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Beneath the Brightest Star

Chapter Text

 

Beginning

When Yuri dropped by Halure to give Estelle a surprise visit, he wasn't expecting to be given a surprise himself. Moments after Estelle let him in, though, she suddenly gasped and disappeared into another room, squealing excitedly that she had something to show him. She returned with an expectant look on her face and a thick book in her hands, which she swiftly held out towards him so that he could clearly see the front cover.

The huge font of the title read Tales of Vesperia. The byline read Estellise Sidos Heurassein.

For a few moments, Yuri could only stare. He had known that Estelle had been working on her story for quite a few months now, but he wasn't aware that she had already finished it, never mind that it had been published. But once his surprise wore off, he was left just feeling happy for her.

“Well, what do you know.” Yuri grinned as he met her eyes. “This happen recently?”

“Yes, a few days ago. It's not even in the stores yet.” Estelle beamed, excitedly shoving the book into his hands. “Here, you can take this one. They gave me ten copies to give to people.”

“Oh, uh, thanks Estelle.” Yuri realized only after he heard his own voice in his ears that his reaction sounded less than enthusiastic, and he hoped Estelle hadn't noticed.

But considering that Estelle was now frowning at him, she probably had.

“You're not going to read it, are you?” Estelle asked, her disappointment apparent in her face and voice.

Yuri knew he'd been caught, but Estelle had obviously been elated about getting published and he didn't want to bring her down. “I didn't say that—”

“Look, Yuri,” she interrupted before he could even try. “I know you're not into books, but could you at least read the beginning? Just the first chapter, and if you don't like it, you don't have to continue.”

Estelle bit her lip nervously, looking at him with pleading eyes, and Yuri knew he couldn't let her down when it meant so much to her. She had doubtlessly put a lot of work into writing her book, and admittedly, he was rather curious as to how exactly Estelle had chronicled their journey together, so the least he could do was give it a shot.

Yuri sighed, looked back down at the cover, then met Estelle's eyes again, smiling earnestly. “At least the beginning,” he agreed. “I'll read it when I can, alright?”

Apparently, that was satisfactory, because Estelle grinned, thanked him, and gave him a quick hug before offering him something to drink.


About a week later, during a slow morning at Brave Vesperia headquarters, Yuri decided that he might as well make good on his promise and opened up his copy of Tales of Vesperia.

He couldn't put it down and read the whole thing from beginning to end.

Chapter Text

 

Accusation

Normally, Rita didn't see getting dressed in the morning as too much of a hassle. Sure, she was almost always the last one in the party to finish—mostly because she had to take time to put on all the necessary accessories—but while the actions were time-consuming, they were mind-numbingly simple and had long since become part of a regular routine.

Today, however, Rita had found that routine to be broken in a very upsetting way.

“Urgh!” she growled, storming angrily out of the Fiertia's cabin while clenching the object of her frustration in her fist. “Yuri!”

Yuri turned to face her as she marched up to him. “Whoa. Rita, what's wrong?”

“What's wrong? Your stupid dog chewed up my goggles, that's what!” Seething, Rita held them up to Yuri for emphasis. The lenses were badly cracked and the straps were torn up, covered with what were obviously teethmarks.

Yuri stared for a moment before groaning and glaring down at his dog. “Dammit Repede, I thought you grew out of that.”

Repede looked at the floor and gave a little whine in reply.

“Oh come on, Rita,” Karol's voice cut in. “Do you even need those? I mean, you've never actually used them.”

If he had been trying to calm her down, he failed miserably, because it only served to make her more aggravated. Instantly turning on the kid, Rita delivered a smack to his head and cried, “I do need them! I use them during experiments to protect my eyes!”

“Yeah well,” Raven drawled, “there's not really much experimentin' ta be done when we're traveling around like this.”

“Just shut up!” Rita screamed, incensed. “I like the way they feel on my head, alright? And that's not the point. The point is, they're my goggles and that dumb dog messed them up!”

Yuri sighed, looking exasperated. “Sorry, Rita. Repede doesn't usually do this.”

“Please, calm down, Rita.” Estelle grasped Rita's arm, causing the mage to instinctively turn to her and then deflate somewhat as she saw the concern in Estelle's eyes. The princess had always held a sort of soothing effect over people. “You can always get a new pair.”

“That's right,” Judith piped up. “We can go shopping for one when we reach Heliord. How does that sound?”

“But...” Rita trailed off, her fierceness unexpectedly abandoning her as the others all stared at her. Her anger was diminishing, allowing Rita to remember that getting all worked up wasn't going to fix anything. And they did have a point—new goggles were better than no goggles. Knowing she had no choice but to give in, Rita crossed her arms irritably.

“Whatever,” she huffed, and moved to a corner of the ship to wait until they hit Heliord.


When Rita finally picked out her new goggles, she ended up realizing just how stained and battered her previous pair had been in comparison. But in retrospect, she had owned her last pair of goggles for a good many years, and she supposed that putting them through battle after battle had done quite a number on them. These new ones, though, had much clearer lenses, and from what she could tell, they even felt a bit sturdier, too.

But rather than admit that when Estelle asked Rita what she thought of them, Rita huffed, tried to seem annoyed, and grumbled, “They're okay, I guess.”

Later, after the ship had taken off and Rita had retreated to the cabin to be alone, Repede nudged the door open and trotted over. He sat down and gazed up at her almost pointedly, and Rita wondered if he had been trying to tell her that she'd needed a new pair of goggles.

“You stupid mutt,” Rita accused, but her tone was gentle and forgiving and held no bite. Unable to keep a fond smile from forming on her lips, she reached down and began to scratch him behind the ears.

Repede raised his head into the touch and barked contentedly.

Chapter Text

Restless

It all started one night when, right after they'd set up all their tents, Yuri started swinging around his sword, calling out attacks and using them against nothing. When Estelle asked him what he was doing, he replied, “Just working off some energy” and dived right back into it.

He was still going at it when Estelle went to bed, so she had no clue when he slept that night, or even if he slept at all.

But the next night, Yuri did it all over again.

The night after that, Judith joined him.


The late-night training continued for days. And it didn't stop there.

Traveling on foot became a bit of a show, because Judith kept jumping up and performing mid-air flips amidst walking. The first time she did it, Raven repeatedly whistled as if impressed, Rita hit him to make him stop, and Karol asked Judith, “Why do you keep doing that?”

Judith just shrugged and replied, “The battles here aren't tough enough. I need to move around some more.”

Yuri, on the other hand, did not do anything particularly abnormal during their walks.

Instead, he did crunches and pushups during their breaks.


Traveling by air became more than a little irritating.

To be fair, it was understandable that Yuri and Judith were so jittery when flying. There were no enemies to fight in the sky, and the Fiertia didn't have enough space for someone to safely practice their fighting techniques.

Still, Estelle couldn't help but think as she watched the two figures dash by her yet again, running laps around the ship seemed like a bit much.


“This is getting out of hand,” Karol muttered while sitting at the campfire one night. His gaze was focused on Judith and Yuri, who were busy exchanging blows with each other a little bit away from the rest of them. “They've been doing this for weeks now.”

“I know,” Estelle murmured. “I'm worried about them.”

Rita looked incredulous. “Them? What about us? I can hardly sleep with the two of them making such a racket every night!”

“They're just restless,” Estelle defended them. “It's been a long time since either of them have fought a tough enemy. Personally, I think it's best for their healths if they do something with their extra energy.”

Rita huffed. “Yeah well, those fighting addicts have too much extra energy.”

Estelle looked over at the pair who were still fervently going at each other and found that she couldn't argue with that.

“Ya know, I think what they really need is a good, raw challenge,” Raven cut in. “Maybe we could stop by the coliseum in Nordopolica sometime. Let 'em hit the 200-Man Melee.”

Karol grinned. “Hey, that's a good idea, Raven. Maybe then they'd both finally be able to settle down.”

“We'll if we're gonna do that, we'd better do it soon.” Rita looked down at the ground and groaned. “I don't know how much more of this I can take.”

Estelle glanced at the sparring duo again and nodded in agreement.


“The coliseum?” Yuri remarked when Estelle told him and Judith about the idea the next morning. “Heh, sounds good to me. What about you, Judy?”

“Do you even need to ask?” Judith replied. “I've been dying to have a decent fight for once.”

Yuri quirked an eyebrow playfully. “Oh, so I don't put up a decent fight, huh?”

“Sparring isn't the same,” Judith shot back easily. “You know that.”

“Fair enough.” Yuri chuckled. “I do know what you mean, though. Everything gets beaten too quickly lately. I've been exercising a lot to try and make up unused energy, but I just never feel satisfied.”

Judith smirked. “Wanna go and spar now?”

“I'd love to.” Yuri grinned, but Estelle could see that it was somewhat forced. No matter how much he tried to hide it, it was obvious that the lack of a good fight really was getting to him, and Estelle suspected that it was the same case with Judith as well.

Hardly a minute later, Estelle was stuck watching the two cross blades again, prompting the princess to shake her head and sigh exasperatedly to herself.

They really, really needed to get to Nordopolica soon.


“Oh, you've got to be kidding me.”

Yuri didn't even try to hide his frustration as he said that, and Estelle didn't blame him. They had made it to Nordopolica alright, but what was currently before them, right in front of the entrance to the fighting arena, was a sign that read, Coliseum Closed.

“I'm afraid not, sir,” the nearby clerk gave as a response. “A lot of our monsters escaped a short while back. They were suppressed, but the coliseum suffered major damages, and we've had to close the place down until the repairs are finished.”

“Well do you know when you'll be opening back up again?” Judith urged. “It's important.”

The clerk shook her head. “I can't say for sure. The builders are saying it will probably take at least two weeks.”

Estelle bit her lip. “I don't think we can wait that long.” This whole thing had been keeping everyone on edge for a long time, and she was pretty sure that most of them were just about at breaking point.

“You're right. I can't, at least.” Yuri sounded rather upset, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. “I feel like I'm going to burst if I don't get a good fight already.”

Rita herself looked on the verge of setting fire to something. “Well, what are we supposed to do now?!”

Estelle turned away and rubbed her head. She was attempting to come up with an answer to that very question when her eyes fell upon the Fortune's Market shop nearby. Struck suddenly with inspiration, Estelle grinned and told the others, “I think I have an idea.”

And at that, Estelle approached the store, pulled out a heap of gald, and tried her best to ignore the way the salesman's eyes bulged out disbelievingly when she said ever so politely, “I'd like 99 dark bottles, please.”


Judith had Ba'ul take them all to an wide open area that had no people nearby but was populated with a good deal of monsters. They set up the dark bottles together in one spot, and Rita summoned a meteor that hit and broke them all at once. The bottles collectively released an enormous cloud of monster-attracting magic that Yuri and Judith stood right smack dab in the middle of, while Estelle and the rest of the party retreated and kept their distance as a horde of monsters came rushing in.

