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the false knight

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This is the last thing Kusanagi Hokuto hears, before his rebirth:

“Oger is mine , I’ll be taking it back. And—” 

the blond boy holds his hand out, red eyes narrowed in contempt as Hokuto is bound and gagged, dragged towards unconsciousness,

“I’ll be taking you too.”

-05- 

Hokuto had been living in the palace for as long as he could remember. He had never encountered another human, dangerous as they are, save for the two princes. Prince Altair, the Crown Prince and His Majesty’s most eminent knight, was much too old for playmates, even when Hokuto was first brought to the palace. Regal and distant, he had no use for a boy-child, his mind on the empire’s security and other important matters. 

Prince Subaru, on the other hand, was of a similar age, and so they had grown up together. Hokuto does not remember a time without Subaru by his side, just like how he doesn’t remember his life before the palace.

He knew that the Emperor, in His infinite kindness, had saved him from a band of murderous humans near the edge of the Great Woods, but nothing comes to mind whenever he tries to recall the details. Zero, who had been with His Majesty on the day of his rescue, once suggested that perhaps Hokuto deleted those memories in order to protect the rest of his psyche. “Humans are ruthless in their passions,” he said with cool precision. “They are nothing more than warmongering brutes ruled by destructive impulses. They will poison the world and tear everything down, if they have their way.” 

“All humans?” Hokuto asked in a small voice. 

Zero appraised him silently for a moment, running a million complex calculations Hokuto could never understand; but then Zero shook his head, and the moment was broken. “The Princes are different, of course. As are you, Master Hokuto, for you were reborn in His Majesty’s ever shining grace. You are the only ones who possess the unique ability to overcome the flaws embedded in the programming of your species.” His golden eyes gleamed with something like approval. “Be proud. You will serve the empire well.”

Zero isn’t prone to sentimentality—he wouldn’t lie just to spare a child’s feelings. If he said someone like Hokuto can be of use, then it must be the truth.

“Yes, Zero!”

His Majesty is all-knowing, and Zero isn’t a liar. Hokuto has a purpose here, which he will execute to the best of his ability. He is not a burden.

He’ll make sure of it.

 

-04- 

Machines are eternal, but the same could not be said of humans. Humans are fallible, prone to the weakness of their frail frames and powerless against the march of time.

And the princes, noble and efficient as they are, are still humans. Prince Altair would not be able to protect their empire indefinitely, no matter how dedicated the Crown Prince was to his task. 

Prince Altair must have a successor—the legacy of Oger was too great to abandon, and the beauty of its craftsmanship was not meant for languishing after its current pilot’s eventual retirement. No, the Black Knight Oger, wielded by human hands to deliver His Majesty’s perfect decree, would stand stalwart against the unruly humans forevermore. 

(Sometimes the morbid irony twists unpleasantly in Hokuto’s gut, which he ignores as best as he can. Human bodies really are unreliable; they suffer unknown weaknesses, their memory banks and circuitry easily overwhelmed by stray illogical processes. 

They are, Hokuto concludes, inferior in every way to the concrete dependable certainty of machines.)

Humans are uncivilized, rash and wild and weak to their cores. The princes had been uplifted, blessed by their Lord Father; Hokuto himself was only saved through His Majesty’s grace and Subaru’s friendship. 

But Oger needs a human operator, for it is only compatible with the circuitry of their vulnerable vessels. Prince Altair must have an heir.

And so, Subaru and Hokuto were brought to the training grounds before His Majesty and Prince Altair. Like everywhere else in the palace, save for the scant areas constructed specifically for the personal use of the princes and himself, the landscape was on a scale that Hokuto could barely comprehend, so insignificant were they in the vastness of Gulfer architecture. 

Prince Altair stepped forward, lethal in his black robes and sleek sword. Even with his face exposed, the foreboding metal mask he wore for public appearances tucked away for the moment, the Crown Prince was every inch the stalwart protector of their Empire. In his hands were the two Command Devices—Prince Altair’s pale instrument and its dark twin gleaming in perfect symmetry, his grip on them comfortable and self-assured. 

Hokuto’s breath hitched. He should’ve been gripped by awe, humbled before the key to His Majesty’s greatest weapon… 

And yet it was nostalgia that lanced through him. Why? He had never seen either of these precious artefacts before, rare as they were, and it was deemed unwise for a human of his station to be overly familiar with such things. So why did it bring him comfort…?

“Begin.” His Majesty’s booming voice rang across the field with crystal clarity. 

Hokuto suppressed a startled flinch. Then he hoped His Majesty hadn’t noticed, even though such hopes were foolish at best, as His Majesty sees all in His infinite wisdom.

