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-IX-

Eden Academy looked different tonight. Of course, this was merely within the realm of predictions. Prior research from WISE intelligence had turned up pictures that Twilight had glanced over during the preparation for the event. This was hardly the first time he had attended some sort of high society gathering, and based on the requirements of Operation Strix, it is safe to assume that this would hardly be the last occasion.

But still, the sights were something to behold, even by his standards. Perhaps it's partially because one does not typically stay in school grounds past supposed school hours that the said area revealed itself to be tastefully decorated in orange lights in the form of present lampposts or sparse, temporary fixtures that had never been there before. Another reason for the differing atmosphere also be because indoor lighting had been expertly revealed through pulled curtains that illuminated the outside sparsely, but in a way that ensured a soft aura when paired with all the other lights shining. The familiar lane that he walked alongside Anya and Yor during their initial test and interview looked like a few decorations short of a runway. Courtyards looked like they were fit for soirees, and every other corner became intensely photogenic.

This did not look like a school. Objectively, the only thing to change had been the amount of lights open and the time of day. But it appears that even a few additions to a clever design lent itself to success; a site of learning had become a spectacle of a venue fit for socializing royalty. To affect one's perceptions in such a way using the bare minimum was truly something elegant, as expected of Eden Academy.

The netizens also did not fail to appear to the scene underdressed. While everyone understood it was a formal event, there was no specific dress codes to tie anyone to a certain bubble; everyone attending knew the outfits that resulted in approval or isolation.

All styles of suits whether three piece, two, tailcoats, hats, Albert chains, prestigious Schwyz watches, oxfords, wing tips, pumps. Cocktail dresses, strapless, A-lines, Wraps, Empire waists, and more. Varieties of high-heeled shoes ensured a constant clicking against solid flooring and necklaces, bracelets, rings, and earrings containing all manner of gems and metals; enough to make royalty blush.

Among the intimidating air of fiscal extravagance, Twilight still kept his cool, as he felt dressed to the nines.

At least I prepared an extra three piece suit. Gray is a good color, especially with a polyester-like shine. A crimson red tie and pocket square that catches the eye just enough to entice attention and offset by a white shirt. I'm also grateful WISE headquarters had shoes to spare after last night; I would've preferred mahogany oxfords, but dark brown ones suit my purposes just fine.

Gold cufflinks on the coat stand out as well when tied to the entire outfit. And a stellar watch of the same shade puts me in the same league as these people, and maybe even puts me out there. Compounded little things eventually make a considerable impression, after all.

To Twilight though, this was just an objective reality. Aesthetic decorations did not change the reason for his presence here; the gala was a treasure trove of information. However, to cover the entirety of the event would be nothing short of impossible. In light of this, Twilight thought it best to focus his efforts on high-priority data. Donovan Desmond would not be present tonight, so what defined high-priority was now mostly up to him. Short of bugging everyone possible (and considering that logistical nightmare), perhaps simply easing himself into certain conversations could benefit him and the mission.

Anya has a good relationship with Becky Blackbell. She's been to their home more than a few times, so I'm certain the parents have caught wind of this. Now would be a good time to get close to them. Who knows what Ostania's most prominent military manufacturer is up to these days? If Desmond were to rub elbows with anyone, I can at least start with something probable aside from bankers other would-be war profiteers. From there, we can narrow down his possible motives for the future.

Amongst the seemingly endless ocean of people present, it was hard to track down a single person. Not to mention the brief moments of silence in between his activities reminded him of the status of his fatigued body, and everything leading up to the point of his current physical status; the exhausting previous hours included.

Through his labored breaths, his dry and scratchy throat, and a barely contained desire to cough every so often, he still managed to recall the faces of Lennon, Bellamy, and Bishop as they were urged by WISE to keep their silence and distance from each other. The combined looks of loss, disbelief, and depressed understanding ticked something in his brain. In particular, overhearing Handler interrogating Lennon reminded him of a more naïve era that had long been swept into the recesses of his mind.

The work of a spy was more than gunfire, explosions, and adrenaline-pumping moments of unsung heroism. Oftentimes, one would be responsible for the decimation of the principles they claim to fight for. One would never be far from questioning why they bother trying when the work of an affluent, loud, and foolish politician could undo their life's work in one evening. Who could live such a life? Who could understand?

Even so, there was always a job to do.

Minutes passed, and nothing of note was happening, and no one important had entered the spy's eyeline. Supposedly, the hour for the formal dance was not too far off and the realization of this reminded Loid of something else entirely.

Is Yor alright?

Loid looked around once more, feeling as if he missed out on looking for her.

