February 25th to March 3rd

The long dress rustled as she got lightly on her feet and made two steps toward the window. Her olive green eyes gazed wearily outside at the street where parents were dragging their kids to school or buying bread for breakfast or hurrying to whichever destination was in their minds. Her fingers clicked the window open and immediately, a breeze of cool air blew her pink hair and made her wince. It didn't matter. Right now, she would give anything to be able to stand outside, even in the cold, among those people passing by blithely.

What were her friends doing right now? She knew that they were worried about her, given the number of messages left on her phone – which had been confiscated and given back to her only once for her to reply to Rita, under strict supervision. She was one persistent girl, Alexei had commented.

The sound of her door being unlocked didn't even make her turn back, and neither did the deep male voice that addressed her.

"Estellise, you will catch a cold like that."

"I'm fine." she replied quietly, though she closed the window anyway and walked back to her desk by which she sat.

"Very well. I'll take my leave then. Khroma will take care of anything you need, as usual."

As the man was about to shut the door of the room, Estellise suddenly turned her head to him.

"Uncle Alexei, I'd like to call my parents tonight." she requested.

"Understood." the said 'uncle' replied with a short nod. "You will also be able to reply to the messages your friends left you. Khroma will see to it. Provided that you behave yourself."

"I will."

The door closing on her words was the only reply she received. The pink-haired girl slowly lowered her head to the empty desk in front her and wrapped both arms around her, shivering, though it wasn't of cold. The house was warm and nice and welcoming – it was one of her godfather's houses, after all – and yet she couldn't feel the warmth of a real home. All day long she had to remain shut in that big living room and was only allowed to walk around the house when accompanied by Khroma.

Estellise knew without looking that the beautiful woman was seated on the sofa near a corner of the room, as discreet as a shadow. Several times she tried to learn more about her, unsuccessfully. Khroma was always willing to have conversations with her, but as soon as the questions drifted to her own self, she would merely smile and give Estellise the same reply:

"I am but a mere assistant."

At first, Estellise had thought that she was Alexei's lover, or at least someone very close to him; but the fine woman had once chuckled at that assumption and Estellise didn't raise the topic again. There was however that constant glimpse of melancholy in her cobalt eyes, in spite of all the smiles she could give. The hint of sadness on the corner of her lips was always present, and somehow it also made the pink-haired girl feel pity for her.

"Why does Alexei do this?" she asked for the hundredth time, turning to Khroma.

Again, the first reply she got was a smile. "He has his own reasons, but I believe in him. Don't you?"

Estelle let out a small sigh, then stood up and went to take a seat on the sofa right in front of the other woman. She still hoped that she'd be able to learn something useful if she kept insisting a bit every day. The progress hadn't been noticeable, though.

"I... I thought I knew him well enough. He is Father's closest friend, after all. At least, that is what I thought." the girl almost murmured. "But you normally don't kidnap your closest friend's daughter, do you?"

"Do you still think of this as a kidnapping?" Khroma asked softly as she tilted her head on the side.

"Well... I am well treated and I lack nothing, but I am still not allowed to go where I please. I can't even go to school anymore and there are examinations coming in two weeks."

"It should barely be a problem for you, from what I heard."

But Estellise shook her head. "That is not the point. I don't understand why I am not allowed to see my parents. Alexei is my godfather. His actions aren't honourable."

Khroma didn't reply immediately. She looked thoughtful, slightly distant yet definitely not disturbed by Alexei's actions.

"Do you know Alexei's deepest wish?" she finally asked. "His one and true wish?"

The question confused Estelle. She shook her head slowly.

"He hates evil above everything else. He has always fought on justice's side against crime, since the day he first joined the police as a rookie." Khroma explained, though she seemed to be talking more to herself than to Estelle. "His deepest wish is for crime to cease to exist, and he is ready to make any required sacrifice."

"I know he has a really sharp sense of justice, but this doesn't–"

"No, it doesn't justify all his actions. But the world needs people like him. People who commit themselves entirely to a cause, no matter what can be thought of him afterwards." Khroma's voice turned distant. "Do not think he isn't aware of the criticisms that have risen lately. He knows and he endures them, because it is the only way to achieve his goals. Most people pretend to hate crime and yet do nothing about it, or they do it half-heartedly, because in the end, they still value themselves above the others."

"That isn't true." Estellise protested.

"It is. Alexei is the only man I've ever met who is ready to do anything for his beliefs. He truly hates evil and will do everything to eradicate it, even if it means staining his name. Even if it means taking his closest friend's daughter as a guarantee." Khroma gave a faint, melancholic smile.

"A... guarantee?" the girl asked with uncertainty.

"Haven't you guessed yet? I know you have enough wits for that."

"I... don't understand."

"Your father is the one who prosecutes most of the criminals who are caught by Alexei's brigade, isn't he? And in order to get them a guilty verdict quickly, it is better to have solid evidence against them." Khroma fell silent, smiling at Estelle again.

The latter gave her a quizzical look. As the woman tilted her head on the side again, a few blue strands of hair brushed over her shoulder. She swept them away with one hand, while the other took a glass of wine on the low table next to her.

"Don't you find it strange that your father always manages to have such handy pieces of evidence whenever he needs them?" she questioned enigmatically.

Estelle frowned. What did she mean? Evidence was evidence, regardless of how handy it could be. Unless... Her eyes opened wide. Khroma took a sip of her glass and put it back on the table.