(And Hokuto is only human.)

“Come, Subaru.” said Prince Altair, regal and solemn and unburdened by sentimentality. The dark device, which he presented to Subaru, was cold and silent. “Prepare yourself to receive the key to the defense of our Lord Father’s empire.” 

Subaru stepped forward, offering his hands in reverence.

Hokuto looked at his friend. Subaru had always admired his older brother, and gazed upon the Black Knight Oger with awe every time Prince Altair departed on a campaign to root out the savage humans. 

For a long beat the device laid unresponsive in Subaru’s upturned palms. Subaru’s frame had gone taut, his face ashen. Hokuto held his breath. 

And then, like sunlight breaking through storm clouds, the device emitted a gentle glow.

“Good job, Subaru.” The proud smile Prince Altair gave his younger brother was genuine, softening the regal lines of his face, and Subaru’s giddy smile was as bright as the winter sun, bringing warmth to the plants and all living things in His Majesty’s domain.

Just when he thought it was over—that Subaru would be Prince Altair successor, should anything happen—the Crown Prince turned to him next, having collected the Command Device from his younger brother. Hokuto couldn’t help but straighten reflexively under Prince Altair’s scrutiny, just like how his eyes couldn’t help but linger on the device in the prince’s hand. 

“Prepare yourself to receive the key to the defense of His Majesty’s empire, Hokuto.” Prince Altair said, placing the device in his hands as he stepped forward. 

Hokuto had just begun to register the weight in his palms when a burst of blinding light spilled forth. He raised his arms to shield his eyes instinctively, and the device—one of the two irreplaceable sacred mechanisms that activates their empire’s greatest protector—tumbled to the dusty ground.

Oh no.   

Hokuto dived after it, heart thumping at a rate wildly exceeding nominal parameters, frantic fingers scrabbling over its surface in search of dents and scratches. It was unharmed from what little he could tell, but… 

With Hokuto still crouched over it, the sleek dark device shone once more. He found himself clutching a shimmering rainbow between his palms; it was nothing like the gentle sunbeam which Subaru produced, but somehow just as warm, a tender feeling unfurling in his chest—

(It’s beautiful.)

“I will now pronounce my judgement.” His Majesty’s crystalline voice rang out across the arena. “Rise, Hokuto.”

Hokuto did so on unsteady feet, clutching the Command Device in his hands and trying his best to ignore the pulsing light.

Prince Altair’s teal eyes met his own in the gesture of binding oaths between organics, his gaze steady and unrelenting. “With the power vested in me by our Emperor, I name the human Hokuto my successor.” The Crown Prince held his own pale Command Device aloft, which shone like freshly fallen snow. “May your hands wield absolute justice and deliver perfect judgement in service of His Majesty’s reign.”

“I’m—” Hokuto bit his tongue; judging from the eldest prince’s raised brows and the brittle frown on Subaru’s face, his slip had not gone unnoticed. “I am honored, Prince Altair.”

The prince smiled, cool and aloof, though his eyes were kind. “As you should be. Now, accept your new purpose with pride, Hokuto.” His pale Command Device remained raised, waiting for Hokuto to do the same with its dark twin.

This ceremony is nothing more than a backup protocol, of course. Nothing is going to happen to His Majesty’s current champion. 

He raised the black Command Device against Prince Altair’s, facilitating the necessary data transfer with a tap of their devices. With a simple chime the ritual was complete, marking Hokuto as one of Oger’s chosen. “Of course, my prince.”

Subaru appeared next to him. “Congratulations on your promotion,” he said, every word delivered with perfect, precise diction. “See to it that you defend Father’s just cause with the utmost competence, as He has made it perfectly clear that I cannot.”

“Subaru—”

“I am needed at the Garden,” Subaru shook Hokuto’s fingers from the hem of his sleeve in one swift movement. “Do not follow me.”

Sick with some sluggish emotion, Hokuto watched his friend leave, escorted by towering guards. The glint in Subaru’s eyes sparked like jealousy, even though there was no reason for it. Oger is powerful, but in the end it’s just a weapon, no different from the Professional Machines’ various equipment or Zero’s staff. It’s nothing more than a tool in His Majesty’s service.

