cell at night with cockroaches crawling down the walls. The image kept him awake late into the night.

#

One morning, as Inaho cooks their breakfast in their sun-lit, pale colored kitchen, Yuki’s voice echoes from their living room, calling him. She sounds very upset, so Inaho lowers the heat and rushes out of the kitchen. His battle to keeps his emotions under control is in vain, as is mind floods with images of Slaine lying motionless on the bathroom tiles.

Yuki stands unmoving in the middle of the room, starring at the black screen of her phone. She lifts her head when Inaho steps inside. “Lieutenant Marito just called. This is highly confidential; Inaho, he just informed me that Lemrina Vers Envers has been missing since last night.”

“What…? Please share all the details with me.”

“She never showed up for her last appointment with Dr. Yagarai, a few hours ago. As you already know, very few members of the Martian and UFE governments are aware of her existence. For the public, she never even existed. And she just vanished without a trace. The security data from her apartment shows nothing. The guards did not mention anything amiss.”

“Was it deliberate, or did someone kidnap her? And who would benefit from her disappearance?”

Yuki frowns. “I am not sure. Both UFE and Martian officers are investigating this. But you shouldn’t tell Troyard. As I remember, they were quite close. Were they lovers? They even wanted to get married.”

Inaho hesitates. “I spoke to Lemrina once. Asseylum did not inform her, so she believed that Slaine, …Troyard is dead. She was very upset, but I have reasons to believe that their marriage announcement was made for solely political reasons.” Slaine never gave him the impression of caring so much about Lemrina—he used to ask about her in the first weeks of his imprisonment, but if he truly was or is in love with Lemrina and not Asseylum as Inaho supposed, he should’ve been more passionate about her… Or so Inaho thinks.

Slaine and Inaho never talk about the outer world anymore, much less about Asseylum or Lemrina. Only three days ago they broke their unwritten rules by mentioning Asseylum’s marriage.

“Sis, please let me know when you find out more information about that incident. I’ll go and finish those eggs. I will join you soon.”

Yuki reassures him that she will, so Inaho returns to the kitchen.

Did Lemrina somehow leave on her own? Probably not. She can walk now, thanks to the advanced therapeutic use of new medicine based on the power of Aldnoah, but all her life she depended upon someone. This does not go away easily, not even after a year of her living alone in an isolated, tightly guarded apartment.

And why do people keep disappearing without a trace? Inaho’s mind returns to the guard that deliberately allowed Slaine to harm himself.

No, someone else is definitely involved in this. And two thoughts keep buzzing inside Inaho’s mind like annoying insects: Lemrina’s Aldnoah activation rights and her ability to shape-shift.

If she’s been kidnapped or even changed her mind about her sister… things might get worse, and the fragile political stability that Asseylum managed to create could easily shatter.

Chapter Text

A few days after the Frozen Elysium incident, (on which Kaizuka devoted only a sentence, as if he was sure of Inaho’s victory) Inaho finds himself with the rest of the crew aboard Deucalion. They are on their way to Trident Base, listening to the fake Asseylum’s (according to Kaizuka, once again) declaration of war. As he keeps thinking about it, he can’t help but reach the conclusion that there is something amiss about her. Can it be that Seylum, after risking her life in order to help them, actually wants to wage war against Earth?

After a couple of hours, Deucalion reaches Trident base and everyone hurries to their assigned rooms.

The first confirmation that the messages could be genuine catches him unexpected. He is ready to follow Calm to their shared room when Yuki calls his name as he walks down a narrow corridor. He turns his head.

“Yes, Yuki?”

“Check your inbox, Nao!” she chirps with a wink. “There might be something interesting in there!” With that she turns around and vanishes around the corner.

Inaho tries to keep a calm expression despite the sudden quickening of his pulse. Did she find out? Her expression, however, was completely untroubled. No, this cheerful innuendo couldn’t be about “Kaizuka’s” messages. He quickly pulls his tablet out of his backpack and sees a large number of… colorful messages in his civilian inbox account.

Inaho knows that the military approves of specific dating sites for people to have access to, civilians or not. Many relationships between his fellow military members started this way, despite the gravity of the war. But Inaho is certain about one thing: Colonel certainly should not have been in charge when this website was authorized. Inaho strongly believes that Magbaredge dislikes anything cute.

Inaho swiftly deletes all 30 messages from the particular website and tries not to get upset, but a new message arrives,

From: Kaizuka Yuki

To: Kaizuka Inaho

Subject: Cute dating site

 

You should try to answer and not delete them (which I am sure you did). Why am I even trying? Well you are my little brother, after all….so if it bothers you, I will delete your account right this instant.

 

Inaho’s fingers move fast above the keyboard. Please make sure you do. Thank you, Yuki, but dating is not my first priority right now.

After a few seconds, an answer arrives:

Yes, I was sure…anyway, account deleted! I won’t bother you about this anymore, at least not for a while…

Just make sure to take care of yourself, alright? Don’t push yourself too much. Take your medicine and try to go to sleep as soon as possible, don’t spend half the night glued to your tablet like yesterday! (I asked Calm) I will confiscate that damn thing if it starts irritating your new eye!!

And Nao, it is possible that I will leave for Earth tomorrow. If so, I’ll see you when I’m back! Please be careful on the battlefield.

Goodnight Nao :)

Inaho sends a ‘Goodnight, Yuki. We’ll talk tomorrow.’ back and starts walking toward his room. He ignores Yuki’s threat about his tablet.

So, Kaizuka’s words were true, at least the part about the dating site. It is almost nonexistent, but still a tiny shiver runs down his spine, as Inaho realizes that maybe the person who wrote truths about an annoying dating site also wrote truths about a future full of war and casualties.

#

As soon as Inaho gets inside his room, Calm is nowhere to be seen. He takes out his laptop, putting Seylum’s speech once again on the screen. The analytical engine of his new cybernetic eye proves very useful (Kaizuka was right, once again…he implied that Inaho would gain much from it) as he recognizes the stress patterns in Seylum’s voice, especially when she announces her name. Before he has the chance to rewind this part and watch it again, Inko knocks on the door and steps inside.

She asks him about his eye, and he uses her in an experiment to demonstrate some of its abilities. He then makes a comment about her weight and the stress patterns in her voice as she lies about it are similar to Seylum’s in the announcement video. (Or fake Seylum’s?)  After an enraged Inko leaves and before Inaho can reach a conclusion about Seylum’s speech, Rayet comes in. After reprimanding him for his behavior, she pins him with a glare.

“Are you sure you’re alright with that new eye of yours?”

Inaho tilts his head. “Why do you ask again? You already got your answer.”

“Why? Since you came back, Inko is…trying to approach you, but you are glued on your tablet as if everyone’s lives are depending on it.” Rayet’s cheeks color a bit. “Plus, you now made the…poor girl a test subject for a demonstration. You hardly ever speak to anyone, anymore. No awkward smalltalk. Not that you were much of a talkative person to begin with, but nonetheless. Is something going on?”

“No. What gave you that impression? And I do talk. We all usually meet for lunch in the mess hall and engage in all kinds of conversations.”

“You mean, Inko, Nina and Calm do all the talking, while I’m sitting there watching you staring into space.”

Inaho hesitates. “I will try and talk to her.”

“My eyes can’t analyze stress patterns for me, but I know that was more of a lie than a truth. Whatever, Inaho. I know there is a war going on around us. That doesn’t mean you have to go and carry out all things on your own.”

With that, she turns and leaves.

Inaho ponders on her words for some seconds. Rayet is smart. He is happy that she worries about him, but if he keeps getting distracted because of Kaizuka’s words, this could be a problem. She will definitely notice that something is amiss. Besides, even if all Kaizuka says is true, Inaho shouldn’t depend on him that much. At the same time, it’s critical that he reaches his conclusion soon. Should he trust the person that claims to be himself? And if he decides to trust him, should he stay silent and plan his own way of stopping Troyard? Or should he enlist the help of the military, despite Kaizuka’s wish? He decides to continue with the mental debate at another time.

Inaho plays the video a few more times until he is sure: this Seylum is lying about her name. Does this mean that this person is ‘Lemrina’, according to the message? Inaho closes the lid of his laptop and opens his tablet. He scrolls down until he reaches Kaizuka’s ‘major events’.

Before the conflict between Trident base and Marineros Base, Lemrina will shut down Slaine’s Kataphrakt’s Aldnoah Drive. Find a way to prevent her from restarting the Tharsis.

Which Inaho is purposely going to ignore. He skips the part explaining about Marineros and Trident base, the Vers and UFE asteroid bases that travel in orbit around the Earth.

As Trident Base and Marineros base approach each other, the Martians will launch a surprise attack on— the date is tomorrow, and Inaho is curious if the attack will begin at the exact time Kaizuka mentions— and Slaine will be on the frontline. You will recognize him immediately. He will act as a decoy to draw your shots.

Inaho has already planned what exactly he must say, to catch two birds with one stone. It is simple: if Troyard takes the bait, not only will he lose his composure, but Kaizuka’s words will also be true. The possibility of the ‘Kaizuka’ person being himself from the future will be, without any doubt, 100%.

Inaho needs for Bat to confirm the text’s content, as there is no other way of finding out if Seylum is alive. After Inaho manages to verify the sender’s identity, he will plan everything down to the last detail, in order to stop Troyard from whatever he’s planning to do in the future.

#

Kaizuka was right, down to the exact minute, about the surprise attack. Inaho lets a feeling of guilt wash over him—he could have prevented many deaths today, if he spoke to Magbaredge about Kaizuka. However, even if she took Kaizuka’s words seriously, Inaho still has to make sure that the messages are genuine.

#

The light build of his machine combined with Inaho’s cybernetic eye give him a huge advantage against the enemy. During the battle against Vers in the Satellite Belt, his shots are accurate while everyone else’s fail.

Always with Slaine Troyard’s thought in the back of his mind, he gets into firing position next to a large piece of debris, as he spots a white Kataphrakt approaching.

He fires a shot…and the White Kataphrakt dodges it with an elegant maneuver, as if sliding through the space. How did he move like that?

Inaho fires again. The Kataphrakt keeps approaching, avoiding the bullet in the last second. Inaho does not panic. He shoots, again. And again. He watches with surprise as the White Kataphrakt moves in a strange, irregular manner and dodges every single one of his shots, coming straight at Inaho.

Chances are very high that this is him. Bat. Slaine Troyard.

Troyard fires back and the two exchange shots for a while, in a dangerous, fast chase among huge floating rocks that were once part of the moon. Inaho makes a swift dive and avoids Bat’s projectile in the last second. He then finds an opening and comes behind the Tharsis, grabbing its back, opening his communication channel and activating the program that will allow him to hack into Slaine’s connections.

Opening contact channel. Decrypting protocols.

A green light appears, blinking, on the left of his screen.

Everything’s clear. Inaho disables the video, so only his voice can reach the Tharsis. He lets go.

“Bat.”

 There are static noises for a few seconds.

“Slaine Troyard!”

Inaho hears a surprised gasp, but he moves away in the last second to avoid a blow from the Tharsis.

“Orange! Or should I say, Kaizuka Inaho. It should not surprise me. You even pulled this off, connecting to my transmission…”

“Are you willing to—”

Slaine tries to hit him, but Inaho dodges this shot and the next one, too. Inaho knew before he spoke that asking would not get him anywhere, so he tries again.

“So you managed to restart your Tharsis.”

The Kataphrakt stops as if staggering just a few meters in front of him, and a shot that could’ve normally hit Inaho’s machine’s arm misses. 

“H-How did you…? …Is this another trick of yours to shoot your enemies down? I won’t fall for it, not this time.” Slaine’s voice is a bit broken from the bad transmission, but Inaho’s eye detects huge amounts of stress.

The white Kataphrakt stays motionless for a few seconds in space. There is no response from Slaine, but the line is still open. Troyard is clearly surprised...and his reaction just confirmed my words. It is highly possible that the messages are genuine, but I need more information to ensure this. 

Slaine snaps out of his daze and charges at him, but Inaho moves to the side, coming behind the Tharsis once again. Troyard rapidly turns and shoots at Inaho, but the analytical engine helps him avoid the projectile.

“Listen to me, Bat. Or should I say Gull, as you’ve clearly changed your class, now. I will give you another piece of the puzzle. I have acquired information that your Princess is barely alive, and an impostor has taken her place.”

Inaho’s Sleipnir and Slaine’s Tharsis stay unmoving and floating amid debris in the vast space, facing each other.

Slaine’s harsh breathing is interrupted by Inko’s voice.

“Inaho! What kind of crazy stunt are you pulling off now?! Get away from that white machine! We’ve been ordered to disengage!”

Inaho realizes that Slaine can hear her, but thankfully stays silent.

“Inaho!”

“I need approximately three more minutes. …I’m sorry, Inko.” His fingers swiftly press various buttons and he terminates her call. “Asseylum would not want you to keep waging war. I won’t let you exploit her and her wish!”

That wakes Slaine up, apparently.

“It’s ‘her Highness’!! And what do you care even if she— Tch. You have no idea what she desires!”

“She wishes for peace. The real Princess, Troyard. Not an impostor.”

“Her Highness Asseylum Vers Allusia bestowed upon me her wish to punish every Terran that dares to defy the Vers Empire!”

Slaine is lying. It is not clear due to the confidence and the fluency of his words, as if they are practiced, but Inaho has the red notifications of his analytical machine to help him understand this. It seems that Troyard knows how to quickly hide his feelings of distress and adapt to stressing situations. Still, nothing prevents Inaho from adding more pressure to the blond young man.

“You are a terrible liar, Bat. You should try harder.”

“What kind of twisted game are you playing, Kaizuka?! There is only one Princess—“  Lies again.  “You don’t—“

Slaine stops talking as a deep voice asks for Slaine’s whereabouts and orders his retreat. It seems that the Martian forces are hastily receding since the Bases are distancing themselves again, following their orbits. Inaho must retreat, too.

Inaho’s voice sounds harsher than usual in his ears. “I guess it’s also time for you to retreat. But I want to emphasize one thing: if you don’t bring your plans to an end soon, I will make you stop. Next time we meet, I won’t hold back anymore.”

Inaho quickly guides his Sleipnir and puts some distance between them. He got what he wanted, even if the price will probably be a reprimand from Inko and worst of all, from the Colonel herself.

#

After the conference on the bridge ends, Inaho stays behind. Inko scolded him a bit as they returned to Deucalion. Now it seems that it is Colonel Magbaredge’s turn.

“Colonel Magbaredge.”

Magbaredge is studying some data on the large display board, but she quickly turns around.

“Ensign Kaizuka reporting. You asked for me?”

Magbaredge frowns. “Yes. May I enquire what exactly possessed you? Disobeying orders and taking unnecessary risks?”

“I apologize for my behavior. But it was an opportunity I couldn’t dismiss.”

Magbaredge sighs, defeated. “Kaizuka Junior, I know you pretty well by now.” The Colonel presses a button on the small remote control in her hand and data on Slaine’s Tharsis appears on the large screen. “What was so special about this Kataphrakt, except from its uncanny ability to dodge every projectile that is fired against it, that made you disobey orders?”

Kaizuka’s words come into his mind: Tharsis has the ability to see the immediate future. It’s ironic. Slaine is able to catch only a glimpse of the future, while Inaho was presented with a wide view of the horizon. Slaine has only the first few pieces of the puzzle in his possession, while Inaho can look at the whole, complete picture anytime he decides to.

Magbaredge presses another button and a video of him fighting Tharsis appears. Suddenly, the Tharsis stops moving. “What happened there? He attacked you, but then stopped. Was this your doing?”

“I was collecting valuable data.” It’s not a lie, per se.

“This is your excuse?”

 “Colonel, we already decided that I will fight, despite the danger of Deucalion’s Aldnoah shutting down if I die. I was not in immediate danger back then.”

Magbaredge straightens her posture and gestures for Inaho to go on.

“I mentioned before that I’m assigning tasks to unused brain cells in order to optimize my mental abilities. If you are willing to give me a few hours to minimize any potential risks, I think I’ve found a way for the UFE to capture two Martian Kataphrakts with their pilots alive. I have a plan I want to discuss with you.”

#

Inaho is lying on his bed, observing the pendant that belongs to Slaine Troyard. He had almost forgotten about it, after Kaizuka’s messages arrived. He wonders what secrets it holds, like its owner, and his mind once again fills with thoughts of Slaine Troyard.

Why will Troyard’s death trigger another war? Inaho still hasn’t managed to read the whole text, but he will finish going through it today. He is not surprised that the messages are genuine. Furthermore, Inaho realized that Kaizuka should be really desperate, asking of his younger self in another(?) timeline to prevent the Third War. It means that in whatever future lies ahead, devastating events will happen.

Inaho puts the pendant away with a defeated sigh, takes his tablet out of his bag and begins writing down all possible scenarios of tomorrow’s battle.

Magbaredge was reluctant at first. However, she relied on her experience from all the previous battles where Inaho used his own peculiar strategies many times to save them all, and she approved of his plan in the end. Inaho was glad she believed his predictions about the supposedly micro-meteoroid showers that will occur during the time the two enemy bases will approach each other once again, twenty nine hours from now.

But Inaho knows the truth from Kaizuka. (He reminds himself that they are the same person, after all, but he still needs some time to process this paradox.) When he finishes writing down his plans, he rereads Kaizuka’s text.

During the battle between Marineros and Trident bases, Slaine Troyard will kill Count Saazbaum. Saazbaum adopted Slaine just before that battle. Slaine will fire bullets off during the battle, twice. You have to watch out for their course. They will be aimed so that they will swing around the Earth and land on a certain spot. You will think that it is a micrometeorid shower, so you will try to defeat Saazbaum using it. However, Slaine will use you as a bait to lure Saazbaum on the collision spot, and eventually kill him. You will manage to remove Saazbaum’s shield. The first rain of bullets will disable the Dioscuria; the second will finish Saazbaum off, destroying his Kataphrakt.

Kaizuka has even written the coordinates of the bullets’ impact with Saazbaum’s Kataphrakt. Inaho is impressed.

Prevent Slaine from murdering Saazbaum. You must not let Saazbaum die. His survival is essential for Slaine’s innocence, regarding Asseylum’s assassination attempt. Maybe you can use Slaine’s plans to your advantage.

Inaho suspects he will have to read further into the text to find out what exactly Kaizuka means by ‘Slaine’s innocence’. Could it be that Slaine was involved in Seylum’s assassination attempt? Kaizuka underlined that ‘Slaine once selflessly defended Asseylum and her wish for peace’.  But he is now exploiting Seylum. He took Saazbaum’s side, in the end.

Or not?

Inaho’s eye has not been bothering him that much while reading as it did in the time after his discharge from the hospital some days ago, so he decides it is a good opportunity to connect all the puzzle pieces together and view the puzzle as a whole.

Calm sometime comes in and climbs on his bed, wishing him goodnight. Inaho mumbles something similar back, but Calm’s snoring is all of an answer he gets. Inaho doesn’t even have the time to be bothered by the snarling noises.

After many hours of engrossed reading Inaho finishes the whole text.

Now he’s even more confused. Why is Kaizuka deliberately not mentioning facts about Slaine, while his main request is for Inaho to prevent the third war and Troyard’s rise? He does not mention the cause of Slaine’s death. He does not mention Slaine’s objective. He does not name any events that started the Third War. He only describes with great detail only the ‘major events’ that will occur during the Second War.

As it seems, Saazbaum adopts Slaine, Slaine then kills him, he then singlehandedly destroys Trident Base (Inaho truly did not expect this from Troyard), he wins a duel against another Martian Count named ‘Marylcian’… then Kaizuka writes about  Asseylum’s comatose state and how she regains consciousness…and the paragraphs go on and on until the text ends with Slaine’s defeat.

After you defeat him, Slaine will be purposely declared dead, blamed for Asseylum’s assassination attempt and secretly imprisoned. Asseylum will personally approve of this.

And there, the text ends. Nothing more. Inaho frowns.

As Kaizuka objectively describes him, Slaine Troyard was guilty for many wrongs, but his actions never triggered the war in the first place. Inaho remembers things a bit, after Seylum was shot. Someone fired more shots, and much later Inaho understood it was Bat, going out of control after Seylum was shot—by Saazbaum. Saazbaum wanted Seylum dead, this is certain. But right now Slaine supports Saazbaum… on the other hand, Kaizuka underlined in his first text that Slaine used to be loyal to Seylum…

Is it possible that Troyard had nothing to do with the assassination, and he will kill Saazbaum in order to gain his ‘inheritance’ and avenge Asseylum? It makes sense. Of course, Slaine does not know that Asseylum will wake up. If he truly cares about her that much, he should be really desperate about her health, during her comatose state. He will want to eliminate any possible threats, including Saazbaum. Plus, after the death of his adoptive father, he gets to control Saazbaum’s forces. All will be set then for Troyard’s ascent and his mysterious ambitions.

Inaho still does not know what Slaine’s true objective is. But one thing is clear; if the future does not change, Slaine will be falsely blamed for Seylum’s assassination attempt. And Kaizuka does not want this. Perhaps this could lead to the Third War?

Concerning the Third War… what was Kaizuka’s role in the events that triggered it, in the future timeline? Kaizuka does not mention anything about this. Why?

And if Saazbaum dies in the future, why lie and blame Troyard? Lies sometimes are much more dangerous than the truth, and Inaho thinks this is the case. Did both of the governments want to put the blame on a person that had lived on both Earth and Mars, to satisfy the crowds? To not trigger hatred against the Martians or Terrans? Only Troyard was punished? What about the rest of the Counts? Their war crimes? Why doesn’t Kaizuka mention anything about this?

Inaho’s head pounds with pain, but the questions are flooding his mind and he can’t restrain them. He pauses for a few seconds to relax, until the pain fades away a bit.

If he could somehow communicate with Kaizuka, Inaho would definitely berate his older self. Why doesn’t he mention the rest? He expects for Inaho to trust him, to prevent another war, but how can this be possible if Kaizuka does not guide him through this?

On the other hand, Inaho thinks, Kaizuka wants me to change the future. And that means, if the text ends with Slaine Troyard’s imprisonment, then he mustn’t be imprisoned. Perhaps something that happened during his imprisonment led to his death…and started the war. Perhaps his imprisonment did not stay a secret anymore, and the fact that he was alive and under Assyleum’s ‘protection’ escaped—and that would be a spill of really black ink on Asseylum’s white reputation. So another Martian movement could surely profit from this…

Inaho stops the line of his thoughts. Perhaps it is for the best that Kaizuka avoided this part. It is as if he’s sending Inaho another clear message: you must never reach this point.

Why is everything so perplexing? It is as if Kaizuka’s true request is concealed somewhere along the endless lines of words. Inaho is sure that Kaizuka is hiding something, something very serious and grave, but he will probably never share it with Inaho.

Inaho sighs. Both of his eyes sting, he has a massive headache and his back is stiff from lying motionless all these hours. He looks at the time. Breakfast will be in five hours. He must sleep, if he wants to have a clear mind during tomorrow’s operation. Five hours will be enough for his brain to function without issues, when he meets Troyard again on the battlefield.

He finds himself wishing that Kaizuka’s messages did not happen. That everything is an irrational dream and he must wake up one day to the actual present, where the reality of a painful future does not exist. He really doesn’t understand the world his future self must be living in.

He switches off his tablet and tries to relax. Before he drifts to sleep, his mind keeps repeating parts of the text, processing the information.

Prevent Slaine from murdering Saazbaum.

Saazbaum adopted Slaine just before that battle.

But, according to Inaho’s information, Slaine is Terran…and Saazbaum detests everything Terran…? Or will Slaine somehow force Saazbaum into adopting him?

#

During breakfast the next day, Rayet is constantly glued at his side. Magbaredge will soon make an announcement for the high-ranking officers to report for a strategic meeting, in order to discuss the plans Inaho submitted a few minutes ago. Inko and Rayet will also be present, as they will play a major role in the upcoming battle. The Colonel did not show it, but Inaho’s engine registered that her eyes widened more than usual, as she was reading his report. She was clearly impressed.

Rayet’s voice disturbs his thinking process. They are standing near a long table with coffee machines, pouring steaming coffee into their plastic cups.

“What did you do to that white Kataphrakt back on the battlefield? You clearly communicated with his pilot. There was no thermal sign of a malfunction, coming from either of you. He just froze, you managed to avoid a blow and then it was as if both of your machines shut down. You stayed unmoving for over five minutes.”

“I was just waging my own kind of war.”

“Really? Can I learn about this? It might be useful for me, too. Making Kataphrakts stop mid…space with just my words.”

Inaho detects clear irony in her voice. “I was collecting B- Troyard’s weak points.” They move at another, smaller table and Inaho rips a small white package, pouring its content into his coffee. His brain will soon need the sugar, as he won’t eat anything before the battle. One of the reasons he survived Troyard’s shooting was that his stomach was empty.

“By asking him with patience to kindly reveal them to you? Tch, you can be very annoying at times. Inaho. I know that something isn’t right. You are even more absentminded than usual.”

Is this true? “What do you mean?”

“This is salt, for crying out loud!” Rayet picks up the torn packet, waving it in front of his face. (His eye informs him that she is right...too bad. It’s a waste. Maybe he can taste the salted coffee as an experiment? Maybe not, as he might risk an upset stomach.) Rayet’s cheeks take a pink hue. “A-and Inko is so worried about you! You should try to calm her down a bit!” She suddenly shoves the packet hard in his chest and turns to leave. Inaho wonders while clutching the packet in his hand, why the sudden interest for Inko? Wasn’t Rayet talking to him because she was worried for him? But her pulse escalated when she mentioned Inko…

Someone whistles behind his back, “Freak!” someone says and then group laughter can be heard. Apparently they saw Rayet shoving him a bit. Inaho suspects it’s the usual immature group of people that seem to have fun belittling him. Rayet hears it too. “What’s your problem?! Try to fight the Martians first like Inaho does and then we’ll see if you’re even worthy of talking to him.” She then grabs Inaho’s arm. “Idiots.”, she mutters. “Come on, the others are waiting for us.”

Inaho follows her to the table were the rest of their group is already having breakfast, and Nina lifts her head immediately from a conversation with Inko when they are sited. “Are you okay, Rayet? Your usual cute face seems so angry! You’ll get wrinkles, please stop it at once!”

Inko looks at them with concern.

“Just a bunch of jerks.” Rayet informs her, and then smiles. Inko returns the smile.

Inaho decides it’s time to talk to Calm about his snoring issue…

“What are you talking about? I’ve never heard myself snore! I even stayed up half a night once, but I heard nothing!”

Apparently, that catches Nina’s attention. She rolls her eyes. “Calm…you are a really smart person, but sometimes you still manage to surprise me.”

Inaho however was prepared for this, so he takes out his tablet and plays the best part of last night’s recording.

The noises are horrible. Everyone stops talking and looks at a red faced Calm, and an excited Nina says, “Calm! If we use an amplifier and manage to transmit this sound inside every enemy’s Kataphrakt, we will win the war for sure! They’ll all drop dead like flies!”

Calm proceeds to defend himself, but Rayet says with a bored expression while placing her palm under her chin,

“Not many girls will sleep next to someone that snores that badly, you know.”

Inaho watches Calm as his eyes widen and the redness on his cheeks becomes even worse.

Inaho wants to answer something back and reassure Calm that Rayet is joking, (his eye indicates this) but Magbaredge’s voice is heard from the speakers, calling for them to prepare for battle. Inaho did not manage to take part in his friends’ conversations this time, too.

#

Inaho should be anxious. The operation will begin in less than an hour. Everyone stationed to fight, but especially Rayet and Inko, studied their courses and are now waiting inside their Kataphrakts for the battle to begin. Inaho’s eye was supposedly able to predict with the use of statistics the possible formations the Vers forces would use to attack, so he supposedly took the initiative and warned Magbaredge about it. And I will never be able to thank Kaizuka.

Today, however, Inaho can’t feel the same rush of anxiety that usually comes when he is waiting in his Kataphrakt, ready to take off. Inaho is extremely calm, even if he has arranged his whole plans based on a single person’s statements, who not only claims to be Inaho from the future, but it seems that he is a much more emotional, troubled version of himself. 

If anyone told him a few months ago that he would risk everyone’s lives because of a text supposedly describing the future, Inaho would think that his eye had seriously affected his brain. But it changes everything, the fact that the text is extremely accurate. Every event Kaizuka described did occur, with exact details, so Inaho does believe him. He also thinks with an iota of pride that he could be the one - and with the help of his analytical engine, furthermore- that could make any form of ‘time travel’, as people like to describe it, possible. Maybe Kaizuka had help, but Inaho suspects that the AQCS was not an official project. Inaho is torn between admiring his older self for investigating Aldnoah’s quantum behavior and managing to control it in such an extraordinary way…and berating him for not revealing the whole truth behind these messages. If the war was not raging around them, Inaho would have already locked himself up in a lab, trying to analyze his tablet and Kaizuka’s messages.

#

Due to Inaho’s forewarnings about the battle, the UFE forces are holding their ground against the Orbital Knights. Inko and Rayet were given special orders to assist Inaho, so they are now concentrating on defense and not the frontline’s offence.

Inaho looks at the countdown on his screen. Five minutes to impact. He used his eye during the battle to locate Slaine’s Tharsis, and observed the moment Bat fired the bullets off. All according to plan.

Rayet and Inko are now busy defending themselves, but Inaho knows the bullets will return shortly before the two Bases distance themselves again, while the Martian army will be withdrawing. Slaine took care of each detail. He will try to restrain Inaho and Saazbaum in a remote corner of the battlefield, so that Saazbaum’s death will be attributed to Inaho. However, this time, not all of UFE’s Kataphrakts will retreat.

Since Saazbaum’s Kataphrakt has a barrier, they will first need to take care of him. They will try to use the first ‘micrometeorid shower’ to disable Saazbaum’s Kataphrakt, and then Inko will secure the Count, moving him away before the second part hits. Inaho will then try to push Slaine’s Tharsis under the second ‘shower’. It will take a bit of effort, but Inaho knows he is capable of achieving this. If they fail, Rayet is keeping a careful eye on Slaine from afar. The chances are very high that he will not dodge at least her first shot.

Inaho dodges projectiles from enemy Kataphrakts and floating stones until Slaine spots him. Two minutes to impact. The chase has begun.

“Mustang 11, Mustang 22. This is Mustang 00, moving to engage. 11, 22, get in position.”

Inko answers immediately. “Roger. Mustang 00, good luck. We are counting on you.”

Slaine comes straight at him, and Inaho is pulled again into a cruel seek and hide among the floating debris of the Moon. He almost manages to hit Slaine once, but Slaine uses the Tharsis’ abilities and avoids the shot. Slaine fires back, and Inaho strives hard not to be hit. Their Kataphrakts spin, lunge and dodge projectiles and rock clusters with a deadly speed. After a few seconds, Saazbaum’s Kataphrakt joins the Tharsis, announcing that he will take Inaho down.

Inaho meanwhile quickly checks if he can still hack into Slaine’s transmission, and his kat recognizes Slaine’s signal. Apparently Slaine found time to make some adjusting on his programming, but it is nothing Inaho hasn’t faced before. He swiftly presses some keys on his virtual keyboard and the green light flashes again on the corner of his screen. All is clear.

 Another round of endless chasing ensues, until Inaho’s countdown is at five seconds, so he lures Saazbaum near the calculated spot.

Let’s see how things will go this time, Slaine Troyard.

“Mustang 11, prepare to assist.”

It all happens exactly as Kaizuka described: Inaho manages to disable the Dioscuria’s shield; he then grabs Inko’s Kataphrakt wire and is pulled away from the collision spot.

Inko and Inaho observe from a small distance as Saazbaum’s Dioscuria is assaulted by the high-speed ‘debris’ cluster.

 “It’s as you predicted! The debris cloud immobilized his Kataphrakt!” Inko’s voice betrays her delight for their success.

The very second the flow of bullets finishes descending upon Saazbaum, Inaho and Inko swiftly dive in an attempt to remove the disabled Dioscuria from the dangerous spot, before the second shower hits. During his dive, Inaho observes that Slaine has opened his communication channel, most probably in an attempt to speak to Saazbaum. Inaho quickly interferes.

“I won’t allow you to do this.”

Slaine’s cry of disbelief hurts his ears. “Wha—Kaizuka! What are—“

Inaho disables their communication, and knows they have (he really puts all his trust into Kaizuka about this) thirty seconds before the next volley hits. He has assumed that Slaine will be too astonished to attack them for a while, maybe for at least five seconds.

Inko opens her umbrella shield and charges onto Saazbaum, while Inaho gets behind the large spacecraft and uses his wires to pull it back.

“I can do it!” Inko’s voice is a bit high-pitched, but not frantic. “Just a little more. Inaho, you take care of the Tharsis! I will join you soon!”

25 seconds until impact.

Inaho barely dodges a shot from Slaine, as the later charges at him. Inaho opens his channel. Slaine just vents his frustration.

 “Kaizuka!! You are insufferable!”

“I told you before, Slaine Troyard, I will not let you kill him.”

Inaho can clearly recognize how surprised Slaine is because of his silence, but then he shouts, “What does it matter if you pulled him out of the bullets’ trajectory? His shield is still disabled, with one precise shot—”

“Does Saazbaum care about you? And do you truly see him like a father?” Kaizuka avoided talking about Saazbaum’s and Slaine’s relationship, but he mentioned one important fact: Saazbaum adopted Slaine, probably just a few hours ago. Perhaps the adoption was genuine and not some kind of Slaine’s scheme to rise in power.

As a result of his words Inaho achieved a critical four-second hesitation, in which Slaine did not move at all. So Inaho shoots him, and the shot almost hits, but it seems that Slaine quickly regains his senses and evades it. During that small fight, another five seconds passed. By now, Inko has moved the Dioscuria away from Slaine’s shooting range.

They dodge blows for a couple of seconds…fifteen seconds to the next collision, Inaho thinks, and he still hasn’t got a grip on Slaine… he checks in a corner of his screen that Saazbaum’s Dioscuria was secured on a Kat’s launcher and that Inko is approaching, but it might be too late…what should he…

He then notices that there is something amiss. He checks the debris speed…its velocity is a bit higher than what Inaho calculated…but even this slight difference will result in a much more devastating effect… his eye throbs painfully as he tries to calculate the impact’s momentum…

No. The bullets have enough energy to shatter Slaine’s Tharsis to pieces, if Inaho forces the Kataphrakt into their path. What should I do? Inaho closes Slaine’s channel, while avoiding Tharsis forward lunch, that would normally severe his cockpit. I can’t afford to let him escape. He does not panic. He avoids another blow from Troyard. I must immobilize him somehow…

“Inaho!”

“Inko, get away! Secure Saazbaum and retreat.”

Five seconds to impact.  The first part of his plan has most likely failed. It is Rayet’s turn, now. He never suspected that the second volley of bullets would be faster… and capable of completely destroying the Tharsis… how could this escape him? Kaizuka only mentioned the coordinates of the impact, not the bullets’ velocity… I shouldn’t have relied that much on Kaizuka…Was I too confident because of the future’s knowledge?

Inaho immediately signals Rayet.

“Roger, Mustang 00. Target lock-on. 3…2…1…”

Inaho’s Seipnir is partially in the way of the debris, but he immediately moves backward and out of danger, the moment Rayet’s shot connects with the Tharsis’ arm, which was trying to hit him.

The debris flies with terrifying speed in the empty space between their two kats.

Inaho sees a small explosion near the Tharsis, but he quickly realizes that only a small part of Slaine’s Kataphrakt was hit and Troyard is still alive. Inaho doesn’t realize that his breathing has accelerated but he rapidly snaps back into focus again, as he can now see Slaine dodge another of Rayet’s shots. The next three, too. And now, every hope of capturing Slaine is lost. Rayet tells him that she is out of ammunition. So Inaho should attack Slaine right now—

Suddenly, the Tharsis stops moving, as if Slaine’s contemplating something for a few seconds, and Inaho realizes with dread that he knows exactly what Slaine’s thoughts are: Saazbaum is out of the way. Slaine can now retreat and describe his death or capture to the rest of the Martians.

 “Mustang 00! Do you copy?”

Rayet’s voice startles him a bit. Inaho’s gaze is glued on the Tharsis’ rapidly retreating back, and he embraces the fact that there is nothing more he can do, at least not now.

“Mustang 00! We’ve been ordered to disengage!”

“Roger. Mustang 22, I’m following you.”

As Inaho guides his Kataphrakt inside Trident Base, bitterness fills him. Inaho almost won the battle, but he will lose the war if he continues like this. Saazbaum might not be dead, but Slaine just took his place and has now the power to command Saazbaum’s forces. It’s exactly as Kaizuka described.

And that means that Inaho has less than 72 hours to reexamine his plans in order to prevent both Slaine’s attack on Trident Base in space, and this Count Mazuurek’s attack on a UFE squadron down on Earth, where Yuki is stationed. And both attacks will take place simultaneously.

Inaho rarely swears, but he really cannot help it this time.

#

“Inaho!” Inko arms are suddenly around him in a tight hug, as soon as he steps down from the lever next to his kat.

“You did it!” Calm, holding an oily rag in his hand, soon joins the hug, and laughs in delight. “You didn’t only capture a Kataphrakt, but the most important member of the Orbital Knights, too!”

Inaho manages to disentangle himself from their friendly intentions, smiling a bit despite his tiredness and mind filled with worry and anxiety. He then perceives Rayet observing them from afar with a serious look on her face… and understands that his interrogation will soon continue and maybe worsen.

“I need to take care of some…things.” He really needs his medication, as his bio-implant is quite irritated. Saazbaum was just secured so Magbaredge will not call for Inaho immediately. Maybe he will have some time available for dinner, before Magbaredge asks for him to report.

Calm and Inko let him go, and after a lot of pleading he promises to meet them in a few minutes for dinner.

#

When he hurries inside his room, he immediately swallows a pill for his eye, which has been hurting for a while.

Someone knocks on the door. Before Inaho opens his mouth, Rayet barges in. She strides up to him, a furious look on her face.

“Tell me. What are you hiding? I know you would never betray anyone, but why all this secrecy? Who’s giving you information? Or are you buying it? Are they Martian? Terran?”

“Rayet—“

She grabs his collar. “I heard you. I intentionally channeled into your transmission. You were talking again with that White Kataphrakt’s pilot. He told you that you are insufferable, and then you answered that you would not let him kill Saazbaum… his father! And you could easily have used the second volley to kill him! Why didn’t you?! It’s as if you’re watching after him! He’s our enemy!”

Watching after Troyard…am I? Inaho suddenly understands. Isn’t that exactly what Kaizuka subtly asked of Inaho? Not only to prevent Slaine Troyard’s rise in the Martian ranks, but also prevent Slaine’s death? Otherwise, Kaizuka could have said that Inaho should just kill Troyard and as a result prevent his ascent among the Martians. Inaho isn’t sure why the Third War started, but something inside him tells him that Kaizuka’s unspoken request is for Slaine to remain alive, for reasons unknown.

And Inaho just failed Kaizuka. He did not manage to prevent Slaine from rising within the Martian ranks.

“Inaho! What is wrong with you? Are you even listening to me?!”

Inaho tries to make Rayet let go of his shirt, because as she reduces their distance in her anger, she keeps pressing the cloth on his airway. Inaho can’t afford to be more stressed than he already is. She probably misunderstands his move when he grabs her wrist. With a swift attempt, half reflex and half deliberate, she trips him. But Inaho doesn’t let go of his grip on her and they eventually find themselves lying on the floor, Rayet’s body pressed on top of his.

She looks down at him. “Alright, I know how uncomfortable you feel when someone evades your personal space. So talk and I might consider getting up.”

Inaho suddenly feels as if asphyxiating, and it’s not because she was hindering his breathing, previously. After he was being bullied as a child, he dislikes it when people restrain him. He tries to push her aside but then his eyes meet Inko’s, who is standing with an astonished expression and crimson blush on the doorway.

Rayet looks over her shoulder and immediately jumps on her feet.

“D-dinner…I—, uhm, I’m so sorry!” Inko turns away and runs. Rayet chases after her, shouting her name.

Inaho gets up.

‘Ensign Kaizuka. Please report in front of room B-12.’

It is Magbaredge voice on the speakers, and the B area is where Saazbaum is being held. So, they might want him present by the Count’s interrogation. At least that part of his plan worked. Inaho grabs his tablet and starts reviewing Kaizuka’s words and his own list of possible questions he could ask Saazbaum.

As he leaves his room, Inaho tries to short out his priorities: he must deal with Saazbaum, then possibly with Rayet, and then he must alter his plans about this Count Mazuurek and most importantly, Slaine Troyard.

Chapter Text

As Inaho walks inside the facility where Slaine is imprisoned, he considers mentioning Lemrina’s fate but dismisses the thought as soon as it occurs. Three months have passed. No news, no evidence, nothing. It’s as if she vanished, stolen away by the wind like the princesses in the fairytales Yuki used to make up when they were kids. Even Inaho wasn’t able to discover the smallest trace related to her disappearance. So, for this reason, he won’t mention anything to Slaine. He risks Slaine’s wrath if the blond young man finds out on his own, (which is almost impossible) but Inaho doesn’t want to upset Slaine with unsure facts. If he discovers evidence that shows exactly what happened, he will then reconsider it.

A tall, well built blond guard is on duty today. Siegfried Keil. Inaho chose him personally during the replacements and he is satisfied with the result, as the man is taking his job seriously, he does not gossip or speak much and in the rare occasion that he does, he is always kind to Slaine.

When Keil leaves them alone, Inaho greets Slaine. “I’ve brought you another book.” Should I tell him it’s a present? …No.

“Chess strategy again?”

“No, this one is different.”

“Really? What did they allow this time? I don’t want to spend the rest of my life reading about birds or sea creatures, chess strategy books and kat manuals. And I refuse to accept any ridiculous novels about retribution and justice that are on the ‘accepted’ list… The cheap romance novels, too. So make sure this book is different. ”

Slaine is starting to respond, lately. It took him a year and a half year since Inaho started visiting but during their walks on the beach, Slaine usually pays attention to Inaho’s short monologues. Two weeks ago Slaine asked for a book about the Earth’s fauna, which Inaho was eager to provide. Since then Slaine frequently reads outside and sometimes a small, fragile discussion will bloom about the book’s subject.

Inaho gently places the thin, old book with yellowed pages on the table. Inaho rarely steps inside bookshops, much more antiquarian ones. But it all started when Calm came yesterday to visit for a day and he insisted they drive to the nearest large city, ‘Why? Because there’ll be more girls there, my dear friend!’ 

#

It is an exhausting day, as Calm insists they visit four different museums and then a popular, expensive restaurant, where he does his best introducing himself to a group of young women sitting at the next table. Inaho on the other hand does his best to enjoy his meal, some kind of expensive lobster, but the food tastes like cotton in his mouth.

(Inaho spent the day avoiding arthropod fossils that reminded him of cockroaches in the Natural History Museum, then avoiding an entire section in the Interplanetary War Museum that had exhibits about ‘Slaine Troyard, the Martian Tyrant’ –which were actually a few tattered Orbital Knights’ uniforms, and Inaho was certain that half of them were a size too big, the other half a size too small for Slaine. He didn’t pause to read all texts and videos explaining how and why ‘Earth- born, Martian Troyard’ planned Asseylum’s assassination. He also overheard a group of teenage girls commenting that ‘Slaine Troyard looks so hot’ at some of the pictures, and just for a millisecond he felt a bit…upset? Even the possibility that this emotion was jealousy was impossible and ridiculous.

The Art Museum was better, even though it also had an exhibition dedicated to the last war, and a red, furious color was used in large amounts on paintings associated with Slaine. The Air and Space Museum featured in a ‘special, limited exhibition’ fragments of his Sleipnir and Slaine’s Tharsis, and Inaho stood in front of the glass cases, unmoving amid a sea of excited people frantically taking pictures, as he kept wondering how he and Slaine literally managed to tear themselves apart into so many little pieces. Calm caught him starring and quickly pushed him out of the room, as he probably understood that Inaho felt disappointed and a bit…sad.)

In a nutshell, Inaho is sick of viewing Slaine’s name on museum labels all day.

And then the worst happens. In the restaurant, a girl around his age recognizes him—despite wearing sunglasses and a knit cap (a present from Yuki), his eyepatch is still visible and someone smart and informed can always connect the dots. People start flooding the table then and keep asking him for autographs; Inaho freezes. Calm immediately forgets the girls at the next table, throws some banknotes at a waiter and then grabs Inaho’s arm, drags him through the kitchen, under the surprised glares of various chefs, avoiding a couple of colorful desserts falling from tilted trays after they bump onto some annoyed waiters, then out of the back door and onto the street. Calm quickly snatches both sunglasses and cap from Inaho, puts them on and begins running in a different direction after whispering, ‘Hide yourself, I’ll bring my car here in half an hour!’

Inaho does as Calm suggests and hides behind a large trash can, watching in alarm as people of all ages and genders immediately start chasing after Calm, their tablets and phones snapping pictures of the ‘Earth’s savior’, like a pack of wolves hunting down a poor sheep. Inaho smiles, making a mental note to thank Calm for this.

Inaho doesn’t know who exactly from the military spoke about him to the journalists after Slaine was stopped, but it seems that both of the governments did not deny that it was Inaho who actually defeated and killed Slaine. Thankfully, no ambitious journalists have managed to discover his address or any other personal information yet. Inaho requested that all information about him remain confidential, because if someone decides to trail him or take unauthorized pictures, chances are high that Inaho will lead them to Slaine, and this is the last thing Inaho ever desires; jeopardizing Slaine. Inaho doesn’t want to imagine what the consequences will be, if people discover that the ‘mastermind behind Asseylum’s assassination, behind the last catastrophic war and thousands of casualties’ is still alive and spending his time reading books and taking walks along the shore, under Asseylum’s protection. Both of the governments, Terran and Martian, will not be very glad about this, either. The hatred against Slaine, the common enemy, unites Terrans and Martians. Inaho on the other side realized as time went by that blaming Slaine is just a temporary solution to an unresolved problem.

Inaho tries to stay calm as he walks down an empty cobblestoned street until he spots a small, dusted bookshop, which is missing half of the cursive golden letters from its worn sign over the shop’s window. He can hear footsteps near him, so he takes the risk and opens the shop’s old door.

He steps inside, hoping that no prying journalist or paparazzi is lurking in the shadows. Fortunately the shop is empty, except from an old man behind the counter—apparently the owner. He lifts his head from his book and smiles at Inaho, his eyes lingering a bit on his eyepatch, and then nods once, slowly, and continues with his reading. Inaho disappears into a dusty corner and hides himself among dark, wooden bookshelves full of worn out, musty books with very old covers. He spends five minutes pretending to be interested in the endless rows of forgotten books, trying to plan the safest way of getting back to Calm’s meeting point without gathering admiring stares or worse, the admirers themselves. The little shop feels welcoming however, with the sun filtering through the small, dirty windows and creating bright patterns on the wooden floor.

“Do you need any help?” The old man’s voice is surprisingly strong and deep for his age. It holds a calming undertone, however.

Inaho turns around, fingers lingering on the black cover of a thick book. He regards the man in silence and what Slaine refers to as his ‘blank’ expression.

“Or maybe you only need some peace of mind?” The old man’s smile reaches his eyes.

“I would like a book.”

“Well, you’ve come at the right place.” The white-haired owner slowly gets up from his seat behind the counter and walks toward Inaho. “For you, or is it a present?”

“A present.” The words come out like his breath, naturally, accompanied with a thought of a frowning Slaine complaining about the lack of decent books and his endless free time. Inaho knows he should buy a book that the board will approve of. But at the same time, he wants this book to be different, no kat manual or physics paper. Not anymore.

“Do you have any preferences? Or should I just make some recommendations?”

“I need something…different. Not a very complex or philosophical book, nonetheless with a deeper meaning.” Inaho pauses, his gaze reaching up to the blue sky through the window. “I want the receiver to assume that the book is an invitation for…” Inaho fails to find the words. A friendly relationship? Could this even be possible?  “I want the person who’ll read it to understand that they are…” Inaho closes his mouth and almost frowns. Special. Unique. What am I thinking. “No, please ignore my previous rambling. I just want them to be touched by the book’s themes.”

The man nods in understanding. “Let’s see…ah. I believe I have exactly the right thing for you.” He turns and walks down the narrow corridor, then stops at a shelf near the counter, carefully picking out a thin, white book and showing it to Inaho. It is old. Its cover picture and title have almost faded away, only a few forlorn letters and pale colors remain. Inaho can make out a person standing on a round object. It looks like a drawing, a sketch to be more precise.

Inaho carefully takes the book in his hands, and he opens it at a random page. At least it’s readable. Before he can ask what it’s about, the man adds, “It is supposed to be a children’s book, but you will have to read it first to decide that.”

“A fairytale?”

“No, not exactly.” The old man smiles patiently, once more. “I will only reveal that it tells the story of a pilot meeting a young prince, who falls to Earth from his home planet.”

“…I will take it.” Inaho is ready to pay, but the man lifts his hand, shaking his head in denial.

“I can understand when someone cares about a book and most importantly, the person he will give it to. Such things don’t require a price.”

“Even so—“

“Then accept it as a sign of my gratitude, for what you’ve done for Earth.”

Inaho’s eye widens. He then wonders how the man would have reacted if he knew. If he knew who the gift is for, if he knew that the book he carefully placed into Inaho’s hands will reach a person that is hated by everyone on Earth and possibly the man himself. Inaho saw a picture of a younger man, maybe in his early thirties, hanging near the entrance. He was wearing a military uniform. It is possible—

The man chuckles, snapping Inaho out of his thoughts. “Don’t you worry! I won’t tell anyone you were here, boy. Your secret is safe with me. Just go back to that person and be happy.”

So Inaho smiles and thanks the owner, then waves him goodbye as he leaves the little shop -which is easy to forget but Inaho knows he won’t- with the book now safe in his hand, journalists forgotten. It is much later, when he sits in Calm’s rented car and his eye travels sleepily over the blue sea as Calm drives them home, that he remembers the man’s words. He does not know if they are two separate wishes or one united, but as he analyzes the sentence in his mind, he knows that the meaning is simple: what makes Inaho happy…is being with Slaine.

#

“You can read it outside, if you want.” Slaine always demands that Inaho accompanies him on his daily walks, most probably because Slaine’s new ‘game’ is trying to ‘get rid of that stupid blank expression’ of Inaho’s. He still hasn’t managed it.

Slaine’s fingers caress the faded cover of the book, then rest on the table. Inaho carefully observes Slaine’s puzzled expression.

“It’s an interesting book.”

Slaine’s green eyes focus on him. “You’ve read it?”   

“I couldn’t resist.”

Slaine’s eyes widen, becoming almost hypnotic, and Inaho finds himself feeling an irresistible pull on his heart. 

“I would ask what you mean, but you’ll start overanalyzing things again and I’ve no desire at all getting sleepy that early in the day. But I’ll give it a try.”

“Would you like to go outside, then?”

Slaine looks lost into his thoughts for a few seconds, until he agrees and Inaho soon accompanies him with Keil on a walk across half the underground facility, to the corridor that ends near the beach. Slaine, book still in hand, hesitates at the door but soon takes his first, uncertain step onto the rocky shore. Keil stays behind, saluting Inaho and standing guard at the entrance.

They walk for a while, Slaine stopping sometimes and tilting his head backwards, as if his eyes hunger for the blue, endless sky.

Inaho observes Slaine’s weary profile, his hair shining under the midday sun, and a wave of warm calmness rushes through his veins—but it is gone before he can even comprehend it.

“You tend to look up at the sky a lot. Do you ever wish you could return up there, again?”

Slaine snorts, shaking his head. “Why? Am I now allowed to pilot an aircraft?” Slaine pauses for a few seconds, and Inaho stays silent. Slaine is being sarcastic, that he understands. “See? I knew it. Such a shame they did not allow it. ”

Apparently, something on his face betrays him, as Slaine’s gaze narrows in suspicion. “Wait. Wait a second. You really asked for it? Really? Are you insane?!”

“Under strict supervision, it could be possibl—“

“And if I could pilot for an hour, or two hours, or even a whole day, what would it change?” Slaine’s anger is replaced by sadness. “Don’t you understand? It would be torture. Because they might allow it again in a year, or two years, or never, and my whole life will just be the meager times I had the chance to fly and on top of it, I wouldn’t be able to fly freely.”

Inaho hasn’t thought about it this way. “I didn’t realize this.”

“…It’s fine. I appreciate the effort, but don’t take…ha.”

“What?”

“I would like to say, ‘Don’t take any initiative again without asking me first’, but I know that’s exactly what you’re not going to do.”

“But you do enjoy it out here, am I correct?” Slaine seems more relaxed during their walks. Inaho realized during the last months that Slaine’s eyes aren’t empty, not anymore.

Slaine regards him for a while and then mumbles, “We…we’ll see.”

“Would you like to read your book? I can sit down nearby and wait.”

Slaine shrugs his shoulders, but then understands that Inaho wants an actual answer.

Is that a smirk?  

Slaine gently places the tattered book on a large rock a bit far from the water and then sharply turns around and…runs. Fear bolts down Inaho’s spine. He dashes after Slaine, hoping that the guards on the roof are not watching over them and just being lazy. This can’t be an escape attempt, because if it is… Inaho can’t bring himself to think about it, he starts listing the possible consequences in his mind, but then Slaine looks over his shoulder and checks if Inaho…is following him?

Inaho hopes this is just a dare and runs faster and faster, catching up to Slaine.

“See that big rock?” Slaine shouts.

An emotion related to their previous rivalry sparks inside Inaho’s veins.

#

Slaine’s body is bent, hands on his knees, as he tries to catch his breath. Inaho on the other hand is just a bit disheveled in general, but not completely breathless. He is a bit sweaty, so he takes off his jacket and folds it over his forearm, but still leaves his tie on.

Inaho waits until Slaine catches his breath. “You spent a year sitting or lying on a bed, of course your constitution has weakened, therefore making it impossible for you to outrun me.”

“And you are an idiot.”

Inaho blinks. “Why are you trying to insult me?” Inaho thinks Slaine must be bored of trying to get a reaction out of him, by now.

“Only a fool would try to run slower than usual, in order to make me feel better for my loss.”

He keeps his features in check, but it’s as if he’s a teenager again and Yuki caught him reading one of her erotic novels. (During that curious read, Inaho actually realized that he was much more curious about the meager plot than the badly written sex scenes.)

“I must stay next to you at all times.”

“Come on! That’s a ridiculous excuse and you know it. You cheated.”

“I did not. I tried my best.”

“Mm-mm. You did not.”

“I did try my best.”

“No.”

“Slaine—“

“I’m not listening! Or did you just say that you cheated?”

“Slaine. Your behavior is childish.”

Suddenly, Slaine lunges at him, and Inaho’s mind switches into a state of alert. Slaine grabs his waist, trying to pin him down, but it is Inaho that wins this uneven match, as he grabs Slaine’s arm and twists it behind the blond’s back, then forces Slaine to lie face down on the rocky ground, restraining him with a professional grip. He tries to be as gentle as possible because the small rocks underneath can be quite sharp, but it is not so simple.

“And that was what I was talking about.” Slaine says, voice muffled by the rocks but still mocking. “You definitely held back.”

Inaho releases him and stands up, his voice almost rising in a rare display of anger. “Slaine—“ Inaho takes a deep breath. “That was dangerous. What if they fired at you, thinking you were attempting to attack me, or even kill me?”

Slaine copies him and stands, dusting his shirt off. His eyes are on the ground when he speaks. “There are no guards here.”

“There are. On the roof.”

Slaine’s gaze drifts upwards and when his eyes meet Inaho’s again, they are empty. Inaho slightly despairs. He remembers that emptiness. “I didn’t realize.” Inaho tries to evaluate the situation, but in the end decides that if Slaine is lying, he will ignore it. Before his surprise about admitting that he will overlook such defying behavior registers, Slaine asks,

“And what makes you think that I don’t want to kill you?”

“You haven’t…expressed any similar desire in the last year, so…” Inaho clears his throat. “I have strong reasons to believe that you despise killing.”

Slaine narrows his eyes.

“Some of the past guards used to talk about their…war achievements in a brutal way near you and you recoiled, as if their words physically hurt you. Furthermore, during the time you were a Count the war was solely concentrated on the battlefield, and I believe you strongly discouraged other Counts from attacking innocent civilians. In a few words, I can’t believe you are bloodthirsty, or find any joy when taking a life.”

Slaine looks away, his eyebrows scrunched. “F-fine. I’ll tell you this: I killed the man who adopted me.”

Inaho wins an inner battle with his emotions and succeeds in keeping his face calm. “Saazbaum.” Inaho remembers Slaine’s announcement, after Saazbaum’s death. “You also predicted the debris that killed him?”

“It wasn’t debris. They were bullets I fired off during the battle.”

Inaho contemplates this.

“Silent, are we now? Is this too dirty for you, the model soldier, to hear?”

Inaho observed and now knows that Slaine cares, and cared, for Asseylum. “Did you fear that he could someday be a threat to Asseylum? Or was it because he fired at her, back in the Landing Castle?”

“It doesn’t matter! He is dead.”

“You are right; you are still a murderer, but I believe that you partially acted based upon your feelings.”

“Shut up. You don’t know anything. I planned for this.”

Inaho remembers Slaine’s announcement after Saazbaum died. Slaine announced his adoptive father’s death and that he would take his position. “Would you have killed him if he hadn’t adopted you? If you had no right to his ‘inheritance’, after he died.”

“Why do you keep insisting? Stop it. Please.”

Slaine ignored correcting him about Asseylum’s title and then pleaded him to stop, for the first time since Inaho has known the young ex-Count. This could only mean that Saazbaum’s death is a very sensitive subject for Slaine.

Inaho respects Slaine’s wish, but it is Slaine in the end that breaks the silence with an explosive outburst.

“Alright, I’ll say it, stop looking at me like that! I regretted it! Okay?! Are you happy now? Count Saazbaum was one of the few people that accepted me for what I was, and I killed him! I lied, I betrayed, I did all of that...” Slaine covers his eyes with his forearm. “Now leave me alone, if your psychotic mind can even understand what this means.”

Inaho doesn’t want to answer that he must always stand next to Slaine during the times they are outside. Instead,

“I don’t believe there was something wrong with you.”

Slaine is taken aback, lowering his hand, his eyes moist and a bit red when they meet Inaho’s. “What?”

“You said, ‘accepted me for what I was’. Was it because of your birthplace? Martians despised Terrans.” Some still do, Inaho thinks. He remembers Slaine’s scars, but quickly dismisses the mental image. “It was their fault if they did not accept you because of their racist beliefs, back when you served under them. Not yours.”

Slaine opens his mouth, his features then twist into a pained expression. “You don’t know anything. Leave me alone. You would never understand.”

I know that, but I’m constantly struggling to understand you. Is this foolishness or hope?

Slaine walks angrily away but Inaho follows closely behind, silent.

In the end they sit side by side on the rocky shore, a bit far from the door they came in but not that close to the sea, so that their feet won’t get drenched by the waves slowly rolling up the shore. It seems that Slaine tolerates Inaho sitting close to him, despite his previous outburst.

Slaine picks up the old book and begins reading. Inaho has half an hour full with the lulling sound of the sea and stolen glimpses at Slaine’s profile. Again, that feeling. It’s like a warm tug at his heart, but now filled with sadness. Inaho looks away. Some time passes by.

“Damn you, Inaho...”

Ah. He finished reading it.

“Are you doing it on purpose?! Why did you bring me this book?”

Inaho’s pulse rises a bit. “I accidentally came across it.” It’s the truth. Almost. And why is he so upset?

 Slaine’s angry voice fades a bit as he looks away at the horizon. “The prince with golden hair and his rose…”

“What about them?”

“…N-never mind.”

Slaine’s fingers fidget with his shirt and he looks away. “I…I did not understand the ending well. H-he does not die, right?”

“Anything is possible. Do you believe he dies?”

Slaine hesitates, his expression skeptical. “No...”

“In that case, he lives on and returns to his rose.”

Slaine exhale is stretched and tired. “You are totally oblivious, aren’t you? …But on the other hand, how could you know…”

“Can you elaborate?”

“Nothing. Just, next time bring me something less depressing.”

Inaho makes a mental note to reflect on Slaine’s odd behavior later when he is alone. “Did you find it depressing? He gets to return to his planet and his flower in the end, after having witnessed many things all over the Earth and space. One could say—”

“I am not in the mood for this discussion right now, Kaizuka. Shut up.”

The words are almost said absentmindedly, as if Slaine’s mind is occupied with something else. Inaho nods. “Alright.”

In the silence that follows, Inaho observes the waves and the few clouds over them as he tries to understand the reasons behind Slaine’s hunched shoulders and stiff body. When Slaine speaks, he does not meet Inaho’s gaze.

“Kaizuka. Do you know the difference between red and blue roses?”

“I suppose that you are referring to something else, besides their color.”

“So, you don’t.”

“No, I don’t. Flowers or gardening were never in my interests. Are roses important to you?”

“They used to be.” Slaine shrugs his shoulders. “But not anymore. It does not matter now… Anyway, I want to run again, tomorrow.”

Why the sudden change of subject? Why did Slaine mention the roses? Does it have anything to do with the rose in the book?  Why were roses so important for Slaine? “Okay. Do you want me to accompany you?” Inaho tries to imagine running again next to Slaine and he more than welcomes the thought. He does not show it, but he is excited.

“Of course. How else will I be able to outrun you?

 “…We’ll see about that.”

Slaine just shakes his head in what Inaho believes to be annoyance.

#

Inaho researches on red and blue roses and discovers information about their origins, growth conditions and meanings, but he still can’t decipher Slaine’s question. Slaine does not mention the roses again.

#

Their routine is simple: a game of chess, then running outside- usually side by side- and finally a stroll and bits of discussion as their breathing calms down. Slaine’s stamina is improving. In his fixed obsession to win their matches he started eating more and exercising in his cell. Inaho silently celebrates all of this, even if some narrow minded people from the board keep criticizing Inaho for allowing Slaine to run and exercise.

Usually, Inaho will talk a bit and Slaine’s answers will be grunts, the shaking of his head, or monosyllabic words. But sometimes, he will answer back. The only elaborate discussions they managed to complete are about Kataphrakts, aircrafts or physics. Inaho also mentioned the Rayleigh scattering to Slaine. To his surprise, Slaine asked for a book about this and similar phenomena. They will spend hours arguing about such matters, or comparing Martian and Terran scientific theories and observations.

During discussions like these Slaine will be more relaxed and sometimes, only sometimes, the ghost of a smile will stretch his mouth a bit while he’s reminiscing about things. And Inaho’s skin will burn, his heartbeats will increase, his chest will feel heavier and he will think that all of these physiological abnormalities could be contributed to an illness, if not for his thirst for more of these subtle smiles.

He can’t help it. Slaine is his first hazy thought when waking up in the morning and the last tired one before falling asleep at night. He has to constantly remind himself not to let his gaze linger on Slaine too long, to fight the sudden urges to brush his hand against Slaine’s when they are walking together along the shore, or reach out and ‘accidentally’ touch his back or his blond hair -which seems so soft- during the few seconds that Slaine manages to outrun him.

In the first year of Slaine’s imprisonment, Inaho’s interest came just from pure curiosity and even objective concern for Slaine’s wellbeing, as the blond young man was under his supervision. During the last few months, it has evolved into something new and unknown.

He now knows that he is attracted to Slaine, but this is not only about his brain’s chemistry and his body’s hormones. This is much deeper. Inaho has never been in love, so it is difficult to understand something previously unexplored.

#

One day he finds himself outside on the house’s garden, a couple of withered flowers and badly trimmed grass, as neither Yuki nor Inaho trouble themselves very much with it.  He then hears a soft keening. He follows it and discovers a cat… just an ordinary cat with fur that reminds him of light caramel, with white splotches on its paws and belly.

He approaches it carefully, but it pins him on his place with its wide eyes. Their color is almost similar to a peculiar shade of bright green, a color that haunts him regularly these past few weeks, always angry or sad. Inaho quickly goes inside again, fills a bowl with water and places it on the wooden porch in front of their kitchen. The cat carefully moves closer and appreciates it, so Inaho stays a bit there, kneeling in front of it, watching as a pink tongue swiftly darts out and laps at the water. Inaho doesn’t distinguish any collar or something similar that betrays information about any possible or former owner.

He is alone with the cat. Never in his life did he initiate pointless conversations, but it seems that the words need to come out.

“I want to confess something. This is a secret as of now, so make sure it stays one.” Inaho swallows in discomfort, feeling a bit funny, since he just decided to have a one-sided conversation with a cat. “I’ve thought intensively about this and have reached a conclusion.”

The cat stretches its body, ignoring him.

“I am in love with him.” He pauses. “With Slaine... Slaine Troyard.” It feels strange, talking to an animal that does not understand him, but from the moment the words slip through his lips, Inaho feels much better.

“I am aware of the very high possibility, no, the fact that my feelings will stay unanswered. And the most surprising part is, it does not bother me, at least not now. I only wish for his happiness and nothing more.”

The cat continues lapping at the water.

Inaho remembers Slaine thanking him when returning the tattered book, a few days ago. “He almost smiled once and it was… very pleasant.”

The cat meows. Inaho takes it as an encouragement.

“I want to see him smile more.”

Inaho stands up, a bit embarrassed and returns to the kitchen. He grabs his tablet, typing ‘how to befriend a stray cat’ on his search engine, hoping that the results will somehow be helpful. He quickly reads a few articles, hoping that the cat will stay on the porch and won’t run away, making lists on his mind with advice from unknown ‘cat lovers’. It seems that after he befriends it, must also bring the cat to a veterinarian, then buy cat supplies… What do cats like to eat? Mice? No, certainly more than just mice. ...I must gather more information about this. Where do cats even sleep? Also, what about the animal’s gender? And its name?

This is becoming too much. Inaho steps into the living room, tablet in hand.

“Yuki-nee! I need your help.”

#

Inaho’s sister quickly confirms that the cat is male and after a brief argument Inaho names him Ray. He makes sure to leave cat food (which he looked up) and water every morning on the same spot of the porch. Yuki looks at Inaho strangely the first few days, but then gradually accepts their new friend. One morning, Yuki brings the cat to a veterinarian. The same afternoon she returns with a huge grin on her face and an armful of plastic bags full of colorful cat toys, various bowls and other supplies.

So for the next days, after she gets home from work— a temporary position as a training instructor in the nearest military station, a one hour drive from their home— she usually plays with the cat in their living room, giggles in excitement and commends on how cute he is.

(When Inaho is alone with the cat he calls him with his full name, Rayleigh. He is careful not to let Yuki know. He doesn’t have an explanation, because for the first time in his life he does not understand. Plus, Rayleigh also seems to respond a bit more when called by his full name. Inaho experimented on this. He is now sure that he has chosen a great name for his new friend.)

#

They are walking side by side along the shore. Inaho observes the beads of sweat that are sliding down Slaine’s neck. He forces his gaze away. Slaine still hasn’t succeeded in winning any running match, but he’s improving rapidly. Inaho now does his best in order to win without holding back, his feet are burning each time they run and he knows that Slaine silently appreciates it.

“I won’t be able to visit, starting tomorrow.”

Slaine stops abruptly on his tracks. He turns his head, narrowing his eyes, but Inaho’s faster.

“It will only be for a few days.”

Slaine’s gaze is now focused on the horizon, far away where the sky meets the sea. “A-as if I care. Do whatever you want.”

“I would prefer not to rely on the warden. I wanted to inform you in person, as last time this wasn’t the case.”

Slaine shrugs his shoulders. “As I said, do whatever you want.” He keeps walking then, his steps a bit hurried.

“Slaine.”

“What?” It is spoken with a hint of anger.

Instead of saying something useless as “I will definitely come back to you”, and sound like a dramatic character from Yuki’s novels that leaves his wife behind in order to go to war, Inaho’s next choice is spontaneous, too, and only a bit less worse. “Would you like to swim, someday?”

It is the beginning of winter, but the prison and Inaho’s house are near the Northern Tropic so they don’t even wear winter clothing, as it is always hot during the year. He also observed how Slaine sometimes gazes at the deep blue water with longing. It is understandable that Slaine might yearn for a dive into the clear water...as there weren’t, of course, any natural bodies of water on Mars.

Only after the question leaves his lips does Inaho remember about Slaine’s scars, and how sensitive Slaine is about them. He silently berates himself for being that nervous around Slaine and spitting out whatever comes down his mind. This must stop. He must learn to control himself more around Slaine.

Slaine’s shoulders drop and he turns and faces Inaho, his hand gripping his bright blue shirt near his heart. It is an unconscious, sad gesture that Inaho by now recognizes; when Slaine is upset or uncertain about something, he always ends doing this, as if his heart is in pain.

“I understand.” Inaho says, after Slaine shakes his head in denial, his features stiff.

They return inside, not exchanging a word, not even when Inaho leaves.

#

“Hey! Over here!” Under a large board that announces the recent arrivals, Nina is waving her hand and a large piece of paper with his first name on it in bright pink letters, and approximately twenty sparkling stars and hearts(?) surrounding it.  Why do they even sparkle? Inaho sighs, but then smiles, as Calm, Rayet, Inko and Nina rush to his side, hugging him and speaking all at once (except maybe for Rayet).

They exit the airport and get into Calm’s car, where Inaho gets rid of his fedora hat -Yuki’s present, too- and sunglasses.

Inaho will spend the next five days at the Headquarters of UFE, meeting Colonel Magbaredge, Lietenant Marito, Dr. Yagarai and other former members of the Deucalion crew. Everyone was surprised, when Yuki and Inaho decided to leave together and vanish ‘into the middle of nowhere’, as Rayet described the place he lives now, when she learned that he was moving away.  Yuki decided to take a two years’ leave, so that she would be able to help Inaho readjust in his new home. She wouldn’t change her mind, despite him complaining that she didn’t need to move away from her friends. Everyone believed Inaho’s explanation, that his eye needed a stress free environment and clear air, so they didn’t question his withdrawal.

It is the first time Inaho meets all of them together since Asseylum’s marriage, five months ago. They yearn for his news, and the only thing that can pass through the filter of truth in Inaho’s mind is Rayleigh, the green eyed, ex-homeless cat. Everyone is surprised as Inaho reveals that he adopted a cat; apparently, his friends thought he wasn’t a big fan of animals, especially of hairy feline ones—which is a bit true, considering that he runs all day behind Rayleigh in order to clean the mess the too energetic cat leaves behind. But sometimes, when Inaho works on Lemrina’s case or researches about various Vers Counts on his laptop and the sunlight gently warms the couch, the cat will come and curl himself near him, basking in the sun. He finds it a bit comforting, stroking Rayleigh’s neck as the later purrs in delight.

Inko informs him that she and Rayet moved together in a larger apartment and this comes as no surprise to him, as the two girls have been in a relationship for almost a year now. Calm is considering leaving the military and working for a newly formed Kataphrakt manufacturing company that both UFE and Asseylum now fund. Nina started attending baking classes, and she makes Inaho promise that he’ll eat all of her failed or slightly burnt sweet experiments.

#

Afterwards, when Inaho visits the Headquarters, he discretely asks Dr. Yagarai if there were any news about Lemrina. The usually calm doctor shakes his head in denial, not hiding his distress. Inaho can’t understand how he wasn’t able to discover anything about her, despite hacking into her the surveillance records from the entrances of her apartment. She returned home quite late the night before her disappearance and from then it’s as if she totally disappeared. He checked for any possible doubles of Asseylum but there was nothing suspicious.

 It can be that she ‘borrowed’ another disguise and that could make her impossible to track down, if she even left on her own. On the other hand, if she was kidnapped…Inaho spent many sleepless nights thinking about this, but despite all the hours he also spent researching and hacking every officer that is aware of her existence, nothing came up. So he just keeps returning to the list he’s made of people that will benefit from Asseylum’s dethronement, and keeps selecting a new investigation target every two weeks…because uncovering all lies and truths about a person takes a lot of time. It is something he has firsthand experience in, with all his efforts to understand Slaine.

Chapter Text

After Saazbaum’s death, the other Vers Knights will start questioning Slaine’s loyalty. Slaine will take measures to secure his position and reliability: he will singlehandedly destroy Trident Base. (Kaizuka mentions date and time.) You won’t be able to intercept him, because you will be fighting against another Kataphrakt. The fraction of Vers Knights that are suspicious of Slaine will order Count Mazuurek to attack a UFE squadron on Earth. Yuki and Marito will engage in battle there, too.

Kaizuka then thoroughly describes the weaknesses of Mazuurek’s Kataphrakt and other details of the attack. Inaho has memorized everything by now, especially with the help of his analytical engine, but he occasionally feels a strong need to review the original text. Kaizuka’s words, despite being strict and objective, somehow encourage him.

Inaho hurries down the corridor, approaching the room where Saazbaum is detained.

“Watch out, idiot!”

He avoids the person that carelessly stands in the middle of the corridor and still keeps shouting at him-while using inappropriate language- to watch where he’s going. Certain immature people will gang up and block his way more often than Inaho would wish, insulting him and refusing to move. Inaho is thankful this is not the case right now, as he has no time to spare for trivial interruptions. He does not even have the time to come up with a strategy against these challenges.

Inaho begins reviewing his notes for Saazbaum’s questioning, while turning right on the corridor that leads to the room where the Vers Count is being held.

There is still the issue of Rayet being something more than just suspicious of his sudden interest in Slaine Troyard, but it is the second to last problem on Inaho’s mental list as of now (the last being a way to stop Calm’s snoring as soon as possible, as Inaho never reaches his self- assigned amount of sleep because of the horrible noises).

Inaho finally arrives at his destination. Taking a glimpse over his tablet, he realizes that Colonel Magbaredge, Lieutenant Marito and Mizusaki are all waiting for him in front of a closed door.

Magbaredge is the first to speak as he approaches, her small smile very noticeable. She must be pleased with the situation. “Kaizuka Jun—, Ensign. I must admit that this unusual machine of yours gave us a great advantage in the last conflict. Everyone was impressed by your predicting and utilizing these micrometeorid showers. You did not manage to capture the Tharsis’ pilot, but we have information that he is of no great importance to the Martians.”

That will change soon, Inaho thinks.

“On the other hand, Count Saazbaum is a key political figure on Mars and was currently taken into custody.” His eye informs him that Magbaredge is truly satisfied with the result. “Now, you wouldn’t normally be allowed to be present by such a classified interrogation, but I am aware… Kaizuka Inaho, make eye contact with me when I’m talking to you.”

Inaho lifts his head from his notes. “Colonel. I’m sorting out some questions for our prisoner. This is very important. And I would like to question him too, if possible.”

She blinks, but continues undisturbed, her gaze sliding sideways to Mizusaki, “Mizusaki, do you know why you can’t get a date? Lack of self-confidence. You must have the courage to ask for what you want.”

Marito slaps Inaho’s back.  Inaho’s grip on his tablet tightens. “Well done, Inaho!”

Inaho however is far from satisfied. They only managed to capture Saazbaum. His plan was not a success. According to Kaizuka, the road is now free for Slaine to become Saazbaum’s substitute…and worse. Also, the attack on Trident Base will take place in less than 72 hours. There is absolutely no time to waste. He must interrogate Saazbaum and manage to gather more information about the blond pilot. He must then quickly proceed with the rest of his plans.

Mizusaki unlocks the door. They all step inside a small room with iron walls where Saazbaum is waiting, sitting on a chair next to a small white table. His hands are cuffed. Both of his guards salute Magbaredge as she steps in, but she dismisses them and they leave.

“Filthy Terrans. An Orbital Knight does not submit to anyone! Do whatever you want, I will never talk.”

Inaho’s machine detects a slightly increased pulse, sign of anxiety, but nothing else important.

Magbaredge arches a thin eyebrow. “Torture is prohibited upon this ship and under my command. However, there are other ways we can make sure that you’ll answer our questions…Count Saazbaum.”

Saazbaum’s expression does not hide his anger and loathing.

Inaho has already predicted all of this. There is a high probability that Saazbaum will not talk. Inaho will let some hours pass by, then he will kindly ask permission from Magbaredge for him to talk with Saazbaum. Alone.

Which he finally gains after three and a half hours of intensive questioning, frustrating silence and an unresponsive, disdainful Count.

Mizusaki and Marito leave first, deciding to take a short break. Marito will soon join Yuki down on Earth, where Mazuurek… No, I must focus on the task at hand.  Magbaredge is at first reluctant to exit the room, but Inaho assures her that he can manage alone for half an hour. So the moment she walks out, Inaho quickly activates the program on his tablet that will connect to and erase all kind of voice data from the surveillance cameras for the next thirty two minutes.

 Inaho takes the seat opposite Saazbaum, after he has ensured that the following discussion will not be recorded or reach any other ears. It may be half an hour, but it should be sufficient.

Saazbaum’s eyes are fixed on his face.

“My name is Inaho Kaizuka. I believe you must remember me.”

Inaho notices a flicker of recognition in Saazbaum’s hostile, furious gaze. Inaho intertwines his fingers, resting his hands on the table. He looks straight at Saazbaum, taking in all of his reactions.

“Slaine Troyard. I need information on him.”

Saazbaum seems a bit taken aback by this. Inaho’s machine indicates confusion.

Inaho continues, “Colonel Magbaredge already tried to gather information about the Orbital Knights, your Kataphrakts, your plans, Princess Asseylum’s assassination attempt. But these are all trivial to me right now. The majority believes that the king has fallen, so the game will temporarily stop, at least until the enemy finds another. In my opinion, there is yet another pawn on the board much more dangerous than you, ready to become king.”

Saazbaum narrows his eyes.

“Who exactly is Slaine Troyard? What is his objective? I am sure you can help me with this. After all, you adopted him.” At this, Saazbaum’s eyes widen a fraction.

Saazbaum’s blood must be boiling, as his face reddens beyond a physiological degree. His heart rate just exploded, Inaho’s machine indicates. But Saazbaum stays silent.

“Why? Why adopt him, now? Are the other Vers Knights suspicious of him? Or did you wish for a controllable heir? Slaine is ‘Earth-born’, and you despise everything Terran.”

Saazbaum slams his hands upon the desk. “What is the point in all of this?!” 

“Then I have another question for you: If Troyard was loyal to Asseylum, why did he join you? You tried to assassinate her. Why did he allow you to live?”

“Go and ask him that question yourself.” Saazbaum’s smile is predatory.  “Slaine will make a great example out of you, for the rest of you lowborn dogs!” Inaho realizes that Saazbaum is becoming interested in his words. Not exactly answering, but trying to figure out the reason for the questions. So Inaho makes his next move.

“You made an attempt to kill her. Until this day, she hasn’t woken up from her coma.” Inaho ignores Saazbaum’s dumfounded expression and proceeds, “Do you think he could absolve you so easily of your crimes? Even forgive you?”

Saazbaum clenches his trembling hands into fists.

“Did you believe it was a micrometeorid shower that disabled your machine?” At this, Inaho takes out his tablet and plays a video taken from his point of view, inside the Tharsis. He has already arranged everything, in case they captured only Saazbaum. He needs Saazbaum to distrust Slaine. Saazbaum might then reveal crucial information about the mysterious Vers Count.

“This video is reduced to one hundredth of its actual speed. This is no debris. These are bullets, as you can clearly see. Slaine fired them off during the battle.” Inaho hides his tablet away, because Saazbaum’s eyes are wide and his crimson face seems ready to explode.

Saazbaum’s handcuffed fists land again on the table, exactly where Inaho’s tablet was two seconds ago. “YOU! This is preposterous!”

“Slaine Troyard made an attempt to kill you. His Tharsis’ abilities helped him determine exactly the time and location the shower of bullets would land. It was almost a perfectly executed plan. If Troyard succeeded, no one would ever find out the truth about your death.”

“Terran dog!! I have no idea what you’re talking about!”

His eye flashes in red. “You’re lying. I assume that you suspected him…but for some reason, you chose not to act.”

Saazbaum is silent, all of a sudden. He threads his fingers through his hair in a sign of desperation. So, my assumption was correct.

 “You knew that he was loyal to Asseylum, and there was also the possibility that he would never forgive you for shooting her.”

Saazbaum stays silent. When he speaks, his voice is very low. “Why are you so desperate to know more about him?”

“I believe there is much more to him than it seems. I must also determine whether his true nature is that of a loyal dog, or an ambitious wolf.”

At this, Saazbaum shakes his head. “Knowing your enemies… is good. And it seems that you managed to discover classified information.  Hah. You Terrans have improved, indeed.  But I won’t help you with this.”

Inaho needs to sound convincing, now. I have acquired detailed data about an incident, where Slaine Troyard selflessly defended Princess Asseylum and her wish for peace, while disregarding his wellbeing. He did not betray her. But I believe he now betrays his beliefs. Straight from Kaizuka’s words. Inaho paid great attention to Kaizuka’s wording. It’s as if Kaizuka tried to convey parts of an important incident only for Inaho to find out, but did not reveal it as a whole…for unknown reasons.

Saazbaum regards him with shock. Inaho’s machine indicates (besides the usual bewilderment) fear and tension. And…from Saazbaum’s microexpressions…sadness? Why sadness? Why did that make him so upset?

Saazbaum is speechless. Inaho would feel like a victor, if only he knew what exactly is hidden behind those words that Saazbaum apparently understands and Inaho far from does.

“Impossible…” he mumbles, “It’s impossible…” Saazbaum looks up at Inaho, his small, dark eyes betraying his inner confusion. “How do you…? Who…are you?”

“I’m just an ordinary soldier. …If we ignore the fact that I have a bio-device acting as an analytical engine, implanted as a substitution for my left eye. But you must have already comprehended that.” 

“Analytical engines are incapable of…of this!” Saazbaum stands up, enraged, his handcuffs rattling when he points a finger at Inaho’s eye. “Slaine’s…questioning was strictly confidential, Cruhteo made sure of that...and it occurred before Slaine shot you and you started using that…cursed machine!”

So Slaine was questioned by someone, almost two years ago. Cruhteo? Other Martians? And Saazbaum was present, or witnessed this, somehow.  And Slaine did defend Asseylum. Why did Saazbaum react so negatively about it? Did Slaine reveal information that did not benefit Saazbaum? But still, why is Saazbaum…sad about this?

Perhaps Saazbaum respects Slaine more than I imagined? Perhaps, despite his hatred for Terrans, he grew to care for Slaine?

“So, Slaine is extremely loyal to Asseylum.”

Saazbaum sits down, sighing. He looks up at Inaho. “These were your words.”

“That is true, but you’ve just confirmed my assumption at least three times in the last two minutes. There was never any detailed data.”

Saazbaum blinks. He then realizes, and his expression twists with anger. “Why, you little—!”

The door opens. “Is everything alright, Ensign Kaizuka?” A guard asks. “We believe that the cameras are not functioning well…We also heard noises…”

“Then take care of it. And don’t interrupt us again, please.” Time is running short.

Inaho turns to Saazbaum as the door closes. The Vers Count seems tired. His once immaculate hair is now disheveled in all directions, his posture hunched, his eyes empty.

“Why did you adopt him?” Inaho doesn’t know if the question will bring anything, as Saazbaum doesn’t seem angry about Slaine’s betrayal. If Inaho did not have his analytical engine, he wouldn’t have realized that Saazbaum is…hurt. Inaho unfortunately can’t find a use for that. Anger could probably make Saazbaum reveal more about Troyard, but not sadness.

Saazbaum stays silent.

“Did you want a successor?”

“…That, too.”

“Slaine is Terran.”

“I know.”

“Your fiancé was killed during the first war against the Terrans.”

Saazbaum closes his eyes. “You won’t succeed in upsetting me. I know Slaine is Terran, but he is a true Orbital Knight at heart.”

“What are his ambitions?”

Saazbaum chuckle is void of amusement. “Slaine’s ambitions...” Saazbaum shakes his head as if in denial. “And that he attempted to kill me in that way…that was rather…neat.” His microexpressions are more apparent when he mentions Slaine. He is upset. “He also shot you, wanting to get rid of you…and failed. Hmph. Do you wish for his death?”

Do I? Despite what Kaizuka wishes, do I really wish for Slaine Troyard’s death? The answer is clear. Kaizuka’s messages are not the only reason. Slaine Troyard, his secrets, his mysterious ambitions, everything about him is intriguing. Each day that passes by, Inaho’s curiosity for the blond Vers pilot increases rapidly.

“He wants to kill me, I believe, but I do not return the sentiment. Slaine will be much more useful to me alive rather than dead.”

Saazbaum contemplates Inaho in silence for a few seconds, his dark eyes focused on his. Inaho suspects that a great mental debate takes place inside Saazbaum’s mind.

Inaho gets up. Magbaredge will return in less than forty seconds, and Saazbaum will not share anything more- that is certain. Inaho must now process his newfound pieces of information.  Saazbaum was not very helpful.

“As the Colonel explained to you, you will be imprisoned until the war ends and then trialed for Princess Asseylum’s assassination attempt and your war crimes.”

“How did you manage to get your hands on all this information, Terran? I have a hunch that your superiors don’t know a thing about its existence. You literally demanded to talk to me alone, and the cameras are mysteriously malfunctioning. It’s quite complicated, this little game you’re playing. What are your ambitions? And why does my—Slaine Troyard interest you that much?”

Inaho stays silent.

“I see. As I thought, there is no point for a fallen king to know about such things, am I correct?”

“…Goodbye, Count Saazbaum.” Inaho walks towards the door, already lost in the whirlwind of his thoughts, but he stops when he hears,

“Terran boy.”

There is a pause. Something tells Inaho that he mustn’t turn around.

“…Orlane and I would have a child. But I also thought of Slaine as my own, these last few months. Many Martians despise him. If you don’t want him dead… See to it.”

Inaho nods briefly with his back facing Saazbaum and then hastily exits the room, the moment Magbaredge walks down the corridor towards him.

He informs her that Saazbaum might need some time on his own. After a glimpse inside the room, Magbaredge lifts an eyebrow and announces that they will continue with the questioning tomorrow.

Inaho returns to his room, having missed dinner.

#

He stays awake all night, reviewing his notes about Kaizuka’s text and suffering because of Calm’s snoring.

He has no other choice. Inaho exhausted his rational abilities in his effort to find an acceptable solution, and he has only reached a mental dead-end. For the first time since the messages arrived he realizes that this is no interesting challenge about quantum mechanics or just a mission in order to stop Slaine Troyard and prevent a future disaster. Inaho tends to view everything in a scientific manner, but this time he can’t help but get emotionally involved, as his desire to learn more about Slaine’s past, future, his intentions and character increases day by day.

Inaho is certain that he won’t be able to carry out his plan on his own. He doesn’t even wait for the lights to turn on, as he rushes out of his room and after a few seconds knocks on Rayet’s door. Rayet’s hair looks like a bird’s nest when she opens it, sleepy-eyed, but her eyes do widen in anger when she sees him.

Inaho gestures her to be silent. His voice is low, Rayet’s roommate is still fast asleep. “Follow me. You demanded to learn the truth. And I am in…desperate need of your help.”

Rayet raises an eyebrow, but follows him silently until they reach an empty storage room. Inaho was careful to avoid any surveillance.

As soon as the door closes behind them, Inaho takes the initiative. “Please, let’s discuss your feelings for Inko and this misunderstanding at another time, if possible.”

Rayets face changes different colors, from pale white to tomato red. In the end, she keeps her mouth tightly shut and nods, once.

“Your suspicions are correct.” Inaho ignores Rayet’s smug expression and continues. “I can’t reveal the source behind this information. Please try to understand, Rayet. I will need your help. They…just informed me about two attacks, one of them extremely devastating, and both will take place simultaneously.”

Inaho proceeds to explain about Slaine’s and Maazurek’s attacks. Rayet’s eyes widen when she hears about Trident base.

“So this Troyard guy will try to destroy our Base all on his own?!” she whispers. “What makes you think he can even manage it?!”

“He is intelligent. I am sure that he will. We can warn them, however… I must never, at all costs, reveal my source’s identity. I can’t use the excuse of my analytical engine, not this time. Sl—Troyard’s plan is too complex and sudden for any person to predict. Mazuurek’s attack, too.”

Rayet bites her lip in frustration. “Do you trust this strange…source of yours?”

“Every single word he says is genuine.”

“But what if he’s feeding you correct information, but suddenly decides to—“

“I trust him.” As absurd as it sounds, Inaho trusts Kaizuka. The older Inaho guides him accurately, objectively and never makes any particular demands, except the ones he voiced at the beginning of his message— and the hidden ones that Inaho is now certain, after Saazbaum’s questioning, that are concealed beneath his words and are connected solely to Slaine, and not the Third War. “I trust him with my life.”

Rayet is taken aback by the determination in his voice. “O…Okay. I guess I’ll have to trust you, then. But why are you protecting him? Even if he’s…a, an enemy, a Martian, we could surely find a way to—“

“No. We can’t. Someday I may be able to tell you, but until then, please put your trust on me.”

Rayet shrugs her shoulders. “As soon as he doesn’t betray us, I see no problem. I know it sounds strange coming from me, but shouldn’t you tell Magbaredge? At least she might be able to help. She supported all of your crazy antics in the past.”

Inaho shakes his head in denial. “No, she will never trust an unauthorized source. And if I reveal this person, everyone will doubt my words. I can guarantee this. I analyzed the situation, Rayet. We will have to act on our own, even if it means disobeying orders. I have already started formulating a plan. If I minimize all risks, the war will be over very soon… most likely.”

Rayet’s frown does not deter him. Inaho starts talking and hopes that most of her doubts will diminish by the time he finishes explaining. He leaves out every fact about Kaizuka, but keeps all other details untouched.

#

In the morning, they board the Deucalion again. For Inaho, it means that he has less than forty hours to prevent Slaine from destroying Trident Base.

Saazbaum will be transported to the UFE Headquarters on Earth and his questioning will continue there, so Inaho doesn’t need to worry about him revealing anything suspicious to Magbaredge.

Rayet never leaves his side as they keep examining their plans, again and again. Inaho suspects Rayet is feeling uncomfortable spending all of her free time next to him, because of her feelings for Inko. After she fails to recall two important details Inaho just explained, he reassures her that he will try, as soon as he returns to Deucalion, to explain last night’s misunderstanding to Inko. Rayet seems more focused and relaxed, after this.

 Inaho watches Slaine’s announcement of Saazbaum’s death among the Deucalion’s crew during lunch. So the future continues undisturbed, as now all the Martians accepted Saazbaum’s death like Kaizuka described. What actually surprises Inaho is that Slaine does too, apparently. His engine does not detect any atypical amounts of stress when Slaine announces Saazbaum’s death: Slaine truly believes that his adoptive father is no more. And as Slaine proceeds to declare war once again, Inaho analyzes the patterns of his speech and comes to the same conclusion as days ago: Seylum is obviously alive.

Inaho then wonders if the mental confusion he has bestowed upon Slaine by predicting his every move will make the blond pilot change his plans. Inaho believes it’s almost impossible. The future unfolds almost undisturbed. The chances are very high that Slaine will eradicate Trident Base in order to gain respect from the Orbital Knights who oppose him. Saazbaum also mentioned it; many Martians detest Slaine and wish him dead.

Inaho sighs. He must plan this very carefully. It is a race against time, and failure is not an option.

#

As night comes their plans are ready, and Inaho finds an isolated spot on the Deucalion.

He opens his laptop, writing his confidential message.

Kaizuka describes Mazuurek as a peace-loving individual. The Vers Count tried to avoid conflict when he could and held no contempt against the Terrans. Kaizuka also mentioned how Mazuurek was captured by the UFE and how Kaizuka told him the truth about his Princess being an imposter. Kaizuka then helped him escape and used him to return the pendant to the real Asseylum, which made her regain her memories.

Inaho will try to communicate with him right now. Inaho calculated the odds, and there is a chance that he can persuade Mazuurek to investigate the Princess’ identity, make him disobey his orders and never attack the UFE squadron on Earth.

And even if he does, Kaizuka underlined that Mazuurek’s Kataphrakt is vulnerable to attacks from above. Kaizuka defeated him by firing shots from space. So this time, Rayet will be there in Inaho’s place. Kaizuka described with great details when and where the attack will take place, so Rayet will be more than able to stop Mazuurek even without the help of an analytical engine.

It is a risky move, sending information to the enemy in such a manner. But Inaho is sure of one thing; Mazuurek proved on Kaizuka’s timeline that he is loyal to the Princess and even listened to Kaizuka’s arguments. Inaho knows that Mazuurek will surely be helpful at one point or another, as the future undeniably unfolds as close to the ‘original’ timeline as possible.

So Inaho writes a message that explains everything: Lemrina being an impostor, Asseylum being in a comatose state because Saazbaum shot her, the latter never being the hero that saved her from the Terrans. He hides the fact that Saazbaum is alive. Inaho mentions the names of the Counts that will order Maazurek to attack: Counts Marylcian and Barouhcruz. He also subtly asks of Mazuurek to disobey his orders and instead try to investigate about the Counts that are still loyal to the princess, and the Counts that are very likely to continue waging war when she wakes up and orders ceasefire.

He does not sign it and as he sends it. Inaho uses his eye’s hacking abilities and makes sure that Mazuurek will never find out that the message was send from a Terran transmission.

Hopefully, Yuki and Marito won’t need to engage in battle with his Kataphrakt, if Mazuurek becomes suspicious of the other Vers Counts because of Inaho’s message.

The fact that the future stays unmovable in front of him makes him less anxious, as he already has knowledge of everything beforehand. On the other hand, he will not tolerate another failure. He is not only fearful of failing Kaizuka again. If Trident Base is destroyed, the loss will be heavy. Inaho is certain that it will affect him and everyone on the UFE.

Inaho finally returns to his room, with a feeling of anxiety gnawing at his chest. He has less than ten hours to prevent both attacks.

#

A few hours have passed since Inaho send the message, but he will not know if Mazuurek will listen to his suggestions. Two hours before Slaine and Mazuurek attack, he will (in an unauthorized manner) leave the Deucalion on his own to intercept Slaine near Trident Base.

Inaho has really, really thought about this, from the moment he read the whole of Kaizuka’s text and started formulating plans. Every single high-ranking officer will dismiss his warnings if he claims that ‘Kaizuka’, his future self, send these messages. His friends will surely believe that the extensive use of his machine is destroying his brain. Even if he goes against Kaizuka’s wish and exposes Kaizuka’s technology as evidence, it would be too late by the time the UFE would analyze it, then comprehend it and at last believe him.

