A/N: This is an ongoing birthday/Christmas present for Resmiranda, who got me into the game and then Rita/Raven, possibly against my will. (The results aren't back yet.) Rated for language and some future luvvin's, none of which will be underage 'cause, y'know, ew. Enjoy!

I.

Rita liked to wake up slowly, easily, when she had the chance; her time with Brave Vesperia had seen quick action necessary almost every morning – if only to get to the nearest bathroom before Estelle could hog the tub – so the months following their travels had been crammed with precious, precious solitude. Oh, they all got back together every so often, and she enjoyed their company more than any form of torture could make her admit—but damn, was it ever great to wake up at your own pace! You just couldn't beat it.

What you could beat: cracking your eye open to see a kid making a face at you, with an old jerk leaning down on your other side, hands cupped around his big stupid mouth: "I said, it sure would be a shame if she didn't wake up right OW!"

Karol hopped straight back as Raven rubbed his jaw. Rita sat up, blinking sleep away, and flexed her hand. "Yer aim's good as ever," Raven said mournfully.

"Your mouth's as bad as ever," she retorted. "What're you doing here?"

"G-good morning, Rita," Karol stammered, flinching as she raised a hand to rub her eyes. He edged back again. "It sure is a nice day out, huh?"

She fixed him with a withering stare. "One? It's always a nice day here, even when it rains." Capua Torim's salty breeze fanned them from the open window, which had been barred shut when she fell asleep last night. Rita locked her fingers together and pushed them out in a joint-cracking stretch. "Two, I have a couple of housebreaking morons in my space, which makes this particular morning pretty crappy already." Another eye rub and a yawn did the trick. Fully awake, Rita swiveled to face Karol, scowling; the boy was scooting back toward Raven, and both of them were...looking at her. "And three, what's so funny, huh? If you tell me I was snoring again, I'll—"

"Nothin'!" Raven elbowed Karol, then passed a hand over his stubbled chin, pulling his maniacal half-grin into an expression of solemnity bordering on constipation. "See? Nothin'. Right, Karol?" The older man elbowed Karol again, harder. "Nothin'?"

"What?" Karol snorted, coughed, and mimicked Raven's expression. "Right."

Rita patted her face experimentally, then checked her fingers: clean. "Whatever. Look, was there something you idiots wanted, besides a couple of beatings? 'Cause I can help you with that."

"Ahhh, yes." Raven stood to his full height and bowed elegantly. "We're here ta extend you an invitation, dearest lady, t—"

"There's gonna be a party in Zaphias!" Karol bounced to his feet, brimming with excitement. "There's gonna be a huge party for Estelle's 20th birthday! You remember how we were all in Aurnion a little while back, and I said Yuri and Flynn should have their own Coliseum because they won't stop fighting, and everyone agreed?"

"No," Rita said flatly.

"Oh." Karol picked at his ear, then rallied: "Well, I did, and Flynn told some of the masons, and they told Fortune's Market, and now the Union and the Knights are gonna fight in Zaphias!"

"What's that all got to do with Estelle?" Rita pushed herself to her feet. Thank every nonexistent deity, she always slept fully clothed. "And I thought our goal was to prevent everyone from killing each other. Didn't you say Harry and Ioder were getting along now?"

"This particular fight's a real old-fashioned idea," Raven said, running his finger down a pile of books. He picked out one volume, opened it, and smiled at the note Estelle had written on the inside cover. "Back when the Knights were bigger an' had more Imperial family ta serve, they'd go out every year in front of everyone and whack each other till the Emperor saw who was best fit fer the royal guard. No killin', or at least it lost ya points. Now Estelle's turnin' the big two oh, Flynn thought it might be neat ta try it again with bigger participation—"

"And you're invited!" Karol finished triumphantly.

"And yer invited," Raven agreed, setting the book carefully atop its pile, "and there'll be other stuff goin' on before that, so we came ta get ya and some others before the party started."

"Geez. It's still a week away." Rita tapped one foot, looking at the new calendar she was working on for the Magistrate of Capua Nor. Ever since she got back from their last trip, she had been watching the date with absent-minded interest. Estelle's 19th birthday had been too soon after the Adephagos to spare much energy for celebration. But now...

