"Just squeeze my hand as hard as you need to. Don't worry about hurting me—I wasn't the one who got shot."

Misty had gotten used to hearing Crystalline say that each time she tended to his wounds. He used to argue that she didn't deserve to go through any kind of pain just because he had, but that only lasted about a year. Now, at seventeen years old, he had learned when to just give into what she said.

With the pair of tweezers in her hand, she wrenched out the bullet in his shoulder. He hissed through clenched teeth, though he had learned to keep himself from squeezing her hand too hard at least.

"Do you need me to wait a moment before healing?"

"I've been going onto the the battlefield for four years. Don't worry about it, Duchess."

As she shook her head, her pale blond hair swished behind her. She still clearly didn't like how he stubbornly refused to do or say something that might inconvenience her. She had also forced herself to grow accustomed to being referred to asDuchess by her best friend.

She touched her fingers to the water in a bowl sitting beside the hospital bed. The liquid coated the bullet hole, agonizingly stinging. He struggled not to grip Crystalline's hand too tightly. Trained not only in piloting aircrafts but also in physical capability, he was far stronger than he was when they first met, and so he had to be careful to avoid hurting her too much.

"Better now? You're ready to start moving your arm again?"

With a nod, he raised his arm up above his head. "Yeah, it's just fine."

"Good!" She threw her arms around him, making sure not to let her head press against the bruise on his cheek. It only caused dull pain when touched, so he really didn't like how she went through the trouble of being careful. "Now I think your captain wanted to see you... He said something about what you did wrong today, and he wants to give you pointers to help you improve."

"Ah—did he?" Misty was secretly terrified. In his captain's book, pointers were typically brutal beatings. But he wasn't about to worry the girl who he had so easily given his life to, so he feigned delight, saying, "I'm quite glad he takes time out of his day to help me get better."

"Have fun! And come to my bedroom later, okay?"

"Thanks." He couldn't help smiling. He only did that when he was alone with the heiress. When other people were able to see, showing any kind of emotion made him feel vulnerable. Not that he felt he could be blamed—everyone seemed to hate him aside from Crystalline and a very small handful of others. "I'll try to be there within an hour."

He got up and headed to his captain's office, getting more and more nervous as he headed down the hallways. He was used to merciless whippings for no other reason than how much his captain detested him, but thought of being beaten yet again never failed to fill him with anxiety. He really didn't like pain when he knew he was unable to make it stop if it got too bad, and if it was inflicted by someone else out of hatred or disgust.

"C-Captain, the duchess said you wanted to speak with me..."

Striking emerald green eyes looked up from the papers spread across the desk, narrowing as they fell upon the boy standing in the doorway. "Yes. Have a seat."

Misty silently did as he was told. It took an effort to swallow back the bile he was beginning to taste in the back of his throat, and even more of an effort to keep from turning on heel and running back to the safety of Crystalline's supervision. But that would be an inconvenience to her, and that was the last thing he wanted.

"Firstly, I want to ask you why you thought it was acceptable to act like a complete madman on the battlefield. These insignificant one-day battles I continuously send you into end in success each time, but some of those who go out there end up dead. You almost ended up dead. Is that what you think I want?"

"I-in all honesty, Captain, that's the impression I get."

Bullshit if he says my life matters, after everything I've been through...

Instantly, he was given a hard slap across his already-injured cheek. "Quite the opposite. Don't think it's anything personal—you are nothing more than pathetic piece of shit. My only issue is my reputation—I've yet to lose any of my squad members, and I'd prefer to keep it that way. I just appear to have had the misfortune of being put in charge of you."

Of course. I should have guessed. Selfish son of a bitch only considers his own reputation, doesn't he? Fucking bastard.

"Y-yes, Captain. I'll be more careful next time."

"And what the hell were you thinking, using up resources like that? Did you honestly think a waste like that would do a single damn thing in the long run?"

"H-Her Highness..." He hung his head timidly. "I thought I was being helpful to her... I promise I'll be more careful..."