The beasts may not have been particularly strong under normal circumstances, but when they came in such large numbers like this, they were quite formidable foes. The two spirited fighters had to put up a struggle, yet were doing well enough so as to not warrant interference from the others. Finally, the effects of the dark bottles wore off and the last of the monsters were killed, leaving Yuri and Judith to stand amidst a slew of carcases, both of them breathless and bloodied but also smiling from ear to ear.

“That was awesome!” Yuri shouted, somehow managing to laugh between his gasps for air. He exchanged high fives with Judith, who looked just as exhausted as he was but also just as pleased.

Estelle noted their reactions and grinned to herself in satisfaction.

Mission accomplished, she thought, and went over to give them both a proper healing.

Chapter Text

Snowflake

Since Karol was now passed out due to having taken on that flying fish monster all on his own, somebody else in the party was going to have to carry the kid the rest of the way.

Rita nominated Raven, Yuri seconded, and Judith was perfectly content with their decision.

Raven, to Judith's slight amusement, took on an indignant expression. “Hey, why's it gotta be me?”

Yuri looked up from where he was bent over the unconscious Karol. “You were the one complaining over and over about it being too cold, old man. This way, you two can share body heat.”

“Yeah, and besides,” Rita cut in irritably, “we don't have time to argue about it.”

“Yes,” Judith agreed. “We have to get Karol out of the cold as soon as possible.”

Raven sighed, grumbling, “Makin' an old man do all the hard work.” Nevertheless, he willingly turned his back to Yuri and said, “Here. It'll be easier on me if he rides my back.”

“Alright.” Yuri shifted Karol so he could grab him under the armpits, then turned to meet Judith's gaze. “Could you give me a hand here, Judy?”

Judith nodded, crouching down and lifting the boy's feet just a bit so that Yuri could stand up. Together, they picked up Karol's limp form, and with Raven's cooperation, they managed to get the kid into a stable position, Raven holding him by the legs while his upper body rested over the old man's shoulder.

Yuri stepped back. “There. That should do it.”

“Ugh,” Raven groaned a bit, turning back around to face them. “This kid's heavier than he looks.”

Rita rolled her eyes. “Oh, quit your whining, old man, and let's get a move on.”

Judith ignored their antics, looking back towards the exhausted looking Karol. It seemed that the kid had really worn himself out, and Judith couldn't blame him after he'd faced a monster like that all by himself.

Really, she had actually been worried sick when Karol had started fighting that thing, and she had been terrified when he had been sent flying into the air like that. But when Karol had managed to land a crucial blow to the monster and then rescue all of them so spectacularly, Judith had been awed and grateful and overwhelmingly proud of him.

And as hard as it might have been for some of the others to admit it, she was pretty sure that everyone else had felt the same.

As they all started walking off towards what was hopefully the exit, Judith looked to Karol again and noticed quite a few snowflakes settling themselves in the folds of his clothes. Quickly speeding up her pace so as to be within range, she reached over and brushed them off, gently so as not to disturb the boy. Hopefully, if Karol was just a little less cold and a little less wet, his sleep would be more comfortable.

Get some good rest, Karol, Judith thought, retreating back to her original position and smiling fondly. You've done very well.

Chapter Text

Haze

Estelle screamed in agony as her power sent the Fiertia flying, and the world dissolved into a blur.

Her vision went fuzzy and her other senses abandoned her until she could barely feel anything. She was floating, suffocating on her own power, as the limits of her soul were mercilessly stretched and broken and repaired only to be put under strain all over again.

Her magic, her energy, her very life force was being drained away.

And there was so much pain that Estelle couldn't be aware of anything else.

She had no clue how long she had been like that when she first felt her body moving itself on its own. She was waving a sword in her hand and running at somebody—at Yuri, she realized, and she tried to pull back but she had long since lost control of her own actions.

Stop! Estelle wanted to scream out, but the cry refused to form in her throat.

Swords clashed and magic exploded. Blood flew through the air and she was already in so much pain that she couldn't tell if it was her or one of her friends who'd been wounded. Perhaps it was both.

No more.

Estelle fell back, her energy depleted, and then shock waves wracked her very being, somehow forcing more power out of her even when it felt like she didn't have any left. And even besides the terrible jolts, something within her felt absolutely awful, because she had fought her friends, she had hurt them, she was hurting so many people...

Don't let me hurt anyone anymore...

Helpless in her own body, Estelle couldn't stop herself from attacking Yuri again.

“Please...before I can hurt anyone else...” That time, Estelle felt her lips move with the words, and she begged for Yuri to hear her. “Please...”

“Kill me.”

Soon, she and Yuri were falling into a flurry of flying blades and spilled blood and more and more pain. Yuri shouted at her but she couldn't make out the words, and Estelle tried to get out her own words but only ended up gasping and screaming as she desperately fought to get a hold of her vocal chords.

But Yuri dealt one last blow to push her back, and as he yelled at her, his message finally registered. He was pleading her to come back, to not die on them.

“I want to...” Estelle murmured, finding it easier to speak now. She could feel her eyes closing shut as tears flowed down her cheeks.

I want to come back.

She felt herself suddenly fill with a strength she hadn't thought still existed.

I want to be with them.

She fought for control, vehemently willing her body to become hers again.

“I want to be myself!” Estelle screamed, to herself and to her friends and to the very heavens above. “I want to keep on...living!”

Estelle let out a burst of sheer energy, and the haze in her mind finally started to clear.

Chapter Text

Flame

Within Rita, there was something very akin to fire. And Judith loved playing with fire.

Oh, it was easy for just about anyone to set Rita alight, to get her bothered and angry and displaying her fierce temper, to spark the flames inside of her and make them jump and spread and grow with rage. But there were only a very select few who could control those flames and get her to settle down.

Judith was proud to be one of them.

But she in particular held an even more unique power over Rita, because nobody else could calm the fiery mage the way Judith did. Nobody else could put out that fire by whispering soft words into Rita's ear and wrapping an arm around her waist and planting a kiss onto her cute little lips. Nobody else ever got to see how the flames flickered and diminished and disappeared when Rita smiled despite herself and leaned into the contact and eagerly kissed Judith back.

But whenever the two of them fell into bed together, Rita ignited with an entirely different sort of fire, one that blazed with wild passion and burned freely throughout the night.

Judith was unable to control that fire, but that didn't stop her from willingly throwing herself into the flames every time.

Chapter Text

Formal

Even after the world had been saved and Raven had renounced his identity as Schwann Oltorain, he still found himself being referred to as “Captain Schwann” by knights on many occasions.

That could get to be rather upsetting, because as he repeatedly had to point out, he was not Schwann. Not anymore, and not ever again. He refused to answer to any name other than Raven, yet somehow, the knights always managed to keep forgetting that over and over when they tried to talk to him.

Even Lieutenant Leblanc and his two underlings still slipped up sometimes, starting with “Captain Schw—” before halting and quickly correcting themselves with, “I mean, Captain Raven.” Though it could be annoying, they were at least trying, and Raven very much appreciated that they were making an effort to respect his wishes. They were good men, really. Not the sharpest or most capable men by a long shot, but definitely good.

Thankfully, once given some time to get used to it, those three soldiers in particular finally grew to stop stuttering and just say a simple, “Captain Raven.” Even then, Raven kept insisting that he was no longer their captain and he wanted to be called Raven, just Raven, no titles attached, but no matter how he tried, he could never get anything below a “Sir Raven” out of them.

He knew it was their way of showing their respect for him, but frankly, it wasn't his style, and he couldn't say that he quite believed he even deserved such respect in the first place.

Still, Raven supposed, if addressing him formally was what they were comfortable with, it would have to do.


Amongst the guildsmen in Dahngrest, this issue was somewhat less apparent. After all, everyone here had only ever known him as Raven, never Damuron or Schwann or anyone else but Raven, and the people in general were much more familiar with him, much more easygoing.

Still, when word got out that he had been doubling as a captain in the Knights, Raven could see a difference in the way the townsfolk now treated him. Some, who still hadn't quite accepted the union of the guilds and the empire, avoided him like he was untrustworthy. Others started to show humbleness by bowing and calling him “mister” or “sir” when in the old days they had just chatted it up or made crude jokes or offered him a drink.

And being appointed as the leader of a new brigade, one that attempted to join both knights and guild members and have them work together, didn't much help Raven's case.

It hurt a little, really, to know that just because of Schwann, people were thinking he was suddenly a completely different person. But he couldn't really blame them—anybody would be cautious around a guy who had once been and still was affiliated with what had formerly been seen as an enemy group. For that, the people in Dahngrest had become a little more distant and a little more formal towards him, and Raven knew that things here would never quite go back to normal.

Though maybe, Raven couldn't help but think sometimes, he didn't actually want them to.


Whenever Raven met up with his old party members, he could be certain that there was nothing to worry about.

He knew exactly what to expect from all of them every time. Judith would reject all of Raven's playful advances and Karol would end up chattering excitedly with him about something or another. Rita would treat Raven to an attack of either fist or fire when she got mad and Estelle would flippantly brush off any of his ritual requests for a hug. Yuri would fall into banter with him, which Raven typically lost, and sometimes all the kids ganged up to tease him about his old age or his apparent “fishiness” or whatever else they could come up with.

These kids only ever called him “Raven” or “old man”. They didn't take him too seriously, joking and poking fun when the mood was light, but they really listened to him when he had something to say. They could be silly and ridiculous and even bordering uncivilized but they were fun and accepting and they made Raven feel alive for once.

With these guys, no formalities were ever needed.

And that was exactly how Raven liked it.

Chapter Text

Companion

When Yuri quit the Knights, he came back to the lower quarter with nothing but a puppy, some fighting techniques he would probably never use, and the overwhelming feeling that he suddenly had nobody to talk to.

Oh sure, there were the townspeople, and they were all polite and considerate and even fun to hang out with sometimes. But though Yuri greatly cared about and appreciated them, he was never comfortable engaging them with anything beyond simple chitchat and joking around. And he wouldn't really call any of them his friends, not even the kindly innkeeper or little Ted or old man Hanks.

Yuri just wasn't that close to any of them, and he was sure that none of them would understand anyway. The only person Yuri had ever really trusted enough to have a serious conversation with had been Flynn, but now Flynn wasn't here.

Actually, Flynn was becoming a big part of Yuri's problems too, so Yuri probably wouldn't have been able to bring it up with him, anyway.

But what it all boiled down to was that Yuri just could not speak honestly with anybody.

The problem was, he actually wanted to. Very, very badly.


Yuri supposed that was how, one night a few months after his return to the lower quarter, he found himself lying on the floor of his inn room and mindlessly asking his dog, “You ever miss the Knights, Repede?”