"I guess you have realized by now." she merely stated.

But incredulity was still painted all over the girl's face. "You can't mean... My father would never..."

"Yes, he would." Khroma cut her in gently. "He would if he had a reason to."

"Do you mean that Uncle Alexei is keeping me here as a leverage to make sure that my father will follow him? That can't be..." Estelle lowered her eyes, unable to accept the truth that was slowly forming in her head.

The elegant woman stood up from her sofa, but only to kneel by Estelle's feet. Warm fingers caressed her cheek.

"I know it is hard to face it, but that's how it is. Your father forges evidence to make sure he wins each and every cases he handles; he probably bribes for testimonies as well. And your being held here is a guarantee that he will keep doing it. And since he is a renowned prosecutor and has Alexei's support, no one dares question him."

"B-But..." Tears started beading at the corner of her eyes. "I don't want my father to be forced to do illegal things because of me... There are probably innocent people being tried..."

"Do you think Alexei ignores it? It is a sacrifice he is willing to make to achieve his goals."

"Why do you defend him? Why do you support him so much?" Estelle exclaimed as she stood up abruptly from her chair, stepping away from Khroma. Her head felt dizzy. She couldn't believe it. Because of her, people were being arbitrarily sentenced. Because of her, his father had to wear the mask of a heartless prosecutor and break all his oaths.

Once again, she had to content herself with a weary smile as sole answer.

Flynn put down the pencil he had been distractedly playing with on the table, next to the exercises he was working on. The past few days – and nights – hadn't been particularly restful for him, but now reflecting time was over. His decision was made. A few months ago, he would have never imagined even considering the option; yet plenty had happened since then and in particular, Yuri happened.

It was Yuri who gave him the decisive resolve he had lacked in the past. If he could simply stay by Yuri's side, then everything else was but a small sacrifice.

Even if it implied relinquishing his name and his inheritance.

For it was the final outcome Flynn had come up with to be once and for all free from his parents' grip. For days he had weighted all the consequences – good or bad – and reached the conclusion that it would be his trump card to convince his parents to stop interfering with his life. He was the Scifos' only direct heir, and he was well aware that his mother's dearest wish was to have another child to replace his disobedient self. It was the sensitive string he'd have to play with.

Naturally, if he did chose to forfeit his succession rights, new problems would arise, but they would be mainly financial and that was something Flynn could cope with.

It sounded so easy now that the solution was laid bare in his mind. He suddenly fell much lighter and relieved. No matter what happened, he would always have an emergency exit. He felt so light that he was almost tempted to tell Yuri of his plans, but then decided against it.

Yuri would probably blame himself once again and say that there was no need to go to such extents for his sake. Flynn glanced quickly at the boy sitting in front of him and also trying to study for the coming exams, unaware of the stream of thoughts flowing in Flynn's head. He reckoned that his lover had already enough to deal with; he certainly didn't need more concerns to fill his head. No, for now it was a matter to be settled between his parents and himself.

Picking up his pencil, he shifted his focus back to his exercises, frowning as a particularly difficult question presented itself to him. Well, nothing that he couldn't solve. He kept on scribbling, sometimes pausing, sometimes checking his references, most of the time writing. Despite the silence in which the school library was bathed in, Flynn failed to hear the faint sound of a chair being dragged and footsteps getting past then behind him. It was only when a pair of arms circled his neck and a chin rested on his shoulder that he jumped slightly, only to smile as a voice murmured softly at his ear:

"Stop working so much, your brain's gonna explode."

"Shouldn't you be doing the same, Yuri?"

"Come on, exams are only in ten days. I still have plenty of time." he pouted. "Besides, you know I'll never be able to reach your level of concentration."

"I wasn't that concentrated." Flynn protested.

"Enough for you not to notice my sneak attack on you." Yuri smirked.

"I can do with such attacks. Now, how about you go back to your seat and actually start studying?"

"I don't need to." Yuri replied with a sigh as he released Flynn from his embrace and complied anyway.

The blonde boy didn't insist. They already had similar discussions before, and Flynn had never managed to convince Yuri that it wasn't a good strategy to do just enough to pass. To which Yuri would always retort that as long as he passed, he didn't need to provide more effort.

"Ah, here's Karol and his friends coming." the long-haired male commented. "Weird, I don't see Rita with him." he added as he waved at the younger boy.

"She must be attending a lecture." Flynn replied.

Apparently she wasn't, Karol told them once he sat at their table.

"Rita? Nah, she's probably in the lab again." he said.

"The lab? Is she still having labs even though exams are in a week?" Yuri questioned, raising an eyebrow.

Karol shook his head. "Not really. She isn't working for school stuff. I think she's working on the virus."

"The virus?" Yuri frowned. "You mean that sort of super-flu thing?"

"I'm not sure. I've tried asking her several times but she just snaps at me, telling me not to bother her." the boy shrugged. "But I've had a look at all the papers she carries around, and they're all about the flu."

"Does she really think she can find out something?" Flynn asked.

"I don't know, but she's been at it for about a week." Karol explained. "And I mean, really at it. She practically lives in the lab. She even went there during the weekend!"

"Crazy woman..." Yuri commented with resignation. "But somehow it doesn't surprise me, coming from that chem freak."

"Well you know..." Karol started hesitantly, "I think she's also trying to distract her mind from Estelle."

"But isn't she supposed to be at her grandmother?" Flynn intervened. "That's what you told us, at least."

