Vol. 1 Chapter 22: True Unity
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Alphonse stood in front of the door to the small living space he and his companions rented out. It was in a building that hugged behind the Guild Union's main headquarters. Quiet, out of the way and cheap.

His fist hovered for a moment as he considered what to say for his opening line. He thought it probably would've been a good idea to work up a speech on his way there, but speeches felt so impersonal to him. Better to just wing it, he thought.

He rapped his knuckles on the door and waited for a response. Nothing. His lips pressed together and he glanced awkwardly down the hall. This was new. They usually didn't go out unless he was with them.

A stab of worry pierced his gut at the thought.

He jerked the handle, opened the door and barely managed a half-stride into the room when he froze in place.

What-the hell?

He was prepared with the full intention of having a serious conversation with them. Words scrambled in his head to make sense of the scene he beheld. It was unnatural. It should have been an impossibility based on his journey with them so far.

But seeing her like this and appearing so submissive...

“Are you stupid?” the words left him before he had a chance to even consider them.

He stared at Asa as she faced the floor in a prostrated position. Her hands rested slightly in front of her, palms flat on the rug.

“I apologize for being a burden!” Asa nearly shouted, completely contrary to her usual character.

Alphonse took a startled step back. He glanced away from her to avoid eye contact, even though she had no way of seeing his unease. He then noticed Kirie sitting on the bed, arms crossed and one leg swinging casually over the other. Her eyes met him and she simply shrugged.

“Don't ask,” she said. “I told her it was unnecessary.”

He stared at her for a moment and instinctively looked at an empty spot on the floor next to Asa.

It didn't go unnoticed by Kirie. Her mouth curled up in a sneer. “Hell no. You aren't getting any groveling from me.”

Alphonse let out a nervous laugh. He gave her a look of sincere gratitude for the bit of comic relief to get his bearings. “Well, worth a shot, given the circumstances.” He turned his attention back to Asa, who hadn't moved during the whole exchange.

“I won't force you into anything you don't want,” Asa said once they finished. “I won't complain about not having a bed either. I'll withhold snide remarks and try to be more responsive to your demands.”

“I'll still complain about beds,” Kirie chimed in as she inclining her head slightly. The mocking look was still visible.

Stop! Alphonse's mind screamed.

He struggled with his inner turmoil. He turned away and held a hand over his face, despite the scarf doing a sufficient job of concealing the blossoming red on his cheeks. “Goddammit! Stop! Just stop! Stand up!”

Asa obeyed and stood straight with hands clasped in front of her.

He felt a budding headache as he raised his voice unintentionally. If his preconceived notions hadn't been so grievous. If she didn't sound so genuine, he might've taken advantage of the situation and ordered her to do something embarrassing. But the shock of it left him with no desire for it.

Alphonse took a deep breath and let it out in a slow stream. He made his exasperation apparent and forced himself to speak with the harshest tone he could muster. It was foreign to him, but he realized how necessary it was for getting his point across.

“Fine, since you're both so attentive and brought it up, I'll get straight to the point.”

Asa shifted nervous and expectant on her feet. Kirie lowered her arms and straightened, surprised by his stern demeanor.

“First off,” he said. “Never, and I mean never, do that again.”

Alphonse flinched. Asa's face held so much regret, and was so apologetic and displayed such plain self-loathing.

Thank god for this scarf, he thought.

He pointed at Asa. “You keep beating yourself up over it. But why did you want me to go to the tavern in the first place?”

Asa pressed her hands down and stretched her robe. She bit her lower lip. “I just..."

Alphonse thought she might fall back down from trembling so much. He forced himself to remain still.

She took a deep breath to calm herself. "I-I thought it would be good for you. When we were returning from the quest, I saw you hesitate when Anya mentioned it. I made it a joke but, I know you have your problems. I compared them to mine, and that was wrong.” She grabbed at her chest and practically tore at her robe. “It ended up hurting you more than helping, even before that Siren showed up. It wasn't entirely selfless of me either! Of course, I sympathize, but I wanted you at your best!"

“So you had good intentions,” Alphonse said simply. He tilted his head in feigned confusion.

Asa averted her gaze and went back to pulling at her robe. “Well, yes.”

“Then stop apologizing. It's not your fault.”

Her eyes widened. She opened her mouth to form some sort of rebuttal, but the words failed her.

“Kirie.” Alphonse formed the hardest glare he could. It wasn't easy. He felt rotten as his words took on an even sharper edge. She seemed taken aback by his directness as she leaned to the side more on the bed. “Why do you fight with me? Revenge? Is that what this is all about?”

