Ayyyeeee. Look at that. I finally posted! This chapter definitely hasn't been done for a solid month and has just been collecting dust in my folders. Nah that doesn't sound like me at all...

The conversation shifted to their status icons and he tried not to snarl at Ren's tone.

"Look at the bottom right corner of your vision," Motoyasu explained softly to Naofumi. "It'll appear like a hologram that only you can see."

He ignored the huff sent his way by Ren, who no doubt wanted to lord his knowledge over the rest of them.

He watched Naofumi flinch, eyes widening as he activated his status for the first time. He wondered…

"Level 1? Damn, you'd think we'd be more powerful as the Four Heroes." Green eyes flickered to him with amusement shining in them. "Plus a shield isn't really a weapon…"

So he was truly the only one affected both mentally and status-wise.

Motoyasu forced a smile. "It's probably still really powerful. It is one of the four after all."

Naofumi hummed in response, eyes thoughtful. No doubt trying to imagine what he could do.

Motoyasu didn't have to imagine. He knew. He knew just how powerful that shield could be. He had stood beneath them, protected despite the pain he caused the other man, and had felt the hum of the pure power they radiated.

He knew even if no one else in the room wanted to acknowledge it.

He was hit by a wave of exhaustion and it took everything he had not to sway on his feet or collapse right there. The buzzing of the crowd reminded him that his every movement, every word was being watched and cataloged. Why did he like this attention the first time around? It was suffocating. It made his skin crawl and the headache still pounding behind his eyes made him nauseous. He considered throwing up again, all over the pretty, and no doubt expensive, rug beneath his feet. He really wanted this all to end. Wanted to go hide. Away from the prying eyes.

(I'm not the hero. I am not worth this awe. This attention. The one you should be looking at is beside me. Not me. Never me. I'm just a fake. A failure.)

The past.

He was in the past.

How insane was that?

The conversation was winding down. The Trash-King extended his welcome to stay the night and Motoyasu fought another snarl, looking anywhere but him in order to keep his calm.

He wasn't sure what he could do. What he could change...but there was one thing. One thing he wouldn't allow to happen. Not after...not after seeing the Naofumi from before.

(Before I broke him.)

The room was the same along with the food and drinks laid out for them. He remembered chatting incessantly throughout the meal. Excited at this chance, this opportunity he thought he deserved. He had flirted shamelessly with the woman who guided them to their chambers and had pulled Ren and Itsuki and even Naofumi into a meaningless conversation about the castle and the food and how amazing everything was.

He had thought about trying to do so again. Trying to build up a comradery he knew they needed, but his stomach twisted every time he opened his mouth.

What if he said something wrong?

What if he gave away info he shouldn't know?

Should he tell them he was from the future? Or should he keep that to himself?

He was paralyzed with indecision.

In the end, he stared silently at the food on his plate, unable to even stomach taking a bite, no matter how good it smelled. Ren and Itsuki didn't notice. Caught up in their own thoughts...but Naofumi did.

(Naofumi had from the start, hadn't he?)

"Are you still feeling sick? That transportation spell or summoning...or whatever it was, really did a number on you didn't it?"

Motoyasu nodded faintly.

(I don't deserve your concern.)

"I wonder if they have any potions or something that'll help with nausea. I think my mom mentioned that ginger helps...though who knows if they have even that here."

"Mint also helps." Itsuki piped up.

He forced his mouth to move. "I'm fine. I just need some rest, really."

Motoyasu didn't react to Itsuki and Naofumi's disbelieving looks. Even Ren eyed him as if judging him for the lie. He must look truly wretched then. That didn't surprise him. He felt horrible.

He changed the subject. "So does this remind anyone of a game? This scenario reminds me of Emerald online."

This was a conversation they needed to get out of the way. It also allowed him to get lost in the half-forgotten facts about his homeworld. It was easy to list the names, dates, and other historical facts. They didn't require deep thoughts or worries over whether or not he was saying the right thing. Doing the right thing.

Then things shifted again and he was snapped out of his haze. Ren folded his arms dismissively and Istuki's smile was tinged with pity.

"I don't understand...what do you mean it's probably because of my shield? Is there...is there something wrong with it?"

He..he remembered the words he spoke last time and he nearly winced.

He couldn't say that again.

Would this be his first big change?

Motoyasu's stomach twisted at the thought. He had stood up to the Trash-King without a thought, but that was a small thing. This...this could potentially be much much larger.

He glanced over the group, vision blurring as their old...future selves overlapped with the current ones.

He saw Ren open his mouth to explain and he knew his chance would end soon.

"There is nothing wrong with being the shield hero." He blurted out, not really knowing what he'd say before the words tumbled out of his mouth in a rush.

All eyes were on him...again.

He took a breath. "I mean. Think about it, we all mentioned games in our worlds, but is this really a game?"

Motoyasu turned to Ren. "A VRMMO is probably the most realistic gaming system of the three we compared this to. Does this measure up to the graphics, the immersion?"

He gestured to the room around them. The food, the drinks.

Ren followed the gesture, eyes roving around the room, even as his expression remained blank.

"No...Brave Star Online was the most advanced VRMMO, but it was still just a game. You couldn't actually taste the food or drink." He took half a step closer to the crackling fireplace, arms wrapping around himself as if this was the first time he truly considered the implications and it chilled him. "Nor could you feel the heat of the flames."

Itsuki frowned. "But…"

Motoyasu tensed.

In his mind's eye, he saw Itsuki. Older, broken. The scars that stretched across his delicate face were sickening to look at and Motoyasu often didn't because of that. Because they remind him of his own mortality.