Karol nodded. "Yeah, well that's what Estelle's mother said. But Rita doesn't want to believe it. Even though Estelle sent her a message to confirm she is doing well."

"You have to admit there's something fishy. First, she doesn't reply at all. Then she replies only once, and then nothing." Yuri crossed his arms pensively.

"Not to mention that you don't normally stay at your grandmother for so long when you have university to attend." Flynn added.

"That's basically what annoys Rita too." Karol noted.

"How about we go find her?" Yuri suggested.


"No, silly. Rita. You said she's literally living in the labs, and it's true I haven't seen her much this week."

"Oh." Karol lowered his head. "I'm not sure it's a good idea to disturb her. I heard she even snapped at her own professors when they came to tell her to leave."

"Now that's a big surprise." Yuri said, not sounding surprised the least bit. "Well, she needs to be reminded that she has exams coming soon. You show us the way, Karol?"

The boy hesitated a bit, but seeing that even Flynn seemed to approve, he got no choice but to comply. They walked to the Chemistry Department, where the labs were.

"It's this one." Karol pointed to a closed door, where a "DO NOT DISTURB" sign was stuck on it. "You're really sure you want to go in?"

"Yeah." Yuri replied as he knocked and opened the door, not even waiting for an answer.

The boys found Rita, her back turned to them, leant over the bench and obviously deep into some analyses. Around her were scattered erlenmeyer flasks, test tubes, beakers and various other items. There were also papers darkened with pencil scribbles. Yuri got closer carefully so as not to smash down anything, followed by Flynn. Karol chose to stay by the door, preventively. Before Yuri could say anything, however, a sharp and irritated voice rose:

"I'm busy here. If you have nothing important to do, leave."

"Good afternoon to you too, Rita." Yuri sneered, barely impressed by the girl's mood.

Rita let out an exasperated sigh and turned round. Yuri couldn't help but smiled mentally at the sight of her in her white lab coat, protective glasses and gloves. It was exactly how he had always imagined her, back then when they were still all living at the orphanage. The brunette removed her glasses, revealing green eyes that sent daggers at him.

"What do you want?" she asked with a hint of impatience.

"For a start, to make sure you aren't neglecting yourself with those experiments of yours." Yuri replied as he walked to the bench, giving a quick and curious glance at the mess on it.

"Well, as you can see, I'm fine."

"And we heard you had some news from Estellise?" Flynn inquired. Rita turned to him, her face darkening.

"Yeah, somehow. She sent me a message a few days ago. But since then, nothing. How the hell can you just stay at your grandmother's for so long and not say a damn thing about it?"

"She may have her reasons." Flynn said. "As I said, if something really happened to her, there would be high chances that it would hit the news."

"I wouldn't be so sure about that." Rita retorted gloomily.

"What do you mean?"

The girl turned back to her bench and searched for a paper which was buried under a few others. She grabbed it and handed it to Flynn. Both Yuri and Karol – who had finally decided to come near – read along with him.

"It's an article I printed two days ago." she explained.

The article was about some demonstrations that had taken place spontaneously in front of the tribunal after some trials prosecuted by Estelle's father. Nothing new or surprising there.

As if she had read their minds, Rita pointed out: "They say Estelle's dad has been deliberately rushing all the trials with obviously suspicious pieces of evidence, and they say both he and Alexei have bribed the judges and random people to give false testimonies."

"There's no proof of that." Flynn retorted.

"Look." Rita started counting on her fingers as she enumerated her arguments. "The last time Estelle actually acted normal with me was right before paying a visit to Alexei. Then there's the fact that her mother looked pretty uneasy to me when I talked to her. And finally, there's the fact that her father is doing crap even though he used to be an excellent lawyer. According to my research, at least." She crossed her arms. "How do you explain that?"

It was Yuri's turn to look gloomy. "I'd say you either have too much imagination, or Estelle is in real trouble."

"More like the latter." Rita let out dryly.

"Wait, wait, wait." Karol stepped in. "Are you saying that Alexei has something to do with this?"

"Of course he has!" the girl snapped. "Use your brain a bit. My hypothesis is that the guy has her father do whatever he orders him to do, and he's using her as a leverage."

"This is far-fetched." Yuri said. "Honestly, I have troubles believing it. It sounds really surrealistic."

"I agree with Yuri." Flynn nodded. "Though I have to admit your explanation does have some logic in it."

"Think whatever you want, I'm sure Estelle's in trouble. And I can't do a damn thing about it."

At that very same moment, her phone buzzed. Clicking her tongue of annoyance, she grabbed it and let out a small exclamation:

"It's Estelle!"

"What does she say?" Karol prompted her.

"Apparently, she's doing well." Rita said as she read the message. "Her grandmother fell sick so she has to stay and take care of her. She says hi to you guys."

"See? There was no need to be so worried." Karol said happily, but Rita didn't seem to share the happiness.

"I still think there's something fishy." she said. "I told her to phone me, but she just sends me very short messages, and she doesn't pick up when I call her."

"You have a point but I'm still sceptical." Yuri said.

"I feel the same as Yuri." Flynn intervened. "Do you have Estelle's grandmother's address? If you do, it would be easy to check if she's really where she says she is."

"I already thought of that." Rita replied. "But she didn't tell me anything about her grandmother. And I don't know where I can get that address."

"Ask her parents?" Karol suggested.