Furthermore, he can’t claim that he used his engine to predict two separate, unforeseen attacks, as he did with the ‘micrometeorid’ incident. And if he warns everyone but never mentions his ‘source’…who will ever believe that it is not a Martian trap? False information? His imagination? He can try warning Trident Base about Slaine’s attack, but even if he explains Slaine’s plan, (courtesy of Kaizuka, once again), the whole incident is so unexpected; a single Kataphrakt destroying an entire base. They will surely doubt his words, because there will be no high authority behind them. Inaho may be an exceptional strategist and performing well in battle, but he is still just an Ensign.

Inaho must eliminate all chances of failure. And to do so, he must face Slaine Troyard on his own. Inaho is the only one capable of defeating the blond Count, all because of his analytical engine.

It’s ironic. Sometimes, people accuse him of wanting to take care of everything on his own. But now, the first time in his life he really requires someone’s help, he can’t ask for it. Rayet wanted to accompany him, but Inaho knows that she would go for the kill, if she fought against Troyard. It took a lot of effort to persuade her to stay within the Deucalion and not reveal everything to Magbaredge. If Magbaredge orders an attack on Slaine, the numbers will be uneven and Inaho is certain that his fellow soldiers would try to kill Slaine in order to protect their allies in the base. But Inaho won’t allow this. Kaizuka must’ve had a very serious reason to invent a ‘time machine’ and among other things, ‘order’ Inaho to prevent Slaine’s death. Inaho is determined to know the truth behind that unspoken request. So Inaho must make sure that Slaine stays alive, and this war ends as soon as possible. Only then he will find his answers, or so he hopes.

He will capture Slaine Troyard, and then Inaho will use him to travel to the Moon Base, where Seylum is being held. With Saazbaum and Slaine out of the game, the Martians will need some time to regroup. Inaho will wait until Seylum wakes up and will then return the pendant to her, in order to trigger the recovery of her memories.

#

It was easier than he expected. With Rayet’s help, he managed to launch his Kataphrakt the moment when everyone was busy with a fake warning about incoming pieces of debris. He also made sure that at least some time will pass before anyone discovers that he and his Sleipnir are missing.

Large rocks that once belonged to the Moon fly by around him as he travels with a high speed towards Trident Base. He uses his eye to scan his surroundings in order to detect and stop Troyard before he approaches it.

As he spots the white, now very familiar Kataphrakt, Inaho’s confidence rises. It seems that despite Inaho’s interruptions in the previous battle, Troyard’s plans did not change.

He accelerates and when Slaine is within range, he fires.

The first two shots hit. Troyard was obviously not expecting him to be here. Inaho watches as the Tharsis moves almost gracefully and avoids the next three missiles, as if by instinct. Inaho fires again and another shot misses, and by now Slaine has realized what is going on, and thankfully takes on Inaho’s challenge. They are not near Trident Base and Inaho’s plans are still in order. Slaine was successfully distracted.

Slaine charges straight at him, while Inaho observes that his first two missiles damaged the Tharsis. The Gull’s white color starts peeling off at some places, revealing the gray metal beneath, the shining fragments floating away in Tharsis’s trail through space. For a second, Inaho recalls a memory from his childhood, a rare day in the orphanage with falling snowflakes and laughter.

Slaine seems very determined as he keeps rushing closer and Inaho tries to dodge it, but suddenly Tharsis’ arm collides with Inaho’s machine, and his Sleipnir shakes violently in the aftermath of the hit. Inaho grits his teeth, tries to return the not so kind gesture, but Troyard hits him again, the tremors multiply dreadfully, Inaho fears for a single second that this is it; but his machine withstands the blows and Inaho barely manages to avoid the third strike.

Suddenly, Slaine’s voice floods his cockpit. “Kaizuka Inaho! It shouldn’t surprise me that you came this time, too! So let’s end this right here, right now! Once and for all, just the two of us!”

So, Slaine found a way to slither into my transmission. Interesting.

“Good. I’ve come for you, Slaine Troyard.”

He receives another blow for an answer, but it was something his eye expected, so he avoids it easily.

“I will ask, even if I probably know the answer already. Please surrender.”

It is different this time. Slaine is more than serious, and this is not just a dangerous game of chase anymore. There is something feral, something uncontrollable in the way Slaine attacks him. Slaine maintains a close distance between their machines, while firing off missiles and simultaneously trying to hit Inaho from up close. Inaho avoids most of them, but all of his efforts to hit the Vers Count miss. Stars and space debris spin around him through the screen of his kat, but his eyes are mostly focused on the white flash that is Slaine’s Kataphrakt and his irregular, almost fluent motion.

“You should try harder!” Slaine sounds a bit out of breath.

“That has always been my objective.”

The next few minutes are a frenzy of blows and missiles. As their unofficial duel goes on, many do connect, damaging both Kataphrakts. Inaho’s heart is pounding against his ribcage, there is a familiar throbbing around his eye, and he can feel drops of sweat running down his nape. Every breath takes effort. Slaine Troyard is a tough opponent. He immediately recognizes the weaknesses and openings of Inaho’s Sleipnir, and does his best to take advantage of them, while making sure that less than half of Inaho’s attempts to hit him succeed.

“It seems that the only way to proceed with my plans is by getting rid of you and your annoying interfering, first!” Slaine’s rapid breathing sounds worse through the intercom.

He must be as stressed as I am. “This won’t be simple, Bat. As you already know, I can be quite persistent.”

“I will take you down! And I will make you spill everything, Orange!”

“…Then you should try harder, too.”

Slaine charges at him again with an enraged cry.

#

After just fifteen minutes, it takes all of Inaho’s concentration and skills to evade Troyard’s attacks. His screen informs him that his Kataphrakt has acquired 67% of his allowed damage. Slaine’s Kataphrakt doesn’t look in a good condition, either. Blue sparks run from time to time across the machine, a small part of Tharsis’ main body and right leg are destroyed. But Inaho fires back, dodges, chases relentlessly after Slaine until finally, Sleipnir’s arm connects with Tharsis’s main body in a blow that also has Inaho’s machine shaking terribly. Inaho then realizes that Slaine managed to hit him, too. This isn’t good. Sleipnir’s damages are at 81%, my main core might stop functioning at this rate.

The White Kataphrakt stops moving.

Inaho’s screen floods with error messages.

Inaho observes in alarm as the Tharsis slowly falls down like a puppet with broken strings, increasing its speed as it descends towards the Earth’s atmosphere.

Since when did we get that near…? My altitude display must be wrong, the system isn’t functioning correctly. I can still barely escape Earth’s gravitational field…but Slaine is in immediate danger. I will endanger myself too, however, if I approach him…

Inaho’s eye starts pounding.

No. I won’t let it end like this. He will not die, not now.

Inaho swiftly dives and grabs Slaine kat’s hand. This time, he does not fail.

“What are you doing?” Slaine’s voice is hoarse, and broken by the transmission.

“I am trying to stabilize your fall.”

“…Do you wish to die? The heat will destroy you!”

“Kataphrakts frames are heatproof. They’ll work well enough as ablative heat shield.”

“Impossible.”

“We’ll see about that.”

#

They fall together.

#

Inaho opens his eyes. His whole body hurts in the aftermath of the powerful tremors.

He recalls…falling. Intense heat. Sleipnir’s screen flashing in red, informing him that his transmission system is down, his fuel tank is almost empty, Sleipnir’s right arm fragmented past the Kataphrakt’s elbow…the list goes on and on.

Inaho was still conscious when they landed and Slaine… he does not know. His Kataphrakt’s arm broke and he lost his grip on the Tharsis. Inaho’s transmission system did not work during the fall, so no answer came from the blond pilot. Somehow, Inaho managed to remain conscious and land Sleipnir, which is now standing straight tall despite its damage. Sleipnir’s screen is still flashing and after a quick check Inaho understands that his Kataphrakt is unable to move. Inaho must get out himself, if he wants to find out the fate of the blond young Count.

Inaho has no time to blame himself right now, but a corner of his mind berates him for not realizing his system’s malfunction and how close he drove Troyard towards the Earth’s atmosphere during the battle. They could have both died during the fall. 

He gets up. He experimentally moves his head, then his limbs, and then he takes off his broken helmet, storing it under his seat. His eye is throbbing painfully, but it’s not something he has never experienced before.

Inaho doesn’t believe in luck, but he knows that the odds were not in his favor during the last minutes, not at all. Nevertheless, he survived the fall with no injuries and his Kataphrakt mostly in one piece.

Slaine?

The thought puts a weight on his chest. His eye informed him as they were falling that Sleipnir landed on an unpopulated, unknown territory near the Arctic Circle. He can feel the change in temperature, despite his Kataphrakt’s isolation and his UFE spacesuit. It is cold. Very cold, as he managed to land on one of the coldest regions on Earth, in winter. So, when Inaho decides to search for Slaine, he must try finding the Tharsis in the snow and wilderness. That is, if Slaine landed anywhere near him…

Inaho certainly did not predict this.

He must find Slaine. He must ascertain whether the blond Count is still alive.

An image slashes through his mind, the Tharsis shattered and Slaine… he shakes his head.

He will find Slaine Troyard. He will conceive a plan to get them both out of here, alive.

Slaine Troyard seems to be the answer to all of my questions. Inaho freezes for a second, a bit astounded by his last thought. He takes a deep breath. Inaho won’t stop until he uncovers every truth, whether it is about the war, the past, the future, or Slaine himself.

Chapter Text

On the fourth day of Inaho’s stay in the city, Nina sends him a message on his tablet. Eddelrittuo will arrive today in order to supervise some security measures; Asseylum will visit next week (once again) UFE’s Headquarters and Deucalion’s crew. Inaho will have already returned to Slaine by then.

He makes his bed, grabs his sunglasses and hat, gets out of Calm’s apartment, down the busy street and into a taxi heading to the Headquarter Building, where Eddelrittuo currently is. Last time he saw her was at Asseylum’s marriage, but he didn’t have much time to speak with Asseylum’s former maid. Inaho considers her a friend. They keep in touch, usually discussing about the political situation between Mars and Earth, or Asseylum’s choices. Eddelrittuo is also unaware of Slaine’s current situation.

He arrives at the building and heads towards the main atrium. He takes off his hat and sunglasses, as most military members will only salute him briefly-despite Inaho not being in the UFE military anymore- usually too shy or nervous to initiate conversation.

Inaho spots the young woman near the corner of the large hall, giving directions to some officers. He approaches her.

“Eddelrittuo.”

She turns around and regards him with wide eyes. Inaho understands her surprise, as she did not expect him to be here. But the next second her face relaxes and she smiles. She quickly dismisses the military personnel. “Inaho-san! It’s been a long time. Half a year, I believe.”

“You are right. It’s nice to see you again.”

Eddelrittuo smiles. “Would you like to go to the cafeteria on the top floor? I heard that today’s sandwiches are really delicious!”

#

So Inaho finds himself sitting opposite Eddelrittuo at a small round table on the terrace of the UFE Headquarters. They have a view of the entire city, skyscrapers and avenues, with the ocean in the horizon. The soft breeze is carrying aromas from the buffet near them and the sun is hot, making him want to take off his characteristic blue jacket.

They discuss about Asseylum, and Inaho concludes that Eddelrittuo is still avoiding her former mistress. There isn’t much to be said, but Eddelrittuo agrees with him on the part about Asseylum’s too optimistic nature. She is very fond of Asseylum, and it shows in her gentle voice and warm eyes when she refers to the Empress, but she is definitely worried about her, too. Inaho is not surprised to see that Eddelrittuo becomes more mature and smart as she grows up.

They discuss about the potential Counts that are currently obeying the Empress, but could possibly turn against her in the future. Some time passes with Eddelrittuo listing names and making comparisons when a waiter approaches their table, carefully placing a fresh-cut red rose in the middle of it.

Eddelrittuo stops talking and starts frantically looking around. It seems that she notices something or someone behind Inaho. A deep blush spreads on her cheeks. The waiter is gone, but a small white card has appeared on the table.

Eddelrittuo picks it up, reads it, and her face shines. Inaho stayed silent during all of this, but she admits with flushed cheeks,

“It’s from my…boyfriend... He works in the military, and he sometimes likes to…surprise me…”

The corner of Inaho’s mouth rises. He then remembers. “That shade of red. It is an interesting method for him to declare his love to you.”

Eddelrittuo snaps out of her daydreaming at looks at him in surprise. “I never expected of you to have such knowledge! Why the sudden interest in roses?”

His pulse suddenly quickens. That happens often lately, when certain details that remind him of Slaine are mentioned at a conversation. “I…had a strong reason to do research about roses, so I discovered that each color leads to a lot of interpretations, in the language of flowers.”

“The language of flowers…” Eddelrittuo seems lost in her thoughts for a while, her eyes lowered, but she then lifts her gaze and meets Inaho’s with determination. “Inaho-san. I consider you a dear friend of mine, and I wanted for a long time to talk to you about an important matter… it is more of a confession actually…”

Eddelrittuo’s murmured words betray her inner struggle with her emotions. Inaho realizes that the approaching issue must be serious. His whole attention is now upon her. The determination soon slips from her features and her eyes are sad, her mouth pressed into a tight line. “My boyfriend knows that I like roses. But it wasn’t here on Earth that I learned about the roses’ existence and their different meanings. All of this happened on Mars.”

Inaho tilts his head in anticipation. He fears what will come, because if he combines the words roses and Mars in his mind, the answer is a pair of green eyes which, more often than Inaho would like, occupy a large part of his thoughts and even disrupt his ability to concentrate.

“I know that you were the one to…end his life. And most people nowadays believe that he was merciless… But it was Slaine Troyard that told me all about roses. He said that roses signify many things in the language of flowers. He…it was back then, when her Majesty was in a comatose state…”

So Eddelrittuo talks. She talks about how Slaine waited for Asseylum to wake up from her coma, how before he went off to duel with another Count named Marylcian, he explained to Eddelrittuo about red and blue roses and their meanings. She talks about how he cried when Asseylum opened her eyes; about the blue roses lying on the ground near the garden that Slaine had made for Asseylum after she woke up.

Edellrittuo talks but Inaho does not understand the purpose of her words. She seems more upset the longer her monologue continues and Inaho is starting to feel uncomfortable.

Inaho feels as if disrespecting Slaine’s privacy, but on the other hand, he finds himself thirsty for her words, as if they can quench his desire to learn more about Slaine’s past and his character. It is no good. Eddelrittuo does not know that Slaine is still alive and refusing to talk about roses or Asseylum or his past in general, and Inaho’s mind refuses to fabricate a tactic that will make her stop talking. She is approaching subjects that Inaho wants to earn from Slaine; to gain with his trust. When the words ‘abuse’ and ‘Terran’ slip quietly from her mouth, Inaho has the urge to cover his ears. He stays silent, however, his face a mask that hides every emotion.

Eddelrittuo proceeds to describe Slaine’s abuse and his abusers; the sadness that clutches at his heart as the words seem to go on and on is unlike anything he has ever felt. It even surprises him, the depth of this emotion. Eddelrittuo then admits to knowing about the abuse and believing that Slaine deserved all of it, and then tears start running down her cheeks.

“Eddelrittuo.”

She meets his gaze, her eyes red and with more tears threatening to escape.

“It is up to you to decide if you should feel guilty for ignoring or approving of his abuse, but I can see that you’ve regretted your actions.”

“I just…” She sniffs. “He never wanted to harm her Majesty. He hoped and hoped that her Majesty would wake up… Always…” Eddelrittuo wipes at her eyes with the ends of her sleeves. “And long before he became a Count, I used to dislike him very much…but he then somehow managed to make me care for him...he was always kind to me…”

More tears fall then, but Edelrittuo composes herself within a few seconds. “I’m sorry for placing my burden on you. But I believe you are the only one left that I could talk to, about this. Her Majesty…she avoids this subject. Thank you for listening to me, Inaho-san.”

Inaho nods, and the rest of their afternoon passes away in much more pleasant conversation.

#

During the homeward flight, Inaho comprehends Slaine’s reaction to the book and his reluctance to talk about roses. His suspicions about Slaine’s past abuse were also confirmed. Eddelrittuo, fortunately, did not mention Slaine’s scars. He must have acquired them in another way… Inaho refuses to think about worse scenarios than the abuse.

Eddelrittuo mentioned that Slaine had a garden made for Asseylum. If he is interested in flowers that much to know their meanings, could it be that he enjoys gardening? Slaine’s birthday will arrive soon, and Inaho wants to ensure that he will give Slaine a decent present.

#

They just finished another running session. Slaine still hasn’t managed to outrun him, and he seems a bit disappointed each time he loses. Inaho has focused his attention much on Slaine in the last months, so he understands that another truth is obvious from the way Slaine’s shoulders relax, from his not so guarded posture, from the way his eyes shine when he gazes at the sky. It is good for Slaine, being outside, without the constant surveillance and the oppression from the prison walls.

As the days go on, Inaho is frequently under the impression that the shore and the prison are two separate places. The breeze from the ocean and the rocks under their feet as they run, his discussions with Slaine afterwards, they all overshadow his worries about Slaine’s past and present treatment, Inaho’s behavior towards him, Lemrina’s and the guard’s disappearances, Asseylum’s reign, possible suspicious Counts or even people from his own government that he recently started investigating. It is liberating, in a way, and he is now sure that if Slaine was not running by his side or behind him, if Slaine was not talking to him, this emotion wouldn’t be that intense.

They have just finished another of their running matches, another discussion about Kataphrakts. Inaho picks up his blue folded jacket and tie from the large rock he usually places them before their dares and puts them on. They are walking back towards the prison door where the guard is waiting, when Inaho notices something unusual in Slaine’s hair.

“Slaine.”

“What is it now? I need to shower… Wait, do you still keep insisting that model KR-134 is equipped with only two units of fuel cells? For your information, I’ve recently read the manual –”

“There is something tangled in your hair.”

Slaine stops walking. “A-an insect?”

Inaho stops next to him. “No, it seems too long and thin to be one…”

“That’s irrelevant! Such insects do exist, you know. I saw a picture once in one of the encyclopedias you gave me.” Slaine’s fingers dive into his hair, but he only succeeds into tangling the unknown object deeper under his blond strands. Slaine received a haircut during the time he was hospitalized, but his hair has now grown longer, as in the first months of his imprisonment.

“You made it worse. Should I help you?”

“…Go on.”

It then dawns on Inaho that he was just given permission from Slaine to touch his hair.

“Well? What are you waiting for? I wash my hair regularly, you won’t catch any diseases.”

Inaho ignores this. “Can you turn around?”

Slaine does not hide his scoff but does as Inaho asks, presenting his back to him. Inaho then carefully reaches out and treads his fingers through strands that are now shining under the sun. To his surprise, the texture is much softer than he imagined; or it is just that Inaho’s imagination never suffices when it comes to Slaine. Everything about him must be unpredictable, from his tears to his shouts and (rare) smiles, to the texture of his hair and the sensual way he purses his lips when contemplating his move in chess, or when he is a bit annoyed with Inaho.

“Tilt your head backwards.”

“Huh, you truly are short.” But Slaine does as Inaho instructs him.

“No, it’s your height that is clearly above average.” He isn’t exactly being honest, but Slaine occasionally sparks something competitive inside him. Other times, this feeling will take the form of a strong determination, which lately appears when Slaine’s well-being is threatened.

“Whatever. Your voice lacks the usual authority, I can tell by now when you are lying.”

Inaho doesn’t comment, as his thoughts are focused on the fleeting luxury of having his fingers in Slaine’s soft hair, for the few seconds it takes him to carefully disentangle the object. Slaine swiftly turns to face him again. They are quite close. Slaine tilts his head a bit to the side and maintains eye contact. Inaho instead concentrates on the, now identified, object in his hand.

“A small twig. Interesting, since there are no trees in the vicinity. It is possible that the sea washed it ashore. How did it end up in your hair?”

He lets it drop on the ground. “Slaine?” Inaho notices that Slaine’s gaze is still focused on his face, as if he’s scrutinizing Inaho. Inaho inhales deeply in his attempt to stay calm. Why does my face interest him, suddenly?

Slaine slowly lifts his hand towards Inaho’s face. Inaho freezes. His mind imagines six different scenarios, but none of them end up with Slaine caressing his cheek, even if his skin suddenly burns for the touch of Slaine’s fingers. This is new. The most expected outcome will be a slap, so he readies himself to dodge it. Slaine instead quickly pokes his cheek, twice. It hurts a bit, so Inaho catches Slaine’s wrist in a loose grip before Slaine manages a third poke. Slaine does not recoil from him.

“You are doing this on purpose.”

“No, of course not. I would never.”

“Slaine. Despite the engine’s removal, I can clearly distinguish signs of your lying. And irony.”

“You have some red lines on your cheek and neck. Scratches?”

Inaho’s mind immediately recalls the culprit. He releases Slaine’s wrist. “Ah, yes. Rayl—Ray was upset.”

Slaine looks at him as if he just sprouted another head. “Ray- ray?”

“Ray. I tried to bathe my cat, as fecal material got stuck on his backside. I should have researched more into it. I was unprepared and soon regretted my attempt.” It took Inaho two hours to clean up the mess in the bathroom.

“You… You have a cat?”

“Yes.”

Slaine chuckles in irony. “Of course not a girlfriend… It doesn’t surprise me that it’s a cat. Is it still alive?”

“Of course, why wouldn’t he be?”

Slaine groans. “I pity the poor animal.”

“He seems content enough being with me.”

“Unlike most people.”

Inaho swallows in discomfort. “This is true, but I also prefer not to associate myself with most people.” Inaho then realizes that Slaine was leading him to this. He is sure what his next question will be…

“So why do you keep coming back? Am I data for your new psychological experiment? Or does the government need you to keep an eye on me?”

“No, I come here out of my own will.”

“It’s been almost two years, Kaizuka. Two years! You are someone who would never waste his time. An important motive always hides behind your every action. Do you truly presume, I believe there is no ultimate purpose behind your visits?”

“You are free to believe whatever you want. But I am telling the truth.”

Slaine rushed sigh shows his exasperation. His voice rises. “Tell me. Why do you keep coming back?” As Inaho stays silent, Slaine opens his arms and the words burst angrily from him, “What do you want from me?!”

Something I might never obtain, but Inaho keeps his lips closed. He looks Slaine in the eyes. “I will reveal the purpose of my visits if you manage to win one of our chess matches. I give you my word.” The possibilities are low. Until Slaine gives up, I will have acquired some months to find an appropriate excuse. Inaho knows he is playing dirty, using Slaine’s desire to outmatch Inaho in his favor, but he cannot tell Slaine the truth, never.

Slaine seems disgusted. “I will never understand you.”

“I won’t either. But should that hinder us from trying?”

Slaine’s features are still twisted with abhorrence.

Inaho looks away from Slaine. He then realizes that the guard is signaling him that their time outside is over. “Would you rather I stopped visiting? You can only utter a word, and I will never revisit you.” His heart is beating in its own erratic rhythm, once again. Inaho has by now given up trying to understand why.

Slaine’s silence makes every second feel like a minute.

After many cruel seconds, Inaho considers walking away, not expecting an answer.

“Bring me another chess strategy book when you come tomorrow.”

Slaine asks for five more chess books during the next week.

#

Inaho is sitting at their usual table in their monotone room, counting the cracks on the ceiling when Slaine and the guard on duty step inside. The guard guides Slaine to the chair and then leaves. Inaho waits until the door closes. Their conversations are being recorded, but Inaho wants at least to be alone with Slaine, for this one.

 “Good morning, Slaine.”

“What are you doing here this early? They had to wake me up in order to meet you. Next time, come later.”

“Happy birthday.”

Slaine’s features are a blend of confusion, then probably comprehension that today is his birthday, and then his bright eyes darken in a hostile glare. “Alright, what’s your goal this time? I really don’t need unnecessary things like your fake kindness.”

“I missed your birthday last year. I had no information about the date.”

“So you decided to dig around in order to discover something about me, and now use this as a way to gain my…what is it that you want, really?”

“I want you to accept this.” Inaho places the wrapped gift on the desk, pushing it towards Slaine. The small wooden box full of gardening tools and small packages with seeds still rests on his lap.

He tried to do a decent gift wrapping job, but the light green paper decorated with small white and golden cherry blossoms is torn at a couple of places. He did realize as he ordered it that it was a special paper for making origami and not wrapping up gifts. Inaho, however, decided upon the particular paper as soon as he saw it, and nothing would change his mind. It has an appealing pattern, well-matched with Slaine’s gift. Plus, it reminded Inaho of Slaine’s eyes.

Inaho soon realized that packing Slaine’s book and managing not to tear the thin wrapping paper was much more difficult than piloting a Kataphrakt, as the paper was way more delicate than his Sleipnir. He even practiced on Yuki’s books— they both ordered their books at the same time, so they all arrived together. Inaho did his best. He even checked many gift wrapping videos from different sites, comparing techniques. The ribbon wasn’t difficult to attach, but he had some trouble keeping it straight as he wanted it to be.

He approximately spent two hours practicing on wrapping up books and in particular Slaine’s gift, tearing half of his wrapping paper in the process and then rearranging his measurements so that the paper would be folded in two and then wrapped around the book so it wouldn’t be torn. The end result was a bit unprofessional, but Inaho was satisfied.

Slaine keeps starring in disbelief at the bright green packet with the battered orange ribbon attached to it.

“Is this a gift? F-for me?”

Inaho nods. His stomach stirs a bit with anxiety and anticipation. Will he like it? Will he even use it? Eddelrittuo, in her monologue, mentioned the garden Slaine constructed for Asseylum. He hopes Slaine still likes gardening, because the book is only the first part of Slaine’s present.

Slaine reluctantly accepts the green parcel. He holds it carefully and his gaze stays focused on it for a bit, as if he’s marveling at a rare, fragile bird that he cradles in his hands. He then begins unwrapping it. His fingers move swiftly but carefully, and Inaho notices that Slaine does not tear at the paper as many people do, but instead carefully tries to remove the tapes that hold the wrapping paper together. Before Slaine finishes, he lifts his head and for an impossible, fleeting moment Inaho is sure that Slaine smiles. …Yes, it only lasted for a second, but Inaho would swear that this was a small, sweet smile of true joy, one he would expect from a child, not a miserable prisoner and former leader of the Orbital Knights.

“T-thank you.” Slaine isn’t looking at him as he says so, but Inaho is glad. Inaho suddenly remembers that Slaine used to be a servant for a large part of his life, and then came the war, and he wonders if anybody ever gave Slaine gifts before, when the former Vers Count was only a child.

Yuki always made sure that Inaho’s birthdays would be days filled with joy and nice little gifts, despite their pained childhood. Inaho finds himself wishing that the younger Slaine also had a number of decent birthdays in the past. He observes how engrossed Slaine is in his effort to reveal his present, how he bites his lip in concentration, how his eyes shine with anticipation. Warm feelings rise within him once again, and he is unable to ignore how his heartbeats increase.

Slaine finishes unwrapping the book. A high-pitched sound leaves his mouth.

“Is this some kind of joke?!” Slaine’s eyes are huge, his face blazing with confusion, and a blush is slowly spreading on his cheeks and ears. He holds the book near him, on his lap, looking down at it with what now seems—dislike? Distress?

He dislikes it.  Somehow, the heavy disappointment that squeezes Inaho’s heart was unexpected. “I believed that the subject would interest you, but it is clear that you dislike it.”

Slaine’s voice is a whisper of disbelief. “Orange…Are you trying to tell me something? Is the cover some kind of code? Cause I can’t believe you, of all people, would pull such a prank on me.”

Inaho blinks. He tries to keep his face blank. “It is not a prank. I am sorry if the book does not lie in your tastes. I can take it back, if you wish.”

 “My tastes?” Slaine frowns. “Really, now?”

Inaho starts suspecting that something is wrong. Why is Slaine so upset about a gardening book?

“I was once told that you enjoy gardening, therefore I asked permission from the board and the warden for you to go outside and start a new project. I also bought flower seeds.”

“Flower seeds?”

Inaho places the box filled with little colorful packages and gardening tools that was resting hidden on his lap all this time on the side of the table. “The book was only the first part of my present.”

Slaine is still confused, but soon an angry expression contorts his features. His voice rises a bit. “What are you talking about? What do flower seeds have to do with anything?! Did that eye of yours finally affect your brain?!”

 “You don’t enjoy gardening anymore?” Inaho tries to hide his disappointment.

Slaine lifts an eyebrow, then carefully places the book on the table and swiftly pushes it towards Inaho.

And Inaho wishes he could, if Aldnoah technology ever makes it possible, teleport somewhere away, far away from this extremely awkward situation.

The cover pictures a newlywed couple running along a beach, and Inaho does not need the title to understand who the book belongs to: How To Marry Rich

He just can’t apprehend how, during his desperate attempts at mastering his wrapping skills, he managed to swap Slaine’s gardening book with one that Yuki ordered. Their sizes must have been similar.

 “Kaizuka?” Inaho tries to take deep breaths. “Your face is…red.”

He meets Slaine’s narrowed eyes. “The book belongs to my sister. I managed to somehow swap your gardening book with this one. I just realized. …I’m sorry.”

Slaine blinks in bewilderment. “But if the book is your sister’s, why is it wrapped up in the first place?”

A bit reluctantly, but he admits it. “I wanted to practice.”

Is this the beginning of a smile, this quivering of Slaine’s lips?  “Practice?”

“Wrapping up your book.”

“Seriously?! It not like you’re piloting a kat!” A snort. Slaine’s lips are tightly pressed together.

The words flood out of his mouth, but Inaho wishes he could stay silent. “I reached the conclusion that piloting a kat is much easier than wrapping up gifts. The failure rate is much lower. This was a paper meant for decorations and much thinner than normal wrapping paper but still, I tore it fourteen times in my attempts to decently wrap up your present.”

“You- you even counted…! Unbelievable…! You— And I thought…the couple running… on the beach…” Slaine’s voice is trembling, and their eyes meet. Inaho shakes his head in denial, refusing to imagine what Slaine possibly assumed by the cover.

They keep starring at each other. Slaine’s shoulders are shaking.

Then, Slaine’s mouth stretches into a wide smile, and when it opens a clear, smooth sound unlike anything Inaho has ever heard echoes in the room. Slaine is laughing.

Inaho can’t help a faint smile. Slaine’s laughter still explodes in the room, and Inaho’s heart swells and aches with a sweet pain.

#

“Inaho! Inaho!!! Come down right NOW!”

Inaho swiftly closes the lid of his laptop and rushes downstairs, careful not to disturb Rayleigh from his sleep, as Yuki sounds extremely upset. He steps inside the living room and does not even notice Yuki standing with her mouth agape next to him, TV remote in hand, or all of their phones’ annoying buzzing.

It’s a photograph of him and Slaine on the shore. In the news.

His stomach drops. Every heartbeat feels like a hammer pounding against his ribcage.

Instead of panicking, however, he tries to gather himself and concentrate on the facts at hand. His heart is still racing in his chest as he grabs the remote control from Yuki’s loose fingers, changing channels.

He breathes again when he realizes that there is only one picture that circulates around every channel in the country.

In the picture, their full bodies in profile are shown, with Slaine’s hand raised near Inaho’s cheek. Inaho’s hand is on Slaine’s— it is not clear on the picture, but Inaho remembers grabbing Slaine’s wrist. It was that day when Slaine pocked him on the cheek because of Ray’s scratches. It seems like an intimate situation. The photo is a bit blur and taken from the side of the sea, meaning whoever accomplished this had professional equipment and access to a highly guarded, restricted area. Even worse, the facility where Slaine is kept can, blearily, be seen in the background.

It couldn’t possibly be the work of a journalist. They would have taken dozens of pictures, and even if they had taken only one, it surely wouldn’t be released that late, two weeks after the incident. The governments would also have taken illegal countermeasures to avoid the publication. Furthermore, it is impossible for any civilian to trespass. No, it is very possible that somebody with access to the prison grounds orchestrated this. They deliberately photographed me near Slaine. They waited until we were…close…and then released only one image to the media…Why?

Of course. They want him to lose whatever rights he has over Slaine, by using the excuse that Inaho took liberties and suggested allowing Slaine -the prisoner- to exit the prison. Because of the picture, Inaho indirectly endangered a national secret: he might have caused the reveal of Slaine’s existence to the public.

The reality takes a few seconds to register; They exploited me and I endangered Slaine.

Anger rises within him. It is the first time in his life that this emotion is so intense and pure. He does not even register the depth of his feelings. I will play your foolish game and moreover, win.

“This was done purposely. Yuki. Drive me to the facility, I must get there as soon as possible or Slaine might pay for this.”

#

“Inaho Kaizuka, do you realize the consequences of your reckless suggestions?”

Count Vornt, head of the board, stares at him in disdain. The Martians also represent Count Aalto and Countess Orlov. The UFE, Generals Blanchet and Boros.

Inaho is standing in the large, dark room where the meetings of the board are usually held. The five members of the board are sitting at a round table opposite Inaho, having just arrived in secrecy. Normally, the meetings will occur monthly with the board discussing Slaine’s situation, the guard’s paychecks, the building’s condition and similar matters. The warden takes direct orders from them.

Vornt continues. “A government spokesperson already diminished some of the public’s suspicions. He stated that the picture is a fake, but still, this does not improve your situation much.”

Countess Orlov clears her throat and adds, “More importantly, the nearest town’s major is an ambitious man, and he is filling the locals with suspicions about the facility. He and others claim to have recognized the building in the photograph. The major wants to lead the local people to protests and demand explanations. The man is on the news and keeps insisting that the owner of the building gets into contact with him. As you all realize, we should discourage both civilians and journalists from getting interested in the area.”

Inaho is calm. “What does her Majesty—“

Vornt’s furious voice booms in the room. “Her Majesty appointed us exactly for such situations! And you caused her integrity to be threatened! She will have nothing to say to you!”

I doubt that. Inaho will do everything to contact Asseylum if the board rejects his suggestion, something very likely to happen. The photograph must have been a shock for her.

“I demand that the custody of Slaine Troyard is given to me, at least temporarily.”

Everything is still.

Blanchet leans against Orlov and whispers something in her ear.

Vornt’s face is red. “Do not try my patience, Kaizuka.”

“You are obliged to listen to my arguments.”

The Count sighs. “Then proceed, but be aware that your demand will most likely be rejected.”

“I have made complaints in the past about Slaine Troyard’s inhuman treatment. If he is going to spend his entire life inside this building, he must at least be allowed to exercise, take walks outside, read books, and engage in other similar activities in order to keep his mental health intact. Troyard is not at fault. The fault lies in the security that ignored their duties and as a result, a journalist managed to follow my trail and produce evidence about Troyard’s existence.”

Inaho pauses, observing the people in the room for any reactions.

“I suggest we remove any evidence that the facility has been used as a prison and then organize a ‘tour’ for the local townspeople. They must realize that the building is empty and of no threat. Slaine Troyard will, in the meantime, stay under house arrest in my private property. No written evidence exists that I reside there. It will be impossible for any journalist to intrude.”

#

To Inaho’s immense surprise, only Vornt and General Boros vote against his plan. The other three members support him.

The meeting lasts three hours and they discuss all details, from Slaine’s transfer to the reformations of the facility.

Slaine will stay in Inaho’s house for the next three months. The board registers the situation as an emergency. Inaho gains the right to choose the three guards that will accompany and watch over Slaine.

#

Slaine is sleeping on a narrow bed, in his usual light blue uniform. Inaho turns the light in Slaine’s cell on. He has never been in here. The gray walls surrounding him seem more depressing, all of a sudden.

“Slaine. Wake up.”

Slaine’s eyes open immediately, and he squints because of the bright light. He seems perplexed. His voice is hoarse from sleep.

“What are you doing here?”

“You need to—“

Count Vornt strides in, cane in hand and with two guards on his tail. Slaine sits up with a sudden motion. “Who is he?”

“This is—“ Inaho wants to approach Slaine, but Vornt is suddenly next to him, blocking him with his cane.

“You are too lax with the prisoner, Kaizuka, as usual. Step aside. You! Get up, now!”

Slaine is very upset. “What is goin—“

“SILENCE!” At the shout Slaine flinches, but then his eyes narrow. He gets out of bed and stands up. “Both of you, hold him still.”

One of the guards grabs Slaine’s arms and handcuffs him, while the other approaches with the syringe in hand. Slaine’s eyes first focus on the syringe, then meet Inaho’s, wide in alarm.

 “Slaine Troyard is, as of now, under my supervision. I can handle the situation myself. It will be better if we explain the procedure to him.”

“Inaho what—“

Vornt, with a swift move, places the end of his cane under Slaine’s chin, forcing him to close his mouth. Slaine, restrained, closes his eyes as if waiting for the strike.

Cracks will soon appear on Inaho’s calm mask, if this continues. Inaho steps in front of Slaine. “Please remove yourself from this room immediately. I am in charge of him now, and your behavior is making the prisoner uncomfortable.”

Vornt blinks at him, but then his features harden. He withdraws his cane. “As soon as you finish with him, come into the main room.” He leaves.

Inaho turns around, ignoring the guards. He notices that he has raised his hand towards Slaine, in an unconscious, protective gesture. Slaine glares at him. Inaho quickly retracts his hand.

“Are you here to… What is in the…syringe?”

“A microscopic tracking device, which will be injected subcutaneously into your forearm. It will start dissolving on its own in three months, releasing a dangerous toxin into your bloodstream, which will affect your nervous system if untreated. You will receive the antidote in three months, when you return back here.”

 Inaho will make certain of this. A thought also crossed his mind during the drive to the prison. It involved Slaine’s freedom, but Inaho dismissed it as soon as it appeared. When he finds a way for Slaine to gain his freedom, it will be a planned action. Not a hurried or stressed one.

Slaine’s eyes never leave his.

“You are going to live in my house. I will have full authority over you for the next three months.”

Slaine frowns. He then probably comprehends that he is not in immediate danger, that he will soon step out of the prison, and his features soften. “Whatever…” He yawns, and his expression is almost…peaceful. “Will we play chess?”

Of all things to worry about. Inaho has to suppress a smile.

“Sure.”

#

Before he leaves the prison with Slaine, Inaho meets Vornt in the main room, where their meetings are usually held.

“We are currently investigating the leak.” Vornt says. His cane is lying on the round table behind them. His expression is dark. “Kaizuka. I have been watching you and the prisoner for months. Your behavior towards Troyard is suspicious.”

“Can you elaborate?”

Vornt snorts. “Why is Troyard touching your cheek in the photograph? Does the prisoner offer you… special treatment in return for favors?”

Inaho is too tired and stressed to feel angry right now. Could Vornt have planned this? “Never. You are insulting both Troyard and me, by making such suggestions.”

“Hmm. Well, it will be an excruciating death, if he never receives the antidote. Seizures, mental impairment, then paralysis…this toxin was used during both Wars for torture purposes. The victim, although completely paralyzed, would be lucid and in extreme pain until death occurs.”

“I am aware of that.”

“Then do not give him any liberties. I will repeat this: your behavior is too lax. If he manages to escape… What are you willing to suffer, Kaizuka?”

#

The guards release Slaine at the door of Inaho’s house, taking off his hood and handcuffs. Marina Berti hands Slaine a small duffel bag with changes of his light blue uniform. Inaho chose her, Siegfried Keil and Juro Honda to accompany Slaine. They salute Inaho and retire in the new, large camper trailer in the front of Inaho’s garden.

Inaho closes the door and turns to face an impassive, but fully awake Slaine. Yuki has put on a guarded expression.

“Slaine, this is my sister, Kaizuka Yuki. Sis, I want you to meet Slaine Troyard.”

Slaine looks at Yuki and opens his mouth, ready to utter something, but Yuki says, “Inaho. We need to talk.”

Silence.

Inaho turns to face Slaine. “Follow me.”

Inaho climbs the stairs with Slaine and then Yuki following him. He turns right and walks down the corridor that leads to his room, stopping outside his door.

“…I believe you must be tired, as we roused you from sleep at nearly 3 am. You can temporarily sleep in my bed, until we prepare your new sleeping arrangements in the guest room.” How will Slaine react to this new environment? Was it a good move, bringing him here? Yuki stays behind Slaine. “Please stop making signs at me, Yuki, we will have that discussion later. Goodnight, Slaine.”

Slaine seems confused for a second, prepared to speak. A glimpse over his shoulder, probably at Yuki, makes him lower his head and disappear into the room without a word, bag in hand. Yuki takes a deep breath and opens her mouth—

Rayleigh’s shrill meows are heard; accompanied with a loud yelp and a thud.

Yuki looks at Inaho in alarm, but Inaho just opens the door. He is aware that she is talking to him, but he can’t concentrate on her right now.

A bewildered Slaine is sitting on the floor, gaping at the cat, which has arched its body and is showing its small teeth.

“So you’ve met Ray.”

Slaine quickly gets on his feet. “I-I accidentally— I almost stepped on its tail…”

“He dislikes it when someone disturbs his sleep. He will be in a better mood in the morning, as usual. You were partially at fault.”

Slaine blinks. “I am sor—“ Slaine shakes his head. “I-I don’t care for your stupid cat! Now get out!” With that, he slams the door in Inaho’s face. Rayleigh hisses furiously again. Slaine opens the door with flushed cheeks, quickly picks up and drops the cat into Inaho’s hands, as if Rayleigh is venomous.

 Inaho strokes Rayleigh’s neck while his gaze never leaves Slaine’s. Green eyes are wide in disbelief as Slaine realizes that the cat calmed down, thanks to Inaho’s ministrations. Inaho can’t help but try, once again, to memorize the brilliant shades of green. Inaho observes how the tips of the blonds’ ears are slowly turning red. Is Slaine…embarrassed?

“Aggressive cats can be formidable. I also had a firsthand experience as I tried to bathe him.”

Slaine meets his gaze, scowling. “Alright, why? Why did you bring me here?”

“I will explain tomorrow. As soon as you wake up, come to the kitchen for breakfast.”

Slaine stays silent. He seems surprised. His hand comes to rest on the small white bandage on the underside of his thin forearm.

Inaho dares to ask. “How is your arm?”

Slaine looks away. “Fine. I’ve had worse before.”

Inaho recalls the scars, once again. “Then sleep well.”

 Slaine blinks. “…You too.” He returns into the room and shuts the door again, but with less force this time.

Inaho realizes that Yuki has left his side. His exhale is stretched out. She must be really angry at me.

But Inaho is certain that she will warm up to Slaine, in time. Chances however are very high that Yuki’s planned argument will take place after the sun rises, in a few hours.

Inaho carries Rayleigh downstairs into the living room and places him on the couch. He sits down next to him. The cat curls his body and closes his eyes, so Inaho doesn’t disturb him.

The TV is still on, the news announcing that the picture was just a hoax. The living room is dark, and the flashing of the screen hurts his eye. Inaho exhales once more, and the air suddenly feels heavy. He tries to replay the recent disturbing events in his mind.

Inaho is certain that things will deteriorate soon. Chances are very high that Slaine will pay for that photo, as soon as he returns to prison. The paychecks of the guards were lowered because of that incident, the warden and Vornt are very displeased with the situation. On the other hand, Inaho never imagined that gaining custody of Slaine- for three months moreover- would be so unproblematic. The almost immediate and encouraging answers of two of the board’s members were at least suspicious.

Endless facts, numbers and possibilities flood his mind. He remembers Vornt’s hostile actions. He feels…angry. It seems that residues of that intense, unexpected feeling of anger are still present. He remembers the picture, once again. He must somehow find a copy, he must do more research into it. Who did this? I must find out as soon as possible. Someone wants to distance me from Slaine. Why?

However, another thought keeps gnawing at his mind; Slaine will, most probably, stay for the next three months under the same roof with him. And it is clear that he despises me.

He has read before that intense emotions and situations may cause physical pain. Inaho almost places his hand over his heart. I was always aware of that, so why does it hurt, now?

#

After three hours of restless sleep on the couch, Inaho gives up and proceeds to prepare breakfast for three, as the sun rises. Yuki will soon wake up and Slaine… Inaho knows from his visits that Slaine doesn’t sleep much, probably a remainder of his days as a servant.

A small part of Inaho can’t help but forget all his worries and hope that Slaine will enjoy his breakfast: fresh omelet rolls.

After all, Slaine must eat well and be in a good physical condition, if he decides to work on Inaho’s garden. Inaho wonders what Yuki will say when she finds out that Inaho wants to turn the most hated person in the world into his personal gardener.

Will Slaine agree?

 

Chapter Text

It is cold.

It is dark, but not much. The sun must be just below the horizon and will probably stay hidden there for the rest of the day.

The wind is howling and the snowstorm’s obscuring everything, but Inaho knows that he would have detected any animals or urban areas near them with his analytical engine’s thermal imagining camera. He is thankful for his analytical engine, as it can detect all obstacles on his path which he could never notice on his own, due to the low visibility.

As he turns his head towards the west he suddenly detects a huge source of heat near him. Slaine’s Tharsis. Relief comes unexpectedly, a warm wave in the freezing air.

Inaho looks over his shoulder. His orange Kataphrakt is distinguishable in the middle of the snow-covered landscape, despite the rapidly twirling snowflakes in the wind everywhere around him. For once, he is glad he chose that color. And even if the snow manages to partially cover it while he’s searching for Slaine, he can find his way back by tracking Sleipnir’s heat source. Still, it is comforting to have a visual of his only shelter in this frozen place.

He shields his eyes with his forearms against the raging snowstorm, wishing his helmet was not broken, and then slowly advances forward with hunched shoulders and heavy feet.

#

Minutes pass. Inaho almost trips on a large piece of metal almost buried in the snow. His eye informs him that he has almost arrived to his ‘destination’. Visibility is low even with his eye, but as he approaches the fallen Tharsis, he detects metal debris scattered upon the snow.

And then he notices it. Tharsis fell on its side and its cockpit…Is it smashed? Inaho quickens his movements, almost running through the thick snow. One can access the pilot’s cockpit easily as it is on ground level. Inaho almost trips and falls down in his impulsiveness but keeps walking fast, despite the snow and howling wind.

 

He can now discern that only the cockpit’s lid and parts of its adjoining wall are gone. Did this occur during our fall on Earth? Inaho rushes inside. His thoughts are now as blank as the landscape surrounding him.

 Slaine is sitting in a corner and when Inaho steps inside what’s left of the cockpit, the persistent Vers Count points a gun at him with a shaking hand. A streak of blood runs from the corner of his mouth to his chin. There is also a dark puddle spreading on the floor, close to Slaine’s bent leg. Is the injury life-threatening? I need to examine him.

“Don’t…come…closer…”

“You are injured. I must examine your wound and for that I must approach you.” His eye fails to come up with the amount of blood Slaine has lost, or the type of his injury.

“Stay…ah…where you are!”

After a few seconds Slaine’s fingers start trembling, causing the gun to fall from his hand. He lets out a pained moan, his eyes closing.

Inaho instantly moves by his side, tucking Slaine’s gun inside his uniform. His eye has already presented him a list of things he needs to check on Slaine. He swiftly presses a hand on Slaine’s forehead and another at his neck, feeling his abnormally fast pulse. Slaine tries to move away, but Inaho prevails. Inaho hopes there is no internal bleeding. It seems that Slaine was badly shaken during the fall.

Slaine’s skin feels very cold to the touch.

“Slaine Troyard.”

No answer.

Inaho moves closer and tries with numb gloved fingers to examine Slaine for any serious wounds. As his hand sweeps over Slaine’s thigh, Slaine flinches and lets out a whimper. The sound blends with the screaming wind around them. Inaho can feel Slaine’s warm blood on his fingers, slowly oozing out of a wound. It seeps through the white glove of his uniform, and just the contact burns his frozen fingertips.

He moves his fingers a little further. Slaine lets out another moan, his breathing short and fast. A piece of metal is lodged in his lower thigh. The wound is on the inside, near the artery. This is bad. Inaho won’t pull it out, not here. He unzips his uniform and rips a part of his thermal shirt underneath, makes stripes from it and then ties them around Slaine’s upper thigh to slow the blood flow. It’s the only thing he can do for now. Inaho weights his options: If he leaves Slaine here and tries to return with the first aid kit, Slaine will freeze to death if Inaho doesn’t find his way back due to the snowstorm. If he tries to make Slaine walk, his bleeding will get worse.

His eye can’t exactly discern the depth of Slaine’s injury, but Slaine would be dead by now if the artery was severed. Maybe walking will be painful but not impossible. Inaho places his hand on Slaine’s shoulder, shaking him a bit.

“Slaine Troyard, can you hear me? …Slaine? Give me a sign if you can.”

Slaine barely shakes his head.

“I need to get you inside my kat, given that my heating system is still functioning. Will you be able to stand up?”

Will Slaine survive? Kaizuka’s words come into his mind then, but Inaho has realized by now that he isn’t keeping Slaine alive just because of an unsure future or potential answers. He wants to learn more about his enemy. About his ambitions. His secrets.

Slaine’s body is suddenly racked with tremors, and Inaho has reached a point where he can’t feel his own fingers anymore. Having made his decision, he tries to make Slaine stand up.

“Slaine, I don’t have the strength to carry you myself across the snow. You have to get up…”

Inaho’s mind refuses to cooperate on recalling his first aid knowledge about hypothermia or blood loss, as Slaine half stands half leans against Inaho and a loud cry of pain leaves his dry lips. Inaho shouldn’t be that distracted. When he performed CPR on Seylum, he knew exactly what the odds were. It is the first time in his life that he has to treat a serious wound and furthermore, the fear of being so close to failing Kaizuka once more makes everything worse.

Inaho positions Slaine’s arm over his shoulders, helps Slaine take a step forward, then another, and they somehow slowly make their way across the frozen landscape.

The next five minutes seem like an eternity.

Slaine’s face contorts in pain with each step he takes. He loses his footing twice, and Inaho barely keeps him upright. Inaho helps him stagger across the snow-covered land towards the Sleipnir. The raging snowstorm and thick snow under their feet make everything worse, obscuring Inaho’s trail of footprints that leads to his kat and blocking their visibility. Inaho feels a bolt of panic racing down his spine when he realizes that he can’t detect his own Kataphrakt’s heat source… but he is certain that the two machines landed near each other. If we continue walking eastwards, I will surely distinguish the bright color…if the snow hasn’t already covered it up.

Slaine doesn’t protest and does his best to stagger next to him, with the occasional grunt of pain. Inaho, despite the frozen nightmare going on around them, is impressed. A thought crosses his mind then; that maybe Slaine is used to this, to tolerating pain…but he dismisses it for later.

After many minutes of fighting the cold and snow, Slaine stops moving. Inaho fears quickly disperse as he sees Slaine pointing at Inaho’s orange machine somewhere on their right, half buried under the snowstorm (and not straight ahead where Inaho thought his Kat would be).

Inaho’s hands shake horribly with the effort of keeping Slaine’s body upright during the lift to the cockpit.

#

As they get inside, Inaho’s fingers sting from the sudden wave of heat. His kat is not equipped with a decent heating system, as all pilots rely mostly on their suits for the regulation of their body temperature. But he can’t depend much on his suit, as his helmet is unusable. Sleipnir’s fuel tank is almost empty, and he hopes the Sleipnir’s remaining fuel will be enough to prevent their dying from cold. He closes the lid, and gently helps Slaine sit on his cockpit’s single seat.

Heat and lighting are in order, so Inaho quickly pulls out the first aid kit from under his seat. He takes off his red-brown, stained gloves.

Slaine doesn’t look well. His pale features have lost their little color, his lips are chapped and have reached a purple hue. His blond curls are disheveled and stuck on his forehead through caked blood, coming from a small cut just under Slaine’s hairline. What Inaho imagines to be bright eyes when Slaine is fully conscious are now dull and glassy. Inaho’s fingers find Slaine’s pulse, and after he ensures himself that there is still strength left inside the blond pilot, Inaho gets to work. His eye also informs him that Slaine’s vitals are dropping, but not much.

He kneels down in front of the pilot’s seat. Except from his small cut on his forehead, there seem to be no signs of head injury. Slaine wasn’t dizzy, nor did he throw up.

He doesn’t have any kind of painkillers as such medication is not compatible with his cybernetic eye. Inaho cuts Slaine’s red uniform in a rough circle around his wound, so that he can properly work on it.

“This will sting.” Inaho gets down on one knee, tears the small package from the first aid kit and puts on the sterile gloves. He tries to keep Slaine’s trembling leg still and applies antiseptic on his hands and the wound. Slaine hisses, and then cries out in agony as Inaho removes the piece of metal. Inaho feels his chest lighter as he perceives that the wound is not as deep as he thought it would be. His eye informs him about the amount of blood Slaine approximately lost, and that Slaine’s life will not be in immediate danger. He applies antiseptic again and after stitching and bandaging the wound with swift movements, he takes off his gloves and quickly disposes of them.

Inaho looks up. Slaine’s eyes are fixed on him, his teeth biting on his lip, but except from his harsh breathing no other sound leaves his mouth.

“I don’t have painkillers, unfortunately.”

“I…will never…let you…”

Inaho blinks.

“…I must…protect…”

“Stay still.”

Inaho is on his feet, carefully pressing Slaine’s shoulder back to the seat. As he is bent over him, Slaine’s hand grabs his collar.

“Why…are you…really…?”

“Bat. You must relax. You barely escaped death today so please try to rest. I can answer your questions later.”

Inaho brings his hand on Slaine’s where it’s grabbing his uniform, but he realizes it is cold as ice. Inaho exhales in consternation and a small, damp cloud escapes his mouth. We landed somewhere close to the Arctic so the temperature will be an issue. My main engine is gone…and my transmission circuits are broken. I need to locate the damage and fix it. Will the heat system expel the cold? How much time can we last, until I manage to find a way to communicate with the UFE forces?

There is a single thermal blanket in his first aid kit. Inaho’s suit can probably keep him warm, despite it being a bit drenched and torn in a couple of places—probably by the smashed cockpit, when he helped Slaine walk out of it. And Slaine has lost a lot of blood.

Inaho’s weights his options and then makes his choice. He will deal with the consequences when they’ll arrive, because there is no time to analyze them right now.

Inaho grabs Slaines hands and squeezes them a bit. His long fingers are pale, but fortunately not bluish. “Slaine, can you feel this?”

“…bit.”

Inaho contemplates this. A shiver runs down his spine, and it must definitely be from the cold. His fingers twist into Slaine’s white collar, then come out moist. He realizes that Slaine is drenched to the bone now that the snow has melted, as his clothes are less water-resistant than Inaho’s uniform.

Inaho swallows his anxiety. His eye estimates Slaine’s inner temperature; it has dropped below the acceptable limits. “Slaine?” The shivering has gotten worse, and Inaho knows there is no time to lose. “The snow has melted on your clothes and your core temperature will drop further, which will lead to loss of consciousness and eventually will be fatal. I must remove them immediately. I have a thermal blanket in my first aid kit, it will keep you warm.”

Slaine keeps his eyes closed, his chest rising and falling with a fast rate. He is very pale.

“Slaine? Slaine Troyard?”

Slaine stays silent, shivering heavily.

Inaho starts divesting Slaine off his crimson jacket, feeling that he can’t postpone this anymore. Slaine’s modesty is the last thing on his mind, right now. As he starts lifting the shirt underneath, ice cold fingers form a surprisingly strong grip around his wrist, coming from an injured person.

Inaho’s jerks his head up in surprise, now finding himself face to face with a dazed Slaine.

“What are you doing?!” Slaine hisses. His green eyes seem unfocused, as if he’s seeing something somewhere far behind Inaho.

“You body is in a mild hypothermic state. If I don’t remove your wet clothes in the next minutes, your heat losses will increase greatly.”

“You…?” Slaine’s eyes are wide. His grasp on Inaho’s wrist weakens.

“Bat. It’s me, Orang— Inaho Kaizuka. I must warm you up immediately. You’ve already entered the phase of bewilderment.” It is a medical emergency. He has no other choice, even if he feels uneasy by divesting Slaine off his clothes, despite his will.

“Why are you—“ Slaine tries to finish the sentence, as Inaho pulls his shirt off him. “NO! L-Let go!”

Inaho does, in shock as he gets a clear view of Slaine’s chest—when did Slaine manage to—I must take another look—but then he realizes: These are old injuries… No, not exactly injuries… Scars.

Slaine is severely scarred. His eye starts calculating the vast number of red stripes that are spread across Slaine’s pale chest, but Inaho forces the engine to stop.

There is something in the way Slaine stays hunched, hugging himself and refusing to meet his gaze, that makes him feel very uncomfortable. With a growing sense of guilt, Inaho tries to expel all thoughts from his mind even if they refuse to melt away.

After the five-second hesitation, Inaho gets up, grabs the blanket and slowly wraps Slaine’s torso in it.

His back…too.

Inaho ignores all the thoughts and questions that are now threatening to explode inside him. He must make sure that Slaine survives this. This is his first priority, right now. He waits a bit until he is sure that Slaine’s torso is warm enough. He then quickly looks away and pulls the rest of Slaine’s clothing off, as the blond pilot wraps himself in the blanket.

Slaine disappears inside the metallic cocoon, sitting on the pilot’s chair, only a mop of disheveled blond hair still barely visible. Inaho wants to check his pulse again, but decides on giving Slaine some space. He sits on the little spare place in front of the seat and then realizes that that he doesn’t have a clear sensation of his face and back.

He takes out a small water bottle out of the first aid kit and drinks a bit. He places it back, next to the… he takes a look at the label of the small metallic bottle. Whiskey? Inaho remembers that Lieutenant Marito was in charge of the first aid kits inside the Kataphrakts. Inaho sighs.

Deciding to check on Slaine in a few minutes, he wraps his hands around his knees, being thankful for the warmth of his uniform. He knows that it must be torn somewhere on his back and right hip but he decides to think about it -and Slaine’s…scarring- after he comes up with a way to communicate with the UFE.

Some minutes pass with him reforming his plans while battling the extreme cold, exhaustion (he hasn’t slept or eaten well in days, staying alert in order to plan a way of stopping Bat) and an increasing, familiar throbbing coming from his analytical engine.

#

“…I…ho!”

He thinks he hears someone call his name.

“Kaizuka Inaho! Orange!”

He tries to open his eyes. His eyelids feel too heavy. He tries to move, but hot stripes of pain flare somewhere on his back and right leg. He groans, but as he opens his mouth, the same kind of pain spreads on his face. He groans again, nevertheless.

“You insufferable fool! Have you lost your mind?! I thought I woke up next to a dead body!”

Awareness comes like a punch in the stomach.

“S-Slaine?” His tongue feels numb and his throat is sore. I must have fallen asleep. Fuzzy memories flood his mind, becoming sharper by the second— their fight, their fall, Slaine’s injury, their walk through the snowstorm, Slaine’s—Slaine’s scars…

His vision is now somewhat clear. He ignores the throbbing pain on his face and back because Slaine, still wrapped in the shiny blanket, is somehow kneeling next to him in the narrow space, only his angry face poking out. Extremely pale and with purple circles under his eyes, but still angry.

“Why!?”

Inaho looks at him in confusion.

“Why on Earth did you save me?! Why did you treat my injury?!”

Inaho keeps up with the façade of being unfocused and lost in order to avoid that answer.

“I should have kicked you out of here and left you to die in the cold, the moment I woke up!”

“B-But you d-did not.” Inaho realizes that he’s still shivering. He can’t believe he managed to fall asleep. It seems that his body was much more tired than he believed. He then notices that there are no traces of blood on Slaine’s forehead and chin, Slaine somehow whipped it away.

Slaine sighs. “It is not in my best interest to kill you right now. You can be useful. I will decide what to do with you when my leg feels better and help comes.”

“M-my c-communic-cation s-system is b-broken.”

“I want to ensure that we won’t freeze to death, first. We’ll devise a strategy. If it is possible, we can take parts off my Tharsis…” Slaine probably realizes that he is talking for both of them so he is silent for a while. He frowns. “Actually, I’m more than curious about how you managed to spoil every single one of my plans. It is as if you’ve been reading my mind. So no, I’m not killing you, not until you divulge all the answers I desire. You will help me get out of this frozen hell first and then I’ll take you with me to the Moon Base, where you’ll be interrogated. Painfully.”

Inaho closes his eyes, pleased with Slaine’s words. The Moon Base…all according to plan.

“Orange! Will you try to stay awake, dammit! I’m talking to you!”

Inaho refuses to open his eyes. “I th-think I’ve acquired f-frostbites.”

He can hear Slaine’s exasperated exhale. He feels fingers touching his nose and cheeks and hisses in pain. Suddenly, hands grab his shoulders and turn him around. Inaho did not expect this from Slaine. This… treatment. He then realizes that his body feels very heavy. He can hear Slaine’s “Tch…” which after a little painful probing is followed by, “You’re lucky. I grew up in a cold climate, and sometimes after walking for hours through the snow, I would get mild frostbites. Yours are quite large, but not that serious. You might be in pain, but it usually lasts a couple of hours or a day. I— you just have to gradually warm them up.”

Inaho nods, but still feels numb and groggy. He turns to face Slaine, but his eye is pounding. He can’t concentrate on anything but the pain and numbness. “H-how?”

“Well, I can put on your shredded uniform and you can get the blanket—“

“Shredded…?”

Another sigh of exasperation. “…We can share. It’s a big blanket. I will require much sleep because of my injury, and I…won’t be able to fall asleep next to a dead body. You also carry valuable information; I cannot afford you freezing to death… So hurry it up!”

Inaho slowly looks around, blinking many times to clear his blurry vision. He is shivering again.

“I guess you’re out of mind-fuel.” Slaine says, then laughs dryly. “The last few hours were literally pure torture. And now I must look after you, of all people, and keep you warm and alive… Unbelievable!”

He doesn’t know why, but the shivers are increasing. “F-first aid k-k-kit. B-bottle.”

Slaine takes a glimpse inside the kit and raises an eyebrow.

“You want to get drunk first, Orange? That’s not a bad idea, actually.”

“W-water…!”

There is something in the tone of his voice that makes Slaine drop his mocking smile and obey his request, picking up the bottle of water and ignoring the whiskey. The blond young man bends and reaches an arm over Inaho’s shoulder, then leans back and hands him the small bottle. However, Inaho’s hands are shaking so bad, Slaine has to put the bottle on his lips for him to drink, always with a sigh of annoyance.

Slaine’s hand slides across his chest. “Your suit really is drenched…”

Slaine sighs for the umpteenth time. His fingers fumble with the zipper on Inaho’s suit—and suddenly Inaho’s thoughts take another turn, into a territory he rarely wanders. Never has anyone else taken his clothes off him, when he was conscious. What is the matter with me? It must be the cold and exhaustion.

The protective layers of his suit leave his body, and the cold air makes him want to cry out. But Slaine has spread part of the blanket next to him, so Inaho slips out of his suit and is left only with his black thermal undershirt and boxers. His undershirt is mostly torn too, as he used it for Slaine’s makeshift bandages. He crawls on his hands and knees until he sits next to Slaine and then pulls the blanket over his shoulders.

The warmth does not give him immediate relief. His frostbites sting, but he grits his teeth and endures it. After a few minutes, he is relaxed and aware of Slaine’s body, tense beside him.

“Is your whole body covered?” Inaho asks.

A sharp exhale is the only answer he gets.

Inaho turns his head and observes that Slaine is shivering again.

“What is the matter? Your vitals are not stable.”

“Well it seems I was wrong, previously.”, a pale faced Slaine spits out, “It appears that this blanket cannot warm both of us, it’s too small. J-just give me your suit and use the blanket.”

Inaho did not expect this.

Slaine sighs. “You saved my life…so this is my debt paid back. I don’t want to feel guilty when I’ll let the Martians deal with you.”

“Your vital signs will deteriorate soon if you don’t warm yourself up. Statistically, you will die if your temperature can’t be stabilized within the next hours. Your survival depends strongly upon that blanket, unlike mine.”

“My— seriously?! Who do you think you are, first shooting me down after fighting by my side, then trying to kill me, and now willing to give up everything in order to keep me alive?! Is there something wrong with your mind?!”

Truly, is there? Or is it Kaizuka’s fault? “…I’m sorry about this.”

Slaine closes his open mouth. “About what?”

“Shooting you down after our fight against the Hellas. It was a rather rushed move from my side. I should’ve listened to your arguments first and then made a better analysis of the situation.” You were truly worried about Seylum, then.

Slaine’s eyes are wide. “I—should—it—it doesn’t matter anymore. I used to blame you…” his eyes seem pained for a moment, “…but later, I realized the result would’ve been the same...” The last part is murmured so quietly under his breath, Inaho doesn’t know if he was meant to hear it.

“If we get closer, we could share body heat. It is a very effective method for surviving such situations.” Inaho says, guiding the conversation to a more urgent topic.

Slaine stays silent for a while. “You are suggesting we should…cuddle. A-and you’re forgetting a major detail...I-I’m naked.”

Cuddle? “Yes, that is my suggestion. And it is truly of minor importance to me, whether you are clothed or not.”

Slaine frowns. “Fine. But—but I want to make one thing clear: you will keep your hands to yourself.”

“Naturally, why would I ever want to—” Inaho remembers the scars. Slaine’s voice shows signs of distress, and Inaho understands. “Of course.”

Silence.

His mind comes up with an idea. “One of us can curl his body around the base of the chair, and the other will lie next to him, with our backs connecting. That way it will not be a very… intimate position.”

Slaine seems unsure. “Well, your plan is magnificent, if you forget the tiny detail of two large, red stripes on your back that might have you writhing in pain when I decide to crush you in my sleep…N-not that I care.”

Inaho stays silent for a few seconds. “And your leg is injured. So you will have to be facing the base of my chair… Good. First, come and lie down next to me. You must then bend your body, then carefully lift your leg and turn on your right side, and I will get behind you—“

“A-alright, I get it! Stop with the unnecessary description!”

Inaho stops talking. Why is he upset with my description? He should follow my instructions, as he is injured. However, he can’t help but ask something else. “My eye informs me that your core temperature is still a bit low. I would give you my suit or your clothes, but they must still be wet. You can’t afford to wait until they dry out. Instead, I suggest you wear my underclothes.”

“D-do you realize what you’re offering?! B-borrowing used underwear from you?!” Inaho’s eye cannot discern if Slaine is stammering due to the cold, embarrassment, or both.

Inaho tries to maintain a calm tone. “Then please cover yourself completely with the blanket.”

Slaine groans, but he moves so that he’s lying as Inaho suggested, facing the chair, his back to Inaho. Inaho averts his gaze from Slaine’s naked body, out of respect for his privacy. The blanket is pulled from Inaho with Slaine’s movement, so he asks while edging nearer Slaine’s back,

“Can I come closer?”

A confirmatory grunt is all of an answer Inaho gets.

So Inaho tries to maintain some distance from Slaine’s back and still let himself be covered whole under the blanket. He barely manages it, trapping both of the blanket’s edges under his side and not feeling the frozen floor under his skin only when his body is pressed firmly against Slaine’s. He has crossed his arms between their bodies, placing his hands under his armpits. Despite his best efforts not to, he can feel the scarred, cold skin of Slaine’s back moving in sync with the blond’s breathing, getting warmer and warmer each second that passes by. It feels strange, having a warm body pressed up that close next to his. He can’t help but welcome the warm feeling of Slaine’s uneven but soft skin touching his.

Some time passes in silence, and Inaho knows that Slaine is curled unmoving and stiff next to him. His body feels tense. Inaho was never one to initiate small talk, but this is a medical emergency, after all.

“Under these circumstances, your core temperature will surely stay constant. The chances of survival are high.”

He doesn’t quite expect an answer, but he gets one.

“Stop making unnecessary comments.”

“It wasn’t unnecessary. Our situation—“

“Stop it, Kaizuka! I am too tired for this right now.”

They are silent for a while.

“Slaine.”

“What is it, now?”

 “You should try to relax…and prevent your blood pressure from rising more.”

“I am relaxed.”

“You are not. My eye indicates that your pulse also increased a bit, now. I believe you are feeling uncomfortable.” Inaho doesn’t want to mention the scars. Inaho feels Slaine’s ribcage moving, and then Slaine exhales.

 “I-I am. Will you now stop talking about it?”

Neither says anything for a while. How could my carefully planned actions lead to this result? Inaho can’t help but analyze this bizarre situation, with every inch of his skin pressed close to Slaine’s (naked) body. He has never even slept that close to anyone before. If Inaho must be honest, it all feels very intimate, despite his best efforts to remind himself that this is Slaine Troyard, of all people, that they are stranded somewhere where the sun does not even rise beyond the horizon in winter, and on top of all, they still haven’t figured out how they will survive until they find a way to communicate with someone.

His scars…The way he acquired them must have been very painful. Inaho remembers Slaine’s hunched form. Did Kaizuka know about this? As soon as the thought pops up in his mind, Inaho decides not to think about Kaizuka, now. His thought processing is too mumbled, because of the cold, or maybe Slaine’s warmth. He must sleep next to Slaine’s naked body, and empty his mind from every emotional reaction. His eyes drift close.

Slaine swifts a bit, moving closer. Inaho tries to move back, as he can now feel every single inch of Slaine’s naked body glued tightly on his, and the warm pressure against his…crotch feels a bit…uncomfortable. Furthermore, Slaine’s hair is tickling his nose. Inaho sniffs and to his mild surprise, Slaine’s hair smells pleasant; his eye informs him that the scent probably relates to a fruit belonging to the genus citrus…the orange. Inaho yawns. It seems that Slaine uses orange scented hair products... The warmth and (finally) the silence start making him sleepy…

“A-are you disgusted?”

The question comes unexpected. Inaho can’t see Slaine’s expression right now but from the tone of his voice, his eye detects that Slaine is…upset and a bit angry.

“No. I’m trying to keep every possible sliver of space between us free, in order to make you more comfortable. It was not my intent to insult you in any way.”

Why should he feel disgusted? True, the scar tissue is… Inaho wouldn’t say, hideous. Ugly. The adjectives did not even cross his mind. Instead…painful. And ugly isn’t a description worthy of Slaine, as his features are clearly well balanced and what Inaho saw of his body—

Before Inaho realizes what kind of path his sleepy thoughts trail, Slaine’s voice cuts it short. “I just…J-just try not to touch me any more than…necessary.”

“I want to touch you only with your consent…”

“Y-you want to? With m-my consent? What are you talking about?! ” Slaine’s body jerks in surprise next to his.

Inaho inhales deeply. What am I saying? He quickly gathers the words. “You are wounded, and must rest…I must make sure that you, a wounded person…and not my enemy as of now, are provided with proper care. The nature of your…wounds doesn’t matter...” Inaho yawns, closing his eyes.

“…So you don’t feel disgust. You feel…pity.” Slaine sighs, and Inaho feels Slaine’s head moving as if in exasperation against his nose. Slaine’s soft curls tickle his nose again. “I honestly don’t know which is worse.”

Inaho’s eyes open. “Bat. You managed to walk through a harsh snowstorm with a piece of metal debris stuck in your thigh and during this, you discovered my Sleipnir. You barely complained and furthermore maintained consciousness through the piece’s removal; all of this while being in a semi-functional, hypothermic state. Even after a few hours of sleep, you have enough strength to relentlessly argue with me.”

Slaine is silent.

“I don’t pity you.”

Slaine shakes his head again. His hair is rubbing on Inaho’s nose, and Inaho sneezes softly. Slaine does not comment.

After a few minutes of the familiar silence, Inaho asks,

“Do you want me to turn off the lights?”

“N-no.”

Inaho yawns once more. “Alright.”

They are silent for awhile, and Inaho can feel his body relaxing, getting ready for the sleep to come…

“As…as soon as my leg feels better you will spill out everything, Kaizuka. I-I don’t care if you saved my life; I will—“

Slaine’s head -and hair- moves and it makes Inaho sneeze louder this time.

Slaine groans. “I-I can’t believe this! I am cuddling with you in order to stay alive, and on top of that, you are spreading your disgusting body fluids all over my hair!”, he whispers.

“It is only a reflexive reaction to a stimulus; you are pointlessly moving your head and your hair gets into my—“

“A-alright, spare me the explanations!”

Inaho is tired of this. “You keep accusing me—“

 “Listen to me! I will find out the true reason behind your actions. Only a pea-brained idiot would damage his own kat, strand himself in the Arctic and sleep almost naked next to his naked enemy in order to keep him alive! If the Counts find out about this, you will never be considered a threat! The will only view you as an unsuccessful little clown!”

“Their opinions do not matter—“

It seems that Slaine’s angry rambling is unstoppable. “Unfortunately, you have proved to be intelligent enough by stopping my plans! There is definitely something else going on with you...”

So he is aware of our location. Inaho sighs. It was no idiocy, it was a miscalculation. And I am definitely not a clown. “I mentioned it before. I will not let you exploit Seylum.” Will Slaine explode?

Slaine does as Inaho predicted. He shouts, “It’s ‘her Highness Asseylum Vers Allusia’! And if you believe that I—”

Slaine can be entertaining to predict, but I must sleep. “Bat. I need a certain amount of sleep in order to function properly tomorrow, and if you keep making unnecessary comments about names and won’t allow me to rest, you will definitely worsen our situatio—.”

Slaine, with a sudden motion, turns around and pins Inaho down. Inaho’s back hurts with the impact, his frostbites sting. Slaine’s body collapses with its full weight on top of Inaho’s and his forearm comes under Inaho’s chin in a threatening move, but it is trembling. From Slaine’s grimace, Inaho understands that the sudden movement pained him.

Inaho stays unmoving, trapped under Slaine’s naked body. He can feel every single…part of Slaine on his skin and limbs. Inaho’s eye has informed him about Slaine’s weight, but the hot body on top of his feels heavier. He should be alert, but instead he perceives that Slaine’s eyes are bright green. In his sleepy state, he thinks that the blend of green colors is extraordinary; Inaho has never observed anything similar, before. And Slaine’s eyes are not the only unusual matter: Inaho dislikes being trapped, but this time his body mysteriously does not tense up…

His eye cuts him out of his strange daze and informs him about Slaine’s vital signs: his pulse rate is abnormal, so is his blood pressure. “I wouldn’t recommend what you did. If your stitches break, your leg might get infected. I do not wish to hurt you, so get off. I am in a far better physical condition than you this moment.”

“Kaizuka. You will… I…” Slaine mumbles something incoherent. “I feel…” Slaine’s eyelids drop.

“You shouldn’t have moved. My eye informs me that your blood pressure first increased and now dropped dramatically. You should rest, for now.”

It seems that Slaine just depleted the rest of his strength, as his head drops heavy on Inaho’s shoulder.

Inaho sighs in defeat and tries to stay calm. He has no strength to push Slaine off him, as their previous fight and their trip through the snow made him extremely tired. Inaho manages to slide a bit to the side, until Slaine’s body covers his own only partially. Slaine’s arm drops from under Inaho’s chin and comes to rest on Inaho’s chest.

My carefully planned actions somehow led me to this situation…stranded in the Arctic and sleeping next to—no, under a wounded, naked Slaine Troyard…How did this happen?

Inaho turns his head. He can feel Slaine’s breaths on his lips. They are very close. He observes how chapped Slaine’s lips are…at least their color is approaching red. His eye informs him that Slaine is in a stable condition, but Slaine’s green eyes seem unfocused.

“Slaine?”

Slaine blinks slowly, and the enchanting irises focus on Inaho’s. The color reminds Inaho of tropical waters. Slaine maintains eye contact and frowns in contemplation until he whispers, “Your eye…up close…it’s extraordinary…” His eyelids drift close then, and Inaho’s eye informs him that the blond Count has fallen asleep.

Under the artificial lights of his Sleipnir and with Slaine Troyard partially sprawled on top of him, Inaho wonders how they will manage to survive. At least he isn’t cold…Slaine’s skin feels very hot where it touches his, and the pale arm over his chest is a bit heavy, but provides additional warmth. For an unknown reason Inaho doesn’t feel uncomfortable, even with Slaine’s body covering his whole right side. His frostbites sting a bit, but he is warm, sleepy and safe—Inaho is too tired to understand why sleeping next to Slaine seems safe, all of a sudden—and finally, his eyes drift shut.

His last tired thought before falling asleep is that the fruity scent of Slaine’s hair is very cozy.

Chapter Text

“Inaho! Stop cooking and look at me, we haven’t finished that discussion yet! What do you mean by, ‘Our garden is in need of more flowers’? You had no problem with our garden’s appearance these last two years!”

It’s early in the morning and Inaho is preparing their breakfast. As he predicted last night, the appointed argument about Slaine took place as soon as Yuki woke up. She strode into her kitchen in her pink pajamas and demanded explanations.

At least she will leave for the military base in half an hour. “Sis, Slaine Troyard was in an unfortunate situation. I had no time to plan for another alternative.”

Yuki takes a seat at their small white kitchen table, while Inaho cooks the omelets.

“Inaho, I used to drive you every single day to the prison and back. You care for him and I can understand that, because I know you are a kind person. But there were other alternatives, Inaho. You knew that! You could think of something else, but instead you chose to play the mother hen for him—the one who shot you in the eye and almost killed you!”

“Yuki—“

“He shot my little brother! You almost died because of that!”

“That is true.”

“Then why do you nurse him? I stayed silent for the last two years, because I thought visiting him was important for you…but you spent every day with him during the last year. Your actions are slowly becoming similar to those of an obsessed man! A stalker!”

“I am not, or ever was, a stalker—“

“And the Empress does not even talk to you that much, these days! If you could spend your time in efforts to meet one of her friends and then start stalk—dating a rich girl, I wouldn’t mind! But you spend all your free time in that prison! And now, you managed to bring him to our house!”

“Yuki, you are comparing two dissimilar situations.”

Inaho serves two rolled omelets and leaves the third on the kitchen counter for Slaine.

 “Why is his wellbeing so important to you, Inaho? You are overstepping some limits.”

“He deserves a better treatment.”

“And will he get it by planting flowers in your garden?”

Inaho sits opposite Yuki, placing the plates on the table. “I am not sure if he enjoys gardening, but it is up to him to decide whether he will help me with this or not.”

“Help you with what?”

Slaine’s voice startles him, but Inaho does not let it show. He turns his head to face the thin blond man standing at the kitchen’s doorstep. “Good morning, Slaine. There is rolled omelet for breakfast.”

Slaine makes eye contact with Yuki. “…Good morning.”

Yuki sighs. “Slaine Troyard. I will only say it once…“

“Yuki, this is not necessary.“

“…If your actions hurt or endanger my brother in any way, I will make sure that you will suffer the consequences—“

“Enough.” This was spoken in an unusual loud tone for Inaho, and had both Slaine and Yuki staring at him with wide eyes. “Yuki, Slaine will be staying with us for the next three months. It will be better for all of us, if we make an attempt to coexist without needless strife.”

Slaine steps inside the kitchen and bows in front of Yuki. Inaho did not expect that. Furthermore, Inaho discerns that the bow is practiced, it seems to come as natural as breathing to Slaine. He was probably bowing his head to the Martians for years…

 Slaine clears his throat. “I apologize for troubling you. Thank you truly for letting me stay here.” He stands straight again and takes the plate with the third omelet roll from the kitchen’s counter. He keeps standing there, unsure of what to do.

Yuki sighs. “Alright, come and sit at the table.”

Slaine hesitates a bit, but then takes the seat next to Inaho. The three of them eat in awkward silence until Yuki announces that she should leave for work. She is quickly gone.

“Kaizuka.” Slaine is hunched over his plate, having eaten most of his breakfast. So he appreciates my cooking. “Why am I here?”

Inaho will not divulge the whole truth. “Evidence about your existence was leaked in the media. Until the board clears all suspicions, you will be residing with us.” Inaho proceeds to generally describe the members of the board, as Slaine was extremely confused last night during Vornt’s hostile intrusion.

“…I know that I am supposed to be dead and guilty of her Majesty’s assassination attempt.”

Inaho was never one to comfort, even if he suddenly craves for the correct words to say. Instead, “The guards will be checking the status of your tracking device twice a day.”

Slaine keeps his head lowered, avoiding Inaho’s patient gaze. “What kind of toxin does it contain?”

Inaho reveals the name. Slaine looks at him then, his face loses a bit of its color and Inaho’s heart reacts painfully to this. “I will ensure that your return to prison will proceed without any problems…as soon as you’ll cooperate, of course.”

“I won’t try to escape.”

They stare at each other in silence. Slaine has dark circles under his eyes and seems exhausted.

“What were you talking about? Before, when I came down the stairs? …You require help?”

“With my garden.” Inaho explains his idea to Slaine.

Slaine frowns. “Why do you have such an obsession with flowers and gardens? Y-your, ah, actual present was also related to…gardening…”

Inaho swallows in embarrassment as he remembers his unfortunate mistake at Slaine’s birthday. At least he gave Slaine his real present the next day. “I believed that you enjoyed gardening.”

Slaine stays silent. He then stands up, determined. His posture is straight and regal. He reminds Inaho of the crimson-dressed Count Saazbaum Troyard, full of determination and authority as he declared war on the UFE more than two years ago. “Show me the garden.”

#

Inaho leaves Slaine alone on the garden, trusting Slaine’s words about not attempting an escape.

The three guards are alert and salute him as he approaches their camper trailer. Inaho conveys them their duties, which are few; they will only need to watch over Slaine during the times he is outside, as Inaho will be in charge of him inside the house.

Inaho spends the rest of the day talking on the phone with an unimpressed and a bit suspicious Rayet, then with an upset Inko. Calm and Nina call later, while his tablet fills with messages from Eddelrittuo complaining about the ‘hoax’ and informing Inaho of the civilians’ reactions. Magbaredge, Marito and Dr. Yagarai send him a few words, too. Apparently everyone believes that the photo is a hoax, their messages are full of reassurance, asking Inaho if he is upset because of the sudden interest of the press. Inaho is not surprised with Asseylum’s brief message: she will try to get in contact during the next month, where things will have calmed down a bit.

It seems that both journalists and UFE officers are trying to reach him, but Inaho is glad that his address and other personal information are highly confidential.

#

Slaine spends the next five days working on the garden behind the house, pulling weeds and preparing the soil. He asks that Inaho delivers his lunch and dinner outside where he eats in a corner, avoiding the guards that are watching over him in a distance.

Inaho has also prepared the guest room, so after these five days Slaine moves into his new accommodation. Inaho finds his bed immaculately made, the night Slaine leaves Inaho’s room to sleep just across the corridor.

When the time comes for Inaho to sleep, he lies down on his bed, thinking of Slaine. Inaho tries to avoid it, but in the end he buries his nose into the soft pillow. He inhales deeply. The lingering scent that can only be Slaine’s does not remind him of anything in particular…but his chest feels heavier all of a sudden. He then gets up and swiftly changes the sheets, because he is unsure if he can fall asleep on sheets that carry Slaine’s scent.

Until the end of the first week of their coexistence, Inaho understands that it’s futile to try and expel Slaine from his thoughts while investigating the source of the photograph. He is unable to find any traces or clues about it, and it makes him feel powerless. Once again, he is not protecting himself. It is not like in the orphanage, where he could plan the risks of his revenge towards his bullies and carefully apply his plans. This time, Slaine’s safety is at stake.

A thought keeps returning to him, again and again…His analytical engine could improve dramatically his efforts to discover the many truths he is seeking. The doctors however have warned him many times through the multiple checkups he received during the last two years: His brain might reject another bio-transplant…but even if his brain accepts it, the probability of tumor development, of a degenerative brain disease or other brain abnormalities will be very high…

When his mind isn’t preoccupied with thoughts about the conspiracies that are going on around him, he takes care of Rayleigh, cooks for the three of them and tries to find a way to break the awkward silence that reigns during breakfast every morning.

Sometimes he wonders how he managed to develop such deep feelings for the person who shot him, for the person who was responsible for the loss of his eye. Inaho can understand Yuki’s reluctance to befriend Slaine. But Inaho can also tell that Slaine is feeling guilty enough, so he hopes that a day will come where Yuki will understand this.

The first week passes by. Yuki and Slaine keep avoiding each other, and the only words Inaho and Slaine have exchanged were those in the morning after Slaine arrived. Even Rayleigh avoids Slaine.

#

Inaho has always been a light sleeper. It’s been four days since Slaine is sleeping in the opposite room, when a weak cry pierces through Inaho’s sleep and wakes him with a start. He doesn’t need to think who his voice belongs to as he rushes out of his room, barely remembering to put on his eyepatch, then runs and hurriedly opens Slaine’s door.

“…Slaine?”

Slaine is sitting up in bed, taking deep breaths. It is dark, but Slaine’s room has a wide balcony and the moon casts a silver light upon Slaine’s panicked features. There is enough light for Inaho to distinguish that there are beads of sweat running down Slaine’s face… Or are they tears?

 “I…I am fine. Go a-away.”

“Your reaction shows otherwise.”

“I-It was just a nightmare.” Slaine hides his face in his hands. “Spare me the humiliation a-and leave me a-alone.”

“Was it a falling dream?”

Slaine swiftly lifts his head and regards him in the darkness. “How… how did you know?”

“They are one of the most common types of nightmares. Falling dreams suggest insecurity, loss of control, or even—“

“How do you know that much? Do you experience them too?”

 “Sometimes. I rarely remember my dreams. But a common pattern is falling; most usually falling through space, like when entering—“

“Entering Earth’s atmosphere, I know. I remember.” Slaine sighs.

Inaho considers sitting on the chair at the desk opposite from Slaine’s bed, but he dismisses the idea. Slaine seems upset, and Inaho knows by now that Slaine prefers being alone during his emotional outbursts. However, Inaho does not want to leave this time, not yet. The silence and the darkness everywhere around him turn the moments into something private and calm.

Inaho tries to think of something comforting to say. “When I was a child, I used to have a lot of nightmares. I often woke up scared.”

Slaine stays silent, but quickly wipes his cheeks with his fingers.

“But if one thinks logically about it, dreams are just a result of increased brain activity, occurring mostly during REM sleep. In fact, recent research has shown that they may also occur during non-REM stages.”

“Inaho…” Slaine turns his face and the moonlight casts shadows upon his face, illuminating only parts of his chin and mouth. Slaine’s lips are barely stretched into a smile. “You are terrible at this.”

Inaho blinks, silently approving of the sound of his name as it comes from Slaine. “I am just trying to improve the situation.”

“Why do you even care? Oh wait, I will have to win a chess match to be enlightened about this, right? Don’t bother to answer that, I know you keep hiding something but won’t divulge it.”

Inaho chooses to lean against the desk and cross his arms. “You are correct.”

Slaine sighs. “You keep annoying me in such a way that somehow becomes entertaining…” He frowns, as if mulling over his words. “A-anyway, I always wanted to know…what happened to my Tharsis after our fall?”

Inaho remembers the day he visited the Air and Space Museum, the Tharsis’ and his Sleipnir’s fragments being displayed there. He remembers the frantic crowds taking pictures. “Both of our Kataphrakts were destroyed beyond repair, during our fall. Parts of them are on…display in various museums and exhibitions around the world.”

Slaine hangs his head in contemplation. Inaho knows that Slaine has been avoiding him since the day he stepped a foot inside Inaho’s house, so he grasps the rare opportunity of Slaine being talkative once again to ask more questions.

“I observed that you have finished with the soil preparations outside. What are you going to plant?”

Slaine lifts his head again and regards him with a cold gaze, visible even in the darkness. “Roses.”

Inaho shifts in unease. He remembers that emptiness inside Slaine’s eyes well, but he can’t discern if it appeared from the mention of the Tharsis or the garden. “…I believed you were not interested in roses anymore.”

“I am not. Now go away, Kaizuka. I want to sleep.” Without a word, Slaine lies down again and turns his back to Inaho, facing the wall. Inaho briefly wonders if it is an unconscious, trusting move, as Slaine rarely presents his back to him.

“Slaine.”

A loud sigh. “What?”

“I want to acquire more information about gardening, tomorrow.”

“Why?”

“Because I want to plant roses, too.”

“W-what?!”

Slaine turns his body and meets Inaho’s gaze. Inaho can almost see him as clear as in the daylight now; Slaine has tucked his chin under the bed sheet, his blond hair is spread into many strands and curls on the pillow…all of which combined with Slaine’s wide eyes, flushed cheeks and confused expression make one stray, rarely used adjective surface on Inaho’s mind: Cute… Inaho immediately gathers himself and blames his strange reaction to his sleep addled mind.

“What did you just say?! Why on Earth would a robot like you want to plant roses?!”

“I have my reasons.”

Slaine keeps starring at him in disbelief.

“I’ll let you sleep now. Goodnight, Slaine.”

Inaho turns and goes away, but almost stops in his path when a still confused Slaine whispers, “G-Goodnight…”, behind his back.

After a few minutes, Inaho has taken off his eyepatch and is lying again in his own bed, thinking about Slaine’s nightmare and their brief discussion. He concludes that his quick plan was successful: Slaine was and will be distracted enough from his nightmare, wondering about Inaho’s supposed interest in roses.

(Inaho won’t admit to himself that the roses are only an excuse for him to spend more time at Slaine’s side and furthermore, not inside gray walls but under the bright sun and endless sky.)

#

Slaine is kneeling next to a small hole in the ground, wearing gardening gloves and using a trowel to rearrange soil and fertilizer into certain patterns that Inaho lacks the knowledge to interpret.

Inaho spends a few minutes observing Slaine’s back. He is working with what seems to be…eagerness. The sun is bright, as usual, and a light wind is blowing through the leaves of the palm trees near the beach. In a corner of the garden, the three guards notice Inaho and salute him. He signs in dismissal. The guards are residing in a camper trailer on his front garden due to certain paperwork and law issues. Their roles are being decorative, but they haven’t expressed any concerns about this. This was actually one of the reasons Inaho decided on those three; another one that they would be approaching Slaine only because of a serious reason.

Slaine exposed himself more last night, probably because he had woken up from an upset sleep. Inaho wonders if Slaine will question his motives for wanting to plant roses, now.

Inaho walks the distance that separates him from Slaine, standing next to him. Slaine’s shirt has moved lower due to his bent body, exposing the edges of some linear scars, clearly visible on the pale skin just under Slaine’s nape. Inaho turns his gaze away towards the sea, the damaged skin making some deep part of him feel damaged, too.

“Did you read the gardening book I gave you? Your actions are precise, as if you have certain knowledge on what must be done.”

Slaine keeps working on the soil as he answers, “I did. It was very useful.” He then lifts his head and his eyes meet Inaho’s. The sun makes Slaine’s irises seem larger and brighter than usual, and Inaho’s heart reacts in the typical, erratic way. There is also a stripe of dirt across Slaine’s cheek, and Inaho’s hand suddenly itches with the impulse to wipe it away.

“Well? Cat got your tongue? Wouldn’t surprise me, with the way that…creature keeps attacking everyone is this house.”

Inaho recalls another accident Slaine had with Rayleigh, this time involving a few scratches while Slaine tried to remove the cat from the place in the garden he was working on, a few days ago.

“There is a possibility that he was being mistreated before, judging from his reluctance to trust others.”

At this, Slaine freezes mid-motion. “Yes… It must be so…”

Inaho mentally berates himself once more for his choice of words. He remembers Eddelrittuo’s confession about Slaine’s abuse and fears that Slaine is remembering unpleasant situations, so he changes the subject, “Slaine, there is a stripe of dirt across your left cheek.”

Slaine shrugs his shoulders. “I’ll wash myself later.” He continues with his rearrangement of the soil, now digging another small hole into the ground.

Inaho raises his sleeves of his white shirt past his elbows and gets into one knee next to Slaine. He reaches into the same wooden box he gave Slaine for his birthday, takes out another trowel and a pair of gloves, puts them on. His shirt will probably stain as the ground is mud-covered but he does not care.

“Can you show me?”

A snort. “This is no Aldnoah quantum mechanics or Kataphrakt software programming, Kaizuka. Just copy my actions.”

They work in silence for a while, with Inaho clumsily digging into the damp ground and wondering if Slaine will call him with his first name again. With an inept swing of his trowel, he sends a spray of black soil flying everywhere, some of it landing on Slaine’s clothes and hair.

“Hey! Watch out!”

“I’m sorry.”

Slaine picks up a handful of wet dirt and throws it forcibly at him. It lands straight on his chest.

Slaine’s smug expression and raised eyebrow show his approval. “Now we are even.”

Inaho looks down, perceives the large brown stain on his white shirt and blinks. He calculates the minutes or even hours of washing it might take for returning the shirt into its original white state and he lifts his eyebrows. When Slaine is not looking, he grabs a handful of dirt and reciprocates the action.

Slaine’s wide eyes and open mouth betray his surprise, as he stares down at the large brown stain on his shirt. “You…!”

Now we are even. The amount of soil on both of our shirts is the same.”

“T-That’s not what I was referring to and you know it!”

“Nevertheless, it is Yuki’s time for doing the laundry this week so if she asks about the stains, Rayleigh was the one responsible for this, do you understand? Yuki is very weak in all matters concerning him.” Slaine keeps starring at him with his mouth hanging open, so Inaho just continues with his gardening work.

“I…you…you even—wait a bit! Wasn’t the cat’s name Ray? Why Rayleigh?”

Inaho’s pulse quickens. “You probably misheard. Perhaps your newly acquired knowledge about the phenomenon made a strong impression on you...?”

Slaine blinks in total confusion. He shakes his head in annoyance. “Kaizuka! Why can’t you mind your own business, for once? Must you always be so annoying, unpredictable and, and so…so competent—Agh! Never mind!”

Inaho does not answer, but his lips almost curl into a smile. Slaine seems flustered, his cheeks have gained a pink hue.

They continue working in silence next to each other for a long time, preparing large parts of the ground at the edges of the garden. Inaho occasionally steals glimpses at Slaine who seems very concentrated in his work, neatly rearranging the soil and applying fertilizer. It is hot, Inaho starts sweating a lot after an hour under the sun so he suggests they take a break, change shirts and prepare something to drink.

They are soon sitting on the kitchen porch overlooking the garden, each with a glass of lemonade in his hand. Slaine seems calm, and Inaho relishes the moment; they are safe here, even temporarily, away from machinations and scandals.

“Slaine…”

Slaine turns to face him, his cheeks are flushed from the sun and the heat. “Is this about the roses?”

“Yes. Why roses?”

“Because they will wither and die as soon as I leave here, as you will be incapable of nurturing them, I am sure.”

They are silent again.

#

Inaho orders the young plants from a florist in the nearest town, and Yuki brings them home with a rented van. The rose bushes must be planted as soon as possible, so Inaho and Slaine get to work immediately.

A couple of days pass by. Inaho will wake up, then have breakfast in silence with Slaine and Yuki. After Yuki leaves for the military base she works as a training instructor, Inaho will work on the roses in Slaine’s silent company. During their unspoken but fixed lunch break, Slaine might converse a bit with him, usually about physics or gardening matters. In the afternoons, Slaine will watch movies, read books or practice alone on the chessboard in the living room. Inaho will retire in his bedroom and continue with his attempts to reach solid conclusions about the many political issues that keep gnawing at his mind at least twenty times per day. Before dinner, Slaine will knock on Inaho’s door and then wait for him at the kitchen table, where the chessboard will lie. After a (not so easy anymore) win for Inaho, Yuki will return home and the three will eat dinner in silence, Inaho usually reading from his tablet. After dinner, Slaine will retire to his room. Yuki won’t mention Slaine as she’ll happily chatter about her day and friends with an almost unresponsive Inaho.

