Estelle is sitting in Yuri’s lap.
As far as Karol can tell, there’s no real reason for her to be doing so. The restaurant booth seat the two are occupying is plenty large enough for them to just sit beside each other, and although the position does make it easier for Estelle to look at the menu that Yuri’s holding in his hands, she doesn’t need to still be looking at it. Everyone in their dinner party has already decided what they want to eat; the reason Karol and Raven are standing in line instead of sitting in the opposite booth is so they can place the orders for all four of them.
As they reach the front of the queue, Raven starts listing off those orders to the cashier, but Karol’s only barely listening as he keeps looking across the tavern towards their friends. Seriously, those two are all over each other—even as Yuri sets the menu aside with one hand, his other arm casually curls around her torso, and Estelle shifts against him accommodatingly whilst staring him straight in the face. She says something that Karol can’t hear but that makes Yuri gape with mock-offense, and when he promptly pokes her nose in retaliation, she crosses her eyes and giggles.
“Ohhhhh my god,” Karol mutters under his breath. “They’re basically married.”
Raven, having apparently finished with business, nudges Karol aside to make way for the next person in line, then laughs as he follows Karol’s gaze. “And yet,” the old man chimes, “not even remotely close to dating.”
“I know,” Karol hisses out, because he does; if Estelle and Yuri had actually resolved their romantic tension, they would have just said so. “And I’m not sure how that’s possible.”
Like, okay, Karol isn’t about to call himself a master of romance when his confession to Nan came out in a very public yelling contest that was, in retrospect, extremely mortifying. But hey, eventually it did go somewhere. He and Nan have been on several dates that he thinks went reasonably well—on that last one, she even kissed his cheek! On the other hand, Yuri and Estelle are already this physically and emotionally intimate, yet haven’t actually gone anywhere.
“So close ta each other, and yet so far.” Raven bends down to get closer to Karol’s ear, whispering conspiratorially, “Yanno, me and Judith darlin’ have a wager that’s been goin’ for a while now. Currently, she thinks it’ll take ‘em about four more months to make it official. I say six.”
“That long?!” Karol yelps, glancing up at Raven in surprise. Sure, maybe Karol can’t trust his own judgment—he sort of figured that they would take a couple months tops after the journey, and it’s already been half a year since they defeated the Adephagos—but damn.
Raven just flashes a smirk, rising again to lean back against the bar counter, and Karol bites his lip as he turns his attention back towards Yuri and Estelle. They’re still pressed up against each other, and it’s not until about ten minutes later, when Karol and Raven return to the table with a plate in each hand, that Estelle finally leaves Yuri’s lap, accepting her fish and fries from Raven as she does.
From there, Karol does his best to just not think about Yuri and Estelle’s will-they-won’t-they dynamic anymore. The most important thing right now is that all of them are friends having a friendly get-together, because Estelle happened to stop by Dahngrest for a spell and the guys have missed her. It’s easy to fall into comfortable conversation over their meal, as Estelle talks about the recent work she’s been doing with the empire, and Karol and Yuri bounce off each other to describe Brave Vesperia’s progress as a guild, and Raven offers up his two cents by drawing on his experiences as both as guildsman and an ex-captain of the knights.
Throughout their discussions, though, Karol can’t help but notice that Yuri, seemingly not even thinking about it, is shoving all the cherry tomatoes in his pasta over to one side of his plate—and Estelle, in a similar state of inattentiveness, is periodically picking them out with her fingers to place them in her own mouth. Later, when Estelle’s recounting one of the council meetings, Yuri reaches his fork over to stab it into a few of her fries, and Estelle doesn’t even pause in her storytelling as she helpfully hands over the salt shaker. Karol doesn’t know when or how those two managed to come to some sort of food exchange agreement, but they did, all without saying a single word about it.
Karol raises his gaze up to the heavens, and takes his next bite of Salisbury steak just a tad more aggressively than necessary.
