Action is what influences change. The small individual nuances of what makes a person who they are define what they become in times of peace or violence.

One breath was taken to ease the mind, another to sanctify purpose.

The roars of the battlefield were drowning, but beyond it all lay the weight of responsibility pressing down upon one's shoulders. All these people, all these soldiers, everyone; they were all relying and believing in him with all of their hearts.

Shirou had watched as others trudged forward on his behalf, fighting to buy whatever time that he needed through storms of steel and the acrid scent of smoke. They roared, they cried, they fought ever still. Their bones shattered, their blood flowed aplenty upon the earth, their will branded through their resolve.

He watched many die.

Many more who grew injured and fatigued, succumbed to exhaustion where they should have triumphed.

'Don't look. Don't hear. Don't see.'

Shirou understood what was being sacrificed not only for his sake, but the whole meaning of this uprising with him at the center…and yet it was maddening. He was simply a man who'd learned in his lifetime to comprehend what he truly wished beyond the goal of attaining a certain smile.

It was tragic then, that no matter what he did, or what happened; a Nameless Hero would traverse from battle after battle unable to fulfill what he wanted to do most.

He just didn't want to see anyone cry.

All this murder, this corruption, this bloodshed, how many tears would be spilled or have already been spilled because of it?

The people of Calla, the allies he'd recruited with Chouri, everyone who believed in him, of them, how many would be able to return home at his inaction? How many families would grieve? How many more would mourn?

His hands balled into fists, his muscles contracting.

'Ten minutes was a safety line…' He found himself reasoning.

'Don't do it. Don't you dare do it, you-you, epitome of idiocy.'

He could almost imagine an old lover, Rin, scolding him in his thoughts, but like always, he never truly learned. You can't teach an old dog new tricks.

The sorrow building within him, the guilt of it all- it made rationality almost unbearable to maintain.

'You utter fool.'

He could practically hear the disappointment lacing Rin's imaginary tone, but he could no longer stand the sight before him.

"Trace…On."

Sparks crackled from around him, creating a static buzz that heightened into a crescendo in his ears. Circuit-like patterns flared over his skin and reached up and around the side of his eyes. He grunted, teeth gnashing. The Danger Beast bones secured around his waist rapidly faded into dust as his Magic Circuits siphoned their energy into usable power which flooded through him.

He wouldn't be able to maintain this state for long. Already, his body was screaming at him.

Having been born in a new body unused to magecraft in this world, it was going to take time for his body to truly adjust. Until then, the best analogy to describe his situation was akin to that of a paper cup filled with water. His body was the cup, and the water, the magic energy.

With the flimsiness of the cup, it would only be a matter of time before the water's weight broke through unless it was all emptied fast enough. The reason to buy ten minutes of time was so that he could reinforce the cup well enough to sustain the input of raw energy.

It had only been eight minutes. Not too long, but not too short either.

Veins popped over his skin, his features hardening with resolve.

It should be enough to act.

For the sake of those before him. For the safety of those who'd fought on his behalf:

Death would not come today. He would not allow it.

His body lowered, left arm outstretched and clasping for that which was unseen.

Aias, the shield that stopped the spear of the Great Hero Hector, hummed in response. Its duty was fulfilled with the cessation of aerial bombardment. The iridescent flower bloomed, its petals unfurling before shattering away into motes of pink light drifting in the wind.

The spectacle itself drew attention. Like the falling leaves of cherry blossoms, the light gathered and danced before all. It was mesmerizing, enlightening. The use of a tool was to fulfill a purpose, and now that that purpose was complete, it would be laid down to rest. Yet, this shield was no ordinary shield. Carried in the glow was the sentiment of protection wrought through the crystallization of the Hero Aias.

'This shield will never break, never fall. It will protect without fail.'

It was conceptual basis rooted to the very concept of the unbreakable shield and the unstoppable spear.

The convictions of the Empire's citizens wavered, the more educated drawing analogies to the Empire's very history.

All at once, the lights pooled down over an outstretched palm.

There was once a time where one had dared to question the meaning of life and medicine, hammering on the boundary that all mortals were confined within.