#

One afternoon, Inaho comes down the stairs to find Slaine sitting by the kitchen table and reading an origami book, which he apparently found on the living room’s bookshelves. Inaho remembers that book; when he and Yuki first moved out of the orphanage and into their new home more than ten years ago, they used to spend a lot of their free time making rabbits and cranes out of paper.

Slaine is attempting to fold the green paper with white and gold cherry blossoms -which Inaho bought for wrapping up Slaine’s present- into an aircraft, but the particular design requires a lot of concentration and skill. Inaho steps into the kitchen and Slaine barely acknowledges him. Inaho rolls up his sleeves, ready to prepare their dinner but Slaine’s voice interrupts him.

“Kaizuka.”

Inaho turns around. Slaine has his eyes lowered on the table, but he points at the page of the origami book where the folding instructions of the aircraft are listed.

“This here. N-Now I understand why you practiced that much. I-I keep tearing the paper.” A pause. “Help me.”

“I am no expert at this…hobby. I’m afraid that I’ll destroy all of your efforts.”

Slaine’s shoulders drop, but he lifts his head in surprise when Inaho takes the seat opposite him.

“I am not sure where to start. Did you check the dimensions of the paper?”

“O-Of course I did!”

#

They make two planes, Slaine copying Inaho’s movements. It takes their combined efforts and a small pile of torn paper, but after half an hour they manage it together. Inaho’s fingers brush many times against Slaine’s as he demonstrates the numerous folds on Slaine’s plane. After the last folds, they both withdraw their arms and stare at the two colorful paper jet planes than are now resting on the table.

“You should test out if they can fly.”

Slaine lifts an eyebrow. His eyes are bright. “You should too. And you should stop being that stiff all the time… Wait! I have an idea.” Slaine quickly gets up, grabs a ballpoint pen from the kitchen’s drawers and scribbles a word on the right wing of each jet.

“If I’m bored afterward I will paint them, too. Come on, the living room is spacious enough.”

Inaho tries to decipher Slaine’s handwriting on his paper plane as he follows him to the living room, where a light breeze drifts through the open windows. Inaho’s eye widens when he realizes that his paper plane now carries a name: Sleipnir. He meets Slaine’s gaze.

Slaine faces him with a straight posture and determined eyes, and Inaho thinks that Slaine’s days as a Count have given his lean physique a sense of authority that just wasn’t evident before. Slaine seems healthier since he started living with us. His cheeks aren’t hollow anymore and his skin seems softer, too…

“We shall compete. Your Sleipnir against my Tharsis. Whoever loses must wash all the dishes for two weeks. On his own.” Slaine does not wait for Inaho’s answer as he tosses the paper plane/ his Tharsis forward. Inaho observes as it twirls in the air, crosses the entire room and then gracefully lands near the staircase that leads to the upper floor.

“Two weeks it is.” Unfortunately, despite Inaho’s best efforts to mentally calculate the correct angle, the direction of the wind and other parameters of the toss, his Sleipnir hits the wall and crashes mid-way. Slaine lets out a laugh, Inaho immediately turns to face him and forgets the consequences of his loss. His heartbeats increase rapidly, Slaine is smiling, “Finally… Finally, I won! Alright, Kaizuka. I demand a rematch.”

“I accept your request.”

#

Inaho’s arm is tired from throwing his new Sleipnir twenty two times in a row, but Slaine’s enthusiasm is endless, as he managed to ‘win’ fifteen times. As Slaine tosses his paper Tharsis almost perfectly once again, Rayleigh dashes and catches it in his mouth the moment it approaches the floor. Slaine lets out a surprised “My Tharsis!” and starts running up the stairs while chasing after the cat, shouting “Give it back!”, and then his amused laughter can be heard from the upper floor.

Inaho’s mouth curves into a soft smile. It was more than worth it, bringing Slaine here. Even temporarily… A shiver runs down his spine as he reminds himself that Slaine will eventually return back to his dark cell. The chances are high that Slaine will be in danger, especially after that incident with the photograph. But Inaho cannot hold it back anymore; he gazes down at the plane with Slaine’s cursive handwriting in his hands and vows right that second to conceive a way for Slaine to gain his freedom, no matter what it takes.

The next morning, Inaho is walking down the corridor towards his bedroom when his gaze drifts out of a window. Slaine is kneeling in the garden between some of his new roses, stroking the cat’s head with a small smile on his face. The sun is shining on his hair. Inaho wonders if it’s normal, this pleasant ache in his chest each time Slaine seems content.

Inaho has heard many people describing sunsets, various objects or other people as being beautiful, before. He never understood the concept completely until he truly knew Slaine Troyard.

#

Slaine stays in the kitchen longer than usual for five days, just to stare at Inaho washing the dishes alone. On the sixth day, Slaine grabs the dish towel and steps next to Inaho, silently wiping the dishes dry after Inaho washes them. Inaho does not talk, following Slaine’s example, but he tries his best not to smile in contentment.

#

As the days go by, Inaho understands that Slaine’s behavior is slowly changing. Inaho wouldn’t have been able to notice that subtle change two and a half years ago when he started visiting Slaine, but with time he has learned to interpret Slaine’s body language and most of his reactions. It’s a privilege he only has when Slaine is concerned. No other person in his life has ever affected him that much, not even Asseylum.

Inaho observes Slaine and Yuki’s interactions and reaches the conclusion that Yuki is, indeed, warming up to Slaine. They will start up conversations in the weekends, when Yuki is staying at home and Inaho is occupied with his laptop (investigating the photograph) or is cooking, cleaning and performing similar household chores.

Slaine and Yuki will usually talk about movies, books, about the roses in the garden and many other innocent topics. He won’t lash out or insult her, exactly the opposite: Slaine will be kind and humble towards her. Inaho sometimes even admires Slaine’s patience when Yuki starts taking about Rayleigh and how cute he is, as her monologues about the cat are long and not very interesting. Slaine however will carefully listen to her and even make interesting comments. Only when Inaho steps into the room the conversations will awkwardly stop, but Slaine won’t glare at Inaho like he used to.

#

Near the end of the first month of their coexistence, Inaho steps one morning out into the garden and finds Slaine conversing with one of the guards; Siegfried Keil. The other guards soon join the conversation. Inaho observes them carefully until he ascertains that their actions are not hostile…then finds himself wishing he could actually overhear their conversation. Slaine’s posture is relaxed and he even smiles once. Instead, Inaho rolls up his sleeves and puts on the gardening gloves, moving his attention to the rose bushes.

Slaine joins him a few minutes later. They work side by side in silence as usual, until Inaho says,

“I saw you conversing with Siegfried Keil today.”

Slaine continues applying fertilizer. “So? Am I not allowed to converse with the guards?”

“You can converse with whomever you wish, but Siegfried Keil is not a very talkative man.”

Slaine moves on to the next rosebush. “He is kind to me… They all are. They never abuse their power.” Inaho remembers the guards he sent away, and a faint pulse of anger races through his veins. Slaine works on the plant for a while and then turns to face Inaho. The wind stirs Slaine’s blond hair, his eyes are sad. “Your sister is also kind to me. Despite everything that I’ve done...”

Inaho has never seen Slaine that emotional and vulnerable, before. “She should be. Yuki was strongly influenced from the false portrayal the media keep promoting.”

Slaine just maintains eye contact, seeming deep in thought. “Are you allowed to speak with me about this, how the world views me?”

“If you wish. Either way, their words are not true.”

Slaine just shrugs his shoulders and continues with his work.

“Does it not bother you, that the truth is being concealed?”

Slaine sighs. “I told you before, Inaho. I don’t have any use for a future anymore.” He looks up at the clear sky. “Now, the ground is not very moist, I hope it will rain soon…”

#

The appointed day for laundry has arrived, and it is Inaho’s turn to gather all the bed sheets and place them into the washing machine. He does not bother to knock on Slaine’s door, as he saw the blond a few minutes ago sitting on the couch in the living room, his legs crossed and resting on the coffee table, leisurely reading a book.

He opens the door—and almost collides with Slaine’s naked back.

The next five seconds seem to last an eternity. Slaine turns his head and his eyes widen. He has stopped mid-way of putting his light blue shirt on, the muscles visible on his raised, lean arms, his hair tousled. Inaho takes a step back as Slaine now regards him with narrow, hostile eyes. Inaho cannot tear his gaze away from Slaine’s…his peripheral vision still registers the way Slaine’s waistband reveals the lines above his hipbones, the numerous scars spread across Slaine’s bare, well-formed shoulders and back. Inaho thinks as his heart rises in his throat that he has never observed anything so solid and delicate at the same time…and when Slaine turns his body and hurriedly puts his shirt on in an attempt to cover himself, Inaho does not observe how Slaine’s stomach is scarred, his eye instead follows the faintest golden trail that starts below Slaine’s bellybutton and disappears under his blue pants, leading to his—

Inaho apologizes with a steady voice, takes a step back, then another, then silently leaves Slaine’s room, closing the door behind him. He walks slowly into his room and closes that door too, then sits heavily on his bed.

His blank expression thankfully did not betray him, but his breathing is deep and his cheeks are on fire.

The next morning Inaho wakes up and remembers only shards of his long and turbulent dreams, but he is certain of one thing: Slaine was in many of them, his hair tousled, moaning in pleasure…

Inaho decides to take a very cold shower that morning.

#

Slaine does not mention the incident again, but for a few days he seems more distanced than before.

The second month begins. His friends call and talk to him as usually, Yuki goes to work every morning, and Slaine continues with his everyday gardening, chess and other entertainment rituals. Inaho hasn’t discovered much during his hacks and researches about all the matters he is investigating, but he has gathered many significant details about Slaine: the blond ex-pilot prefers romantic or action movies to horror and sci-fi ones. He dislikes broccoli and carrots, but between the two he will decide to consume the broccoli. He drinks his tea sweet and loves lemonade. (After he notices, Inaho makes sure that there are many bottles of the sweet-and-sour beverage always available in the fridge. His hands hurt each time he uses the lemon squeezer multiple times in the early hours of the morning, but the result is always satisfying.) Slaine enjoys spending time outside, tending to any of the colorful roses that have now begun to bloom. He enjoys reading and playing with Rayleigh on the kitchen porch, which is overlooking the back garden and the sea… Inaho can go on and on.

Inaho gathers these small pieces of information carefully. They are making him content, in a way.

#

Sometimes, when Yuki is away at nights spending time and drinking with her co-workers and friends, they might both sit on each end of the couch and watch a movie. Slaine watches movies on the TV but avoids the news broadcasts, and Inaho understands.

It is such a night and they have turned off the lights in the living room, leaving the TV to illuminate the room with its irregular, flashing way. They are usually silent when they work in the garden or generally are alone together, but Inaho has learned to embrace that calming silence…he prefers it from Slaine’s (now rare) outbursts.

Inaho rarely watches movies. He was never very interested in them, as he always preferred the real world and the physics behind it, choosing to ignore the made-up stories about human relationships or the inaccurate scientific phenomena taking place in the films. But Slaine seems interested in such a form of entertainment, so Inaho chooses his seat carefully each time Slaine announces that he wants to watch a movie: he will always sit at Slaine’s left side, in order to have the blond young man within his field of vision.

Rarely, in case they both simultaneously reach for the TV remote between them, their hands will brush. Inaho doesn’t complain for the fleeting, accidental touches, but that night he gets more than he expected.

They are watching an old comedy about a man and a woman falling in love or so Inaho believes, as he finds it far more entertaining to observe a smiling or chuckling Slaine with the corner of his eye rather than watching the movie.

Slaine is silent in the last half hour. The credits roll, and then Inaho observes that Slaine has fallen asleep, his head tilted to the side with his mouth hanging a bit open. Inaho never thought that Slaine was capable of snoring, but the sounds that leave the blonds’ slightly parted, cherry lips can only be described as a soft snore. At least no drool is visible. Inaho’s mouth stretches into a small smile and that warm, familiar feeling settles again in his chest. Slaine’s features are smooth, finally not contorted with anger or sadness. He seems so calm in his sleep.

Inaho turns his body and shifts closer, leaning into Slaine’s personal space. Inaho believes that he identifies the scent that seems to linger now in the air…with the one from his sheets after Slaine slept in his bed. Instead of letting it get into his head, he gently places a hand on Slaine’s shoulder, ready to wake him up. Slaine frowns in his sleep and his shoulder jerks, as if the contact pained him. The movement tilts his body more to the side and soon Inaho finds himself with Slaine’s head resting on his lap, the blond ex-Count fast asleep and blissfully unaware of the situation.

Inaho holds his breath. Should I wake him? He is sure that Slaine will not appreciate it at all, if he wakes up and finds himself facing Inaho’s crotch. On the other side, Inaho might never be able to physically get that close to Slaine again. He takes his decision; Inaho stays motionless on the couch, his heart catching up to the situation and beating rapidly in his chest. Slaine is still asleep, his head a warm, pleasant weight on Inaho’s lap.

A few minutes pass by. After the commercials, a history movie begins playing on the TV. Inaho starts feeling a bit sleepy. He tries to prolong the peaceful moment, but his eyelid slowly flutters and then drifts close.

#

Inaho opens his eye. He must have dozed off, but Slaine’s uneasy sleep woke him up: Slaine’s body jerks again and again, and sad whimpers escape from his lips. His eyelids flutter and he mumbles something incomprehensible, while his features contort as if he is in pain.

Inaho is quickly alert and it takes him only a few seconds to discover the source of Slaine’s distress: the main character in the movie is being whipped; the sounds of the whip meeting flesh and the cries echo harshly in the room. Inaho hurriedly fumbles at his blind side until he grasps the remote and turns the TV off. Darkness and silence envelop the living room. Slaine is still asleep, trembling and shivering with his head on Inaho’s lap.

Inaho does not know what he should do. His mind floods with useless information, he was never interested in any sort of psychological or sleep disorders. Slaine shudders almost violently, crying out in distress. Inaho, a bit desperate, tries to caress Slaine’s forehead and whisper his name many times in what Inaho hopes to be a soothing manner. Never in his life has he felt the need to physically soothe anyone; but it seems that his awkward ministrations somehow work. Inaho keeps stroking Slaine’s forehead and hair, tenderly… and after many long seconds Slaine’s body gradually relaxes, his features soften, his breathing evens out.

Inaho keeps caressing Slaine’s forehead until his eyelid feels heavy once again.

#

When he opens his eye a faint light is seeping through the window blinds, so he understands that the sun has barely risen. He can distinguish that Yuki’s bag is not occupying its usual spot on the small table near the front door, she must have slept at a friend’s home. Inaho looks down at the mop of blond hair on his lap. Slaine is peacefully asleep, facing away from Inaho, his shoulders rising and falling at a steady rate…but he might wake up soon. It is regrettable, but Inaho must distance himself immediately from him.

Very carefully, Inaho slides to the side and lets Slaine’s head drop on the couch. He then proceeds to prepare breakfast for two.

Much later in the day, when they are both sitting in the living room—Slaine reading a book and Inaho working on his hacking— Slaine lets out a pleased sigh and says,

“Last night...I haven’t slept that well in ages. I wonder if the couch helped.”

Inaho knows that Slaine shares the same disinterest for small talk with him…so he concludes that Slaine must have truly slept well last night, if he feels the need to comment on the quality of his sleep.

Inaho does his best to hide it, but he fails.

“W-What! Was that a smile?”

Inaho nods, still not looking up from his laptop.

“O-Orange!” Slaine doesn’t use Inaho’s old nickname in an ironic way, he only sounds surprised. “Why on Earth and Vers are you smiling?!”

#

Inaho is sharing his bathroom down the corridor with Slaine, while Yuki uses the guest bathroom. After the incident in Slaine’s room, Inaho is extremely careful not to disturb Slaine’s privacy in any way and has until now succeeded in his objective. Slaine however is disturbed by other matters, which he usually makes clear.

Slaine’s angry voice is heard from the living room. “Kaizuka Inaho! Did you use my toothbrush again?!”

Inaho is serving dinner to Yuki when an annoyed Slaine steps into the kitchen, demanding explanations.

“No. After that accident you demanded I buy a toothbrush with a different color, so I always use the orange one now. However, I cleaned the bathroom this morning and changed their positions. You must have misinterpreted the situation.”

Slaine frowns. “Maybe…but you also used the toilet later, am I right?”

Inaho nods. “I did. Is something the matter?”

“Y-Yes! D-Don’t leave the toilet lid like that! Have some respect for the others sharing your bathroom!”

Inaho remembers that he hurriedly left the bathroom this afternoon, because Slaine was calling for him in order to play chess. “I am sorry. It will not happen again.” Inaho observes with the corner of his eye that Yuki chuckles quietly.

Slaine sits at the kitchen table, sighing. It is a usual dinner today, nothing out of the ordinary. Inaho usually cooks international recipes since Slaine is staying with them. Slaine exchanges a few words with Yuki as he transfers with his fork all his pieces of broccoli into Inaho’s plate, then proceeds to take the red cabbage leaves out of Inaho’s salad portion. (Inaho dislikes the taste of the particular purple vegetable, but Slaine enjoys it.)

Inaho is reading on his tablet about Asseylum’s visit to the Aldnoah Reactor #16 construction site, thinking that Asseylum is too kindhearted for her own good while sharing the power of Aldnoah, but he then notices something amiss. Inaho lifts his head. “You forgot one.”

Slaine narrows his eyes. “Where?”

Inaho pierces the purple leaf with his fork and places it into Slaine’s salad portion. “Here.” Inaho leans a bit to Slaine’s side and transfers the hidden piece of broccoli under Slaine’s steak onto his own plate.

Inaho eats the vegetable and then observes that Yuki’s shoulders are trembling, and her expression is weird.

“Sis?”

Her amused giggle echoes in the kitchen. It catches Slaine’s attention.

“Yuki-san? What is the matter?”

“You’re almost acting like a newlywed couple!”

Inaho blinks many times, trying to clear out the fantasies that keep overwhelming his mind. Slaine is silent, his gaze focused on Yuki.

“Ahh, I’m sorry, it was only a joke!” Yuki closes her eyes, and her smile seems forced.

Inaho continues reading the article on his tablet, but listens carefully when a confused Slaine speaks. “I don’t understand… How do married couples act?”

“Ehh…Well, they argue about silly things and some may share their food, taking care of each other…?” Yuki plays nervously with her hair.

Slaine inhales deeply. “I never had a proper family dinner before, so...I wouldn’t know.”

“Ah… I understand. Inaho doesn’t remember either, but sometimes our parents used to exchange food like that, at dinner. Our mother was a picky eater!”

Slaine turns to look at Inaho. “You don’t remember your parents?”

Inaho expected Slaine’s question. “I was just an infant when their deaths occurred, during the events of Heaven’s Fall.” Inaho hopes Yuki will not continue with the particular conversation topic. He puts his tablet down. Slaine’s fingers are fidgeting with his shirt, a clear sign of nervousness, and Inaho’s hopes are soon cast aside as Yuki kindly asks,

“What about your parents, Slaine…?”

Slaine is nervously moving his fork through his rice. “My mother died a few months after I was born...”

Inaho’s eye widens in surprise. Did Slaine just answer-

Slaine continues, obviously lost in the past. “…and my father…his entire life, he was busy investigating the Aldnoah. We travelled around a lot, but he made me sandwiches once…we had a picnic… It was nice…”

 Yuki meets Inaho’s gaze. Inaho shakes his head slowly in denial but she continues,

“Dr. Troyard must have been a kind man, I am sure of it…”

Slaine’s smile is sad. He lets his fork drop into his plate. “He was...”

“But then Count Saazbaum adopted you…?”

“…Yes, I also used to eat with my, eh, Count Saazbaum, he was kind to me too…despite me being a Terran-“ Slaine stops mid-sentence, taking quick, short breaths.

Inaho places his palms on the table. “Yuki, it is late.” She does not know the truth about Saazbaum’s death, and Slaine is already upset...she’ll deteriorate the situation even more.

“So he was kind to you…? I always viewed him as an enemy, but you must have been very saddened because of his death...”

 “I—I was…” Slaine’s voice wavers and a choked sound escapes his open mouth. Inaho feels a strong, unexpected urge to physically comfort Slaine, like he did a few days ago. He is left bewildered by his spontaneous wish.

Yuki smiles. “Slaine, you must have realized by now, we are not your family, but you are welcome to eat and spent time with us anytime you like.”

Slaine lifts his head and meets Yuki’s gaze. His eyes seem moist, and Inaho observes that he swallows in tenseness. “I—Thank you, but…”

“It’s okay!”

 “I…Excuse me. I’m not very hungry a-anymore.” Slaine drags his chair noisily across the floor as he stands up. “G-Goodnight.” His steps are hurried as he leaves the kitchen, probably to return to his room.

Inaho swiftly gets up, too. “Slaine will return to the prison in less than seven weeks, Yuki. You shouldn’t encourage him that much, even more suggesting that he has found a new family. And you keep forgetting that he resents me.”

“I am not sure about that last part! And anyway, until he goes back he will be staying here, why can’t he just feel like he belongs to a real family for once in his life? As far as I understood, he has no one left. Even her Majesty assigned you to keep an eye on him. He is a fine young man, Inaho. I understand that he shot you! But- but he seems to have deeply regretted his actions, he is kind and humble and he really needs someone to talk to!” Yuki shakes her head. “Ahh, it’s all so confusing!” She sighs. “But I was curious about his past, too…”

“You made him that upset in order to satisfy your curiosity?”

“Eh?! He looked fine to me! He was just being shy!”

“Yuki, you should think more before you speak.”

“What? Inaho!”

“It’s your turn to wash the dishes.”

Without expecting an answer, Inaho leaves an openmouthed Yuki alone in the kitchen, climbs the staircase and a bit later knocks on Slaine’s door.

“Go away, Kaizuka!” Slaine’s voice is muffled, but Inaho does not know if it’s because of the door or because Slaine might be crying.

“I want to apologize on my sister’s behalf. She shouldn’t have asked that many questions.”

Silence.

Inaho places his palm on the door. “Sleep well, Slaine.”

He turns to leave but, “Aren’t you curious about my past?! Why have you stopped demanding answers about it?!”

“Because I wanted to avoid such a situation.”

The door opens a bit. Slaine’s eyes are red, but he isn’t crying. Inaho wants to step inside but he does not, instead he tries his best not to alter his blank expression.

“Alright. You may ask me one question, and I will answer it.”

The questions could be infinite but Inaho asks, “Will we play chess tomorrow?”

Slaine’s eyes are wide and to Inaho’s wonder, he sniggers in astonishment. “That is your question? You could have asked me about my scars, about the Martians, about anything...!”

“Yes, but I enjoy playing chess with you. Your strategic approaches have improved significantly since last year.”

Slaine maintains eye contact for a long, intense moment. The green irises are radiant. And then Slaine smiles, a bit shyly. It automatically makes Inaho smile too. Inaho does not know if Slaine’s cheeks are flushed because he was upset or embarrassed, but he enjoys the sight nevertheless.

“You are really weird, Orange. I must have mentioned this before, but your thought processing sometimes…amuses me.”

“I must admit the same for you, Bat.”

Bat? Returning to old habits, are we now?” Slaine’s smile is a bit lopsided, he straightens his body to a confident stance. “Then I guess we’ll play chess tomorrow.”

“I am looking forward to it.”

They are silent again.

“Goodnight, Slaine.” Inaho leaves, but before he steps inside his room Slaine shouts across the corridor,

“You should prepare yourself for a devastating loss!”

Inaho opens the door to his room, hiding his faint smile. “Go to sleep, Bat. It is late and if you wish to win our chess match tomorrow you should—“

“Alright, alright!” Slaine disappears behind his door.

Inaho works on his laptop for a few hours until he decides to lie in bed, waiting for sleep to come. He wonders if Slaine felt like belonging anywhere before, if Slaine ever had a home, and wishes he could give Slaine at least that… He falls asleep to memories of Slaine and him on the porch, discussing Kataphrakts and roses. For the first time in his life all of his dreams are warm and full of laughter, that night.

Chapter Text

Inaho wakes up, and his body instinctively seeks the source of comfortable heat next to it, moving closer. There is a strange texture, like soft silk, touching his nose and cheek. Inaho inhales and smiles sleepily, as the scent somehow brings to his mind warm situations... He is somehow reminded of the sliced orange peels he used to boil at winter, when their sweet aroma would spread all over the house… Inaho opens his eyes, curious…This resembles…hair? Blond hair? And then everything rushes again up his rested mind, and it takes all of his willpower not to rapidly remove his hand from where it firmly rests; curled around Slaine’s naked waist in a nearly possessive grip. It seems that we shifted in our sleep. If Yuki-nee was here, she would call me a ‘big spoon’. Slaine’s uneven, warm skin is moving with each breath, and Inaho feels the languid motion on his barely clothed chest. 

Inaho very carefully removes his arm and lets it rest by his side, then tries to prepare himself for the assault of the cold, as he will soon leave the sanctuary of the blanket. Maybe my suit dried up during last night. The sun will be up soon, his eye indicates. We must have slept for more than ten hours.

His back and face do not hurt at all as they did yesterday. The pain has lessened considerably. He tries to carefully get up and avoid waking Slaine, but as he tries to distance himself from Slaine, the pale Orbital Knight stirs next to him and then suddenly stays motionless.

Inaho clears his throat. “Good morning.”

No answer so Inaho says, “Slaine, your feet are cold.”

“You are not my wife! Bare with it!”

Now he is awake and alert, good.  “I might need to take another look at your wound. I want to dismiss the possibility of an infection.”

“I also have decent knowledge on treating wounds, Orange. It’s not infected.” A pause. “Y-you did a good job.”

“That’s good to hear. Does the Vers military demand that everyone attends first aid tutorials?”

“…That too. B-But I also have gained lots of…practical experience.”

Did he use to tend to injured Martians, or was he often injured? Is this connected to his scars? However, injuries like these would require help in order to heal. Before Inaho reaches a conclusion, Slaine breaks his unexpected silence and coughs awkwardly.

“…N-now that you realized I’m not going to die anytime soon, let me ask you something: did that creepy engine of yours come up with any ideas, so we can escape this frozen hell?

“To begin with, my bio-implant rarely reaches any conclusions on its own. It is linked through my optic nerve with—“

“Get to the point, Kaizuka. I don’t want to freeze to death while you’re lecturing me. …You can explain it to me, however, at another time. It sounds interesting. Now, any ideas available?”

“…No.”

Slaine groans, and turns his body, trying to put some distance between them and facing Inaho. Inaho tries to avoid registering into his memory the mass of scars that covers Slaine’s pale chest. Inaho instead focuses his gaze on Slaine’s face, who is biting his lip, contemplating. “You managed to damage my Tharsis’ Aldnoah Core during our fight. With our meager tools, we will never be able to start it up, here. It is useless… That leaves us only with the option of using your Kataphrakt with that ridiculous color. It must also be incapable of moving, otherwise you wouldn’t have nursed me to health here, am I right?”

Inaho nods.

“Great…”Slaine eyes brighten, as if he just remembered something crucial. “You mentioned yesterday that your communication system is broken. Maybe we can repair it, somehow, and send an SOS signal. Will you manage to find out how extensive the damage is?”

“I already know.” Inaho begins explaining about the parts that were registered as malfunctioning during his fall on Earth. Slaine once again manages to surprise him. Inaho reached the conclusion, months ago, that Slaine is intelligent. With some…incorrect exceptions, he has gathered a vast knowledge from both Earth and Vers, as Inaho realized from Slaine’s explanations that Seylum conveyed him. Slaine’s elaborate plans and strategic ideas were also a strong reason for Inaho to keep an eye on him during battle.

Slaine grasps everything immediately. Inaho doesn’t have to repeat or explain himself, and he is extremely thankful for it. They compare ideas and solutions for an hour until they manage to reach an agreement.

“So, what I’m suggesting is to take these parts out and find something to—“

“…Replace them? We can get them from my—“

“Your Tharsis. My Kataphrakt does not operate with an Aldnoah Drive, but the parts of the data transmitter will be almost identical with yours, at least…”

“…at least these two circuits.”

“Exactly.”

“…Right. That’s a fairly decent plan, Orange.”

“Thank you, Bat. Your suggestions were also helpful.”

Slaine smiles, but then probably remembers that he should not do so in front of an enemy, and his mouth forms a straight, tight line again.

His expression changes completely when he smiles. Inaho continues, “We must return to the Tharsis and collect the chips we will require.”

“I can do it. Your suit and my clothes must be dry by now, thanks to your kat’s heating system. If I somehow manage to wear them both, I can make it.

“How will you locate it?”

“Well, if we are lucky enough, the snowstorm should’ve subsided during the night. It might take some time to discover the Tharsis if it’s buried under the snow, but I carry a compass with me.”

“Tharsis must have frozen, by now. Will you be able to remove the circuits on your own?”

“The Aldnoah Core will keep the metal parts around it warm enough to remove. Fortunately, the central transmission system is located next to the Core, and is easily accessible. Don’t insult my intelligence suggesting that I won’t know what parts I’m looking for. And no, I won’t need any help to carry two minuscule pieces of metal. I can easily wrap them in my handkerchief and place them in an inner pocket, to keep them warm.”

Why is he so eager to return to the Tharsis? “…You are wounded.”

Slaine snorts. “Your ability to pretend you constantly care about me is amazing. Yes, I am wounded. So?” At this, Inaho can’t help but think that Martians must really not tolerate weakness in the battlefield. “But my Tharsis is a Martian Kataphrakt. You might have managed to steal and analyze its blueprints, even its programming codes…” Slaine frowns, apparently remembering Inaho’s unexpected statements during their last fights, “…but no one knows that machine better than me. I will finish everything much faster on my own. We can’t afford to lose more time. I’m unacquainted with your machine’s heating system, but it surely won’t keep running forever. So while I’m gone, you must try and fix the circuits that can still be repaired. There is no need to postpone things by having two people complete the task one can do.”

Slaine’s arguments are rational. However, a thought in the back of Inaho’s mind keeps nagging at him. His machine detects unusual amounts of stress coming from Slaine’s voice.

His eye throbs painfully.

“…Kaizuka Inaho! Are you even listening?”

Inaho nods, but the pain intensifies. I will have to take a double dosage of my pills, this time. I will need to rely heavily on the engine if I want to complete the repairs. Hopefully, Slaine will be capable of helping me when he returns. I do not trust him, but…

As the throbbing stops after a while, Inaho sits up. Slaine is gone from under the blanket. Inaho tilts his head to take a look behind the pilot’s seat.

Slaine has already put his uniform on and is trying to wear Inaho’s suit over it. He hops on his unhurt foot, trying to stretch Inaho’s flexible uniform in order to fit him. He finally manages it, after almost falling down three times. Slaine is taller than Inaho (six centimeters, his eye informs him) so Inaho’s suit barely reaches his ankles and his wrists, the tattered crimson Vers uniform sprouting out from where the suit ends. Slaine’s expression is really interesting, even entertaining. He resembles a newborn animal, staggering and trying to stand on his own feet for the first time, but failing and— “Watch out.”

Slaine grabs the pilot’s seat and manages to stay upright, spitting out, “Shut up! It’s not my fault you’re shorter than me! Besides, I can walk. Your suit can be stretched out.”

“Does your wound hurt?”

“A-as if!” Inaho lets the lie slide, as Slaine shakes his head in denial, “I’ve had worse before!”

Inaho doesn’t comment, but his mind can’t help but recall Slaine’s scars.

 “Also, how will I alert you that I’m back, so you can let me in?”

 Inaho gets up and takes out a pair of walkie talkies from the small container under the pilot’s seat, where he also keeps his pills and now his broken helmet.

Slaine’s eyes widen. “These are ancient.”

“I customized them myself.”

Slaine takes one, scrutinizing it with a frown. “Is this some kind of a guarantee? I don’t wish to become an ice statue, if this… device fails me.”

“They will work.” Inaho actually never had the opportunity to use them before, but the chance of malfunction falls under one percent.

“Will you open this? I need to go.” Slaine places his palm on the cockpit’s lid. Inaho does as Slaine asks.

A cruel, frosty wind immediately blows but brings only a few snowflakes inside. At least yesterday’s snowstorm has subsided.

“…Be careful.”

Slaine waves his hand—Inaho does not know if it’s in dismissal or adieu. Slaine steps out, and then Inaho watches the lid close again with its characteristic noise. The cockpit is quiet as usual again, now much quieter than Inaho would like.

#

Slaine gets in touch with him once, in order to inform him that he managed to reach the Tharsis. As Slaine’s voice disappears from the small radio device, Inaho takes an unconscious, relieving breath.

He has already swallowed his pills and his eye feels better. He lets the bottle rest on the floor next to him, in case he requires another. During the last hour he overworked his eye a bit but managed to repair the larger part of the broken circuits. The parts Slaine will bring, however, are essential for the transmission system to work.

#

Inaho is kneeling among loose cables and machine parts, wrapped in the thermal blanket, when Slaine’s cracked, static voice echoes in the small room, “I’m-m out-tsid-de.”

Inaho rushes to open the lid and is greeted with a gun.

That’s the reason Slaine was anxious and eager to leave, before… Are cold and tiredness affecting my thought processing? Why was I unable to foresee his intentions?

 Inaho knew that both of their guns, his and Slaine’s, were on the inner side of his uniform. Due to yesterday’s harsh conditions, he failed to store them in a safer place…but sometimes it is better to deal with the wolf in his den. Inaho considered yesterday the possibility of being taken a hostage/prisoner.

That is, as soon as Slaine does not shoot him...again.

Slaine steps inside the cockpit, continuously pointing a trembling gun at him. The lid closes behind him. He takes one step and stands next to Inaho, in the small space behind the pilot’s chair. Slaine pulls a folded handkerchief out of his inner pocket and throws it at Inaho. The latter catches it and proceeds to examine the chips, ignoring Slaine.

“Well done. These are exactly what I needed.”

“W-will you s-stop th-this? I c-could s-shoot you r-right n-now.”

 “Your hand is shaking badly so your aim will be off. The bullet might also ricochet, considering the fact that we are inside a compact, metallic area. And supposing you do shoot me, will you be able to finish the repairs without my help?” His last argument has little value, as Inaho is almost finished with the repairing part…but it’s interesting, the attempt to misinform Slaine and his reaction.

Slaine keeps avoiding his gaze, but his trembling hand is still pointing the gun at Inaho.

“T-then get t-to work.”

Apparently Slaine fell for the bluff. Inaho tilts his head. “You will not assist me, then.”

“I w-will be watching y-you. Do not m-make any s-sudden moves.”

Inaho realizes that Slaine is still shivering from the cold, but his hand keeps getting steadier. He wonders if he should try it. After all, Slaine should help him finish this, because his eye is slowly becoming a burden. Inaho refuses to work without help. In a very stubborn and childish way he thinks it is mainly Slaine’s fault that they are stranded here, exhausted and cold, in the middle of nowhere.

He pulls himself together again. If he manages to move with high accuracy, nobody will get hurt. He uses his eye to calculate the angle. Slaine possesses almost the same muscle mass as him and is taller, but he must also be weakened from the cold and yesterday’s blood loss. Inaho then swiftly drops the blanket and lunches forward in the narrow space around the chair. He aims to knock Slaine’s gun from his hand, while using his feet to trip him. He succeeds, and Slaine never pulls the trigger.

Slaine falls down with a terrible cry. For less than a second, Inaho hopes somewhere deep inside that Slaine’s stitches did not break. He then turns his back to Slaine and reaches for Slaine’s dropped gun, which he grasps and turns again to point at Slaine; and finds himself facing his own gun. Apparently the fall wasn’t enough to deter or slow Slaine down. Inaho was right: Slaine definitely has a high pain tolerance.

Slaine has a knee on the floor, one hand clutching his thigh, the other pointing Inaho’s gun- the one Inaho always carried within his suit- at Inaho.

His engine announces the gun heavier than Inaho remembered. Of course. “You realized that my gun was empty. You took some bullets out of yours and reloaded it.”

Slaine is breathing heavily, his face contorted in a pained grimace. “You take me for a fool.”

“It’s the opposite. I am actually impressed.”

They stay like this for a while, both guns leveled at their heads.

As his pulse slows down and the adrenaline fades away, Inaho’s eye begins hurting again, the pain escalating with a terrifying speed. This time, the pain is not restricted to the area around his eye socket…it is as if someone is drilling a hole into his skull. His body leans forward, his hand automatically drops his gun and joins his other hand, covering his left eye. Inaho raises his head, gritting his teeth to keep from crying out, his vision is fading away, but he can still distinguish a hazy figure near… it must be Slaine, kneeling right in front of him… Inaho has the urge to kick and back away, he is in extreme pain, immobilized, he is completely vulnerable, Slaine could easily kill him right now…a few seconds pass in agony…

The pain keeps persisting, burning his eye, his face, and Inaho’s distraught brain is unable to process the things he wants to put into words. Surprisingly, cool hands touch his jaw and open his mouth and then a pill slides in. Inaho swallows. His body is suddenly enveloped in heat and a small, still reliable corner of his mind registers that Slaine put the blanket around him, even folded it so that it completely covers him.

Inaho is aware that time flows, slowly and with agony. It could be seconds or minutes, but then the pain finally fades away. His vision is now clear. Inaho is still kneeling behind the pilot’s seat, which is now occupied: Slaine is communicating with someone, as Inaho can discern strings of texts and numbers flooding the main screen. He has taken off Inaho’s water-resistant uniform, and his own clothes are dry.

Inaho slowly gets up. Slaine apparently watches his reflection move on the screen, as he quickly turns his head around, bright eyes judging him silently.

 “Physical and mental stress, lack of sleep, hunger. Those are tiring for my eye.”

Slaine nods, a bit reluctantly. “I…I saw your bottle of pills lying on the floor…”

“You did well. Thank you.”

“I…Y-you….” Slaine clears his throat. “I-I just…”

Inaho, still wrapped in the blanket, crawls on his knees next to Slaine and stares at the screen for a while. “This…Harklight is coming to our rescue?”

Inaho anticipates a snappy remark, but it never comes.

“It- It seems that both the Vers and Terran forces are desperately searching for us. The snow covered our heat sources and because both of our transmitting systems were down, many suspect that we are dead. Your people might soon realize that your signal is coming from this area but because of the snowstorm, it might take some time to reach them. By then you will be—”

“Your prisoner, I assume.” Inaho thinks of Yuki and everyone else on the Deucalion, and hopes that Rayet will realize he is alive and will continue with their plans as they had discussed. He never planned for this in the last weeks; staying trapped together with Slaine Troyard on this frozen land, making his sister go through the fear of losing him for a second time, being taken to Mars.

Slaine sighs. “Right. My prisoner.”

“You managed to finish the repairs on your own.”

“You did… a really good job with the cables. I only had to place the circuits inside and activate the system. Do you always do everything on your own?”

It is only an innocent question, but something deep inside Inaho stirs in recognition. How did Slaine realize so soon? Only Yuki and his friends complain about this. Even so, he ignores it. “You managed to redo the programming?”

“Don’t be a fool, Kaizuka. I was also trained for situations like these.”

Inaho leans closer, his fingers flying over the virtual keyboard. He scrolls up a bit, viewing Slaine’s work from the computer logs. It is… unusual. “Does the Martian army demand such a wide degree of skills from all their soldiers?”

Their elbows nudge as Inaho keeps typing, and Slaine retracts his at his side. From the corner of his eye, Inaho observes Slaine, and it seems as if his cheeks gain a bit of color. “N-no. I- I just served for many years under Count Cruhteo…and had many tasks assigned. He was…not very fond of failure or…imperfection.”

Inaho pretends to be interested on a particular code on the screen, and then asks, “Because you are a Terran?”

He feels Slaine stiffen next to him. “You won’t manage to distract me. I can see that you are just inspecting my work, but you are not allowed to send any kind of messages to your…friends.”

Inaho wishes he could. Slaine has protected each step with encryptions and an impressive amount of passwords, which will be difficult to crack without the use of his eye. Inaho withdraws his hands. “You will resort to violence if I disobey you.”

Slaine looks straight ahead, his eyes hard. “I will.” Slaine is telling the truth.

So it is, then. Slaine has both guns. The possibilities are very high that my eye’s condition will deteriorate if I chose to fight him. I can’t afford being immobilized here. “What is his ETA?”

“Mr. Harklight’s estimated time of arrival?” Slaine takes a deep breath. “Twenty five hours, probably more.”

Inaho blinks. “There are other Martians out there searching for you… or maybe the word ‘hunting’ would be more appropriate. He can’t just seize his Kataphrakt and rescue you…Others will follow him.”

“…for the kill.” It is mumbled softly, but Inaho still understands. Saazbaum already warned him, actually. Many Martians despise Slaine. By failing to destroy Trident Base, Slaine has given them no reasons to respect him.

Inaho moves away from Slaine and sits by the cockpit’s wall, his eyes fixed on Slaine’s profile, but Slaine stays seated. “Is it also because you are Terran?” Inaho can see Slaine close his eyes before he answers,

“Being a Terran among the Vers Knights is considered a…disgrace.”

Inaho decides to drop the subject. His mind can’t help but return to Slaine’s scars. It’s as if he has gathered all the available pieces but still has not figured out a way to combine them, in order to view something Kaizuka hinted, about Slaine and the Martians.

Inaho almost jerks with surprise, as realization shines clear in his mind. Slaine did not destroy Trident Base! I managed to change a major event. Maybe Kaizuka would be glad about how things turned out. Inaho must communicate first with someone from his side in order to ensure that the Base is safe, but as Slaine said, both forces are searching for them. He doubts the Martians will make another move against the Terrans so soon.

Slaine’s gurgling stomach interrupts his thoughts. Inaho observes the light blush spreading on Slaine’s cheeks.

“We must eat. According to my eye, it’s been almost fifteen hours since we fell on Earth.”

“D-do you have…food?”

“There must be some energy bars in the first aid kit. We can divide them between us. Are you thirsty?”

“I drank the rest of your water, before. But I think I can manage until Mr. Harklight arrives…”

“One must stay dehydrated in such conditions. Water helps keep your blood volume constant. It would also be good if we could —”

Slaine sounds more tired than annoyed. “Kaizuka… Unnecessary, remember? Must you always dictate my every action…?”

Without waiting for an answer Slaine gets up, and after some rummaging manages to discover seven energy bars. He slithers his way between the chair and the Kataphrakt’s wall. After a few moments of hesitation, he sits down next to Inaho and drops four bars on Inaho’s lap. Inaho does not comment on the uneven distribution, even if he notices that Slaine is paler, and the dark circles under his eyes are more than visible. His eye informs him that Slaine is much weaker than a few hours ago. Inaho however chooses not to assault Slaine. The pain might have lessened to the degree of a faint throbbing, but Inaho is sure that sudden motion will hurt his eye more. They are even, in an odd way.

Someone has to say it out loud. “It would be best if we cooperate, until we are found.” Inaho turns his head to watch an unimpressed Slaine scrutinizing a bar. “You are exhausted and so am I. Unnecessary conflict will only worsen our situation.”

A sigh. “Until we are found, then.” Slaine rips off the foil from a bar and tries to bite into it, but then a small whimper escapes his mouth. “They are frozen. Don’t take a bite, not yet.” A pause, “D-do whatever you wish!”

“Give them to me, and I will warm them up under the blanket…” Inaho notices that Slaine’s hands are shivering. “Are you cold?”

Slaine looks straight ahead as he answers, “N-no.”

“You are lying.”

Slaine just drops his bars on Inaho’s lap in a slightly aggressive way and keeps the one he already opened.

“How is your wound?”

“I can manage.” According to his eye, Slaine believes his own words. Slaine tries to take another bite but fails, frowning.

He must be extremely hungry…

Inaho thinks that Yuki probably rubbed off some of her protectiveness on him…how else can his favorable behavior towards Slaine Troyard be explained? If he was stranded with Saazbaum, would his actions be the same? Sleeping next to a naked Saazbaum… Inaho almost shudders and immediately shakes the mental image away. So why do I tolerate… no, why do I approve of Slaine? He decides not to take a look down this abyss right now but later, in a warmer, safer place.

They are silent. Eventually, Inaho suspects the bars are ready for consumption.

After they eat their meager meal, Inaho mentally starts calculating if Sleipnir’s power will last for another 24 hours until they are rescued. His eyebrows rise as he realizes that even if they turn off the lights, which will add to the heating duration fifteen minutes at most, they will stay for at least one hour and a half without heat.

Inaho turns to face Slaine. The blond Count has closed his eyes, crossed his arms and is resting his head on the cockpit’s wall. “Slaine.”

Slaine’s eyelids open slowly. “Hmm?”

“We have two problems.”

Slaine inhales deeply. “Go on.”

Inaho begins explaining about the Kataphrakt’s power limitations. Slaine suggests they turn the lights off immediately, but Inaho informs him about their second problem: his eye has predicted that the temperature will drop even more. And Slaine feels cold next to him. Inaho mentions it.

“…Y-you want to cuddle again?”

“Your…choice of words is interesting. But clothes won’t be enough to keep us warm for the duration of our wait.”

“I will give you back your suit, and we will…sleep together again, wrapped in the blanket. With our clothes on, this time.”

“I think it would be for the best. To preserve our energy, it is better if we lie down and wait for your…Harklight to arrive.”

So Inaho puts his suit back on, turns off all lights and welcomes again the warmth of Slaine’s body next to his, under the thermal blanket. Slaine stays silent. Only after the full lengths of their bodies fit perfectly against each other does Inaho remember the lack of pain from his back. They could probably sleep back-to-back, but Inaho refuses to move. He is warm, tired and wishes to rest. He recalls his earlier thoughts about Slaine not being ugly… It’s the opposite, Inaho realizes. Slaine’s features and body are definitely well balanced, much more than any person Inaho has ever observed. His blond hair is soft and it smells nice. Slaine has a unique way of voicing his opinions, he is intelligent, and his green eyes shine when he is upset or alert…and when he momentarily smiled before, Inaho -for an unknown reason- found the sight very gratifying. All these and much more can be…very interesting to observe.

Inaho thinks that Slaine is the most thought-provoking person he has ever met, and he has barely spoken to him. He wonders, just for a second, what it would be like if Slaine was not his enemy… He then immediately recalls Kaizuka’s earlier messages: Don’t shoot Bat down/ Bat is not your enemy. Inaho completely trusts Kaizuka … but he is sure that Kaizuka was referring to the younger Bat Inaho shot two years ago and not the proud, easily annoyed Gull that is now sleeping next to him.

His mind then presents him with two more of Kaizuka’s sentences… The previous amount of messages you received were all from me, trying to prevent you from shooting down Slaine Troyard. I was a bit desperate about this, so I took no measures of protection.

Inaho then wonders why Kaizuka was desperate to prevent Inaho from shooting down Slaine. Inaho has memorized the last message by heart, and as the days go by, he is more and more certain that Kaizuka cared about his Slaine, in a way. Words that were once of no great importance are now full of emotion. Inaho is now sure that Kaizuka was not desperate about any general consequences connected with that shooting incident; he was desperate about Inaho shooting down Slaine Troyard.

Something important must have happened after Slaine, in both timelines, was shot down. Inaho feels as if the answer is very close, but still escaping him. Inaho understands that he erred, back then. But for Kaizuka, whose writing is generally strictly objective and emotionless, to use such a word when referring to that incident with Slaine- desperate- Inaho can only deduce that Kaizuka must have realized what his actions resulted into and deeply regretted shooting down the Slaine in his timeline.

A soft snore resounds in the dark cockpit, and Inaho can feel Slaine’s ribcage moving slowly against his chest. He is asleep. I never thought that Slaine was capable of snoring. Inaho however is extremely exhausted and the faint sounds soon lull him to sleep. He buries his nose deeper into Slaine’s hair and relishes the warmth that the Count’s body provides, his eyelids drifting close.

#

“Kaizuka Inaho! …Inaho! …ORANGE!!”

Inaho opens his eyes. It is dark. Their metallic cocoon is enveloping them both, and Inaho is glad for Slaine’s body, hot and solid next to his. He lets out a pleased, soft sound, taking in the scent of oranges. His eye displays that Slaine’s voice is a mix of anxiety and extreme tiredness. Slaine’s vitals are stable, but his temperature has risen a bit. He is having a low-grade fever.

“I…am awake.”

Slaine sighs, the fabric of his uniform rubs against Inaho’s clothed torso. “F-Finally! I was starting to believe that you…never mind. How much time is left?”

His eye has the answer ready. “…Fifteen hours, more or less.” Inaho is tired, his thoughts are in disarray, he is feeling drowsy, relaxed, and finds himself wanting to engage in conversation with Slaine, in order to break the gloomy silence surrounding them. He believes Slaine must be in a similar situation, as he is being more talkative than usual:

“I wish I could stand up and force you into giving up your secrets, despite our unofficial agreement.”

“Your temperature has risen…I would not recommend it.”Inaho realizes that his words are a bit slurred, probably due to his stupefied mental state.

Slaine shakes his head in annoyance, then probably remembers yesterday’s sneezing incident and freezes in place. “Don’t you dare start spreading your saliva on my hair again!”

“I really cannot…control my body’s reactions when you’re so near.”

Slaine lets out a sound between a whine and a laugh. “You are completely oblivious, having no idea how that sounded, am I right? Your flirting techniques must be terrible.”

Inaho blinks, his head feels as if stuffed with cotton. “Though it is true that the...position in which we are lying is commonly used by lovers, I wasn’t attempting to…flirt with you.”

Slaine groans. “That’s not what I— Oh, forget about it! How can you ever be so…lacking common sense?! Why would you ever flirt with me, I was being ironic!”

Why? “…Because your hair smells nice.”

Slaine voice is high-pitched. “E-Excuse me?!”

Inaho almost smiles into said sweet-scented hair. He can be so easily flustered. “Your eyes…they remind me of oceans, and I enjoy your smile. Do you…prefer this as a flirting method?”

Slaine freezes in place. “A-Are you being ironic right now?”

“I am telling the truth.” Inaho’s eye indicates that Slaine’s face has a higher temperature than the rest of his body. He must be blushing terribly. But…why am I enjoying this?

“Kaizuka! Whatever is wrong with you?!”

 Slaine’s voice is loud, piercing through his sleepy thoughts and Inaho’s body jerks, he is now completely awake and lucid, his mind clear. What did I just say, in that state of drowsiness? I was half asleep. Why is Slaine blushing to such a degree? He is feverish, is his face flushed due to the fever? Apparently Inaho will never recall his words, as Slaine has entered his bantering mode once again.

“You ruined my plans. You damaged my Tharsis. You had an entire planet available for landing your ridiculously colored Kat, and you managed to land us here, on this…this frozen, hostile place. You took off my clothes, made me sleep with you, and on top of that, you keep making…idiotic a-and… unnecessary comments about my…my eyes, of all things!”

His eyes? What did I say, to make him so flustered? “It was a medical emergency. I had no other choice. As for my comments, I believe that they are… helpful.”

“Helpful? Well, you won’t succeed in confusing me with…cheap compliments, if that was your insane plan.”

Compliments? Inaho blinks and stays silent, trying to recall the last minutes. His engine is too stressed to be helpful.

When Slaine speaks, his voice is sad. “I know…that you saved my life.” A pause. “I never expected saying these words to you, but some part of me follows the Orbital Knight’s ideas about nobility, even if the Martians themselves do not pursue them… So…T-Thank you. For saving my life.”

Inaho forgets his curiosity about his earlier words, as Slaine is now being unexpectedly honest with him. I wish you could thank Kaizuka, too…but you will not thank me anymore, after I find a way to ensure your descend from your position as a Count. This war has to stop.

“Why are you waging this war? Is it truly for her Highness’ sake?”

Slaine does not answer directly, and this bewilders Inaho. He does not know if the fault lies in Slaine’s tiredness and slight feverish state, but Slaine soon starts a long monologue about Mars’ political situation, and Inaho finds himself listening with great attention. Slaine explains about the social system: the servants, the commoners and the Orbital Knights. He explains how Vers’ people live, he explains that especially in the lower classes, the powerless and impoverished citizens are forced to survive by eating processed shrimps and moss. He explains the vast differences between the poor and the rich. His voice has a magnetic undertone, and Inaho feels drawn into it as Slaine describes the changes that need to be made, in order to turn Vers into his version of a democracy, ensuring that Aldnoah is not controlled by the powerful. It is then that Slaine talks about conquering Earth, and Inaho understands that Slaine’s intentions might be ‘noble’, but the means he will use to achieve his desires won’t be noble at all.

Slaine stops talking, and neither says anything for a few minutes. Slaine asks then,

“I am curious. Does it take effort to keep that impassive tone in your voice? And your expression, too. Is this another trick in order to outsmart me?”

Inaho feels a bit strange, having a conversation in the dark, his mouth moving over Slaine’s soft hair when answering. It tickles his lips a little bit. “A lot of people have remarked on that. But—“

“Wait, I know. I realized during these endless hours in this frozen nightmare. When something bothers you, for example, you have this distant look…like being lost. I guess people close to you can read you pretty easily, since you haven’t learned to fake an emotion when you’re feeling it.”

Do you fake or suppress your emotions, Slaine? “My sister claims she can ‘read’ me.”

“Hmm. Then I guess I’ll have to learn how to read you properly, too. Then you won’t be able to hide behind that empty mask.”

“We’ll see about that.”

“Really? Well, you thought I was incapable of programming a simple transmission route… but you surely did admit to yourself that my coding was impressive.”

“I thought that it was adequate. Even good. But not exceptional.”

“W-what?”

“I could improve it in at least two places.” Inaho proceeds to explain and Slaine, to his surprise, listens to him.

The next few hours are filled with discussions about technical issues, and then both of them proceed to compare their programming skills in an antagonistic manner. Inaho knows that Slaine is still running a slight fever which definitely makes him more talkative, but he hopes that ‘Harklight’ will arrive before Slaine’s health deteriorates.

#

They have exhausted another conversation topic about Kataphrakts, and silence descends in their dark shelter.  

Until Slaine asks with a soft voice, “Your eye…I did this to you, right?”

Inaho hesitates. “I had a bio-device implanted…this is causing all the issues.”

Slaine does not add anything more so Inaho asks, “Why did you assist Saazbaum?”

Slaine’s body once again tenses up. His hair brushes Inaho’s nose as he moves his head.

“He told me that you were…extremely loyal to your Princess’ wish for peace.”

Slaine’s deep inhale breaks the stillness. Inaho wishes he could see Slaine’s expression. “H-how? When did you… You did not kill him?!” Slaine jerks his head back in surprise, and Inaho is thankful for his quick reflexes, because his nose is fortunately still intact. “Is…is Count Saazbaum…He is alive…Did, did you speak with him?!”

Inaho’s eye discerns a hidden relief under Slaine’s obvious surprise. Inaho does not mind revealing this. It is in Slaine’s favor that Saazbaum remains with the UFE forces. “I did. But he did not reveal much. He will be trialed for treason and his war crimes when this war ends.”

Nothing.

“Slaine?”

“Why are you deliberately exposing such information?! You know I tried to…to kill him…because what he did is unforgivable!!”

“But you did not kill him. You also had a chance, but hesitated.”

“That’s only because you meddled once again with my plans and managed to…upset me! It was no hesitation!”

“It was. My eye—”

Slaine groans. “Stop praising your bird-brained eye, I understand I cannot lie to you!” He sighs. “I hesitated. Maybe I’m not his murderer, I’m a traitor, but I still would not have it any other way…”

“Saazbaum will pay for his crimes.” Inaho will not transfer Saazbaum’s concern about Slaine. “It is clear how much you hate him. So why did you leave Count Cruhteo to serve under his command? He would not tell me.”

 Slaine does not respond immediately. It seems that his exhaustion and fever have made him vulnerable, because (according to his eye) Slaine answers Inaho’s question without a hint of untruth. “…I really wanted to protect her Highness. And…Count Saazbaum took care of me, after Count Cruhteo…” Slaine stops. “A-after Count Cruhteo was killed.”

“I see.” Inaho’s engine detects something unusual. When he mentioned Cruhteo’s name…his voice…he was thinking about something extremely unpleasant.

“If that’s all you wanted, I-I’ll try to sleep, now. G-goodnight.”

Inaho whispers it back, and his mind doesn’t even register Slaine’s feverish and polite ‘goodnight’ because the revelation comes, completely unexpected. Inaho’s mind floods with memories.

“Slaine’s…questioning was strictly confidential, Cruhteo made sure of that…and it occurred before Slaine shot you and you started using that…cursed machine!”

“As if…I’ve had worse before!”

“… Count Saazbaum took care of me, after Count Cruhteo…”

Slaine once selflessly defended Asseylum and her wish for peace. He disregarded his wellbeing.

The cost always stayed with him.

The cost. The scars.

Slaine was not ‘questioned’, he was interrogated; more precisely tortured. Cruhteo must have tortured him, gave him the scars, while Slaine defended Asseylum. Hence Saazbaum’s sadness and Slaine’s intense emotions. Kaizuka too. He knew about the scars and the torture.

Did you want me to find out by myself, Kaizuka?

Inaho is sure about one thing; Slaine should be loyal to Asseylum. He defended her, despite the…pain. He is clearly suffering from the torture’s…aftermath.

Furthermore, Kaizuka never had actual contact with Slaine as far as his text describes, and in Kaizuka’s timeline both Cruhteo and Saazbaum, who were aware of the torture, are dead. It must be that after the older Slaine’s imprisonment, Kaizuka either discovered information about the scars and the torture, or the Slaine in his timeline informed him about them...

The present is not very different, Inaho concludes. Nobody knows and nobody will ever know about Slaine’s torture. Slaine will surely keep silent about the scars, Saazbaum too.

Inaho feels…sad. He has no detailed memories of the scars but from what he has seen, Slaine’s pain must have been excruciating. In the future, Slaine will be blamed for Seylum’s assassination attempt, despite having defended her is such a courageous way. Inaho can now understand part of Kaizuka’s emotions. Still, why do I have the impression that there is more hiding behind Kaizuka’s words?

Inaho decides not to dwell on thoughts about Slaine’s torture and Kaizuka’s secrets until after they are rescued. As interesting as they are, they won’t help us survive.

Inaho can’t help but recall Slaine’s vulnerable position, yesterday, after Inaho took his shirt off him. That feeling in his chest intensifies, and Inaho decides that he can only sleep through it.

#

They sleep, or wake up, or sleep again, barely talking and exhausted from hunger and cold. Inaho refuses to believe that the possibilities of them dying are increasing as each hour goes by. Inaho’s mind is numb and his thoughts are sluggish, his only comfort is repeating to himself the reasons that prevented him from contacting Deucalion, convincing himself that he has no other choice but to follow Slaine on Mars. He is risking a possible interrogation by the Martians, but Slaine’s pendant is resting in his pocket. It will be the trigger for the recovery of Seylum’s memories, after she wakes up… and Slaine definitely wishes for his Princess’ awakening.

#

 “O-Orange?”

Inaho wakes up. He can hear Slaine whispering his nickname many times with a hoarse voice. His mind tired, his eye is throbbing with pain. He realizes that it’s probably from his extreme hunger and his almost lethargic sleep. He has, for another time, managed to hold Slaine close to him with an arm over his waist. He wonders if it’s because of the cold, or his...newfound compassion. And it is cold. Very cold. It seems that the heat system already gave away. Despite being under the blanket, Inaho can feel the sudden change in temperature on his face. Unconsciously, he tightens his grip on Slaine, bringing their bodies even closer.

Slaine either tolerates it or ignores it, as he does not comment on it.

“Yes?”

“H-How much time has passed?”

Inaho’s eye is not functioning well due to his brain being under extreme stress. Inaho speaks the words both want to hear. “…Harklight should have arrived by now. Maybe in the next hour.”

There is a sound of distress, almost a whimper, coming from Slaine.

“Slaine?”

Slaine doesn’t answer at first, but it seems that he decides to swallow his pride and whisper, “M-my thigh…”

His brain is already stressed and the use of the analytical engine will deteriorate its state, but Inaho tries to overcome the throbbing pain and estimate Slaine’s temperature.

“You have a high fever. It is possible that your wound is developing an infection… Did this occur during your walk towards the Tharsis? Or did I rupture your stitches when I tripped you earlier?” Inaho’s chest feels tight, all of a sudden. “Slaine? Can you hear me?” Inaho’s logic is telling him that the guilt he is experiencing right now is an unnecessary reaction, but Inaho cannot help but let it affect him.

“I don’t know…”

Inaho manages to stay calm. Slaine is now trembling, and Inaho can feel the numerous tremors even through the barrier of clothes between their skins, on his limbs and especially his palm, which continues to rest on Slaine’s clothed stomach. He can feel it moving under his fingers, in sync with Slaine’s short breaths. “Slaine, can you feel your leg?”

“Mmm. H-hurts.”

After these words Inaho is starting to feel anxious, considering the tolerance Slaine has previously displayed. He must be in a lot of pain. “Harklight will be here soon. You have to hold on until then.”

Slaine snorts. “Well done…for stating the obvious.” Slaine chuckles bitterly, and then his tired voice echoes in the dark cockpit. “It’s so ironic… I was born during a blizzard, I’ve been told. My birthplace might’ve even been somewhere near our current location...I loved snow, as a child...” Slaine’s breaths are short and hurried. “I’ve fought for my life many times before…on Earth and Mars…as a Count and as a servant… But I never expected being in such a situation, stuck here with you, wounded and so…so tired… I never expected seeing the snow again like this…” Slaine lets out a pained whimper. “It’s been so many years since I last saw this endless white land...”

Inaho unconsciously presses his body closer, and notices that the sweet scent of Slaine’s hair has faded away a bit. Is his fever making him that talkative? Or maybe it’s tiredness, too? Either way, Slaine might be distracting himself from his pain by talking. Inaho chooses to encourage him. He would like to ask about Slaine’s scars or the shooting, since Slaine’s defenses are down; but Inaho decides that he will surely find a chance to gain the answers he is seeking, later.

Slaine is still trembling. Inaho tightens his grip on him even more, now slithering his free hand between their closely pressed bodies and resting his palm between Slaine’s shoulder blades. Tell me more.

Slaine probably does not register Inaho’s action, he continues undisturbed, “I watched the Northern Lights, many times. My father used to tell me stories about the Aurora, but I forgot…”

A loud banging noise startles them both, someone is desperately hammering on the cockpit lid. They are alert.

Inaho slips a hand out of the blanket and manages to push the button for the lid to open. He is too tired to think about any possible consequences, he only hopes that however steps inside doesn’t have hostile intentions. From their lying position, the cockpit’s entrance is visible.

“Milord Slaine!”

Inaho tries not to shudder from the icy wind that breaks in. He observes the approaching man over Slaine’s shoulder. This must be Harklight. The man recognizes Inaho and his eyes widen, taking in their close position under the blanket. “You…! What are you doing?! Unhand milord at once!”

“…Mr. Harklight!” Slaine’s voice is weak, but hides a tone of command. “I am under this blanket out of my own free will. Do not shoot him.”

Harklight slowly lowers his gun. His eye does not function well, but Inaho understands that the man is doing his best in order to school his expression into something other than extreme bewilderment.

“Milord Slaine! Your disappearance worried me, and I am extremely grateful to have found you again…but it seems that I cannot grasp the situation. Kaizuka Inaho is our enemy, but you are…”

Inaho proceeds to explain. “Both of our Kataphrakts are unusable. We found ourselves in extreme temperatures near the Arctic Circle, so we required help and contacted you. In order to constantly produce and maintain the necessary heat for our survival, we slept together a few times. Considering the state of our relationship, it turned out to be something tolerable.”

Harklight freezes on spot, eyes widening; Slaine’s body jerks in surprise next to his. Inaho tilts his head backwards so that Slaine’s hair doesn’t come into contact with his nose. His eye hurts from registering the rise of Slaine’s face temperature. “Slaine, you should try not to blush. Your temperature has risen even more, I can feel it even where my hand rests—“

“Kaizuka Inaho! Don’t utter another word!”

Harklight clears his throat. “Milord Slaine, your message was not very detailed, but I was under the impression that you were in danger, and not being…intimate with your…with your…?” Harklight’s voice wavers, Inaho’s eye indicates that he is blushing too, if only slightly.

Slaine sighs. “Kaizuka… Are you doing this on purpose? Never mind, I do not wish to know.” Slaine shifts a bit under the blanket, still trembling. “Kaizuka is not my lover, Mr. Harklight.” Slaine spits the word out as if it is poisonous.

“I understand that he works for the enemy, milord. Should—should I refer to him then as your…partner?”

“M-My…partner…?” Slaine stammers, his body completely still next to Inaho’s.

Apparently this is enough of a confirmation for Harklight. “You disappeared so suddenly, but now I can understand why. It is an unsafe plan, milord. Meeting in secret with your partner, because he works for the enemy side…” Harklight smiles. “If I may?”

Slaine stays silent, so Harklight proceeds, still smiling,

“It may be a clandestine relationship but I am really glad for you, milord, having found a special someone! However, there must have been less dangerous rendezvous spots than the Arctic, milord Slaine. Please consider your safety and inform me beforehand, next time. If milord wishes, I can investigate and then present you with romantic destinations on both Earth and Vers, which will allow you to keep your privacy…”

Inaho never suspected that a person’s facial temperature could reach such degrees. He lifts his eyebrows. Slaine’s face must be boiling, but his voice is quiet when he addresses Harklight. “Mr. Harklight, this is a...a huge misunderstanding… Kaizuka meant that we decided to share body heat in order to survive. We were not being physically intimate under that blanket. And we are definitely not in a romantic relationship…!”

Harklight straightens his posture, mortified. “O-Of course, milord! I misunderstood, I apologize!”

“It is Kaizuka’s fault, Mr. Harklight, please don’t be upset—“

Slaine was frantically shaking his head as he was talking, so Inaho sneezes directly next to his ear, loudly. Good... Now he will totally lose his composure. As Inaho predicted, Slaine moans in frustration. “I can’t-I can’t believe this! Kaizuka! Get away from me right this instant!!” Inaho withdraws his hands from Slaine’s waist, extracts himself from the blanket and gets up, Harklight pointing his gun at him with a wary expression.

Slaine lets the blanket drop and tries to stand on his feet. He lets out a pained moan, and Inaho swiftly catches him before he falls, pulling Slaine’s arm over his shoulders. Despite his annoyance Slaine doesn’t complain, just tightens his grip on Inaho.

“He needs immediate medical attention.”

Harklight’s confused features quickly harden and he copies Inaho’s movements. Slaine does his best in order to stay upright between them. It is cold, so their movements are rushed as they help Slaine out of the Sleipnir’s cockpit.

#

During their descend from his Sleipnir, Inaho’s body is moving mechanically and extremely slowly. The only thing that keeps him upright on the lift and then forces him forward is the thought of a warm place where he will eat something warm, preferably an omelet, and then sleep for an indefinite period of time. His head is pounding from the stress and cold.

Inaho observes that the sky is dark and the snowstorm has subsided, revealing a seemingly endless, white and frozen piece of land. Harklight’s spacecraft is visible, just a few steps ahead. It seems that Slaine warned him not to bring his Kataphrakt, as Harklight would’ve notified the rest of the Martians otherwise.

They three of them proceed forward. Inaho is aware that Harklight is supporting most of Slaine’s weight, while he just robotically walks next to Slaine, dragging his feet through the snow and trying not to pass out from exhaustion and hunger. The corners of his vision are darkening when he hears,

“Wait…!” Slaine stops on his tracks, his voice is very weak but full of authority.

“Milord? Just a few more steps, we can—“

Inaho turns his head to face Slaine. The blond Count is looking at the sky, a content smile stretching his lips. Inaho looks up and then perceives the brilliant green curtains that seem to hang from the dark skies... His tired mind comes up with the term: Aurora Borealis… Inaho recalls Slaine’s words about his childhood, as he observes the radiant green shades that are crossing the skies and lighting them up with an eerie glow, slowly undulating over their heads. A weary thought rises in Inaho’s mind; the color resembles Slaine’s eyes at certain places. It’s a nice color…

Slaine’s voice is hoarse, “A-After so many years…from Earth… Beautiful…”

It is the last thing Inaho hears before his body hits the frozen ground and everything turns black.

#

He wakes up to find himself in his torn underwear, under a warm blanket and with Slaine’s bright eyes staring at him from where the blond Count is lying, tucked in the lowest bunk bed on the opposite wall. They must be inside Harklight’s spacecraft.

His mouth is dry when he tries to talk. “…Slaine?” Inaho could stretch an arm and touch him, their beds are very close.

 Slaine blinks, his eyes are red and have dark circles underneath. He is not that pale, however. “I am fine…Mr. Harklight took care of my wound. You?”

His eyelids are heavy. “Just tired. My Sleipnir?”

“Mr. Harklight is currently assessing the damages on both of our Kats…” Slaine yawns. “Finally, warmth…”

Inaho yawns, too. He feels drenched and boneless. “Finally…”

Slaine smiles sleepily. “Give me a warning before you collapse, next time.”

Inaho feels the corner of his mouth barely rising. “Don’t make me collapse in the first place, then.”

Slaine snorts.

“Slaine.”

“Yes?”

“Do you know the scientific explanation behind the aurora? It is an electro-static phenomenon that occurs when—”

“Wait!” Slaine’s eyes widen a bit. “Speak slower… I never had the chance to read about it…”

So Inaho begins explaining about the solar wind and particles and the earth’s atmosphere, until he hears a soft snore and realizes that Slaine has fallen asleep. There are at least twenty issues Inaho must analyze now, but he chooses to close his eyes instead. The warmth is wonderful and soon a peaceful sleep claims him, too.

Chapter Text

Two months have gone by, and Slaine is not who he once was. He might still be ironic and easily annoyed when talking to Inaho, but Inaho is now witnessing another side of the ex-Count, when the latter is talking to Yuki or the guards, when he is playing with Rayleigh, when he is humming softly to himself while taking care of his roses. That Slaine has a gentle smile, he is patient and polite, and sometimes he might laugh a bit, too. Inaho cannot help much with the garden anymore as he needs more time for investigating the photograph, now spending half his day by his laptop. He misses the quiet moments under the sun, Slaine’s presence near him, but it can’t be helped: Slaine’s security is Inaho’s first priority, now.

They still play a game of chess each afternoon. Slaine sometimes excitedly shouts ‘Check!’, but this doesn’t concern Inaho much. An emotion similar to excitement blooms in his chest each time Slaine executes a successful sacrifice or a complex strategy. Inaho knows that he will have to fulfill his promise and tell Slaine the reason he keeps visiting him, the day Slaine shouts ‘Checkmate!’. The blond now threatens him before each game that this is ‘the day you will give up your secrets, Orange!’, but Inaho estimates that his own strategic abilities will buy him a month or two, before he is finally defeated—enough time to come up with a believable excuse.

#

One morning, Yuki is away at work and Inaho is sitting in the living room, trying to crack a security code related to Count Aalto. A cry of distress is heard from the garden.

Slaine.

Inaho immediately puts his laptop aside. He runs through garden paths bordered by tall and blooming rose bushes, following Slaine’s upset voice. He arrives at a corner of the garden, only to find Slaine speaking to Rayleigh with a stern voice, the guards observing him carefully in the distance. They salute Inaho and he dismisses them, as usual. Slaine is still half-heartedly scolding the cat. Rayleigh’s caramel and white fur is now a deep brown, he was probably playing in the mud or the fertilizer that Slaine uses for his roses.

Slaine lifts his head as he notices Inaho, now holding the cat in his arms. As usual, the sun makes Slaine’s irises big and radiant. “I must bathe him.”

“I can do it. I have already acquired some experience about the procedure, so the risk of an accident will be low.”

Slaine shakes his head, a smooth laugh escapes him and Inaho wants to commit the sound to memory. “It’s just a bath, Inaho. I’ll make sure he survives it, you shouldn’t worry.”

“Then you should prepare the bathroom first —“

“Relax, will you?” Slaine interrupts him, just a bit annoyed. “He’ll be fine.”

 “I am more concerned about you.”

At this, Slaine gifts Inaho with a half-amused, half-ironic chuckle. “I have fought against huge, armed Kataphrakts before. I can surely handle one angry cat, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”

Without another word, Slaine carries Rayleigh into the house and closes the bathroom door on Inaho’s face.

#

That afternoon, Inaho is cooking dinner while Slaine is sitting on the couch in the living room, watching a movie with the cat on his lap. Yuki soon joins him, and Inaho overhears as they start praising Rayleigh – the cat is probably extremely annoyed from his bath, but Inaho must admit that Slaine handled the matter skillfully. Rayleigh didn’t even scratch Slaine during the bath, a feat Inaho hasn’t managed until now.

Inaho knows that it is absolutely ridiculous, wishing to be in the cat’s place, but Slaine’s relationship with the cat has improved very much; they are almost inseparable. Rayleigh spends most of his time rubbing his neck at Slaine’s feet or jumping on his lap, seeking Slaine’s affections and strokes, which Slaine immediately bestows on him, always with a faint smile. It is unfortunately an everyday ritual: Slaine will be talking to Inaho about an interesting subject, like a new quantum mechanics theory he was reading about, and Rayleigh will start meowing or tugging with his paw at Slaine’s uniform. Slaine will instantly stop talking and start pampering the cat. Inaho would describe himself as neglected, if he ever had the right to do so.

Normally, Inaho wouldn’t pay much attention to the cat’s praising ritual that Yuki and Slaine seem to share, but that afternoon Inaho stops peeling the potato he holds when he hears Slaine say,

“Ray’s eyes are interesting. The last time I saw a cat was more than ten years ago so I have no comparisons, but that shade of green is a pretty color.”

After a few silent seconds, Yuki’s voice is heard. “Slaine, can you look at me for a bit?”

Slaine probably does, as nothing is heard for a while.

Yuki’s voice, “It’s strange… They are almost similar, yes, it’s almost the same color…”

“Similar? What do you mean, Yuki-san?”

“Ehh—nothing, it’s nothing! I just thought there was something on your face! Tell me, Slaine, has Nao ever explained to you why he chose such a boring name for the cat? He won’t even tell me…!” Yuki’s voice has an annoyed and teasing tone.

“No... One day, I heard him refer to the cat as ‘Rayleigh’, but he might have done it on purpose in order to annoy me.” A pause. “Now that I think about it, he still calls the cat Rayleigh when he thinks I am not near...”

“Ah ̴! Really? Who is Rayleigh?”

Inaho knows that Yuki is smart. Slaine starts a long explanation about the Rayleigh scattering, his younger self explaining it falsely to Asseylum, and then Inaho correcting his mistake, bringing him books about the phenomenon. Slaine explains that when he was in prison, they spent two weeks arguing on the matter. Inaho interprets Yuki’s silence as dangerous—then the oil in his pan catches on fire, Inaho being so absorbed in their conversation that he forgot to turn down the heat. Yuki and Slaine find him fighting the flames with baking soda, coughing from the smoke.

Slaine rushes to help but Yuki lifts her eyebrows, as Inaho never makes mistakes while cooking, being very cautious as usual. Her smile is greedy—she will demand answers to questions Inaho doesn’t feel the need to answer.

She knows.

#

A few days after the incident, Yuki approaches Inaho in the living room. Slaine is outside, taking care of his roses. She sits down next to Inaho on the couch, and Inaho puts his tablet away, forgetting all discounts for now.

“So, no chances of marrying into a rich family, huh…”

“Yuki-nee?”

“I’ve seen the way you look at him, Nao.” Inaho’s expression is blank but Yuki giggles, “Your love-struck expression is so cute~ ”

Should I tell her the truth? No, not yet. Not with Slaine still residing with us. “Yuki-nee. This is not the time for such a discussion.”

 Yuki’s expression is now serious. “Inaho. You are my precious little brother. I’m always taking care of you—“

“Technically, it is the opposite. You left today’s dishes unwashed in the sink again, for example.”

Yuki puckers her mouth in annoyance. “That’s not what I’m talking about! I have eyes, you know. He makes you happy. Ah-ah, don’t try to deny that! Sometimes, you are watching him and you are smiling. It’s faint, but it’s there. Smiling, Inaho. The last time you had such an expression on your face was when you used to spend time with her Majesty! But now… it is much, much more intense! Your whole face is shining with happiness!”

“Keep your voice down, Yuki.”

“Naaao?” Yuki stretches the word out. “Are you shy?”

“Yuki, you have to understand that Slaine Troyard was recently in solitary confinement. He was placed under my care. He resents me, he is still not mentally stable, he was abused for a large part of his life, he will be facing imminent danger when he returns to prison—“

“You are worried about him.”

“Of course I am. He is under my custody, after all.”

“Agh, Inaho, don’t be so stubborn!”

“I am not.”

Yuki ignores him. Her eyes soften, she smiles. “Inaho, I am proud of you. It will be difficult, very difficult…but remember that you’ll always have my support, no matter what. I don’t know how Slaine managed to bring himself in such a situation, imprisoned and everything, but he is a kind person, deep inside. I approve of him. You deserve this. I have never seen you that happy before! And I’ve been taking care of you since you were a baby...” Her dreamy smile is suddenly replaced by a frown. “If he ever hurts you, however…”

“Yuki—“

“Ah! Look at the time! I must meet a friend… Bye!”

After Yuki’s escape Inaho is left standing in the kitchen, wondering if his emotions are truly that transparent. A part of him, however, feels very pleased for Yuki’s support. He decides to ignore today’s conversation and proceeds to place cat food into Rayleigh’s bowl. Inaho watches the cat while he is eating, lost in his thoughts…until Slaine barges into the kitchen, demanding another chess match. Inaho wins as always, but Slaine doesn’t seem annoyed, not anymore. Instead, he announces that he wants to watch a movie; so Inaho just nods and then indulges in two hours of perfect contentment.

#

Yuki does not mention his feelings again, which is unusual for her.

One day, Inaho is searching for screen cleaning wipes for his tablet. He decides to take a look inside his nightstand’s drawer and finds various strawberry-flavored condoms and similar products inside. He closes the drawer calmly but his first question is, Why strawberries?

He gets his answer one morning at breakfast, when Yuki serves Slaine a bowl full of the particular red fruit. Inaho watches Slaine as the latter bites into a large strawberry, he observes how the juice paints Slaine’s lips, making them even redder than usual, and with a tug at his heart, Inaho can’t help but imagine how kissing Slaine would feel right now, probably sweet and cool. The strawberries just came out of the fridge, so it is logical to assume that his lips would be colder than mine… Inaho averts his gaze, and then notices that Yuki is looking at him with a self-satisfied expression.

Yuki sits opposite Slaine. “Should I buy more strawberries, Slaine?”

Slaine’s face brightens up. “Please, Yuki-san. Thank you for remembering our discussion about the fruits I like. I haven’t eaten strawberries since I was a child. I really enjoy the taste.”

Yuki winks at Inaho. It is then that Inaho remembers the products in his drawer…he can now feel a rush of heat spreading from his face to the rest of his body, as his mind makes the connection and starts inventing other uses for Slaine’s love of strawberries.

“Delicious…” Slaine slowly licks the juice from his lips and turns to face him, eyes wide, “Why is your face red?”

Inaho quickly gets up, announcing he has work to do on his laptop.

Judging by her expression, Yuki is very pleased by his reaction.

“What’s the matter with him?”

Inaho is out of the kitchen by now, but he hears Yuki answer, “Mmm… You have to ask Inaho!” Her voice is serious then, “I apologize for this, Slaine.”

Inaho does not hear Slaine’s answer, as he hurries upstairs.

Fortunately, Yuki’s schemes end at this. Slaine, unsurprisingly, never mentions the incident again.

#

It is a humid afternoon. Slaine is sitting in the living room on one end of the couch, reading the book Inaho bought for him almost a year ago, about the little prince who falls on Earth from his planet. Slaine found the book again on Inaho’s bookshelves and read it at least five times since he was transferred to Inaho’s house. Inwardly, Inaho is pleased about this.

Inaho is working on his laptop, sitting on the other end of the couch. Using illegal methods, he managed to discover recently that the photograph was indeed not the work of any journalist. He hasn’t slept all night, as few hours ago he discovered that the mysterious photographer and the guard that was near Slaine’s attempt- more than two years ago- were the same person. Inaho tried to discover more about the man, but he then found an article dated just a month ago, where a ‘terrible accident cost a man his life’. There was a car crash, but the car exploded before any help could come— therefore destroying any evidence. Inaho had to hack into several government websites and steal DNA files in order to be 100% certain that this man was indeed the missing guard.

It is clear that people in high positions are behind this. I will have to be very careful after Slaine’s return to the prison. I must discover more evidence about—

 “Are you listening?”

“No. What were you saying, Slaine?”

Slaine is still holding the old book in front of him, but his green irises are focused on Inaho. “What time do you get up in the morning?”

“6:00.”

“Even in the weekends.”

“Yes. I must cook breakfast, order our groceries, feed Ray—“

“Okay, I understand, you have an obsession with doing everything systematically, following your…schedule.” Slaine lowers his head, apparently not waiting for an answer, and continues reading his book.

Inaho’s eye is burning from the continuous use of his laptop and the lack of sleep, so he puts it away. Slaine’s question however reminds him that they are short of lemons. Inaho grabs his tablet, unlocks it and then notices a wonderful thing: lemons are on sale.

 “As I said, the Little Prince—Are you even listening to me?!”

“I was distracted. What did you say?”

 Slaine exhales in annoyance. “What are you doing, glued on your tablet as if the world depends on it?”

“Lemons are on sale.”

“Come again?”

It is a good offer. “With their current price, I might be able to produce double the amount of lemonade with the same cost as usual.”

“Give it here.” Slaine grabs his tablet and throws it on the couch between them. “I need your attention when speaking. Otherwise, conversation doesn’t make sense.”

Inaho feels a bit…annoyed. “Slaine, this is important. The lemons—“

“First eggs, now lemons! And for almost two and a half years, you keep pestering me and trying to get me to talk. But when I’m willing to, you prefer to hunt for discounts!”

“I did not ignore you, I was listening.”

All of a sudden, Rayleigh jumps on the couch. Slaine picks Rayleigh up and places him on his lap, stopping the conversation as he strokes the cat’s neck. Inaho sighs. However, the cat purrs in delight and the ghost of a smile stretches Slaine’s lips. His expression is tender. Inaho wishes he still had his eye, so he could later recall the picture, as clear as a photograph.

Slaine keeps pampering the cat. “Really, now? What was I talking about?”

Chances are high that he was talking about his book. He usually does that, in similar settings. “The book you are currently reading.” Inaho hopes Slaine doesn’t ask more questions, as he will not be able to answer them. He was really not paying attention. It seems that his guess was correct, as Slaine sighs.

“Honestly, why such an obsession with eggs and lemons?” Slaine places the cat on top of Inaho’s tablet, between them.

Inaho quickly repositions Rayleigh, placing him on the floor. “I enjoy eating eggs and you—and I also enjoy drinking lemonade.”

Slaine drops Inaho’s tablet on the floor near the cat, but Rayleigh goes away. Inaho is glad.

“So that's why there are always two large bottles in the fridge? It’s homemade, too.” 

“Yes, I discovered the particular recipe after two hours of searching. You are welcome to drink too.”

“I already do so.”

I know. “That's good.”

“I never expected of you to know how to…prepare stuff like that.”

“I can show you.”

“Really?”

“If you wish. Knowing your past as a servant, I thought that you would already have acquired some cooking skills.”

Slaine shakes his head in denial. “In Mars, the servants and the lower classes eat processed krill and moss, and the Counts… their food can barely be compared to Earth’s food. As for your house, every meal is…” Inaho can see how Slaine tries to force the words out, his cheeks flushing a bit. “It’s delicious…” Slaine picks up speed. “E-Except from your carrots and broccoli, actually! I never enjoyed those!”

“Perhaps we can search for recipes that use the foods you dislike in a different way. We can prepare carrot juice, for example. Among other nutrition facts, carrots contain vitamin A, which is essential to your retinas for the maintenance of good vision.”

Slaine stays silent for a bit. “That’s interesting. But I would prefer—Never mind.”

“No, tell me.”

“I haven’t eaten pastries since I was a child...”

“Pastries are not very healthy. Even so, do you have anything particular in mind?”

“I don’t recall the name, b-but it has strawberries on top…” Slaine averts his gaze.

Strawberries. Of course. Inaho suppresses memories and his imagination, “You have permission to use my tablet. Find me a picture and we can begin.”

It turns out that Slaine’s favorite dessert is a very popular one, so Inaho has no problem finding a decent recipe. They spend the next hours baking, Inaho instructing Slaine.

Later, Slaine’s expression is filled with bliss as he takes his first bite into the freshly baked strawberry cheesecake.

Inaho thinks that he can gladly do this every day. They bake a lot, after that day. Yuki complains that they will all get fat, but Inaho is very pleased to see Slaine eating happily and gaining a bit of weight, the times he used to refuse his meals now long forgotten.

#

During one of their ‘baking sessions’, Inaho is trying to reach the flour. It seems that Slaine placed it on a higher self than usual. Inaho is standing on his tip-toes, but to no avail. Suddenly, Slaine comes behind him, obviously in an attempt to help him. The sudden warmth and the brush of Slaine’s body against his startles Inaho; his body jerks, causing Slaine to drop the package of flour on Inaho’s head, and it tears.

He coughs due to the sudden assault of the white powder, his hair and shirt now covered in flour—he isn’t wearing his apron. Inaho turns and faces a surprised Slaine, who takes a few cautious steps backwards, starring at Inaho with wide eyes and an interesting expression.

It is obvious that Slaine tries to swallow a laugh as he says, “Ah, w-we have to clean this up. You probably inhaled some of it. Water?”

Inaho nods, then proceeds to take his shirt off. I can’t walk around the house like this, the time I spent cleaning the floors in the weekend will go to waste. So he removes his shirt and threads his clean fingers through his hair in an attempt to remove some of the flour. The sound of breaking glass startles him.

Inaho turns around. Slaine is looking at his feet, which are now surrounded by glass shards. It seems that Slaine is blushing because he dropped the glass. “Slaine?”

Slaine doesn’t meet his gaze. “I’ll clean this up. Just go! A-and put on a shirt or something!”

“Don’t step on the glass shards. Be careful.”

Inaho has now reached the living room, expecting an annoyed answer, but it never comes. Slaine’s behavior is atypical, but Inaho does not linger on it.

After Inaho cleans himself, he returns to a clean kitchen. They continue baking as if nothing happened. Slaine’s blush hasn’t subsided much. It confuses Inaho. After all, it was just a plain glass.

#

Time quickly passes by. Three weeks before Slaine’s return to the prison, Inaho observes something new: Slaine will usually sit outside on the porch after dinner, alone. Inaho’s curiosity takes over, so he approaches Slaine’s sitting figure, one night. He silently sits next to Slaine, close to him. As always, Slaine being so close deepens Inaho’s breathing and affects his heartbeats.

Slaine doesn’t seem to mind the proximity, as he answers Inaho’s unasked question. “Count Cruhteo’s Landing Castle had an area with… How can I describe it… It was like a glass floor. One could see a multitude of stars, and the Earth of course, from up there. I used to spend many hours just gazing through the glass, usually after Count Cruhteo’s—never mind.”

Inaho knows of the violence that hides behind the unspoken words, but he stays silent. He looks up and perceives the thousands of stars spread across the dark sky. It is a view he is accustomed to.

“Slaine, you will go back in nineteen days. You can take anything you want with you, certain books you enjoyed perhaps, or your paper plane.”

Slaine shakes his head in denial. “No.”

Inaho turns to face Slaine, his expression inquiring. “Why not?”

Slaine’s eyes are dull. He speaks reluctantly. “They might get destroyed.” A pause. “…During cell inspections.” Slaine grabs his pendant through his shirt, a nervous gesture.

Inaho recalls his very first visits, before he got permission to run outside with Slaine. He never suspected that the guards were abusive then, as Slaine did his very best to hide any proofs of violence against him, either because of his pride or his reluctance to trust anyone. Does this mean that I have gained part of your trust, now? “Slaine, I will dismiss anyone who dares—“

“I know. Stop talking now and pay attention to the sky, in case- in case a meteorite falls.

“The probabilities of a meteorite falling right now and falling near us would be minimal. I suppose you mean ‘meteor’. The difference between meteor and—”

“Orange. I need silence.

Inaho closes his mouth. In the stillness, he can’t move his gaze away from Slaine’s profile. Due to the light over their heads and their proximity, Inaho notices a very faint scar across Slaine’s cheek, partially covered by his pale hair. Inaho wonders about the perpetrator, and his emotions turn dark and fierce.

Suddenly, Slaine breaks his own rules. “You should take care of our—of my roses. If they wither, I swear, I will find a way to make your life miserable, Kaizuka! I will…I will tell Yuki-san to break all your stupid, discounted eggs and make you eat red cabbages for the rest of your life!”

Inaho hangs his head, the lead in his chest growing heavier with each day that brings them closer to Slaine’s appointed return to the prison. “I will do my best, Bat. I give you my word.” And the garden will remind me of your absence.

After minutes of silent stargazing, Inaho notices that Slaine is rubbing his fingers in a strange manner.

“What is the matter?”

“Just a splinter, maybe from the rose bushes. I can’t seem to get it out.”

Inaho convinces Slaine to follow him to the bathroom, where he carefully holds Slaine’s hand in his and proceeds to remove the splinter, using some tools from the first aid kit. Slaine’s hands are cold and smooth. He was sitting outside for too long. At least the gardening did not affect his skin, he keeps wearing the gloves I gave him for his birthday. Inaho notices for the first time how pale Slaine’s skin is, in contrast to his own. Slaine’s hands are slender, graceful.

“O-Orange? Why are you still holding my hand?”

Inaho’s heartbeats increase. “Your hand is cold. According to the second law of thermodynamics, heat flows from an object at a higher temperature to an object at a lower temperature.” Inaho takes hold of Slaine’s other hand, too, making his point valid.

Slaine doesn’t pull away. He arches a golden eyebrow. “Really, now?”

“This is accurate. It is physics, after all.”

 “Yes, I know! B-but you don’t have to warm up my hands!”

Inaho observes with hidden surprise that a deep red has bloomed on Slaine’s cheeks. They stand on the bathroom tiles for a while, Slaine’s brilliant eyes focused on his face. Suddenly, the atmosphere changes. Slaine’s hands feel very warm against his. Inaho’s heart starts pounding and the air feels thick, so he releases Slaine’s hands. Slaine mutters a quick ‘Th-thank you’, and he is quickly gone.

Inaho assumes that Slaine’s blushing is a result of Slaine’s wounded pride, as Inaho took out the splinter for him. It is the only possible explanation.

#

One morning, Slaine calls Inaho out in the garden. Inaho follows Slaine’s voice and finds the ex-Count in an area completely bare of rose bushes. He dismisses the three officers, always standing guard in the distance. The once withered garden is now a blend of white, red, yellow and orange rose blossoms. Slaine left three large spots bare, for reasons Inaho never felt the need to inquire.

Inaho finds a calm and relaxed Slaine standing in the middle of the small clearing, surrounded by his roses. His mind comes up with a spontaneous and a bit illogical thought; the roses suit Slaine, somehow.

Slaine notices Inaho and gets directly to the point. He has something of the Count’s noble posture in him now, a flame in his eyes. “I want to fight you…I mean, wrestle with you. I will not have the chance to practice my martial arts after I go back.”

There are many parameters that can deter Inaho from answering ‘Yes’, but somehow that’s exactly what he says, and he silently accuses Slaine’s blazing eyes for it.

Inaho doesn’t count the time. They get many times into position, and Inaho feels many times Slaine’s solid body close to his, during various holds and restraints that they practice. The proximity doesn’t get to his head, as their behavior is clearly competitive. Slaine never manages to defeat Inaho; but the annoyed groans he lets out every time Inaho throws him on the muddy ground show that Slaine fights for the win.

After a while, Slaine is sitting on the ground, panting heavily, his light blue clothes caked with mud. Inaho is tired too, his chest is burning. He hasn’t practiced with someone else for a very long time, and he is sure that some of his muscles will be sore tomorrow. Slaine is looking at Inaho from where he’s sitting with a restrained annoyance, but then he sniggers softly. “I did damage my body a lot, didn’t I… The year I spent lying in the hospital bed and then refusing my meals…” He frowns and seems lost in dark thoughts, so Inaho says the truth,

“Your constitution has improved significantly during the last year.”

 Slaine is looking at the clear blue sky. “Maybe.” He turns his disapproving gaze on Inaho, scrutinizing him. “You don’t even have a speck of mud on your clothes.”

Inaho shrugs his shoulders, but his eye widens in surprise as Slaine gets up and starts running.

Inaho is alert. He swiftly runs after Slaine, trying to reach him but the ground is slippery, Inaho’s world suddenly tilts to the side; he lands with his rear on the muddy ground, never suspecting that the fall would hurt so.

Slaine appears out the rose bushes then, lips stretched into a half-smile. “Serves you right, Orange.”

Inaho blinks in confusion, he then understands. “Bat. You tricked me into falling down and dirtying my clothes.”

Slaine chuckles. He folds his hands over his chest, his gaze holding Inaho’s. “Obviously! Consider it payback.”

Under the sun, Inaho can see Slaine clearly; Slaine’s expression is relaxed and his eyes are soft, kind. He seems genuinely happy. For some reason, a sound between a chuckle and a laugh escapes Inaho’s mouth.

Slaine freezes on spot, his smile is gone, he is now staring at Inaho with wide eyes. “Was that…? A laugh?”

Inaho gets up, smiling a bit, his expression unguarded. “I am able to laugh like most people. It does not happen often, however.”

Slaine stands open-mouthed, just a few steps away. His cheeks are very red, Inaho notices. Probably from the intense physical activity.

“Slaine?”

Slaine turns his back to him, walking hurriedly towards the house. “I-I need to shower!”

Inaho is left standing alone in the garden, his backside covered in mud. He tries to analyze what just transpired, to no great results.

After his shower, Inaho is sitting opposite Slaine, watching him over the chessboard. Inaho is taking Slaine’s concentrated expression in, and then the way Slaine’s mouth softens and curls into a faint smile when he says, ‘D5 to E6!’ and proceeds to capture Inaho’s white knight. Inaho strongly believes that he will never get tired of this, seeing Slaine happy.

#

Two weeks before Slaine’s return to prison, Inaho’s tablet screen lightens up with a massage. It’s from Asseylum.

