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“It is said Seklos and Gaylen were the original corebonded—two beings connected on an impossibly cosmic scale, their destinies intertwined. And when Gaylen became corrupt with power and Seklos sacrificed herself to stop him, in its anger, the universe stripped itself and its beings of its vibrant artistry. ‘These two beings have forsaken their bond,’ it said, ‘and their corruption is sure to spread.’ The universe punished its inhabitants to live a life of gray. The only way to restore that sight is to reunite with the person or persons connected to your very essence, your core. ‘This is the only way to see this bond is never taken for granted.’”

“Well, that’s a little ridiculous,” Krel said. Aja snorted while Papa sighed. Krel went on, “I mean, how can a universe talk? And how does a universe feel emotion? And even if it could do those things, how are we supposed to know for sure what it said and felt?”

“It is the principle of the matter, Krel,” Papa said. “This is how our people explain the corebond phenomena.”

Krel crossed his arms over his torso. “Well, I guess I just don’t see what the big deal is. Like, really, what’s so great about this cosmic connection.” He sang the last two words to make them sound spooky and mystical. Aja laughed behind one of her hands. “All it does is, what? Lets us see color? I don’t understand why it governs so much of our lives." Krel paused and the room was silent. After a moment, Krel sighed. "I just wish it wasn’t so important.”

Aja placed a hand on Krel’s arm and he gave her a half-smile. Mama and Papa looked at him sympathetically and he kind of hated it.

“Krel,” Mama said gently. “Is this really just about corebonds? Because if you have something you need to talk about—”

Krel tensed minutely and looked down, schooling his features. “Of course it is,” he said, staring at the gray, gray floor. Aja’s hand was still on his arm and he could somewhat see her crestfallen expression. He knew she was thinking the same thing he was. “I guess I’m just not a fan of talking about something I’m never going to have.”

As a child, Krel rushed through the gray halls of the palace, muffling his giggles behind two hands. Aja had started counting about a mekron ago, which meant he didn’t have much time before she would start looking. A few guards smiled in amusement at the child prince as he rushed passed, to which he gave a delighted wave.

In all honesty, there weren’t many places in the halls to hide in, so really he had to find a room with enough clutter to reasonably hide his small frame. If only the staff didn’t keep everything so tidy!

“Come out, come out, wherever you are!” Aja’s lilting voice traveled down the hall and startled him. Frantically, he turned a corner and spotted an open door. With an excited grin, he rushed towards it and skidded inside, hitting the button to close it as he crossed the threshold. Still giddy, Krel continued further in. There were quite a few boxes in here, stacked in the middle of the room, and after curiosity got the better of him, he climbed up the tower and discovered they contained weapons. They glowed with their usually pale gray light, humming with energy.

Krel frowned, but ultimately let his suspicion go. The weapons were probably being shipped off to different parts of the planet, or to other planets that needed them. He wasn’t entirely up to date on the political aspect of his parents’ duties currently, so he didn’t really have any right to question this.

“I’m just saying, I find it a little weird that they haven’t revealed who her corebonded is.”

Krel nearly fell from his perch on the side of the stacked boxes and quickly recovered the box of weapons, ready to make an excuse for why he was in there, when the words processed in his mind. Reveal who’s corebonded?

Krel crept toward the back of the room, but found no one else. For a moment, he thought he’d just imagined it when another voice responded.

“Well, it is kind of a personal moment in someone’s life. They could just want the privacy.”

The voices were coming from a vent in the floor, presumably from a room below the one Krel sat in. He knelt in front of the vent and leaned his head down to hear better, the game all but forgotten in his mind.

“But the royal families have always declared their heir’s corebonded within a few delsens after they discover it! That way, by the time the heir is of age, their corebonded is ready to take the throne as well.” The royal families? Wait, they’re talking about— “I just feel it’s kind of suspicious they’re keeping the information hidden. I mean, look at what happened when Lady Mirana of House Akram hid her son’s corebond information… or lack thereof,” said the first voice. "Scandal of the century, I'll tell you what."

The second gasped. “Are you implying you think Princess Aja is bondless?”

Krel froze. They were talking about Aja? Why? What made them think she didn't have a corebond?

“I’m just saying it’s very much in the realm of possibility,” the first explained. “I mean, think about it. Aja passes the time when children normally have their corebonded declared, and suddenly the royals are incredibly hush-hush about the subject?”

“It’s not like the king and queen haven't broken past traditions before,” the second countered. Krel nodded along, not wanting to believe their implication.

The first sighed, seemingly relenting a little. “ I suppose you’re right. But it doesn’t make it any less suspicious to me.” There was a short pause where Krel felt infinitely better with the subject being concluded before the first chuckled lightly. “And, well, I guess it doesn’t exactly matter, what with Prince Krel and all. It’s not like when you’re a royal there’s any real reason to have a second kid than to have a backup in case the first one doesn’t work out for whatever reason."

Krel stopped, hearing an odd rushing in his ears. It felt like he was frozen stiff, like he was mounted to the spot. He didn’t want to keep listening, didn’t want to believe that that was the reason he was here in the first place, but couldn’t bring himself to move.

“Hey now, that’s a little uncalled for.” The second one laughed, though it sounded awkward, like the sound of surprise rather than of humor. “I’d like to think our king and queen are a little more honorable than that. And it’s entirely possible Princess Aja’s corebonded is just not Akiridion, you know?”

“That’d almost be worse, don’t you think?” the first said. “I mean, no offense to any other creature in the universe, but personally I would want Akiridions on the throne, not one Akiridion and some random person from, I dunno, Delbar or something.”

“I guess you’re right…” The second person sounded much more hesitant, like they didn’t necessarily agree but also didn’t necessarily dis agree, either.

“But like I said, I guess it doesn’t really matter since the prince is in the picture. I mean, what are the odds that both royal children have corebonds that aren’t Akiridion, right?” The two laughed together before seemingly continuing onto their jobs, the conversation over.

Krel didn’t move, however. He stayed bent over that vent, absently, his eyes dull. He could almost picture himself, actually. A gray and black figure with four arms and a slight frame, pale gray hair spiked backwards, his black and gray eyes unseeing. Gray, gray, gray, all dull and boring and a reminder that he hadn’t yet found his corebonded, assuming they even existed at all; an idea he hadn't even considered until that moment, an idea that now scared him more than anything.

He distantly heard the door open and then Aja’s voice proclaiming she’d found him, but even as he was pulled from his stupor, feigning disappointment at having lost, he couldn’t help thinking, What if I don’t have one? What if they’re not Akiridion? What happens then?

He didn’t have any answers.

Less than a week later, his mama and papa announced that they would refrain from publicly announcing his and Aja’s corebonded until it came to officially proclaim their heir. They decided this, they said, so that he, Aja, and their corebonded could spend their childhoods in peace while they prepared for the future, and so the families of their corebonded would be safe as well.

All the while Krel tried to ignore how Aja’s fists were clenched behind her back, her face carefully devoid of emotion as she stared unseeing into the crowd.

That night, his room felt simultaneously too big and too small. He laid on his side, knees tucked nearly to his chin and wished almost desperately for his body to fall into stasis. Something it, of course, vehemently denied him.


The word had been haunting him these last few delsens. It plagued his dreams and lingered in his mind throughout the day. He knew his family was beginning to notice the strange, distant way he was acting, but he couldn’t even begin to think about how he would broach the subject with them.

How exactly did you ask your parents about whether or not you were born because you were wanted, or because they needed a plan B in case Aja didn’t work out?

With an irritated noise, Krel threw himself up, twisting on his bed so his feet dangled just above the floor. He kept himself upright with two hands and covered his face with the other two. When it didn’t look like the thoughts were going away, Krel slid off his bed and made his way for the door connecting his and Aja’s room. 

He gently pressed the button to open it, as if that would make less noise, and crept into her room. Like him, Aja was curled on her side, but she seemed to be sleeping soundly. He hated to wake her, but there was literally no one else he could talk to. Mama and Papa were… out of the question.

Krel knelt by Aja’s bed and placed one hand on her arm. “Aja,” he whispered as he shook her gently. “Aja!”

“Hm? What?” she murmured, eyes fluttering.

“Um,” Krel hesitated, the question burning his throat. He tried another approach. “Could I… stay with you, tonight?”

Aja rubbed one of her eyes, propping herself up with her two right arms. “Huh? I mean, yes, but why?”

“Couldn’t sleep.”

