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Hero's Reward

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Today, in compliance with his sister’s insistent suggestions, Inaho has decided to take his day off easy. Just sitting down, watching clips on his laptop, while enjoying some snacks with a friend.

Yuki had sounded relieved.

Which was why Inaho hadn’t mentioned the fact that he was doing all of this in a high security secret prison with a war criminal who was, by all official accounts, dead.

Slaine picked up another senbei, eyes fixed on the screen. “I swear you stopped breathing.”

Inaho peered at the screen more closely. What Slaine could watch was extremely limited, of course. Nature documentaries, which Slaine enjoyed. Inane cartoons from years before Heavens Fall, as corny as they were grainy, which Slaine tried hard to pretend not to enjoy. And for today, this.

Videos from an official UFE charity event. It was pushing the boundaries a bit, but Inaho had managed to get it through on the grounds that the main subject of the video was himself.

Visiting schools and having question-and-answer sessions with children.

Slaine smirked. “I didn’t know that you had stage fright.”

“There’s no stage,” Inaho countered. It’s true – the video showed him sitting on a chair in front of a veritable horde of screaming children, all more than a decade younger than him, in a large classroom that had been cleared of all other furniture.

Slaine’s smirk only grew wider in response. It had taken months to coax a smile out of the man, so pale and thin and miserable , but now Inaho was seeing that teasing grin more and more often.

Save him from his chains of misery .

The former count had reacted badly to what Slaine had derided as ‘pity’, had simply shut down when given bald-faced facts and orders, had gotten angry when Inaho tried to pry into his past or motivations.

The key to unlocking those chains that Seylum had claimed bound Slaine… in the end, Inaho had accidentally stumbled upon it. Literally stumbled. After a tiring morning of tedious meetings that amounted to absolutely nothing, a bumpy drive through the rain that only exacerbated his growing migraine and the frustration of finding out that one of the new guards had actually taken pictures of Slaine, Inaho had ended what would have been another fruitless visit by catching his foot on the leg of his chair and crashing to the floor in a heap of flailing limbs.

He’d looked up to find Slaine laughing, then apologising for laughing, then laughing some more as he offered an unexpectedly firm grip to help Inaho back onto his feet.

‘Do you like watching me suffer?’

Slaine had looked horrified, eyes widening as he jerked his hands away from Inaho. ‘No! No. It’s just that… I’d forgotten that you were a person, too .

Inaho hadn’t been able to get an explanation for that cryptic statement, as Slaine had promptly returned to his usual silent, passive state afterwards. He’d asked his sister about it on the ride home.

‘Well, if someone said that to you, I guess it’s because you’re like the hero of earth, you know? You’re the genius who managed to fight off all those monster Versian kataphrakts! You stopped Slaine Troyard! I can see why people think you’re some sort of superhuman. Like you’re unapproachable.’

‘Do you see me this way?’

Yuki had laughed. ‘It’ll take more than saving the world to make me stop seeing you as my baby brother.’

Had Slaine seen him as something inhuman because of his actions during the war?

Inaho is pulled from his thoughts by the sound of Slaine’s voice. “Are you going to eat that? Because you’ve just been holding it and staring off into the distance. I’m getting creeped out.”

Inaho fixed him with an unblinking one-eyed stare and crammed the entire skewer of dangos in his mouth. Slaine rolled his eyes and went back to watching the video. Inaho mimicked him. He didn’t particularly enjoy reliving the experience, but this allowed him to identify what mistakes he made and figure out how to avoid them next time.

Although, he sincerely hoped that there wouldn’t be a next time.

On his laptop screen, a young girl with a mane of curly black hair raised her hand and asked, ‘ What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?’

The man in a blue UFE uniform and eyepatch had paused for a moment before answering, ‘ Be a guest speaker at a school.’

Slaine laughed along with the children, almost spilling his cup of green tea. “Really?”