After the usual greetings, she explains that she was informed about the incident with the trespassing journalist. (Inaho understands that she, of course, ignores the truth.) Furthermore, the UFE officials that are aware of Slaine’s existence demand that Asseylum gives up whatever rights she has on Slaine, because they fear that the Martian government could somehow use him for its own gain. The UFE’s presence in the council is limited only into two members out of five. Vers always had more authority over Slaine than the UFE, it was firstly agreed so.

The UFE demand that Slaine’s custody is equally divided between UFE and Vers, and that the five members of the board become six. This means that another UFE General will be assigned to Slaine’s case. They also believe that Inaho plays a decorative role, and that he might need assistance should another issue appear. Inaho was not surprised by all of this, as he expected from the UFE to make a move after the leak. If the increased presence of the UFE is good or bad for Slaine, he does not know, at present. What makes his eye widen in surprise however, are the words:

I still haven’t signed the official papers which will allow the board full authority over Slaine, because I want to talk to Slaine about this. The UFE threatens to stop providing supplies to Vers, if I don’t approve of their proposal.

Asseylum wants to talk to Slaine through a secure video call. In prison, such privacy wouldn’t be allowed.

She then adds that she wants to talk to Inaho as she promised three months ago, but she has a week to make her decision, so she will need the time to think over the matter. She will meet with Inaho after she decides if she will sign the paper or not. She knows that Inaho and Slaine are ‘on friendly terms’—the board informed her, of course— and she fears that Inaho’s concern about Slaine will make her change her decision: to completely leave Slaine’s fate into the board’s hands.

After reading all of this, Inaho quickly answers that Slaine’s mental state is still not stable, and such a discussion might affect Slaine—gravely. He expresses his concern about the board and hints that there is more behind the situation than they can imagine, right now. He says that he needs to meet her as soon as possible and discuss important details in private.

Asseylum’s answer is brief: Please.

Inaho knows that Asseylum is risking much, by wanting to keep custody of Slaine. Her people might starve if she can’t handle this well. On the other hand, Inaho is sure that the UFE made their move because of another incident, perhaps connected to the Counts that still occupy Terran territories. Asseylum was unable to make them behave even after three years since the end of the war.

Inaho eventually finds himself with a heavy heart and his tablet in hand, knocking on Slaine’s door. He knows that Asseylum believes she is trying her best, but he worries a lot about Slaine’s reaction. He hands the tablet over to a confused Slaine and watches as Slaine’s features distort when Inaho says, “Her Majesty wants to talk to you.”

#

Inaho does not know what kind of words were exchanged between Asseylum and Slaine, but from that night on, Slaine’s eyes lose some of their vibrancy. Then again, it is not as bad as Inaho predicted: Slaine’s behavior doesn’t change much. Slaine is still conversing with Yuki, the guards, he plays with Rayleigh and takes care of the roses, he is still smiling and laughing…but he is guarded; every time Inaho tries to talk to him, during their baking or chess moments, Slaine’s answers are somewhat reluctant.

Inaho tries three times each day to get into contact with Asseylum, but her maids inform him that she is busy attending meetings with the UFE and Count Vornt. Inaho plans getting into an airplane in order to find Asseylum and talk to her in person about the possible consequences of her decision. Yuki stops him from behaving so, she points out that Inaho agreed with the board on staying near Slaine at all times, and that the board will know and act accordingly, if Inaho doesn’t keep his end of the agreement. Inaho takes his decision, ignoring the consequences: he stays with Slaine.

It is then that Inaho creates a new, encrypted file in his laptop and starts planning possible ways for Slaine to gain his freedom—illegally, but this does not matter anymore, to him.

#

Inaho knows that Slaine was suffering nightmares during his stay, with a frequency of about three times per week. He knocked on Slaine’s door each night a soft cry would wake him up, but Slaine always sent him away. He has observed however that Slaine’s cries got louder and louder each night, in the week after Asseylum’s call. Inaho tried to do research about nightmares and similar problems that might occur to a person in Slaine’s situation, but no site or psychology manual was very helpful.

Ten days before Slaine’s return to the prison, a loud scream wakes Inaho up with a start. In a few seconds Inaho finds himself in Slaine’s room, eyepatch forgotten. Slaine is still lost in his nightmare, shuddering violently and talking in his sleep with a pained voice. The only coherent phrase Inaho understands is, ‘I mustn’t divulge…! I won’t let them…’.

Inaho calls Slaine’s name, loudly. It is a moonless night so Inaho can’t discern Slaine’s features well enough, but he comprehends the moment Slaine wakes up, as the talking stops.

Slaine’s breathing is harsh, resounding in the otherwise quiet room. He sits up. “Go…away.”

From the shadows’ motion, Inaho discerns how badly Slaine is shaking. “You are trembling.”

Slaine’s frantic breathing subsides after a while. Inaho waits until the tremors are slowly gone. He wants to touch Slaine; soothe him.

But he can’t touch, and he was never good at comforting. “This was no falling nightmare.”

“Shut up, Inaho. Why do you even care? Will you face consequences from the board if my mental health collapses? Or do you expect that I’ll start talking to you, just because you are kind to me?!”

“I can see that you are in pain, I don’t expect of you to talk.” The room is dark. Inaho wishes he could see Slaine’s expression.

Slaine’s voice is cold. “Kaizuka Inaho. Get out of here this instant.”

“Alright, Bat. I will go to the kitchen and bring you lemonade.”

A loud exhale. “You are unbelievable...” Then, Slaine’s voice drips venom. “Count Cruhteo’s idea of discipline was beating me up with a cane…daily. And he was not the only one. So, excuse me if I can’t have a decent night’s sleep. Now go away.”

Inaho stops on his tracks, his heartbeats almost painful. He knows who Cruhteo is, he remembers Eddelrittuo’s words. Nevertheless, that doesn’t explain your sleep-talking. Slaine is probably lying about the cause of his nightmare. His mind searches for something appropriate to say but all that comes out is Inaho’s old conclusion, “Asseylum married the son of your abuser.”

Slaine is vulnerable and frank after his nightmares, Inaho concludes, because Slaine laughs sickly and says, “Yes! And before you ask, I was expecting something like that, her giving up on me. She would never have a use for someone like me, she was always so…innocent.” Inaho understands that Slaine picked the word carefully. “You got what you wanted. Now leave me alone!”

“As I said, I did not come here expecting of you to talk. However, I can still bring you lemonade.”

Without waiting for an answer, Inaho mechanically climbs down the stairs, walks through the living room and into the kitchen, pouring some lemonade into a glass. He has no idea if it will be helpful, but he knows for certain that Slaine enjoys the beverage. He returns to Slaine’s room and carefully places the glass on Slaine’s nightstand, as he can barely discern the object in the darkness. As he withdraws his hand, Slaine’s fingers curl around his wrist in a firm grip.

“You are not wearing your eyepatch.”

Inaho’s pulse quickens, and he covers his empty orbit with his free hand in a spontaneous gesture. “I am not.”

“Turn on the light. I have never seen you without the eyepatch.” Slaine tugs at Inaho’s wrist.

Inaho drops his hand. “No.” The answer is automatic, Inaho knows that the possible revulsion on Slaine’s face will surely affect him.

Slaine does not respond immediately. “I understand. The wound…” Slaine stops at this, but Inaho’s mind can fill in several adjectives.

For some reason taking a breath hurts, as if Slaine’s unspoken words physically injured Inaho. “Yes, it is not a pleasant sight. Now, release my wrist.”

“Tch.” Slaine does as Inaho demands, withdrawing his hand. “That’s not what I—never mind. Just leave this room, Inaho. Leave me alone.”

Inaho obliges Slaine’s wish. As he is lying in his bed again however, the pain in his chest hasn’t subsided much.

The next morning, Inaho stands a bit longer in front of the bathroom mirror, starring at his one-eyed reflection. His skin is a bit scared around his eyelid, but he never expected that the dark space where his eye would normally be could ever bother him. He is aware that Slaine is actually responsible for this...discomfort that he is feeling. He shrugs his shoulders and starts brushing his teeth. There are more urgent matters he needs to take care of.

#

The days go by, and the brightness in Slaine’s eyes slowly fades away.

Two days before Slaine’s appointed return to the prison, Inaho understands that Asseylum signed the agreement, and that he made a grave mistake, staying with Slaine and not going to meet her. His emotions clouded his logic.

Inaho receives a confidential message on his tablet from the new head of the board, General Blanchet. He reveals that the official research about the photographer could not be completed due to lack of evidence (Inaho has already predicted that the board would reach such a conclusion) and he underlines that at 7am in two day’s time, a disguised prison convoy will arrive in order to transport Slaine back to prison.

What makes Inaho uneasy, however, is the fact that the board decided to dismiss a large number of the officers that are currently guarding Slaine and replace them with new guards that only the board will hire, all under the pretense that the prison’s security should be tightened. (This means that Inaho must spend days discovering their real identities and checking their pasts, in a way to partially ensure that they won’t have any reasons to harm Slaine.)

Furthermore, Slaine will never be allowed outside again. The surveillance cameras will multiply, and the board has now the right to forbid Inaho from visiting Slaine, if they notice ‘suspicious or inappropriate behavior towards the prisoner.’ After the conversation with Vornt the day of the leak, Inaho is starting to suspect that if he ever touches Slaine again in front of the cameras, it will be reason enough for the board to label it as harassment, therefore resulting into Inaho losing his rights of visiting Slaine.

Inaho decides that he should inform Slaine about what awaits him, even if it means that the blond’s anxiety will increase.

Slaine is reading a poetry book in the living room, that afternoon. Inaho approaches him and informs him only about the guards, the cameras and the hour of his departure. When he mentions that the guards will change, Slaine’s face pales and he takes a deep breath. ‘I expected that. Now go away.’, Slaine says.

#

They are sitting in the kitchen, eating their dinner in silence. It is Slaine’s last night in Inaho’s house. Slaine’s eyes are empty, he is absentmindedly running his fork through his food, having eaten nothing. Inaho recalls that expression and behavior from the first year of Slaine’s imprisonment. That heavy feeling returns, and Inaho wonders if Slaine will have a relapse and return to the state he was almost three years ago, refusing to eat and even wishing for his death: even now, Slaine’s mental health is not very stable.

Slaine eventually stands up, murmuring a quiet ‘Goodnight’, his eyes focused on the floor. He exits the kitchen slowly, probably going to his room.

Yuki stays silent and troubled.

Inaho stands up.

Yuki shakes her head. “No, leave him alone. You should try to sleep. You seem exhausted, too.”

Inaho’s thoughts are frantic. “I believe—“

“He will lash out to you if you follow him now, and I don’t want to see you more hurt. Go to sleep, Nao. You knew this was coming. It was…inevitable.” Yuki tries to smile. “Don’t blame yourself… You did your best, even if Slaine doesn’t understand this, right now. Give him some time.”

“…I suppose so.”

#

Inaho lies awake on his bed, fully clothed. His mind is buzzing with plans and theories, and the air in the dark room feels heavy. It is then that the door slowly opens. The light from the corridor is slipping into his room; a dark, tall silhouette is approaching. Inaho sits up with a sudden motion, turning his table lamp on.

“Slaine?” Inaho doesn’t wait for an answer; years of training have him up and alert. Slaine’s expression is unreadable, but his lips are forming a tight line. Slaine closes the door, locking it behind his back.

“Think carefully of what you are about to do.” Inaho is not sure about Slaine’s intentions. Of course not a kiss, why do I even reflect upon this. From his cold expression, there is a possibility that Slaine wants to harm. If so, am I his target? Or is he trying to harm himself by attacking me?

He does not continue with his thoughts, Slaine lunges forward and tries to hit him, but Inaho steps back, dodging.

Inaho immediately understands. “That day on the garden. Your intention was to test out my strength during our wrestling match. You were gathering details about my skills.” 

Slaine is in a defensive stance. “What?” He frowns. “…Yes, perhaps that too.”

He did not plan coming in here? “You will accomplish nothing by this.”

Inaho lunges forward then and tries to restrain Slaine, their bodies are locked tightly in a hold, either one trying not to submit to the other. Inaho notices that Slaine seems more hesitant the longer the fight goes on. Inaho soon gains the upper hand and pins Slaine to the wall, forcibly, but his arms are trembling from the effort of keeping him there. Slaine lets out a groan of frustration. Slaine is not so weak anymore; he can easily be considered a threat. Should I call the guards? Except Blanchet will take austere countermeasures, if he finds out about this.

“Stop.” Slaine says and he relaxes immediately, as if giving up, and Inaho has to hold back an exhale of relief. He tightens his grip on Slaine’s arms instead.

Slaine turns his head to the side, avoiding Inaho’s gaze. He closes his eyes, his lips turning downwards. He seems pained. “I wish I could harm you.”

“Injuring me will only deteriorate your situation.”

“I know. They could even execute me.”

I doubt it. “Is that what you want?” Blanchet’s message showed that they want to keep you inside the facility, monitored and alive, for now. Perhaps they even thought that by coming here with no surveillance whatsoever, you would try and kill me…

Slaine still avoids Inaho’s gaze. “I-I don’t know what I want anymore.”

“You always have a reason for attacking me. Furthermore, during our chess matches, you always use offensive, almost self-destroying strategies when you are upset or near defeat.” Like with the Moon Base. “Tell me what’s wrong.” Inaho knows the answer, but he wants to hear it from Slaine’s lips. He carefully releases Slaine but stands in front of him, ready to strike again if needed.

The coldness on Slaine’s face is slowly replaced by anger. He now turns to Inaho, his voice rising. “What’s wrong...? Fine! Do you remember when I told you about not wanting to pilot an aircraft again? When you wanted to arrange a piloting session for me? That it would be torture, because they might never allow it again? Well, Kaizuka, I must congratulate you, you and your stupid ideas, because this is a thousand, no, a million times worse!” Slaine is shouting now. “I was happy here!”

Inaho’s pulse has escalated from their previous struggle, but Slaine’s admission makes his breath stuck in his lungs. He tries to gather himself, glad that his room is soundproof. “If you try to escape or harm yourself, you will regret it.”

“I know!” Slaine shouts. “But after these three months, how do you expect me to live again like I did before?!” Slaine gets away from the wall, putting some distance between them. “All because of you.  His eyes narrow, he spits the word as if it disgusts him. “You, everything you do, it makes me want to believe that I have a future, that I am in need of a futureIt makes me believe you care. But it's just an illusion! You'll definitely use me one day—“

“No, I won't. Calm down.”

“You will!!” Slaine hisses, “I am not an idiot! My only purpose for being alive right now is to be a tool for someone else to use! That’s all I’ll ever be in my life!!” 

Inaho manages with difficulty to keep his face impassive. Slaine comes closer, now a step away from Inaho. His expression resembles a snarling lion, his breathing is harsh.

“Do you know what your robotic mind accomplished by bringing me here? You gave me hope! And for me that’s torture, you emotionless bastard!!”

The words hurt much more than Inaho imagined. “By bringing you here... I predicted that you would be reluctant to go back, but I never imagined how much it would hurt you. I'm sorry.”

“Don’t you…dare! I don't…need your cheap apologies!”

“I know. You deserve much more.” 

Slaines breaths are shallow and fast. Inaho does not like this. “No...I deserve being confined. But after…everyone being kind, your sister, Mr. Siegfried... The board, I don't know, the new guards— the toxin—the leak…” Slaine places a hand on his chest, eyes wide, struggling to breathe.

Inaho quickly realizes what is wrong. “Slaine, you are starting to hyperventilate. Focus on your breathing.”

Slaine now has a hand on Inaho’s shoulder, supporting his body. He tries to adjust his breathing, and with Inaho’s help and encouraging words, he quickly calms down.

They are both sitting on the floor now, physically and mentally exhausted, Slaine still has a hand on Inaho’s shoulder. Then, Slaine starts trembling.

“Slaine?”

Slaine looks at him, and his expression is so pained, something inside Inaho twists in agony. And then Slaine's lips are trembling, he bends over, and he is suddenly crying, crumbling down in tears. His eyes are closed, the sobs making his whole body shudder.

Inaho remembers the single day that Slaine cried, in prison, almost three years ago. He remembers how he silently left the room, leaving a crying Slaine behind; leaving Slaine alone.

Inaho leans forward and hugs Slaine, tightly.

Slaine struggles, painfully scratching Inaho’s back. Inaho brings his hand to Slaine’s head, clumsily caressing the pale mop of hair, as he did that night on the couch. Slaine stays completely still; and then he moans loudly, and he’s crying even harder, tightening his grip on Inaho, so much that Inaho's lungs have trouble drawing air in.

Inaho just holds Slaine even closer. Slaine continues to sob miserably and Inaho stays silent. He can now feel Slaine’s scars under his palms, even through the layer of Slaine’s clothing, he is even aware of Slaine’s pendant, trapped between their bodies. The room is dim, only the table lamp provides some light.

They stay together like this, arms wrapped around each other, for a very long time.  Slaine’s warm body trembles from time to time and jagged breaths escape him, but he gradually relaxes. Inaho can now feel Slaine’s soft breaths on his neck, he can smell Slaine’s fruity shampoo. He notices briefly that Slaine’s hair smells of oranges, and wonders where Slaine could have found the orange-scented hair product, as Inaho can’t recall buying such a thing.

When Slaine completely calms down, he tries to put some distance between them, so Inaho lets him go. They separate awkwardly. Slaine doesn't meet his gaze.

Silence.

“I’m sorry.” Slaine looks at him, then. His features are stern and controlled, but his eyes are very red. There are streaks of tears visible on his face, and Inaho keeps imagining how he could wipe them away with his fingers.

“I accept your apology only for physically attacking me. You shouldn’t apologize about the rest.”

Slaine is suddenly tense. “Alright.”

Inaho’s throat feels tight. “Slaine, I can’t ask of you to trust me. However, you should believe me when I say that I want to help you. I won’t tolerate your mistreatment. I will ensure that the new guards will behave, and that the board treats you with respect. You will receive the antidote for the toxin tomorrow. I will personally—“

“I-I know.”

“…Your wellbeing is important to me.”

“I know! You are so stubborn. A-Always, you just keep…You are the first person that makes me…that makes me feel…” Inaho can see that Slaine struggles with his words, but in the end Slaine just shakes his head in denial. His voice is suddenly steady, and Inaho realizes that Slaine’s self-control is remarkable. “From the moment I stepped into your room, everything was a terrible mistake. I was upset. I apologize for my behavior.” Slaine’s eyes are huge. “Inaho.” There is a finality in the way Slaine speaks his name.

Inaho takes deep, calming breaths. He feels exhausted. “As I said, I accept your apology. Now, do you need something else? Anything.”

Slaine's mouth hangs open for a bit. “I…I want to go out on the porch and watch the stars one last time.”

Inaho's chest feels tight. “Stargazing can always be interesting. When I used the analytical engine, I could observe thousands of stars and therefore many constellations that were untraceable with the naked eye.”

At this, Slaine seems interested. “Y-You know the constellations?”

“Yes.”

Slaine stays silent.

“I can show you.”

Slaine nods absentmindedly.

#

They are sitting on the porch. Inaho looks up, there are hundreds of stars visible in the dark skies. Slaine is sitting next to him, and he says with a voice hoarse from crying,

“The Martians made up different names for the constellations, refusing to share the same names with the Terrans. I only remember a few Terran names from a book I had as a child.”

 Inaho supposes there is an underlying invitation in Slaine’s words, so he begins naming the most important constellations while trying to point them out to Slaine, who seems more relaxed now. Slaine quickly matches the patterns he already knows with their original, Terran names. This continues for a long time, until Slaine interrupts Inaho’s monologue about the gravitational collapse of a certain star near Alpha Centauri,

“You already mentioned other animals… Are there any bats up there?”

“…I don’t think so.”

“Gulls?”  

Inaho wants to smile, despite the sad pressure in his chest. Slaine’s expression is innocent and curious, as if he did not experience a breakdown two hours ago. He either calmed down, or it’s his self-control, again. “There is a nebula called Seagull Nebula. A nebula is different from a constellation. It is an interstellar cloud—“

“Yes, I know what a nebula is, Inaho.”

Silence.

“There are no constellations named after oranges, if you wish to know.”

“As—as if I care! I was asking only about my nicknames and furthermore, Orange is a ridiculous name, well matched with the color and the fruit. No scientist in his right mind would ever name his discovery after such a…ridiculous…thing.”

Inaho shrugs his shoulders. He wants to mention that Slaine is probably using an orange-scented shampoo secretly from Inaho, as Inaho never saw such a bottle in their shared bathroom, but he keeps his mouth closed.

Slaine says then, “These stars… For some of them, it takes decades or even thousands of years for their light to reach us. Therefore, we can say that we are taking a glimpse into the past. And very few of them could be dead right now, but for us they are still alive. We are always plain observers…but can you imagine, being able to interfere with time? Not like my Tharsis did, I mean at a larger degree.”

What kind of question is that? “First of all, the laws of physics forbid it for a human being to travel back to what we call the past or the future. Secondly, a temporal paradox would occur—“

“Theoretically, of course! It is not like I expect of you to invent a time machine!”

A time machine… It’s impossible. “I am not sure how one could interfere with time. The concept seems too abstract and illogical for me to analyze any possible consequences. What about you?”

“Change the past?”Slaine chuckles bitterly then, surprising Inaho. He was crying two hours ago, how can he be so expressive, now? Is it because of his pride? “As you already know, my Tharsis could predict the near future. I saw all of it, good and bad. However…in the end, I chose to walk down this path.” Slaine’s features harden. “My own actions led me here. I deserved what I got, and I don’t think anyone can change that.”

Your actions did not deserve all the abuse and humiliation that you have endured during your imprisonment. And whatever awaits you after your return, you certainly won’t deserve it either. I must get you out of there soon. If I fail, I can’t predict what might happen to you…

“What’s wrong? You are unusually quiet.” Slaine’s curiosity seems genuine.

Inaho rubs at his eye with his blue sleeve, it burns and feels moist for some reason. His heart feels heavy. He turns to a puzzled Slaine but before he can talk, Slaine leans into his personal space, scrutinizing his face with a frown. Slaine’s green eyes open huge, then.

“Wait! Are you…sad? Is this sadness?!”

Apparently his inner turmoil is showing on his face. Inaho blinks the moisture away.

“A few hours ago, you mentioned that you were happy, here. Did you mean it?” Inaho turns his gaze to the starry sky, searching and finding constellation patterns, repeating their names in his mind again and again. It takes many silent repetitions for Slaine to answer.

“I meant it.” A pause. “I…the time I spent here, it was…it was perhaps the happiest I have ever been since my early childhood.”

Inaho’s eye widens at this. He turns to face Slaine and does not bother hiding his surprise. “That much?”

Slaine holds Inaho’s gaze, they are very close. Slaine’s eyes are big and alluring. For some reason, Slaine licks his lips and Inaho’s eye is now solely focused on Slaine’s mouth. He wonders for the umpteenth time how Slaine’s lips would feel on his, probably soft and warm. Slaine was warm when I held him. Inaho swallows. Slaine’s lips part, and Inaho finds himself slowly leaning towards Slaine…the blond ex-Count looks away.

“D-do you remember when you shot me down? A-after our fight against Countess Femianne?”

Inaho straightens his posture. What am I doing. “Yes, I do. I—”

“Don’t talk or I’ll regret my next words. Just be silent for once and listen.” Slaine takes a deep breath, his gaze to the sky. “I forgive you.” Slaine looks at him. “I said don’t talk!”

Inaho closes his open mouth. Why am I under the impression that there is more hidden behind Slaine’s…forgiveness?

Slaine sighs. “I am unaware of your intentions, but…you have fought for my sake, these last two and a half years. I despise this, not knowing the true reason behind your actions…I hate it so much I almost feel sick, each time you elude my questions. Nevertheless, I want to thank you. F-for everything you’ve done for me.”

Inaho tries a lot to come up with an answer, but his blank mind refuses to cooperate.

“I’ve rendered you speechless? The mighty Orange can’t answer back?”

“No, I am contemplating on your words.”

Slaine’s exhale is long. “There will be heavy surveillance tomorrow—today. They are going to listen to me, record my actions. We won’t be able to talk freely. So… I want…I want you to tell me the truth.” Slaine’s voice is soft, his expression is guarded. “Do you resent me, because of your…eye?”

Inaho blinks. “I don’t. I believe it was obvious during the last years and my behavior towards you. Furthermore, I wouldn’t visit you, or let you stay in my house, help you with origami constructions and the roses, let you bathe Rayleigh, bake with you, or let you cry in my arms, if I resented you.”

Inaho observes with the corner of his eye that Slaine is blushing a bit. Slaine drops his head, “D-do you really spend all of your free time making silly lists like these in your head?”Inaho is ready to deny this, but Slaine meets Inaho’s gaze, determined. “You are curious about my scars, aren’t you? Answer me honestly.”

Inaho nods, his pulse quickening. “I am very curious.”

Slaine turns his gaze to the stars, lost in his thoughts. Only the faint sound of waves meeting the shore is heard for awhile. “Never mention the scars again. I received them when I was a servant under Count Cruhteo. I angered him. He had a whip. That’s all you need to know. The rest of the details…are not important.”

So I was right about the whip. What did you do to anger him that much? Inaho is ready to ask, but a faint meow is heard, somewhere near them. Inaho observes as Slaine bends and picks up Rayleigh, places the caramel-and-white colored cat on his lap and strokes his neck with a sad smile.

“I’ll miss him.”

For a moment, Inaho worries that Slaine might collapse again, his expression is very sad. Inaho’s stomach hurts from his unexpressed emotions. “I can bring him with me, during my visits. The furniture in our meeting room is metallic, so he won’t be able to scratch or destroy anything.” I give you my word, Slaine, you will be free in less than a year.

Slaine chuckles, placing Rayleigh on the ground in front of their feet. The cat meows, probably from the lack of affection, then runs away towards the garden. Slaine’s voice is strained. “He will surely find a way to annoy us. He might destroy our chess pieces, for example. Or he will judge the chessboard as being his new favorite place for going to the toilet...or your chair… The last would be fine by me, actually.”

“I hope not.” Inaho then observes that the stars have faded away, and a purple-blue hue reigns now over the skies.

Slaine says, “It’s the sunrise. We’ve been up all night.”

Inaho reluctantly drags his gaze away from Slaine’s profile and turns to look at the garden, and the colorful rose bushes that are slowly becoming visible as the sunlight reaches them, and the blue sea beyond, in the horizon.

Slaine slides his hand across the wooden flooring, palm down, towards Inaho. The distance he moves it is minimal, but still noticeable. Inaho dismisses it as something unimportant, but Slaine says then, “M-my hands are cold.”

Inaho freezes, his heart suddenly hammering against his ribcage.

His overwhelmed mind provides him with numerous reactions and replies, but he chooses to ignore them. Wordlessly, he covers Slaine’s hand with his own. His pulse escalates as he waits for Slaine’s reaction. Slaine responds, and they are holding hands. Slaine does not move or speak then, so Inaho does not, too. Slaine’s palm is very warm against his. Slaine must believe he’s cold due to the lack of sleep. Inaho doesn’t comment on it.

They watch the sunrise together.

 

Chapter Text

Inaho opens his eyes. At first, he cannot recognize his surroundings…but one look at the sleeping, huddled form of Slaine Troyard in the bunk bed opposite of his makes the events of the last three days rush to the surface of his rested mind—their fight, their fall, Slaine’s scars, his understanding of Slaine’s torture, Harklight’s arrival. He remembers waking up here, talking to Slaine…and then hazy memories of someone feeding him soup…? It must have been Slaine’s subordinate, Harklight. Satisfied with his recollections, Inaho turns his attention on Slaine.

Slaine’s cheeks are pallid, but his breathing is even and deep. He is fast asleep. Inaho’s gaze rests for many seconds on the Count’s sleeping features: they are gentle, peaceful. He thinks, once again, that Slaine’s features are somehow different from the rest of the people he has met…there is something fascinating about them. It makes him want to remember the way Slaine’s mouth curved during that single smile—Inaho shakes these confusing thoughts away.

He sits up in his bed and his body starts protesting: his eye is throbbing a bit, he is hungry, he needs to use the toilet…which he quickly finds in the corner of the room and makes use of. He also needs clothes—he is only wearing his black and torn thermal underwear. From the size of the room, he concludes that he is inside a simple passenger-aircraft, built for brief transportations, not for accommodation.

He gets up and finds his torn uniform folded and placed on a shelf near his bed. Its sleeves are full with splotches of Slaine’s red-brown blood. Slaine’s pendant is thankfully still in his pocket, so he retrieves it. Inaho notices a crimson uniform—probably Slaine’s— flawlessly folded and placed on the single table near the corner of the small room. There is even a pair of boots on the corner. He is cold, almost naked, and there is no other choice available. Inaho puts the uniform on, rolling up the sleeves a bit so that it fits him. It smells very pleasant. His eye presents him with more data: it is the scent of lavender. Inaho tucks the pendant safely in a pocket on the inner side of the uniform. Slaine’s boots are a bit loose, but this doesn’t concern Inaho, as he can at least walk.

It seems that Slaine has larger feet than me…

#

He closes the door behind him, finding himself in a larger metallic room filled with twelve passenger seats. Harklight is sitting on the commander’s chair at the front, probably checking their course: the aircraft is moving, on its way to the Moon Base.

It seems that Harklight senses his presence, as he turns around, “Milor—!“. His eyes widen in surprise. “That is Milord’s—“

“My suit is ruined. I appreciate your efforts to fold it. Furthermore, considering your loyalty, I am sure that you always carry at least three sets of this red uniform, always prepared for your lord’s requirements. He can use the second one.” From Harklight’s expression, Inaho understands that his observations were correct. Inaho continues, “You did not use any means such as handcuffs to restrict me, so I presume that you are unsure about the nature of my relationship with Slaine Troyard.”

Harklight quickly presses a few buttons, probably turning the autopilot on, then swiftly gets up and approaches Inaho. He isn’t holding a gun, but Inaho’s eye is still sore. He decides not to attack the well-rested, larger man, as his analytical engine will be necessary for his survival in Vers.

Harklight’s dark eyes are assessing Inaho. “You are an UFE officer, yet you saved Milord’s life.”

Slaine mentioned previously that Harklight assessed the damages of our kats, so it seems that he understood what happened. And he cares for Slaine a lot. Good. “That is correct. I will be clear: Slaine Troyard is in grave danger.”

Inaho’s eye analyzes Harklight’s microexpressions: surprise, distrust and – barely –fear. However, before Harklight has a chance to speak,

“Many Counts must have questioned you about Slaine’s sudden disappearance, even started getting interested in the Tharsis’ last known location. Perhaps Counts Marylcian and Barouhcruz were the most eager, among all of them. I am certain that they wish to land on the Moon Base, seeking audience with the fake Princess. Changes are high that Count Mazuurek also asked Princess Lemrina for an audience, while Princess Asseylum still hasn’t woken up from her comatose state.”

Harklight’s eyes are wide. “The three Counts you mentioned…unexpectedly asked for permission to approach the Moon Base...just a few minutes ago. I was just informed…”

So Count Mazuurek probably listened to me. I hope Yuki is safe. Inaho keeps his features under control.

“Who gave you this information? And about Princess Lemrina, how—“

 “Slaine wishes for her Highness’ health to be restored. I can help him with that.”

Harklight frowns. “Milord will—“

Slaine barges into the room, limping a bit, his blanket wrapped around his body. “Mr. Harklight! Do you know where Kaizuka—” Slaine stops on his tracks, blinking in surprise as he registers Inaho’s Versian appearance. “W-Why are you wearing my clothes?!” Only Slaine’s head is visible, the blond, disheveled strands sticking out in every single direction. His face is still pale, but his cheeks have gained a rosy shade, a result of his annoyance. Inaho finds the sight…very interesting.

“As you remember, my uniform was destroyed when I helped you out of the Tharsis. I was cold, so your clothes were the only solution available.”

Slaine stays silent, scrutinizing him. He then looks away and murmurs, “…Red does not suit you.”

Inaho’s engine reacts to this. Why is he lying about such a thing? Inaho plays along. “It is true that the color of your hair balances the crimson uniform. My hair is much darker than yours, after all.” Inaho realizes what he just admitted, Slaine lifts a pale eyebrow, but Harklight suddenly clears his throat.

“Your wound, Milord…?”

At this, Slaine’s expression immediately softens. “You did well, Harklight. It does not hurt, not anymore.”

“That last part was a lie.”

Slaine sighs in exasperation. “Alright! My wound is still sore. Is your dimwitted engine satisfied, now?”

“No. Your core temperature is a bit high. You are running a fever.”

“I am perfectly capable of functioning, so keep your unnecessary comments to yourself, Kaizuka! You are acting like a mother hen. It’s disturbing.”

 “Why do you insist repeating this conversation? My comments are not unnecessary.”

“Truly? You were the one commenting on how my eyes remind you of oceans, of all things.”

Harklight’s wide eyes fly from Inaho to Slaine and back to Inaho again, as if he is unsure of how to handle the situation.

 “Oceans?” Inaho’s eye registers that Slaine is telling the truth; that disturbs him, a bit.

“You also mentioned that my hair smells nice.”

When did I…? “I don’t remember complimenting you. Plus, I would gain nothing from it.”

Slaine groans. “You are insufferable.”

“Your arguments are unsupported—”

Harklight clears his throat loudly, once more. They both stop talking, glaring at each other in silence, like snakes prepared to attack. Harklight quickly opens a metallic container box near him and presents Slaine with a perfectly folded crimson suit and a pair of boots.

Harklight tries to smile, “Here, Milord.”

Slaine now focuses his attention on Harklight, thanking him with a sincere smile. He then pins Inaho with a hostile glare, “I still haven’t decided what I should do with you. Mr. Harklight! Keep an eye on him until I am done changing.” Slaine carefully slithers a pale forearm out of the blanket, grabs his clothes and stomps out of the room, still annoyed.

So Harklight probably does not know about the scars, either…

#

When Slaine returns, he is immaculately dressed in crimson, his hair under control. The unguarded way he carried himself is gone, Slaine’s posture is now graceful and cold. It is true that the Count’s uniform suits his complexion and his body, especially the area of his b—one moment, why do my thoughts resemble Calm’s statements about his love interests…?

Slaine speaks, interrupting Inaho’s confused thoughts. “The state of my Tharsis?”

Harklight explains that both Tharsis and Sleipnir are currently on their way to the Moon Base, as he called two Sky Carriers with trusted pilots in order to transport them. He also explains what transpired in the Moon Base the two days Slaine went missing, and he informs Slaine about the Counts approaching the Moon. At the mention of Marylcian’s name, Slaine’s eyes narrow. Harklight mentions that the UFE and Vers are under a temporary ceasefire, since Inaho and Slaine’s whereabouts are still not known, to them.

Slaine addresses Harklight, “We must hurry and return before they approach the Moon Base.”

They keep discussing about the fastest course, and Inaho uses this time to plan his next steps. A good strategy would be to gain Slaine’s trust, in matters regarding Seylum’s awakening. Kaizuka mentioned that as soon as Seylum wakes up her memories will not be clear, and Slaine’s pendant will be a trigger for their return. I know that I should contact Deucalion, but I must first—

His stomach gurgles loudly. Slaine and Harklight stop with their discussion and turn their gazes on him. His eyes meet Slaine’s as he recalls their meager meal, almost a day ago. Slaine probably remembers too, he sighs and orders Harklight to bring them something to eat and drink.

#

After their hurried meal on the passenger’s seats, Slaine gets up and approaches Inaho, Harklight by his side. He points a slender finger at a seated Inaho.

“You will now tell me how you acquired all of that information.”

“I refuse.”

 “Do not make me use violence, Kaizuka.”

Inaho meets Slaine’s determined eyes, unfazed. “I don’t believe you will. I can help you, however.”

Slaine’s bright eyes narrow. “Explain yourself.”

“I hold information on when and how her Highness will wake up from her coma. It is also in my interest that she awakes, and soon.”

Slaine grunts and grabs Inaho’s collar. “Do not toy with me, Kaizuka!!”

“I am telling you the truth, Slaine Troyard. Ask your subordinate.”

Slaine retreats his hand, turning to face Harklight, who starts explaining about their previous discussion and Inaho’s predictions when Slaine was absent. Slaine frowns.

“How do you know that her Highness will wake up.” It is an order, not a question.

I wonder if he will believe this. “All of my predictions are a result of my analytical engine’s estimation abilities. My implant is partially connected to my temporal lobe, and it makes predictions by using information from my surroundings. Think of it as the Tharsis’ abilities, only multiplied. You are merely able to catch a glimpse of the immediate future, while I can tell you, for example, that Count’s Marylcian’s presence will be a strong threat against you, and soon.”

Harklight speaks then, “It is true that Count Marylcian has expressed hostility against you, Milord.”

Slaine sighs wearily, threading his fingers through his golden hair. Inaho recalls Saazbaum performing exactly the same gesture, and he wonders if Slaine is unconsciously copying his adoptive father. “Kaizuka Inaho…Why? Why are you willing to help me?”

“I have my own reasons, Slaine Troyard.”

“Tch.” Slaine is avoiding Inaho’s gaze. “We will continue with this discussion after we arrive at the Moon Base. I know you will be compliant because of the state of your eye, so in the meantime, Mr. Harklight will keep an eye on you.” He walks towards the control panel. “Harklight, be wary of Kaizuka. I will proceed to address the Orbital Knights.”

Slaine opens a few communication channels, and six Martian Counts appear on the screen. Harklight comes and stands next to Inaho, but Inaho’s eyes are fixed on the blond Count.

Slaine’s speech is proud, confident and precise. He reassures everyone that his ‘disappearance’ was necessary, in order to take down ‘UFE’s most valuable soldier’. He announces that Inaho is his hostage, and reminds them all of Inaho’s countless victories against the Vers Kataphrakts. He emphasizes that no other Terran was capable of defeating a Martian Kataphrakt. The Martian Counts were defeated only with Inaho’s interventions: “The UFE suffered a major blow with the loss of that orange Kataphrakt and his pilot!”

Inaho never thought of himself as being so renowned among the Vers forces. Furthermore, he always knew that he is a valuable officer to the UFE, but as long as he did his job, he never cared about how valuable he might be. For these reasons, Inaho did not realize before.

He now understands with a pulse of dread: Slaine might have not destroyed Trident Base, but he claims that he has captured UFE’s ‘genius soldier'. This might be a strong reason for Slaine’s reputation to improve… And it is exactly what Inaho is trying to avoid: Slaine’s rise in the Martian ranks.

He feels the bitter feelings expand inside: anger and disappointment. Despite all my efforts, the future remains almost unchanged. Does this mean that Slaine will die? …Why am I thinking about Slaine? I must prevent the Third War…and stop this war. If things continue so, the situation might get out of control.

Slaine however does not order an attack on the UFE, the opposite: he requests that the ceasefire continues for 72 hours. Inaho suspects that the wound is bothering Slaine, he might want to rest before a potential battle. The Orbital Knights congratulate Slaine on his achievement and, surprisingly, accept his request.

#

After his announcement, Slaine walks tiredly toward the seats, limping a bit. He refuses Harklight’s help with a reassuring gesture and sits heavily on a passenger chair, lost in his thoughts. He orders Harklight to watch over Inaho. In a few seconds, his faint snores echo in the room.

Inaho and Harklight standing in the middle of the room. Inaho observes that Harklight is looking at Slaine with concern.

“He is exhausted, and his temperature keeps rising.”

Harklight stiffens, his inquiring eyes are now focused on Inaho. “Your eye informed you about the latter…?”

“Yes.”

Harklight’s expression softens. “Kaizuka Inaho… You are an interesting person. I have never seen milord interacting and conversing so…intensely with anyone, before.”

“We are not in a romantic relationship.”

Inaho observes as Harklight’s cheeks gain a rosy shade. “I…I am aware of that. What I meant is, your behavior towards milord is not that of an enemy.”

Inaho ponders on this. “I do not consider him my enemy. As of now, he is the enemy of my enemies. Not exactly a friend, but perhaps he can be, if the circumstances allow it.” Inaho remembers the day they fought against the Hellas. If I hadn’t shot him down, perhaps that’s what might have been…

If he had met Slaine under different circumstances, Inaho would gladly befriend him. Slaine Troyard is intelligent and fascinating. After the Count’s brief but honest interactions with Harklight, Inaho knows that he can be kind and caring. Inaho looks over at a sleeping Slaine, observing how his head has tilted to the side in his sleep, Slaine’s cheek now resting on his shoulder. The position forces Slaine’s red mouth to form a small pucker, his long eyelashes spread shadows under his eyes. His pale hair is ruffled, again. All these small details, combined with Slaine’s serene expression, make the sight very…pleasant. Inaho’s heart suddenly flutters in his chest.

It confuses him a lot.

Harklight’s voice interrupts his puzzled thoughts. “I found this inside the Sleipnir. It must belong to you.”

Inaho notices Harklight’s outstretched hand. He takes the bottle of pills, tucking it in the pocket where Slaine’s pendant rests. “Thank you.”

They are silent, but then Inaho recalls something he wants to ask.

“Harklight-san. I noticed that you used a lavender-scented detergent while washing Slaine’s uniform.”

Harklight’s eyes widen a fraction. “Indeed…I did.”

“I cannot understand how the scent is so intense. Would you mind revealing your methods to me? Your results are remarkable.”

Harklight’s faint smile is humble. “I never expected of you to be interested in that sort of thing.”

“My older sister rarely cared for our household chores.”

“…Very well. Let me explain, then.”

They start a heated discussion about detergents, then cleaning and ironing techniques. Inaho never expected that Harklight would be that knowledgeable, so his respect for the older man increases rapidly in the next half hour.

It is then that Inaho remembers the sweet scent of Slaine’s hair. “I have strong reasons to believe that you also prepare Slaine shampoo. The scent is very intense, too.”

Harklight’s eyes widen again. “Yes, it is an old familial recipe. It is within my duties to ensure that Milord remains…fresh throughout the day.”

“You use orange essential oil for it. Would you mind sharing the formula with me? The smell is very pleasant.”

Harklight seems uneasy. “Are you certain that you and milord…” He stops then, clearing his throat. “…I do not see a problem with that.” Harklight starts listing the ingredients, then starts explaining. A few seconds go by, “…it is then that you add the orange essential oil and the water, but you must stir gently—“

“O-Orange essential oil? What on Vers and Earth are you both talking about…?”

Harklight stops mid-sentence. They turn to look at Slaine, who is awake and staring at them with a bewildered, almost fearful expression.

Harklight lowers his head, his voice apologetic. “He requested the recipe for your shampoo, Milord.”

The blush on Slaine’s cheeks darkens. “Y-You! Kaizuka! Why are you so obsessed with the way my hair smells?!”

“Your shampoo has a pleasant scent, Slaine Troyard.”

At this, Slaine gets up and smiles sardonically. “So you admit that you like the scent of my hair, Orange!”

“Do not twist my words, Bat. I merely—“

Harklight clears his throat loudly and approaches Slaine. “Please calm down, milord. You are running a fever. You should take a seat and rest. We will be arriving at the Moon Base in fifteen minutes, you should keep your strength for confronting your unexpected guests.”

 Slaine sighs and obeys Harklight, who then returns to the commander’s seat. Inaho takes the seat next to Slaine. For the rest of the flight, they glare at each other in silence.

#

After they land and exit the aircraft, Inaho finds himself in a huge area. It must be a storing place for Kataphrakts, as he judges from the amount of machines on the walls. The Tharsis is being repaired in a corner, while his Sleipnir is left abandoned and broken next to it. The gravitational field is weak and Inaho floats in the air, but Harklight places a hand on his shoulder—not exactly a threatening gesture, but a way to remind Inaho that he should behave: the room is filled with Martians. There are numerous servants and a few Counts, as he can understand from their uniforms.

Slaine drifts ahead through the large space, while Harklight forces Inaho into following the blond Count. Murmurs erupt during their passage. Inaho’s engine registers a few: some of them question Inaho’s identity and his clothes, some question Slaine’s disappearance, some are just nasty remarks about…Slaine. They even use racist remarks. Do they hate him that much because of his birthplace…? Inaho also observes that some Counts and lower officers slowly salute Slaine— as if they are showing him their respect for the first time. Others however do not hide their extreme hostility towards the blond Count. Was everyone always that hostile towards him…? And I was correct, Slaine’s reputation improved after my ‘capture’. However, not everyone seems to respect him.

#

Soon, they arrive at the Moon Base. Slaine hasn’t spoken a word, his steps are hurried. Inaho’s implant registers the heavy way Slaine’s feet hit the floor, and he realizes that Slaine is trying his best not to limp. A servant informs Slaine that the three Counts have already landed, and Princess Lemrina granted them an audience. As soon as the man stops talking, Eddelrittuo and a seated Lemrina appear around the corner. Kaizuka’s description of her was very accurate. Did he meet her? Or did he describe her from a photograph?

Slaine quickly dismisses the servant, while Eddelrittuo’s eyes widen as she notices Inaho. Lemrina speaks. Her blue eyes hide many sentiments, but Inaho’s eye immediately discerns…unhappiness. “So this is the genius Terran soldier that you managed to capture? Why did you let him see me?” She tilts her head, carefully examining Inaho. His eye senses traces of anger in her tone. “And why is he wearing your clothes…?”

Slaine speaks kindly, “Princess, there are more important matters—“

“You mean Count Marylcian? I already gave him permission to land. Counts Barouhcruz and Mazuurek are here, too. We must not let them wait.” Without another word, she moves her chair and disappears around the corner. Eddelrittuo runs after her.

Inaho’s engine senses anxiety in Slaine’s microexpressions. “Just follow me.” Slaine says.

#

Inaho keeps formulating plans in his mind, again and again, until they arrive to the entrance of a large room with luxurious furniture. Lemrina is disguised as Asseylum and conversing with Marylcian, while Mazuurek and Barouhcruz’s expressions are guarded. Eddelrittuo is nowhere to be seen.

“Harklight. Stay here with Kaizuka.” Slaine confidently steps inside, and Inaho listens carefully as Marylcian demands that he gains the position of the Royal Guard; Slaine answers that the position belongs to him. They argue politely for awhile, until Marylcian raises his voice and addresses Slaine as if the blond Count is a pest.

Inaho feels an unexpected throb of anger at Marylcian’s words, but he doesn’t have the time to examine his feelings: Marylcian challenges Slaine to a duel. Just as Kaizuka described. Inaho’s engine registers that Barouhcruz is not pleased with Marylcian’s scheme. This is interesting.

Harklight stiffens next to Inaho, his eyes narrow. So your subordinate truly cares about you, Bat…

Inaho uses Harklight’s momentary distraction to step inside the room. All eyes turn on him and except from Slaine’s, which widen in alarm, the rest are hostile. Harklight rushes at his side, but Slaine is there first.

Slaine grabs Inaho’s shoulder. His voice is an angry whisper, “I told you to stay behind…!”

“You addressed Harklight, not me.”

“Count Troyard!” Barouhcruz’s deep voice, “What is your prisoner doing here? And on top of that, why is he dressed as a Count?”

Inaho ignores him. His gaze is fixed on Mazuurek. The Count stands alone, only a few steps away. It is probably Inaho’s only chance of talking to Mazuurek, and the fact that he is dressed like a Martian helps him a lot with his objective. Five seconds should be enough. Inaho twists his body, escapes from Slaine’s hold and quickly approaches the Count.

He keeps his voice very low and doesn’t meet Mazuurek’s gaze. “Did you realize the truth?”

Inaho’s eye senses Mazuurek’s surprise and then his rapid comprehension. Mazuurek nods quickly in agreement and Inaho fulfills his objective in (perhaps) finding an ally.

Count Troyard!” Marylcian twirls a lock of his hair around his index and then releases it, his eyes not hiding his disgust and malice. Inaho notices something interesting. “This won’t be tolerated! Restrain that scum, or I shall do it myself!”

Slaine is now standing next to Inaho, his fingers sinking into Inaho’s arm. Mazuurek has already retreated backwards.

Marylcian’s smile is twisted, he is now addressing Slaine, “You, Earthborn, with your inferior blood, you claim yourself to be her Highness’ guardian…yet abandoned your post for three days! As soon as I woke up this morning I rushed to the Moon, yet you lowborn coward were nowhere to be seen—“

That angry throb reemerges, but it is not the reason Inaho interrupts Marylcian, “That is not true. Considering the pristine state of your hair, I have calculated that you—no, perhaps a servant, spent at least two hours after you woke up trying to force your hair into these things that resemble locks.”

Marylcian’s face resembles a tomato. “What did you just say, Terran?!”

Slaine’s grasp on Inaho’s arm tightens, he whispers, “Have you lost your mind?!”, but Inaho continues,

“So it is logical to assume that the state of your hair is more important to you than the wellbeing of her Highness Asseylum Vers Allusia. That makes you an ill substitute for the position of her guardian.”

Barouhcruz speaks then, “Count Marylcian! Calm yourself.”

Marylcian turns to face Barouhcruz, his voice is shrill, “I will not accept comments about my hairstyle from these dogs! I—”

“The Terran soldier is not the first to comment on this. The time you spend styling your hair has always been a favorite discussion subject among your enemies, especially during your teenage years. You should be above this, now.”

“Nevertheless!! I will not tolerate—“

Barouhcruz interrupts him, his voice louder, “He is purposely infuriating you because of the upcoming duel! Calm yourself, Count Marylcian!”

Inaho hears Slaine’s stunned inhale, Marylcian’s eyes narrow, and then things happen really fast. Inaho steps back and raises his arm in self-defense, but he is slow; the sudden blow to his head makes him groan and want to vomit, his eye taking all the damage and igniting a scorching fire inside his head. Inaho collapses on the floor.

He is still able to register his hazy surroundings. Pain is hammering against his skull. Harklight is kneeling next to him, his voice reassuring and calm. Slaine must have spoken, too, as Marylcian—his attacker— is facing towards Slaine’s direction now. Barouhcruz is grabbing Marylcian’s arm, which holds the hilt of his sword. Inaho’s brain is too stressed to understand their loud dispute, but his eye registers that Slaine is extremely angry; Inaho grasps the words ‘inexcusable’ and ‘my protection’.

 After a few seconds the haze clears, and Harklight helps him stand up. They walk out of the room and into a smaller one, sitting down on a couch. Inaho paid the price, but he is satisfied: Marylcian is not calm, and when Mazuurek understood that Inaho was the sender of the message about the fake Princess, no one noticed. Mazuurek’s curiosity must have been piqued. The odds are in Inaho’s favor that the Count might be helpful, later.

Inaho asks of Harklight to continue explaining the recipe of the shampoo, as it will distract him from his headache. Harklight’s eyes widen for the umpteenth time that day, but he obliges Inaho’s wish with a faint smile.

When Harklight finishes, “I suppose Milord is calling you ‘Orange’ because of the color of your Kataphrakt and not your…interest in his shampoo.”

Inaho quickly explains their nicknames’ origins to Harklight, who listens with great attention. Then, Inaho reveals one of his observations.

“Slaine Troyard is concerned about me.”

Harklight stays silent for awhile. His tone is calm, “I believe that you and Milord…have yet to realize…” Harklight seems hesitant, and Inaho’s eye detects faint embarrassment.

What is he thinking about that makes him so…shy?

Harklight is ready to talk but Slaine steps inside. Harklight closes his mouth, and the blond Count stands menacingly in front of Inaho. Slaine must be outraged; his bright eyes are now dark with anger.

“Kaizuka Inaho! Did you believe that my opponent would be intimidated by your games? Or perhaps some part of you conceals a masochist? The Orbital Knights keep demanding that I hand you over! For how long do you think that I can protect you?!”

Protect? Inaho keeps his voice flat. “You are wounded, yet you accepted the duel. And Marylcian is enraged, now. You can use his anger to your advantage.”

Slaine sighs in exasperation. In a remarkable display of self-restraint, he calms down. His features could now belong to a marble statue, his voice is cold. “Trying to understand you is meaningless.”

Harklight clears his throat. “The repairs on the Tharsis are almost complete, Milord.” Without his eye, Inaho wouldn’t notice the great concern that is hiding behind Harklight’s voice.

“I see. Harklight—“

“I have information I want to share with you.”

At this, Slaine narrows his eyes. Silence reigns for awhile. “Fine. Harklight, take care of Princess Lemrina.”

“The gun won’t be necessary.”

Slaine ignores him. He presses the barrel between Inaho’s shoulder blades and orders Inaho to start walking, Slaine following right behind him. Later, they turn right, climb up a few metallic stairs and reach a platform furnished only with a desk and a chair. We must be in Slaine’s private quarters.

Inaho meets Slaine’s hostile gaze, ignoring the gun pointed at him. Slaine staying alive is my first priority, now. I must persuade him at all costs. “I have already predicted Marylcian’s attacks. With the help of my engine, you will win the duel. I will require a place where I can observe—“

 “What are you even suggesting?! This is the perfect opportunity for you to kill me—“

“I saved your life, two days ago. Did you forget that?” His expression and body language are completely under his control, and the patterns in his voice betray anger—and not a single trace of fear. He keeps proving himself stronger than I believe.

Slaine’s voice is icy. “You literally stabbed me in the back, before. Why should I trust you, now?”

“I apologized about that day. I was wrong, shooting you down. I…deeply regretted my decision.”

“…Get on with it. Tell me why I should trust you.”

“You have no other choice. I am certain that your pride and the need to keep your position as her Highness’ guardian will make you accept Marylcian’s duel. However, you are not in a position to fight. Even as we speak, my eye registers your rising temperature. If you lose consciousness during the duel, you will be killed instantly.” Kaizuka described Slaine’s duel with Marylcian. Your older self was healthy but even then, he had difficulties prevailing. But I’ll make sure that you will get out of this alive.

Slaine’s mouth forms a thin line. He hesitates but then slowly lowers his gun, tucking it away.

Slaine turns and gazes out of the window, at the endless dark space, lost in contemplation. He then faces Inaho, frowning, and his eyes hide something cruel. “I must win. I must absolutely win this. Count Marylcian will make sure that he kills me, if I refuse to fight him. True, it is not sure that I can win in my current state…but if I let you help me, this duel won’t be honorable.”

Inaho’s mouth barely forms a smile. So your honor is really important to you. “I will guide you only if you find some difficulties. We should plan your actions. You are probably thinking of luring him into a tunnel…”

Slaine’s eyes widen, and Inaho notices-once again- the fascinating shades of green. “H-How…? Can you read my mind?”

“You know that such a notion is absurd. I will help you deal with Marylcian first, and then I will reveal…how her Highness will wake up. She is still in a comatose state and Princess Lemrina’s feelings keep growing, each day that passes by.”

Inaho then realizes that Kaizuka knew surprisingly much about Lemrina’s actions. How did he manage to learn so much about the situation on Mars? Could it be that the Slaine in his timeline told him that, too? Or was it someone else? He decides to let the matter rest for later... Slaine’s scars, too.

“All if this, of course, will require a price: as soon as her Highness wakes up, I want you to end all hostilities with the UFE.” When Seylum wakes up, she won’t have her memories: Slaine will be desperate and exploitable.

Slaine’s mouth twists with distaste.

Inaho remembers a tiny detail from Kaizuka’s last message. “I also know one of your greatest, most secret fears.”

A snort. “You sound absolutely ridiculous.”

Inaho walks towards the desk and fumbles with the virtual keyboard of the tablet there. Soon, an image of a rather large cockroach appears on the screen. It has long antennae and thorny legs. The sight is not very pleasant, but its effect on Slaine is very interesting: Slaine’s face suddenly loses all of its color, he lets out a yelp and takes a quick step backwards.

It is just a demonstration for Inaho to intimidate Slaine, but as Slaine’s legs tremble and his knees hit the floor, Inaho’s blood momentarily freezes, he doesn’t even register that he feels concerned; he rushes to Slaine, kneeling next to him, carefully placing a hand against the Count’s back.

“I’m sorry. It was not my intent to scare you that much.”

“I-It’s the wound and my fever, too…”

Inaho helps Slaine get up. “Can you stand?”

Slaine nods. He is clearly lightheaded, leaning a bit against Inaho, his shoulder in contact with Inaho’s chest. For some reason, Inaho’s pulse is still quick. After a few warm seconds, Slaine puts some distance between them.

He is now looking at Inaho, biting his lip, bright eyes wide and moist. The weak sting of guilt in Inaho’s chest is completely unexpected. “W-when I was a child, I found a nest of cockroaches in…” Slaine shakes his head. “Wait a minute! H-How? How do you know?! I haven’t told anyone!!”

“I also know much more.” I know that you were tortured and still did not betray Seylum. I have observed that you are a determined and brave person. You can be kind and devoted. But you can also be a formidable enemy. Inaho keeps his voice calm. “I know that you care a lot about her Highness, for example.”

Slaine freezes like a rabbit.

“I will help you with the duel. Your fever will lower your evasion skills, and your wound will hurt during each sudden movement of your Tharsis.”

“And whose fault is that?!”

“Both mine and yours.”

Slaine groans. “No! I should hand you over to…Mr. Harklight. He can deal with you, painfully, and you will reveal everything. You know way too much, Kaizuka. It’s unnatural!”

Inaho meets Slaine’s hostile gaze. “And I am certain that this isn’t the way you prefer when dealing with things. Also, my eye just notified me that you were lying about Harklight. I don’t believe—”

Slaine shakes his head in exasperation. “Y-you…! Shut up! You still haven't convinced me! Tell me one logical reason why should I trust you!”

For an unknown reason, Inaho’s heart starts beating faster. He takes a step toward Slaine. “I want to know you better.”

 Slaine blinks.

“I have never met anyone else similar to you. I realized it during the last three days. You are a very interesting person. I keep observing how—”

Slaine’s eyes are ablaze. He interrupts Inaho, “You are in enemy territory, powerless, borrowing my clothes, your Sleipnir is damaged…and this is your case?! That I am an interesting person? D-do you expect us to enjoy some tea together while I show you the garden I prepared for her Highness, perhaps?”

When upset…you are also interesting. “A nice idea. After the duel, I must talk to you about something important. In addition, we can play chess.”

Slaine covers his face with his palm. His voice is the ghost of a whisper, hushed, but Inaho’s engine reads Slaine’s lips and soon interprets Slaine’s words: “What have you done to me…?”  

#

They spend the next three hours planning strategies and comparing their knowledge, working together in order to defeat Marylcian. When they are finished, Slaine calls Harklight and orders him to watch over Inaho, then leaves. Inaho asks Harklight about Slaine’s whereabouts, but the man remains silent and relaxed. Inaho’s implant however registers a faint sadness, so one possible assumption is that Slaine is visiting Lemrina or Seylum. Harklight would be more agitated if Slaine was in possible danger.

After half an hour, Slaine returns and dismisses Harklight. He brings Inaho to another room, where a massive glass window separates them from the outer space and the dueling grounds of the shattered Moon.

Slaine says as they stare at the dark cosmos and the thousands of stars, “Harklight, Count Barouhcruz and Princess Lemrina will watch the duel from the adjacent room.” He turns to face Inaho, his expression is cold. “I will be clear: you saved my life before, but I do not trust you completely.”

“The same for me, Slaine Troyard.”

“You will only speak to me if I am near defeat. Otherwise, I am cutting all communications with you. Also, Harklight will be the only one informed that I locked you in this room. ”

Inaho senses something broken in Slaine’s quiet voice. “You are afraid.” Slaine glares at him, so Inaho says, “But it is normal, given the circumstances.”

Slaine sighs. “And it seems that I hide it worse than you do.”

“Hide?”

 “I still remember your expression back in the Sleipnir, you know. When you collapsed because of your eye. It is then that I realized that you are not as emotionless as I first thought.”

Slaine’s words please Inaho, for some reason. “Your core temperature is still higher than normal. However, Marylcian is not very intelligent. Perhaps you might have the advantage.”

“…Are you trying to encourage me? People usually say, ‘you can do it’ or something similar!”

Unexpectedly, Inaho smiles. His eye senses surprise in the way Slaine’s eyes widen. “I do not act like most people. Most don’t feel comfortable, engaging in conversation with me…I tend to confuse them with my responses. But you are the first person that can immediately understand most of the things I say, and this is remarkable.”

“W-will you stop with this?!”

Why is he so flustered? “With what?”

“Tch. Forget it! I have to go. And as I said: if you contact me without a serious reason, I’m cutting off our communications.”

Slaine turns to leave but Inaho grabs his arm. When Slaine turns to face him, Inaho sees something vulnerable in the depths of Slaine’s green eyes. “Wait. You need to relax.”

“I am relaxed!”

Inaho holds Slaine’s gaze. “You are not. Listen to me, Slaine Troyard. Statistically—“

Slaine looks away, “I don’t need such pointless advice!”

Inaho withdraws his hand. “Listen to me! Take deep breaths, I do this too before each battle. And be careful.”

“…You keep telling that to me.” Slaine shakes his head. “Why?” His bright eyes are honest when they meet Inaho’s. “You were hit while insulting my enemies! I am certain that you have a higher motive, but…I can’t understand it. I can’t understand…you.”

Am I really doing it because I want to prevent another war? Or have I started caring about him? Inaho then realizes that since the duel was announced, this heavy feeling that settled in his chest is…concern.

“Why do you keep helping me?! I am supposed to be your enemy!”

“If you agree to my terms, I might reveal some of my reasons.” Inaho notices that Slaine’s heartbeats are still fast. “You survived two days stranded in the Arctic with me. At least you and your enemy will be in different Kataphrakts and with your clothes on, this time. Therefore, this situation shouldn’t be that bad.”

Slaine blinks. “You are really trying to calm—never mind.” His eyes soften then. “I survived, but I must admit that your awful flirting was the worst part… M-more awful than your annoying sneezing or the cold!”

Inaho feels the corner of his mouth rising. Is that what they call ‘teasing’? “Let’s hope that Marylcian won’t try to flirt with you. I cannot have you getting distracted in the middle of the duel.”

“Sh-shut up…! I-I would never do something like that with him!”

“But you were doing it with me.”

Slaine’s cheeks turn very red. “W-What?! No! Who would flirt with an android like you?!”

“I meant ‘getting distracted’, not ‘flirting’.”

Slaine blinks. The blond Count chuckles then, and Inaho realizes that the sound is pure and earnest. Slaine’s lips stretch into a shy smile. His expression is very innocent, and it affects Inaho’s pulse again. Inaho’s engine registers that Slaine is a lot calmer, now: his heart rate is almost normal. This satisfies Inaho. He smiles a bit.

“Why are you smiling?”

“You are smiling, too.”

Slaine quickly looks away, his cheeks still red. He fidgets in silence until, “…I need to go.” Slaine turns and walks towards the door, but he stops when Inaho says,

“Come back safe, Bat.”

Slaine is silent for a bit, but in the end he murmurs, “Thank you, Orange…” and then he’s gone.

Inaho realizes that Slaine did not lock the door.

I am concerned about him…but is this the only reason my pulse rate is so high? When he smiled, before…no, I must focus on the duel now. I will analyze this later.

#

Slaine is relatively near, so Inaho watches the Tharsis’ main screen with calmness as Harklight says, “Good hunting, Milord Slaine.” Slaine and Marylcian name their reasons, Barouhcruz confirms the duel and then both Kataphrakts soar upwards with a terrifying speed.

His only method of communication with Slaine is a private, sound-only channel that transmits to Slaine’s in-ear headphone, so that Marylcian does not listen to their conversations. Inaho’s eye can clearly observe the Kataphrakts, despite some obstacles and the long distance. In the first few seconds of the duel, Inaho swallows one of his six remaining pills: despite his long sleep during their flight to the Moon Base, his eye is still sore, probably because of Marylcian’s assault.

Inaho watches as the Tharsis soars through space, but his attention is fixed on Marylcian’s Kataphrakt, analyzing its movements and the way it attacks. How did Kaizuka manage to be so accurate regarding this data? Did he watch the duel himself?

Marylcian attacks Slaine, but the Tharsis manages to escape. Their Kataphrakts collide and separate in a dangerous, rapid hunt. After a few narrow escapes, Inaho can hear how Slaine’s breathing becomes quick and strained, as if he is already weary. A shot from Marylcian hits, causing the white Kataphrakt to shake forcefully, Slaine lets out a cry of pain. So his wound started bothering him earlier than we planned…

It is then that Marylcian uses his personal weapons to attack, the multiple needle-like objects chasing viciously like a metal rain after the Tharsis.  

Inaho grimaces as his eye starts throbbing painfully. He quickly swallows another pill; he has no other choice, as there is still a 43% possibility that Slaine might be killed.

After a few minutes of chasing and escaping, Slaine’s breathing is frantic. His Tharsis takes a hit, it goes off their planned course, Slaine shouts in agony. There is static for a few seconds, and Inaho hears the words ‘impossible’ and ‘miracle.’

Inaho decides to speak. His voice is calm,

“Correct your course. He will attack you from behind.” Inaho tells Slaine the coordinates.

Slaine grunts, but does as Inaho says and avoids Marylcian’s metal missiles. The next few seconds proceed surprisingly without any problems. Inaho corrects Slaine’s course one more time. Slaine finally lures Marylcian into an old construction tunnel, both Kataphrakts disappearing into the Moon. After a few seconds, they both emerge rapidly with Slaine chasing after a retreating Marylcian. So you managed to destroy his weapons. Well done, Bat.

The Tharsis’s image trembles and disappears for a few seconds, then reappears in his field of view. Inaho suspects that his eye is tired and malfunctioning. He takes another pill.

Tharsis’ arm withdraws then, Slaine is ready to pierce through Marylcian’s Kataphrakt—and Inaho suddenly realizes what a mistake this will be, if he doesn’t stop Slaine right this instant. If Slaine kills Marylcian, his status will increase more. I will not fail Kaizuka another time.

“Don’t kill him.”

“What are you talking about? It is within my rights to—“

Inaho’s voice is cold. “No. If you kill him, Bat, you might die.”

Static for a few seconds, and then an ironic chuckle. “Really? Is that your best threat?”

Inaho feels relieved. Marylcian just put some distance between them and Slaine is hesitating, good. “I wouldn’t lie about this. I need you alive. Do not kill him.”

“…You need me?”

“Focus on your opponent, not on my verb choices! This duel is not over yet.”

A groan, “I know!!”

And then Marylcian’s Kataphrakt charges towards the Tharsis, fast and merciless.

“Behind you, Bat, dodge it!”

“Wha—“

Slaine stops at this, Inaho’s heart is hammering against his chest, his eye hurts terribly but he observes as the Tharsis moves fluently to the side—but it is slow. Inaho watches helplessly as the two machines collide, then brutally hit the surface of the broken Moon in a terrible explosion. The space fills with smoke and Moon debris.

“Slaine, I have no visual of the Tharsis.”

There is dust everywhere, his eye could normally detect the concealed Tharsis…but there is nothing there.

 “Slaine. Answer me if you are listening.”

Why isn’t he responding? I can’t detect his position.

“Slaine.”

There is no sign of the Tharsis, not even a thermal signature. He calls Slaine’s name again. No response. Inaho’s heartbeats escalate, adrenaline rushing through his veins. Was the Tharsis annihilated from that crash? Is Slaine alive? Or could it be…could it be that Slaine died and I failed to alter his destiny? I even distracted him!

Dread stabs his chest. “Slaine Troyard!”

Only silence answers him, his eye starts hurting a lot. Inaho thought that he could tolerate pain well, but this kind of pain is rising onto a new level, flooding his mind and erasing his senses, drowning him in never-ending agony.

Just before his vision darkens and his knees hit the floor, he can’t help but think of Slaine, and what happened to him.

#

Inaho opens his eyes. He feels well-rested. He is lying on a double bed in a rather large room. How did I end up here…? No, more importantly...Slaine?

He hastily sits up, only to find a surprised Slaine looking at him, seated on a chair next to the bed. They lock gazes.

Inaho’s exhale is long and his chest feels so much lighter. He relaxes against the bed’s headboard. “Is Marylcian dead?”

Slaine shakes his head in denial, his expression guarded. “He attacked me, but I destroyed his Kataphrakt. I won the duel, although everyone questioned why I didn’t end his life. He was seriously injured, however. I will award the Herschel to Harklight.” Slaine pauses, his long eyelashes flutter as he moves his gaze around the room, not looking at Inaho. “I-I found you unconscious on the floor. Harklight helped me bring you to my room.” He takes a deep breath. “You saved my life…once again. If you haven’t warned me near the end, I…I would be dead, now.”

“It was my fault. I distracted you. And then I lost your signal—“

Slaine’s smile is gentle. “You took a large dose of your pills, didn’t you? They lower your eye’s sensitivity, you foolish Orange! Your silly machine wouldn’t be able to register my position. Moreover, my Tharsis’ communication system was damaged once again and I couldn’t answer.” A pause, and then Slaine whispers, “I heard you calling my name, though...”

Inaho blinks in surprise. My emotions distracted me. There is no other possible explanation for overlooking this. However… “My pills. You read the instructions. You were worried about me.”

Slaine fidgets. “No, I merely…I simply read the instructions!” A pause. “Tell me…did you really predict that I would die? And all of your knowledge…you cannot obtain such information from ‘predictions’. I am sure that—”

Inaho interrupts Slaine, “You made the right choice by not killing Marylcian. I won’t reveal more.”

Slaine sighs. “During his last charge, Count Marylcian even mentioned that he would, eh, punish me for insulting his hairstyle…”

Inaho blinks, waiting.

“Wh-What I mean is, his anger was clearly affecting him. He was reckless, and I exploited that. S-so… Thank you.”

“According to my data, your skills alone contributed more than 70% to your win, not my machinations. Despite being feverish and wounded, you handled the Tharsis much better than I thought. But you are welcome.”

Slaine lowers his gaze, staring at his lap. They are silent.

Inaho says then, “My eye works fine now. It detects a small gash on your head. Disinfect it soon, or it might swell later.”

Slaine slips his finger into his strands. “…Where? I can’t find it.”

Inaho leans forward, but it seems that Slaine does the same as his forehead bumps against Inaho’s nose. They withdraw and Slaine smiles shyly. Inaho stretches his body forward again, and his fingers find their way into Slaine’s pale strands. Slaine grimaces painfully when his fingers touch the gash.

It is then that Inaho realizes that Slaine’s green irises are closer than ever before. His mind shuts down momentarily, he loses himself in the mixture of colors. Slaine seems flustered. The blond Count lets out a soft, surprised sound; just from that, Inaho’s pulse soars.

They hold eye contact, Inaho’s fingers still buried in Slaine’s hair. Their breaths mingle, their lips almost brushing when Slaine whispers, “Why do you keep—“

The door opens and Harklight steps in, Slaine freezes. Inaho slowly withdraws his hand and puts some distance between them. His breathing is deep for some reason, he tries to calm down.

“M-Milord! I apologize for interrupting, I will immediately—“

From Slaine’s blush, Inaho understands that he is embarrassed. Why? However, Slaine’s voice is steady. “Th-there was nothing to interrupt, Harklight.” Slaine slowly gets up.

Harklight’s dark grey eyes jump from a flustered Slaine to a deep-breathing Inaho. His smile radiates happiness. “Should I bring breakfast for two, Milord?”

Breakfast? For how long was I sleeping? Was Slaine sitting here the entire night? Impossible.

Slaine’s eyes widen. He then slides his gaze to the side, “Yes, please do so, Harklight.” He walks away and disappears behind a door on the other side of the room, perhaps in order to take care of his wounds. His limp is worse, now. His leg wound must still be painful.

Inaho gets up. Harklight is observing him with gentle eyes. Why is he so happy? Harklight hesitates, but then he asks,

“If I may…are you Milord’s partner, now?”

Inaho blinks. “No.” Why does he keep assuming that?

Inaho’s engine detects surprise, then disappointment and confusion. Harklight sighs. “I truly cannot underst—“ He stops and straightens his posture, clearing his throat. He smiles, as if hiding a laugh. “I apologize, I will return soon with two portions of breakfast.”

Why is he amused, now? I am sure that he trusts me, however. Inaho stops him, “Harklight-san.”

Harklight turns and Inaho continues,

“You have seen how accurate my…predictions are.”

Harklight nods.

“And you have observed that I am usually telling the truth.”

Harklight’s expression is now serious. “Indeed.”

“If this war does not end soon, Slaine Troyard will die. And I am here to prevent this.”

Harklight’s eyes widen, but Slaine steps inside the room. “What is the matter, Harklight? Your face is pale.”

Harklight swallows. “I…I apologize, Milord. I shall go and bring you breakfast.” Harklight is gone, but not before he bestows an inquiring look on Inaho.

Slaine seems a bit confused. “I-I disinfected the wound…” He composes his features, “After we have breakfast, I want to talk to you about something important.”

Inaho meets Slaine’s determined eyes. “Me too, Slaine Troyard.” Inaho then remembers the way his pulse rose abnormally, before Harklight stepped inside. Every time it happened Slaine was near, or I was observing him. I have never felt something like this before. What is this unknown feeling…?

Chapter Text

The sun rises, and soon the sound of vehicles arriving in the front garden is heard. Slaine quickly pulls his hand out of Inaho’s hold, as if burned.

Slaine stands up. His sad gaze drifts over the rose garden for a few seconds, then comes to meet Inaho’s. Slaine turns, silently, and disappears inside the house.

For the first time in his life, Inaho can’t subdue his memories and thoughts; his mind keeps recalling everything that occurred in the last few hours, and Inaho’s emotions turn chaotic.

#

Inaho steps inside the living room. Yuki is patting Slaine’s hair with a sad expression, Slaine seems a bit uncomfortable. It seems that both said their goodbyes, as Yuki says when she notices Inaho, “Ah, I’ll l-leave Slaine-kun to you, N-Nao…” and then almost runs upstairs.

Someone knocks on the door, and Inaho opens it, Slaine next to him. It is a new guard with civilian clothes—Slaine’s transport is confidential.

He doesn’t salute Inaho. “I will escort the prisoner from here on.”          

Slaine steps forward, and allows himself to be handcuffed. He then turns to Inaho, “I forgot the bag with my clothes in the kitchen.”

Inaho orders the guard, “Wait here.”

#

Inaho holds Slaine’s bag and as he returns from the kitchen the guard’s voice is heard,

“I'll talk however I want about this one-eyed bastard! I saw the photo, you know. When he was caught having his ‘moments’ with you on the shore.”

Inaho drops the bag, runs, he is now in the front garden, where the guard has a restraining hand on Slaine’s shoulder, leading him towards a disguised prison vehicle. Slaine seems unfazed, his bright eyes now cool and distanced.

“Tell me, how often does he fu—” 

Inaho’s tone is careful with restrained anger. “Release him. Slaine Troyard is not a threat right now.” The guard reluctantly withdraws his hand, and Slaine slowly distances himself from the man. “Any sort of violence against the prisoner will not be tolerated. You also insulted your commanding officer. Your behavior is noted and will lead to your dismissal.”

The man’s eyes narrow. “You are not my commanding officer, Kaizuka.” The guard stops momentarily but then continues, scrutinizing Inaho, “I was stationed at the Deucalion, you know. Not that you would ever notice, with that piss-off attitude of yours.” The guard tilts his head towards Slaine. “My entire squad died because of him. And then, three years after the end of the war, they assigned me here. And what did I find out? Not only Troyard’s alive, but the ‘prodigy’ has been visiting and nursing him back to health…!” The guard focuses on Inaho, enraged, “You never even gave a shit about your own comrades, you—“

Inaho wants to avoid the conflict—the only victim will logically be Slaine, in the end. His voice is calm, interrupting the man’s rant, “My actions shouldn’t concern you. Apologize to Slaine Troyard or I—”

Slaine’s voice is surprisingly deep and irate, “I don’t need an apology! That idiot is trying to insult you, you fool!”  

The guard sneers, “Hah? Troyard’s defending you? It seems that the rumors are true, then…”

Slaine tone is on the edge of curiosity and anger, “What rumors?”

Inaho swallows his irritation. “Slaine, that’s enough. Simply ignore him until the General arrives.”

The officer addresses Inaho, spitting out the words, “No, it isn’t enough. Tell me, do you really force Troyard to bend over and spread for you, you sick bastard?”

Slaine hisses, “What? You dare accuse In—” and then he stops, eyes wide for a moment, but they narrow dangerously as he takes a step towards the guard.

Inaho rapidly moves in front a (potentially dangerous) Slaine, blocking his path with an outstretched hand. Staying calm requires immense effort, and Slaine’s behavior was never within Inaho’s analysis of the situation. Inaho’s pulse is quick, his voice is low, “Listen to me. Don’t attack or affront that man until the General arrives.”

Slaine turns to face him, his eyes are narrowed, his teeth almost barred. Inaho is reminded of last night’s outburst, but this time… Did the guard’s insinuations offend you that much, Slaine? Why are you so angry?

Inaho recalls his bullied years. He whispers, “I have observed that behavioral pattern before: He is verbally provoking you, you will attack him and in the end, statistically, you will be the only one held responsible. His superior officer isn’t in your favor, Slaine. This man’s actions could be deliberate, planned.” The man’s co-workers are nowhere to be seen. The board or Blanchet must have paid him for causing a scene or insulting us. One of us would react violently, and the board would have an excuse to prohibit me from visiting you.

Slaine turns, guard forgotten, his whole attention is now on Inaho, scrutinizing him. Traces of anger are still there, “What do you mean by that? What is going on? 

In the corner of his eye, Inaho watches as the man loses his patience. He calculates the distance and prepares himself to counter the blow and send the guard landing with his face in the dirt; regrettably, because there will surely be consequences from Blanchet—

Marina Berti comes behind the guard, grabs his raised arm and with a few professional grips has the man restrained, lying immobilized on the ground. She is smiling. The other two officers, Keil and Honda, stand behind her.

“Mr. Kaizuka! Can you inform me on the reason behind this ruckus?”

A tall, middle-aged man approaches. It is Blanchet, the new head of the board. Four UFE officers trail behind him.

Marina speaks up before Inaho does, and says that the man harassed her. Keil and Honda confirm her statement. Inaho blinks. I did not foresee that…but the emotional factor can be unpredictable, sometimes.

Blanchet’s eyes narrow. He addresses the guard and dismisses him permanently, and the man reacts loudly to this.

Was I wrong, previously? Did the man just express his hatred against me? Or were his actions deliberate—Blanchet dismissed him without even hearing his case…

As the guard is forcefully dragged away by Siegfried Keil, Blanchet turns to Slaine. “Mr. Troyard, I think we lost enough time. Get into the vehicle.”

#

In the vehicle, Inaho sits next to a blindfolded and handcuffed Slaine, and soon they are on their way back.

After they step inside the building, Slaine is escorted to the infirmary, where he receives the toxin’s antidote under Inaho’s and Blanchet’s supervision.

They exit the infirmary. Blanchet informs Inaho that some water pipes broke last week in the northern wing of the building. Repairs will take some time, as most of their funds are used for the salary of the new guards. Inaho asks questions, which are rejected by a gesture of Blanchet’s hand.

Blanchet’s actions will be problematic. I should monitor him closely…but this will cost time.

It is then that Inaho decides his course of action: the fastest way to take care of his problems is to free Slaine, and soon—it is impossible to continue watching over all the guards and the board’s members, and at the same time plan a flawless escape.

He could ask for his friends’ help, but he decides to act upon this idea only if he sees it necessary.

#

Inaho and Slaine step into the usual room, Slaine sits down without a word.

Inaho sets the chessboard on the table, arranging the pieces like countless times before. The anger is gone, now replaced by a strong sadness. Inside these grey walls, each breath seems heavier and heavier.

“Slaine.”

Slaine meets his gaze, breaking his silence. “Yes?”

“You were offended by what he said.”

Slaine’s amused chuckle is unexpected. “You are such a fool. I don’t care about a single word he said about me.”

Inaho sits, his brow furrows. “He insulted you.”

 “How? By…by suggesting that we…?” Slaine looks away. “J-Just leave the matter alone, Inaho.”

“Slaine, his tone was derogatory—“

Slaine shrugs his shoulders. “His insults weren’t even mediocre. Now move your pawn or I will do it—”

Inaho’s logic warns him not to ask, but “Mediocre?”

Slaine sighs, “Being the only Terran on Mars, I’ve been told worse as a child…much worse.” Slaine’s bright eyes are dull once again. And then Slaine snaps back to the present, his lips are pressed together, his gaze is hostile, “Satisfied now?”

There must be something betraying of Inaho’s sadness on his features because as their eyes meet, Slaine stays still, eyes slowly opening wide.

Slaine smiles a bit, then. “Orange...when I came to live with you, I-I never expected what I got.” Slaine lowers his gaze, “They can say whatever they wish, that won’t change what happened during those three months…” Slaine clears his throat, “C-come on now, you always take the white. It’s your move.”

Inaho decides to continue with this, “Bat, you haven’t slept all night. In order to execute tasks with high demands such as playing chess, your brain needs at least—”

“Stop!” Slaine arches a pale eyebrow. “You too haven’t slept, so my chances of winning are more than good. Now stop analyzing everything and move your damned pawn!”

Inaho moves his knight instead, and Slaine shakes his head in what Inaho hopes to be faint amusement.

#

Inaho returns home that night and walks inside Slaine’s bedroom, in order to clean it one last time. He is surprised to find it spotless, with a perfectly made bed. Slaine must have cleaned it before he stepped inside my room, last night...

What surprises him most, however, are the two paper planes sitting neatly on Slaine’s bed. Slaine even made them face each other, their names in Slaine’s cursive handwriting noticeable on their wings: Sleipnir, Tharsis.

Inaho remembers: Some evenings near the end of his stay, Slaine would sit on the couch in the living room with a paper plane in his hands, scrutinizing it thoughtfully. Inaho never paid much attention to Slaine’s unusual habit.

As for Inaho, he never cared much about his paper plane. It was merely a folded piece of paper, he thought that Yuki or Slaine had thrown it away weeks ago.

Perhaps he desires to fly again. Still, it’s been two months since we created them. Why did Slaine keep my paper plane in his room all this time?

Inaho leaves the paper planes untouched and exits the room with a heavy heart. He closes the door behind him, wondering about Slaine’s unusual interest in those two origami constructions.

Inaho mechanically walks down the stairs and inside the kitchen, where he proceeds to prepare curry rice for two.

#

“Yuki-nee.”

They are sitting at the kitchen table, eating the curry rice in silence.

Yuki is not munching on her food as usual, she has barely eaten anything. “Mmm?”

“I love him.”

Yuki almost chokes, she drinks some water. Inaho waits for her to calm down, she then wears a wide smile. Before she starts talking,  

“Your behavior that morning was inexcusable, however.”

Yuki giggles. “I wish I had a camera to film your reaction! I never thought that a couple of innocent strawberries would make you lose your cool composure, Nao~” Her smile is gone, “Slaine-kun really enjoyed his time here though…”

With a painful beat of his heart, Inaho remembers Slaine’s admission. He wonders what kind of life Slaine had, because from Inaho’s observations, all Slaine needed in order to be content were a few roses, a cat and many chess matches…Or was there something more? Slaine mentioned that my actions made him believe he has future… But how? What exactly did I do? I wish I had an answer to that question.

“Yuki-nee, you first came here in order to take care of me after I removed my analytical engine. The original plan was for you to stay with me for two years, but you extended that period to three.”

Yuki nods, “…And?”

Inaho takes a deep breath. “I wish to stay on my own for the next few months. You should accept that promotion you always yearned for but declined, because of me. The UFE Headquarters would gladly accept you as a lieutenant.”

Yuki tilts her head. “Nao…?”

“You should move out of here.”

#

It takes lots of heated discussions and more arguments, but in the end Yuki gives in. Before she leaves, she makes Inaho swear that he will call her every day, and inform her on everything that concerns Slaine. Inaho knows that he will only keep the first part of the deal.

The day after Yuki’s departure, Inaho gets into an everyday, strict schedule. He wakes up early in the morning, feeds Rayleigh, works on the escape and takes care of Slaine’s roses—the thought crossed his mind, to give up on them and let them wither, as they are merely insignificant flowers and Slaine’s freedom is his first priority…but he couldn’t. Inaho knows that as soon as his plans succeed and he frees Slaine, he will never return to this house. But Slaine cared for these roses; he planted them and nurtured them. Slaine made him promise that he would take care of them.

Inaho ignores his logic and decides to keep that promise, despite the precious hours that it costs.

He visits Slaine at noon, and they play a game of chess. After he returns, he continues working on his plans, feeds Rayleigh and eats something, and then it’s all the same again.

#

No other guards bother Slaine, nothing changes. Inaho hopes for this situation to continue, though his logic tells him that the UFE might make another move, and soon.

His friends want to visit, but Inaho refuses. He always makes up believable excuses, and manages to keep everyone away.

After a few sleepless nights, Inaho completes his research on the guards’ backgrounds, not finding anything suspicious (as he expected). They were all previous UFE officers, their mental and criminal history is spotless, and they have almost no relatives. Most guards sleep and live in the prison, so it is understandable.

#

Inaho’s dreams always consisted of a few vague memories or colors. The dreams would usually be nightmares, and would sometimes become clearer after a traumatic event, like Okojo’s death.

Now, Inaho dreams of Slaine at least three times per week. He knows, because the dreams are both nightmares and peaceful ones.

One morning he opens his eye and is under the strong impression that he has to get up and prepare breakfast for two persons; he dreamt that he and Slaine were living together, somewhere. Slaine was in a romantic relationship with him, and they were watching a movie on the TV, of all things to do. Slaine was laughing.

The tranquility of the dream accompanies him for the rest of the day.

#

Some days go by, and Inaho’s encrypted files about Slaine’s escape keep multiplying.

#

It is a usual chess match. Slaine moves his white knight. “D5 to F6, check.”

Inaho’s king manages to escape, and then Slaine says, “You…You should start wearing other clothes. I am sick of those blue jackets and black ties of yours.”

Inaho’s hand stays hovering over his white queen. Since when does Slaine care about my appearance? Inaho moves his queen. “D2 to B4. Do you have any suggestions?”

Slaine’s head is bowed, he is observing the chessboard. “I am not going to be your personal stylist, Inaho! J-Just put on something…different, for once.” Slaine keeps his head bowed, and Inaho can’t see his expression well. “You dress like a middle-aged man. You should try a-another color…or a different shirt…wear something red…” Slaine’s voice trails off, and then he quickly shouts, “H4 to E7!”

Does Slaine prefer red clothes? His Count’s uniform was red, too…

#

Inaho orders new clothes online. The next day, the guards stare at him as he passes through the corridor, and when he steps inside their usual room where Slaine is waiting, the ex-Count freezes the moment he notices him.

“Are these…black jeans? A white shirt? And now a red tie?!”

“Yes. What is your point?”

“Did you even look in the mirror?! It’s almost the same as before!”

“Black and white is a commonly used combination. And as for the tie, you suggested that I ‘wear something red’.”

Slaine’s cheeks now compete with the color of Inaho’s tie. He sighs, resignedly. “Let’s just forget about this.”

After both of them move a few pieces, however, “Y-you should try to wear something without a tie…now finish with A5 to B4, I know that’s your next move!”

From that day on, Inaho forgoes the tie. He keeps experimenting a bit with the rest of his clothing, whenever he finds the time. He tries to wear more red.

#

Inaho closes the glass door behind him. Slaine has already set up the chessboard, and when he notices Inaho, the corners of his mouth rise. It’s faint, but it’s there. Slaine greets him with that expression often now, and a wave of pleasant warmth flows through Inaho’s body each time it happens.

Inaho places the red rose on the table. Slaine’s green eyes open huge, smile gone.

“Wh-why did you bring this here?”

“They did not allow me to bring Rayleigh to you.”

Slaine frowns. “You do realize that Rayleigh is an animal, and this—“ Slaine points at the rose from a distance, as if he’s afraid of it, “This is a flower!”

Inaho sits down. “A perfect observation. Thank you for pointing it out.”

Slaine groans, “Orange!

Inaho almost smiles. “It’s a rose from your garden. I promised you that I would take care of them, so this is my proof that your roses did not wither.”

It happens often, these days: Slaine’s cheeks gain a red tinge and he avoids eye contact. Inaho has spent hours trying to understand Slaine’s embarrassment, but he always arrives at a mental dead-end.

“A-and how do I know that you did not buy this at the local flower shop?

“The ‘local flower shop’ is located in the nearest town, which is three hours away by car. Theoretically, it would be pointless, if you calculate the time needed to—”

Slaine groans, “Fine!” He then murmurs, “You don’t even realize what a red rose—never mind. But don’t you bring another! You will annihilate whatever’s left of our—of your roses if you keep bringing them here.”

Inaho decides to oblige Slaine’s wish. He can’t help however but ask about a long-time conclusion of his, softly, “Slaine, are these roses…important to you?”

Slaine raises his head and stares surprised at him for a few silent moments, Inaho counts them with his fast heartbeats. Slaine’s eyes sadden then, and Inaho has to suppress his unexpected longing to touch Slaine in a comforting way.

“I appreciate that you brought this here…but you can’t bring me another. Let them bloom under the sun.” He murmurs, “It will be better that way…”

Inaho doesn’t add anything else, and moves a white pawn.

After a few silent moments, “Instead of roses…can’t you bring me some lemonade?”

Inaho blinks. “Lemonade?”

Slaine’s green eyes contrast his flushed cheeks, he is serious. “I want your lemonade.”

Did you enjoy it that much? Inaho remembers, “I can also bring you strawberries, if the board approves of this.”

Slaine’s eyes open wide, mesmerizing. “I...I would like that.”

In the end, the board approves only of the lemonade. Inaho fills a large thermos with the bittersweet beverage and brings it to Slaine, then refills it every two days. Slaine has lost some weight since returning to the prison, so Inaho thinks that the sugary drink will do him good.

#

Some nights, Inaho lies awake in bed with Rayleigh curled up next to him. Of all things, he can’t bear the thought of Slaine in his small cell, waking up disturbed from a nightmare and having no one near to comfort him—even if Slaine always refused that comfort.

#

Inaho is awake in the early hours of the morning, working on Slaine’s escape plan. His cell phone rings annoyingly, the number is withheld. Warily, he accepts the call:

“Mr. Kaizuka!” Inaho immediately recognizes the deep, whispered voice: it’s Siegfried Keil. “Slaine Troyard was injured during a fight with one of the new guards, Lloyd.” Siegfried adds that he was not authorized to contact Inaho, and that Inaho must find an excuse for coming to the prison at 6:30 in the morning.

“I’ll be right there.” Among his frenzied thoughts, Inaho adds to the list Keil’s (perhaps) honest reaction, which must later be analyzed. He also makes up his excuse; he doesn’t care if it’s plausible.

#

The guards are surprised to see Inaho that early in the morning. He doesn’t spare them a second glance as he walks, almost runs through the long corridor towards the infirmary, briefly meeting Siegfried’s eyes before barging into the sterile room.

Slaine is sitting alone on the examination bed, and from his profile and relaxed posture Inaho realizes that the injuries are not life-threatening. Actually…Inaho doesn’t notice any lacerations or other wounds on Slaine’s face and arms, and that makes breathing much easier—until Slaine realizes that there is someone else in the room and turns his head; and Inaho’s heart throbs painfully at the sight. There are black and purple discolorations around Slaine’s left eye, his eyelid and cheek are badly swollen. Slaine’s right eye widens, half of his features exposing his surprise.

Something scorching runs through Inaho’s veins. Two nurses choose that moment to enter. Inaho orders them with a flat voice to leave the room. Something must be wrong with his voice or expression, as the staff immediately scatters.

Inaho silently approaches Slaine. His injury is not grave, so: “I must examine your eye.”

Slaine blinks.

“…Can I?”

Slaine hesitates, but eventually nods.

With gentle hands, Inaho cups Slaine’s face and carefully turns his head in order to take a better look at the mass of dark colors around Slaine’s eye. Inaho assesses the damage, his heart thrashing at the sight. Slaine stays silent, his skin is hot under Inaho’s palms. The green irises never leave Inaho’s face.

“Both of the guard’s eyes are black now, you know.” Slaine murmurs. “I also dislocated his shoulder, although I didn’t wish to.”

Inaho withdraws his hands, now certain that Slaine’s injury is common and easily treatable. His voice is firm. “Are you hurt anywhere else? Don’t conceal anything from me.”

Slaine seems a bit taken aback. “No.” Under Inaho’s stare, Slaine sighs. “It’s the truth. He didn’t manage to do much.”

Inaho’s pulse still hasn’t calmed down. His mouth feels dry. “Tell me what happened.”

Slaine seems reluctant to speak, but after watching Inaho’s face with a wide eye for a few silent moments, “He attacked me in my sleep.”

The words flow before Inaho can stop them, “Did you notice signs of nausea? Vertigo? These are possible signs of a head trauma, mostly a concussion—”

Slaine shakes his head, “No. Just—stop this.”

“No, I need more information about the—”

“Fine!” Slaine sighs in annoyance. “He tried to strangle me! He said that because of the war I started, his friends died, his hometown was annihilated. He kept calling me a monster...” Slaine’s eyes close, half of his features show intense emotional pain. Before Inaho acts, Slaine has composed himself again. He takes deep breaths, but his voice trembles a bit when he speaks, “But I-I fought back. He punched me, I rendered him unconscious, and then—and then Mr. Siegfried found us. That’s all.”

Inaho manages not to be consumed by his emotions. He quickly searches among the medicinal supplies around him and finds an ice pack. He wraps it around a towel and presses it against Slaine’s bruised and swollen skin. Slaine hisses loudly.

That sound of pain tears at Inaho’s heart. “I’m sorry.” Not only for hurting Slaine right now, Inaho means much more with this apology; but Slaine’s eyes darken and he says as he grabs the icepack from Inaho,

“I’m not made out of glass, you know.”

“Of course, the human body is much tougher than—“

Slaine groans in annoyance. “W-Why must you always be so gentle?”

Inaho’s pulse rises more, if possible. “Your wellbeing is important to me.”

“You said that before. In your—in your room.”

Inaho remembers Slaine crying in his arms. “I meant it.”

Their eyes meet for a long moment. Slaine looks away.

“You can’t fix this, Kaizuka Inaho.” Inaho suspects that Slaine isn’t referring to the swelling of his eye. Slaine whispers, “What the guard said…this is something I must accept and live with, every day of my life.”

Inaho is ready to answer with heavy words, but Slaine is faster. His voice is gentle, and Inaho knows that if he interrupts Slaine now, he will miss something important.

Slaine has lowered his gaze, his pale eyelashes are touching his skin. “You know, both on Earth and on Mars…” He stops.

Inaho sits right next to Slaine, looking ahead. “Yes?”

“No, it’s not important.”

“It is, for me.” Inaho keeps his voice soft, as he learned to address Rayleigh the early days, when the cat was easily upset. “Tell me, Slaine. I want to know.”

After a bit of silence, Slaine murmurs, “Solace was something I sought after during all my childhood, on Earth and Mars. I had long given up on my attempts to find it. B-but then…”

Inaho waits in sadness, Slaine’s body is warm next to his.