"That's what you tell me every time, and every time afterward, you do something incredibly fucking stupid." He stood up and walked around the desk, stopping in front of the boy. "Up."

Misty got to his feet obediently, afraid to meet his captain's eyes but also afraid to stare down at the ground.

Next think he knew, his shoulders were being pinned to the wall, his head slamming backwards and hitting it as well. He winced but he knew better than to struggle by this point.

He couldn't help crying out as he was hit hard in the stomach with a metal rod—once, twice, three times before before he was flipped around and pinned to the wall with one arm twisted up behind his back. The captain grabbed a fistful of his hair and yanked his head back, making it difficult to breath. He gave a strangled choke, unable to even beg for mercy.

After being kept like that for about a minute, he was flipped back around and punched in the face, slamming his head against the cold metal again.

"I suppose I have to show some mercy once in a while," the captain decided, almost reluctantly. "I'll cut you a bit of slack for today. Go get yourself cleaned up and don't let Her Majesty see you like that."

"I'd never let her see me like this... Entirely respectfully, though, Captain—one day, she's going to find out if you don't stop. You would lose your job, and I would have to deal with the shame of inconveniencing the duchess. She would kill you, in fact. The duchess is kind and patient, but you've seen how she gets when she finds out that someone has purposely wronged me. I can't even begin to imagine what she would do if she caught someone physically harming me."

"You refuse to tell her and I'm careful—she isn't going to find out about this."

"So I'll spit on your grave when you're dead and laugh when you finally get what you deserve."

He should have been smarter—he should have known he'd be struck for it. The metal rod was smashed against his leg. He yelped and stumbled backwards before barely managing to use the wall to keep him upright.

I'm such a dumbass...

"Now hurry along and clean yourself before I choose to do worse."

Misty nodded and left quickly, heading to his room. It wasn't a very large space, nor was it quite nice enough to calllikable, but it was adequate, and he preferred it over the space in Crystalline's room that he had been offered. Not that it wouldn't be nice to share a room with the blond beauty, but at the same time, he wouldn't want to cause any kind of problems for her.

He went to his bathroom, staring into the mirror. A bit of red had stained his blond hair near the back, meaning he probably was bleeding from where his head was bashed against the wall. Blood was spilling from his nose, dripping down his chin and onto his shirt and refusing to stop no matter how much he rubbed it with the crimson cuffs of his sleeves, splotching the black fabric of his uniform with darker patches. The skin around the dark purple-gray bruise on his cheek was still red from the slap he had received, though at least the pain from it had stopped for the most part.

With a sigh, he began running a shower. He unbuttoned the uniform to get undressed, running his white-gloved fingers over the hickeys on his shoulder and neck.

"At least there wasn't a repeat of that," he muttered.

He tossed his shirt in the corner, along with his gloves. His body was covered in bruises and scars, and more hickeys down near his waist. A few bite marks were still visible on his neck, not hidden very well by his crimson collar—he hadn't realized how noticeable they were before, and now was thankful that Crystalline hadn't realized. And hopefully she would let him wear something with a high collar for him to wear, otherwise she'd definitely notice...

With a heavy sigh, he stepped into the shower, the hot water burning his sensitive skin. He was used to the feeling, and he'd been through far worse, so he hardly cared. Besides, it was difficult to give any focus to the burning when showers—for some reason—made it impossible to think about anything aside from how badly he wanted to leave. He wanted to leave the military, the palace, the entire grand duchy. But of course, the duchess would be upset, so he hadn't any other choice than to stay.

"I wish I could tell you, Duchess..." he murmured. "I wish I could be honest with you like I said I would, but this would hurt you too much. I'm sorry I can't tell you how everyone treats me. I'm sorry I can't tell you how Captain beats me. I'm sorry I can't tell you the other things he does. I'm sorry I can't change in front of you anymore, and I'm sorry I can't tell you why. I'm so sorry."

It wasn't even for his own benefit that he wanted to tell her. All the lying to her about his well-being had begun to hurt soon after it began, and the guilt sometimes felt as if it was going to slowly and painfully crush the life from him. He hadpromised he would always be honest with her, and that was a lie. It wasn't fair to her.