Aja nodded like that was an acceptable answer and slid over to make more room. Grateful, Krel crawled beside her and sighed in relief as Aja’s arms wrapped around him. 

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

“No. Yes. I don’t know.” Krel turned his head so his face was half buried in one of Aja’s pillows.

Aja giggled sleepily, rubbing her hands up and down Krel’s back. “That’s okay, little brother, we do not have to talk. We can just sleep.”

She closed her eyes again and her hands stilled on his back. He looked at her for a few moments before sighing. “Aja, um…”

“Are you implying Princess Aja is bondless?”

“Yes?” Aja’s eyes were open again, looking at him patiently, oblivious to how the light gray and void black mocked him.

“I’m just saying it’s very much in the realm of possibility. “I mean, think about it. Aja passes the time in which children normally have their corebonded declared, and suddenly the royals are incredibly hush-hush about the subject? 

And, well, I guess it doesn’t exactly matter, what with Prince Krel and all. It’s not like when you’re a royal there’s any real reason to have a second kid than to have a backup in case the first one doesn’t work out for whatever reason."

“Um…” Krel faltered. “Do you ever think about where your corebonded might be?”

Minutely, Aja froze. If he hadn’t been so close to her, he probably wouldn’t have noticed. “Er,” she stammered. “O-Of course, Krel, who doesn’t?”

“Well,” Krel paused, the words stuck in his throat. “Most Akiridions, apparently, since they find their corebonded when they’re young.” Aja flinched. “And I just… I just wonder about ours,” Krel plowed on. “Like… imagine, being brought before the royals of Akiridion-5 and it being revealed that you are cosmically bonded with one of the royals’ children.” He forced out a laugh. “That’d be—That’d be crazy, right? Imagine.”


“And then… I was just thinking about how devastating it would be if that were to never happen,” he said, and Aja stared at him. He swallowed hard and continued. “I was just thinking about how there might not be some Akiridion kid who walks up those steps to Mama and Papa and is declared to be bonded to one of us. I was thinking about how, when our ceremonies happen, what if one of us doesn’t find our match on Akiridion-5. I was thinking about how we might not… find them at all.”

Aja’s lips were pursed together now, and for a moment she just stared at him. Then, “Krel, you know that’s not—”

“Aja, why didn’t Mama and Papa declare your corebonded?” Krel interrupted.


“Why haven’t I met them yet, at least?” Krel continued. “Why haven’t you explained how pretty everything is in color yet? You’re passed the age where they find out, right? So what happened?”

“Krel, nothing happened!” Aja cut in. She sat up abruptly and moved away from him, and Krel immediately missed the comfort that came from her close presence. “It’s just—complicated.”

“I don’t get it!” Krel sat up too. “Why are Mama and Papa breaking tradition and waiting to declare ours?”


“Why were you so tense at the announcement today?”


“Everyone has a corebond—right?—so why haven’t you found yours yet?”

“Because I might not have one!” Aja finally shouted. She flinched and looked away from Krel’s surprised expression, her hands balling into fists.

Krel stewed in their silence, feeling both ashamed and desperate for a different answer. Finally, his sympathy won out. “I’m… sorry, Aja, I shouldn’t have been so forceful.”

Aja sighed and tucked some hair behind her ear. “No, it’s… I would’ve been curious too…” She opened her fists and looked down at them. “Mama and Papa said that them not finding my corebonded doesn’t mean anything besides that they’re not Akiridion. They said it was totally and completely okay and normal for this to happen, but…” She shook her head. 

“But… you kind of feel like you’ve let them down?” Krel guessed. He mimicked Aja's position, wrapping his arms tightly around his knees. “And that they were just saying that to make you feel better?”

“Er, yeah.” Aja looked up, surprised. “But why do you…” Krel gave her a lopsided smile, a look in his eye saying you know. “Oh, Krel, you know they’re so proud of you. They love you so much.”

Krel sighed and looked at his feet. “Yeah. I know. It’s just hard to really feel it sometimes, especially when I also know I’m not what Papa really wanted in a son. I’m not exactly your average prince.”

Aja giggled and punched his arm lightly. “Who would want an average prince when they could have a genius one like you?”

Krel smiled, still sad, but grateful. “Thanks, Aja.”

“So…” She sidled up beside him again, leaning against her propped up knees to look him in the eye. “Are you gonna tell me what brought on the corebond stuff?”

“I…” Krel broke eye contact. “I overheard some of the staff talking a couple delsens ago and it… I dunno, I guess it got to me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing too weird, I guess, it’s just…” Krel shook his head. “They were talking about you… and your possible corebonded.”

“Oh.” Aja looked put out again.

“And then…” Krel continued. “They… started talking about me.”

Aja’s face switched from melancholic to furious so quickly Krel reeled back a little. “What did they say about you?” she growled and Krel felt a little better knowing Aja would so quickly defend his honor.

“Not a lot,” he quickly replied. “Just… Well, they just implied something, and it’s making me feel… weird.”

“... What was it?” Aja asked slowly.

Krel rubbed at the faintly glowing gray lines going around his feet. “When they were talking about you, they implied that Mama and Papa wouldn’t have wanted you as their heir because of your corebonded. Which isn’t true of course!” Krel quickly amended, seeing something dark cross through Aja’s eyes. “But… then they said that was where I came in. That I… was only made in case something went… wrong with you because it wasn’t likely that I, too, would have a non-Akiridion corebonded, and that it was “only right that only Akiridions take the throne”.”

Aja laid a hand on one of Krel’s. “Oh, Krel, that’s not true at all.”

“I… know,” he said, but he hesitated and Aja noticed too.

“Mama and Papa love you, Krel,” she insisted.

“I know,” Krel said. “I don’t… I normally don’t doubt that.” Aja gave him an exasperated look that he ignored. “It’s just… all I can think about now.”

“Don’t listen to some gossip, little brother, it means nothing. Who cares what a few staff members think? We are a family, and nothing will ever get in the way of that." Aja shrugged then. "Besides, I'm sure they only say that sort of stuff to let out some anger. I mean, we may be wonderful people, but even the most patient Akiridion would get frustrated after waiting hand and foot on us all day, right? I know I would."

Krel laughed a little, the coil of tension in his spine relaxing some. Aja smiled gently at him, though he could see the worry in her eyes. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Krel said.

Aja giggled. “Of course I am. I’m your older sister.” Krel smiled and relaxed further when Aja wrapped two arms around his shoulders and pulled him closer. She leaned her head against his and Krel softly sighed, the emotions that had kept him wound up for most of the day finally dispersing and leaving him quite exhausted. Although his concerns hadn't completely gone away, he did feel better after talking about it.

They stayed like that, wrapped in each other’s comfort, for a long time. When they finally did move, Krel bashfully asked, “Can I still stay the night?” to which Aja replied, “Of course, dummy.”

They laid back down and cuddled closer. A few moments passed after they relaxed and Krel said, “... Thank you, Aja.”

Aja hummed then replied, “Any time, little brother. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

It seemed Krel had a knack for finding himself in those situations. In the coming parsons, Krel had stumbled upon instances where members of the royal staff commented on the peculiarity of the royal family, and more often than not the conversation ended with them mentioning Krel's supposed role in the family—that is, that he was a plan B. He tried to not let it get to him, truly he did, but hearing it over and over again both by the staff and in his own head eventually made the possibility more and more plausible in his mind. Aja comforted him and tried to pull him from the metaphorical hole he was falling into, but it was as if he were hurtling through space, a huge, dark, looming black hole inching ever closer and that no matter what he did or what he tried to grab, he would forever grow closer until finally being crushed by its endless black. 

Metaphorically, of course. 

Aja just… She just wasn't enough it seemed.

And in the end, it didn't matter if those staff members had been right or wrong about why Krel was born.

Because when he came of age, he went through the ceremony privately with Aja at his side and his parents smiling gently at the terminal, and when the sectons turned to mekrons turned to horvaths and his parents finally turn the terminal off, their smiles now forced and worried, Krel’s worst fear, no matter how hard his mama and papa tried to convince him differently, had come true.

Krel Tarron, the second child of King Fialkov and Queen Coranda of House Tarron and prince of Akiridion-5, was bondless.


Chapter Text

 Mama and Papa walked Krel and Aja to their rooms. It was silent and Krel had yet to let go of Aja’s hands. She didn’t seem to mind too much.

Krel could tell his parents knew he didn’t believe their reassurances about his corebond, probably because Aja hadn’t either, but their continued silence told him that they were going to let the subject be, at least for the moment. He bet they knew he didn’t want to talk about it.