“Then you arrive, and you refuse to go away. And you somehow manage to be nearby, each time I—each time…” Slaine’s exhale is long, but he smiles faintly. “I-I still haven’t decided if I hate this, or…or if I should accept that this stubbornness of yours is a force that I can’t do anything against.”

“It isn’t always stubbornness.”Inaho swallows his tenseness. “I care.”

Slaine’s shoulders drop. “Don’t hide behind cheap lies. I want to know the truth.”

“No, your sense of judgment is flawed. I am telling you the truth.”

Slaine is silent, thinking. Then,

“Why did you hug me?” Slaine’s free hand fidgets with his pendant. “What I mean is, I…I can’t believe that you, of all people, h-hug or hold people’s hands when you just care for them. I haven’t even seen you initiate a hug with your own sister!” 

That question was unexpected. What is he trying to say? “Yes, I rarely initiate hugs. I don’t particularly feel comfortable when hugged, and I also lack the experience when it comes to hugging people or holding their hands. However, you are not like other people. You are unique.”

Slaine’s mouth forms an ‘o’. “U-unique?”

Inaho feels his cheeks warming. “I…I care for you, as I said.”

Slaine sighs. Inaho notices that Slaine’s cheeks are now red. He wonders, once again, why Slaine is blushing so frequently when they talk. Slaine repositions the icepack, now partially hiding his face behind it. Inaho however observes that the tips of Slaine’s ears are very red.

“Y-you confuse me s-so much... A-Anyway, why are you here so early?”

The change of subject means that Slaine is feeling uncomfortable, this is something Inaho knows well after so many years. He uses his excuse,

“…I came to tell you that I wouldn’t be able to visit you for three days, as I’m leaving today. However, after this incident—“

Slaine’s face partially reappears behind the pack. His eyes are clear, the bright left iris still visible under his swollen eyelid. “Just go wherever it is you should go. If you are so worried about my wellbeing, you should know that you helped me defend myself. I ended up just with a swollen eye because of our runs at the beach, and our practice in your garden.”

 Slaine’s eyes are dull again, he is lost. “I am not that Terran child who can’t defend himself... And I won’t endure any abuse from the guards, as I...as I used to.” He clenches his fists, “I am not that person anymore.”

The words make Inaho close his eye and take a deep breath. “I promised you—“

The infirmary door opens then. Inaho is immediately alert, as General Blanchet enters the room. It seems that the prison staff notified him. If not for Keil’s call, Inaho wouldn’t be able to arrive before Blanchet did. Blanchet’s eyes narrow momentarily when he perceives Inaho in the room, he understands apparently that someone notified Inaho. His small eyes dart from Inaho to Slaine as he says,

“Mr. Lloyd will be dismissed. I won’t tolerate any kind of violence in this institution. The same goes for you, Mr. Troyard. Officers Berti and Keil mentioned that you acted in self-defense so for now, I will let the matter slide. However, such behavior won’t be tolerated again. You will remain in your cell today. Guards!”

Three guards step into the room and Slaine lets himself be guided outside, icepack still pressed against his eye.

Blanchet turns to Inaho. “You always come at noon. What changed today, Mr. Kaizuka?”

Inaho was either way going to have a talk with Asseylum and soon. She might prove herself a useful ally. “I am leaving for Mars in a few hours. I won’t be able to visit Slaine Troyard for the next three days.”

Blanchet is unimpressed. “So you had to inform the prisoner of your absence, of course.”

Inaho raises his voice. “Slaine Troyard was injured. What does the board have to say at this, General?”

Blanchets ignores the accusation. “Trust me, Mr. Kaizuka. I will ensure that such an incident will not recur.”

Blanchet seems honest. As I thought. You want him unharmed, in order to use him. Inaho’s blood is boiling, but he cannot risk anything. “I assumed that Slaine Troyard’s physical and mental wellbeing was the board’s first priority. Yet it seems that you are unable of keeping him unharmed. You are also incapable of controlling your subordinates’ actions. You are—“

“Mr. Kaizuka!” Blanchet’s eyebrows furrow momentarily, but then his expression returns to apathetic. He turns to leave the room. “The prisoner is safe. The rest shouldn’t concern a mere civilian like you. You shouldn’t forget that Troyard is dangerous—he is merely an animal which should be kept inside our cage.”Blanchet gestures around him. “It would be better for you if you distanced yourself from him. Accidents are likely to happen…it wouldn’t be appropriate if the people of Earth lost an irreplaceable war hero now, would it?”

Without another word, Blanchet leaves.

Inaho remembers the photographer’s ‘accident’. Chances that something like this might happen to him are very low. Nevertheless, from that day onward, Inaho decides to carry his gun at all times with him.

#

During his flight towards Mars, Inaho alters his plans. His new idea is bolder and unsafe, but if Inaho arranges every detail, Slaine will be free in less than a month.

He also tries to uncover information about Lloyd and seek revenge, but he is unable to find anything, not even the files Inaho has already discovered—it is as if the man never existed.

The situation is familiar. The officer who was fired the day Slaine left my house…he also disappeared in a similar way. This is no coincidence, I must investigate these incidents the moment I return home.

#

When Inaho thought of his potential visit on Mars, he planned on staying for three days—on his haste, he even misinformed Blanchet. After today’s incidents however, he decides to stay for a few hours and return to the prison next morning.

It is afternoon when he finally arrives, unexpected, so he must wait for an hour until Asseylum is available. He then watches as she hurriedly steps inside the rich furnished room to greet him. Her appearance is the same as Inaho remembers from her wedding, her hair is still long, her eyes still cheerful. She is smiling and seems genuinely happy to see him.

She sits on the couch opposite him. “Inaho-san! I am so happy to see you again!”

If the circumstances were different, Inaho would engage in the necessary small talk before getting into the point. However, each second that Slaine spends in that facility may bring him harm. Inaho doesn’t lose much time. “Asseylum. I need to talk to you about something vital. It concerns Slaine Troyard.”

He watches as her happy expression turns surprised and then crumbles down. She is lost in thought and then, “It was my husband’s idea to form the board, to unite Martians and Terrans in order to look after Slaine... I never expected that the UFE would demand his custody. On the other hand, Klancain reassured me that Slaine is in good hands.” 

Klancain? Inaho lets this new piece of information register. “Have you considered that the UFE’s intervention in Slaine Troyard’s current situation is a result of political errors? Seven Landing Castles are currently occupying large parts of the Earth’s territory, and Vers has made no efforts in order to discourage their owners.”

Asseylum smiles reassuringly. “Inaho-san, I understand your concern, but only with peaceful negotiations can understanding be achieved. There is no need to wage another pointless war.”

"Then, do you believe that the UFE’s influence will be beneficial for Slaine? He was abused in the past, even going so far to harm himself, and you believed that the board would solve these problems, as Count Vornt described Slaine’s actions a few years ago. That was the reason you appointed them. In the end, their actions can’t be described as helpful.”

Asseylum seems troubled but Inaho continues, "Slaine's condition will not improve as things are. The board is not to be trusted.”

Asseylum looks down, interlacing her fingers and letting them rest on her lap. "General Blanchet already told me that you believe that... I understand that you care for Slaine, Inaho-san. I know you would never harm him or exploit him, as the board warned me.” She smiles. “I assure you, each member of the board was carefully selected by me and my husband, Klancain!"

So Klancain is definitely involved…I was unaware of this. Inaho remembers the Tharsis. "His Majesty is not very objective, regarding Slaine Troyard."

"But isn't it better, that way?"

Inaho takes a deep breath. "Count Klancain would be the legitimate heir of the Tharsis, for example, but Slaine Troyard got hold of it before Klancain did, and the white Kataphrakt was completely destroyed during Slaine’s fall on Earth." And does Klancain even care about Slaine’s wellbeing? It must be the opposite. He was Slaine’s political opponent, after all.

“I...I don't understand. Count Cruhteo cared for Slaine deeply, so he left his Kataphrakt to him. My husband admitted this.”

Klancain again? He did not know that his father abused Slaine? Or is he lying? But it is as Eddelrittuo said. Asseylum does not know about Slaine’s abuse. Should I reveal the truth? But it is Slaine's decision, in the end. As always, he kept silent about it...

Asseylum speaks, “When I spoke with Slaine during his stay in your home, he reassured me that everything was fine with my decision.” She hesitates. “When we spoke...he was polite, but—but there was something different about him…”

“People tend to change. Perhaps there was a certain reason behind Slaine’s change.”

“Perhaps there was…” Asseylum stops at this and the conversation comes at an awkward pause.

Inaho wants to ask about the kind of justice the Vers Empire finds appropriate, as dozens of Counts remain unpunished. About Asseylum’s hesitation to get into contact with him in the first two years after the war ended, or about her hesitation to visit Slaine; the questions are at least thirty, but this is not the time for such a discussion. Asseylum is an Empress now, she needs to take care of the people of Vers, and Inaho respects that. Moreover, time is valuable and Inaho intends to spend it all for Slaine’s sake.

She trusts Klancain, and Klancain approves of Blanchet. I must be careful with my words. “You once asked me to save Slaine Troyard from the ‘chains of misery’. However, you and your government decided upon his punishment; lifetime imprisonment. You and your husband also appointed the board. And now, I have reasons to believe that Slaine’s environment isn’t...healthy. If things remain as they are, I will never be able to act upon your request.” 

At this, Asseylum stays silent. Her eyes remind Inaho of Okojo in class, when the teacher called on him and Okojo didn’t know the right answer. She smiles sadly, then. “This won’t go on forever.” She meets Inaho’s eyes, confidently. “My husband and I have already discussed this. Slaine will stay a few more years in prison, but eventually he will be set free—with austere terms at the beginning, of course. Count Vornt may be strict, but General Blanchet is a kind and honest man, like the rest of the UFE Generals responsible for Slaine. We, the Vers Empire, will renegotiate with the UFE for Slaine’s custody. And after Slaine repents of his actions and is set free…” Her voice is sweet, “I hope for Slaine that one day, he will find a peaceful place in this world.”

It is then that Inaho understands. Unless he finds concrete evidence about Blanchet’s plans, he is alone in this. Slaine is in danger. There will never be any peace for him until he escapes that. And even then, his emotional scars might not let him find that peace...

I must try a different approach, then. The UFE shouldn’t be trusted that easily. “Slaine’s 'death' and the debasement of his name restored the peace you wished: the people of Earth and Vers are united in their hatred against Slaine’s name. However, lies such as this are fragile. Be careful of who you trust, Asseylum.”

Her eyes widen. “Inaho-san... Why are you talking like that? We have achieved peace, what can go wrong from now on?”

“The UFE and the Vers Empire are just dependent on each other. They don’t coexist. History might repeat itself, if things remain unchanged.”

Asseylum seems troubled. “You believe that a war may come? What reasons would Vers have to start a war?”

Not only Vers. If Inaho was a few years younger, he would patiently start listing all of his theories. However,

"Please be more aware of your surroundings, and we will have this discussion again.” After I ensure Slaine is safe. “This is something that cannot be explained with words alone. It is good, donating Aldnoah reactors to the UFE, or even visiting UFE orphanages and engaging in birdwatching with the children,  but you should do more, if you wish for the peace that was based on Slaine’s 'death' to continue."

Asseylum’s expression is very serious, she is clearly contemplating Inaho’s words. "I understand, Inaho-san. I will do my best to follow your advice.”She hesitates. “However, I'm afraid that I should postpone your request for a few weeks... One of the reasons I wanted to call you here is to announce something to you!” She smiles, it’s a smile that betrays great joy. “And as you decided to accept my invitation today, I want you to be the second, after my husband, to know…" Her hand comes to rest on her lower abdomen and Inaho understands.

“You are pregnant.”

Asseylum beams. "Yes!”

"Congratulations."

“Thank you, Inaho-san!” 

Inaho stays silent. I am happy for her. However, Asseylum's beliefs won’t let her recognize her misconceptions. She is of no use to me, like this. Perhaps I should go ahead and free Slaine. None will be able to exploit him then. After Slaine is free, I will try—

“Inaho-san? The doctors insisted that I stop traveling to Earth until the end of my pregnancy, as the added cosmic radiation during the journeys will be bad for the child. So, I want to entrust Slaine’s safety to you, Inaho-san. I will not be able to revisit Earth for the next few weeks.”

"I understand."

“I will try my best to follow your advice from Vers. Inaho-san? Are you listening? You seem tired…Your room is ready, if you wish to rest…”

Inaho stops with his thoughts, again. He feels very tired after today but, "No, I must return to Earth."

"But-but you arrived just now! And I would love to introduce you to my husband, tommorow!”

"I must ensure that Slaine is safe, as your Majesty requested. I apologize for leaving so abruptly. Goodbye, Asseylum."

#

In his hotel room, a few hours before he leaves Mars, Inaho opens his tablet and rereads some classified archives of the Martian Counts that went missing after the Second War—he asked Eddelrittuo for them a few months ago. He is satisfied with his discoveries.

He thought about informing Eddelrittuo or his friends of Slaine’s existence and escape, but Inaho cannot afford to lose precious days in explanations, or in attempts to control his friends’ reactions. Slaine is still the mastermind behind the war, for them. Inaho has decided; only Yuki will eventually know, in time.

#

In the aircraft during his return to Earth, Inaho realizes that Asseylum used to hold a large place in his heart, a few years ago. He is sure however that he cannot disregard her, though innocent, overlooking of Slaine’s situation; both when Slaine served under Cruhteo and now. Inaho knows that the feelings he once had for Asseylum can never be compared to what he feels now towards Slaine. Asseylum was dear to him— but even today, he is not sure if he was ever in love with her.

Slaine however is the first person that makes his emotions impossible to control, and that alone is extraordinary. Feelings are no physical laws; Inaho cannot understand them easily. But Inaho knows what he wants: for Slaine to find happiness, and Inaho won’t ever stop until he has achieved that.

#

Inaho arrives at the local airport at seven next morning, and at noon he is already on his way to the prison.

What alerts him first is that some of the guards seem completely surprised when he steps his foot inside the building. Then, the personnel doesn’t allow Inaho to proceed any further, General Blanchet is notified. Inaho is constantly on edge, he keeps reminding himself that his plans will soon be complete, he should try to act as usual.

Inaho is lead to the conference room, where he talks through a communication channel with Blanchet. Blanchet seems a bit surprised from Inaho’s sudden arrival. And then, Blanchet informs Inaho that a military air show organized by ‘Her Majesty Asseylum Vers Allusia’ will take place in two weeks, where ‘Orbital Knights and UFE officers alike will participate in an effort to bring the two cultures closer’. Blanchet adds that ‘her Majesty called me a few hours ago and strongly demanded that Slaine Troyard is given a chance to exit the facility’. Therefore, the UFE agreed that if Slaine is healthy enough, he will secretly pilot a prototype aircraft, product of the cooperation of the UFE and the Vers Empire. Inaho will be responsible for Slaine, at the event. A simulator will be delivered tomorrow and Slaine will start practicing the day after.

Inaho did not expect of Asseylum to act so soon after their discussion, and he did not expect the UFE’s approval.

Blanchet continues, he says that ‘three guards acted in an unauthorized way and attacked Slaine Troyard’ while Inaho was away, the board already dismissed them. He even apologizes to Inaho, but Inaho turns the device off with Blanchet in mid-sentence and hurries towards the infirmary, heart pounding.

#

Inaho steps inside the infirmary. Slaine is sleeping on a white bed, a thin tube connected to the back of his palm. The discolorations and swelling have now spread to a large part of Slaine’s face. There are bruises in many shapes and colors on both of Slaine’s forearms.

When the severe violence behind those injuries slowly registers, Inaho feels as if the air is being sucked out of his lungs, as if white walls are closing in, repressing him. Inaho slowly sits down at the edge of Slaine’s bed, numb.

Inaho has difficulty breathing evenly, but then Slaine’s eyelids flutter. As he perceives Inaho, Slaine smiles sleepily.

His voice sounds strange in his own ears. “S-Slaine. How are you feeling?”

Slaine’s smile disappears. Inaho is ready to talk, but Slaine groans. His voice is hoarse, “I feel awful. I want to sleep. Leave.”

Inaho feels alarmed by Slaine’s contradicting behavior. “Are you—“

Slaine’s irises darken with hostility. “Stop! I have a headache.” Slaine whimpers and clutches at his head, confirming his own words.

That deep sadness consumes Inaho, again. He remembers how Slaine’s eyes burned with determination just two weeks ago, and Slaine’s current state only fuels Inaho’s desire to free him.

Slaine turns on his side, Inaho is now facing the blond’s back.

Any other attempts to make Slaine talk to him fail. Inaho waits until Slaine is asleep and then exits the infirmary.

He is furious.

#

The board assembles that day, Inaho vents part of his anger on them. For the first time in three years, they officially apologize and promise that such an incident will never be repeated.

Inaho tries to track down the culprits, but they have completely disappeared; any electronic evidence that they ever existed is gone.

Inaho wants to investigate those disappearances, but his first priority is always Slaine. He suspects that the UFE is behind those incidents, as he is now certain that they plan to use the ex-Count, and furthermore, they want him healthy. Inaho still hasn’t gathered enough data on the UFE’s plans, but he swears to expose every single one of them after Slaine is free and safe.

He takes his decision: he will work non-stop on his plans in order to free Slaine as soon as possible. The day they return from Asseylum’s event, two weeks from now, will be the day that Slaine gains his freedom.

#

That night, Inaho has disturbing nightmares, and he remembers them all. He curls in his bed next to a sleeping Rayleigh, remembering his promise to Slaine just two weeks ago, after Slaine’s outburst: Inaho promised Slaine that he would keep him safe from the guards’ potential abuse. He knows that he failed Slaine, and the thought makes him experience an emotion he hasn’t felt for a long time: fear.

#

Some days pass. The skin around Slaine’s left eye slowly returns to his normal, pale tone, the rest of the bruises are gone.

Slaine is informed of his upcoming ‘mission’ and starts using the stimulator for a large part of the day, practicing test flights. Inaho visits just to play a game of chess, the later becoming more complicated and aggressive each time they compete. Slaine’s gentle side has faded away, now replaced with a hostility or impassiveness towards everyone, including Inaho.

 Slaine never answers Inaho’s questions, he keeps avoiding Inaho’s gaze and concentrates only on the chess board. His only words towards Inaho are ‘Check’. He also loses weight. Blanchet orders the personnel anew, Slaine now undergoes a checkup and a blood test every two days.

The sudden change upsets Inaho very much, but it makes him work even harder on his plans.

As the days go by, Inaho is certain that the laughing Slaine who was chasing after Rayleigh will not reappear inside these gray walls. Inaho investigated intensely but found no other mistreatments from the guards, so he suspects that the misery of the prison’s life is affecting Slaine.

Furthermore, Inaho notices that the three guards who used to watch over Slaine during his stay in Inaho’s house were fired. The board has replaced both UFE and Vers guards, the days after Inaho returned from Mars. The personnel consists now approximately of 70% UFE and 30% Vers officers.

Inaho tries to resist to the idea of hacking into the prison’s surveillance system and deactivating it during his visits, in order to talk to Slaine freely. The odds for such a move to succeed without consequences are very small. Inaho tries to be patient.

#

One morning, Inaho finds a large, white envelope among the rest of his mail. There is no address of a sender or receiver on it. After examining it, he carefully opens it in his kitchen, and the content alarms him: there are articles from Earth’s newspapers about six missing persons and evidence that these persons once worked for Count Saazbaum.

Inaho decides that the people behind this were afraid of being traced, otherwise they would have used electronic means in order to send him everything.

Or this could be some kind of a trap.

Inaho decides to ignore the articles, for now. He recalls Lemrina’s disappearance which occurred almost three years ago, and thinks that there is a possibility that everything is connected. Lemrina was quickly forgotten; almost no one knew about her existence and Inaho still hasn’t spoken to Slaine about her, as evidence about what happened that night never emerged.

Inaho however is very close to freeing Slaine; after he succeeds, he might investigate these mysterious happenings, too.

#

One day before their departure for Asseylum’s event, they are both in the usual room, bend over their black and white checkered world.

Slaine moves his black knight and murmurs, “Check.”

Inaho stops repeating all the stages of Slaine’s escape in his mind and concentrates on the game. Once again, Inaho realizes that Slaine’s chess skills have improved enormously during the last few years.

A cruel hunt starts, executed by Slaine’s black queen and rook. Inaho’s white king manages to slither away. Slaine moves his bishop and says with a detached voice, “Checkmate.”

The word rings strange in their bare room, coming like this from Slaine. Inaho perceives the positions of Slaine’s black pieces and his eye slowly widens at the realization of his loss.

Still, the lack of joy in Slaine’s voice makes Inaho’s chest heavy. He remembers Slaine’s honest smiles during their chess matches in Inaho’s house, he remembers the radiant excitement which has now extinguished, disappeared. He recalls the day on the shore and his promise to Slaine, almost three years ago.

Slaine stays dangerously silent.

Inaho starts returning the pieces to their correct squares. “Congratulations, Slaine.”

Slaine’s fingers are tightly clutching his black king, trembling. “You gave me your word. You will reveal the reason behind your visits.”

Inaho knew that such a day would come. He feels relieved that Slaine is talking again. He meets Slaine’s intense stare. “…Yes.”

Slaine says, “Don’t worry, I think I’ve already figured it out.” Slaine’s voice sounds strained. “You always cared about my wellbeing, physical and mental. And now, you want something else from me."

Inaho’s heartbeats increase. “I don’t understand.”

“These last two weeks…I was silent because I was watching you, Kaizuka Inaho. It was not noticeable at first…but after a week of silence I could tell that you were nervous, absentminded. You must be planning something…something that involves me.”

Did you realize my plans? “If you were watching me, why did you stay silent?”

Slaine is unusually calm, nothing on his face betrays his emotions. But Inaho remembers Slaine’s voice that night on the porch, when the blond was holding back tears. It is almost the same, now. "Don't try to change the topic, Kaizuka. I know there is something grave which concerns me, and you keep hiding it from me.” When Inaho doesn’t answer, Slaine raises his voice, he pounds his fist upon the table and the chess pieces rattle on the chessboard. “A-answer me! A yes or a no is enough!"

Is this his checkmate? "Yes."

“Is that the truth?”

“Yes. You asked for it, Slaine.”

It is as if the words delivered a physical blow on Slaine. He closes his eyes, his features contort. He whispers, “W-were you working for them, then? The entire time? For the UFE?”

What? “Yes, for whom else?”

“You also know about the guards that are gone? You know what happened to Mr. Siegfried, Miss Marina and the others?!”

“Yes. The UFE has replaced most of the Vers officers that were guarding you.”

Slaine freezes, his eyes slowly widening. “So you consented to that?!”

“…I had to.”

“You…I thought that you…Someone like you would never agree with such a thing!”

Inaho feels lost. Why are you so upset, Slaine? “I had to agree. They are gone, but I regret it. They were kind people.”

A shout, “That’s all you have to say?!” Slaine seems distraught, he covers his eyes with the heels of his palms. “No, it’s my fault…It seems that I'll always be the fool, hoping that there is someone…one person in this sorry world that could…”

Inaho furrows his brow, very worried, “Slaine, you are not making any sense.”

Slaine takes deep breaths. He raises his head and when his gaze meets Inaho’s, his green eyes are wild, dangerous. With a swipe of his arm, he violently shoves the chessboard to the side, the glass pieces breaking into shards after they collide loudly with the floor. Slaine stands up, his voice is very cold.

“This is my checkmate, Kaizuka. I should have done this from the first day you stepped inside this room.”

Inaho gets up and feels the glass shards breaking under his shoes, as he swiftly walks towards Slaine, who takes a step backwards. Inaho’s stomach is tied to a knot, he is now standing right in front of Slaine, the green eyes are still burning with rage.

Inaho says while reassuringly reaching out a hand, “Slaine, try to calm down or the guards—“, but Slaine shoves Inaho’s hand away with his, there is pain under Inaho’s right eyebrow, his eye closes instinctively as something warm flows into it and down his face. He grimaces and covers his eye with his hand. It takes him a few seconds to realize: with the sudden movement, the chess piece in Slaine’s fist cut the skin just under his eyebrow, and he’s bleeding.

He can’t see, but there must be a considerable amount of blood because he feels it trickling hot down his palm. Slaine calls his name. But then the door opens and heavy footsteps resound in the room as the guards barge in, Inaho hears the rustling sounds of Slaine being restrained.

Inaho moves his palm and covers the stinging wound, the blood has lessened now. He opens his eye. There are five men surrounding Slaine.

“The situation is under control. It was an accident. Release Slaine Troyard.” When the guards don’t react and still force Slaine to kneel on the floor, a hand pushing Slaine’s face towards the metallic flooring, something bursts inside Inaho. He angrily shouts, “Release him!”

The officers reluctantly let Slaine go. Inaho tries to calm down and addresses a wide-eyed Slaine, “Follow me to the infirmary. I will take care of this and then you will explain your reasons.”

#

They leave the guards outside the empty infirmary. Inaho closes the door behind him. To his extreme surprise, Slaine is immediately in front of him, guiding him to sit on the examination bed, then cleaning his wound with gauze pads and iodine. It stings, and Inaho feels agitated and alarmed from Slaine’s previous behavior—but Slaine is now very careful and gentle with his hands, and this warms up Inaho’s heart a bit.

After he stops the bleeding, Slaine clumsily applies a few colorful band-aids over the wound. Inaho wants to correct him on his method—band-aids are not appropriate for this kind of injury, Inaho’s eyebrow and half of his eyelid are now covered with the plastic material and it itches— but he chooses to stay silent. Slaine cleans Inaho’s palm and face from the blood and then heavily sits on the bed, next to Inaho.

Inaho tries to make Slaine unwind, and speaks the first thing on his mind. “Do these…creatures on the band-aids represent colorful rabbits?”

Slaine makes a chocked sound. “The nurses accidentally brought band-aids for children. I-I liked them, so I used these.”

“I noticed that. Thank you.” Inaho pauses. “Do you like animals?”

“I-I do.”

“I thought so. You were very kind to Ray.”

They are silent until Slaine whispers, “About your eye…I thought that I hurt you, badly. Again.” Slaine seems at loss for words. “I…I was upset.”

“It’s merely a deep scratch, it doesn’t hurt, and there is no possibility that it will get infected. I understand that it was an accident. More importantly, why did you react so negatively when I answered that I work for the UFE? You knew I was an UFE officer the moment we met. It was the first piece of information you obtained about me, six years ago. And I informed you before in my house that the guards would change. Why did you ask about it now?”

Slaine stays silent.

“Please talk to me, Slaine. I was never good at understanding people, and your behavior before was…completely unpredictable.”

Slaine avoids Inaho’s gaze. After a very long moment of silence, “I was extremely confused. A few weeks ago, the General came into the infirmary while I was recovering and said to me—never mind. I jumped to false conclusions. I-I refused to talk to you…I suspected you…I was angry at you…all because of a misunderstanding.”

It is good, the fact that Slaine did not reveal everything. I will pressure him later to reveal more about Blanchet’s actions, in a place with no surveillance. Blanchet’s words made him avoid me for two weeks…

 Slaine groans and hides his face in his palms. “I just—I don’t know what to believe, anymore.”

Inaho wants to wrap his arms around Slaine and hold him close, once again. He wishes he could speak freely, without being overheard. “Slaine, I failed to keep my promise.”

“No!” Slaine turns to face Inaho. “Don’t you understand…? I used to think that you existed only in order to cause me misery and despair, but now—“

The infirmary door opens and a guard steps inside, announcing that Inaho’s visit is over. Inaho demands a few more minutes, the guard nods and steps outside.

“Now…?”

Slaine just sighs. “I hated you, you know. I hated you with all my soul.”

Inaho looks into those green eyes. “I wanted to understand you.”

A sad murmur, “You did a terrible job, then…not that I did better.”

Inaho nods silently in agreement.

Slaine chuckles softly, “Why must there always be a misunderstanding between us?”

Inaho remembers how their fight against Femianne ended, how he erred by shooting Slaine down.

“Even so, I won. It seems that I was wrong previously…so I demand your answer, Orange.” 

Inaho doesn’t know what the correct answer is. Still, he knows that there is always surveillance, so he chooses his words carefully. His pulse is fast, “Bat, do you remember that day on the shore, when you asked me if I know the difference between red and blue roses?”

Slaine lifts an eyebrow. “You remember that? That was almost one—no, two years ago!”

“I remember, and I researched into it. Blue roses usually mean ‘the impossible’, while red roses—“

“Orange—“

Inaho swallows, “Red roses hold several meanings, but one of them is ‘I lo—“

“Don’t you dare say it!!” Contrary to his tone, a crimson flush starts expanding on Slaine’s cheeks.

He blushes so easily. “Why?”

Inaho expects an outburst, but he gets an irritated expression and a full blush, instead. “You—you wouldn’t even know what it means, no, how it feels to love someone!”

It is ironic…I had the chance to experience such deep feelings because of you, Slaine. “I am highly rational, not emotionless, contrary of what most believe.”

Slaine’s lips part a fraction, he seems really perplexed. “I…I know, but—One moment, why are we talking about roses?!” The flame is back in Slaine’s eyes, “I won, so answer my question, dammit! It’s been four years, and you are still here! Why do you keep returning?!

Inaho holds eye contact. “Because you are unique, Slaine Troyard.”

Slaine blinks a few times, “You…you’ve mentioned that before. I-I don’t understand.”

“I have reasons to believe that, be it on Earth or on Mars, nobody ever acknowledged that.” Inaho recalls all the pain he has witnessed Slaine experience. He has the spontaneous urge to cup Slaine’s flushed cheek, or perhaps hold his hand again, but he suppresses it immediately. His tone is definite, “Martians and ‘Terrans’ alike made you believe that you are undeserving of a future, and I will never accept that.”

Slaine is completely still, the bright irises are fixed on Inaho’s face in pure shock. “You…You are angry and…sad?” Slaine’s brows furrow, as if he is in pain. “Why? Why on Earth and Vers would someone like you even care so much about…about me?”

The guard chooses this moment to step inside the infirmary. “Sir.”

Inaho is lost in his emotions, it takes him some time to find a few words. I said too much. Inaho stands up. “I will see you tomorrow, then. Sleep well.”

Slaine is silent, calm, his eyes are bright as always, following Inaho.

In the end, Slaine just murmurs “See you tomorrow…” and Inaho follows the guard to the prison’s entrance, his mind full of conflicting thoughts.

Chapter Text

After their hurried breakfast in Slaine’s bedroom, Inaho follows Slaine through the Moon Base’s metallic corridors, still dressed in the Count’s uniform. On the other side of the thick glass, Inaho observes the multitude of stars and what he believes to be the Andromeda Galaxy, far away. He turns his head, now watching Slaine’s crimson-clothed back. The stars might swell, shine and form masses of innumerable colors, but Inaho is not interested in them right now.

They step inside an extremely large room. It is filled with greenery and flowers, the scenery is completely different from the metallic construction that was previously surrounding them. As they walk on a path bordered by various kinds of trees, Inaho’s planning of his upcoming discussion with Slaine is interrupted by an image concocted by his imagination: he pictures the place he grew up with Yuki, the empty roads and cherry blossoms, the cloudless sky; and then Slaine is a part of that image, walking next to him under the cherry trees and smiling—why? Why does Slaine’s presence make it difficult for me to concentrate?

Inaho’s gaze catches the blue sky—or a hologram of it, a giant dome which displays an accurate image of the sky’s view from Earth.

He ordered all of this to be constructed for Seylum’s sake. It is faint, but Inaho feels annoyed by that thought. I know that he respects and cherishes Seylum…but why do Slaine’s sentiments towards her trouble me?

“Inaho?”

Inaho drops his line of thought and sits at a round, wooden table. Slaine sits opposite of him. There is a chessboard between them. Inaho recalls Slaine ordering Harklight to prepare tea and the chessboard, after the man brought their breakfast to the room. Inaho revealed the time Asseylum would wake up, and Slaine decided on waiting to see ‘if you’re telling the truth or mocking me, Orange…’

 Inaho knows he should talk. He should tell Slaine about the fate that awaits him: not only will Inaho intimidate his opponent, but Slaine might cease charging recklessly into danger if…Since when did I start caring so much about Slaine’s wellbeing?

Slaine is silent, the bright eyes are watching him carefully. Inaho knows that the impending discussion will be unpleasant: Seylum’s awakening and her inevitable disapproval of Slaine’s actions, since he continued waging war under Saazbaum’s orders for the last two years. Inaho could talk to Slaine about his defeat, his imprisonment, his death.

However, this imitation of a sky and the verdant garden around them makes Inaho feel...calm. It is the first time since his return to the battlefield that he feels as if savoring a moment, and this moment consists of the garden and the white flowers that are surrounding him; the person sitting opposite him, Slaine Troyard.

Inaho keeps staring at Slaine, who equally returns his gaze. Inaho tries to start with a harmless question, “What species of flowering plants are these?” From Inaho’s point of view, Slaine is surrounded by white flowers.

Slaine’s surprise is brief. “Oh, these are rose bushes…” Slaine tilts his head to the side, expression full of childlike curiosity now, “Have you never seen roses before? As far as I remember from my childhood, it is a very common flower on Earth.”

 “That’s correct, but white is not a common color. White roses are…out of the ordinary.”

“I think they are beautiful.” Slaine says while looking at Inaho, and then quickly turns his gaze away.

Inaho lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. Why is my pulse so high?

“Come on, move a pawn.” Slaine’s voice is calm.

Inwardly, Inaho’s anxiety fades. He is excited of recording Slaine’s strategic approaches in chess. However, “No. We don’t have time for another competition, we should talk—”

“Afraid that you’re going to lose, Orange?” A half-smile.

A brief armistice from our war…is that what you want, Slaine Troyard? Inaho’s tone is on the verge of teasing, a rare thing for him, “I would say the same for you, Bat. I managed to predict every single one of your moves, and you are challenging me to a game of chess? You have a brave soul, Slaine Troyard.”

Slaine’s eyes shimmer with amusement. “Really? Thank you for the compliment, Orange. Although I can’t say the same for you…”

“What exactly do you mean by that?

The sound that escapes Slaine is amusing. “You used the image of a cockroach in order to intimidate me. What kind of person does that?”

“There are no cockroaches on Vers, so I had to use other means in order to achieve my purpose.”

“…Thankfully. Your ‘means’ were dirty, Orange.”

“I already apologized for that incident.”

 “And I don’t need your apology!!”

 “Why?”

“Because…” Slaine puckers his lips in contemplation, “Eh…b-because I don’t need it!”

Our disagreements have the tendency to be a bit immature… “Still, I want you to accept my apology.”

Slaine blinks a few times. He seems puzzled, he briefly covers his forehead with his hand, “Wait… You managed to annoy me countless times in the last four days…you spat on my hair, for example—“

“Sneezed, not spat, you can’t compare a reflex action to a voluntary—“

“Whatever! And you are only apologizing about the cockroach?”

“Yes. Still, if I had a live specimen, I would have probably used it instead of that picture of a German cockroach.”

“German…cockroach?”

Why do I enjoy bantering with him? “I believe it belonged to that species of cockroaches, as the size of its antennae was—”

“Will you stop talking about those insects already?! And how do you even know that much about cockroaches?”

“You are contradicting yourself.”

“Kaizuka Inaho, are you doing this on purpose?!”

“In the orphanage I used to live, I spotted ‘those insects’ a few times.”

Slaine’s irritation is gone from his face in an instant. His tone is careful, “Inaho…your parents are…?”

“They died during Heaven’s Fall.”

Slaine’s eyes sadden. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, it all happened when I was an infant. At that age, the information processing and ordering is different from an adult’s, I have no memories of them.”

“Even so…”

Inaho suppresses a smile. He decides to change the topic, “Slaine, we both pushed our physical and mental limits these last few days. I believe that you haven’t slept more than four hours last night; my engine detects your temperature and it is—“

“W-will you stop with this?! I already have Harklight worrying about me, I don’t need you too—”

Slaine freezes then, realizing his words. Inaho can’t resist but smile.

Slaine’s cheekbones darken. “J-just focus on the chessboard, already!”

His gaze meets the green eyes, “Do you know the rules?”

“Milord Slaine?”

Inaho is almost startled; he was so absorbed into his ‘disagreement’ with Slaine that he did not realize that Harklight is now standing near the table, carrying a tray with a tea set.

Harklight’s eyes are tender, “I brought you tea, Milord.”

 “Thank you, Harklight. You can leave it here.”

Harklight does as Slaine instructs. “Milord, if I may, I noticed a cut on the side of your head the moment I helped you out of the Tharsis—“

Instantly, Slaine’s facial temperature rises. Inaho remembers how close Slaine’s face was, he remembers how Slaine’s breath touched his lips, and he feels his cheeks growing hot, too.

What is the matter with me?

“I-Inaho already mentioned that. I took care of it.” Slaine’s smile is genuine and Inaho feels the warmth of it affecting him. “But thank you for your observation, Harklight.”

“If you allow me another observation, Milord Slaine…”

“Yes? What is it?”

Harklight swallows his hesitance. “You barely slept last night, Milord, and I believe that your fever still hasn’t completely subsided. If you wish—“

Inaho interrupts him, “I already mentioned that, too.”

Harklight’s eyes widen in surprise, but he then smiles at Inaho. “I see. Perhaps my observation was superfluous, then.”

Slaine hasn’t spoken, his bright eyes flying from Inaho to Harklight, cheeks still red.

It seems that Harklight decides to break the silence, his gaze wanders to the chessboard. “May I ask if Milord enjoys playing chess?”

Slaine looks over at the roses. “I do. The last time I played was against my father, however…years ago.”

Inaho’s engine discerns sadness, and somehow it affects him as much as Slaine’s smile did.

Harklight senses it too. Inaho’s eye compares Harklight’s microexpressions to Yuki’s, when she is worried about Inaho.

Harklight smiles. “I understand, Milord. It must be a nice memory. I wish you a good hunting—or a fairly earned victory, in this case.” He turns to Inaho, his voice serious, “Please take into consideration Count Slaine’s circumstances, Kaizuka Inaho. You should play a fair game when he is involved, and reveal any strategies that might cause him harm. Milord is merely a beginner at this game.”

Inaho knows that Harklight is also talking about something other than chess. He wants me to inform Slaine of any dangers approaching...

Harklight bows and leaves.

#

They play, and Slaine (as Inaho predicted) loses.

“We should stop pretending now.” Slaine murmurs, after they finish their tea.

Inaho’s uneasy feeling returns. “I don’t believe we were pretending, Bat.”

Slaine takes in a deep breath. “…How is your eye?”

Inaho’s said eye clearly senses it: concern. “The mutation code needs reprogramming.” If the rate of mutations overruns the system’s adjustment speed, my eye’s condition will deteriorate…and I have no pills left.

Slaine’s eyes narrow to slits, the brilliant irises still visible. “Your ‘predictions’ were never a product of your engine’s skills.”

“That’s right.”

Slaine sighs, tiredly.

“Either way, they are accurate.” Since I stopped Slaine from attacking Trident Base, four days and approximately fifteen hours have passed…and Seylum will wake up in…Inaho recalls Kaizuka’s text, and then he realizes with a wave of relief: “Her Highness will awaken from her coma in less than an hour.”

There is, for a few seconds, immense hope and delight behind Slaine’s wide eyes. But then Slaine masks all of it, “And why should I believe you? You could be lying—“

Enough with this. “You will gain nothing if you keep fighting this war, Slaine Troyard.”

Instead of the predicted burst, Inaho receives a look of deep contemplation.

I must pressure him. “I want you to reveal your objective.”

“... Earth shall be conquered, so the Vers Empire can use its assets and expand its territory—”

“I want the truth, and I’d prefer not to force it out of you.”

Slaine ignores him, “—while creating a world where the power of Aldnoah is not a privilege of the upper classes. In our society, he who controls Aldnoah controls everything. This corrupted hierarchy needs to change! Aldnoah is a crime against her Highness Asseylum Vers Allusia. It is a crime against the powerless people of Vers who are forced to obey and serve the upper classes and the Counts! It is a crime against the deprived population who rely on krill for their survival!! They must be given a chance to be freed of their forced duties, they must be given a chance to live a life without poverty and humiliation—”

Slaine stops, his chest rises and falls at a fast rate. His fierce gaze hides a challenge, “Is that all you want to know, Kaizuka?”

“No, this is merely the beginning.”

Slaine is angry. “I wish—I wish I could…” He clenches his fists, “I know you won’t divulge anything until you want to. And I know that you hold extremely valuable information. I could have you tortured until you reveal your secrets…” There is sadness besides anger in his words now, “But—but I can’t—”

His heart rate exploded, he must be remembering his torture. “I understand. It’s alright.” Inaho is not aware of his words; normally, he would pressure his enemy to reveal more. But this is as close to a consolation Inaho can offer, and Slaine stares at him in disbelief.

Despite the sunny scenery around them, despite the fake sky and the white flowers, Inaho feels the hopelessness weighting him down. Slaine is not my enemy, nor the enemy of my enemies. What is he to me, then?

Inaho dares, “What happened after I shot you down?”

Slaine’s face loses all of its color. “You know about…about that, too?”

“I couldn’t gather enough data about what happened to you. Still, I wish to know.”

“Why?”

“Because I suspect that something terrible occurred to you, and I am at fault. I want to know the consequences of my actions. I have already regretted shooting you down. These last four days, I came to partially understand you…and I believe that our cooperation can produce much more than our conflict.”

The engine still detects anger—but now carefully concealed. The momentary hesitation quickly disappears from Slaine’s face. His voice is cold, “Fine. You have seen them already, so I guess nothing will be lost from showing you.”

Slaine gets up, expression indifferent. He hastily unbuttons his red jacket, eyes closed. Before Inaho reacts, Slaine pulls at his white shirt, exposing the upper parts of several angry, linear scars, in the area under his collarbones.

Inaho’s blood runs cold in his veins as realization dawns: Slaine was tortured because I shot him down.

Slaine’s gaze is unrelenting, as they stare at each other for a long time. Inaho’s breaths come faster and faster, but it seems that Slaine’s emotional state is similar, as Inaho’s engine detects unshed tears, threatening to escape from Slaine’s eyes.

 Inaho gets up and comes closer. He is surprised with himself when his voice comes out choked, “My—actions…undeniably, hurt you.”

Slaine’s apathetic expression crumbles after a while. He snarls, “I don’t need your pity!!”

“No, you never gave me a reason to pity you. You always remain strong and focused during extreme situations, you act bravely and—“

“How can you just spew compliments as if reading aloud from a list?! I shot you! And you never deserved that!”

“It was a logical reaction from your part, as I was your enemy!” Inaho tries to lower his voice, “On the other side, my actions weren’t rational. You temporary teamed up with me, and without giving you enough time to explain yourself, I hastily deducted that you were a threat and tried to dispose of you.”

“And you crushed my only hope of reaching her Highness!!”

Inaho can’t form words, it takes him awhile to answer, “…I should have taken you aboard the Deucalion the moment we met.” His eyes are wide, as understanding carefully sinks in: he cares for Slaine. He cares for him a lot, he cares for him as if Slaine is a dear, longtime friend; otherwise why would he feel so much hurt right now? “I am aware that my apology won’t improve the situation, but you should know that—Slaine?”

Slaine has turned his back to Inaho, buttoning up his crimson jacket with hurried movements. “I-I wanted to see you disgusted while looking at my scars. I wanted to see you pitying me…or even demand to know more about what happened that day. But you just sit there, looking lost…and you keep making it impossible for me to hate you.” Slaine turns, and Inaho can almost see the tear that will soon run down Slaine’s cheek, perhaps disappear at the corner of his mouth. “I…I need to visit her Highness.”

#

After Slaine leaves, Harklight immediately arrives, finding a pensive Inaho alone in the garden. He asks Inaho to follow him. They arrive at the same furnished room where Inaho confronted Marylcian.

Harklight turns to face Inaho. “Kaizuka Inaho, Milord will be busy for the next half hour. He ordered me to watch over you, yet I’m afraid that I must demand some answers.”

Inaho tries to weigh the pros and cons of trusting Harklight, he tries to conceive a plan, he tries to scheme; but all that keeps slashing through his mind are Slaine’s scars, Slaine’s accusations, and his own realization of what he had done, that day he met Slaine on that battlefield over the sea. His chest hurts, an invisible hand is smothering him.

“I will prevent Slaine’s death.” Inaho asserts, partially in an attempt to reassure Harklight of his intentions; gain Harklight’s trust. Partially because Inaho inwardly swears to do so—Inaho realizes that he needs Slaine, he needs him, alive, for completely different reasons now than a few days ago.

Inaho decides to repress his thoughts and emotions, they won’t be helpful at the moment.

Harklight frowns. “So Milord is indeed in grave danger.”

“I haven’t informed him of his fate. If Slaine keeps pursuing his forced ambitions, his death might be inevitable.” I still haven’t acquired evidence that points out a ‘changed’ future. I managed to prevent many deaths…but is this enough?

Harklight speaks, “I won’t question you about the authenticity of your statements, Kaizuka Inaho, as long as you—”

The door opens, and Lemrina comes inside. Harklight immediately straightens his pose.

The girl scrutinizes Inaho. “So you are Slaine’s Terran prisoner… Can you please come closer? I want to take a better look at the UFE soldier that made Slaine behave so...strangely, yesterday.”

She must be referring to the time Slaine lost his composure… Inaho would like to avoid approaching Lemrina, his eye can sense the intense anger behind her seemingly calm blue eyes. His engine flashes in red then, the warning sign of a command error. My eye is malfunctioning...I must talk to Dr. Yagarai as soon as I return to the Deucalion.

Harklight’s gaze is focused on him, however, and Inaho wants to stay in good terms with the man. So he approaches the seated Lemrina and stands in front of her, until she crooks a finger, a sign for him to advance—

The stinging slap on his left cheek catches him unprepared, his engine not warning him about Lemrina’s intentions. She stays silent, her gaze venomous, her knuckles are white as she grips the arms of her chair.

Inaho straightens his posture, thinking that the following discussion will be intense, but unnecessary. He is somewhat annoyed because of her actions, but Lemrina is currently not a threat, so Inaho decides to ignore her hostility and focus on obtaining information from her.

Lemrina’s eyes don’t hide her rage, “What do you seek on Vers? What do you want from Slaine?”

When she mentioned Slaine’s name, this emotion… “You are in love with him.”

Lemrina presses her lips into a thin line, “This shouldn’t concern someone like you.”

At this confirmation, Inaho feels slightly angered. What is this feeling? “I forbid you from making that announcement and proclaiming Slaine as your would-be husband. Your actions will endanger him.”

She seems surprised, “Slaine may have told you about our plans—“

“Slaine didn’t betray your plans, but this is not the point. I believe it is a selfish scheme, taking advantage of Slaine’s state and trying to permanently tie him to your side.” Since when am I defending Slaine? “Yours and Slaine’s schemes will endanger him. I won’t allow for this to continue. It is against Slaine’s character, waging war.”

Her smile is cynical, “Oh dear. You are Slaine’s enemy, and you claim that you know him better than I do?”

“Yes. We cooperated many times in the last 72 hours, and I believe that I’ve perceived parts of him that Slaine rarely expresses.”

A spark of irritation lights up Lemrina’s blue eyes, “How dare you claim such a thing?”

“I dare, as I observed Slaine’s behavior.”

“Slaine will never trust you.”

“It is irrelevant if he decides to trust me or not. Slaine Troyard is in danger, and I must repress every potential threat against him, including you, if you decide to oppose him.”

At this Lemrina seems ready to do harm, but Harklight is immediately at her side. Something unpredictable happens: Harklight tries to reassure her about Inaho’s intentions.

Inaho had a plan of gaining Harklight’s trust. He had a plan of emotionally manipulating Lemrina and Harklight, restoring Asseylum’s memories and notifying Mazuurek about Asseylum’s state. He would use Mazuurek in order to plan an escape route, in case he failed. One day ago, he had planned to attack Slaine; perhaps shoot him (avoid all vital target areas, of course), immobilize him and imprison him.

It is impossible...or perhaps unbearable.

Lemrina’s voice breaks, “I don’t understand, why you…?”

Is she reconsidering? “I’m afraid I also don’t understand your question, Princess.”

“The way he looks at you…he has never looked at me like that.” Lemrina says then, Inaho’s eye senses the tears she holds back. “Slaine gets angry for your sake. He gives you his whole attention when you are talking. When I asked him yesterday why he gave his clothes to you, why he didn’t throw you in prison or kill you, he kept avoiding the answer. I thought he would be ready to throw his life away for her…” Inaho doesn’t miss the spiteful tone Lemrina uses, “…but while you were unconscious, he didn’t leave your side for a single minute…not even for going to visit her…!”

Inaho looks at Harklight, who is suddenly very nervous. She asked Harklight, and he was compelled to answer. Inaho’s eyes widen slightly, as Lemrina’s actual words register. So my assumption was right: Slaine did stay awake almost all night, sitting on that chair, waiting for me to wake up…

Inaho suppresses the rising, mysterious emotions. He chooses the easy path: “Slaine Troyard will die, if this war continues.”

Lemrina’s eyes narrow once again in distrust.

Harklight says, “I have observed as you prioritized Milord’s wellbeing over yours many times. I must ask you again, are you telling the truth?”

“Yes, it’s the truth. I also suspect that the UFE will continue with the hostilities if Slaine alone asks for ceasefire. Her Highness Asseylum must have already woken up—“

Lemrina lets out a strange sound, but at that moment Slaine barges in, all red cheeks and heavy breaths.

With Lemrina’s pair of eyes on him, Slaine schools his expression immediately.

“Harklight, please escort the Princess outside.” He addresses Lemrina with a steady voice, “If you excuse me, Princess. I must talk to Kaizuka about an important issue that occurred.”

It impresses Inaho, how her voice becomes so soft, “Slaine…”

Slaine bows, a sign of respect, an attempt to hide his expression. “I will be by your side in a few minutes, Princess. I give you my word.”

Inaho watches as Lemrina’s pupils dilate, but she stays silent and exits the room, Harklight following her.

The door closes, and Slaine turns to face Inaho.

Inaho’s engine can’t exactly determine the blond Count’s mood in the distance, so he stays vigilant—Slaine tends to be unpredictable when upset, Inaho has noticed.

Slaine’s steps are long and hurried, he comes in front of Inaho and grabs his arms. Inaho can feel Slaine’s fingers digging into his biceps, he has the idea of using his martial skills to escape Slaine’s grip—if not for Slaine’s red eyes, betraying shed tears.

“She’s awake.” Slaine croaks, shaking Inaho a bit, “I don’t know if I want to punch you for not telling me about her memory loss…” His breaths are fast, “…or thank you because you kept telling me the truth…!”

Inaho dislikes Slaine’s sadness. “I can restore her memories.”

Slaine’s grip tightens. “You can?”

Inaho nods, and Slaine visibly relaxes.

Inaho realizes that Slaine’s proximity always results into him being unable to function logically: his rational self would already be bargaining with Slaine, then meeting Seylum, giving her the pendant and demanding that she announce the end of the war.

Slaine breaks the silence, “Thank you. I-I must thank you for this. Even if…even if I find myself wishing Her Highness would never regain those memories…”

The gentleness in Slaine’s voice when he speaks Seylum’s title makes an unpleasant jolt run through Inaho’s veins. “About her Highness, I can help you.”

Slaine sighs, “I wish I could trust you.”

Inaho notices that Slaine’s hands on his forearms are trembling. He analyzes the situation and decides on stabilizing Slaine’s body: Slaine’s face is as pale as it was the day Inaho pulled him, bleeding, out of the broken Tharsis. He has undergone a lot of emotional pressure these last four days. Inaho’s purpose is to grab Slaine’s forearms, yet somehow Slaine wobbles forward, and Inaho grabs the back of Slaine’s crimson jacket instead.

Slaine is close, Inaho’s ideas and plans are instantly wiped away from his mind. They are silent, holding eye contact. Slaine’s exhales are sharp, warming Inaho’s mouth. Inaho watches as many emotions flicker behind Slaine’s eyes; and a feeling so deep settles in his chest, he needs to take many breaths in order to pacify it.

“Slaine.” Inaho says, heart rate out of control.

Slaine opens his mouth, closes it. “I-Inaho…?”

“I…I will support you. You won’t be alone.”

At this, Slaine’s body stiffens. He stays so for many long seconds. Yet a moment comes when Slaine’s shoulders relax, he bows his head and lets out a sound that could be a sigh or a sob.

Inaho can’t see it, but his engine senses it: Slaine is smiling. For a few seconds, Inaho allows himself to smile, too.

#

When Slaine lets go of Inaho, Inaho tells him what he should do if he wants for Asseylum to regain her memories.

“I can help you with your quest of creating a better life for the people on Vers, Slaine Troyard. But you must achieve this peacefully.”

Slaine fights back, his voice cold. He mentions that war is inevitable; because of Vers’ separation from Earth, because of Aldnoah, because of the system of their society.

Inaho starts proposing alternative plans, and Slaine, for the first time, listens to him without interrupting.

This continues for a few minutes: Slaine listens, sighs and eventually agrees only on allowing Inaho to interfere with his plans.

Inaho’s small victory over Slaine doesn’t exactly satisfy him.

#

They exit the room. Harklight and Lemrina are waiting outside, Lemrina tries to talk to Slaine, but Slaine politely asks her to wait and meet him in the throne room. As soon as Harklight and Lemrina are gone, Inaho asks Slaine to take him to Seylum’s room, and they run the rest of the distance.

A surprised Eddelrittuo opens the door. “I-Inaho-san?!”

Slaine bestows a questioning gaze upon him so Inaho says, “Eddelrittuo, I don’t have time for explanations. I need you to give this to her Highness.” Inaho pulls Slaine’s pendant out of his pocket, Slaine’s eyes open huge. He adds that as soon as Asseylum feels better, Eddelrittuo should bring her to the throne room.

#

When Asseylum steps inside the throne room, Inaho’s engine senses Lemrina’s displeasure, Slaine’s relief and Asseylum’s surprise to see him on her planet, dressed like a Count at Slaine’s side. Eddelrittuo and Harklight are standing near a seated Lemrina.

Asseylum takes a deep breath, now sitting on her thone. “Inaho-san...”

Inaho shares much of Slaine’s delight, to see the girl that was shot in front of his eyes alive and well, despite already having knowledge of it. “Seylum-san, I am pleased to see you again—“

“Stop addressing her Highness that way!” Slaine whispers irritably, next to him.

Inaho turns his attention to Slaine, whispering back, “This is not the time for such remarks, Bat.”

Slaine raises his voice, “Show some respect! You can utter all the foolish comments you want when talking to me, but I won’t allow you to speak like that to her Highness, Orange!”

Inaho turns to face Slaine, “Bat, Seylum is a dear friend—“

Slaine shouts, “You did it again! Why on Earth and Vers can’t you understand—“

Harklight clears his throat, and Inaho realizes that everyone is looking at them. Lemrina’s gaze is bitter, while Asseylum seems puzzled and a bit annoyed. “Orange? Bat? Inaho-san, what exactly is going on? Why are you wearing the crimson uniform of the Vers nobility?”

“Your Highness.” Slaine speaks, voice heavy with regret, “We will have much time afterwards for explanations, if all goes well. Please announce to the Orbital Knights that all hostilities should cease as soon as possible.”

Asseylum tries to talk, but Inaho is faster, “Please listen to us, your Highness.”—Slaine smiles faintly at this, a part of Inaho is pleased— “Slaine asked for temporary ceasefire one day ago, while we were arriving at the Moon Base. The Orbital Knights and the UFE agreed on it. This is a great opportunity for you to declare the end of this war.”

Asseylum slowly gets up from her throne and approaches Inaho and Slaine. Her sad gaze is focused on Slaine, Inaho senses Slaine’s intense emotions.

“The war has been going on for two years…yet the Slaine I once knew would have done everything in order to stop this meaningless conflict. But you are no longer him, are you? You have changed.”

Before any of them answers, Asseylum faces Inaho. “And you, Inaho-san. Do you support his actions? I can see that you are acquainted with Slaine, but you are an UFE officer. You were Slaine’s prisoner, but you defended him, even helped him with his duel.”

Inaho looks over at the culprit, Eddelrittuo, she fidgets uncomfortably.

“Inaho-san, why aren’t you opposing Slaine? He has led the war against the Earth since Count Saazbaum’s death.”

It seems that Eddelrittuo informed her on everything. “To begin with, Count Saazbaum is alive.” Everyone except Slaine is surprised by this revelation, “He is held in the UFE Headquarters. A few days after Slaine took charge, he ordered the temporary cease of hostilities towards the UFE. His actions did not increase the severity of the war. It’s the opposite.”

Slaine turns to look at him, shocked. His eyes narrow then, questioning, Inaho translates Slaine’s look into something similar to: Why are you defending me?! Inaho would like to know the answer himself.

“Inaho-san, Slaine had the opportunity to stop this war during these last two years, yet—“

“He was busy keeping you alive.” Lemrina moves her chair and approaches Asseylum. “He was busy giving me a place called ‘shelter’.”

“Princess Lemrina…” Slaine whispers.

Lemrina faces Slaine, “I could do anything for you, Slaine. I could say that my home is with you. I would follow you everywhere. Yet this is not what you want, is it?” At the last sentence, Lemrina’s gaze briefly flies to Inaho, then returns to Slaine. Her eyes are very sad, “But it’s a shame, my sister’s arrogance will never let her understand what you did for her.”

 Asseylum says, “You care for Slaine a lot…”

Lemrina looks at Asseylum, shouting, “And you?! Did you ever care for him?!”

Inaho decides to speak up, “This is not the time—“

Slaine whispers, “Orange! Be polite and wait for the Princesses to finish their conversation before talking!”

Inaho raises his voice, “There are more important issues that are waiting to be resolved, Bat!”

“Inaho-san…” Asseylum looks at him, “I have never heard you address anyone so…intensely.”

It seems that Slaine is affecting me a lot, Harklight mentioned this too…no, this is irrelevant right now. “Asseylum-san, you should immediately ask for ceasefire. We will explain everything to you afterwards.”

It is the first time Inaho has spoken for Slaine’s sake, but Slaine doesn’t seem to mind. Instead, Slaine keeps complaining about Inaho’s use of the Princess’ first name.

#

Slaine addresses the Orbital Knights and orders permanent cessation of hostilities, surprising many with his contradicting behavior. Then, it is Asseylum’s turn to speak. During her speech, Inaho’s eyes are focused on Slaine’s profile, the latter watching Asseylum with hopeful eyes. Inaho feels uncomfortable at this; he can’t exactly understand why…

Slaine turns to meet his gaze then, noticing that Inaho is looking at him. He smiles, shyly. Inaho ignores everyone else in the room, he ignores his logic and their adversary positions, he ignores the potential dangers awaiting them. He smiles back, his heart feels warm.

#

As soon as Asseylum’s announcement ends, an alarm sounds.

“What is going on?” Lemrina asks.

Slaine opens a contact channel and talks to the command center. They inform him that despite the call for ceasefire, a large group of Orbital Knights left the Moon Base in order to attack the nearest UFE spaceships. There is a battle starting near the Moon Base.

The UFE might take this as a serious provocation. The thought fills Inaho with alarm. He is reminded of Kaizuka’s text, where he describes his final battle near the Moon; where he describes that he pointed a gun at a fallen Slaine on a night’s beach shore.

“Slaine, these must be Orbital Knights who support Saazbaum’s ideas. They would have cooperated with you, if you kept fighting for your initial objective.”

Slaine quickly nods, Inaho can sense his immense concern. “There are many among the Counts who are not loyalists.” He seems lost, “Yet… I can’t believe…My—my actions led to this…”

Inaho is aware that everyone’s attention is on them, yet he can’t help but try to reassure Slaine. “Bat. I promised I would help you.”

Slaine swallows and nods. “Yes…I remember.” His eyes are smiling, then.

Inaho continues, addressing everyone, “After Asseylum’s announcement, the nobility must have split sides. They are those who support Her Highness and therefore peace, and those who oppose the loyal family.”

Harklight interrupts, “If what you say is true, her Highness might be in danger.”

Inaho addresses a wide-eyed Asseylum, “The Knights are split. With your death, both the UFE and Vers will find their excuses to continue with this conflict. I am sure however that you can trust Count Mazuurek and Count Cruhteo’s son, Klancain. Bat, I will explain later.”

Slaine says, “Then please follow Harklight and get in touch with Count Mazuurek, your Highness. The Count is still stationed at the Moon Base, he can receive you on his Landing Castle. If Inaho says that these Counts are loyal to you, it should be true.”

“And visit your grandfather.” Inaho adds, remembering Kaizuka’s text, “His health is deteriorating.”

Asseylum’s fists grab her white dress, “I-Inaho-san…How…how do you know that much?”

Slaine answers for Inaho, “There is no time, your Highness—“

As if on cue, gunshots are heard from the corridor outside the throne room.

The next few minutes go by in a rush. The door partially opens and unidentified soldiers try to barge into the room, only for Harklight to open another door and shout that they need to flee.

They decide to split: Harklight will ensure that Asseylum, Lemrina and Eddelrittuo flee with Count Mazuurek and stay safe until the situation on the Moon Base subsides. Inaho and Slaine will act as a decoy.

To Inaho’s surprise, Lemrina is unwilling to part from Slaine, even if he tries his best to reassure her that it is the only way for her to remain unharmed. Harklight has to drag Lemrina away, and then they are gone, rushing around a corner down the corridor.

Slaine is ready to talk but then shots are fired, from the opposite direction that Harklight and the others fled. Only Slaine carries a gun; Inaho and Slaine are outnumbered.

They run.

But a bullet almost catches Inaho’s arm and he turns around the first corner for cover, while Slaine continues running straight ahead, the men chasing after the blond Count. Before Inaho realizes it, he is alone, unarmed and with no means of contacting Slaine, his malfunctioning eye his only hope of avoiding the soldiers and finding the blond Count.

#

Inaho runs and runs in circles through endless metallic corridors and with the alarms still blaring around him. He notices a flash in his peripheral vision and stops, imagining a potential threat, only to realize that Asseylum dropped Slaine’s pendant; it shines on the floor, a few steps away from Inaho. Inaho quickly picks it up. In his haste, he wears it around his neck, hiding it under his shirt. Kaizuka mentioned that this pendant is important to Slaine. I must return it to him.

He manages to avoid every Vers soldier with the help of his eye, and follows a thermal signature that he hopes to be Slaine’s.

#

After many minutes, luck is on his side: Inaho watches as the young Count turns around the corner of the corridor, pointing his gun at Inaho in his haste—but Slaine realizes who is standing ahead, and a wide smile stretches his lips.

He runs and approaches Inaho, trying to control his breathing, his eyes are moist. “Inaho! You are safe! I thought…I thought that—”

Inaho smiles, relief washing over him in waves. “I am fine, Bat.”

Slaine relaxes visibly at this, but soon a crease of irritation appears on his forehead. “How did you even manage to lose me?”

“You were the one who lost me.”

“Tch! Give me a warning before you act next time, you…you stubborn, daring fool!”

“You shouldn’t forget that my bio-implant reduces my chances of being detected or shot. Were you worried about me?”

Slaine’s tone is louder than normal, “I-I was not! And when will you stop praising that pea-brained machine?!”

Inaho decides to annoy Slaine. “A lie, once again.”

Slaine exhales loudly. Their eyes meet. Inaho’s amusement must mirror Slaine’s, the Count struggles to maintain his frown but obviously loses: his mouth reluctantly stretches into a half-smile. He then continues, “Alright, I was worried! A b-bit.” Slaine’s gaze slides to the side. “But enough with this! Who are these men? Are they Vers or UFE?”

Inaho remembers Kaizuka’s text. “Slaine, I have reasons to assume that the UFE might be behind this.”

“What?!”

“We shouldn’t rush to reach our conclusions. Do you have a way that I can communicate with my allies? They are people I can trust, they might be able to help us understand the situation outside.”

Slaine sighs, “The Princesses and Eddelrittuo should have fled by now. We should hurry and traverse the hangar, then we can reach the control room, Harklight might be already there. You can contact them from there.”

#

Inaho follows Slaine along endless corridors until they arrive at the entrance of an enormous storing room. Slaien fumbles with an intercom near the door, explaining to Inaho that the doors will shut soon, trapping their pursuers in this sector.

Slaine points at a small door on the other side. “The safest way to return to the control room will be through that door ahead.”

Inaho’s eye calculates the distance. It is farther than it seems.

“Don’t forget, the doors will automatically shut in five minutes, we should evacuate this sector immediately. Inaho? What’s the matter?”

Inaho can feel each heartbeat against his chest, but he is certain that it is not because of the adrenaline. For the first time, he notices the shape of Slaine’s red lips, the apparent flushing of his cheeks, the blond curls that are stuck on Slaine’s sweaty forehead. The way Slaine’s eyes shine with determination is seemingly enough to affect his pulse—Inaho snaps out of his thoughts, lying. “It is nothing, I am merely tired.”

Slaine frowns at this. “What about your eye?”

Inaho’s eye detects five thermal images approaching from the corridor.

Instead of an answer, Inaho grabs Slaine’s forearm and drags him through the storage room, running towards the door. Slaine is forced to follow, Inaho doesn’t let go. They run between huge containers, the echo of their feet stomping on the floor fills the enormous space.

After they have crossed half the distance, Inaho understands that Slaine’s wound is still bothering him. The blond Count lets out a short cry, trips, almost falls with his face on the floor—Inaho stops his fall with his forearm.

They stop, panting heavily.

Slaine wheezes, looking around him, “Why are we running?! Did your eye sense anythi—Tch.” The five soldiers with no insignia are now shooting at them. Slaine shouts “Follow me!”, then runs and takes cover from the hail of bullets in the narrow space between two large metallic boxes, Inaho right behind him.

“Inaho, we should—” Inaho seizes Slaine’s shoulders, pulling him out of a ricocheting bullet’s trajectory in the last two seconds. The space is narrow, from the sudden movement Inaho’s shoulder hits the metallic box next to him, he loses his balance and lands on the ground with Slaine’s body lying on his; Inaho’s back hurts from the impact, their breathing is fast and anxious.

 Slaine groans, “Oh, not agai—“

Inaho tightens his grip on Slaine’s body, he whispers “Shh! They are near.”

Slaine stays silent. He then keeps fidgeting on top of Inaho. Inaho ignores Slaine’s odd behavior and turns his head to the side, his eye scanning the path of the approaching heat sources. Footsteps resound near them.

They both stay silent, waiting. The men are talking, approaching their hiding place, searching for them. Unfortunately, nothing in their words betrays if they serve under the UFE or Vers. The engine determines their position: if Slaine raises his body a bit, they will be discovered. Thankfully, Slaine stays motionless after squirming for a few moments, resting his head in the crook of Inaho’s neck. Inaho can’t assess the blond’s expression, he wonders what caused the blond Count to behave so.

The soldiers are walking away, Inaho’s eye reduces the possibility of Slaine being detected to 38%. Inaho’s muscles relax, though he decides to remain motionless until his implant’s percentage reaches single digits.

As the seconds pass and his anxiety fades away, Inaho starts feeling…strange. He is reminded of four days ago, when he was trapped under Slaine, inside his frozen Sleipnir. Slaine’s naked body was in direct contact with his then, though Inaho was completely nonchalant about it.

Our bodies were in a similar position before. Still, there are numerous differences this time…my heart rate is very high, for example.

Due to their close position, Slaine’s hair is tickling his nose, Slaine’s smell is enveloping him once again —Slaine shifts, his warm mouth is pressed against Inaho’s neck, a fleeting, accidental touch.

It’s enough for a fire to begin there, the heat spreading rapidly across Inaho’s skin.

It both fascinates and petrifies Inaho. Since stepping into puberty, he never had such a strong reaction towards anyone, of any gender identity.

This can be the only rational conclusion: I am attracted to Slaine Troyard. Physically and mentally.

Somehow, the realization of his feelings makes him even more aware of his situation: Slaine’s uneasy breaths near his ear, the coldness of the floor against his back in contrast to the warm, sensual weight pressing him down, each heartbeat that seems to bring him closer to what he now desires; to observe if Slaine reciprocates his feelings.  

Inaho releases a breath he wasn’t aware he was holding. He feels hot all over, but then his eye registers the thermal signatures of the soldiers. They are on the other side of the room.

Inaho hurriedly turns to face Slaine, their noses almost bump. Slaine’s face is just a breath away from his.

“Slaine, please get up immediately.”

Inaho’s eye detects a high facial temperature once again—Slaine is embarrassed, although there are traces of anger in his tone,

“W-will you let me anytime soon?!”

Due to the intensity of the situation, Inaho didn’t realize where his hands rest—in a tight grip around Slaine’s waist. That explains Slaine’s previous discomfort. He apologizes and removes them right away.

Slaine manages to detach his body from Inaho’s. They sit next to each other in the narrow space between the two containers.

I am certain that I am attracted to him, but how will I perceive Slaine’s feelings? Inaho recalls that they are in danger. No, this must stop immediately! I can’t afford getting distracted by Slaine’s…by everything concerning Slaine.

After a few seconds and some deep breaths, he tries to focus on their predicament and quickly succeeds. It seems that they didn’t detect our hiding place. Inaho’s eye calculates the distance to the door. The exit is too far. We have more than a 70% chance of getting shot if we proceed with Slaine’s plan.

A throb around his eye, Inaho grimaces. Not now.

A whisper, “Inaho?”

Inaho turns to face a worried Slaine, keeping his left eye closed. Inaho whispers, “My eye hurts, but it is the least of our concerns. We are trapped.”

“Tell me something I don’t know!” Slaine whispers back. “The doors will close soon! Until help arrives, we will be discovered!”

As soon as Slaine finishes his sentence, all doors in the storage area shut with a reverberating sound. Inaho opens his left eyelid and scans his surroundings with his engine, detecting the soldiers near a steam pipe.

Inaho meets Slaine’s gaze. “Slaine, do you trust me?”

Slaine’s eyes are large, he obviously wasn’t expecting the question. After a few intense seconds, “I-I do. I trust you.”

Inaho’s mouth curls into a faint smile at this. “Thank you.”

Slaine is staring at him. Inaho decides that he should stop getting lost in the colors of Slaine’s eyes and speak. “Slaine, I need you to cover me.” Inaho proceeds to explain his plan.

Slaine’s eyes widen even more. He shouts, “This is dangerous! You could be killed—”

Inaho’s hand covers Slaine’s mouth, he wonders if Slaine gave their position away. A corner of his mind is surprised at how soft Slaine’s lips feel against his palm.

Slaine shakes his head in denial, grabbing Inaho’s wrist and lowering Inaho’s hand from his lips. He whispers irritably, “We are either doing this together or not at all! You should stop with that annoying habit of yours, trying to solve every problem as if you are the only person left in the world! Give me some credit!”

Inaho nods, his eyes softening. “Please be careful, then. Bat.”

Slaine’s teeth bite softly into his lower lip, Inaho’s eye registers a veiled smile. “You too, Orange.”

Inaho realizes that Slaine’s fingers are warm on his skin. “For our plan to succeed, you will need to let go of my hand, Bat. I can’t use a gun like this.”

Slaine’s gaze comes to rest on his fingers, still wrapped around Inaho’s wrist. Slaine’s eyes widen for the umpteenth time and he withdraws his hand, refusing to meet Inaho’s gaze.

#

They run, Inaho shoots at the steam pipes. Slaine takes advantage of the soldiers’ momentary bewilderment and attacks the nearest one with a (impressive, if Inaho must be honest) front kick, sending him crashing on the wall. With their martial arts skills and Inaho’s eye amid the white cloud, they succeed: the five men are soon lying unconscious on the ground.

The white steam is reducing Inaho’s visibility. As usual, after the adrenaline fades away, his eye starts burning. What concerns him most however is another symptom; vertigo.

Inaho sits on the ground, his back against the wall, the white mist obscuring his surroundings. His head is pounding and the world suddenly tilts to the side; the approaching silhouette kneels next to him and speaks with a familiar voice, “Inaho?!”

Slaine helps him sit upright, kneeling in front of him. The steam has cleared considerably, and Inaho tries to focus on the shape of Slaine’s mouth, as there are two overlapping images of it right in front of him.

“I am unscathed, but I feel…lightheaded. I might need to sit down for a minute.”

Slaine doesn’t comment, brow still creased with worry. “We can afford to wait for a few minutes. Take your time.”

Inaho closes his eyes. His eye informs him that that his seconds of lucidity are scarce. “I caused you immense pain in the past. I’m sorry.”

Slaine lets out a strange sound. “I…I hold no grudge against you, not after all we experienced these last few days. I shot you…I should be the one apologizing, Inaho…”

Inaho decides to be honest. “I always had an accurate sense of time. Still, each day I experienced by your side seemed to last longer. Time has never felt like this before.”

Slaine chuckles, it is a delightful sound. “Why must you be so blunt about everything?”

Inaho wishes he could see Slaine’s expression. Does it bother you?”

“N-no, it doesn’t.” A pause. “It’s the same, for me. I-I can’t believe that I’m admitting this…but I’m glad your foolish actions stranded us in the Arctic. If I didn’t get to know you…I think I would have regretted it...”

Inaho decides to open his eyes. Slaine is smiling, it’s an honest, gentle smile. “Slaine, your ability to stay strong despite your hardships is remarkable.”

The smile is replaced with worry, “…Are you alright?”

Inaho closes his eyes. “I am lucid and conscious of my words. I also believe that you are a fascinating person, unlike anyone I have ever met. I admit that I enjoy seeing you smile—”

Slaine coughs as if he choked, interrupting Inaho, stammering, “Wh-why are you telling me this? You—you sound like you are trying to f-flirt with me, are you…are you sure that you are alright?”

“..Can you define ‘flirting’?”

“Huh?”

Inaho tries to explain, “Flirting could include eye contact, casual or accidental touching, even the use of specific words and compliments, but I never employed them. Intentionally.”, he adds, after he realizes that he has indeed accomplished every single entry on his list.

“That sounds a bit robotic to me, b-but I guess you are correct.”

Inaho tries to explain further. “I have never flirted with anyone before.”

“M-me neither.”

“Then how can you know if I’m flirting with you?”

“I-I don’t, that’s why I’m asking!” Slaine groans. “Orange! Each time you are unsure of something, you keep analyzing it until it becomes overcomplicated nonsense!”

“I am not, this is the way I express myself. I was not aware that you believed I was flirting with you. Did you dislike it?”

“P-please, let’s stop with this discussion…! F-forget that I said anything about f-flirting.”

“Okay.” Inaho’s secretly enjoys Slaine’s stammering. He always stammers when embarrassed. Interesting.

“One moment, w-why are you even telling me that?”

“I am on the verge of collapsing, my engine is starting to malfunction. At worst, I might slip into a comatose state. According to the data I gathered during my rehabilitation process, this might last from three hours to a week. In case it takes that long for me to wake up, I wanted to inform you of my feelings—“

“I-Inaho! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?!”

“Because I was unsure…if you could accept such compliments…from me.”

“Not about the compliments, you…you hopeless, fearless Orange! About your eye!!”

“My supervising doctor warned me…that as soon as I notice the symptoms, it will be too late. I might need to readjust or even…remove the engine, and this…might take…some time. Slaine…you should contact the—

#

>starting emergency application

>>running backup program

>>>unable to connect to memory

>>>> gaining control of Kaizuka Inaho’s frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital lobes

“Inaho!!”

>>>>gaining control of Kaizuka Inaho’s laryngeal and facial muscles

“Orange, can you hear me?!”

>Identity matched: Slaine Troyard

“What the—“

>Copying Kaizuka Inaho’s response: Watch your language/ Bat

What?! Stop playing the robot, Inaho! Do you get some sick satisfaction out of scaring me—”

>In 1800 seconds, Kaizuka Inaho will experience loss of consciousness/ If his cell mutation code is not readjusted within that time, tumor development in the left optical nerve and left temporal lobe will commence

“T-tumor…! What is going on?!”

>Processing command

>Kaizuka Inaho is unable of readjusting the mutation code at his current state/ Bring Kaizuka Inaho to Yagarai Shouma aboard the Deucalion

“In under half an hour…?! What’s the Deucalion’s current position?”

>Processing command

>>Error

>>>> Data insufficient

“Harklight, do you copy?”

“Tch! He’s not answering, what should I do…?”

>Processing command

>>Error

>>Withholding information regarding Slaine Troyard

“I wasn’t talking to—Wait a second, what information?!”

>Processing command

>>Error

>> Kaizuka Inaho’s first priority is the prevention of Slaine Troyard’s death/ Further data must not be uncovered

“My death? What do you mean—tch, no, I don’t have the time for talking to machines now!”

>Processing command

>Despite having knowledge of their incompatible objectives, Kaizuka Inaho trusts Slaine Troyard with his life

“I-Inaho… No, this is no good. I-I have to wake him up…I won’t be able to carry him—“

>Processing command

>>> connecting to memory

>>ending program

#

Inaho opens his eye. The pain is still digging in the inside of his left eye socket, but his vision is clear—he watches Slaine’s desperate features, Slaine is very close. Inaho is lying on the ground, Slaine kneeling next to him. What happened?

“Inaho! You are awake!”

“I think…I lost consciousness.”

Slaine seems as if in agony, “I must carry you to Dr. Yagarai. He will take care of your eye.”

Inaho’s head is trying to burst from the pain, he is tired and now awfully confused. “When did you…manage to…gather that data…?”

“I don’t have time for explanations! I have already communicated with Harklight, there are intercoms near the doors. He spotted the Deucalion within the territory surrounding the Moon Base. The UFE and some Orbital Knights are engaging in battle.” Slaine takes hold of Inaho’s forearm and positions it around his shoulder, helping him stand up. “Come on.”

Inaho manages to stand on his feet, slowly and with Slaine’s help. Despite everything, Slaine’s proximity is soothing. Slaine is facing straight ahead, Inaho tries to concentrate on the gentle slope of Slaine’s nose; his vision is double, once again.

Even so, I can’t afford letting Slaine endanger himself. Not again. Kaizuka concealed the exact date, but Slaine’s death occurred sometime after the war ended…after today. I must dissuade him from approaching the UFE.

Inaho takes a calming breath. “Bat, what are you trying to accomplish? You mentioned that there is a battle raging outside. The possibilities of breaking through the UFE defense lines and reaching the Deucalion intact are extremely low.” He raises his voice, “Even if I find a way to communicate with my team, the rest of the UFE will consider you an enemy!”

Slaine raises his voice even more, “Where is your flawless logic when I need it?! Can’t you see that there is no other option? Your eye is deteriorating, you fool!”

Slaine’s death must have occurred during the time he was imprisoned. And until now, history almost repeats itself…Slaine must not approach the UFE.

Inaho grabs Slaine’s shoulders, turning him to meet his gaze. Inaho’s breaths are fast, his heart is battering painfully against his ribcage, he rarely loses his composure…but now his fingers are clutching onto Slaine’s crimson uniform as if his life depends on it,

“You might be arrested. Imprisoned. Killed.”

“You will develop brain damage!!”

“Perhaps, but charging recklessly at the UFE is extremely dangerous! Let me devise another plan—“

“We don’t have the time! You are barely functioning, Inaho!!”

Inaho stops at this. His heart swells. “You care…you care about me.”

Slaine shouts, “Of course! Don’t you understand?!” A tears slides down Slaine’s cheek, another, his hand hovers over Inaho’s closed left eye in an almost-touch. He lowers his hand, “I don’t care if you are going to protest! I will use force if I have to!”

Inaho’s voice is empty. “You might die, Slaine.”

Slaine explodes, “Tell me the possibility of you dying in the next year, if you refuse to follow me right now!! What is it? 80%? 90?”

His eye has the answer ready. “92,3.” Inaho sighs. His lips stretch into a defeated smile. “Stay by my side at all times. I will try to explain that you helped me. After all, you never destroyed Trident Base…” Yes…Because of my interventions, Slaine hasn’t taken any hostile actions against the UFE. He is merely Saazbaum’s heir, and Saazbaum is alive. Perhaps there is still hope…

Slaine’s features relax. He wipes away his tears and tilts his head, expression soft now, “O-Orange...”

“Bat…?”

“I-I want you to know…that I…”

“…Yes?”

“N-never mind! I will tell you after you take care of your eye…Now come on!”

Slaine looks ahead, blushing, and starts walking towards the exit. Inaho follows, his arm still over Slaine’s shoulder. The door ahead is open…it seems that while I was unconscious, Slaine managed to unlock it...

It occurs to Inaho: “How will you reach the Deucalion? You should use an armed or military aircraft, the UFE will surely fire at us. On the other hand, both of our kats are unusable...”

“Orange, you wound me. Did you already forget our first meeting?”

Our first…? It then dawns upon Inaho. “The Sky-Carrier.”

Slaine turns, his hair and eyes are shining under the fluorescent lights of the room. His mouth forms a half-smile, “Exactly.”

Chapter Text

The sun is hiding behind the horizon as Inaho drives back to his house. During the drive, his mind is divided into two parts: one keeps checking and rechecking all the fragile details of Slaine’s escape plan, the other keeps repeating the conversation he just had with Slaine, recalling Slaine’s puzzled expression, the curious gaze that followed him out of the infirmary.

Tomorrow evening, an UFE aircraft will collect him and Slaine from the facility. The day after, they will arrive at the 1st Interplanetary Air Show, ‘an idea introduced by her Majesty Asseylum Vers Allusia’, as Blanchet said.

Slaine will be required to pilot the DX-23A, a prototype aircraft operating on an Aldnoah Drive that the UFE constructed with the cooperation of the Vers Empire—in the same facility that Calm is now employed. Due to this new technology being confidential, a special pilot with a good amount of skill would be needed. Blanchet mentioned that Asseylum persuaded the board—and the rest of the UFE high ranking officers that know of Slaine’s existence, which aren’t many— into giving their permission for Slaine to pilot the DX-23A and therefore leave the prison, but only for a few days.

Slaine will pilot the machine in the closing ceremony. He won’t come into contact with anyone, being under the constant supervision of the guards. Slaine will also be required to wear a military Vers uniform and a specially designed flight helmet with a visor, in order for his identity to remain a secret.

Inaho is suspicious of the UFE’s approval, but he is almost certain that nothing dangerous will occur at the event. The UFE still haven’t reached their goals for Slaine. Therefore, Slaine will remain safe until they have no use for him.

Unless traces of Slaine’s existence and their schemes leak out…then Inaho supposes that the UFE would try to dispose of the evidence—and Slaine—as soon as possible.

#

Inaho closes the front door behind him, stepping into the living room. He takes off his shoes, walks into the kitchen. He calls Yuki and makes the necessary everyday small talk (without mentioning anything about Slaine). Mechanically, he places a bowl full of cat food for a meowing Rayleigh on the floor. The cat purrs happily, his tail brushes against Inaho’s feet as he rushes towards his bowl.

Inaho feels tired.

Weeks of constant planning and fearing for Slaine have taken their toll on his mind. He briefly leans against the wall, watching Rayleigh as he eats, trying to hold back the scorching anger that threatens to rise on the surface each time he remembers a hurt Slaine lying on the white sheets of the infirmary bed.

Time is running short. After today’s misunderstanding with Slaine, Inaho has started viewing the whole picture more clearly. He only needs a few pieces of reliable data to confirm his suspicions about the guards’ disappearance.

The doorbell rings.

So soon?...I guess it can’t be helped, then.

#

Inaho reassures himself that his gun is loaded, and opens the door. It’s Siegfried Keil. His blond hair is disheveled, he is wheezing, but Siegfried’s deep voice is steady, “The UFE has made an attempt against my life. I beg of you to let me hide here, Mr. Kaizuka.”

“You were dismissed.” Inaho says, countless thoughts and affirmations running though his mind. “And I fail to see what your accusations will earn you, surely not your previous job. I am not the right spectator for this façade. General Blanchet dismissed you.”

The man’s features contort with fear, “I am telling the truth! They already killed two of my co-workers.”

Inaho plays along, “Is there any data that confirms your accusations? I have no time to waste on—“

“Sir! I will tell you everything.”

After the necessary fake silence, “Step inside and close the door.” Inaho says. “I can make us tea and you will explain what happened.” Thankfully, the security system on the windows is still activated. There should be at least another one. At worst, I might get injured— I am too useful for them to kill. But if they manage to incapacitate me…I will lose precious time and Slaine might be send off to Asseylum’s event without me.

Siegfried’s broad shoulders relax, he steps inside and turns to close the door. Inaho takes out his gun and aims it at Siegfried’s back. “Place your hands on the door.”

The man freezes for a few seconds, but does as Inaho asks.

He then sharply turns around, knocking Inaho’s gun off with a well-landed swipe of his arm. I misjudged him. He is no ordinary ‘guard’. Inaho holds his hurt wrist while ducking, avoiding a second blow, and then lunging forward, grabbing Siegfried’s arm and twisting it behind his back.

Siegfried elbows him in the stomach, it burns; Inaho doesn’t give in, he fights back and soon manages to paralyze the man for a few seconds. Inaho uses the momentary distraction to dive for his gun, then aim it between Siegfried’s eyes.

Siegfried stares at him, a few steps away.

“I admit that your acting abilities were impressive, Kaizuka Inaho.”

Inaho’s heart calms down from the fight. His body stance is straight, his hand steady, still aiming at the man’s forehead. As I predicted, there must be another party opposing the UFE. It’s a necessary risk: “You fought with the Stygis Squadron on the Battle of the Moon Base, defending Slaine Troyard and defying his direct orders. Twenty missing persons were listed in the Vers archives. Fourteen of them are male.”

The man stays silent.

Inaho’s eye narrows. “Veles? Guarin? Mortensen? Barouhcruz—“

The man’s eyes widen, slightly.

 “…You can take off your disguise now, Count Barouhcruz. And perhaps you should correct me on how I should address you.”

Barouhcruz has his gaze focused on the gun. His deep voice sounds tired, “Just Barouhcruz.”

Inaho raises his gun a bit, making his point. “Remove your mask.”

It is as if watching a person peeling off the skin of his face; so realistic was the fake material that was covering the whole of Barouhcruz’s head. The man takes off his contact lenses, too.

Inaho remembers the photographs that were listed in the files Inaho had requested from Eddelrittuo, weeks ago: it’s definitely Barouhcruz, dark hair and green eyes, expression solemn.

It is as I suspected; there is a Vers movement that is interested in Slaine. As if the UFE weren’t enough, the politics of Vers are now threatening Slaine... Barouhcruz and his peers could be staging an uprising against Asseylum.

His anger flares back to life. “I will not allow for Slaine Troyard to be exploited—“ Inaho feels a blasting pain on the back of his head, and all goes black.

#

His head is throbbing with pain. Inaho opens his eye, then closes it immediately as he perceives people in his living room. He is lying on his couch. They deactivated my security system and I wasn’t attentive to my surroundings. My anger towards Barouhcruz affected me. Since when am I erring that much?

Barouhcrouz’s voice, “Miss Lemrina, I fear that he might be unconscious for awhile.”

… Lemrina…Why is he addressing her so informally? Curiosity and alertness accompany Inaho’s concern for Slaine.

Lemrina answers, “I don’t mind. I only need his measurements for the disguise. We can postpone his questioning.”

After a pause, Barouhcruz speaks, “To continue with our discussion, I believe that Kaizuka has established a friendly relationship with Slaine Troyard. It is very hard to tell what the man is thinking, but I have seen him defend Troyard on multiple occasions.”

“When will you start calling him Slaine?” Lemrina asks with a lighthearted tone, “I know that deep inside you care for him.”

“Harklight was devastated after he learned the truth about his lord. This is my favor to him for saving my life. I respect Troyard, indeed, but if not for Harklight—”

“You like him.”

Silence.

“You like Harklight. You look at him the same way I look at Terran food—as if you want to grab him and—”

Barouhcruz coughs. “Can we please proceed with our plans?”

Inaho is trying his best to keep up, because the influx of information is threatening to drown his brain. Harklight must have survived, too. Barouhcruz addressed Lemrina informally, and she accepted it, as if both don’t recognize her royal blood. They have plans for me…and Slaine.

Barouhcruz sighs, “Harklight mentioned that Kaizuka will leave for the air show in less than 24 hours. We don’t have time for childish games.”

Lemrina just giggles.

“Then let us continue with my previous point. Kaizuka Inaho seemed genuinely offended by Slaine Troyard’s mistreatments.”

“You mentioned that numerous times before, Barouhcruz. It had always struck me as odd.” Lemrina says, “But Kaizuka works for the UFE. The Earth’s hero would never cooperate with our plans. I would love to see his expression after we free Slaine, however.”

Enough with this. Inaho sits up. They both stare at him, mouths slightly open. Inaho remembers Dr. Yagarai’s reports, three years ago, about Lemrina’s condition improving rapidly. He now observes the outcome: Lemrina is standing on her own feet—the left one is supported by an exoskeleton.

“You mentioned a disguise. Do you intend to take my place and free Slaine in the upcoming event?”

Lemrina’s eyes widen. She grabs Inaho’s gun from the coffee table, pointing it at him without hesitation in a practiced move.

“You will gain nothing from killing me.”

Barouhcruz and Lemrina stay silent, scrutinizing him. Lemrina’s voice is icy. “We know you have been kind to Slaine, and this is the only reason you are still alive. Be thankful for that, Kaizuka Inaho.”

Barouhcruz is scrutinizing him. “You previously noted that you won’t ‘allow Slaine Troyard to be exploited’. Can you explain this further, Terra—Kaizuka?”

So this is the reason his ‘persona’ was a quiet character. Inaho’s tone is resolute. “I will never let the Vers Empire or the UFE exploit him.” Inaho looks at Barouhcruz. “From your casual addressing of the Princess, I suspect that claiming the Vers throne is not your objective.”

Lemrina surprises him with an annoyed expression. “And be a prisoner of the Vers system once again? My sister is the perfect one for that role. She was born and raised for it. She will gladly be the bird in the cage.” Inaho doesn’t miss the pure anger directed to Asseylum, which (thankfully) makes Lemrina more talkative. “The punishment my sister and her husband dared to bestow upon Slaine is unforgivable.”

Barouhcruz places a hand on Lemrina’s shoulder. She looks up at him and smiles, delicately, then turns to Inaho, having seemingly calmed down.

Inaho decides to take the risk. If I handle them correctly, they could be extremely useful. “I plan to free Slaine Troyard.” Satisfied with their expressions, Inaho continues, addressing Barouhcruz. “For approximately three years, you disguised yourself in order to remain undetected,” he looks at Lemrina,”…and I was unable to trace you after your disappearance—or should I say that you willfully escaped the UFE’s ‘supervision’, perhaps with some help. You wanted to be free.”

Lemrina stays silent.

“I assume that you have gathered valuable data, these last four years. Furthermore, we share the same goal.”

Barouhcruz frowns. “Proceed with your explanations.”

Inaho wishes he could learn all the details behind their accomplishments, but there is no time. He focuses on Barouhcruz, “As a former ‘employee’ of that facility, I suspect that you have realized how grave the situation is. Slaine is in danger. I have gathered data that shows suspicious behavior from some members of the board—especially General Blanchet and Countess Orlov. I’m afraid that—“

“Why?” Lemrina asks. “Why do you want to free Slaine?”

Inaho closes his eye, calmly. He opens it. “I can’t answer that question.”

Lemrina seems annoyed. To Inaho’s surprise, she points the gun at his right leg, not aiming at a vital point. Her hand is steady—Inaho’s suspicions are confirmed: she is trained with guns. “Answer the question!”

Inaho takes another risk. “The white envelope on my kitchen table. It contains information about six missing persons and evidence that these people once worked for Count Saazbaum.” Inaho names them. “You send it to me, two weeks ago.”

Barouhcruz frowns when hearing the names. He disappears inside the kitchen, and later emerges, whispering to Lemrina’s ear. Her eyes widen.

“We did not.” Barouhcruz says.

Inaho feels the shiver of fear crawling down his spine. “That information is confidential. This can only mean that my government is way more organized than I believed. They purposely sent me such data, because they suspected that I was hacking into their files.”

 “The UFE is targeting you?” Lemrina’s eyes are still wide.

“Yes. I am now certain. They know I’m investigating into them.” Realization dawns. “They needed more time, perhaps with their plans for Slaine…so they sent me vague or useless information. I would stumble in the dark, trying to decode the meaning behind the articles, while they could finish with their plans—“

Lemrina interrupts him, irritated. “Wait. Explain everything from the beginning.”

#

 They end up sitting at the kitchen table, with Rayleigh curling his body near Inaho’s feet.

Inaho, still under gunpoint, explains his theory: Certain high ranking members from the UFE and perhaps a few from the Vers Empire are interested in Slaine’s wellbeing; they want to gain something from Slaine. Inaho still hasn’t discovered what exactly.

“And you will fail, if you attempt to free Slaine during the air show.”

Lemrina, still pointing the gun at him, sniggers. “Oh dear. And why do you believe that?”

“Asseylum’s double will most likely attend the air show. The real one is pregnant—“

Barouhcruz speaks. “We are already aware of this. Continue.”

So Barouhcruz and the rest monitor Asseylum, too. “The ‘Empress’ will be present, so security will be flawless. Slaine will be under constant supervision, unless when piloting. However, I believe the UFE would most likely see the aircraft and Slaine destroyed mid-air than having him escape. If you try to approach him with another aircraft while on air, Slaine will most likely die before you can reach him.”

From their stern expressions, Inaho understands that his hypothesis was correct. He tries to control his rising anger. “Your reckless plan might get Slaine killed. I will never allow that.”

Barouhcruz speaks, “Can you support your accusation with actual facts and not your imagination?”

“You previously mentioned that the UFE killed your co-workers. I believe you were telling the truth. I investigated into it, and every single officer that was dismissed from the facility has mysteriously disappeared or died in an ‘accident’. I previously realized that the UFE intentionally employed officers with almost no relatives, in order to silence them when their job was over—and never raise suspicions. Above all else, they wish to keep Slaine’s existence confidential.”

Baruhcruz swallows. “Perhaps you are correct. Even I had to fake the death of ‘Siegfried Keil’ in order to escape.” His expression is solemn. “I tried to reach Marina Berti and Juro Honda...During the three months we watched over Troyard in your garden, we established a…friendly relationship. Nevertheless, I discovered that they both passed away, dishonorably, in suspicious…vehicle collisions. However, I do not know about the fates of the others.”

Dishonorably.” Lemrina sighs. “Stop using such words, Barouhcruz. We don’t belong to the Vers nobility any longer. Also, Terrans prefer the term ‘car accidents’.” Lemrina turns to Inaho. “And how are you so convinced that the UFE will…destroy Slaine than have his identity exposed?”

