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After the Rain

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"That concludes today's session, Iwatani-san. I'll see you next week?"

"Yeah. Sure."

"Excellent. Take care of yourself 'til then."

I've spent the past two and a half years doing just that, he bit back. "Mhm" was all he actually said.

"Do you need a prescription refill?"

"No." Because I haven't been taking them. Not like you've noticed.

He left the psychiatrist's office with his hands in his pockets.

Four months ago, Naofumi Iwatani had woken up flat on his back in a dumpster. Disoriented, confused, and still in his armour, he'd staggered out onto the main road and collapsed.

The Barbarian Armor had been mistaken for cosplay until the paramedics who rushed to his aid tried to remove it and found that it was much, much heavier than it looked - when they finally got the breastplate off, it crashed to the floor and put a dent the size of a defibrillator paddle in it.

The armour was confiscated, and he hadn't seen nor heard of it since.

When Naofumi finally came to, he was once again flat on his back, this time in a hospital bed with his concerned family around him; he wasn't sure how much time had passed, but his brother definitely looked older, and if he wasn't mistaken, both of his parents had a few extra lines on their faces, though it was difficult to tell through all the tears.

His first words: "Where's Raphtalia?"

Naturally, Raphtalia hadn't come with him - of course she hadn't. He was the Shield Hero, and now that he'd fulfilled his duty, he'd returned home alone. He'd simply gotten too attached, that was all.

Once he'd physically recovered to the point of holding a sustained, lucid conversation, several psychiatrists were brought in to evaluate his mental state. Each was accompanied by grim-looking men in dark coats who took silent notes in the corner as he spoke. Naofumi was informed that he'd been missing for a little over a year (evidently, time flowed faster in Melromarc), and that his case had gone totally cold - the security footage from the library, despite multiple experts certifying that it had not been edited, simply showed him disappearing, Records of the Four Holy Weapons clattering to the floor.

There one frame, gone the next.

The book had been taken into custody, but after it was determined that it had no unusual properties, it was returned to the library. He made a mental note to check it out sometime.

For the first few visits, he'd simply told the psychiatrists that he had no recollection of the events of the past year, but he was aware that his story was full of holes; he'd gained muscle, he'd had regular haircuts, he had scars that hadn't been there before. When this was finally pointed out to him, he admitted he'd been somewhere, but the moment the phrase "another world" left his lips, the psychiatrist had started scribbling out a prescription for anti-psychosis drugs.

Naofumi knew there was nothing wrong with him, if you didn't count the crippling trust issues he'd developed.

Though he knew his family meant well, their insistence on having him "checked" was infuriating. He was well aware that his personality had changed, and he knew why it had changed - he didn't need some middle-aged asshole rattling off a hundred questions at him, trying to figure out if he was schizophrenic. Ironically, his insistence that he was fine only drove them harder, culminating in Naofumi spending three months in a psych ward before finally realizing that his own stubbornness had gotten him landed there in the first place.

He knew where he'd been. He knew what had happened. That was all that mattered, and so he put aside his last scraps of dignity, stopped telling the truth, and started going along with whatever the assholes there wanted to hear.

His companions came to mind, often. Raphtalia, Filo, Rishia, Eclair, Raphtalia, Raph-chan, Sadeena, Atla, Fohl, Raphtalia - their names played on a loop in his head, and each night, he dreamt of them and the life they'd shared together.

He missed them, dearly.

He'd been out of the ward for a month, but as things were, Naofumi still had a weekly appointment with his psychiatrist, although he had a feeling the old bastard didn't really care if Naofumi took his meds so long as he got paid. Either way, he hadn't taken a single one of the pills, and the bottles had been more or less stacking up on his nightstand.

Maybe if things don't pick up, I'll kill myself with them. It wasn't like he had much to look forward to, anyway. Everything he'd worked for before the summoning had gone down the tubes when he'd been summoned, and everything he'd worked for over the past two and a half years had evaporated the moment the "Task Completed" timer on his status interface hit zero. On top of that, his reapplication to university was going far too slowly for his tastes...not to mention that he kept misidentifying his own age on the forms. He'd celebrated two birthdays in Melromarc, but he'd only missed one in Japan, and it still threw him off, even four months later.

On the bus home, Naofumi gazed up at the clouds massed on the horizon; they were grey, so dark they were almost black, and his first thought was something's coming. He supposed he couldn't blame himself for that one - such heavy storm clouds rolled in with each wave, and he'd formed an association between the two.

His unease didn't vanish when he looked away, however. Being on edge almost constantly in Melromarc had made him a borderline paranoiac, and he noticed the way the man across the aisle from him stared down at his newspaper the moment he realized Naofumi had glanced over. Unconvinced, he watched the man's eyes through the gap between his face and sunglasses, and sure enough, they weren't moving at all.

He's definitely not reading...but I'm definitely not the Shield Hero anymore, so even if he's up to something, it's not like I can stop him. At least, not legally.

Naofumi had grown far too used to his authority as a holy hero, and at times like these, his newfound lack of influence and power irritated him to no end.

By the time he reached his stop, the ragged iron clouds already hanging overhead had decided to let loose a drizzle that, while light, had him soaked to the skin by the time he finished his jog home. Naturally, his mother fussed.

"Naofumi! Go prepare yourself a hot bath before you catch a cold! And change out of those clothes - you'll freeze!"

"Oka-san, I'm twenty-t - twenty-one years old," he sighed, longing for his shield's Disease Resistance abilities. "I know when to take a bath."

He'd already planned on bathing, but he couldn't help feeling as if doing so validated her nagging as he trudged upstairs.

While he waited for the bath, he pulled off his soaked hoodie and jeans, collapsing onto his bed in his boxers and t-shirt. Without looking, he thrust one hand to the side, grabbing the plush toy laying next to his pillow and pulling it in close.

The toy was a raccoon, about the size of a cat. He'd bought it together with an owl plush that reminded him of Filo, but it was difficult to tell that the two stuffed toys were the same age from the wear on them. One side of the raccoon's fur had been worn away a little, and there were messy patches where Naofumi had cried into it.

I miss you.

The words sent a pang through his chest, the burning pain of loss, and he hugged the plush tightly, squashing his cheek against the top of its head with his eyes squeezed shut.

I want to see you again.

After a few minutes, he replaced the raccoon next to his pillow and returned to the bathroom, a change of clothes in hand. The bracelet on his wrist caught for a moment on the sleeve of his t-shirt, but he didn't bother trying to take it off. No matter what he did, it would always come right back in one pristine piece, and for whatever reason, the psych ward hadn't accepted its behaviour as proof that something was going on.

It was annoying, but it was a familiar sort of annoying. It behaved exactly like the shield, and its presence reassured him. What you went through was real, it said. You're not crazy.

Somewhere in the recesses of his heart, he even hoped that it meant his time as the Shield Hero wasn't over, but he hadn't been able to coax the bracelet into changing form. The most it did was glow at odd intervals, the polished green jewel casting an eerie emerald hue over his surroundings like some ethereal flashlight.

Stepping into the bath, Naofumi sighed, letting the silky water cover him and warm his body. He hadn't really done much since returning to Japan, and it was driving him nuts. In Melromarc, he'd had something to do each and every day, and it had given him a purpose; now, he spent his days more or less wandering the streets or in a psychiatrist's office. Before the summoning, he'd have probably binged an anime or whiled away the time between his classes playing games, but he didn't think he could handle such prolonged periods of inactivity anymore. Looking back on the hours he'd spent engaged in his otaku pastimes, he only wished he could have spent them in Melromarc instead.

The people were still shitty, yes, but now that he was back in his own world with a fresh pair of eyes, he could see that nobody around him was that much better. Everyone did what it took to get ahead, and if it happened to hurt someone else, so be it - it didn't hurt them, and that was what counted. At least in the other world, he could enact justice, and not the old Itsuki's skewed view of it - the real thing, where the wicked were held accountable for their actions.

Why had he wanted to come home again…?

By the time he was out of the bath, it was nine at night, and Naofumi didn't really feel like doing much else. With a sigh, he flopped down on his bed and flicked on the television; the screen, like everything else in his room, was a little dusty, but otherwise clean. He supposed his family had been taking care of it since he'd disappeared.

"Just one more thing to be grateful for," he murmured aloud. His family had been supportive of him through his "struggles", though the way Naofumi saw it, his struggles were with the government and not his mental health. He had no reason to resent them - the things bothering him weren't their fault in the slightest - but he grudgingly admitted that they were more or less the final nail on the coffin that was his return to Japan.

It really does feel like a coffin, too...trapped here, with no way out for the foreseeable future, and I've got all these damn obligations now that I'm back home...

Granted, he'd had plenty of those in Melromarc as well, but aside from his designation as the Shield Hero, he had entered into those willingly. He hadn't asked to come back to Japan and try to repair his shattered life in a home that no longer felt like home.

There was nothing good on television, so he switched over to the streaming service he'd used before the summoning. The interface was roughly the same as he remembered it, with the addition of a few extra bells and whistles here and there, but it felt very strange to be controlling a physical screen with a physical remote again. Whenever he'd needed to access an interface back in Melromarc, he'd just had to focus on it for a moment with his status window open.

In retrospect, he was glad the status magic hadn't extended to such basic things as changes of clothes and eating food. He'd read novels before about virtual reality games where, for whatever reason, those things had been relegated to menus just like any other game, and he had a feeling that in a world where even basic tasks were reduced to such unrealistic functionality, he would have had a harder time believing that the world he'd been summoned to was a real one and not a simulation.

Come to think of it...he'd never really considered it before, but why exactly had the other three been so dead-set on it being a game? Naofumi had played plenty himself, and while none of the ones he'd played had been similar to the world he'd encountered, the mechanics were certainly game-like enough. Even if the world had supposedly been identical to the one they remembered from the games they'd played, how on earth had they been able to just ignore the reality of everything besides the menu…?

There was really no point in thinking about it, but he'd had ample time to do just that - think - since his return, and more often than not, he replayed the last two and a half years in his head.

Eventually, Naofumi settled on an old favourite of his, a film about two teenagers crossing the boundaries of time and space through some supernatural influence that switched their minds and bodies. Their relationship started as more business than anything, simply working as a team to get through whatever had thrown them together, but as they inevitably grew closer, it seemed that nothing could quite go their way…

Unconsciously, he found himself gripping the stuffed raccoon, clutching it to the front of his t-shirt. He didn't really recall his reaction to the film a few years back, but now his breathing felt oddly constrained, hitching in his chest as he struggled to blink away whatever it was stinging his eyes…

He'd gone so long without doing it that, even after being back in his own home for a month, crying remained alien to him. Why? Why is this happening? Cut it out, Naofumi, he scolded himself. There's no reason to cry...so stop it!

A choking sob escaped his chest, and he buried his nose in the plush, grimacing as wave after wave of grief wracked his body.

No, his own voice murmured, like an alter ego in his head. There's plenty of reason to cry. You lost everything. Twice. And seeing this now...you're thinking of her, aren't you?

He opened his eyes.

Yeah. I'm thinking of her.

Naofumi's relationship with Raphtalia had, on the surface, remained platonic. It had only been months into his stay in Melromarc that he'd even considered that she might see him as something other than a guardian, and it had taken Sadeena's unusually serious confrontation late one night to make him realize that perhaps his own feelings went beyond guardianship. He definitely wanted to protect her, but not for the reasons he'd been telling himself.

Still, his own scars had stopped him from ever approaching Raphtalia about the issue, and everything was far too dangerous and chaotic to even consider that sort of relationship...and by the time things settled down, Naofumi had accomplished his task and was sent back to Japan with only a few days' advance notice.

Just when things had been looking up, the universe had found a way to split them up again, and that, he understood, was what had him so shaken up.

He fell asleep during the credits.


The next morning, Naofumi noted that someone had turned the television off and covered him with his favourite blanket - probably his mother. A pang shot through his chest, a mixture of guilt for being so distant and shame for being found curled around a stuffed toy like a child, and he took a few minutes to wash his face before he went downstairs, hoping it would alleviate the puffiness around his eyes.

When he'd finished that, he dragged himself down the steps and into the kitchen, hair still mussed up from falling asleep on it after his bath (not that it mattered, considering how ill-mannered his hair was). It was Saturday, so his family was likely sleeping in, and in the space of a yawn, he decided that he'd make them a really nice breakfast. They'd clearly been trying to be kind to him, and so far, he really hadn't responded in turn.

One of the few things that had carried over from the other world, aside from his newfound physical fitness and scars, was his cooking ability. The fundamental principles of cooking didn't change between worlds, as he'd found with Kizuna (was she home yet?) in the labyrinth, so when he'd been home alone, Naofumi had taken the time to cook up modern variants of some of the dishes he'd made for the slaves back at Lurolona; they'd all turned out quite well, to his pleased surprise, and he'd taken to tinkering in the kitchen as a form of relaxation. He wasn't entirely sure why he only did it when he was by himself. Perhaps he was afraid that his family would start checking up on his mental health again if he revealed that he'd somehow developed impeccable cooking skills in his absence from Japan.

Still, perhaps he could spin this to his advantage - if there was one thing Iwatani Naofumi was truly skilled at, it was spinning situations to his advantage, no matter their gravitas. He could start small, cooking them a simple-yet-delicious breakfast, and pretend that he'd been improving his cooking skills in the time he'd been home as he gradually moved up to more and more complex dishes. That way, he'd be able to cook freely and convince his family that he was making an effort to live in what they called "the real world" again.

He did feel a bit guilty about deceiving them, but he told himself it was for their own good; they'd be happy to see him recovering, and he could show his appreciation for their care by taking the stress of having to prepare dinner off of his parents' shoulders. Melromarc might have turned him callous, but he wasn't soulless, after all.

If I'm honest with myself, he thought, filling a saucepan with broth and switching on the stovetop burner, I don't know how long I'm going to be hung up on what happened in the other world. It'd be easier to let go if it weren't for this goddamn thing making me think that it's not over. He shot the bracelet on his wrist a glare, and almost as if in response, the gemstone flared up brighter than he'd ever seen it before.

With a clatter, the knife he'd been using to cube tofu dropped onto the cutting board as he clutched at the bracelet, but nothing else happened, and within a minute, the light had faded out entirely.

"What the hell was that?" he grumbled, glaring down at the leather strip as if it had somehow wronged him - and he supposed it had, getting his hopes up like that. Seized by a flash of rage, he grabbed the knife, sliding it between his skin and the bracelet before slicing clean through the leather and hurling the thing across the room, where it thudded ignominiously to the floor.

From the wall clock, an offensively bright "7:00" glared at him.

Breathing hard, he went back to cutting the tofu with newfound fury.

By the time Naofumi had gotten most of the meal together - miso soup garnished with spring onion, with soybeans over steamed rice and a few portions of vegetables on the side - the sun had fully risen, and it wasn't long before he heard the familiar creak, creak of someone stepping on the top step on their way down the stairs. A moment later, his father spoke from behind him.

"Naofumi? Well, this is a surprise...I wasn't expecting you up so early."

"Couldn't sleep." Naofumi didn't take his eyes off of the mackerel he was cutting to round out their breakfast.

Footsteps approached from his right, and he could see his father studying his handiwork out of the corner of his eye. After a few long seconds, during which Naofumi expertly shaved the scales from one side of the fish with a knife, Iwatani Katai gave a curt nod, then turned to his son. "Where did you learn to cook like this?"

Blunt as ever, Naofumi sighed to himself. "I picked it up recently," he replied curtly. A lie, but his expression gave nothing away.

Speaking frankly, the Iwatani family had a bit of a tense dynamic. Naofumi, the elder son, had been a carefree child, and by the time he turned eighteen, his parents had decided to invest their resources instead in his more academically-inclined younger brother Jun. Jun had cracked under the pressure, rebelled, and fallen in with some questionable people, but Naofumi had been able to deduce the best way to get through to his then-fifteen-year-old brother and introduced him to more than a few otaku pastimes. Having realized a way to both have fun and live up to his potential, Jun had thrived thereafter, rising rapidly to the top of his class, and Naofumi was happy to see his brother back to his old self.

His relationship with their parents, on the other hand, was a little more complex. Naofumi didn't doubt they cared about him, but it was obvious that they'd long since given up on him ever showing any sort of promise. They weren't poor, not by a long shot, but he had a feeling they'd have forced him to pay rent while he attended classes simply to "earn his keep" had he not saved their favourite child from delinquency.

He didn't see anything inherently wrong with charging adult children rent for living at home, but the intent he could see them acting with was hurtful: it communicated the feeling that they'd given up on him completely and were now simply tolerating his presence. He wasn't a so-called "NEET", but because he hadn't displayed any sort of prodigal excellence, he felt almost as if he'd been disowned, living as a stranger in his own home.

Before he'd been summoned to Melromarc, that had weighed on him every single day.

An awkward silence fell between himself and his father. Naofumi had been away long enough for the weight to fall from his shoulders by sheer lack of association, so the stress he remembered feeling wasn't there, and the self-control he'd trained to reign in the Shield of Wrath allowed him to easily disregard the man's presence as he laid out the strips of mackerel in a shallow pan of searing oil, using the scaled side to prevent the dark fish-flesh from scorching on the iron beneath. With a practiced hand, he seasoned each strip lightly with sea salt.

As he watched the fish, he reflected on why exactly he was cooking it. No matter how he looked at it, his parents had been kinder to him since his return; his father had even kept his usual acid tongue to himself and refrained from scolding Naofumi about his appearance or his studies. He couldn't deny that he'd often put recreational activities before school, but he hadn't failed yet, and being nagged wasn't going to change anything. His mother hadn't been so up-front about it, but he could more often than not read the disappointment written in the lines on her face, and some days that hurt more than his father's straightforward approach.

Why am I so worthless to them? he remembered thinking. Why is nothing I do good enough? It's true I don't have a lot of ambition, but...I'm happy to live as a family and work to support myself. Why isn't that enough for them?

His response to the same situation now would have probably been something along the lines of I really don't give a shit what they think. I'll do what I damn well please.

How times changed.

His father didn't really seem to know how to respond; Naofumi could sense a mixture of emotions, guilt prominent among them, but he tried his best not to let them affect him. He supposed it was a little heartless of him to brush the man off like this, but he was already cooking them all breakfast and didn't really feel obligated to make small talk.

After a few minutes, Iwatani Katai nodded again. "It smells nice. I'm...I'm glad you've found something to do with yourself outside school, Naofumi."

Naofumi grunted, prodding the mackerel strips with a fork to ensure the flesh flaked properly before yanking it out of the pan and onto a plate, letting any residual oil drain off before transferring a strip each to four wooden trays and garnishing three of them with a thin slice of lemon. (Naofumi had a personal objection to mixing lemon and fish, but he knew his family liked it, to varying degrees; Jun in particular was fond of the way the flavours meshed together.)

He supposed that his father had gone to wake the others up, since his mother and brother came downstairs one after the other. Iwatani Kokina, his mother, stopped dead in the doorway, and Jun, still half asleep, bumped into her.

Naofumi figured he'd tolerate their surprise. He certainly hadn't cooked much before he'd gotten summoned.

Despite making breakfast for them, he wasn't in any particular mood to eat with his parents. As far as he was concerned, he'd done his part for the time being, and so Naofumi trudged upstairs with his own tray, unable to bring himself to sit with them just yet.

Five minutes after he reached his room, however, there was a knock at the door; opening it, he came face-to-face with Jun, holding his own tray and wearing a frown.

It was strangely reminiscent of when Naofumi had first approached his brother after hearing about the way he'd veered off-track - one evening at dinner, when Jun had stormed upstairs into his room and left his food at the table, Naofumi had trailed after him, bringing both of their trays up. Jun had been reluctant to talk at first, but Naofumi brought over a console from his own room, and while they played, his brother had opened up a little.

Now, two (or four and a half?) years later, here they were, doing the same thing in reverse. It was Naofumi this time who looked away as Jun entered the room, a half-smile on his face. It was Naofumi this time who glared down at his fish, fists clenched on the sides of his tray as his brother spoke.

"Nii-san, you've been really, uh…" It was clear that Jun was attempting to choose his words carefully, and Naofumi cut across him, a flicker of irritation creeping into his tone.

"Get to the point already. You're not gonna offend me or whatever the hell it is you're being so slow about."

"Right." The outburst did nothing to dissuade his brother, who only gave a single, sharp nod. "You're really distant now."

"Tell me something I don't know," Naofumi grunted.

"Alright - you made breakfast to say 'thank you', didn't you?"

Naofumi blinked.

"Don't pretend you were 'just feeling nice', nii-san," Jun sighed. "I've known you my entire life. You've always been the kind of person who appreciates being shown kindness, even if you don't admit it. Then you try to repay it and claim it's not because of them. You're a tsundere."

What!?

"I'm not a - " Naofumi started, but Jun wasn't having it.

"So I found it odd," he went on, raising his voice over Naofumi's objections, "that you'd do something nice and then run from it. I used to catch you with that little smile you get when something you did made someone happy. Now you just look even more miserable."

A pause. To save himself from having to talk, Naofumi sat down on the edge of his bed and took a chunk of fish and a bit of rice together, chewing as slowly as he reasonably could; after a few seconds, Jun sighed, making his way to Naofumi's desk and flopping down in the chair. "Nii-san, if you don't wanna talk about it, that's fine. But don't think I've forgotten about what you did for me. It really sucks seeing you go down the same kind of path."

A bird began its cackling song just outside Naofumi's window, and he leaned back, yanking the curtains open to glare at the offender. Sitting on a branch in their yard was a thrush a bit longer than his hand, chattering away; for a solid four seconds, Naofumi and the bird made eye contact, and it fell silent before deciding its song was best appreciated elsewhere and flapping away.

"I don't know what happened to you, but I'll believe what you choose to tell me."

Naofumi stopped.

Didn't Raphtalia once say something like that…?

They hung out in Naofumi's room for a while, chatting and playing games; slowly, Naofumi began to let his guard down a little, reminding himself it's okay, it's your brother, he's not out to stab you in the back.

Malty Melromarc had done her work well, but Raphtalia had done hers better. If it hadn't been for her, Naofumi doubted he'd have ever recovered…

"What's up with the stuffed animals?" Jun cut into his thoughts, and Naofumi started; he'd unconsciously picked up the raccoon plush again.

He didn't really know how to explain to Jun what they were for, that they reminded him of Raphtalia and Filo - how would he even begin to explain who they were?

"Oh, yeah, they're just mementos to remind me of the 'raccoon equivalent of a catgirl' and the 'giant bird that was also a loli angel' who traveled with me during the two and a half years I spent in another world."

Even in his head it sounded stupid.

Naofumi just shook his head, and Jun nodded, accepting his silence.

Their parents went out for dinner at around five that evening, and Jun suggested they prepare their own; as it turned out, they were short a few vegetables, and so Naofumi took the excuse to get some fresh air and walk to the market while Jun handled the basics.

When he left the house, the first thing he noticed was that the bracelet had finally returned. Biting his lip, Naofumi inspected it, but nothing about it had changed. It was still just a leather strip attached to a green gem.

The trip to the market itself was uneventful, and he snuck a few snacks into the basket behind the cabbages, figuring Jun would appreciate them - his brother had a bit of a sweet tooth, and Naofumi himself hadn't had chocolate since the last time he was in Japan. Melromarc had nothing similar, though there was a bean that produced an extract not at all unlike vanilla. He supposed it was possible that a counterpart to cacao existed, but if it did, nobody had figured out how to process it in a way that would produce anything like cocoa.

Lost in thought, Naofumi didn't pay much attention to his surroundings as he walked home. Halfway through an internal debate on whether or not Filo could have chocolate (she's still technically a bird, isn't she?), he was startled by a man hailing him from an alleyway and wearing an amicable grin. Even so, he was no fool, and he kept his distance, standing out of arm's reach as he responded. "Did you want something?" Naofumi asked, keeping his voice cool and level; on the inside, however, he knew that he was no longer able to break the weapons of petty criminals using one finger, and his heart began to race.

"Yeah, you got a couple yen for bus fare?" The question ran deeper than that; Naofumi could tell from the way the man's smile didn't reach his eyes, an expression that said what can I get out of you?

Other people might have trusted the man, handed him two hundred yen for bus fare. "It's nothing," they'd think, and fish in their wallets, blissfully ignorant.

"Thanks," he'd say, and in his twisted perception of morality, he'd decide to show mercy for the generous.

Iwatani Naofumi was not other people.

He wasn't sure why this man in particular pissed him off - after all, he'd done similar things himself in Melromarc. Granted, he'd restricted his coercion to cutthroat bandits and swindling merchants, but he'd still done it. It was the way of the world, after all, so why was he so angry?

At his wrist, the gem sparked, and a familiar heat rose in his chest.

The man's eyes flickered down to the bracelet and back. Perhaps he'd decided that what he'd seen was simply a trick of the light, for he took another step towards Naofumi, hands still in the pockets of his hoodie. "Well?"

"Put your hands where I can see them first," Naofumi instructed, fixing the man with his trademark glare.

"What? I got nothin' to hide," the other insisted. "We're both honest fellas, I'm just tryin' to get home from work is all."

"It's Saturday evening. What kind of job gets off at this hour?" Naofumi countered, fighting back the anger bubbling in the pit of his stomach. "And if you're so honest, you shouldn't have a problem showing me your hands."

Another step closer. That grin grew a little wider.

"It's just two hundred yen, come on."

"Don't change the subject!" Naofumi barked, and he could see the first flickers of uncertainty in the other's eyes. His hands shifted in his hoodie pocket, and Naofumi had a feeling he knew what was in there, but he didn't feel fear. No, he felt something else.

Wrath.

"Besides," he went on, and now Naofumi was the one taking a step forward, looming over the rat before him. "I don't have two hundred yen on me right now, and something tells me that if I don't give you what you want, you'll just take something else instead, won't you? Filthy fucking trash."

You're not the Shield Hero anymore. Stop it, before you get yourself hurt! shouted a voice in his head, a Naofumi from another time, but this one paid it no heed. His pent-up rage, his accumulated frustrations, his righteous fury, his concentrated hatred - all of it had been boiling under the surface for four months, and he wasn't about to let some small-time piece of shit get the better of him. "So either you back off now and nobody gets hurt, or you try your luck," he snarled.

A heartbeat later, and the flash of a knife blade was Naofumi's only warning before the beggar was on him, clearly terrified and still lashing out. Instinctively, he lunged forward with his left forearm, the motion he typically used to parry attacks with his shield, but too late, he remembered he didn't have a shield, and he resigned himself to taking the blade in the arm over taking it in the chest -

Clang.

The knife flew from the man's hand, spinning through the air to clatter ineffectually against the pavement some ten feet off. Naofumi himself was a little stunned, but when he checked to see if he'd been hurt, he understood exactly what had happened.

In place of the bracelet, he wore a shield.

Time seemed to stop, and the world fell silent save for a deep, harsh thrumming, like the sound of some vast machinery. He'd heard of these sounds before - low, apocalyptic ringing that set cities on edge, popularized through viral internet videos - but he'd never experienced them himself; he would have been a little more in awe if he hadn't recognized both the shield on his arm and the energy that now flowed through his body, filling him with a power he couldn't mistake for anything else.

This...this is what I felt when the wave struck in Kizuna's world.

His own power, flowing from another world…

"It can't be," he murmured, staring down at the silver slab as it pulsed with that familiar emerald light. "There's no way."

A scrabbling sound brought him back into the moment, and he realized that the man had dived to pick up his dropped weapon, grubby fingers frantically attempting to wrap around the sweat-slicked handle; with a shout, Naofumi lunged for him, raising the shield -

"No, you don't! Air Strike Shield!"

With a rush of air, a translucent, greenish shield formed between the man and the knife, smashing into his chest and tossing him backwards just as Naofumi swung his arm up to bash him in the back of the head with the shield. Groaning, the man crumpled, and just as soon as it had arrived, the power was gone, as it if had simply pulsed between worlds to save him in his time of need. In the blink of an eye, the shield turned back into the bracelet, and Naofumi was left standing next to a half-conscious thug, still carrying his bag of vegetables and snacks in one hand.

Thinking on his feet, he spotted a trash can nearby, and so he grabbed the lid, smashing it against the wall to put a dent in it before tossing it onto the ground; he'd dial the police soon enough, but he at least had to erase any suspicion that he'd overpowered a knife-wielding mugger with nothing on hand but some bok choy and a carrot. Satisfied with his cover-up, he was about to pull his phone out of his pocket when something flashed across his field of vision:

Trash Can Shield 0/10 C
<abilities locked> equip bonus: garbage disposal
equip effect: defense 1

"You've gotta be shitting me."

The notification had drawn his attention to something else, however - when it vanished, it collapsed into an icon at the bottom-right of his vision, one he thought he'd never see again.

...Status magic?

He focused on it, and after a couple of seconds, the ever-so-familiar interface popped up. Similar to how it had behaved in Kizuna's world, everything was garbled, and huge chunks of the menu were missing...but there was one painfully obvious element that stood out, uncorrupted and staring him in the face.

It was a dragon hourglass.

Even as Naofumi felt his breath hitch in his chest, however, something else popped up next to it. It was a timer, and the number on it made his head spin.

48:00:00

Chapter Text

 

“So you're okay?” Jun pressed.

Yes. I'm totally fine,” Naofumi sighed. “The guy already had a warrant out for his arrest, so it didn’t take a lot of convincing.” He let out a yawn as he savagely bisected an entire head of cabbage with one vicious chop, turning the cutting board to slice the leaves into long, thin ribbons. “If he hadn’t already been criminal scum, I probably would’ve had to head to the police station and spend the next twelve hours listening to a bunch of lazy assholes waste time.”

“You’re not too keen on the police, huh?” his brother prodded, mincing a clove of garlic and sweeping it into a saucepan per Naofumi’s instruction.

“I’m keen on police doing their jobs.”

This guarded banter continued as they wrapped up dinner, Naofumi doing most of the work; it wasn’t that Jun was unskilled (though he was certainly inexperienced), but Naofumi had a habit of taking over the cooking any time he was in a kitchen.

When his brother headed for the bathroom, Naofumi took a moment to check his status screen.

46:14:08

It was still ticking down.

He couldn’t help but remain on edge all throughout the evening, though he tried his damndest to push off his anxiety. You can’t do anything about it, he reminded himself. There’s no way you can figure out what this timer means. You’ll see when it ticks down, anyway...and if it’s a wave, you should at least have your power back to some extent.

He was pretty sure that was what had happened with the beggar-turned-mugger - he’d been struck by wave energy at just the right moment. The odds were infinitesimal, but they weren’t zero, and he’d have to chalk it up to whatever scraps of luck he had left. Perhaps the Shamrock Shield he’d picked up in northern Melromarc had actually been worth the time he’d invested to unlock its “Luck up (small)” ability…

When they’d finished preparing dinner, they headed into the dining room to eat; the food wasn't bad, but it wasn't up to Naofumi's usual standards, so he frowned as he ate, chewing slowly. He’d been unable to take his mind off of the timer, to the point where he’d flat-out forgotten some of the seasoning and nearly burned the vegetables.

After they ate, they headed back to Naofumi's room, where they watched a couple episodes of a popular anime that had released during his absence; it was good, but every time he saw a girl with animal ears, it was an effort not to show the pain that stabbed through his heart.

Still, his heart couldn't take much more, and when one of the girls in the series gave a passionate declaration of her feelings for the main character, he slammed his fist into the arm of his chair and nearly broke it. Jun nearly leapt out of his seat, looking alarmed, but the sound brought Naofumi to his senses, and he forced himself to unclench his fingers, relaxing his grip on the chair.

“What the hell was that about?” Jun spluttered, slopping water down his front.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Don’t worry about it.”

“After that? I would like to know what's got you so frustrated,“ Jun sighed. “Try me?”

“Please. You’ll just call me insane like everyone else,” he grumbled, refusing to meet his brother’s eyes. “You can just ask one of the damn doctors, I really don’t - “

“Nii-san, you’ve never spoken a word about anything you’ve been through to me,” Jun cut in, expression unusually intense; for a moment, Naofumi had an idea of what it was like to be on the receiving end of one of his own glares. “Do you really want me to get your story from someone else?”