The gathered light took shape and form, two intertwined snakes wrapped around a winged rod now grasped tightly in Shirou's grip.

Shield was exchanged for staff in a heartbeat.

In an era where virtuosities and medicine were held sacred within their domains, one Hero sought for an answer beyond life and enacted a miracle only to be smited by the Gods.

The staff was held aloft, erecting around it a bounded field, a sacred space of healing that stretched across Kalance plains. The properties behind the staff could no longer breach the realm of the Gods, but the conceptual reality of its legend lived on ever still.

'Death? Mortals fear it only because I've yet to develop a cure.'

The Rod of Asclepius, Noble Phantasm of an ancient Greek physician worshiped as a God in cult.

The snakes coiled around the staff stirred and slithered over the sacred space. Wounds healed and fatigue lifted all at once. It hardly differentiated from friends and allies, but careful targeting and Caliburn's light allowed him to choose whom to heal. If anything though, it was a crutch measure that prevented death so long as they weren't already dead.

From afar, Selka carried over Akame's shoulders stirred. The stab wound she'd sustained gradually knit closed, replaced with fresh pink skin.

Everywhere else was no different aside from the notable observation that none with dark or grey light were being healed. This only further accentuated the growing suspicion that the lights bestowed a type of judgement on their owners.

Pride, jealousy, fear, paranoia, all kinds of emotions mixed together as one in this environment.

No one knew where it had started, but it began when some solider called out the unjust and vile action of a commanding officer marked black. The rest soon began to point fingers in realization. Those judged to be dark were no good people.

Subconsciously, those with white light over their heads began to distance themselves from the black, infuriating them who were already nervous and antsy. Calls of mutiny and insubordination were leveled hoarsely by panicked officials.

Like Chouri had pointed out for Elaine, infighting had begun, and yet more important than anything else was Shirou.

Unlike Chouri and Elaine who scrutinized the benefit and feasibility of new variables added to the battlefield, Shirou's goal had never wavered from the start.

A sword set to cut the neck of an Empire soldier was halted as Shirou stepped between them and stared the attacker down through sheer presence alone. The staff held in his grasp healed the solider of her injuries who felt as if the sun were shining warmly down before her.

Just like many of those judged white by Caliburn's white, the sudden confusion had stalled them into inaction…but no longer.

"Stand on your feet, and get behind me," Shirou's voice was kind in that he hid nothing but concern for another's well being. Many could feel it, if not through his words, then in his actions.

Unable to command her limbs from shock, Shirou gently pulled the soldier up despite the situation around him. None dared take the opportunity to attack simply because they were enraptured by the light surrounding a righteous figure.

Never before since the Empire's founding had someone exuded this type of aura and charm to follow.

'He is the Emperor. He is the Empire.'

The soldiers marked in white light and hesitating, both in the Revolutionary and Empire army, wavered in their doubts. Yet four words would change it all.

"I will protect you," Shirou uttered, his back facing the solider who'd stood opposed to him at the beginning.

The Empire soldier herself started sobbing, tears trickling down her face as stress and tension left her under the Rod of Asclepius's warmth.

She was moved.

Goddammit she was moved.

As were the rest.

"He is the Emperor…He is the Empire. All roads lead to him," whispers began, low and unheard, but resonating within ever still.

A grin spread across Elaine's lips, face practically splitting in her admiration, while Chouri rubbed at his beard in approval.

"See here, girl," Chouri lectured almost fondly. "Righteousness, compassion, charisma, that is the aura of our Empire's Emperor. Get ready to move, the time is coming."

Those marked white in the Empire's army broke ranks and gathered. The same occurring in the spectating Revolutionaries similarly marked white who could no longer sit on their feet.

"The people are not blind," Chouri narrated, his vision stretched across the gathered armies.

Those who broke ranks moved and gathered towards one place, a purpose to their steps, a tumultuous expectation alighting in their chests.

"They see it."

Slowly, undoubtably, and surely the call within them was true.

"They feel it. They know what must be done, and have been moved into action."

Elaine glanced up at Chouri, shivers running down her spine. She may dislike the man, but his words were truly compelling.