The puppy cocked his head at him and gave a short whine.

Yuri smiled sadly. “Maybe a little, huh?” He turned to look up at the ceiling. “Me too. But that doesn't mean I want to go back there. Not ever. I wouldn't be able to stand it.”

Oh geez, part of him thought, what am I doing? It wasn't like a puppy could even understand words, much less comprehend what he was saying.

Yet that knowledge didn't stop Yuri from continuing, “But without that, I'm not doing anything, am I? I wanted to help fix the empire, but instead, I'm just causing trouble and taking up space in jail.” He chuckled, but there was no mirth behind it. “Heh, bet Flynn would freak if he heard about that. ”

The sound of a bark had Yuri rolling onto his side to face Repede, only to be greeted with a wet tongue licking his cheek.

“Hey!” Yuri wiped his cheek with the back of his hand, glaring slightly at Repede, but the dog was staring back at him with what seemed like intelligence and maybe even compassion, giving Yuri the distinct feeling that somehow, he actually understood.

Perhaps it was stupid to believe that, but Yuri decided that for now, he wasn't going to care. Reaching his arms out, he gently grabbed the puppy, pulling him close and clutching him to his chest.

“Thanks Repede,” he murmured, feeling oddly comforted by the presence of the warm furball.

Repede barked, and Yuri could have sworn that he was trying to say, You're welcome.


Time passed, and Yuri learned how to talk to Repede.

Well, not talk per say, since Yuri could not possibly understand dog and he was fairly sure that Repede didn't actually understand human either. But with how close they had grown, they now knew each other well enough to essentially communicate meanings without actual words.

Of course, that didn't make everything all sunshine and rainbows. Yuri couldn't literally translate what Repede was trying to say, so every once in a while, he wondered if he was just fooling himself. And besides that, their living situation hadn't improved in the slightest, and tax collectors were still pestering the lower quarter while the empire was no less crooked than before. Yuri was still doing nothing and was frustrated with his life and he still couldn't talk to anyone else about it.

Yuri was not okay. Not by a long shot.

But Repede was his companion and practically his best friend, and that at least made things just a little bit more bearable.

Chapter Text

Move

Though she didn't want people to know it, Rita was a total sucker for dancing.

It wasn't all that often that she was exposed to music. She was a scientist after all, and she had better things to do than frivolously attend parties or concerts. And yet, on the rare occasions that she did happen to hear a decent song with a good rhythm, Rita always felt an urge to start moving with the beat.

She knew that participating in some mindless thing like dancing was ridiculous, bordering undignified even, but Rita often found it difficult to resist the temptation. There was just a sort of inexplicable joy in it, in drinking in the music and freely twisting her body and just letting herself move.

That was why, when Rita arrived in downtown Torim during a local celebration, intending to meet up with the others like they'd all planned, she couldn't help but get a little distracted. It was a festival after all, and festivals meant music, and right now, the guitars were out with the trumpets playing in full force and the street was bustling with people.

Rita tried to just walk by, but the more she listened, the more she had to admit it was a catchy tune. Pausing in her tracks, she looked at all the dancing people surrounding her and figured that if she started dancing, nobody would really notice. Since nobody here actually knew her, she would just be another forgotten face in the crowd. Plus, the place her friends had agreed to meet was on the other side of town, and Rita had arrived early enough.

Just one song wouldn't hurt.

Grinning, Rita threw herself into it, spinning around and pumping her arms and jumping into the air, letting herself drown in the music and energy. When she was like this, Rita didn't need to think, instead just following her instinct and relishing the sense of freedom this brought her.

As the song approached the end, Rita allowed herself to throw up her arms in a big finish. Once the music actually stopped, she then doubled over, panting slightly for breath, feeling herself finally come down from the high of adrenaline. Upon recovering, she looked back up at the crowd around her, then froze at the sight that greeted her.

Her friends were standing right there.

And judging by the grins on their faces, they had been watching.

Rita gaped, suddenly feeling heat rush to her cheeks. “H-how long have you been there?”

Raven smirked. “Oh, long enough.”

“You're pretty good,” Yuri remarked.

Really good,” Karol added teasingly.

Flustered, Rita thwacked the kid across the head. “S-shut up!”

“No, they're right,” Estelle cut in cheerfully, and Rita could tell that at least she wasn't poking fun. “You were great out there.”

Judith smiled. “You really enjoyed yourself, didn't you, Rita?”

“No! I mean, well...” Rita trailed off. Deciding it was pointless to deny it at this point, she sighed in defeat. “Okay, maybe a little.”

“Well, don't stop now.” Estelle giggled, starting to jump in sync with the beat as music filled the air again. “They're playing another song, come on!” She shook Rita by the shoulders until the mage reluctantly but obediently started bouncing on her heels.

Estelle beamed, apparently satisfied, then turned to Yuri and grabbed him by the arm. “You too!”

“Wha—hey!” Yuri cried as he was dragged helplessly into a sort of informal, clumsy waltz with the princess.

Judith smiled serenely and joined in with a spin and a sway of her hips. The kid and the old man just looked at each other, shrugged, and started wildly pumping their fists in the air. Rita looked around at all of her friends, realizing with no small amusement that they were all actually pretty bad dancers.

Well then, Rita thought, grinning as she started to twirl, I'll just have to show them how it's done.

Chapter Text

Silver

A flash of silver out of the corner of his eye was Flynn's only warning.

Thankfully, it was enough.

With a quick leap out of the way, Flynn narrowly dodged the sword that had been aimed to slice through his back. Thinking fast, he whirled around, drawing his own sword protectively in front of his face just in time to block the next strike. A metallic clang resounded in the dark and empty street, and Flynn found himself staring into a face covered in black cloth as he struggled to keep his enemy's blade at bay.

Mustering his strength, Flynn swung his sword and managed to send his attacker flying back, and with that, the commandant quickly moved to turn the tables, slashing determinedly at his opponent. Flynn got in a few good hits, but unfortunately, he couldn't prevent the black figure from turning tail, lithely jumping onto the rooftops and safely getting away over Flynn's head.

Unable to pursue, Flynn had no choice but to let the guy go and make the rest of his way back to the castle that night with the utmost caution. Sure, he had seen the assassin run off, and with the injuries Flynn had inflicted, the guy was unlikely to come back very soon. But he couldn't be positive of that, not to mention that there could be more where that one came from.

He wasn't attacked again, though, and the moment he got back to the castle, he informed his men of the attempt and requested that they keep watch for him. A good many soldiers dutifully acted as guards, creating tight security for his bedroom.

Even so, Flynn was jumpy, and he hardly slept a wink that night.


Yuri and Lady Estellise flipped when they found out.

In different ways, of course. While the princess fretted over him and openly expressed worry, Yuri got a frustrated look on his face and chewed Flynn out for idiotically being out alone, late at night, when nobody was around.

And on that point, Flynn couldn't help but agree with Yuri. After all, he was a young knight of lowly birth who was assisting His Highness Ioder in enacting controversial policies for the future of the empire. Of course there would be plenty of people—likely nobles and councilmen—who would want Commandant Flynn Scifo out of the picture. He had been careless to not expect an attack like this.

But both Yuri and her highness were obviously concerned about him, and they both worked tirelessly with Flynn to find the party responsible and prevent this from ever happening again. Lady Estellise proposed a plan to Ioder that managed to successfully sniff out the guy who had hired the assassin: as expected, a highly ranked Council member. The assassin himself—and really, it had been sloppy of the councilman to hire only one—was trailed by Yuri until Flynn managed to catch up.

Together, the two easily suppressed the assassin, who was then captured and taken away by the Knights, and with that, it was over. But Flynn knew he still couldn't quite rest easy. As commandant, he would surely make more enemies in the future, as would Emperor Ioder and Lady Estellise. This may have been the first assassination attempt Flynn had to deal with, but he doubted it would be the last or the best executed.

Flynn sighed. He had a very difficult and dangerous job ahead of him.

But even so, that was no reason for him to back down.

Chapter Text

Prepared

Duke typically did not intervene in the affairs of humans. Ever since the world had changed significantly with the defeat of the Adephagos and the birth of the spirits, the humans had presented no reason for him to help or hinder their own progress. That was why he opted to isolate himself from others, living in the forests amongst the peace of nature.

So when he came across some rather vicious monsters in the area near Keiv Moc, Duke decided that it would be in his best interest to dispose of them before they became too much of a threat towards wildlife and humans alike. But when Duke had finished off about half of the monsters, the clamor of battle was suddenly pierced by a voice crying out, “Azure Edge!”

The bright blue flash of what was undoubtedly a strike arte injured quite a few enemies, and a familiar black-clothed swordsman came running into the fray. The man sliced up another monster that was in his way with his blade before turning around and noticing Duke for the first time.

“Oh hey, it's you,” Yuri Lowell acknowledged him quickly between attacks. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Duke responded with nothing more than a quiet grunt and returned to taking care of his own opponents.

Yuri's presence did make the battle pass somewhat easier and quicker, but the help was unnecessary, as Duke knew he could have defeated all the monsters by himself. When the last of them were finished off, Duke was prepared to turn around and leave without a word, but a glimmer on Yuri's wrist as he sheathed his sword caught Duke's eye.

“You still wield a blastia?” Duke asked, unable to completely mask his surprise. He knew that the other man was all too aware of the dangers blastia possessed, and he had thought him to be more sensible than this.

“Huh? Oh, this?” Yuri raised his arm to bring up the golden band on his wrist as he faced Duke. “Don't worry, it doesn't run on aer.”

Unlike the Entelexeia, Duke had no manner of determining whether aer was being used, but Yuri had proven himself to be a capable man, so it was likely that he was speaking the truth. That left Duke with only one conclusion. “I see. It is a blastia that operates using the power of the spirits rather than aer.”

“Pretty much,” Yuri confirmed. “Rita really pulled through on that one.” Duke recalled that Rita was the name of the young female mage that had traveled with Yuri.

But Duke was still wary, because while these new blastia were fundamentally different, that did not necessarily mean they were any less harmful. “How can you be sure of their safety? Perhaps these new blastia could be the cause of another crisis in the future.”

Yuri just shrugged. “Look, I don't know all the complicated details, but the mages have done their research and they say it's safe. And we've been keeping in touch with the spirits and they haven't filed any complaints.”

Duke considered this and nodded slightly. The Entelexeia, and in turn the spirits, were beings that could be trusted should problems ever arise. “You humans rely on these new blastia now?”

“Yeah. They're a big help for the people fighting. They haven't been able to make the big powerful ones though, so there aren't any barriers.”

Duke nodded in comprehension. “Humans still find it difficult to adjust to the change.” It wasn't a question this time. He understood human nature all too well.