"I tried, dummy." Rita said sharply. "I went back to Estelle's house, but that butler didn't even let me past the entrance gates."

"Maybe he found you too annoying on the first time we came–Ouch!" Karol flinched as the girl hit him on the head.

"In any case, here I am, unable to do a damn thing to find out what is up with Estelle."

"And what exactly are you doing here?" Yuri changed the topic as he remembered why he was there in the first place.

This time, Rita actually pulled a stool from under the bench and sat down with a sigh.

"I'm trying to find the cause of the flu and a way to cure it."

"Sounds easy as pie." Yuri's remark earned him a glare from the young girl who snapped back at him:

"At least I'm trying! I'm sick of seeing Pia in that state while no one can do a damn thing to even identify the problem!"

That silenced Yuri. He looked away, visibly frustrated and probably hurt at his own powerlessness, and Flynn could clearly read it on his face. The blonde boy put a hand on his shoulder as a sign of support.

"How did you manage to obtain all this material to work with?" he inquired.

"I annoyed the director of my department a bit." Rita replied, and though it was untold, the three boys there understood immediately that 'a bit' meant that the said director must have gone through hell. "Now this lab is basically for my sole use, under the condition that I make progress and actually find something."

"Then how is it going?"

The brunette rolled her eyes. "Slowly. But I'm probably at the same level of results as all those guys who're meeting up to try and tackle the problem."

"What are you talking about?" Yuri frowned before catching a newspaper that Rita tossed at him.

"On page 9." she indicated.

"You keep yourself well informed." Flynn pointed out.

The girl shrugged. "I'm trying to gather all the information I can, it case there's something useful."

Yuri flipped the pages until he reached the right article and skimmed through it while Rita was explaining:

"Basically they decided that it may be a good idea to ask the most brilliant biologists and physicians to put in common their knowledge in order to find a solution on how to deal with the disease."

"Hey, is that... Duke Pantarei?" Flynn asked as he looked at the photo on the paper, intrigued. The picture was displaying all the brilliant minds who had gathered up to work together – nine of them – and among them was a familiar face to Flynn. The man had unmistakable long and white hair, with effeminate traits and a slender silhouette. The caption under the picture confirmed Flynn's guess. "What is he doing there?" he frowned.

"By Pantarei, you don't mean the guy who's making all those damn expensive perfumes, do you?" Karol asked as he leant over to gaze at the photograph as well.

"I do." Flynn nodded.

"What the hell is the CEO of a luxury products company doing there?" It was Yuri's turn to look puzzled.

A loud and exasperated sigh was heard. "Duke Pantarei hasn't always been into luxury products." Rita declared. "In fact, he only started in that industry about five years ago. Before that, he was a renowned biologist who worked in the most famous labs of the world."

"Seriously? Why did he quit?" Karol asked.

"Beats me. But the fact is, I'm actually quite interested in the results of their research, so I thought maybe you could help me, Flynn."

"Could I?" the blonde boy cocked an eyebrow.

"Yeah, you said you met Duke Pantarei at a party. I was hoping you could introduce me to him."

"I did talk to him a bit, yes, but it didn't go further than that." Flynn said apologetically. "I'm not sure I can actually reach him."

Rita looked clearly disappointed. "Oh. Well I guess I was hoping for too much."

"But wait..." Flynn looked thoughtful. "There may be a way..."

"Really?" Rita's eyes shimmered.

"Well, I'm not promising anything, but I can try. I'll ask Sodia." Yuri stiffened at the name, but remained silent. Flynn didn't miss it, though. He smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry, she's good now. And her parents own one of the biggest pharmaceutical laboratories of the country, so chances are high they may have interesting connections."

"Well... I can't say I'm not interested," Rita said cautiously, "but you don't have to if you think that talking to her can be... delicate."

The blonde boy chuckled. "As I said, it's fine now. Don't worry about that. I'm sure Sodia will be more than happy to help."

"In that case, I'd be grateful if you could ask her." Rita stretched her arms, then stood up and put her glasses back on. "And now, I'll go back to work. So please get out, or don't bother me." she ordered.

"Talk about being nice..." Yuri muttered as he headed for the exit anyway. The two other boys followed him.

Once in the corridor, Karol grunted: "Told you, it's her nest there now, and no one is allowed to disturb her more than five minutes."

"I wonder if she'll actually manage to achieve some results." Yuri pondered very seriously. "I mean, I'm the first one who wants to see Pia healthy again, but can she really do something on her own?"

"That's why she asked for some help." Flynn said. "I'll have to see quickly with Sodia what she can do for Rita. Yuri, I guess you don't really feel like studying now?"

"I was planning to go to the hospital." the long-haired male replied.

"I'll go with you then."

"Me too!" Karol added.

Yuri smiled gratefully at them. Even though he didn't mention it, he never liked paying a visit to Pia alone; it always made him feel discouraged to see her lying on her bed and barely breathing, with him unable to do a damn thing to soothe the pain she was in. At least when Flynn was there, he knew he could count on him for support. And suddenly he felt fingers slipping along his hand and enclosing it reassuringly, as if Flynn had read his mind.

Yuri squeezed his hand back and graced his lover with yet another pleased smile.

He entered the code on the panel almost mechanically, and the door slid open with a faint noise. As soon as he stepped inside, the lights were turned on automatically, casting a white – almost blinding – light on the room. In the middle, several screens and computers with large control panels were standing, linked to what looked at first glance like a long capsule of glass closed with a round lid.