The family paused outside of Krel and Aja’s doors, the two children facing the entrances and their parents waiting behind them. They probably didn’t want to rush Krel. For that, at least, he could be grateful.

He took a deep breath and turned slightly, looking up at his parents half over his shoulder. They were smiling down at him, their gentle, sad smiles revealing their concern ( pity ) for him. He blinked, startled by the thought, but Papa was talking and he couldn’t deal with it at the moment.

“—so if you need anything, you know where to come to,” Papa was saying. Krel tried at a grin, but it felt fake. Mama gently laid a hand on his head, fingers slowly carding through his spiky hair.

“We love you, Krel,” she said, and bent down to give him a tight hug.

He sighed and his eyes fell shut, the vice-like grip around his core loosening a little in his mother’s embrace. “I love you too,” he mumbled into her shoulder, and she tightened her grip around him.

A few more sectons passed before she finally pulled away, smiling gently down at him. “Alright,” she said. “Rest up you two.”

Krel and Aja nodded and entered their own rooms, their parents walking away as the doors slid shut. Krel had barely gotten to his bed before Aja entered his room. “Are you going to be okay?” she asked immediately, rushing to his side and grabbing his hands again.

Krel sighed and gave her a weak smile. “Maybe? I don’t know.”

“Yeah,” Aja weakly laughed, imitating Krel’s expression. “I can understand that.” The attempt at smiling dropped off her face quickly and she let out her own frustrated sigh. “I was really hoping you wouldn’t have to go through this too.”

“It’s okay,” he lied.

“No, Krel, it isn’t,” Aja immediately countered. “I'm sorry that all this corebond stuff has been shoved down our throats. I don’t know why everyone makes it seem so important.”

“Yeah,” he said, hoping she’d drop the topic. He really, really didn’t want to think about it.

Luckily, she seemed to understand that, too. The two stood in silence for a few mekrons, thinking. Krel was glad Aja didn’t leave; it was nice to have someone present who fully understood his turmoil, even if they didn’t talk about it.

“You know, sometimes I wish I was never born a royal,” Aja said suddenly, catching Krel off guard. He turned to her, surprise clear on his face. She giggled at his expression and turned away. “Yeah, I know. That’s weird, right? Why wouldn’t anyone want this?” She gestured around them, at Krel’s room, but he knew she was talking about the palace, their status, their luxurious life. “Who wouldn’t want to be a royal, to be loved and admired and respected by all?” She brought her hands down to her chest and clasped them together. “To always be watched and be expected to be perfect?”

Ah. Now Krel understood.

“... I don’t think it’s weird,” he said a few moments later. Aja looked at him questioningly. “I mean, to not want this life. We’ve lived it after all. We’re the only ones who have any say in what this life is like.” 

Aja nodded. “Yes, exactly! I love Mama and Papa and I love being alive, but… I wish I was normal . I wish I could be whatever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do without the stress of the entire world judging my actions! I wish I was able to just… leave…” Aja’s eyes widened minutely, her face relaxing as she realized something.


She turned towards him and gripped his upper biceps suddenly. “We can , Krel!”

“What?” he yelped. “Can what?”

Leave! ” she shouted, throwing her hands up in the air. She laughed, relief coating her voice. “We don’t want to be here for one reason or another, so what’s stopping us from just hopping on a ship and leaving? ” 

Krel stared up at her disbelieving. “What? Like, everything, Aja!” he protested. “For one we don’t know how to pilot any of the ships!”

“How hard could it be?”

“There’s no way we can reasonably get passed all the guards that will be there!”

“I’d like to see them try to stop us!”  

“Aja, we don’t have anywhere we could go.

Aja opened her mouth to deny him again, but she paused. Then, she said, “Well, why should that stop us? It’s an adventure , Krel, we need no destination!”

But Krel shook his head. “Aja, I don’t know…”

“Come on, Krel!” Aja grabbed his biceps again and used another hand to guide his face to look at her. “Neither of us want to stay here. It’s not right for us. Why are you trying to convince me and yourself to stay in a place that only makes you sad?”

But does it make him sad? Sure, he’s had a few instances that have made him doubt his purpose, made him paranoid about finding his corebonded (something that is supposed to be an exciting, wonderful ceremony), made him start thinking strange thoughts about himself, his parents, sometimes even Aja too… but this was his home. He loved Akiridion-5, didn’t he? He’s known nowhere else. His parents were here, his sister was here, he… he didn’t know anything else.

… Maybe that’s the problem?

“I’m…” Krel started, staring into Aja’s patient eyes. For once in these long parsons, the grey didn’t hurt to look at. “I’m just scared.”

Aja let out a breath and pulled Krel into a hug. “I know. It’s… it’s scary to think about leaving. I’m anxious about it, too,” she whispered, then steeled her voice. “But I think this is right. If we can just get off planet, just experience something other than this royal life, then maybe… maybe we can find meaning other than being the bondless royal children of Akiridion-5.”

He hated that she made sense. He hated that she convinced him. (He didn’t hate her, though. Nothing in this or any world could do that).

“Yeah,” Krel said, giving a single, hard nod. “Yeah, okay.”

So they left.

And, well, they probably should’ve known that immediately leaving without a plan, or supplies, or thinking it through in the slightest would’ve backfired, but at the time they were riding the tails of exhilaration. They were finally doing something only for themselves, consequences be damned. They felt invigorated.

It was still disappointing, though.

Krel sat on the edge of his bed, staring at the floor, next to Mama. Papa was with Aja, probably having the same “I’m disappointed in you” speech Krel was sure was coming. For now though, they sat in silence.

He wondered if she was waiting for him to speak, maybe to apologize? Explain himself? He didn’t know what he would even say. Aja and I left because we feel inadequate as royals. We left because we were tired of being outcasted by our own culture, even if accidentally. We left because we just want to be normal.

Yeah. No.

Krel sighed and said, “If you’re waiting for me to apologize, we are going to be here awhile.”

Mama chuckled lightly, and when Krel turned to her she was shaking her head. “No, I don’t expect you to apologize. Even if you crashed a flier in the hanger.” There was a teasing glint in her eyes and Krel couldn’t help but laugh weakly. “And also, there is no law saying you two must stay in the castle at all times. Besides the flier, you did nothing wrong.”

“Then why stop us?” Krel asked. “Why didn’t you let us leave if we could whenever we wanted?”

“We don’t want you to get hurt,” Mama said, looking Krel sternly in the eye. “Neither of you know how to properly fly any of our ships and you could have gotten seriously injured or hurt someone else in the process. What you two tried to do was incredibly dangerous.” Krel looked away, his form brightening in shame. He knew that much was true, because even he’d tried to argue that to Aja, but he had gotten caught up in the imagined relief being away would bring. It was stupid of him.

“And…” Mama continued and Krel winced. “We wanted to stop you from doing something you’d regret.”

He paused and glanced back at her. “Regret?”

“This is your home, Krel,” she said. She lifted a hand and gently caressed Krel’s cheek, running her thumb over it. “Nobody is ever ready to leave their home. You are scared and confused, because something you’ve been taught would soon be with you turned out to be a little harder to find.” She was talking about his corebond. He wished she wouldn’t talk like he had one. “And so, you want to escape. But that won’t help, Krel. Running away never solved anyone’s problems.”

Hot shame filled him from the inside out and he quickly looked away, squeezing his eyes shut. Embarrassed, he choked out, “We don’t want to be royals.”

Mama was silent; he’d probably surprised her with that. He probably would’ve surprised anyone, besides Aja, by saying that out loud. When she spoke next, she sounded like she was barely keeping herself from sounding alarmed, “Krel, that isn’t something you can stop being. No matter where you go, no matter who you pretend to be, you will always be a royal of Akiridion-5.”

He didn’t care , though. He didn’t care how long it took or how far away he had to go, he just wanted out . He wanted away from the whispers and stares that tell him he’s not good enough, he wanted away from the judgement over his technical prowess ( it’s not becoming of a prince, leave that knowledge to the engineers, scientists, technicians, can’t you be more athletic, more outgoing, more like Aja ?) , he wanted away from the talk of corebonds and love and how he didn’t fit into the role he was made for. He felt broken and wrong here, and what was worse was that it was entirely his fault.

His fault for listening to the rumors about his corebond, about how he was second to Aja, about how he was just a plan B . His fault for keeping it hidden from his parents, letting it fester and mutate into something hideous inside him. His fault for internalizing it, believing every single word uttered by others about him, until he sometimes even hated his parents for giving him life. 