Kirie stiffened further. She stared around the room a short while as if the answer was hiding somewhere in a dark corner.

Her shoulders slumped. “So, you know about that.”

Alphonse remained mute as he watched her fight with the inner turmoil made plain on her face.

She grimaced and scratched at the side of her head where a new brown clip held her hair in place. “Agh, friggin shit. I should've figured mother would say something. I didn't think you'd be so brazen to bring it up.”

Alphonse allowed himself a smirk. "I'm not about to let you off the hook. Don't leave your poor sister hanging."

Kirie pushed herself away from the bed and crossed her arms over her chest. "Yeah, it's only fair," she muttered.

She looked to her sister, who nodded a timid affirmation. She then matched Alphonse's gaze and spoke directly, “At first...yes. I never considered leaving you or anything. But still..." She turned away from him and held her arm in a small sign of weakness. "...I planned to use you. Back in the dungeon, you were tired, desperate and alone. And we, no, I, took advantage of that. I don't expect you to forgive me for that."

Alphonse said nothing as he waited for her to collect herself.

She rubbed the back of a hand over her face. “After that, I realized you really are a decent person. No, I knew before that, but I never really took the time to think about it. Even when you were dying, you still put my well-being ahead of yourself. Damn, it sounds so despicable saying it out loud. I used your kindness too. But now, I-I can't imagine us not working together, y'know?”

Alphonse found himself taking a shaky step forward as Kirie suddenly fell into a deep bow. “Even though I don't really deserve it, I want us to build GRIM together.”

Asa mirrored her sister. “Of course. Everything will be for GRIM.”

Alphonse scuffed his boot along the floor and pulled his scarf even higher on his face. “Dumbasses. I already know that. I can't believe we're even having this conversation. You've saved my life twice now. I said I would place my trust in you.” He looked up and saw them in the same posture. “And goddammit, stop bowing!”

He struggled to control the tremor in his voice as he was assaulted by a whirlwind of emotions, so many that he couldn't even place them all.

He forced himself to speak, “I'm just as much to blame for everything that's happened."

The catgirls opened their mouths to interject, but he held up a hand and cut them off with a calm shake of his head.

"I'm supposed to be the leader, but I've been nothing but indecisive when it comes to running a guild. I ran you both ragged just so I could distract myself from the people who wronged me. I didn't take any of your opinions into account. I didn't listen to anything and was too busy stuck in my stupid head. Geez, you save my ass, and now I feel like a bad guy. ”

The catgirls shook their heads in complete understanding.

“No,” Asa said. “It's better if we don't bottle this up. We shouldn't assume anything. From now on, we will be perfectly frank with each other.”

Kirie laced her fingers behind her head in a more casual stance. “Yeah. Besides, you wanted this guild to be more like a family, right? Family members don't hide important things like that from each other.”

Alphonse let out a relieved sigh. He realized just how right she was. He'd been so caught up in everything else that the true purpose of his goal had been overshadowed. The guild wasn't just a guild. He wanted a home, and he planned to build one for more than just himself.

Alphonse pulled down his scarf and gave them an appreciative grin. “I like the way you think. Alright then, last thing, we choose quests together.” He jabbed a thumb into his chest. “But I have the final say.” He pulled out the document displaying the recent job he accepted and rested it on the desk next to him. “Take a look at it, and get your shit together.”

Their faces beamed. Alphonse started to consider that maybe some serious talk every once in a while and a bit of tough love really was beneficial.

He started making his way towards the door so he wasn't facing them as he struggled to find the right last words. He resolved that, as a leader, it was his duty to end their conversation on the best note possible. He needed to be the source of collected reason.

"And, y'know, don't think of yourselves like that. How could two cute catgirls possibly be a burden?"

He crossed his arms and rested against the wall, waiting for them to grab their weapons and gear. When he looked up, he saw that they hadn't moved. The two catgirls shared a look he couldn't quite read. They ignored their weapons and instead rushed towards him. They both jumped on him, hugged him and nuzzled his face like they were actual cats.

His heart pounded in his chest harder than a hammer in a forge.

What the hell? Stupid catgirls!

 

Thanks again to everyone for supporting the start of this journey. All that's left is the epilogue for this volume. Many more volumes are soon to follow. There is a lot to explore with many layers. There will also be a short preview of Volume 2 at the end of the epilogue. Just like any other segment hinting at things to come, there are very slight spoilers (so not a necessary read), including a new character that some voters in the previous poll might be pleased to see.

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