“Well yeah, of course.” Yuri admitted it freely, seeming perfectly at ease. “But that's just how it is. Some people complain, but they'll have to get used to it. We were prepared for something like this the moment we gave up the original blastia.” He turned slightly, giving Duke a sideways glance and an easy, confident grin. “And we're gonna be prepared for whatever the future throws at us.”

It had been a long time since Duke had seen this man face to face, but the determined spark in Yuri's eyes was all too familiar, very reminiscent of the one he'd had when they had fought on Tarqaron almost a year and a half ago. It reminded Duke now of how strong Yuri and his companions had been then, and reaffirmed why Duke believed he could place his trust in them now.

If such people were to guide the humans forward, perhaps the world truly could change with time.

Having learned all he cared to, Duke turned his back and prepared to walk away. But from behind him, Yuri's voice called out one last time and caused him to pause in his step.

“Well, I don't know what you're up to nowadays, but good luck, Duke.” The sound of retreating footsteps behind him indicated that Yuri was leaving, but Duke himself stood still for a moment longer.

To you as well, Duke thought silently, and then he departed without a word.

Chapter Text

Knowledge

When Estellise was a child, she was in love with books.

As far as she could remember, it had been like this ever since she first learned how to read. From the very start, there had been something truly captivating about books, about how mere words on a page could convey so much. From textbooks to personal accounts to just plain old fiction, there were so many fascinating things to be learned from all of them.

But with her status as a princess came the vocal disapproval of her hobby from the Council, who believed that her time would be better spent concentrating on lessons given by her personal teachers. But her tutors hardly ever taught about the things Estellise truly wanted to learn, instead trying to force politics and etiquette down her throat. Books, on the other hand, were treasure troves of interesting knowledge that she got to discover all by herself.

Books allowed her to feel just the smallest bit of freedom while trapped inside these constricting castle walls.

This was why Estellise obstinately refused to let the Council hinder her appreciation of what she loved, and she found ways to get her hands on new books whenever possible. By the time she was twelve, she had managed to finish every book in the castle she could find and was persistently demanding new material to read.

Finally, the Council gave in, and a gleeful Estellise was allowed her own personal, ever-expanding library.


When Estellise was thirteen, she began learning how to use a sword.

The Council would probably go berserk if they ever found out about it, but Estellise had every intention of keeping them in the dark for as long as possible. And she was mildly successful in that endeavor, because for a good few weeks after lessons started, she managed to keep it a complete secret from everybody else.

Well, except her swordmaster, of course.

Drake Dropwart was a former captain of the Knights who had retired most honorably and was held with much acclaim. His skills with the sword were famously known, and that was what had driven Estellise to, on a day when she knew he was visiting the castle, slip down a hall to his room and request his tutelage.

When Drake had asked Estellise for her reasons, her response was honest and determined. She wanted to be strong, she had explained. She wanted to be able to protect herself. She was a candidate for the throne and she needed at least some practical knowledge because it just wouldn't do for her to be so helpless and dependent on others.

Estellise had worried that he would refuse, deeming her unfit or finding her motives to be selfish. But somehow, her sentiments must have reached him, because the former captain had agreed to give the lessons and give them in secret.

Master Drake, as it turned out, was strict and could deliver harsh words, but he knew what he was doing. Estellise was extremely grateful to have attained his cooperation in the first place, and throughout the first three weeks of training, the princess pushed herself to do her very best so as to not disappoint him.

Soon after that, the Council discovered her clandestine lessons and threw a fit, demanding that she stop. But Master Drake came to her aid and urged them to reconsider, and once Estellise demonstrated her own newfound competency with a blade, the councilmen apparently had a change of heart.

The next day there was an official declaration: Lady Estellise would be undergoing sword training and former Captain Drake was to be instated as her official personal instructor. Though this had been her plan all along, Estellise was still amazed that everything had actually worked out the way she'd wanted.

It was a truly meaningful victory, and Estellise couldn't help but feel just a little proud of herself.


When Estellise was sixteen, she met Flynn Scifo.

Flynn wasn't quite like all the other knights Estellise usually met around her area of the castle. He didn't hold a particularly high position or have any sort of noble birth, yet somehow, he had made his way into a job here. Naturally, with all the time they spent around each other, they got acquainted, and somehow, they went from knight-and-princess to more casual associates to something Estellise would dare call friends.

The Council likely found it wholly inappropriate that the princess deemed to spend time with a “commoner”, but Estellise liked having Flynn's company and wasn't going to let anybody interfere with that. Flynn was someone she could really talk to, someone completely unlike the councilmen and the Knights and the servants, someone who acted comfortable around her and treated her like a person rather than a princess.

And besides his companionship, whenever they talked, Estellise got to learn. She got to hear about what it was like being a knight and how the world was outside the castle. Flynn told her stories of monsters and battles and missions in other cities. He gave her unique knowledge, things about himself and the world outside that no book of hers could ever bequeath.

Estellise had always yearned for freedom, but the more she listened to Flynn, the more she wanted to truly leave the castle and see it all for herself.


When Estellise was eighteen, she met Yuri Lowell, took her first steps out of the castle with him, and became “Estelle”.

In the journey that followed, Estelle finally got to see the world for everything it was, from the bad to the horrible to the beautiful. She found wonderful friends and learned many life lessons and was forced to get her hands dirty to discover amazing truths and a happiness she could hardly express in words. It was the experience of a lifetime, and even after it was over, Estelle was sure that there would be more to come. The whole world was still so full of knowledge to impart.

And Estelle couldn't wait to find it.

Chapter Text

Denial

It wasn't all too often that Estelle got to visit Dahngrest like this, so when Karol suggested that she try out the tavern's newest special, she was all for it. Yuri and Judith both declined since they had already eaten, so it was just her and Karol out for dinner tonight.

Estelle wasn't going to complain, though, because the kid really was good company and the new dish was delicious. But in the middle of their meal, she noticed that Karol had turned his attention away from her and was staring almost dazedly at something. Following his gaze, Estelle caught sight of a familiar brunette girl who was walking out the door, apparently unaware that she was being watched.

Nan, Estelle recognized, smiling knowingly. Turning her gaze back to a blushing Karol, she rested her elbows on the table and leaned over towards him in a manner very unfitting of a princess. “So, how is it going with her?”

“Huh?” Karol jumped in his seat, looking as if he had forgotten Estelle was even there. “W-what? With who?”

“With Nan, of course,” Estelle giggled. “You two have been getting closer, haven't you?”

“W-we're not like that,” Karol protested, pouting and scratching his cheek in embarrassment.

Perfectly aware that he was lying, Estelle cocked her head to the side. “Oh, so Nan isn't the girl you like anymore?”

“No! I mean, yes! I mean... Nothing's happened between us, alright!” Karol stuttered unintelligibly before his gaze fell to the floor. Softly, almost sullenly, he added in a murmur, “Nothing at all.”

Realizing that she had made him upset, Estelle instantly dropped all playfulness in exchange for apologetic concern. “Oh, I'm sorry, Karol. Is something wrong between you and Nan? Did you have a fight?”

Karol shook his head weakly. “No. It's just... We're good friends and everything and that's fine but I keep wanting to go a little further and...uh...”

Estelle caught on quickly. “Karol, do you want to go on a date with her?”

Karol blushed at the statement but didn't deny it. “Yeah, I guess,” he admitted. “But I don't know how to do it. She still makes me so nervous.”

Estelle couldn't help smiling fondly at him from across the table. Karol was fourteen now, an impressive young adult and the boss of a guild and a far cry from the cowardly child he'd been when they'd first met. But in a lot of ways, Karol was still an awkward boy who had some growing up to do.

He had already mastered fighting monsters and being the boss of a guild. Dating, on the other hand, was apparently a milestone he had yet to conquer.

“You don't have to rush in,” Estelle assured. “You can ask her once you feel like you're ready.”

Karol's hands clenched uncertainly around his cup. “But...what if she says no?”

And as soon as he said that, Estelle realized that this was the true heart of the problem. She knew that Karol had harbored a crush on Nan for at least two years, and it looked like he actually was ready to ask her out. But he was holding back because he was scared of possibly being subjected to Nan's denial.

Karol just didn't want to be rejected.

Estelle really didn't think she was the best person to try to console him about something like this, but she felt like she at least could give her two cents. “I don't think there's any harm in just asking her. Even if she does say no, there's no reason you can't still be friends.”

“But I...” Karol trailed off, still seeming unsure.

Estelle reached over and patted his hand reassuringly. “But that's just me. It's your choice, Karol. Just tell her whenever you feel like it, and I'm sure it will be fine.”

Karol looked at her for a long while before his lips quirked up just the tiniest bit. “Yeah,” he agreed shyly. “I guess you're right.”

It wasn't much, but Estelle had apparently managed to cheer him up just a little, so she shot him a smile, continued to dig in, and gently steered the conversation towards a more lighthearted subject.


The next time Estelle stopped by Dahngrest, she entered the same restaurant by herself and happened to catch sight of Karol and Nan, sitting at a table together and both blushing like mad as they exchanged a kiss. It was short and chaste and not really anything more than a simple peck on the lips, but it was a kiss nonetheless.

Grinning to herself, Estelle snuck away from the scene before either of them could notice she'd ever been there.

It seemed Karol hadn't needed to worry after all.

Chapter Text

Wind

When Judith was eight, flying with Ba'ul was her favorite thing in the world.

Oh, just being able to fly was incredible enough, but the fact that it was with Ba'ul, who she had such an intimate mental and emotional connection with, made it even better. Flying together was their own immense and mutual joy, a special activity between best friends that they shared with nobody else. It made them feel so on top of the rest of the world, and at the same time, so much closer to each other.

When Judith flew on Ba'ul's back, she forgot any and all of her worries and let herself be free. High above the ground, she reveled in the wind that cooled her face and whistled in her ears and blew back her hair and antennae. Ba'ul enhanced the experience by diving and flipping and looping, going up and down and all over the place, doing exactly what he knew she wanted while restrained by nothing, at least until they started to near some mountain peaks.

Hold on, Ba'ul ordered her, slowing slightly and preparing to dodge. Time for some swerving.

Judith clutched tighter onto Ba'ul's scales and laughed gleefully as they soared right on through.


When Judith was sixteen, flying became less of a joy and more of a chore.

Once she had been taught of the danger of Hermes blastia, Judith had developed a firm determination to fix the mistake her father had made, and that meant hunting down and destroying every last Hermes blastia on the planet. It was the mission Judith had given herself, and somehow, without her even realizing it, it had become the only thing she ever did.

For this, flying with Ba'ul was nothing more than a means to an end, a way to locate the nearest disturbance of aer and get to it as efficiently as possible. As time passed, Judith forgot how to enjoy the height and the wind and the sky. She forgot why flying had once brought her such happiness.