Isn’t this what you wanted from the start? To be given a voice? asked a small voice in the back of his head. Back then, you just let the rumours from the castle spread, because there was no fighting it...but you have people who believe in you now.

Yeah, I know, he snapped at it. I’ll tell him, alright? Just shut the hell up.

“What do you know?” The question came out as more of a demand than a request, but Jun appeared unfazed.

“I know you vanished for a year, and you’re regarded as one of the greatest cold cases in modern history,” he replied, ticking off each point on his fingers. “You were kept in a national psychological ward for three months until they determined you were fit to return to society as a high-functioning schizophrenic. That diagnosis has been used to brush off pretty much everything you’ve said on the matter, but you really don’t seem like a schizophrenic to me. There was a guy in my class who had it, and he got a little weird when he was off his medication...but you haven’t even been taking them, have you?”

“How did you - ?”

“Nii-san, I’m not an idiot. There are five unopened pill bottles on your nightstand. They’re right there.

Naofumi didn’t actually have a response to that, so he just dipped his head. “Go on.”

“Well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you,” Jun continued. “Since the story I’ve been given feels really out of place, I’d like to hear your side of it.”

He makes a point, Naofumi had to admit. Anyone who knew him personally wouldn’t have fallen for the “schizophrenia” excuse - he didn’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it was almost as if that narrative was being pushed a little too hard… “What do you wanna know?” he asked, caving, and Jun cracked a smile.

“Where were you?” was the first question out of his mouth. Naofumi had expected this, and he let out a long, drawn-out sigh.

This is gonna be a long night.

He tried his best to explain what exactly had happened to him; the entire time, Jun listened in silence, expression unreadable. Naofumi glossed and skipped over as much as possible, more for the sake of time than anything, but his story seemed to go on and on anyway - but what's important now , he reminded himself, is to emphasize how dangerous the waves are…

“...and so Motoyasu fell madly in love with a giant bird,” he heard himself say.

No! Idiot! That is not the intended message!

With a groan, Naofumi clutched at his head, running his fingers through his unkempt black hair. Jun's, straight and dyed a natural shade of blonde, flopped open to either side as he brushed his entire hand through it from front to back.

“So, you got isekai'd ,” he summarized, “then the kingdom that summoned you immediately branded you as a criminal and left you to rot….”

A nod from Naofumi, who bore an expression similar to that of someone visiting a sewage plant for the first time.

“Why even bother summoning the shield hero if your religion says he's a demon?” Jun seemed genuinely perplexed.

“How the hell am I supposed to know?” the shield hero in question spat. A second later, his face fell, and he dipped his head. “I...sorry.”

Jun didn’t respond immediately, and Naofumi kept his head down. When his brother eventually spoke, his usual composure was gone, and the words came slow, as if he’d put great thought into each one. “I think...to go through that, and to...to live...that takes a lot of strength, nii-san,” he murmured. “I...honestly don’t think I could have done it myself.”

“I didn’t do it alone,” Naofumi pointed out. “If it hadn’t been for Raphtalia…”

“The slave you bought?”

“Yeah.”

Silence again. Then -

“Is that why you have a raccoon plush?” - and to Naofumi’s surprise, Jun was teasing him.

“It’s - it isn’t like that!” he spluttered. “We’re - we were - close...no shit I’d want to remember her. It’s not like I’m ever going to see her again.”

Again, Jun’s reply was delayed; following his brother’s gaze, Naofumi realized he was staring at the bracelet.

“That’s what you said the shield turned into?”

“Yeah. I literally can’t get rid of it. It just keeps coming back. If it weren’t for this, I’d have honestly believed that everything I went through was just some kind of shitty dream.”

“Logically, I’m disinclined to believe you,” Jun reasoned. “There’s no evidence that any such worlds exist.”

“I knew you’d say that,” Naofumi grumbled. People who see themselves as intelligent always think that what they see is the truth…

“That said,” Jun went on, “I’ve known you for sixteen and a half years, and I don’t get the impression you’re a liar.”

SIxteen and a half years and all you have is an impression!? “Thanks,” Naofumi deadpanned. “Means a lot.”

A roll of the eyes. “Plus, there’s that bracelet to consider. I haven’t seen you without it since you got home. Do you think you could show me what it does when you try to take it off?”

With a long-suffering sigh, Naofumi got up and made his way to his nightstand, withdrawing a folding knife from the top drawer.

“Do our parents know you have that?”

“I’m twenty-two.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

Naofumi responded by making a single clean cut through the leather strap of the bracelet and handing it to Jun. “Here,” he said. “Go hide this somewhere. I guarantee you it’ll be back before you even return.”

Sure enough, within a minute of his brother’s departure, the bracelet reappeared on his arm in a flash of emerald light, and a few seconds later, Jun strolled back into the room and stopped dead in the doorway.

“Did you have another one in your pocket or something?” he demanded, evidently unable to believe what he was seeing.

“No! What happened to wanting to believe me?”

“I never said I wanted to,” Jun sighed. “But as long as all the evidence is pointing towards your story being true…”

“Go check your hiding spot, then.” With a yawn, Naofumi slumped backwards onto the bed. “Go on.”

His brother hesitated, then stepped back inside, biting his lip. “Alright. I won’t deny that’s weird,” he admitted. “So how’s it related to you punching your chair over an anime?”

“Because - look, that’s not as important right now,” Naofumi snapped. “There’s something else that’s been bothering me. Remember the status magic I talked about?”

A nod.

“On the main interface, there was always a timer with an hourglass that counted down to the next wave. Did you hear that weird noise earlier? The one that sounded like the sky was screaming?”

Another nod.

“That was around the time I was getting mugged. Right after the sound stopped, that timer came back.

He almost could see the gears turning in Jun’s head. At length, his brother blinked a few times, then said: “You’re saying there’s a wave coming here now?”

“Yeah, and if the waves are coming to Earth, nobody’s going to stand a chance. I already told you about how levels work in the other world - and since there’s no way anyone here could have had access to experience points, I’m pretty sure everyone besides me is going to be at level one…”

“So, if these waves were to come here, we’re all going to be impossibly weak and even low-level monsters will pose an insurmountable threat to our strongest weapons?” Jun guessed.

“Something like that. Imagine pitting a level one character with the best possible equipment and abilities against a level one hundred enemy with only its fists or teeth - the level one is going to lose, no matter what.”

Biting his lip, Jun placed his elbows on his knees, resting his forehead on his palms. Naofumi knew what he was saying dealt a hard blow to his brother’s rational view of the world, and he waited for the shock of the paradigm shift to subside before he continued, a little more kindly than before.

“I...don’t know how I’m going to keep anyone safe,” he sighed. “I’m the Shield Hero. I can’t sit by and watch these waves destroy a world. But I also can’t attack - I have a few counterattack abilities, but the only consistently powerful one disappeared when the shield that could use it was given a new form.” He was referring to the Dark Curse Burning counterattack, the Shield of Wrath’s signature ability; after Atla’s death, the Shield of Wrath had become the Shield of Compassion, and he’d lost the ability to use it in exchange for a stronger shield that didn’t curse everyone within ten meters. With a party, it was far more effective, but right now, he found himself wishing for Wrath’s destructive power.

“Is there not another way to close a wave?” Jun asked.

“Well...if the people in the world on the other side of the wave close it there, it closes on both ends, and since that cuts off the flow of mana between the two worlds, the monsters that already came through will become level one again,” Naofumi said, recounting something the queen of Melromarc had told him - that waves would close on their own given time - and piecing it together with what he’d discovered in Kizuna’s world. “The military could feasibly take them down at that point, but I don’t know if they would gain experience from it.”

It would be great if they could, because then they could actually do something about the waves on their own, he mused. But if you think about it, Raphtalia and I could probably take over the entire world by ourselves with our power level if everyone else is level one...so maybe turning the military into effective superhumans isn’t such a great idea. Ordinary people wouldn’t be able to do anything if some power-hungry asshole decided to stage a coup. They’d probably outlaw monster hunting to prevent people from gaining the strength necessary to rebel, too.

He supposed that was just another reason to fear the waves.

“...What's your timer say?”

Jun's question brought him back to his senses.

“Huh?”

“You mentioned a timer, right? How much time is left?”

Naofumi checked.

“Forty-four hours, give or take.” Even as he said it, a sense of creeping dread filled his body, and he fought back the bile rising in his throat. He'd long ago stopped feeling nervous about the Melromarc waves, viewing them as merely a problem that needed solving, but back on Earth, things were different. It was very likely that they would destroy civilization before they destroyed the world itself, whereas back in the other world, there had been heroes and armies capable of stopping them. Even if the cataclysmic attacks didn't shake humanity to its foundations, the widespread rioting and ennui would inevitably tear apart even the closest-knit societies.

“What’ll happen when it reaches zero?”

“I guess a wave will come,” he shrugged. “We’ll deal with it when it happens. There’s no way a confirmed schizophrenic will be taken seriously if he tries to tell the government monsters are coming out of the sky.”

“You’d probably just get dragged back into the ward,” Jun agreed. Then: “...I missed you.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t make me say it again.” - and suddenly his brother, upset somehow, had his gaze fixed on the floor.

“I wasn’t under the impression that things had changed much with me gone,” Naofumi shrugged, belatedly realizing that his response might have been a little callous. “Sorry, I just - “

“It wasn’t the same, you know.”

Naofumi couldn’t think of anything to say. Jun kept staring at the rug.

“Every day, we just went on with this emptiness in our lives,” he went on, voice hollow. “I never knew how powerful negative space could be until the space where you were supposed to be was empty. I - I always thought that no matter what happened, we’d still have each other, you know? Family, and all. But - it was like looking at a skeleton, every time I passed your room. There should have been more there. There should have been a person around that framework. But there wasn’t. And I just - I…”

Something dripped down onto the carpet, and Naofumi realised that Jun was crying.

“Mom and dad wouldn’t talk to each other for a few months. It felt like the entire house was just filled with that negative space. I would avoid coming home from school as long as I could...even if it got me in trouble. Even when they did start speaking again, it was always so hollow. I thought when you came back, things would get better, but it feels like I’m just living with three skeletons instead of two now.”

“Jun, I - “

“You what!?” - and his brother was shouting now, suddenly standing, suddenly angry. “We thought you were dead! And when you come back, you’re a completely different person, and - “

Jun didn’t get to finish his sentence. Naofumi flung himself from his chair, hurling his arms around his brother’s shoulders and hugging him as tightly as the former hero could manage without hurting him.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, chin resting on Jun’s shoulder. “I didn’t exactly choose to disappear, and I didn’t choose to become who I am now. But...if you believe me, you’ll understand that I know what it’s like to have everything fall apart like that.

“And,” he continued, as Jun raised his head, face contorted with - grief? - “if I had the chance to go back and not spend two and a half years in another world, I wouldn’t take it.”

“...Why?”

“Because, now that I know what I was missing by living as complacently as I was, I couldn’t go back and be satisfied with it.”

For several moments, the only sound was the faint whir of Naofumi’s desktop fan, punctuated by Jun’s irregular, choking hiccoughs, then the front door opened downstairs and Naofumi recognized their parents’ voices. Shooting Jun one last look that he hoped conveyed his mixed sympathy and resolve, he clapped his brother awkwardly on the shoulder and beckoned for him to follow Naofumi downstairs.

When they reached the front hall, Naofumi was more than a little surprised to see their parents smiling. Before he could say anything, Jun stepped past him, calling: “Did you have a good time?”

“Yes, actually,” their father chuckled, dipping his head. “There was the strangest sound earlier. Everyone in the restaurant went outside to see what it might have been, but nobody saw anything. It was exciting!”

Naofumi bit his lip. Jun's smile didn't quite reach his eyes when he mentioned that they'd heard it too, but written it off as machinery.

Their mother had disappeared into the kitchen with a bag, and a moment later, she popped back into the hallway, wearing a smile Naofumi hadn't seen since he was Jun's age.

What the hell has them so cheerful? he groused, mentally.

As it turned out, their parents had brought home a cake - Naofumi’s favourite kind of chocolate cake, to be precise. He sniffed it suspiciously when he thought nobody was looking, but it smelled fine; when Jun tapped him on the shoulder, he jumped, nearly burying his face in the plate.

“They’re not trying to poison you, you know,” the younger Iwatani sighed. “You can’t be that dense, nii.”

“Maybe it’s just a coincidence they bought this kind, then,” Naofumi shrugged, wiping a smear of icing off of his nose. They can’t have remembered. Why would they remember?

“Oh for - can’t you tell?” Jun snapped. “They’ve been in a good mood all day because of this morning. Like I said...you’ve been home all this time, but you haven’t really been home.

Naofumi grunted, shoveling a bite into his mouth and pausing as something he hadn’t tasted in nearly three years hit his taste buds. He didn’t realize that he’d started to cry until a tear splashed down onto the cake, scattering into pristine beads that quivered atop the dense icing.

“And, um...sorry for a few minutes ago,” Jun mumbled, scratching at the back of his head. “I kinda lost my cool.”

He shrugged again, not taking his eyes off of the cake. “There’s nothing to apologize for. I stand by what I said, though.”

The two of them had taken a seat at the kitchen table, sitting at right angles, and as Jun opened his mouth to respond, their parents came back in with a bottle of wine they’d brought from the restaurant and took the opposite corner. The two of them were definitely in high spirits, and Naofumi felt a pang shoot through his chest as they had their dessert. It was something close to grief, though not quite the same; he supposed it could be classed as loss, but they were still here, so why…?

Then, out of sheer force of habit, he checked the blurry icon lurking just barely within his field of vision, and as the familiar status menu blinked into view (he supposed they couldn’t see it, which was odd; it had been visible to the others in Melromarc), he figured it out.

43:40:06

Everything he knew could come crashing down around him in less than two days. He hadn’t exactly set much store by his family until this very evening; before his summoning, he’d taken them for granted, and after his return, he’d been incapable of seeing them as anything more than more enemies, people who tolerated his presence and who he tolerated in return according to some unspoken social creed that sanctified their blood relation. But their smiling faces now - this, more than anything, drove home the hurt, drove home the loss, and suddenly he understood very well what Jun had meant by negative space, by skeletons. The people before him now were alive, more so than he’d seen them in years, and he was the one who wasn’t there.

The night dragged by, Naofumi unable to fully invest himself in his family’s impromptu celebration. Every so often, when he had the chance, he’d pull up the timer again and watch the seconds tick away.

At some point, between the wine and the fact that it was already very late, he dozed off on the sofa. When he awoke prematurely at four in the morning, he found that he’d been carefully covered in a warm blanket and was now sweating like a pig; groaning, Naofumi dragged himself into the kitchen, mouth dry and eyelids heavy, to get himself a glass of cold water.

39:28:19

The next two days were, for Naofumi, excruciating. He slept half the first, and although he felt guilty not doing anything, he had to admit it was a relief to get some rest for once. His sleep had been sparse and broken ever since his return, and he’d been starting to think the bags under his eyes would soon be inviting their relatives to come and stay with them.

At the twenty-four hour mark, his resource bars came back, alongside his name and the familiar shield icon to the left of his health. He was, predictably, listed as level one. Everything else was still either missing or indecipherable.

He checked the timer compulsively, on the hour, even though he knew it would still be there, even though he knew it wouldn’t have magically dropped to zero. Until the evening of the second day after his failed mugging, Naofumi felt as if he were unable to focus on anything except it , except what would come when those numbers that only he could see read zero, zero, zero, zero…

1:59:04

He couldn’t help it. He had to go for a walk.

The faint scent of petals on the breeze did nothing to ease his pounding heart; all he could think of was the fact that it could easily turn to the scent of blood, that the hustle and bustle of the city around him could, within just a couple of hours, turn to panic and devastation.

Blood, blossoming like flowers, and he remembered the way Trash #2 had been reduced to nothing more than a screaming mess of splintered bone and sundered flesh.

Wandering, Naofumi couldn’t focus - he didn’t know how to feel, what to do, where to go. At some point, he become conscious of the fact that his feet had taken him to an ancient Shinto shrine on the city outskirts, preserved by centuries of caretakers and protected from decades of tourists by both law and locals.

Things were calmer here, and the stillness helped him relax. Checking the timer again (he’d been walking for half an hour), he studied the interior of the open-air shrine; a vertical stone slab punctuated an otherwise-smooth floor of treated wood planks, fenced off by four red-stained posts linked by a length of rope. Walls rose to about the height of his head, then stopped, leaving the high pyramid roof supported by pillars alone.

As far as he could tell, he was the only human around for a mile or more, but he was far from the only life in the building: a wasp buzzed around the far corner of the roof, seeking to nest; the sound of birdsong and frog-calls swelled from the trees all around him; somewhere nearby, a stream burbled. Breathing deeply, he struggled to still his mind, to meditate and connect his life force to the earth’s in whatever limited capacity he could in this world. It was a basic Hengen Muso technique, but one that had served him well over the years, and even if he couldn’t utilise the combat skills anymore, he could at least calm his nerves.

Naofumi didn’t know exactly how long he’d been sitting cross-legged before the stone tablet when there was a distorted series of screeches from seemingly nowhere. The sequence was vaguely familiar, but the actual sound of it was filled with static and broken up beyond recognition. Checking his status screen, he immediately noticed the addition of a second name and health bar below his own, the name unreadable and the health bar flickering like digital candleflame.

The icon that typically accompanied a party member’s resources was missing entirely.

What the hell is this? Who the hell is this?

He couldn’t read their level, either, but he noticed that unlike the other scrambled text, the length of the level string kept changing, fluctuating wildly between one and three characters.

1:01:36, read the timer.

An hour. A single, measly hour was all he had left.

Naofumi went home.

By the time he got back, the timer was down to less than half an hour, and his family had already come home for the day; his mother bustled in the kitchen, preparing an early dinner while his father sorted through a stack of papers at the table, his briefcase open on the seat next to him. Jun was most likely upstairs, working on some assignment or other.

“Oka-san. Oto-san.”

He was being abnormally formal, and both of his parents turned to face him with surprise written plain as day on their faces.

“Naofumi? You’re back early. I was expecting you to be at the library for a while longer.”

Ah, right. I told them I’d be at the library again. He’d fallen back into his old habit of meticulously combing the dusty shelves for new books to read, whiling away the time until the next event in his life - only this time, the event was apocalyptic destruction from another world. “Yeah. I, uh, ran into some old friends and they invited me out, but my phone died and I thought I’d drop by here first to let you guys know I’d be gone for longer than usual.”

This was, of course, a lie. Naofumi hadn’t had any friends at university.

Not that his parents knew any better, and while he didn’t particularly enjoy deceiving them, it was necessary. If they knew that, even as they spoke, he was keeping an eye on a timer only he could see, counting down to a wave only he knew about, they’d probably try to have him committed again.

“Thank you for telling us,” his mother acknowledged, dipping her head. “I’ll set some dinner aside for you. If you get back after ten, please try to be quiet - your father has to get up early tomorrow.”

“Right.”

Silence. Naofumi wasn’t sure why he still stood there, in the entrance to the dining room, breathing the pungent tang of soy and spices. There was something more he’d meant to tell them, wasn’t there? - but he didn’t know what it was until he opened his mouth to say it.

“Thank you.”

“Hm?” His father glanced up from his papers, adjusting his glasses as if they’d somehow help him hear Naofumi better.

“Thank you,” he repeated, bowing his head. “For taking care of me.”

“You’re our son,” Iwatani Katai shrugged, though his attempt at nonchalance was betrayed by the expression on his face. “It’s nothing to thank us for. We care for you in your youth, and in turn, you care for us in our old age.”

“But I know it hasn’t been easy for you!” Naofumi pressed. “I - before I disappeared, I didn’t have much of a drive to do anything, and we had problems, and I - “

Both his mother and father had paused, frozen in place. He knew they hadn’t been expecting this, but with twenty-eight minutes remaining before the wave, he had to say it. He couldn’t just let these things go unsaid.

“Thank you,” he choked out, and ran.

He had no destination in mind, no plans for after he’d said what he’d meant to say. All he knew was what came next.

The unnamed health bar flickered at the edges of his vision.

Stormclouds, thick grey ones like sheep's wool, blanketed the skies from east to west, but the lights flashing within were no storm. On the horizon, he could make out the distinct swirling of what was unmistakably a wave…

So it's coming right to me this time? He couldn't decide if that was a good thing or a bad one.

Once he was a safe distance from home, both emotionally and physically, Naofumi stopped to rest and catch his breath. He was in good shape, but he'd grown too used to the bolstered stamina from his levels, and even now he sometimes overestimated his own abilities now that he was back at level one.

All around him, people cast worried glances at the distant sky, the rising storm, and hurried for imagined safety.

00:09:18

Naofumi gripped the bracelet in the palm of his other hand until his knuckles turned white.

As the sky roiled and rolled towards the city, his status screen began to undergo changes: garbled text became legible, corrupted elements were restored to their original form, new options came into view. The pitiful “1” next to his level became “1+255”, and he felt an impossible surge of power flow through him, far stronger than the one he’d experienced forty-eight hours prior. On his arm, the bracelet began to glow, brighter and brighter until it was almost blinding to look at - and then it was the shield again, and as passerby stared, the timer hit the number he’d been dreading since its appearance.

00:00:00

People, fleeing the sudden eruption of colour from the clouds, began to scream as countless threads of light scattered from up on high, each one striking the ground like lightning and splitting open the pavement; something stirred within the fissures, and Naofumi instantly knew what was hauling itself out of the closest one.

Monsters.

They were all beast-types and fairly weak (perhaps level fifteen or twenty on average), but to the level-one citizens of Japan, they were lethal, unstoppable forces of destruction, capable of killing a normal man in a single bite, a single swipe, a single sting. Viewed in “real-world” terms, there was no way any of them should be able to kill so easily, but Naofumi knew that the damage they dealt would simply cut off the victim’s life force and the unfortunate body would drop to the ground, limp as a ragdoll.

It’s okay, he told himself. They’re just monsters. Low level. You must have killed a thousand of them. Maybe more. This is just another problem to be solved.

With his stats restored, Naofumi was easily able to keep up with the beasts’ movements, but he could imagine that everyone else saw only black blurs with bloodied fangs.

Another problem...how the hell am I going to protect all these people? And how long am I gonna have to do it? How long is it going to be before the other side closes this thing?

If he hadn't been warned in advance, he'd probably have been in a state of shock; thankfully, he'd had two days to sort through his emotions and mentally prepare himself for this moment, and his body moved freely on instinct as he hurled himself into the midst of a fleeing group and shouted:

“Shooting Star Shield!”

The force of the ability sent the closest monster - a two-headed black dog, identical to the one he’d met with Raphtalia in some abandoned mines oh-so-long ago - sprawling with a resounding bang , one of its necks bent at an odd angle.

“Hate Reaction! Air Strike Shield!”

As he raised his shield, the thin metal letting out an ungodly screech to draw the attention of all within earshot, he pointed two fingers at a catlike creature in the act of approaching a cornered man; its claws, sharp as razors, gleamed in the unnatural light, and Naofumi recalled seeing one hunt a rabbit, tearing the small animal’s guts out in one vicious tearing swipe -

“Second Shield!”

Crunch.

As his first shield popped up between man and beast, the second appeared behind the monster, sandwiching it between the two barriers and crushing it with relative ease. His attack might not have been very high, but he could at least use his impenetrable defenses to deal minimal damage by force of impact. A monster his own level wouldn’t have taken much damage, but the enemies here were (thankfully) so weak that his makeshift attacks were lethal.

Still, his pool of energy was finite, and he’d run out of SP sooner or later. Magic was also useless; the only offensive ability he had access to was the Way of the Dragon Vein, and the earth didn’t have any such innate magical power that he could harness. There was no way he’d be able to turn the spray from a fire hydrant into a lethal, cutting torrent like Melty’s water spells; it simply wouldn’t respond.

“Damnit!” he swore, throwing his Float Shield in between a woman and an incoming Interdimensional Bee (he recognized it from the first wave he’d fought, and when he thought of Raphtalia slashing them to bits, a pang of hurt he couldn’t afford to feel struck him squarely in the chest) before enclosing another three people in a protective Shield Prison. Clenching his jaw, Naofumi flung his arm out, raising a wall of spiked barricades ( “Chevaux Shield!” ) behind the monsters attacking the prison before calling two more Air Strike Shields to either side of them, binding the shields together with Chain Shield, and using the chain to fling the entire group into the barrier, impaling them. He released the prison, but he barely had time to shout at its occupants to run before another scream reached his ears, followed by a shrill screech and a distinct hissing sound. “ Now what?”

He didn’t have to look far - sprinting to the end of the next street, he spotted a chimaera-like creature that had given Raphtalia some trouble near the start of their journey, when they’d played the role of travelling merchants and adventurers: it was a nue, and he remembered its weakness well. After a brief search through his status screen, he found the shield he was looking for.

“Change Shield!” he commanded, and the shield on his arm shifted into a megaphone - it had been an oddly convenient find at the time, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to complain. A deep breath, and as the nue reared to deliver a lethal blow to the couple it had pinned, he screamed:

“Fuck - OFF!”

The nue was vulnerable to loud sounds, to the point where it would take actual damage from them, and at Naofumi’s shout, blood spouted from its ears; unbalanced, it toppled over backwards, slumping onto the cold pavement.

He kept running.

Naofumi didn’t know how long he’d been fighting when the gunfire started, but he could only assume the military had gotten involved. He didn’t have time to go looking for them, though; his job right just then was to hold off the wave for as long as possible, hoping against hope that the heroes on the other side would close it - then the glass front of a towering office building exploded into thousands of deadly shards, and Naofumi found himself once again in the position of having to protect far too many people at once. He didn’t even know if the shield he had in mind was large enough, but damnit, I’m going to try!

“Meteor Wall X!”

The SP consumption of most skills was minimal in comparison to his total pool, but some of them used a set percentage of his maximum. The Meteor Wall ability was one such skill, ordinarily consuming ten percent of his SP to summon a five-meter-wide defensive wall, but by pouring even more of his energy into the ability, Naofumi found that he could increase the size of the wall alongside its SP consumption. A third of his SP vanished as, sweating, he crossed and uncrossed his arms, keeping his open palms facing the rain of shrapnel; the moment he stopped moving them, a shimmering, semitransparent wall of light erupted above the street, shielding those beneath from the lethal onslaught.

Crisis averted, Naofumi turned his attention to whatever had broken the windows in the first place and his heart skipped a beat.

Framed in the building it had torn through, a long, scaly neck connected to a massive, scaly head, and even as he stared, the fearsome mouth opened wide and let loose a gout of flame that, while it glanced harmlessly off of the Meteor Wall, would have likely obliterated any man-made structure in its path.

There’s no way in hell I can fend off a dragon and handle the rest of this wave. One way or another, people are going to die, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Just as he thought this, two things happened in very quick succession: a streak of light, very different from the ones that had summoned the monsters all around him, cleft the air above the dragon’s head, and a moment later, he noticed that the icon next to his unidentified party member had returned.

Up until then, it had remained the only missing piece in the puzzle of his status screen; everything about it had remained corrupted or simply absent. The moment the icon returned, however, the flickering health bar, the ever-changing level, even the corrupted string of text that was the name - each one instantly became whole again, and Naofumi couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing.

Lv1+255

He only knew one other person who’d hit that level, who’d be strong enough to decapitate a dragon in one stroke while falling from the heavens.

Before the head even hit the ground, he saw the lithe, lean body land light as a feather in spite of the incredible speed of its fall, and he read the name over and over again, unable to believe his eyes, unable to believe the status magic that told him, plain as day, that her name was

Raphtalia

Chapter Text

 

“No matter what happens, please don't forget me.”

“Never.”

He vanished in her arms.

It had been eight months since Naofumi's departure when Raphtalia, now overseeing her home village of Lurolona, received a letter bearing the official seal of Melromarc. The news it contained was dire - their world was on a collision course with another, and as a vassal hero, she was needed to combat the inevitable waves of destruction.

Raphtalia was pissed .

“Wasn’t Naofumi-sama summoned to stop this kind of thing? Why is it happening again?” she demanded of the Melromarc court wizards. To their credit, it turned out they'd been tirelessly studying the phenomenon of the waves ever since the four heroes had been summoned, and they'd managed to glean a rudimentary understanding of the mana flow between worlds.

“At the core of our worlds, there is a central ley line known as the Terra Vitae. ” This she heard from the elder court wizard, who had overseen the research. “From it branch all the ley lines of the universe, each one the thread of another world.

“However, thousands of years ago, when the flame of mankind was newly kindled, a great cataclysm sundered the Terra Vitae, and many ley lines were severed, their worlds set adrift and left to rot in the lifeless void,” the bearded man thundered, arms spread wide, lights down low.

Raphtalia crossed her arms. “In English this time?”

A much younger mage, her expression apologetic, spoke up. “Essentially, the worlds the four holy heroes were summoned from are disconnected from ours. They have no magic, and ordinarily there's no way to contact them. They're not even aware there are other worlds.”

“And what does this have to do with the waves?” Aside from his duties as honorary chief of Lurolona, Raphtalia had in Naofumi's absence picked up his impatience.

“The dormant arcane energies called upon by - “ began the elder wizard, but the mage talked over him, grimacing. Raphtalia's keen hearing picked up a few snickers from around the room.

“Well...the initial summoning spell utilised a type of ancient magic that connected directly to the Terra Vitae, pulling on even those severed ley lines to locate those suited for the roles they were destined to play,” the mage explained. “At least, that's what we've got so far.”

Just then, there was a timid knock on the councilroom door, followed by a thundering bang, bang, bang that shook the entire room and caused the doors to buckle.

“That must be the other vassal heroes,” grumbled the mage closest to the doors, getting up from his seat to open them; before he could, however, they flew open on their own, sending him sprawling. A colossal bird, white with pink-tipped feathers, burst into the room, followed by a pale girl with a long green braid and a bejewelled chakram at her waist.

“Sorry we're late,” Rishia apologized, bowing. “Filo had to come find me. Um, hi, Raphtalia.”

“Rishia,” the katana hero acknowledged. “And Filo.”

“Onee-chan!” Filo boomed, still in her bird form and using an appellative she’d picked up from Naofumi. “It’s been so long!”

“Filo, it’s been three days,” Raphtalia sighed. “You’re not a dog.”

“Filo is Filo!” she countered, transforming into her human form in a puff of smoke. She’d grown some since Naofumi’s departure, but at heart, she was still the same Filo she’d always been; Raphtalia sometimes wondered if she’d ever become like Fitoria, reserved and thoughtful, but somehow, she doubted it.

“Back to the matter at hand,” another wizard interrupted, sounding more than a little tired, and Raphtalia received the distinct impression that a lot of them had been skipping sleep for the sake of research. “For whatever reason, one of these detached worlds is now being pulled back towards our own. Whereas our summoning spells were able to tap into long-dead ley lines to pull individuals through them, whatever is happening now has set the very essence of both worlds on a direct collision course. To make matters worse, even the weakest conduit monster could cause widespread devastation in a world without levels.”

“Meaning?” Rishia prodded.

“Well, as we’re all aware from your testimony relating to the Spirit Tortoise incident and the heroes of the scythe and fan, during a wave, both worlds exchange magical energies, meaning that anyone who has gained power in either world will have access to that power in both. Those who have gained power in both worlds will temporarily experience a powerup proportional to their stats from the world in which they are not currently present. This also applies to monsters - residual invaders after a wave are reduced to a mere level one, at which point they are no match for most adventurers.”

“We don’t need to be reminded,” Raphtalia sighed. “What you’re saying is that even some common field monsters could destroy their civilization, right?”

“Correct,” the wizard nodded.

“The energy signature we picked up from the other world matches part of the energy signature on record from the summoning of the four heroes,” added the mage who’d interrupted the elder wizard, fixing Raphtalia with a look that she wasn’t quite sure how to interpret. She did, however, know how to interpret the girl’s words.