Her bangs were getting too long. She brushed the hair out of her eyes and tucked it under her goggles. "Let me guess. You're leaving right this second and I need to hurry up and pack?"

"That's our genius!" Raven cocked one finger at her appreciatively. "Everyone's been waitin' this whole time."

Rita scowled at him. Why did that seem to amuse him so much? "Then I'll need ten minutes to get clean and grab a few things. Try not to break anything till I come out, okay?"

There was a moment of horribly expressive silence. Rita, turning to open the nearest door, glanced back to see them size up her little bathroom – with its mounted, full-length mirror – look at each other, and break into a headlong scramble to be first out of the house.

Suspicion bloomed afresh in the mage's mind. She wheeled around, jerked the mirror toward her, and let loose a shriek that rattled her neighbors' windows. "YOU LITTLE BASTARDS! GET BACK HERE!"

Thump thump thump went Rita, down the stairs and out the door in three huge bounds, bare feet insulated against the blistering pavement by sheer rage.

Ba'ul was visible above the docks, of course, and her targets had just disappeared up the Fiertia's gangplank. She put on a burst of speed along the pier, the prospect of vengeance lightening her head like a draught of fine wine. Rita hated wine, but vengeance tasted awesome.

"Good morning, Rita," Judith said with more-than-usually maddening composure. Leaning into the tiny cabin's shade, the Krityan tilted her head and put a hand to her chin. "May I ask why you have glasses and whiskers painted on your face?"

"In indelible black ink! Dried indelible black ink!" Rita marched past her, other people on board melting aside in the graffitied face of her wrath. Behind them, Karol and Raven had collapsed against the railing, doubled up in fits of helpless, hooting laughter. As Rita bore down on them, Karol tried to gasp something out, then made a dive for safety around her.

"Uh-uh!" Rita's hand shot out and seized him by the collar, swinging the boy around to dangle over the rail. "You have two seconds to tell me why I shouldn't stuff you with rocks and throw you overboard!"

"I-it was Raven's idea!" Karol choked. He was about her height now, and definitely heavier, but physical laws tended to turn irrelevant around Rita. "We tried...to wake you for, like, five minutes...! And I was all, 'Just...pour water on her,' but noo-oo, Raven found some ink—"

"In the top drawer of my green dresser, right?" The boy nodded. He was promptly rewarded with a tighter grip in both her hands. "That stuff cost more than your corpse is gonna be worth!" Rita pivoted and hurled him into Raven, knocking the older man flat on his back. "And where are you going, you snooping creep?!"

"How were we s'posed ta know you'd stay asleep while it dried?" Raven protested, sitting up against the side of the ship. "I even cleaned the brush an' put it away, and ya still wouldn't wake up!" He gave her his sunniest grin. "Looked at from a certain perspective, Rita darlin', this is actually all yer HELP! JUDIIIITH—"

"You'll have plenty of time for that later, Rita," Judith said over the sounds of carnage at her feet. "We still have to pick up a delegation of mages from Halure, and I promised Estelle and Yuri a ride back to Zaphias."

"They're at Halure?" Rita paused, foot drawn back in midair. Karol and Raven exchanged glances, nodded imperceptibly, and zipped away in opposite directions, clutching various body parts. She let them go: she knew where they lived. "Okay, I'll go get my stuff. Can you give me a few minutes?"

"And some makeup," Judith replied. Muted snickering came from behind the cabin; Rita whipped around and threw a tongue of flame around the corner, just close enough to set Raven whimpering again.

She didn't decline the offer, though.


When Ba'ul landed a discreet distance from the perimeter protecting the City of Blossoms in lieu of its barrier, people lined the street to watch Estelle, Yuri and Repede stroll down to the Entelexeia, just ahead of several well-dressed mages.

"Hello, everyone! Oh, Rita, I was hoping you'd be here!" Estelle caught her hands, nearly hopping in place with joy. "I wanted to...be sure... Rita, are you wearing face powder?"