Inaho manages to stay calm. “Before I stopped monitoring Blanchet’s movements two weeks ago, I discovered some coded messages he exchanged with Countess Orlov. They indicate that the prison will stop being of use to the board a few weeks after the air show.” Inaho holds back his disgust towards the board. Still, the words taste foul. “At worst, they are going to…murder…Slaine, after they are finished with their plans for him.” Inaho never let himself be affected by those messages, since nothing was stated clearly. He also had planned to free Slaine and expose the UFE much earlier than the mentioned date.

Silence. Barouhcruz breaks it, “We want evidence.”

The next hour is spent with Barouhcruz searching and reading Inaho’s encrypted files on his laptop, and Lemrina merely pointing the gun at Inaho. When Barouhcruz finishes, he seems a bit pale.

Barouhcruz addresses Lemrina. “Kaizuka is telling the truth. He has indeed gathered… significant evidence against his government. Troyard is in immediate danger.”

Inaho adds, “I’m ignorant of their real intentions. There is a possibility that they will …dispose of Slaine in less than a month. However, the UFE’s plans will lose their purpose as soon as Slaine gains his freedom. I have already reached the conclusion that the best strategy would be to distance Slaine from the UFE as soon as possible.”

I must free Slaine the day after we return from the air show, as I planned. And the UFE poses a stronger threat than a group of disorganized…acquaintances of Slaine.

Inaho feels mentally tired. “I now understand that you are extremely unaware of the reality, so we will follow my approach. I have no objections cooperating with you, as long as Slaine remains safe.” After Slaine escapes, I will decide what to do with all of you…and inform Asseylum that her sister is alive and a potential threat. “How many are aware of your plans, except from Harklight?”

Lemrina’s hold on the gun has loosened. “Why are you so concerned about Slaine?”

Inaho ignores her. He bends and strokes Rayleigh’s head. The cat purrs in delight. “Whatever my government has planned for him is unethical and unjust.”

Lemrina is angry. “Still, you are his enemy!”

Inaho raises his head and meets her blue, cold eyes with equal coldness. “As I said, I can’t answer that question.”

#

The rest of the night is spend in heated discussions. Inaho manages to learn that Harklight and two other former Stygis members—extremely loyal to Slaine— are hiding under aliases in the nearest city.

If the circumstances were different and time was not a pressure—Inaho must return to the facility in less than 15 hours—Inaho wouldn’t have combined forces with anyone. As things are, however, Inaho finds himself talking through an encrypted channel with Harklight. He remembers the dark-haired man from the files he received from Eddelrittuo.

Harklight’s dark eyes shine with determination, but his gaze is kind. He asks questions about Slaine’s health, about Slaine’s everyday life. He seems genuinely concerned about Slaine.

Inaho points out all the errors on Harklight’s plans, and reluctantly explains his own strategy. After many discussions and exchanging of information, Harklight and the rest agree to stay and hide in Inaho’s house until Inaho returns from the air show, and the time for Slaine’s escape arrives.

Inaho still hasn’t decided how or if he will involve them in his plan. It is clear that their intentions are genuine, but Inaho is extremely unwilling to trust anyone. On the other hand, if he exposes them to the UFE, he will gain nothing. Inaho wishes he had more time to analyze and manage all this new data.

#

After the talks with Harklight are over, it is almost noon. Inaho feels lightheaded from the tension and the lack of rest. He decides to sleep for a few hours, in order to function properly this evening.

In a rare truce and because he fails to form an alternative, safe plan, he trusts Lemrina with Rayleigh (the cat, surprisingly, needed only a few hours to warm up to her) and Barouhcruz with the eggs in his fridge (the man asked for permission to cook).

#

Inaho is standing at the entrance of his house. “Feed the cat and take care of the roses. There is a gardening book in my library, if you have any questions.”

It is perhaps Inaho’s imagination, but Barouhcruz’s eyes widen slightly.

“As we agreed, I will return in a few days and discuss the details of my tactics with you and the rest of your comrades. We will then launch the escape plan.”

Barouhcruz nods.

Lemrina tilts her head. “I have one more question. Why are you wearing those ridiculous band aids?”

For some reason, Inaho feels annoyed. “They are not ridiculous. And as I said, don’t forget to feed the cat.”

Without another word, he turns and leaves, hoping he has made the correct decisions.

#

Inaho arrives at the prison, carrying a small duffel bag with the necessary clothing (and lemonade for Slaine) for the next few days. He pushes Lemrina’s reappearance and the rest that transpired out of his mind, in order to stay composed.

He has decided not to mention the escape plan to Slaine—not until after Slaine is finished with his piloting ‘mission’.

Blanchet greets Inaho outside the building’s entrance. Inaho masks his antipathy. The man’s eyes are focused on the colorful band-aids covering Inaho’s eyebrow, as he informs Inaho on the details of his upcoming ‘mission’.

Inaho requests to take a walk along the beach with Slaine.

The man raises an eyebrow but says: “You have one hour. The officers were given the liberty to fire if anything seems out of the ordinary.”

Inaho wonders why the UFE still hasn’t made an attempt against his life. For the first time, my public image proved useful. My sudden disappearance would certainly result into thousands of people questioning it.

#

Slaine steps out of the building, three officers are surrounding him. Slaine’s eyes are bloodshot, with dark circles underneath.

He didn’t sleep well last night.

A guard pushes Slaine lightly towards Inaho. It is not a violent gesture, per se. Nevertheless, Slaine flinches and almost trips on the rocky shore. Inaho has to momentarily close his eyes in an attempt of self-restraint—he has observed Slaine suppressing his reactions each time the guards approached him, the last few weeks. Inaho endures it, the anger. Anger towards the board, the UFE, Slaine’s abusers, from Earth or from Mars, punished or not.

Slaine meets Inaho’s gaze calmly and approaches him. His surprised eyes show the whole of his bright irises, “Y-you! You kept the band-aids?”

“Yes. It was necessary.” Inaho doesn’t reveal the reason, of course.

Without another word, they fall into step along the beach, the guards watching them from a distance. The sun blazes over their heads, the color of Slaine’s shirt competes with the light blue sky.

Inaho keeps his voice low, watching the rocks under his feet as he walks, “The UFE will do everything to ensure that your existence remains confidential.”

“Alright, get to the point.”

Inaho’s perplexed pause makes Slaine sigh, “I know that blank expression of yours…something is troubling you. So don’t hide behind obvious remarks.”

“…You believed that I was involved in the murders of the guards that were ‘dismissed’.”

 Slaine sharply turns his head to look at him. He clenches his fists, the tendons showing on his thin wrists. The lead in Inaho’s stomach grows heavier when he notices the rest of the details, which he ignored as Slaine was mostly seated during his visits: Slaine’s shirt seems too large for his body, his forearms show the shape and angles of his bones. Under the bright light of the sun, Slaine’s cheekbones are clearly protruding, stretching his extremely pale skin.

He has lost much weight since his return to the facility. This is not healthy, considering the short amount of time that elapsed.

Inaho tries to even his breathing. “Keep walking. Don’t make sudden movements.”

Slaine follows Inaho’s advice and whispers, “How did you realize the truth about the guards?”

“I illegally investigated into certain files.” Inaho regrettably lies, as Slaine will surely react and draw unwanted attention if Inaho reveals the truth right now, “I don’t hold you responsible for doubting me. Blanchet revealed to you in the infirmary that the officers were…disposed of, correct?”

Slaine sighs, “The words he used could be interpreted like that, true. But he then whispered that you knew and approved of those…atrocities, and I felt

“Angry.”

 “Yes. I was furious…I-I was unable to discern his lies. I suppose I channeled my rage towards you, since getting angry at him wouldn’t prove…wise.”

If your reaction was so intense, should I deduce that you trust me? “I understand.” Blanchet was trying to turn Slaine against me… “Still, those officers that were on friendly terms with you never showed any signs of malice. I meant it when I said that they were kind.”

Slaine nods. “And yet they were killed. Because of my existence.”

He is serious...he truthfully believes that. Inaho’s tone is solemn. “No. They were murdered by my government. You had absolutely no part in this.”

 Slaine stops on his tracks, the ocean behind his back, his gaze towards the prison building. The wind stirs Slaine’s pale hair, it causes his loose blue shirt to flap, showing stripes of pale skin, scars and fading bruises. His eyes are empty once again, possibly focused on an unseen place in Slaine’s mind, dark and unknown to Inaho.

“Slaine.”

Slaine doesn’t turn to face him. “Hmm?”

“What are you thinking of right now? I have observed that expression at least thirty times before, during the last week.”

“Don’t tell me you counted, Orange.”

“No. It is an inaccurate estimation.”

Slaine turns to him, “They are gone!” Slaine’s grimace shows disgust, “And I was a coward, useless—“ A pause. “I was unable to foresee this.”

You blame yourself…but why use such an expression? Inaho understands, then. His eye narrows, he wishes he could find every single person that fed Slaine such insults—which Slaine sadly assimilated, with time and repetition—and extract painful revenge. “As I said, you are not at fault. From your words, I assume that no one ever told you.”

Slaine’s eyes narrow. “I don’t know if I simply hate or genuinely loathe those ‘assumptions’ of yours.”

Good, he is paying attention now. “You erred in your ways, yet—” Inaho has trouble expressing this without betraying his feelings, “Did anyone ever tell you that you, Slaine—you have shown kindness, forgiveness and…” Inaho pauses, swallows, but then Slaine laughs a bit. It’s a very smooth sound, carried away by the ocean breeze.

Inaho heart reacts enthusiastically to the sound, as always. That was unexpected.

“Still having trouble expressing yourself, Orange? But you know, each of your awkward pauses makes my day. The genius Kaizuka Inaho who defeated dozens of Orbital Knights…” Slaine’s voice softens, “…When trying to comfort his nemesis, he stammers like a schoolgirl in love.” Slaine’s eyes fill with colors again, his smile is weak but tender.

Inaho feels his cheeks growing hot. He tries to extort the meaning behind Slaine’s unspoken gentleness. He fails, so he lets his gaze follow a gull as it gently flaps its wings overhead. Another joins it, and the two birds are soon circling around each other, their cries growing louder and louder.

“Your statement lacks common sense. I am an adult male, not a ‘schoolgirl’.” Inaho doesn’t correct Slaine on the second part of his description. “And you tend to stammer far more than I do, Slaine.” Inaho wondered about the stammering, but he quickly concluded that Slaine’s discomfort or anxiety usually cause it.

Slaine’s cheeks are pink. “You—you are mistaken!”

“You just proved my theory. My point is valid.” Inaho turns to face the ocean, hiding his half-smile. “Your stammering is very…interesting, Slaine.”

Slaine stares at him wide-eyed. “What—what exactly does that mean?”

“You did it again.” Noticing Slaine’s flushed cheeks, Inaho supposes that his remark made Slaine self-conscious, so. “You shouldn’t feel uncomfortable. When you talk like that, it’s—it’s so...nice.”

“Nice?” Slaine groans, cheeks now crimson. “You…n-never mind. Let’s just talk a-about something else.”

“So you admit that you tend to—“

“Orange!”

#

They walk in silence again until Slaine stops and faces Inaho, now solemn. “What are you going to do? With the UFE and the guards?”

“Expose them.”

Slaine’s chuckle is ironic. “Good luck with that. I yearned for the destruction of the Vers nobility, yet I corrupted myself instead. But will you be able to stand against your government?” Slaine avoids Inaho’s gaze and looks at his exposed ankles, all ashen skin and visible contours of bones. “Think of your sister, your friends. They want you alive and sane, and being next to me doesn’t exactly guarantee that.”

Inaho moves his gaze from Slaine’s thin ankles to the horizon, where the blue of the sky melts with the darker hue of the ocean. It saddens him, the fact that Slaine’s strength, his resolve, even his body, they all seem suddenly so fragile. “No. The UFE’s conspiracies will never cease if I don’t act.”

“ ‘Conspiracies’... The political relations between the Vers Empire and the UFE are strained, am I right? The UFE has developed plans for me. It is not only the guards’ abuse you are…concerned…about.”

He did not mention Asseylum. “I have lots of concerns.”

Slaine huffs, “I know the answer, Inaho: I am definitely involved in those plans. This is what you’re hiding. And you were telling me the truth when I won, yesterday. I appreciate that.”

Inaho decides not to meet Slaine’s lucid eyes when he speaks. “Regardless of their plans for you, I will expose them. I have few connections due to my limited social interactions, but the press has always been very interested in me. When I have gathered enough evidence about the UFE’s crimes, I will make use of the journalists’ curiosity.”

Slaine takes a long, wounded breath and studies the horizon. “Inaho...”

Inaho waits, observing the arch of Slaine’s cheekbones. He has missed this, watching Slaine under the endless blue sky, not the fluorescent lights of the prison. “Yes, Slaine?”

“I am no longer a confused and naïve boy.” Slaine seems pensive. “Why is the UFE keeping me alive? Why go to such extends, keeping me healthy, funding my food, the prison, the almost daily blood tests?”

“You are an important political prisoner and a means of negotiation with the Vers Empire. The exposure of your existence is a threat to the stability of this peace.”

Slaine’s tone is cold. “Wrong answer.” Slaine starts pacing back and forth, he watches the birds overhead, he groans, he threads his slender fingers through his hair.

Inaho clenches his fists at his sides instead of reaching for Slaine. It is the first time he has seen Slaine showing his distress that openly. “Are you distressed because of the upcoming event?” A pause, “Of course. You will be required to pilot. This is not an obligatory assignment—”

“No! This has nothing to do with the stupid event!” Slaine turns to Inaho, head high, still majestic in that blue uniform, “I must be insane, Orange, starting this conversation, but it’s impossible to stay silent—I’ll lose whatever sanity I have left.”

Inaho’s blood flows faster. “Once again, I fail to follow your logic.”

Slaine’s fingers are clawing at his shirt, over his heart. “Then tell me, Inaho: What are we? Are we enemies? Are we friends?”

Inaho frowns, he never analyzed their relationship in such a way. “The world does not work in opposites, Slaine. But I know that we are cooperating satisfactorily, we share a number of interests, we carry out genuine discussions…”

“No, no! That’s not what I’m talking about!” Slaine shakes his head, his bared teeth show pain.

A pulse of dread rushes through Inaho. “Slaine, you are obviously distressed. Is it due to Asseylum’s event or the UFE’s treatment? Bat?”

Slaine shouts, “No, Inaho, dammit! Why did you have to name your cat after the Rayleigh scattering?!”

Inaho feels the blood drain from his face.

Slaine steps closer, blushing, restless, “Don't! Please let me finish. The lemonade. You don’t enjoy drinking lemonade. Only I drank from the bottle. I observed the amount carefully! And I saw the pile of lemons one day—you forgot to throw them away. Waking up at six in the morning so that I wouldn't know…”

Slaine takes a deep breath, as if preparing himself for a difficult task. “You hugged me, and for someone like you, this is…it’s unbelievable.” Slaine knuckles are pale, his hand trembles where it grips his shirt. “The red rose! Why red? Why red when you had numerous colors to choose from?! Your concerned gestures—and why am I unique, I-Inaho?”

Inaho is calm, his mind conjures four excuses; but when he tries to lie he meets Slaine’s narrowed eyes and all words fail him. He feels the agitation gradually rising inside.

Slaine’s expression softens. “Inaho...please.”

Inaho automatically acts like he always did in severe conditions: he shuts down all emotions and thinks. It’s a detached analysis; Slaine is upset, and no cheap excuses will satisfy him. A lie is out of the question. If he tells the truth, Inaho assumes that he can stand Slaine’s revulsion for the next few days, until Slaine is set free and then disappears from Inaho’s life—perhaps Harklight and the rest will ensure that Slaine remains safe.

He forces the words out of his throat. “I never…predicted that you would find out.”

Slaine takes a step back, as if Inaho’s words were a physical blow to the chest. “H-how long?” Slaine murmurs but then answers, “No, no, it doesn’t matter…”

“You—you are not appalled.”

Slaine’s features twist into a look of helplessness then, “Why…why should I ever be appalled?” Slaine groans, hiding his crimson face behind his hands, “I can’t believe this—” He lowers his hands, his pale hair disheveled. The setting sun descends behind his head, crowing Slaine with light.

“Solace…happiness. A home. It took me twenty two years to realize that those things actually exist. You showed me…how it might have been.” Slaine takes deep, shaky breaths. “They are cruel, Inaho. Martians, Terrans. They always were…and I understand it. I accept it. But—but deep down, I suppose I started yearning for it: a future.” Slaine’s eyes sadden. “After all I have done…do you believe that such a thing exists for me? A future?” Slaine turns his head, his gaze reaching far away, at the end of the ocean. “As if I could ignore the blood on my hands…as if I could spend a whole lifetime sitting on your kitchen porch…listening while you ramble on about constellations…”

There is a long, stunned moment where Inaho is silent.

“Slaine. They will pay—”

Slaine groans, “Stop! Stop this.”

Inaho stops. His eye widens, then. “You mean—“

“Yes. Unfortunately, I…” Slaine spits the words out with difficulty, “I have feelings for y-you. And I can’t bear them.” Slaine clenches his fists. “I-I really can’t, Inaho.”

Impossible. Inaho forces his mind to respond. “Slaine...” The words feel like cotton in his mouth. “Slaine. Misleading feelings of trust or affection could develop between a prisoner and—“

Stop.” Slaine’s eyes harden. “I-I hated it, at first. I couldn’t understand why—why on Earth and Vers I even felt like this a-about you. It’s not because you come here every day. And it’s not the prison. It did not cause…this. My whole life was a set of cages! This is different.” Slaine closes his eyes. When he opens them, he suddenly seems very determined. “But never insinuate again that this has anything to do with taking advantage of anyone. It doesn’t! It doesn’t matter if I’m here, or if I’m the freest person in the world. Do you understand, Kaizuka Inaho?”

Slaine’s blush has reached his ears, he presses his lips tight together, eyes narrowed.

Inaho’s logic flees. It is as if he stepped into an impossible, parallel universe; where the Moon is still whole in the sky and Slaine Troyard has feelings for him. Realization strikes him so hard, he feels lightheaded.

Slaine whispers, “Why that color again...?”

Inaho needs a few seconds to understand that Slaine is talking about the sunset. The sun is approaching the horizon, setting the clouds ablaze with a brilliant orange. Huge fragments of the Moon are scattered across the darkening skies. Everyone else near them forgotten, Inaho perceives only the dark ocean and Slaine; Slaine’s silhouette against the blood red horizon, strong and beautiful and sad.  

They simply stand there, staring at each other, until the sun disappears and darkness begins to set in.

Slaine is the first to break the silence. His fists grab handfuls of his shirt, “This was a mistake. I-It was an enormous mistake, telling you.”

Inaho feels as each breath is burning him inside. “Perhaps, if we consider that the UFE might take advantage of our…of our feelings and that you are—but that does not alter the fact that...you reciprocate…” Inaho’s eye widens. Slaine is interested in me…romantically. The thought is enough to send a shiver down his spine. I believed it impossible, yet Slaine has feelings—

Slaine start pacing to and fro, groans in misery once again. He turns to face the red horizon. “Now that this is over and done with, tell me: How many days have I left? Until they get rid of me?”

Inaho’s world goes still. “No evidence exists that the UFE—”

The truth!” Slaine hisses.

That deep sadness consumes Inaho again. He knows…he has understood. Did Blanchet threaten him? Inaho takes a step toward Slaine, wishing he could touch, comfort. But the guards are still watching. Evidence exists.” Inaho pauses, giving his voice stability, “Even if that data is accurate, they will never succeed. Blanchet has made numerous mistakes in his reports to the Vers Empire, Slaine. I have already gathered suspicious records concerning the facility they keep you in; and other data which shows—“

The rest of the words die on Inaho’s tongue as Slaine hunches his shoulders and drops his head. Slaine clenches his fists, they are trembling. The words are rough, full of concealed anger. “The UFE will hunt you down like a rabid dog if you try to help me, Inaho.”

“Both the UFE and the Vers Empire did the same to you, Slaine.”

“I deserved it. Y-you don’t.”

No. You never deserved the abuse you experienced in both of their hands.”

Slaine raises his head, eyes fierce. “You dare use that as an argument?!”

Inaho’s heart feels clogged. “I am trying to make you understand that what I feel for you is genuine.”

“Dammit, Inaho! This is not my point—“

“Then tell me what your point is.”

Millions of lives were destroyed because of my actions, Inaho.” Slaine seems in agony, “I could never forgive myself if your life was destroyed once again because of me! The UFE will try everything—”

“You are more important than my life, Slaine.”

Slaine’s shock is apparent from the way his mouth opens and a choked sound escapes him. His eyes are wide, disbelieving.

Inaho’s chest aches, he frowns, “I am selfish enough to impose the truth on you. However, I don’t expect an answer; I don’t expect anything from you.”

Slaine opens his mouth, closes it. He clenches his fists. “You’re insane.”

“…Perhaps, as my ability to act logically has deteriorated a lot. Or perhaps I am not, my sanity is not the issue right now.” Inaho’s features soften. “Still, numerous times, you have put others’ wellbeing above yours, Slaine. And I never appreciated that earlier about you, as I never tried my best to understand you. I failed you.”

Slaine’s angry expression crumbles. His lips tremble, “Y-you…! You did so much, and still—“

The guards call on them, the one hour is over.

Slaine stops talking. He looks away, his shoulders are trembling; but Inaho witnesses once again Slaine’s iron self-restraint: when Slaine slowly turns to face a concerned Inaho, he has seemingly calmed down.

“Orange. Straighten your hand out.”

“Bat?”

“I-If anyone asks, you took it for safety purposes.” Slaine sighs, “Do it, Orange.”

Inaho does as Slaine asks. He blinks in surprise as Slaine takes his pendant off, then places it in Inaho’s palm.

Their fingers brush slightly as the pendant changes owners, one more time.

Slaine lets his arm drop at his side, and Inaho realizes that the pendant feels so hot in his palm because of Slaine’s body heat.

Slaine’s forlorn gaze travels across the ocean. “It supposedly protects you from evil spirits. But I don’t believe in childish stories…not anymore.”

“Why are you giving this to me, then?”

“Because one day, I want to live without it.”

Inaho frowns. “…Still, this pendant is important to you.”

“I have found something far more important.” is the last thing Slaine says as he walks past Inaho, looking straight ahead, approaching the annoyed guards in the distance.

Inaho stares at the ocean for a while, as if the black waters could hide the exact meaning of Slaine’s words.

He puts the pendant in his pocket and follows after Slaine with a throbbing eye.

#

The aircraft for their transport arrives, under a sky filled with stars. Faintly, it reminds Inaho of the night he shot Slaine down, almost six years ago. It is not a rational option, but he still wonders…how would things turn out if he had taken Slaine aboard the Deucalion?

Slaine is handcuffed and blindfolded, surrounded by three guards. Inaho feels his blood slowly boil at the UFE’s pretenses, but masks everything with his indifferent expression.

The six members of the board are in full attendance. Count Vornt briefly meets Inaho’s gaze, then narrows his eyes and looks away. Take off will take place in under 900 seconds.

Blanchet is barking orders, and Slaine is led towards the open abdomen of the aircraft. The seats are not facing the pilot’s cabin, their backs instead fixed on the aircraft’s walls. It is a military aircraft. Everything is within Inaho’s expectations.

Inaho turns his attention to the guard leading Slaine towards the metallic ramp of the aircraft. One of his hands is grabbing the back of Slaine’s shirt, the other Slaine’s nape— as if he is controlling an animal.

He (purposely?) doesn’t warn Slaine of the metallic structure ahead, and before Inaho reacts, Slaine trips; only to be held upright by his now stretched shirt and the reddened skin of his nape. The guard pulls at them both, making Slaine straighten his body, shaking him forcibly.

Inaho sees red. He approaches the guard—but a hand in his shoulder stops him. He turns to face Blanchet. Inaho feels as if his ribcage will explode at any moment.

In the meantime, Countess Orlov has moved toward the guard, reprimanding him harshly. The guard apologizes, and she leads a silent, blindfolded Slaine carefully up the ramp, then helps him take a seat.

When Blanchet lets him go, Inaho turns once again and grabs the man’s hand as if closing a deal. Inaho shakes their hands; he uses the whole of his strength, feeling the man’s bones crack under his grip. Blanchet recoils.

As Inaho releases the man’s hand, he distinguishes a spark of satisfaction deep behind the small eyes.

#

In the aircraft, Inaho takes a seat next to Slaine. A guard removes Slaine’s blindfold, but not his handcuffs. He then joins his colleagues and sits opposite Inaho and Slaine, three pairs of eyes watching them.

Slaine is silent, eyes closed. His nape is crimson.

Inaho’s blood is burning with anger, but as a few minutes go by, he gradually manages to calm down and ask Slaine if he’s comfortable. The flight’s duration will be 7 hours.

Slaine mentions that he is cold—unsurprisingly, considering that Slaine is still dressed with his thin, blue uniform— so Inaho gets up and hands him a grey blanket, which Slaine manages to spread over their feet.

He then offers coffee from his thermos to the guards, and lemonade to Slaine.

#

After half an hour of silence and Slaine’s warm presence next to him, the guards start nodding off, then fall into a deep sleep. The tranquilizer Inaho had slipped into the coffee has taken effect. Thankfully, there is no other surveillance.

Inaho nudges Slaine’s small finger with his, under the blanket.

Slaine immediately turns to face him.

For a moment, Inaho lets himself feel the pull at his heart; the doomed happiness in the knowledge that Slaine returns his feelings.

Slaine tilts his head towards the sleeping guards. “Is this your doing?”

Inaho nods, “I thought you’d prefer them asleep for the duration of the flight.”

Slaine sighs.

“Slaine, are you—“

“I am fine. As I said, stop with this. I’ve had much worse before.”

Slaine’s scarred torso slashes though Inaho’s mind. “I will—“ Inaho stops, exhaling loudly. Inaho’s thoughts have already gained murderous shades. He tries to distract himself by looking at Slaine, safe and blushing next to him. His features must be betraying of his anger, because Slaine’s eyes are huge.

Inaho never had the desire to compare the green colors with anything, but he now realizes that they remind him of forests…or perhaps tropical waters. And he thinks of faraway places he would like to experience with Slaine; show Slaine, who spent half his life inside metallic, brutal prisons, that there is a better place for him in this world.

Inaho decides to ignore Slaine’s hurt nape…for now. He whispers,

“Are you still cold?”

“No.” Slaine says, not looking away. After a pause, “A-are you?”

“No.”

Slaine covers Inaho’s hand with his. Inaho’s almost starts, because this is…new.

After a long silent moment, Inaho dares to mutter. “Slaine, does this mean—“

“Yes.” A pause. “Yes. I’ve decided. I want this with you. O-only you.”

Inaho welcomes the words, he lets them sink in. The word is more of an exhale, “Okay.”

“I…I have never done this before.” Slaine murmurs. The words are tinted with sadness.

“I suppose that we are alike in many things.”

Slaine hums as if in understanding.

They are silent.

Inaho remembers those romantic movies he used to watch with Slaine.

Inaho finds Slaine’s palm, his fingers; slowly, carefully, he laces them within his own. The hard, metallic handcuff scratches his wrist, contrasting Slaine’s hand, warm and soft in his hold.

Slaine lets out a shaky exhale. Inaho freezes, he rapidly moves his gaze from the grey blanket to Slaine’s face. Their eyes meet, and the corners of Slaine’s lips curl a bit…but Inaho knows Slaine well, after all this time. It is a forced smile. Inaho starts withdrawing his hand, thinking that he somehow unsettled Slaine.

Slaine tightens his grip on Inaho’s hand. “No!”

Inaho can now feel Slaine’s pulse, racing fast under his skin. “I made you upset.”

Slaine looks away and tightens his hold more, Inaho’s fingertips are numb. “I—I’m just not used to this.” Slaine hunches his shoulders, bows his head, the pale strands are now obscuring his face. It’s a pained stance.

“Slaine. Are you alright?”

Slaine groans. “I had no objections when you h-hugged me! Why should I have now?” He whispers, “Just—go on."

“Are you certain?”

“Y-you…Stop being so reluctant! You have done it before, so go on. Please.”

Inaho takes a calming breath, trying to understand the meaning behind Slaine’s mysterious, reluctant wording. His eye widens. With his heart fluttering in his chest, he hopes he understood Slaine’s request: he starts caressing Slaine’s hand, soothingly.

Slaine stays silent—he doesn’t complain.

Inaho is completely new to giving affection. He cannot prepare or analyze data; he cannot predict Slaine’s reactions. Slaine has not uttered a single word, so Inaho hopes that he is following the protocol correctly. If a protocol for such things even exists.

#

In the next few minutes, Inaho tries to comprehend the impossibility of it—Slaine, returning his feelings. He decides not to initiate more physical contact, his mind warning him that their roles might have influenced Slaine’s actions— based on psychological theories Inaho never had the desire to fully comprehend.

He feels sad, relieved, anxious; happy. The emotions are too many to count or even differentiate from each other.

#

After a while, Slaine relaxes next to him. He squeezes Inaho’s hand once, their fingers now loosely intertwined. “Orange.”

“Bat?”

“Rayleigh is a stupid name for a cat.”

“…I could not think of better alternatives.”

Slaine straightens his body, then turns to face him. He leans towards Inaho, blond strands now covering his cheeks and forehead. His voice has traces of irony, “Really? Not even with your methodical brains?”

Inaho can clearly see the smile hiding at the corners of Slaine’s lips. He seems better. Inaho is motionless, his pulse rises a bit, he still isn’t used to this. He doubts he ever will. His gaze travels unhurriedly over Slaine’s features, observing and appreciating — it is impossible not to look at Slaine’s red mouth.

The handcuffs rattle as Slaine raises his hands and runs his fingertip over Inaho’s uncovered eyebrow. Inaho carefully tries to keep himself still. Slaine’s vibrant eyes are focused on the other eyebrow for a few breaths—Inaho quickly realizes why: the band-aids. Slaine places three fingers on Inaho’s eyepatch, quietly, keeping them there. But then Slaine’s posture completely transforms: his shoulders drop, his lips shape a taut line, his eyes lose all of their radiance.

Inaho decides to distract Slaine. “Why are you doing this?”

He succeeds. Slaine’s green eyes meet his. “Because I can.”

Slaine pinches Inaho’s cheek, hard, and Inaho has to hold Slaine’s wrist, and of course caress it slowly with his thumb. Joy and affection rise within him in languid, strong waves. “Are you attacking me because you can, too?” His own voice catches him unaware; despite everything that transpired today, it has a playful hue.

Slaine’s red lips part, delicately, in surprise. His mouth then curves into a heartfelt smile, which catches Inaho in the chest. “Correct. You truly are a genius, Kaizuka Inaho.”

Inaho raises a hand and pinches both of Slaine’s cheeks, not so hard. He lets his fingers linger a bit on flushed, warm skin. The corners of his mouth curl. Happiness. “Now we are even.”

There is a spark behind Slaine’s eyes. “Is this war, Orange?”

Saying that, Slaine cups Inaho’s cheeks—it’s a bit difficult with the handcuffs, yet Slaine manages it. He presses them together, causing Inaho’s mouth to crease. Slaine’s smooth palms are very hot on his skin. Inaho tries to talk, but the words come out mumbled, and Slaine lets out a surprised, bubbling sound.

Inaho gently takes hold of Slaine’s wrists and removes his hands from his face, slowly, still wearing a smile. Slaine lets him. His eyes are soft.

They stare at each other.

Slaine’s blush intensifies. He looks away and whispers, “Still, I can’t believe you kept the band-aids on!”

Inaho feels the heat spreading on his cheeks. He recalls Inko’s and Nina’s conversations, and he supposes that he can use the expression; after all, it fits both the band-aids and sometimes Slaine.

“They are cute.” Inaho takes a deep breath, because he is now exploring completely unknown territories. “And they remind me of you.”

Slaine is facing away from Inaho, but the tips of his ears turn scarlet.

#

They talk, and not only about Kataphrakts or roses. This is also new, and it too fills Inaho with contentment. Slaine is extremely reluctant at first, but he reaches a point where he briefly talks to Inaho about his childhood on Earth, his travels, and finally, his work-absorbed, absent father. Slaine mentions his crash-landing on Mars— then stops talking. Before Inaho thinks of a strategy to extinguish the faint sadness in Slaine’s eyes, Slaine warily starts asking about Inaho’s life.

So Inaho talks a bit about his friends and Yuki, until Slaine yawns.

Inaho looks at him for a few heartbeats until Slaine admits, “I’m tired. I’m very tired…”

I know. “Sleep. I noticed earlier the redness of your eyes and your periorbital dark circles. They are clearly signs of fatigue.”

Slaine rests the back of his head on the aircraft’s wall. He raises his gaze to meet Inaho’s. His eyes seem full of hope. Slaine’s eyelids flutter and drift close, he yawns again.

Inaho suddenly aches with the need to bend forward, carefully slide his fingers into Slaine’s pale hair and kiss him. On the mouth, on the forehead, on the cheek, it does not matter. He fastens his gaze on the floor, instead.

This is not—I must concentrate on what awaits us—and I have no evidence that Slaine is...physically…attracted…to me. His reflection without the eyepatch appears in his mind. The empty space where his eye once used to be, the scars on his eyelid. He quickly forces everything away, reminding himself that his first priority is always Slaine’s safety. The rest will have to wait.

He waits for a few minutes until he speaks. “Sleep well, Slaine.”

Slaine hums pleasantly, eyes still closed.

Inaho wonders if Slaine’s sleepiness is lowering his defenses; making him open and vulnerable, like the time he woke up from his nightmares. “Slaine. Is this truly what you wish for?”

Slaine is silent. When he speaks, his voice is low, rumbling, as if he is slowly falling asleep.

Inaho doesn’t distinguish the words. Even though he knows he can ask Slaine once he wakes up, he feels as if he has missed something very important, something—

Slaine snores, softly, making Inaho smile a little. He ignores his consternation and looks at Slaine’s sleeping face, at his closed eyes. He feels the familiar tug at his heart.

He rests his head on the wall, copying Slaine. Inaho spends the next few hours analyzing and organizing information in his mind, readjusting his plans. He tries very hard not to be disrupted by Slaine’s smooth noises, by everything Slaine said and did the last few hours. By remembering that Harklight and the others are now staying at his house. Inaho catches himself wondering about a future, Slaine’s future. He knows that he can bring it into existence.

Chapter Text

Please listen to me. Someone, once, asked me to save Slaine—I devoted myself to this cause, but I am not sure, and I will probably never know if I succeeded.

But you can do it.

#

Inaho believes that he will never forget this flight in his life.

Slaine performs another dive with the black aircraft, avoiding the tenth missile, and as Inaho’s world spins rapidly around him, he has come to believe that Dr. Yagarai won’t need to perform a surgery on him for his malfunctioning eye; their chances of survival seem minimal.

It seems that the Vers Empire has developed more types of Sky-Carriers. Inaho is currently sitting inside one that has two seats, able to function on the very low density and pressure conditions of the outer space.

Inaho contacted the Deucalion as soon as Slaine took flight. He explained his situation and his urgent need for medical treatment; the UFE channel operator let out a strange sound, but soon Inaho was talking to a very surprised Colonel Magbaredge. Slaine stubbornly refused to let Inaho help with the navigation planning and the actual flight—Inaho is still under the effects of vertigo, he’s constantly gritting his teeth, the inside of his left eye socket is burning with pain.

Still, in his hazy agony, Inaho is reminded of Slaine’s flying abilities the day they first met, over the waters of Tanegashima: Slaine is flying at full speed, has slipped, crossed and passed between Vers and UFE’s flightpaths, avoiding missiles. After each complicated flying maneuver and despite the chaos of shots and kataphrakts everywhere around them, Slaine makes sure to talk to Inaho through the video channel that connects them, speaking reassuring, gentle words that Inaho never asked for—even if they quickly serve as a balm for his sore eye.

Once again, Inaho secretly admits to himself that he is impressed with Slaine’s bravery, the determination in everything he does, his caring for people near him…it’s a long list.

Slaine performs a dramatic maneuver in order to avoid an obstacle right in front of them, slowing down and raising the nose of the aircraft, performing a loop, then two rapid turns one right after the other, another hazardous loop, Inaho feels weak, nauseous —his head snaps back and everything turns black.

#

When he opens his eyes, he knows that he is in the Deucalion’s docking site, laid down on the cold floor. Calm’s face is somewhere near, among the blurry colors and moving shapes kneeling next to him.

Slaine—I have to find Slaine…

Everything is clearer now. Inaho tries to scan his surroundings for the crimson uniform, until he spots him, blond hair messy, bangs falling in front of his eyes, being restrained with his hands behind his back by three UFE soldiers, shoved, Slaine grimaces as his weight lands on his injured leg—

Anger makes his vision blurry. As he stands up, the pain is intense. He passes past Calm and many unfamiliar faces, covering his eye with his palm, he feels something warm seeping out of it. He tries to run towards the soldiers and Slaine.

The latter lifts his head and looks at him as if he has seen a ghost, then shouts, “Wha—have you lost your mind, Orange?! Go lie back down!”

He knows that he has to rush to the infirmary, and that Calm and at least five others are behind him, trying to make him lie down ‘until a gurney arrives’. However, this is more important:

“Slaine Troyard will come with me to the infirmary. Release him. That’s an order.” He looks at an astonished Calm, “When I wake up, I want him in the room. Unharmed.”

The soldiers are reluctant to obey, so Inaho repeats his first order once again, extremely annoyed, because he can’t physically defend Slaine, black is creeping toward the edges of his vision, his seconds of consciousness will soon be over, and he has a future to rewrite: Slaine should never be imprisoned. And Slaine should never be mistreated.

They let Slaine go, Inaho grabs the blond’s wrist in a tight grip, he notices that Slaine’s cheeks are tearstained, but is too tired to ask how or why.

He whispers, “Bat. You need to stay by my side at all times. Promise me.”

Slaine just nods, overwhelmed for some reason, placing a warm hand on Inaho’s cheek. “Lie down…p-please. We have less than a f-few minutes until your eye starts…deteriorating.”

This time, Inaho swims in a sea of pain before he blacks out. At least Slaine is there to catch him, Inaho trusts him on that.

#

Inaho’s dreams are vague, but Slaine is there; he can tell from the memory of disheveled hair, the familiar mouth stretched into a thin smile, the bright eyes that now have dark purple circles underneath. Slaine looks…different and very tired—but then the scenery changes and Inaho wakes up.

#

He opens his eyelids, he feels relaxed, he doesn’t remember where he is, he’s lying on a bed, the sheets are soft…but he spots the blond hair in his field of vision…his thoughts are sluggish, but his drugged mind forms the words…

“Slaine?” Inaho’s lips stretch into a tender smile. Slaine’s hair seems clean and silky. Inaho would like to touch it…

Slaine comes closer. “Inaho!”

“Where you here the whole time? Are you alright?” It’s so easy to talk, Inaho can’t seem to stop smiling.

“Yes… Are you alright?”

“Come closer.”

Slaine does come closer, so Inaho sleepily raises a hand and strokes Slaine’s pale hair with his fingertips, just behind Slaine’s ear…it’s soft…he slowly combs through it, marvels at the feeling of golden strands around his fingers… “You have nice hair.”

“I-Inaho…?” Slaine stammers, blushing. Inaho wants to smile more at the sight, but his eyelids are dropping…

Inaho knows that voice, “You! I said, get away from my little brother! I know that he ordered you to stay, but this is too much! And what is Nao even doing?”

“He is still under the effects of the anesthetic I used, Yuki. He might be feeling a bit…confused at the moment. But I should admit that his obsession with our young Martian guest is quite interesting…”

Another man chuckles. “It seems that your little bro has found his type, Yuki. Rich and blond once again, you shouldn’t complain.”

Yuki is shouting something, but Slaine’s cheek is soft, warm…

“Why is Nao touching your hair with that creepy smile? And now your cheek?!”

“I-I have no idea…!”

“What have you done to my brother?!”

“Nothing! You have to believe me!”

The rest of Slaine’s words are a blur. His hand drops on the mattress, and Inaho is fast asleep.

#

Inaho opens his eyes, sitting up on the bed. The first thing he notices is that Slaine is in the room, sitting on a chair near him. When he sees that Inaho is awake, Slaine’s smile brightens up the whole room.

And then Inaho notices, and he says to Dr. Yagarai, “You made readjustments to my eye. Slaine is blushing, but I cannot determine his facial temperature anymore…or any other parameters.”

Yagarai chuckles, “Yes, your eye should work like a normal—“

Yuki rushes near him, “Nao! How are you feeling?”

He smiles a bit. “Fine, Yuki-nee.” Inaho turns to Slaine, “Bat, even without my engine, I can see that you are blushing. On top of that, you seem uncomfortable. What happened?”

Marito speaks, “You were still drugged when you first woke up. You started petting your…friend’s…hair.”

Petting? When? “Did I make you uncomfortable?”

Slaine’s eyes are large. “No!” He looks away, “Considering our time in the Arctic, this was nothing…eh, I mean…!”

Yuki narrows her eyes. “The Arctic? What exactly happened in the Arctic, Nao?”

Inaho recalls Slaine’s heat, the curves of his body, his smooth and uneven skin…the way it felt on his hands—Inaho tries to suppress memories that are not meaningless anymore.

 “We crash landed on an uncharted place near the Arctic Circle. After I bandaged his wounds, Slaine was in a hypothermic state, so I deemed it necessary that we share body heat. Slaine might have been my enemy—”

Yuki interrupts him, “Might have been?”

“Yes, Yuki-nee, he isn’t anymore. I don’t expect of you to forgive his actions immediately, though. This might take a few days.”

Yuki raises an eyebrow. “Days?

Perhaps a month, until you get to know him. “Slaine was in a hypothermic state, but I soon realized that I did not mind, being naked—“

“No!” Slaine is blushing, “I won’t let you repeat the same story again! I have enough troubles as of now! And I don’t want your people to misunderstand me, on top of it!”

Troyard, what exactly did you force my brother to do?

“I didn’t…”

“He didn’t force me into anything, Yuki-nee. We slept together—”

Slaine groans. “Please tell the story properly this time, Orange.”

“Bat, there was nothing wrong with the way—“

“There was! I’m certain that Harklight now believes that we are—“ Slaine looks at Yuki, then at his feet. “…I-I’ll explain later.”

Yuki’s expression is very…strange. “Tell me, Nao. Everything.”

Dr. Yagarai interrupts them. “Colonel Magbaredge will come by in a few minutes. Explanations, as interesting as they might be, will have to wait for until she arrives.”

An uneasy silence reigns for a few seconds. Inaho doesn’t miss Yuki’s glares, and Slaine’s uncomfortable fidgeting, so Inaho turns to face Slaine, “You washed your hair.”

Slaine’s expression is neutral, but his cheeks are suddenly very red. Marito chuckles. Inaho is certain that Yagarai is hiding a smile behind that paper he’s holding up in front of his mouth. What is wrong with them?

“I-I took a shower during your operation.”

Inaho recalls how self-conscious Slaine is with his scarring. “Did they give you privacy?”

They share a lingering, understanding gaze. Slaine smiles, sadly. “Yes.”

“Good.” They keep gazing at one another, until Inaho’s heart monitor starts beeping a bit faster, betraying his thoughts about Slaine’s red lips. So Inaho quickly adds, “Did you find an orange scented shampoo?”

“No, they didn’t have.” Slaine straightens up, “S-stop asking such weird questions!”

“I don’t see anything weird with my question, Bat. And Harklight explained to me how to make one. We could prepare it together later, if you wish.” The scent suits you.

“That’s kind of you…” Slaine’s gaze softens even more, “…but you should rest your eye first, you silly Orange.”

Inaho’s mouth curls at the corners, heart thumping, heart monitor copying it.

Marito clears his throat. “The rest of us are still here, but we can always leave if you two want some time alone.”

For some reason, Slaine blushes even harder at this. Inaho is considering Marito’s offer, until Yuki says, “Nao, are you sure you’re alright?” She turns to a cheery Dr. Yagarai, “Is he still drugged?”

“No. I have never been better, Yuki-nee.”

 Her gaze flies briefly towards Slaine. She seems upset. “I don’t understand. What did he even do to you?”

Marito murmurs something and Yuki’s eyes open wide, her cheeks turn pink. “NO. Enough with the bad jokes. Nao, we need to talk.”

#

“Do you have any idea how much I was worried?! You disappeared without telling anyone! I know that you like to surprise everyone, but your shenanigans this time were extremely dangerous, Nao!”

So Rayet kept silent. I will have to thank her later. I must first make sure that Slaine is comfortable…

“…And we lost your signal! For three days, we didn’t know if you were alive or dead!” She points at Slaine. “And then that little—“

“Yuki, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the pain I caused you. But mind your language.”

She throws him a venomous glare, “He announced that you were his prisoner! And now he dares to show his face here and stay at your side like some hurt puppy— seventeen years, and I’ve never heard you call someone ‘Bat’ or another childish nickname—

Inaho observes that Slaine’s eyes have lost their brightness, and that alarms him.

“Yuki-nee, everything you mention is accurate. But Slaine saved my life. Twice.”

“What happened to you, Nao?! You keep staying at his side and defending him—“

The door opens, and Magbaredge steps inside.

Inaho speaks first, “Colonel Magbaredge. Thank you for allowing Slaine to land on the Deucalion.”

Her calm gaze sweeps across the room until it lands on Slaine. He immediately stands up, until she states that he can remain seated. Her voice is cold.

“Lieutenant Kaizuka. You acted against my orders, you deceived your commanding officers, started a false alarm on the Deucalion, escaped and engaged into an unauthorized encounter with the enemy, you damaged your assigned Kataphrakt…yet you managed to end a two-year war in less than five days.” Magbaredge almost smiles. “During the time you were being operated on, her highness Asseylum Vers Allusia and the UFE confirmed the end of the Second Interplanetary War.”

A murmur full of wonder and joy comes from Yuki and the two men; Slaine stays silent, guarded.

Does this mean that the future has changed?

Inaho is not overjoyed with the news. He is entering the most dangerous phase: Slaine’s death occurred sometime in the next four years after the end of the Second War. After today.

And Inaho has no more data left about the future awaiting them.

Magbaredge is still talking, “The battle outside the Moon Base was instigated by a fraction of Orbital Knights that disobeyed the princess’ orders. Seeing that they were outnumbered, they fled. Five surrendered. The UFE had no casualties. Hostilities will officially end at one minute past midnight tonight.”

Her eyes focus on Inaho, “Your accomplishments were noted, Lieutenant Kaizuka. The UFE Headquarters demand that you receive recognition for your services to Earth.” She turns to Slaine, “As for you, Count Saazbaum Troyard, you will be imprisoned—“

Inaho interrupts her, “No. I want him to be placed under my supervision.”

Magbaredge’s mouth thins. “Craftman informed me that you seem quite…fond of Count Troyard, Inaho.”

At this, Yuki approaches Inaho and shouts, “Nao, he shot you through the eye! How can you demand that he stays unpunished?!”

And then Slaine stands up and bows, deeply, his eyes focused on the floor. He starts apologizing, voice shaky, and Inaho, despite being deprived of his engine’s analysis, knows how upset Slaine is, from the way Slaine’s shoulders tremble, from the way his fists are clenched.

And he recalls Slaine’s scars, Slaine’s panicked, unseeing eyes when Inaho undressed him inside his frozen Sleipnir only a few days ago.

He approaches Slaine, places a careful hand on his shoulder. And the trembling stops, and Slaine lifts his head, and Inaho smiles a bit, trying to be gentle, hoping that Slaine understood the unspoken words.

Inaho knows that Magbaredge is scrutinizing them, and everyone else in the room too, but it does not matter; because Slaine hesitantly smiles back, and the warmth of it seeps inside Inaho, and it makes him exhale softly.

And then Yuki says, “Nao…wha—what exactly happened between the two of you these last few days…?”

Magbaredge interrupts, “How old are you, Count Saazbaum Troyard?”

Slaine stands straight, “Eighteen, Colonel.”

“Why did you risk your life and your position to help Lieutenant Kaizuka?”

Slaine keeps his face blank, “Because he saved my life, Colonel. Many times. And…” Slaine’s eyes meet his for the briefest of seconds, “And I am the one to blame for his…condition—“

“Are these your only reasons?”

 Slaine fidgets, perhaps not expecting the question. “Inaho…at first, he was rather annoying and intolerable, but now…” Slaine raises his head, proud, as if he isn’t uncertain anymore. “I know that we can trust each other. Because Inaho is…extraordinary. And he is a good person, despite everything I’ve done to him.”

Magbaredge seems skeptical.“…I will give you two choices. You will either remain locked in a cell until the Vers Empire negotiates with us for the release of all war prisoners…”

Inaho clenches his fists, and then Magbaredge is looking at him. Her mouth curves slightly at the edges, before turning to face Slaine. “Or you will be placed under Inaho’s constant supervision, meaning that each time I meet one of you, the other must be within a very close radius. Which one do you prefer, Count Troyard?”

Slaine’s cheeks are pink. “The second one. Thank you, Colonel.”

“Warrant Officer Kaizuka, I am definite in my decision.”

Yuki closes her mouth.

“Tomorrow evening, I want both of you reporting to me what happened after the Deucalion lost Sleipnir’s signal, six days ago. Until then, rest.”

Inaho reassures Magbaredge about this and watches from the corner of his eye as Slaine raises a hand in front of his mouth, muffling a drawn-out yawn.

He doesn’t feel sleepy, but “I need to rest.” He steps toward his sister, the words are honest. “Yuki, I will explain everything tomorrow. I know you are concerned about me. And I’m sorry for disappearing so abruptly and causing you such pain. But I had very serious reasons.”

Yuki sighs. “Alright, Nao… We’ll talk tomorrow. But this discussion isn’t over!”

Magbaredge discusses the details of Slaine’s accommodations with them, and it is decided that Inaho and Slaine share a cabin.

Inaho learns that his friends are currently sleeping—being ordered to do so by Magbaredge, during the time Inaho was in surgery.

Dr. Yagarai reminds Inaho to return tomorrow for a routine checkup, while Marito’s eyes are gleaming oddly, his mouth stretched into a half-smile. Inaho tries to understand why, to no results.

#

They leave the infirmary, walking side by side through the Deucalion’s corridors in silence.

Until, “Are you alright?”

Inaho keeps walking. “Thank you.”

“…I had no other choice.”

“You could have ordered a soldier to fly me to the Deucalion. Yet you didn’t. You left the princess behind, you abandoned your plans. You abandoned everything for my sake.”

“The war was already lost, for me.”

“Is this your only cause?”

 When Slaine answers, his murmur is so low, it almost goes unheard. “You know it isn’t.”

Inaho almost stops, his words are careful. “Do you regret it? Leaving her behind?”

Slaine’s green eyes find his, solemn, and Inaho’s heart reacts as if he was startled. This is serious. This is escalating each hour that goes by. When did this happen?

“Why are you asking me that? You know I don’t.”

“You cherish her.”

Slaine chuckles. “Always so straightforward.”

“Yes. Do you mind?”

“No, no. About her Highness…she’ll always be dear to me, no matter what she believes about me. Yet these last few days, I came to realize that you…” Slaine averts his eyes. “Y-you are…different.”

“Different?”

Slaine closes his eyes, and when he locks gazes with Inaho, his resolution is obvious. “Inaho, you—you are the first person in my life that treated me like an equal, you know. A-and I never expected…it sounds crazy, but…”

“…but you enjoy our conversations—our childish arguments, perhaps, and the time we spend together, and the details that belong only to us.”

Slaine’s eyes flicker with amazement, “Yes! H-how did you…?”

“Because I feel the same way about you.”

Slaine bites his lip, silent, and then releases it, slowly, in an almost sensual way.

I would kiss him. Inaho registers his thoughts and wants to smile. He is the only person that made me want to do that. “So you feel comfortable on the Deucalion. With me.”

“…Y-yes.”

“If so, I will use your time here to show everyone that you aren’t the tyrant they believe you to be.”

Slaine’s lips shape an ‘o’, before closing in a warm smile. “Y-you silly Orange…”

 Inaho averts his gaze, his cheeks are on fire. And I must sleep in the same room with him….

He unsuccessfully tries to calm his rapid heartbeats, so he goes on, “I don’t regret shooting you down, Bat. You should understand that. I’m talking about the second time, of course.”, he quickly adds.

“Yes…I-I think I know what you mean, Orange.”

Slaine is walking right next to him, even though the corridor is wide enough for three people. His engine helped him tremendously in understanding Slaine’s body language: Inaho has never been good at these things, but he is certain that something lies there unspoken between them, in Slaine’s eloquent, shy glances when he thinks Inaho isn’t looking at him, in the way Slaine’s shoulder brushes occasionally against his in short intervals of warmth.

Inaho could take Slaine’s hand in his, if he wanted to. They are alone.

Instead, he takes out the pendant he previously retrieved and hands it over to a wide-eyed Slaine, “I found this on the Moon Base’s corridors after the attack.”

Slaine stares at it, “You had it in the first place. Why? And how do you even know it’s mine?”

“Seylum showed it to me during the time she was on Earth. And as for your first question, everything happened the day you shot me. I kept it, and as you remember, I used it to restore her memories. I believe that during the attack on the Moon Base, Seylum must have…lost it. I found it by chance on the floor. Is this pendant important to you?” Kaizuka mentioned this.

Inaho would give much to have his engine right now; he is certain that Slaine was momentarily…sad. Perhaps disappointed. “It’s all I have left from—“ Slaine sounds choked, he coughs, “It’s a memento of my father…a good luck charm from Earth. I gave it to her highness the day before she traveled to Earth. But it seems that she…” Slaine takes a weary, long breath. “Either way…thank you for returning it to me.”

Slaine gave his only possession and the only memory of his father to Seylum. And she lost it.

That churning, unpleasant emotion each time Seylum is mentioned hits him hard, and the words are out of his mouth before he can stop them. “It’s clear, how much she doesn’t understand you.”

What?”

“You know it’s the truth.”

Slaine stays pensive, silent.

Inaho recalls the tragic mesh of Slaine’s scars; and Seylum’s—Asseylum’s hostility towards Slaine, both a few hours ago and in the future. Asseylum was aware that the older Slaine was deliberately blamed for instigating a war he never instigated, but still approved of concealing the truth from the world. When Slaine died, how did she react? Did she ever learn that Slaine defended her, on cost of his physical and mental health? Did anyone ever know the extent of damage Slaine suffered?

He returns to the present, “Her misplacing the pendant is the smallest example. You will lose yourself if you keep protecting her like that. She will never understand how much you’ve done for her.”

Slaine whispers, turning his face away from Inaho, “…Perhaps. But she doesn’t need to know.”

“No, this needs to change. The world needs to know.”

Slaine’s eyes are moist, “Why…why are you even telling me this?”

“Because you tend to forget that you need to take care of yourself, and I don’t think I can bear this any longer.”

Slaine stops on his tracks. His wide eyes hold so many exposed emotions, Inaho looks away, everything suddenly being too much.

“…If your pendant is lost again, I’ll think of something to find it for you. Perhaps we can attach a tracking device to it.”

Slaine, who is now wearing his pendant around his neck, blushes. “D-do whatever you want.”

Inaho has practiced reading Slaine a lot, so he knows from the twitching of Slaine’s lips and his radiant eyes that the blond Count is happy.

Inaho changes subject, they are approaching their assigned cabin. “Are you hungry?”

“Oh…a bit. But it can wait for tomorrow. Are you?”

“No. There are no cockroaches on the Deucalion, if you are worried about that. In the rare case you find one, let me know so I can remove it immediately.”

Slaine lets out a surprised noise. “You…! Why do you insist on constantly pampering me—“

Slaine’s words are lost in a distortion as a man walks by and Inaho stops on his tracks, vision going black.

“Inaho!”

Slaine is supporting him, Inaho quickly regains his balance.

“Are you alright?! We should find your doctor—“

Inaho’s heart hasn’t calmed down, trashing wildly in his chest, “No. I am fine.”

Slaine is ready to talk back, but the man on the corridor turns, looks at a paper in his hands. “Lieutenant Kaizuka? And you should be Count Saazbaum Troyard.”

“Yes?”

 They speak simultaneously.  The man’s insignia mark him as a General, yet as Inaho scrutinizes him, he can’t recall his face from the profiles he has studied.

The man smiles, his small black eyes seem friendly. “I know what you are thinking, boy: not a familiar face, correct? I wouldn’t expect anything less from our best soldier—you contributed much to the cease of hostilities, after all.”

Inaho almost narrows his eyes. The atmosphere suddenly seems suffocating. What is this feeling…?

Slaine turns to look at him, expression questioning.

The man introduces himself, though the name combined with that title is unfamiliar to Inaho: General Blanchet.

“I was notified a few hours ago of your presence on the Deucalion, Count Troyard. I wish to ask you a few questions about your involvement in the war, perhaps tomorrow…if Colonel Magbaredge allows it, of course, since your case is currently within her jurisdiction. You may also be present if you wish, Lieutenant Kaizuka.”

“Perhaps, we will discuss this possibility tomorrow.”

Without another word, Inaho turns to leave, Slaine immediately following after him.

Inaho almost runs the remaining distance to their cabin, they both get inside. His heart still hasn’t slowed down, a strange premonition makes the air heavy, sick.

Slaine whispers in disbelief, “How could you speak to a superior officer like that?! Is this really allowed?”

“I don’t care.” Inaho contemplates on what happened, there are still unpleasant, cold shivers crawling along his skin. “Slaine, I will report briefly to Magbaredge. It would be better if you stayed inside. Most of the crew aboard the Deucalion views you as an enemy.”

“…Okay.”

#

It takes Inaho six minutes to locate Magbaredge, the Deucalion’s corridors are empty—it seems that Magbaredge ordered everyone inside their cabins, wanting to postpone any celebrations for after an official treaty between UFE and the Vers Empire is signed, Inaho suspects.

He finds her on the familiar meeting room where they played chess and discussed their strategies, just a few days ago. She isn’t surprised to see him. “You left Troyard unsupervised.”

“I trust him not to cause trouble.”

Magbaredge seems tired. “Does this conversation have anything to do with General Blanchet?”

Inaho nods, “I need more data on him.”

Magbaredge sighs. “You care too much for this Martian boy for your own good, Inaho. You need to take care of your eye, first.”

He doesn’t bother correcting her that Slaine was born on Earth. “I won’t repay him for saving my life by handing him over to the UFE. Who is General Blanchet?”

Magbaredge arches a thin eyebrow. “The only facts I am allowed to reveal are two: he appeared on board just two hours ago, having arrived from the UFE Headquarters.”

Two hours ago…he acted fast. “Why did a high ranking officer arrive for Slaine immediately after the UFE learned that he is being held here?” Do they really wish to imprison him? Inaho’s voice hardens. “Slaine shouldn’t be imprisoned. I can testify that he surrendered willingly and saved my life on many occasions. And I need that answer: Who exactly is Blanchet?”

 Magbaredge seems reluctant. “What I am going to tell you, Lieutenant Kaizuka, will never leave this room. Do you understand?” Perhaps satisfied with his lack of expression, she goes on, “He is a doctor of medicine, working for the UFE’s most secret intelligence agency. He stated that the UFE headquarters send him here to question Troyard about his role in the war. However, I suspect that he might be investigating Aldnoah.”

Inaho narrows his eyes. “Aldnoah?”

“The Deucalion’s Aldnoah core. The guards were gone, and Blanchet was inside the room, inspecting it with some kind of apparatus. He used a smart explanation, but still didn’t convince me.”

Inaho thinks about this. “If the UFE needed to analyze Deucalion’s core, they could have ordered it during the last two years.”

Magbaredge nods. “They analyzed it, with no results. Maybe he isn’t working for the interests of the UFE, but for his own…and that would be troublesome. He might be interested in Troyard because of the activation factor. Troyard is a Count, he surely has more information on it.”

Inaho tries to expel the iciness in his blood. It’s just my intuition. I never trust it, unless I have data to rely on. Yet something is amiss...

“…It’s too late for such a conversation, and you went through a brain surgery today. We will discuss everything tomorrow.”

Inaho stands there, processing the new information, until Magbaredge’s voice startles him.

“It’s an order: go to sleep.”

As Inaho reluctantly turns to leave,

“You should be careful, Inaho. Blanchet comes from a high-ranking position.”

“I don’t care. Goodnight, Colonel.”

 “I will try to come up with something to delay him, until Troyard officially returns to Vers.” Inaho can hear the amusement in her voice then, “Go back to your Martian.”

#

Every thought about Blanchet disappears as Inaho returns to his new cabin, only to find Slaine outside, surrounded by his friends— who were supposed to be sleeping— now questioning Slaine with hostile intentions, as Inaho judges from a distance.

He runs.

#

Inko’s arms are around him, she is hugging him much too close, and he silently endures it, his skin crawling with discomfort. Rayet, Calm and Nina momentarily forget about Slaine and approach him with wide smiles and exclamations of joy (Rayet not so much). Inaho finds Slaine’s gaze over Inko’s shoulder—and the effect is devastating, somehow: Slaine seems…alone. He is standing on the corridor, distant and on his own, eyes devoid of emotions, bare with defeat.

Inaho breaks out of Inko’s embrace—it is important that he reassures his friends, but right now, Slaine is his first priority. He walks until he comes to stand next to Slaine, in a quiet act of solace. Slaine’s features show a surge of disbelief.

“I have returned safely. And it’s good to be back, but Slaine and I need to sleep. We’ll talk tomorrow.”

Judging from their expressions, his friends seem to have difficulty understanding his words.

“You can’t be serious.” Rayet finally spits out, “I agreed to help you…for this to happen? The Martian might be manipulating you—“

“I’m not.” Slaine says, “Besides, the war officially ended at midnight. I have nothing to gain from…manipulating anyone on this aircraft.”

Inko lets out a pained sound, “Didn’t you cause Inaho enough pain, already?!” Nina rushes and hugs her.

Rayet’s eyes narrow, and she steps forward— Inaho places a restraining hand on her shoulder, as a mild warning.

Calm speaks, “I was there when Inaho arrived…” Unlike the others, he shows no hostility when he looks at Slaine, just like Yagarai, Marito and Magbaredge did. Calm continues, expression softening a bit, “And, well, the Martian made quite a scene…he carried Inaho on his own to Dr. Yagarai, running like crazy and shouting at everyone to make way.”

“Slaine Troyard.” Inaho’s voice is calm, sated, he savors the new revelation. “His name is Slaine.” He locks gazes with Slaine. “Slaine saved my life. I suppose that this will suffice until I explain everything tomorrow.”

Slaine says, “I-I won’t ask any of you to forgive me for what I did to Inaho. I just…” Slaine falters, so Inaho adds,

“…need to sleep.”

“Orange! Don’t interrupt me, that’s not what I wanted to say—“

“No, it’s late, and I was being operated on a few hours ago. Slaine and I survived extreme situations the last week, and we need to rest.” He tries to smile a bit to his friends, “I am happy that you are here, but I can take care of myself—and Slaine.” Inaho turns to face him, “Bat, from now on, you will be eating with us.”

Rayet yells, “Are you out of your mind?! I would never eat with the likes of him—“

Inko and Nina start protesting, but Calm says, “Let’s go sleep. Inaho needs rest…he looked awful earlier.”

Nina asks Inaho, “Will he be sleeping with you?”

Slaine says, “Colonel Mag…eh…”

“Magbaredge.”

“Thank you, Orange… Eh, Colonel Magbaredge ordered me to stay near Inaho at all times—one moment. Inaho, you left earlier to find her…didn’t you disobey her orders? And what happened with that General? Am I to be questioned tomorrow?”

“What General?” Inko asks.

Inaho is reminded of Blanchet, and of Kaizuka’s mission, and everything else that needs his attention: Yuki, his friends, Asseylum, Klancain, even Saazbaum, as Slaine might want to meet with the Count one of these days, perhaps when they arrive at the UFE’s Headquarters, where Saazbaum is being held.

He sighs. “I will explain everything tomorrow. Goodnight.”

Calm repeats his earlier words, “C’mon everyone! Inaho needs rest.”

He drags the girls with him, and they leave.

Inaho steps with a silent Slaine inside their cabin.

#

The Deucalion must be somewhere near northern Europe, and the temperature keeps dropping. They have stopped for the night, but will reach the UFE Headquarters in about three days.

Slaine wasn’t provided with pajamas, so Inaho lends Slaine (his favorite) long-sleeved, black turtleneck shirt and a pair of soft grey sweatpants.

Slaine’s voice resounds through the closed door, “You can come in!”, so Inaho steps inside their cabin. Slaine turns, a little smile on his face, fidgeting with the long sleeves. “Thank you. It’s been years since I last wore casual clothing.” He brings the end of the black sleeve under his nose, sniffing delicately, “And it smells really nice…”

Slaine seems sleepy and warm, mouth lax, ready for another smile. The shirt hugs the contours of Slaine’s lean torso, curving at Slaine’s shoulders and the muscles of his arms, the dark material contrasting the paleness of his skin, his hair, his eyes…

Inaho’s heart starts pounding.

And at that moment, he knows. Worrying about his rapidly growing feelings and not conveying them to Slaine will not bring him anywhere.

I should find a way to confess… “I think we should sleep.”

They stare at the bunk bed. Slaine asks, “Where do you usually sleep?”

“On the lower bunk.”

Slaine climbs up the ladder without further comments.

Inaho turns off the light and slips under the covers. “Goodnight, Bat.”

Slaine whispers a calm ‘Goodnight, Orange’ back, and after a few seconds, quiet snores come from the upper bank. Inaho is too stressed to fall asleep at first, but soon his eyelids drift close.

#

A loud thud and a pained cry wake Inaho up with a start. He immediately gets up, only to stumble on something solid next to his bed, and fall down on top of it— on top of Slaine, as he realizes after the blond Count lets out a groan that sounds a lot like Inaho’s name. Inaho’s brain is still fuzzy from sleep, but his military training has him alert and awake in less than two seconds.

Inaho immediately stands up, fumbles along the wall until he finds the light switch. He watches as Slaine sits on the floor, hands clutching at his recently injured thigh, eyes closed and jaw clenched. Inaho gets on one knee in front of Slaine, sympathy edging his thoughts. “I should have given you the lower bunk. I never expected that you would fall out of the bed in your sleep.”

Slaine meets his concerned gaze with narrowed eyes, “Are you mocking me right now?”

“No. Did your stitches open again?” Inaho tries to slide closer in order to inspect Slaine for injuries, but Slaine frantically shakes his head.

“Stop making a fuss out of it. I am fine.” Slaine manages to stand on wobbly feet. A reassuring smile brightens his features. “See?”

Inaho realizes that he is starring at Slaine, heart climbing up his throat, because Slaine’s hair is tousled— and Slaine manages to sigh and yawn at the same time, eyes closed. It is ridiculous, how such an insignificant –lovely— gesture makes Inaho suppress a curling of his lips.

“Inaho…I won’t ask you right now why you care that much about my wellbeing. I have no more authority or power left, being now held by the UFE. But I think we should talk again tomorrow about certain things you said to me…back in the hangar…about y-your feelings…” As Inaho tries to make sense of Slaine’s last words, Slaine’s gaze is pinned on the floor. He yawns, then notices that Inaho is staring at him. Slaine’s mouth stretches into a warm smile, cheeks red.

Inaho nods, mentally reminding himself to investigate the best ways he can convey his feelings to Slaine, as soon as possible, because his heart and perhaps his reason will pay for it otherwise. “Yes…as soon as possible. However, your leg—”

Slaine’s gaze is as sharp as the edge of a knife then, so Inaho says, “I will turn off the light after you safely climb up.”

Slaine shakes his head and climbs up the ladder of the bank bed—only to stop at the second step. His eyes are large. “My leg hurts, but only when I try to lift it. I—I don’t think I can climb up without help.”

“So the fall did injure you.” Inaho turns toward the door, “I’m finding Dr. Yagarai.”

In the next three seconds, Slaine’s hand lands on his shoulder, and Inaho turns to meet the blazing eyes. “I won’t let you wake the doctor up in the middle of the night, Inaho!”

“I know that you value your pride, Bat, but I wouldn’t recommend it, letting such an injury uncared for.”

 A groan. “I’ll see him tomorrow. I just want to sleep, is that so difficult to ask? Trust me, I’ve had stitches break on me many times before, I know they aren’t broken now!”

Inaho contemplates Slaine’s disclosure with an expanding pit in his chest. He recalls Slaine’s scarred chest. The guilt that rises in his throat is so intense, it cuts off his breathing. “…I’m sorry. For hurting you.”

Slaine shakes his head, voice choked, “No, I…I hurt you too, Inaho…and I don’t think I will ever be able to make amends for it...”

“I believe I have already forgiven you for that.” Inaho tries to smile a bit, showing the honestly in his words. Slaine nods, pensive, and Inaho can’t help his curiosity, “When did you experience broken sutures? Was it because—”

“No, no! It wasn’t because you shot me down in Tanegashima.” Inaho wants to relax at that, but Slaine continues, “There were—there were some other times, years ago, on Vers…” Slaine’s quavering voice trails away, he seems absent.

More than once? In order to receive stitches, the injuries should have been serious. Slaine is not clumsy, however. Could it be that those injuries were inflicted on him…? Marylcian, for example…he did not hesitate to hit me. Slaine was a ‘Terran’ on Vers… Inaho remembers the hatred on the Martian’s faces when they arrived at the Moon Base, their derogatory insults.

A shiver runs down his spine. Of course. Slaine mentioned when we were stranded in the Arctic that he had enough first-aid experience…combining it with his admission that he had suffered broken sutures before…the Vers racism…Slaine’s pain tolerance…

The realization darkens his soul. Inaho feels the anger burning him, he clenches his fists. Was Asseylum aware of the abuse? Why didn’t Kaizuka tell me? What should I do, now?

The sour emotions churn his stomach. “The Martians did this.”

Slaine’s smile is a tired affirmation. “Come on, Orange, you did it again. Can’t you see that you are overreacting?”

Inaho realizes his agitation, his atypical behavior. He has a point. It seems that my emotions are making me vulnerable when it comes to Slaine... Either way, I should find a way to make him smile more. It makes him even more…handsome…

Inaho moves his gaze from Slaine’s lips to meet flushed cheeks, smile gone. “What is the matter?”

Slaine slides his eyes to the side. “Eh…how am I going to sleep now…?”

Inaho formulates a plan. “You can either sleep with me, or we can swap beds.”

Slaine swallows, and Inaho observes as his cheeks gain even more color. “B-but you cannot afford another injury, not a few hours after your operation! The upper bank is not your regular sleeping place, correct? So what if you fall, too?” Slaine seems troubled, “And what if you hurt your eye?”

“Then I’m going to be honest with you: would you mind sharing a bed with me?”

Slaine bites his lip, then whispers, “No.”

#

Inaho now understands that it was an extremely bad idea, letting Slaine lie down next to him. They are not sharing a pillow, but Slaine is very close. Inaho recalls the time Slaine’s naked body was lying next to his—how can the same situation be so different? It is physically impossible, Inaho is aware of that, but still, it feels as if the contact is burning him, especially where Slaine’s shoulder and leg touch his.

His attraction for Slaine has not diminished a bit. Slaine is affecting him, and Inaho doesn’t understand why. Fast breathing, escalating pulse, difficulty to concentrate. His whole body is thrumming with a strange agitation, with something unrecognizable, something he has never experienced before.

Inaho can’t sleep.

And in the darkness of the room, he keeps listening to Slaine’s sounds as the latter fidgets and occasionally exhales loudly: Slaine is awake, too.

Inaho’s throat tickles, so he coughs, and this makes Slaine break the silence. “You aren’t sleeping.”

“Neither are you, Bat.”

“Well, I am fine with it.”

Inaho frowns in the darkness, “Your injured leg will definitely benefit from a good sleep. Why do you refuse it?”

Because, I…I’m not tired.”

His eye cannot detect lies, but Inaho knows Slaine well by now. “You are. Stop being so touchy and sleep.”

“I’m not touchy! And you won’t tell me what to do!”

“Slaine, I’m trying to be helpful. Something is bothering you, I can…feel it.”

A sigh. Inaho can almost sense Slaine’s extreme reluctance to answer that in the thick silence that follows. “Nightmares.”

Inaho absorbs the new information. He decides to move the conversation forward, “My analytical engine did not register any distress during your sleep these last few days.”

“Yes…since our crash in the Arctic, I was extremely tired to dream.”

Inaho turns on his side, now facing Slaine’s back. “So your sleep is usually restless. Do your nightmares occur frequently?”

A groan. “Something like that.”

Inaho wonders if he should obey his rapidly blooming desire to hold Slaine close, especially after all the recent revelations. To distract himself from such thoughts and Slaine’s proximity:

“I can’t sleep either. We should do something productive.”

A snort. “Productive. I’m sorry to disappoint you, Orange, but I’m afraid it’s too late and too dark to repair a couple of Kats, analyze a program, hunt for discounts or whatever else is your version of being productive.”

“…How do you know about the discounts?”

“…While I was waiting for you to come out of surgery, your blond friend was telling stories about you and your egg discounts to one of the girls. She was upset and he wanted to calm her down. I just overheard it.”

I believe they will get used to Slaine soon.

Slaine keeps talking, “I don’t understand, why eggs, of all things?”

“They are nutritious.”

“They taste awful.”

“Not with my cooking.”

Slaine sniggers. “Prove it.”

Inaho tries to get up and cook said eggs, but Slaine grabs his arm, his skin burns where Slaine’s fingers touch him, then quickly let go.

“What are you doing, Orange?!”

“You want eggs.”

“No! When did I—“

“Omelet or scrambled?”

 A groan, “You’re unbelievable! I won’t let you cook eggs in the middle of the night, do it tomorrow!”

“So you don’t like eggs, but you will eat my eggs, tomorrow.”

“I—Alright…p-perhaps I will.”

“Is it because I’ll be the one cooking the eggs?”

 “W-will you stop talking about your eggs already!”

 “…Then tell me about yourself, Slaine.”

“Wh-what do you mean by that?”

“It’s simple: we will ask and answer questions.”

Slaine snorts. “I’m curious, because you aren’t acting like yourself… so I will go along with it. It might be fun.”

Inaho remembers the questions Nina asked him when she approached him in school for the very first time, wanting to establish a friendship with him. Since it’s the first time in his life that Inaho tries a friendly and not indifferent approach, he supposes they will do. Flirting will have to wait until he does his research tomorrow on how it’s even done.

“What is your favorite color? And I wish to know your favorite animal, too.”

Silence. “You do realize that I’m eighteen years old and not eight…?”

“…Even so, can you answer the question?”

“You really believe I have a favorite color and a favorite animal?”

“Yes.”

Slaine mumbles, “…T-tell me yours first. Wait. The color should be orange, considering your showy Kataphrakt…”

“No. I don’t have any preferences, that color is merely—”

“Silly. Ridiculous. Flashy.”

“It’s practical.”

“…Just tell me your favorite animal before I lose my—wait a second. I refuse to believe that someone like you has a favorite animal.” A pause. “Inaho, I will be the one picking the next question. Your questions are…”

“Yes?”

“Silly...”

“You want to answer them. Otherwise, you would have refused and avoided me.”

“No, I just…I-I’m just doing you a favor!”

Inaho knows by now when Slaine is lying. For some reason, his lips curl at the edges. “Yuki keeps calling me a cat person. Which is groundless, considering that the only cat I am familiar with is Schrödinger’s cat.”

“Eh…Inaho, that’s not a cat…that’s a quantum mechanics paradox…”

“Exactly.”

Slaine giggles like a child. “Orange…I think you are missing the point. Completely.”

Inaho welcomes the sound, his lips curling at the edges. He closes his eyes, waiting.

After a while, Slaine whispers, carefully, “I like dogs. I always wanted to have a dog—a puppy. But my father… because we travelled a lot, he forbade it.” A pause. “I also—I also like panda bears. And rabbits.”

“Panda bears diet consists mainly of bamboo, even though they are carnivores.”

The enthusiasm makes Slaine’s voice so smooth, “Yes, yes! When I was a child, I had these children’s books about animals, you know? I loved reading them.”

Interesting. Inaho will definitely use that data for Slaine’s birthday present—I should also ask for his birthday.

“Slaine, when is your birthday?”

#

Minutes pass with lazy, harmless conversations about strawberries (Inaho learns that Slaine prefers that fruit the most) and plants. Slaine starts describing a physics TV documentary he used to watch during the time he lived on Earth, until Inaho recognizes it. He remembers watching it in the orphanage a few times, but his bullies always came and took away the TV remote from him. Slaine asks about the bullying, and Inaho provides him with clinical answers. Slaine’s voice is tinted with sadness at that point.

They exhaust this topic, and talk about the origins of Slaine’s phobia of cockroaches: Slaine was six years old and hungry, so he started searching for his absent father, knowing that he worked somewhere in the forest behind their house. Slaine found an abandoned well and a huge nest instead, and the insects started crawling on him—Slaine even admits that he bawled for days, after his father finally found him late in the evening.

Inaho remembers how Slaine almost fainted at the image of that insect and the sting of guilt intensifies. For some reason, he wants to be closer to Slaine after that; he doesn’t even know how, but he wants to—to touch Slaine. And kiss him. The idea won’t leave his mind, tormenting him.

Slaine starts talking with in an enthusiastic way about the countries he visited as a child, and Inaho listens.

#

Time passes like this, until Slaine asks,

“Inaho…what exactly did you mean in the hangar, when you spoke about compliments…and said that you wanted to tell me y-your feelings?”

Inaho stops listing harmless questions he wants to ask Slaine, and considers if he should take the risk. No, he will take the risk, as he always does. He doesn’t even know if the odds are in his favor, but Slaine is worth it. Inaho is certain about that.

“You aren’t bothered by our proximity. Why?”

The answer is immediate, Slaine is relaxed from hours of talking, “We spent two days naked and cuddling in order to survive. I-I guess I am now immune to your annoying…you.”

Slaine is now facing the wall, his back to Inaho. Inaho turns his body, partially resting on his right elbow, Slaine’s hair near his nose. “Yet you knew there were more solutions to our problem. We could have found a spare mattress, for example. Or someone could sleep on the floor. So why did you choose to sleep next to me, Bat?”

Inaho hears Slaine’s sharp inhale. Slaine turns his head, looks over his shoulder. But it is dark and Inaho can only discern the outline of Slaine’s face, and perhaps his mouth, and how close it is.

“Y-yes…there were. So why did you offer to share your bed with me, O-Orange?”

His chin is resting on Slaine’s shoulder. Inaho can feel Slaine’s fast breaths warming his mouth, the feeling is now burning him from the inside, consuming him whole.

“Slaine.”

“Yes?”

He calculates that it will be more practical that way. Slaine is still facing the other way, back to Inaho, so Inaho slides his left arm under Slaine’s armpit, palm spread on Slaine’s cheek, he nudges Slaine’s head closer. He is not calm; his skin feels too tight, his breaths come out too fast for his liking. His eyes are fixed where Slaine’s mouth is supposed to be, in the dark.

“What…did you just do…?” The words hold no accusation, they are languid, a whisper, as if Slaine is deeply mesmerized. Slaine’s skin is slowly flushing under his touch. “Inaho, we are…”

He breathes the words out on Slaine’s skin, “Are we…? Enemies…?”

“No, I can’t—I can’t…just, just do it already.”

Despite the darkness, he manages to find Slaine’s mouth. He feels Slaine’s surprised gasp on his lips. Inaho doesn’t know how to kiss, but—he slowly pushes his mouth against Slaine’s, tasting him, and he feels it: Slaine’s deep, contented sigh, Slaine’s back melting against his chest. Slaine raises his arm, tangles his fingers into Inaho’s hair, brings him closer—chases after his mouth.

They share clumsy, soft kisses, both uncertain with what to do, their bodies flush against each other, limbs now completely entangled. The angle is weird, Inaho’s neck hurts, he feels warm, dizzy from the hurried and unhurried way Slaine’s mouth moves over his, from Slaine’s soft noises.

Their lips part, both a bit out of breath. Inaho buries his nose into Slaine’s hair, lets his breath ghost over Slaine’s nape, feels Slaine tremble against him. For the first time in his life, his mind is blank; he refuses to construct plans, theories, logical reactions.

Slaine moves a bit and Inaho lets go, silent. A ruffling sound, the mattress dips and Slaine turns to face him. It’s dark, Inaho discerns only the slant of Slaine’s shoulder, the dip of his waist—Slaine’s lips are on his chin then, but soon find his mouth, kissing and kissing him. Inaho gasps into the kiss as a surge of desire scalds his blood. He tries to analyze the situation, he tries to think—he can’t.

They are kissing all the time, Slaine’s arms hugging him tight. But then Inaho experiments; he trails his mouth down to the smooth hollow of Slaine’s throat, kisses Slaine there— Slaine, who first giggles but then his body arches, a quiet moan coming out of his mouth. Slaine’s hands are a bit cold on his skin, rubbing circles under his shirt, Inaho’s palm lingers on Slaine’s waist, carefully, Slaine’s shirt has gone up, he feels Slaine’s quivering, hot skin and something uneven, like ridges of—scars—

Slaine yanks himself away so forcefully, they both fall off the bed, hitting the cold floor.

As if waking up from a bad dream, Inaho’s blood runs cold, heart thrashing. Slaine distances himself from him, the warmth of Slaine’s body dissipates as quickly as Inaho’s fears rise.

He can’t see Slaine, but he hears Slaine’s breath hitching.

“Slaine—I should have asked—“

“This—this was a mistake!”

Inaho crawls on his hands and feet, frantic, blindly searching in the darkness for Slaine—he doesn’t manage to find him, he tries to locate the light switch.

There is a fumbling sound, and after that the door opens. Slaine runs out of the room, disappears.

Kneeling on the floor, Inaho tries to analyze what just transpired.

It is then with a pang at his chest, that Inaho realizes how much he cares for Slaine—but at least, contrasting Kaizuka’s timeline, Slaine is alive—maybe tired, shocked and hurt but alive, breathing and kissing him…

Inaho hastily puts on his boots. Before he even realizes it, he is running after Slaine.

#

Half an hour later, Inaho is wheezing from running through the whole aircraft, in his futile attempts to find Slaine. Finally, an idea flashes through his overwhelmed brain. He connects his tablet to the Deucalion’s security system, quickly checking for any exterior doors that are currently open.

#

His hurried footsteps lead him towards the Deucalion’s gigantic deck. It’s an unsafe area, especially in the darkness of the night, the aircraft’s lights not making much of a difference.

Slaine is nowhere to be seen.

It’s cold. The wind grabs at his clothes, makes shivers run down his forearms. Inaho walks further and further ahead, almost stumbling in his haste, a rare error for him.

#

At last, Slaine’s silhouette is visible, the lights overhead casting several shadows of his lean body across the metallic deck, the wind howling through his blond hair—Inaho can’t help but recall the way Slaine’s uneven, hot skin felt under his palm—he banishes the thought immediately.

He runs until he crosses the distance separating them.

Slaine turns and meets his gaze, eyes red.

Am I in love with you? Inaho says, “You deactivated the security system.”

“Only for that door, I’m not an idiot to leave your ship defenseless. I want to think. And you make it difficult. Thinking.”

 “Let’s go inside first, and then I will leave you alone. The temperature keeps dropping. Your health will deteriorate if you stay here.”

Slaine looks at the thousands of stars overhead, “No. Here is fine...”

Enough with this. I caused this. I caused his scars…his pain. “I never thought that this would be so painful for you.” Inaho waits for the pressure building in his throat to fade. “Slaine, I’m sorry.”

Silence. Slaine is looking at the shining stars overhead as if they are the most important thing to him right now. His voice is hoarse, “Now—now you know how they look. How they feel.”

“They are not disgusting. It’s simply a different texture.” Inaho says helplessly, having no idea how to comfort Slaine. “I wish I had a way to show you what I see when I look at you. You are the strongest person I have ever met.”

Perhaps it was the wind, but Inaho is almost certain that Slaine let out a strangled noise at this. Inaho places his palm between Slaine’s shoulder blades, carefully, and Slaine doesn’t tense up.

Slaine sighs. “We keep apologizing to each other. It’s ironic, considering that days ago we were still…sworn enemies.” He turns to Inaho, and Inaho withdraws, his palm losing Slaine’s warmth. “This…this isn’t exactly about my scars, Inaho.”

The wind howls between them. Inaho’s heart sinks. “I see. I tried to express my feelings to you, and you hated that.”

Slaine voice echoes loud around them, “I didn’t hate it!”

Inaho tilts his head. “I touched you without your permission. You stopped me, and you were clearly upset and hurt.”

Slaine sighs. “I can’t believe this…! Where is your stupid machine when I need it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Y-you foolish Orange, I stopped what we were doing because…because you surprised me, yes, but our first civil conversation took place a few days ago! And—and there is something frightening about the way you make those…predictions. As if you are seeing the future, and you’re staying near me in order to-to keep me from harming people…” Slaine groans, hides his face behind his palms. “I know it sounds insane but…!”

Inaho steps closer, now standing in front of Slaine, unsure of what to say. He gently takes hold of Slaine’s hands and lowers them from his face. Slaine lifts his head in surprise.

Inaho says then, “I trust you with my life.” No. This feeling runs deeper than that.

“Yes…I know. While you were unconscious…y-your engine informed me on that.”

For some reason, I have such a memory…

“Slaine. If you had killed Saazbaum. If you had destroyed Trident Base, killed Marylcian among hundreds of others, if you were given a severe punishment and blamed for a crime you never committed, even tried to prevent; how would you feel?”

Slaine takes a step back, lips trembling, shaking his head in denial. “Wha—what are you saying? You mean to tell me you foresaw all of that?”

Inaho knows this is a battle he must win. His tone is resolute. “I know you dislike violence, Slaine Troyard.”

“Explain what you meant, or else—”

“Would you kill again for Asseylum’s sake?”

Slaine snarls, “What are you even asking me now?!”

“Would you order hundreds to their deaths for your peace?”

“NO!” Slaine shakes his head, fists clenched hard, “I hate it—killing, I hate it.” Slaine stops then, goes completely still. “Wait…you—you stopped me from killing my fath— Count Saazbaum and destroying... That was…days ago…” Slaine stays silent. His green eyes are turned away, towards the darkness at the further edge of the deck, hair ashen under the artificial lights. “Is this my fate…?” Slaine’s voice is now calm, quiet. “Death…?”

The surge of emotions is too much, Inaho takes a calming breath. “I care for you, so I am trying to be honest with you. I’m still hiding important things from you, concerning your fate and a hypothetical future…or perhaps a co-existing reality. I won’t deny that.”

The pause in his words is deliberate; Inaho observes Slaine’s wide eyes, his lost and fearful expression, knows that he cannot take back what he just admitted. “I first approached you in order to end this war as soon as possible. But you became too important to me…far more important than I could ever imagine.”

Slaine makes a face as if the words hit a sore spot. His hair casts long shadows on the hard line of his mouth.

“If say that I hold no more data about the future, will it help?”

“Inaho…”

He steps closer. “Will it help? And you have to understand that I rarely initiate physical contact of any kind. I kissed you because what I feel for you…it is unlike anything I have ever experienced.”

And then it strikes him like lightning: could it be that Kaizuka, too, was in love with Slaine? Did he fall in love with him during the time Slaine was imprisoned? And in Kaizuka’s timeline, Slaine dies…Could it be…that Kaizuka’s request to save Slaine…had to do with his older self’s feelings?

Inaho takes a deep breath, palm wiping away the cold sweat on his forehead. Impossible. I have no clues, no data to confirm this. Yet I know that Kaizuka cared for Slaine…

Slaine’s concerned voice reaches him through the blowing wind, warm hands are on his shoulders, “Inaho? Are you alright? You look so pale…!”

Inaho raises his head. He knows that his expression is open, vulnerable. “Slaine, do you still trust me? I hold many secrets from you, and when the right time comes, I will share them with you. I give you my word. I know that our past was severe, that our differences are sometimes extreme. But I am telling the truth: I have never been in a romantic relationship, so I kissed you because I was impatient and I saw no other alternative way of expressing my feelings—“

Slaine’s fingertips are cold on his lips, stopping him. Slaine murmurs, “I still trust you, you foolish Orange. You saved my life, twice…three times? You stopped me from doing things I…I know I would come to terribly regret…” Slaine chuckles bitterly. “I must be insane…”

Inaho smiles a little, Slaine’s fingers still on his mouth.

Slaine withdraws his hand, fidgeting. “Inaho…thank you. For being honest with me.”

“I can’t tell you more.”

Slaine swallows. “I don’t want to know more…not right now. And I don’t—I don’t want to talk about what happened…in the cabin, either. Not right now.”

Inaho nods. “I understand.”

“And I’m sorry for running out like that, but…”

“Don’t apologize. Clearly, I was at fault.”

“No, no! I wanted it as much as y-you did…” Slaine blushes greatly, “So don’t ever use your silly, cold logic as a means to blame yourself!”

“Do you still believe what we did was a mistake?”

The silence that follows is agonizing. “I don’t know.” Slaine whispers at last, “I don’t…”

Perhaps I shouldn’t pressure him more. So Inaho breaks out of his daze, takes a step back. He says the first thing that comes out of his mind. “Do you want something to eat?”

Eh?

“Follow me.”

Slaine grabs his arm. “W-wait! Why are you offering me food now, of all times?!”

“Because the last meal you had was at least fifteen hours ago. Furthermore, you might want to relax after what happened in…” Inaho feels his cheeks heating up, but then recalls Slaine’s panicked reaction. Bitter regret erases every other emotion. “In our cabin.”

“Oh…alright.”

Slaine is silent after that. He reluctantly follows Inaho back inside the Deucalion.

Small talk never seemed more essential before. “I can recall the meals I had on Vers. Yuki’s cooking deserves awards after the meals I ate.”

“…Is your sister a good cook?”

“No. She is a walking disaster with a frying pan in the kitchen.”

Slaine snorts. “You dare imply that the meals Harklight cooked for us were terrible?”

“As far as I can recall, Harklight merely reheated prepackaged meals. I don’t think he is at fault for the quality of Versian food. Even you mentioned during our days in the Arctic that the lower classes survive only on krill and moss.”

“W-well, at least he tried!”

“I can understand that. Still, Slaine, how many years has it been since you last ate unprocessed food?”

“Oh…well…it was seven years ago? Ten? I don’t remember the last time…And Father didn’t like to cook, so…”

Inaho makes a mental note to do research on homemade recipes as soon as possible.

They arrive at the closed kitchen. Inaho cracks the door password with his tablet in less than thirty seconds. They step inside the large metallic room, equipped with freezers, stoves, cooking utensils of all kind.

“What do you want? Eggs?”

Slaine throws him a half-amused, half-annoyed glance, then looks around him, bright eyes curious and appreciative. “Can I have something sweet? It’s been years since I last tasted something genuinely sweet.”

“Sugary products will not reduce your hunger much.”

Slaine turns to him, smiling a bit. “Please?”

The sight makes Inaho’s heart flutter. “Okay.”

Inaho immediately starts scanning Deucalion’s catalogue of supplies on board. The bitterness rises again in his throat, reminding him that he—he was one of the main causes that led to Slaine being in extreme pain, being scarred and self-conscious of his body—he stops his thoughts.

It takes a bit of an effort to keep his voice even, “The only sweet products available…are ice cream bars.”

“Oh, it’s okay…”

After a bit of searching, Inaho approaches a large freezer. With Slaine standing wide-eyed next to him, Inaho discovers numerous ice-cream bars, which are rarely served as a dessert. They are not of the best quality, but they will do. Inaho is almost buried in the freezer right now, “There’s chocolate, lemon, strawberry.” A pause. “You prefer the strawberry flavor, correct?”

“Y-Yes.”

#

They find a spot on the deck near the Kataphrakt docking site and sit down. The cold breeze bites at Inaho’s skin. The dark blue sky is shining with the patterns of endless stars, and Inaho notices that Slaine is looking, half-finished ice cream in hand, at everything around him—the sky and the stars, there isn’t more to see— but Slaine, he is looking at everything with large, awed eyes, as if he is seeing the endless darkness of the night skies for the very first time.

Perhaps he is reminded of his time on Earth…

Inaho observes as the shadows move across Slaine’s profile, he observes the fluttering of Slaine’s long eyelashes, the green of his eyes, the elegance of his pale features. He feels the longing pulling at his heart, deep and strong.

A week ago, Inaho knew who Slaine Troyard was: his enemy.

Slaine suffered neglect, abuse, torture. Loneliness.

Inaho doesn’t know who Slaine Troyard is—from his great fear of cockroaches to his excellent piloting skills, his love of animals to his strong and prideful demeanor, his scars, his unwillingness to take a life. There are still so many things he doesn’t know, so many things he yearns to uncover.

Yet somehow, he grasps the unfairness and the sad pain of it: of Kaizuka’s universe, where Slaine killed hundreds, even his adoptive father; where Slaine was alone, in the end, punished, perhaps miserable in that prison…and perhaps (except for Kaizuka?) nobody ever knew about the scars, or all the unvoiced abuse Slaine suffered, or who Slaine Troyard actually was, because…

Sometime in the next four years of your timeline, Slaine Troyard will die.

Something very cold seizes Inaho’s chest.

He watches Slaine, who sits next to him in the dimness of the deck, innocently eating his ice cream, observing the stars overhead with a faint smile—and it is at that moment, Inaho finally understands Kaizuka’s plea to save Slaine Troyard.

And perhaps this has always been his objective after all: not to prevent an upcoming, devastating war, but to find and save Slaine Troyard…the one and only Slaine in his world.

#

Slaine has finished eating his ice cream, still sitting next to Inaho on the cold deck.

Inaho knows what he should do.

“We have many things left to accomplish, Slaine. Even if you choose to return to Vers and we are apart, I will try to forge this world into something new with you. We will reform the Vers society with Asseylum’s permission, making a realistic peace possible, based upon your ideas on social equity.” His tone is resolute. “I give you my word.”

Slaine whispers, “You make it sound like it is child’s play.”

“If we cooperate, it will be. I know that you feel the same.”

“Stop this! We’ve only known each other for a week!”

Inaho has never been more certain in his life. His pulse is racing. “So if we knew each other for years, would you accept my confession? Because I can wait.”

Slaine is silent, then. He wraps his arms around his legs, head tilted upwards, green eyes fixed on the night sky. His eyelids drift close then, “Go on…”

“I will show you the Earth, Slaine Troyard.” Inaho whispers slowly, carefully, feeling the way that name unfurls in his mouth, the ghost of Slaine’s touch still lingering there. “The snow you talked about and the countries you visited as a child. Everything that Vers never had, the Rayleigh scattering—“

That earns him a puzzled, bright glance from Slaine. “The Re…wh-what?”