"The Emperor is the brightest star in a kingdom. He who guides in righteousness; he who protects through the faith of those behind him; he who leads in magnanimity; he who triumphs amongst all evil through sheer virtuousness. Right here and now, such an Emperor stands before us in the face of corruption and in the ruination of an empire."

The people gathered, charging towards one place, and forming new ranks even through the chaos.

"In respect, nay, in gratitude; there's only one thing to be done now that the Emperor stands at the forefront while we stare at that stalwart back."

Military men and women alike, officers, and commanders, began shouting, calling forth a single prime derivative.

Chouri whipped on the reins of his horse, an arm raising and sounding the call to arms echoed deafeningly by the voice of thousands as one.

"Rally to the Emperor!"

Chouri charged forth, behind him a cavalry of men and women directed by Elaine who began yelling formation orders in rapid fire.

In sudden reversal, the faction in this three-way battle with the least combatants, suddenly inflated to a considerable size while the rest grew destabilized.

All of this occurred with just one person at the center who could care little for anything else but keeping those relying on him safe.

In the edge of his vision, Shirou could see Akame and the rest making their way over to him as surely as the surge of new allies rallying to his back. Aided by the sacred boundary of the Rod of Asclepius, the nearer they drew to him, the more energized and freer of injuries they became.

Blood spurted inside his mouth; the coppery taste forced down his throat.

His body was breaking apart. He wouldn't be able to last for much longer from the strain of Tracing and maintaining Noble Phantasms consecutively, but even still.

Gradually, he adjusted his bearings, calling upon the light of that sword once more.

The shine of the stars seemed to descend once again, culminating back into a sword grasped in his grip.

Winds picked up, around him, as one step forward turned into many. Blood rushed to his ears, the hammering of his heart echoing in tandem with the aura surrounding him and drawing his allies like moths to a flame.

It was a subtle thing. Untold but yearned for ever still.

Soldiers cry their rallying cries- The reverberation of steel clashing, fostering with it, the shower of sparks that crackled and sizzled in the breeze.

In the pits of war and violence, was a courage to remain steadfast.

The light that gleamed like the brightest dawn upon a blood-soaked field was the guiding moonlight in an encroaching dark of this world's corruption.

Everywhere, eyes turned upon it.

Akame struggled forward, always chasing.

Najenda stood rooted, captivated.

Liver turned away, blood spilling from clenched palms.

No matter if it was friend or enemy alike, a single sword drew forth the same sentiments.

It was a sword that shines with the weight of hope; a hope that all beings, man or woman, adult or child, friend or foe would mournfully exalt as sacred. Separated by ideals, beliefs, and status, it was a sword that unites all warring countrymen upon a single coat-of-arms. It is pride. It is faith. It is virtue. A belief bidding all who fight in its glow to remain steadfast in loyalty.

The sword hummed in iridescent light, grasped firmly in an unwavering hand.

The undefeated King will sing the song of its triumph.

'O Golden Sword of the Victorious, show me of the way.'

Shirou's eyes shut closed, the glow before him growing stronger in his focus.

Tracing not only allowed Shirou the ability to recreate any weapon he'd ever seen, but it was more than that. His was a mystery that actualized not only the projection of a weapon, but all the skill and wisdom that weapon entails.

Exemplify the skill of its wielder, and replicate the history of its experience. The images overlapped in his mind.

For the briefest of moments, he was the chosen king, and the chosen king was him.

Gather magic energy, build it up, condense it, and then burst it out.

A storm of energy billowed from around him. Once more, it felt as if his Saber was still watching out for him. Her memory, her experience under the tutelage of the Wizard Merlin and the various wars she'd fought, was all culminated into her sword.

"Roar of Heaven and Earth," he intoned, a keening hum escaping Caliburn's blade from the invocation of a skill required to use it in full.

The image of a red dragon took root, encapsulating the Draconic properties of Caliburn's former wielder and imitating it in his body. The process similar to the way he'd gain God-Speed from the stone slab of Berserker.

Immediately, charging forth, swaths of magical energy felt like an incoming tidal wave against what little resistance the Empire troops could muster in their disarray.

