I couldn’t remember what happened. I simply woke up with a sore head and the sound of sharp breathing behind me. One moment, I was walking with Saki, her hand pulling my arm forward, and the next, darkness.
I buzzed away the lingering cobwebs as I tried to analyze the situation I was in. On my side, I stared upon a room that was mostly earthen. It was quickly recognizable as one of those temporary dwellings formed by Earth magic. The touch of linen, somewhat coarse, brushed against my right hand. The fibers of the familiar sheets used by the army came to mind. I had likely retired to my private quarters, but I didn’t recall drinking anything that would make me black out like this.
I would have relaxed, if it weren’t for the erratic breathing that brushed against my neck in the dark. I could feel goosebumps rise on my skin as the voice behind me, obviously female, sounded almost like she was gasping for air. Arms wrapped around my torso, refusing to let me go.
At first, I thought it was Katalina, as she was the only one with the courage to sleep next to me. But just as I started to move, whoever it was drew a sharp breath in panic before nearly crushing me with a bear hug.
“Aggh! I give! I give! That freaking hurts!” I croaked out while pounding against the bed.
Like my words stung her, the arms hastily detached, and what should have been a gentle brush nearly shoved me off the bed. The brute strength applied from such a simple gesture narrowed the options down to one surprising person.
“S-Saki?! What are you-”
My voice stopped as her outline appeared in the dark. Her normal armor was shed, with only casual clothing worn. That looked like her typical sleepwear, but what was she doing in my room to begin with? Especially since she was so guarded against men due to her past.
But I noticed that she was shivering. Her arms crossed over her chest as if holding herself together. Something was clearly wrong.
I stood up and walked back to the bed, reaching over to check if she was okay. But then, she suddenly sprung, wrapping around me and dragging me back on the bed like some prey. It was not at all comfortable to be thrown onto a rock-hard bed that only had a few sheets cushioning it. But I couldn’t worry about the bruise on my butt with Saki clinging onto me so fiercely.
“Ow, Saki. What the hell are you doing? Is this some strange idea of payback you had in mind? A ‘batsu game’ of sorts?”
Saki shook her head, eyes shut tight as she rubbed her head against me. “No… I have to… I have to get used to this… I have to look after you… in her place.”
“Woah! Time out! Time out! Look after me why? For what reason?”
I lightly pushed against her, but her grip refused to budge. Rather, it made her even more determined to do whatever she was attempting. Ignoring my resistance, she crawled on top of me until her entire body laid on top of mine. It was an awkward position, especially with her shivering the whole time. And I could tell she wasn’t quite sure where to move, as her knee rested dangerously upon a sensitive spot.
Rather than resist anymore, the only thing I could do was to calm her down. My hands reached around to hug her back, which made her go ‘Eep!’ lightly. After a while, Saki finally decided to spill it.
“You don’t have Eryn to comfort you anymore. That is why I’m doing this. You’re hurt. You’re in pain. But there isn’t anyone who can be with you out here on the battlefield. At the very least, I can use my worthless body for your sake.”
My mouth hung open, wondering what to say to that. Even as Saki shivered, fighting off her trauma, she stared at me in the eyes with a sense of resolve. She couldn’t bear to see me suffer after Eryn died. Katalina, as the Queen, couldn’t do it, as she had a kingdom to manage, away from the frontlines. Ludmila was much too young. Therefore, Saki felt like it was her job to keep me company.
“I-I should have done this sooner, but… but I was afraid. But then, Ludmila came for you with such conviction. And it made me ashamed. Ashamed that I couldn’t be forceful too. Ashamed that nothing but excuses held me back. Excuses weighing heavier than what I vowed to do.”
I reached up and clutched her by the shoulders. Finally, I got what this was about. I overlooked it because we were close in age, but Saki was probably even more fragile than Ludmila ever was.
“So, you decided to knock me down then. And force your way through it instead? Is that right? And how far were you going to take it? How far were you willing to go to comfort me?”
I could feel Saki shiver from the questions. She needed a moment to prepare herself before giving her answer. Her eyes flicked around nervously, as if wondering how I would react to it.
“Everything. That should be a given, right? I wouldn’t be here without you. I owe it to you for saving me. I- I…”
I took that moment of hesitation to roll out from under her, but underestimating her grip, she was whisked off the bed as well. The two of us tumbled onto the cold, rock floor. But still, I wouldn’t give in.
“What do you mean, you owe me?! For what? What about all the times you protected my ass too?! You’re out there watching my back just like I’m watching yours! You don’t owe me anything cause it’s mutual!”
Saki’s gaze became fiery, determined to make me see her point. She tore off the shirt she wore, leaving her bare chest exposed. Fortunately, it was too dark for me to see anything but an outline.
“Isn’t that just perfect then? We’ll protect each other! We’ll use each other! And maybe, I’ll fall in love with you someday too! But for now, I just want to keep you safe!” Her voice broke and tears dripped down her face as she said that. She looked lost and confused. “Am I not cute enough to be taken advantage of?”