He himself is to blame for the poison in his home and like a coward he wanted out .

He didn’t say that, however. Any of it. He simply breathed in, then out, and said, “Okay.” 

Krel didn’t know if Mama believed him. She smiled her political smile, which hurt, and hugged him, which took the hurt away. She caressed his cheek again and said, “I love you,” to which he said it back. 

He watched her go, saw her reaching a hand towards his papa and turn away, before the door closed. He sighed and slumped forward, holding his head in his hands. 

Mama didn’t understand. She didn’t understand how it felt to be the second choice, to not have any meaning besides being a fallback plan. She didn’t understand how it felt to not even be that correctly. It might have not been as bad if he actually had a corebond. Then, at least, he could’ve done something right, could’ve been the best backup ever. Maybe he wouldn’t even have that terrible pit inside him that ached whenever he thought about corebonds. But no. The universe dealt him a bad hand. He was a bad prince, a bad second son, and a bad Akiridion. He was alone.

… Well, that’s not entirely true.

Once he felt the dark, twisting badness untangle from his core, he got up and went to his and Aja’s door. He leaned against the wall beside it and slowly slid to the ground.

He had Aja. Aja was just like him—she may be the first born, and she may be the prefered choice to both their parents and Akiridion-5, but she didn’t think that. She understood, at least partially, what he felt. 

“Hey, Aja?” Krel whispered. It felt like the words echoed in his empty room.

“Yes?” Aja answered from her room. Krel smiled weakly, the fact that they both decided to sit by the door for comfort warming him.

“I, um…” he hesitated. “I was wondering if you’d, um…”

“What is it?” Aja prompted, though she didn’t sound impatient.

Krel took a breath. “Can we… make a promise?”

“A promise?”

Krel nodded even though she couldn’t see him. “Yes. A promise to… to always stay together against whatever the universe decides to throw at us.” Aja was silent and Krel felt a flare of panic, so he continued, “I just mean, since we’re the same and we don’t know anyone else like us and probably never will, that we should always be there for each other, since… we don’t know who else would.”

“I would love to, Krel,” Aja said, sounding fond and loving and the warmth inside of Krel increased. She understood. She would never hurt him, even unintentionally. She didn’t think she was the better child, didn’t think herself superior to him. She thought he was a genius, thought that was such a wonderful thing. She was the best sister he could have ever asked for.

“Okay,” he said. Krel’s face hurt from how hard he was smiling.  “Okay, great!”

Aja giggled. “Alright. I promise I will always stick by your side, no matter what happens.”

Krel nodded. “And I, too. No matter what it is, we do it together.”

And they did.

They stayed connected at the hip, metaphorically, for the next few keltons. They had been close before, since they’d only really had each other for company, but there was a deeper connection to their bond now, one that rivalled the corebond itself. They clung to one another like they were each other's life lines, thinking naively that they were the only two in the whole universe that understood the pain of having no one at the end of their red string.

Over that same time, Krel and Aja tried many times to run away, but their escape plans were always either thwarted or sidetracked. Sometimes they were caught by Zadra or Vex, sometimes circumstances made them return back home. Every time, their parents would talk with them, try to convince them not to leave again. Sometimes it would be Mama talking to Krel, sometimes it would be Papa, sometimes both of them talked to Krel and Aja together. It never worked, though. Krel could tell Mama and Papa knew that, could see it in their eyes. He wondered how they justified it to themselves, how they rationalized their children’s multiple attempts to run away.

It made him uncomfortable to hurt their parents like that, and he knew Aja felt the same, but it was never enough to deter them from trying to leave. This life just… wasn’t for them. That was something they agreed on wholeheartedly.

Until one delson, they didn’t.

It began when Krel and Aja were fifteen and sixteen respectively. Aja was of age to be crowned Queen-in-Waiting. The coronation delson would probably be announced soon. Naturally, they were planning on running away again.

“You know, last time we were really close!” Aja was saying. “The only reason it didn’t work was because of that chance guard coming by. I think we should chance it again.”

Krel was skeptical though. He looked up from where he was rubbing Luug’s belly. “I don’t entirely like the idea of going through with a plan that already failed.”

“I promise, it will work this time!” Aja insisted. “Everyone will be concerned with the coronation, anyway! They won’t be watching the perimeter as closely.”

Krel rose an eyebrow. “Unless they knew of a certain prince and princess’s past attempts at escaping.”

Aja at least had the wherewithal to look abashed. “I suppose you are right. Perhaps we could—”

There was a knock on Aja’s door. The two glanced at each other in confusion before Aja called, “Um, come in!” 

The door slid open and their parents walked in one after the other. They looked excited, happy. Krel felt something hard form in the bottom of his gut.

Luug jumped off the bed and ran circles around their parents’ feet, the latter two chuckling at the excitable pet. Krel slid to the side of Aja’s bed, hunching over a little as he waited for the coronation planning Mama and Papa were going to start; that was the only reason he could think of for why they were there. He wondered why they bothered; they had to know both she and him were going to leave regardless. 

“Aja, Krel,” Papa greeted and the two greeted him back. Aja sat beside Krel with Luug in her arms, looking way more innocent than what their earlier scheming warranted. Krel bit back a laugh.

“We’re here to discuss the coronation,” Mama started, smiling warmly down at them. “It is important you understand what all will be happening that delson.”

Here it comes , Krel thought and fought to keep himself from outwardly reacting. He’d always known this was coming, that eventually Mama and Papa would officially decide that Aja was the one they wanted to rule Akiridion-5 when they were gone, but it didn’t make it hurt any less. 

It doesn’t matter, he chided himself. We’ll both be gone by then anyway.

“We would have come to tell you the plan earlier, a least by a couple of weeks,” Papa said, “but our advisors were still trying to talk us out of the whole thing. They were begging for us to stick to tradition at least once . No worries, however, we finally convinced them we wouldn’t be swayed.”

Mama laughed a little, as did Papa. That didn’t really make sense to Krel, because why would they need to convince their advisors of having their first born be the heir? What was more traditional than that? He was missing something.

“Anyway,” Mama continued, still smiling. “It will be a relatively short ceremony—” Mama and Papa launched into an explanation of all that would happen that delson. Mostly everything was planned out, even things before the ceremony proper. There were going to be performances both before and after, including demonstrations of combat after the actual coronation.

Krel shifted in his seat as he listened. Where was he going to be in all of this? Would he stand with his parents and watch his sister be crowned Queen-in-Waiting? Would he be with the other nobility, watching from the side lines? Would he be down in the waiting room, there to wish her luck before she went out?

Krel shook his head to clear his thoughts. We won’t even be there, it doesn’t matter.

“Is something wrong, Krel?” Papa asked suddenly and Krel startled. 

“Um—” His family was staring at him, curious. Ah kleb, say something! “I was just wondering, um… Where will I be in all this?” 

Mama and Papa blinked in unison, obviously confused. They shared a glance, then Mama said, “What do you mean, Krel?”

Ah, well this was a little embarrassing. Krel’s form brightened. “Ah, I mean… where will I be standing while Aja is crowned Queen-in-Waiting?”

“Well, beside her, of course,” Papa said, still looking confused. “Where else would you stand during your coronation?”

It didn’t click. Krel stared blankly up at his papa as he tried to process the words, to make sense of them. His coronation? With Aja? Both of them, together? But that would mean… That doesn’t… Why would they…?

“What?” Krel finally whispered. Aja was still beside him.

“You and Aja will stand next to each other and be crowned King- and Queen-in-Waiting at the same time,” Mama explained, looking mildly concerned. 

“I don’t…” Krel shook his head, his insides fluttering. “It’s… my coronation too? I’m… also your heir?”

His parents let out similar, startled laughs. “Wh—of course, Krel!” Papa cried. “What ever made you think otherwise?”

Krel tensed, flashes of past overheard rumors and conversations from various staff members ringing in his ears. “I—well—um—”

Their faces softened, looking almost sad. Mama leaned forward and placed a hand on his knee. “You both were always going to be our heirs. There was never a doubt in our minds about it.”

Papa’s hand landed in his hair and Krel’s eyes flickered up to him. “We’re sorry you were made to think otherwise,” he said. “We should have been more clear long before now that you were always going to do this together, as brother and sister.”