He had recalled those nights spent dancing, flowing to the rhythm and cadences of refined music while intertwining his space with his wife. Exchanging quips, warm laughs and learning experiences for what seemed like the first time for her. A handful of moments resembling enjoyment and a memories of a distant life; moments all shared with her. Each perfectly recalled instant in Loid's head felt as if he was witnessing something private; had anyone seen Yor like this? Was anyone aware of the existence of this expression?

Why did she seem so strange earlier this morning-

Suddenly, commotion began to stir up. As if a wave had passed over the mingling crowds, keywords stuck out as Twilight kept his senses open to anything interesting.

[…starting… hall]
[…time to go.]
[…dance.]

Yor hasn't made it yet. Where could she be at this hour?

Tugging on the inside of his lapels, he readjusted his coat and merely moved on to merge with the crowd. In truth, her appearance would not change his reasons for being here. In fact, her absence would definitely give him an easier time moving around and about for his duties.

And yet, he still turned his head around. He checked behind him to see if she was straggling behind him, jogging up to him with a slightly panicked look on her face saying 'I'm so sorry!'. Peering to the side, he kept picturing her form walking side by side with him, eagerly anticipating the moment they would get to display the practice they've put into their dancing. Even as he returned his gaze forward, he thought maybe she would come from there; maybe she had been lost trying to find Loid in the sea of socialites.

Every second spent observing truly was spent awaiting that woman. Every possibility ended the same way; she'd be right there with him. Basking in the warmth of her calming presence was always a reality he would end up with. She was always right there. Now she wasn't.

It felt strange.

Coming home late without getting to spend time with anyone there was strange. Nights without Yor were strange now.

Am I just tired?

The hall was lively with the murmurs among Eden Academy's parents and other similar, high-status figures. There was nary a lonely person struggling to find conversation; everyone knew someone, at least. Twilight knew these people as well; people undoubtedly involved in moving the pieces of Ostania's past, present, and future. Everyone was there among the cocktail tables.

Judging by their presence alone, it would seem that this event would feature movement between rooms and halls among the entire school as venues, ostensibly with seats along the way considering it would be improper to assume everyone could survive an entire evening standing, especially with the amount of women in painful heels. The places for students were unattended and completely dark; the expectation was that everyone would remain within. For now however, it was time to be amongst people. The middle of the hall was left rather bare to make space for social dancing endeavors.

Currently, it wouldn't be wise for Twilight to begin conversing. It wouldn't be long until the introductory event begins. He was quite late already (not yet fashionably late), and thus lost out the opportunity to enter a circle to be a part of for at least this portion of the night. It would be too invasive and unbecoming of a person in this space to act out of line.

So he waited, that is until the crowd's mind began to swarm the center of the hall. And a large gathering of musicians moved into position with their instruments to an audibly efficient location. These events worked on mutual understanding; you could only fit in if you'd dwelt in these parts naturally. Twilight knew, but was now growing even more anxious with the absence of Yor; his eyes darted even more.

The bows of the musicians rested atop their violins and cellos.

The upright bassists fretted their large instruments.

The wind instruments prepared their first chords, and others prepared their sheet music on stands in front of them.

The clock was ticking.

The crowd was growing silent as they entered their positions. Hands were finding their marks on shoulders and hips.

The large double door from which everyone came in closed, supposedly to signal the beginning of the formalities.

However, instead of a couple of seconds of silence to prepare, the clicking of a woman's heels tested the floors of the marble hall, echoing when there shouldn't be any disturbances.

People naturally let their eyes follow the noise. Naturally, some let their lips do the looking as they clutched their pearls indignantly.

Regardless, the heels kept their noise, and they came closer to where Loid was. As soon as the sight was clearer, the sight was clear.

A black halter dress of satin presented itself to the crowd's curious eyes. Backless, with individual straps crossed over each other diagonally, making an X to connect and meet around the base of her neck, leaving a safe area of skin under her sternum exposed by her size, creating a unique aesthetic only she could pull off.

A seamless sash around her waist emphasized her shape and drew attention to the area, right to where her left leg was exposed by a slit from the middle of the thigh downward with generous volume and defined shape allowing it to flow at a slight outward angle, giving the impression of a bigger presence. For this, her shoes needed to be a bit simple but effective nonetheless; black heels with red soles, and strapped delicately around her ankles.

She had kept her usual hairstyle from the first night they went out as a couple; the same headband and rose-like ornament, same earrings and jewelry, but it didn't matter.

Yor looked amazing.

Loid's eyes widened. But before he could say anything, Yor quickly walked in front of Loid right as festivities began.

"I'm so sorry I'm late! I had to pay for the water and electricity, and I forgot to do it during lunch break…"
"No, don't worry about that."

Loid swiftly took Yor's hand and placed a hand on her waist, getting a slight reaction out of her, but unlike the previous times, this wasn't an invasion or surprise.

Yor almost panicked, remembering the delicate, wounded nature of that area but did her best to keep attention away; his hands did not land on it, after all. She reminded herself to quickly return the position.