To him it was closer to a transparent coffin, with that body lying inside, unmoving. The regular pulses on the black screen next to the whole apparatus were the only indications that she was still alive. There was a thin layer of ice powder covering the inside of the capsule. "Cold is best to slow down an organism's metabolism." he had been told. Her long and straight chestnut hair was covering the top half of her bust, and the white gown as well as the bright lighting of the room failed to enhance her already wan skin. Thin tubes were sprouting out of her limbs and her neck and were plugged on the inside of the capsule to some tanks filled with liquid beneath. He wasn't sure if their purpose was to drain her of the remnants of life she had left or to actually keep her breathing, though in that comatose state. Perhaps a bit of both.

It didn't matter to him, though. His fingers lingered on the cold glass lid that prevented him from touching that pale cheek of hers, from slipping them into her hair, from brushing against her dry lips. But he couldn't lift the lid; not as long as he wanted her to remain alive. Alexei had promised him he would find a way to wake her up definitely, the same way he had managed to wake him up when all the surgeons had given up on him.

Almost instinctively, he brought a hand to where his heart was supposed to be. The strong and regular beats he felt against his chest did nothing to fill up the emptiness of his mind. If only it was a heart of flesh that dwelt inside him, and not that... machine which was a constant reminder that he was alive only by the grace of a man who now held him in the palm of his hand...

A mere puppet. That was what he was now. No, he wanted to believe. He had chosen to retrieve his former identity. For her. And for the promise he had made to him. It was his own choice. He was the only one left to protect her.

His lips stretched into a bitter smile. What an efficient protector he was!


Yet it was the only path he saw in front of him. He would follow it until the end, even if it meant following it alone.

The face of a certain blue-haired woman smiling mischievously at him flashed in his head, but for half a heartbeat only.

He shook his head. Not her. He couldn't involve another person in his own troubles. Especially when that person was so dear to him.

His eyes – though one was veiled by a strand of dark grey hair – gazed back at the slim face of the woman inside the capsule. He would have given that fake heart in him just to see her open her eyes and smile at him, and say his name.


He clenched his fists. No, not that name. It wasn't his name anymore. Now, he was Damuron Atomais. With one last glance, he turned round and exited the room.

Sodia put her cup of tea back on the saucer, blinking as she listened to Flynn. The latter had invited her to a trendy tea house, and though she hadn't expected that it was for the sheer pleasure of seeing her, she definitely didn't suspect such a request.

"Well... I guess that shouldn't be impossible." she said after a few seconds. She crossed her arms and started playing with her braid. "I'll ask my father about that. But does your friend really hope to find something?" she asked, doubtful.

"I have no idea. I just know that her teachers consider her a genius enough to give her free access to all the facilities she needs."

"Oh really? Then I'll see what I can do for her. I can't promise anything, though. Duke Pantarei is a particularly busy person, especially right now."

"I understand. I'm sorry to bother you like that." Flynn apologized, but Sodia shook her head and smiled.

"Don't worry about that. I'm actually happy I can be of any help. I'll ask my father today if he can get us in touch with Duke."

"How are your parents doing, anyway?"

Sodia opened her mouth to answer, but then she closed it again and pursed her lips, looking away.

"I-I'm sorry, maybe it was an appropriate question." Flynn said hastily, unsure of her reaction.

"No, no! It's just that... I thought I told you." Sodia sighed. "My mother has been hospitalized for a month now."

Flynn opened his eyes wide. "Don't tell me it's..." The girl nodded.

"Yes, the flu. Or whatever it is." she said, lowering her head.

"I didn't hear anything about that! Not even in the news."

"That's because my father wanted it to remain unknown, as much as possible. We are not hiding it, but neither do we need the journalists to make a fuss about it. I guess you've seen the reactions when some other firms' leaders fell sick?"

"Panic." Flynn nodded. "How are you faring with this?" he asked, his voice full of concern. "You don't look too... affected by it?"

"Ah well... As I said, it's been a month now, so I think I calmed down a bit." Sodia replied, though her traits didn't reflect any joy. "And we still have a company to run. I think my father has it the toughest, and I can't afford letting him down. We go and visit her once a week, but since she's sleeping..." she didn't finish her sentence.

"I'm really sorry about it. I wish something could be done about it." Flynn said sincerely.

"Don't you think it's ironical?" Sodia asked bitterly. "We have one of the most developed research laboratories in pharmacology, and yet we can't even find a treatment to a mere flu." she sighed again. "Anyway, I told myself not to let things get me down. I'm too busy for that anyway."

"Don't push yourself too hard."

"I won't." Sodia took a last sip from her cup and put it back on the table. "Well, I'll have to excuse myself now. It was really nice talking to you, and I'm sorry I couldn't spend more time with you, but I need to go back to work."

"I understand. I'm the one who should apologize for taking some of your time."

"It's nothing! It was a nice break." Sodia smiled as she stood up. "I will get in touch with you as soon as I have news from Duke Pantarei."

"Thank you again."

Flynn paid the bill and accompanied her outside. The weather was particularly warm today, and he waited with her for the taxi she had called. She waved at him one last time before leaving.

Well, one good thing done. Flynn thought. He was inwardly happy to see that Sodia had really changed, and in a good way. He simply hoped her mother's condition didn't weight too much on her.