“Rayleigh scattering. It’s an optical phenomenon. It describes how the scattering of light in the atmosphere causes—“

“Orange!”

Inaho simply stares at Slaine. Slaine rests his cheek on his knees, still looking at Inaho, “Just go on with your plans…they sound…interesting…”

Inaho whispers, holding eye contact, “You are not alone. I’ve told you before.”

Slaine’s eyes slowly widen. “Why...? Why do you keep—doing this…?”

His mouth curves at the edge, tenderly.

Slaine closes his eyes, exhales. He gets up, only to sit in front of Inaho, leaning his back against Inaho’s chest—a bit forcibly, cutting off Inaho’s breathing for a few seconds, perhaps on purpose. Inaho is too surprised to react, at first, but he then wraps his arms tightly around Slaine’s chest, holding him close, Slaine’s hair is soft against his cheek. It’s new and wonderful, this closeness, wanting to be near Slaine so much, when he spent his entire life avoiding physical contact.

Slaine’s hands come to rest on his, fingers traveling along Inaho’s arms, causing pleasant shivers in their path, until his hand finds Inaho’s. Slaine’s fingers intertwine with his own, their palms now connect, as one.  

The fit is perfect, Inaho marvels.

“Inaho.” Slaine whispers then, “I want it…I want to know that world you are talking about.”

Inaho spreads his free palm over Slaine’s stomach, feeling the way it moves, slowly, with each of Slaine’s languid breaths. “We can bring it together into existence.”

Slaine just relaxes further against him. “One day, I will force the truth out of you and your crazy predictions. You are not getting away just by promising me the world, O-Orange...”

Inaho smiles, enjoying the solid warmth of Slaine finally in his arms. “I accept your terms, Bat.”

Slaine is now looking at the stars overhead, resting his head on Inaho’s shoulder. “Hmm.”

“I think you are brilliant. In ways I will never understand.” A pause. “Like the Aldnoah quantum field theory.”

Slaine fidgets, Inaho feels it on his skin. “…You are trying to confess and you’re comparing me to a major physics unresolved problem? Seriously?”

Inaho murmurs nears Slaine’s ear, comfortable and warm with Slaine’s body heat, happiness thrumming in his blood. “Do you prefer another theory?”

“No! I-I can’t believe this.” Slaine stammers now, “Will you please s-stop ruining the mood?”

Inaho trails the tip of his nose against Slaine’s hot cheek. He feels how Slaine shudders, so Inaho whispers the word hotly on Slaine’s skin. “Checkmate.”

Slaine jerks. “What?”

“You just indirectly admitted that you like me, Bat.”

Slaine groans. He turns his body, cheeks crimson, and presses a cold hand against the nape of Inaho’s neck. The shudder that runs through Inaho at this is not because of the cold.

“Orange, you’re so…” Slaine leans closer, breath hot, Inaho’s mouth parts slowly. A tender, deep-rooted emotion fills him.

“So…?”

“So…breathtakingly…annoying…”

Slaine’s lips are cold and sweet and taste of strawberries.

Nothing has ever felt so right.

 

Chapter Text

“Tell me to turn around when you are dressed, Bat.”

The air show is taking place near a large UFE base in Inaho’s homeland. They have finally arrived at their destination, and Inaho even managed to sleep during the last two hours of their flight.

Inaho is waiting for Slaine to get dressed. They are inside the landed aircraft, the guards waiting on the outside. Slaine was ordered to change clothes and put on a white pilot uniform, similar to the one Inaho used when piloting his Sleipnir in space. General Blanchet will arrive soon in order to secure Slaine’s helmet, locking it with a special electronic key only Blanchet will keep. No one will be able to take the white helmet off without ‘chopping off Troyard’s neck’, according to Blanchet.

Inaho has to wait only for a few seconds.

Slaine whispers, “You can turn around.”

That was quick. Inaho does as Slaine says, he turns and—Slaine isn’t dressed. In fact, he is half-dressed. Slaine’s shirt is gone, exposing scars and smooth skin alike.

A pleasant heat unfurls in Inaho’s chest. He closes his eye in an attempt for self-control. This is not the time for this.

“Look at me.” Slaine murmurs.

Blanchet will arrive at any minute, and when he notices that Slaine is still undressed…  Inaho meets Slaine’s gaze. “Bat, this is not the right time for...whatever you are planning.”

“Perhaps. But no one else will be listening for the next few minutes. We won’t have that luxury again. And while you were sleeping, I thought about everything you said…on that shore. I need to talk to you. Really talk to you.”

Inaho nods. “Okay. But it would be safer for you if you put the uniform on, first.”

“No,” Slaine spits out with apparent difficulty, “I want you to look at me. I want you to comprehend that this, this is what—who I am.” Slaine places his palm over his scarred stomach, shoulders dropping.

Before, in the first surprised seconds after he realized that Slaine took off his shirt, Inaho caught a glimpse of Slaine’s body. He couldn’t help but admire the perfect angles of Slaine’s shoulders, the dip of his bellybutton. He can still feel the warm response of his own body, reacting to Slaine’s uncovered skin.

Slaine’s skin is very light in color, much lighter than in Inaho's memories. He is thin, very thin, his ribs are protruding, the muscles of his arms and shoulders show signs of atrophy. The scars are taut and shiny, a carnage of red and white that covers most of Slaine’s torso.

When Inaho looks at Slaine, he sees far more than the scars. He sees something both unstable and perfect, like an endless physics theorem, the most important of them all. But it will take years for Slaine to understand this.

Inaho knows that.

He also knows that there is not an expanse of skin on Slaine’s torso wider than four fingers that wasn’t left unscarred. The whip must have torn deep into skin and muscle to leave such damage behind. The pain must have been excruciating.

Inaho brings his thoughts to an abrupt end. Carefully, he tries to express a small amount of his immense rage towards Slaine’s tormentors. “Cruhteo is dead. Still, whoever abused you throughout the last ten years…they deserve to be punished.”

Slaine’s bright eyes form slits. “Would you kill them?”

He is not used to Slaine being so direct.

“Forget the Martians. The board and the guards, for instance. Killing them would solve many of your problems. I’ve seen how you’ve been staring at them—you are so angry. I can finally understand your expressions, now.”

“Slaine, stop being reckless and lower your voice. The walls of the cabin are not soundproof.”

Slaine fortunately listens to him. “But you can’t kill them, can you? That’s the difference between you and me, Inaho. Corruption, murder—you don’t even know what the words mean.”

“You are wrong.”

“No. I hope I am wrong. If you murdered someone like I did…” Slaine’s perfect composure cracks, and he winces, almost in pain.

And Inaho thinks of Saazbaum. “It’s obvious that you’ve regretted killing your adopted father.”

Slaine’s features twist horribly, but Inaho frowns and goes on.

“My younger self wouldn't take such extreme measures. But you aren't the only one this prison has changed, Slaine." Slaine snaps his head back, surprised, at this. "And to answer your question: If anyone hurt you bad enough to give you injuries such as those, endangering your life…I would analyze my options, and if there was no punishment awaiting them, I would punish them myself. Even if that means committing murder.”

Slaine stays still, very still, probably realizing how much Inaho means what he says. "You know nothing...And yet…you are so upset...” His mouth drops at the sides. Slaine seems very sad.

"So there is more to the scars.”

Slaine is silent. "No." He says, in the end. "Nothing more."

Obviously a lie. Inaho doesn’t react, however.

“But if you meant what you said on that shore…” Slaine whispers tiredly, then covers his scarred chest with his palm, “You should know that these won’t change, Inaho. They are…permanent. They will never go away.” Slaine’s eyes have lost all that was left of their brightness.

And Inaho’s eye widens as he realizes the true reason behind Slaine’s distress, and his heart clenches painfully. “Slaine— I would never, ever think differently of you because of the scars.”

Slaine snaps, “Don’t lie to me!”

Again…“I am not.”

Slaine raises his head, gaze intense. “In your house! You saw me—you saw me with no shirt when you barged into my room.”

“I apologized for that, but if it made you that upset—“

“Of course it made me upset! You were repulsed.”

Inaho never expected that. “Bat, I can’t understand how you reached that absurd conclusion.”

Slaine frowns. “…You kept your face purposely blank. And then you ran away.”

Inaho closes his eye, defeated. He has to admit it, or else Slaine won't understand. “I almost had an erection.”

"You had an...you had a what?!"  

“An erection. I think it was a very natural response to your good looks.”

Slaine blinks, speechless.

Inaho feels drained, and not because of the long flight. He doesn’t know how to handle the situation, and that makes him insecure and afraid of hurting Slaine. “Is there anything else you want to ask? Time is not in our favor.” Time was never in our favor.

 

Gaze fixed on the floor, Slaine murmurs. “Your eyepatch, then. Take it off.”

A cold feeling washes over Inaho. “This is not a trade, Slaine. I never asked of you to show me your scars in order—“

Slaine groans loud and the sound is full of misery. “I know that! Do you expect me to do such a thing to you? I only want to know the consequences of my actions.”

“The sight is…unpleasant. I don’t want to show it to you.”

“You are afraid that I’ll be repulsed by the absence of your eye, aren’t you? The wound bothers you so much.”

Inaho’s lips tighten into a line, and just like that, he knows he has betrayed himself.

“Oh, Orange.” He didn’t expect Slaine’s grimace of pure pain. Slaine starts curling into himself, and Inaho has to steady him with his hands on Slaine’s bare shoulders.

He’s still unstable. “Slaine.” Inaho says, completely at loss at what he should do. “Slaine, you’ll need to concentrate on your flight stimulation. This discussion shouldn’t reduce your ability to perform in the air show. After this is over, we’ll find a solution.”

Slaine is resting his forehead on Inaho’s shoulder, and surprisingly, he chuckles. “This is not another of your physics equations, Orange. There is no solution.” He quickly straightens his body, however, and every trace of his breakdown is gone. His voice is sharp. “There has never been a solution.”

Inaho withdraws his palms from Slaine’s shoulders, his skin hot with the remains of Slaine’s body heat.

Slaine whispers, eyes dull, “You never deserved what I did to you. I hurt you…I keep hurting you, despite everything you’ve done for me.”

Inaho takes a calming breath. “No. It is simpler than you believe: my eye socket is dark and empty, and there are numerous scars on my eyelid. However, the price I paid was small. The UFE won the war because of the replacement for my eye. Furthermore, it helped me save numerous lives. And it helped me defeat you.”

Slaine isn’t looking at him. “Don’t justify what I’ve done to you, Orange.”

“You are not hurting me.” Inaho takes Slaine’s hand between his. “However, I still need to hear the truth about your past. But in that way, I keep making you upset.”

That makes Slaine raise his head. “No…no.” A resemblance of tenderness settles on Slaine’s features. “Believe it or not, you keep making me…happy.”

Before Inaho has a chance to analyze what Slaine just admitted, there is a banging on the door. A guard shouts, “The General has arrived!”

Inaho is alert. “Slaine, you should get dressed as fast as you can.”

Slaine’s features harden. He nods.

When Blanchet steps inside, Slaine is wearing the white uniform.

#

Slaine’s room is located in a rarely used part of the large base. It is a copy his cell: no windows, walls of steel, and always with a guard stationed in front of the closed door. At least there are no cameras inside, Inaho notices in the seconds before Slaine is shoved inside and until the guard slams the door shut.

Blanchet frowns next to him, half-heartedly reprimands the guard for his behavior before Inaho manages to do so, and then guides Inaho to his room, which of course doesn’t resemble Slaine’s in the least.

#

Inaho spends that night awake and fully clothed, lying on his double bed and staring at Slaine’s pendant.

Years ago, just after he returned from his rehabilitation back to the Deucalion, he used to hold Slaine’s pendant like this during his sleepless nights. He used to wonder about Slaine’s secrets while planning Slaine’s downfall.

The part about Slaine’s secrets hasn’t changed. Inaho knows that Slaine’s scars are a large part of them, for example, a part Slaine still refuses to share with him. From the scars’ patterns, Inaho can tell how it happened: Slaine must have been suspended with his hands over his head, naked above his waist, as the scars are limited from his chest and arms to the area under his belly button.

Four years have passed since the end of the war, and Inaho realizes that despite their conversations about chess, roses and physics, despite the fact that he has catalogued in his mind which foods Slaine loves and which he abhors, Slaine remains a mystery.

Why did Cruhteo whip Slaine? Did Slaine kill Saazbaum in order to protect Asseylum? Did Asseylum—did no one ever notice Slaine’s suffering, during all those years? The questions are endless and their answers painful.

And then Inaho starts replaying in his mind their conversations at the shore, and he tries once again to take in the fact that his feelings are returned.

#

During the following days, Slaine spends more than 10 hours daily in the stimulator, dressed in his white uniform and constantly wearing the white helmet which Blanchet always secures.

The band-aids covering Inaho’s eyebrow fall off, at one point. Inaho stares at the colorful rabbits for a long while before he throws them away.

Blanchet keeps introducing Inaho to numerous UFE Generals and Vers Counts that have arrived for the demonstration. Inaho is forced to spend his days listening to political discussions and accepting congratulations for his role in the last war. The Empress of Vers arrives too, only for Inaho to realize that Asseylum send a double in her place—because of her pregnancy or her reluctance to be near Slaine, Inaho will never know. She did not even announce her replacement to the high-ranking officers. Inaho, on the other hand, instantly understood the moment he greeted her: the woman smiled at him in a way Asseylum wouldn’t be able to, after their last discussion.

Numerous aircrafts are tested and flown over a large piece of barren terrain for the eyes of civilians and both UFE and Vers officers. Inaho never attends; the actual air show is completely useless to him.

After five days, Slaine’s absence becomes intolerable. Normally, Inaho would react to this. As things are, however, Inaho must avoid all conflicts with the board; the appointed day for Slaine’s escape is approaching fast, and a false step might ruin his plans.

The board finally gives him permission to talk to Slaine the morning before Slaine’s demonstration. Inaho meets Slaine in front of a stimulator in a large and empty metallic room. Blanchet, of course, is standing next to Slaine.

The dark visor of the helmet makes it impossible to recognize the person wearing it. Still, Inaho will never forget the voice that greets him; he knows it better than his own.

“You came.” Slaine whispers, the moment he notices Inaho.

Blanchet is standing next to Slaine, so Inaho must keep this short—despite the ache in his heart from seeing Slaine after so many days.

He says, “Your flight program will take place tomorrow.”

“Yes. I know.”

“Do you need anything?”

There is silence for a while, and Inaho loathes the helmet, as it makes it impossible for him to perceive Slaine’s features.

“Another chance to beat you at chess.” Slaine finally says.

Inaho turns towards Blanchet. The General nods. “Very well. This afternoon, in the prisoner’s room.”

Slaine adds, “I would like something to eat.”

Inaho almost frowns. “I can bring you—“

“Something sweet.”

No.” Blanchet says, irritation suddenly wedged into his features. “Mr. Troyard! The doctor will later require another blood sample. Your glucose levels must stay low.” The man turns towards Inaho, “Mr. Kaizuka, I think it’s time for you to leave the room.”

#

Inaho is sitting in the empty cafeteria of the building, gaze fixed on the table’s surface, avoiding the hordes of journalists that have realized he is attending the air show. He thinks of the numerous blood tests Slaine underwent during the last weeks. Slaine is underweight, and Inaho assumed until now that the UFE cared for Slaine’s health, but still… the frequent blood exams are unnecessary.

Slaine could operate the Tharsis; a Martian kataphrakt. A possibility exists that Blanchet is interested in Slaine’s blood, though Inaho can’t understand why. The Aldnoah activation factor? Even if Slaine still expresses it, studies have shown that it is impossible to isolate it—

“Kaizuka, sir?!” A young UFE soldier on duty shouts when she notices him, placing her hands on the front of her skirt, straightening her back. Since the end of the war, Inaho has been on the receiving end of countless similar looks of admiration from civilians and soldiers alike.

The young woman clears her throat. “Sir. Excuse me, I didn’t expect to…meet you here. Can I do something for you?” She leisurely bends her body, resting her elbows on the table. “Anything you wish…”

Did she just undo the upper buttons of her shirt? Inaho then realizes. The weather is hot today. I must ensure that Slaine’s room temperature remains within the acceptable limits when I visit him this afternoon…and I must find a way to bring him something sweet to eat, unbeknownst to Blanchet.

The young officer keeps twirling a strand of hair around her finger and pursing her lips, for reasons Inaho ignores. “Sir...? Is there anything you would like…?”

Inaho thinks, and an idea comes. “Yes, there is. I need you to order something for me.”

#

Inaho has already prepared everything, so he knocks on Slaine’s door, package under his arm, which Blanchet previously spent five minutes inspecting. However, the woman from the cafeteria did a good job with the chess pieces.

The guard next to him unlocks the door and Inaho steps inside, after giving the man a thick envelope. The guard closes the door and locks it.

Slaine narrows his eyes suspiciously at this, but he doesn’t comment. He is wearing his usual light blue outfit.

It’s warm in here. Good. Inaho takes off his jacket, raises the sleeves of his shirt.

Slaine’s eyes open wide. He asks, “A-Are we really alone?”

Inaho nods. “For one hour.”

A sigh. “How much did it cost you? The bribing?”

Inaho doesn’t answer, though he could buy an expensive car with the amount of money he gave to the guard. (The UFE rewarded him thoroughly for taking down Slaine Troyard in the Second Interplanetary War, after all.)

He then decides not to ask Slaine about his scars, or any other subject that might upset him. Slaine needs to be free of stress for tomorrow’s flight.

Slaine opens the package and perceives the chessboard. He places the chessboard on the floor and starts arranging the chess pieces, muttering, “Orange, stop wasting your money for foolish objectives like a chess match with me.”

“Playing chess with you has never been a foolish objective. On the contrary, it’s one of the things I enjoy most when we’re together. You tend to smile a lot during our chess matches.”

Instead of an answer, Slaine bends his head, the blond strands curtaining his face and hiding his expression. He takes the black king and places it on its correct square.

He hasn’t noticed yet.

Inaho says, “We are going to play chess, as you requested. However, this one will be different from our usual chess games.”

“…Fine.”

“Try your best to win.”

Slaine sits on the floor, as his room contains only one bed, a toilet and a small sink. He raises his head, determined. “Don’t worry, Orange. I definitely will.”

#

Five minutes have passed, and then Slaine asks, “Why on Earth and Vers is this chess match special?

“If I reveal my reasons, it will stop being a surprise.”

Slaine throws him an incredulous glance, then moves his black bishop.

#

“Tch. I can’t believe this.”

“Yes, I specifically targeted your bishop, Bat. You tend to use them a lot.” It’s been 35 minutes, and he still hasn’t realized.

“I see. Still cruel, despite my circumstances, eh Orange? Never mind. I will crush you like the last time…?”

Inaho places his finger on his mouth.

It works. Slaine stops talking. A deep red blooms on Slaine’s cheeks. He then whispers, “Take off your tie.”

Inaho freezes, then complies with Slaine’s unusual request. The room is still warm, either way. As he removes the small piece of clothing, Slaine’s green eyes keep following each movement of his fingers. Inaho pulls the tie free, and Slaine’s gaze rises to meet his. A wave of heat runs through Inaho’s body. He tries his best to ignore it and carry on with his plan.

Inaho leans forward, kneels next to Slaine and lifts the fallen bishop towards Slaine’s face. Slaine sits immobile, eyes following Inaho’s every move. Slaine’s breaths come very fast, as if he’s been running and not playing chess, a few seconds ago.

Carefully, Inaho brings the piece towards Slaine’s lips, heart pounding, gaze focused on the way Slaine’s red mouth puckers in defiance. Their eyes meet. Slaine’s breathing amplifies. Inaho is unable to look away from the bright green in Slaine’s eyes. He realizes he is breathing as hard as Slaine.

Slaine whispers, “What are you doing?”

“It’s chocolate.” Inaho whispers back.

Slaine’s lips close hesitantly around the base of the black chess piece. He bites down on it, eyes wide.

Inaho is left with half a chocolate bishop on his palm, which he extends towards Slaine.

After Slaine swallows with closed eyes, he carefully takes the offered half of the piece and eats it too, licking his lips. They lock gazes.

Slaine chuckles quietly. “You’re impossible. I can’t believe you schemed to such an extent in order to bring me chocolate! And I believed…”

“What?”

“N-never mind.”

Inaho keeps starring at Slaine’s eyes. “You asked for something sweet. I thought that chocolate was a good option.”

“You remembered…”

“Naturally.”

Slaine cheeks are still tinged with red. “The last time I ate chocolate was months ago…in your house.”

“A UFE officer ordered the chocolate pieces for me. Did you appreciate the taste?”

“Yes. It was very smooth, buttery…” Slaine tilts his head a bit to the side. “S-So…your pieces must be made of white chocolate. As far as I remember, white chocolate is sweeter than dark chocolate..?”

Inaho takes his white king and offers him to Slaine. “Here.”

Slaine obviously did not expect that. “Your king..? What about our chess match?”

“We will later replace each consumed piece with inedible ones.”

“So this means, after my demonstration tomorrow.” Slaine seems lost in thought.

Inaho returns the white king on the square it stood before. “The board has nothing to gain from an unpleasant incident tomorrow, Slaine. They need you alive...for reasons I ignore. The possibilities of an accident are minimal.”

Slaine doesn’t answer. He moves Inaho’s white rook to an advantageous position, then counterattacks with an unnecessary move and takes out one of Inaho’s small white pawns.

He eats it slowly, eyes closed, sparing Inaho’s white king.

#

The next morning, Inaho is on his way to meet Slaine before the takeoff, when a Vers soldier with blond hair passes him by on the corridor and whispers, “The toilets on the first floor. In five minutes. I have already deactivated the cameras.”

Inaho knows that voice…and he quickly remembers who it belongs to. Harklight.

Inaho considers not going; he is angry. Harklight might be unrecognizable in his disguise, but unless this is about an emergency, it was extremely careless of him to come here.

#

“It’s an emergency. I wouldn’t be here otherwise, Kaizuka Inaho.”

They are in the communal bathroom, and Inaho’s anger hasn’t subsided. “I hope you have a good excuse for this. Each second you stay near Slaine, you are jeopardizing his life.”

“Listen, Kaizuka-san. Do you recall the newspaper articles you showed us? My team did research into them.”

“You came here for this? They hold no importance for us.”

“No.” Harklight says, clearly impatient, “It’s the opposite, Kaizuka Inaho. The missing persons all used to serve under Count Saazbaum’s Landing Castle. They were in charge of the communications department. Even after the war ended, they were responsible for the data recorded during the Count’s video calls.”

Saazbaum’s video calls? “We only have a few minutes until my absence is noticed. Explain what you mean.”

“We managed to get into contact with one of Count Saazbaum’s former servants. The only one who is still alive.”

Inaho’s pulse rises with anger. He struggles to keep his voice steady. “If that person is working for the UFE and lying to you...”

Harklight’s face hardens. “The woman claimed she sent the articles to you. She had a contact, a prison guard from Vers who informed her about your favorable behavior towards Milord. She correctly assumed that you were not approving of the UFE’s actions. The contact was later killed by the UFE. You were wrong, Kaizuka Inaho, when you assumed that the UFE was behind the articles.”

Inaho narrows his eye.

“In addition, she claimed that the UFE is hunting for Count Saazbaum’s video files. They also killed her comrades, so she was forced to send you the newspaper articles and all confidential data. She hoped you could understand and help her.”

“That was a foolish move. She could have been detected.” Inaho sighs. Does this person even exist? Harklight could be lying…but to what purpose? “What is the importance of those ‘video calls’ she holds?”

Harklight initially stays silent. “Barouhcruz-san is currently investigating into it. I will ensure that Milord Slaine—”

“Orange?”

Inaho almost jerks, and Harklight pales, wide eyes fixed on Slaine, who entered the room with his helmet and uniform on.

Inaho’s heart loses a few beats in his distress. Slaine must get out. Before they realize the cameras in the bathroom are not recording.

“The guards are waiting outside, Inaho. I saw you stepping in here…and after a few minutes I was overwhelmed by the need to use the toilet.”

Inaho can’t see Slaine’s expression, but he doesn’t miss the irony in Slaine’s voice.

Meanwhile, Harklight’s eyes fill with such tenderness, it would instantly betray him if Slaine was turned towards him instead of Inaho. The man however maintains a neutral expression as he says to Slaine, “Have a good flight, sir. I’ll be supporting you...always. Please…please remember that, Milor—sir.”

Slaine whispers, “Thank you. I appreciate that…”

Harkight salutes. “If you excuse me now. I must…leave.”

Harklight exits the room, and Slaine turns to Inaho. “Did you know who that man was? I did not expect of a stranger to be that…compassionate.”

Inaho swallows. “Perhaps he is.”

“He seemed…familiar.”

I must take Slaine out of here or his life is in danger. “This isn’t important right now, Bat. We should go, before the guards reprimand you for being late.”

#

Inaho is sitting in the control room, watching as Slaine’s black aircraft soars across the skies.

All officers and civilians unaware of Slaine’s existence (which means everyone except the attending six members of the board and the guards in Slaine’s prison) were convinced that the pilot’s identity is being kept secret because the technology of the aircraft he is flying is confidential. Blanchet however purposely misinformed a few high-ranking officers, telling them that the pilot is a former Vers military pilot and currently a convict, guilty of scamming a UFE military bank. The words spread from mouth to mouth, and even reached the ears of soldiers and civilians.

Blanchet also warned Slaine; the plane can be operated from the control room and through an autopilot, and any attempt at escape or even disobedience will be severely punished.

Both civilians and soldiers have gathered on a huge piece of terrain underneath Slaine’s flight paths, cheering or observing his maneuvers. The (fake) Empress of Vers is standing among the crowds too, surrounded by her bodyguards.

Predictably, Slaine’s performance has mesmerized the crowd and the numerous Vers Counts, UFE Admirals and Generals in the control room. Inaho estimates that he can take a walk and observe Slaine’s program without drawing much attention. The journalists and paparazzi are too busy recording Slaine’s show.

So he exits the control room, goes down some stairs and then walks towards the field and through the gathered crowds, his gaze always following the black plane.

Someone whistles. “Oh man, that spin was hell. That guy’s amazing.”

Inaho turns and searches for the source. There are five young officers among the citizens, three boys and two girls probably a few years younger, wearing the pilot uniforms of the UFE. He can’t distinguish their ranks, but their eyes never leave the black aircraft.

“I heard he hasn’t flown for years. He practiced just two weeks for this!”

“Oh come on, there’s no way that’d be true.”

Three weeks. Inaho silently corrects, mouth curving slightly at the edges.

 “I used to be jealous of the lucky bastard who was chosen to pilot the prototype…but when you look at him…you know you have no chance.”

“The Martian has guts. No wonder he was chosen.”

“No. He has talent and probably worked like a dog to reach such levels of dexterity. He has experience, too. He wouldn’t be able to withstand such g-forces otherwise.”

“If all Vers scum flew like this…”

“…We wouldn’t stand a chance.”

They are silent, but then the boy who started the conversation scowls and says, “Air shows and shit like that won’t be enough for me to forget what the Martian bastards did to my family. If a war comes, let’s hope that guy is not our opponent…”

“A war will come.”

“You think so? Their Empress is not the crazy megalomaniac Troyard was.”

“No. She’s a naive idiot. She thinks we’ll forgive them because of her pacifistic talks and her visits to our orphanages. She even gave us Aldnoah! This time, the people of Earth will take their revenge.”

“I don’t think she’s that dumb. That’s just the face of peace she’s showing to the TV. Don’t forget that four years ago, all she wanted to do was decimate our Earth!”

The discussion turns into an argument about Asseylum’s objectives and even Inaho’s undiscovered whereabouts (‘Kaizuka would know what our best options are. I really wish our hero could guide us.’ ‘But he retired years ago, and no one knows where…’) so Inaho stops listening.

My assumptions are correct. After I free Slaine, I must talk to Asseylum and try to prevent another interplanetary war.

He feels tired even thinking about it.

Slaine’s program is approaching its end, so Inaho decides to return to the control room: chances are very low that any journalist will spot him there.

As soon as he steps into the room, he sits in the corner and mentally goes through Slaine’s escape plans again, all while ignoring Blanchet’s stern glances.

#

Mayday.

Inaho jerks, thoughts interrupted. It is Slaine’s voice, altered by the transmission, echoing through the room. He sounds calm, though.

“Uh, this is…DX23A. I lost thrust in an engine.”

A murmur spreads through the room. Inaho feels it, too: trepidation.

The UFE officer in command of the control room answers, “DX23A, which engine?”

A pause. “Both. Both engines.”

“The autopilot isn’t working!” Someone shouts. “We have no control, no incoming data!”

The UFE officer, “You need to return to Runway 14.”

“I’m unable.”

Blanchet grabs a headset and says, “Disobeying orders won’t benefit you—“

I just lost altitude and speed displays. I must land now.”

The officer again, “DX23A, immediately return to Runway 14.”

“I can’t.”

Blanchet barks, “You’re a failure. Do as you are told!”

Someone whispers, “He wants to attempt a 6g dive at such a velocity? If his angles are a few degrees off, he’ll break his wings…he’ll be destroyed.”

Meanwhile, Inaho is trying his best to remain calm, and to think. He has already reached a conclusion, Slaine is exceptionally calm. Why? Inaho turns to look outside the window, and the blood drains from his face. The left side of the aircraft is enveloped in flames.

He rushes forward, grabbing a headset. “Slai—DX23A. Do you copy?”

A sharp breath. “Y-Yes. I’m still landing it.”

Inaho makes the calculations—and the result tears at his heart. “But—you can’t.”

Slaine doesn’t answer.

And then Inaho realizes and his blood turns to ice: He already knows that.

“Slai—your upper left wing is on fire. If you attempt landing at such a velocity—”

Inaho feels sick.

For a few agonizing seconds, Slaine doesn’t answer. Then, “Yes…Yes, I know. Temperature’s rising rapidly, here.”

Inaho closes his eye, feeling crushed. “I see. Let me think of something.”

“No time.”

 “Bat!” Inaho’s once calm voice is rising desperately, now. “The maneuvering you are attempting is—

“Stop it. I know that.” A pause, filled with static. “I’m sorry.”

“No.” It comes out as if he’s pleading, so Inaho swallows the lump in his throat. His eye is burning. “Bat—I’ll do anything to help you, but you have to tell me your—”

“—can’t hear you—Orange—I’m—” The transmission fills with crackling noises, and then the signal is lost.

Inaho can only watch with a growing pit in his stomach as the black aircraft slashes across the sky, leaving a trail of smoke behind. The destroyed engines keep belching fire.

The Generals and Counts surrounding him are shouting and arguing.

“There are five thousand civilians in the area!”

“Then we should destroy it. If the prototype explodes on the ground, fuel leaks will set the nearby aircrafts on fire. Thousands will die from the multiple explosions.”

“I agree with Admiral Hakkinen. We must destroy it while on air.”

Blanchet’s palm lands on the table, “Cease this foolishness! The pilot must survive, the plane costs us billions, we shouldn’t be rash in our decisions—“

“Does the UFE forget that her Majesty is among those people?! If she dies, this means war!”

Fools…your Empress is a fraud, Inaho wants to say, but instead he shoves the doors open, rushes down the stairs and soon finds himself outside. Inaho tries to control his rapidly growing panic. He is running between and bumping onto people in various stages of fear, every person realizing the impending disaster, hundreds trying to flee and evacuate the huge area, shouting and screaming.

Inaho keeps running against the mass of people, until he crosses the vast distance separating him from the runway and comes to stand at the edge of the asphalt. No one is around him. He is panting, his lungs are on fire.

The plane, now entirely enclosed in a vortex of white fire, ceases its horizontal movement and starts plummeting rapidly towards the ground—as if Slaine is not in control.

Inaho’s breath abandons him completely.

Terror.

Sheer, cold terror.

It immobilizes him. He can’t move. Inaho realizes he’s under shock. He was trained for situations like these; when his sister and friends were fighting against enemy Kataphrakts, he overcame his fear; when he was searching for Asseylum in the Moon Base, trying to prevent her assassination, he overcame his fear. This is not the same. This hurts so much, Inaho can barely breathe.

He tries to move, tries to think of anything else other than Slaine burning to an agonizing death.

Until the plane jerks and straights, and then starts a series of S-turns, which allow it to near the ground and avoid all obstacles that might destroy Slaine’s extremely daring attempt at landing.

Inaho watches with a wide eye and his breath stuck in his throat as Slaine flies lower and lower, and then… lands.

But roughly, and soon the tires melt. The sound of metal sliding across the runway is earsplitting. Inaho covers his ears; cold sweat runs down his nape.

He observes with a wide eye as the aircraft comes to a halt about two hundred steps in front of him. Inaho calculated the odds and has difficulty understanding it: no explosion yet…the aircraft is mostly in one piece, still ablaze. For a few moments, the world is silent and searing hot. The sound deafened him; his ears are ringing, he is disoriented, and he can feel the hot fumes from the still blazing fire on every spot of his uncovered skin. As his hearing returns, he can distinguish between the sound of blood rushing through his ears, the screaming crowd, the cracking sound of metal being engulfed by red-hot flames.

With his sleeve, Inaho wipes away the moisture from his eye, clearing his blurred vision. He thinks; he sees an abandoned fire truck nearby, so he frantically kicks and struggles until he grabs a fire extinguisher and a uniform and helmet with heat-reflecting material and runs—towards the flaming aircraft, towards Slaine.

Whatever thoughts remain on Inaho’s rational side remind him that a single extinguisher won’t be enough. That an explosion might occur at any time. However, he has already left his rationality far behind.

#

A few steps are separating him from Slaine; the air is scorching, so Inaho quickly puts both helmet and uniform on. The aircraft landed a bit to the side, the front glass panes are touching the ground.

Inaho hurries forward. He can now see movement through the aircraft’s glass, so he uses the fire-extinguisher there and something metallic breaks, or opens, and the heat is unbearable but he clutches at something white, Slaine is alive, and the next moment he is dragging Slaine away, away from the fire.

He is dizzy; lack of oxygen.

It’s the fire. The carbon monoxide might poison us. I must get Slaine away as soon as possible.

The heat is unbearable, slowing him down—Slaine however has no problem walking at all, and Inaho realizes that the white helmet and his uniform protected Slaine from burns and other injuries.

If seconds or minutes pass, Inaho wouldn’t know. His attention is solely focused on Slaine. They soon drop on the ground because of shock and their shaking limbs, Slaine on top of him, Inaho’s arms in a vice grip around Slaine’s waist. The touch burns and hurts his arms even through the materials between them—Slaine’s uniform absorbed much heat— but the pain is a distant sensation to the weight of Slaine’s body, Slaine’s chest moving with each breath, alive.

Because of the helmet and the black visor, Inaho can’t see Slaine’s expression, and Slaine won’t be able to take it off without Blanchet’s electronic key—even if he could, it would be suicidal, as they are still in plain view. Inaho can distantly hear the commotion of the crowds.

Inaho clears his parched throat and whispers, “Are you hurt? Are you nauseous? The g-forces must have been intolerable—”

“I’m fine. I’m fine. I scared you—I’m so sorry.” Slaine tightens his grip on Inaho’s shoulders.

“Don’t—“ Inaho coughs, “Don’t apologize. You’re alive. Still—Bat, they might punish you for disobeying orders—”

“It’s alright, Orange.” Slaine murmurs, “It’s alright. I’ve survived worse, after all.”

#

The fire trucks arrive and put out the fire, the temperature drops rapidly. Inaho takes off the borrowed uniform and helmet, and paramedics approach them in order to assure that no damage was caused to their bodies. Inaho orders them not to touch Slaine’s helmet.

Inaho offers a hand and helps Slaine stand up. He can discern a horde of high-ranking UFE and Vers officers approaching them from the distance.

And then Inaho realizes: at the edges of the large area, people are gathering. Journalists too, snapping pictures, recording with cameras—the area soon fills with hundreds of people, perhaps a thousand, both UFE and Vers soldiers are preventing them from approaching too close.

The noise fills the air.

Slaine whispers, “What are they…are they applauding?”

Inaho’s gaze drifts across the hundreds of exhilarated people facing them, shouting and snapping pictures and clapping their hands. “Not just applauding. They are expressing their gratitude and congratulating you—”

Me?”

“Yes. Since you acted immediately and successfully landed the aircraft without causing any casualties.”

“But this is…” Slaine takes a step backwards.

Inaho’s hand hovers over Slaine’s back, ready to support. “Bat. Is everything alright?”

Slaine clutches at his uniform with both hands, as if he’s shielding himself. “I-I really don’t understand…”

Inaho opens his mouth to explain again, but then numerous high-ranked UFE and Vers officers approach them and Slaine is whisked away and doused with congratulations for his bravery and intelligence and skills—Inaho suspects that part of this is a performance for the TV cameras, and part is genuine, as the aircraft and the billions it cost stayed mostly in one piece. Officers and civilians alike are clapping Slaine’s back, shaking his hand, taking pictures with him, and so forth. Inaho tries to be close; Slaine’s identity might be at risk. The only factor that makes the situation bearable is Blanchet’s expression. The man’s face is an unhealthy crimson.

Everything seems surreal: the plane is mostly in one piece, the situation is being broadcasted live on television, and Slaine is admired like a war hero, praised and congratulated by smiling civilians, officers and even Generals and Vers Counts.

#

Blanchet acts soon however and Slaine is taken inside the building. Inaho is literally forced to spend a few minutes in the infirmary to permanently ensure that no poisonous gases from the fire entered his bloodstream. Inaho spends the time analyzing if the plane was sabotaged. He reaches the conclusion that even if it was, it won’t matter soon. Slaine will be free in a few days—Inaho doesn’t have the mental abilities to solve that puzzle at the same time he is trying to free Slaine.

Count Vornt enters the room, sending the doctor away. “Kaizuka. The Generals requested a conference about today’s incident.”

Inaho instantly dislikes this, but then Vornt adds, “The UFE is impressed by the prisoner’s accomplishment.”  

Vornt approaches a diagram of the floor hanging on the wall of the infirmary. He taps a finger on the upper left corner. “You have thirty minutes—it’s an unused room, no surveillance. The code is 2479. He’s been asking for you, so go and calm him down.”

Vornt walks away, but pauses with his hand on the doorknob.

“Kaizuka Inaho. You could have suffered life-threatening burns in your attempt to save him.”

“I did what was expected of me.” Inaho lies.

Without answering that, Vornt steps outside.

In a few days, everything will be over. Inaho doesn’t have the time to analyze Vornt’s support. His plans are more important.

Perhaps he respects Slaine more, after what happened.

#

Inaho runs and runs until he finds Slaine’s location.

  1. The red small light next to the door turns green. Vornt was telling the truth.

He steps inside and closes the door behind his back.

The helmet is off, discarded on the floor. They are in an old restroom, amid moldy urinals. Slaine is hunched over a sink, hands gripping the edges of it, the air in the small room heavy with tension.

Almost dizzy with relief from seeing Slaine again and unharmed, Inaho steps forward. Slaine turns his body at once, poised as if he wants to strike—but he immediately relaxes when their eyes meet.

Slaine walks the two steps separating them, but he is swaying. Inaho puts his arms around Slaine’s waist in an attempt to steady him—hug him— until Slaine whispers, “I think…I think I need to sit down.”

So he helps Slaine sit down. The dirt on the floor is the least of his concerns, right now. He sits next to Slaine.

Slaine leans his body against Inaho’s. Slaine is trembling, Inaho can feel the tremors on his own skin—or perhaps Inaho is trembling too, he can’t exactly tell. The cold terror that gripped him before was unlike anything he has felt in his life. It is gone now, and they share a few peaceful moments where neither speaks, where their breaths slip into the same pace as they both calm down.

Slaine whispers then, “You owe me that chess match. With…with the chocolate pieces.”

Inaho’s throat is dry. He swallows before he whispers back, “You can have all of my pieces, Bat.”

“Th-That would be cheating, you know.”

“I don’t care. Slaine…despite the minimal odds, you are…unscathed.” He recalls Slaine’s clear, steady voice during the engines failure. He tries to forget the moment the flames enveloped the aircraft. His heart is beating like mad; he still hasn’t completely calmed down. “Your aircraft was on fire. Yet your voice was steady and resolute; you weren’t afraid.”

Slaine chuckles bitterly, resting his head on Inaho’s shoulder. “Am I such an open book to you?”

Inaho welcomes the comforting weight. He half-smiles into Slaine’s tangled, sweaty hair. “I’ll admit that I’ve had years of practice, Bat.”

“I know…” Slaine laces his index finger with Inaho’s, resting their hands on his thigh. Inaho finds the gesture odd, but welcomes it nevertheless. “But you are right. I wasn’t afraid.”

“So my assumption was correct.” Inaho says. “Slaine—you were extraordinarily courageous, up there.”

Slaine snorts. “I wasn’t courageous. I merely controlled my fear, and this time, I wasn’t as close to death as—”

Slaine stops, his silence betraying him. Inaho tries to expel the cold from his blood and analyze what might come.

“Alright. You deserve that, at least: years ago, Count Cruhteo put a gun in my mouth, and very nearly pulled the trigger.” Slaine says, voice detached. “I was in pain and disoriented.”

Inaho stills, then tightens his grip on Slaine’s hand until his knuckles turn white.

“For a moment, I was terrified.” Slaine whispers.

“Slaine.” Inaho murmurs.

“He wanted to break me.” Slaine clenches his fists, and Inaho notices the increasing tremors. “And for that moment, he succeeded. But I endured. The gun, and the rest of it. I don’t regret that, Inaho. I don’t regret anything. I was merely a Terran dog back then—”

“You were never a Terran dog. The Martians are racially prejudiced.” Inaho says, but Slaine isn’t listening, eyes dull, muttering words that don’t make sense but leave Inaho with the impression that, during Cruhteo’s punishment, Slaine had to keep silent for some reason.

“Slaine.”

The tremors are getting worse. Carefully, Inaho disentangles their fingers and places his hand over Slaine’s fist. The trembling lessens, but Slaine is still lost in obviously unpleasant memories.

Bat.

Slaine jerks, and raises his head. They are so close, Inaho can see specks of blue hiding among the green of Slaine’s irises.

Slaine whispers, “I have never spoken about this to anyone before. But perhaps…perhaps one day…I’ll tell you more.”

“I’ll wait.” Inaho yearns to say more, but Slaine lowers his gaze, ending the conversation.

“S-so, Orange. When the engine caught on fire, I wasn’t afraid.” Slaine smiles, but it is forced.

Inaho can’t smile back. His mind is still buzzing with the revelation about Cruhteo’s methods, and it sickens him, what he now confirmed: Slaine has suffered more. The scars, the nightmares, each time Slaine flinches, they are verification enough. Still, he knows this isn’t a time to pressure anything out of Slaine. He knows he will wait for Slaine to talk, for as long as it takes. And a dirty communal restroom is not the right place for such conversations.

So Inaho just speaks the truth, “Despite the circumstances, it was a flawless landing. You spent only 24 days in the stimulator and produced striking results. You are extremely talented. And before you disagree with me, you should know that many onlookers thought so, too.”

Slaine’s gaze slides to the side, expression serious. His cheeks turn pink. “I just did what I had to do in order to survive.”

“No, your talent is remarkable.” Inaho says, the corner of his mouth curls a bit when Slaine looks at him again, eyes large, clearly engrossed. “You are…” Inaho thinks, heart thumping a bit, “You are brilliant.”

“Liar.” There is a teasing, yet expectant tone to it.

“It’s the truth, and it’s uncomplicated, so it took me years to realize. You are brilliant, in every way.”

Slaine blushes. “As usual…you aren’t making much sense, Orange.”

“Bat, there is not a single side of you that isn’t…” Inaho thinks, again. Compliments were never his forte. “Unique.”

 “That again? You possess such rich vocabulary.”

“I debated using my tablet to search for compliments suggested by dating sites—

“You? D-Dating sites?”

“Yes. I briefly thought of using them in order to gain more information about compliments and…romantic...ideas. But I quickly rejected that strategy.”

Slaine chuckles in amusement. “Really? So what’s next? Will you order our chess matches to take place under candlelight? Spread rose petals in the prison’s communal showers?”

Slaine’s smile is tender. He is resting his head on the wall now, and his eyes are hiding something extraordinarily gentle and trusting. With a tug at his heart, Inaho realizes that he has never seen Slaine wear such an expression before. This is Slaine completely open and vulnerable.

So this is your true self, Inaho thinks.

#

Inaho is reminded of the very first discussion he had with Eddelrittuo after the end of the war, in the days where his most important objective was to avoid the paparazzi lurking everywhere, in the days before he started obeying Asseylum’s wish, before he started visiting a depressed, emaciated Slaine in prison.

He was dinning with Eddelrittuo and his friends in a restaurant back at his homeland. When Inaho asked her if she had been crying—he had noticed her red and swollen eyes, and the day before, Eddelrittuo had left Asseylum’s service…but it had also been announced that Slaine Troyard was dead, executed by Kaizuka Inaho on a seashore—Eddelrittuo mumbled something under her breath about Slaine being loyal, and kind, and forgiving, and Inaho understood that she was clearly mourning Troyard’s supposed death. Inaho refused to agree with her. Back then, Troyard was his enemy: a manipulator, a liar, a very intelligent, ambitious and dangerous leader.

How right, but at the same time, how wrong had he been, back then.

#

His heart aching, he makes his decision. He knows he is being extremely careless, not analyzing his thoughts any further. “Slaine.”

That smile isn’t gone. “Orange, you should start worrying about your imminent defeat in our new chocolate-chess: I intend to have my revenge for years’ worth of checkmates—”

“In a few days, I will give you your freedom back.” Inaho says.

“Tell me this is one of your bad jokes.” Slaine is barely smiling.

“Slaine. I want to set you free.”

He watches as Slaine’s smile crumbles, only to be replaced by shock, and then carefully concealed anger.

“No. What are you even thinking?!”

“I’ve already planned every detail. Your new identity is already—”

“Wha—did it not occur to you to ask me if I want this, if I deserve this?!”

I did not expect that. “You are angry.”

Slaine’s tone is mocking, “Well done, Inaho, you can finally understand some basic human emotions. Took you long enough!!”

The words don’t hurt him, because the memory of the burning aircraft might never fade away. “If you need to think about it, I will give you some time. But try not to draw suspicions. First of all, you need to calm down.”

“Then leave me alone. I need—“ Slaine clutches at his uniform, breathing hard. “I need to be alone.”

“You were repeatedly under shock, a few minutes ago.” Inaho keeps his voice calm, quiet. “You shouldn’t be alone. Try to think logically.”

“Inaho, your damned logic isn’t even logical anymore.” Slaine stands up, swaying a bit. He straightens his back and unlocks the door. He steps out of the room, letting himself be dragged away by the guards that appeared outside.

#

Inaho stays on the floor, feeling a bit empty, wondering if his rash decision to inform Slaine about his plans so soon was correct or not.

Slaine is right. I can’t form logical decisions when I’m near him. My feelings keep deforming my judgment—

Blanchet barges into the room. His hair is clearly disheveled—a betrayal of his stress. The man is usually immaculate.

 “Kaizuka.” Controlled, icy voice. He is furious. “I know you prefer flirting with Troyard where surveillance is scarce, but at least the lack of cameras is in our benefit, this time. Stand up!”

Inaho stands up, his face masking the anger.

“The Empress demands that Troyard should be given a few days of restricted freedom as a reward for saving her life. The UFE government agreed to it.”

Inaho wipes every thought of his argument with Slaine out of his mind.

Blanchet goes on, voice dripping sarcasm, “Admiral Hakkinen and the rest of the Generals were…impressed by the prisoner’s performance. They are ignorant of Troyard’s identity, so they suggested that you, Kaizuka, as a reputable war hero, accompany the prisoner to an abandoned and monitored UFE base in a secured territory. The Empress of Vers supported the idea.”

Of course. Asseylum watched the air show from Vers. Did she arrange this reward to please the public? Or Slaine? Either way, if Blanchet and the rest of the board expose themselves and refuse Slaine’s reward, this will draw suspicions…given that Slaine’s hypothetical crime was swindling a UFE military bank.

If I handle this right, Slaine might gain a few days away from the board. Yet my plans of setting him free will have to be delayed. I’ll have to make a lot of changes…

The man’s face is crimson once again, and Inaho finds himself calculating how much more pressure Blanchet will be able to handle until he suffers a heart attack or maybe a stroke—Blanchet’s removal would benefit his plans very much.

Inaho decides to upset the man more, “The board has to comply with the Empress’ demands. Admiral Hakkinen is an intelligent man. If you refuse his offer, he will stop believing that the pilot’s identity is staying confidential simply because of paperwork and confidentiality. Perhaps I can enlighten him about Slaine Troyard’s existence—”

Blanchet barks, “Your threats are cheap, Kaizuka! But you will get what you want: two days with Troyard. I don’t care if you decide to feed him more; I don’t care if you finally decide to use him for a fuck or two. After two days, you are bringing him back intact.”

Inaho despises speaking of Slaine like this, but he needs to keep pretending that his concern for Slaine doesn’t surpass some limits, despite the rumors that are obviously circulating now. “The prisoner will stay unharmed, healthy, and well fed. Unlike the state he was under your supervision.”

Blanchet grunts. “Listen to me, Kaizuka. I will pick the location of that goddamned base. And I will make sure that your stay there will be memorable.”

His threats are empty. There is nothing he will be able to do, as I will be Slaine’s only companion. And as always, my suspicions are correct: the board still needs Slaine, and they need him unharmed.

I don’t believe in luck, but this is as close to such a thing I will get. Alone with Slaine, I will hack into the surveillance system of that base...yes, and we will finally speak undisturbed.

#

This time, Slaine isn’t blindfolded when stepping into the aircraft, accompanied by three new guards. He is wearing the pilot’s uniform, the helmet left on the empty seat next to him. Their bags and provisions will be delivered with a second, faster aircraft.

Slaine is still angry; he clearly is at a loss at what is happening, fidgeting a bit on his seat, yet doesn’t ask Inaho for explanations.

The hours stretch on and on in silence and semi-darkness.

Inaho is self-disciplined into enduring long flights, and he spends most of the time covering his worries about Slaine with thoughts and plans about their new situation.

The guards soon grow restless.

They must have been flying for six hours, and then Slaine asks, “What’s our destination?”

A guard shouts at him to be silent, and Slaine narrows his eyes. “You either don’t know or you aren’t authorized to tell me.”

The guard stands up, “Shut your mouth.”

“Sleep.” Inaho says, addressing Slaine. “Please.” Slaine looks at him strangely—perhaps he senses the sadness that weights Inaho down.

And then, to the guard, “Remember your superior officer’s orders. No violence against the prisoner.”

The guard grunts but reluctantly obeys.

Slaine doesn’t sleep.

#

As the hours go by, the temperature drops rapidly, and Inaho suspects that they are flying either towards the extreme north or the extreme south. Considering the catalog of UFE bases Inaho had memorized during the war, they must be somewhere on the northern hemisphere. Somewhere near northern Russia, perhaps. Most abandoned UFE bases can be found there.

It is a relief when the aircraft lands. Slaine is ordered by the guards to put the helmet on, but they don’t secure it as Blanchet did.

#

They landed inside the base, so Inaho didn’t see much of their surrounding environment. If he has to judge from the building’s temperature, however, they must be somewhere where the exterior temperature stays way below average most of the year.

His breaths form small white clouds when he exhales. It is very cold.

This must be Blanchet’s doing. We won’t be able to step out of the base without the suitable uniforms. We are trapped. I might need to hack into the heating system aside from the surveillance system. It is good, that they believe my tablet is just another communication device.

The guards accompany Slaine and Inaho to a furnished room with a very large window, expanding from the floor to the ceiling, overlooking numerous jagged, snow-covered mountains.

Slaine freezes on his tracks. With the helmet on, Slaine’s emotions remain a mystery. Inaho wonders what is wrong…until he understands.

It must have been years since Slaine last saw snow.

The guard, impatient, shoves Slaine forward, and they keep walking. They enter a small kitchen where Asseylum is waiting.

Inaho corrects himself; where one of Asseylum’s doubles is waiting, dress white and hair braided as befitting an Empress. Or Lemrina? No, this couldn’t be her. Our location is strictly confidential. As far as I understood, Harklight’s team is extremely disorganized. They would never find a way to obtain such information that fast.

Slaine immediately drops on his knee, bowing. This means that either Slaine didn’t understand that the woman in front of them is a paid bodyguard in disguise, or he is playing the role of the Vers convict and swindler as best as he can, for the sake of the cameras or whomever is watching them right now. Inaho believes it to be the latter.

Inaho decides to be certain, so he asks the woman if she had the chance to observe the seagulls once again for her visit. She answers with a clearly bewildered, “Eh?”, looks at him strangely, and then starts reciting (an obviously prepared) speech about Slaine’s bravery, explains that is was her wish to give an ‘ill-treated convict a reward for acting that fast in the face of danger, saving countless lives’ etc etc.

Inaho doesn’t pay much attention to her idiotic monologue. He is very angry at Asseylum— or perhaps Klancain – for authorizing such an unnecessary performance. Instead, he starts assessing the possible dangers that might await them. Inaho knows that one false move from his side will be recorded by the board and used against him, as usual.

He also knows that parts from this one-sided conversation will be broadcasted in the news, in order to assure the civilians and the rest of the UFE that the pilot’s identity will stay protected, but his bravery was rewarded from the Empress herself.

He doesn’t care about this extremely bizarre façade that is going on right now—a copy of Asseylum, congratulating Slaine for his bravery.

He is very worried about Slaine.

He would give much to know what kind of expression Slaine is hiding under the dark visor of his helmet, though one glance at Slaine hunched, stiff shoulders tells him that Slaine is trying to endure this outrageous farce with dignity.

Slaine is still kneeling next to him, unmoving, so Inaho waits until the fake empress stops with her congratulations and finally explains to them that they will stay in that monitored base for two days. She orders Slaine to rise from his kneeling position and gives them a tour of the very small facility, (the main area with the large window and a TV, stereo and a couch, a kitchen, a bathroom, five small bedrooms) then announces with a fake smile that she hopes they will have a great time for the next two days.

#

They are alone, starring at the empty metallic room where the aircraft took off.

Inaho decides to ignore the emptiness in his chest and solve the first problem: the surveillance.

He has already spotted two cameras in this room, so he walks into their single blind spot and types onto his tablet,

Lie down on a bed.

Pretend to be asleep.

I’ll record this, hack into the surveillance.

Replaying this instead of actual footage.

We need to talk.

Slaine proves his bright mind once again—he has probably understood everything about Asseylum’s double, and the dangers of the surveillance, and before Inaho finishes typing the last word, Slaine turns, and nods slightly as he exits the room, still wearing the helmet.

#

After an hour, Inaho has accomplished his objective—he did not dare tamper with the temperature regulation system, however, or he would betray his other work.

Whoever is watching after them, they will believe that Slaine is sleeping, and that Inaho is reading a physics tome on his tablet. In a few hours, Inaho might record other activities and change their patterns a bit.

They were provided with some warm clothes, but no cold-isolating uniforms that would allow them to exit the building for more than a few minutes.

If we attempt an exit with our meager clothing, the extreme temperatures will kill us.

So Inaho stops considering the possibility of an escape and maintains his original plans.

#

He finds Slaine lying on a bed in the smallest of the rooms.

“We should talk.” Inaho says.

Slaine stands up, still wearing the white uniform. He takes the helmet off. His eyes are bloodshot and swollen.

Inaho immediately takes a step closer, but Slaine snaps his head to the side. “Where are we?”

“Somewhere north. Slaine, we need to talk. Immediately.”

“Later. All that acting…tired me. I need a shower.”

Slaine walks past Inaho, shoulders hunched, and disappears into the bathroom.

#

After half an hour, Inaho finds Slaine sitting at the small table in the yellow-colored kitchen, leisurely eating an apple, wearing a black turtleneck, beige pants and white socks. It’s the first time he sees Slaine in civilian clothing, and the sight is...very pleasant.

Slaine notices him leaning on the doorway, and lifts his head, eyes a brighter green in contrast to the black pullover. They stare at each other. The juices from the half-eaten apple start running down Slaine’s arm.

And one of these moments happens again, where Inaho’s throat hurts, because he longs for Slaine in ways he can’t even understand, and he wants to say aloud words he doesn’t know how to say.  

Slaine closes his eyes and bites into his red apple, ignoring him.

Inaho knows what Slaine’s silence translates into: he needs more time.

He decides to give Slaine half an hour. He won’t wait any longer.

Inaho steps into the main area and approaches the window, his gaze traveling over the snow and the mountains in the distance.

He recalls the moment the aircraft crashed into a vortex of fire. He immediately wipes the memory from his mind, and tries to calm his heartbeats.

In the window’s reflection, Slaine steps inside the room.

#

Slaine steps closer, breath now ghosting over the chilled glass. They are both standing in front of the large window, gazing outside at the white mountaintops and the sunlight they reflect, glowing.

Slaine whispers, “They are so beautiful.”

Something connects inside his tired brain, and Inaho is reminded of the day on the Deucalion’s deck, where he watched the seagulls with Asseylum. The day he shot Slaine’s Sky Carrier into the ocean.

A few years ago, that memory was a warm and precious thing—all because of Asseylum and her laughter. Now, especially after today’s events, the memory almost brings bile up his throat. He remembers Tanegashima, listening to Slaine’s agitation through their intercoms, Slaine’s upset shout. The sound of the black aircraft crashing into the ocean and then static, as connection was lost.

I should have taken Slaine aboard the Deucalion that day. His attempts to destroy the UFE, his imprisonment, the abuse he suffered there…perhaps none of this would have happened. I judged him awfully wrong, that day.

“Earth to Kaizuka. Whatever it is you are thinking of right now, do yourself a favor and bring it to an end. Enjoy the view!”

He hides it well. Yet under his smiles, he is constantly sad. “They are just mountains.”

Slaine disagrees with a low hum. His fingers slide across the glass, caressing the faraway, ice-covered landscape. “Earth…I had forgotten its beauty. To think I even intended to destroy all of this, once…”

“Yet you didn’t.”

Slaine’s arms drop. “I’m sorry. I was too harsh with you, before.”

He keeps refusing to discuss his life before his imprisonment. “Apology accepted. Have you considered my offer?”

Slaine sighs. “I don’t think it has escaped your attention, Orange, but let me remind you once again that the whole world abhors me—believes me dead. I plotted her assassination under Cruhteo’s care, after all.” Slaine snorts, as if the words hide a bitter joke. “I was nothing more than a servant, yet I had the luxury of plotting and conspiring against everything I once cherished.” Slaine’s expression turns sour, eyes narrowed, just like he used to look at Inaho during the first year of his imprisonment.

He isn’t referring to Asseylum with her title anymore. “‘Troyard’ has become a synonym for evil. I can see that it bothers you—“

“No. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t care whether she—what everyone accepts as true. You know the truth. That’s enough for me.”

“Not for me, Bat.”

“I’m not having this discussion with you now, Orange.”

Inaho pushes onward. “As I mentioned before, I want to get you out of that facility, and away from both the Vers government and the UFE.”

“Fine. What will my sentence be, then? If you break me out? Not being able to walk freely outside?” Slaine’s tone is dark. “I cannot miss something I never had. Or should I remain unpunished for everything I did?”

“You are in imminent danger, and I can’t see why you keep refusing my help.”

Slaine bursts out, “Because I never asked for it!!”

Inaho doesn’t stop. “The blond man who spoke to you today.”

Slaine groans, “What of him, now?”

“He and others are assisting me in my plans. Do you remember him?”

“Yes. I told you. He seemed familiar.”

Inaho swallows, the truth pricking at his throat. “He is Harklight.”

Slaine freezes, then lets out a sound like a wounded animal. Inaho steps closer, only to be rejected by the slash of Slaine’s hand through the air. In the span of a few seconds, Slaine shows a torrent of emotions: there is wonder and joy as he smiles and chuckles quietly, but his eyes are blazing with the hottest rage when he turns to face Inaho. “You knew?”

Inaho’s palms are sweaty. “I found out a few days ago. I couldn’t risk telling you sooner. Something like this…”Inaho observes Slaine’s hands, they are trembling badly again, “Something like this could have happened during your flight. Furthermore, if Harklight was exposed right there, you would react. Your identity would be discovered. Blanchet would...eliminate you immediately.”

Slaine grimaces in distaste. “I know all that. And perhaps…perhaps you are right. I wouldn’t be able to…stay calm.” He meets Inaho’s patient gaze. “But I’m very angry at you right now.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“What else are you hiding?”

So Inaho tells Slaine about Lemrina’s disappearance, years ago, and how Barouhcruz and Lermina barged into his home, how he persuaded them into helping him. “Harklight, Barouhcruz, Lemrina and two officers from the Stygis squadron will assist me with my plans.”

He watches as the words sink into Slaine. “They…they all came back…for me…?”

“They care about you. We had difficulties cooperating at first, but soon I understood that their concern is genuine.”

Slaine’s palm covers his face, blond strands slipping between his fingers.

“Slaine?”

A bit muffled, “I’m fine.”

“…Slaine. I keep pressuring you, as I can’t predict how the UFE might want to use you. I’ve searched thoroughly. There is no data. For your safety, the day after tomorrow you will be free.”

Slaine’s fist collides with the glass. The sound reverberates around them. “Go on. Just—go on with those insane, impossible plans.”

“They are not impossible.” Inaho steps closer. “Be rational.”

“Trust me, I’m trying.”

Inaho steps in front of Slaine. “You are aware that the UFE will eventually carry out your unofficial…execution. They might even present it as a suicide attempt.”

“Do you think I haven’t understood that?! It was my only comfort during the first months in that cell; I knew that if I failed to harm myself, the guards, the UFE or even Vers would eventually do that for me. But then you came, and…” Slaine stops. For a long moment, he just stares at Inaho. Then he murmurs, softly, “You will be sad, won’t you...? If—if something happens to me.”

Inaho whispers, “You know that this is a terrible understatement.”

Slaine nods, then stays silent.

Inaho remains calm for Slaine’s sake. “Still, such a…situation will never occur. The possibility of failure is extremely low. I’ve reexamined my plans more than two hundred times.”

Slaine blinks. “T-Two hundred times? So the reason you seemed absentminded during your visits…”

“Yes. I wish I had the time to examine them a thousand times for you, Slaine.”

Slaine smiles just a bit. This time, it is genuine.

Inaho smiles too, and Slaine turns towards the window, cheeks pink.

So Inaho goes on, “When the time comes, you will have the option to choose. If you wish for me to leave, I will do it, after I ensure that you are safe. I will provide you with clothing, a secured house and a private bank account. And if you want Rayleigh, I will give you the cat too. Harklight and the rest of your supporters will keep you safe from that point onwards. You can remain away from crowds or invent a disguise. It’s your choice.”

There is a heavy, stretched moment where Slaine does not move or speak. Then he turns, his eyes very large.

“You will leave?” Slaine murmurs, “You said you will leave…?”

Something quivers inside Inaho. He speaks carefully. “Slaine…do you want me to stay?”

Inaho knows the moment Slaine understands.

“This is merely an option, but—but I could do research on roses…and I could assist you with planting another garden. We could find a house with the right proportions for it.”

“You want…a house?”

“Yes.”

“With…with me...?”

Inaho’s rational approach crashes for a moment. His mind is overwhelmed by memories: all the afternoons Slaine spent lying relaxed on the couch, reading books about physics or poetry, sometimes discussing them a bit with Inaho. The sunny mornings where Inaho stepped into the kitchen and found a sleepy-eyed Slaine eating strawberries for breakfast, the way Slaine’s mouth reddened after each bite.

Inaho knows, he will gladly spend hours looking for proper fruit discounts, again and again. When Slaine is free, there will be endless chess matches and strolls under the blue sky. And when Slaine’s eyes grow dull again, Inaho will learn how to—

He quickly snaps out of it.

Inaho places his palm on the cold glass, gaze traveling over the snow-white landscape, heart aching. His younger self would definitely label those thoughts unnecessary, at this stage of planning.

Loving Slaine has changed him, however. “Or we could travel. From what I’ve understood, you spent many years confined on Vers. So I believe there must be new and unfamiliar places in this world that you can find…” What was the word? Ah, yes. “Beautiful.”

“Orange...”

“Earth or Vers, the ocean or the mountains. I will have to require more data about possible destinations, because there are so many options—”

Slaine’s fingers curl around Inaho’s arm. “Do you really mean all this?”

Inaho turns, gaze finding Slaine’s. “For you, Bat, I’d do anything.”

The misery in Slaine’s eyes could fill an ocean. “You have no idea what I’ve done, how can you say—“ Slaine’s lips tremble, he bites down on them, “H-How can you…” He takes a step back. “Forget it. I need...I’ll be right back.”

Slaine leaves the room, head hunched. Inaho drags his gaze away from the empty doorway. He tries to distract himself by mentally rearranging his plans for Slaine’s escape.

He can’t even think, far less concentrate.

#

Minutes pass. After Inaho has forced himself not to worry over Slaine’s prolonged absence, Slaine steps inside the room again. Judging from the hard line of Slaine’s mouth, something is wrong.

“What happened?”

Slaine doesn’t utter a word as he comes to stand next to him. He leans in and kisses Inaho on the mouth.

Inaho stops thinking, breathing. He is only aware of Slaine’s warm mouth, the way Slaine’s fingers curl around his arm. The seconds stretch on and feel like hours.

Slaine separates their mouths, slowly, meets Inaho's gaze—then takes a half-step back.  

Inaho still can't breathe. The window glass is freezing where it touches his shoulder. Slaine is looking at him with brilliant, wide eyes.

“Slaine.” Staying still takes effort, even whispering takes effort. “No. I’m sorry.”

Slaine’s eyes sadden. “Don’t do this to me, Orange.”

“You don’t understand. If we do this—”

“The world will end?” Slaine tries to smile, but that sadness is still clinging on his features. “I ended the world a long time ago, Inaho. But you stayed.”

Inaho’s heart catches up to the situation and starts pounding. Unsure of what to do, he reaches out and places his palm on Slaine’s cheek. And Slaine tilts his head, and leans into the caress, closing his eyes.

Something warm tugs at Inaho’s heart. “I need to be certain that this is what you want.”

Slaine eyelids flutter open. “D-didn't I just...?”

Inaho wonders how many times Slaine was given a proper choice in his life. He assumes he already knows the answer: not many. “Bat.” Inaho keeps his voice quiet.

Slaine’s gaze softens with understanding. “If you don’t kiss me right now, there will be c-consequences.”

Slaine is furiously blushing now, his cheek growing hotter and hotter under Inaho’s touch. Slaine opens his mouth, trying to threaten Inaho into kissing him again perhaps, but Inaho’s faster, as he rapidly leans forward and hugs Slaine, tight. He can hear Slaine’s sudden intake of a breath, and then Slaine’s arms are around him in an equally strong embrace. After a few seconds of enjoying the impossible luxury and solid warmth of Slaine finally in his arms, Inaho wants to smile.

Instead, Inaho cups Slaine’s face with both hands. He then understands that he needs to tilt his head, so he does, and then he carefully presses his mouth on Slaine’s.

He doesn’t know what to do next, what to expect. But their mouths slide together, and Slaine shudders, gripping Inaho’s jacket, and then lets out a deep, contented sound.

For three years he has loved Slaine. Three years of complete, rational control. It’s gone within seconds.

Inaho is overwhelmed by an unbearable need for Slaine. They collide with the cold window, his arms wrapped tightly around Slaine’s waist. He is kissing Slaine like mad. And Slaine clutches at Inaho’s blue jacket, he pulls Inaho closer, closer, not even a shadow separating their bodies, and he reciprocates with a passion that sends an electric current through Inaho’s heart.

Inaho keeps holding Slaine so tight, his arms start to hurt. He tries to kiss Slaine lovingly; he tries to show Slaine everything he hasn't said the last three years, every deep emotion that was silenced and hidden away between chess matches and roses.

They learn how to kiss as if they don’t have a tomorrow— changing angles, their mouths never separating— except the time Slaine hugs him as close as possible while Inaho drags his mouth along Slaine’s cheek, Slaine’s neck, and Slaine gasps for air and whispers, Inaho, Inaho.

#

 

Slaine’s pale lashes flutter against his skin. He slowly opens his eyes.

Those are definitely traces of blue.

They have separated for a few breaths, their foreheads almost touching. His lips feel raw, tender. They are clearly both inexperienced, but they were kissing with such force, Inaho is still left with the lingering sensation of Slaine’s mouth on his own. Slaine is panting, green eyes wide, focused solely on Inaho.

Inaho can't define what is now silently unfolding between them. This is no physics theory to be understood—this is unlike anything he has ever known, especially the way Slaine is now looking at him. He remembers with a pang of sadness that he has made some terrible choices concerning Slaine, in the past. And there are numerous things they need to overcome: their past, the people conspiring against them, the hatred and humiliation Slaine experiences every day, Slaine’s mental health—

“Inaho…Stop this.” Slaine speaks quietly. “Stop thinking.”

Slaine breaks eye contact, leans down, and they are kissing again, Inaho's hands clutching at Slaine’s black turtleneck, their mouths moving in slow, tender ways, in ways that flood Inaho with warmth.

After a few seconds, with the first wave of desperation gone, with Slaine’s body so close and warm pressing against his, Inaho feels himself growing hard. It even surprises him.

He breaks the chain of kisses. This is becoming much more complicated than I thought.

Slaine misunderstands their pause, and his mouth starts trailing a slow, fiery path down Inaho’s throat. Inaho slips his fingers into the soft blond curls over Slaine’s nape (very content that he can finally do that) but that encourages Slaine to tentatively suck a bit, and a jolt races down Inaho’s spine.

“Bat. Bat, stop.”

Slaine throws him a questioning glance. He freezes then, eyes wide; Inaho's arousal is now unmistakably pressing against Slaine’s thigh.

Slaine gasps and slides their bodies closer, hands on Inaho’s hips—Inaho has to bite his lip to keep himself from gasping too, because of the friction, the unexpected, sharp pleasure. Slaine moans softly near his ear; Inaho has to bury his face into Slaine’s hair and inhale deeply in order to keep silent. But Slaine’s hips jerk forward and he lets out an incredibly arousing sound, and Inaho decides that he wants to spend the rest of his life analyzing the endless ways he can make Slaine moan and writhe with pleasure.

But he recalls their circumstances; the thought sends cold trepidation down his spine. It immediately dampens his arousal.

“This—this must stop.” Inaho puts a bit cool distance between their bodies, trying to postpone this, to think of the words in order to explain to Slaine that they can’t—not now. There are numerous issues between them, and if kissing already hasn’t, sex will definitely increase them, and Inaho doesn’t know how to handle all of this.

Slaine is very flushed but moves back, both breathing heavily, and then Inaho says,

“Bat—what do you want...?”

“To bake cookies with you. Orange. What could I possibly want…!” Slaine’s voice trails off, cheeks dusted with every shade of crimson.

Inaho simply stares at Slaine, expression indifferent, despite the flush spreading on his cheeks.

“Come on, say it.” Slaine's eyes are large, waiting for his reaction. “I-I know you understood right now, your face is red.” A satisfied half-smile.

 “Likewise.”

He can see how an impatient Slaine swallows down an ironic answer. “Well?”

Suddenly, the reality of what Slaine is asking of him makes the air feel thick and hot, heavy. 

“Do you want sex?” 

“Well done, O-Orange...though you could've phrased it...better.”

“Better?”

Slaine fidgets. “N-never mind. One step at a time...”

How do I do this? He tries the easier way. “Perhaps you have already understood that, but I am a virgin. I have no experience and no information regarding sex, especially between two males.” 

“How can you keep a straight face—wait. You never though a-about..." Slaine clears his throat, "Having, eh, sex with me?”

“You are a prisoner, and I am in charge of you. I couldn't. Otherwise, I would have gathered information and opinions—”

Slaine groans. “Actually, I'm glad you didn’t do that.”

“Discretely, Bat. I would have watched videos and read instructions, perhaps explored my body more—”

“O-Orange! Alright, I get it!”

Silence.

Slaine whispers then, “You’ll still say no, won’t you? You’re always so…careful.” Slaine smiles, a bit sadly. “Always afraid of hurting me.”

…There is no point in denying it any longer. “I never thought I could feel like this for anyone. Calm used to talk all the time about flirting and sex, but I could never understand his or anyone’s despair to satisfy their sexual needs.”

“You didn’t find anyone attractive enough?” Slaine asks, genuinely interested.

“No one.” Not even Asseylum. “And no one has ever made me become interested in them, either romantically or in a sexual manner. Not until I met you and came to know you.”

Slaine tilts his head. “Inaho, why are you telling me all this?”

“Because I want you to understand that I am very, very attracted to you.”

Slaine chuckles, cheeks pink. “Yes, I…felt that.”

Inaho takes Slaine’s hand between his, kissing Slaine’s knuckles. Slaine draws in a soft breath, and Inaho judges that Slaine enjoyed that. I need to remember this.

“I want to make you understand that no one else has made me feel like you do. If circumstances were different, I would spend every minute alone with you having sex in every room and every corner—“

Slaine’s face is redder than a tomato. “Alright, alright!”

Inaho’s lips curl at the corner.

Slaine groans, but his eyes hide a smile. “You are doing it on purpose.”

“…Partially, but yes.”

Slaine chuckles. “Why?” Slaine caresses Inaho’s hair, fingers catching at the strap of his eyepatch. His hand then brushes Inaho’s cheek. “You like to see me constantly embarrassed? I-I know I blush easily.”

Inaho’s chest feels tight, but in a sweet way. “I like it when you blush.”

It is clear how much Slaine struggles to keep his expression indifferent—but he is blushing even harder, now.

Inaho smiles, appreciating the sight.

Slaine stares at him, “Inaho, why are you grinning like the cat that ate the canary?”

“Nya.”

Slaines eyes widen. "O-Orange! You are acting really strange!"

“I’m happy.”

“You are unbelievable...don't do that again, or you'll give me a heart attack...”

“Nya.”

Slaine laughs, a smooth, happy sound.

And I thought I couldn’t love him more. It seems I was wrong.

He can’t help it; he kisses Slaine on the mouth, and Slaine is smiling against his lips, and it is perfection.

#

They stop after three kisses, because Slaine yawns into the fourth.

The mirth leaves Slaine’s expression, “So it is, then.”

“What?”

Slaine sighs. “Let us finish that conversation tomorrow. As for tonight…sleep with me. Just—just that. And I’m too exhausted, either way, for…anything else.”

“Bat—”

“You pulled me out of a burning aircraft with almost with your bare hands! Surely, you can survive sleeping next to me unharmed. And you should stop being so afraid of something happening to me. I’ve fought for my life many times before, Inaho. I will be fine—you’ll see.”

I can’t stop worrying; I love you. Inaho wants to say then, but he doesn’t.

#

Inaho spends a few minutes tampering with the surveillance, while Slaine eats another apple. They turn the lights off and Slaine pretends to sleep on a bed, then read, then listen to a song again and again—Inaho as well— just for the variety of the material Inaho chooses to show to whoever is watching them.

#

Inaho’s fingers curl around Slaine’s in a loose, careful hold as they wander through the corridor, peeking through the open doors of the many bedrooms. Even now, he feels joy even from the small fact that he can hold Slaine’s hand in his; that he can feel Slaine so close to him.

They choose the larger of the rooms. Still, it is small and dark, poorly furnished. There is an old metallic framed bed near the wall, a small window, a small bedside table with a near-dying lamp on it. He realizes that the bed is so narrow, they will have to sleep very close together. The gray blanket seems too thin, so Inaho asks Slaine if he will be fine with it.

Slaine says that it reminds him of the blanket he was provided with on the cold temperatures of Vers—probably in an attempt to convince Inaho that he can sleep under thin blankets even in the coldest of temperatures. Inaho spends twenty minutes searching for every available blanket on the base and spreading it over their bed. Slaine keeps looking at him in a tender, almost amused way, and it makes every second worth it.

Inaho wonders how Slaine must have felt, spending four years in a grey room much smaller than this, with no windows, and a bed almost half the size of the one in front of him. He promises himself, as soon as Slaine is free and safe, he is going to take Slaine to a mattress store and then perhaps a pastry shop in order for Slaine to buy sweets or—

And he then realizes what he is doing, and for a second time that day; dreaming about a life with Slaine he hasn’t even secured. He chastises himself, because he needs to focus. In order for his plans to succeed, he must be vigilant and—

Slaine kisses him quickly on the cheek, yawning. “Seriously, Orange, stop torturing yourself.”

Inaho yawns, too. He then realizes he is so exhausted, he almost feels dizzy.

#

In the shower, he leans against the cool tiles and uses his hand—he decided that a cold shower will never suffice, if he wants to sleep the night next to Slaine, undisturbed from the numerous bouts of desire that would undoubtedly come.

Before, he hardly ever felt the need to do this—and each time, he did not bother directing his thoughts toward one person. But now, he recalls the salty, warm taste of Slaine’s skin. He recalls the way Slaine panted in pleasure against his ear, and as the drops of water cascade down his back, he quickens his movements and imagines Slaine’s warm mouth—the feeling charges though him like a lighting strike. It is more intense, more searing than anything he has experienced before.

#

Slaine is using the bathroom, so Inaho changes into the provided pajamas—a t-shirt and sweatpants. He hesitates for a long moment before removing his eyepatch, but then places it on the small bedside table, next to Slaine’s pendant. He keeps his scarred left eyelid closed.

He slips under the covers, shivering a bit from exhaustion and the chill of the sheets. He is anxious; happy, impatient. The impossibility of the situation—he has kissed Slaine, he will sleep next to Slaine— diminishes each second that goes by.

Slaine’s outline appears on the dimly lit doorway, and Inaho’s heart starts pounding. There is nothing unusual about Slaine; except that the light casts shadows on his unkempt hair, and he is wearing only his underwear and an oversized t-shirt, and Inaho longs to run his hands over the beauty of Slaine’s body.

Slaine stares at him for a few seconds, perhaps noticing the eyepatch’s removal. He doesn’t comment, however. Slaine almost runs the distance to the bed (the room is very cold), slips under the many blankets and turns the table lamp off. The room is enveloped in darkness, except from a small ray of light coming from the corridor.

They lie close together, Inaho on his side, Slaine on his back.

Slaine’s feet are cold, though Inaho doesn’t complain. He tries to warm them up by wrapping them between his own, but accidentally kicks Slaine just a bit. Slaine reacts with a quiet laugh at this, and Inaho decides to try something more. He positions his hand on Slaine’s chest, and keeps it there.

Slaine stiffens.

“Bat?” Inaho leaves the rest unspoken. Slaine’s heart is beating like mad under his palm, and Inaho can feel every ridge and swelling of the scars through the soft material of Slaine’s shirt. But Slaine’s ragged breathing soon calms down, and his hand comes to cover Inaho’s, intertwining their fingers together.

Slaine doesn’t speak, but Inaho understands. He will be careful, and he will wait for Slaine to define the next step, whenever it might come.

There are endless details Inaho craves to memorize. The heat of Slaine’s body. The way Slaine whispers ‘Goodnight, Orange…’ and his breaths slip into the soft pattern of sleep. The way their hands and legs stay tangled together. He tightens his hold on Slaine, registering into memory every second so thoroughly, as if he is fifteen again and he is memorizing his Kataphrakt’s most vital maneuvers; as if his whole life will depend on these moments and memories.

But eventually his eyelids drop, and Inaho falls into a deep, bottomless sleep.

#

The moment Inaho wakes up, he realizes it’s still dark outside. He feels tired; he must have slept only one hour or two. The light Slaine left on in the other room spills from the doorway, slightly illuminating the tiny bedroom. He realizes he can’t see Slaine; he must be on his blind side. So he turns his head to his left, and Slaine is there sleeping under the same blanket next to him, his face half buried into the pillow, causing Slaine’s mouth to wrinkle. Slaine’s arm is resting on Inaho’s stomach, moving up and down with Inaho’s breaths. Inaho can’t hold back the choking wave of affection. He places his hand on Slaine’s—

Slaine wakes up with a jolt.

Inaho grabs Slaine’s hand. “You are with me.”, is the first thing Inaho says while trying to think of something better to add, but failing.

So he observes Slaine, as the latter tries to discern his surroundings, his stiff body radiating anxiety. And he understands the moment Slaine remembers what exactly they had been doing earlier that day, as Slaine sharply turns and regards Inaho with an unreadable expression.

“Inaho.” Slaine says, voice a bit hoarse from sleep. He fumbles a bit until he clutches the front of Inaho’s shirt, pulling their bodies closer. Inaho swallows in anticipation. Slaine speaks softly. “Kiss me.”

Inaho slides his fingers into Slaine’s hair and presses his mouth on Slaine’s, the air now full of their shuddering, slow breaths. The desperation is gone, replaced by something deep, tender. Despite their warm kisses, Inaho is too tired to be aroused. He thinks it’s the same for Slaine.

After a few languid minutes, Inaho falls asleep with his arms around Slaine’s waist, and with Slaine’s head tucked into the curve of his shoulder.

#

“Wake up, Orange!”

The covers are gone in a violent manner. Inaho blinks in confusion and hates the way the cold attacks his skin, but Slaine’s face suddenly pops into his field of vision, his smile so wide, it takes Inaho a few concerned heartbeats to realize that he’s seeing Slaine happy.

Really happy.

So it’s not an emergency. Inaho lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. What happened?

He rubs his eye and then wraps himself in the thickest of their blankets, letting a half-naked Slaine drag him across the corridor, wanting to tell him that it’s cold, you should put something on, but only murmuring, “What’s the matter?”

Slaine steps in front of the large window in the main room, spreading his hands. “Look at this!”

Inaho moves his gaze from Slaine’s behind to the glass and the radiant green and red colors, spread over the icy mountaintops and across the black skies.

“Oh…the aurora is red, now. It wasn’t red when I went to wake you up. I think that the rarest of all colors is red—I’m not that sure about that, though.”

Slaine is now standing next to Inaho, expression awed, the shine from the northern lights drawing shadows on his profile.

Inaho murmurs, “Yes. I understand, now.”

Slaine flickers an incredulous glance at Inaho. “What’s there to understand?”

“It’s beautiful.” He then turns towards the aurora, observing it, the patterns of green and red, and now even a bit of blue.

“I never expected that the day would come where I could see such a flabbergasted expression on your face! Well, people change.”

Inaho closes his slightly open mouth and turns to look at Slaine, who is smirking next to him.

Wordlessly, Inaho lifts his arm in invitation, with the blanket still draped around his shoulders. Slaine understands, and moves right next to him, so Inaho wraps them both into the warm cocoon of the blanket. Slaine sits down, eyes fixed on the spectacle, and Inaho copies him.

“Bat, you are freezing.”

“Well, I woke up because I was… thirsty and afterwards looked out of the window—and you must thank me for waking you up, actually. You love it, I can tell.”

Inaho suspects that Slaine probably woke up because of a nightmare, but doesn’t comment on his lie. “Thank you for waking me up. I love it, as you can tell.”

Slaine rolls his eyes.

“Do you know the scientific explanation behind the aurora? It is an electro-static phenomenon that occurs when—”

“Are you lecturing me because of my lack of knowledge about the Rayleigh scattering? The lights will go away in a while, Orange. Just don’t talk until then, and afterwards you can explain it to me.”

Inaho nods and they both stay huddled together in silence, sitting on the floor and watching as the skies continue moving, the colorful shines undulating, then slowly fading into a warm glow.

By the time it’s over, Slaine yawns and whispers with a sliver of sadness, “I think my father explained the phenomenon to me, once…I don’t remember much. I never had the chance to read about it.”

It is as much of an invitation Inaho will get, so he wraps an arm around Slaine’s waist under the blanket and begins explaining about the solar wind and particles and the earth’s atmosphere, until he hears a soft snore and realizes that Slaine has fallen asleep with his mouth a bit open, head resting on Inaho’s shoulder.

Inaho realizes that he is smiling—he has never felt such fulfilling, complete happiness before, after all.

Chapter Text

Daybreak paints the clouds pink and yellow. Inaho opens his eye and realizes that he has fallen asleep with Slaine in his arms—Slaine, who is still sleeping, warm and content.

After a few minutes, Slaine stirs.

“Good morning.”

Slaine momentarily freezes, then rests the back of his head on Inaho’s shoulder, turning to face him with green, sleepy eyes. He tries to speak, only for his mouth to open in a quiet yawn.

“You are tired.” Inaho states the obvious.

“A bit.” Slaine answers. “However—“

A rumbling sound is heard and Inaho needs a few seconds to realize the origin: Slaine’s stomach.

Inaho takes out his tablet to check the time. “Come. We should get breakfast.”

Slaine gets up, his blond hair clearly disheveled from sleep and the morning breeze. He turns to face Inaho, his expression not betraying a single emotion. Inaho knows, he is still not good at understanding all of Slaine's objectives without his analytical engine’s help (though he prefers it that way).

“Is this really the only thing you have to say?” Slaine whispers, his gaze straying towards the blue horizon of the ocean. “A-After last night?”

Inaho gets up too. His body is hurting a bit after sleeping on Deucalion’s cold deck. He has no strategy as to what the best next move should be, so he just murmurs, “Can I hold your hand?”

Slaine stares at him, blinks, then chuckles softly. He takes hold of Inaho’s hand, lacing their fingers together.

The sun is bright. A thin, white scar on Slaine’s cheek catches the sunlight—Inaho opts instead to move his gaze on the blond, almost golden strands covering Slaine’s cheek. Or Slaine’s red lips—Slaine is smiling.

As if he has been practicing this simple motion for a thousand years, Inaho leans forward—but it is Slaine who closes the distance and kisses Inaho on the mouth, trapping the sun between them.

Slaine’s hand is warm, Inaho thinks, and he realizes that holding hands, no, holding Slaine’s hand is much more satisfying than he ever imagined.

#

Standing before the closed doors of the (surely) already full mess hall, Inaho hesitates, calculating the pros and cons of Slaine stepping inside a room full of loud, boasting UFE soldiers, despite the war officially having ended about six hours and twenty-three minutes ago.

Inaho’s hesitation quickly vanishes though—he reminds himself that Slaine is not a delicate, peace-loving Princess Inaho once felt the desire to protect; Slaine is resilient to violence and danger, his eyes can blaze with determination, he can easily immobilize his opponents in self-defense if he wishes so.

“I would ask you if you wished to have breakfast in a more…quiet place.” Inaho says, “But since I’ve understood that you don’t care about others’ opinions, I assumed you would have no problem eating among the UFE soldiers or my friends. Am I wrong?”

Slaine turns to him, eyes bright and honest. “Eh...? I have no issues eating breakfast with any of them.”

“Perfect.” Inaho says.

 Slaine smiles. He kisses Inaho on the cheek.

Inaho hides a smile. His face grows warm. He steps forward and pushes the doors open.

#

The moment they step inside the crowded area, standing side by side, Inaho understands how Slaine must have felt the entire time on Vers; scrutinized and frowned upon.

People, soldiers and officers of any age and gender are openly staring at them in anger, curiosity, or disgust.

Slaine shows no signs that he is affected, though.

#

“Are these…apples?” Slaine whispers, eyes wide, as they are standing in front of a counter, where red apples are placed in large bowls in order to be consumed additionally with the regular breakfast.

Inaho wordlessly places three apples on Slaine’s empty tray, savoring the joy in Slaine’s eyes.

#

They join Rayet, Calm, Inko and Nina at the long mess hall tables.

“Slaine saved my life.” Inaho declares, just after they sit down.

“He shot you through the eye.” Rayet says.

Inaho feels Slaine stiffen next to him, so he answers, “Yes. However—“

Slaine interrupts him, voicing his point of view on that day, apologizing so profoundly, Inko and Nina lower their gazes and stare at their laps.

Everyone is silent after that. They eat.

Rayet keeps glaring at Slaine.

It is Nina who first breaks the silence. She notices Slaine’s obvious enthusiasm, biting into his third apple. She asks if he’s hungry, and Slaine pauses, glances sadly at the half-eaten apple in his hands and explains that he always loved apples, and that fresh fruit are considered the highest, most expensive delicacy on Vers, served only to the Royal family and some of the Orbital Knight’s tables.

There is a short silence after that, and then Calm asks, “So what have you been eating all these years?”

Slaine blinks. “The years I served under Count Cruhteo, I was given plankton and krill to consume. After that—“

Nina jolts, “What?!”

“Plankton are aquatic drifting organisms—“

“I know what plankton are, Inaho!” Nina slams her hands on the table “J-Just…how did you survive eating only plankton?!”

“W-Well, they were processed into a pulp—“

Inko joins the conversation then, “How many years have you lived on Vers?”

“Eh…seven…or eight? I believe.”

“I see—“

Nina interrupts Inko, “How did you manage to gain such a complexion while eating only plankton?!”

“Eh…?”

“Look at the tone of his skin! It’s flawless! And his muscles—”

“Nina!”

“Perhaps I should go on a plankton diet—“

Calm clears his throat, but a snigger still escapes. “He can hear you, you know.”

“Enough!” Rayet shouts, and many curious heads turn towards their table.

Calm pats Slaine awkwardly on the shoulder, and whispers, “She is a Martian, you know.” Calm nods towards Rayet. “Then again, just because you are Martian too doesn’t mean that you can’t be a kind person, correct…?”

Rayet’s face is red with anger. “Calm, if you don’t shut up—“

“Oh, she hates Martians.”

Slaine says, “Actually, I was born on Earth—“

Nina again, “I remember! Colonel Magbaredge mentioned that a few days ago…something about your father…”

“Yes, my father was a scientist from Earth.” Slaine says, smiling, and then starts talking about his memories of his father and their travels, and Inaho cannot help but stare at Slaine with a faint smile.

“I want to know.” Rayet asks then, face still red, intruding on Slaine’s stories about pyramids. “Why are you here? On the Deucalion?”

“There are numerous reasons.” Slaine glances at Inaho. “One of them is, to help maintain the peace treaty between the UFE and Vers forces. To achieve the unification of our nations.” Slaine tilts his head upwards with determination. “The world we live in is filled with much pain and sorrow. I want to do something to change that.”

“Oh. I see. So you are going to change the world.”

Inaho can recognize when Rayet is being ironic, despite having had his analytical engine removed.

Rayet goes on, “This sounds overly optimistic—tell me, how are you going to convince the Martians to stop slaughtering innocent people?”

“I will manage it. I am certain.” Slaine says, posture noble and resolute, eyes hard, omitting Rayet’s acidic tone. “With some decent help, of course.” Slaine adds, glancing at Inaho again, his gaze softening, a smile hidden in the corners of his lips. Inaho tilts his head to the side, expressing his silent, amused disapproval about the ‘decent’ part. Slaine smiles, eyes gleaming with playfulness.

It is then that Inaho realizes; conversations between two people can also happen silently, without words.

“What’s going on between the two of you?” Rayet says, “You’ve been staring at each other since the moment you stepped inside this room.”

Inaho meets Slaine’s eyes. Slaine nods.

“You’re doing it again.” Rayet scoffs.

“We are in a relationship.” Inaho says.

Inko chokes on the piece of bread she is eating, so the next few minutes are spent with Calm, Nina and Rayet trying to calm her down.

“How dare you.” Rayet snaps after that, cheeks crimson, a hand resting on Inko’s back. “You should find a better excuse if you are going to turn her down—“

“No.” This is spoken in an unusually loud tone for Inaho, and has everyone turning to face him. “My feelings for Slaine will never be an excuse.”

“F-Feelings…?” Inko stammers, eyes watery—from her emotions or her previous coughing, Inaho isn’t sure.

Slaine says, voice careful, “Should I—“

“Yes. Explain yourself.” Rayet’s tone is icy. “Since the moment Inaho returned to us, it is obvious that he has changed—“

Their conversation has attracted unwanted attention. Certain immature people who once used to gang up and block Inaho’s way, standing in the middle of the Deucalion’s corridors and shouting at him or mocking him-while using inappropriate language- are now beginning to gather around their table. 

A heavy palm lands on his shoulder. “Relationship?” Someone sniggers, while someone else whistles mockingly.

Rayet realizes her mistake, but Inaho has already come up with a plan.

Which Slaine almost destroys when he grabs the person holding Inaho by the wrist, green eyes ablaze, and with a few practiced moves has him lying on the floor, crying out in pain.

As an obvious outcome, a fight breaks out.

It is then Inaho’s mission to ensure that the first person who steps into the chaos of the mess hall is the only one in the Deucalion who has the authority to end the fight just with his presence; General Blanchet. (The fact that Blanchet happens to be very interested in questioning Slaine—and in Slaine’s wellbeing, as a result—is what makes the fate of Slaine’s attackers even more interesting.)

#

A message to Yuki through his tablet is enough. In a few minutes, a livid, crimson-faced Blanchet steps inside the room, throws a disgusted glance at the three soldiers holding Slaine by his arms and waist, and orders that the ten people who tried to harm Slaine are immediately imprisoned, their leaves revoked.

Watching one of the highest ranking UFE Generals defend Slaine makes many faces go pale, and Inaho is temporarily satisfied with the result. General Blanchet leaves with the people he has detained, and after a few minutes, soldiers and officers alike continue with their breakfast, now seemingly ignoring Slaine’s presence.

Rayet grabs Inaho’s arm and pulls him aside, whispering, “He was your source, wasn’t he? The day you avoided the attack on Trident Base!” Rayet hisses, self-assured, “He was the one who notified you! That is why the General defended him…”

Inaho blinks. “I explained to you before, I cannot reveal my source.”

Rayet sighs, still believing her assumptions, and Inaho decides to let things rest like this until the day comes where the truth can be revealed—if it ever comes.

Rayet then asks, “And is this true? A relationship?”

“Yes.” Inaho says, having difficulty understanding why this seems implausible for everyone. “A romantic relationship.”

Rayet keeps staring at him, expression blank, and Inaho decides he had enough of this. He sits again next to Slaine, who is engaged in conversation with Calm about the mechanics of Kataphrakts; they keep comparing Versian and UFE models, Calm insisting that UFE models are easier to repair and handle, and Slaine trying to prove the opposite.

Inko is also staring at him, so Inaho asks her if she is feeling better, not knowing what else to say, to which she answers, calmly and quietly, “You have changed…”

“How?”

“A few days ago, you wouldn’t even notice. But now…the small talk…asking me if I am okay…”

Inaho recalls everything that occurred the last few days; fighting against Slaine, falling towards the Earth with him in their malfunctioning Kataphrakts; surviving in the Arctic and then the Moon Base, helping Slaine with his duel, escaping the Moon Base, realizing how much Slaine means to him, and then kissing—

“No matter what happens, you’re always going to be in your own, private world, aren’t you…? I thought no one could ever come close enough to understand your thoughts.” Inko whispers. “But perhaps…there is someone out there who can…” She is looking at Slaine, now talking with Nina about Vers plankton and their nutritional value.

