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She deserved everything he could give her, and more than that.

 

When he first took her into his care, he saw it as a duty of best self-interests to bring Raphtalia back to health, feed her, and buy her weaponry. A dying slave would have been of no use to him, and the demi-human would have proven to be a waste of money if she keeled over one day. He needed someone he could rely on, and among all his traitors and haters in the kingdom of Melromarc, he knew he could only rely on someone he could threaten and discipline. A slave was his only option.

 

Looking back, Naofumi despised his former outlook of her. He stared into the cracks of the ceiling above, contemplating his view of the demi-human now. Raphtalia was his friend...his closest friend. He was her closest friend now too… But what if...she'd never been a slave in the first place? I would have never been able to trust her - nothing would be at stake. Plus, she probably wouldn't even trust me. He shot a gaze at her bed across the room from him, where the demi-human snoozed peacefully under the warm quilts. Her expression was very soft and warm, even now that she wasn't smiling. She had such a kind soul and she believed the best in others who didn't cross her. She would have probably taken Bitch's side, not knowing the facts. Just like everybody else.

 

This new perspective sent an unexplainable shiver up Naofumi's spine. He tensed up, refusing to let the bitterness take him. He rolled to his other side, refusing to look at his friend a second longer, for fear that he'd never see her the same way again. If only I could sleep. Then I wouldn't have to deal with these stupid thoughts.

 

He closed his eyes, trying to listen to the sounds of nature outside their room. Yet, all he could hear was the soft breaths of Raphtalia. They were so gentle, so delicate - yet life hummed with every exhale. Raphtalia was alive, she really was in Naofumi's life. She really was his closest friend whom he'd do anything for, someone who deserved more than what her beginnings dealt her. Someone who deserved a person who wouldn't doubt her. I always hated when people would doubt me. And here I am, doubting the one person who never did.

 

In one brisk movement, Naofumi threw the covers off of himself and shot up out of bed, quickly making for the doorway. I have to clear my head. I need to go on a walk.

 

His pace was urgent as he stepped out into the chilly night air. Winter was approaching, and salty droplets from the sea beyond danced on the wind. The morning's grass would be covered with a frosty dew, which was beginning to form under Naofumi's steps. He realized he should have gone back for his cloak, but he decided that ditching it was for the best. Frostbite would be a good distraction anyway...not that it's that cold yet.

 

He wove through the dilapidated buildings on the outskirts of Raphtalia's home town. Improvements had been well underway in the center of town, but here was a different story. We're working on it. I want this to be just the place it used to be, for her.

 

He slowed down a little, scanning each structure. Some could still pass as functional houses...for the very poor. Others were no more than a pile of rubble.

 

The pathways were not paved; rather, the path was a thin trail of dust through the lush grass, a symbol of how many lives had set foot there for countless generations. The sight was humbling. For a moment, Naofumi was able to take his mind away from his selfish anxiety. How many years had this town thrived? Had it always been raided by slave-traders? Had it always been solely demi-humans who lived there? There's still so much I don't know. One thing I do know though...this town really looked up to the shield hero before me. He began to wonder...what if the former shield hero walked this path too, many lifetimes ago?

 

Naofumi followed the winding trail until he came upon a clearing...a very familiar clearing. Just meters away from him sat the headstone of Raphtalia's memorial for her parents. The hero could hear the waves crash at the base of the cliffs, beckoning him to approach the grave. He'd never come here without Raphtalia, and certainly not of his own will unless it was for her sake. Would it be right to approach?

 

The faint moonlight cast a silver halo around the edges of the stone, like a gateway meant to be opened. Naofumi hesitated. He wasn't the type to believe in spirits, but a very spiritual feeling befell him. Peace settled in his heart, and he approached the headstone, kneeling before it.

 

For a moment, he stayed like that, staring intently at the stone. Two weeks prior, Raphtalia had laid fresh flowers in front of it. Those flowers were still there, untouched by the breeze, but embraced by the passage of time; their bright colors had faded with age.

 

A faint smile crept across Naofumi's face as he studied the gravesite in vigilant silence. Then, he spoke. "Does she make you as proud as she makes me?"

 

He waited, as though he would get some sort of response. The response was his own, in the form of a tear welling up in his right eye. His bent knee fell to join the other on the ground; his kneeling position broke, in exchange for a huddle on the ground. He tucked his face into his arm, allowing the tears to fall. It wasn't like anyone could see him.

 

Why am I acting like this? I didn't know them.

 

"Master Naofumi?"

 

Crap. The shield hero lifted his head, eyes wide with embarrassment. He turned to meet the gaze of Raphtalia. Her eyes were puffy, and the moisture on her cheeks glistened in the moonlight. Her expression was one of bewilderment as she dared to ask, "Are...do they speak to you too?"

 

Naofumi slowly rose to his feet. He didn't know how to answer her, "I don't know them like you do." His attention was drawn to what was neatly folded over her arms - his cloak. He reached out for it. "Thank you, I was getting sort of -"

 

The demi-human grabbed his wrist, suddenly but delicately, only with enough force to stop his hand. Her gaze was fierce, relentless...serious. If he didn't know any better Naofumi would say that she looked angry with him. "Do they talk to you?"

 

"No," he answered simply. Then he grew a little concerned. "Er...do they talk to you?"

 

Raphtalia loosened her grip and dropped her stare, dipping her face towards the ground. "No...but I can still hear them." She passed the cloak to her master and approached the headstone herself, crouching before it in a moment of reflection.