“You’re saying that now our world is going to destroy the home of one of the heroes.”

“I’m glad you picked up on it so quickly,” the other nodded. “If the elder had started talking again…”

“Are we all needed in that world, then?” Rishia asked.

“Here’s where it gets complicated,” another mage cut in. “Through our research, we’ve managed to establish connections with a couple of parallel versions of this world, and though they’re rudimentary at best, the information we’ve exchanged has made it apparent that they too are experiencing symptoms of this collision.”

“Basically,” the girl explained, spreading the fingers of both hands, “worlds connected to the Terra Vitae exist in clusters. They will never collide with other worlds within the same cluster, because they’re attached to the same branch. They can collide with other clusters, but only if forced, which is what happened the last time there were waves - our branch and another were pulled together by...well, you know.”

“Does that mean the other worlds had to summon heroes, too?” Filo piped up, bright-eyed and bouncy.

“We haven’t been able to ascertain that as of yet,” an older man responded, clasping his hands together in front of his beard. “All we know is that the worlds we have been able to contact are planning on sending vassal heroes as well, so we have decided to simply send one of you to scout out the early stages of the waves.”

“I’ll go,” Raphtalia volunteered, instantly. The mage girl who’d given her the look glanced away, trying not to laugh.

“Filo wants to go, too!”

“Filo, he said one of us can go,” the older girl sighed. “I don’t think it’d be such a good idea to have you running around a foreign world by yourself, especially if it’s one like Naofumi-sama’s. People would probably have a hard time believing what they were seeing no matter which form you decided to take.”

“Then onee-chan wouldn’t be able to go, either,” Filo retorted, pointing at Raphtalia. “Didn’t master say people in his world wouldn’t react too good to your ears?”

“He also said I’d look like I was wearing a costume and people wouldn’t pay attention to it!” Raphtalia fired back, cheeks heating up, then -

“I think Raphtalia should be the one to go, out of the three of us.”

Rishia spoke up, her hands together on her lap. Though quiet, her voice carried, and the other two stopped their bickering to stare before Filo turned away, arms crossed and a pout on her face. It was a mark of how much she’d grown that she didn’t throw a tantrum - even though she must be just as desperate as I am to see Naofumi-sama…

“Filo, if it’s possible, I’ll see if I can get Naofumi-sama to come back,” she suggested on a whim, as a peace offering, and Filo’s entire demeanour changed in an instant.

“Really?” - then, without even waiting on a response: “Yay!”

As Filo began some kind of ritualistic dance, stomping in a circle with her arms in the air, Raphtalia turned back to the elder wizard, bowing deeply. “I apologize for my indiscretion. What will be required of me?”

“We predict that the next wave will occur in approximately two months,” he replied, reading from the scroll under his nose. “At this time, the other world’s dead ley line will come into close enough contact with our own thread of mana to reanimate, and during that period, a monster at approximately level fifty will become a conduit.” They’d long ago determined that the game-like nature of the waves - that was, the way they tended to close when a “boss” was defeated - was in fact due to the way the waves themselves operated. During the intersection of two ley lines, certain areas of the worlds would become unstable and form invisible “seams”; when a monster with a particularly strong connection to mana drew close enough to one such seam, it would trigger a split, opening a rift into the other world and causing a wave. The monster itself would become the conduit for the invading world’s mana, drawing in other, weaker monsters until either its death or the decoupling of the two worlds’ ley lines, at which time the wave would close on its own. Due to the waves’ destructive nature, it was often more effective to hunt down and slay the conduit rather than to simply wait them out.

“And what must I do?” Raphtalia pressed. She’d never actually utilised the vassal weapons’ ability to travel to other worlds before; the only inter-world travel she’d done had been under the influence of the shield after it had been temporarily granted permission to enter L’Arc’s world so that they could hunt down Kyo. Even after she’d found the katana in that world, the return trip had still been facilitated by the shield.

“You must track down the conduit monster, locate the rift it has created, and enter that rift. You will lose contact with us until the next wave from our world, so be sure you are truly prepared to leave.”

“You might never come back if the waves end and you don’t head home through the last rift, by the way,” the girl cut in. “So try to come back before that happens, ‘kay?”

“Right.”

Raphtalia hadn’t asked which world it was, but there was a one-in-four chance that it was Naofumi’s, and that was enough for her.


 

That evening, after her bath, Raphtalia spread out on her bed, gazing at the thatched ceiling. She'd shared this room with Naofumi, long ago, but even though his old bed was larger, she couldn't bring herself to sleep in it. She could barely bring herself to look at his side of the room, and cleaning it was an incredible effort, so more often than not it was coated in a fine layer of dust.

She'd tried to change the sheets, once, but when it became apparent that they still carried his scent, she couldn't bring herself to carry out the deed.

“I miss you,” she whispered, burying her face in his old blanket. Maybe it was a weird thing to do - she didn't know. What she did know was that it brought her comfort the same way he had.

“The strongest fighter in this world needs a security blanket?” Sadeena had once teased her, but Raphtalia's glare had been sharp enough to slice Keel's rock-hard fruitcake, and the older woman hadn't mentioned it again.

The next two months were both impossibly slow and a blur; each day felt as if it dragged on and on, but at the end of each week, Raphtalia would look back and wonder where the time had gone.

Sometime at the beginning of summer, there was a quiet knock at her door. “Raphtalia?”

“Come in. It's unlocked.”

The door creaked open - I should oil those hinges, but I can never seem to find the time, she thought - and the soft firelight reflecting off the hearth illuminated Rishia's pale face, casting it into an otherworldly glow.

“Do you have a moment?” the other hero asked, expression serious. When Raphtalia nodded, she took a seat in the armchair by the tanuki girl's bed, closing the door with a soft click ; Raphtalia herself lay upright against a pillow by the headboard, reading a book by candlelight. She supposed she could have used light magic, but its light felt far colder and more distant than the familiar warmth of candleflame.

“What is it?” she asked, and Rishia gazed down at her folded hands for a moment before she replied, eyes soft.

“I know why you volunteered to go through the rift.”

Whatever Raphtalia had expected, this was not it, but the two had been friends for a couple of years now, so she let her guard down with a sigh. “Why?”

“You're hoping to see Naofumi-san, aren't you?”

His name, spoken aloud, disarmed her. She'd not heard it for months now, and its nearness, its intimacy, was startling. Raphtalia had long since been immunized to mentions of the “Shield Hero”; it was his title, nothing more, and getting emotional over it would be as silly as breaking down over the word “queen” or “duke”.

Knock, knock, knock again, “come in” again. This time, it was Sadeena who entered in her demihuman form; Raphtalia knew the older woman preferred to remain as a therianthrope, but frankly, she was far too large to fit through the door that way.

“Rishia,” she acknowledged, dipping her head to the Projectile Hero. “Raphtalia, a messenger just showed up at the gate. Said the mages’ council had picked up a rift or something a day northeast of here by horse. They want you to get ready right away.”

“Can right away be tomorrow?” Raphtalia yawned, stretching. “I was getting ready to go to bed…”

“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger,” Sadeena shrugged. “You go whenever you want. Just remember your boyfriend’s on the line. That’s why you wanted to go, right?”

“Wha - !?“

“Rishia told me.”

“Sorry,” mumbled the girl ( traitor! Raphtalia thought) sitting to Raphtalia’s right. “It’s just...you feel the same way about Naofumi-san as  I do about Itsuki-sama, don’t you? Even Rino could tell.”

“Who?” Sadeena cut in, raising an eyebrow, and Rishia jumped. One might have found it hard to believe that this shy, nervous girl was a vassal hero.

“Oh, um...she’s the council mage who helped explain things in the meeting. We talked a little after you left, and it turns out she was with Motoyasu-san before Myne sold her into slavery.”

“She what!? ” Raphtalia growled, her tail lashing furiously on the bed beside her.

“Um...maybe I shouldn’t have said anything…” Rishia murmured, but Raphtalia shook her head, reaching over to comfort her friend.

“It’s okay. I’m not upset with you or anything.” A gentle squeeze of the hand. “Myne just...well, you understand. That’s not someone I can forgive.”

“She must’ve really been a shithead to piss off Raffy like that. After all, you hung around with that sourpuss for two and a half years, didn’tcha?” Sadeena cracked, taking a swig from an unmarked bottle and giving Raphtalia a hard poke on the shoulder.

“Please don’t call me that,” Raphtalia sighed, planting her face in her hands. “And Naofumi-sama might be cold, but he has a kind heart. Myne...that woman was evil to the core. I know that the real Myne, or Malty, or whoever she was - I know she wasn’t really in there to start with, but I can’t just untie who she might have been from who she was. And where did you get that bottle?” she added, giving the offending vessel a sharp glare. Sadeena chuckled throatily between swigs, but said nothing more, and Raphtalia crossed her arms with a huff.

“Well,” Rishia piped up, “I just wanted to say...we’ll do everything you can to support you from this side, even if it’s very little. I...I’d really hate to be apart from Itsuki-sama, and I can’t even imagine what it must be like for you and Naofumi-san to be separated like this…”

Suddenly, Raphtalia understood very well why Rishia had so quickly jumped to her defense when Filo had tried to argue over who would enter the rift.

“Thank you, Rishia,” she whispered, and the green-haired girl smiled her small, watery smile.

“Oh, yeah,” Sadeena said, followed by a needlessly loud belch. “Whoops, sorry. Almost forgot to give you this, it’s got directions to where the rifts are gonna start popping up.”

“Sadeena, were you already drunk when you came here?” Raphtalia sighed, her mood shifting in an instant as she accepted the crumpled scroll.

“Maybe a lil’ bit.”

Unfurling the letter, Raphtalia didn’t respond, though she did jump when a small gold device with a smooth, bluish stone embedded in it fell from the center of the scroll into her lap. Picking it up in one hand, she read the message aloud for Rishia and Sadeena to hear:

“To the Katana Hero,

We did not deem it wise to send you into the unknown with no means of communication. Attached, please find what we have dubbed the ‘Leystone’, a device crafted to facilitate inter-world communication. It is derived from the magics we used to contact other worlds during our experiments, with the limitation of reliance on the world’s mana. This means that, during your time in the other world, you will be unable to contact us at-will, but we will be able to contact you by conducting the ritual magic necessary to funnel our world’s mana into the other’s ley lines. Due to the nature of the waves, the stone is capable of two-way initiation during a wave.”

For a moment, Raphtalia stared at the stone resting atop her thighs, then picked it up, studying it; it was embedded in a small rectangular plate that was attached to a chain, presumably so that she could wear it like a pendant. Slipping it over her head, she let it settle comfortably on her chest where, so many moons ago, a slave seal had stained her skin. It was warm to the touch, and if she was honest, its presence comforted her.

She wasn’t alone. She wouldn’t be alone.

“Alright. I’ll get Filo to take me over there first thing in the morning,” she declared, placing the book on her nightstand, where it would - presumably - remain for quite some time. “You two should get some sleep yourselves. Rishia, are you and Itsuki heading out tomorrow too?”

“Yes, we’ll be heading out after you to try and minimize the number of monsters that come through the rifts. If things are as bad as the council said, even a few low level enemies could kill a lot of people in that other world, so you should just focus on finding the conduit monster once you get through.”

“Alright. Sadeena, you’re in charge while I’m out, okay? And that means no getting drunk.

“Aw, c’mon,” the older woman complained, waving the bottle at Raphtalia and nearly bonking her on the head with it. “Not even a little?”

“We need you with your wits about you. Eclair might govern the entire territory, but she can’t manage every single village by herself, and Melty is still away at the capital. And before you ask, Gaelion is not allowed to watch the village for you while you drink. Do you remember what happened last time we left him in charge?” Raphtalia lectured.

“Uh...nope, not really. Enlighten me, o Katana Hero.”

“He tried to give orders from the top of the barricade and broke the entire wall by mistake. It took two months to fix it.” The tanuki girl sighed a long-suffering sigh. “How do you not remember this?”

A shrug and a belch.

“Gods, go to bed, please,” Raphtalia coughed, waving a hand by her face. “And scrub your teeth before you do!”

“Fine, fine, I’m off. See ya later, Raffy, Rishia.” And with a final wave, Sadeena staggered out of the room, leaving the door ajar. Rishia stood as well, making for the exit; when she reached it, she pulled the door open to stand silhouetted in the frame for a moment, and once again, the candlelight cast her pale face in a soft, almost ethereal glow.

“Good luck, Raphtalia.”

“Goodnight, Rishia.”

Click.

Raphtalia blew the candles out.


 

“Is that supposed to be the conduit?”

“Yep, yep!” Filo chirped. “I can feel it! It’s got so much magic runnin’ through it!”

The monster in question was a dragon, a little on the small side, with azure scales and curly, dark-grey horns. Raphtalia couldn’t sense much from it, but as Filo was technically a monster herself, Raphtalia decided to trust the bird. Her insights hadn’t failed them yet, and more than once, they’d saved a life or two - case in point, their initial encounter with a nue.

They hadn’t been noticed yet; Filo had leapt easily up the steep cliffs around the thing’s lair, perching atop the tallest one she could find. So far, it hadn’t done anything noteworthy besides sleep, but the deep rumbling from the dark clouds above was Raphtalia’s cue to keep her senses sharp.

Sure enough, within fifteen minutes, something in the air began to change . It wasn’t the mana supercharge of the previous waves, where two active ley lines intersected to unleash overwhelming arcane energies - it was more like the earth was being drained of its power, magical currents converging into what she could only guess were the “seams” the council had mentioned.

Somewhere in the distance, something exploded in a flash of purple light that she recognized as one of Itsuki’s abilities, followed by a series of blasts that shook the ground beneath their feet.

Below, the beast began to stir, raising its head to sniff the air with its great ugly snout. With keen eyes, she watched in disgust and fascination as some greyish membrane flared from the nostrils with each puff of breath. As it reached out to touch the edge of a seam, something began to tear in the very fabric of space, and Raphtalia sensed a great pull emanating from the rip...

“Ready, onee-chan?” Filo asked, and Raphtalia nodded, brow set.

“I’m ready.”

“High Quick!”

Filo took off down the cliff at breakneck speed, Raphtalia clinging on for dear life as the dragon, drawn by the influx of mana, clawed at the rift, spreading it wider, wider, hauling itself through -

“Instant Blade: Flash!”

The momentum from Filo’s ability carried over into her skill, and in the blink of an eye, she was through, the gem at the base of the katana shining a brilliant red - the dragon was just ahead, drifting through the awful, flashing void - she squeezed her eyes shut, but the lights were too bright, the colours too vivid, she couldn’t breathe, and everything hurt, it hurt, it hurt -

With a sensation that she could only describe as being squeezed out of a very small tube, she found herself floating amidst clouds.

She didn’t recognize the world below - massive, shiny buildings like colossal square beetles erupted from miles and miles of flat grey stone, with the occasional stand of trees here and there. The closest thing she’d ever seen to any of this was Faubrey, but Faubrey didn’t even begin to hold a candle to what she was witnessing; machines like so many ants scurried across blackened paths between buildings, lights flashing or glaring everywhere she looked, an artificial candy city.

Translation up

A tiny icon popped up in the bottom-right corner of her status screen, indicating that her weapon was now translating spoken information for her. She still couldn’t read the writing splayed out across the sides of buildings, and as she drifted slowly towards the ground, still moving with the clouds, it became apparent that these were characters she’d never seen before.

Wait, no...isn’t this how Naofumi-sama wrote notes to himself? This script looks familiar. I think he tried to teach me, once, but we didn’t have the time…

The colossal, glowing rectangles she now saw resembled signposts, if signposts were the height of trees and just as wide up top; the closest glared an uncomfortably bright red that hurt her eyes, with white characters reading “新しいコカ・コーラ・クラシックをお試しください”. She didn’t actually understand what this meant, but the side of the sign bore highly detailed images of bottles not dissimilar to Sadeena’s preferred brand of mead.

Who even carved such a sign…? And if this world has no magic, how does it stay so brightly lit?

Then she saw it - just ahead, the dragon that had torn open the rift in the first place soared towards one of the buildings as countless smaller field monsters plummeted likes stones to the ground, emerging from streams of unstable wave energy to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting citizens beneath…

Stop the conduit monster first, she told herself. Cut off their connection to home so they're weak enough for the residents of this world to fight back.

Raphtalia didn't register that she'd drawn the katana until the words left her lips.

“Meteor Blade!”


 

In the aftermath of Raphtalia’s skill, Naofumi could only stare - that was, until the dragon’s severed head slammed into the pavement next to her, spraying blackish blood into the air and putting a dent in the sidewalk. It was easily several times her size; the blade of her katana definitely wouldn’t have been able to reach the other side of its neck without an ability.

Something inside of him felt numb.

This can’t be real. This can’t be happening. How would she have gotten here? There’s no way.

Logically, her presence checked out - he’d pulled his powers from Melromarc, after all, and this wave had clearly come from the very same world he’d left. Raphtalia was a vassal hero, with the ability to cross between worlds through the waves. If she’d come through to fight the waves from this side, then naturally, she’d end up here, but the coincidence was just too extreme for him to believe so easily. After everything it had put them through, would the universe really just allow them back together like that…?

As the lights faded from the sky above, Naofumi felt his old powers leave him once again, and quite suddenly, he was very much in the moment - and very much aware of the fact that everyone around had pulled out their phones and were now aiming them at the carnage, the monster corpses, and at both himself and Raphtalia…

Before he knew it, he’d taken off at a sprint.

“Raphtalia!”

“Naofumi-saa aah!

An understandably confused Raphtalia let out a shriek as he grabbed her by the hand and fled the city at full tilt.

They drew stares, and Naofumi didn’t need to wonder why: the shield hadn’t turned back into the bracelet this time, and Raphtalia’s features, clothing and katana were definitely out-of-place. Still, he kept on, ignoring Raphtalia’s protests (even as she ran along with him), ignoring the cameras, ignoring the eyes that followed them all the way through the city outskirts until, entirely out of breath, they arrived at the entrance of the Shinto shrine he’d meditated in just an hour ago.

Wheezing, the two collapsed on the plank floor, and for a solid five minutes, they lay there, the only sound their labored breathing. When Naofumi felt he’d caught his breath enough to talk, he pushed himself into a sitting position, and Raphtalia did the same, cheeks burning. “Did you really want to be alone that badly?” she accused, though Naofumi had the distinct impression that she wasn’t actually angry about it.

“It’s not that,” he huffed. “It’s - do you remember the photo boxes in Faubrey?”

“Yes, what about them?”

“Everyone here has a device capable of something similar, only it’s instant, and it can capture moving pictures and sound as well,” he explained, as briefly as he could. “That information can also be shared across the entire world at the press of a button.”

He’d missed her so badly, and yet the first words he spoke to her after all this time were to explain cameras and the internet.

With a long sigh, Raphtalia returned to the floor, staring unseeing at his knee. “It’s been ten months since I last saw you, Naofumi-sama...and the first thing we talk about is photo boxes.”

“Four months here,” he said, avoiding her gaze. “And that’s relevant information, isn’t it?”

“It’s just...I wanted a reunion like they have in the books,” she pouted. “It’s almost like we were never apart, though.”

Ah. So that’s it. Even though, with his curse broken, he’d regained the ability to feel a full range of emotions, he was still horribly oblivious to Raphtalia’s more maidenly desires. “Well,” he began, awkwardly. “Hi.”

“Hi.”

Silence. Then -

“I missed you.”

Naofumi didn’t even realise he’d spoken until he’d done it.

Raphtalia, just as surprised as he was, sat up again, ears perked. “I missed you too, Naofumi-sama,” she murmured, and before he could stop her, she’d wrapped both her arms around one of his and pressed her cheek against his shoulder.

Stiffening, Naofumi allowed himself a moment to calm his nerves before reaching up with his free hand to pat her on the back, noting her wagging tail. She’s just like a dog sometimes, he thought, fondly, and for the first time in months, he let himself smile.

For a long while - Naofumi didn’t know how long - they sat there on the planks, the wood warm and a little soft from spring humidity. She clung to him, unmoving, unspeaking, and he ran his fingers through her long, light brown hair, slowly relaxing in her embrace.

At length, Raphtalia withdrew her face from his shoulder, though she kept her hold on his arm; if he was honest, seeing her looking up at him was endearing, but he’d never admit it. Not in a million years.

“Naofumi-sama, did you get teleported to the wave?” she asked, frowning, and he shook his head.

“No, I walked. Why?”

“So you were already here...is this where you live, then?” As she spoke, she studied the shrine, and he could see her eyes traveling along the length of the stone tablet in the middle of the floor, trying to make sense of what was written there.

“I live in this city, yeah. Not here , though,” he added, shifting to a more comfortable position. “This is a shrine. It’s not a popular destination, since everyone’s so sucked up in city life nowadays. I thought it’d be the safest place to take you.”

“Not your house? You do have a house, right?”

“Of course I have a house,” Naofumi sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I mean, it’s not mine, it’s my family’s, but I have some claim to it. Anyway, my family’s still awake, and I don’t think I’d be able to bring you there without questions.”

Just then, his phone rang, and he leaned into Raphtalia so that he could reach his pocket; seeing the number, he immediately picked up, raising the phone to his ear as, fascinated, Raphtalia watched him. “What’s up?”

“Naofumi!” It was his mother. “Are you safe?”

“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?” He tried his best to sound confused as Raphtalia leaned in close, inspecting the phone with narrowed eyes and ears angled towards it.

“Did you get the alert? The military is ordering all civilians to return to their homes at once and remain there until they say so. There’s nothing on the news about it yet, but Jun says there are some videos of it online already…”

And knowing the government, they’ll probably be taken down, Naofumi thought bitterly. “No, I - wait, no, I did,” he amended, checking his notifications - sure enough, there was a very official-sounding alert displayed at the top of the screen. “Right. I guess we have to go there after all,” he told Raphtalia.

“We? Naofumi, who are you with right now?”

Shit. “Just a friend, oka-san!” he yelped, bringing the phone back up to his ear. “She uh - lives a city over and came back here for a convention, and she can’t get back now. Is it alright if she stays with us for a little while?”

“Naofumi-sama?” Raphtalia prodded. “What’s going on? Naofumi-sama, why is your mother a rectangle?”

“Raphtalia, this is a phone , my mother is talking through it.”

He sorely wished he’d pressed the mute button.

It had started to rain by the time he wrapped up the call, and with a sigh, he opened his status menu to check what had become of it. To his surprise, it was still intact, though his added levels had disappeared, and he found that he could still access the passive abilities of his shields even if he couldn’t use the shields themselves. Much like when he’d been transported to another world before, he was level one, but he wasn’t starting from nothing - his stats were much, much higher than they should have been at such a low level. He supposed Raphtalia was in the same position, and with her back at his side, combat was no longer a problem for him.

There was one thing nagging at him, though…

“Raphtalia,” he began, slowly. “How did you get here exactly?”

Just as she opened her mouth to reply, the pendant she wore (a pendant that, he realized with a jolt, he didn’t recognize) burst into a brilliant blue light, illuminating the front of her tunic; when she pulled it up by the chain, the light cast the entire shrine into an eerie glow until, with a strange popping sound, what looked like a projection came out of the stone, floating in midair like something straight out of a sci-fi film.

For a moment, the image was blurred, jumping, glitchy, but then Naofumi sensed it - something that could only be mana, welling up through the shrine and flowing into the stone that Raphtalia now cupped in her palm. When the projection stabilized, the entire thing appeared to be of a puffy, white cloud, occupying the entire space allotted to it.

“Master! Master! Filo is here!”

“Filo, get back , you’re too close to the circle!”

“Is this actually working?”

“Raphtalia, what is this?” Naofumi cut in, glaring at the pendant.

“Oh, um, it’s called a Leystone,” she explained, reciting from the letter she’d received just the night before. “It lets everyone back home talk to us through it. The mages’ council made it for me to keep in touch once I was in this world...but ordinarily, it only goes one way, so I can’t contact them outside of a wave event.”

“Can they hear us? Or see us?”

“Yep, yep!” came Filo’s voice, and someone huffed; the cloud-like projection diminished, and there was a puff of what looked like smoke before Filo’s face came into view, beaming. Evidently, she’d been in her filolial form and standing far too close to whatever instrument was functioning as their camera. “Hiya, master, onee-chan!”

“Filo, please ,” and then Rishia was there, pulling Filo back with the gentle restraint of a parent consoling a rowdy child. “Raphtalia! And Naofumi-san. I’m glad you got through okay. The wave closed about forty-five minutes after you left, and I wasn’t sure if you’d done it or not…”

“Was I really floating like that for forty-five minutes?” Raphtalia asked. Rishia frowned.

“Floating?”

“When I went through the rift,” Raphtalia explained, and Naofumi was lost; as a legendary hero, he’d been forbidden from traveling to other worlds. “It was sort of like I was floating, and then I saw the dragon that opened the wave right under me. It really didn’t feel like that long…”

“I don’t know if this helps, but time apparently moves around two and a half times slower here than in Melromarc,” Naofumi put in.

“So the two months between us detecting the first signs of inter-world collision and now were only a few weeks for you?” The speaker this time was a vaguely familiar girl with a short reddish-brown bob, wearing the traditional robes of the Melromarc mages’ council.

“Something like that, yeah,” he nodded. “If you can detect whatever the hell’s causing these waves, do me a favor and explain why this is happening.”

“You’re the same as ever, Naofumi-sama,” Raphtalia groaned. “Really, I thought you’d have at least been grateful I volunteered to go…”

“You what?”

“I’m sorry, but can you two have this conversation later?” the girl cut in. “I don’t know how long the ritual spell will last, but I can give you a brief run-down of how the waves work and why your world doesn’t have any magic in it.”

“I don’t have much of a choice, do I?” Naofumi drawled, quirking an eyebrow, and when the girl shook her head, he rolled his eyes. “Alright. Get on with it.”

Over the course of the next ten minutes, she managed to summarize everything that the council had told Raphtalia, Rishia and Filo that day two months prior, beginning with ley lines and ending with an explanation of why he was once again being dragged into Melromarc’s affairs.

“Oh, we’ve been doing more research ever since that meeting,” she added, snapping her fingers. “Whatever’s bringing these two worlds together isn’t coming from Melromarc. Either it’s strong enough to push your world into ours, or it’s something on your world doing it. I don’t really know a whole lot more than that, but you guys might want to try tracking it down if you can.”

Just then, the projection began to jump again, sections of it reeling upwards like a damaged videotape, and Raphtalia sat up a little straighter. “You’re breaking up,” she told the group on the other side. “Is something wrong?”

“No, the ritual’s wrapping up. I’m sorry for taking up so much of your time, but I thought the Shield Hero could use this information as well, and I wasn’t sure how well you’d remember it.”

“You could have just written it down when you sent me the Leystone!” Raphtalia objected, tail lashing, but the girl stepped out of frame, replaced with a bouncing Filo, a solemn Rishia, and - to Naofumi’s surprise - none other than Amaki Ren and Eclair Seatto.

“What are you guys doing there?” Naofumi blurted out.

“Raphtalia’s right, you really don’t change,” Ren sighed, shaking his head. “As the only sane legendary hero left - “

“Hey!” Rishia snapped. “Itsuki-sama is - “

as the only sane legendary hero left, Ren went on, raising his voice to cover Rishia’s shrilling. “I thought I’d check in on how you two were doing to help me figure out what I should do back here in Melromarc. Eclair here was just worried about you.”

“Ren!” Eclair interrupted, and Naofumi, amused, noted the lack of honorifics. “Raphtalia, you had better come back soon! Leaving Sadeena and Gaelion in charge of Lurolona is not good for the Seatto territory!”

“Wait, I didn’t leave Gaelion in charge of anything! Don’t tell me Sadeena - “

“I’ll take care of it,” Rishia mumbled, defeated.

“Please, reign that woman in! I’ve never seen so much booze in one place!”

“Hey, Filo wants a turn too!” As the mana flowing into the stone ebbed, however, the projection went out, and the last thing they saw was Filo’s wide blue eyes, staring fascinated at the shrine around them.

Silence again.

“Right,” Naofumi huffed, getting to his feet and offering Raphtalia his hand. “We should really get going.”

Glancing up at the cutoff walls, Naofumi saw that the rain had become quite the downpour, and neither of them had any sort of umbrella or cover with them. He couldn’t exactly run down the street with a shield floating in midair over his head, but perhaps there was some other form of cover he could use…?

“The monsters here are very small,” Raphtalia commented, watching the same wasp from earlier that day buzz about its crude nest. “That one’s level two, but it’s much smaller than even a level ten bee back home.”

“That’s a bug, Raphtal - wait, did you say it was level two?”

That can’t be right. Nothing here can be anything above level one. The resources just aren’t there.

He turned to study the wasp in question, status screen still up; sure enough, when his gaze settled on it, the little number next to its name read “2”.

How the hell…?

“Naofumi-sama?” Raphtalia waved her hand in front of his face, trying to get his attention. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s nothing.” Shaking his head, he led the way out of the shrine, raising the shield to cover his head; Raphtalia’s ears flattened at the chill rain, and with a sigh, he moved the shield to cover her instead, shifting it into the Leaf Shield. He had larger shields, but he couldn’t yet access them, and besides, a leaf could at least be written off as rudimentary cover taken from the forest.

If there was one thing to be grateful for in all this ( aside from getting to be with Raphtalia again? a small, honest Naofumi in his head asked), it was that there actually was a convention in the city at the time, so he and Raphtalia were able to take public transportation without too many questions - after all, they weren’t the only ones who appeared to be in-costume. Naturally, she drew curious gazes, and Naofumi had to fend off more than a few overly-interested otaku.

“What are you supposed to be?” a guy on the bus asked him, staring at the shield. “That’s some seriously low-budget cosplay.”

“Freshly isekai’d,” Naofumi grunted, with no further explanation.

“Your tail is so realistic!” a girl to Raphtalia’s left gushed. “Can I touch it?”

Naofumi stiffened, he knew her tail was sensitive to the touch, and while he’d explained to her that they’d be pretending to be in costume, he hadn’t had a plan in mind for if someone had actually wanted to touch one of them - would it be uptight of her to say no? Naofumi knew he shouldn’t care, but he didn’t want any ire directed towards her, even from strangers.

Then it hit him.

“Isn’t that one of those fancy tails with the motion controls in it?” he cut in, pretending to study her tail. “I hear you shouldn’t touch those. It might screw up the sensors.”

“Oh! Sorry!” the girl apologized, jumping back as if she’d been electrocuted. “It’s just really cool!”

“It’s fine!” Raphtalia smiled politely, but the moment the girl looked away, the smile dropped, replaced with pure exasperation. “Naofumi-sama,” she whispered, “is everyone in your world so weird ?”

“...I’ll explain later,” he sighed, torn between laughter and annoyance.

The nearest bus stop to his house was about a mile away, and so they were forced to take off at a sprint, splashing through ankle-high puddles that drenched them to the knee as the stares of a thousand jealous otaku followed Naofumi until the bus drove out of sight. He knew why, of course; he was with an admittedly gorgeous girl in cosplay.

Not that he’d tell Raphtalia that.

With how soaked they were, the two of them might as well have gone swimming by the time they reached Naofumi’s front door, which opened before Naofumi could even touch the handle. Standing there in the doorway was his worried mother, quite ready to cry; behind her was his father, expression unreadable, and behind him was Jun, fixing him with a look that quite clearly said we need to talk.

“Naofumi-sama?” Raphtalia murmured. “Am...am I not welcome here?”

“It’ll be fine,” he said, reaching back to give her hand a squeeze. “Just follow my lead, okay?”

His parents had never been overly expressive, so it spoke volumes that his mother was so distraught , but with company present, she did her best to appear calm and composed, even if it was obvious that she was neither. “Naofumi,” she greeted, and he could see her throat working out some powerful emotion. “And you must be the friend he mentioned. Welcome to our home.”