"I'm just glad you made it on time."

The two began to move naturally, their practice and physical ability carrying them through the musicians' opening parts. The box step came quickly back to them even after missing yesterday's session. It was no more than a walk in the park, and so the focus of their encounter was more about this conversation. Both had felt a need to talk to each other for one reason or another.

We're here.

Whiplash. That was one way to describe the flowing of emotions within this evening. From a world so foreign and dangerous and immediately stepping into another; threatening and alien in its own way but alongside a trusted partner.

The woman who pulled his wits together.

The man of endless patience and respect.

Husband and wife. Fake, but an indispensable portion of this aberration in a manufactured reality. A reality where they belong to a semblance of normality. A family.

A family in a strange, but ever-growingly familiar existence. One that will continue to grow in its indelibility to their very being.

The smiles. The staring. Their barely contained admiration. All pieces of evidence to prove the existence of something no one imagined could bloom in a desert of lies.

The gazing did not stop. Who had the audacity to attempt a spectacle in the hall of the wealthy? They had to see. Whether it was the ridicule of their misunderstanding, the envy of her beauty, or even plain confusion, innumerable murmurs reached Yor's ears and threatened an interruption in her mind.

"It seems I might've attracted some attention on the way in. I hope you're not too bothered."

Right when I feel particularly against the attention as well…

"Fashionably late, as this crowd says."
"Huh?"

"There's a small window of time where it is acceptable to be late to formal events. It's uh, a sort of proof of your social status if you can get away with that sort of thing and look good while doing it."

Look good…?

"Then… did I succeed?"

The surprising boldness of Yor's rhetorical question made Loid grin. This side of Yor only came out in rare moments, including ones like this. Slowly but surely, an ember of energy replaced his drawn-out lethargy with this interaction.

"You did."

She smiled quite bashfully, but maintained eye contact. She knew she longed for times like this. The past few days felt like a week or more taken from her. These few seconds were already a godsend; she already almost forgot about the fact that she was tardy. What would hours together look like then?

"Wonderful. I could only dream my cooking could progress at this level."

As the comment registered in Loid's head, he chuckled and Yor's conspiratorial laughter followed silently. People still offered their sideways glances and snarky comments, no doubt because of the events leading up to this moment between them.

As if an unconscious desire moved them, Loid carefully spun Yor with their joint grip. The dress' hemline reacted accordingly, puffing out like an unflappable peacock establishing its control and attention firmly. And just like so, Yor's slight startle turned into a poised smile seen by everyone that only focused as it returned to Loid. His frame and charming demeanor only offered but a clear message; this was their domain.

"Well… I'm a patient man."
"You really are."

We didn't even practice that move much! That went better than expected.

All the memories of their practice came to the forefront of their minds. All the way from Loid offering to teach her how to cook, to holding hands in public, and right here with the dancing. The effort paid itself back tenfold tonight. Loid wore his pride and respect on his sleeve, and continued to hold another part of it between his caring hands, swaying with tactfully measured grace. Yor's confidence took on a powerful form, and it showed in the way she remembered the subtle movements and angles of her body that turned an otherwise mundane dance into something visually striking. It showed in the way they moved with each other; seamlessly, beautifully. Perfect, intuitive understanding spoken only through the flow of their physical expression.

I'm glad we decided to do this.

For a moment, the crowd disappeared. The hormones pumped, and all they could see was what was readily available to them. An ephemeral period that both of them had pictured in their minds. Who knew it could be better than what they had initially thought out?

A sudden shift in tones from hours before suddenly exposed them to a positively atypical bond. Somehow, even as the idea of performing like this in front of a crowd was embarrassing, this was quite the opposite; this couldn't turn out any better.

"Loid, I…"

Her eyes fluttered, and her lips remained agape to prepare the words. He expectantly waited for her answer. Whatever it could be? It must be something to look forward to.

A young husband and wife, hand in hand, conversing like it was a regular day between them. Was this all because of the surprise of Yor turning up late and starting the interaction off on a high note?

"Hmm?"

Perhaps. But even then, the highs only last for a moment. Even certain words and feelings couldn't leave certain kinds of people.

As their dancing continued, Yor had felt her dress had swiped past someone else's feet, barely avoiding getting trounced on but causing her to stumble nonetheless. Loid's quick response was to grip onto Yor a bit tighter for a moment to stabilize her. Again though, Yor winced the moment her waist was held. She instinctively bit the noise back. Loid took notice though.

The nearby person offered a temporary glare but returned his attention to his partner, and Yor took notice, her grip on his shoulder tightening in mere response. At the same time, Loid grimaced at the moment his tender shoulder was gripped harder than usual.

"S-Sorry! Did that hurt?"
"N-No worries. Are you okay? I think I might've hurt you as well."
"I'm fine. Please don't mind."