Seklos and Gaylen. That vice-like chain squeezing his core relaxed; he felt like he could finally breathe again. He wasn’t hurtling toward that blackhole anymore. He caught onto something, wrapping himself around it desperately, and it stopped his descent into oblivion. It was warm and safe and felt like home. 

“Oh,” he said, dumbly, because he didn’t know what else he could. He had so thoroughly convinced himself of his own uselessness that being told the opposite felt like being reset, felt like error codes flashing across a terminal. It just… didn’t make sense.

Mama and Papa smiled at him again, a look of understanding in their eyes, like they suddenly understood everything that happened in the last few keltons. Maybe they did. Maybe it made sense to them, maybe they thought he and Aja only ran because they thought only one of them would rule, maybe they thought he and Aja wouldn’t run any more now that they knew better. 

They want me, he suddenly thought and it came with the realization that everything he’d been using as an excuse to leave was wrong. Despite everything—that he’s bondless, that he wasn’t the perfect prince, that he had run away time and time again, surely breaking their cores—they still wanted him. He was good enough in their eyes, always had been.

His parents were talking again, finishing their explanation of the coronation delson, but Krel wasn’t paying attention anymore. He spent the remainder of the conversation in a daze and was only jolted out of it when Mama and Papa hugged him and Aja goodbye.

“We’ll see you tomorrow, alright? Rest up,” Papa said after pulling away, and with two identical, fond, and loving looks, the two left.

Krel watched them go, getting lost in his own head again, when Aja elbowed his side. “I almost feel bad letting them make all of these preparations for a ceremony that’s going to be canceled, right, Krel?” Aja laughed.

Krel forced himself to laugh along, surprised to find he was hesitant to agree with her. Hadn’t he been thinking that exact way not ten mekrons ago? Where did all of his certainty that they’d be far away go?

He needed to organize his thoughts, that was all. His parents turned his whole world view around on him and it’s confusing him. He just needed some time to think. Then everything would go back to normal.


Things most certainly did not go back to normal.

That is to say, Krel didn’t. His parents continued on with their coronation planning, bringing Krel and Aja along for their input. Aja kept up her own planning for their escape, now needing to coax Krel into coming up with ideas and routes. The staff kept whispering, the gray still hurt, Luug was disgustingly adorable as usual. But Krel was not normal.

The idea of running away just… didn’t seem right anymore. It was like someone had rearranged the wiring in his core and shifted his preferences and thought process. He was hesitant when talking about escaping with Aja, he found himself almost excited when his parents talked about the coronation festivities. He was so torn between the two conflicting ideas it exhausted him to even think about.

And think he did. He spent so much time stuck in his own head, even Aja was starting to worry about him. He could see it when they were alone together, when her spoken brainstorming would slowly taper off and she would hesitantly ask if he was okay. He couldn’t even talk to her about it, because he didn’t even know where to begin.

It sat wrong in him to think about running away. Did that mean he didn’t want to anymore? But why was that? Did it really only take his parents saying they wanted him and had always wanted him to change his mind? Was it always that simple? Or did he never actually want to go, and he was just going along with Aja because he was so lost, so unsure of his purpose?

But at the same time, he was anxious about the coronation. He worried about the audience’s reaction, about the combat demonstration, about the aftermath. He wasn’t ready to be a king, didn’t think he would ever be ready. Once upon a time he would’ve said he didn’t even want to be one, but now he’s hesitant to even think that! The whole thing made him tingly and on edge, but he would often catch himself smiling even as he trembled. 

He didn’t know what to do, who he could turn to. Before, he would talk to Aja about his troubles, because he knew Aja would understand, and she would do the same to him. But he didn’t know how she would react to this. She obviously hadn’t changed her mind in the slightest about Mama and Papa’s decision, if her constant planning was anything to go by. She still wanted to run away. She still didn’t want to be a royal. And Krel…

He didn’t know how he felt anymore.

And he knew he should’ve brought it up with Aja sooner, but he wanted to figure it out himself so he could properly explain himself and so Aja would understand fully too. She was quick to jump to conclusions, she could be brash and impatient, and he didn’t want her to lash out and misunderstand him if he didn’t explain just perfectly how he wasn’t exactly totally feeling up to running away again—

But that understanding never came. Long weeks and a single escape attempt that he himself thwarted by sheer bullshitery passed and suddenly the delson was here and he had completely  klebbed himself over.

He spent the mekrons before stasis foolishly hoping Aja would get cold feet and back out of the plan so that he didn’t have to back out on her , but he knew even while he wished it that that was impossible. 

The first thing he felt after the sleepy confusion that comes from waking up unexpectedly was cold dread. Aja whispered, “Come on! Wake up! It’s time to leave!” in his ear, sounding just as excited as she always did before they attempted to run. She was not-so-gently shaking him, something that did nothing for the fluttering and aches that had so quickly taken residence inside him.

“I’m—I’m up,” he forces out, pushing himself up onto two forearms.

“Good morning, little brother~” Aja sang, then giggled. “Happy Coronation Delson.”

Krel awkwardly laughed along with her as he sat up fully. It was now or never, he had to tell her he didn’t want to go through with it, he had to somehow explain—

“Come on, we have to leave now!” Aja said. She grabbed his arms and hauled him to his feet. Luug was running around excitedly, no doubt leeching energy off of Aja’s own excitement. She threw Krel’s cloak around his shoulders and started pulling him towards his door.

Kleb, this is bad , he thought, because his mind was blank. He couldn’t form an explanation, couldn’t even think of how to start. The door was getting closer and closer, he was losing time, but there was no safe way to say this, no way of telling her without stumbling and messing up and having her misunderstand, think he was abandoning her, he just needed time

“Wait,” he gasped and they stopped.

She turned to him, surprised. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“I—um—” Of all the times for his genius to fail him, of course it would be when it mattered most. He was never good with words, Aja would usually just understand but there was no way she would immediately understand the conflict swirling around inside him, it didn’t work like that, she wasn’t a mindreader . “I just—”

Her face had changed while he fumbled. Before it’d been curious, maybe even a little worried; he probably had his anguish written all over his face. Now, though, there was a realization in her features, one that matched horribly with the disbelief that was in her eyes. Oh no no no kleb, it’s not what you think, Aja, I just—

“You’re bailing out on me,” Aja whispered, her words spreading the cold dread inside him all over his body. She pulled away from him, whipping around to face him fully, and took a half step away from him. Luug stopped his prancing about, whimpering at the sudden mood shift.

“No, no, of course not, Aja,” Krel tried to amend, not even trying to hide the desperateness from his voice, “I-I just need more time to think about everything, I’ve been so confused and jarred, I just need a little more time to sort this out—”

“We don’t have time, Krel! This is our only chance to finally leave! ” Aja snapped, the disbelief in her eyes being replaced by anger and, worst of all, hurt. “What’s so confusing about this? I don’t want to be Queen-in-Waiting, you don’t want to be King-in-Waiting; I thought we’d worked through this already.”

“But that’s just it!” Krel argued, his hands gesturing wildly. “We had worked it out and we agreed, but now ever since Mama and Papa told us we’d both be the heirs, I’ve just been so torn and—” 

“Ever since Mama and Papa…?” she mumbled and Krel nodded vigorously, thinking she was getting it.

“Yes!” he said. “Everything is so weird and jumbled in my head now, I just don’t understand and—” He shook his head. The sentences he tried to formulate in his head sounded like disoriented klebso. 

“Oh,” she said, suddenly quiet. The earlier fire in her eyes had been dowsed, leaving behind a sad kind of acceptance. “So you were only coming with me because you thought you weren’t an heir?”

“I—er,” he stumbled. Something wasn’t right. Why did she look so calm all of sudden? Why did she sound so… empty? “I mean, not exactly, but—”

“But that’s basically it?” Aja interrupted him, now sounding scarily defeated.

“That’s the thing, I don’t—” he started and felt a flare of annoyance when Aja interrupted him again.

“Look, Krel,” she sighed, “I think I understand.”

He blinked, skeptical, because he’d barely even started explaining, and he didn’t even understand it himself. Regardless, he felt relief blossom from his chest. “You do?”

Aja nodded. “At least partially.” She took a breath and melted where she stood. “You don’t want to leave. You want to go through with it. Being told you were an heir changed your mind about running away.”

“Well, I mean, kind of—” Krel started.

“No, it’s fine, Krel,” Aja interrupted again. “I can’t make you come with me, just like you can’t stop me from leaving.” She grabbed two of his hands and squeezed, a gesture that used to be comforting, but now froze his insides further. Cold realization spread over his features as Aja smiled sadly. “I am sorry I made you feel so trapped.”