Now, when Judith hopped onto Ba'ul's back, they exchanged hardly any thoughts besides those about the mission, and her friend simply took off towards their next destination out of habit.

Now, flying was commonplace and unremarkable, just a routine and nothing more.


When Judith was nineteen, that routine was shattered to pieces.

Finding a human instead of a blastia forced her to take a step back and actually reevaluate her mission. Joining the party on their journey nudged her in the direction of making new friends. Ba'ul growing so much larger made it so that she rode with the rest of the party on the Fiertia below the dragon, instead of atop his back like she was used to.

Flying was no longer something between just Judith and Ba'ul. It was something they had to share with the others, and it had also become less personal and less exhilarating since she no longer rode his back. But a little distance was no hindrance to their telepathic form of communication.

Besides, now she also had others she could talk to.

I suppose, Judith told Ba'ul once during an uneventful flight, it'll be a while before it's just the two of us again.

She could sense Ba'ul's amusement. That's not such a bad thing, is it?

Judith smiled to herself as she watched her friends meander around the ship. No. Not at all.

Ba'ul chuckled in her head, and Judith herself softly laughed into the wind.

Chapter Text

Order

When Karol had been adventuring with his friends and saving the world, he had thought that running a guild was simple enough.

Now that the world had been saved and Brave Vesperia was trying to settle down in Dahngrest, he found things to be much more difficult.

The union itself had no qualms with letting Brave Vesperia set up base here, but officially establishing a new guild was apparently more complicated than it seemed. They had to go through all the proper channels in order to get a building for headquarters and get hired for good jobs, and that meant lots of paperwork and business dealings that easily made a twelve-year-old boss feel like he was in over his head.

Plus, even though their reputation for saving the world preceded them, Brave Vesperia and its oh so very young boss still weren't respected by some guilds. It didn't help that plenty of people in town still remembered Karol as the useless kid who had been dropped from every guild imaginable, and they never let him forget it.

It was one day about three months into the overall process that it just got to be too much. As Karol entered the front door of headquarters, worn out from all of the work and more than a little upset because some stupid guys on the street had jeered at him on the way here, he went straight for the stairs and stormed up to his room, slamming the door behind him. Moodily throwing himself onto his bed, he buried his head in his pillow in frustration and screamed into it until his throat was hoarse.

That must have been a little too loud, or more than a little actually, because not long after, Karol heard the sound of his door creaking open. He looked up, and a quick glance in that direction revealed Yuri standing in the doorway with a knowing look on his face

The man walked over to the bed and stood over him, sporting that lighthearted yet sympathetic smile that was his unique way of trying to make people feel better. “Overwhelmed, huh?”

It occurred to Karol that he probably should have felt embarrassed right then, but honestly, he just couldn't bring himself to care. “Yeah,” the boy mumbled, lazily sitting up so that Yuri could take a spot beside him on the bed. “I guess being a boss is even harder than I thought.”

“What, are you giving up?”

“No!” Karol was never going to back down with Brave Vesperia, and he instantly and vehemently shook his head to emphasize that. “I just...I feel pretty exhausted, I guess. A lot's been going on lately.”

Yuri patted him on the back. “Hey, we're getting there. The workload will lighten up soon. Until then, me and Judy could always take some of that off your hands.”

Karol shrugged him off. “No. You guys are already doing most of the business dealings for me. If you do any more, everyone will just think I don't do anything. Like I'm a fake boss.”

“Well, are you?” Yuri raised an eyebrow pointedly. “Have you not been doing anything?”

“I...”

“Karol,” Yuri cut in before he could finish, his expression stern, “you're the one who got us this building and those last jobs. Judy and I may be doing the negotiating, but you've done all the important stuff. And anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't know what the hell they're talking about.” He shot Karol a pointed look. “Does it really matter what any of those idiots think?”

Karol paused and pursed his lips, knowing that Yuri was right. “...No. Not really,” he admitted.

Yuri smiled slightly. “Good. And for the record, none of us are going to blame you for taking a break.” He reached over and ruffled Karol's hair. “Just give us the order and we'll do whatever we can to help out. You are the boss, after all.”

Karol swatted at the hand to get it off his head. “Don't do that.” But somehow, he did feel a lot better now, and he couldn't help smiling back. “Okay. Thanks, Yuri.”

Yuri nodded, but then he grinned wickedly, not giving Karol any time to react before swiftly coiling an arm around his neck and gently but mercilessly rubbing his knuckles into Karol's scalp.

“Hey!” Karol yelped, trying to sound indignant. “Cut it out!” He started struggling against the choke hold, to no avail. “Stop, stop! I...I order you to stop!”

“What's that, boss?” Yuri didn't let up in the slightest, and Karol could just hear the smirk in his voice as he teased, “I can't hear you.”

“Yuriiiiii!” Karol whined, but laughter was bubbling up in his throat and he couldn't hold it back anymore. Giving up on resisting, he let himself be subjected to the playful attack, only to be released moments later.

“Man,” Yuri chuckled, “it's no fun when you surrender so easily.”

Karol put his hands on his head protectively but grinned in return, shooting back a “You suck” before pushing himself off of the bed and standing again. “Come on, let's go back down. We've got some paperwork to do.”

Yuri blinked at him before barking out a laugh and following Karol's lead. “Whatever you say, boss.”

And when Yuri said it like that, Karol knew he could let himself feel proud.

Chapter Text

Thanks

Ioder was faced with no easy task in leading the empire though a time of worldwide change.

The sudden lack of blastia in people's everyday lives was a huge problem, but it wasn't the only one. The Knights needed to be put into order after Alexei's betrayal, relations with the guilds still needed to be smoothed out, and the crooked rules and policies of the past had to be abolished. But even with all of that being dumped into his lap, Ioder fully intended to face things head on. It was his duty as the soon-to-be emperor, and his obligation to the people.

However, his position also made it so that he'd hardly ever actually gone outside or gotten particularly close to the actual people. So Ioder decided early on that, when it came to decisions of policies involving the general populace, he should take into account the advice of Commandant Flynn and Estellise, both of whom had interacted with people from all around the world and whom Ioder greatly trusted.

So when Estellise, just hardly a week after she and her friends saved the world, attended an imperial conference to propose plans to install water pipes in the lower quarter, Ioder took it into serious consideration. She some good points after all—the residents were in dire need of water, and Ioder wanted his reign to be one of fair law and overall better livelihood. Ioder suspected that Estellise's idea may have been slightly influenced by the fact that her friend Yuri Lowell lived there, but her arguments still stood, so there was no harm in her also having her own personal reasons.

Plus, when Ioder later authorized providing the funds for the project, he had his own personal reasons as well.

Ioder owed Yuri for saving his life. The whole world owed Yuri and Estellise and their friends for saving it. They had gone through so much for everyone's sakes, and their actions warranted gratitude that could not ever be fully paid.

This, Ioder supposed, was just one small way in which he could give them some of the thanks they deserved.

And really, it was the least he could do.

Chapter Text

Look

“Judith!” Estelle whined, unsure of just how much longer she could stand shopping for clothes like this. “Really, let's just go back to the inn.”

“Oh?” the Krityan remarked, continuing to browse through various outfits. “But we haven't bought anything yet.”

“We don't need to buy anything. I don't really need new clothes.”

Judith paused in her tracks and faced the princess. “Didn't you say you wanted something casual in your wardrobe?”

“Well yes, but that didn't mean I wanted you to take me shopping.” Sure, Estelle had told Judith that she would like to own more informal clothing, and she had originally agreed to the shopping trip because it had seemed like a fun idea at the time. But now, after about a half hour of searching through the tailor's wares only for Judith to reject everything in sight, Estelle was getting seriously bored and more than a little frustrated. “Besides,” she added, embarrassed, “I don't think I'd look very good in any of these.”

“Don't say that.” Judith laid a hand on Estelle's shoulder in reassurance. “You're cute in whatever you wear. I just want to find what suits you best.”

Estelle couldn't help but groan slightly. While Judith was usually pretty easygoing, she was surprisingly picky when it came to fashion. “I don't know if I can wait any longer.”

Judith smiled serenly. “Thankfully, you won't have to.” She reached around to pull an ensemble off the rack before shoving it into Estelle's hands. “This should work nicely. Here, put it on.”

“Judith...”

Judith's eyes narrowed just slightly. “We've finally found something after so much searching. Would it hurt to at least try it?”

Knowing Judith had a point, Estelle looked down at the clothes in her hands, sighed in defeat, and let herself be pushed into the changing room.


When Estelle stepped out of the room, Judith gave her a quick look over and smiled earnestly. “You look very cute.”

Estelle hadn't been entirely convinced that something like this could possibly look good on her, and she felt herself blush a bit at the compliment. “R-really?”

Judith grabbed Estelle by the shoulders to turn her towards the mirror. “Have a look for yourself.”

Estelle craned her head back at her. “Are you sure—”

“Estelle.” Judith's tone was slightly scolding, but her expression was gentle and amused. “Look.”

After a moment, Estelle obediently faced forward, her eyes slowly widening as she took in her reflection. She'd initially had her doubts about the blouse, but now that she had it on, she could see how the blue-green pattern brought out the vibrant color of her eyes and how the slight trim of pink lace down the front actually went well with her hair. Coupled with a simple white skirt and black leggings, she was impressed with how the outfit was so unlike what she usually wore and yet seemed so fitting at the same time. Her body was modestly covered so that Estelle felt comfortable, but she still looked rather cute and—if she ventured—even a bit sexy.

“...I love it,” Estelle admitted after a moment, surprised with herself but beaming nonetheless. In an uncharacteristic sort of vanity, she continued to stare at herself, unable to take her eyes away.

“I thought so.” In the mirror, Estelle could see Judith smiling and looking pleased with herself. “You're going to get this, then?”

“Yes, definitely,” Estelle affirmed enthusiastically, whirling away from the mirror to face Judith with a grateful grin. “Judith, thank you so much.”

“Oh, I'm just happy you found something you like.” Judith gave her a slight smile, then turned and started walking towards the tailor. Over her shoulder, she continued, “Come on. Once we buy it, we can go back and show the others.”

Excited at the prospect and more than a little eager to finally leave this place, Estelle grinned in glee and followed after her. Later, when she wore her new outfit to meet the others back at the inn, Estelle was greeted with dropped jaws and awed stares and approval from everyone.

And maybe, Estelle decided then as she blushed from the attention and praise, it wouldn't be so bad to have Judith take her shopping again.

Chapter Text

Summer

For Yuri, summer in the lower quarter meant way too much sun in the morning, wide open windows, and nowadays, firing up the fountain in the town square.

That last one was a favorite of the kids, who seemed to play in the jets of water every day, whenever they could. That would not have been allowed back when the aque blastia was their only water source, but now that everyone's needs were being sufficiently met, they were able to use some of that water for a little entertainment and escape from the heat.