"Anyway… what were you going to say?"

"Umm… I… never mind. It was nothing."

This wound…

What? Wait…

Right… we're here at the gala.

Normally, light pain was not a deterrent. Their jobs always required them to power through some sort of physical obstacle. However, the idea of pain during a time like this, a time thought to be peaceful, was slightly jarring.

But jarring enough to make them remember their current physical states in totality as well; those were not the only fresh wounds, the series of events that led up to this moment. The reasons behind pain they otherwise would not have felt while dancing like they did.

Loid bit back his urge to cough in spite of his severely irritated throat, eyeing his surroundings for any nearby source of hydration.

Yor gritted her teeth and groaned at the soreness of her feet in heels after such rigorous activity, and grew conscious of the callus of her palms that now began perspiring.

All reminders of a long-pondered question left unanswered by them.

Of course. That is reality.

We're just here. For the gala; as the Forgers.

I was just at work a few hours ago.

The simmering, passionate sentiment of their dance was out of reach. Where had it gone? Naturally, something easily obtained could just as easily be lost to an unforeseen circumstance.

The pull of recent events never truly resolved. Distractions they remained even as their work as truthfully concluded; no assassinations, no more opinionated youth in Ostania that needed silencing. Their work was done for the night. But whatever came to their hearts as a result of it never left. Or perhaps, they were always there. And in soaking in their novel reality, made them doubt the parts of their lives that brought them together.

And still.

They did not feel that kind of elation before. How did that happen? Could it even happen again? A brief look back at each other's eyes asked the same, wordless questions.

The answer was clear to them.

But why?

They had just experienced it mere moments prior. Why not again now?

This isn't normal.

This isn't real.

I'm not real.

Once their minds reached such a conclusion, their thoughts turned to work, to curiosity. Their idle minds bred excess thoughts.

Last night… didn't I see…

The night had only begun. It was merely time to work once more.


-IX-

The dances ended. Conversations were made. Laughs were had.

Contact information exchanged. Connections made.

Rooms changed, or opened, rather.

The venues had opened up; various courtyards and other similarly-sized halls in the Academy had allowed for an influx and continued migration of guests to and from. Without any specific itinerary, various talking heads took off in all directions with the purpose of intermingling and consolidating future plans. Aged alcohol flowed through systems, exquisite entrée pleased palates, and smaller treats kept the night from growing too stale from a lack of energy. On top of all this, music played by only the most skilled and refined pervaded the soundscape. Wherever there was illumination, so was there wonderful music.

The night was in full swing now, and within these gracious halls, countless facades vied for greater leverage and conversed.

Masks that sought profit, prestige, power.

A peace of mind.

Current events dug up even more without the filter of good physical and mental well-being present.

Yor could not bear to raise her glass to her lips, even with a cushion of food to suppress her intolerance.

Loid's conversation with nearby bourgeois merely entered straight to the back of his mind, as he was taught to. Yet the thoughts in the forefront of his mind were not ideal.

Between the apparent activity, they could not stop peeking at each other through furtive glances, ones that they knew were catching each other staring. Not once, not twice. Regularly, as if by an invisible force, curiosity and suspicion drew their eyelines to meet on the same plane. Both as strangers.

Twilight's brain worked itself in the middle of his data gathering.

That side of her waist has been tender for a while, hasn't it? I thought she was stiff earlier, and I chalked that up to morning fatigue, especially after being late out the night before. But to offer such a pained reaction when I only lightly grazed her waist…

She was fine the last time I came home to see her. In that case, the pain came after that night; so that leaves the night before.

When I saw her on the street past a reasonable hour.

On the other side of things, Yor swished her glass passively and stared at the cascading liquid. But she became more and more bothered as the connections she was making began to consolidate into a worrying conclusion.

I know I smelt burnt clothing from his room; I would know that scent anywhere. Last night, that car he was in came speeding out from the direction of the fire.

It… It has to be, right? If I saw what part of the clothes were burnt- was it the shoulder?

He was short of breath; and he still is. He was coughing rather dryly, and his eyes were also dry with all that blinking; he's never that jittery…

Even if I asked… it is none of my business. Maybe it's just another group of unruly patients-

No; the timing was too convenient from when I escaped the hotel. As soon as I was spotted, a contingent of armed men in vehicles sped away. And as soon as I escaped, a massive fire had erupted in their rival's territory near the docks.

It-

Yor suddenly felt something peeling off her waist, loosening and dropping underneath the built-in sash.

The dressing and gauze! I should've redid it after putting on this outfit… I can't let it fall out now considering all that I've done reaggravate it.

Moving quickly, she held a closed fist to her lips and bit down on the side of her cheek. Her eyes deliberated which stranger to select in order to get what she needed. Landing on one far enough from Loid, she swiftly and quietly moved over, preparing to reduce her volume.