She bowed, and at a nudge from Naofumi, Raphtalia bowed as well. To his relief, she managed the correct angle, and he let out the breath he’d been holding. So far, so good.

“Sorry it took so long,” he apologized. “We were pretty far away, and the convention got shut down, so the buses were almost all full.”

“It’s okay. As long as you’re safe,” she said, beckoning them into the hall. “You two are soaked, though - you really should go have a hot bath and change your clothes. Naofumi, do you have anything small enough to fit - I’m sorry, I didn’t ask your name.” She spoke to Raphtalia this time. “Forgive me, I’ve been worried about Naofumi.”

“I understand completely,” Raphtalia replied, with a kind smile. “My name is Raphtalia. It’s nice to meet you.”

Jun almost choked on his own spit, and Naofumi had a feeling he knew why.

“Just Raphtalia?” Naofumi’s father cut in.

“Ah - yes. This isn’t my home country,” she explained. Before his father could ask where she was from that didn’t use last names (though Melromarc did use last names, it was customary to refer to people by their first name and trade), Naofumi interrupted them.

“Raphtalia-chan, weren’t you sick just last week? It might be best if you warm up as soon as possible.”

“Raphtalia-chan?” she repeated, baffled, but before anyone could ask any more questions, he fixed her with a look that very clearly said don’t ask questions , and she nodded, directing another bow at his parents. “I’m sorry. Naofumi-sama is correct, I was sick recently. Would you mind if I were to bathe first?”

Upon hearing the honorific, Naofumi cringed, and from the hallway, Jun snorted.

“Ah...sure,” his mother said, expression shifting into one that Naofumi absolutely could not interpret. To his relief, they asked no further questions, and after the customary “thank you for taking care of our son”, his parents let them head upstairs, Jun slipping away after them.

“Naofumi-sama?” Iwatani Katai repeated, looking as if he’d just taken a large bite of a very sour lemon.

“I don’t want to know,” his wife sighed.


 

“So, let me get this straight,” Jun stated, gaze shifting back and forth between the two of them. “Your partner from this other world...came through the wave?”

“It’s...a little hard to explain,” Naofumi said. “It’d be nice if that rock of yours worked both ways,” he added, to Raphtalia.

They were in Naofumi’s room; Jun, dry, had taken a seat on the bed, while Raphtalia and Naofumi, still dripping, stood by the door. Raphtalia had removed her thigh-length boots, which were completely soaked through, and allowed Naofumi to hang them on the coat hook by their laces. (Naofumi had taken his shoes off at the door, out of habit.)

“It’s not my fault I can’t contact them,” she pouted. “Maybe next wave.”

“Speaking of the waves,” Jun said, and his expression turned grave, “you uh, you guys might want to see this.”

He stood up, crossing to Naofumi’s desktop, and switched on the computer monitor; Naofumi supposed he’d left it signed in before he went out earlier. Opening the browser, Jun typed in a URL, and right there at the top of the page were a whole host of videos with horribly familiar thumbnails…

“Shit,” Naofumi murmured. “There’s not gonna be covering any of this up, huh?”

“Nope. They’re still tallying casualties, but there are at least fifteen dead. Nobody attacked survived.”

None of them spoke for a moment. On the inside, however, Naofumi felt like screaming.

I failed.

“Naofumi-sama,” Raphtalia began, but he shook his head, waving her away. “Naofumi-sama.”

Jun, concerned, crossed the room, reaching out to place a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Nii-san.”

At the insistence of the two people closest to him in this world, he relented.

“I couldn’t keep everyone safe,” he breathed. “I...people are dead because I didn’t do my job properly. I just ran off after the dragon died…”

“The wave closed then, too,” Raphtalia reminded him, taking him by the other shoulder. “Everything went back to level one. You did what you could, Naofumi-sama. There were casualties back home, too.”

He clenched his jaw and didn’t respond.

“It’s like what you told me when we first met,” she went on, insistent now. “I might not have been able to save my parents, but I could do my best to make sure nobody else lost their families. Maybe you didn’t save everyone, but if you hadn’t been there, a lot more people would have died.”

Jun, craning his neck to see the news article he’d left open, put in: “The attack was over a pretty large area. I’m honestly surprised there were that few casualties. They’re saying it was some kind of biohazard, and the military was able to successfully contain it, but all the videos on niconico right now say otherwise.” His brother rolled his eyes in a manner that reminded Raphtalia very much of Naofumi himself. “Honestly, as far as I can tell, this won’t end well for the government, but at least you were able to save most of the people there. This isn’t a small city, nii-san.”

He understood that it was supposed to make him feel better, but if he was honest, it wasn’t helping much. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “I just...need a little time. Maybe taking that bath will help.”

“Oh, right.” Jun withdrew his hand from Naofumi’s drenched shoulder, wiping the water off on his jeans. “I’ll leave you two to it. Dinner will probably be ready soon, anyway. You should hurry up.”

And with that, he stepped out, leaving Naofumi and Raphtalia alone.

Chapter Text

 

"How many are there now?"

"Three. One of them showed up in eastern China two days ago, but good luck trying to get information about an Omega-Sigma Paradigm Realignment Event out of the Chinese government."

"Any information on the new one?"

"Nothing. is still working on the tech that'll let us track them down. That overgrown lizard gave us a good baseline signature to work with, though."

"What's its shift?"

"Forty-four beta. Same as Iwatani-san."

The man with the clipboard sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "There's no covering this one up, you know."

His colleague shook her head, tight bun remaining firmly in place at the back of her head. "I'm aware."

"I was talking to Minaduki-san about it. He's apparently submitted a suggestion for it to be passed off as genetic engineering. It's still going to bring public attention, but at least people aren't going to freak out to the degree that they would if they learned we were undergoing an 'Omega-Sigma Paradigm Realignment Event' in the modern era."

For a few minutes, they walked in silence, their steps echoing off the tile floors and metal walls of the empty hallway.

"Iwatani-san's testimony is all we have on this other world, correct?" the woman asked.

"Yeah."

She chewed her lip, evidently thinking hard about something. At length, she managed to give voice to those thoughts, studying the soulless glare of each fluorescent light they passed as she spoke.

"I'm concerned about what would happen if the 'systems' he described were to transfer to our own. Growing powerful by killing...our world wasn't built around that sort of thing. People might start to see it as a game."

"Everyone went into this knowing the potential repercussions, you and I included," the man reminded her. "If anything, what you just said makes our job easier."

Uncomfortable, she glanced away. "Still. What about the good ones who get caught up in this?"

"Collateral damage," the other shrugged. "Sometimes you have to make sacrifices."

"That doesn't mean I have to like it," she protested, but the man shook his head, grimacing.

"Keep talking like that and someone higher up might see fit to remove you from the project," he warned. "I get where you're coming from, I do, but I also feel this world's too far gone."

Before she could formulate a response, they reached a bend in the hall, and the man excused himself to step into his office, leaving the woman alone with her thoughts in the flickering halflight of a broken fluorescent bulb.


Naofumi took in a deep breath, letting the steam that rose from the bath ease a little of the tension he'd been feeling ever since that morning.

"Alright, it's ready," he called, and Raphtalia, clad in just a towel, stepped delicately into the bathroom.

This was very, very different from the last time he could remember them bathing - well, not together, but nearby. Back then, Naofumi hadn't been able to feel much of anything, and he'd spent most of the time trying to get Filo to please stop trying to peek at the other bathers. Now she was far too close, far too real, far too exposed; he'd had to remove her clothes before, to treat injuries, but between the Wrath Shield's curse and the fact that it was always a medical situation, he'd never paid much heed to it…

Calm down, you're not bathing together. You're both just gonna take a quick bath on your own.

"Um...is there anything I should know?" Raphtalia asked him. Naofumi blinked, staring blankly at her.

"Huh?"

"This bath doesn't really look much like the ones back home...it reminds me a little of Faubrey, I guess, but it's a lot shinier. And it's got all these little knobs on it…"

Before he could stop her, she'd leaned down to pull on the diverter, and the last of the cold water still lingering in the shower pipes sprayed out of the shower head, splashing her in the side of the face. With a yelp, she leapt sideways into Naofumi, who'd completely expected this chain of events and who caught her without budging an inch.

"Raphtalia, please don't go poking at things you know nothing about," he sighed.

"Right...I'm sorry."

Feeling vaguely uncomfortable, Naofumi proceeded to explain a watered-down version of the Japanese bath; it was very different from Melromarc's baths, which - from what he'd read - were very similar to the way baths were used in Western countries: a single washtub where the objective was to wash oneself and get out. The hot springs had been closer to the baths he was familiar with, and thankfully, Raphtalia picked up on the similarities in no time.

"These bottles are shaped very strangely," she observed, studying the shampoo; giving it a squeeze, she added: "How do you get your glass to be soft like this?"

"It's plastic, not glass," he corrected her.

"Plas...tic?" she repeated, tasting the foreign word. "What is it, exactly?"

"You'd never believe me if I told you."

"After everything I saw on the way here?" she countered, ears twitching. "It's like Faubrey all over again."

"I'll try you, then," Naofumi snorted, unable to keep the corners of his lips from turning up. "Do you remember the Tyrant Dragon Rex?"

"How could I forget?" she sighed, moving the stool to sit next to the washtub and reaching up to untie her towel -

"Raphtalia!?" he spluttered, immediately turning to face the wall. "I should probably leave. I'll explain the rest later."

"I mean...it's okay if Naofumi-sama sees, right?" he heard her say, voice weaker than it had been a moment before. "Besides, I might need help with something…"

"Like what?" he shot back, still nervous. "Are you going to mistake the shampoo for honey because it's the same shade of gold?"

"Naofumi-sama, I'm not Filo."

He couldn't argue with that.

Defeated, he let out a long-suffering sigh, ignoring the flush creeping its way up his cheeks as he grabbed the other stool and positioned it a safe distance from the now-rinsing Raphtalia (who, to his relief, had her back to him).

If they hadn't been apart for so long, if he hadn't spent the past four months in a funk, he might have found it a little more comfortable to share this kind of intimacy. He might have even been able to engage in the kind of reunion he knew she'd been hoping for, but as it stood, he couldn't bring himself to give in and simply enjoy the feelings he knew they shared for one another. He'd sometimes dreamed of bringing her back to his own world and showing her everything he loved, yes - but they'd always been just that, dreams. There had never been a foreseeable situation in which he'd share his own bathroom with Raphtalia.

Plus, there was no telling how long they had together. For all we know, the next wave could just take her back...I don't want to go getting either of our hopes up.

"So, the Tyrant Dragon?" she prodded, moving the rinsing bowl to her thighs. Naofumi turned to face the wall.

"Ah, right. Well, millions of years back, the world was really different. Pretty much every animal was something like the Tyrant Dragon," Naofumi explained, trying to keep it short and simple. "At some point, they all died out and ended up buried deep underground, where...uh, they turned into a lot of black stuff?"

"What does this have to do with plastic?"

"It's pretty much made of dead Tyrant Dragons."

Raphtalia recoiled, ears flattening as she glared at the shampoo bottle. "And you just let it stay in your house!?"

"It's not like it's going to rear up and attack us!" Naofumi cried, squeezing his eyes shut as he leaned into the wall.

"I was more concerned about the fact that you live with all this decaying material around you!" she retorted, swinging her head from side to side in search of more plastic. "It's unhealthy, Naofumi-sama!"

"It's not decaying, either," he groaned. "Actually, that shampoo bottle - or whatever's left of it - will still be around by the time we're dead. It's still pretty unhealthy, though - think of it like when Ren killed that dragon and left its remains to rot on the mountaintop. This stuff's poisonous to the environment."

"Does everyone have things like this?" she asked.

"Yeah. Plastic is everywhere."

Raphtalia didn't respond immediately, and the silence that fell was uncomfortable, punctuated only by the splashing of water on the bathroom floor as she washed.

"I'm not so sure I like your world very much," she said, after a few minutes. Naofumi, who'd just gotten up to leave, dared to glance at her over his shoulder; she was looking back at him over her own, expression somewhere between frustrated, concerned and simply sad. "Even in the time I've been here, it's been like some sort of fever dream. Everything feels very...artificial. It's too disconnected," she elaborated, biting her lip. "I'm sorry…"

"Don't be sorry." Naofumi shook his head. "To be honest, by the time I got back here, I'd forgotten why I ever wanted to come back in the first place. It'd be better if I could just take the few people I care about back to Melromarc." He couldn't quite put a finger on what it was, but the word disconnected captured his own world very well, and not in the sense of "disconnected from nature". It was more like being disconnected from life itself, and he briefly wondered if that had something to do with his world's detachment from whatever magic powered Raphtalia's.

"I'm too used to home, so I can't really say," Raphtalia admitted. "But if even Naofumi-sama wanted to stay…"

Naofumi's phone buzzed, and he pulled it from his pocket to see a message from Jun.

you've got about 15 minutes before they get suspicious, it read.

Suspicious of what!? he wanted to yell. What do they think we're doing up here!?

He could probably answer that, but the thought of it alone was enough to make his hands shake. With the time limit, he decided it was most likely best if they skipped the soaking, so within ten minutes they'd both bathed and toweled off; Raphtalia had a difficult time managing the round hairbrush, and he had to undo the knots in her hair for her, but within Jun's time limit they'd both managed to change into something dry. Raphtalia wore one of his old t-shirts and a pair of cloth shorts, both clean and much too large for her slender frame; Naofumi himself wore a similar shirt but had traded the shorts for jeans.

"Raphtalia, before we go downstairs, there's something I have to tell you," he declared, looking her straight in the face.

"N-Naofumi-sama…?"

For whatever reason, her face had turned a spectacular shade of red that would put a strawberry to shame.

"When we're around my family...please do not call me Naofumi-sama."

Raphtalia deflated, her ears drooping. "Oh...I...um, why?"

"Well, people don't routinely call each other that around here," he pointed out, deciding to ignore her blushing fit. "It's mostly reserved for highly-respected individuals."

"But you are a highly-respected individual," Raphtalia responded, tilting her head. "I respect you. Everyone in Melromarc respects you. It's even in your formal title...tate no yuusha-sama."

It was, he noted, very strange to hear Raphtalia of all people call him that. "Just call me Naofumi-kun, alright?"

"Kun?" she echoed, scrunching up her nose. "What…?"

Belatedly, he realized that a number of honorifics really didn't have easily-translated equivalents in Melromarc's language, not to mention being appended to the end of words rather than the beginning. Sama could be equated to Melromarc's lordshounen or shoujo could be matched with young (though, unlike in Japanese, the appellative was gender-neutral), and obviously san was the Japanese form of Melromarc's mister or miss (and here the inverse was true, with Japanese bearing the gender-neutral suffix) - but how did things like kun and senpai come across? Did the weapon simply translate them as-is, or did it find the closest literal meaning?

He tried sounding it out in Raphtalia's language.

"Hello, Shigaraki-male-equal. Hello, Himawari-senior-classmate-in-a-position-of-authority-over-me." Yeah, no, that sounds stupid. Not that there was an easy way to tell, if the weapons kept translating back and forth, but he could imagine it being a pain to keep saying those lengthy, awkward phrases in Melromarc's language (what was it even called? he'd never bothered to find out) every time she referred to someone by anything other than mister or missus.

"Well, alright...Naofumi-s - kun," she hastily corrected herself. "It's very strange speaking as if we're equals…"

"We are, though," he pointed out mildly. "It's not as if I've ascended to godhood or something. Legendary weapons are extremely powerful, but we're both heroes, and in terms of combat ability, I'm sure you could stand up to Ren even with that sword of his."

"I'm still your subordinate, though...weren't the vassal weapons created to assist the legendary weapon bearers?"

He couldn't argue with that, so he changed tack.

"Alright," Naofumi conceded. "You're right. How's this, then - we're equals in this world."

"That doesn't change our relationship, though," Raphtalia retorted. "We still have our weapons…"

"Do I have to say it?" he groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose, and Raphtalia frowned, peering closely at him.

"Say what, Naofumi-sama?" his partner prodded, ears perked and tail wagging. Feeling his face grow hot, Naofumi explained in as vague of terms as he could manage what kind of relationship people would think they were in if she continued to refer to him as -sama. If he hadn't been so embarrassed himself, he would have found it endearing how Raphtalia's ears stood as tall as they could and her tail lashed, even as she blushed furiously and buried her face in her hands. When he'd finished, she slowly withdrew, looking as though she'd caught a nasty cold. "I...I'll call you...Naofumi-kun from now on," she agreed, then blanched, horrified. "I called you Naofumi-sama in front of your parents, didn't I…?"

"...Yeah," he said, deciding to be honest with her. "You did, although even if they noticed, I doubt they'd say anything about it. Jun might tease us about it later, though."

"About your brother…" she murmured. "You told him everything?"

"Well, I tried to tell everyone that I'd been transported to another world." Opening his bedroom door, Naofumi led the way down the hall as slowly as he could, still talking as Raphtalia matched his pace a step behind. "Naturally, nobody believed me, and I spent three months in a mental hospital."

"A mental hospital?" Raphtalia echoed, padding after him. "What's that like?"

"Shit," he replied, bluntly. "They kept me in an empty room, made me take pills that didn't do anything except give me headaches, and spent the whole time trying to convince me that the last two and a half years had just been some kind of - I dunno, acid trip." They paused at the top of the stairs, and Naofumi lowered his voice. "Also, if anyone asks about the ears and tail, tell them it's a costume."

"Costume. Right." With great effort, Raphtalia stilled her tail and let her ears relax on top of her head. "That sounds awful, Naofumi-sama…"

"Raphtalia."

"Naofumi-kun!" she yelped, then clapped a hand to her mouth. "Oops…"

Shaking his head, he made sure to switch his shield to the Book Shield (which, thankfully, had no level requirement) and descended the staircase, Raphtalia in tow. The delicious smell of some meat or other wafted up to meet him; at his back, he heard Raphtalia sniff hopefully and had to suppress a laugh.

Dinner was at first uneventful; his parents made small talk with Raphtalia, and she kept a prim-and-proper smile at all times, her table manners flawless, her Japanese impeccable. Knowing his parents as well as he did, Naofumi could tell they approved, ears and tail notwithstanding. At one point, Jun winked at him, but before Naofumi could respond, there was a knock at the door, and as his seat was closest to the entry hall, he got up to answer it.

Standing before him were two men dressed identically to the one who'd been watching him on the bus just a few days prior.

Who the hell…? This is like something straight out of a sci-fi movie. Don't tell me they're going to wipe my memory or something.

"Iwatani Naofumi-san?" the one on the left asked, and Naofumi raised one eyebrow, the other descending in its signature glare.

"What?" he barked, though he had the distinct impression he wouldn't be so brash if he hadn't combed over his status window in the bath and found his defense rating to be hundreds of times higher than it should have been at level one. Having a high enough defense rating, he found, would render him completely immune to weak attacks - weapons would simply break on his skin.

A little taken aback by his brusqueness, the men took a moment to regain their composure, then continued as if he'd responded normally, both of them bowing deeply. The other man, the one on the right, clasped his hands together, holding Naofumi's gaze as he spoke; Naofumi noted the mole by his ear and immediately knew how to refer to him. "There isn't much time, so I'll be up front. We require some information from you regarding your...experiences."

Naofumi blinked. "What?" he repeated. "My experiences?"

"You went missing approximately seventeen months ago, correct?"

Counting the four months he'd been back in Japan, he had. "What about it?" he growled. "If this is about some psychiatric bullshit, you can piss right the hell off back to wherever you came from."

By the way their only response was a slight shift of the face (Naofumi couldn't see through their sunglasses, but he had a feeling they'd exchanged sidelong glances), he had a feeling that they must have really required his cooperation.

"I assure you, it's nothing to do with psychiatric evaluations or anything of the sort." Mole attempted to placate him, but if this was going where Naofumi thought it was… "We want you to elaborate on this 'other world' you described when you first turned up four months ago. There is no point in pretending that the catastrophe today was not connected to your experiences, and there is no point in acting as if you were not at the scene, so let us be honest with one another." He didn't display any overt hostility, but his words carried an unspoken threat: we know everything, you must comply.

Yeah, that went exactly where I thought. "Lemme guess," Naofumi spat, voice deadly quiet. "You fuckers didn't believe a word I said until it came back to bite you in the ass...or" - and here his voice rose - "you had a feeling something was up from the start, but you still tried to keep me quiet and make everyone think I was a fuckin' schizo maniac!?" He knew he sounded paranoid, but god damn, after what I was put through?

"Iwatani-san - "

"No!" he snarled, glare now in full force, and the gem on the book's cover began to glow, illuminating his left forearm. "What the hell makes you think I'd cooperate with you after all that? Even the footage of me disappearing - what did you do to cover that one up? That was a cold case if I've ever seen one, and yet nobody's asking questions."

"Naofumi-kun?"

Oh, no.

Raphtalia had gotten up to see what the commotion was about; glancing over his shoulder, he could see her studying the two men, and her tail started to move -

Fuck.

Stepping forward, he hastily closed the door behind him to block her from their view, staring the men - the agents? - down, and he had to give them some credit for keeping their cool. "Give me one solid reason to work together with you," he hissed, and in the late evening silence, in the wake of a catastrophe that had the entire country hiding indoors, every word came out crystal-clear.

"The destruction of this entire world and all that you hold dear," the one on the left, the one who'd spoken first, tried, but Naofumi wasn't having any of it. Anger he hadn't even known he'd been carrying welled up in his chest, and although he didn't notice, the light on the book at his waist had turned an eerie red.

"You really think I care about this world?" he mocked. "This trash heap of a planet? If you assholes really believe me that I'd spent all that time in another world, then you should know that I can bring the few people I care about back to that world through these waves - and don't tell me you haven't already rounded up everything that dropped out of this one and covered up what really happened."

Part of this was a bluff. He actually had no clue if he could return back to Melromarc through the waves, but he knew Raphtalia's katana, as a vassal weapon, could at least save his family if she were to take them back with her.

For a few long seconds, Naofumi stood there, breathing hard; the shield had become strangely hot beneath his elbow, and when he glanced down at it, a pang of fear and confusion struck him.

No way. The Shield of Compassion replaced it. There's no way it can still be lurking in there somewhere. There's no fucking way.

"Are we to take this to mean that you won't comply?" Mole asked.

"Take it however you want. I'm going to go finish my dinner," he snapped. "Piss off."

As he turned back to his house, however, he realized that his open defiance wouldn't just put him in danger. On impulse, he grabbed the shield, slinging it onto his arm and shifting it into its original Small Shield form, then held up that arm so that the glaring gemstone cast its hateful glow into their faces.

"Oh, and don't even think about getting anywhere near my family."

He slammed the door shut.

On the other side, he came face-to-face with Raphtalia, her expression concerned, and the red light from his shield shifted into a warm white as the rage ebbed.

"Naofumi-sama?" she murmured, low enough so that only he could hear. "What was that?"

"Don't worry about it," he sighed, reaching up to pat her on the head. "I'm sorry for interrupting dinner like that."

"Tell your family that, not me!" Raphtalia pouted, accepting the pat anyway. "You only yell when something's wrong. Don't tell me not to worry!"

Naofumi sighed, knowing he'd have to tell her sooner or later - it wasn't as if whoever had sent those men would simply give up. "We'll talk about it later," he conceded under his breath. "Let's just pretend it was a door-to-door salesman."

"A what?"

"What kind of door-to-door salesman are you yelling so loudly at?" came a third voice from ahead. Naofumi glanced up to see Jun leaning against the doorframe, eyebrow raised. "Also, Raphtalia-san, it's bad manners to get up without excusing yourself."

"Ah...I'm sorry." She bowed.

"Don't worry about it," Jun yawned, mirroring his brother's words. "All anyone's gonna remember about tonight's dinner is Naofumi's screaming, anyway."

Naofumi scowled.

The rest of dinner was a solemn affair. He couldn't get the visit out of his head, and over and over again, he heard their words.

The destruction of this entire world and all that you hold dear…

His rage had been on-the-spot, a reactive lashing-out directed at those who'd made him suffer for circumstances beyond his control. They'd no doubt return, either to attempt to subdue him or to request his cooperation again, but that bothered him less than the belated realization that, as the Shield Hero, he'd just declined to do something that might help him protect everyone from the waves…

Raphtalia's sudden rise from her chair startled him back into the present.

"I'll wash the dishes," she offered. "It's the least I can do to repay you for your hospitality."

"No, no, it's okay." Iwatani Kokita waved her off good-naturedly, devoted to her housekeeping, but Naofumi interjected.

"Raphtalia-chan and I can wash them together," he said. "I owe you as well for allowing her to stay here."

"Is this some sort of favour bartering?" his father joked, raising an eyebrow, and for a moment, the atmosphere was lighter than Naofumi could remember it being in quite some time.

"Ka-san, to-san, you two should come see the news," Jun cut in, expression unusually serious. "I was reading a bit online earlier and it's something you two might want to see."

"Naofumi, Raphtalia-san, if you want to hear, you can do the dishes later," his mother proposed, but Naofumi shook his head.

"We saw some of it earlier," he admitted, which was only half a lie; they'd been a large part of the event itself, which meant that his statement was technically correct despite the significant omission. "We can catch up online later - if you don't mind," he added, to Raphtalia.

"Oh - um, I'll just handle the dishes now. Naofumi-sa - kun?"

Jun flashed Naofumi another mischievous grin, then slipped into the family room.

Rolling his eyes, Naofumi set about setting up the dish rack and grabbed the bottle of detergent, handing Raphtalia a towel. Unbidden, a most terrible joke came to mind, and he blurted it out without thinking.

"Here you are, Raph-towel-ia."

"You should be imprisoned for that." - but she smiled anyway, and he felt his heart warm.

Washing dishes was a skill that transferred easily to the modern world considering that it hadn't particularly changed much over the years, dishwashers notwithstanding. As he scrubbed and Raphtalia dried, she asked him what exactly had transpired at the front door, and as he explained, her expression hardened. By the time he finished, her smile had shifted into a full scowl, and she finished drying a plate with a vicious flourish of the dish towel.

"So they want your help after everything they did to you?" she hissed, tail lashing furiously. In the background, he could hear the opening notes of the nightly news.

"All they asked for was for me to talk about what happened to me," Naofumi shrugged, handing over a freshly washed cup. "Though, considering I'd already done that and been thrown into an asylum for it, I was pretty pissed."

"The nerve!" Raphtalia fumed, furiously rubbing the towel over the outside of the cup. "I did just remember something, though…do you remember what that mage told us through the Leystone?"

"The what?"

She tapped the gold chain at her neck, and Naofumi remembered the unusual pendant that had projected video from Melromarc into the air. Can I even call it video? he mused. It was definitely a live feed, but it was through magic…

"She said the source of whatever is pulling our worlds together is here, in your world," Raphtalia reminded him. "What would they stand to gain by doing that if everything they know is destroyed…?"

Her words echoed those he'd been thinking on not fifteen minutes prior, and he shook his head.

"It's not like my testimony isn't public knowledge by now," Naofumi grumbled. "I explained a few things about Melromarc, and to be frank, I think most people would simply see everything as a game if they were suddenly able to gain experience and level up. The strongest would amass power and rule the weak. Society as we - well, my family and I - know it would collapse."

"Maybe that's their goal, then," she murmured, carefully running the towel along the inner rim of a saucer. "It's not as if people seeking wanton destruction for the sake of whatever gain they can manage is a foreign concept."

"Have you been taking language classes?" Naofumi teased. "That was pretty well-spoken."

"Now you're just messing with me," Raphtalia countered, pouting. "I'm serious, Naofumi-kun. Look, I even remembered to say your name the right way!"

"Bravo," he acknowledged dryly, pretending to clap his hands and splashing soapy water everywhere. "Ah, shit. But," he added as her cheeks puffed out with indignation, "you're right. So who in this world would have the ability to pull it towards Melromarc?"

"You would know that better than me," Raphtalia sighed.

Naofumi watched her dry the utensils for a moment. "Do you think it's unreasonable that some other world would have discovered magic that does the opposite of the summoning ritual?"

"Huh?"

"Like - if the summoning ritual is able to pull humans into worlds that aren't connected to - whatever it is."

"Naofumi-kun, were you even listening when Rino explained this?"

"Hey, I had other things to think about, too," came the weak retort. Raphtalia snorted.

"They're called ley lines."

"Yeah, those. If the summoning ritual can use even dead ley lines like Earth's to pull people into other worlds, who's to say some other world hasn't discovered the opposite? Maybe they're able to send people into other worlds. Maybe they're like those assholes who destroyed S'yne's."

"That can't be good," Raphtalia said, biting her lip. "If that's true...what exactly are we up against?"

"It's more worrying that we're essentially powerless with no way to level up again except during waves, and those aren't exactly within our control."

"That's also true. But if we can't level up...how did that monster get to level two?"

"What monster?" Naofumi was genuinely confused for a moment until he remembered the wasp from the shrine. "Oh - the wasp? Yeah, you're right. It was. How the hell…?"

Think, Naofumi. How do you level up? By killing things and taking their life force as experience. That is the only way that wasp could have leveled up, and wasps are predators, so it's not a stretch to imagine that it killed another insect.

"Raphtalia."

"Naofumi-kun?"

"If the status magic from Melromarc is now fully accessible here, do you think that maybe Earth's ley line is able to tap into Melromarc's?"

"That's the only explanation I can think of," she reasoned. "Are you suggesting something?"

"I am. But I don't know how to test it."

Just then, Naofumi noticed it: a gnat, hovering in the air above the fruit bowl. Frowning, he leaned forward to inspect it, and sure enough - Lv1 was displayed next to the bug. Reaching up, he squashed it between his thumb and forefinger, and there in the bottom-left corner of his vision, text appeared.

"Gnat: 0.01xp"

"Raphtalia."

"You too?" she asked, and neither of them needed to elaborate.

This is bad.

When they'd finished the dishes, the two of them moved into the family room, where Jun had taken up the entirety of an armchair and his parents one end of the sofa. Not quite sure where to sit, Naofumi stood in the doorway for a moment until Raphtalia took his hand and pulled him over to squeeze onto the other end of the couch, with Raphtalia sitting closest to the armrest. "Is this like the screens in Faubrey?" she whispered, staring at the television.

"More or less," he said, very glad that he hadn't had to explain every single amenity of modern life. Faubrey hadn't been a fantastic place, but there were many magic-driven parallels to the technology he was familiar with, so Raphtalia hadn't come to Japan completely unprepared.

"And when we return, correspondent Yakuinuso Hakuchi will deliver his special report on the catastrophe in…"

"They're only just now getting to it?" Naofumi blurted out, interrupting the newscaster.

"Well, they've been talking about the new curfew for the past ten minutes," his father said. "Had some official on there explaining how it would affect the city's operation."

"What's the curfew now, then?"

"They'll be checking anyone who attempts to enter or leave the district, and all non-military personnel must be indoors by ten," Jun recited, reading off his phone screen.

What the hell is that going to solve? Naofumi thought. How is that going to help do anything about the waves? If sending those agents after me has anything to do with the attack earlier, then the government obviously knows there's a correlation between the waves and Melromarc, or at least other worlds. The question is...how do they know?

He glanced sidelong at Raphtalia and found her watching him, expression solemn. Perhaps she could see the worry in his face, for she discreetly moved her hand across her leg to cover his clenched fist; her palm was warm, and he relaxed a little at her touch.

"Thanks," he murmured, low enough so that only her sensitive hearing could pick up on it. She brushed her thumb over the back of his hand.

"At least they're doing something to try and keep people safe," his mother sighed. The sentiment set off an alarm bell in Naofumi's head, but he wasn't sure what exactly bothered him about it.

A few commercials later (Naofumi watched Raphtalia's face shift through several degrees of terror and confusion - he'd heard that Japanese commercials were considered bizarre by the Western world, but poor Raphtalia hadn't even been exposed to "normal" commercials before), the news returned, and the report wasn't quite what Naofumi had been expecting. He'd figured that the wave would be passed off as a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, but what the anchor was saying now…

"The Ministry of Science has announced that the attack in central - "

Jun sneezed.