“Wait, Aja, you didn’t—” She released his hands as he spoke and scooped Luug up into her arms. She walked to the door despite his pleas. “ Please , wait!”

Aja’s hand hovered over the scanner, hesitating. She sighed. “Krel, I can’t stay here. This isn’t the life for me, I don’t… I don’t want this.”

“I—I know that,” Krel said, desperate. “But you can’t just—Aja, you can’t just leave me alone here. Nobody—nobody else understands, I need you. Don’t leave me .”

She turned to him, her hand dropping away from the scanner. “What about me, Krel?” she said, her earlier anger leaking into her voice. “Don’t I get a say in my actions? I don’t know what you want me to do! I’m not going to force myself to go through with something I’ve never wanted to do just so you can be comfortable. I’m not going to put myself in the very situation I’ve been running from for keltons now just because you’ve become indecisive .” She looked back to the door and hugged Luug tighter. He whimpered. “My mind has always been made up. I’m leaving. Good luck at the ceremony.”

“But—But what about our promise?” Krel tried. It was perhaps a low blow, but it was the only thing he could think of to convince her to just wait a secton. He didn’t know what else he could say to make her stay with him. He knew it was wrong, to try to guilt her into staying, but he didn’t think he could handle going out there without her at his side. He cursed himself for being torn over something that had been so simple before. He didn't want to be alone, but he couldn't just make himself leave. He couldn’t force himself to do something he didn’t want to either.

Aja paused, but still opened the door a secton later. She stepped through and looked over her shoulder at him. She looked just about as anguished as he felt. “I’m not the one breaking our promise, Krel.”

Something shattered inside him. Whatever it was fractured under the pressure of his despair, its fissures running through his entire being. A terrible, horrible hurt filled him, taking residence in every strand of energy that made up his being. He ached and ached from head to toe, feeling as if he was burning from the inside out. It shackled him where he stood, holding him captive as disbelief and anguish and betrayal swelled from his core. In the span of three sectons, Krel realized what heartbreak felt like.

(he flipped and flew through open space. the stars around him were so very far away, taunting him with their glimmering gray. his momentum was endless; he only seemed to go faster and faster as he hurtled towards the huge, dark, all-encompassing black hole. then, after keltons of that terrible, weightless horror, he felt himself finally be swallowed whole.)

His door slid shut behind his sister, cutting off her fleeing figure from view. The last thing he saw of her was her fluttering cloak as she rushed off into the early morning—to adventure, to happiness... to freedom. He realized that might be the last time he ever saw her.

And he broke.

Chapter Text

Each step reverberated through Aja’s body like an electric shock. She clung to Luug tightly, forcing herself to ignore the screaming in her nerves to turn around. The distraction only kind of worked to block out the noise ringing in her ears (she had heard the strangled noise he made, heard him collapse to the floor, heard him cry out for her only once. She might as well have heard his core shatter under her foot and she had just kept running ). Luug whimpered in her borderline painful grasp, but she could not loosen her grip for fear of losing her nerve. She didn’t know if her resolve would hold.

Half on auto-pilot, Aja tore through the palace, expertly dodging passed and hiding from the many guards stationed everywhere. Having known this would be their her last chance to finally run away, she had gone over the route thoroughly over the past weeks with... and thus, felt fairly confident she could make it outside without a hitch. Even with her mind as preoccupied as it was.

In what felt like no time at all, Aja finally reached the huge front entrance to the palace. She carefully exited the place that had been her home for sixteen long keltons, eyes flickering around to spy for sentries. There were no guards immediately around; she could see one group leaving in one direction and another coming towards her, both in the distance and no doubt switching posts. She’d arrived exactly on time.

Aja could see the opening in the gates just down the courtyard. She’d made it. She was so close. Now she just had to get down the very open, very vulnerable path in front of her and she was home free.

She took in a deep breath and let it out. Luug made curious noises at her and she gently smiled down at him. Focusing on his joyful, innocent eyes made her feel less tense, less horrible. At the very least, it served as a good distraction against the echoes in her head and the vice grip on her core. “We’re almost there, Luug,” she whispered. “We’re so close!”

Luug whimpered and she hugged him close. Then, with another breath, she took off for the large spires that lined the pathway. Despite the exposure the courtyard had, Aja crossed it in three mekrons flat. She was breathless from her running and nerves, her mind running a hundred miles a mekron. It felt too easy, too good to be true.

Aja checked one last time for any guards that could spot her and found none. She rushed through the threshold and exited the palace grounds. She ran for the immediate buildings and slid behind one, allowing herself to feel a little giddy. She made it! In record time, too! She didn’t think she and Krel ever got out of the palace so quickly before! It was—!


The thought of her brother quickly froze her hesitant excitement. The spot beside her sat glaringly empty, seeming to mock her with its quiet air. The whole area was silent as the city woke slowly. It was serene, and Aja might have considered it peaceful if it weren’t for her predicament.

Seklos and Gaylen, it hasn’t even been one horvath, and she’s already missing him.

Aja gave a heavy sigh and looked to Luug, still nestled in her arms. The animal blinked at her once and immediately began kissing her with reckless abandon. Aja laughed and cried for him to stop, trying to block his tongue with her hands. Luug barked at her twice and seemed to smile up at her, looking quite pleased that he’d cheered her up, if only a little. 

Aja smiled as well and pet his head gently. “I guess we’re on our own, huh, Luug?” The animal barked again, leaning into her hand.

Aja picked herself back up with a sigh and hugged Luug to her chest. She sneaked out from behind the building and peaked at the castle gate. There were no leagues of guards coming through, so she could only assume she’d made it out without anyone knowing.

Well… anyone that would stop me.

She winced and shook her head. “Come on, Aja,” she scolded herself. “You’ve made it this far, you can’t give up yet. You deserve a normal life too. You have a right to your wants. Just like him.” She glanced at the palace again, a pained look coming over her face, and sighed. “Even if leaving kills you.”

She tore her gaze from her old home and squared her shoulders, tightening her hold on Luug to stop her hands from shaking. Without another glance, she continued further into the awakening city.

Krel stood just below the huge stadium that the coronation was to be held in and stewed in his regret for every single one of his decisions thus far.

He tried to distract himself by working on his project, but nothing could drown the roars of the awaiting audience from his ears. The sound seemed to echo in the chamber, and his fear only climbed the longer he heard it. Three times now, he nearly broke a data chip with his fumbling hands as he tried to pretend everything was okay.

He really, really couldn’t blame her for leaving. Or, well, he could, but he didn’t want to. Because he understood (more than anyone else could, really) and if he could have only figured his own thoughts out, he probably would have joined her like he had so many times before. But Krel didn't have Aja's bravery or recklessness to go along with any little thought that crossed his mind, so he stayed, and now his indecisiveness was causing him to go through this coronation alone. It hurt, more than anything had before, but he understood.

His thoughts volleyed between her and anything that wasn’t her at speeds even his own people haven’t achieved. Was she okay? Did she make it? Gently twist the closing knob into place… Had she been caught? No, no, of course not, it had been horvaths since she left, if she’d been caught he would’ve already known. She was probably off-planet. Don’t break another data chip, just keep your hands steady. Especially since she didn’t have him to hold her back. He wondered where she was off to, then, which star she decided to go towards first. 

Actually, Krel paused, smiling bitterly, she probably just pointed at one randomly and went for it. She had never spent too much time overthinking the little things, like he did. Focus on the tech, Krel.

He wondered if she would watch the broadcast of the coronation. He wondered if she wished he was with her.

Suddenly, the audience’s cheers disappeared, like they were sucked from the very air itself with an audible fwoomp. He felt a single pulse of energy through his being, that seemed to echo through his head and sent a harsh tremor through his body. The cylinder and data chip he was holding slipped from his hands and a shaky, trembling breath wheezed from his throat. Krel pulled his shaking fists to his chest and he folded in on himself, trying and failing to control his suddenly heavy breath. "Come on, Krel," he chided weakly and it was like his soft voice echoed in the too-quiet chamber. The shivering didn’t stop. "It's too late for second guesses. You did this to yourself, get over it already."

"Krel, my boy." All at once, sound returned to him. The audience’s collective shout rang through the chamber, just under his papa's booming voice, and Krel startled. He quickly straightened up and snatched some of the floating tech from the air, trying to grasp at some semblance of normalcy as his papa walked up to him. "I am sorry to say, but… it appears Aja has—"

"Run away?" Krel interrupted, forcibly distant. He heard a click as he closed a cylinder’s top into place, but couldn't bring himself to enjoy it. "I… knew, already."