"Excuse me, would you happen to know where the ladies' restroom is?"

The directions came back after a little Oh from the woman she inquired. Registering it, she nodded, offered her brief thanks and went on her way, not before leaving her wine glass on a passing waiter's tray.

Yor kept her movement swift and her steps light, consciously focusing on what she felt might be lurking behind her.

Within the walls of this academy, she felt a different kind of pressure. Not one of physical danger, but possibly more threatening nonetheless. Those sharp eyes told her enough to worry.

No one was tailing her.

Yor found the restroom in the prescribed location. No one was loitering or conversing near the area; this was not high school, after all but the lights in this hall were on and therefore indicated the implicit consent allowing guests to be present in the area.

She entered, and found a woman merely finished touching up her makeup at the sink. The guest had just closed her handbag and turned her face in all directions at the mirror to check herself before turning around and making eye contact with Yor. The two merely offered a polite smile and slight nod of the head before they went on their way.

As the footsteps shrank, Yor went over to one of the women's stalls and locked herself in. She began to undress her top and investigate the wraps, but not without the intrusive thoughts bothering her.

What if he's waiting outside to talk to me? I know he's been looking at me; he's quite skilled at secret glances, but I'm sure that means he knows that I've been doing the same.

Have I been that careless ever since moving in?

Just what is he?

Does she know what he's up to?

The wound was fine, though it was still clearly sensitive. Considering her lack of rest, it looked a bit more fresh than she would have liked.

No flowing blood, thankfully, at least not right now. These bandages are a bit soaked, but that's from another superficial injury near the stomach. I still need to change it…

But where do I get fresh bandages? At an infirmary? But where is it here…?

No one hung out near the bathroom, and all turns to the left and right of the hallway she was in had lights off, but were unbarred. She figured she could slip away easily enough and just stay out of sight long enough while searching the grounds for an infirmary.


-IX-

The sign hanging atop the door could not have been more clear to her night-acclimated eyes; infirmary. Yor merely wandered a bit, carefully covering her bases as she moved through and searched. All it took was a look at a directory nearby to send her two flights of stairs up into a dark corridor devoid of anyone. If anyone was nearby, she would know immediately.

Unfortunately for her, the door was obviously locked. Between smashing the knob, breaking the small pane of glass on the door and shooting her arm through, or finding a way to those windows she could see on the other side, no option was ideal.

Luckily, she always had tools ready for a rainy day. Around her covered thigh, a garter secured her two spikes securely so as to not poke her or restrict her range of motion. She took them out and made due, kneeling down in front of the door and carefully inserting both sharp ends into the lock. With deft hands and light clicks of clanging metal over a dozen or so seconds, she managed to bypass the simple lock and give way to the infirmary.

To whoever the nurse is, I'm really sorry for doing this, but it's an emergency…

Shined on by the soft light of the moon, about less than half of the room had been illuminated. Empty beds, and the absence of noise and bustle within the cold darkness made her feel like she was sneaking around for another target. At the thought of this, she silently hoped there were going to be no surprises as she sheathed her weapons once more.

One of the parts that was indeed lit up was a cabinet at the far end of the floor, alongside a three-tier metallic trolley cart full of various basic medical tools.

I ought to start here.

Rummaging quietly through various cabinets and cubbies, she eventually came upon a surplus of gauze and dressing and took them out promptly. Working with the materials, and ensuring she was actually alone by hiding behind one of the curtains on top of a bed.

Yor removed her shoes, giving herself a sigh of relief, and began to work. She slightly undressed once more and began the process; disinfecting, disposing of old wraps, replacing gauze on the wound, and wrapping her waist in dressing.

As the deed continued, she still was feeling exceptionally bothered; each moment she wasn't doing something requiring focus was a moment spent examining her racing thoughts.

If he knows… does that mean I should- no! I can't do that to them…

Leave? It'd be too suspicious to him and to the public; I might get arrested…

This is not a misunderstanding anymore…

I wish this were something I was too stupid to figure out.

Why can't things be normal?

She stood up and dressed back up, checking with her hands and feel to ensure that her first-aid was secure enough to last the rest of the evening. Before she wore her shoes, she decided to double-check the door and walked up to it.

Upon reaching for the door from an angle unseen through the window, a surprising twist of the knob jump started her heart into fight mode, and the Thorn Princess came out to play.

I didn't lock it-

Too soon to think of grabbing her weapons from her thigh, she decided to beat the assailant to the punch and pulled the doorknob forcefully to her and whipped the door violently, causing the assailant to stumble into the infirmary with destructed balance as their hands touched the floor and almost immediately recognized the danger they were in.

The Thorn Princess charged forward, jumping into a spinning side kick which was barely blocked by raised arms, causing them to fall backwards in reaction to her thunderous power.