Rita gently disengaged her hands, opened her mouth, then spun around and punched Raven square in the face. She turned back and nodded at Estelle. "Yes. Yes, I am."

"Dammit..." Raven heaved a mournful sigh, shrugging with both hands up. "It figures. I get all the beatin' and Karol just gets threats, even though it was his idea! 'Yuri said it'd be funny, we should give her a goatee,' and I go an' ignore that last part, and what do I get?"

Estelle maintained her patented Polite Bewilderment stare as Yuri sauntered up to join them. "Hey, guys. Did I hear my name?" He peered at Rita. "And is Rita wearing pancake makeup? And more importantly, why? Getting bored with the ol' scientific lifestyle?"

The explanation that followed was sufficiently explicit that the boys' collective structural integrity was not the only one at risk: to save the Fiertia and their own schedule, Estelle had to take Rita's arm and escort her into the cabin, promising to get the ink off somehow before they reached Zaphias.

"Man," Yuri said ruefully, wiping tears of mirth from the corners of his eyes as Ba'ul prepared to lift off. "Why'd you guys do that to Rita, of all people? You knew she'd find out instantly and come kill you."

"Well, it's like this—" Massaging his neck, Raven cast a hopeful look at Judith. She crossed her arms. He sighed again, plopping onto the deck. "Rita's like a beehive, ya know?"

"No," they chorused.

Raven touched his jaw tenderly. "A beehive's got some great stuff in it ya can't get anywhere else—valuable, right? But ya can't sit around all day starin' at it, hopin' it'll just give it up. Even if ya don't pay it any attention, or ya make the most innocent remark, it stings you anyway. So ya say, 'The hell with this, I'm gonna draw on the greatest mage alive' and get ta masterpiecin', see? It was gonna hurt you again sooner or later anyway."

They stared at him in unblinking silence. "I think a perfectly good analogy got lost and died somewhere in there," said Judith.

"Yeah, I just thought drawing on her would be funny," said Karol.

"Prexactly!" Raven leapt to his feet, arms flung wide open, and just as suddenly doubled up with a mighty groan. "Now, if you'll excuse me, ol' Raven's got some battle scars ta heal up. Wonder if Estelle's done yet?"

He hobbled toward the cabin, whose door burst open to reveal Rita, cheeks scrubbed and healed bright pink. She jerked her hands at him, making him fling his arms over his head...and hmphed, walking past him with her head held high.

"The more things change..." Yuri moved aside to make room for Estelle on the boxes that were their favorite seats. "So Estelle, you really don't mind people using you as an excuse to beat the crap out of each other? I know I'm looking forward to it—"

"And me," Judith said cheerfully.

"And Flynn, for sure," Yuri finished with a nod. "But the way I understand it, those old tournaments got pretty brutal. Do you think it's really okay to get lifelong enemies all together to fight for your royal birthday edification?"

"Hmm. Well..." The princess folded her hands and gazed out at the landscape. Ba'ul was lifting off with careful consideration of his less seasoned passengers; at least one of the mages tended to get airsick, which engendered very little goodwill amongst the people at Deidon Hold caught in the crossfire.

Estelle leaned back against the cabin. "Ioder and I retain the right to disqualify those who fail to stop fighting when ordered, or who kill their opponents. With that rule in place, I think it'll be healthy for the Knights and the guilds to show off a little in front of each other. Flynn even wants security to include some trustworthy guild members, so there's no favoritism. And most of the prizes will be money, not rank in the empire, as they used to be."

"People are starting to feel really safe now that the sky's clear and we're getting along without our old blastia," Karol agreed, kicking his heels together. "It's a good idea to let everyone blow off some steam while you supervise, huh?"

"Speakin' of old blastia..." A hand touched Rita's shoulder. She reflexively grabbed it and twisted hard, nearly yanking Raven off his feet. He yelped, righted himself, and held up the offending limb, features taut. "Fer crap's sake, wouldja stop hurting me and listen a second?!"

"Oh. Okay." Rita let go and moved aside for Estelle to come forward. "You were saying, blastia...?"