 

Out of context, Naofumi may have been very confused as to what Raphtalia meant by her statement. But he recalled the distinct but unpaved path which brought him here, the beckoning call of the waves below, the halo of silver around the headstone, and the sense of peace that had washed over him as soon as he arrived. There was no doubt about it - he had heard Raphtalia's parents this night. But why would they call for me?

 

Raphtalia stayed there on the ground, allowing the tears to roll down her cheeks. Yet, her cry was soft. "It may be silly...to still get so emotional. But I guess it's because…" She choked on her words and refused to say anymore, shaking her head and ducking it between her knees.

 

Something soft rested upon her shoulders, draping around her crouched form to shield her from the crisp winds howling through the cliffs. Raphtalia took hold of the cloak which Naofumi had wrapped around her, gripping it like it was the one thing keeping her rooted in reality. In a way, that's truly how it was.

 

"You can tell me." Naofumi's voice was gentle and encouraging.

 

His tone made Raphtalia smile; he was usually curt, but lately he had been taking a much softer approach, particularly with her and Filo. Raphtalia exchanged her tense position for a more relaxed one, dropping to sit criss-cross on the grass, Naofumi's cloak still wrapped around her shoulders. "I know they'd be proud of me now."

 

A knowing spark flashed in Naofumi's eyes, like a match had been struck. That's what I had asked them...but she knew the answer. He was utterly taken aback.

 

"Ha. Cocky of me, right?" she chuckled darkly, her breath floating up as a cloud. Her sights followed it. "I didn't always think that. I always tried to make them proud by helping the village. But when I was captured...I felt so meaningless…because I couldn't do anything. But then you came along. And I was proud of myself again." She tried to keep her voice even as she shared this, and she managed it well despite the few tears which forced themselves down her face.

 

As she brought up the past, Naofumi noticed how easily he began to slip back into his thoughts from earlier, as though slipping through the cracks of the ceiling he'd been staring at as he'd first thought those thoughts. It was your circumstances that made you who you are. I just helped you survive. His fist clenched at his side. He wasn't good enough for her to be confiding in him like this. "Raphtalia." He delivered it through gritted teeth, strained as he dared to say it. "I did nothing for you."

 

Raphtalia was quick to protest, her voice rising in defense of her friend. "That's not true! I've told you many times! You cured my illness, fed me warm meals, gave -"

 

"Stop making me the hero I never was." He was cold and curt, moreso than he ever had been before, speaking to Raphtalia as though she was on the same level as the former king. "And stop trying to convince yourself by repeating the same thing over and over again."

 

"That's not what I'm doing! Naof -"

 

"Good night." With that, Naofumi turned on his heels, heading back for the house, abandoning Raphtalia at her parents' headstone like she really was nothing more than a blubbering slave. I knew she was always forcing herself to like me. I can't blame her. I was horrible to her. He stopped, a new ache settling in his chest as he realized what he had just said to her. I still am.

 

The wind whistled sharply behind him. Arms wrapped around his waist, and something warm rested against his back. His cloak was now billowing around him, but he wasn't the one wearing it.

 

"Naofumi-sama! How dare you say those things!" Raphtalia wailed at him, clinging to him as though to keep him grounded. "You did everything for me."

 

Naofumi hesitated, casting his green gaze to the ground. "Not for you," he muttered under his breath. He wanted to break away from her embrace, but he knew that would be cruel. She doesn't deserve it. It's not her fault. She didn't choose this. "I needed a slave. I was scared of getting betrayed. If you hadn't been a slave, we would never have met. And you would have hated me just like everybody else."

 

"N-no, that's not -"

 

"It's true." He wouldn't stand for her lies, even if they were of good intention. To show that he didn't want to hurt her feelings, he laid his hand upon hers, and leaned his head back to rest upon her head. A sigh escaped him. "But I don't blame you. You wouldn't have gotten the truth. I'd probably hate me too." And I do, but not for a crime I didn't commit.

 

Raphtalia's hands slipped away from his waist. She no longer rested against him. Naofumi let his head fall forward in defeat. So she knows I'm right.

 

The demi-human positioned herself in front of him, her expression intense, piercing into his soul. To Naofumi's surprise, she laid a firm hand upon his shoulder...much like he would do sometimes. "Neither of us had the ideal circumstances, but those circumstances made us ideal." Her expression softened with her voice when she pleaded, "Please understand that, Naofumi-sama. I would never have hated you."

 

"But -"

 

"If you hadn't been framed, you wouldn't have needed a slave on your team. And then I wouldn't have stayed alive, because no one would have come for me. Or if someone did, they wouldn't have cared for me like you did." She shuddered, then pushed herself against Naofumi, sinking her head into his chest. She opened her mouth to say more, but she stopped herself when a hand came down to stroke through her hair.

 

"You are right," Naofumi sighed. "You would never have hated me. You wouldn't have had the chance. But that doesn't change the fact that -"

 

"You bought me that ball when I felt left out. You held me when I had nightmares. You let me visit Rifana. You never went too far with your rage shield when I asked you not to. And above all." She pulled her head from his chest but stared directly into his face, tears welling up in her eyes. "You gave me my home back! You gave my parents a reason to be proud of me!"

 

The urge to pull her close and hold her tight was too great for Naofumi to bear. Perhaps he was squeezing her a little too hard, but he needed to. He could hear his own heart pounding furtively, and he knew Raphtalia could too. They stayed like that for several long moments. Not a sound was made, save for the crashing of the waves and the howling of the wind. What could be said? Never enough .