With unexpected poise, the suspect broke their fall and regained their footing, instead launching out a swift jab at her face which barely missed, followed by an explosive stepping knee attack, threatening to drive into the assassin's gut.

Swiftly, she stepped to the side, barely missing the sharp knee, and launched a counter roundhouse kick to the side of his head, barely blocked once more with a hastily-raised two-handed block as the assailant was once more staggered and on dangerously unsteady feet from sheer concussive force.

The assassin rushed the opportunity with a hungry pace, and leapt forward with an uppercut to his side, and a right cross to his face, the first strike landing quite well, and causing him to wince, and the second missed by a manner of mere millimeters thanks to the target's quick dodge of the head. They returned with an attempt at a kick to her calf but she raised her leg just in time to evade the low kick.

They don't guard their body.

She then threw out a jab-hook combo up to his guard and attempted a ducking right hook, but was met with a swift push kick to her stomach which landed accurately, driving a painful breath out of her and making her take a step back.

The target had failed to retract their leg though, and the assassin instantaneously wrapped two hands with a death grip around the target's ankle. She swiftly yanked it towards her to throw her enemy off and launched a roundhouse kick to the side of his body. The intercepting impact landed with terrifying power, the assassin's shin imbedding itself deep into sensitive muscle and tissue which caused the assailant to visibly falter and recoil under her blow.

This one is a skilled fighter…

Utilizing the opportunity, the assassin decided to throw off her shocked opponent by ducking and throwing up her right hand to signal a punch coming from above. As the opponent prepared to back up, she instead dropped her knee, stepped around the man with her other leg and slid around while gripping the opponent's coat. The misleading engagement ended up with the assassin with locked arms tight around the opponent's waist.

The opponent attempted to fight the Thorn Princess' grip by widening and dropping his stance, threading one arm through her body lock and attempting to turn around to face her, but his busy hands opened up an opportunity to the assassin.

While his hands were low, she swiftly let go and jumped up, throwing her legs over his stomach and locking it. Her arms soon followed with her left forearm pushing the back of his head forward and her right arm snaking itself around his throat and applying all the isometric tension she could.

The resulting action forced the assailant to begin struggling, attempting to crash into walls to shake the assassin off his back but to no avail; she was there for the long run and no amount of impact would remove her iron grips. With that, the target had begun weakening, feeling something akin to a python crushing his throat and core.

The angle was slightly off though, the assassin knew she had to ensure her elbow was pointing out the direction of the throat for the chokehold to complete and cover his carotids. The target attempted to fight her hands, first by pulling down the hand behind his head, to which he almost succeeded but she merely replaced the hand and hid it under her chin. She retightened her legs over his body, using her left leg to hook horizontally across the surface of his diaphragm and the right to secure itself over it by tucking her right knee over her left ankle.

Soon enough through the struggle of a few seconds, the assassin managed to angle her choking arm properly and gripped her left bicep with it; sinking the attack deeper, going under the chin completely and forcing the air out of his system while cutting off blood supply to his head. The lights were going out for him, and the Thorn Princess knew. It was only a matter of a few seconds now.

His legs were wobbling and lost their strength as the target began stumbling to the left.

Right into the moonlight.

And Yor recognized her opponent, groaning and struggling. Short blonde hair, male, a similar age as her.

She recognized him instantly.

"Loid?!"

Immediately, she let go of the choke, and scrambled out underneath him, who was stuck between hyperventilating, coughing horrendously and rapidly blinking in a daze.

"C-Calm down! Oh dear, oh dear, oh no no no no-"

She fumbled in a state of complete panic, her arms tensed up and shook as her shoulders moved her to touch his cheeks, his chest and his arms in an attempt to figure something out. Yor was aware that she did not have that choke on nearly long enough to kill him, let alone knock him out completely, but to have such a harsh reveal happen in such a manner was rough.

And completely by accident.

If we hadn't coincidentally fallen into the moonlight…

Yor shook her head violently and returned her gaze to Loid, who had now entered a stabilized, fully conscious condition.

"Loid? Please talk to me!"
"Ngghh… Y-Yor?!"

Loid shot straight up onto his feet, tense and unstable as someone who was on the verge of completely passing out was. Yor held her hands out and continued to move forward in an attempt to calm him down.

"Don't be so sudden! You just woke back up!"
"What do… you mean… just…?"

Breathing in and out rapidly, Loid initially wore a confused look, tilting his head and simply leaving himself up to Yor's care. She held onto his back and shoulders and looked around, settling for the bed behind the curtains in another corner of the room. She seated Loid down carefully and ran over to the door to lock it once more and went back to her husband and stood in front of him, unsure of what to do as he was now calming down and collecting his thoughts and memories. And as it happened, he stopped. And so did she.

Their eyes met.