Another day of school came to an end with a darkening sky and the usual hubbub that always accompanied the students' rush to the university's gates.

"Normally you'd go to your fencing session." Yuri noted as he was following the flow.

"I don't have much time for that now." Flynn replied with a sigh.

"You don't even play the violin anymore?"

"At home. Whenever I need a break. But I'm not in the orchestra anymore."

"I kinda miss listening to your playing." Yuri said thoughtfully.

"Do you? You only heard me play two, maybe three times." Flynn chuckled.

Yuri shrugged. "Well, it was enough for me to get addicted."

"I'll play for you again soon." Flynn promised with a smile.

"You'd better... Anyway, we're almost at the school's gates." Yuri said.

It was a sort of habit now. Whenever they finished their classes at the same time, they would walk back together and stop before getting too close to the gates. Then they would continue on separate ways, to avoid being seen together outside the university. But as days passed, Flynn found it to be more and more ridiculous. His parents knew he was still seeing him anyway – it was the reason why they wanted to send him abroad, after all – though they still ignored the truth of his relationship with Yuri. But the fact remained the same: did he still care about being seen with Yuri?

The answer came to him as naturally as breathing. And he had made up his mind as far as his parents were concerned. He had nothing to be afraid of anymore. That's why his reply wasn't the one Yuri expected:

"Let's walk together."

The long-haired male turned a pair of surprised eyes to him, and Flynn almost burst out laughing at the sight of his face.

"Would you prefer that I left you alone?" he asked with feigned courtesy.

"No, but aren't we supposed to–"

"I don't care." Flynn let out, his face turning serious. "Honestly, I don't care anymore." Then, smiling again, he added: "Don't worry. My parents won't be able to do anything to me."

Yuri raised an eyebrow, looking half-hopeful, half-incredulous. "Do you mean you found a way for them to leave you alone?"

"You could say so, yes." Flynn replied enigmatically.

"You don't plan to tell me more about it, do you?"

The blonde boy shook his head. "Don't worry." he repeated. "Shall we go now?"

"Huh, sure." Yuri nodded, though his face was displaying obvious curiosity. After a few seconds, he went on with a hint of hesitation: "Say... how about you drop at my place then? We haven't had dinner together for a while." His cheeks flushed slightly, which didn't go unnoticed by Flynn. The latter couldn't help but smile, and kissed Yuri on the cheek.

"Is it because it's my turn that you're making the offer?" he asked, almost surprised at his own boldness. Yuri's reaction was to glare at him, though Flynn knew he was only pretending to.

"And here I was, innocently wishing to spend a nice evening with you." he said with a tone that didn't convince anyone.

"I would have had less trouble believing you if you hadn't mentioned your innocence." Flynn teased him. "But in any case, I'll accept your invitation."

Yuri gave him a broad smile and a quick peck on the lips. To him, it felt like ages since the last time he had actually spent a real, quiet evening with Flynn. For the first time in ages, they walked back together, not caring the last bit if they were being watched by agents hired by Flynn's mother. They made a detour by the grocery before heading for Yuri's place. Given the ingredients Yuri had bought, Flynn had a hunch that the dinner would be particularly to his taste. Not that he had been disappointed by Yuri's cooking before, mind you.

As soon as he stepped into the studio on the last storey of the building, the blonde male felt immediately at home. He was already looking forward to the dinner and was about to offer whatever help he could provide, but it seemed that Yuri had other plans in mind. The latter barely left enough time for Flynn to remove his coat before grabbing him by the collar and capturing his lips in a not-so-gentle manner. Though he was taken off guard at first, Flynn quickly composed himself and kissed back, feeling a sudden rush of desire in him. The fact that Yuri moved his hips against his in a very inviting way didn't help him cool down.

"Yu–ngh..." Yuri's mouth was incredibly skilled at stifling any protest from his lover. Today wasn't an exception. Before he even realized it, he was pushed back on the bed, with Yuri straddling him and biting his neck while his fingers had already found their ways inside to the buttons of his jacket. Flynn wanted to feel more; he definitely did, and his own body was starting to betray him. Yuri's hot breath against his skin made him sigh of delight and he found himself pulling the boy closer to him, tasting him and touching him with obvious eagerness. The situation could get out of control very soon if Flynn didn't come back to his senses quickly. Taking advantage of a moment when Yuri took back his breath, he slipped two fingers over Yuri's lips and smiled at the latter's pout.

"How about we wait until after dinner?" he suggested.

"It's barely 6. There's plenty of time before dinner." Yuri retorted. "And you're already too far in the mood to stop now." he added with a smirk as he lowered his eyes.

Though Flynn felt more blood rush to his cheeks, he didn't dare contradict his lover, nor did he raise any objection when Yuri let him lead the dance.

Dinner would wait.

The sight of the black car parked down the street as both boys exited the small block of flats was enough to instantly kill Yuri's mood. His fists clenched unconsciously while he wished with all his might that it was simply just some random car which happened to look exactly like that of Flynn's mother. Yeah, right. As if. The day had barely begun and it was already spoiled for Yuri. He along with Flynn had finally managed to spend an enjoyable evening – and an even more enjoyable night – together, was it too much to ask for more than a few hours of respite?

Yet, as he glanced at Flynn, he noticed that the latter didn't look troubled at all. Perhaps Yuri had mistaken the car then?

"Don't worry, I'll handle it." Flynn said with a reassuring smile, giving the confirmation that Yuri was right, after all.