He let out a sigh as his head fell backwards, and he did his best to ignore the sharp pain as the hot water hit the back of his head. No doubt—there was definitely some kind of injury there. Still, he squeezed some shampoo from his bottle and worked it through his hair, hissing through his teeth as the soap got into the wound. Then he rinsed it out and reached for the soap to wash down his body. He loathed it, but there was no other way he was going to get the blood out...

Once he was finished, he turned off the water, standing in the steam and watching it disappear as it floated up to the ceiling and over the pane of glass that served as the shower curtain. He let himself fall against the cool tiled wall, barely able to hold up his own weight. It felt as if all his strength had left his body, and he just wanted to collapse on the floor and give into unconsciousness. He just wanted to forget every detail of his current situation, save for his dear sweet duchess.

"Ah...but Duchess, you'll be disappointed if I don't show up to your room, won't you?"

He spoke to the girl of his highest faith and loyalty out loud while he was alone quite a lot, most often during and after showering. It never struck him as odd—he never would be able to manage to get her out of his mind whether he wanted to or not, so why not speak as if he was allowing her access to all of his thoughts? It was a fair enough way to cope with keeping any kind of secret from her.

Dwelling on it little more than he probably should, he stepped out of the shower and dried himself off quickly. He tucked his towel around his waist and stepped out into his room, going over to his closet to get clean clothes. He was surely going to be whipped for getting blood stains in his other outfit, since those seemed to be the most difficult to get out of the fabric, but he chose to think about that later. As of that moment, he had to pay attention to getting dressed and heading over to Crystalline's room.

After getting ready—even combing his hair, which was difficult to do while being careful to keep from causing the wound on his head to begin bleeding again—he headed down the hallway to his beloved duchess's room and knocked twice.

Crystalline answered the door and greeted Misty with a smile. However, he seemed a bit melancholy—that was rather out of place for her.

"Is something troubling you, Duchess?" Misty asked as he entered the girl's room, closing the door behind him.

She let out a soft sigh and sat on her bed, staring down at the delicate hands folded in her lap. "The war... It hasn't been the happiest of times recently. I know I must sound absolutely ridiculous, as it's only been five years, but sometimes I believe that this war will never end... I've known nothing but war from the time I was hardly eleven!"

"None of your thoughts are ridiculous, Duchess. Many wars go on for much longer, but five years is still a long time." He offered her a small smile. It was the only time he could smile. "This war will end soon, and I'll do everything I possibly can to make sure it does! Please don't give up hope, Duchess. Everything will be all right in the end."

She looked up and beamed at him. "You're really an angel, Misty."

"I-I'm nothing special, Duchess... You've helped me more than I could ever repay you for."

"Don't be so hard on yourself." She stood up and hugged him from behind, and it took an effort not to flinch away as Misty felt her chest press against a particularly sensitive bruise on his back. "I know people here aren't the kindest towards you, but what they say doesn't matter. You're perfect just the way you are."

"Whatever you say, I guess..."

"Do you want to change the subject? It upsets me to see you depressed."

"Y-yes, please, Duchess."

Her smile returned and she excitedly rushed over to the wardrobe she filled with outfits she had collected only to dress him up. She opened it to reveal a large selection of dresses, tights, stockings, and gloves.

"What color today?" she asked brightly.

Every hue visible to the human eye was in the closet, so he had quite a lot of options. He quickly scanned the different outfit styles, going more by that than by color.

"Hmm...black," he decided finally.

Crystalline pulled out a dress with lace around the hem, a ribbon, elbow-high gloves, stockings, and one-inch heels, all of which were black. She held them out to Misty, who accepted them and went into the duchess's bathroom to change.

The dress was just a bit too tight to be comfortable, pressing against all the various injuries across his chest, abdomen, and back, but he had no other choice than to ignore it. He didn't like the feeling of fabric rubbing against his battered legs and thighs, either, though there wasn't much he could do about it. The heels, at least, were comfortable, and he was thankful for that much. He was also thankful for the silky ribbon, which was meant to be tied around his neck, hid the hickeys and bite marks. The gloves did something to hide a few wounds as well.