It was enough to provide an irreparable opening.

With those designated white by Caliburn's light having left the opposing side, there was no longer any considerations left for those designated black left behind.

"Sword of Selection," he intoned, shifting into a low stance, blade held horizontally. "Grant me power and cleave the wicked!"

The light gathered into an impossibly elongating beam of energy, crackling with writhing arcs of power.

"Caliburn!" The sword was swung, all light seemingly fading away into nothing before it began.

Stars twinkled in gaps within the enemy formation, beautiful if misleading. Without warning, they exploded forth with an explosive force that mangled bodies into paste incinerated in the glow.

Everyone stilled at the sight beyond anything they'd ever seen.

'So, this was the sword of the Emperor?'

Many swallowed audibly, but even more than that was the spike in morale.

"Charge! For the Emperor!"

The Empire's First Army crumbled. The entire line practically vanished in a heartbeat, leaving little resistance for any stragglers fortunate enough to escape the blast zone.

The remaining Empire and Revolutionary forces spectating nearby were all forced to retreat. They couldn't mount attack even if they wanted to. After all, they had to recuperate and reorganize after the exodus of high and low-ranking officials and soldiers alike.

The confrontation in Kalance plains would likely end up with an outcome that neither the corrupt Revolutionaries or Empire nobles could have expected nor were happy with.

"Retreat!" The order was given.

"Pursue!" In contrast, Calla's forces gave chase.

Lowering Caliburn, both it and the Rod of Asclepius disappeared from Shirou's hands. It was hardly noticeable, but he was swaying unsteadily.

As Chouri and Elaine shouted commands to draw the battle's conclusion to a close, few but the most observant noticed Shirou gesture to Najenda on wobbly knees; the two discreetly retreating from the public eye in the chaos and victorious roars.

None stopped them.

With both the Empire and Revolutionary forces calling for a retreat, this battle was as good as over.

No one would be unaware of what happened this day. A verification if anything, no longer able to be kept hidden.

The blood of the Emperor lives beyond the palace's walls.

In the palace, Guardian Protector Budo stirred.

The winds of change were surely blowing.

/-/

"You're a real piece of work, you know that?" Najenda grumbled, hefting Shirou with one of his arms slung around her shoulders.

Shirou's feet were practically dragging as he smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. I really wouldn't have been able to make it back on my own if I didn't have help," he apologized.

"And I suppose you didn't take into account how everyone will feel once the adrenaline runs out and they notice your absence?"

"That was kind of the idea behind this."

Najenda hummed, cueing into the reason Shirou would decide on such an action, but not grilling him on it.

"You're such a handful," she snorted before growing thoughtful when she looked at him. It was amusing how guilty he appeared at her accusation spoke in jest. This truly was someone worth her loyalty. "It's fine though. I left things to Lubbock to manage before taking you away."

"Thank you," Shirou mumbled.

"And don't you forget it," Najenda grinned cheerily, lugging Shirou forward as he left drag marks with his feet over the dirt. "Now you said that there was a cabin somewhere here you could recover at?"

"It's one of Chouri's hide outs. I've been there before, and it should do well enough."

Najenda raised a brow and inwardly reassessed her perception of Chouri from a wise political man, to a shrewd old bastard. "To have bases in the middle of nowhere, I should have expected nothing less from the Empire's former minister."

"He's a good man. He and Honest really can't be compared."

"Indeed."

Najenda hummed in agreement but inwardly frowned when she nearly tripped while supporting the both of them. Her body was screaming in protest, numbness washing through her muscles. Whatever method had Shirou used to heal and invigorate everyone, its effect didn't seem to linger for long now that the staff in question was gone.

Being the only person supporting Shirou right now, Najenda refused to reveal her difficulties. Her pride as a commander and general wouldn't allow it.

Wrapping an arm around Shirou's waist, she shifted his weight to better accommodate her hold into something easier on her arms.

If Shirou noticed her fatigue, he didn't comment on it as she watched him blink his eyes rapidly in the way one does to stave of drowsiness.

"Are you feeling alright?" She asked.

"Well enough. I'm more concerned about everyone else. Not to mention, you don't seem so well yourself."