As they walked closer to the car, the door opened, and to both boys' surprise, it wasn't Flynn's mother who stepped out of it, but a tall man, sharing the same blonde hair as Flynn.

"Father, I didn't expect to see you here." Flynn said with a pretty much normal voice.

"Good morning, Flynn." his father replied formally. He turned to Yuri and nodded at him, showing neither signs of approval or disapproval, which was already not too bad. "I'm afraid I will have to borrow Flynn for now." he said.

"I'll join you later." Flynn smiled at Yuri. "You go first."

"Alright." Yuri said, slightly wary. Flynn looked confident, he thought. He might as well trust him on this matter.

The blonde boy waited for Yuri to be far enough before addressing his father:

"I thought you had already left."

"I have changed my schedule a bit because I wished to discuss a few things with you."

"I'm listening."

"You know that you are flying abroad in two weeks, don't you?" As Flynn remained silent, his father went on with a sigh: "Even though I understand that you may want to spend your last days here with your friends, I think it would be better for you if you stopped seeing them right now."

"Is it what Mother think as well?" Flynn asked dryly, but his father shook his head.

"I do not know what goes through her mind, and I am not here on her behalf. Actually, she doesn't know that I am here. Though she will soon enough, since I sent her men back." He sighed again. "I find the mere idea of having you watched utterly ridiculous. But still, I have to agree with her on several points. First, that boy with whom you hang out."

"His name is Yuri." Flynn interrupted him.

"Yuri, yes. I'm sure he is a good lad, and I certainly don't have anything against your making friends, but it is not reasonable for you to get so close with people who won't give you anything in return."

"I think there has always been a sort of misunderstanding in that family of mine." Flynn said lightly. "Apparently you all tend to think that a 'friend' is someone who allows you to make profit, one way or another. I'm afraid that is not my definition of friendship."

His father's face hardened a bit. "You will understand soon enough that you will need friends who bring you profits. Otherwise you will be the one who'll be taken advantage of."

"I know how to choose my friends."

"I don't doubt it, but you may want not to look so close to that Yuri boy. It seems like you often spend the nights at each other's place. Kids do that, not grown people. It could be misinterpreted."

The tone wasn't severe; it could actually almost sound concerned, but Flynn didn't like the content anyway.

"Misinterpreted? How?" he asked, pretending not to understand. It made his father look slightly uneasy.

"It could be thought that your relationship is not exactly friendship." the latter replied, remaining as composed as possible.

The way his father had put it irritated Flynn to no end. Was it so hard for him to say things straightly? It was when he decided to drop the first bomb. Crossing his arms, he cast a defiant look at his father.

"And what if indeed, it wasn't exactly friendship?"

His father frowned. "Flynn, don't try to play that kind of game with me."

"I'm afraid I consider this a game about as much as you do."

"You don't mean..."

"But I do. So I'm asking again: what if Yuri and I weren't mere friends?"

The silence he earned made Flynn beam inwardly. A storm was preparing itself, but Flynn still had cards to play. He saw his father struggling to remain collected and somehow admired him for that. If it had been his mother, she would have burst out since the very beginning.

"Flynn, are you serious?" he asked slowly, staring straight into Flynn's eyes.

The latter didn't flinch. "It could be."

"I'm warning you: if you're telling me this just to make me angry–"

"I'm not."

There silence again, during which they merely stared at each other, until Flynn's father gave up and pinched the bridge of his nose. There was a crease between his eyebrows, and Flynn had no trouble guessing that he was trying to repress the rising irritation in him.

"You will stop seeing him as of now." he commanded. "This kind of farce won't do you any good."

"I refuse."

"Flynn!" his father snapped briskly. "I have been patient until now, but you have to cease with those absurdities. Think of your name, for Lord's sake! When you inherit our company, your image will have to be as clean as can be."

"Are you saying that loving someone would soil me?" Flynn asked, anger sparkling in his eyes.

"Those petty games of yours have nothing to do with loving anybody." The tone was icy.

"I actually wonder if you are the most suited to talk about that kind of subject." Flynn let out with an equal tone. "It has never seemed so obvious to me that you and Mother actually love each other."

The slap came without a warning. The street wasn't desert, but the few passer-bys merely glanced out of curiosity before going on their ways. Flynn rubbed his left cheek, but somehow he didn't feel any resentment towards his father for the gesture. Perhaps it was because he knew that he had already won the game.

"Simply because your mother and I are often apart doesn't give you the right to utter such nonsense. We are a family, and you have absolutely no right to insult your parents like that."

"I was simply stating a fact." Flynn replied. "I apologize if I misunderstood the relationship between the both of you."

"I love your mother, and the feeling is mutual." his father repeated coldly. "But do not change the topic. As I said before, you cannot allow yourself to do any mistake if you are to become my successor. And being young isn't an excuse to your problem."

"Oh but Father, I don't plan to find any excuse. And I think you stated the solution to my 'problem' quite clearly." Flynn's heart beat more strongly against his chest. The second bomb was about to be dropped.

"What do you mean?"

It was now or never.

"You said it yourself: 'if' I were to become your successor." Flynn declared, making sure to detach each of his words so that his father could hear them clearly. "The fact is, I do not wish to take over the company. Nor do I wish to go and study abroad. I want to stay here with my friends, and with Yuri. And if you have anything to say against that, I will make official papers stating that I give up any right I may have as your son. I'll relinquish my name if that is the only way for me to choose how I handle my life. I have cousins, you can choose one among them who will satisfy you more than me."