"... I see," Papa said. Krel waited for the reprimand, the anger, but it didn't come. Instead, Papa came up behind him, brushing the floating tech away, and gently laid a hand on one of his shoulders. Krel looked up at him, open and curious and only a little desperate for comfort. "I won't ask the obvious question of 'why', because I believe I already know the reason.” Krel winced and Papa’s tiny smile was only present for a few moments. "But… judging by how you looked when I came in, whatever happened has hurt you.” Kleb, he saw, Krel thought. “And knowing what I do of Aja, she will be hurting too. You and her share a most wonderful bond, Krel,” Papa squeezed his shoulder, “one even the most loving and devoted of corebonded would be jealous of… I’m sorry this has come between you two.” Papa nodded towards the stadium entrance, where the crowd’s cheers still echoed. Krel could picture Mama there, waving and stalling for a daughter that wouldn’t show. He looked to the floor, his core aching.

After a moment, Papa began speaking again, “It may seem as if you two will never come back from this, but I know this isn’t something that can break the love you share for each other so easily.” Krel glanced up and Papa was smiling at him again, looking so sure of himself that Krel was nearly inclined to agree. He didn’t, but kleb , his papa was incredibly persuasive.

“How can you be so sure?” Krel asked. "How do you know that I—that we can come back from this?"

“It is simple,” Papa said. “You are both kind and good and you share a deep understanding for one another. It may hurt, but you both are too strong for this simple dispute to be the thing to break you apart. The fact that you’re hurting at all is all the evidence you need.”

Krel frowned and looked away again. It couldn’t be that easy. It wasn’t. He wouldn’t feel so hopeless and alone if the solution was simply making up with Aja. He felt too hurt to do that. He may understand why she left and her reasoning for it, but that didn’t mean he forgave her for it. That morning in the moments following her departure he had even thought briefly that he might’ve hated her.

He didn’t. That, he was sure of. Nothing could make him hate her. Not even Aja herself. But in that moment, he felt it surge through him, encompassing every strand of energy in his body; an anger that hid underneath the sorrow and betrayal that brought him to his knees. 

It would be easier to tell himself he did, to let his anger swallow his mind. Maybe if he hated her, he could focus on that and ignore the hurt she caused him. But in the end, it hurt more to hate her than it did to mourn.

And even if it didn’t, he didn’t deserve that kind of refuge. 

Krel opened his mouth to refute his papa, tell him that regardless of their kindness or understanding, nothing would ever truly fix what broke between them; but Zadra interrupted, declaring they needed to begin the ceremony.

A thrill of panic flit through Krel’s nerves as Papa nodded, saying “Thank you, Zadra.” While she bowed her head and returned to the stadium, Papa gestured for Krel to follow with him. “Wait—” Krel gasped, catching one of Papa’s wrists. “What if—What if I won’t be a good king? What if I’m not ready for this yet?”

Papa chuckled lightly, a knowing glint in his eyes, as he turned to Krel fully. “Nobody is ever ready for leadership, Krel. Even I, sometimes, reflect and think ‘kleb I really am a king aren’t I?’” The swear shocked a laugh from Krel, his fear uncurling from his core briefly, and Papa’s expression softened into a tiny smile. “Life… is a series of choices, Krel. It is what we do in small moments that change our lives for the better, or for the worse.” He wrapped his arms around Krel and pulled him into a hug, a hand carding through the young prince’s hair. “You’ll never have to make these choices alone, however. Your family will always be there.” Then, in response to Krel’s clenched hands against his back, Papa stressed, “ Always.

Krel nodded, allowing himself to accept his papa’s words of comfort and encouragement. He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Alright,” he said. “I’m ready.”

“Weren’t you paying attention?” Papa laughed as he pulled away. “Nobody is ever ready.” Nevertheless, he ruffled Krel’s hair and stepped out into the stadium before him, throwing a final encouraging smile at him.

Krel watched his papa join his mama in the center of the stadium. The two rulers of Akiridion-5 looked flawless and in control, like they could take on any problem, no matter how big or small, and come out victorious. He’d always admired his parents for that. He believed it, too. It was like his parents could do anything they set their minds to. 

He wanted to be like that. He wondered how he could ever live up to the expectations his parents unwittingly set.

Krel shook his head and took in another deep breath. It was now or never.

Krel stepped out into the stadium.

Aja didn’t know what, exactly, she was still doing in the city. At first she had been drawn in by the shops opening and the people wandering about, but now… She’d tried to deny to herself that she was stalling for time, but after a few horvaths had passed and the delson was nearly half over, she couldn’t convince herself any longer. 

She wanted to go, but not like this. She didn’t want to burn her bridges. She wanted Krel with her, she wanted to traverse the universe with him. She wanted to live the normal life she dreamed of with him at her side, where there were no expectations of duties and corebonds and being the perfect children for their world’s perfect King and Queen. Where they would never again be hurt like they were before.

And she respected his decision, she really did, but that didn’t make it hurt less. That didn’t mean she forgave him for abandoning her.

She didn’t know what she was still doing here. She didn’t know why she hoped he would somehow find her, that he would suddenly decide she was right and come after her, that he would actually join her after the way they parted. But she did. And the only reason she could somehow pretend she wasn't hoping he'd turn up to join her was because of her curiosity… and also her pet.

Speaking of which… 

“I see you, you little slime-bucket!” Aja cried looking down at the fleeing animal from the second floor of one of the buildings. The sneaky vermin had lead her up there just so he could leap down to the ground again! She wouldn’t be trapped, though.

Aja leapt to the other side of the alley onto another building, then hopped to the ground-level. Luug was already turning the corner, but she was hot on his tail. 

She dodged passed other Akiridions, cursing Luug for drawing so much attention to them. Just because they were running away didn’t mean they had to actually run! 

Her pet was now on the other side of the street, looking at her with big innocent eyes and her freaking serrator hanging from his mouth. "Get back here!” she shouted. “Or I’ll have you turned into flexel!!”

She took a running leap toward the street and pushed off against the first vehicle that passed under her. She gracefully flipped and jumped off the next few vehicles until she landed on her feet on the other side of the street. With a final surge forward, she tackled Luug to the ground, wrapping her four arms around him tightly so he couldn’t squirm away. “That is not a toy!” she hissed as she pulled her serrator from his mouth and stood. He belched as she did and sent both of them flying onto the bartop, drawing even more attention to them. "Luug!!” she groaned.

Before she could scold him further, one of the Akiridions standing nearby said, “Keep it down, will ya? The coronation is about to start!”

“What?” she gasped before she was rudely pushed off the bar by the Blank robot bartending. She let out a pained groan as she stood and quickly snatched Luug back into her arms so he couldn't flee. She then looked up to see most of the other people around had turned their attention back to the many hologram projectors that lined the bar’s wall displaying the coronation, and therefore her brother, in solid gray visuals for all to see.

Her core gave a painful squeeze as she saw her brother’s hologram looking nervous but resolute as he walked presumably into the stadium. The hologram display shifted to a side view, showing their parents welcoming Krel with gentle smiles and pride in their eyes as he walked up to them. Krel returned their smiles with a nervous one of his own before turning towards one side of the audience. As he did, the hologram image shifted to show the three of them from the front. Mama and Papa stepped up behind Krel and both set one hand on either of his top shoulders.

Her mama then spoke with a voice that held the confidence of a proud and learned leader. "Before the heir is declared, my husband and I wish to officially address the topic of our son's corebond." 

The crowd around Aja began murmuring, and as she clutched Luug tightly to her chest, she could make out words like finally, and, worst of all, bondless. Their parents had told the both of them this would happen before they were made heirs, but now that the moment was actually here, she could feel anxiety rush through her on Krel’s behalf. He was doing a good job of hiding his fear, at least. Even Aja could barely see the terror concealed behind his eyes. 

"Krel Tarron of House Tarron is not bonded to an Akiridion," Papa stated. The whispering increased in volume, but Aja tuned it out to focus completely on her brother. He stood stoically, gazing forward with an emotionless face, but she knew he was shaking, trying desperately to hold it together as their parents told the world what he thought was his greatest shame. "His bond is to another, on some other world, somewhere in our great and beautiful universe. Many might try to claim him as unworthy of the throne of Akiridion because of this." In unison, Aja and Krel's eyes widened, surprised their papa would mention their shared fear so bluntly. Papa plowed on, "But that is where your understanding of House Tarron and our family falters."