Oh, thank God.

Not that he could ever bring himself to believe in any kind of god at that point.

He took a deep breath as he made sure everything was completely hidden, and headed back out into Crystalline's bedroom. A light blush spread across his face, even though she had been dressing him up at least once every few days for the past nearly four and a half years.

"That looks perfect on you!" the duchess half-squealed. "But you seem a bit off somehow... Misty, did you not want to do this today?"

"N-no, Duchess!" He flailed his hands in front of himself frantically, not wanting her to believe he disliked her little game of dress-up. She looked too happy when he played along for him to allow her to believe he didn't enjoy every moment of it. Even though it was a bit embarrassing most the time, he still liked it. Whatever brought a smile to the young heiress's face was something he liked, no matter what precisely it was. "Anything that makes you happy, I have no problem with!"

"But I can tell something is off... What's the matter?"

Truthfully, yes—there was something very the matter. Namely, his captain's never-ending abuse for no real reason was really getting to him that day for some reason. Not that Misty would tell her that, of course. He absolutely couldn't.

"I'm...just a little worried." That wasn't a complete lie, but it sure as hell wasn't a truthful answer to what Crystalline had just asked. "Someone hacked into my call system today..."

The girl looked rather concerned for the boy's safety. "What did they want?"

"My pronouns and to call me a stupid. He was a crazy bastard himself, so I'm not sure he had much room to say anything." He shrugged casually, not wanting her to be too bothered by his own problems. "It doesn't matter. His ship is easy to spot, so I can ask him a few questions next time I see him. I'll make sure to stay safe, if only for your benefit, Duchess."

"You promise me you'll be okay?"

"O-of course I promise! I'll be here as long as you want me by your side!" He got down on one knee before her, took one of her dainty hands, and pressed her knuckles lightly to his lips. "I am a forever loyal servant of Your Almighty Highness and I will do everything in my power to carefully guard your well-being and fulfill each of your wishes. If you wish for me to remain by your side, then no matter what happens, I will do just that."

She took his wrist and pulled him to his feet. "This kind of thing really isn't necessary, Misty..."

The troubled melancholy had returned, and he felt a stab of guilt as he worried that is might have been the fault of his actions.

"P-please tell me every detail what's upsetting you, Duchess! I want to be able to help you out in every way that I possibly can!"

And I get the feeling you weren't being entirely truthful earlier...

Crystalline walked over to her window and leaned on the sill as she stared out over the field of grass just outside, withering and turning a brownish-gold hue. She let out a heavy sigh, shaking her head.

"I can't tell you everything... It's too painful to think about, and it would hurt you as well. Even still, please trust me. I want what's best for you, and for that to happen, I need to switch sides. I want you to stay here until I make sure it's safe for you to join me. You won't have to stay here much longer, I promise—only until I tell everyone about my plans and about you."

"B-but you could get yourself hurt!"

"So be it. I'm tired of being hidden behind these walls and being allowed luxury as you're sent out to risk your life. I'm tired of being lazy, of being a coward..." She looked over at him, her hazel eyes burning with a kind of passion that Misty couldn't say he was familiar with. "I know exactly how I'll get away with it, so please trust me. You do, don't you?"

It wasn't that he didn't trust her—he just didn't want her taking any kind of risk that could get her hurt. He wasn't unfaithful. He was overprotective. Still, he didn't allow himself to hesitate before giving her a nod. "Yes, Duchess."

"Pamela will deliver messages back and forth. You don't have to worry about her getting caught, either—I know how to keep her out of harm's way. Do you think you can live here a little longer while I get everything in place?"

Right hand over the left side of his chest, Misty bowed respectfully to her. "Yes, Duchess. I will do anything you ask of me."

I'm here to fulfill your wishes, Duchess. Even if I lose myself to insanity, I'll still be here to answer to each of your commands. I'll give to you the world, and I'll make sure I don't die trying.