Oh my goodness. So I have a love/hate relationship with this fic. I started writing it back in July, intent on bringing something new to the Rita/Raven fandom, and I'm still not sure I accomplished what I wanted to with this. Long fics have never really been my forte, but despite all that went into it, I still feel I got something out of it, and I'm ultimately pleased with how it turned out. Hopefully, others will enjoy this monster, too.

Notes: 1. Takes place post-game. 2. Rita and Raven are aged. Their relationship is assumed. 3. Prejudice is a real, existing thing. Let's not hush it up.


.

you close your mind
to their gentle questions
what do these people know about love?

.

Raven had warned her of the prejudice they would face, but Rita hadn't expected it to stem so deep as to result in something so incurable it would follow them wherever they went.

Standing on the steps outside her door in Capua Torim, leaning against the supporting wall for a strength she didn't often need, she forced herself to read the letter over one more time just to make sure it wasn't a mistake. Reality was cruel, and most days, she didn't have to worry about it affecting her when her attention was focused elsewhere. But this—this expletives of words and implications were more painful than she'd admittedly anticipated. She'd been prepared for protests to come, a few choice words, perhaps, a paragraph about how sick Raven was and how she needed help for 'giving in' to his charms—but this—this stemmed beyond a rebuttal—this was a dose of cold water in her face in the cruelest form of something that couldn't simply be ignored, and presently, something that made her freeze with shock.

Dear Ms. Mordio and Captain Schwann,

I am writing this letter to inform you of the commitment you have made to the beloved Empire, and alert you to a form of conduct that is not prevailing here at this time, and certainly, surely one that is not befitting of a high class mage and a former Captain...

Your conduct is unacceptable, foul, and inexcusable. Your representation of the Empire, with all respect, is disgusting at the very least, and harmful and detrimental to surrounding audiences at worst... Summarily, it does not reflect well on the Imperial Council or the guilds; I formally ask that you stop and reevaluate your behavior and reconsider that your—

Rita folded the letter in half, heart racing; she wasn't sure what she was supposed to think.

Show it to Raven so he could hurt over it? No, he would be sullen for days on end, and really, she had enough of a time slapping him out of his spells when he fell for them as it was. Any more pressure from the neighbors or Zaphias' royal court urging 'Schwann' to return to his days as Captain or the guilds giving him a hard time, and surely, he'd do something uncouth. And this—well, this was the topping on the cake to an already overly sticky situation.

Of course, Rita thought, staring at the letter in disbelief, her gut tightening in a furious rage as she swallowed back her own voice, she wouldn't put it past herself at this point to hunt down the instigator on her own time. Certainly, there was no point in dragging other people in to her own problems when it wasn't necessary, even if the person responsible did deserve a good beating from more than just her.

It was too bad Judith wasn't around to help her out with it.

Glancing around at the people walking down the street as if they were all guilty of something unspeakable, Rita retrieved the rest of her mail from the box with little grace before slipping back inside the closed off house that seemed to provide the only source of comfort these days. She almost opened her mouth to call for him, to ramble his ear off about how simply god-awful people were and how she would love to set fire to whoever thought they were man enough to send her such a awful thing, but then convinced herself that there was very little sense in that when she was still half asleep and running off only sheer force of will to get on with the day and especially when the man in question wasn't even present.

But she was getting ahead of herself.

Raven was out, and she'd only just managed to pull herself out of bed and read the note he'd left for her minutes before she'd left to fetch the mail. Of course, it was about noon time now, but really, that didn't matter when she had been running on five hours of sleep for the past week working on installing a new input system in the town center for the residents anyway. It seemed, even after five years of tirelessly putting her brilliance to use, her new creations only brought so much satisfaction before there came a craving for something more, and thus, she worked so she wouldn't have to work anymore. Certainly, time off wasn't something she granted herself often. And obviously, it was never something she was given for one who worked independently (the only exception being when Judith dropped by and took her shopping for the day; she'd forgotten Judith could actually tolerate her for such a length of time and still keep that smile on her face even when her own feet dragged with dread).

Bumping the door close behind her with a hip, Rita padded down the long stretch of hallway bare foot and veered around the corner to her right in the kitchen. It was modestly sized in comparison to the house as a whole, but it had all the essentials for cooking just about anything and everything (though Raven had always been particularly fond of stir fry on the stove top in the evenings—which he would cook, because apparently, Hon, I'm sorry, but ya can't cook a damn thing). Tossing the mail on the counter with a snort, she immediately directed herself to the bathroom across the way where she promptly splashed cold water over her face. It didn't wake her up as much as she would have liked, or dispel the quiet intrinsic rage that was building, but it did soothe the aggravated frown that had permeated her face for the last five minutes. If Raven came back, he'd surely have a few words to say about it. Come to think of it, he'd probably have a comment about her haggard appearance, too. Cringing, Rita ran her fingers through it thoughtlessly before wandering back to the kitchen in a haze.

But, she thought, he won't have to worry about the situation.