But the final straw comes when they’re all finished with their meals and getting ready to leave—Estelle calls, “Yuri, wait!” and the addressed freezes up in the process of standing from his seat, allowing her to reach up, wipe a smear of pasta sauce from his cheek with her thumb, and bring the stained digit to her tongue to lick it clean. “There, that’s better,” she says, then brushes past Yuri so quickly that she misses his reaction, misses the way Yuri’s face briefly flashes with an expression that’s almost flustered, stricken even, before he shakes his head to snap out of it and hurriedly follows after her.
Oh, that is it .
“I want in,” Karol murmurs decisively to Raven once they’re all outside the tavern, the two of them hanging a few steps behind as Yuri and Estelle lead the way down Dahngrest’s roads. “And I’m putting my money on a month.”
Raven blinks, then blinks again, then gives a low whistle once comprehension hits. “That soon? Ya sure, kid?”
Not really, to be honest. Karol knows he isn’t the best at reading people, and maybe he can’t trust his own judgment. But also: screw it, he needs some method of coping while he’s forced to watch those two dance around each other.
So Karol nods, and Raven shrugs, and when they get back to headquarters and find a pen, Karol’s name is officially added to the scorecard.
Rita is the member of their old party that Karol probably sees the least of these days, what with how busy she is being a leading pioneer in the field of mana research. Even still, she does make the effort to drop by every now and again; this time, she comes accompanied by Judith, who must have picked her up at some point during her latest jaunt around the world with Ba’ul. The two girls arrive at Brave Vesperia HQ together, Rita announcing her entrance by loudly calling out, “What, you all still work out of this crummy-ass building?”
She’s joking, her tone flippant and her grin cheeky, and Judith rolls her eyes and lightly shoves at Rita’s shoulder from behind. While Rita continues hanging by the entrance, apparently studying the decor, Judith strides further into the lounge, exchanging a quick high-five with Yuri when she passes him by, then heading over to where Karol’s sitting on the couch to plant a kiss to his forehead.
“H-hey, no!” Rita abruptly cries out, clearly trying to sound angry but not entirely succeeding as her voice is laced with laughter. Judith turns around and Karol tilts his body to the side so they can both see the show: Yuri, beaming with boyish mischief, one of his arms curled around Rita’s neck in a headlock as she kicks and screams, “No, don’t you dare!” But Yuri ignores her protest, his other hand clenching into a fist that he hovers above her scalp in clear prelude to a noogie attack—
“Yuri, I swear!” Rita quickly reaches into her skirt pocket and yanks out something that she flaps noisily in the air. “If you do it, I’ll rip this up!”
Yuri instantly goes still, a momentary ceasefire. “Wait, what is that?”
Rita takes advantage of his hesitation to dislodge herself from his grasp, then straightens up to hold the object out in front of her—an envelope, with the name Yuri written in large cursive letters over the front. “I stopped by the capital and saw Estelle some days back,” she explains. “She knew I’d be coming by Dahngrest soon, so she asked me to give you this, but...” Rita shifts both her hands, as if preparing to tear the letter down the middle.
“Ack! Okay, okay, I relent!” Yuri puts up both his hands in surrender, his lips actually twisting into a pout. “Come on, Rita, have mercy.”
Rita smirks victoriously and proffers the letter towards him; Yuri snatches it up in the blink of an eye and calls, “Hey Boss, is the letter opener still in the main office?”
“Uhhhh,” Karol voices, honestly not sure. “Probably?”
“Great!” And Yuri hurriedly dashes off in that direction, leaving the remaining three to blink at each other.
“...I’ll go help him find it,” Judith eventually chimes, tone light and amused. She quickly ruffles Karol’s hair before following after Yuri, while Rita walks further into the lounge and takes a seat beside Karol on the sofa.
“Yuri hasn’t looked that excited in weeks,” Karol notes aloud. By which he means: Yuri hasn’t looked that excited since the last time Estelle was in Dahngrest.
“Oh, you should have seen Estelle. You wouldn’t believe just how much her face lit up when I told her I could pass on a message.” But Rita’s voice as she recalls that is oddly low, almost muted, and that gives Karol pause.
“...Hey, Rita,” Karol says after a moment, eyeing her carefully. “Are you okay?”