But Raven sidestepped the princess, smiling apologetically, then jerked his head at Rita. "Can we just talk a little? I promise I won't so much as look atcha too hard."

"...Fine." Rita adjusted her goggles. "We're almost to Zaphias, so make it quick."

She led the way across the little deck; mages and well-dressed strangers alike gave her the widest possible berth. "Look at that," Raven said quietly. "At my worst, I was never near as popular as you, Rita darlin'." One hand to his chest, he turned and eased himself under the curve of the bow's railing.

"It's a gift," she snapped. "What's more..." But Rita stopped dead at his expression. A mix of pain and weariness was settling over Raven's face like a greying curtain: he looked fifty, not thirty-something. There was no theatricality in his sudden grimace, and she felt alien twinges at the thought of his most recent beating. Was this...guilt?

Maybe so. He was breathing way too hard.

"It's acting up again." Rita wasn't asking. He lifted his eyes as her hands balled into fists. "You old moron! That was just a temporary fix, you know." Cursing him and her own lack of self-control – but mostly him – Rita dropped to her knees and yanked his coat back. She sucked in her breath, feeling the blood drain from her face. "How long has it been...leaking?"

"Only a few days." Raven managed a shrug, doing his best not to watch her watching the slow, seeping red-black stain on his thin shirt. "Don't worry, I didn't let ya hit it just now."

"I'm not worried, you jackass! I just can't believe...you know this thing is a lot frailer now that the core's running on Undine's power!" Her mind raced through his options: limited, some downright gruesome, and none very good in the long run. "I can cauterize the edges for you, but that's even more temporary." She rocked back on her heels. "Why won't you let Estelle try healing it? It won't replace your heart, but—"

"Estelle's too strong. Remember what the doc in Aurnion said?" He closed one eye. "With the trickle Undine put through the blastia shell, I'm up 'n runnin'. Estelle'd be more like a flood—her artes'd overload this ol' thing and kill me dead as dirt." Raven gestured helplessly. "Even if I went ta another doctor who'd keep his mouth shut, or if Estelle held back healin' it...well, they heal flesh and blood, not chunks of metal."

"Yeah? Nothing cures a case of the stupids, either. Open up." She prodded his top button. Raven obeyed silently, unfastening the shirt so she could peel it back. The lack of protest or sexual harassment alarmed Rita even further, spurring her to a quick decision: "Hold still, this'll hurt a lot." Her finger zig-zagged, hissing a line of pure heat down the metal's bleeding edge.

Raven grunted, but held perfectly still. Rita sighed, summoned a stream of cool air to help the pain, and tried to ignore the smell of burning flesh. "I don't know how much longer that mechanism'll hold out. 'A few days' my ass, old man. That metal's been bled on for weeks, by the looks of it. You should've come see me months ago—why didn't you say anything the last time we all got together?"

"That hippogriff nest by Yumanju?" He wiped the sweat from his forehead with one sleeve. "The water helped a lot with the pain. Besides, what would ya say if I came up in the baths and asked fer some quality one-on-one time?"

"I'd hit you, then notice the bleeding and think of something to fix it. Stupid." Rita peered at the blastia's sluggish, swirling surface, nose almost pressed to his chest. "Besides untreated, constant bleeding, what else is wrong with you? Physically?"

Raven grimaced again, eyes drifting shut. "Get tired too easy. Short of breath, light-headed, heart torn out and replaced with a rock. What's yer diagnosis?"

"Besides stupidity?" She crossed her arms and looked at him narrowly. "Well, lungs breathe, but it's the heart that gets oxygenated blood back to the brain. Yours isn't doing its job, so you can't work very hard without getting sick. Yet another reason not to let your heart go get broken—messed up," she corrected herself.

"Right, right. Short on breath, dizzy, and it just plain feels ready ta give out sometimes, more'n it used to." Raven fixed her with one blue eye. "Sound like an old ticker ta you?"