Glancing at the clock beside the window, the gears clicked. He wouldn't even have to see the stupid letter because she had every intention of dealing with it herself. The post office wouldn't close until five, and she still had a couple hours. If she was lucky, she could make an inquiry about the sender. And hopefully, if the workers valued their jobs at all, they'd have some information ready and waiting for her.

And if not, well—she could work around that, too. She was known best only by her last name for a reason.

.

.

Raven really wasn't fond of Capua Torim. It wasn't to say that the fresh sea air wasn't nice, and that the markets weren't lively enough, or that the view from the top of the city wasn't simply breathtaking in the evenings—no, it was all that, but on another scale, the only one he could perceive, it also wasn't. For all the good things the port town had, it was equally shady when the sun went done, and the tone of the city as a whole even without the influence of the Empire just wasn't his cup of tea.

Capua Torim simply had too much of everything. Too many things, too many houses, to many ships in the harbor. Too many unfamiliar faces, too—and that was the worst part of it all.

People. Raven wasn't as fond of them as he once had been, though in retrospect, he'd learned that not everyone is what they always claim to be, and it was a valuable life lesson learned. More or less, the residents probably didn't like him that much either. But they had every reason not to.

He was a conniving dead bastard who was head over heels for someone half his age. Certainly, he was disgusted with himself enough as it was he didn't need to be surrounded by the same accusing looks every day, and he'd gotten enough in Torim to last him a life time. At least in Dahngrest, the people knew him better than these unfamiliar grounds, and there, he had no worries about being strung about only to be torn apart later for his antics—Raven simply was, and if someone had a problem, than that was simply too damn bad, because he was going to keep on liking who he liked and if that didn't hurt anyone, than what was there to bother about?

Even if society refused to accept him as a whole, at least the people who mattered had. And Rita had definitely mattered. Just like the rest of the ragtag group he'd traveled with, there was nothing that got past them if they didn't approve of it in some shape or form. At least Judith had been approving, even if Karol's eyes had bugged out and Yuri was trying to poker face so hard it must have hurt, the krityan was hardly ever deterred from anything, even if he had been hoping someone would have objected to putting Rita in such a perilous position (forget what happened to him – he was dead either way her ship sailed).

But he tried not worry too much now. Whatever passed, passed—and that was that. Even if he didn't agree with himself on that particular decision.

There's no goin' back for me.

Shifting the groceries in his arm, Raven whistled cheerfully. Count your blessings was a common saying he'd heard far too often uttered by guild members before their execution of a difficult assignment, and, glancing at the cloudless sky above, Raven was sure the sunny weather was one of those so called blessings. Well, that is, if he were big on all that philosophical stuff...

Ten minutes and a hell of climb later, and he was nearing Rita's residential area that was, while mixed with the markets and the port, clearly distinct with all the blue rooftops and wide wrap around porches far up the streets. It was a bit of a hike to get anywhere in the town, but Raven liked the exercise and the simplicity of the housing, even though it wasn't really to his palette (and far from Rita's, who actually could care less about the shade of the house as long as everything in it was functioning as it should).

Turning to the left, Raven ambled up a side street and deliberately ignored the slight ache in his arm, the tell-tale sign of a cramp. It didn't bother him too much, but anyone would be a little worn after carrying twenty pounds of food because Rita couldn't be bothered to stock up on anything. More than likely, he figured, Rita herself was probably up and rummaging through the kitchen cabinets for something edible to eat. The only thing she ever kept in her place was fruit and nasty canned goods ("You can get them year round, and besides, it's cheap for buying food for out-of-pocket expenses– "), which was no way to live when he could actually cook. Or at least, better than she could.

...Which really wasn't that much better in comparison when they were living off of crepes. Her tolerance really was a wondrous thing (not that he would ever complain about that).

Reaching into his pocket while he watched his feet idly, Raven hooked a finger around his keys and searched for the suitable gold one that read 'RITA' in big writing – his eyes just weren't what they used to be – and inserted it in the lock. He glanced around outside briefly before finally letting himself in at the familiar clink of the door's bolt—and was abruptly met by a startled looking face on the other side.

Rita, for who all the world most days looked like she'd bit into something sour, wore an expression of surprise. Before he even managed to close the door, to even gather so much as a breath—she yanked him inside him like a doll without weight.

.

.

Most days, the salt air didn't bother her. Sure, it irritated her – mildly – when her hair curled as if she'd been struck by lightning, but it wasn't to say she minded—because she didn't. And she certainly didn't care. She didn't care about the people she bumped into in her endeavors to get through the streets, or the looks she gathered as she hurried past the marketers, nor the few clients she recognized that called out to her like they actually wanted her help and not the mere recognition for the name she claimed as her own. No, they weren't worth even that.

So when she marched herself into the post office, fried hair and half-dressed (she'd almost forgotten her shoes in her hurry) and not really caring about anything but the letter in her pocket that burned like fire at her fingertips—there was a quiet rage building that boiled over when the bell upon the door tolled and signaled her arrival like the storm she promised to bring.