Of course, someone with his character would notice, Najenda grumbled. "Don't worry about it. I'll be fine. At least you weigh nothing close to Bulat. That would have been a challenge."

"Hmm," Shirou nodded almost listlessly.

For her part, Najenda felt like Shirou didn't believe her. Then again, the sheen of sweat over her face, and her flushed cheeks weren't the best indicators of physical confidence. Dammit. It really had been too long since she'd been on the field. She'd need more time training herself up to return to optimum condition.

A rustle in the leaves nearby caused Najenda to cautiously shift her gaze behind her, only to scoff in realization when silent red eyes stared back at her.

Of course, it would be her of all people who'd not only notice her and Shirou's departure, but ignore whatever advise Lubbock gave and give chase.

"I see you managed to follow us, Akame," Najenda inwardly sighed in relief though. With two people, it would be much easier to support Shirou's weight.

"How is he?" Akame got right to the point. She was concerned, and she wasn't being subtle about it.

"He's fine." Najenda nudged Shirou's side. "Right Mr. Emperor?"

No answer.

"He's unconscious," Akame pointed out stiffly.

Najenda wrinkled her brow, inspected Shirou's lulling head, and then sighed.

"Honestly, from how fluently he was speaking it was hard to suspect. But now though? So, he really was just faking it," Najenda said in exasperation. "Damn fool. He should learn to care for himself before concerning himself with others. All Teigu have costs…so what sort of strain did his have to pass out so quickly?"

Akame stepped closer to them; close enough to notice the paling complexion of Shirou's features and short breaths. Seeing this for herself, Akame pursed her lips and swallowed audibly. "I-I'll take it from here. He needs to rest. The sooner the better."

"It's fine," Najenda turned down despite wanting to suggest the both of them carry him. Her pride though wouldn't allow it. "A little bit of exertion won't effect me too m-"

Akame didn't take 'no' for an answer. In fact, she probably didn't even register Najenda's reply if the fixated look in her eyes was anything to go by.

Forcibly shouldering all of Shirou weight, Akame took Shirou out of Najenda's hands and impulsively trudged ahead with him in tow in hopes of reaching their destination faster.

Najenda blinked and straightened her back from the sudden loss of weight. "You know it makes no difference if we get there faster or not with the primary healer out of condition, right?" She called out.

Of course, there was the added safety in returning to camp sooner, but as far as Najenda knew, it wasn't as if it really mattered. In trying to keep Shirou's current unshakable image in mind, it really wouldn't do them much good to return to camp where others could see his present state. Truthfully, it wasn't as if Najenda didn't understand Shirou's intentions when he'd asked her for help to discreetly leave the battlefield, but sometimes emotions weren't reasonable.

The fact that Najenda had 'neglected' to mention to Akame that Shirou wanted to be allowed to rest in a cabin on his own rather than professionally tended to by others, it spoke volumes.

Akame didn't deign to give Najenda a response.

'How stubborn.'

"Cute," Najenda chuckled light-heartedly, a fond glint flickering across her eyes. She never thought she'd see the day that Akame of all people would let her emotions get the best of her.

Akame really changed ever since that first fateful mission that led her to Calla.

As of the moment, Najenda could practically read Akame's thoughts like an open book.

She really did just want to speed up the process for Shirou's sake.

Good luck to anyone trying to stop Akame at this point. Whatever reputation and standing Shirou was trying to preserve mattered quite little to her over Shirou's own wellbeing.

To begin with, Akame wasn't supposed to have noticed their departure, but she always was the most observant. Moreover, Najenda herself wasn't quite being forthcoming.

It would be difficult to convince Akame, but it didn't mean it was impossible for Najenda who had a better understanding of the former Empire Assassin's character to persuade her.

Akame wasn't the only one uncharacteristically letting emotions sway her.

'Was she growing soft?'

Najenda inwardly lamented. She was no rookie to subtleties and hidden ploys as a former general, but after today, a feeling of shame she couldn't describe skewed her iron-clad judgements. Just because indirect methods could be used to gain victory didn't mean that they should be preferred to other more just methods.