Rita furrows her brow and meets his gaze. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, you had a crush on Estelle during the journey.” And she might still have it, for all Karol knows. “So right now, with Yuri and Estelle like that, are you okay?”
Sure, those two still aren’t actually together, but the way they always make eyes at each other makes it pretty clear that neither of them has eyes for anyone else.
Something flares in Rita’s expression, and she inhales sharply as if to go off on him—but Karol steadily maintains eye contact, his lips pursed in concern, because he’s really not trying to tease her about this; he just wants to make sure she’s doing alright. Rita quickly seems to realize that, so she simmers down, and after a period of just staring at each other, she lets out a sigh and slumps back against the couch.
“Look, there’s having a crush, and then there’s...that.” Rita gestures vaguely towards the main office, from which they can both hear the telltale sounds of vigorous drawer-riffling. “Estelle makes him that happy, and Yuri makes her happy too, and...and I care about both of them too much to not want to see them happy.”
And Rita smiles. It’s small, and maybe a little bit sad, but it’s still a genuine smile.
“...Okay then,” Karol says, assured that Rita seems to be fine. “By the way, do you know about the bet?”
Rita nods, chuckling. “Judith told me. I’m not putting any money in myself, but it is kind of fun to hear about.”
“Well, I had to revise my bet to about two months from now, since my first guess actually passed like, ten days ago.” Karol shrugs. “But Judy and Raven have apparently been running this wager since during the journey, so clearly I’m not the only one who was too optimistic at first.”
Rita gives a rough bark of laughter right as Yuri re-enters the lounge, his hands actually shaking with excitement as he pulls out a paper from the opened envelope and starts unfolding it. Judith emerges from the main office shortly afterwards but goes still in the doorway, watching as Yuri’s legs carry him across the room, then up the staircase, then presumably to his own bedroom where he can be all alone with Estelle’s words.
“Honestly though,” Rita murmurs, when Yuri is entirely out of sight, “I do hope they get their act together sooner rather than later.”
And as Karol recalls the way Yuri looked just then—dark eyes glazed over, lips curled into a foolish grin, whole body vibrating like an over-energetic puppy—he can only hope for the same.
“Hey, no! Repede, give that back!”
Estelle’s voice ringing out causes Karol to glance up from where he’s spraying monster-repellent around the area, and he startles when a blue blur instantly whizzes by. “Please, I need that to cook!” Estelle cries again, but Repede seems deaf to her, his swift steps never faltering until he reaches the very edge of the campsite. Only then does he slow and turn around, bouncing on his paws, allowing Karol a clear view of how the dog’s teeth are clamped down on the handle of a wok.
Estelle is clearly no match for Repede’s pace; she continues to pursue, but Repede isn’t even running anymore. He merely watches her approach with a look Karol would describe as almost bored, and when she’s close enough that she can reach her arms out towards him, Repede just ducks around her legs and dashes straight past her, so quick that she can’t even lay a finger on him. Estelle is left empty-handed and exhausted, bending over and placing her hands on her knees as she catches her breath.
“Woah, what’s going on?” Yuri pipes in from the side, looking on at the spectacle from where he’s been busy pitching the tents.
“I-I...,” Estelle pants, “I think Repede really doesn’t want me to make dinner.”
“Aw, come on, your cooking’s not that bad,” Yuri assures, half-joking, and heaves himself up onto his feet to beckon at his dog. “Just let her have it, Repede.”
But Repede merely cocks his head, and his body language is that of a taunt. Yuri frowns, brow furrowing in confusion; he leaves the apparently finished tent to jog closer, but Repede promptly gives Yuri the slip with the exact same trick he pulled on Estelle, frying pan still grasped firmly in his mouth.
“Repede, what’s gotten into you?” Yuri calls, tone both bewildered and indignant. Sure, they all know that Repede isn’t always the most agreeable, that he only obeys commands when he feels like it, but normally that just manifests as him being standoffish or stubborn, not as him actively making mischief.