So being greeted with the sounds of high-pitched giggles and splashes against the pavement as Yuri came down to the square this afternoon was nothing new. What was new was the sight of the familiar figure that was running around with the children, her hair plastered against her face and her pink-and-white dress completely soaked.

Yuri blinked in disbelief, momentarily stunned, then grinned widely. “Hey, Estelle!”

Upon his cry, Estelle turned around and beamed once she caught sight of him. “Yuri!” She eagerly dashed out of the fountain and towards him.

“Whoa, easy.” Yuri held his hands out protectively in front of him to fend off any physical contact. Not that he would have minded getting a hug from his girlfriend after having not seen her for a while, but he wasn't all too keen about getting wet right now.

Thankfully, Estelle got the message and stopped right in front of him, bouncing on her heels. Yuri took note of how her fancy princess clothes were dripping and smirked. “You know, you could have put on a swimsuit like everyone else.”

“I wasn't planning on getting in,” Estelle whined playfully. “I was just going to go visit you, but some kids splashed at me while I was walking by.”

Yuri narrowed his eyes, looking behind her at the frolicking children. “Which ones? Did they apologize?”

Estelle laughed. “Yuri, it's fine. I was getting pretty hot anyways.” Her eyes twinkled with slight mischief. “Besides, I pushed them into the pool when their backs were turned.”

Yuri stared for a moment before chuckling. He'd almost forgotten just how sneaky Estelle could be sometimes.

“Well, come on,” Yuri remarked, grabbing her hand and lacing his fingers with hers out of habit. His own hand was wet now, but he didn't mind. “Let's go to my room and get you dried up.”

Estelle nodded and squeezed his hand gently, and Yuri made for the staircase up the outside of the inn. But before they could take even two steps, Yuri felt a huge, chilling cold splash of water hit his back. Apparently, it had also gotten Estelle, because she shrieked in surprise, and Yuri himself let out a hapless “What the—?” before whipping around. Standing there in striped swim trunks was Ted, holding a bucket—presumably what he had splashed them with—and laughing uproariously.

“Dammit, Ted!” Yuri growled threateningly. The boy gasped and tried to run away, but Yuri swiftly caught him, holding him upside-down by the legs before making his way to the fountain pool and dunking the kid into it as punishment.

Ted came up sputtering, Yuri smirked in vindication, and Estelle burst into laughter behind them.

So much for not getting wet, because Yuri was now just as drenched as the rest of them. But, as he found out when Estelle suddenly wrapped her arms around him from behind, there were some good things about all this.

For one, now his girlfriend could hug him freely—

Yuri grinned, breaking free of Estelle's hold and turning around to face her. He met her eyes and wrapped an arm around her waist to pull her closer, leaning in until Estelle was smiling into his lips and throwing her arms around his neck.

—And for another, now Yuri could kiss Estelle as much as he wanted.

Yuri was too occupied with making out with Estelle to care that the fountain's water was pouring down around them and they were both sopping wet. However, the kiss became hard to appreciate once the surrounding kids started to squeal with lighthearted taunts and overly drawn out “ooh”s.

The moment ruined, Yuri pulled back, shrugging at Estelle in helpless apology. Estelle just smiled benevolently and whispered, “We can continue later.”

“Yeah,” Yuri agreed, trying to glare at the kids but failing to hold back a playful grin. “After we shut these brats up.”

The kids all squealed in apprehension, apparently realizing that Yuri was going to get back at them, either by dunking them like he had Ted or through some other means of appropriate revenge.

Estelle just giggled and kissed Yuri on the cheek before joining him in chasing the children down.

Chapter Text

Transformation

It had taken quite some time and a lot of paperwork for Karol to snag a headquarters for Brave Vesperia, and once the young boss checked out the building for himself, he knew he still had his work cut out for him. The structure itself was sound—otherwise Karol wouldn't have chosen it—but the necessary facilities hadn't been installed yet and the walls were worn and peeling old paint, so there was still a lot of furnishing to do.

This place needed a complete transformation.

Karol paid some guilds that specialized in installing pipes and lighting, and they took care of that easily enough. But there was still one last thing to do before Brave Vesperia could start moving in, and Karol wanted his guild to do that on its own.

“Karol, are you sure we should be doing this?” Yuri asked as he set the last of the paint cans down beside the rest. Karol had called him and Judith here so they could all paint the inside walls together, and now, all three of them were in old, junky clothes and about ready to start. “We could always hire someone.”

Karol shook his head. “No. This is Brave Vesperia's headquarters, so Brave Vesperia needs to decide how it looks.”

“That does make sense,” Judith cut in. “Most of our business dealings will likely take place here. The interior design is a potential client's first impression, and that could affect their decision. We should choose it for ourselves.”

“Yeah well,” Yuri drawled, “I'm not so good with aesthetics. I'll just do whatever the boss tells me to.”

Karol grinned. “Well, I was trying to figure out whether we should have stripes across the sides or designs in the corners. I wasn't sure what colors to use either, so I got all of them.”

Yuri pointedly looked down at the many cans of various paint colors they had gathered on the floor near the wall. “You don't say.”

Ignoring the sarcasm, Karol grabbed the tan colored paint and dragged it away from the rest and closer to the wall. “But I figured that no matter what, you can't go wrong with a tan background. So for now, we'll paint the walls tan, and we'll figure out the rest as we go.”

Karol knelt down to the left of the can and popped open the lid before dipping his paintbrush inside. Unfortunately, by the time he realized that his movements were too jerky and Yuri had sat down on the other side of the can, Karol had already withdrawn the brush and it was too late.

Flecks of paint went flying and landed smack dab onto Yuri's face.

Karol knew he shouldn't have. He really did. But the sight of Yuri, with such an uncharacteristically bewildered face and specks of tan across his nose, was just so ridiculously hilarious that Karol couldn't help but laugh a little. He regretted it almost instantly, though, because Yuri was now shooting him a vengeful glare.

“You think that's funny, huh?”

Yuri swiftly dipped his hand into the bucket, and Karol had no time to react before the man was reaching for his head and ruthlessly rubbing paint into his hair. Karol yelped and struggled until Yuri finally stopped, pulling away and looking far too satisfied with himself.

That was the point at which Karol should have taken it in stride and let it go, but there was a stupidly stubborn and reckless part of him that just couldn't. So before he could stop himself, Karol lashed out with the brush again, this time on purpose, so that a thick line of paint ran down Yuri's left ear and cheek.

Yuri blinked and touched that side of his face, gaping like he couldn't believe what Karol had just done. Frankly, Karol couldn't believe it either. But once the shock apparently wore off, Yuri got a devious glint in his eyes and Karol anxiously realized that he was in big trouble.

And Yuri, grinning wickedly, snatched up the paint can and declared, “Oh, it's on.”

Quickly realizing Yuri's intentions, Karol stood up and whirled around, trying to run away, but Yuri was just too fast for him. Karol held back a gasp as the whole bucket of paint was dumped over his head, drenching his hair and face and running down to his shoulders. Wiping some paint out of his eyes, Karol collected a glob in his hand and attempted to retaliate by flinging it towards Yuri, but since his vision was obscured and paint was innately hard to throw in the first place, he missed terribly.

Instead, the paint reeled entirely off course, and Judith, who was crouching over the other paint cans while turned away from them, was hit right in the back.

While Karol couldn't see Judith's face, the way that all the muscles in her body visibly tensed up was warning enough of what was to come. More than a little terrified, Karol watched in apprehension as Judith stood up, grabbing the green paint and a brush on the way, and faced them with a dangerous smile on her lips.

“I hope you boys are ready.”

Judith swiftly popped open the can and rushed at them, and Karol braced himself for a brutal attack. But to his surprise and immense relief, it was Yuri that she went for, striking repeatedly with her brush and leaving him covered in lines of green.

“Hey, why me?” Yuri cried as he attempted to dodge. “Karol's the one who got you!”

“Because you started this.” Judith broke Yuri's guard and gave him one last slash across his chest before turning to fix her eyes on Karol. “But don't worry. He'll get his turn.”

Karol squawked fearfully, making a run for it as Judith lunged for him. Thinking fast, he dashed for the other paint cans and hurriedly tossed the lid aside to dip his own brush into the yellow. Judith reached him and struck, and Karol feebly tried to defend himself by randomly smearing yellow on her, until Yuri came up and got his revenge on Judith by splashing red all over her back.

From there on, it degenerated into a ridiculous, chaotic, free-for-all paint war, where all three of them were indiscriminately throwing and pouring and smearing paint on each other at every opportunity. Banter and taunts were tossed back and forth while playful laughter and shouting rang out and the colored substance used for ammunition flew all over the place, hitting anyone who happened to be in range. Not a single paint can was left unused, and with things escalating as they were, it wasn't long before everybody was multicolored from head to toe.

Somehow, it got to the point where Yuri and Judith were intently battling each other like the fighters they were, paying no attention to anything else, including Karol. Taking advantage of this, Karol kept at a safe distance and tossed paint in their direction to get in a few cheap shots at the both of them.

Eventually, though, they realized what Karol was doing, and the boy only had the time to see Yuri and Judith exchange glances before they suddenly ganged up on him, pinning him onto the floor near the wall and practically drowning him in paint. They were unrelenting in their assault and they were both a lot bigger than him and they were holding him down so that he couldn't even budge much less defend himself and that was just not fair

“Dammit!” Karol managed to sputter amidst ceaseless attacks and his own oddly gleeful laughter. “Come on guys, stop! Stop!” They just ignored him like he hadn't spoken, and with how vulnerable he was right now, Karol knew that had been thoroughly and completely defeated. “Alright, I give, I give! Just stop it already, please!”

Thankfully, that seemed to be enough, because his two tormentors finally showed mercy and let him go. Exhausted from the fighting and struggling and laughing, Karol just laid there and panted as Yuri and Judith loomed over him. After a moment, the two adults looked at each other, and then they both shrugged and fell to the floor on either side of Karol, giving into their own laughter.

Once they recovered, Yuri was the first to move, propping himself up with his hands and looking ahead. With a sort of amused resignation, he remarked, “So much for painting the wall.”

When Karol sat up and followed his gaze, he saw that the bottom half of the wall and the floor were covered in a rainbow of colors, all messily arranged in various splotches and splashes and smears. It seemed their little paint war had gotten even more out of hand than he'd first thought.

“I like it,” Judith chimed in with a smile. “It's colorful. Unique. Just like us.”

Yuri scoffed, bending forward to look at her. “Geez, when did you become such a sap?” But as he turned back towards the wall, his lips quirked up. “Though I can't say it looks half bad, myself. What do you think, boss?”