Why did she become a former general in the first place?

To be an army leader renowned for the weight of her merits, or an army leader renowned solely for cunning tactics and lack of morality?

'Neither.'

Najenda shook her head forlornly. So long as a path led to victory, she had to grab it as a general for the sake of those who died in her command. But if she could choose between one or the other-

Dammit. She cursed, cutting off her line of thought and drooping her shoulders. She really should have tried to stop Akame and direct her to the cabin. If even Shirou was taking the image he built up seriously, then she should have supported it. However, by now, Akame had already gone far enough ahead that Najenda wouldn't be able to reason with her, nor explain that Shirou never intended to recover in the safety of camp in time.

Akame would be too bullheaded to stop and listen, and more importantly for Najenda was something crucial.

Her heart wasn't in it.

She really was going soft. She frowned.

Lost in her thoughts while walking after Akame, it was only at the sound of a voice that she'd never forget that her senses snapped back into high gear.

"Well, that's a face I never thought I'd see again."

Najenda's features stilled, complexion paling as she craned her neck in the direction of the speaker that was no longer there.

"Esdeath," Najenda shivered, the temperature dropping. "Come to finish the job?" She tensed, searching for any signs of her former comrade.

"I'm afraid not. I have more important matters."

The voice was fainter now, more distant, Najenda quickly began to realize too late as the meaning of the words sunk.

"More important matters-"

Fuck.

Najenda snapped her face forward towards Akame's distant back just in time to see the sight of Akame's eyes widening as a metal collar clicked around Shirou's neck.

"Ah, darling, I've found you!" A cloaked figure chirped happily as a steel-toed boot kicked Akame to the side and wrenched Shirou out of her grip.

An unconscious Shirou was then caught in the figure's arms much to Akame's fury.

Najenda had never seen Akame draw her sword as fast as she did in that moment, but unfortunately, she was disadvantaged as the side being ambushed from the beginning.

Akame stilled, not out of terror or lack of resolve, but physically.

Her eyes craned to the perpetrator of her immobility.

'Ice?'

She hadn't noticed in her panic when the figure accosted Shirou from her, but her entire left leg from the shin down was frozen by dense ice anchoring her to the ground. This was an opportunity that the figure obviously wouldn't waste as large slabs of pointed icicles instantly attempted to skewer her.

"Akame, get down!" Najenda called.

Akame complied moments before the gathered icicles were blasted apart by Najenda's energy blasts fired from the Teigu Pumpkin. This wasn't all. Several more shots seeking to immobilize and sheer off the figure's limbs were fired in tandem.

The action however was as futile as Najenda knew it would be.

The figure, Esdeath, was a monster.

She evaded the shots as if they were nothing, each stride taking her farther and farther away right before Akame's eyes.

Akame could care less about Esdeath, but all she could focus on was the person Esdeath was prying away from her. A girl who'd lost her emotions; an assassin who cared little for them; it was all coming back. A desperation and crushing anxiety she'd never felt before assailed her in full.

Y-You can't!'

Her breaths were growing ragged.

'Stop!'

Her body was growing cold with terror, her eyes bloodshot.

'Please, not him!

"Give him back!" Akame demanded feebly, neck craned; body pushed up on her forearms.

"The strong have every right to take from the weak, and you are weak. My darling deserves better," was the only reply. "Fortunately for you both, my darling and I need time to get better acquainted."

The maidenly blush Akame could see on the figure's face was the final straw. She'd never felt so cold, so angry, and so helpless all at once. Not since her parents had first sold her and her little sister into slavery. Then came misery.

No sooner than it took to blink an eye, and Esdeath was no longer in sight.

"She's gone." Najenda balled her hands tightly into fists and cursed while sprinting to Akame's side. She of all people got him.

Without hesitation, Najenda leveled Pumpkin eye-level and tried to ascertain which direction Esdeath had left from, but even with Pumpkin's scope, there was no sight of her.

"Dammit!" Najenda nearly hurled Pumpkin away in frustration, but managed to hold herself back because someone else was taking the situation worse.