Soon enough, Repede manages to goad both Estelle and Yuri into chasing him through the campsite, and Karol ponders his choices for a while before ultimately concluding that he should just keep spraying for now. One, because making sure monsters avoid this area while they’re camping is a pretty important task, and two, because if Repede’s own master since he was a puppy can’t manage to pin him down, what chance does Karol honestly have? So Karol circles around the site to spread repellent while a rodeo reigns on behind him, and it’s only when the spray can is empty and the ongoing sounds of chaos indicate that Repede still hasn’t been caught that Karol decides he should probably help out.
But a mixture of strangled yelps and loud thuds reaches his ears, and as Karol turns around, he blinks in surprise at the sight before him. Repede seems to have gotten both of his pursuers to somehow trip against each other: they’re currently a heap on the ground, Yuri with his back against the grass, Estelle with her chest pressed to his. Repede escapes from the scene that he’s created, but once he’s a ways away, he simply stops, sits back on his haunches, and stares at the two as they slowly gather themselves.
“S-sorry,” Estelle says, once she recovers enough presence of mind. She plants her hands to the ground on either sides of Yuri’s head and pushes herself up, but she doesn’t actually get off of him. She just hovers over his body, her legs straddling his hips, her gaze focused on his face, her voice soft and maybe a little stunned as she asks, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I...I’m good,” Yuri replies, somewhat blankly, not nearly as quick-witted as usual. One of his hands slides up as if on instinct, resting on the curve of her back to brace her. “You?”
Karol can’t see them all too well from this angle, can’t see exactly what expressions they’re making, but they’re looking at each other nonstop, and their bodies are unmoving against each other, and there’s such thick tension hanging over them that it’s palpable. So Karol waits with bated breath, anticipation bubbling up in his chest because maybe this is it, maybe those two are finally realizing it after so many months, maybe with all of this charged energy in the air they’ll close the distance and kiss each other right here, right now...
The spell shatters when Estelle abruptly jolts onto her feet and takes several steps away, her face rapidly turning as pink as her hair. While Karol bites back a groan of actual physical pain, she stammers, “Um, s-so, the frying pan...”
“Right!” Yuri chimes, and pushes himself up too—if not a bit slowly, a bit reluctantly. Once he’s standing, he storms towards his dog, but the stern glare he tries to send is somewhat ruined by the slight flush to his cheeks. For whatever reason, Repede gives up then, opens his mouth and lets the wok drop to the grass. “Geez,” Yuri hisses as he picks the pan up. “You are so not getting seconds today.”
Repede whimpers a little at having his food portion reduced, but he otherwise accepts the punishment with grace, head held high as he calmly trots away. He stops only a few steps away from where Karol is, then lies on his belly and rests his head atop his front paws, eyes drooping. Repede watches Yuri go over to Estelle to hand the wok over, and Karol could swear the dog actually looks disappointed.
Did...did Repede do all that just to make Yuri and Estelle have a moment? The more Karol thinks about it, the more it makes sense; Repede is loyal to his master, and no matter how much the dog may pretend to dislike Estelle, he’d still do whatever he could to push them together if he knew it would make them both happy.
“It was a good try, Repede,” Karol tries to console, taking a seat on the ground beside him to scratch him behind the ears.
Repede just leans into the touch and whines.
The time frame Karol put his money on passes yet again, so for his third go, he winds up picking the date smack dab between Judith’s and Raven’s bets. He can’t help but feel irritated as he does so, though—a little because of his continued bad luck in gambling, but mostly because of how Yuri and Estelle just don’t seem to be making any progress at all. Karol recalls the stunt Repede tried to pull while camping a couple weeks back, an effort that was valiant but ultimately fruitless, and wonders if maybe the rest of them should be taking similar, but more drastic measures.
Vague, wispy bits of potential get-together schemes begin floating around his head from that point on, but they’re never really at the front of his mind, so it’s not as if Karol actually develops any solid plans by the next time he sees Yuri and Estelle in the same place. The whole gang is in the same place for this one, actually—a royal gala at the castle, one that none of them are entirely comfortable being at but that they attend anyway because it’s a chance for them all to see each other.