- was due to an accident in its regional facility, where a containment breach led to top-secret biological research making its way to the surface. All specimens were eliminated within the hour by police and military personnel, but not after they engaged in a localized rampage that led to thirty-eight fatalities. In light of the highly public nature of this catastrophic event, the Ministry has declared that it will not attempt a cover-up, and that it is actively seeking to compensate the victims' families."

"Thirty-eight," Naofumi murmured, staring down at his hands, at the book fixed at his waist. "In a city this size, that's not a threat to the population, but those people…"

Raphtalia squeezed his hand, and his own words rang in his head.

"You really think I care about this world? This trash heap of a planet?"

He did. He did care, and he knew it, and it hurt. He'd failed those thirty-eight people, and there was no going back.

"The Ministry of Health is currently engaged in a citywide cleanup and sterilization operation. In a statement provided to JNN, a representative from the Ministry estimated that the cleanup and associated district curfew could take up to one week."

"Well, that's a relief," Iwatani Kokita sighed. "They've got it under control. I'm glad nobody else was hurt."

Naofumi's unease of a few minutes prior returned, only this time he knew exactly what it was. Of course the curfew wouldn't protect anyone - that went without saying. If the waves struck again, no curfew would be able to stop them. What they did do was serve to calm the public, to give the impression that the government had everything under control, that this was all a matter of procedure. They'd even gone so far as to blame themselves for the monster attacks under the guise of top-secret research, eliminating suspicion of a cover-up...and from the way Mole and his friend were talking, they know it wasn't anything like that.

After the news ended, Iwatani Katai made for his study to handle some last-minute paperwork, while his wife bid Jun, Naofumi and Raphtalia goodnight and headed to bed. With an exaggerated yawn, Jun also decided he'd turn in early, claiming that all his worrying about Naofumi earlier had worn him out.

Naofumi appreciated the concern, but he knew his brother better than this - it was more than likely that Jun would lock himself in his room to play a dating sim uninterrupted. Rolling his eyes, Naofumi turned to Raphtalia. "Are you tired?" he asked.

"Mhm." She nodded at him, eyelids heavy.

"Alright. Let me take you to the guest room." He turned to lead her down the hall, but was stopped by a tug at his sleeve. Glancing over his shoulder, Naofumi saw Raphtalia standing where he'd left her, feet planted firmly on the rug, arm outstretched to grasp his shirt and a pout on her face. "Raphtalia…?"

"I haven't gotten a lot of sleep since you left," she said, and from her body language, he could tell there was more to what she'd said than just her words, so he waited for her to continue; a few seconds of silence later, color rose to her cheeks, and she looked away. "Naofumi-sama…"

Then it clicked. They'd always shared a room back in Melromarc due to Raphtalia's nightmares, and since he'd been gone, she'd had to suffer them all by her lonesome…

"You...there's only one bed, Raphtalia," he warned, and his voice was absolutely not an octave higher, no sir.

"I can take the floor."

"No, it's okay. I'll do it. You can have the bed," he said, holding up his hands in a gesture of surrender. For a moment, the two of them stood there, facing one another in the dimly lit living room, then, without a word, Naofumi nodded, swallowing thickly as he led the way upstairs.

When Raphtalia was safely inside, he closed the door to his room, turning the lock as he always did. His heart pounded, his head spun, his mouth was dry - but there's no reason for me to feel this way, it's just Raphtalia, you've always slept in one room like this...so why are you so nervous?

Behind him, he heard clothes rustle, and without thinking, he turned around in time to see her unwrapping the binding she wore around her chest during the day. When she noticed him looking, the dusting of color on her otherwise pale cheeks grew darker, but she didn't say anything, instead glancing back at the bed. "Naofumi-sama...what are these?"

"Hm?" He surveyed his own bed, but the only things he could see were the two plush toys -

Another (cute, he thought, and scolded himself) pout made its way onto her face, and she moved them aside a little too roughly before slipping under the comforter and turning onto her right side, facing away from him.

With a sigh - he had a feeling she'd seen the raccoon plush as Raph-chan and not herself - Naofumi leaned down and pulled the spare bedroll out from under his mattress. It hadn't seen much use since middle school, which was the last time he could remember having friends stay over, and even if it was a little dusty, it was still in good shape. Unrolling it, Naofumi reached over to turn the lamp off before laying down; it wasn't particularly soft or comfortable, and he felt a heavily belated spike of guilt for subjecting his middle-school friends to this torment.

Fifteen minutes of tossing and turning later, he found himself weighing the merits of slipping into his own feathery-soft bed alongside Raphtalia. He could hear her now, making small squeaks in her sleep, and he snorted, wishing he could sleep that -

She screamed.

"Raphtalia!?" he yelped, scrambling to his feet, and she was thrashing, flailing, eyes wide and blind in her sleep, tail lashing wildly - he lunged for her wrists, pinning them to the bed, then slid his hands together so that he could use just one to hold both of hers while he used the other hand to shake her awake. "Raphtalia!" he called again, trying to rouse her, to free her from whatever tortured her mind - but something was wrong, something was terribly wrong; her eyes weren't that shade of red, her skin wasn't streaked with dark lines, her expression had never been that hateful, so why were they - ?

There was a knock at the door, and Jun's voice came through from the other side. "Naofumi? Raphtalia-san?" he called, and Naofumi let her go, dashing back to the door to open it for his brother and turn on the overhead light.

"Good timing - try to hold her still," he ordered, closing the door again. He didn't want his parents to see what was about to happen if they decided to come running.

If this doesn't work, I don't know what will…

"What? How!? What the hell's going on?" Jun shouted, eyes shooting open at the sight of Raphtalia -

"Just - here, hold her where I say." Gritting his teeth, he managed to pin her wrists again, then moved to let his confused, frightened brother take over as Naofumi barked another command, this time to the book now attached to his arm. "Change Shield!"

As far as Naofumi was aware, each Curse Series and its corresponding Blessed Shield were level-independent, which should mean…

Yes!

Jun, stunned, watched as the shield radiated white light, too bright to look at. A moment later, the Shield of Compassion clung firmly to his arm, and Naofumi staggered with the weight of it; evidently, being able to equip it didn't mean he could actually use it properly. Still, its Blessing ability was all he really needed, and the harsh glow dimmed, focusing inside of the blue gem on the shield's front. Stepping forward, Naofumi pressed two fingers to the gem, then leaned in, touching them to Raphtalia's forehead; his fingertips glowed in tandem with the shield, and Raphtalia stilled instantly, jolting awake with a sudden, sharp breath. "Naofumi-sama?" she murmured, her voice weak, and Naofumi let out a long sigh of relief.

"Nii-san…"

Jun stared at the shield on his arm, breathing hard.

"Hm?"

"What the hell was that?"

"I'll...it's a lot to explain right now," Naofumi grimaced, shaking his head. I definitely don't have time to explain the curse series to Jun. "But more importantly...I'm glad you're okay, Raphtalia." He took a seat on the edge of his bed, reaching up to brush her hair out of her face, and Jun let out a huff, making for the door.

"Nii-san, we gotta talk later," he said, pausing in the doorway. "I'll let ka-san and to-san know that Raphtalia-san had a nightmare and that everything's alright. But you better tell me what this was about tomorrow, alright?"

"Yeah, yeah." Naofumi waved his brother off, and Jun closed the door behind him. "Raphtalia…"

"Mm?" She'd woken up fully by then, sitting up with her arms around her knees.

"Do you remember what you were dreaming about?"

Raphtalia chewed her lip, ears drooping. "Not exactly," she admitted. "But...I remember that it actually happened, a long time ago. Why?"

For a long moment, Naofumi looked her over: her bed head, the redness on her face, the way her slender hands clutched at the comforter. He couldn't quite bring himself to tell her that the Raphtalia he'd seen just a minute prior had resembled himself under the influence of the Wrath curse, a curse he'd broken over a year and a half ago…

"It's nothing. I was just thinking about something."

Giving her a wan smile, Naofumi crossed the room to turn the light off, but when he returned to the bedroll, Raphtalia stopped him for the second time that night, her hand latching on to his own.

"Naofumi-sama, what if I have another nightmare?" she asked. Considering her past attempts to get his attention or ensure the two of them were alone together, he wouldn't have been surprised if she was simply taking advantage of the situation to pull him into the same bed, but unbidden, a memory from when they'd first met came to mind, of a younger Raphtalia screaming for her parents, of Naofumi himself hugging her, comforting her, reassuring her that it would be fine. There was no way she'd show that kind of raw terror now that she was older, stronger, but he had an idea that she still felt it, and the thought of leaving her to suffer alone hurt his heart in a way he hadn't felt in a long, long time.

Reluctantly, he climbed into his own bed next to her, and before he could even attempt to set any kind of boundary, there she was, pulling herself closer, her breath soft and warm against his neck. Shivering at the contact, he closed his eyes and tried to get to sleep as quickly as he could, but a few seconds later, she spoke.

"What's wrong?"

"...What?" He had to open his eyes; her face was inches away and wearing a frown, though her eyes were soft.

"I never thought I'd see you again, so when you were the first thing I saw after crossing over through the wave, I was...so happy," she murmured, and her gaze was distant, staring through him rather than at him. "I thought you'd be just as happy...but it's like nothing ever happened. It's like you forgot everything we said to one another…"

"I didn't forget," he heard himself say. "I just...I didn't want us to get close like that again."

"Naofumi-sama…" and he could hear the hurt in her voice now, and he knew it was his fault. "Why…?"

"What happens when the waves are over?" he whispered, and before he knew it, all his worries came spilling out - you're just going to leave, it's best to move on, I don't want you hung up on me forever, we should focus on figuring out what's causing the collision first - but as his rambling grew less and less coherent, she reached up and placed one finger to his lips, stemming the flow of words still pouring unfiltered out of his mouth.

"I'm not going anywhere," she murmured, leaving her finger in place. "I'm not bound to any world the way you were by the ritual and the shield. I can stay here if I so choose - and if that's the only way I can stay with Naofumi-sama, then I will gladly sacrifice my power to do so. I'm not leaving you."

His chest was tight, so tight, and he felt something hot in the corners of his eyes. "Raphtalia...what about everything you built back home?"

"What's a shield without a sword?" she countered. "I made you a promise, didn't I? That I'd follow you through fire and brimstone...that, even if everyone else in the world were to turn against you, I'd still stand by you. I don't intend to break that promise."

"Raphtalia…"

"It's okay to...to...you know," Raphtalia whispered, and her face flushed. "To...be together, if you want. You don't have to hold back with me, Naofumi-sama."

The dam broke.

He'd intended to comfort her, to ease her into sleep by his warmth and presence, but now here she was, stroking his head as he sobbed unashamedly into her shoulder, breathing her familiar scent mixed with that of his own laundry detergent with each choking breath. Even after the tears subsided, and he'd calmed down, she didn't let go, and Naofumi found himself drifting ever-so-slowly into sleep.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled, hugging her midriff.

"I'm glad you told me how you were feeling," she responded. "A couple of years ago, you'd have let that kind of emotion tear you apart without a word to anyone else…"

"I still don't handle emotions very well," he sighed. "Even my family...I didn't know what to say to my parents before the wave struck. I keep bottling everything up inside and letting it all out at once." Sleepy, Naofumi found himself being far more candid than his fully-awake self could ever hope to be. "I'm...not letting myself really feel things as they happen."

"Are you afraid of something?" Raphtalia suggested, running her fingers through his hair.

"Like what?"

"You just told me that you were afraid of us being forced apart again. Maybe you're afraid of losing other people, so you don't let yourself get too attached…?"

Naofumi couldn't help a laugh. "When did you become a counselor?"

"Believe it or not, the same thing happened to me after you left," she chuckled, with a rueful smile. "I started really pulling away from everyone...it was Rishia who suggested that to me then. She told me something else, too...that if you were really trying to live as if you could lose someone at any minute, you should make the most of the time you have with them and live with no regrets."

"That's so cliche," he grumbled, letting out a yawn. "It sounds like she pulled that advice straight out of a manga…"

"What's a manga?"

"Uh...it's kind of like a picture book. I'll show you one tomorrow if you remind me."

"You still read picture books, Naofumi-sama? I thought those were for kids…"

"It's not that kind of picture book. You'll understand when you see it."

"If you say so," she teased. Naofumi made a noise somewhere between a groan and a hum, but didn't respond verbally, and Raphtalia waited for him to be silent a few minutes before she shifted her hands down to his shoulders, leaning down to press her lips to the top of his head.

"Goodnight, Naofumi-sama. I'll see you in the morning."

The nightmares didn't come back that night.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Naofumi awoke earlier than usual the next morning, and the reason why became immediately apparent.

"Raphtalia."

Her soft breathing stirred the neckline of his shirt, and when he tried to gently rouse her, she let out a small whimper and clung even harder to his chest. Sighing, Naofumi resigned himself to having a lie-in, shifting his pillow so that he could share it with the sleeping girl before him.

He reached over her to pick up his phone off of his nightstand - 6:02, the screen displayed, and he knew they had a little under an hour before his father would wake up to get ready for work.

Raphtalia took a deep breath through her nose, then let it out slowly, the only sound around for what felt like miles. Even the birds weren't out this morning, and Naofumi had the distinct feeling that the wave had driven them away. It was still storming, but he didn't sense anything beyond electricity in the clouds above; he figured it'd blow over within a few days, washing away the blood that had soaked the city streets and leaving behind the spring scents of soft earth and growing things.

"Nn...Naofumi-sama…?" Raphtalia mumbled, rubbing her cheek against the front of his shirt. "Is it morning already…?"

"Yeah. Six."

Sleepy Raphtalia was, he found, extremely clingy and prone to cuddling whatever part of him she could reach. Whenever he made to move away, she'd move with him, arms around his waist, his shoulders, his neck, his back, his leg, and after a few minutes he gave up entirely, resigning himself to his role as a human body pillow.

Watery grey sunlight filtered into the room, shining through dense cloud cover, and Naofumi stretched, taking care not to jostle Raphtalia. Both her warmth and the rhythmic pitter-patter of raindrops on the windowpane threatened to lull him back to sleep, and within a few minutes, he found his eyelids growing heavy, refusing his will…

Raphtalia's tail draped itself across his waist, and without thinking, he reached back to move it. At his touch, her entire body shuddered, and she drew in a sharp breath, fingers stiffening on his shirt. "Hah...Naofumi-sama…" she breathed, half-lidded eyes trained on his face, and Naofumi swallowed thickly, suddenly wide, wide awake…

"Yeah?" he said, his voice very small.

As a response, Raphtalia shifted to push her hips into the mattress, sliding one bare leg under Naofumi's and covering his other thigh with her own to straddle him. Before he could process just what was happening, she'd pulled herself in close, pausing just before her shorts came into contact with a certain protrusion on the front of Naofumi's that certainly had not been there a few minutes prior - he'd been too fixated on her face, red and rapturous, to pay attention to what was happening in his trousers, and dimly, Naofumi realized just how out of touch his mind and body were when it came to his sexuality -

Crack.

Deafening thunder punctuated a flash of lightning, illuminating the room for a brief moment and startling both of them. When they'd recovered, the lust had left Raphtalia's face; the redness remained, but more out of embarrassment than anything else.

"Ah...hah...I'm sorry, Naofumi-sama," she panted, shivering as she pushed herself off of him a little too roughly. "I…"

"No, I...I get it," he cut in, unsure of what to say. "It's...fine."

Was he disappointed? Relieved? Frustrated? He couldn't tell, and for a few moments, they laid there on their sides, staring at one another.

What do I want…? He couldn't deny that he wanted her, but how? Furthermore, would it even be okay? Would he be okay? Regardless of what she'd said, now that he was fully awake, the fear he felt when she got too close wouldn't simply evaporate.

Then Raphtalia stuck out her arms, reaching for him, and he recoiled on instinct, his brain screaming: don't, don't, you'll get attached, she'll get hurt -

Stop it! he snarled back. Cut it out!

- no matter what she says, it won't be okay, you'll lose her -

Fucking  shut up!

- and in the midst of his panic, a pouting Raphtalia made a noise of frustration and lunged for him, pulling him into another hug and breaking his train of thought. "What did I tell you last night?" she mumbled into his hair.

"I know," he whispered, and for a moment, he dropped his guard, letting himself clutch her waist for support; his fingers brushed against the smooth skin of her hip, and he stiffened in shock. "I'm sorry," he blurted out, for more reasons than one, but before he could pull his hand away, she placed her own over it, holding it to her side.

"You can count on me, okay?"

Naofumi shifted so that he could look up at her and found her gazing down at him, eyes brimming with unshed tears and a watery smile on her lips.

A few minutes passed in silence, save for the drumming of the rain on the window and the distant rumble of thunder. Naofumi had almost fallen asleep again when Raphtalia spoke, staring past him at the opposite wall. "I had a nightmare last night, didn't I?"

"Yeah. You don't remember?"

She shook her head, rubbing her cheek against the pillow. "No. I just felt so...empty." Her gaze shifted; following it, Naofumi saw that she'd placed the vassal katana in the corner of the room, leaning against the wall next to his closet. "I wanted to scream, but I couldn't make a sound…"

Grunting, he wrapped his arms around her, pulling both her body and her attention back to him. He badly wanted to comfort her, but he couldn't find the words. "Raphtalia…"

Loose clothes, soft breathing, warm skin, watery morning twilight - when he looked back on this morning later, he would remember all of those things, but none as clearly as the fleeting glimpse he had of Raphtalia's eyes, her expression one of utmost devotion, and the brief brush of her lips - a little dry, but full of a heat he couldn't quite describe - against his own.

A surge of feeling like an electric shock rippled down his spine, and the sensation had him hooked, stunned, breathless; he wanted this, he wanted her, but just as he leaned in, there was a knock at the door forty five minutes too early and the two of them pulled away, staring at the entryway.

Are you serious? Naofumi wanted to groan, exasperated. Is there some kind of rule that Raphtalia and I can never get further than a hug without getting interrupted? "Neh?" he slurred out, glaring at the door.

"Hey, uh, if you guys wanted to like...pretend you didn't sleep together, now's your chance," Jun's voice said, from the other side of it, and Naofumi planted his face in his hands, sighing.

"Goddamnit, Jun." He supposed his brother had a point; bringing a girl home, introducing her as his friend, and then sleeping in the same bed together did not strike him as the type of behaviour their parents would accept. Slowly, his stiff joints and sore muscles screaming in protest (he had a feeling this pain was related to the previous day's events - moving at superhuman speed, losing power, and leaving a human body to deal with the repercussions was bound to leave him aching), Naofumi rose from the bed, followed by Raphtalia, who glanced around the room as if looking for something.

"Um, do you have any clothes I could wear?" he heard her ask. "These ones aren't exactly suitable for wearing out…."

Shit, he cursed, internally. "Jun's closer to your size than I am," he returned. "I'll see if he's got anything."

In actuality, his mother's clothes would be best suited for Raphtalia, but no way in hell was he going to go there. In an instant, he decided that today they'd buy her some new clothes more suited for Japan.

Stretching, he pulled the door open, padding the few feet down the carpeted hall to Jun's room. The door was ajar, and when Naofumi rapped lightly on the painted white wood, he heard his brother shift in his chair. "What's up?"

"I'm in something of a predicament," Naofumi announced gravely, stepping inside; his brother had his notebook open and was scrawling out some equation or other onto a sheet of lined paper. "Have you been slacking on your studies?" he added, quirking an eyebrow, and Jun lightly smacked his forearm.

"Oh, shut up. I forgot, is all. Don't tell kā-san, please," the blonde sighed, meticulously sketching a symbol Naofumi vaguely remembered from his maths courses.

"Is that a Remus sum?" he asked, leaning forward to inspect it, and the floorboards beneath the area rug squeaked in protest.

"Riemann, and yes. You had a predicament?" Jun went on, before Naofumi could comment on the correction, and Naofumi nodded - Raphtalia was still waiting in his room, and as much as he had to admit he enjoyed the sight of her wearing his too-big t-shirt, she needed day clothes.

Briefly, he explained this to Jun, who immediately picked up on what Naofumi was trying to say.

"You want to borrow my clothes because I'm her size, right?" his brother sighed, a long-suffering huff.

"That's our family genius," Naofumi commended him dryly. "The alternative is asking kā-san, and I'd rather avoid that. She's my guest, after all."

"So you ask for my clothes," Jun complained, though he was already rummaging through his dresser. "Bulletproof logic."

"I won't tell ka-san you 'forgot' to do your work."

"I don't like the implication of those air quotes."

Three minutes later, Naofumi was back in his room, staring at the wall as Raphtalia changed. He'd been too slow to turn around before she started pulling her shirt off and seen a sliver of the creamy skin of her midriff and was now trying hard to think about anything else. I'd take the curse back if it meant I could stop being like this, he groused. Waves are coming to Earth, and I'm getting distracted by seeing Raphtalia's stomach for half a second…

"Naofumi-sama?" broke into his thoughts.

"Neh," he shot back automatically.

"I'm dressed now," and there was amusement in her voice as he pivoted on his heel...and immediately spun back around again.

"Put your shirt down!" he seethed at his bookshelf, surprised that he wasn't steaming at the ears. Raphtalia, who'd tied up the button-up Jun had lent her, burst into a fit of giggles, and even Naofumi couldn't resist a rueful smile as she fixed the shirt.

"I'm sorry, Naofumi-sama. I couldn't resist."

"You don't sound sorry at all," he accused, sulking.

He made her step outside as he dressed, and when he'd finished, he got started on breakfast, figuring his father might appreciate having a meal ready instead of having to stop for something on the way to work; really, he reflected, Japanese businessmen work too much.

On his former career path, he'd have ended up in the same position, caught in an endless loop of long days, restless nights, convenience store meals and too much coffee. Naofumi had gotten used to setting his own schedule and working as he saw fit, and returning to Japan had been jarring. The thought of becoming a salaryman was not a pleasant one, even if it was expected of him. Perhaps he was simply lazy?

As naturally as if they'd not missed a single morning together, Raphtalia took her place next to him, chopping vegetables the way he'd shown her so long ago. Within minutes, their cloying aroma filled the air as they sizzled away in a pan, Naofumi expertly sauteing them with one hand as the other measured out a portion of rice.

"Rice for breakfast?" Raphtalia asked, peering curiously at the cup, tail waving.

"It's a staple here," he shrugged. "I did tell you back in Q'Ten Lo that it was a lot like my home."

"I didn't think that extended to the food…"

"I can make you something else, if you don't like rice," Naofumi offered, switching on the rice cooker. In Melromarc, he'd used a substitute method where he'd heated a pot of water and rice (which in Melromarc had been as close to a delicacy as such an abundant grain could get) to a boil, then covered the pot and transferred it to some hot coals instead until most of the water had simmered away. It had cooked just fine, but the grains had gotten slightly soggy and clumped together, and so his first experience with the rice cooker after returning home had been nothing short of a joyous reunion.

"No, it's fine," she mumbled. "Just...memories."

"Hard to believe that was more than two years ago."

"I think it's been three for me."

Rain spattered against the kitchen window, blending with the gentle sizzle of the pans. Through the blinds, a dull blue-grey light - sunbeams through stormclouds - filtered in, and Naofumi drew in a deep breath, taking in the scents of the world around him.

They cooked in comfortable silence for a while, working together without a word as they always had; by the time they'd finished, his parents were up, and they had breakfast together, Raphtalia thanking them profusely for letting her stay while she was stuck in the city. In their typical fashion, the two of them managed to simultaneously assure her that it was "nothing, nothing at all, a friend to our son is a friend to us" and soak up her gratitude. It never ceased to amaze Naofumi how they did this, and he'd never been able to figure it out.

"Are the public transit systems back up and running?" he asked, dipping his chopsticks absentmindedly into his soup and bringing them back up to his lips; he'd seemingly forgotten that chopsticks were ineffectual against liquids.

"They've got the trains going this morning," his father yawned, studying the paper. "The subway wasn't affected yesterday, but the streets were, so buses are out of the equation for now. Says they're still cleaning up in the city, anyway."

Naofumi brought another single drop of soup up to his mouth. Raphtalia watched him curiously. "Will you walk from the subway?" he asked.

"Do I have any other choice?" Katai raised an eyebrow. "The cabs are too expensive to bother with."

"We'll come with you, then," Naofumi declared. "Raphtalia-chan and I have to pick up some clothes for her stay, anyway. She can't keep borrowing Jun's."

"I thought that shirt looked familiar," Kokita observed. "It does make sense, you're close to the same size…"

"Because Jun is a midget," Naofumi snarked, through a mouthful of rice. "When I was his age I was almost this height already."

"Does that make me a midget too, Naofumi-s - kun?" Raphtalia drawled, scowling at him.

"You're a girl. That's different."

Their light banter continued throughout breakfast, and to his surprise, by the time they'd finished their meal and cleared up, Naofumi felt oddly refreshed in a way he hadn't for quite some time. In just a matter of days, it seemed, things had gone from uncomfortably tense to almost normal, and he had a feeling it was related to the girl now coming back downstairs with her boots in hand and an umbrella at her waist.

"What are you smiling at?" his mother asked from the living room.

"Ah, nothing," Naofumi assured her. "Raphtalia-chan, are you ready to go?"

"Yes. But I don't know if your father is. The smell coming out of his room…" she grumbled, looking peeved. "Revolting."

Naofumi blinked. "The smell?" he echoed, looking past her at the empty stairwell and sniffing. The only things he could pick up were the remnants of breakfast and, as Raphtalia stepped closer, a faint whiff of shampoo from the previous night. "Is he sick or something?"

Ears flat against her head, Raphtalia scoffed. "I'm surprised he hasn't made himself sick!"

The mystery of whatever odor had her so offended was solved when Iwatani Katai came downstairs and Naofumi caught the distinctive smell of his cologne; his father had used the same brand, imported from - Cuba? he couldn't remember - for as long as Naofumi could remember. He'd come to associate it with home, but Raphtalia with her keen sense of smell had never experienced anything quite like modern cologne, and she looked as if she'd suffocate then and there.

"Is something wrong, Raphtalia-chan?" his mother prodded, understandably concerned. "Do you need some water?"

Raphtalia waved her off. "No, I'm...I'll be fine," she dismissed, though her subsequent coughing fit didn't help her case. Grudgingly, she accepted the glass of water that Naofumi brought her, gulping it down with a scowl.

While his father put on his shoes, Naofumi made sure to pull his shirt down over the shield, in its Book form and attached at his hip; glancing up at Raphtalia, he noted that the katana was conspicuously absent. He also knew, from both Ren and Raphtalia, that the legendary weapons besides the shield could be put down (of course they could - it would be extremely inconvenient to have to carry them all the time), but that they'd reappear on the wielder's person after moving around fifty meters away. Not wanting to deal with the conventionally inexplicable phenomenon of a teleporting katana, he tried approaching her about it.

"Raphtalia-chan, did you leave the katana upstairs?" he asked, not bothering to keep his voice down. His family had seen her come in with it, after all.

"No, it's right here." She patted the umbrella, and Naofumi instantly understood.

His Book Shield was generally useless in the extreme; the pages changed each time he opened it again, but the contents were typically random, ranging from a completely blank page to a drawing of a horned toad to what looked like part of the manuscript for a play about two cannibals debating whether or not blood oranges actually contained blood (he hadn't been able to locate any other part of it, but he could only assume that they were sorely disappointed at a later point in the story). Its one redeeming quality, aside from the whopping one point it gave to his mana reserves, was that it was inconspicuous. Heroes were typically recognized by the weapons they wielded, and in Melromarc, there was no Book Hero, meaning that Naofumi had been able to conceal his identity quite easily. They'd never found a similar item for Raphtalia's katana, but by the time she obtained it, there really hadn't been a need to conceal their identities any longer.

He was relieved, then, that she'd discovered this form, belated as it may have been. The umbrella at her waist bore a distinctive gemstone at the end of the handle, but aside from that, it was completely indistinguishable from the one leaning against the front door. He supposed it was simply good luck that it had been raining so much, as it would be very odd to carry an umbrella on a sunny day. Perhaps he'd find her a parasol instead.

Now that he thought of it, Naofumi had discovered his own "modern" equipment just a few days prior, when he'd picked up the garbage can lid. He hadn't had a reason to use it yet, but if the shield could copy something like that, he had to wonder: what else can it do with modern resources?

They walked to the station together, Raphtalia insisting that she and Naofumi share the umbrella. On the way, Katai glanced back over his shoulder at his son, and from the look on his face, Naofumi could tell he wanted to talk about something. Excusing himself, he left Raphtalia with the umbrella for a moment, falling into step with the older man instead. "What is it?"

"Well, your mother wasn't going to say anything about them, but they don't call me Katai for nothing," his father rumbled. "So, tell me...what's up with the ears and tail?"

Naofumi blinked, surprised that his father had chosen to bring this up now. "You really wanna know?" he sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

"Well...I did a lot of thinking while you were gone, and I don't want to control the kinds of people you hang around with…" For whatever reason, Katai looked extremely uncomfortable, and he looked away, studying the rain-slicked road.

"Not that you could," Naofumi grunted.

"Yes, you're an adult," Katai agreed. "But family is extremely important, and losing your family's approval - "

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Family is priority number one." Then, struck by a belated pang of guilt at his dismissal, he relented, turning back to the original subject: "Is something wrong with Raphtalia-chan?"

"Well...I heard about this...subculture...where they...wear animal-based accessories. Some of them even wear full suits - "

"To-san, are you calling Raphtalia-chan a furry?" Naofumi sighed; out of the corner of his eye, he could see Raphtalia's tail flicking curiously.

"Bluntly, I am asking if she is a...furry, yes." Satisfied that Naofumi had picked up on things so quickly, his father adjusted his necktie.

The Shield Hero let himself groan into his hands.

"It's not that we'll kick her out or anything - " Katai began, but Naofumi cut him off.

"Would you believe me if I said they were real?"

A pause. Rain pattered against Katai's black canvas umbrella.

"Why would I?" he said, at length. "Humans simply don't have those features."

Naofumi rolled his eyes. "I figured you'd say that." Resigned, he went back to his original explanation: "They're just cosplay. She thinks they're cute. It's kind of like an Akihabara thing, only she goes outside."

His father couldn't suppress a laugh at Naofumi's joke. He was typically conservative, and Naofumi knew he found the culture around Akihabara to be on the repulsive side. As an otaku (or at least former otaku; he was no longer sure what he classified as) himself, Naofumi had been once or twice, and while the shopping district itself was like an electric dream, he could recall with distinction several occasions on which sweaty clusters of quivering, greasy men had catcalled cute girls in cosplay.

Just the thought of their collective grubby visage - a mishmash of blunted noses, acne scars, poorly shaved necks and smudged eyeglasses - made his lip curl, and he vowed then and there never to let Raphtalia anywhere near the place.

The rest of their walk was uneventful, and the atmosphere at the subway station was subdued. Shaking the rain from their umbrella, Naofumi turned to face Raphtalia, who stared wide-eyed at everything she could see, drinking in the artificial world. "Raphtalia."

"Yes?" she returned, studying the rotating gate by the train car.

"Stay close to me, okay? And watch your tail."

"Understood."

Still distracted by the wonders of modern technology, she stuck to his side like glue, eyes shining with fascination as the doors to the train currently on the platform closed and the whole thing went rumbling off into the depths of the dimly-lit tunnel, gliding across the tracks and out of sight.

Raphtalia's excitement vanished very quickly when they got on the train; its jerky motions as it bumped over the tracks replicated those of a Melromarc carriage, and she looked as if she'd be sick at any minute. Naofumi made a mental note to pick up some dramamine while they were out, but for the time being, all he could do was grit his teeth and hope she'd be okay. It never got any easier watching her expression shift between relieved and queasy each time a vehicle slowed or accelerated.