For a post office of a popular port town, the building was rather small. The windows had been thrown open wide in grace of the good weather, and the breezes blowing through the stuffy white room and over the light wooden floors caused the notices upon the wall to flutter rather quietly. It was a chamber of solitude among the busy shops and restaurants that lined the streets for the most part, but the tell tale sign of work concurred with the envelopes upon the desk and open ink for stamping said anything but. The place was usually bustling on Monday mornings.

Rita closed the door behind her out of reflex before striding over to the front desk. Of course, it was empty and absent of all signs of people (more than likely, the few attendees were on their lunch hour in the sorting rooms), but Rita would stand for anything but silence. The letter in her pocket still burned, and the words were engraven in her mind. She wouldn't be satisfied until the one responsible learned a little of her situation—or she got to throttle the hell out of him.

Raven was hardly wanton in his decision-making. What type of bastard would even describe him like that? Perverse sometimes, yeah, but wanton? Really? He wasn't a noodle except when he chose to be.

"Asshole," Rita muttered to no one in particular, and felt all the better for it.

Gathering her breath to yell, she was taken by surprise when the side door along the wall opened, and a young woman emerged with an arm full of boxes. Clearly, the post mistress wasn't expecting company when an expletive slipped from her mouth and her foot made contact with the wall, but Rita didn't care; finally, someone to talk to.

"Hey!" Rita reached out for the woman's arm, courtesy be damned. "Do you kno—"

The woman shrieked, and she didn't have time to think.

A box collided with Rita's cheekbone, and she tripped over her own feet as she tried to avoid a collision. There was a loud thump and a lot of mumbling before papers were flying in the air, and Rita wasn't sure what to think between the numbness setting in and the rush of movement before her. It was all very dramatic and stupid. Her dignity hurt as much as her arse on the hard linoleum flooring.

"Oh my goodness I am so, so sorry–" The woman was prattling on needlessly, sitting up from her place on the ground, and slowly, Rita reached a hand up to cup her cheek. She was unsurprised by the red warmth coating her fingers, though she hadn't thought it'd sting as bad as it would.

"-Ohmygod you're bleeding! Um—crap, hold on, lemme grab you—ah hell! I just finished sorting all these–"

"Towel?" Rita managed to choke out and the woman spluttered some more before she managed to even stand. She swept off into the other room and Rita listened to the sounds of drawers being yanked open before the girl finally returned, still squeaking out apologies all the while. It would have been almost comical, Rita thought darkly, if only she wasn't bleeding all over herself. She'd promised blood for the workers and here she was on the floor with a welt that was sure to be the size of an apple by the time she got herself home again.

"I am so, so, sooo sorry about this! My name's Rebecca and this is my first day here and it's been insanely busy and I've just been horribly jumpy all day and–"

"—Cripes, just give me the bloody towel already!" Rebecca complied with a startled noise, immediately dropping the precious object before her. Rita reached for it with a grunt.

And here I thought Estelle spoke too much.

"Sorry," the girl – Rebecca – squeaked. "I'm so, so sorry! Just—please don't tell my boss! I'll do anything to make up for this!"

Tentatively, Rita pressed the rag against her face and tried to ignore the spinning sensation in her head. She hadn't expected on getting a concussion upon arrival, and all the rage she'd built up had vanished the minute she'd landed hard on the ground. Now, sitting with her jaw in her palm, she simply felt pathetic. Knocked on her ass by a girl younger than herself – the girl couldn't have been more than fourteen with how big her eyes were – and insulted by some jerk off she didn't even know via a rude letter in the mail; just how bad could this day get?

"Please just be quiet for a minute, alright?" Rita glanced down at her clothes and noted only a few stains of red had seeped into the cotton material. Normally, she wouldn't care, but she hadn't done laundry in a week and the idea of walking around in a bloody shirt for the rest of the day was unappealing at worst. Even if she had done it before...

...Could have been worse. Could have been your eye instead of your cheek.

"Um, listen..." Rebecca bent down to Rita's level, eying the wound with an almost sentimental fear. "Would you like me to run down to the market and see if they have any ice for that wound? I just... I'm so sorry about this—let me make it up to you!"

Rita sighed. At this rate, she wouldn't be getting anything done.

She glanced up at the girl, taking in her features. Yes, she was definitely young. A few years younger too, by the looks of it. Her pretty tan hair was tied up in braids and she wore a petite white dress. Big blue eyes peered right back at her, and Rita flushed red when she realized she was staring. Considering how red her face already was, she doubted the girl even noticed it.

"No. What I'd like," Rita replied, much more mildly than the frustration building in her chest would have lead her to show, "is for someone to explain to me what the hell this is–" Rita pulled the letter out of her breast pocket with a little more force than necessary and almost clipped herself in the face. Flustered and humiliated, she held it up for Rebecca to inspect.

If only I hadn't gotten socked in the face by a damn wooden box, I could have blasted this girl and have been done with this!

Rebecca's expression changed from surprise to mild curiosity, eyes taking in the now blood-stained and crumpled state of it. Rita had to shake the letter several time before the postmistress finally took it from her. Silence set in.