While Papa spoke, Krel had turned his head to him, obviously surprised. Papa smiled down at Krel, and Aja could imagine he was squeezing her brother's shoulder tightly, warmly, showing his full support in such a tiny gesture. Mama then picked up, causing Krel to turn towards her now. "Our son is a brilliant and talented prince. He is kind, he is caring, and he is righteous. From the moment he was born, we have known this simple fact: no matter who the universe would have chosen to be his corebonded, Krel Tarron will always be our heir and our beloved son.” When Krel smiled then, it was no longer nervous and scared, but loving and proud. He turned forward and faced the audience, looking more sure of himself than Aja had seen in quite a while.

And looking into his hologram’s eyes, Aja realized something too. 

“So,” she whispered, barely registering the approving murmurs around her, the nods in agreement, or the thunderous applause that came from the hologram and echoed from the stadium so close, yet so far away. “That’s it then.” Perhaps she and Krel had been wrong to assume so negatively how their people would react, but it didn't matter now either way. It was too late to undo what they'd done.

Mama and Papa smiled confidently, presumably in response to the applause, and nodded to one another. Loth Soborian’s hologram walked into frame beside her parents, holding two of the Heir's Crown, the device that delivers the mark of the heir. “Now then,” Mama said and Krel faced their parents again, the hologram shifting to a side view once more. “For hundreds of keltons, Akiridion-5 stood divided between two houses—” But Aja wasn’t listening anymore.

Seklos and Gaylen, what are you doing? She shook her head to clear her thoughts and turned swiftly on her heel as her parents officially began the ceremony. Luug whimpered as she ran away from the crowded area in the direction of her escape, ignoring the strange looks and whispers that followed her.

She didn’t know what she had expected, really. She had lingered in the city outside the palace, getting dreadfully off schedule because she half-expected, half-hoped Krel would change his mind. She had stayed to watch the beginning of the coronation because she wanted to see Krel leave in the middle of it, tell the world he didn’t want to be their King-in-waiting. She had at least wanted to see her parents cancel it because that would have meant Krel wasn’t there, which would’ve meant he didn’t want to go through with it, which would’ve meant he would be joining her. Then, they could’ve ran away together like they had tried so many times to do before.

But Aja was stupid. So very, very stupid. Of course, Krel wouldn’t do anything like that. Of course. He was too stubborn to realize he was ever wrong. At the very least, if he did come to terms with the unlikelihood of being wrong, he would bend over backwards to overcorrect. Why did she ever think he would so quickly and so easily change his mind? Why did she think that, after what'd happened that morning, things could so easily go back to normal? And she claimed to know him better than he knew himself. Stupid.

A large explosion sounded from the direction she came from, and Aja whipped around to see that a large pillar of light shot into the sky. A few sectons later, it dissipated, and all around her she heard the cheers of nearby Akiridions. 

Aja breathed in, a tight feeling in her core. It’s done, then. No going back. Seklos and Gaylen, she’d never felt so foolish before.

She had wasted valuable time doing nothing. Krel wasn’t coming for her. She’d known this all delson, but had been too hopeful and dependent on him to internalize. 

What if she missed her chance to leave because of this? All because she couldn’t pass up the chance to see her brother just one more time? Everything about the situation was horrible, no matter how relieving seeing Krel safe, seeing him smiling proudly, seeing him even a little bit happy had been.

(And, after the way she left? It was wonderful knowing for sure he would be surrounded by support and love in her absence. Even if it hurt. Even if she felt so incredibly foolish.)

She couldn’t afford to be distracted anymore. She couldn’t let herself get so clumsy. She had a goal and she’d be damned if she didn’t achieve it. Brother or no.

With her priorities straightened out, Aja turned herself back towards her escape. Hopefully, if everything worked out, she could still make it off-planet in the next horvath. She began to run.

And then the sky started falling.

Krel stared blankly ahead out of the Mothership’s front glass shield, watching as the stars smeared across the glass while they rocketed away from their home. His mind wandered as he tried to comprehend the last few horvaths, drifting from warm, supporting hands sitting firm on his shoulders, to comforting arms wrapped tightly around his body in the dark of night, to faintly glowing weapons in a crate discovered by a naive prince so, so long ago. Distantly, he wondered for how long the coup was planned.

The ridge across his forehead burned.

Krel closed his eyes and breathed in slow, letting it out a few sectons later. He pulled his gaze from the stars, forcing his thoughts away. He blinked at the empty chair on the other side of the room, suddenly realizing Aja had not returned from putting their parents in stasis. “Varvatos,” he called and the commander glanced over his shoulder. “Where is Aja?”

“Varvatos does not know,” Vex said as he turned his attention back to piloting. “He can only assume she is still with the King and Queen.”

“Oh,” Krel whispered and, after a few moments contemplating, stood. Regardless of his conflict with her, he should at least make sure she was okay.

As Krel left the deck, Luug ran up to him and barked. Krel allowed a small smile and picked the pet up, hugging him around the torso tightly. It was quite comforting having something to hold on to.

Despite himself, Krel couldn’t help worrying about his sister and where she went off to (though he could imagine why she wanted to be alone), which had the unfortunate side effect of his mind wandering as he slowly walked through the Mothership's corridors. Worrying about Aja made him think of why he was worried which made him think of the attack which made him remember the fear and confusion and the horrible, terrifying dread that came from watching his parents fizzle away. 

When the first attacks had landed less than a mekron after he'd been made King-in-waiting, he'd comforted himself believing Aja had been long gone. Even as Zadra and Vex dragged him away from his parents so they could confront the troops committing treason, he calmed his thrumming energy thinking she was away from the chaos that had so quickly swept through his home. He didn’t know where she was, but she was safe, unharmed, a mere blip in the sky.

Then Varvatos found her. Climbing out of a destroyed building. Right in the line of fire.

He didn't know what she was still doing on-planet, because he knew she should've been able to make it out with all the time she'd had. She would have had plenty of time to escape. During his torturous weeks of indecision, he had gone over their her plan of escape innumerable times. It was nearly impossible for her to have failed, amazing and stubborn as Aja was. So why?

And this is only something he would admit in the deepest, most hidden parts of his mind, but… his question is not inherently selfless.

Krel found Aja sitting with her knees to her chest, staring into the void of space with eyes glazed over. She seemed to be in deep thought, if her pensive reflection told him anything. He wondered if she was thinking the same as him.

Why did this happen? Why did General Morando stage a coup? Why did our shields fall? Why did our parents have to go away? And most important, if only because of his seemingly endless hurt: Why did you have to—

Luug squirmed in Krel’s arms, beginning to whimper quietly, effectively shocking him back to the present. He was suddenly struck with the need to remain unseen, so he gently placed the pet on the floor and hid behind the curve of the wall, out of Aja’s line of sight. 

Luug had already rushed over to Aja by the time Krel made it out of sight, and he could hear as Luug kissed her out of her stupor. Aja laughed, relievingly genuine, as she probably attempted to block Luug’s chaotic tongue. 

After a few moments of the sound (something that didn’t have any business relaxing Krel like it did), silence fell over the hallway again. Luug had fallen silent as well, occasionally releasing satisfied grumbles, and Krel decided it was safe to risk a glance.

Aja was back to looking outside the window. She still seemed far away, but there was at least something of a smile on her face as one hand glided up and down Luug’s back. For all that’d happened, she seemed… okay. 

His core gave a painful squeeze.

He could walk over there right now. He could talk to her. Would that cheer her up more than their pet’s enthusiasm? Or would it only be stiff and awkward, only remind her of the terrible way they’d parted that morning?

Seklos and Gaylen, that was only this morning.

Krel shook his head. Maybe in another time, another life he could’ve dredged up the courage to face her and make her feel better. Maybe he wouldn’t have even needed to. But here and now, the idea of talking to her alone, so quickly after everything had gone so wrong, just hurt too much. He, at least, needed time.

He thought of his earlier selfish thinking that'd been cut off by Luug, wincing even as he allowed the dreadful sentence to pass fully through his mind. Why did you have to be here?

Krel shook his head. Luug probably had her handled. He had a knack for drawing a smile out of anyone. For the time being, Aja would be okay alone. She had to be.

Mind made up, Krel took two slow, silent steps backward, before finally turning and returning to the ship deck to await their arrival at their refuge.