Glancing at Akame, Najenda felt the hairs on the back of her neck raise at how hollow Akame's features were. She was glancing concerningly from her sword to her frozen leg anchoring her in place. It wasn't difficult to piece together what the blank-faced girl was thinking, but it was even more preposterous considering Murasame's poison.

"Akame-" Najenda tried to warn, but was instantly interrupted.

"Cut my leg off. There's no time to break the ice." Akame's voice was monotone. She couldn't use her own sword for the task, so that left only one other option in her mind.

Najenda would have none of it. "There's no time even if you gave chase."

"Cut it off. I'll manage."

"Akame-"

"Cut it off!"

"No! GODDAMMIT! Listen to me!" Najenda grimaced, shouting. "You're not going to get far on a stump no matter how much effort you put in! You're more likely to bleed to death first!"

Akame swallowed down a lump in her throat. Najenda pressed on.

"Do you think I feel any worse than you?! Fuck! It had to be her of all people, but why did she take him? Why didn't she kill him?"

Akame shot Najenda a willowing glare at the words, anxiety contorting her features.

"She must have some use for him," Najenda speculated, recalling how Esdeath addressed Shirou. In which case…

"There's still a chance. I don't know how long it will last, but there's still a chance. She never really was one to care about Honest's opinion when they overstep her own interests."

"That's why you should cut my-"

"Stop! Just stop already with that notion! We might be able to save him, but not like this Akame! Now get your head together!"

No response.

Akame just kept staring mutedly in the direction Shirou had disappeared from, finally letting the fact that she'd lost Shirou to the enemy to set in.

Tears trickled down her cheeks, her hands clasping at dirt while her forehead thudded heavily against the ground. It wasn't just about what it would mean for the Empire if Shirou died or was lost, no; there was something else entirely practically eating away at her calm.

"Hey Akame, you know that you look better when you smile, right?"

It was one of those mundane conversations she'd had with Shirou. Small talk as she understood it, but she was remembering it all now with clarity.

"Why? Why did you come to save me?"

It was a question she'd asked him ever since he'd moved out for her sake, and all he did was smile softly in response. She couldn't help but recall the care he held in his eyes, or the way he grinned, tousled her hair, and snorted in amusement, having said nothing concrete…and yet, it was these small instances that caused a constant pang of grief to assail her heart.

She pounded the ground with her fist; again and again; stronger and stronger, anguish bleeding into her features.

'You utter failure! How much more are you going to lose?!'

Najenda startled at the action, but was soon forced to intervene when Akame's knuckles started bleeding in her frustration.

"Akame, that's enough," Najenda hardened her tone, holding back Akame's hands with her own, but meeting resistance. "Akame, look at me, for God's sake!" Najenda patience finally snapped.

She turned Akame's head to face her, only to fall silent at the ugly tear marks and bitter self-resentment staring back at her.

Akame pulled away, wiping at her face and pursing her lips.

'Dammit…..da…m..m.i..it…..'

She failed. She failed him. She knew this best of all. If she'd just been better, been stronger.

"Don't you dare listen to those thoughts."

Akame stiffly glanced up at the solemnity in Najenda's words. She was staring right at her with an expression of understanding Akame felt she deserved no part of.

"Doubt will be the end of you," Najenda whispered distantly. "It will drown you and smother you until you become a shadow of what you once were."

"The others will blame us."

"They'd be wrong, and Chouri will keep a charade of Shirou's safety until his status is confirmed. Until then, you, everyone else, and I need to rest up and plan a rescue. How are you feeling?"

"It hurts."

"Your wounds will-"

"Not that," Akame shivered, staring right into Najenda's eyes and clutching desperately at her chest just above her heart. "Here. It hurts here."

Of all the times for the stunted girl to develop her emotions, it had to have been now.

Najenda bit down on her lips. There was no straight answer to be had here, especially with how delicate the matter was.

"…How do I stop this pain?" Akame repeated pleadingly at Najenda's silence.

"…I'm sorry, but you can't," was the whispered reply.

"…"

They'd won the battle, but at the most crucial moment, lost what mattered most. However, none of this was over. None of it was.

This Najenda swore.


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Battle of Kalance Plains: End

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