And as unprofessional as the paint job was, Karol couldn't help but think that it was strangely fitting. It was like Judith had said: Brave Vesperia was not a typical guild. In fact, they were probably the most odd and unconventional bunch ever to grace the city of Dahngrest. Somehow, this type of thing felt right.

“...I think it's great,” Karol finally answered. “But the top part seems a little too blank.”

Yuri swiftly stood, giving the upper, plain white area of the wall a quick look-over. “Eh, we can fix that. Just need to pull out the ladders.”

Karol got up as well and took note of all the empty and spilled paint cans everywhere. “And buy some more paint,” he added dryly.

Judith smirked at them and followed their lead, then made a show of cracking her knuckles once she was on her feet. “So, to the department store, and then back here for Round Two?”

Yuri grinned back. “Sounds like a plan.”

After we take showers,” Karol reminded them pointedly, looking down at his own soiled clothes and realizing just how sticky he currently felt.

Yuri chuckled, gently ruffling the boy's hair. “Whatever you say, Captain.”

Karol swatted his hand away, then dashed for the stairs before Yuri could try to start something again. “I'm showering first!” he proclaimed over his shoulder. “You two behave while I'm gone.”

Judith giggled behind him and Yuri jokingly shot back a “No guarantees.” Karol just made his way up to the bathroom, shaking his head at his two fellow guild members but unable to keep a grin from forming on his face. Thanks to their antics, they'd made progress on the walls and had quite a bit of fun in the process.

And Karol couldn't wait to finish the job with them.

Chapter Text

Tremble

When Raven finally caught sight of Estelle, she was standing in front of the doors that were the huge entrance to Myorzo. Her back was turned to him and he was at a bit of a distance, so she had yet to notice his presence. But Raven could detect the aura of intense distress that seemed to surround Estelle, and he hesitated to disturb her.

He supposed that Estelle's current state was to be expected, since she had just been informed that the entire world was doomed to catastrophe unless she died. He couldn't see her face, but with her shoulders slumped over and her head hung low and all the muscles in her body sunken to the point of being almost lifeless, Raven could easily determine her feelings. Estelle looked so lost and hopeless, like she saw no point in going on and was just giving up on everything.

Like she believed she was already, for all intents and purposes, dead.

It was a sentiment Raven could relate to all too well.

An unpleasant, anxious sort of dread came over him. He didn't know the details of why Alexei wanted the Child of the Full Moon, but he had ordered Raven to bring her to him, and it had never been Raven's place to question the commandant. But Estelle was a really sweet girl who'd gone through a lot worse than she deserved. He didn't want to do this.

But, Raven reminded himself as he felt the mechanical beats of the blastia against his chest, he had to.

Sorry, princess.

Resigning himself, Raven gave a quiet sigh, attempting to let out all his uncertainty. Then, assembling his composure, he forced his lips into a grin, one that was not nearly as easy and carefree as he kept making it look. But as he slowly approached Estelle from behind, he realized something that he hadn't noticed at first, something that became more and more obvious the closer he got.

Estelle was trembling.

And as Raven clenched onto the warp blastia core in his pocket and thought again of what he was about to do to her, he could have sworn that he was too.

Chapter Text

Sunset

Karol had been working up his nerve to ask Nan out for quite some time now. So when he happened to run into her at the blacksmith's while he was getting his weapon upgraded, and it turned out that she was doing the same for her own blade, he took what little chance he saw to subtly broach the subject during their conversation.

“Hey, if you're not busy after this,” he started, trying his best to sound perfectly casual and not stutter like an idiot, “once our weapons are finished, maybe we could go try them out on some monsters together?”

Karol wanted to kick himself almost immediately after the words left his lips, because wow, that was just about the furthest thing from romantic and hardly the type of activity that a date was meant to entail. But Nan readily shrugged and gave him a “Sure, why not?” in reply, so he settled for what he could get. Spending their time together fighting monsters was better than not spending any time with her at all.


Thankfully, as Karol found out once they fell their first monster on the outskirts of Dahngrest together, Nan seemed to be enjoying herself. While she wasn't quite like Yuri or Judith, who were both adrenaline junkies who just liked fighting in and of itself, Nan did apparently find pleasure in that monsters ended up dead after the fact.

The two of them got a little carried away, though, and before they knew it, they had been outside for hours and the sun was closing in on the horizon. Once they had finished off the last of the nearby monsters, Nan sighed and looked up at the reddening sky. “I guess it's probably too late for dinner now.”

Karol would have been inclined to agree had he not remembered that he had some ingredients in his bag. Scratching his cheek a hint nervously, he offered, “W-well, I could make something if you want.” He wouldn't put himself at the level of a chef, but after all that cooking practice he'd gotten on the journey two years ago, he knew he was perfectly capable of whipping up something good.

Nan stared at him for a moment, then smiled slightly. “I guess it wouldn't hurt.” She looked around a bit before turning and pointing to a nearby hill. “We can eat over there.”

He nodded his assent and they started off towards the hill together, and as they walked practically side by side, Karol debated with himself on whether or not he should be a little bolder, whether or not he should give into that tempting yet terrifying urge to reach out and try to hold her hand.

In the end, though, Karol just couldn't do it, and their hands remained lamentably separate the entire way there.


Karol watched as Nan set her now empty plate of what had once been curry down on the grass next to his own, then stretched her arms over her head with a satisfied sigh. “You're not half bad at cooking, Karol.”

“Really?” Karol murmured from his spot sitting next to her, surprised but also pleased by the compliment. “Heh, no biggie.” He caught Nan rolling her eyes at that, but the gesture was playful enough to not make him uncomfortable. “So, you wanna go back to town now?”

“Not yet.” She laid her hands on the earth behind her and leaned back slightly, her eyes fixated ahead. “I think I'll stay here for a bit.”

Karol furrowed his brow at first, but as he followed her gaze to the setting sun and then looked back at Nan to see the peaceful and even awed expression on her face, his confusion cleared. She was enjoying the sight, Karol realized, and the revelation made him smile fondly.

Nan was definitely the strong-willed and tough type, which was definitely a big part of why Karol had fallen for her. But moments like this one, moments when she relaxed and completely dropped her guard and just let herself marvel at little things like petal showers and sunsets, were times that he treasured. Nan might kill him if he ever told her, but she just looked so adorable when she was like that.

And right then, with the vibrant sunlight shining on her face and her simple joy shining in her smile, she was absolutely breathtaking.

And right then, Karol's affection must have just taken him over somehow, because without even consciously thinking about it, he leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her cheek.

It took a few moments for his senses to kick in, but once he realized what he was doing, Karol reeled back, scared of how Nan might react. He anxiously watched as Nan turned to him, her expression betraying no small amount of shock, which then morphed into a horrifying sort of anger.

Before Karol even saw it coming, Nan's fist made harsh, painful contact with his arm, and in that instant, he felt nothing else but a miserable sort of resignation. She was surely disgusted with him now—he'd ruined whatever chances he might have had with her. Nan roughly grabbed him by the shoulders, and Karol braced himself to be subjected to another punch, or worse, a sound verbal thrashing.

Instead though, Nan surprised him by yanking him close and landing her soft lips upon his own.

Karol was frozen in shock throughout it all, and when Nan finally pulled away, he still wasn't quite able to believe what she had just done. But there was still a residual tingle in his lips, evidence that it had indeed happened, and Nan was flushing a telltale shade of pink.

“You idiot!” she shouted at him, but Karol couldn't find it in himself to be nervous. “Do you know how long I've been waiting for you to do that?!”

For a moment, Karol was unable to do much more than just stare and numbly rub his sore arm as those words and the lingering sensations on his mouth still rattled around in his mind. But once it all fully set in, Karol wasted no time in diving in and kissing her back, practically exploding with sheer happiness because spirits above, she actually liked him back!

Nan gave a noise of surprise against his lips but didn't resist, and she even shifted her own lips in response. It was all done pretty sloppily, really, since they were both a bit uncertain and neither of them had any experience with this and the taste of beef and onions was still a little too fresh in both their mouths, but Karol was too elated to care and Nan wasn't stopping so she apparently didn't mind either. They continued kissing until eventually Karol had to pull back to catch his breath, and then he laughed at himself for having ever worried that she would reject him.

Despite her own red cheeks and somewhat flustered expression, Nan also smiled a bit. “Well, it's a good thing you finally worked up your nerve,” she continued mock haughtily. “I was beginning to think you weren't worth it.”

Karol grinned cheekily. “But I am worth it, right?”

Nan rolled her eyes and slid closer so that she could deliver a gentle, much more playful punch to his shoulder. “For now,” she conceded, leaning into his form and laying her hand on top of his.

Their fingers laced together at last, and Karol couldn't help but feel triumphant.

Chapter Text

Mad

Rita had a long-standing arrangement with Judith, in which Judith and Ba'ul would pick her up and help her travel between research stations whenever it was convenient for all of them. So it was a surprise when, on the day she and Judith had agreed on, it was instead Karol who walked into the facility at Heliord.

Apparently, as Karol explained, Judith and Ba'ul were busy on an unexpected Brave Vesperia mission right now, so he had come in her place. He'd be escorting Rita back to Dahngrest on foot, though, where she would have to wait until Judith got back. It wasn't a huge deal, so Rita wasn't going to complain or blow off the handle or anything, but this did make things somewhat inconvenient.

Sighing, she pointed to a nearby chair and told him, “Just wait here for a while, alright? I'm on the verge of something, and I can't afford to leave yet.” It had been over half a year since she started her research towards achieving a blastia formula that didn't use any aer, and since today in particular had been especially productive, she wanted to make the most of her time here.

Karol shrugged and took a seat. “Just don't take too long.” Rita sat herself back down at her desk, but just as she was starting to tinker with the code, a mildly familiar voice reached her ears, and the words it spoke made her pause.

“Mordio's still going at it?” The mention of her name caught her attention, and a quick peek towards the entrance informed Rita that two men, whom she recognized as some other scientists who worked here regularly, were standing at the door, about ready to leave for the day. Though apparently, they just couldn't depart before gossiping about her.

“Yeah,” the other guy replied, scoffing. “I can't believe she's still got this idea in her head that she can actually create that formula.”

The first mage snorted. “I don't care how much of a 'genius' she's supposed to be. She's insane.”

“I know, right? And have you seen how she works? Never eats or takes a break or anything. It's like she's not even human.”

“Such a freak.”

Those two were absolutely stupid if they actually believed Rita couldn't hear them, but frankly, she couldn't care less what they said about her. She was plenty used to being doubted and ostracized, and while that had died down significantly ever since word got out that she had helped save the world, there were still some people who just never changed. But there wasn't anything she could do about that, and anyway, the idiots were leaving now, so she decided it'd be best to just ignore them and turned back to her work—

“Hey, don't talk about Rita like that!”

...Wait, what?