Flynn watched with satisfaction as he saw his father successively widen his eyes, turn crimson and then open his mouth without a single word escaping it. The deed was done. Now he couldn't turn back, even if he wanted to. The only path for him now was one of determination, with no more hesitation.

"Flynn..." he said with a dangerously low tone. "You are lucky this is neither the time nor the place to teach you some manners. However, I will have you stop this madness at once. You do not know what you are saying anymore." His trembling fists betrayed his mask of apparent coolness.

"I fear that I actually do know." Flynn acted as if he didn't notice it. "It was nice of you to have come here, because I was looking for an opportunity to tell you. Please do inform Mother about this. And now if you'll excuse me, I still have some classes to attend and a few exams to study."

"We are not done talking!" Flynn's father retorted, grabbing his son by the shoulder. He sighed loudly, tightening his grip. "Flynn, you are an outstanding young man who has a brilliant career awaiting you. Have you thought of the consequences of your actions?"

"Over and over again. And I won't change my mind." the boy replied firmly.

"Are you really serious about that Yuri boy?"

Flynn nodded.

At that moment, something unexpected happened, leaving even Flynn bewildered. His father's tone suddenly softened, and the next words he pronounced were ones Flynn would remember even years later:

"This may not be the most appropriate situation to say this, but I'll tell you anyway. You are my only son, and I will not suffer losing my only son. Even if I wasn't as present as I wish I had, the fact remains the same. I want you to remain my son, even if you don't want to take over the company. I want to still be able to call you my son. And I certainly don't need any of your cousins as a replacement. Only your mother can think of something so twisted."

It was Flynn's turn to widen his eyes in surprise. Was his father actually trying to tell him that he did matter to him, even a little? He tried examining the traits of his face, but saw nothing that could have branded him a liar. And no matter what, Flynn had the conviction that a man such as his father was not the kind of person to lie about their feelings. For a second, words failed him. He hadn't expected his plan to work so well. He composed himself soon enough, though.

"I cannot remain your son if you don't allow me to make my own choices." he said with caution.

The reply was immediate. "Then I'll allow you to."

"You would?" Flynn asked, a hint of suspicion in his voice.

Again, his father sighed. "Yes, I would. Flynn, I only want the best for you. And though I still think you are making a big mistake, I don't want to dictate your life to you."

"Mother won't agree to all of this, though."

"Of course she won't. I myself do not agree with this."

Flynn kept silent, as there was nothing to reply.

"Well, I don't want to keep you here any longer. Go to school before you are too late." his father said wearily. "However, we will have another discussion about this. And by then I hope you come back to your senses."

"I'll take my leave, then." Flynn merely replied.

Later, when he finally met up with Yuri, it was with a broad grin that he summarized the conversation:

"Everything's all right."

Night had fallen for hours, yet light was still on in one of the university's labs. Her eyes stuck to the computer screen, Rita was playing with her pencil nervously and impatiently. One hand was on the mouse, scrolling down a page of news, though she wasn't really focused on the headlines she was reading. She glanced for the hundredth time at the phone on table, just to be sure she hadn't missed any call.

What was she nervous for anyway? It was simply a call, and it wasn't as if she was easily intimidated by anyone. Still, this time, it wasn't 'anyone' who was about to phone. She checked the time. He was five minutes.

Well, he did say 'around 9 pm', she thought. And he was probably very busy. She was already lucky to have obtained an appointment with him. She refreshed the page of news, and thought her heart was about to stop. A new article had just popped up, and its title was the last thing she wanted to read – and the first thing she had been fearing.

"The three first victims of the flu."

She clicked on it, but didn't have time to read past the two first lines as the sound of her phone ringing made her jump. The number was unknown. Picking up her device hastily, she managed to utter with a controlled voice:

"Rita Mordio speaking."

"Good evening, Miss Mordio. I am Duke Pantarei. I believe Miss Verna must have informed you of my call."

The brunette took in a deep breath. "Yes, she has. Thank you for giving me some of your time."

The door opened with a faint sound, and Damuron wouldn't have noticed anything if it hadn't been for the determined footsteps he heard in his back.

"Here again? Do you actually spend all your free time in this room?" the familiar deep voice asked him.

"With all due respect, what I do during my free time shouldn't be of any concern to you, Commandant Alexei." Damuron replied.

"Well, well. No need to get so worked up, Raven. I just think it is not healthy for you to stay here all the time."

"Please don't call me by that name."

"As you wish." Alexei replied with a shrug.

"When do you plan to wake her up?"

"As soon as her state is stabilized."

"It has been years now. Will she even stabilize?"

"Is it doubt I hear? Don't worry. I managed to save both you and Yeager, after all. I'll save Casey as well."

Damuron turned back to Alexei and walked past him to the exit. As they crossed, the former murmured:

"You'd better."

The door closed behind him, leaving Alexei alone in the room. The man walked closer to the capsule and looked at the woman inside.

"Beautiful woman you are, yet it was cruel of you to capture two men's hearts the way you did." His lips curled up in a weary smile. "But it is for the greater good."

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A/N: Ahem. I'm not entirely satisfied with this chapter, but no matter how many nights I spent on it, I didn't find how to turn it better o_o So anyway, thank you very much if you're still reading, and a big thank you to those who give a bit of their time to drop a review. *frolics away*