"Do you know who sent that letter?" Rita asked, though she was sure she already knew the answer.

Rebecca seemed hesitant. She flipped it over and back again, scanning the envelope and the scrawl with Rita's name on the front. "Um... well, this isn't a letter I'm familiar with. Was it torn upon delivery or something? Is that why you came in?"

Rita could only stare. "I came in because there's not a return address on it."

"Oh. I see." More quiet. But this—this was an awkward silence. "...Would you like me to see if any of the other workers are familiar with it? I mean, they've been here longer so maybe–"

Suddenly, Rita felt her stomach twist. What was she even doing? Working herself up over some unimportant person's words that didn't even matter? She'd come down to the post-office because she'd been so angry and wanted to hit someone, but now—now she just felt empty. All that anger—gone. All that pent up rage dried up like a desert well.

I just lost at my own game—didn't I?

Rita had to choke back a muffled cry and she wasn't sure if it was out of embarrassment or the pain working it's way up her jaw. Either way, all she wanted to do now was leave. Letter be damned—she'd betrayed herself and Raven by coming here. She couldn't afford to be weak.

People who thought they could hurt her by sending her cruel things—they had another thing coming. She was Rita freaking Mordio, research mage extraordinaire and kickass to boot; she didn't settle for being hurt. Not when she was too busy dealing it herself.

(even if she was just as vulnerable and prone to hurting like every other creature that breathed, she endured)

Rita swallowed. "I think I'll take that and be going now." Rebecca stared at her in surprise, cautiously offering back the ugly envelope.

"But—wait, don't you want me to get some ice before yo–"

"No," Rita interjected tiredly, flinging the cloth on the side table, "no thank you. I'd just like to leave now. I got what I needed."

"But, ma'am, I didn't even catch your na–"

"Don't call me ma'am," she snarled.

Without another word, Rita turned on her heel and left. It wasn't until she made it back to the privacy of her house did the full extent of what she'd planned to commit hit her. Her legs shook and her face hurt and she didn't want to do anything but hide herself in the corner of her room and sob until her lungs ached.

Stupid stupid stupid stupid. Just when you think you've grown up and instead you're just setting yourself up for another miserable failure, you go and do something like this. Great. Fantastic! You're a lunatic.

Somehow, she managed to make it to the shower before the wracking of her shoulders finally sent her to her knees.

She gave in against the shower curtain and let the scalding water turn turn her into a mollusk.

.

.

She really was as selfishly inclined as the letter read.

Raven, standing there at the door with the groceries swinging from one arm and the keys in another—he hadn't been there to witness her act of treachery. Watching him now only made the guilt in her stomach tighten itself considerably.

You should tell him. It's the smart thing to do and you're smarter than this, she told herself, but that wasn't enough. Telling herself would never be enough.

(She wasn't as strong as she thought she was.

But she could be.

Maybe Raven would gain something, too.)

She pulled him inside the door roughly before closing it shut behind them. He looked at her, a little rustled and surprised, but he didn't pull away. She expected nothing less. Their relationship more or less existed in the form of curious glances and the occasional smile and hand hold, but Rita could tell simply by the pleasant tilt of his chin that any confession from her wouldn't send him into pieces. It was a good day, and that's what she had wanted to see.

"Hey—ya doin' alright?" he asked, and slowly, Rita let herself nod. He would know she was lying if she didn't say something quick, but, she convinced herself, she would tell him. Just not now. Some time this evening—or at least, not until he sat down and—

"Rita, what happened to your face?"

She stiffened.

And then she stomped on his foot with all the indignation and immaturity her nineteen year-old self had managed to hide away only minutes before. "I tripped! What's it matter to you anyways, old man?" she prompted hotly and was relieved when Raven didn't say anything else. Okay, that was a bit weird, admittedly, but she could handle weird.

Feeling fluttery, she took one of the grocery bags sitting on the floor beside her and stumbled down the hallway to the kitchen. Distantly, she could hear mumbling followed by Raven's heavier foot falls. He seemed to carry more weight then he once had, she noticed, but it wasn't exactly a terrible turn of events. Just surprising, but so was nearly everything else about him too. It was probably that stuffy uniform of his...

That uniform. The Empire. The letter.

You're a disgrace.

Rita swung the bag up on the island in the kitchen with more force than necessary before his arms wrapped themselves around her waist, his chin finding purchase on her shoulder. If she didn't know better, she'd have thought he was trying to keep himself together. It wasn't until the quiet keening reached her ears though that she realized she'd failed to keep up her side of the bargain.

"I'm sorry," she said automatically, voice steady. "I'm sorry."

"I heard about earlier," he said quietly, his accent almost gone in the absence of his usual mirth. "You stopped in the post-office and tried to pick a fight with one of the workers. Is that how you got that injury?" She didn't respond. "...Did someone strike you?" She shook her head. No. No.