Saki – the girl that constantly gave off the wrong signals, the girl who acted tough to everyone but herself, who charged forward without any regard for her own safety – finally broke down before me. The weight of her self-imposed obligations, that of giving her all to those she felt connected to, had caused her to attempt the strangest things.
I reached over and pulled her into an embrace.
“Damn it, as if the sight of you ‘dere-ing’ isn’t pulling at my heart strings. You’re already plenty cute. Enough so that there’s an image of you as a waifu chiseled permanently inside of my mind.”
“Then, why don’t we do it-”
“But that’s only a caricature of you,” I interrupted. “That idealized girl in my dreams doesn’t hold a candle to the real relationship that I have for you as a person. And I really don’t want to wreck that over some silly obligation. I don’t want us to use each other for such a dumb purpose. That’s just crazy talk.”
I pulled back and cupped her cheeks with my hands.
“I love you, Saki. But not in that way. Not like this. I’m simply happy that you’re at my side. Just like the others. You all give me a reason to move forward. The person that you are is what I want to cherish. I don’t want silly obligations to ruin it.”
It was now Saki’s turn to be utterly surprised. Here she was, willing to give her entire self to Claude, and he had refused. He found her normal self to be more valuable than the entirety she laid out for him. It was mind-boggling. It made absolutely no sense.
But somehow, it was comforting.
The tremors in her body subsided, her innate fear of men after they tried to take advantage of her. The memories of her doing unspeakable things resulted in losing her best friend. They triggered her to be the worst of herself, and it took her everything to fight against it when she clung onto Claude.
Claude was still a man, after all. He couldn’t be trusted. He would surely take advantage of her as well. But if it were him, she could bear it. She was willing to get used to it. That would be the price of holding onto the one person that saw her differently than the rest.
But after hearing him confess so candidly about his feelings, all she could do was laugh now.
“It is crazy talk, isn’t it?” Saki giggled suddenly. The first time she had in ages. “I must be strange, to have no faith in a friend such as you. What was I thinking?”
‘Friend.’ That was it. Claude had become a close friend to her at some point. It was something that she thought would only happen with other girls. Society had impressed upon her that the same couldn’t be done between those of a different gender. Like being friends with a guy naturally led to something more. That was why she had always shied away. She didn’t want a relationship with a guy. Her heart lay elsewhere.
The strange feelings that she had for Claude were similar to what she had for Rika, but without the fiery passion laced with it. The parallels confused her. The fondness made her think that she could be romantically involved with Claude. That she should, because that was the normal thing to do. Somehow, his rejection of that very notion took a weight off her shoulders.
“A friend now? So you finally consider me one after how long? But that’s good. I never cared for that whole master/servant thing in the first place. We do things together because we are friends in arms, not because of any obligations for each other, capisce?”
Claude gave her a smile, thinking nothing about the current half-dressed state she was in. Or at least, that’s what she thought at first.
“Now… I’m running out of places to look, so how about covering up? My eyes are starting to stray into dangerous territory now that they’ve adjusted. At this rate, I really will have the hots for you, for real. Best keep some degree of separation.”
Back to his joking self, Saki gave a huff of relief as she picked up her discarded shirt. If he could act like that, then he would be alright. He didn’t need her special treatment, just the normal, casual self that was used to his antics.
“That’s right. That would be a problem for me, now wouldn’t it? You are obviously not my type,” Saki said, sticking her tongue out in disgust playfully.
“Oi, what does that mean? I’m a pretty dependable guy, thank you. I just need a bit of guidance and tough love at times.” Claude scrunched up his face in feigned anger.
“Well, that’s exactly the problem. You are a ‘guy.’ My type is obviously that of girls, so that’s a pretty big X for you to start with.”
Saki put her shirt back on, acting smug during the exchange. This was the feeling that she missed. This closeness where she didn’t have to care how she acted. She knew she could breathe freely once again.
“Well, darn. Guess I’ve been shot down-”
Claude’s statement was cut off as Saki placed a peck on his cheeks. She pulled back to see his stunned and confused expression. Giggling as she turned away, Saki headed towards the door and opened it.
“What does that even mean?! You don’t just do that and leave! It was a joke, right?! I want answers, Saki!”
“Sorry, I just got wrapped up in the mood. Forgot who you were for the tiniest moment.”
Saki left the room before she could hear anything else. It didn’t matter to her, because she knew now that nothing she did would change things for the worse. The tremors no longer quaked through her body at his touch. The trauma of being attacked by men forgotten in his presence.
They were baby steps forward, but they were crucial ones needed to forgive herself. And to once again bring value to her own life. She wouldn’t let Ludmila be the only one to swear herself to Claude. She would be strong as well, enough so that they could all face any challenge together. Even in these dark times, a lingering glow of hope ignited within her. She could carry on, feeling its warmth.