When Rita looked up again, Karol was getting up from his chair and stomping towards the two, glaring at them despite the fact that they were both full grown men and he was just a boy. “Just because she's not like you doesn't mean there's anything wrong with her!” Karol continued, and it was almost embarrassing just how offended he was when this had nothing to do with him. “Her ideas and inventions are the reason you're even alive right now!”

The first guy stared blankly at him, then asked mockingly, “Yeah, what do you know, kid?”

“I know that Rita helped save the world, and she's going to do it again once she finishes this blastia,” Karol shot back challengingly. “And I know that you know I'm right. You only badmouth her because you're jealous she's so much smarter than you!”

What little composure the two ever had was lost at that, and they gaped openly in dumbfounded disbelief. While the sight was incredibly amusing, Rita quickly moved to intervene. She didn't need the little runt to stand up for her, even if he was rather impressive when he was mad.

“Karol, shut up,” Rita called from her desk. “These idiots won't listen no matter what you say.” The kid whirled towards her, his mouth open like he was ready to protest, but then Rita smirked and continued, “Besides, I'm just about finished with my new prototype, and I could use the test subjects. Fireball sounds good, don't you think? Or maybe Meteor Storm?”

Anger flashed across the scientists' faces, but they didn't give any retort, at least smart enough to realize that this was a fight they weren't going to win. So, like the cowards they were, they just huffed and tried to act all high and mighty as they retreated.

“Whatever. We have better things to be doing.”

“Yeah. Dumb brats.”

The door shut behind them as they departed, and Rita grinned to herself in triumph. Then, fixing her gaze on Karol, she abruptly stood from her desk and went over, hovering her hand over his head as if to hit him.

Karol braced himself, habitually bending over and bringing his arms up protectively. But just this once, Rita couldn't help but go easy on him, and when she struck, it was no more than a gentle, harmless smack to the top of his head.

Obviously surprised at having not received anything more painful, Karol cautiously straightened up and blinked at her. “Huh?”

“Idiot,” she scolded. “I didn't need you to try and defend me. I don't give a damn about people like them.”

“I-I know that!” Karol sheepishly scratched his cheek. “I...I just didn't like the things they were saying.”

Rita scoffed. “Since when have you cared?”

Karol frowned, looking down at the floor. “Well, back in Dahngrest...I used to get a lot of crap from people, too. Still do, actually.” His cheeks took on a pink tint. “I guess seeing them talk bad about you sort of reminded me of that, and it ticked me off. You don't deserve to be treated that way.”

Rita was taken aback for a moment, but she quickly recovered and huffed as grumpily as she could muster. “Still, it wasn't necessary.” His concern was appreciated, though, even if she'd never tell him that. “I can take care of myself. Next time, think a bit before you get all worked up.”

Karol smirked slightly. “Like you're one to talk.”

Rita raised her hand threateningly again, and Karol yelped in fear. “Care to say that again?”

“No thanks!” Karol giggled nervously, and Rita let her arm fall back down to her side. “So...you ready to go now?”

“Of course not,” Rita replied flippantly. “I'm not done yet.”

Karol gave an exasperated sigh. “Please don't take too long.”

Rita rolled her eyes but agreed, “Just a few minutes at most.” Then, unable to help it, she remarked teasingly, “Wouldn't want you to get mad again.”

Karol sent her a mild glare, and Rita laughed a little to herself as she went back to her desk.

Chapter Text

Thousand

Yeager was dead, and Gauche didn’t know what to do with herself.

The man had taken her and Droite in as kids, had loved them and treated them like they were his own daughters, and now he was gone forever. The mere thought of it filled Gauche with so much grief and anger and helplessness that just she wanted to get rid of, but it seemed like she never would, no matter how hard she tried. She and Droite had already fought Yeager’s killers in an attempt to somehow ease their pain through revenge, but they’d lost in the end.

And even if they had won, Gauche had an inkling that they wouldn’t actually have felt any better anyway.

Droite didn’t know what to do with herself either, and in fact, seemed to be taking it even harder than Gauche was. It scared Gauche, really—Droite had always been the bubbly and cheerful one, but ever since Yeager died, it was like the life had been completely sucked out of her. Droite used to to endlessly chatter Gauche’s ear off about senseless topics; now she closed herself off and barely talked at all. She used to laugh at the littlest things; now days would pass before Gauche saw even the slightest smile grace her lips.

And sometimes, in the middle of the night, Gauche would be awoken by the sounds of Droite sobbing into her pillow. The most Gauche could ever do was slip into the other’s bed and hold her sister until Droite fell still and quiet, exhausted from having cried herself to sleep.

For a long time, neither of them knew what to do with themselves.

Until Droite came up with the idea.


“I’m gonna go see Yeager,” Droite proclaimed one morning as she came through the door, and a surprised Gauche looked up from her book to see her twin holding a bundle of flowers behind her back as she bowed her head down towards the floor.

It took a few moments for the words to fully sink in, and when they did, Gauche frowned in concern. “Are you sure?” Where Yeager now lay was the very same place where he had been killed, his body buried deep beneath the ocean at the base of Zaude. That place certainly didn’t bring up the best of memories.

But her sister just nodded. “I’m sure. We haven’t visited Yeager in a long time, and I don’t want him to be lonely.” And even as Droite’s eyes filled with tears that threatened to spill, there was an undeniable determination in her expression. “I’m gonna go see him,” she declared again, bringing the bouquet in front of her chest. “And what I want to know is if you’re gonna join me.”

It was only now, with a much better view of the flowers themselves, that Gauche noticed exactly what type they were—the distinctive bell shape along with the unique orange-and-black coloring of the petals characterized them as fire lilies. Yeager loved those flowers, Gauche recalled him telling them when he’d been alive, because they had been Casey’s favorites.

Yeager’s with Casey now.

Gauche had to blink back her own tears at that thought, and as she met Droite’s equally sorrowful gaze, she knew she needed this just as much as her sister did. Gauche nodded, her eyes wet, her voice trembling with her reply. “Of course I’ll come with you.”

Preparations were made hastily, but that very night, they traveled out to Zaude. Immediately the next morning, they took a rowboat out on the ocean, circling around the base of the structure and leaving flowers behind to float away in their wake. The vibrant petals danced beautifully amidst the waves, and Gauche wanted to believe that wherever he was now, Yeager could see them and appreciated them too.

And by the time they had let go of all the flowers, Gauche’s heart felt just the tiniest bit lighter.

Droite must have felt the same way, because as they got out of the boat, she mustered a smile, small and timid and still sad but by far the warmest one Gauche had seen grace her face in a long time. “Hey,” Droite murmured, shuffling her feet, “do you think you might want to do this again next week?”

Gauche let her lips quirk into a gentle smile of their own and reached out to give her sister a soft, affectionate squeeze to the shoulder. “Yes,” she whispered, “I think I’d like that a lot.”


The friendly old lady at the flower shop instantly took notice of the twins as they walked in and called out to them cheerfully. “Ah, you girls again. The usual, I take it?”

“Yes ma’am.” Gauche smiled politely but otherwise couldn’t bring herself to reflect the same chipper mood.

The woman, as always, didn’t seem to notice her lack of enthusiasm. The twins had never bothered to tell her that the bouquets they bought every week were actually offerings for a dead man. “Oh, just wait right here, dearies, I’ll have them out in a moment.” She disappeared into the back of the shop, and within seconds, she returned with the fire lilies in hand.

“Thanks,” Droite intoned with the same measured courtesy, and Gauche fumbled for the right amount of gald out of her wallet.

“Oh, you’re quite welcome. You girls are a couple of our best customers after all. Why, this bundle makes just over a thousand flowers that you’ve bought from us!”

The words made Gauche pause in surprise just as she laid the coins on the counter. Oh sure, they’d been picking up bouquets regularly, but had they really bought that many? After a few moments, Gauche found it in herself to venture, “…A thousand? You’re sure?”

The lady took the money and continued obliviously. “Why yes, of course. We keep records, you know.”

Gauche pursed her lips, quickly grabbing the flowers so that the woman wouldn’t notice her sudden discomfort. “I see. Thank you.” She hastily turned and paced towards the door, the sound of footsteps indicating that Droite was just on her heels, and the old woman called something out to them as they left but Gauche was too absorbed in her own thoughts to make it out.

A thousand flowers. Only now that she really thought about it did Gauche realize just what that meant, how long and how religiously they’d been visiting Yeager. When they’d begun their little ritual, it had helped them cope and made them both feel a little bit better, but that had been about eight months ago. And remarkably, for the first time since, Gauche was beginning to worry.

How much longer would they have to do this? How many more times would they have to visit Yeager’s grave until the pain stopped?

…Would it ever stop?

So occupied was Gauche with these concerns that didn’t say a word the entire way home. Once they were inside headquarters, Gauche blankly moved to grab her bag, as she always did before they took off for Zaude, but a hand grabbed her sleeve and stopped her. Gauche looked up to see her green-haired sister and started a bit; she’d almost forgotten that Droite was there, and Gauche belatedly realized that her twin hadn’t spoken a word all this way either.

“Hey, Gauche?” Droite bit her lip nervously. “Do you think we could…not go today?”

Gauche was taken aback, even if she had just been pondering the exact same thing herself. “A-are you sure you want that?”

“Well I’ve…had a lot to think about,” Droite mumbled, blushing. “I guess that lady got me thinking about how much we’ve been seeing Yeager. And about how we can’t keep this up forever.”

“…Yeah. I was thinking the same thing.” Admitting it aloud gave Gauche the strength to swallow the lump of hesitation that had been blocking her throat. The notion of not visiting Yeager anymore was still uncomfortable, even a bit scary, because part of her wanted to keep holding onto him forever. Yet at the same time, another part of her felt oddly liberated, and maybe that was the part she needed to listen to right now. “So, we’ll call it off?”

Droite nodded in affirmation. “It’s worth a try at least.” Gauche watched her sister muster a small but sincere smile, and then Droite’s gaze shifted to the fire lilies in Gauche’s hands and she let out a sigh. “Shame those pretty flowers will go to waste, though.”

But as Gauche looked down at the bouquet herself, an idea formed in her head. “Not necessarily,” she murmured, and when Droite shot her a questioning glance, Gauche just smiled in return.

And a while later, when every last fire lily had been weaved into one of the two flower crowns that now rested on their heads, when Gauche was truly having fun for the first time in a long time and her lips were curling into what was definitely her brightest grin since Yeager’s death, when Droite pulled her sister into a bone-crushing hug and began crying in a strange mixture of sorrow and relief and love and joy, Gauche found it in herself to crack a little joke even as her own tears fell.

“Ugh, sister raid,” she mock-groaned, the playful words familiar on her tongue even if she hadn’t spoken them in months.

And as Droite suddenly burst into light, giddy giggles, Gauche knew they were both going to be okay.