That isn’t to say Prince Altair’s feats are unworthy of praise, for he is the best defender of their empire, but Hokuto had always thought that the love of nature is the most important part of kingship. Prince Altair finds nature pleasing, to be sure, but of the two princes it is Subaru who inherited the Emperor’s fondness for all things green and growing, the one who fretted over the wellbeing of innocent creatures. Subaru regards his unchosen status as a weakness, but it couldn’t be further from the truth—dealing death is far easier than cultivating life. Any human could wield Oger, for violence runs in the basest level of their circuitry, but Subaru is different. Subaru, who tends to the delicate vines in the Royal Sanctuary and cares for the unlucky beasts wounded by vicious hateful humans, should not sully his hands. Hokuto would gladly do it for him.

Zero approved of his logic. “You were saved by His Majesty’s mercy and Prince Subaru’s companionship, Master Hokuto, and as such it is your duty to fight for them.” He steepled his claws together, an unreadable gleam in his pale gold lenses. “Oger is the Black Knight of our empire; its pilot, the Prince Altair, is His Majesty’s. For the time being you will be Prince Subaru’s knight, and one day you will serve His Majesty directly. That is your purpose. Do you understand?”

It was selfish, but Hokuto hoped the day of his advancement would never come. “Of course, Zero.”

 

-03- 

Conversation with Subaru, the first week after Hokuto had received his designation as Oger’s pilot-in-training, had been strained and uncomfortable—then Subaru had left a pot of flowers that supposedly relieved fatigue in Hokuto’s room, and Hokuto saved a stash of Subaru’s favorite nutrition cubes for him. Soon they were spending time together again, their easy companionship back on track. 

The days on Arktos were bright; the flora and fauna flourished under His Majesty and Subaru’s gentle care; and the wild runaway humans made themselves scarce under the empire’s might. It was a good life.

And then: Dendoh.

Dendoh and its band of Earthling terrorists should not have been a problem. The mere thought that they could amount to anything more than a minor annoyance was inconceivable: nothing could withstand His Majesty’s might, certainly not mere thugs. These wayward bugs would soon be crushed, and the rightful inhabitants of Arktos would know peace once again.

And yet Prince Altair’s return to the Imperial Palace had been delayed by complications, time and time again. None of the troops sent to Earth had returned either.

“Brother will terminate them.” Subaru said offhandedly when he came to visit Hokuto at the training arena one afternoon. Between his fingers he held a single bloom of some flowering plant that Hokuto couldn’t remember the name of, though Subaru must’ve told him before.

“Of course.” Prince Altair was the strongest weapon in His Majesty’s arsenal. Of this Hokuto had no doubt. “Prince Altair will return to us soon enough,” he said, slanting a grin at Subaru.

“Yes, Brother is always punctual. And Hokuto?” 

“Hm?”

Subaru met his eyes, as grave and solemn as His Majesty’s imperial guards. “You reek.” 

“Hey!” Hokuto sniffed himself surreptitiously. “C’mon, it’s not that bad! … Is it?”

Subaru rolled his eyes, tucking the stalk of whatever he had been holding into the collar of Hokuto’s uniform. Faced with a sample for comparison, Hokuto was forced to admit that it indeed smelled far better than he does. 

“I told you,” Subaru said, smugness oozing from every syllable even though princes are supposed to be above such petty impulses—human or not, they were supposed to reflect a pale imitation of their Lord Father’s brilliance. “Brother will be back to whip you into shape before you know it,” he added, laying a comforting hand on Hokuto’s shoulder, “Stop fretting.”

 

-02-

Dendoh had razed the Gulfer settlement on the surface of Earth’s moon, and butchered Lagowe the same way it cleaves through all things—cruelly and mercilessly.

His Majesty declared a day of mourning to honor His beloved pet. Hokuto dressed in muted hues, and on his way to the training grounds he encountered a squad of rank-and-file soldiers done up in a new coat of sombre grey for the occasion. It was strange to see them in anything other than their standard mint green, but they would soon be back to their usual colors.

Subaru had been devastated, swearing vengeance on behalf of his Father. The depth of his grief shamed Hokuto, who felt—nothing. Nothing at all, aside from a quiet thrum of relief and inexplicable triumph spreading through his veins. 

What was wrong with him? Were these ugly, ungrateful impulses part of the inherent corrosive nature of humanity? It’s true that a part of him had always been unsettled by how the hybrid devoured units with unsatisfactory baseline performances, but—

Lagowe was His Majesty’s treasure, and those defective units deserved it. They had failed His Majesty, who only wanted what was best for the galaxy, and for that alone they had to face the consequences of their incompetence. It was only proper protocol for malfunctioning units to be scrapped. They deserved it. 

Why else would His Majesty, the Gentle Protector of Arktos and Supreme Guardian of the Galaxy Beyond, allow it? The Emperor is efficiency incarnate, justice magnified. By definition He could never be cruel, even if the things He permits skirt uncomfortably close to the edge of it. 