"Good. That's—good to know," he breathed. He dropped his arms from around her only to take hold of one of her hands – which one, she didn't know – and he carefully guided her over to the small table east of the window, where the sunshine painted a rainbow on traditional kitchen tiles and empty, unused glasses. Silverware gleamed quietly from a set of napkins where they remained impeccably clean and innocent. They had been set out the night before Rita recalled for use in the morning; she wondered if the pair of them would still be there by the end of the afternoon. She was only used to having a set for herself.

"Sit—and let me see your face dear," he murmured, and wordlessly, Rita complied. He brushed her hair back before carefully settling a broad palm over the injury. He was frowning, she noticed, an unhappy look radiating from the tug in his lips to the pull at his eyebrows; she'd put that there. It was her fault.

(it usually was)

She winced as the familiar feeling of mana materializing made his hand jolt over the bruising, but as soon as the pain began it ended, and the blossoming warmth faded as he slowly drew back to examine his handy work. He tapped it once and gave here a consolatory once over as if he expected to find another bruise in need of mending. "How's that feel?"

"Better," she muttered. He nodded.

"Okay. Now you're ready to talk."

She had no comment for that, and he seemed to know it too. Guilt was mercilessly tugging at her and that was her own damn fault.

Raven regarded her with a soft look. It wasn't pitying; that's what made it so damn irritating. "Where's the letter, Rita?" he asked.

How he knew about it she had no idea; at this point, she had nothing left to hide.

Defeatedly, she gestured to herself and Raven slid the letter out of the front pocket of her jacket carefully. She felt sick, she realized, sick with dread. Here was Raven, offering her comfort in his own undeniably familiar way and she wasn't able to give anything in return. She'd always been selfish – probably even more selfish than the sinful girl addressed in the letter – but the stone cold reality of it only seemed to strike her now. He met her gaze cautiously before he opened it, teal eyes a bright contrast to the sun rays taking flight off the broad expanse of his back and the few curls of his dark exotic hair.

"You may want to sit down," she said, and he took the seat beside her. She latched onto the table with her hands and swung her feet up on the only empty chair across from her. And then, she began to wait.

The minutes ticked by. The back of her scalp itched from the wet stub of her ponytail. It was like hell had frozen over.

Raven flipped the paper around in his hands several times before neatly folding it back into it's little blood-stained envelope. Rita knew the iron resolve he was displaying was not without a great will of thought behind it. How Raven wasn't crumpling it up or setting fire to it like she'd almost done the first time she read it was beyond her. But it didn't matter. It was finished. Done. He was done. How innocent the mail had once looked before she'd torn it open! And now here in the aftermath they both sat in a cumbersome and painful silence.

For a while neither of them moved at all. Rita hadn't tried to glance at Raven's face for fear of what she might see, though the tension radiating off him gave off enough warning as to the thoughts flying across his mind. She imagined he'd be mellow for days. And she didn't like it.

So Rita did what she did best: she tore everything to pieces. She didn't need to hold herself back any longer.

Her voice was low and strained even to her own ears as the mana tingled up her spine and to the distal point of her longest finger, but she picked up the letter and held it between her hands long after the words faded, until the warmth evaporated and there was nothing left but ashes and ugly words incinerated.

"That guy was a real asshat," she murmured in explanation, as if she needed to defend herself against someone so infinitely fallacious, as if she needed to right a wrong.

Wrong about Raven, but not about me, she mentally chided and watched the gray seep through her fingers. The silverware was no longer clean as it had been before her pass of judgment. It suited her to a 'T,' she found, the smudge on the shiny steel. Surely, that was her upside down reflection looking back at her in the curve of a spoon, distorted and bent all out of shape.

"Rita..." She straightened in her seat reflexively. Too many times had Estelle told her not to slouch and she hadn't even realized when the act had become involuntary. Raven was looking at the letter thoughtfully. "When did you... read this?"

"Several hours ago, shortly after you left," she replied absently.

Raven snapped his face to hers, watching her with a blank expression as the words seemed to slowly register. She stared at the wall, hating herself for putting him in such a taxing position, frustrated at her own inability to say anything that wasn't a swear or side-comment, for not having simply kept herself above such a stupid thing as a stranger's prejudice—and then without so much as a word of warning, Raven leaned in and kissed her, taking all those thoughts and crumpling them up into a single incomprehensible mess.

In the small space surrounding the table Rita breathed in too quickly and sputtered air against his face, but he didn't seem to be bothered. He cupped the back of her head and placed a kiss on her crown, lips always deceptively soft and tender, his hair tickling her skin as he drew her chin back up to his own. She sat still for a few moments, surprised at the peace he offered even though, she quickly realized, they were both trembling so hard she wondered how long it'd take before their legs gave out beneath them. But Raven was sturdy; he was solid, unlike her who was built up off of false promises. He stood, gently tugging her behind him and out of the fading sunlight of their little corner. Strangely, the inadequacy she kept expecting to feel wasn't coming.

"Have you even eaten breakfast yet?" Raven let go of her in exchange for the groceries still waiting on the kitchen's island and methodically began to haul fresh foods to the ice box.

