"If I had a dad..."

x

Karol was never one to dwell on something so serious for so long. Being carefree was the way he enjoyed life, and worrying about every little thing would have made the world too bleak and serious.

He liked to run through the streets of the cities; it didn't matter what city or town he was in, because every turn around the corner held both something new and familiar. There was the half-burnt fence post that Rita had caused; there was the stray cat that he'd never seen before. There was the old tree he'd climbed once before, before he fell and Judith caught him in her arms. There was the new family that moved into the new house.

He never worried about his love life - or at least, not often - because men and boys alike did crazy things for women who both cared and didn't. Nan didn't care, but Karol was fine with that, because someday, he'd win her heart a million times over, though he already did when he'd returned from the battle, and Nan had hugged him tightly and punched him in the face and kissed his cheek with a furious blush and angry tears in her eyes.

But Karol was oblivious from the creaking of his bones and the aches in his joints.

He wasn't scared of getting hurt anymore. Looking back on life, he wondered why he had ever been a coward, and why he couldn't just stand up on his own.

But then maybe, if he had been like that, maybe he wouldn't have become who he was today. Maybe he wouldn't have met the people he had come to call his family.

Family.

That was a word Karol never thought of too seriously.

He'd grown up on the streets of Dahngrest; he'd stolen, been caught, and sometimes he had even been cared for by the ladies of the inn, or the sympathetic women of the town. But he always paid them back.

It wasn't always in money, though he did find simple jobs throughout the town. Newspaper deliveries. Messenger boy. Mascot. Crate stacking. Small things he could do to earn a few copper coins that would mysteriously appear in the purse of the fruit vendor who had lost an apple or two, or the baker who had counted more loaves of bread than were on the counter.

Sometimes he'd offer to clean their rugs, or get rid of the bugs crawling in the corners of houses. Rat catcher. Coal burner. Lawn cutter. Gardener. Weeder. Anything they might not have had the time to do. Sometimes, they didn't accept. Those were the ones who found extra coins in their pocket.

Sometimes, they accepted his help, and sometimes, they'd offer fruit or bread or a hearty meal, or a place to sleep.

Sometimes, he took their offer with returning guilt, and someday they too would find extra coins in their pocket that they didn't know about.

Other times, when he couldn't handle the kindness, he'd just smile and run away, saying sorry, I gotta get home!

Not everyone remembered the young scrap of a boy with the big grin that missed a front tooth, and not everyone knew it was him when he'd first stepped out of the guild homes, hair clean, skin scrubbed, wearing fresh clothes and full from a hot, filling meal.

He'd grown used to the criticism of his guild work. Coward. Useless. More likely to wet his pants than hold up even a dagger. He was a child, what were they going to expect?

But Nan was different: she was strong and confident, and had all the skill that he didn't.

And that was when he fell in love.

It wasn't the fleeting kind, either. It wasn't because she was pretty - which she was! - or that she was one of the first girls his age he'd ever met. It was because she was what he wanted to be, and he wanted to be strong and confident with all the bravery in the world.

So he picked up a weapon twice his size, tried to make a name for himself, and failed. And Nan didn't even laugh at him. She told him to pick himself up and try harder.

It's not something he ever mentions, and it doesn't often come to his thoughts, but once he'd met her, he'd realized how empty his life had felt, with no home to go to, no sisters or brothers or loving parents to return to...

He thinks that if he had parents, though, they'd be proud of who he's become. Hero of the world? Who wouldn't be?

Rita tells him to grow up, but her hits are more like pats. Behind her eyes, he can see that she's hurt too, and he knows that she understands.

Judith doesn't say much; she just holds him in silent comfort like a mother or an aunt, or the caring older sister.

Estelle cries for him and Yuri pats him on the head, but Karol's really not even as hurt as they think he is.

Raven smiles, pats his head, and takes him fishing.

Karol thinks about everything that's happened so far, and realizes that he doesn't quite have the loneliness Rita must feel sometimes because he's been raised by the entire city of Dahngrest.

Raven just sits there with the fishing rod in his hand, smiling to the breeze and listening to Karol. Once or twice he puts in a comment of his own, and lets the boy continue.

Karol spills out everything. Living as a child. Nan. The guilds. Meeting Yuri and Estelle and everyone else. His feelings. The surge of energy he'd had in the Drifts of Zopheir when everyone was down and he was the only one who could do anything.

The hurt and betrayal he felt when he met Schwann Oltorain and watched him die. The happiness when the archer returned. The pain again when Yuri disappeared.

All the fun he's had with everyone.

The relief when the Adephagos disappeared.

Karol's line catches a bite and he shouts in surprise. Raven throws his to the side and helps him reel it in.

They both cheer excitedly when a fish the size of Karol comes flying out of the water. Raven picks him up in the air and celebrates by giving him his first taste of alcohol. He chortles when Karol makes a face at the taste.

At the end of the day, Karol's bucket has five fish.

Raven's only has seaweed.

He grumbles, but smiles as Karol laughs boyishly at him. Raven puts a hand on the boy's head and ruffles his hair affectionately.

"If there's one thing I know fer sure, kid," he says, fishing rods slung across his shoulder, "it's that your parents would be damn proud of ya. Are damn proud of ya. I know I am. All of us are."

Karol grins bashfully and rubs his nose.

"You know what, Raven? Not to be insulting him wherever he is, but..."

He says eleven words.

x

"... I'd want him to be you."