“With complete honesty,” Inaho replied. Smiles and laughter suited Slaine, he noticed. It made his eyes sparkle like clear water in sunlight, softened his face so that he looked younger – which was to say that he looked closer to his actual age. Slaine always brought a hand up towards his face when he laughed, as if he instinctually wanted to muffle the sounds of his mirth. It made Inaho want to take it and hold it in his own and tell Slaine to laugh until the stars fell down, until it echoed through the dark recesses of space.

Suddenly, it became difficult to look Slaine directly in the face. When their eyes met, Inaho turned away.

A Pocky stick poked Inaho’s cheek as Slaine teased, “The more I get to know you, the shyer you become. What happened to the straightforward man I knew?”

Inaho quickly turned his head and snapped off half of the Pocky. Slaine only chuckled and ate the remaining half.

“Have you considered that I was always shy and that you just didn’t know about this aspect of me?” Inaho suggested.

Slaine shrugged. “This may come as a surprise, but I never planned to get to know you well. Just in case the bullet to the face didn’t give you a hint.”

“I see,” Inaho replied.

“Was that a pun, Kaizuka? That was a pun, wasn’t it?”

Inaho doesn’t say, simply picking up another rice cracker and eating it loudly. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Slaine turning back to the computer. The video had almost ended.

Slaine laughed again, gesturing at the screen. “What happened there? You look like you need the bathroom.”

“I had noticed the time and had hoped that the session would end before I was asked any more questions. Unfortunately, the staff picked the last child for me.”

“Next time you try to stall, I suggest not looking like someone switched off your brain. At least pretend that you’re not avoiding eye contact with five-year-olds.”

“It just seems like I’m avoiding eye contact because of the angle.” Slaine knew that Inaho was lying, and Inaho knew that he knew. Since it’s so obvious, neither of them comment on it. The sound of the video filled the ensuing silence.

A child was speaking. ‘You saved the Princess right?’

‘Empress Asseylum? I was part of the crew that escorted her to Russia and I was involved in her extraction from the Moonbase.’

‘Then why didn’t she marry you?’

Inaho had given the child a look that was even blanker than his usual expression, completely at a loss on how to answer until he had elaborated, ‘Princesses are supposed to marry the hero. Didn’t you love her?’

A teacher bustled into view of the camera. She quickly announced that the session was over and that Inaho was a very busy man who had to get on with his duties – she turned to thank Inaho for his time when another child shouted, ‘Didn’t you find your true love?’

“Seems like you were scheduled right after story time,” Slaine commented wryly.

“Due to bad weather, the children had been watching a film during their lunch break. That may have been the origin of their more unorthodox questions.” Inaho moved to turn off the video, but froze when he registered Slaine’s hand on his arm.

If Slaine had noticed the effect his touch had on Inaho, he chose not to mention it. “It’s not over yet.”

Foiled, Inaho simply took a piece of strawberry mochi and let the video play out.

Slaine was right – the camera had kept running, so that it recorded how a little girl had run up to Inaho, given him a hug and very loudly assured him, ‘I think you should have found your true love since you’re the hero.’

‘I’m not a hero ,’ Inaho had told her. The child had let go of him, her expression quickly turning miserable. Quickly, Inaho had kneeled so that he didn’t loom over her, hastily adding, ‘And I still have time to find my true love. It’s just not Empress Asseylum.’

Back in the present, Slaine snorted. “Nice save. Real smooth, mister White Knight.”

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit,” Inaho shot back.

“I’d argue that canned one liners compete for that title,” Slaine answered. The man absentmindedly licked his fingers. Inaho almost dropped the box of snacks he was packing up. Noticing his difficulty – if not the cause of his distraction – Slaine moved to help him. “So how’s the quest going, Hero of Earth?”

“Quest?”

Slaine gave Inaho’s shoulder a friendly bump as he snapped the lid closed. A shiver ran down Inaho’s spine. Slaine offered the box to Inaho, his smile taking the edge off his mocking tone as he said, “Your gallant search for your true love. Rescue any damsels lately?”

Inaho smiled back. “It’s a work in progress.”