‘Farava’s twin bracelet. The Life Giver. It all makes sense now,’ Gael whispered. His first thought after seeing Haka’s won artifact was to search for the other one in books about artifacts. But of course, the Goddess of Wisdom couldn’t help but to give him the answer.
Farava’s Life Taker, also known as Shadow Bracelet due to its colour, Serra said. That was what they experimented him with. Malicious, malicious priests.
Thanks for the answer, Gael replied.
What happened next was a series of unexpected turns he didn’t wish for. It turned out the Test this year was practically held to recruit two best students, one representing the Fighter students and the other the Scholar, to help to protect Estagrians from the Hollows. How, he didn’t know. They chose Haka and Aleveri. And then Aleveri talked about failing to stop the church, and during his own rage – they were taking Haka from him, after all! - Serra managed to speak through him.
The last part pissed him off enough for him to ignore what Veris said. It was after the award ceremony ended that he managed to control his emotions.
Later, he was with Ilami, Aleveri, and Felaris in his room. Felaris brought Seya and Veris too. They were all planning on how to enter the laboratory, get the answers they needed, and exit safely. This time, they would make sure no one died or nearly died. Ilami didn’t take his involvement happily, though.
‘I went to Felaris so that both of you –’ she looked at Haka and Aleveri – ‘didn’t have to get involved! I was trying to keep you safe. Why is that hard so hard to understand. Aleveri, you’re supposed to be with the priests after thirty minutes. You should focus on how to deal with them instead.’
‘This is how I deal with them,’ Aleveri said. She continued to stare at Ilami. ‘Look, I – I understand why you want me and Haka out of this, but – you can’t choose that for us. I want to help you as much as I could before I go.’
‘She’s right, Ilami,’ Gael said, but more gently. ‘We know what we put ourselves into this time. I’m more than willing to risk my life to save Haka.’ Ignoring Veris’s glance, he continued. ‘I appreciate what you did for us, but… friends help each other. Do you really think we don’t know you yourself is taking risk by getting into this?’ He paused. ‘Let us help you.’
Seya raised her hand. ‘Um, can someone tell me how solving the mystery is going to save Haka’s – and by extension, Aleveri’s – life? The best we could do is expose the church’s crimes,’ she said.
Veris massaged his temple. ‘To be honest, we can’t actually expose the church’s crimes.’
‘What?’ Ilami and Felaris said at the same time.
Veris shrugged. ‘Think about it. Perhaps Estagrians will side with us and turn against the church. But the church is aided by the king. That’s one enemy we don’t want to have if we treasure our lives.’
‘That’s a moot point,’ Gael said. ‘We can’t stop their illegal experimentation without revealing ourselves. Once the church deems us a threat enough to worry, it’ll definitely inform the king about this. Exposing its crimes won’t add any more of our enemies.’
Veris frowned. ‘Hmm. You’re right.’
‘I don’t care about what happen after we tell the world about the church,’ Felaris said, folding her arms. ‘Right now, we need to find solid evidence of their experimentation. Start planning on how or else we’re going anywhere with this.’
A firm leader, Serra said. Someone who does not allow herself to be distracted by currently irrelevant details is the person we need right now to guide us.
You sure you’re not talking about yourself? Gael asked. ‘Felaris is right,’ he said, not wanting to hear Serra’s response. ‘Veris, now you could tell us –’
Someone knocked the door. It couldn’t be Secca. Usually he had a class right now. Gael went to the door and opened it. It was Haka. Now that Gael had the chance to look at him up close, he saw the black circles around Haka’s eyes. What had happened to him?
‘I need to talk to you,’ Haka whispered. ‘It’s urgent.’
‘Um...’ Gael wanted to let him in, but how could he tell that the experimentation didn’t come with him being automatically loyal to the church? He wanted so much to trust him, but his mind told him to be careful while Serra urged him to be suspicious. ‘Get in.’
Haka wasn’t welcomed when he was inside. Seya hissed, Felaris took a combative stance, and Veris went rigid. Only Aleveri and Ilami were surprised to see him, but in a way someone reacted to their old friend showing up.