Hokuto tried not to think of the distant horrified shrieks he sometimes heard in the middle of his mandated rest cycles, nor the way units other than the ones slated for termination ended up in Lagowe’s gullet every time it feasted. 

They deserved it, surely they did, for His Majesty sees all.

Hokuto was just a human after all, encumbered with inferior logic circuits. It is not his place to question the Emperor. All he needs to do is to serve the Empire, and Subaru, as best as he could. 

(His Majesty sees all. If he allowed these traitorous thoughts to persist, Hokuto would be next—as he deserved, for the crime of treason and, more importantly, the betrayal of his closest friend.

He couldn’t repay Subaru’s friendship with vile blasphemy.)

 

-01-

“Master Hokuto,” Zero said, “By the orders of His Majesty, you will accompany Prince Subaru and myself to Earth. We depart at dawn.”

“Earth?” Hokuto furrowed his brows. “Are we assisting Prince Altair with his mission?”

Zero turned to the second prince. It was Subaru who answered, face carefully blank and voice cool in the businesslike tone he used when he was upset but forced to hide it. “Spiral Keep was destroyed. The terrorists have Brother.” 

Hokuto felt his stomach drop. Prince Altair is the greatest warrior of the Empire, save for Zero, and if he was defeated… 

“We must secure Oger,” Subaru continued, but his temper was fraying—he never was much good at keeping the princely façade—and he all but spat out the next words. “Those mindless warmongers will face annihilation!”

“Of course, my prince.” Zero said smoothly before turning his attention onto Hokuto once more. “It is as Prince Subaru said, Master Hokuto: Spiral Keep and its personnel were wiped out by Dendoh. Prince Altair, along with Oger, have fallen into enemy hands.” Screens flickered to life with a click of his claws, all of them showing the devastating aftermath from multiple angles. Hokuto flinched at the sight reflexively—he had known humans were cruel and savage, but the knowledge did nothing to prepare him for the sight of such destruction—and from the corner of his eyes he could see Subaru’s fingers curling into fists, his lips thin with horrified disgust. 

Zero pressed on, relentless. “It is His Majesty’s will to send an elite task force to isolate the insurgents and control the situation on Earth.”

Hokuto’s breath caught as the Earth came into view on the screen at Zero’s command, all vivid greens and serene blues, and a rush of fierce longing flared in his chest—

he misses home he misses Jupiter he misses his parents he misses Eris and Gin—

Hokuto had never travelled off-planet before. There had been no reason for him to leave Arktos, and he couldn’t fathom why he’d ever want to in the first place. Arktos is where Subaru resides, where His Majesty's power and wisdom keeps the seasons turning. The ache of familiarity was only because Earth reminded him of the Royal Gardens, lush and beautiful. That’s all there is to it. He needs to focus on the mission. “So we’re tasked with recovering Prince Altair and Oger?”

“Retrieving Oger is our top priority,” Zero confirmed, his expression inscrutable as always. “Once the objective is secured, our task is to eradicate the rebelling humans and purge this persistent virus once and for all.”

“But what about…?” Hokuto darted a glance towards Subaru, whose mouth was pressed into a grim line.

“We have our orders,” he said, tone brittle as bitter glass, and. Oh.  

Zero nodded. “It is as Prince Subaru says. Here is the dossier on Dendoh’s pilot. Study the enemy well, Master Hokuto.” He pressed a data chip into Hokuto’s hands before stepping back, giving Subaru an unreadable glance as he did so. “I must leave and prepare for the journey ahead. Spend the remaining time however you will.” He bowed to a stone-faced Subaru, then strode out of the prince’s chambers without another word. 

Subaru unleashed his temper the moment the doors hissed shut behind Zero, knocking an ornament off the table; it shattered into tiny glinting fragments as he spun around with a roar to punch the wall nearest to him. “Damn the humans!”

“Subaru—” Hokuto hurried over to his friend’s side, concerned. He was used to Subaru’s outbursts, but never had he heard such an intense promise of violence in his tone before, and this—more than the annihilation of Spiral Keep, more than the broken bits of mangled machinery caught in the explosion, more than Prince Altair’s capture and likely termination by the human terrorists—unsettled him the most.

“They’ve taken too much already!” Subaru drove his fist into the wall again, his knuckles an angry red. “We can’t lose Oger to them too!”

“Then we’ll take it back and end this together,” Hokuto takes Subaru’s fist between his own palms with a reassuring squeeze. “That’s a promise.”