Rita stood stupidly for a minute before she followed suit. Why was he talking about breakfast? "Well, n-no, but–"

"Rita," he said again, his tone more exasperated than hurting, and she simply stared. Cyan eyes watched her watch him and she heard her face turn crimson before she felt it. All this hurt she'd had building in her chest and she found it difficult to even look him in the eye. His sudden desire to tease was beyond her; wasn't he going to ask her about why she'd messed everything up? Didn't he know she was just stupidly selfish and—and...!

Oh. There was that inadequacy. Pounding in her chest.

And then there was Raven, taking in her reaction with all the calm of a man who hadn't just had his very being insulted and referred to as a deviant and his pride reduced to nothing.

(or maybe, she was more insensitive than she thought)

I can't believe this.

"I-I don't get it," she started. Raven raised an eyebrow. "You're so calm right now and I just want to beat the guy for what he said and... I know it doesn't matter. Truly, what other people think doesn't matter, frankly I don't give a damn. But this—that–" she gestured angrily to the remains on the table, unable to communicate, "–don't you think that's going too far? Don't you think we should do something about it or...? I mean, he insulted you on false pretenses! I just... I know you said the prejudice we got would be bad, but I wasn't—I wasn't prepared for something like this to happen and you're not even remotely bothered? What the hell!"

She was out of breath. She hadn't even realized when her voice began to rise, her hands up in the air. Wearily, she met Raven's gaze before snatching a glass off the table and filling it with water from the sink. She wasn't thirsty, but if she didn't do something with her hands soon she was going to lose it all over again. And she couldn't let him see that she was being eaten up, because than he'd look just as awful as she. And she didn't want that.

She didn't want that. And it was embarrassing to admit she was as affected as she was.

"Rita dearest, if you keep looking at the situation from the perspective of a victim it's always gonna hurt ya—no matter what ya do." Raven knocked the icebox shut with a foot, looking utterly unconcerned. His poker faces were commendable—but he was no krityan.

True—but you think I don't realize that?

"And just what perspective are you taking on, old man? Pretending-this-didn't-just-happen-side?" She snorted into her glass. "I don't see what that's going to do for you, because that's not how it works. You become a target for public humiliation, and then it never stops."

She wasn't sure who her words hurt more. Herself, after she realized the implications behind them, or Raven, who was a song bird who lost its motivation to sing. Very quietly, he stopped his activities. It was a gradual sort of silence, like nails on a chalkboard except these crept up her spine and were her own doing and the fact that she didn't drop like a stone with horror at her own words could say nothing for the sorry state she'd put him in.

Selfish. The word was the equivalent of being socked in the face.

"Oh hell, I'm so–" she started to say, but Raven's eyes were ice and she choked. She froze. She stiffened. Her voice died in her throat because what was crueler than blaming the one person that you valued more than yourself? If they turned away—what was left?

"Rita. That's enough." His eyes hurt to meet. Cyan turned dark—she was ruining everything. "I'm not here because you're forcing me to stay, you know. If you really think I don't care, than what's preventing me from walking out that door right now? I can leave any time. I don't have an obligation to be here and you certainly don't seem to want me around. If you're so keen on blaming someone, instead of looking at me, look at your choices. If you don't want me to stay, I'll go. I'll leave, and you'll never have to see me or another ignorant person with opinions you can't seem to handle again. Oh—but wait, the world's full of them! What are you going to do then, Rita? Are you going to pretend like I am?"

Rita very carefully untethered her finger-tips from around her glass. A mass of air had found it's way in her throat and she couldn't seem to swallow. It was with great difficulty that she managed to set it aside without breaking it. She hadn't realized she was capable of such restrain. She hadn't realized she was so damn angry.

She hadn't realized she was past her breaking point and that the words were numbly glancing off her skull.

I've really messed up.

"I don't really care what you do at this point," she murmured, rubbing at her eyes. She tucked her hair back behind her ears, hands constantly in motion so he couldn't see how badly they were shaking. "But I know I'm tired of having to think I'm anything less than the misogynistic selfish person I am. And I know you have to be tired of dealing with me. All I ever do is shove you and everyone else around and pick fights, anyway." She snorted, walking toward the door. "That person was right in a way, I guess," she whispered. "We're both better off." She marched down the hall before she even registered the spring in her step.

She had sincerely lost this fight of wit. It hurt—and if she didn't leave, it was only going to continue to get worse.

"W-wait! Rita!"

"Don't even!" she yelled. "We both know if I hadn't reacted we wouldn't even be in this position right now, I wouldn't be blabbering like this and none of this would have e-e-ever h-happe–"

He slipped his arms around her waist from behind and held her tight, even when she smashed his foot in their stumbling. She threw her head back and nearly hit him in the chin, but he twisted around until her face was in his chest. He smelled like cloves and sweat, and remarkably, it didn't bother her nose in the least. Her shoulders shook nearly uncontrollably, but she didn't allow herself even a hiccup. She was losing her composure. The final threads of dignity she'd kept so tightly bound to herself were finally coming apart. And he'd known it from the moment he'd stepped in that door and seen her, and even now, he'd realized it before she so much had a chance to make sense of her emotions.