As they disembarked, his phone buzzed, and Naofumi, wedged between an irritated-looking businesswoman with a sharp brow and a wide-eyed, suited man who smelled as if he'd bathed in coffee, managed to fish it out of his pocket to check it - a message from Jun.

when you get back, you're telling me what happened last night

Naofumi snorted and left it on read. He had to admit that he owed it to his brother, who - for all his teasing - had been both willing to listen and willing to believe him, and who'd helped him (aided and abetted by their parents' skepticism) conceal the true nature of both Raphtalia and the weapons they carried. He'd have to explain things eventually - the cosplay explanation wouldn't hold up if they caught sight of the smooth, ear-less sides of her head, or if they suspended their disbelief long enough to register that her ears and tail were always responsive to her mood and surroundings, but for the time being, he knew his mother and father would accept the lie they'd been given.

Raphtalia's fingers clutching at his arm broke into his thoughts, and he glanced over his shoulder (and between two virtually identical salarymen) to see her standing several feet away and looking extremely uncomfortable. With what he hoped was a reassuring smile, Naofumi turned his own hand to take hers, pulling her through the milling, oblivious crowd towards him.

Katai waved them goodbye at a crossroad; the mall Naofumi and Raphtalia were headed to was straight ahead, while the office building where he worked was to their right. Huddled under the katana's canopy, the pair splashed across the street, Raphtalia's tail flying behind her. There were considerably fewer people and even less cars than usual around - it was to be expected after such an event as yesterday, even if there was no further threat. People wanted to stay safe indoors and wait for other, braver souls (or at least those with regular jobs) to test the water before heading out for themselves.

The mall wasn't too far off, and as they joined the other early-morning shoppers in shaking the water from their umbrellas, Naofumi caught a blast of frigid air from the air conditioning unit mounted above the automatic door and shivered. It wasn't exactly freezing, but wet as he was from the rain, it sent a frigid chill down his spine, and he hurried Raphtalia through it.

Inside, they stopped to rest for a couple of minutes. The television mounted on the pole opposite them displayed the news, and Naofumi didn't pay it much mind until he caught the phrase still at large.

"...the suspect was last seen at the intersection of - "

A man's bag split, and a set of stainless-steel cookware crashed to the ground, drowning out the broadcast for a moment.

- heading north," the anchor went on, as Naofumi and Raphtalia both got up to help the man gather his belongings. "Anyone with information is urged to contact local police immediately and avoid direct confrontation."

What would "indirect" confrontation be, then? Naofumi mused, handing over a skillet.

He put it out of his mind. Someone always came to the police with information, but it was never the viewer - or possibly it was a viewer, but it was never you, it was always someone else.

Naofumi also had more important things to worry about - he'd only just realized, approaching the store, that they'd need to buy Raphtalia underwear, and as a full-time student and otaku, he'd never been in a position to browse for women's clothing before. If Raphtalia had been literally any other woman in Japan - or, indeed, any first world country - it would have been easier, and he could have simply carried her bags and let her pick out what to wear, but of course she wasn't, and of course his first time shopping with a girl would have him be the one to explain how people dressed in his world, because the universe was a swirling miasma of hatred for all life and how am I supposed to explain bras to Raphtalia?

By the time they reached the store where he'd purchased most of his clothes, Naofumi was sweating and his hands had gone clammy.

"Are you feeling ill, Naofumi-sama?" Raphtalia asked, evidently forgetting their appellative agreement in her worry. "Do you want to go back home?"

"No, I'm...I'm fine," he lied. He was feeling ill, but only at the prospect of heading into the women's section.

Inside, he led the way to where he could recall his mother shopping when he was a child, envying six-year-old Naofumi his innocence. People would excuse a young boy accompanying his mother - they wouldn't excuse a grown man rifling through a rack of panties.

Raphtalia, oblivious to his internal struggle, scrutinized a hideously lacey pink bra.

"How is this supposed to work?" she wondered aloud - too loudly, and he blanched.

"Don't ask me!" he hissed back. "I wasn't exactly swimming in girls before we met!"

"I'd rather just stick with my cloth bindings," Raphtalia admitted, pinching the padding between her thumb and forefinger. It crinkled softly, and Naofumi winced. "This feels needlessly complex…"

"Well, let's just look at underwear for now, then," he sighed. "You do need that, and it's probably easier to pick out."

Blushing furiously, he trailed after Raphtalia, who was greatly intrigued by the variety of textiles on display. Back in Melromarc, there really hadn't been many options when it came to undergarments, but it also hadn't mattered much to them - clothing was clothing, and they needed what was practical in battle, so they stuck to simple cotton. Here in Japan, where Melromarc's "luxury" items were considered a part of everyday life, it was a different story - there were more types of panties on display here than he could ever remember seeing in his life (not that he'd ever sought them out; he'd not sunk quite that far), and both he and Raphtalia were at a complete loss as to what to buy.

After much deliberation, they were able to pick out a set of underwear for her that wouldn't break Naofumi's wallet and that Raphtalia found comfortable and to her taste. It was easier than he'd been expecting - actually, it was remarkably like purchasing underwear for himself - but he didn't have the time to sigh in relief. They were going back to look at bras next, and from what little he knew of them, he knew Raphtalia would have to be sized first…

It'll be fine, he told himself. Just find an attendant and ask them to size her...then we'll be able to get this over with…

When they actually got to the dressing rooms, however -

"Would it be okay for Naofumi-s - kun to do the measuring instead?" Raphtalia enquired earnestly of the surprised attendant, a slim brunette a couple of years Naofumi's senior. When she'd gathered her thoughts, the attendant shook her head, torn between amusement and concern.

"I'm sorry, but men and women aren't allowed into the same dressing room at the same time. Your boyfriend can wait here - it'll only take a moment."

"Oh, no, we're not together," Naofumi hastily corrected, out of habit; Raphtalia looked a little hurt, and he bit his lip, immediately regretting it. The attendant's gaze flickered back and forth between the two of them, confusion spreading rapidly across her face.

Evidently deciding not to ask questions, she dipped her head, then beckoned to Raphtalia, who Naofumi heard ask again why exactly it was that he wasn't allowed into the dressing room with her. He let out the quietest groan of embarrassment that he could manage.

When they returned, Raphalia red in the face and the attendant entirely unperturbed, they set about picking out bras; Raphtalia didn't seem to be choosing them with any intent to match the underwear she'd selected, but Naofumi would be damned if he actually pointed that out.

"Hey, make sure to pick ones that match your underwear."

No, he was absolutely not going to do that.

In the end, they had seven of each item, one for each day of the week, and Naofumi took it upon himself to carry the bags while Raphtalia picked out shirts, legwear and a pair of boots (aided by his own limited knowledge of women's fashion). Holding the bags was partially to give his hands something to do other than clutch white-knuckled at his own clothes. With his hands full, he figured he'd check the time of day that the status window displayed instead of bothering to try and take out his phone, but when the overlay showed up, he paused, sweeping his gaze over the crowds sweeping back and forth across the intersection ahead. As expected, the newly restored level display read "Lv1" above every single -

Wait.

Had he just seen…?

(Lv2)

"Raphtalia."

"Yes?" She glanced back at him over her shoulder, eyes round.

"Open your status display. Don't open the menus in public." He'd found out almost immediately in Melromarc that anyone could see the menus, but the heads-up display that overlaid his vision appeared only to him, meaning that he could analyze his surroundings without anyone else noticing.

Nodding curtly, Raphtalia paused. He saw her eyes flicker to her lower-right, hold a moment, then return to the intersection, expression intense. After a moment, she bit her lip, hand drifting to the handle of the umbrella - the handle of the katana. "Everyone in this world should be level one, shouldn't they?"

"Should," he grimaced. "I never got exact numbers, but wasn't the consensus generally that since experience is gained by absorbing something's life energy or whatever...if a monster kills a monster of the same species and they're both at level one, the killer will level up exactly once?"

"We might want to ask next time we're able to get through the Leystone," Raphtalia mused. "But we do have one thing to go off of…"

"Hm?"

She pointed at Naofumi, and it took him a moment to realize she was actually pointing at where the experience indicator would be on his status display.

"That monster you killed yesterday was very small and gave you just one hundredth of an experience point, right, Naofumi-kun?"

"It was a gnat, and yeah. What about it?"

"Would it be possible to kill enough of those to level up in just a day?"

Her question made him think. "Maybe if you're an exterminator," he shrugged. "They uh, go around and kill bugs in people's houses. But considering you'd need a hundred bugs for a single experience point, and the base to level up from one to two is a hundred points, that's ten thousand bugs, and unless they're dragging a flamethrower into a jungle, I don't think that's possible in urban Japan."

"Flamethrower?" Raphtalia echoed. "Is that your world's version of a fire wizard?"

"No, it's a weapon that shoots fire," he sighed. "Let's not get sidetracked."

"Right. I'm sorry." With a shake of the head, Raphtalia scratched her nose, thinking hard. "Naofumi-kun, are you suggesting that this person may have killed someone?"

Best not to beat around the bush. "Yeah," he said bluntly. "And what's more...were you listening to the news when we came in?"

"Who was giving out news?" she asked, entirely misunderstanding.

"Ah - no. News as in news programs on the television. There was one playing when we came in."

"I wasn't listening. I'm already picking up too much noise as it stands - your world is very loud, you know," she scolded, as if it were his fault, and he rolled his eyes.

"I'm well-aware. Come on, I'll explain as we go." Ordinarily, they'd have lost sight of the man long ago, but the status magic was able to highlight whatever target or targets the user specified, and Naofumi had locked his own on the man the moment that swooping feeling of wrong hit his gut.

Trying to both remain inconspicuous and make up for the considerable distance between themselves and the man Naofumi strongly suspected had killed either another human being or several larger animals (and unless he'd been hunting the previous day or worked in a slaughterhouse, the latter was still both illegal and flat-out wrong), they slipped through the crowd, Naofumi resisting the urge to use any abilities to close the gap. Raphtalia's instant blade techniques would have easily gotten them well within range, but there was no way in hell they could just use what looked like an ordinary umbrella to teleport across a shopping mall outside of a dire emergency.

Though, if this guy's a murderer...if he gets stronger with each kill, couldn't this be considered an emergency?

Biting the thought back, he briefly explained to Raphtalia what he'd overheard on the news broadcast. She didn't need to be told the implications - even if this man wasn't the suspect described by the tired-looking anchorwoman with blue half-moons under her eyes, there was still no way he should have been anything other than level one. Even he himself wouldn't know he'd grown until the statistical difference was significant enough from the baseline to catch his attention - how he was now faster, stronger, thought more quickly than his victims…

Naofumi shook the thought. The shield flickered red.

Their quarry was on his way out of the mall, which was a mixed blessing. True, he could go anywhere - he could hop on the subway and simply disappear, moving out of the status magic's tracking range - but the streets were still emptier than usual between the rain and yesterday's wave (Naofumi was honestly surprised the mall had this many people; perhaps they'd simply booked it to ensure they didn't miss their shopping while minimizing the time they spent in the open?), making it easier to catch up. The rain was an added bonus: they could pick up the pace and simply appear as if they were trying to get out of the foul weather as quickly as possible.

He counted down: half a kilometer., two hundred and fifty meters, one hundred meters, fifty meters, twenty-five meters, ten meters. Ten seemed to be a safe distance, far enough to avoid being noticed but close enough to keep an eye on him.

Then, as they hurried down the greenish-gray pavement after a silhouette only they could see, a truck came barreling down the road - Naofumi heard it first and turned to see it hydroplaning down the street on a slick, wet film of rainwater and oily runoff, totally unable to stop - the driver's expression was terrified -

It slammed into him at sixty kilometers per hour.

If he were anyone else, he'd have been killed. If he weren't Iwatani Naofumi, he'd have most likely died instantly and possibly woken up flat on his back and gasping for air in another world. But Iwatani Naofumi was the Shield Hero, and his titular shield retained its innate defensive bonuses, meaning that - as long as he was in this world - he was virtually immune to any and all attacks directed his way.

No, it was the truck that, striking him head-on, was sheared completely in half, the windshield shattering on impact and sending rounded shards of safety glass pelting against the driver's raised arms; metal rent, screaming as it tore, and the odor of gasoline filled the air as the fuel line ruptured on impact with Naofumi's shin and sprayed an unpleasantly glossy miasma of pink-brown across the soaked asphalt. The collision had absorbed most of the truck's momentum - not provided a normal force, but simply absorbed it - and either half skidded about thirty feet further before falling onto opposite sides with a grand crash that shook the street.

Silence, for a moment; the terrified driver remained in his seat, miraculously unharmed and completely in shock. Naofumi, surprised more by the truck's appearance than the fact that he'd just brazenly violated the laws of physics, blinked at the shop across the street.

...Guess you can't get isekai'd twice, huh.

He knew all eyes were on him - of course they were, he'd just broken a fucking truck with his body - but the hero in him couldn't just leave the driver as he was, and it wasn't until after he'd helped the man out of the wreckage, taken Raphtalia's hand and fled the scene that he realized he could no longer see Level Two's outline on his status overlay.

"Why did that metal carriage attack you?" Raphtalia asked him as they pelted down the sidewalk. Naofumi dimly registered that he was headed in the direction of the shrine they'd taken refuge in the previous day.

"It's called a truck, and from what I could tell, the driver just lost control," he called back. "It's not as if that was intentional...but that's just my luck, huh?"

They slowed to a brisk walk as they reached the city outskirts, Naofumi dimly aware that they'd both been running with a speed boosted by their weapons' agility stats.

"If it was an accident, why are we running away?" she prodded, ears twitching. "It's not like it dealt any damage…"

"Because vehicles here generally don't work the same way they do in Faubrey," he sighed. In Faubrey, their equivalents to "modern" technology had been highly dependent on the stats of the user, and he was fairly certain that if an average citizen attempted to run down an adventurer with a vehicle, it wouldn't do a whole lot. "When people get hit by cars, they tend to be hurt pretty bad. If the car's moving fast enough, they're typically killed. Everyone around us was expecting me to die - as far as they know, there's literally no way I could have survived that, much less broken the goddamn thing in half without even being thrown back."

He never thought "people are killed when they are hit by heavy, fast-moving objects" was something he'd have to explain, but here they were. Unless vehicles now function like that here, too…?

Raphtalia was silent a moment. Then: "So you were trying to avoid attention again?"

"Pretty much, but that's two times in two days, and we were recorded yesterday. If this keeps up, I don't know what I'm going to do. What's more, we lost the guy we were after, and I'm just hoping that if he did kill someone, it was a one-time thing and he won't notice any statistical increases."

"It's still possible that he didn't kill anyone at all," Raphtalia suggested hopefully, but Naofumi shook his head.

"We don't have monsters in this world. If he was killing animals, which would be the only other way to get experience, that's still messed up."

Raphtalia bit her lip and didn't respond.

They were walking now, normally; in the quiet following his words, she unfolded the umbrella again and held it between them.

The patter of droplets on canvas and a lingering feeling of dread followed them home.


"Liberation Meteor!"

Shouting. Roaring. The smell of roasting flesh as the conduit monster fell to her magic.

In her head, she played those last few moments of freedom over and over again - the smoky tang of victory, the feeling of being a hero. Then the soldiers had shown up, and who was she to take the lives of the people she'd (at least in part) come here to protect? In perfect, fluent Chinese - though she didn't know it - she'd attempted to tell them the situation, but not a one had listened, and now here she was, locked in a dank cell with her level reduced to one.

The staff hummed faintly against her back. They'd tried to take it from her, because of course they had, but it was anchored firmly to her by some immense, invisible force and had badly burned the hands of anyone touching it. She hadn't willed it to do such a hostile thing; vassal weapons had minds of their own, and even her control over it was only by the weapon's consent.

In the distance, someone screamed in agony. Nearer, there was a strangled yell, and something made an unpleasant, wet crunching sound. Later on, the faint scent of iron would reach her nostrils.

She could break out. Even with her powers drastically weakened, she still had the staff, and she could melt or break the bars before her. But if she did, would these people see her as their enemy? She still knew nothing about their society, about their power, and in her current state, even a mid-level fighter could have overpowered her.

Though, if the strangely placid rift she'd gone through and the magical disconnect she felt meant anything…

The chains around the door rattled. She looked up to see a guard, crisp uniform flecked with a fine spatter of dark liquid, opening the padlock that held the chain in place, pulling the metal links through the bars and casting them carelessly to the floor.

"They're asking for you."

She opened her mouth, then closed it again. Even if he'd been inclined to be friendly, this man's rank was clearly too low for him to have any sway. Whoever his superiors were - whoever they were that asked for her - she'd talk to them, instead, and so with all the dignity and grace that her royal upbringing had afforded her, Malty Melromarc, wielder of the vassal staff, straightened her skirt and followed a guard through the bowels of a Chinese prison.

Chapter Text

 

"Yo, Jucchan."

Jun had long stopped his attempts at resisting the nickname. "Shiracchan," he acknowledged dryly, and his friend rolled his eyes.

"What am I, hot sauce?" the other boy joked, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. Jun rolled his eyes.

"I tried."

Laughing, Shiratori Tawakeru hooked his thumbs under the straps on his backpack, strolling backwards along the pavement and tossing his overgrown mop of hair out of his eyes. "You finish Shibata-san's paper?"

"Are you implying the top of our year would miss an assignment?" Jun shot back, raising one eyebrow into an arch so high it disappeared into his blonde bangs. He neglected to mention the math he'd had to complete that morning.

"Me? Never!" Shiratori feigned surprise, and Jun groaned, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Nah, but I almost didn't finish. Our cat didn't come back in last night and I was out kinda late looking for her. She's done it before, so I'm not too worried." A shrug.

"I've heard of cats eating homework, but never eating the time you had to do it," Jun yawned.

"That joke was so bad it hurt."

They bantered back and forth on the way to school, rain-soaked petals sticking to the pavement beneath their shoes. He'd known Shiratori for a couple of years now - they'd actually sat next to one another in their first year - but they'd only really become friends since Naofumi's disappearance. It had been all over the news, so of course the first thing his classmates had tried to do was badger him for details about Naofumi. Shiratori, however, hadn't: he'd asked Jun how he was feeling, and Jun had learned about the person beneath the jester's mask.

Rain flowed over the edge of a clogged shopfront gutter, hammering on the downspout under it. Jun, watching the water splash over the jagged aluminum at the bottom of the pipe, noticed something moving in the wet darkness inside; he slowed his pace and squinted, trying to get a better look at it -

...Is that a spider?

Ordinarily, a spider wouldn't have concerned him very much, but the thing that was bothering him about it was that it had taken up most of the pipe, and from the size of each square of pavement underfoot, the downspout was something like fifteen centimeters wide. To top it off, the spider had been a peculiar blue-grey that he'd never seen on any spider in his life - if it had been brown, he could have written it off as a flaw in his spatial perception, as some Japanese spiders did grow to fair sizes, but it was the color of an evening stormcloud, and for the life of him Jun couldn't remember ever seeing a spider that color.

Nothing itsy bitsy about it, either.

The spider scuttled backwards up the spout, vanishing from view.

"Jun-kun?" He suddenly became very aware that his friend was calling him, and the look on Shiratori's face said that this wasn't the first time he'd said Jun's name.

"Sorry. Just thinking about the project tomorrow," he improvised, and Shiratori paled so fast it would have been funny if Jun's mind hadn't been racing a mile a minute.

"Project? What project!? Oh, shit, nobody told me about a project. You knew!?"

This continued all the way down the road and through the shortcut they usually took down an alleyway between two storefronts before Jun finally admitted he'd completely made up the project (much to Shiratori's mixed relief and irritation at Jun for "playing such a cruel prank"). When they reached their classroom, Jun - still distracted - shot his brother a quick text:

when you get back, you're telling me what happened last night


"Looks like we've got eleven days until the next one," Naofumi sighed. "Counting yesterday, that's twelve days here, times two-point-five...thirty days in Melromarc. That matches up pretty well with what I remember from being summoned the first time around."

"If it were just from our world, I wouldn't be worried about it, but…" Raphtalia bit her lip, watching Naofumi scroll through the news on his phone. (He'd left Jun's message as unread to remind him to reply, and the icon blinked irritatingly at the top of the screen.) "What if this next wave is from a parallel world instead? If we don't have our levels? If all the waves end up being from different worlds, we're going to need to find a way to level up in this one so we can fight them."

"Didn't that mage girl say that other Melromarcs had sent over vassal heroes to fight?" he asked, crossing his ankles on the arm of the sofa.

They were seated in the living room, bathed in yellow lamplight - the outside world was too dark and gloomy to leave the lights off. Katai was still at work, Jun was still at school, and there wasn't very much to do around the house courtesy of Naofumi, Raphtalia, and Kokita, so the latter had departed to pick up some groceries for that night's dinner and left the former two alone in the faintly dust-scented den.

"Even if we could find them, I don't think we're going to be able to travel around this world so easily. There aren't any Dragon Hourglasses, are there?"

"Nah. Nothing like that." Naofumi shook his head, craning his neck to glance at Raphtalia. He'd sprawled comfortably across the sofa, and she'd taken a seat next to his head, sitting quietly with her hands folded in her lap. "Ow," he added, feeling a sharp pain shoot up from between his shoulders. Raphtalia frowned.

"Naofumi-sama, you shouldn't move your neck like that," she scolded. She still hadn't broken the habit of calling him sama, at least in private, and he wasn't sure if his lecture about certain types of relationships had gotten through to her. If it had, and she was still doing it...the thought alone made his heart race. "You'll injure yourself."

"Sorry." Returning to a more comfortable position, he stared up at the swirl-stucco ceiling, studying a particularly prominent whorl. "How are we supposed to level in this world, anyway? Short of killing every bug in Japan."

"We could ask the others the next chance we get." Raphtalia held up the Leystone's pendant, the smooth, ocean-blue surface of the stone glittering darkly against the pale, creamy skin just below her collar. "Maybe there's...some method of transferring experience? It would be extremely useful if we could store our experience in our weapons and take it with us between worlds, like those men from S'yne's world could do…"

"If Melromarc was destroyed, that would work," he sighed. "The energy we've accumulated there would stay with us permanently. I'm not sure how it would work with the fact that we've reached the level cap - so far, the only way we've been able to exceed it is by being at a wave event so the power from two worlds hits us at once." A pause, to gather his thoughts. He knew what he wanted to say next, but actually finding the words to give it voice was proving exceedingly difficult. Raphtalia, sensing that he wasn't finished, simply watched him a moment, eyes soft and tail flicking contentedly.

"Something about having a world destroyed 'unlocks' a weapon's ability to store experience," he finally got out. "I don't actually know if all earned experience is then re-routed into the bearer's body or whatever, or if it's just temporary to store the experience from that world and preserve the bearer's life...but if we could, I don't know, find some way to unlock the function without destroying Melromarc, that would be extremely useful, especially since we might be able to level past the cap." Thinking on it, the fact that they'd been intent on destroying Melromarc hinted at the latter theory - a world would have to be destroyed for the user's experience to be stored in the weapon.

"That sounds scary," Raphtalia admitted. "Imagine if someone wicked were to get ahold of a sacred weapon...I mean, that's already happened, but if they could gather experience from multiple worlds without destroying them, what would stop them from hopping between worlds to take advantage of the faster growth at low levels while keeping their stats from every world they'd been to so far?"

Naofumi thought about this for a moment. "Hopefully, storing all their experience in one place would make that impossible. If you take fifty independent levels into another world, it's not going to make you level up any faster, right? It would just mean you don't have to start over from scratch, which is what we need in a world where we can't level up...at least, not ethically or legally. We're still coasting on the passive stats from all the weapon forms we unlocked and powered up" - and there were a great many of these indeed, from two and a half years and an entire world of resources, not to mention the fact that the Shield of Compassion had amplified the effects of every single other shield he owned - "but relying on that isn't going to do us any good."

Raphtalia didn't respond immediately. In the silence that followed, the only sounds were their breathing and the steady tick, tick, tick of the grandfather clock in the corner of the room, an heirloom passed down through several generations of Iwatani men.

Each tick synchronized perfectly with the loss of another second on the timer hovering in front of him.

"Could we level up by killing the monsters that come out of the waves?" Raphtalia's voice cut into the clock's.

Naofumi grimaced. "I want the waves closed as quickly as possible. These are human lives we're talking, and the larger the city, the larger the danger. In this world, the government tries to cover up things that people think are outside the realm of possibility...and they're pretty successful. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but you heard how they described the wave. They were so desperate to cover it up in the face of concrete evidence that they shot themselves in the foot and said it was the result of top-secret experimentation on animals to create bioweapons."

"Bioweapons? Like what Rat was researching?"

"Sort of. But we both know those were just monsters."

Raphtalia gazed down at her own thighs, one ear twitching. "Yes. It would be dangerous and selfish to try and use the waves to our advantage, and we don't even know if it would work. I'm sorry…"

"Nothing to apologize for," he shrugged, sitting up and scooting over to sit next to her. "It wasn't a bad idea, but there's just too much at risk to try it out. Though, with your katana, we should be able to get a fair amount of experience just from the monsters we'll kill hunting down the, uh, the whatsit."

"The conduit?" Raphtalia asked, a small smile gracing her lips.

"Yeah, that."

Silence, not uncomfortable, fell once again.

Then, just as Raphtalia reached for his hand -

Thunk.

The front door opened. Naofumi recognized Jun's footsteps instantly; his younger brother always took a step to the left to take his shoes off, rather than taking them off and stepping aside. Checking the time - four fifty-three in the afternoon - Naofumi hauled himself to his feet, putting his phone to sleep with the quiet click of a button. Raphtalia, one ear drooping, called after him. "Naofumi-kun? Where are you going?"

"Oh, I…" He'd completely forgotten to tell her about Jun's message, even though it blinked in his face every time he looked at the phone. "I told Jun I'd get him up to speed on a few things. He was there when you had your...nightmare, last night."

She paled. "Should I come, too?"

"If you want." Naofumi wasn't certain what he was going to say; he'd assumed that Jun would simply pepper him with questions, but if his brother sat him down and demanded a blanket explanation, he wouldn't even know where to begin. "I might need your help."

Dutifully, she rose in a far more dignified fashion than his ungraceful flop, following him out into the hallway to meet Jun on his way to the stairs. The two brothers didn't need to say anything to understand the other's intentions - the expression on Jun's face said everything for him, and Naofumi's approach stood for his acknowledgement.

"Let's talk in the living room," the blonde suggested, without so much as a greeting. "I've got some news for you this time, too. Just give me a minute to unpack."

"Got it."

Raphtalia, feeling very much sidelined, trudged right back into the living room alongside Naofumi, and the pair returned to the exact same position they'd been in a mere minute prior. "He seems very...serious," she offered, for want of something to say.

A grunt. "That's Jun for you. When he thinks something's important, he'll do anything and everything to make sure it goes well."

"I would say that's admirable, but if I'm honest, it reminds me of Itsuki-san back when we first met," she sighed. "What if he's wrong about something?"

Naofumi shrugged. "He's self-conscious enough to reevaluate his decisions in real time. I think that's what sets them apart. Itsuki-kun would get some sort of laser focus on his own decision and refuse to sway from his position no matter what happened - that's how he ended up with the Pride curse, remember?"

"All too well. He really doesn't deserve Rishia, you know," Raphtalia went on, surprising Naofumi with her boldness. "Ah - I know it's been less time for you, but her and I have spent a lot more time together in the ten months you've been gone, so I've seen more of Itsuki-san than I ever wanted to."

"No, he doesn't," Naofumi agreed. "Especially considering what a shithead he was, and it's not through any virtue of his own that he stopped being one. She just kicked his ass hard enough to knock the curse out of him, and then he turned into some kind of asshole-shaped marionette." Raphtalia couldn't resist a giggle at this, and even Naofumi cracked a wry smile.

"He's more like a dog than anything now," she chuckled. "Some part of his sense of self has come back, I think, but just enough to stop him from obeying anyone who gives him an order. I seem to remember a certain someone trying to make Itsuki-san drown himself," Raphtalia added, eyes narrowing darkly, and Naofumi looked away, scratching at the back of his head.

"Sounds like a real piece of work," Jun drawled from the doorway, strolling into the room. He still wore his uniform, minus tie and with the top button undone. "Nii-san, that wouldn't have been you, would it?"

"There's a possibility. But I wasn't serious!" he argued, trying to defend himself. "I would've stopped him!"

Jun laughed. "Raphtalia-san, thank you for keeping my brother in check all this time."

"It wasn't easy."

"Hey!" Naofumi protested. "I thought you came here for an explanation?"

"I'm just teasing," his brother prodded, and Naofumi sighed, defeated.

"Alright, alright. So what do you wanna know?"

The smile slid off of Jun's face in a heartbeat.

"This morning, I saw a spider."

"So did I. It was in the sock drawer, what about it?" Deep down, Naofumi knew there was a reason his brother started off with such a benign statement; there was definitely more to it, like telling someone they had water in their carburetor when in reality you'd driven their car off a bridge and into a river. Not exactly a lie, but a hook to catch their attention and prepare them for the real bad news.

"It was sitting in the downspout by Tatsujime-san's ramen stand," Jun went on. His frown deepened, grabbed hold of his eyebrows and dragged them down into something between concern and frustration. "Do you know how wide those are, nii-san?"

"Not offhand."

"Fifteen centimeters. And the spider had its legs folded."

Raphtalia was unperturbed. "That's fairly small, isn't it?"

"No, Raphtalia, it's not," Naofumi sighed. "That's very large here. Are you sure you weren't seeing something stuck in the pipe? Something like...leaves? Or petals?"

"Do either of those crawl backwards up pipes?" Jun deadpanned.

"That's a fair point. So what are you saying?"

Naofumi leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees and leaving his clasped hands to hang in the air between them. What Jun described sounded like a young monster, if he was honest, but hadn't he just talked with Raphtalia about how there were no monsters in this world…? Still, far from sending chills up his spine, the thought that some had escaped and might even be reproducing on Earth got his blood pumping.

We can level up. We can stand a fighting chance once our passive stats stop being enough to get by.

Furthermore, couldn't average people also stand a fighting chance against weak monsters? Melromarc's adventurers came from all walks of life, as base stats weren't tied to class or social standing - if Jun had truly seen a monster, then it might even be possible, given time, for people to gain the strength to protect themselves, right?

Not that he wanted to slack off; it was his job as the Shield Hero to protect all that he could, after all. Still, every person that could fight for themselves gave him room to fight for someone else, and a reasonably selfish part of him desperately wanted his family in particular to level up if at all possible. He'd never had to worry about civilian family in Melromarc, considering that those closest to him approached him in power (and three had even become vassal heroes), and now that the waves threatened his brother and parents, he understood on a much deeper level than empathy just what the people he'd protected had felt for their loved ones.

"Nii-san."

"Naofumi-kun?"

With a jolt, he realized that his train of thought had run entirely off the rails and was now rumbling dangerously down the metaphorical mountainside. Dragging himself back into the moment, he shook his head, mop of dark hair flying. "Sorry. What you said got me thinking," he apologized.

"What about?" Jun's frown went as deep as it could go.

Instead of speaking, Naofumi plucked the shield from his waist, slapping it onto his arm and shifting it before his brother's surprised eyes into its default "small shield" form. Unblinking, Naofumi scrolled through the menu that projected itself into the air above the shield.

"Look at me."

Jun looked.

Naofumi's irises flared a cool, natural green, and something akin to a hologram unfolded in front of Jun's face.

Party invitation: Naofumi Iwatani.
Accept | Decline

His brother didn't accept immediately. "Why?" was all he said.

"We're going to kill the itsy bitsy spider," Naofumi declared dryly. "I'm pretty sure Raphtalia could kill it by looking at it hard enough, but I want you along for the ride."

"And why is that?" Jun repeated, but he accepted all the same, allowing Naofumi to do something he never thought he'd do: pull up his brother's status window.