Subaru’s hand shook under his; but slowly, after an agonizing eon, the tension bled out of him. “I—Thanks, Hokuto.” His voice softened, no longer the voice of a commander, and when Hokuto looked up he found Subaru giving him the same smile he had back when they were children. 

“We have a long mission ahead of us. Rest well, Hokuto. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Thanks. You too, Subaru.” Hokuto looked his prince in the eye, as befitting an oath between organics. “We’ll stamp out this futile rebellion in no time.”

“Yes.” Subaru’s smile grew contemptuous. “And we will make them pay."

Hokuto answered with a matching smirk. "Of course."

Once he was back in his chambers, Hokuto scrolled through the information on Dendoh’s pilot: Izumo Ginga, human male, 11 Earth years. He looked familiar, but Hokuto couldn’t recall where exactly he had seen this human before—

Ginga, desperately clinging to a branch as Jupiter barks at him, teeth bared,
Ginga throwing an arm around his shoulders, beaming at his prized C-Drive poster on the wall,
Ginga yelping in surprise as Eris flicked his forehead, laughing,
Ginga grumbling as they scrambled out of the bath to answer GEAR’s distress call,
Ginga, installing Leo in the seat next to his, preparing for a two-fold Final Attack against Oger,

—his attempts to pursue that train of thought only led to splitting headaches and, more disturbingly, childhood memories featuring this warmonger in Subaru’s place. 

Hokuto shook his head; it had been a long day. The sense of deja vu was simply a trick of the mind. Compared to the schematics of a true Gulfer soldier, the human body is unreliable at best—yet another reason His Majesty, with His sharp, crystalline mind, should rule the galaxy.

Of the ancient Data Weapons, Gatling Boar, Bull Horn and Leo Circle had been enslaved by this Izumo Ginga; he favors Leo, followed by Boar. No surprises there—Bull Horn is attracted to wisdom, a trait Dendoh’s pilot clearly lacks, judging by his heavy reliance on brute force. No head for strategy at all, this Izumo Ginga. Bull’s capture must have been a fluke, which would make it that much easier to sever the contract between them.

The idyllic days were over; it was time for Hokuto to fulfil his duty. He had been saved only through His Majesty’s grace and Subaru’s friendship, and there was a debt to be repaid. Izumo Ginga and his band of brutes would rue the day they made an enemy of the Empire.

 

-00-

The pilots of Oger and Dendoh clash, first with their trusty weapons, then with massive mechanical fists until, finally, all they have left are flailing limbs and the righteous fury of exhausted warriors. They grapple with each other, using every dirty trick in the book (and a few more that aren’t recorded anywhere), their dignity as the protectors of their respective forces forgotten in the heat of battle. 

Oger’s chosen throws a punch at his enemy’s stomach; Dendoh’s champion hooks his fingers under the circlet sitting on his opponent’s head, glimmering gold under the sun, and tugs. 

(Excruciating pain floods Hokuto’s circuitry senses; he throws himself to the ground, writhing, to scream and scream and scream some more.

“Hokuto, you idiot! Let me help—it hurts to hear you like this!”

“This is… the second time…”

“H-Hokuto? Hey!” )

Oger’s pilot shoves his counterpart away, running into the Black Knight’s tattered cockpit to activate Unicorn Drill’s final attack. He delivers the killing blow— 

—and Professional Machine Diles crashes to the ground, a gaping hole punctured through its torso. Electricity sparks along the jagged edges as its eyes dim, then flicker off completely.

The golden circlet clatters by the feet of Oger’s pilot. Ginga takes the opportunity to launch himself at his best friend, arms outstretched, weeping with relief in the way of a weary boy who had reached his destination at long last. “Thank god you’re okay, idiot! How couldja get captured like that?!” he wails, tackling Hokuto to the ground.

Hokuto mirrors Ginga’s watery smile, clutching back just as fiercely. “Quit calling me an idiot.” He sighs as his memories right themselves again. How could he have ever mistaken his best friend for his worst enemy? How could he have ever thought what the Gulfer Emperor did was for the best?

And Subaru—

The Emperor's son. 

Subaru is just a kid , like Hokuto. If things were different— 

(Could they have been friends for real?)

 

Somewhere above them, on a nearby hill, the last prince of His Majesty’s line stands witness to the capture of his borrowed knight in horrified disbelief. 

This cannot be happening. Subaru barely feels Zero hauling him off to safety, the trusted regent dismissing Hokuto as a failed project with a faint buzz of annoyance in his voice.

There must be a way to get him back. This cannot be how it ends, with Hokuto Oger back to being his enemy. No. He won’t accept it. His knight will rejoin him soon enough, one way or another—

He’ll make sure of it.