Their hands tightened.

And they forgot how to breathe.

"…Yor?"
"…Y-Yes?"

"Could you sit down beside me?"


-IX-

"Do you think we're safe here?"
"I doubt anyone will come here; the gala was in full swing the last time I checked."
"Right…"

He had asked her to take a seat beside him. But he was absolutely stumped for words, and so was she. Even after both of them were fully conscious and stable, no meaningful words left their lips. No communicative muscles in their brains moved the conversation.

No eye contact was successfully made. Their eyes kept locked on to the windows and therefore the moonlight plastered itself across their uncertain expressions. The faint noises of festivities continued on in another space unseen to them in this room; murmurs, laughter, clangs of utensils against plates. The heavy air could only mean that this was a liminal space. Limbo, purgatory, a place completely separated from everything else.

"A-Are you badly hurt, Loid? We have access to treatment."
"Not… Not really."

Even if his throat felt sore, and the sides of his head and torso were throbbing with pain, nothing felt right leaving his lips, what more hers? It was painful to exist in this place. But no one could muster the direction nor the courage to wander onto the first step of an undefined path.

"Perhaps we need some fresh air for a moment…"

Loid nodded, and Yor stood up to open up the sliding windows, at least the few ones in front of them.

I know what this means. But what I don't know is what I need to do.

Where do I even begin?

The dots that had been forming in both of their heads had finally reached their proper verdicts. As if the time they spent pondering wasn't enough, now they had met with a visceral piece of proof to their suspicions.

Yor held her hands together stiffly, and sat back down beside Loid. But this time, she looked at him, prompting him to do the same.

Both of their eyes spoke the same feelings to each other. Both confused. Both tentative.

Both completely aware of every single moment of their meeting this evening.

Meeting. Dancing. Dissociating. And now fighting.

They were on the same page. So all it took was the first move.

"Loid-"
"Yor-"

Loid nodded, signaling her to go first.

"…Can I treat your injuries?"
"It's fine-"
"We can talk."

"This is the least I can do for… for everything."

Yor's gaze was nervous, but firm nonetheless. The kind of look that was stubborn and would be difficult to budge. Loid realized what complying to her wish would mean, but even then it wouldn't change the path they had inadvertently set themselves on. A half-undone secret was no less than a major liability.

Having no other ideas, he merely nodded and began removing his top layers.

With a couple of uncomfortable moments of uncertain looks, his torso was now bare to Yor, revealing a myriad of tales scattered across his body.

Bruises decorated his upper body, most of them due to their recent engagement. Though other places told a different story. He had older scars; deep slashes, impacts, burns, and abrasions. Some of them were more superficial, others forming skin-colored clusters of irregular tissue. The sight was historical; a canvas of tales, a haven of experiences from a time long-past anything she knew.

There were even a few bullet impacts leftover; irregularly colored patches of somewhat bumpy skin. Yor had tried not to think more on it, and merely take the sight in for what it was.

Yor came across his shoulder and her eyes widened; a fresh first-degree burn.

It was clear now that she was not the only one with secrets. As if the way he fought just now wasn't any indication.

But she didn't want to ask.

Because this was a sight that was all too familiar.

"There's a cut and bruise on the side of your head, so perhaps something to clean and cover. That aside, I'll get a cold compress for you. And your shoulder looks like it needs some petroleum jelly."

There was nothing else that she could ascertain from his body. Every other impact that was not old and had already left its mark, not to bother him ever again.

Yor went and came back with supplies carried on a tray.

"Hold this ice pack to your side."

He complied and allowed the coolness to invade the bruised side of his body, automatically looking past the initial shock of the sensation as he was used to this treatment. Yor then took some disinfectant and began with the cut on his temple.

"Yor, aren't you hurt as well?"
"Huh?"
"I landed a kick on you, but that aside, your side has been injured for a while now, hasn't it?"

"I… I already treated it. That's why I came here in the first place."
"I see."

"H-How about you? What brought you here?"
"You slipped away. I figured it was just a restroom break, but you were gone a while, so I was worried. I searched the grounds and came across an unlocked door."

Worried…?

Yor sighed and shook her head, now hanging low without any vigor. She had just finished applying a bandage to the side of his head and moved onto his shoulder with petroleum jelly and a prepared safe wrapping to use post-treatment.

"I'm sorry for attacking you so violently. I could have used my words, but… I didn't want to risk anything."

Loid turned his head slightly, eyeing her working through his peripheral vision before returning his eyeline forward against the open night sky.

"Clearly, I'm no different. I won't hold it against you."
"Loid…"

Or rather, I can't. I'm not a hypocrite.

Between all the evidence and concluded hypotheses on both ends. The exceptional martial arts prowess, the injuries of the past and present, the alibis, the fact that Yor had bypassed a locked door, Loid lasting that long in an encounter with Yor.