Iwatani Jun - Lv1 

HP  50/50

MP  0/0

SP  10/10

ATK  4 》  | MAG 8

DEF 5 (+2) 》  | RES 7

DEX 15

All in all, his brother's stats weren't terrible; his physical stats weren't great, but he seemed like he might have some magical promise. Briefly, Naofumi wondered what stats he might have had he never become the Shield Hero…

"I want to see how ordinary people grow when they level up," he shrugged. "It'd help me figure out how long it would take for someone to become a threat to their surroundings." In reality, he was hoping that - with enough training and experience - Jun would be able to protect himself, but Naofumi knew that if he told the truth Jun would tease him about being overprotective. Maybe I am.

"This reminds me of when we met," Raphtalia mused. "Do you remember, Naofumi-sama…?"

She'd let the sama slip again, but Naofumi figured it didn't matter around Jun. "How could I forget?"

Raphtalia, curled in a cage, small and weak, her stats worse than Jun's...Raphtalia, coughing feverishly, screaming in the middle of the night…Raphtalia at a restaurant, eating good food for the first time in christ-knows-how-long…

"Isn't it strange that he has this, though?" she went on, pointing at the screen hovering in front of him. Following her finger, he saw that she'd indicated the little "10" beside "SP". "Jun-kun isn't a spirit. Plus, his dexterity is yellow…"

Naofumi himself had noticed this - the "15" next to "DEX" glowed a soft gold, and he couldn't for the life of him figure out what it meant. Neither his nor Raphtalia's stats had ever changed color.

A distant rumble of thunder shook the sky.

"Are we going now?" Jun cut in. "I'll get changed if we are."

"Nah." Naofumi shook his head. "People are starting to get off work now. By the time we got there, it'd be way too crowded to go poking around in drain pipes and not attract attention."

He hadn't been to the ramen stand in question since the last semester he could recall attending - it was directly on the way to his university - but he could still recall the traffic it garnered from tired office workers making their way home in the evening. The owner had even set up a standing bar for those who were afraid they'd be unable to get up if they sat down to eat and got too comfortable. Naofumi himself had tried it once, but all he'd been able to think about was how sad it was to see everyone around him trying to cram down food like it was an afterthought and not a meal.

Jun agreed, and Naofumi and Raphtalia spent the next hour answering a myriad of other questions, ranging from what monsters were (having lived in Melromarc her entire life, Raphtalia had a far better understanding of this than Naofumi, and she did most of the talking on that one) to how magic worked (Naofumi strongly cautioned his brother against even trying, as it would attract far too much attention and raise far too many questions) to -

"What happened to Raphtalia-san last night, and what was that shield?"

In retrospect, Naofumi supposed he should have seen it coming. Jun had asked to talk about what had happened immediately after the Shield of Compassion fended off whatever had plagued Raphtalia.

In the simplest terms he could manage - not because Jun was an idiot, but because Naofumi was getting tired of talking and he really didn't want to provoke further questioning - he described the concept behind the curse series, skipping over the finer details and moving right to how the death of one of his companions had been the driving force he needed to grow past the Shield of Wrath. He admitted that no, he didn't know what had happened to her last night, and Raphtalia stepped in to describe the nightmare she'd had.

Predictably, Jun made the connection quickly and dared to say it out loud.

"So what was happening to Raphtalia-san last night...was the same thing that would happen to nii-san when he used the cursed shield too much?"

Naofumi didn't want to consider it. He didn't want to believe that his curse was somehow affecting Raphtalia all this time later. He didn't even want to entertain the thought of it.

Raphtalia squeezed his hand, and Jun pretended not to notice.

"Yeah," he whispered hoarsely. "It's the same thing."

"I'm fine," Raphtalia reassured Jun, though Naofumi had an idea that she might have been talking to him as well. "The shield that Naofumi-sama used can dispel curses."

Then -

Thunk.

"Kokita? Jun? Naofumi?" Naofumi heard his father calling from the other side of the door, evidently unable to open it himself.

"Coming," he returned on instinct; when he tried to get up, his legs were so stiff that he nearly fell over, and it was Jun who rose from his seat to answer the door as Raphtalia immediately leapt to stop Naofumi from falling over. (He didn't actually need the help, considering the「Balance Up」 attribute one of his shields granted him, but he appreciated the gesture nonetheless.)

As it turned out, Katai had brought home groceries, which struck Naofumi as distinctly wrong for reasons that weren't clear until his father asked where his wife had gone.

"She...went to get groceries," he murmured, half to himself. "Shit, shit, shit. Jun, she should have been back half an hour ago at the latest, did she message you?"

Typically, if Kokita didn't have time to pick up groceries, Katai would do it on the way home from work, sparing his wife the trip. If she did pick them up, she'd always leave him a message saying so, and the bags a suddenly tense Jun and Katai held were testament to the fact that she hadn't sent one. It was possible she'd gotten sidetracked, or she'd run into a friend somewhere, but wouldn't she at least have let Katai know…?

"I'll give her a call," his father decided, leaving Naofumi with the remaining groceries as he set off for the kitchen landline at a brisk stride. Biting his lip, Naofumi followed, glancing over his shoulder at Katai every few seconds even though he knew that if his mother picked up, his father would say something, so why was he, Naofumi, watching the receiver like this…?

Jun tossed a leek haphazardly into the vegetable drawer as Raphtalia watched, fascinated by the entire process even as she wrung her hands with worry. Naofumi knew, as he restocked some herbs they'd run low on, she was just as concerned as he about his mother. Raphtalia was kind like that.

clack sounded through the kitchen as Katai dropped the receiver back onto the base far more roughly than was necessary. Jun's head whipped around, curly hair flying. "Nothing," the older man sighed. "I'll try again in a few minutes. Maybe she just can't hear her phone ringing right now."

Naofumi supposed that was the logical conclusion, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. Apart from Jun's story about the spider, he and Raphtalia had lost track of a man whom they suspected of murder, and he didn't need Filo-level perception to match those lingering threats with his mother's radio silence; he did need Naofumi-level paranoia, but as he'd told himself before, it would be better to make sure she was alright than to assume it only to regret his inaction later.

"I'm going to go take a look around," he heard himself say. "I'll be back in a little bit."

"I'll go as well," Raphtalia offered immediately, at the same time as -

"I'm coming, too."

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Naofumi asked, bluntly. Jun didn't stand down, and after a moment's tense silence, Naofumi sighed and shook his head. "Alright. Fine. Just don't get in the way." Turning back to his father, he ordered: "Stay here. Call Jun if she comes home or contacts you in the meantime, alright? I can't guarantee I'll answer my phone." He'd gotten pretty bad about picking it up in the two and a half years he'd not had it.

A sigh from Katai. "Alright. I can't say I'm not worried, but if it's the three of you, it should be fine. Jun, make sure you listen to your brother. And Raphtalia-chan…"

"Yes?" Her ears perked up.

"Thank you for your concern."


After saying their goodbyes, the three of them dashed out into the falling dusk, shoes and hearts pounding. Naofumi's plan was to simply follow the path they typically took to the market and have Raphtalia's keen senses strain for any sign of Kokita, keeping Jun out of as much danger as possible.

He was surprised to see that his brother wasn't having any issues keeping up with the two of them, despite the fact that both ran with stats boosted by their weapons; it was true that neither were moving at top speed, and that even he couldn't see Raphtalia when she activated some of her abilities, but the fact that Jun was keeping up at all wasn't something that he'd expected.

Raphtalia didn't say a word until around the halfway point between their home and the store, whereupon her ears twitched and her tail began to bristle. Not missing a beat, Naofumi glanced back at her over his shoulder and was met with a single sharp nod. They stood by the alleyway where, several days prior, a man had attempted to mug Naofumi and was promptly knocked unconscious by a shield bash to the head; the area wasn't well-traveled, and now that he thought about it, when was the last time he'd seen these stores open…?

"What's wrong? Did you pick up on something?" Jun asked Raphtalia, expression grim. He was, Naofumi figured, likely thinking of the "true crime" shows they'd watched on television before the summoning. Bodies did tend to turn up in areas like this one, and while Naofumi hadn't heard of it happening here…

If kā-san is here, then there are only two possibilities...it's a monster that nests, or a human took her with the intent to do something shitty. If nobody were coming to save her, it would actually be better if it were a monster, because at least then it doesn't have anything more in mind than senseless violence. He bit his lip as Raphtalia's head swivelled side to side, then nearly drew blood when she began to speak.

"I am the Katana Hero, source of thy power," she murmured. "Decipher the laws of nature and reveal my target: Detect."

"You can use magic here?" Naofumi blurted out. "I thought Earth wasn't connected enough for that…"

"To be honest, I was going out on a limb there," Raphtalia sighed, peering down the alleyway to their right. "I was relying on the fact that we have access to our status magic. Down here," she added, leading the way into the alley as she drew the umbrella at her waist - only it wasn't an umbrella anymore, it was a katana, and it shone the pale yellow of a reflected streetlamp for a brief moment before the three of them moved entirely into the shadows. A light flared from behind Naofumi and Raphtalia, and both turned to see that Jun had switched on his phone's flashlight.

"If I can't do anything else, at least let me do this," he sighed. "I hate feeling useless."

"Works for me," Naofumi shrugged, turning back to inspect the alley. "Raphtalia, what did you see down here?"

Ears flicking again, she surveyed the area illuminated in the harsh glare of Jun's light for a moment before striding to the far wall and poking at a crumbling section with the tip of the katana. To Naofumi's surprise, it jiggled, and it took him a moment to realize that he was looking at some sort of adhesive cloth covered in the remains of shattered brick. It was a facade, nothing more, and a surge of dread shot through him as Raphtalia paced over to the metal door of what he could only assume was the storeroom of the abandoned shop.

Bang.

Without a word, Raphtalia kicked through the door, buckling the frame as the metal slab slammed into the wall opposite. Her blade was drawn before her boot hit the floor, and Naofumi rushed in after her, instinctively falling into position as the defensive frontline that he was -

Jesus fucking Christ what the fuck -

"Jun, stay back!" he commanded, right hand flying out to the door where his brother stood. "Just - don't even come in here." There must have been something in his tone that turned away any questions the blonde might have had, as Jun stood obediently just outside the door, watching the entrance to the alley. The flashlight shook violently.

There, in the dusty, disused storeroom, something had made its nest, its horrible webbed nest, and as they watched, it raised its head to stare dead-eyed at them, forelegs still spinning silk around the prey sheltered beneath its bulky thorax.

It screamed.

Not from the face - no, that would be too normal. Instead, a series of vents opened up along either side of its bloated, pale abdomen and the spider released a sound eerily similar to a human scream, followed by something that sent chills down the brothers' spines.

"Here, kitty. Are you okay? What's wrong? Are you stuck in there?"

"Raphtalia!" Naofumi heard himself bellow. "Don't hit the thing under it!"

The spider kept making sound, regurgitating everything it had heard in reverse. Now it was gurgling, then yowling, then meowing -

"Got it!" Raphtalia barked back. They'd dealt with things like this before - monsters that could imitate human speech were uncommon but not unheard of - but what sent waves of nausea through Naofumi's body was the fact that it screamed in his mother's voice, talked to a cat in her voice, and a quick glance around the room revealed several lumpy, webbed sacs ranging in size from a rat to a large dog, with the one exception of what was clearly a human being slumped against the opposite wall.

In an instant, Raphtalia had darted out from behind his shield and bisected the massive spider with a single, clean stroke. There had never been any contest of strength between the two of them, but Naofumi couldn't help the fear that made his hands tremble as he rushed forward to kneel before the webbed-up body on the floor, shoving the spider's lower half roughly enough to send it tumbling across the tile. It wasn't himself or Raphtalia that he was afraid for - it was the person he now knelt in front of.

"Shit, shit, shit," he cursed under his breath. "God - damnit - Raphtalia, can you - ?"

"Hai." She understood him immediately, and - crouching beside him - gently pierced the loosest piece of the silken cocoon with the tip of the katana, sliding the weapon slowly along its length until Naofumi was able to peel it off of his mother in one piece. From the little he could see of Raphtalia's face, she was absolutely horrified, but there was no time to comfort her. Two uncomfortably large puncture marks were visible on Iwatani Kokita's twisted ankle, and he raised both hands to hold them over the injury. Her eyes were closed, but she had a weak pulse - the poison was most likely a strong paralytic that would keep her alive long enough to be fresh for when the spider wanted to eat her.

Deciding it was safe to do so, Jun stepped inside just then and immediately went even paler than he already was. "Kā-san?" he blurted out. "Oh, no. Oh no oh no oh no. Nii-san, what - ?"

"Quiet!" Naofumi hissed. "I, the Shield Hero, source of all power, read and decipher the laws of nature. Purify my target and repair their body: Zweite Cleanse! Fast Heal!"

Warm relief surged through his chest like an electric shock as the magic took effect, soft green light weaving its way through the air to wrap itself softly around Kokita's twisted ankle as her entire body glowed a pale aqua.

"Nii-san…" Jun breathed. "Is...is she alright?"

Naofumi let himself lean back on his palms, trying to calm his nerves. "She should be. If the venom was strong enough to require a higher-level cleanse, she'd probably already be dead."

Raphtalia, next to him, placed a hand over his, ignoring the unpleasant sensation of spider silk beneath her fingers. "It's okay," she murmured. "We did it, Naofumi-sama. She's safe."

Jun rose, casting the flashlight over the walls. He seemed to be in shock, and Naofumi couldn't blame him: if he hadn't gone through what he had, he'd have been paralyzed with fear at the sight of a three-meter-long spider wrapping his mother up for dinner. When he got home, he'd have buried himself in whatever manga helped him relax the most and tried to forget about it.

For just a moment, he was very glad that - out of every version of Iwatani Naofumi possible - he was this Naofumi.

"I...I think I found Shiratori-kun's cat," his brother stammered out with a humorless laugh. "Let's just...call the police and let them handle everything else here."

"We should cut them down first," Raphtalia argued. "I wouldn't want to stay wrapped up like that. Naofumi-sama, do you think you have enough mana left to heal the rest of them?"

He glanced up, counting the shapes along the walls. There were a total of nine, but two - the dog and a rat - were fighting valiantly to escape, and he figured he wouldn't need to cleanse them. The spider had likely not injected enough venom into the dog's vascular system, and it probably hadn't even bothered with the rat. Wait, why am I concerned about a rat anyway? "Save the smaller ones for last," he ordered. "Let's get this other person first, then the cats, then the dog."

"Got it."

The other human was one Naofumi had seen before: the man who'd tried to mug him just a few days prior. "How the hell didn't you get tossed into jail?" he grumbled, raising his hands for the spell anyway. "You're lucky I don't hold a grudge, asshole."

Raphtalia snorted. "Naofumi-sama, no offense, but I've never seen anyone hold a grudge as long as you."

"I was joking. Still, we can't just leave him full of poison."

Jun helped them take down the animals from where they'd been webbed to the walls or hung from the ceiling, then stepped outside to dial emergency services. Out of the eight animals, there were four rats and three cats, along with the dog, but only one of the cats was still alive, and three of the rats had suffocated. He wasn't sure whose cat it was, but he upped the level of healing to try and repair the venom's damage to its small body.

"Alright," he sighed, once they'd finished; the dog and rat had both run off, and Kokita - along with the man and cat - was still unconscious, propped up in a folding chair they'd found. "Let's clean this thing up and go."

"What? We're just gonna leave them here?" Jun appeared dumbfounded. "We're going to leave kā-san here?"

"They'll take her to the hospital," Naofumi countered. "We can go see her there and pretend we didn't know anything about it." As he spoke, he held out the shield, changing it to his newest acquisition: the Trash Can Shield. "Let's try this out."

This particular shield possessed an ability called garbage disposal, which Naofumi had never actually tried, but which would be extremely helpful if it worked the way he hoped.

Requirements met. Gaian Mimic Spider Shield》 unlocked.
Unique Ability: 
Mimicry
Locked Abilities: DEF+2, RES +2

When he and Raphtalia had finished feeding pieces of the spider into their weapons, he stood, feeling quite foolish as he declared: "Garbage Disposal!"

The noise that followed was absolutely revolting, but Naofumi couldn't deny that the ability was efficient: the remainder of the spider was vacuumed into the shield amidst a series of loud squelches and slurps, leaving absolutely nothing behind. Raphtalia retched.

"Naofumi-sama, in the future, warn me before you use that shield."

"Sorry."

He took a moment to check Kokita's pulse again - it felt stronger now, and her breathing was calm. Then, beckoning to the other two, he led the way back out into the dark alley.

"I'm really not comfortable just leaving," Jun admitted, casting a glance back into the darkened storeroom. "Nii-san, are you sure this is alright?"

Before Naofumi could respond, Raphtalia butted in. "If you're worried about it, I can hide us in the shadows here and we can keep watch on what your soldiers do."

"They're police officers, Raphtalia," Naofumi corrected her, resigning himself to his role as her guide. "And paramedics. Those are like emergency healers."

"But you already healed the people in there." She sounded confused. "Why do they need another healer?"

"It's just a precaution."


Three hours later, the entire Iwatani family plus Raphtalia found themselves crowded around a hospital bed.

As far as their parents knew, Naofumi and Jun - with Raphtalia's help - had simply run across evidence of a struggle by the alleyway and called the police. The responding officers had undoubtedly run across the nest, from which they'd retrieved the three unconscious survivors, but there'd been no news about it so far. Naofumi figured it would stay that way - as far as the government knew, no civilian had seen the nest or its creator. They themselves hadn't seen the creator, and he wasn't entirely sure they'd have all survived if they'd run across the spider: it was, according to the message printed in his experience log, level ten, and while he couldn't check its stats, they were clearly high enough to easily overpower two adults. If guns now worked based on the user's stats rather than the way bullets could destroy flesh, he wasn't sure how effective they'd be against even a low-level monster.

Speaking of which, the spider had provided enough experience to get Jun to level two, and his stats had risen. What had Naofumi concerned was that his dexterity had doubled - and while the absolute increase was only 15 points (up to 30), the relative growth was a whopping 100%, much higher than the typical 10-20% growth seen at low levels. His other stats stayed true to this trend, having only grown one or two points each.

"Do you know when you're getting out?" Katai asked his wife, both hands clasping one of hers.

"Tomorrow morning. According to the doctor, there's nothing wrong with me, but they want to keep an eye on me overnight just to be safe."

"We can come get you, then," Naofumi offered. "Tō-san has work and Jun has school, so Raphtalia-chan and I can make sure you get back safely."

His mother smiled wanly, head sinking back into the sterile white pillow. "Thank you, Naofumi. And thank you, too, Raphtalia-chan."

"It's no problem. I'm glad I could be of assistance." Raphtalia dipped her head respectfully, and Naofumi could tell from his parents' expressions that there was no longer the matter of their approval to worry about, even if her ears and tail came across as a little strange. The thought brought the ghost of a smile to his own lips.

Non-emergency visiting hours ended fifteen minutes later, and the four of them bid their farewells, departing for the closest subway station. The trip back home was uneventful, and they stopped at a noodle shop on the way, carryout boxes steaming in the rain.

"Kā-san seemed to be okay," Jun told Naofumi, falling into step beside him. "Do you think she remembers seeing...it?"

"The spider?" Jun nodded. Naofumi stared down into his noodles. "She didn't say anything about it. All the doctor said was that the police said she'd been attacked. Part of me hopes she does remember, but I'm still wary about people figuring out what's going on. You think what you saw this morning was the same kind of monster?" he added, and Jun frowned.

"I hope not, but there's no denying it was the same color. Where did it even come from?"

Something tugged at his memory, something from Melromarc, but Naofumi couldn't quite articulate just what it was. "I'll ask Raphtalia later. If she doesn't know, we'll have to get back in contact with the other world when the next wave occurs and ask the mages there."

"Mages, huh." It wasn't a question. "If I hadn't seen that spider and your shield in action, I'd think you were an overgrown chuunibyou."

The comment caught him off-guard, and he actually laughed out loud. "I sort of was, a couple of years ago," he admitted. "It wasn't on the level of a middle-schooler, but I used to wish I had the power to do something about how aimless everything felt. I figured if I had magic powers or whatever it would at least give me a purpose again."

"Did it?" Jun asked him, expression serious and gaze fixed on some point in the distance. Naofumi didn't have to think about his answer.

"Yeah. Without a doubt."

Raphtalia's hair swayed gently back and forth in front of him as she walked, engaged in some conversation or other with Katai. Following his gaze, Jun smirked a little. "You really got lucky, nii-san."

His first thought was that Jun was teasing him about Raphtalia, but Naofumi figured he'd take the bait anyway. "Lucky? How's that?"

"The odds of you, of all people, getting - well, isekai'd. I was pretty upset about how much you'd changed when you finally got out of that institution, but you're a lot more dependable than the nii-san I remember."

"I wasn't that bad!" Naofumi scoffed, feigning outrage. "Give me a little credit, would you?"

"Well, you did save me from being disowned," Jun mused, still with that smirk. "Alright, a little credit is in order."

A pause, in which Naofumi took a deep breath of garlicky steam. "Honestly, I've felt more alive in the past week than I have in the last four months," he said. "But it's reminded me just how useless I am without something to fight or protect."

"You're not useless!" Jun snapped. "Didn't you just save our mother from a giant spider?"

"That was mostly Raphtalia," Naofumi returned. "All I did was heal her."

"And if you hadn't, then it wouldn't matter whether or not we'd found her. Give yourself a little credit, nii-san."

Naofumi stared into his noodles again and didn't respond. Jun had a point, but he couldn't shake the nagging realization that - were it not for the impending destruction of their world (presumably, at least) - he'd still be more or less an aimless loser, for all the effort he'd put forth in Melromarc. Hell, his college applications still hadn't come back, and the only thing keeping him busy the past few days had been trying to help Raphtalia adjust to modern Japan.

When they got home, Jun excused himself to go do his homework; he hadn't had time at all since coming home between his talk with Naofumi and Raphtalia and the events that followed. Following suit, Naofumi announced that he was going to have a quick bath and get changed.

He was pretty dirty from the storeroom (and so was Raphtalia, but he trusted her to decide her own bathing needs), but more than a chance to wash himself, he wanted a few minutes of silence and solitude to clear his mind. That, he reflected, sinking into the silky bathwater, is the true purpose of a bath. If he'd simply wanted to get clean, a shower would have sufficed, but there was something peaceful about leaning back and watching puffy, lavender-scented clouds of steam roll across the water's surface.

"Naofumi-sama?" he heard Raphtalia call through the door, sounding very far away. "I brought our food upstairs. I hope that's okay."

Wait, what? "What about Katai-san?" he asked her.

"Ah, he said it was alright if we wanted some time alone."

You sly old bastard, Naofumi thought. Are you suggesting I'm going to do something indecent with Raphtalia? In some ways, he and his father really weren't all that different - actually, now that he thought about it, he'd become much more like his father in Melromarc, and he wondered if perhaps something had happened to his father to make him the man he was. Before everything, back when every day was tense and he felt more tolerated than anything, he'd resented Katai his lack of tact, but coming home with a fresh pair of eyes to a family who'd had time to think about what he was to them...it was really -

"Raphtalia, please let me know when you're going to open the door," he groaned, both hands shooting up to cover himself before he registered that she too wore a towel. "Oh, no you don't."

"What? We bathed together yesterday. Isn't that normal here?" She seemed genuinely confused, which was somehow worse than her past attempts to slip into the same bath.

"For lovers and family, sure," he replied patiently. "But outside a public bath, it's very odd for two unrelated people to bathe together, especially if they're the opposite sex."

Raphtalia closed the door behind her and stepped into the bath anyway.

Naofumi sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he moved to make room for her. "Look, I'm not responsible for what happens if someone walks in on us."

"Which one are we, Naofumi-sama?"

Her question didn't make sense, and he could tell from the look on her face that she wasn't joking. When all she received in response was a blank stare, Raphtalia huffed, turning so that her back was to him. "Never mind. It'd be faster if we could help each other wash, right? Our food will get cold if we bathe one after the other."

He conceded that she had a point, and after soaking together for a few minutes, they took turns washing the other's back, Naofumi finding it very difficult to look directly at hers. Something quite aside from how exposed they each were was bothering him, and it wasn't until after they'd gotten dressed that he figured out what it was.

"Hey, Raphtalia?"

She glanced up from her food, ears perked and eyes wide. "Yes?"

Swallowing the bite he'd just taken, he struggled to find words for what it was he meant to say. In the end, all he managed to do was gape soundlessly for a solid six seconds before letting out a hoarse "thank you" and lowering his head, feeling some powerful emotion well up inside of him.

He'd been thinking of what he had told Jun on the way home, about how he'd still be drifting through the debris of his former life with no plan in mind had fate not had other ideas, and realized that the sense of purpose he'd rediscovered was in no small part thanks to the girl now sitting cross-legged on his bed, the tip of her tail twitching. Raphtalia, of course, could not have known this, and assumed he was thanking her for something else.

"You don't have to thank me," she pointed out mildly. "I would never let harm come to someone innocent - especially someone who's precious to you, Naofumi-sama. I'm really happy I was able to make a difference today."

"That's...not exactly what I meant, but thank you for that too," he admitted. "If we hadn't had your detection abilities, I don't think we'd have found my mother in time."

"I'm sure you'd have figured something out," Raphtalia tried to reason. "Do you think it would be a good idea to have your parents as party members, too?"

"I don't think they'd believe it, although that might actually be best for us if they don't. I still don't think it's the best idea to let anyone else in on what's happening right now. I think the government has some idea, but they're certainly not going to tell the general populace. Anyway," he went on, before she could respond, "that's not what I wanted to talk to you about. When I thanked you, I was...glad you're here."

Surprise flickered across her face. "But you don't have to thank me for that."

"That doesn't mean I can't be grateful. Even with the waves coming back, I'd probably still be lost if you hadn't showed up."

He met her gaze then, willing his eyes to say what he lacked the eloquence to, and after a second, she got up, striding over to his chair with purpose -

She plunked down in his lap, wrapped her arms around his neck, and buried her face in the crook of his shoulder.

"Then thank you, too," she whispered, and he knew her words carried far more weight than simple gratitude.

Awkwardly, he put his arms around her, and they sat in silence for a very long time afterward.


The next morning, Jun went to school alone.

As it turned out, one of the cats they'd found had indeed been Shiratori's, though Jun didn't know if it was the one that had survived or not; his friend had simply texted him that morning thanking him (Jun attempted to correct Shiratori on the details, namely that he'd just been the one to call the police, but had received no response as of yet) and saying that he wouldn't be at school today.

The incident itself had been played off as a string of ordinary abductions, and since one of the human victims was homeless and neither remembered anything about the incident, there was no indication otherwise.

Naofumi had been relieved. Jun was concerned. He understood his brother's desire to keep quiet the information surrounding the changes taking place in their world, but if things kept up like this, those left in the dark were going to be hurt, and badly. I mean, kā-san was nearly killed already. How is Naofumi able to just sit back and watch? If I could do anything about it, I'd at least try to get the word out there…

Passing Tatsujime's ramen stand, he noted that the downspout was empty this time around, both of water and spiders (the rain, to everyone's relief, had finally stopped, leaving only racing gray clouds and a warm wind in its wake). He was glad; even though he'd only seen the spider after Raphtalia had sliced it in half, it was still terrifying, and he'd still been able to hear the noises it made. Seeing another one, even a smaller version, would have probably given him enough anxiety to last the whole day. Just the knowledge that there were likely more of them had him on edge.

What did nii-san call it - a Gaian Mimic Spider, right? Gaia is the Greek name for the goddess of Earth, and people tend to use it interchangeably as a fancy name for the world itself...I'm pretty sure I played a game where the setting was called Gaia, too. The other parts of the name are self-explanatory...but does the "Gaian" part mean it originated here? I can't see why it would be called that if it came from the other world that nii-san and Raphtalia-san described, and they said themselves yesterday that monsters would only cross over during a wave event. So how did it form…?

Lost in thought, Jun didn't notice the man standing in the alley shortcut until he was within arm's reach. He didn't even have time to cry out as a gloved hand clasped itself over his mouth; the man was thin but unnaturally strong for his build, and no matter how much Jun fought, there was no way he could break free. It wasn't like he carried a weapon to school or anything - he'd never even heard of a student being abducted here, and he always walked with a friend anyway, so why was today the one day he was alone - ?

I don't want to die.

He knew he couldn't win this fight. He'd forsaken athletics for academics, and his assailant had taken him by surprise. In every possible respect, this man held the upper hand, but Jun couldn't simply give up. There were too many things at stake for him to give up.

I want to live. I want to be my own person. I want to stop clinging to my family so much. I don't want to feel like a burden to my brother anymore.

Realistically, Naofumi had never seen him as such, but all the same, there was something about both him and Raphtalia that told him: you're out of our league. It clearly wasn't the message they intended to convey, but their very presence was powerful.

He wanted to be able to stand next to that one day.

So why?

The man's other hand clamped shut on his throat. Soft yellow, the color of sunshine, bled into his vision, staining the dull grey of the world around him.

Why does it have to end here?

He struggled to breathe. His consciousness slipped.

There was so much more ahead of me, and this bastard wants to take it away.

Anger began to boil in the pit of his stomach, and something heavy dropped into the palm of his hand.

For what?

The man let out a surprised grunt, and his grip loosened enough to give Jun room to breathe. Choking and gasping for air, Jun swung the object hard into the man's knee, then shifted just enough to ram it into his stomach with all the force he could muster as he pulled away, managing to throw his assailant off. Fury still seething in his bones, the yellow tones faded as he stared down at the thing that had saved his life.

I'm not going to die today.

Six blocks away, Naofumi - who'd taken off running from the front door the moment he saw Jun's health start to drop - saw his brother's class icon change.


 

 

Chapter Text

 

By a storm of earth and fire, the nightmares before her knew agony.

Standing in the middle of the open valley, Malty relished the fresh air, the chance to exit that dank, dismal cell; she'd been in it for eleven days, and as a former princess, she still couldn't get used to the discomfort of it, nor the reek of mold and stale urine. Her captors had the nerve to demand her compliance while keeping her locked away from the world, and she resented them for it.

"As the Staff Hero and the source of all power, heed my words! Read and decipher the laws of nature to deluge my enemies in molten earth! Ars Drifa Pyroclasm!"

It was all she could do not to fall victim to her frustration, to let the spell run rampant and take the men watching her down with it.

The mountains around her seemed to melt, a layer of soil sliding off the sides and rolling downhill into the valley to engulf the dozens upon dozens of unfamiliar monsters surging towards the village behind her. She barely had time to process their names - Melromarc-XI Greater Kappa, Melromarc-XI Blood Nymph - before they were taken by the Vesuvian wave of molten mud. Dozens of experience notifications flashed in the corner of her vision, but there was no indication that the wave had closed; hell, she couldn't even figure out where the rift between the two worlds had opened to begin with. Part of why she'd come out here in the first place - why she hadn't simply melted the bars of her containment cell and strolled on out - was because she suspected her captors had some knowledge of the waves and would hopefully possess some means of transporting her to the next one, where she might run across other vassal heroes. She'd been correct about the former two things, but if she couldn't find the rift, it was possible that another hero would come through, slay the conduit monster, and head in the opposite direction.

The thought was disappointing, but there would be other waves. Besides, she still had a few tricks up her sleeve.

"Remember this space," she murmured to the staff. The magenta jewel in its head flared, and she knew the ability had worked.

"Is that it? Are you done?" barked a man's voice from the small black box she'd been forced to wear on her hip. "If that's all, come back to - "

The nearest mountaintop exploded like a volcano, and Malty immediately found out where the conduit was.

She'd never actually seen a monster like this, but it wasn't far from the beast described by many a weary traveler fresh from the deserts of Zeltoble, and it became clear why she hadn't detected it until now: it had been under them the entire time.