“I believe.” Inaho answers, “That I can understand Slaine. And he can understand me. That is all that matters to me.”

Inko’s gaze lingers on his face for a moment. And then, the corners of her mouth curl into a sad smile. “I do wonder how he does this though...”

“This?”

“How he reads you, of course! Don’t you ever dare say I did not try, too!”

“Did you have difficulties…‘reading’ me?”

Inko sighs. “Yes, I did.”

Inaho blinks. “Why?”

Inko chuckles, then continues eating her long-forgotten breakfast with zeal. “Never mind.”, she says between biting and swallowing, “N-Now tell me, who confessed first?”

“I did, a few hours after I realized I might be in love with him.” Inaho says, and watches for the second time in that morning how Inko chokes on her food—though this time he is the one helping her calm down.

#

Ensign Kaizuka, please for duty at the bridge.”

It is Magbaredge’s voice on the speakers, so Inaho glances at Slaine, sees that he is still engaged in conversation with Calm and Nina and Inko, and he steps out of the mess hall.

 

The moment Inaho steps into the bridge, Magbaredge greets him, then jumps directly to the point. “The crew of the Deucalion have started believing both you and Slaine Troyard are the masterminds behind the peace treaty. There is a rumor spreading that Count Troyard is an informant, working for the UFE.”

Inaho blinks. Rayet.

“Is this true, Ensign Kaizuka?”

Inaho covers his left eye, less out of habit and more out of an excuse to gain a few precious seconds, to contemplate on his answer. “Even if I admit this, there is no evidence or data to confirm things happened that way.”

Magbaredge persists, “Is Rayet telling the truth?”

So my suspicions were correct. “There was a source.” Inaho says, “Nevertheless, they must remain anonymous.”

Magbaredge arches a thin eyebrow. “Kaizuka Junior—“

“No. Not ‘Junior’.”

“…I know that you care deeply for this young man, and if I judge from his reactions while you were being operated upon, he genuinely cares about you too. Not that this is of any interest to me. But I can understand your concern.”

Inaho decides to be silent and let everyone believe Slaine was from the beginning eager to achieve peace; they will be much less eager to condemn Slaine for his few war actions.

Magbaredge keeps talking, “….so, most believe that he managed to convince Princess Asseylum to end the war. He was the first Martian officer to order ceasefire.”

“That is correct.”

“Additionally, since the moment Slaine Troyard ordered ceasefire, no major conflict between the UFE and Vers has occurred—yesterday’s battle ended an hour after it begun and was instigated by a fraction of Orbital Knights disobeying the Princess’ orders. There were no casualties on our side. And Troyard risked his life bringing you aboard the Deucalion—the Earth’s media have started praising both of you as the ‘heroes’ that ended the war.”

“Technically, it was not only us that ended the war.”

“Yet people believe Count Troyard cooperated with you. They believe both of you persuaded Princess Ato end all hostilities.”

“The Princess was an impostor.”

Magbaredge narrows her eyes, so Inaho explains everything about Lemrina, and how Asseylum was restored on the throne.

“I see.” Magbaredge says. Inaho is surprised though when she continues, “I will communicate with the Princess and receive those answers. As much as I’d like to know more details about your time on Vers, we have no time for this now. General Blanchet keeps demanding that both Count Saazbaum and Count Troyard are placed under his custody.”

The mention of that name causes an involuntary shiver to run down Inaho’s spine. “You should never allow this.”

Magbaredge arches a thin eyebrow at Inaho’s tone, then continues. “Yes. I won’t allow this. Princess Assleyum personally contacted me today—she wishes for an official meeting with the highest UFE military officers, the Deucalion crew and Slaine Troyard.” 

That was expected. “When?” Inaho says.

“Soon. Nonetheless, something else is more urgent. I informed General Hakkinen about General Blanchet. A thorough investigation was launched last night, and some data was recovered on him. General Blanchet spent the last two years in charge of a private institution holding three Martian prisoners of war, though no further data was discovered about the location of this institution or his actions. Your new mission, Kaizuka Inaho, is to investigate the location of those prisoners.”

“And Slaine?”

Magbaredge points out on the large table between them, the one they once used for they chess matches. An address appears, which Inaho memorizes in seconds. Magbaredge deletes the data immediately after that.

“You will take Slaine Troyard to this safe house. You sister will join you in five days.”

Yuki-nee? Inaho blinks, knowing there is more hidden behind Magbaredge’s words. “You are concealing data.”

Magbaredges sighs. “Lieutenant Kaizuka will accompany Count Saazbaum to the same safe house.”

Inaho’s eyes narrow. “This is not a good idea.”

“General Hakkinen will not allow Count Saazbaum to be handed over to General Blanchet, not until you, Ensign Kaizuka, investigate more into Blanchet’s objectives. Your mission will be to ensure Slaine Troyard reaches the safe house unharmed. After that, you will start your investigation on General Blanchet. You are leaving immediately.”

“…I understand.”

#

Only after he leaves the bridge does Inaho realize: during the next week, he is going to travel with Slaine and stay in the safe house with him, and all of this unsupervised.

#

They soon board a UFE plane which drops them near a UFE military base. Their location should have stayed confidential, though Inaho realizes from the warm climate and palm trees that are visible behind the fences of the base that they must be somewhere near the Earth’s equator.

Inaho is soon driving a black SUV van, carrying the clothes and provisions they will need during their stay at the safe house. Since Slaine cannot drive—he never had the opportunity to learn— Magbaredge deemed that Inaho should be responsible for driving, and Slaine for planning the route they will take.

Since Slaine’s eyes are still not accustomed to the bright rays of the Earth’s sunlight, he is wearing sunglasses—Inaho never predicted that sunglasses would seem so pleasant to look at, but it seems that each moment Slaine spends at his side, Inaho constantly keeps discovering new and mysterious things about himself.

Slaine refused to use the GPS on Inaho’s tablet, and has instead spread a large map on his lap. Normally, Inaho would have considered it a loss of time, searching blindly on maps… though he must admit it: time he spends near Slaine could never be lost time. 

“Orange! You should have turned right at the last crossroad like I told you—“

“You have changed our course at least four times since this morning, Bat.”

“Yes, but you should have turned right, not left! If you keep making such mistakes we will never arrive!”

Inaho keeps his eyes on the road as he answers, sharply, “Are you that eager to meet Count Saazbaum?”

Silence.

Inaho realizes his mistake with a sudden, aching beat of his heart. “No, I shouldn’t—”

“No…” Slaine is staring out of the window now, resting his temple on the glass. “I am still not very sure about this.”

The rest of the drive passes in relative silence, interrupted only by Slaine’s short corrections on Inaho’s route.

#

It is late afternoon when they arrive at a small, peaceful town with a fountain on the main square and cobblestoned streets. Inaho assesses that the ocean is close; the breeze carries a faint, salty scent. Inaho parks the car under the shade of a tree, since Slaine wants to make another correction to their route.

Slaine has taken off the sunglasses, now that the car is under shade. “According to these, we should arrive in about 5 hours if you keep driving in that pace...”

Inaho rests his gaze on Slaine’s hands, on the graceful way Slaine has spread his fingers on the map, explaining turns and landscapes to an engrossed Inaho. He recalls what happened last night on the Deucalion, the way Slaine’s hot touch felt, the way Slaine’s fingers traced his skin under the sheets—

Inaho clears his throat, blushing a bit. “I must be a responsible driver, since you are in the car with me.”

“Orange, we drew more attention because people kept shouting at us to go faster than…than if we’ve been traveling with our names plastered all over this car!”

Inaho keeps staring at Slaine’s hands.

“Inaho…?”

Inaho cannot resist; he places his hand over Slaine’s, curling his fingers in a loose hold. “Are you upset?”

Slaine immediately understands. “Because my fa—because Count Saazbaum will join us?”

“Yes.”

Slaine simply shrugs his shoulders, refusing once again to answer, and Inaho decides to end the discussion.

#

For safety reasons, both have given up their uniforms in exchange for civilian clothes. Inaho has kept his usual blue pants, though chose to wear a yellow, long-sleeved shirt over a white T-shirt. Slaine’s outfit fits him nicely, in Inaho’s opinion; a light blue shirt and dark pants, which for some reason reach only Slaine’s ankles, leaving a strip of pale skin uncovered. Inaho supposes that after all those years in uniform, Slaine is not used to choosing clothing that fits him.

“When was the last time you visited a town on Earth?”

Slaine tilts his head. “About…eight years ago. I believe. Why are you inquiring this now?”

“The streets are empty. The probability that people will recognize us is minimal.” And you need a distraction. “We can take a walk.”

Slaine blinks.

Inaho tries again. “Do you want to try something?”

“Please be more specific, Orange.But then, a deep blush spreads on Slaine’s face. “W-Wait, what do you mean by ‘something’…?”

Inaho goes on, unsure of the source of Slaine’s blushing, “You spent about half of your life on Vers. There must be things on Earth you miss. Certain meals, for example.”

“Oh.” Slaine sighs. “Inaho, I don’t believe this is necessary…”

“Bat. You helped me establish world peace. Never forget that.”

Slaine clutches at his pendant, as always when upset. “Perhaps.”

Inaho takes out his tablet, checking the time. We are on schedule. “A walk, a meal, perhaps something else. Tell me what you want.”

Slaine does not answer, so Inaho has to turn and ask him again.

Slaine stares at Inaho in silence, wide-eyed. Seconds pass, and Slaine still has not provided Inaho with an answer. And it is then Inaho finally begins to realize, with a cold, sorrowful feeling spreading inside; this is the first time Slaine has the freedom to behave as he wishes—the first time Slaine will walk as an adult on the streets of a town, the first time Slaine will be free and independent; the first time Slaine will try to manage his choices.

“I see…You did not have any choice before…”

Inaho observes as Slaine swallows and nods, eyes momentarily dark, empty of emotions.

Inaho curls his fingers around Slaine’s, wanting, in his own newfound way, to offer comfort. For a moment, he is afraid Slaine might dismiss him or shy away; none of this happens.

“Slaine. You need to realize that your life no longer depends on the whims of the Vers nobility. And as for Asseylum…”

“Orange.” Slaine hisses.

“No. You should never have felt that you had to be worthy of her.” Inaho asserts, “During all those years, she never realized your pain, or Cruhteo’s abuse.”

“She is the Princess of Vers!” Slaine snaps.

“That does not excuse her ignorance.”

“Inaho…”

“No. Cruhteo. The Orbital Knights. Count Saazbaum. I can understand that your purpose has always been…offering your servitude to them. Still, this is in the past, Bat. You have to understand this. For once in your life, stop thinking about contenting everyone else. Pursue your own happiness.”

Slaine is silent, so Inaho takes a long breath. “Tell me.” Inaho persists, “Tell me, and then we can decide if the things you want are impossible or not.”

And just like that, all rage dissipates from Slaine’s eyes. Slaine covers his face with his forearm and whispers, “Again…You make it sound as if it’s a promise. How many things can you promise, Kaizuka Inaho…?”

“I think you already know the answer to that question, Bat…”

Slaine lowers his hand then, sad bright eyes meeting Inaho’s. He murmurs something, only to repeat it again when Inaho tilts his head to the side in encouragement: “…Strawberries. I want strawberries.”

Inaho nods.

“And…strawberry cheesecake.”

“Cheesecake?”

Slaine’s lips curl into a wistful smile. “Homemade cheesecake. My mother, before she left…it was her favorite thing to bake.”

I never knew about this. “Your mother…?”

Slaine shrugs, so Inaho decides to nod. “Homemade strawberry cheesecake.” Inaho repeats, not that he would forget.

Slaine’s face brightens. “And books…and flowers. The sea. The mountains. The creatures that inhabit those places…” Slaine sighs. “The list is endless.”

“None of the things you said is impossible.”

Slaine saddens. “The list is too long. I spent half my life on Vers, Orange…missing out on many things, I suppose…”

Inaho tilts his head to the side again. “I don’t see an issue. We have time.”

Slaine chuckles. “Always the optimist, aren’t you?”

“Only with you.” Inaho says, and presses his lips on Slaine’s.

And Slaine lets out a happy sound and weaves his fingers into Inaho’s hair and kisses Inaho back— Slaine’s lips are soft at the beginning, careful, but soon the kiss turns hard and desperate, erasing every thought from Inaho’s mind. Things like the wheel or the seatbelt keep pressing into Inaho as he leans forward, always kissing Slaine.

It is Slaine who gently cups Inaho’s face with his palms and deepens the kiss.

Inaho feels Slaine’s hair brushing against his face. Slaine drags his mouth slowly over Inaho’s, and Inaho shivers in warm anticipation.

And Inaho tastes Slaine’s warm mouth, Slaine’s tongue that keeps brushing against his—and they might be clumsy, and inexperienced, but it feels as if Inaho’s feelings are rising in his throat, the intensity of the emotions threatening to choke him with warmth.

#

Their mouths part, and Inaho kisses Slaine’s red, smiling lips once again, just because he can.

His lips are tingling after that.  They keep staring at each other with flushed cheeks and shy smiles. Slaine’s lips are swollen, his hair is disheveled, blond strands sticking out in many directions—which is something that was logical to happen, Inaho thinks, since his hands were buried into Slaine’s hair the entire duration of their kissing.

A short, clear laugh escapes Slaine then, and Inaho realizes just how much his happiness mirrors Slaine’s at this moment.

#

It is early afternoon when they leave the car on a peaceful, empty road and Inaho takes Slaine’s hand. They start searching through the quiet town for a grocery store. (After all, fresh, juicy strawberries should taste much better than the manufactured ice-cream Slaine tasted back in the Deucalion.)

#

The cashier at the grocery store is an elderly lady with a bun and large, round glasses, so Inaho pays for the carton of strawberries without worrying much that his identity will be exposed. Slaine opted waiting outside, next to a pharmacy store.

Inaho steps outside after that, and notices that Slaine is carrying a plastic bag, the apothecary’s logo on it.  Slaine’s answer to the question “What did you buy?” is, “Eh…sun lotion and other things we…might need…”

Inaho soon dismisses his curiosity about Slaine’s very red cheeks. They leave both strawberries and bag in the car. They decide to walk around the town a bit, Inaho appreciating their slight bantering—“But I’m not hungry!” “You haven’t tasted a genuine strawberry for eight years.” “Orange, I won’t eat them now, I can wait until we reach our destination! I am not a five-year-old child!”

Never in his life did Inaho imagine that walking hand in hand, side by side with Slaine through the quiet roads of the town would be so gratifying and enjoyable. No clouds obscure the light blue of the sky. The sounds of birds surround them, and Slaine hasn’t stopped smiling. 

#

They walk down empty cobblestoned streets until Inaho spots a small, neat bookshop in the corner of his vision. The old wood of the sign contrasts the golden letters adorning it— Inaho reaches the conclusion that the shop is very old, though taken good care of.

He realizes he has stopped on his tracks only when Slaine asks him, “Do you want to go inside?” 

Without waiting for Inaho’s answer, Slaine reaches out and opens the old-fashioned door. The sun is filtering through timeworn windows, creating bright patterns on the wooden floor. The shop seems…familiar. Slaine lets out a gasp. Inaho is momentarily worried that something is wrong; soon he realizes that Slaine is more mesmerized than worried. There are books everywhere around them…endless rows of colorful bookshelves line up the walls and the single corridor of the shop.

The shop is fortunately empty, except from the two men sitting behind the counter, both reading newspapers—father and son, if Inaho judges from the photographs that are hanging in neat rows on the wall behind the counter. There is even a photograph of the younger man, perhaps in his early thirties, wearing the UFE military uniform.

Inaho’s suspicions that the younger man is an UFE soldier are confirmed immediately. As soon as the young man notices they have entered the shop, his eyes widen. He clumsily rushes to stand up, and then he snaps his feet together and salutes, shouting, “General Kaizuka!”

Inaho wishes to correct him on his mistake, since he is not a General (yet). Though something far more important catches Inaho’s attention; Slaine is pale, lips thin, knowing they have been recognized.

“At ease.” Inaho says, voice steady. He then moves right next to Slaine in an attempt to reassure, though it is the old, white-haired man that speaks next, standing up next to his son and clearing his throat.

“You are both welcome here.” The man’s voice is surprisingly strong and deep for his age. It holds a calming undertone, however.

“Thank you.” Slaine says, a bit icily, then stands still next to Inaho, so Inaho asks the younger man, “Where did you serve?”

“3rd Battalion of the 501st Airspace Division, sir!”

Inaho doesn’t need his analytical engine to recall exactly where this Division had been stationed. He had studied all forces placed on Trident Base weeks ago, in the days before Slaine’s attack. Inaho swallows, recalling Kaizuka’s ominous messages. “So Trident Base it was…”

“I…I received my leave of absence just a few days ago, sir!”

“You can stop addressing me as your superior officer.” Inaho glances at Slaine, who has not uttered a word all this time.

“Please excuse my son’s enthusiasm.” The old man says, his voice hiding a tremor. “We will forever be grateful to both of you…for what you’ve done for Earth.”

Inaho recalls Magbaredge’s words, The people of Earth have started believing both you and Slaine Troyard are the masterminds behind the peace treaty.

“My son wouldn’t be home if not for both of you.” The man’s smile reaches his eyes when he addresses Slaine, his eyes moist, “Thank you. Thank you for giving the Martians the opportunity to look at us in a different, civilized way.”

“Excuse me.” A pale Slaine whispers, sounding out of breath, then walks down the narrow corridor towards the corner of the bookshop, disappearing out of Inaho’s sight.

Inaho’s mouth is dry, but he manages to utter, “We are both tired and—”

The old man chuckles, now addressing Inaho. “We won’t tell anyone you were here, boy. Or perhaps—General. Your secret is safe with us.”

The younger man nods frantically, seemingly overwhelmed.

Inaho is unsure whether he should trust the men or not. The older man’s voice interrupts his thoughts, “Do you need any help?” The man’s smile reaches his eyes. “Or perhaps you only need some peace of mind?”

“A book. I-I would like a book.” Inaho says, and then feels vaguely sick, and needs to rest his back on a large bookshelf.

The world seems to slow down—the particles of dust floating in the air seem to stop, the sun’s light falls cold now on his face— yet the next moment, Inaho can breathe again.

He almost frowns; for a single moment, he had the impression that this was not the answer he wanted to give.  

Both men are staring a bit concerned at him, so Inaho tries something he has rarely used in his life before; he smiles, and observes how their expressions immediately relax.

“Well, feel free to look around!” The white-haired man chuckles, and Inaho nods, before walking down the creaky, wooden corridor towards the hidden corner of the store, his heart aching for Slaine.

#

Slaine keeps hanging onto Inaho, breathing hard, and Inaho knows Slaine is in pain—not physical, but mental pain.

“Trident Base is safe. There is no need for you to hurt.”

Slaine keeps holding his face so close to Inaho’s shoulder, shaking his head, not answering.

A deep, hurting feeling unfurls inside Inaho’s chest. Slowly, carefully, he brings up his hand, resting it on Slaine’s soft hair.  “Everything is okay.”

“Don’t.” Slaine spits out in half a breath; he is genuinely hurting.

“You never hurt anyone on Trident Base.”

“Inaho…”

“No. We fell together on Earth…” Inaho whispers, trying to reassure both himself and Slaine of this new reality, so different from the agony and pain Kaizuka’s messages hide, “…and the world is at peace, and I will always stand by your side.”

That makes Slaine raise his head, the brilliant shades of green leaving Inaho once again breathless.

Inaho looks away. “Are you feeling better?”

Slaine blinks. “Yes…” He seems lost for a moment. “I…Thank you…” Slaine fidgets a bit, distancing himself from Inaho. After a few moments of them silently staring at each other, Slaine asks, “Should we go?”

Inaho checks the time. “Since we are here, we could buy some books.”

“Yes, books...” Slaine’s fingers linger on the shelves—then drift across the covers of the books. Slaine keeps observing everything with unbridled curiosity.

Inaho longs for Slaine. It is such a strange, mystifying emotion. He watches as Slaine selects a random book from the bookshelf, opens it, then starts reading on the first page.

The sunlight drifting through the old windows spills on Slaine’s hair, colors it in golden and white shades. Slaine’s long eyelashes cast shadows across his face. Slaine’s mouth seems even more red, as he bites on it softly in concentration.

Inaho feels his mouth curling into a warm smile. Slaine lifts his eyes from the book he is currently reading. They gaze at each other.

In a matter of seconds, Slaine is pressing Inaho towards the corner of the bookshelves, one hand resting on Inaho’s thigh, the other hot on Inaho’s cheek.

“Can I…can I kiss you?” Slaine sputters.

Old, wooden bookshelves are surrounding them. The rays of sunlight turn the green of Slaine’s eyes into something overwhelming. Inaho cups Slaine’s cheek and leans forward, bringing their mouths together. He will never get tired of this, he thinks, the taste of Slaine’s lips, their softness and warmth, the way Slaine parts them in anticipation over his own.

Inaho hears a soft thud and realizes that the book Slaine was holding has landed on the floor—it has a faded, round object on its cover, the shape of a human standing on it. He quickly forgets about it, closing his eyes again. He traps Slaine’s lower lip between his own, feeling more than hearing Slaine’s smooth sigh.

#

They separate slowly, reluctant to let go of each other, Slaine’s hands lingering on Inaho’s yellow shirt. Inaho feels too full of emotion to be able to talk—Slaine’s smile is radiant.

They interlock fingers, and they kiss again, once, without saying a single word.

#

Slaine ends up buying the book he chose to read—or actually, receive it as a gift from the white-haired bookshop owner, since the man strongly insisted on repaying them for ‘everything they have done for Earth.’

So they smile at the owner and his son and leave the shop behind them, knowing that they have a long road ahead until they finally reach their safe house.

#

Inaho drives and drives until the sky turns a soft purple and the sun burns an orange line across the ocean as it approaches the horizon. Stars fill the skies as they cross long distances, and Slaine reads his book and starts crying, then explains to an upset Inaho that he cried over the ending of his book; about a pilot meeting a young prince, who falls to Earth from his home planet. Distressed and unable to stop and properly comfort Slaine since he is driving among other vehicles, Inaho takes hold of Slaine’s hand instead, and Slaine immediately stops crying, wiping the tears from his face. After that, Slaine (thankfully) eats the whole carton of strawberries and smiles, lips crimson with strawberry juice, and then starts a long discussion with Inaho about the differences between the politics of Earth and Vers, about the provisions Earth must soon send to the starved lower classes of Vers, about the changes that must come in the Vers social divisions—the Counts have too much power, Slaine believes, and the lowest Versian classes completely ignore the ideas of democracy, whipped off their own will. Inaho listens carefully and adds his opinion to all of this.

After that, Slaine falls asleep, mouth slightly open and pale hair spread on the car seat, almost white under the light of the broken moon.

#

The moment Inaho notices he is getting too sleepy for driving, he decides to stop the car and rest—years of military training have made him capable of feeling well-rested even after sleeping for few hours and in seated positions.    

He wakes up just a few minutes before the sun rises. Slaine is still fast asleep, snoring lightly, his usual silky hair now tangled near the tips—probably from sleep, Inaho assesses, not hiding a smile.

Inaho starts the engine, thinking, I have found nothing and no one else in this world, Earth or Vers, that I can compare to Slaine...

#

Slaine soon wakes up, bright eyes widening in astonishment the moment he notices the pink-clouded sunrise.

Three more hours pass. Their journey is peaceful and filled with conversations, Slaine’s occasional laughter, and Inaho’s attempts to concentrate on the road and not on everything Slaine does.

(Though Inaho does not miss the way Slaine’s gaze travels across the landscape spread around them: from the one side of the road the ocean is visible, dark blue waters reflecting the rays of the bright sun. Slaine’s eyes are then fixed on the small, white-and-yellow houses on the other side of the road—their gardens are large and green, with batches of colorful flowers or palm trees.)

Soon the houses become fewer and fewer, until about two hours are spent turning right and left at complicated, deserted crossroads, and Slaine has to take out the map again and half-heartedly complain about the wrong turns Inaho keeps taking.

An abandoned mansion with white, large windows appears on Inaho’s sight, far into the distance. The walls around the entrance are made of bricks. A muddy, narrow road leads to it. Even from this distance, Inaho understands that a large number of heavy vehicles used to drive down this mud-covered road once; a strange occurrence if one considers the abandoned state of the mansion and its isolated location.

If only he could explain why the mere sight of the building makes unpleasant tremors crawl across his skin.

He steps on the gas pedal, accelerating.

“Orange?”

Slaine’s mouth is moving, but only a dull humming reaches Inaho—his mind is rapidly registering the data: the glasses of the windows are not broken, which means either someone visits the place often and uses it, despite its neglected appearance, or the glass is more expensive than it seems, perhaps bulletproof—and if the UFE has one safe house in this geographical area, Inaho finds it possible that there is another too—

Inaho slams his leg on the brakes.

“Orange?!”

He barely manages to get out of the car before he falls on his knees and retches violently. Irrational, icy terror fills his veins—Slaine is cradling him close, moving his hair away from his mouth. Inaho vomits again, until his stomach is empty.

“It’s nothing.” Inaho says after he has calmed down, and it’s the truth. He reminds himself to report to Dr. Yagarai all of these irrational emotions and symptoms—

“Is it your eye?” Even without his engine, Inaho can sense the fear hiding behind Slaine’s voice.

“No.” And that is what worries me. “I suspect I got motion sickness.”

“From driving?”

“Yes.” Inaho lies, accepting the tissues and water Slaine hands him. “Thank you, Slaine.” He smiles, and he is relaxed to see that some of the worry slips away from Slaine’s features.

After Inaho cleans himself up and then rinses his mouth thoroughly with water, Slaine asks, “What is this place…?”

Inaho starts walking towards the muddy road. “I need to find out.”

#

A room with grey walls.

A glass door.

Inaho’s breath gets stuck in his lungs.

As if on practiced steps, he steps out of the room and onto the corridor, Slaine always following behind him. The air is stale and damp, and the place is dark—the natural sunlight cannot reach the corners of the rooms.

The walls inside are made of a distinctive stainless steel, a highly expensive material with high corrosion resistance. All the rooms Inaho and Slaine check are empty. They notice that some windows are barred. They even discover a room with rusty-brown communal showers, the smell of rotten, decaying substances lingering in the air. It does not take much time for Inaho to reach a conclusion: this place is an abandoned UFE facility.

There is one area among all, however, that catches Inaho’s attention; a very small room with no windows and grey walls.

For a moment, he feels a sorrow so great, so overpowering, he has to curl his body a bit and clench his fists in order to get rid of the feeling.

“Inaho?” Slaine steps behind him, placing a hand on Inaho’s back. “Should we look further ahead?”

Slaine’s touch soothes and relaxes. I should report these unstable reactions to Dr. Yagarai as soon as possible.

“Orange?”

Slaine is clearly worried; his usual bright eyes are clouded with apprehension. Inaho is suddenly filled with the illogical fear that Slaine will leave—Slaine’s presence feels weak, as if Slaine will flicker and scatter away under the dim sunlight, like the dust particles floating in the air.

Inaho controls himself. All these thoughts are merely the result of his exhaustion and his realization that Slaine means the world to him.

“Slaine.” Inaho says, and it comes out heavier with emotion than he intended.

Slaine blinks. “Yes…?”

“You are perfect. I wanted to tell you before, in the bookstore.”

Slaine’s eyes open wide. He tries to stammer a response, cheeks flaming red, but Inaho is faster, “The architecture of this place is unusual.”

“Orange! H-how can you ever…how is this possible, first telling me this—and then talking about the architecture?!”

“…Did you dislike what I just said?”

“D-Dislike what?”

Inaho’s cheeks feel warm. “My—my attempt to compliment you.”

Slaine’s breath leaves his lips in a long exhale, but his sigh soon turns into a chuckle. “Orange, you are…never mind, let’s say that I accept your compliment…” Slaine bites softly onto his lower lip, concealing a smile. “But next time, perhaps wait until we are not inside abandoned, creepy buildings to say such…” Slaine looks away, “Such sweet…things…”

“I…yes, I understand.” Inaho says, and he tries to keep his features in check, though internally, he is incredibly satisfied that Slaine accepted his compliment. 

“N-Now, what was that about the architecture?”

#

After Inaho explains his analysis, Slaine says, “...You believe…all these expensive materials, the bulletproof glass…is this an old UFE base?”

“Perhaps.”

They follow down the dark corridor—until it stops abruptly at a dead end.

Inaho narrows his eyes. “This is unusual.”

“Orange, I’ve rarely seen you so engrossed by something. Why are you so intent on exploring this old building? I’m sure it lost any value for the UFE the moment they abandoned it.”

“It is merely a premonition.”

Slaine arches a pale eyebrow, “You tend to trust your rationality far more than a simple premonition.”

“Yes, I never trust premonitions. This is…different.”

Slaine sighs. “I trust you, Orange, so I will follow you…and let’s hope we’ll gain results from the time we will lose. Now, explain your strategy.”

#

It takes them half an hour to discover that part of the wall can be removed, revealing a high security door with an electronic lock. The red light is still blinking; the door is still locked. So I was wrong…the place is clearly not abandoned.

“Why would someone place such security in an abandoned UFE institution?” Slaine breathes in, clearly stunned. “Should we even be here?”

Inaho says, “Will you help me unlock it? Your programming skills must be as good as mine.”

“You mean, better.”

“Bat…”

Slaine chuckles, and it is a very pleasant sound.

#

Despite their best efforts, it takes about two hours to connect the lock with Inaho’s tablet, crack the code, and for the red light to stop blinking and turn green.

Nothing unusual happens, so Inaho says, “We should step inside.”

#

Large neon lights illuminate the area, some of them flickering, ready to die.

The room is large and windowless, full of medical equipment of the best technology—the area contains a small laboratory. Its corners are flooded. Rusty pipes have broken, and as a result, the air is stale and mold has started growing on the expensive surgery table, which is secured on the ground in the middle of the room, a broken surgical lighthead hunched over it.

Glass shards, stains and other unrecognizable debris litter the floor. The walls are covered with soundproof materials.

“We are somewhere in the northern wing of the building…” Slaine whispers, staring at an old blueprint hanging from the dirty wall.

“An explosion occurred in here. The momentum broke every piece of glass in the room.” Inaho observes.

“Inaho...” Slaine curls his fingers around Inaho’s arm to get his attention, pointing towards the other end of the room. From what Inaho can distinguish, there is a pile of red cloth dumped in a corner.

The step closer, and Slaine’s grip on his hand tightens so much, it almost hurts.

Vers uniforms. Three crimson uniforms, old and tattered, belonging most probably to former Orbital Knights.

Slaine kneels next to one, examining it closer, though still not touching it. “I fail to understand…” Slaine murmurs, “…the reason those Vers uniforms were gathered here…”

“I have reasons to believe their owners were here too, Slaine.”

Slaine, still hunched over the torn uniforms, freezes. He slowly gets up, wide eyes meeting Inaho’s. “Are you implying—“ Slaine’s voice leaves his mouth in a whisper of disbelief, “The UFE captured them—“

“Yes. Or perhaps their corpses.”

Slaine is shaking his head, “And secreted them here…why?”

“It seems that the place was abandoned a long time ago. Perhaps a year ago.”

Slaine is pale. “Inaho…you did not answer my question.”

“Slaine…Do you need an answer?”

Slaine’s mouth forms a tight line. “I don’t know.”, he chokes out.

Inaho places one knee on the floor, inspecting some of the broken glass and dark stains. He wears no gloves, so he refrains from touching anything. “These are blood stains. And this type of glass is used in order to gather tissue or blood samples…perhaps after medical procedures, or—“

Inaho stop talking, glancing at the operating table. The dark, heavy feeling weighting down his chest since he noticed the existence of this building intensifies, cutting off his breath.

“…or torture.” Slaine whispers.

Inaho feels nauseous, but he manages to stand up. “We should get out. We might spoil evidence if we keep staying here. And we should report our findings immediately.”

“But the UFE is still running this…institution, correct? The lock was still activated. And who will ever believe us—“

“Colonel Magbaredge. Perhaps General Hakinnen too. I—I have a premonition that I know who the perpetrator behind all of this is.”

Slaine’s green eyes narrow to slits. “A premonition? Again?”

“Yes.”

It takes Inaho about an hour to send an encrypted message to Colonel Magbaredge, and another half an hour until they receive an answer: General Blanchet has been detained on accusations of committing war crimes, including the inhuman treatment of Vers prisoners of war.

Only time will show if Inaho’s premonition was correct.

#

They have returned to the car, continuing their journey towards the safe house in uneasy silence, driving away from the ominous UFE facility. Slaine keeps staring out of the window, running his fingers absentmindedly over the cover of his newly purchased (and perhaps cherished) book.

They drive past a small town full of plain houses and alleys, until Slaine jerks in his seat, shouting, “Orange, stop the car!!”

Inaho slams his foot in the break for the second time that day. Slaine frantically exits the car, running towards a dark alley.

#

It takes Inaho two minutes to park the car and secure it—as much as he yearns to run after Slaine and eliminate the source of Slaine’s distress, he is almost certain that they are not in any immediate danger— Captain Magbaredge would have notified him, if any UFE or Vers Generals had a possibility of being in the area.

#

Searching near the dark alley for Slaine, Inaho hears high-pitched snarls and growls. He follows the sound and discovers Slaine, kneeling on the ground among large garbage cans—one of them filled with dirty water. Slaine is hugging something that resembles a ball of fur.

Inaho steps closer, and realizes that Slaine is holding a cat—a soaked kitten, to be more precise.  Just an ordinary kitten with mangled fur the color of light caramel, with white splotches on its paws and belly.

Inaho approaches it carefully, but it pins him on his place with its wide eyes. Their color is almost similar to a peculiar shade of bright green, a color that has mesmerized Inaho repeatedly the past few weeks.

He can only whisper, “This is…”

Slaine cradles the animal closer, in a soothing motion that surprisingly manages to calm it’s livid clawing. “I stopped them—they were…” Slaine is clearly hurting, “They were…the water…and then throwing rocks at it…”

Inaho kneels next to Slaine, keeping his distance when the kitten hisses at him, however. “Is it hurt?”

“No.” Slaine smiles, eyes fixed on the (now extraordinarily calm) kitten. It keeps rubbing its head into Slaine’s palms. “It has soft paws.”

“They’re pink.” Inaho says, not knowing what to add.

“We should keep it dry and warm.”

Inaho takes off his yellow shirt, then wraps it around the kitten, earning a hiss and a red, thin claw mark on his cheek for his efforts.

Slaine cradles the kitten closer. His smile is tender.

Inaho decides that it is worth it.

#

Finding a vet is not difficult, but only Inaho steps inside, wearing Slaine’s sunglasses. Within an hour, the (male, the vet explained) kitten is dry, vaccinated, and sleepy.

When the vet starts filling out the papers which will allow the kitten to be placed in a temporary shelter, Inaho thinks of Slaine’s smile and says, “No.”

Six minutes later, when Inaho returns to the car with the kitten sleeping in one arm, the other carrying bags with cat food and toys and similar equipment, Slaine’s eyes become large. He rushes out of the car, throwing his arms around Inaho in a tight, desperate hug.

The kitten wakes up, meows, and Slaine’s eyes become moist.

Inaho whispers, “This was what you wanted.”

Arms still around Inaho (and the cat), Slaine whispers, “Yes.”

“The vet explained it needs food and rest. And it’s a male.”

“We should think of a name, then.” Slaine murmurs quietly, still holding Inaho close.

#

They step into the safe house late in the evening, Slaine cradling the sleeping kitten close.

The safe house is even larger than the apartment Inaho used to live with Yuki before the Second War. With four bedrooms and two bathrooms upstairs, a living room and a kitchen which connects to a wooden porch, the place seems less than a safe house and more like a home where a large family could one day live.

The garden is large and neglected, filled with weeds and withered flowers. One can see the ocean though, so Inaho supposes that Slaine will appreciate the view.

#

The long journey should have been exhausting, but Slaine’s proximity is enough to keep the sleepiness away. There is work to be done, too.

They resupply the kitchen’s cupboards with food and other necessities, then notice that the kitten is fast asleep on the couch. It will probably stay asleep for many hours, the vet warned Inaho. After they make sure it won’t run away or hurt itself, they decide to choose bedrooms.

Inaho is tidying his blue ties into his closet when Slaine barges inside, hair pleasingly disheveled, holding a dark swimming suit.

Inaho immediately understands.

#

Slaine moves into a crouch, the towel slipping down his shoulders and hips, baring his pale skin, raised, red scars—Inaho glances away. There is a splashing sound. Inaho turns—Slaine is gasping convulsively and clawing at the water with both hands in a clumsy, struggling way.

So Inaho grasps Slaine’s waist, ignoring the smooth texture of scars under his fingertips, in an attempt to stabilize him. The water covers their shoulders. Slaine’s legs keep brushing against his, and Inaho is suddenly enormously aware of Slaine’s proximity. The water has darkened the ends of Slaine’s hair, plastering it across Slaine’s cheekbone. Inaho removes a hand from Slaine’s waist and nudges the wet strands behind Slaine’s ear.

Slaine’s green irises are shining with amazement. “The water is salty…I can’t—I can’t believe I had forgotten about that…”

“Seawater in the world's oceans has a salinity of approximately four percent.” Inaho says, and Slaine smiles and stretches his arms forward, resting them on Inaho’s shoulders.

“Oh, really?” Slaine laughs, and the sound is clear and smooth.

“Yes. Additionally…” Inaho says, mesmerized by the sound, “Salt helps you float. Considering the fact that I will keep holding you until you feel freer to move, there is no possibility you will sink.”

“I am aware of that.” Slaine’s eyes are still dancing with laughter. “Thank you, Orange, for always providing me with such useful information.”  Slaine is smiling again, not at all avoiding the proximity of their bodies.

Inaho, despite having confidence in his ability to observe and conclude, still has not understood how he manages to make Slaine happy—something that occurs more often as the days go by.

There is one fact Inaho understands though, and that is, he loves making Slaine laugh.

#

They float for a few seconds like this, until Inaho takes a step backwards—the seafloor steepens unexpectedly and in the next moment, they are fully submerged, Slaine’s fingers digging almost painfully into his shoulders. Under the water, Inaho tries to close his eyes and avoid staring but he cannot—the light falling through the ocean caresses the outline of Slaine’s figure in bright fractals, Slaine’s eyes are tightly closed and his hair is floating, spread in a bright crown about his face.

The scattering of light under the water makes Slaine’s scars seem softer, less crimson—Inaho then notices the dark material of Slaine’s swimsuit and the way it clings on Slaine’s legs, Slaine’s—Inaho brings them both to the surface immediately and lets go of Slaine’s waist; he’s already feeling the first hardening between his legs.

Inaho is not sure if he should be surprised, happy, or anxious of the deep, gnawing feeling Slaine is awakening inside him.

Inaho nudges Slaine towards shallower waters, and begins explaining fluid mechanics and hydrostatics, with Slaine excitedly listening to Inaho and then expressing his own knowledge on the subjects. Inaho’s plan succeeds: slowly, painfully, his arousal fades away.

After that, he helps Slaine remember how to swim: how to blow through his nose and mouth when underwater, how to move his arms and legs, and finally, how to float on his back, unaided.

#

Slaine has closed his eyes, floating alone on his back, cheeks flushed from their swimming lessons. His mouth is slack, damp eyelashes brushing against his cheeks.

Inaho waits until Slaine floats a bit more, arms stretched to the side, eyes still closed. He then swims around until he is in front of Slaine’s feet, and after observing the shape of Slaine’s soles, he silently lays his palms on them.

Slaine lets out a yelp, sinks, then comes up sputtering, wiping water from his eyes. “What do you think you are doing?!”

“Assessing if your feet are larger than mine.”

“Eh…?”

“They day after Harklight rescued us, I put your boots on and observed that you have larger feet than I. There is a possibility that in a few years, you will be much taller than me.”

“Don’t tell me…you are jealous?”

“No. I’m only worried about the difficulties we might encounter, if our height difference surpasses some limits.” Inaho says, cheeks flushing too now.

“Difficulties...?”

“In kissing.”

Slaine blinks. He then throws his head back and laughs.

Again, that feeling. Seeing Slaine that happy makes a warm emotion unfurl inside Inaho’s chest.

And then Slaine comes towards him and—Inaho’s mind is too slow in processing the sudden turn of events—Slaine arms are twinned around Inaho’s waist, and they are twirling in the water, Slaine taking him downward, covering Inaho’s mouth with his own in a way that makes Inaho forget where they are and what they should be doing and everything else that he is supposed to analyze.

Sounds are muted. Water rushes over his ears. There is heat, the heat of Slaine’s arms around him and Slaine’s body sliding over his own and Slaine’s mouth, and Inaho feels it; exuberance and joy and then dizziness, from the lack of oxygen or the way Slaine’s lips move over his own with raw lust.

They break over the surface again, mouths separating, both taking in deep, gulping breaths.

Inaho is hard.

“This is…I just—” Slaine’s cheeks are very red.

Inaho tries to speak. “We—should shower.” He hesitates a bit, heart pounding, not knowing how Slaine will react to this. “We can continue…after that.”

Slaine meets his gaze with parted, reddened lips and says, “O-Okay.”

#

During their walk towards the house, Slaine quietly announces that he wants to wash the salt away first. So Inaho waits until Slaine steps out of the bathroom, wearing black sweatpants and a blue T-shirt. Inaho washes the salt away too—after all, his skin might become itchy if the salt dries.

During all that time, Inaho’s arousal never diminishes.

The way his body reacts and changes in Slaine’s proximity has left him confused and breathless—he never suspected that he could feel this aching need to find release, to feel Slaine’s warm body pressing so close against his own.

The moment he steps out of the shower, there is a knock on the door.

“C-Can I step inside?”

“I am naked.” Inaho says.

“I know.”

Inaho blinks at this, but says, “Okay.” He wraps a light blue towel around his waist, covering his nakedness.

The door opens, Slaine steps inside. His hair is wet and disheveled, his face still flushed from his shower.

Slaine lets out a shuddering breath. “Inaho.”

“What is it?” Only after he utters the words does Inaho realize; Slaine’s blush has spread past his neck.

Inaho is suddenly conscious of it, the hotness of the air in the bathroom, his own flush, spreading slowly across his cheeks. He can feel each beat of his heart.

Inaho steps closer, still wrapped in the towel, shivering a bit.

There are droplets of water clinging at the ends of Slaine’s hair. His pale lashes contrast the bright green of his eyes. Slaine’s red lips tighten in determination and Inaho tilts his head forward when Slaine’s trembling fingers caress his cheek.

The towel falls on the ground. It pools around Inaho’s bare feet, reduced to a heap of light blue. Inaho knows Slaine can see everything now—his breathing comes heated and fast.

Both step forward at the same time. Inaho presses his mouth on Slaine’s collarbone, next to the chain of Slaine’s pendant, sucking at the beads of water that are still resting there. Slaine lets out a broken sound and clings onto Inaho as if his life depends on it.

Inaho runs his lips over Slaine’s skin, catching the lingering scent of oranges. And Slaine turns his head slightly to the side, his fingers running through Inaho’s hair, pulling him closer, a silent demand for him to continue. Inaho’s mouth trails a slow path from Slaine’s clavicle to the deep corner just under his jaw line. And this takes some time, because his mouth stays for longer and longer after each kiss, licking and sucking, waiting to hear Slaine’s pleasure, enjoying it when Slaine’s fingers tighten around his hair.

 

Each sound Slaine makes awakens something inside Inaho, something sensuous and warm—his back hits the cold bathroom tiles and he realizes that Slaine, despite being fully clothed, has pushed them both against the wall, his warm thighs between Inaho’s, fingers digging into Inaho’s shoulders. The pace changes. Slaine is panting against his cheek, kissing it, and Inaho’s lips part in surprise at his realization that something solid is pressing against his upper thigh—Slaine’s arousal.

 

Slaine whispers near his ear, sending a shiver down Inaho’s spine, “I-Inaho…?”

“Yes?”

“C-Can I try something?” a flushed Slaine whispers again.

Inaho tries to find the air to breathe out, “Okay.”

Slaine’s gaze meets his own, impatient and pleading. “Are you sure?”

Inaho is unable to find another word, the green of Slaine’s irises swallows everything. He nods.

Before Inaho has a chance to move, Slaine’s hand is slipping over the skin of his abdomen, lower, lower, until he grasps him and Inaho shudders at the hotness of Slaine’s touch around him.

And Slaine moves his hand—clumsily, but Inaho's mouth opens into a silent moan, clutching at Slaine’s back, the slow and then a bit faster movements stretch and whiten his mind, burning it and filling him with unbearable, extreme pleasure.

He can only breathe out, “Slaine. Slaine.”, before he presses his mouth against Slaine's cheek, Slaine’s neck, trying to prolong the moment, to make the blinding, hot pleasure last forever—it's all over in a few seconds.

Inaho spends himself on Slaine’s palm, warm goose bumps running all over his warm, sated body, he is shivering in the aftermath.  His grip on Slaine shoulders might be bruising.

Slaine is breathing so fast, Inaho momentarily fears something is wrong. Slaine hugs him close then, burying his nose into Inaho’s hair, perhaps getting himself dirty, but Inaho doesn't mind; he returns the hug, holding Slaine in a way that makes him want to melt their bodies together.

He needs a few seconds to catch his breath and understand the once complete absurdity of what just happened—not even in his dreams has he experienced something like that, and that consuming pleasure…in the rare times he used his own hand, it was nothing, nothing against what Slaine just did.

Inaho pulls slightly away, whispers, “Slaine...did you finish?”

Slaine makes a soft sound.

“This is nothing to be ashamed of.” 

Instead of an answer, Slaine presses up against him, still aroused, still trembling—Inaho immediately takes Slaine’s hand, and Slaine’s follows him with rushed steps; upstairs, down the corridor, and into Inaho’s bedroom.

#

 

The fact that he is naked, droplets of water still running down his back after his shower is completely forgotten the moment Slaine lies down on the bed, fair-haired and flushed, a stripe of pale skin visible under his raised shirt. Inaho kneels on the bed, touching Slaine through his sweatpants, pressing his fingers against Slaine’s hard, hot arousal. Slaine makes a sound, his breath catching, hips jerking forward in desperate need.

His focus stays on the sweatpants—Inaho clumsily pulls at the elastic band, tugging it downwards, fingers catching at Slaine’s underwear. Slaine helps him by lifting his legs and then they are off.

Inaho’s heart is pounding. Everything seems surreal. He feels nervous, aroused, engrossed by the sight of Slaine’s pale skin, Slaine’s warm, strong legs, the golden curls just above Slaine’s arousal.

Without a warning to Slaine, he dips low and takes him in his mouth as far as he manages.

Slaine moans.

#

A few minutes later, Slaine is leaning back, spent and relaxed against the sheets. Inaho lies next to him and keeps watching his heavy-lidded achievement, his throat still sore from coughing.

Slaine’s bright eyes are honest, wide, and look nowhere but at Inaho. Inaho weaves his fingers into Slaine’s hair, kissing him. Slaine sighs softly, their lips still connected; and something inside Inaho trembles.

Slaine smiles at Inaho then, warm and loving. “That…that felt really good. Thank you…”

Inaho is happy.

“And…I-I’m terribly sorry—“

“Don’t be.” Inaho says, “I believe we both rushed into it…I must gather more information on this.” Inaho adds, after a pause, “I never expected it would feel like this. Though next time, I think you should warn me.”

Slaine’s voice is laced with embarrassment, “Yes, I think—“

A soft meow is heard from downstairs.

Slaine immediately sits up. “The kitten! It must be starving!”

Inaho follows his example, handing Slaine his underwear and pants. “We should eat too. We can prepare dinner together.”

“Yes!” Slaine laughs, once, and hugs him, his whole face radiating happiness.

#

Inaho tries to get dressed, tries to ignore the sudden, impossible turn of events, his mind still imprinting every little detail—the way Slaine’s breath caught in his throat, ragged and wet, as he jerked out of Inaho’s mouth with a wet noise, the bitter, salty taste that flooded his mouth—Inaho sighs.

#

The moment he steps into the living room, his mental calculations have reached the 100th Fibonacci number; his arousal has finally calmed down.

Slaine is cradling the kitten in his arms. The animal’s caramel and white fur is clean, it’s green eyes are closing sleepily. Apparently, Slaine fed it. Unlike the wild, untamed animal Inaho faced before, the cat now seems really content and soothed.

They let the cat sleep on the couch, and Inaho proceeds to prepare dinner—spaghetti with tomato sauce, simple and quick—while Slaine places the eating utensils on the table.

#

“Slaine. You have tomato sauce on your lips.”

For almost ten years, Slaine survived on processed food and krill. As a result, it’s spellbinding for Inaho to observe Slaine’s reactions while he eats. With every bite, Slaine’s pale eyelashes flutter close with bliss, cheeks gaining a pleasant, rosy shade.

Inaho has to bend over the table to get Slaine’s wide-eyed attention. It is not until he slowly starts to close the gap between their faces, gaze dropping on Slaine’s reddened mouth, that Slaine forgets the food and tilts his head, implanting a soft kiss on Inaho’s lips. Slaine sighs slightly when their mouths part.

“Now it’s gone.” Inaho says, resting his chin on his palm, mouth stretched into a half-smile.

Slaine covers his mouth with his fingertips, eyes shining with laughter.

#

They just have finished washing the dishes.

Inaho closes his eyes when something solid and warm presses against his back; Slaine is standing now behind him, his chin resting on Inaho’s shoulder. Slaine’s hand slides around his waist to rest on Inaho’s stomach. It’s warm.

Their cheeks are now brushing, as Slaine slightly rubs his nose onto Inaho’s hair, “Inaho…”

A pleasant shiver runs down Inaho’s spine. “You want more.”

“Yes.”

Inaho feels Slaine’s exhale on his neck, and a flame awakens deep inside. “Yuki and Count Saazbaum will arrive tomorrow. We have tonight.”

“Y-Yes…I know…”

Countless thoughts and facts run through his head; I am unexperienced and ill-informed on how to do this. I’m afraid of failing you. I have never read any manuals or information on how this is done. We will need condoms, and lube, and the sheets must be clean and the bed—

As if sensing Inaho’s inner turmoil, Slaine whispers, “Orange. We don’t have to do it today. But if we do it, please understand…”

 “Bat?” Inaho says, turning to face Slaine.

“You won’t hurt me.”

“You suggest I will be the one—“

“Yes. I trust you to be careful, something I know I might not be, if I am in your…position…especially the f-first time.” Slaine’s gaze drops to the floor. “W-We can change later, if you don’t like it.”

“You don’t mind?”

“No…and even if I do, we can change. Experiment a bit, I am very well aware of your interest in experimenting! Trust me, I do want to experiment a lot with you…!”

#

Inaho spends the next half hour uncharacteristically fretting in the bathroom; first showering (again), and after that, using his tablet to educate himself about something he never imagined he would feel the urge to do: sex.

#

“While you were buying strawberries…there was a pharmacy there.”

“Yes, I remember.” Inaho moves closer towards the bed, sitting on it. Dusk has already fallen outside. Slaine opens the nightstand drawer and reveals its contents: three packets of condoms, and—Inaho narrows his eyes, picks up the pink bottle and reads the ingredients.

“…Strawberry lube?”

Slaine nods, cheekbones darkening.

For the first time in his life, Inaho realizes that such products come out in flavors. Slaine’s obvious love for strawberries is too complicated to analyze now, so Inaho asks his second question.  “Bat…why three packages?”

“J-Just to be sure?”

“I am a virgin, and pregnancy or diseases are not an issue.”

Slaine swallows, cheeks flaming red now. “I-I know. Likewise. I just…just to be sure…?”

Inaho feels his cheeks growing hotter and hotter each second that passes by. “…Be sure of what?”

“That if we like it…” Slaine’s voice lowers to a whisper. “We can…we can do it many times.”

Ah. I see. Inaho blinks. “Okay.”

Inaho momentarily has difficulty imagining how Slaine managed to buy all of these products without gaining the color of a beet. Still, he is interested in the amount of organizing and thought Slaine has put into this.

“If we like it, we will certainly do it many times.” Inaho says then, and smiles, a bit shy. It is always easy to smile with Slaine.

Slaine giggles, his ears now red.

#

Not everything happens according to Inaho’s plan; Inaho gets naked, but Slaine is reluctant to take his shirt off at first, so they turn off all lights. The room is so dark, Inaho has difficulty distinguishing Slaine’s figure in the blackness. They kiss, but the moment Inaho slips his hand under Slaine’s shirt, Slaine freezes.

It is then that Inaho finally realizes in what way Slaine wants this night to unfold.

#

For a moment, Inaho pauses, hesitant to touch—Slaine’s back is partially exposed to the darkness of the room, the scars carved onto his skin almost visible, now that Inaho’s eyes have adjusted. The faint moonlight is slipping through the window, casting shadows over the curves of Slaine’s body; Slaine has turned on his stomach, flushed and naked, limbs slack on the soft mattress.

Inaho is suddenly so aroused, it almost hurts.

And then he places his palm on Slaine’s warm, trembling thighs, and half-caresses, half-fumbles in the dark, fingers kneading into rounded, warm flesh. A deep-throated sound leaves Slaine’s lips. Inaho’s whole body begins shivering with suppressed desire. His mind is hazy and clogged with impossible thoughts; he is going to have sex with Slaine— his logical side is still questioning the possibility; how it will fit, how will he manage to repeat the motions he hastily memorized in the bathroom just half an hour ago.

When Inaho finally finds it, his slowly traces a finger over the tight ring of muscles—Slaine’s skin is so warm there, it feels as if he’s dipping his fingertip into a flame.

Slaine jerks.

Inaho freezes, “Slaine?”

Slaine’s voice is thick, so full with emotion that it almost sounds like he’s in pain. “You—should continue.”

So Inaho does, rubbing the lube between his palms so that it warms up—thermodynamics are long lost to him now, the entire universe consists of this bed and his limbs tangled loosely with Slaine’s, the way the moonlight spills silver onto Slaine’s scars.

A sad, overwhelming emotion rises inside Inaho when he notices, as if for the first time, the entire damage on Slaine’s back, the way the raised, uneven scars curve under Slaine’s armpits and end just above his lower back. He has to rest his forehead on Slaine’s shoulder and take a deep, trembling breath.

Slaine hums eagerly, his flushed cheek barely visible under the pale curtain of his hair. He noses at Inaho’s neck, mistaking Inaho’s pain for desire. So Inaho does what he has been doing his entire life; he conceals everything, then captures Slaine’s lips in his for a slow, lingering kiss.

Only their uneven breaths echo in the dim room.

It is difficult to breathe evenly—Inaho’s blood feels thick and hot in his veins, because Slaine shifts, spreading his long, pale legs in an intimate invitation. Inaho hunches his body over Slaine’s, careful not to touch the scars. His fingers breach, and Slaine gasps. There is extreme heat, Slaine’s body heat, and he feels everything, the drops of sweat running down his back, the way Slaine’s body responds to his touch, stretching and loosening, the tranquil darkness that has settled in the room. He feels the way Slaine’s breath catches in his throat, raw and desperate, the few moments Inaho’s fingertip brushes against that solid place he is also supposed to find later, much later, after he blissfully slips inside Slaine, perhaps not even tonight.

Inaho never suspected that it would feel like this. His heart is hammering. His senses feel numb but oversensitive at once; he feels drunk for the first time, hot with Slaine’s body warmth, somehow, with Slaine’s soft noises and gasps.

More lube. Preparation is slow and careful. At one moment, Inaho bends his body closer to Slaine’s, and his erection brushes against Slaine’s thigh. The brief contact sets every nerve on fire. 

As a result, he grunts. Slaine speaks then, calm and more confident than Inaho himself, “Go on.”

“Bat—“

“P-Please.”

So Inaho nudges Slaine’s legs wider apart, careful and slow, and then settles between them. Inaho’s fingers are shaking so hard, it takes him many tries to correctly place a condom on—he then feels the touch of warm, familiar fingers curling around his wrist, and everything stops. Slaine has partially turned his body, flushed and clearly aroused, his large, brilliant eyes catching the moonlight. The sight makes Inaho shudder.

Slaine takes a deep, shaky breath, and says, “I trust you. N-Never forget that.”

Inaho swallows and nods, his throat clogged with warmth.

And then Slaine smiles, calm and brilliant, looking into Inaho’s eyes. After that, everything is impossible and a miracle at once. Slaine moans aloud when Inaho slips inside, overcoming flesh and heat alike.

Slaine has hollowed his back, making small, open-mouthed sounds. Inaho is trembling again, in his desperate attempt to hold still, to give Slaine much needed time—the heat and tightness enveloping him are indescribable, unlike anything else he has ever known.

Inaho does the first thing his lust-clouded mind can think of; he draws his hand softly down Slaine’s side. Slaine breathing becomes uneven. Inaho tries something more; he clumsily trails both his hands across Slaine’s sides, he buries his nose into Slaine’s hair, he brushes Slaine’s tangled blond strands away from his face and drags his mouth over Slaine’s temple, his cheek, his neck. He whispers, “Bat?”

Slaine turns, eyes glazed, and replies with a soft, incomprehensible sound that resembles both a moan and a chuckle. They kiss, barely. Slaine’s lips are trembling. Reality feels fractured, Inaho has difficulty analyzing the intense sensations rolling over his entire body, he has difficulty sensing where his body ends, where Slaine’s body begins—it feels as if the heat hovering in the room has melted both of them into one being.

Slaine tears his mouth away then and groans, “Now—move now.”

So Inaho begins to move, slowly, carefully—it feels incomprehensibly, insanely good. His senses are twisted between the touch of Slaine’s hot skin sliding across his own in the place where they are connected, the passionate sounds that resonate in the room, the slow way Slaine begins to respond to his movements.

After the first gentle, clumsy thrusts, Inaho goes faster—but not too fast, as between the bliss and heat always lies the unconscious fear of hurting Slaine.

Until a point comes where Slaine moans, reaches out to touch Inaho’s thigh and whispers, “There.”

Realizing Slaine is feeling pleasure, not pain, Inaho does it again—and again—Slaine is panting now, red lips parted, throwing heated glances over his shoulder, and Inaho tries to do everything; he tries to listen carefully, tries not to blindly obey every instinct that bites at him to go faster, he tries to—his entire being shivers, pleasure surging forward, shooting through his body, and his world explodes into bright, mind-blowing bliss.

He pulls out. Slaine makes a sound, but Inaho immediately curls his fingers around the hottest, hardest part of Slaine, moving his hand once, twice—Slaine cries out Inaho’s name, body jerking forward, covering Inaho’s hand in hot, sticky liquid.

#

Slaine’s hair is damp with sweat as it rests on his shoulder, his entire body close to Inaho’s—only his arms are folded over his chest.

Both are silent, breathing heavily, resting loose-limped on the slightly damp sheets. Inaho has already gotten rid of the condom.

“That was…” Slaine takes another long breath.

“Fast.”

Slaine hums questioningly, combing the fingers of one hand through Inaho’s hair—the other still hovers over his chest. “Eh? Orange, it was the opposite, you were very careful—“

“No.” Inaho drapes a leg over Slaine’s, pulling their lower bodies closer, and Slaine lets out a half-laughing, half-aroused sound. “It ended fast.” A pause. “And I-I was responsible for that.”

There is a short silence, where Slaine’s big, bright eyes never move from his face. “Inaho, it was the first time..! I-I wouldn’t expect of you…” With the moonlight falling on Slaine’s face right now, Inaho can see how Slaine’s cheekbones darken. “Though I suppose…we can practice...”

Inaho nods, also holding his arms folded near his chest—despite finally being so intimate with Slaine, something deep inside him tells him that it will take time until Slaine feels comfortable, being naked next to him; it will take time until Slaine understands that the scars will never matter.

#

Later, when Slaine is lying half-asleep on his stomach, pursed lips pressed into the pillow, Inaho takes a moment to observe and marvel at the opportunity presented to him; having Slaine lying naked, in the same bed, next to him.

He first methodically observes the contour, the form of Slaine’s body, as if seeing a naked person for the first time. He then slides a hand along Slaine’s skin, just where the scars end down the small of his back, feeling how warm and soft Slaine’s skin is—he leans down, down where Slaine’s body starts to curve, and starts kissing Slaine there—Slaine complains that it tickles, at first, so Inaho sucks a bit and Slaine makes a sound, his breath coming fast through his teeth, heavy with pleasure.

“I-Inaho?”

“You have a very nice body.” Inaho whispers. The dimness of the room transforms his words into something more intimate, more emotional. The memories of the scars can’t leave his mind, and it hurts.

Slaine turns his body and drags Inaho upwards. The room is dark, but Inaho is certain that Slaine’s cheeks are tinged red. Slaine’s lips form a small, shy smile; he doesn’t answer.

Inaho wants to repeat it, to make Slaine believe in it. He doesn’t. Slaine is kissing him now, and his kisses are warm and slow, so Inaho erases the scars from his mind and accepts the curl of desire deep in his chest with every noise Slaine makes, with every soft brush of their lips, every time that Slaine shivers and tightens his fingers into Inaho’s hair.

#

Inaho keeps his eyes closed when he whispers, “Slaine.”

“Hmm?”

“Are you awake?”

“Yes…”

“Are you sleepy?”

Inaho feels the mattress dip as Slaine shifts on the bed next to him. “No. Why?”

“I want us to change places.”

A sound echoes in the room—something between a cough and a gasp. “Eh?!”

“I am curious. How it feels.”

“…N-Now?”

“Yes. We won’t have time tomorrow. Or anytime next week.”

This is your reason?!”

“You know it isn’t.”

Slaine’s face is serious now, his voice barely a whisper. “Are you sure?” His hand timidly moves across Inaho’s chest. 

Inaho captures Slaine’s fingers in his, bringing Slaine’s knuckles to his lips for a slow, lingering kiss. “Always.”

 #

After a few minutes, Inaho is lying on his back with Slaine hovering above him. Slaine’s hands travel across Inaho’s stomach, down his hips, hot and shaking with impatience. Inaho sucks in air. His thighs thrum with tension, everywhere Slaine touches. Slaine tries to be careful, Inaho understands this, as he prepares him with gentle movements that grow more passionate and hurried as they both become very aroused.

They do not speak much.

Inaho’s body quickly responds to Slaine’s actions, rising and moving under Slaine’s caresses, opening up in his arms. Intense heat shoots between his legs, and soon Inaho feels it traveling under his skin—it quickly becomes unbearable. His breath catches. His whole body burns with the ache to feel Slaine where his fingers now are.

“Do it.” Inaho mutters, “Do it now.”

Slaine looks at him under half-lidded eyes. It is dark, so Inaho cannot see clearly. He imagines, just for a second, their indescribable color. Slaine has curved his body, breathing hard and fast, his warm breath hitting Inaho’s stomach. He then hastily removes his fingers.

The emptiness feels…strange.

Slaine fumbles in the dark and, in a characteristic move of fondness, his hand finds Inaho’s. They intertwine their fingers together, let them rest interlocked on the soft sheets of the bed.

Slaine leans down and their lips meet again, the heat of their mouths intermingling. Inaho’s eyelids drift close. He relishes the moisture, the softness of Slaine’s mouth. He tightens his grip on Slaine’s hand; Slaine responds with a tender squeeze of his own. Slaine’s other hand, Inaho notices, is on the other side of Inaho’s body, crumbling up the sheets in a tight grip. Slaine is trying to keep himself steady.

Slaine hunches his body—his hair drops forward, covering his eyes now, lips pressed tightly together. Inaho takes a weak breath when he feels it, Slaine pressing up against him, hotter than he ever imagined. His eyes close, the moment he feels the slow, uncomfortable push inside.

In the next few moments, Inaho tries to relax as Slaine slowly forces his way inside him. He can feel Slaine’s warm breaths and moans on his shoulder. He can feel how Slaine’s whole body is shivering, hunched over his own. It feels strange, much stranger than Slaine’s fingers. Inaho wants to move, or squirm in discomfort because of the endless, stretching, thick feeling—all Inaho can do is tighten his grip on Slaine’s hand, then open his lips and let out a choked sound.

Eventually, Slaine stops moving, and lets out a tremulous sigh on Inaho’s throat. The sound of his name, thick and hoarse, leaves Slaine’s lips.

After Slaine’s forward motion stops, Inaho concentrates on the way Slaine’s body feels, warm and heavy on his, ignoring the foreign sensations coming from where they are connected. Slaine’s free hand travels down Inaho’s arm in a soothing motion— Inaho can feel Slaine’s entire body trembling, determined to stay unmoving. 

“A-Are you…okay?”

Inaho nods, not trusting himself to speak right now.

“I’m going to, ah, move?” It is something between a statement and a question.

“Don’t hold back.”

Unsurprisingly, Slaine says within a heavy breath, “Alright.”

Carefully, Slaine sits upright, then places his free hand on Inaho’s thigh. And then Inaho can feel it, more sharply that he has felt anything else in his life; the slow drag outside, the slow push inside. There is pain. It is bearable, Inaho thinks, and is saddened only for a moment, remembering the pain both have caused to each other in the past. Inaho’s breath bubbles up, clogging his throat; everything feels too intimate. Too intense.

Slaine has let go of his hand, and Inaho tries to observe and memorize, he tries to encourage this, this closeness, even if his mind is sluggish with all the foreign, slowly pleasant sensations—this is what sex feels like, in this position—even if they are face to face, it is hard to kiss—and then Slaine moves again and a prickling sensation spreads and numbs Inaho’s entire pelvis.

Inaho’s mouth opens. His hand clutches at Slaine’s wrist. He thinks the sound must have come from him.

Slaine instantly stops moving. Inaho tangles his fingers into Slaine’s hair, brings his lips onto Slaine’s and kisses him, fiercely, until Slaine understands.

Slaine’s thrusts grow harder. Pleasure is softly making him very sensitive to Slaine’s movement, and there is panting and groaning, and the creaking of the bed under their united bodies.

Slaine’s hands feel very hot on his thighs. Slaine is kissing him again now, and the kiss is so deep, so filled with unspoken feelings, that when Slaine’s mouth leaves his to be attached onto his neck, Inaho almost has trouble breathing.

That prickling sensation appears again, and it grows, and grows, until the moment Slaine brings his hand between their bodies. Slaine grasps him, and it feels as if the whole world melts in heat—his body feels so full with pleasure that it almost makes his eyes moist. He thinks he calls Slaine’s name, and Slaine moves his hand, once, twice, and then Inaho is barely aware of a warm wetness spilling over his stomach, but he is unable to focus on it—the feeling that floods his body is immense, pleasurable beyond words. He is aware, faintly, that Slaine is murmuring something but Inaho only catches fragments like, ‘so good’ and, ‘Inaho’.

His body is oversensitive now, but Slaine soon moves again, faster and rushed, and it takes more time for him to finish: Slaine’s body shudders, he lets out a quiet groan, his hips pushing forward, buried deep and twitching.  

Inaho’s fingers grasp Slaine’s blond locks as Slaine buries his head on the curve of Inaho’s neck. The way he softly moans Inaho’s name again near his ear makes Inaho’s heart thump in his chest. Slaine stays still and heavy for a while on him, then slowly pulls out and collapses next to Inaho. He turns toward Inaho, his breathing ragged.

After the condom is gone, Slaine reaches out and strokes the side of Inaho’s face, splaying his limbs, partially covering Inaho’s body with his own. As if snapping out of a dream, Inaho wraps an arm around Slaine’s bare shoulders, pulling him even closer. Inaho realizes that the skin of Slaine’s nape is slick with sweat.

It seems that Slaine has gathered enough air in order to mutter, “H-How...? I-I...”

“It was—good. Very good.”

“Ah…Inaho…thank you…”

There is so much emotion hidden in Slaine’s voice that it makes Inaho’s throat feel tight, just for a moment. And not only because of that; it also is the first time their skin touches again fully, after their time together in the Arctic.

It lasts a few seconds only, Inaho notices; after that, Slaine, perhaps also unconsciously, puts distance again between their bodies. Inaho does not mind. It’s the opposite. Much sooner than he thought possible, Slaine has begun accepting that offered physical contact, and that fact alone makes Inaho smile.

#

Afterwards, they lie on the bed dressed in plain T-shirts and their underwear, sharing the same pillow and blanket. Lying on his side, sleepy and warm, Inaho touches Slaine’s hair, just because he can.

“Hmmm?” Slaine’s side-looped smile is full of tenderness.

Inaho traces Slaine’s lips with his finger.

“Wh-what are you doing…?”

“Trying to find out what it is about your lips that makes them so…”

“So…?”

“Perfect.” Inaho weaves his fingers into Slaine’s hair and kisses said lips. Slaine kisses back, laughing.

After they stop with the kisses, Slaine murmurs, “Inaho…sometimes I think…”

Inaho yawns. “Yes?”

“Once, despite being on different sides, we worked together…to protect those we hold dear.”

“Over Tanegashima.”

“Yes…”

“So?”

“Talking with you…being with you…I discovered things I never even imagined could exist. As a child on Vers…I lost so many things, Inaho. But you gave them back to me…and I am so grateful for that…”

Inaho moves closer, resting his head on Slaine’s collarbone, so that he can hear the gentle hum of Slaine’s voice when Slaine speaks again, Slaine’s fingers playing with Inaho’s hair: “The sunrise, for example…I saw it again, after so many years…when day and night meet, the world is painted in such beautiful colors…”

“Yes. I can already predict it…”

“Hmm? What...?” Slaine’s fingers stop their to and fro motion.

“With you…life will be beautiful.” Inaho whispers, and is fast asleep.

#

The next morning, they both wake up to a dull sound coming from downstairs.

“Naaaao!”

Sunlight is slipping through the window. Slaine rubs at his eyes. Inaho’s gaze travels over Slaine’s features, relaxed and sleepy.

“Mmm…Someone is calling for you.” Slaine says, voice hoarse from sleep. Their cheeks are now brushing, as Inaho slightly rubs his face onto Slaine’s blond hair, arm draped over Slaine’s clothed chest.

“Nao where are you?!”

“Yes.” Inaho murmurs, for the first time in his life refusing to get out of the bed. “It’s Yuki.”

Slaine makes a choking sound.

Of course. Saazbaum.

Inaho is instantly awake, he sits up. “Slaine, I give you my word that I will help you—“

Slaine’s face is pale. “I can’t believe this—“

“…Why? You knew that Count Saazbaum would be here.”

Slaine turns to face him, eyes big and disbelieving. “I’m talking about your sister, Orange! Your sister!”

“Yuki?”

Slaine groans. “Orange, tell me, what will your sister think if she steps in this room and sees us sleeping in the same bed…”

“I will make it clear to her that we are in a relationship—“

“…surrounded by these?!” Slaine frantically points at the open, pink bottle of strawberry lube and the wrapped condoms spread everywhere on the nightstand—some have also fallen on the floor. The ones both Slaine and Inaho opened incorrectly during their attempts last night are also lying among them, though one cannot tell easily which ones are used and which ones are not.

One, two, three…ten, fifteen…

“I don’t think it’s physiologically possible for someone to have sex approximately twenty times in a row, so Yuki might not—“

“NO!” Slaine’s face resembles a beet. “Please, j-just help me clean all of this up, Orange!”

#

It takes them a few minutes to get dressed, clean up and place everything back into the nightstand drawer. Yuki calls Inaho’s name once again, so Inaho has to take Slaine’s hand and curl his mouth into an encouraging smile. Slaine courageously follows Inaho down the stairs, through the living room and into the kitchen.

The moment he notices Yuki, Slaine stops on his tracks.

Many things happen at the same time; Slaine lets out a sound and takes a step back, Yuki rushes forwards and almost hugs Inaho, who refuses to be hugged right now—Inaho’s gaze is focused on the other person standing in the kitchen, dressed in his usual crimson uniform, his hands trapped in a pair of handcuffs.

Saazbaum seems tired; the lines around his eyes have gotten deeper since the last time Inaho saw him.

Slaine keeps breathing hard through his nose and holding onto Inaho’s hand so tight, Inaho’s fingers almost go numb.

Saazbaum’s gaze flickers briefly downwards, taking in their joined hands. “Ah. I see.”  His voice is as deep and his posture as authoritative as Inaho recalls from the ex-Count’s interrogation. “So you kept your promise, Terran boy. No—possibly more than that…”

Slaine straightens next to him. “This is not a Terran, Count. This is Kaizuka Inaho.”

“…Very well. Though you have proved countless times that you are no longer my retainer, Slaine. It is your choice to stop addressing me as such. Nevertheless, as of that moment in the Moon Base…you remain, and always will—” Saazbaum falters, seeming lost for an instant. His eyes soften. “Orlaine would be proud of you too, my son.”

Slaine’s grip on Inaho’s hand tightens so much, it hurts. “F-Father?”

“My good boy.” Saazbaum says, smiling sadly, and Slaine bursts into tears.

#

Even before Slaine calms down, Inaho forces Yuki to leave the kitchen. Saazbaum is now standing in front of Slaine, a large hand resting on Slaine’s shoulder. He is talking about Orlaine again, but at that moment Inaho closes the balcony glass door behind him and turns to Yuki, who is now sitting on the wooden porch, shoes almost touching the ground.

Inaho sits next to his sister and doesn’t hesitate to search for answers to Saazbaum’s obvious change. “Yuki-nee, what did you do?”

“The journey was long, and that Count was terribly narrow-minded! I had to explain to him how a proper parent should behave—“

Inaho blinks. “You yelled at him.”

Yuki continues with her ranting, “Can you imagine, being an adult and a Count in charge of an army, and not having the slightest idea how children are to be treated…”

“Slaine is not a child.”

“Nevertheless! He’s that man’s son!”

“Why did you do this?”

“I am not blind, Inaho! That boy has obviously become a friend to you. I still cannot understand how you forgave him, after he shot you. But the only thing I want is to see you healthy and happy—“

“…Yuki-nee, Slaine and I are in a relationship.”

A few minutes pass, where Yuki first asks of Inaho to repeat what he just said, then starts making sounds like ‘Eeeeh?!’ and then asks Inaho again about how this happened, and Inaho starts telling his story, starting with his space battle against Slaine and ending with their stay here. He even reveals that he had sex with Slaine, though he never gets into the details—those are for him and Slaine alone.

After that, Yuki is silent, staring over the garden’s fence at the ocean, far into the distance.

“Yuki-nee?”

Yuki bangs with her feet against the wood of the balcony. “Argh, Naaao!”

“Yes?”

Yuki sighs. “Nao. Tell me, honestly. Is this another crazy plan of yours—”

Perhaps a glance from him is enough, because Yuki’s face suddenly becomes solemn.

She is angry. Very angry. “Nao, he shot you!”

“Yuki-nee…”

“And you’ve only known him for a month!!”

“No. I am almost certain I’ve known him for an immeasurable time period. Something that could possibly be explained by high theories of physics humanity has no knowledge of yet.” Inaho says, and thinks of Kaizuka.

Yuki sighs, “You are clearly smitten, Nao. I can’t understand why. I just…but you don’t have to present things always in such complex ways, you know…”

“Slaine has regretted his actions, Yuki-nee.”

“Perhaps.” Yuki sighs, “And it is obvious…how that boy makes you happy…”

Inaho leaves Yuki to continue with her ranting uninterrupted. He is 99% sure that Yuki’s half-acceptance of Slaine happened because of her joy that the Second Interplanetary War is finally over, and that they are both safe and together as a family again.

She will need time to realize that he loves Slaine, as she will need time to let go of her anger and hatred. Inaho does not mind waiting however, no matter how long it takes.

#

Yuki sighs at one point, shoulders dropping. “Tell me at least, Nao, does Slaine’s father…have lots of land on Vers? Or did he perhaps lose it because he was arrested by us? But then, Slaine took his place…” Yuki’s eyes become wide as saucers. “Slaine is a Count!”

“As things are now, he still holds a very high position in Vers society.”

“Sooo…he does have money…”

Inaho blinks. “Chances are high that he does.”

“Is this the reason—“

“No.”

“I can accept it…even though, if you prefer men to women, I might never see nieces or nephews—“

“We could adopt.”

Yuki coughs. “…Excuse me?”

“You mentioned that you might never see nieces or nephews, which was a false statement regarding its content, since adoption is—“

Yuki hugs him close then, whispering, “Alright, forget about the nieces! I am just glad you are safe and this freaking war is finally over.”

Inaho smiles. He notices how blue the sky is, and then reminds himself that everyone is safe, for now, so he relaxes his shoulders and lets himself be hugged close by his sister.

#

Inaho spends the rest of the day away from Slaine, the latter still talking in the kitchen with Saazbaum. The kitten wakes up too at one point, and it is Yuki’s turn to be surprised from it, and then indulge it in caresses and sweet words, which the kitten angrily protests to; perhaps it only accepts Slaine, Inaho thinks.

Yuki has to barge into the kitchen later, when her stomach starts rumbling, shouting, “We need to eat! How long are you two going to keep talking, already?!”

“Yuki-nee, watch your language—“

“Nao! I haven’t eaten anything today!”

“That’s not a reason to complain.” Inaho says.

“Nao!” Yuki shouts, again, “Not anyone can work at your pace! Besides, I’m starving!”

A red-eyed Slaine glances at an obviously tired Saazbaum and says, “Then we should all eat.”

#

It is decided that Inaho and Slaine cook dinner while Saazbaum and Yuki wait in the living room (both glaring at each other, Inaho notices). Yuki forces a reluctant Saazbaum to hold the small cat, but only after Slaine explains to him that the animal is harmless and carrying no illnesses, does Saazbaum agree on holding it with arms outstretched, as if he is nervous because of it.

It is then that the screen of Inaho’s tablet lights up. It takes him a few seconds to decode Magbaredge’s message, in which she informs him that Dr. Yagarai and Lieutenant Marito will arrive at the safe house in about 120 minutes, in order for Dr. Yagarai to take a look at Inaho’s eye. (She does not mention why Marito followed Yagarai.) They should also expect three representatives from Vers to arrive in two days, she adds. Princess Asseylum ordered those three officers to travel to Earth—they will ascertain if the situation and the safe house are secure enough for the Princess herself to arrive next week.

Inaho announces the news to everyone, and Yuki gets up from the couch where she was sitting next to a (still handcuffed) Saazbaum and says, “Does the Colonel expects of us to feed Lieutenant Marito? He will finish all of our provisions!”

Slaine is just staring at her, spatula still in hand, the fried eggs he is cooking filling the kitchen with a wonderful scent (Inaho was very eager to teach Slaine how to cook eggs).

Inaho shrugs his shoulders, thinking that fried eggs will be a meager meal for six people.

Yuki sighs. “Just let me help. Lieutenant Marito can be intolerable on an empty stomach. And if there is whiskey in this house, find it and hide it, Nao.”

#

Marito and Dr. Yagarai arrive before the food is finished, ringing the doorbell. Inaho leaves Yuki and Slaine in the kitchen, sincerely hoping they won’t burn the house down, and opens the door.

Marito keeps glaring at Saazbaum at first, then tries to caress the kitten—which keeps sinking his claws into Saazbaum’s clothes, releasing thin red threads from Saazbaum’s uniform. Saazbaum seems very uncomfortable at this, but he never utters any distress. Marito earns a scratch for his efforts, so he proceeds to greet Yuki and Slaine in the kitchen. Inaho meanwhile expresses his concerns to Dr. Yagarai about the irregular emotional outbursts he experienced yesterday. Yagarai explains that he will need a few hours to set up his equipment, so it is decided that they will perform tests on Inaho’s eye tomorrow.

#

They have moved the kitchen table and the chairs into the living room, placing them next to an open folding table, when the doorbell rings again.

An uneasy silence reigns over the room.

Both Yuki and Marito stand up, pulling out their guns.

“Inahooo!” It is Calm’s voice, just behind the main door.

Inaho closes his eyes, lost between relief and anger: their location is safe, but not confidential any longer, if Calm (and possible all his friends) found a way to arrive here. Unless Magbaredge send them, which is impossible.

He opens the door, choosing to remain calm until he asks for explanations. As he predicted, Rayet, Inko, Nina and Calm all step into the house. Before anyone can speak, Rayet explains that after General Blanchet was arrested, they got into touch with the Princess, and asked of her to reveal the location of the safe house. Magbaredge believes they are on their leaves.

“You escaped without any explanations.” Nina says, “So we decided to find you.”

“Because we are your friends, Inaho!” Calm smiles. “We will always stay by your side, no matter how crazy your plans are!”

Inaho opens his mouth to protest, but Rayet adds, “Don’t you worry, no one followed us. We secretly boarded the same plane with those two.” She points at Marito and Yagarai.

“Just get in.” Inaho says, suddenly feeling too tired to deal with all of this. “And eat. Tomorrow, we will decide what our next course of action will be.”

#

More food is cooked, and then everyone gathers around the tables once again, with Nina now having taken hold of the cat, which still squirms and hisses towards everyone. Slaine has to stand up and retrieve the kitten from Nina’s arms, smiling at it. Everyone is impressed at how it calms down instantly.

Minutes pass in faint conversation between Yuki, Nina and Inko. Dr. Yagarai and Marito keep whispering things with their faces close to each other. Inaho is sitting on the couch next to Slaine, observing how Slaine’s lips are curled upwards, while he indulges the cat with caresses.

It is then that the doorbell rings again.

Yuki sighs heavily, then opens the door—taking no precautions now—and reveals Harklight, Lemrina and surprisingly, Count Barouhcruz in his full uniform standing in the doorway.

 “Just who are all these people, Nao?!” Yuki shouts.

#

After Harklight explains they all arrived two days sooner ‘because Princess Lemrina was so eager to meet with you again, Milord’, Yuki asks why they keep staring at the food with such dumfounded expressions, to which Barouhcruz replies that this is the first time they are able to observe ‘authentic Terran nutriment’.

Yuki sighs, then says that it is okay if they wish to join everyone at the table, on the condition they use words everyone understands.

Lemrina pushes her chair forward and without another word, throws her arms around Slaine in the tightest of embraces.

That thorny, bitter emotion that awakens inside Inaho is something he has never experienced before. It takes Inaho a few seconds to realize it’s nature; jealousy.

Slaine however ends the hug soon, and then turns to smile at him, jubilant and with moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes. Inaho forgets his concerns and smiles back.

#

After more chairs are brought around the make-shift tables, everyone starts eating again, even Saazbaum. Only Harklight, Barouhcruz and Lemrina keep staring curiously at the cat in Slaine’s arms.

“That’s a cat, Harklight-san…or more precisely, a kitten. A kitten is a juvenile cat. We still haven’t decided on his name.”

“And may I ask…What is this food, Milord?”

“This is a tomato, Harklight-san. Many people believe it’s a vegetable, but it’s actually a fruit.” Slaine smiles. “And please, stop addressing me in such a way...the war is over, and you are older than me, and a dear friend.”

Harklight clears his throat, clearly overwhelmed, and starts eating with a faint, happy smile.

#

Soon, as it is expected of different people gathering around the same place to eat, hesitant conversations bloom between the Martians and Inaho’s friends. Saazbaum is talking with Dr. Yagarai out of all people, while Yuki and Marito are both staring at them in slightly disbelief.

After it is clear what Lemrina’s role has been the last few years, Nina asks her questions about Vers, and soon Calm and Inko join her. There is still carefully concealed hostility, Inaho notices, (Yuki and Marito keep their guns close to them at all times) though he can also observe that everyone is struggling to remain polite and civil, while ignoring the painful past they have now left behind.

#

At one moment, Lemrina and Nina look at Slaine and giggle.

Slaine turns to face them, the kitten now sleeping next to him on the floor.

“She thinks you have nice hair, Slaine.” Lemrina says, smirking.

“And nice skin.” Nina adds.

“Yes, he does.” Inaho confirms the truth.

“O-Orange!”

“Oh?” Lemrina says, “You wish to join the conversation too?”

“He has nice eyes, too.” Inaho adds, more out of his desire to indirectly compliment Slaine than his wish to converse with Lemrina. “When the sunlight hits Slaine’s eyes, their color changes. They become brighter and larger. Underwater, too. Or when Slaine—“

Inaho realizes that everyone has stopped talking and is staring at him; Slaine’s expression is strange, however, and it makes Inaho’s heart beat faster in alarm.

“Finally…” Harklight whispers then. “Milord Slaine, I am so happy for you!”

Slaine gets up, and his days as a Count shine through his posture; straight and noble. “Thank you, Harklight-san, however…please excuse us for a few minutes.”

Inaho gets up too, walking after Slaine.

#

Inaho follows Slaine towards the shoreline just behind the house. Wordlessly, they decide to take a walk along the beach.

The ocean is dark, always rolling its waves up the coastline. The only source of light are the incandescent fragments of the broken moon and the thousands of stars spread across the night sky.

As they walk side by side across the sand, Slaine’s hand brushes against his in the darkness. Slowly, carefully, Inaho trails his fingers down Slaine’s palm, lacing their fingers together. Slaine’s touch chases away the chill of the night. Only the faint sound of waves hitting the shore is heard for a while.

Slaine closes his eyes. The wind rises, tousling his hair. The waves crash again on the shore.

“Inaho?”

“Yes?”

“Inaho, I think—I think I will remember today for the rest of my life.” 

“You liked it that much?”

“Inaho...” Slaine chokes out, resting his cheek on Inaho’s shoulder—a warm, comforting weight. “Don’t you understand…? I never thought that such happiness could exist in this world.”

The words come out strained and hoarse, as if Slaine is on the verge of tears.

Inaho stops on his path. Slaine’s presence is warm, next to him. He swallows down the tight feeling in his throat, gazes up at the stars scattered above. He thinks of Kaizuka, and his love for Slaine, and wonders if their older selves ever found happiness.

Indistinct chatter can be heard, coming from the house. Someone laughs loudly, someone else—a girl—giggles.

Inaho has, weeks ago, made the calculations in his head: Slaine Troyard’s death must have occurred four years after the end of the Second Interplanetary War. Four years, which means, more or less, that Kaizuka must have probably spent that time at Troyard’s side. And it is Inaho’s mission to ensure that in this world, in this timeline, those four years will turn into something lasting, and brilliant.

So Inaho tightens his hold on Slaine’s hand.

“I believe.” Inaho says, “That I will always strive to hold your hand…to hold you close, and find with you a sense of peace I have never felt before. Despite time, war, death or any other physical dimension that might separate us someday, I will keep struggling…and I will keep finding you and saving you, from yourself or from others, again and again. I will always hold infinite emotions for you, Slaine.”

Slaine is silent, still pressing his cheek against Inaho’s shoulder. Long seconds pass until his breathing calms down. And then Inaho is glad he wore a thin shirt tonight—he can now feel how slowly, shyly, Slaine’s mouth curls into a smile.

“This is only the beginning, Bat.” Inaho says then, smiling at the stars. “This is merely the beginning.”

 

Chapter Text

Slaine is awake.

Inaho observes that the rhythm of Slaine’s breaths has quickened. On the verges of sleep himself, Inaho whispers, “The aurora is gone.” Myriads of stars are shimmering across the black skies.

Slaine stirs, limbs moving lazily, head still pressing against Inaho’s shoulder. Inaho cups a hand with infinite tenderness over Slaine’s nape. He rests his cheek against Slaine’s soft hair.

“Bed.” Slaine hums, obviously too sleepy to form a whole sentence.

They get up, shivering, and return to the bedroom. They dive under the heap of blankets. Slaine wraps his arms around Inaho’s waist, pulling him close, chest to chest. He brushes his mouth sleepily across Inaho’s.

It is the lack of sleep that makes Inaho murmur against those lips he has spent years watching from afar, “One day, I will find another aurora.” Inaho traces Slaine’s face in the darkness, sinks his fingers into the soft curls. “I will take you there.”

Slaine does not answer. A corner of Inaho’s sleep-seized mind understands Slaine must have fallen asleep.

#

When Inaho wakes up, he catalogues three facts in his mind at once; one, there is light outside, two, Slaine is close, and three, he has fallen asleep with half his face buried into the pillow. His maddeningly beating heart calms down as he realizes that Slaine did not notice the black space where his eye should have been, only the scars that run down his eyelid.

Only the scars.

Slaine blinks, lying on his side too. Inaho momentarily gets lost in that brilliant merge of green and blue.

He does not know what Slaine finds so interesting about his face—unlike Calm, Inaho was never one to stare at his reflection in the mirror and wonder about his looks, at least not before he fell in love with Slaine. Now he only stares in the mirrors during some morning routines. He knows how malformed his scar is, even from an objective point of view.

Slaine’s hair is falling into his eyes. His lips are very red—pressed into a thin line.

“Last night…you were tense. You are still tense.”

Slaine closes his eyes, then it feels as if the cold in the room intensifies—Slaine withdraws and lies on his back next to him, arm draped over his forehead. “How can you see so much through me?”

Inaho is realizing more and more truths, the longer they stay in this base. “No one realized your pain during the years on Vers.”

Slaine is silent for a long moment. “Perhaps…Harklight, or even Princess Lemrina realized. However…”

“It was not enough.”

Wrong, Kaizuka Inaho. I had already turned into someone worth being hated.”

No matter how many times Inaho utters them, the words always feel like a knife driven into his chest. “You were abused for years.”

“…Leave the past alone, Inaho.”

Inaho disapproves. Slaine perhaps realizes that, because his palm comes to cup Inaho’s cheek. It’s very warm. “So serious. Did the aurora affect you that much, Orange?”

“No. Slaine.”

Physics and mathematics could never describe the sadness of Slaine’s eyes at that moment—neither the brilliance of those colors.

“You cannot change my past, Inaho…” Slaine says, “…as I could not change my future. I thought that I knew everything. I used the Tharsis’ abilities to foresee what was to come…yet I failed to see what was important. It was like observing the past through the light of a faraway star. The moment you will start traveling towards it, it might already be gone, forever...”

“You are mentioning them again. The stars.”

The sadness permeates Slaine’s smile, too. “How can I not? Their light carries on, endlessly, even after they no longer exist. Who else in the world holds that power? No one. Perhaps only the light of Aldnoah…”

“This conversation is—”

“There are moments in life that can feel endless, Inaho.” Slaine whispers. “And I want to believe that I have experienced a few of them…with you.”

“…I don’t understand. What exactly did you experience?”

Slaine continues, “Call me a fool, but I also want to believe that you cannot longer conceal your emotions from me.” Softer, “Tell me what’s wrong, Orange.”

Slaine’s hand resting on his face becomes too warm, and Inaho sighs from it. “…During four years of observations, I have concluded that you are not used to being touched.”

“Oh, while you are?” Slaine’s mouth, a bit wrinkled from the way he has buried half his face into the pillow, curls at the corner.

At the sight of Slaine smiling, Inaho’s chest hurts. He wants to touch Slaine. He wants to kiss his face, his hair, to slide his hands all over him. “Slaine.” he says, and Slaine’s name means everything.

Slaine still tenses up, though Inaho has realized by now that this self-protective tension has partially slipped away from Slaine’s body. An interesting realization comes; Inaho voices his thoughts aloud, because he now feels more comfortable than ever doing so, in front of Slaine.

“Casual or tender touches directly on your scars make you tense. I believe you are aware of yourself at such times. However…” Inaho recalls the previous day, how Slaine pushed him against the wall with open-mouthed kisses, his own fingers kneading into the flesh of Slaine’s thighs—Inaho breathes again. “I believe that when you are aroused, you do not mind being touched. So for now, I should make you aroused, first, and then touch you.” Slaine’s eyes are wider than ever, but Inaho goes on. “That way, I believe you will enjoy it better…being touched.”

A soft sound, the rare laugh Inaho loves, leaves Slaine’s throat. “Your way of thinking is…ah, Inaho.”

Warmth fills Inaho’s cheeks. “I don’t mind the scars. I’ve been trying to explain this to you since—“

A gurgling sound echoes in the room. Inaho blinks. “You are hungry.”

Slaine’s ears turn red. “Perhaps.”

“You are. Your dinner yesterday included two apples—“

“Shh.”

“You aren’t hungry…?”

“Not now, Orange. I want to stay here for a bit. Just like this…”

Slaine tugs at Inaho’s shirt. Unsure of what Slaine is trying to invoke, Inaho improvises and rests his head on Slaine’s middle, listening, making sure Slaine is not ill. Slaine takes a long breath, then stays quiet. He slips his fingers under Inaho’s hair.

“You are healthy.” The fabric of Slaine’s shirt is soft, covering the swollen lines of skin pressed against Inaho’s cheek. He steals a glance. Slaine has his eyes closed, eyelashes long and pale, creating shadows on his cheeks. Inaho’s heart is pounding. He is very unsure on how to proceed, so he tries to explain basic first aid to Slaine. “If I could not hear any turbulences, a possible diagnosis would be—“

“Inaho, I implore you, do not talk about such things now.” Slaine pulls him closer, murmuring, “You can do it later though…”

Again, Slaine’s fingers thread through his hair.

No one has ever held him like this. Yuki was always careful around him, especially after the times he was bullied, and the comfort she offered was mostly unneeded, since Inaho had already overcome the incidents. He was five years old when he realized how life works; every time the bullies in his orphanage surrounded him, mocking, beating, undressing him or pressing heated and pointed objects into his skin, Inaho logically deducted that letting his guard down at any moment in his life would have severe consequences.

However, not a single moment in his life has prepared him for the vulnerability he now feels, surrounded by the warmth of Slaine’s body.

He has never been that close to another person.

“Slaine.”

“Hmm?”

“Slaine.”

Slaine’s eyelids flutter open. “Inaho?”

They stare at each other.

“Orange. If you want to do it, do it properly.” 

“…You understood my intentions.”

“Come here.” Slaine says, hurriedly, mouth opening. His breaths have changed. They’re loud and shaky.

Inaho unsticks himself from Slaine, slides upward. Slaine’s fingers are instantly in Inaho’s hair, pressing Inaho’s head into his, never letting go. Slaine hurriedly brings his mouth on Inaho’s. His lips are cold, but after a while they feel hotter than the touch of a flame as they travel down towards Inaho’s neck. Inaho cannot even breathe. When Slaine kisses him on the mouth again, Inaho is overflowed by a feeling so deep, so strong—it almost brings moisture to the corners of his eye.

#

Inaho is kissing Slaine’s cheeks, his eyes, then Slaine’s lips, so fully, so lovingly, Slaine opens his mouth and moans. Inaho’s lips are on Slaine’s collarbone now—in a haze, Inaho registers that Slaine’s skin has changed texture under his lips—he jerks back, just a bit.

And stares at the stretched, thick scar tissue; it splits Slaine’s skin from the collarbone to the place it disappears under the edge of Slaine’s loose shirt.

Slaine stops. He stares at it too.

“Orange.” Slaine’s voice is steady. Flat. “I think I’m going to take a shower.”

There i