Raven and Rita, each doing their best to avoid engaging the people around them, have apparently found solace in each other and are chatting over in a corner. Judith, on the other hand, is mingling amidst the partygoers rather expertly, now accepting what by Karol’s count is her third dance of the night. Estelle, ever the dutiful princess, navigates through various conversations between different guests, but Karol doesn’t miss how her gaze periodically drifts over to a certain someone, who seems clearly uncomfortable being in a fancy suit and surrounded by fancy nobles.
Yuri isn’t enjoying this ball, and he’s not even trying to hide that. But then Estelle finally withdraws from her discussion with some dignitary to instead approach Yuri, and when she pulls him into a dance, his whole countenance shifts—he looks like there’s no place in the world he’d rather be.
Estelle, too, seems over the moon, even though Yuri isn’t exactly the most skilled ballroom dance partner. That’s somehow both really sweet and really sad to watch, so Karol distracts himself by heading for the snack table, helping himself to a random piece of finger food. He doesn’t even know what it’s supposed to be, but it does taste good, so Karol shoves three more in his mouth and then, after glancing around surreptitiously to make sure nobody’s watching, stuffs the whole platter-full into his bag for later.
That done, Karol looks back towards the dance floor—but Yuri and Estelle aren’t there anymore. In fact, a 360 degree scan of the entire area reveals that neither of them are in the room at all.
“They slipped away together,” a familiar voice chimes as Karol stills from his whirl-around, and Judith smiles lightly as she picks up a mini-quiche. “Towards the balcony, I think, or perhaps the gardens. I suppose they both wanted a break from the crowd.”
Understandable, honestly. But the fact that those two snuck away to be alone together just makes Karol think about his own mishmash set-up plans again, and suddenly, he has to ask:
“Shouldn’t we do something about them?”
Judith quirks a brow at the question. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, they love each other! And we love them.” Karol bites his lip, shifts his weight between his feet. “So like, maybe we should put the whole bet thing aside and just...I dunno, stage an intervention or something?”
Judith doesn’t speak immediately; she just takes a bite of the quiche, chews, swallows. Then, “You know, during the journey, Raven and I talked to Estelle about what we saw between her and Yuri. Several times. But she had yet to come to terms with her own feelings, and nothing we said could make her do so.”
“Okay, but Yuri’s smitten,” Karol points out—he may not be great at reading people, but if he only ever gets one reading right, it has to be this one. “He’s been smitten since the Sword Stair at least. And it’s not like he hasn’t realized it; he knows how he feels.”
Judith nods. “Yes, I’m sure he does. But do you really think Yuri would ever act upon those feelings if he felt there was even the slightest chance it would make Estelle uncomfortable?”
...Oh, Karol thinks. Well, she’s definitely got a point there.
“The bottom line,” Judith continues, “is that even if we tried to somehow manipulate or force them together, what either of them says or does in regards to their affections is ultimately their choice. That’s not to say we have to stay entirely out of it—if either of them asks for advice on the matter, then of course we should be encouraging—but attempting to intrude directly in their business when it’s not wanted would likely do more harm than good.”
Karol glances down to the floor and sighs, because yeah, he has to concede to Judith’s logic on this one. Hell, now that he thinks about it, this sort of applies to his own case, too—confessing to Nan the way he did was a reckless and rather embarrassing decision, but it was his decision. In a way, the rest of the party did help make it happen, because it was knowing he had such a supportive family behind him that gave Karol the courage he otherwise wouldn’t have had. But in the end, he chose to make that emotional leap on his own, and he certainly wouldn’t have appreciated being coerced into it by anyone.
“Yeah, okay. I get what you’re saying, Judy.” Still, Karol can’t help pouting as he cranes his neck up to meets her gaze. “It’s just hard to watch sometimes. They’re taking so long, and I...I really want them to be happy.”
“We all do,” Judith agrees, finishing off her quiche and reassuringly patting his shoulder. “But like you said: they love each other, and we love them. As long as that much holds true, they should be just fine.”
“Guys? We have something to tell you all.”