‘What is he doing here?’ Seya asked.
‘He wants to talk to me,’ Gael said. ‘In private. You guys have to leave.’
‘He goes inside while I go outside, huh?’ Veris asked softly.
Gael didn’t know how to reply to that, so he kept his silence and stood, waiting. Eventually, they all left, telling Gael they would be in Felaris’s room.
Once they were gone, Haka suddenly hugged Gael. Tightly. ‘I missed you so much,’ he said, his voice cracking. ‘All the time I was there, I kept hoping you would be beside me, helping me to get through with it. You don’t know how much it hurt knowing you weren’t there.’
This Haka hugging Gael was completely different to the one at the field. This wasn’t the cold Fighter student who could turn into a raging beast. This was his friend, Haka. The real Haka. Tears started to well in his eyes. He hugged Haka back just as tightly. ‘I missed you too. I was miserable when you were gone.’
Haka let out a weak chuckle. ‘Call me selfish, but I’m glad you did. But I’m a monster now. You saw me back there.’
‘Stop,’ Gael said. ‘You are not a monster. If anything else, you’re a victim. They took advantage of you. Aleveri and I will find a solution to fix you.’
Haka released the hug. He sighed and smiled. ‘I know you will. It’s just – it’s risky, Gael. I don’t want you to get hurt. They’ll take Aleveri soon.’
Gael rolled his eyes. ‘I have three vicious fighters with me and a resourceful scholar. I think the odds of success is higher this time.’ Instinctively, he grabbed Haka’s hands. ‘Don’t worry. I’m in good hands.’
Haka stared at Gael’s hands. ‘Back then, when Aleveri was healing me, you whispered something to me.’ He looked up. ‘You said you love me. What does that mean?’
Gael gulped. The sight of a loud man embodying the ideal masculinity went into his mind. ‘I – I did.’
There was no going back now. If there was something wrong that happened to him – Naturals forbid – he wouldn’t have the chance to make his feelings clear. At least he tried. He couldn’t care about the consequences right now.
He took a deep breath. ‘I love you in a romantic sense. The moment we became friends, I knew you were the perfect guy for me. It didn’t help that as the days went by, I liked you more and more. I couldn’t help it.’
‘I see,’ Haka said. To Gael’s disappointment, he took his hands off his. He gestured at the bed for them to sit. ‘I haven’t told you much about the people where I’m from. Well, here’s the deal. They’re the kind of people where you don’t need to be afraid of expressing yourself. If you see a two female friends holding each other’s hand, you would also see the same thing happens to male friends. We don’t have a strict rule about how you show your affection. But the elders do make it clear that same-sex relationship is forbidden.
‘When you confessed to me, I can see how the way I treat you as a friend might be seen as… more.’ Gael didn’t like the way this was going. ‘I don’t know. The rest of Estagrians are such prude people.’ Haka stopped.
The few seconds of silence felt like eternity to Gael. Just continue, for my sake, Serra said. I don’t have time for this trivial romance.
‘And?’ Gael asked. He swore he could hear his heart beating.
‘And I don’t care,’ Haka said, smiling. ‘I had a lot of time thinking, Gael. I thought I was being friendly to you, but the emptiness I felt after they brought to the – to whatever it was – was definitely not a mere friend could fill. What I’m trying to say is that your feeling is reciprocated.’
No way, Serra and Gael thought simultaneously. All this time, I thought he strictly desires on women. It seems like my perception has an error.
‘My – my feeling is reciprocated?’ Gael asked. Haka liked him? Was that even possible? Was this a dream? Could they actually live happily ever after? At the very least, he was relieved Haka didn’t treat him like the assassins treated Denizen. He cleared his throat. ‘Haka, be clear.’
Hearing that, Haka blushed. Haka. Just. Blushed. Gael thought he would never see the day. ‘I – I like you. Or love you. Whatever.’ He punched Gael in the shoulder. ‘Don’t force me to say it, for Natural’s sake!’
Gael let out a chuckle. ‘Don’t be a prude, Haka.’