Rita growled under her breath, turning on her heel to get up and pace the deck in angry bursts. "You really are stupid. Do you have a death wish? Sick people with any brains to speak of do not paint mages' faces and then run around like it's nothing! And they've been known to say to themselves, 'Oh! Gee! Look—constant bleeding from my heart! Maybe I should get some help with that!' But not you!" She rounded on him, hands on hips. "If you're so eager to piss away all my hard work, old man, just hop off Ba'ul and get it over with!"

"No can do, o gentle healer," drawled Raven. He bobbed a stiff, painful little half-bow. "I've got guild obligations. 'Sides, I doubt Estelle wants another trauma courtesy of Cap'n Schwann an' his trusty stupidity. If I was tryin' ta check out early, we wouldn't be havin' this delightful conversation."

"I told you, I don't give a crap about your guild problems!" Rita wanted to hit him again, but contented herself with kicking a barrel. "I give a crap about problems that make themselves worse just as I'm away from all the books and tools that might help fix them, not to mention space where everyone can't see your...stuff!" They were surrounded by a quiet bubble of the other passengers' apprehension, one Rita enforced with a quick glare in all directions; she resolved to keep her voice down, though.

Raven pulled his coat around him, trying not to shiver. "So whaddya prescribe? Bed rest and lotsa fluids?"

"I prescribe you get a life. And a working brain." Rita threw her hands into the air. "I can't do anything else here. Ask Estelle to heal the fleshy parts and...I don't know, get lots of sleep till I have a chance to really look at it again. That should be easy enough."

"Aye aye." Raven bowed again. When he came up, Rita was relieved to see him pulling a long face. "I hope you appreciate the level of trust yer gettin' here. This ain't much fun fer me, either."

"I hope you appreciate still being alive," she countered, and turned in time to miss his expression. "Stay away from me for a couple of weeks, and I might forgive you. Just try not to kill yourself in the meantime."

He didn't answer. Rita chewed the problem over as she made her way back to the others, and was relieved to hear him get up and follow moments later; she wasn't in the mood to play therapist to a self-pitying old fart. Talking with everyone would make him forget about it for a little while and buy her some time to think.

"You still alive, old man?" Yuri asked as they rejoined their friends.

"Somehow," Raven said soulfully. He struck a pose, angling himself toward Judith. "Our darlin' Rita just reminded me that every hour she lets me live is a little gift in itself. Ain't that poetic?"

Rita raised a hand to smite him, but Karol interrupted with a shout of "Ah HA!" and a mad dig through his bag for...something, deep enough into the huge sack that he fell half in and remained there to keep shoveling stuff aside. "Thanks for reminding me, Raven!" came from the muffling depths.

A round of looks made its way through the group. Rita lowered her hand. "Did I miss something?"

"I think...ah, I got it!" Karol burst out of the bag with a little green-wrapped bundle on triumphant display. "So it's Estelle's birthday soon, right? I mean, that's why we're all here!"

Another pause. "Yeah, that'd be it, Captain," Yuri said dubiously. "Is this fact relevant to your big silk booger?"

"It's not a booger. It's a present!" Karol thrust it at Estelle, who shied away. "Here! Happy birthday, Estelle!"

"Um..." After a moment, the princess took it and turned it over, at a loss. "Thank you?"

"Unwrap it," Yuri said out the corner of his mouth.

"Oh! Right." Flustered, Estelle found a tucked-in end and pulled it free. They all leaned in to watch as she unwound the scarf, letting it fall away from a wooden whistle: it was a songbird of some dainty sort, perched atop a grassy mound – complete with tiny flowers – beak open at one end, tail feathers forming the mouthpiece. "Oh, my!"

"I found it in Heliord when we were there last time," Karol said proudly. "I thought you'd like the scarf, but the whistle's not a bad way to stuff it, huh?"

"It's so pretty!" Estelle turned it this way and that, then set her lips and blew a surprisingly loud trill of piping notes. She laughed, flinging her arms around Karol's shoulders. "Thank you so much! I love it!"

"Ah, well..." Karol was bright red, but as pleased as Estelle. "I just thought it might be something you didn't already have. I mean, you can buy anything you need, right?"