And the night before when their eyes had met. The look they gave each other was the same one they met each other with right now. Except now it had all the time in the world to settle in.

Loid Forger and Yor Briar are an enigma.

And still, their thoughts were shared in the moment.

"Do you have more to ask, Yor?"
"…No."
"I see."

The looks in their eyes were the same. They knew that much.

They possess unusual skills for civilians. They experienced it firsthand.

They involved themselves in a nefarious line of work. They witnessed it. Looked it straight in the eye to see someone peering back.

"…Do you want to ask me as well, Loid?"
"I don't."
"You d-don't?"

Loid rolled his raw shoulder, getting used to the feeling of a soft wrap around the burn as he clung onto his cold compress. With his free hand, he propped his legs onto the bed and faced Yor who had also sat informally with bare feet draping across the bed. Across from each other, they felt secure. Even after such a high-octane encounter, they knew intuitively there was nothing to fear.

Because they were married. They had watched each other for so long that their presence was just a given part of their everyday.

"You could've asked hundreds of questions when you recognized me. When I removed my shirt earlier, you could've asked a hundred more. You didn't."

"And I think we both know why."

All the necessary words had been spoken in this peculiar encounter. Words shared with subtext; the awareness of experiences between them that no one should have had the misfortune to be witness to.

Even as more had become unclear to them, it wasn't cold and lonely to be left in the dark.

Because now, they knew someone else had been there all along.

Someone who knew what it was like to witness the things that they had, to contend with all the suffering and isolation, to inflict measures only a handful of people are capable of. Creating pain, dealing in lies, regularly flirting with death. To forsake common privileges and jump into the fire.

To do the impossible for the sake of something they cherish. Someone who knew what it was like to live a cold, tiring life that no one would ever experience.

That was comforting to know.

"We both know it; we're both tired; in more than one way. But… it's just another bad day at work, isn't it?"
"Mhmm."

"So I won't ask you anything, Yor."

Her parted lips and widened eyes relaxed, offering a more gentle look in return. An unknown laugh stifled its way out of her throat so she merely nodded her head.

"…And neither will I."

And they found it once more. That same, warm look from earlier in the hall. Each second spent exchanging glances these past few days was a second spent realizing that there was a different person hiding under a reality they agreed to forge.

By living their existence as the unknowns of the country, they fell prey to their fatigue and longing through a bout of self-examination.

"I'm glad I married you."

And realized that when they spent time together, crossed paths and fists, laughed, cooked, danced, and worried over their place in the world.

That they could finally see themselves in another.

That they truly existed.


-IX-

The walk back home was a relief. The moody cloud they both brought over to Eden was the last straw in their hectic week, and decided they'd had enough of the place. It was high time for some sort of rest as their beaten up bodies finally decided to cease performing optimally; tired eyes, languid movement, and an equally worn mind.

That aside, people would be suspicious seeing the two obviously showing signs of being in a brawl. Especially considering they were there as a couple. It wasn't worth the extra gossip.

"Are you sure you want to keep walking back home in your heels?"
"Well… I forgot to bring extra shoes."
"In that case, I could simply carry you."
"E-Eh?"

Upon realizing the absurdity of his words, Loid held a hand over his mouth and let slip a small blush.

"I didn't consider that we were in public. I'm sorry."

More than that; what kind of suggestion did I just make?!

"It's fine, Loid. I-I also wouldn't want to let you do anything physically taxing for now."

"Instead of that…"

Yor inched closer to Loid, eventually feeling the heat of his body and his confused gaze.

"Would you mind if we held hands?"

The two met eyes, both already very much familiar with the situation. And so Loid smiled back, allowing Yor to initiate contact. Their fingers intertwined comfortably, as if their body had been well adjusted to this behavior for a long time.

Aside from the request, nothing more needed to be said. All that was necessary was that they stayed close to each other.

"Loid, I think I actually do have a question. I-If you'll indulge me, of course."
"Ask away."

She looked up at him, carefully observing his reactions.

"…Did you look forward to the dance?"

He scratched the side of his head, and then his chin.

I suppose I was waiting for her to ask that.

"…I've been looking forward to it ever since we were invited."

Although slightly embarrassing to admit, more damaging things had already been put to question, and so what was this but an innocent talking point?

They shared their smiles, baring a slight nudge of the shoulder from the wife onto her husband. Almost seamlessly, she had changed her grip. Her arms now found themselves wrapping around one of his. Though embarrassed, she was familiar with how he would respond to these things.

The suddenness was not lost on him, but he didn't bother clarifying. He was just glad she had trusted him enough to initiate.

"May I throw you back a question?"
"Of course."
"How did you like our dance?"
"I really loved it."
"I see. I'm quite glad I'm not the only one."

"You aren't."

 

-Reality END-