She wasn't just angry. She was scared.

"Stop," Raven said, voice firm. She didn't have to look to know that their was frustration on his face. "Rita, you need to calm down–"

"I AM c-c-calm!"

"Right, about as calm as you were when you read that letter this morning? You're gonna blow us both up!" She nearly lost it. Why the hell was he antagonizing her?

"Shut up! Just shut up!"

Her fist swung out in retaliation, a stay elbow making an impact on his gut. Time slowed. Bone met steel when the palm of her hand collided with his chest and Raven released her with a gasp as if he'd been struck by lightning and not the scaphoid of her hand. She had yet to notice the tears streaming down her face.

"S-shut up," she whispered. "Just... stop. I don't want to hear it. I'm done."

Raven's knees bent and he staggered into the wall, but he hadn't taken his eyes off her. "No, this conversation isn't over," he grunted.

She glared through furious blurry eyes, uncomprehending. Why was he making this so damn hard? Why was he making things worse? Why was he even bothering with her? "Why?"

"–Because we've been avoiding talking about this for far too long!" he shouted. "If you think you're guilty, than I'm even worse. If you think you're a wreck, look at me—I don't even have a real h-heart anymore." He slid against the wall, dragging her close to him. "Rita—you're not near as selfish as you think yourself to be. You're human—and there's nothing wrong with that."

The conversation died instantly. She could practically hear the grimace in his voice as he gasped and finally settled for sinking back on the floor, a single hand over his heart while the other remained firmly attached to the hem of her shirt. The clock on the wall ticked in acquiescence and their heavy breathing made up the only sounds in the hall. Even outside, the neighborhood streets were silent.

Rita didn't know what to think. Her heart was pounding against her ribcage and she was trembling and Raven's desperate grip on her shirt only made her feel constricted. She hadn't met to hurt him, but she had. And this one was entirely on her. She could have seriously injured his blastia, all because she'd refused to talk from the outset—and now she was going to have to own up to it.

"Crap," she said, even though anything she could say now wouldn't have any impact because the damage was done, and Raven was looking at her with a strange smile as if he still cared and she hadn't just nearly killed him out of her own recklessness.

His response was to pull her down to floor level. The hard wood floor was cold under her legs, but she didn't resist; his shoulder was warm against her own. The sun streamed through the hallway windows as if their perspectives hadn't darkened the room—as if, despite the chill, the world wasn't stopping for them anytime soon. It was how it should be. "Are you ready to listen now?" Raven asked complacently. She wiped her face gracelessly and nodded. His hair was sticking out from odd angles behind his head, but he didn't look like he minded much—except for the tension he was radiating from his core, he wasn't in obvious pain. If it wasn't mental, she damned herself for the physical strain she'd cost him.

"Yeah... I don't think I can sink any lower than this," she answered and a hysterical laugh bubbled forth. She covered her mouth.

The silence was only temporary. Raven took a breath—and the gave her one of the most serious looks she'd ever seen him wear.

"Alright... I don't want to lie to myself and say that what I'm doing, being with you, isn't wrong because on a fundamental level it is, even if neither of us look at it that way, the facts remain unchanged. I'm a sinner in the eyes of society. And you're a victim of my bad upbringing. And that letter—that man was right about me. I shouldn't be doing this. And neither should you."

There it was. He'd said it.

She'd expected some great revelation to strike her. Some sign that this was it, this is what she'd been waiting for. And yet, Rita realized there was nothing to feel. This was something they both already knew. The weight pushing down on her chest, the inadequacy—it was beginning to fade. Because she wasn't quite as selfish as she thought. And perhaps, he was far more selfless than she had ever realized.

"Victim my ass," Rita muttered. "Age shouldn't mean anything when you have maturity. And besides—I do what I want."

Raven smiled sadly. "You can think that, but it means something to me, whether someone's mature or not, age isn't just some fancy numbers."

"You're getting philosophical on me again," she complained.

"No, it means that I'm getting older, every stinking day. And so are you." He leaned his head against the pinstriped wall, cyan eyes staring across the way as if he were gazing into the future. "Someday, I won't be serving the guilds like I do now. And someday, you'll wake up to find silver in your hair. Do you see that day? I'll be in the ground long before you. Everyone in the world will be using your brilliant inventions to live their lives. You and Estelle will be telling each other stories in Halure and the world will go on. Do you see that?"

The thought was far more startling than it should have been. It was similar to something out of one of Estelle's favorite stories, the heroine and her youthful savior growing old together. As much as she tried to envision it for herself, Rita remained unsuccessful. Years from now, my future might not have anything to do with anyone at all. "That's still a long time off, you know," she said instead, uncertainly, and Raven breathed into her still shower-damp hair almost dolefully.

"It won't seem so long once it starts to happen, sweetheart," he replied. "...I should know. Hell, I've died once—nearly several times. After you're given a second chance at something you thought you'd never have again, you learn to stop thinking and start simply living instead. Live, live, and keep on living."