"But not this." Estelle held it up again, eyes widening as she turned it over. "And my name is on the bottom!"

"Damn," Raven said respectfully. "Now that is a girl's birthday present. Keep this up, kid, and yer wife'll never have a mean word for ya." He leaned over and nudged Yuri in the ribs. "But I bet yer present's even better, right, Yuri?"

Yuri was staring at the whistle in something like shock. "I never would've thought of that," he muttered.

"Yep! Somethin' even better." Raven folded his arms behind his head.

"I wonder what kind of wood that is," Rita mused, watching the little bird pass from Estelle's to Judith's to Raven's hands. She accepted it from him and examined the tiny script on the base. "Yep, 'Estellise,' right there. You must've paid out the nose for this, kid. Good job."

"Aw, not really," Karol mumbled.

Judith raised a hand to her temple, then turned and called, "Ready to land, everyone." The capitol loomed pleasantly below the ship, activity already visible throughout the streets.

"Wow, everyone's celebrating," Rita observed. She pointed over the rail. "That pink thing over there, is that in the lower quarter?" No answer. "...Yuri? Hello?" She gave his hair a sharp tug.

He jumped. "Ow! What?"

"What's wrong with you?" she snapped. "I just asked if the lower quarter's having a party, too. Geez."

"Yeah, Hanks insisted, everyone there knows Estelle." Yuri turned back and frowned distractedly at the cabin. Estelle was showing everyone her whistle, and politely trying to deter people from putting their lips all over it.

Rita followed his gaze and snorted. "Don't even tell me—"

"Shut up."

She wasn't entirely evil, so Rita lowered her voice a little: "You forgot to get something for her birthday, and now Karol totally upstaged you! You loser!"

"Shut up, all right?" Yuri whirled away from the railing, scowling fiercely. "I've been around her so much lately, I haven't had time to go get anything."

"Oh re-eally?" Raven drew the word out to positively obscene lengths. "Do tell."

"Not you, too!" Yuri glared at the older man. "What did you get her?"

"Me? I'll favor the Lady Estellise with the most elegantest dance of her life at the ball t'morrow night." Raven winked at him.

"That's not a present!" Yuri folded his arms. "Look, it's not like she's keeping this running total of what everyone gets her. She's nicer than that, right? She doesn't need to—"

"I made her a set of reading lights on three different necklaces," Rita said loftily.

"What?!" Yuri gaped at her. "You...you—"

"Do ya even know how ta dance, Yuri?" Raven leaned in. "Ladies don't hafta be that great at it, but gentlemen are expected ta not look stupid. You are goin' to the ball, right?"

Yuri had the look of a man who's just woken up to find his head sewn to his ass. "What ball?"

"The one Raven just mentioned," Judith said behind him. "The tournament is just another excuse for a lot of nobles to get together, after all, so you know there'll be a big, fancy party somewhere." She smiled, moving to cut off his escape from the other two. "This one is tomorrow night. I hope you're not going to try to get out of it."

The young man stared at her, then looked around, visibly desperate. "And you're okay with this, Rita?"

"Me? Why would I not be okay with dancing?" Rita hadn't given it much thought, having just heard of it. But who was she to waste a chance to give Yuri crap? "It's okay, though, really. Estelle will probably understand if you're too scared of all the nobles to go." She shrugged. "We'll probably be asked to lead the dance. Don't worry, I'm sure Flynn can take your place."

From halfway across the deck, Estelle swayed with the force of their gentle landing, wondering if her ears had failed her. She reclaimed her whistle and made her way to where Yuri was standing in a nearly visible black cloud; Rita was smirking, Raven grinning like a madman, and even Judith looked pleased with herself. Estelle coughed gently. "Are you all right, Yuri?"

"Grrrngh," he responded.

Repede came up to sniff at his hand, but backed away violently. He was the first off the ship, cutting off the head mage; luckily, the man was too sick to his stomach to protest much.

"All righty, shall we?" Raven bowed them all onto the gangplank, chatting gaily as they headed into Zaphias. It didn't occur to Rita till much later that she had forgotten his blastia entirely.