That’s the first thing out of Estelle’s mouth when she greets everyone else on the deck of the Fiertia, her hand entwined with Yuri’s while Repede dashes up onto the ship from behind them both. Karol glances around at the others—Zaphias is their last pick-up stop for this reunion, so the rest of the old gang is already here—and as they all come to attention, he lets his own gaze return to Estelle as well. But then she just looks at Yuri, and all he does is shrug back at her; Estelle opens and closes her mouth a few times as if struggling with what to say, until eventually, she apparently gives up on words and takes action instead.
Karol doesn’t fully process what he’s seeing at first: Estelle throwing her arms around Yuri’s neck and pressing their lips together, Yuri being perfectly accommodating as he curls an arm around her waist. After a while of staring blankly, Karol literally has to pinch himself, nearly piercing the skin on the back of his hand with his fingernails just to make sure he’s not dreaming. But the mild pain that blooms allows for realization to truly settle in, instantly filling Karol with joy because oh, spirits above, they’re doing this, they’re kissing, they’re really seriously actually kissing...!
“Yes!” Karol shouts, pumping his fist and leaping up into the air. “Fucking finally!”
Yuri and Estelle break their kiss at that, their bodies still pressed together but their lips separating as they both turn to shoot Karol identical expressions of surprise. Then Rita dryly chimes in, “God, it took you guys long enough,” and the surprise visibly shifts into outright confusion.
“Damn,” Raven sighs, but his tone is light and he doesn’t actually look that upset when he pulls out his wallet. After counting out coins for a bit, he pours them into a cloth pouch, then promptly whirls to toss it in Judith’s direction. She doesn’t miss a beat, neatly catching the package with a single hand as her lips curl into a pleased smirk.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Yuri says, comprehension gradually spreading over his face. “You guys were betting on if Estelle and I would get together?”
“Not if,” Judith corrects, gald clinking as she brandishes the bag in victory. “When.”
Yuri’s jaw actually drops, leaving him gawking in disbelief. Estelle immediately buries her face in Yuri’s chest to muffle an embarrassed-sounding squeak.
“Oh, don’t look so scandalized,” Raven calls. “We needed some way ta cope with how freakin’ slow you guys were bein’!”
Repede picks that time to pipe up with a series of barks, his tail wagging enthusiastically, his teeth bared in a canine grin. Yuri, always able to understand his dog in a way the rest of them can’t, scrunches his face up as if in offense and responds, “Oh, shut it!” to whatever cheeky jab Repede must have made.
“Oh yeah, before I forget. Yuri.” Rita puts her hands on her hips, affecting a glare but still failing to entirely suppress a smile. “This is the part where I tell you to treat her right or I’ll burn you alive.”
“Rita!” Estelle gasps, green eyes wide when she whips her head up. “You don’t have to—”
“No, no, that’s completely fair,” Yuri cuts her off, causing Estelle to meet his gaze. He grins, tapping at her nose with his index finger. “I’ll just have to make sure to always treat you right.”
Estelle crosses her eyes, gives a little whine—but soon enough, she’s smiling back at him, and then they’re just staring at each other, still embracing, acting as if the world around them doesn’t even exist. Soon enough, they’re kissing again, this time a lot more fervently and without sign of stopping anytime soon, and while those two continue to be both adorable and sickening, Judith meets Karol’s gaze and begins walking towards him. Karol, perfectly aware that he still has to cough up his own cash for the bet, obligingly begins riffling through his bag.
“I told you they’d be fine,” Judith murmurs once she’s close, playfully nudging Karol in the shoulder.
Karol rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, you were right. About everything.” He finishes counting out what Judith’s owed and hands it over, dumps it all into the same pouch as Raven’s money while sticking out his tongue. Then Karol turns back towards the new couple, and he’s not actually sore about losing the bet—he can’t be when Yuri and Estelle are both clearly so happy—but that doesn’t mean he can’t still take it out on them.
“Hey, get a room!” Karol jeers at the ongoing display, and he knows full well that he’s being childish, but, hey. He is a child. Plus, it’s rather gratifying to see them both jolt and pull away, Estelle blushing up to her ears while Yuri gapes like a fish.
And sure, a minute later sees Yuri chasing Karol down and subjecting him to vigorous brotherly noogies in retaliation for the interruption, but, still.
Absolutely worth it.