"What does that have to do with the letter?" Her voice was uncharacteristically quiet.

Raven let out a long breath. "It has everything to do with it... I try not to think about the people who try to interrupt my life because they're wasting my time. So I don't. You should know, someone from Brave Vesperia once told me that. And the person who wrote that letter? He's probably the most miserable person in the world. Letting him affect me, you—us—I refuse to let someone I'll probably never meet destroy the life I'm content to live. I'll die a sinner, I guess. But I've already died. It's hard to make a dead-man feel redemption when he's dead. You know?"

Rita didn't know what to say to that. Her lips pursed, but no words came. So she settled for not saying anything at all.

.

.

It was strange, discussing their lives from a third perspective. Years ago, Rita wouldn't have wanted to talk. He wouldn't have even considered it (even if he had done it a thousand times over in his head, trying to find a way around the norms). Simply breaking glass and knocking heads would have relieved the pressure. Taking orders from Alexei or playing messenger for the Don. Now, the words were pouring forth from the both of them and, he realized, they just wouldn't stop.

He really didn't want them to.

Strangely, the end results weren't as awful as he'd thought it be. His chest ached mildly, yeah, his clothes had smoked a bit from Rita's touch—but if that was the only side affect of such a sincere conversation, he supposed a broken heart and burning laundry was a small thing to begrudge if it would resolve the bigger problems of their future. On the floor against the wall, things were finally shifting into perspective. His only regret was that it had to come to an intervention from an unlikely source for them to realize it. Perhaps prejudice was a more complicated query than he'd thought; or perhaps, he was simply a misguided fool who thought too much.

"...Let me see your heart, old man."

Raven cracked open his eyes to look at her. It would have been humorous, he thought tiredly, her charming concern, if not for the obvious amount of pain he had been in earlier. Rita, while looking sincere, still made him worry more than he wanted to admit. Her damp hair mirrored his except for the stub that she called a pony-tail, her gaze was calm, her frame steady and her eyes clear. But would her hands be gentle, too? "...Yer not gonna try an' break it again?" he questioned.

She gave him a Look.

"I just want to make sure I didn't dent it," she defended. "Now, move your hand out of the way." He did as he was told, wearily looking down at his chest when she pulled his dark shirt back to look at it. It always felt odd to have his shirt drawn back by someone other than himself or Alexei, but at least her purpose was far more admirable. And even if it wasn't, he found he didn't mind quite as much as he used to.

As she expected and he predicted—it was fine. He was tempted to squeal about his modesty when she pulled down his shirt in a hurry.

"See? Nothin' to worry about," he murmured instead, reassuringly. Her hand was beginning to tremble again; as if she'd noticed his gaze, she rubbed her wrist idly.

"That's what you always say," she muttered darkly. The blue glow peeking through his shirt was soft on her face, illuminating the apples in her cheeks and the few curls in her hair from the humid air of Torim. Her eyes were stupidly puffy and her clothing ruffled and the first word that came to mind was frazzled.

She was frazzled. She was upset and hurt—even if she didn't want to admit to it. Raven could see it. He knew what it felt like to feel betrayed by people. The ones closest to you—he knew what it felt like to lose them to society's conformations. (however, she wouldn't be losing him)

"Hey," he said, "ya have to promise me one thing about this messy affair."

Rita looked bewildered at first, eyes widening in the typical Mordio-esque surprise. He dare thought it was suiting. "U-um, I guess...? What are you even asking?"

He smiled. "That you let me play the hero on the occasion."

She immediately scowled. "You're stupid. I don't need someone to oversee what I'm doing—I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself at work and everywhere else!"

"Hon', that's not what I'm talking about..."

Rita frowned. "Then wha... Oh." She rubbed at the back of her neck awkwardly. "Oh. I—yeah. That post-office lady. I guess I'm okay with that..."

"Not a people person," he murmured. She shook her head in sheepish agreement. He found that that gesture was suiting, too.

Though, he was biased; Rita was Rita and that was what he stayed for. He didn't want to see her hurt anymore if there was something he could do about it.

Raven took a breath, exhaled. The light streaming in from the window panes was bright and warm where he sat, the salty air stifled by the smell of shampoo and books. Rita had settled in against the wall, her chin propped up by her hands. She didn't look like she had any intention of moving. Truthfully, he didn't either. He was exhausted, and judging by her slouching shoulders and the way she seemed to sink into her thin jacket—so was she.

Prejudice was not kind to hearts of any age. Even the ones made of steel.

Very slowly, Raven swept a hand up to her shoulder and kissed her faded injury softly. She leaned into him in response.

"I still want to kill that guy—or whoever the hell they were," she muttered. He smiled against her reddening cheek, not surprised in the least.

Of course you do.

"Karma 'll get him," he replied. "We may have to deal with more guys like them in the future, but if you're up for it, I think it'll definitely be worth it. Who knows—maybe someday, we'll prove them all wrong." Rita smacked him in the gut—lightly.

"Yeah," she said, smoothly, precisely. He gripped her hand firmly in his.

This time, they pulled each other up.