Melromarc-XI Scourge Worm

Foam dribbled down the thing's mandibles as high-pressure liquid gushed out of two glands on its bus-sized head; its thick body twisted and coiled, thrashing wildly, and like a fire hose, the spittle sprayed high and wide, coating everything around it -

Having never fought anything like this herself, Malty didn't recognize the attack until it was too late. She was lucky enough that only a single droplet of what could only be acid struck her bare shoulder before the pain hit and she threw up a barrier, wincing as her health dropped - but the military, the men whose guns were always trained on her, were less fortunate. Despite the "safe distance" they kept to ensure their own safety while remaining within shooting range of the one person protecting them, they were still well within the worm's attack range, and at level one…

Their screams of agony rose as one, twisting into a transient cacophony that fell silent as, one after another, every soldier who so much as touched a drop of the acid spray convulsed and died on the spot. The few survivors, wrought with abject terror, fled, but if her own treatment was anything to go by, they would be silenced soon enough.

She risked a glance both at and over her shoulder; the skin there had burned badly in the shape of a teardrop, but she would be fine. The levels she'd gained on top of her passive stats and abilities provided enough padding to ensure her survival for the time being. The scene behind her was a different story: the temporary fortifications her captors had erected were now some sort of canvas-and-metal slurry.

Ahead of her, the Scourge Worm let out a grating, ringing screech, then lunged forward off the mountainside, curving through the air towards her, mandibles glittering like glass in the glaring sun.

It's too far away to hit me with a jump, she thought, trying hard to keep herself from thinking about what had just happened. Why is it - ?

The worm didn't wait for her to finish thinking - it slammed headfirst into the ground half a kilometer away, tearing up fertile valley soil as it burrowed beneath her. Malty knew she didn't have much time: it would be upon her any second, and it was definitely far stronger than she was in her current state, so if it managed to close those jaws on her body…

However, when the Scourge Worm burst from the earth to do just that three seconds later, it found that its would-be prey simply flickered and vanished, and as it twisted to follow her scent trail, a gout of fire erupted from the hole it had just burrowed, orange tongues of flame licking their way up its pale, desiccated hide. The worm, unperturbed, didn't so much as pause to notice that it was on fire, instead choosing to lunge directly for her once again. Malty was forced to leap away with a gust of wind magic, putting much-needed space between herself and the set of five-foot mandibles that glittered like volcanic glass where she'd been just a breath ago.

It only lost two percent of its health… Is this thing fire resistant? Or is it just that tough?

She didn't get to find out. Halfway through its lunge, something streaked across the valley and, in one stroke, separated its head from its body. Hemolymph oozed out across the grass as, with a mighty crash, the worm jerked to the side of the impact and slammed into the ground, sliding a solid fifty meters before skidding to a stop.

Standing amidst the remains, still crouched where she'd landed, was a girl with wings.


Naofumi stared.

There's no way. Absolutely the hell not.

He'd been through enough to trust the heads-up display that now displayed Jun's class icon as something more than "Civilian", but he was still having a hard time believing it. In some part of his mind, he was certain, he had some sort of block against the idea of multiple heroes from the same family, and in another, he didn't want Jun wrapped up in this any more than he already was.

Still, there was no turning back now.

"Jun?" he prodded.

The revolver, gleaming silver with a stained-black leather grip, trembled in Jun's hand. Without looking at Naofumi, he said: "I can't put it down, nii-san."

"What?"

"It won't let me put it down!"

His brother seemed genuinely anguished, and when his grip shifted, Naofumi spotted the jewel embedded in the revolver's grip, a bright yellow that - even as he watched - flickered to red and back until it simply stayed red and a shower of grim sparks flew from it -

Through clenched teeth, Jun let out a cry of anguish, but Naofumi's concern was that he could hear a second voice, shouting in rage, in triumph, and he knew immediately what it was; the revolver's polished silver turned to a dull jet-black and, with a series of loud clicks and a quiet mechanical whirring, the entire gun began to unfold, pieces separating and conjoining as new components sprung out of every crevice until it had turned from a revolver into something else entirely. Naofumi didn't know what it was until reddish, black-streaked fire began to lap eagerly at the end of the barrel and everything fell into place.

"Change Shield! Float Shield!"

Jun screamed as a jet of cursed flame ejected itself from the end of the flamethrower - is this a curse series weapon? - and dissipated against the Shield of Compassion's projected double. The man on the ground, tall and lanky and foreign with a Slavic jaw and bloodshot blue eyes, wasn't someone Naofumi recognized (and who, he was certain, was no friend of Jun's), but no matter what he was doing here, no matter why Jun was pointing a gun at him, he didn't deserve to fall victim to cursed fire.

Probably, some part of Naofumi added.

The air around the Float Shield pulsed a deep, calming blue, absorbing the flames, and with a start, Naofumi realized that fire was creeping steadily up from the nozzle toward Jun's hand. His brother, too petrified with fear and pain to notice, stood as if rooted to the ground, holding white-knuckled onto the flamethrower. Naofumi raised the Shield of Compassion, rushing to Jun's side, but the fire surged forth to envelop Jun's hand, his forearm, his elbow before a soothing sky-blue light beat back the flames, crawling all the way down to the flamethrower.

Jun dropped it, and it lay on the ground, clicking and whirring as it folded back into itself. Naofumi didn't even so much as glance at it, darting forward to catch Jun as he fell; the man darted away, already in full flight toward the opposite end of the alley, but it doesn't matter, Jun's hurt, he's in trouble.

"Jun?" he tried to rouse his brother, to no effect. "Jun!"

Jun's eyes were closed, but he was breathing and his pulse was normal. If Naofumi had to guess, he'd fainted from shock and exhaustion, considering that the only injury on his body was the long burn that wrapped around his forearm. He couldn't yet tell if the curse remained, as he'd used the Shield of Compassion's Blessing to dispel the flames and relinquish the weapon's hold on Jun, but getting his brother home took priority over all else.

Glancing both ways up and down the alley to ensure they were alone, Naofumi held up the shield again, spreading his fingers.

"Portal Shield."

He picked up his brother's unconscious body and stepped into his own living room.


Raphtalia, very much concerned for the two brothers, stood up the moment the portal opened. She'd seen it enough times to know what would come through, but she wasn't prepared for the sight of a burned Jun hoisted over Naofumi's shoulder in a fireman's carry.

"Naofumi-sama? What on earth - what happened to Jun?" She'd forgotten the honorific in her haste, immediately reaching out to help Naofumi carry his brother, but he waved her off.

"I've got him, but we have some talking to do."

His tone was not reassuring.

After depositing Jun in his bed, Naofumi poked at the black rectangle he carried in his pocket, then held it up to his ear; a moment later, he explained aloud that their mother was in the hospital due to an incident the previous night and that Jun would be needed at home to help ensure she was properly taken care of while his father was at work and his brother ran errands for them. Raphtalia was about to ask why he was telling her this (and why he was lying) when she remembered that the thing in his hand was used to talk to other people through other rectangles.

"Were you talking to someone at Jun's school?" she asked him once he'd pocketed the rectangle - the phone - again, and he dipped his head.

"Yeah. He's never missed a day, so he'd be devastated if he were absent without an excuse. Knowing him, it'll be the first thing he asks about when he wakes up. Not the burns on his arm, but whether or not his school knows what's up." Naofumi rolled his eyes, but he couldn't stop the half-smile that crept onto his face.

"So what happened?" Raphtalia pressed, succeeding where he'd failed and wiping the smile off entirely.

"You saw the class icon change, right?" When she nodded, he went on, speaking as bluntly as possible: "He's a vassal hero now, I think. He was holding a gun when I found him, and those are completely illegal here."

Raphtalia thought a moment. "A gun?" she mused, wracking her brain until she remembered the compact projectile weapons she'd seen in Faubrey, firing off high-velocity metal shards at the pull of a trigger. "Aren't those extremely inefficient, though? They take more maintenance and practice than bows and don't produce better results…"

"From what I remember, yeah." Naofumi sighed, gaze trained on Jun's burned hand. "But he's pretty much stuck with the damn thing now. You and I both know there's no way to get rid of these. Hell, this one couldn't even give up the ghost in a world without a power source," he added, rapping his knuckles across the shield before pushing himself to his feet. Silently, he stood next to the burnt arm, touching all ten of his fingertips to the scorched flesh, and declared: "As the source of thy power, I, the Shield Hero, order thee: decipher the laws of nature and heal my target. Zweite Heal!"

"But how did he get burned?" Raphtalia continued, biting her lip. Soft green-blue light, thick and cloying like fog, clung to Jun's injured arm, and as she watched, the burns healed before her very eyes, leaving only a series of faint scars around his wrist.

Naofumi shrugged. "I think he had a curse series already. The thing turned into a cursed flamethrower and ended up backfiring on him. Maybe it was trying to sap his life energy for fuel, since he's not that strong right now and I doubt he could actually sustain firing it for longer than a couple of seconds with the little SP he has."

"Flamethrower...oh!" She remembered, faintly, their conversation from the previous day. It seemed like a very long time ago indeed that they'd been at the marketplace, which Naofumi had referred to as a mall. "But how did he get a curse series so early…?"

"You'd have to ask him when he wakes up." Raphtalia could practically feel the weight in Naofumi's voice, and with a worried glance at Jun (who seemed to be sleeping peacefully now), she stood up from the desk chair, wrapping both arms around Naofumi and burying her face between his shoulder blades.

For a long moment, the only sounds were Jun's soft breathing and the gentle warble of a bird outside.

"Are you okay?" she asked, muffled by his shirt.

"I'm fine. Let's...let's go pick up my mother from the hospital."

"Naofumi-sama."

Her tone made it clear that she wasn't buying his "I'm fine", and he sighed; she felt the tension go out of his shoulders, beneath her upper arms. Neither of them spoke for a few minutes, and the bird was joined by another, their voices rising in shrill crescendo until a sharp series of jabbering squawks cut in and the singing stopped.

"Do you think it'd be right for me to try and stop Jun?" Naofumi asked her, bluntly.

"Stop him from what?" she pried, voice gentle.

"Becoming a vassal hero."

"I mean, you wanted to level him up so that he could defend himself, right?" Raphtalia reasoned. "He's getting a substantial boost to his stats just from having a vassal weapon, and it'll help his growth, not to mention having a weapon on hand whenever he needs one…"

"Guns are illegal here, though. How the hell is he gonna get away with that?"

"Don't you have some kind of gun-like object he could copy? Like your Book Shield? Or the Umbrella Katana?" she suggested.

"Maybe a hair dryer or a water pistol, but who the hell carries either of those around?" Naofumi let out an irritated huff, and she felt his shoulders tense again. "And besides...if he's already got a curse series, am I gonna have to chaperone him all the time and make sure he doesn't burn himself alive?"

"You watched over everyone in Lurolona, though - " she started, but -

"But none of them had weapons that were actively attempting to murder them!" He was shouting now, and Jun stirred, letting out a sound that fell somewhere between a groan and a sob; after a brief pause, in which Jun slipped back into sleep, Naofumi slumped forward, running one hand through his hair. "I'm worried, Raphtalia."

"I know," she murmured, her breath tickling the back of his neck. "It's okay to be worried, Naofumi-sama, but please don't try to hide it from me."

Silence fell again, but when Naofumi broke it, his voice was slow, heavy. "Since when was it so tiring to care about someone?"

Raphtalia didn't even have to think about her response. She'd lived it a dozen times already. "You're worried. I was worried about...about Rifana," she admitted. "When you love someone...no matter how strong they are, there's always going to be something that makes you worry for them."

Naofumi glanced back at her, over his shoulder. "How long did you worry about Rifana?"

"Until we actually...found her." She bit her lip, looked down at her feet through the corridor between her chest and his back. "I worried about Keel, too, but I spent the most time with Rifana, and she was so sickly...I think, somewhere, I knew she was already dead, and that kept the worry from really coming through."

For a moment, he looked as if he'd been struck, hurt flashing across his face and in his eyes before he closed them, reaching up to grasp Raphtalia's hands where they clutched his shirt. "I'm - "

"No apologizing," Raphtalia interjected, tightening her grip.

"I didn't consider - "

"Naofumi-sama, I understand."

The bird outside returned to its song. It sounded agitated now, like his father after a call with a particularly difficult client.

"Do you think we could have saved her if we'd gotten there earlier?" he mused, at length.

"Do you remember what happened when we broke in to save Melty? We only barely got through that because of Filo. Trying to break in and save the other slaves would have probably just gotten both of us killed."

"That's true," Naofumi admitted. "The only thing that saved us from that dragon was Fitoria, and she wouldn't have showed up if we didn't have Filo with us. We wouldn't have even made it to the lake in the first place if we didn't have Filo to ride."

"I hate to say it, but I really don't believe we could have done anything," she said. "But I like to think that, in another world, she didn't get sick and pulled through just like me. Maybe us three are even together - she was always hoping the Shield Hero would turn up for us one day."

The smile on Raphtalia's face was small and very much final; that thought had helped her cope with Rifana's death, with the impossible, insurmountable fear that Rifana's one life had simply stopped before it even began. The idea that there were other Rifanas who were happy...it comforted her, even if some of those Rifanas were happy because she, Raphtalia, had been the one to fall ill instead…

"Maybe," Naofumi agreed, running his thumb over the back of her hand.

"And maybe," Raphtalia said, "you'll never stop worrying about Jun, but that's okay. You know how to teach someone how to take care of themselves, and it sounds like he's smart enough to learn."

He swallowed hard, Adam's apple bobbing in his throat as he studied the silver revolver laying heavy upon Jun's nightstand. It hadn't been there a minute prior.

Raphtalia held him until he set out for the hospital to pick up his mother.


The rest of the day was uneventful. Nothing happened on the return trip, and Naofumi escorted his mother through the front door two hours later, insisting that he cook them all brunch. (Raphtalia watched him from the stairwell, amused.)

Jun woke up shortly after Kokita's return, looking dazed; he determined that he felt well enough to eat with them, so Raphtalia helped him downstairs, where Naofumi explained to his mother (in just the right amount of detail) that Jun had spent the greater part of the morning vomiting into the toilet and that he, Naofumi, had made Jun stay home. As a result, Kokita insisted that her younger son return to bed after their meal and absolutely would not take no for an answer.

Jun was slightly disgruntled - he insisted he was fine, that he at least go to school for the remainder of the day - but once they were safely out of earshot (and Jun had stubbed his toe on a doorframe), Naofumi whirled on him, fists at his hips and a scowl on his face. "You know you can't just go into school with that thing, right?" he asked, the shield back in its usual place at his waist.

"Why?" Jun appeared genuinely confused, and Naofumi was afraid he'd have to explain that it was incredibly illegal before his brother corrected himself. "Look, I don't know what it is or where it came from, okay? But can't I just leave it at home? I don't see why you had to bring it here in the first place...you should have handed it over to the police," the blonde scolded.

"It's not that simple, and you know it. That's not just a gun, it's a vassal weapon."

"Vassal weapon?" Jun chewed his lower lip, struggling to remember as his gaze drifted to the doorway - then it snapped back to Naofumi, and with wide eyes, he said: "Isn't that what Raphtalia-san has?"

"Mm. So you know that you can't get more than fifty meters away before it comes looking for you, even if you intend to come back for it later. If you intend to throw it away, you'll find that literally can't put it down or take off whatever accessories come with it. You also can't hand it off to anyone - it'll reject them."

"I could always store it in a dumpster or something," Jun suggested, already thinking ahead. It was Naofumi's turn to chew his lip - on the one hand, it wasn't a bad plan, but on the other, there was the obvious catch of Jun happening to move more than fifty meters from the gun. He knew from personal experience that the weapons had zero concern for either the law or common decency, and a gun materializing from thin air at Jun's hip (in school, no less) would not go over well for a variety of reasons, ranging from the obvious issue of oh god, he's got a gun to the paranormal question of where the hell did that thing come from oh god it teleported we're all going to die.

"We'll figure something out," he said, avoiding the issue for the moment. Biting his lip, he opened the status screen, navigating to the party window to inspect Jun's stats.

Iwatani Jun - Gun Hero, Lv3 

HP  66/67

MP  0

SP  30/30

ATK  56 》  | MAG 47

DEF 6 (+2) 》  | RES 10

DEX 75

At a glance, Jun's stat growth made it very clear what sort of weapon the gun was - a pure attack type. Vassal weapons were approximately half as powerful as legendary weapons, so the increases lined up with what Naofumi had been expecting. The DEX stat still glowed gold.

"How come I have fifty-six in the magic stat, but no mana?" Jun, reading the display over his shoulder, asked, and Naofumi cracked a half-smile.

"You can see this for yourself, you know," he suggested.

"How?"

Briefly, Naofumi explained how the status magic worked, and after a few moments during which Jun's eyes sought the activation icon, he figured out how to open the status screen. "This...this is freaking me out, nii-san."

"What was your question again?" Naofumi asked, ignoring the mixed fear and wonder in Jun's voice.

"Ah - I have no mana." Jun pointed to the "0" next to "MP", and Naofumi frowned at the menu, suddenly uneasy. "But I clearly have a magic stat…"

A few seconds went by before Naofumi realized what was bothering him.

"There's no cap on your mana?" he said aloud, poking at the "MP" icon, but the tooltip that came up was no different than he remembered -

Wait a moment.

"'Resource used to harness magical abilities," Naofumi read. "Replenished on weapon attacks. Amount restored is proportional to your MAG.'" Dumbfounded, he could only read the tooltip over again before tapping the icon next to MAG. "'Magical aptitude,'" he announced. "'Determines the power of magical abilities and the mana restored upon hitting a target.' What the hell is this…?"

Two more of Jun's stat tooltips were equally strange. His DEF and RES were standard, but the ATK stat now simply read "Determines the damage dealt when striking critical points", while the DEX stat read "Determines action speed as well as the force and damage of projectile attacks".

So Jun's dexterity functions as his main attack stat? Naofumi mused. His attack is now basically a crit multiplier… while his magic stat gained an extra function. Isn't this a little broken? Or, he reasoned, surveying Jun's low health and defensive stats, is he supposed to be a glass cannon? Raphtalia was always a little more of an all-rounder…

Jun, to his left, pinched the bridge of his nose. "This is a lot to take in," he admitted, and there was weight in his voice. "I thought you said Raphtalia-san found the katana?"

"She did. But most vassal weapons are a little more proactive than that when it comes to searching for a wielder."

His brother studied the revolver. It lay still and innocent upon his nightstand, its polished silver reflecting the light of the lamp above it.

"What happened, anyway?" Naofumi asked, following his brother's gaze.

"I was just walking to school. Shiratori-kun said he wasn't coming because he had to take care of his cat - I think it was one of the cats from last night."

"Dead or alive?"

"He didn't say," Jun admitted, biting his lip. "I hope it was the surviving one."

"Alright, so you walking to school alone triggered the appearance of a vassal weapon?" pressed Naofumi, quirking one eyebrow.

"Of course not, and you know it," came the reply, in the form of a sigh. "Didn't you see the man I was aiming at? He grabbed me."

"Yeah, I saw." In retrospect, Naofumi realized that he should have pulled up his HUD and inspected Jun's assailant, but he'd been far too concerned about his brother being burned alive to bother. "So it was a life-or-death situation that brought it out?"

Jun thought about it.

"It was a life-or-death situation, I think," he said, slowly, "but I don't really remember feeling like I was in danger. I was mostly just...angry."

"Angry?" echoed Naofumi; Jun definitely had a temper in him, but he'd mellowed considerably ever since Naofumi had converted him to the otaku lifestyle. "About being attacked?"

Jun thought again.

"Can I be honest with you, nii-san?" he asked, at length.

"Have you not been?" Naofumi shot back dryly. His brother rolled his eyes. "Go on," he added.

"I know we talked about...that empty feeling, a while ago," Jun began, his brow furrowed, "but ever since Raphtalia-san arrived...I've been getting this...feeling."

His interest piqued, Naofumi leaned forward a little, arms crossed and lips pursed. "A feeling?" he prompted, when Jun looked to him for a reaction.

"There's something different about you two," Jun elaborated. "I didn't know what it was at first, but after last night, I realized - you two are strong."

Naofumi blinked. "Strong how?" He knew he didn't sound particularly engaged, but if Jun was heading down the path Naofumi thought he was -

"...In a way nobody else is, I suppose?" his brother tried, shrugging one shoulder. "That spider never stood a chance, did it?"

"Against Raphtalia? Of course not. Though now it probably wouldn't have much of one against you, either."

"Well, I wouldn't stand a chance against either of you myself," Jun reminded him. "I think that's what bothered me. I'm not saying I'm jealous!" he added, waving both hands as Naofumi opened his mouth; when the Shield Hero closed it again, Jun went on: "It's just...am I a burden to you guys? Am I going to be one?"

In spite of himself, Naofumi laughed out loud, but when Jun seemed to deflate before his eyes, he reached out a hand to clap the fledgling vassal hero on the shoulder. "I can't say no," he said, deciding then and there to be completely honest, "but if you work at it, I'm sure you'll eventually be more than capable of holding your own. As it stands, your stats are pretty damn high for a level three - if we run into another one of those spiders, you'd probably be able to take it out on your own now."

"Was that supposed to be reassuring?" asked Jun, torn between hurt and amusement.

"Did it give you a better idea of what's coming next?" Naofumi returned. "Even if I decided you were totally useless, you'd at least know where you stood instead of doing that thing you do - you know, worrying about something for weeks instead of just coming out and asking about it."

It was Jun's turn to laugh now, and though he clearly wasn't totally secure, Naofumi could tell that his brother felt a little better.

For now, at least.


That evening, Raphtalia approached him with her status screen open and confirmed that he, too, could see a dragon hourglass. Next to it was printed 09:21:18:06 in a shade of red so intense that it made Naofumi's eyes burn.

"I think," she said, without any sort of pretext, "we should try to get Jun-kun's level up and find out a way to unlock some new weapon forms."

"That's not a bad idea, but do you have a plan for how to actually make that happen?" Naofumi asked, crunching loudly on a baked crisp. Raphtalia cringed, and he realized belatedly that kettle-cooked snacks were perhaps a little too noisy for her taste. Abandoning the crisps for now, he issued an apologetic pat to the top of her head, and she leaned in, discomfort evaporating in a heartbeat.

It wasn't until Naofumi cleared his throat that her eyes snapped open and she gave a nervous swallow, trying hard to act as if her tail wasn't flicking with excitement. "Um. No, I don't. I'm sorry," she confessed. "It is your world, after all...I was hoping you would have something in mind."

"Nothing - at least, nothing we can do in the next nine days. We have to wait for more monsters to start turning up, anyway, and as dangerous as that's going to be for everyone else, it's our only hope for now."

She was right, however; Jun might have now been considerably more powerful than the average person on the street, but the waves were even stronger, and he'd be in near-constant danger until they were able to slay the conduit. From the levels of the monsters in the first wave, Naofumi estimated that the second would pit them up against monsters around level forty, with a conduit monster of at least sixty - and odds were high that the wave wouldn't be from their Melromarc, making things exponentially more difficult. They'd be relying entirely upon their (admittedly extremely high) passive stats and any levels gained during the wave.

That's assuming we gain levels here from wave monsters...we did in Melromarc, but I didn't get anything from the first wave here, and I'm hoping that's just because this world's ley line was still coming back to life.

Proportionally, Jun would benefit from leveling up far more than Naofumi and Raphtalia. If they powered up the gun properly, he might even be able to fight in the third wave.

The older Iwatanis were in their room; a shaken Katai had resolved to spend more time with his wife after her abduction, and Naofumi couldn't blame him one bit. They still didn't know the details of said abduction, but if things kept going the way they were going, his parents would inevitably find out what exactly had happened to Kokita. Jun, deeply saddened by his first school absence in several years, hammered away at his keyboard, hard at work on an essay that wasn't due for another week.

This left Naofumi and Raphtalia alone in his room once more, and Naofumi could already tell that she was planning to share his bed again.

"Where do you think it'll show up?" she murmured, voice low. "The wave."

Naofumi stiffened; he hadn't considered this before. It had been a complete fluke that the last wave had shown up right here in his hometown, hadn't it…? "Shit. I wasn't even thinking about that. I guess we're just gonna have to track it down through the news and the weather and show up late." By the time we get there, it'll have probably wrecked entire cities. Fuck.

"Won't we just teleport there?" Raphtalia frowned, confused, and he shook his head.

"No, the first wave showing up in my city was a coincidence," he explained. "I didn't teleport."

"Well, we do have nine days. I'm sure we'll figure something out." She tried to sound casual, but she couldn't keep the worry from her voice, and Naofumi managed a half-smile.

"I appreciate you trying to help me feel better," he offered, and she smiled a small, watery smile back - then, getting an idea, he sat up straight, expression suddenly intense. "Raphtalia. How far can your Detection spell reach?"

"I'm not sure. Probably not that far, because I couldn't find you or Rishia in...that world. Not until you were within range of the status magic's party detection…"

"That's still better than nothing. Can you detect mana flows with it?" His tone was urgent now, and she met his eyes, frown now thoughtful rather than worried.

"I'm sure I could try. But if we're close enough for Detection to work, won't we be close enough to see it, too?" Raphtalia countered, but Naofumi shook his head, a plan already unfolding itself before him.

"If the waves occur when a rift forms between two worlds, can't we detect the mana flow of those rifts in advance?" he pressed on, excited. "We'd have to travel to find it - " ironically, Filo would be useful right about now " - but we've got nine days."

There was a pause, during which Raphtalia bit her lip. Then: "Naofumi-sama...are you suggesting we go searching for the wave before it's even hit?"

"It's better than waiting around, then trying to get to it when public transportation is down."

"I suppose that's true...I really don't want to ride a 'bus' ever again, but if it's to help save the world, I suppose I can handle it." Her expression told him that she'd in no way forgotten about the busful of otakus from two days prior, and Naofumi found himself feeling a very unusual combination of amused and protective.

"It's not usually that bad," he tried, by way of a peace offering. "We just...happened to be around at a bad time."

"I didn't say I wasn't going to do it!" she snapped back, but her tone was playful rather than angry, and after a moment, a wan smile spread over her face. "It's strange, isn't it, Naofumi-sama?"

Perplexed by her shift in mood, it was Naofumi's turn to frown. "...What is?"

"Even though your world is on the verge of falling apart...I'm just happy we get to spend time together again. I was really bitter - " and here her voice became strangely high " - when you left, Naofumi-sama. Even though you couldn't help it...you promised you weren't going to go anywhere, and then…"

She fell silent, throat working, and Naofumi placed his hand over hers on the bed, twining their fingers together - and then she was in his arms, the pressure of her hold on him strong enough to crack a normal man's ribs, and he really couldn't keep track of how she was feeling anymore.

"I hate feeling this way," she whispered. "I hate that no matter what happens, I can't not be happy to get even a minute together. I don't even know what I am to you - you said we weren't together - and I hate that this is what I'm thinking about when your world - when the world of the person I can't help but care about more than anything else - is about to collapse."

Naofumi was speechless, and after a few seconds, she let go, sitting a few inches further away than she had been. "I'm sorry," she mumbled. "Please forget about that, Naofumi-sama. I'll...try to control myself from now on."

"No," he heard himself say, and the resolve in his tone startled him. "I...this isn't the kind of thing most people can forget about or pretend they aren't feeling." When she didn't respond, he changed tack. "Raphtalia...I don't know what our time apart was like for you, but it was nothing short of agony for me. Do you see this?" He held up the tattered raccoon plush, and she glared at it.

"I really don't want to see that right now."

"It's not Raph-chan, you know." He offered it to her; for a moment, she remained silent, then reached out and took the toy, studying it carefully - every worn patch, every tear streak, every bulge where the stuffing had shifted from being squeezed too many times. "I was thinking of you when I picked it up," Naofumi continued, deciding that, for now, he'd let himself be just a little vulnerable. His heart pounded, ached in his chest, and when she turned back to him, eyes glittering with unshed tears, impulse took over and he hugged her.

"I'm afraid you're going to leave again," she murmured into his ear, and he felt the tears now rolling down her cheek drip hot and wet against his own. "I'm scared you already have. We were - so close to something more - that when you left, I...I broke, Naofumi-sama. For the first time since I met you, I felt so alone, and when we finally came together again, it was like starting over - well, not from scratch, but you didn't seem to feel like there was anything between us anymore. I know you probably didn't think anything of it when you told that woman at the - at the clothing shop - that we weren't together, but that hurt, Naofumi-sama. It hurt, and I can't stop thinking about how stupid I am for worrying about that of all things when we've got something much more important to take care of - "

"Three years ago," he interrupted, pressing a finger to her lips; she stopped talking immediately, eyes wide and red, and he took this as an invitation to continue. "Three years ago - or two and three-quarters, or whatever the hell it's been - I would have probably thought of this as just another problem to solve so that you could go on fighting without anything to distract you." Naofumi paused, and when she didn't speak, he kept going. "I can't say that's how I feel anymore. I meant everything I said to you, back in Melromarc. I'm sorry, too, Raphtalia." A little late, he realized something else: "You comforted me about being here for good, but this whole time, you were afraid I was going to leave. I'm sorry for not noticing sooner."

"No, I - I should have told you," she hiccuped. "It's - "

"It's not okay!" he cut in. "Even if you don't think it's something you should be worried about in the face of - whatever the hell is going on - in the face of a dozen worlds colliding, it's clearly still bothering you, so if you're not concerned about how you feel, at least be concerned about how it's affecting your ability to fight the waves. Okay?"

"...Okay." She pulled back a little, but didn't let go, and for a couple of minutes, they sat there in a sort of sideways embrace.

This also gave Naofumi time to gather his thoughts, and when they were in order, he spoke one more time.

"When I said we weren't together, I was afraid," he said. "I was afraid you didn't feel that way anymore, so I just went for the least dangerous option." It was a weak explanation, but it was true, and to his relief, Raphtalia chuckled.

"For a hero, you aren't too brave sometimes, Naofumi-sama."

Before he even had a chance to reply, she kissed him.

It was warm, warmer than anything he could remember - warmer than sunlight, warmer than whiskey, warmer than the rush of home on a winter day - and strangely wet, though that might have been from the tears running down her face; her lips were both soft and firm exactly when and where they needed to be, and he fumbled clumsily for a moment, his brain completely unable to catch up with what was happening, but it didn't seem to bother her; there was a pained sort of hunger to her, and he returned what he could, dimly aware of the way he now held her, his hands running up and down her back; something hot prickled at the corners of his eyes, and then he, Naofumi, was crying too, and -

They broke apart, breathing heavily.

"Do you know how I feel now?" she asked, her lips still an inch away and her eyes still trained on his.

"I know," he whispered back, and her soft sigh kissed him again before she did; this one was slower, calmer, cathartic, and when it was over, Naofumi felt - for just a moment - as if the world could wait.

"I'm happy we talked," she said simply.

Silence, not uncomfortable, fell between them. Just when Naofumi was considering what to say next, however, Raphtalia tugged him further onto his bed, coaxing him to lay down beside her, and curled up against his chest the moment he complied.

"Naofumi-sama?"

"Yeah?"

"Tell me a story."

He blinked. "You haven't asked me that since we met."

"Is that a no?" She attempted to pout, but couldn't keep the smirk off of her face.

"Of course not," he yawned. "I'm just surprised. Here, let's see what the shield has to offer."

Picking up the Book Shield from his bedside table, Naofumi flipped through it, most of the pages were blank, but he spotted writing on one as it flashed by, and when he'd located the page, he read aloud: "'Act two, scene one: They're called MAN-darins for a reason.'" Shit, it's that grapefruit play again! - and without hesitation, he tore the page out. Raphtalia stared, and after a brief (if lame) explanation from Naofumi, she burst into a fit of giggles. He joined her shortly after, and for a couple of minutes after, they lay there, wheezing like a pair of asthmatics.

"Goodnight, Naofumi-sama," Raphtalia sighed when they finally caught their breath, sounding more content than he'd heard her in some time. "I'm sorry again for dropping all of that on you...but I can't pretend I'm not glad I did, in a way."

"Me too. Let's figure out how we're going to track down the next wave tomorrow, alright? Maybe I'll figure out a way to get Jun out of school so he can come with us - if we run across any monsters, he could use the experience."

"Yes! I'm looking forward to it, Naofumi-sama."

A room away, a silver revolver flickered with the reflected red light of its own ornamental grip.