The boy who thought he was immortal...until reality proved he wasn't.

He was moving before he could fully process his own plan.

On the table, there was a knife, likely there to cut the fruit left for them to snack on. The metal was cool in his hand and bit into his flesh readily.

Naofumi leaped to his feet with a strangled cry and even Ren sucked in a breath, but Motoyasu ignored them both. He merely watched the trail of blood slide down his palm.

(Once upon a time that no longer existed and won't exist if he had anything to say about it, he would have been screeching and hollering over such a wound. Now he just stared blankly at it. He had known pain far greater. He had been unmade and remade on his journey back to the past. The ache within his bones, his very soul still lingered. A mere cut on his palm was nothing compared to that. )

He turned his face to Itsuki, who had paled and paled even further when he looked Motoyasu in the eye. Whatever he saw there terrified him.

(Motoyashu wondered what it was that terrified him. He was never one to strike an imposing figure despite his dramatic attempts to do so before. What had changed in so little time that even a mere glance could make his fellow Cardinal Hero flinch? Perhaps Itsuki saw the death in his eyes. A glimpse of the future he never wanted to see again. A glimpse into the horror.)

He took a breath. He didn't want to scare Itsuki. He just needed him to know. To understand.

"This isn't a game." He said softly, gently. "This pain is real and I bet that if I threw myself out of this tower I'd end up very, very dead. No save points. No respawn."

There was silence after his words.

His throat felt scratchy and raw and all he wanted to do was sleep and never wake up again, but he forged forward.

(That's what Naofumi would do, right?)

"If this world is real, then the people are too. They aren't mindless NPC, but real people with their own thoughts, emotions, and...biases."

Ren picked up on his implication immediately, eyes flashing. "You don't trust what the King told us."

(Careful. Careful. Don't reveal too much. You don't know who's listening. Don't know if they'll believe you. If they think you're crazy then they'll never listen.)

He nodded slowly and glanced at Naofumi. "It's...just a feeling, but the way he reacted to Naofumi was…"

Naofumi scratched the back of his head with a thoughtful look. "Yeah, that was weird wasn't it?"

"Maybe the shield hero is typically weak," Itsuki said, arms folded almost defensively over his chest.

"If that was the case why would the shield be part of the Four Legendary Weapons?" Motoyashu snapped back.

(Shit. Too much. Too much. But he couldn't help it. He hated, hated the fact that none of them realized just how important Naofumi was.)

Itsuki flinched, then scowled and opened his mouth to…

"Hey, that's enough." Naofumi moved between them, hands up in a peaceful gesture.

He looked at Motoyasu first. "Thanks for defending me, both here and in the throne room, but there's no need to snap at each other. We're in this together remember?"

Then he looked over at Itsuki. "You guys have more experience with the gaming aspect than me, so I'll have to rely on you for that information, but I also think Motoyasu has a point. While you guys may have some base information to go off of for mechanics we'll all probably have a steep learning curve to overcome."

Ren watched the whole affair quietly. "Well, we know that the information about our weapons being incompatible is true, but there is a possibility that they didn't tell us the complete truth on other things."

"And even if we can't level up together that doesn't mean we have to be completely separate. We can probably still share info and advice." Naofumi added.

"And fight the hordes together." Motoyasu threw in, hoping he sounded casual enough.

(This. This was the big moment. The biggest change he could probably ever achieve.)

Naofumi nodded. "Yeah, the way the king described them...well they sounded super intense and we are the Four Cardinal Heroes after all."

Ren nodded solemnly, and even Itsuki looked hesitantly thoughtful.

He released a soft breath.

(Maybe, just maybe this could work. Maybe they'd be able to do it the right way this time.)

The rest of the evening was a blur as the last of his adrenaline disappeared from his body and he gave into the exhaustion. He vaguely remembered his head dropping to his chest as black dots danced across his vision. There was the murmur of soft voices.

"He's out of it."

"He looks horrible-"

"Maybe we should-"

"His hand is still-"

"Hold on I got it-"

A pair of hands pulled him up and practically carried him to the bed. He didn't fight it. Too exhausted to even keep his eyes open. As soon as his head hit the pillow he was gone.

He dreamed of blood and pain.

He dreamed of green eyes and of jealousy and hatred.

He dreamed of death.

He dreamed of the void. Of spinning through time and space.

It hurt. Everything hurt. He was being torn apart again and he couldn't...he couldn't...

(Useless. Useless. Useless.)

It stopped. And he found himself standing in a grassy field. The breeze was gentle on his flushed face. He gasped and clutched his chest as the pain faded slowly and the field became more clear.

He wasn't alone.

Across from him stood a girl. He couldn't fully make out all of her features, but she seemed familiar. Memories flitted through his tired mind too quickly for him to grasp. He watched silently as the moonlight glint off her silver hair and wings flared behind her as she observed him in turn.

"What is your choice?"

"What?" His voice was hoarse, broken.

"What will you fight for? The world or the people?"

"I don't...I don't know what you mean…I'm not." He swallowed roughly. "I'm not really a hero. I don't. I failed. I can't. I…"

He didn't have the words to explain, but she seemed to understand anyway. She nodded.

"Not yet then." The field shifted and faded into wispy shadows. "Think and decide. I will ask again Spear Hero."

Motoyashu woke with a silent gasp.

He didn't sleep for the rest of the night.

'Tis a slow start, but there are some important things that need to be set up before we get to the exciting stuff next chapter.

Poor Motoyasu is doing his best, but also showing an alarming tendency towards self-destruction that the others are starting to pick up on. I also really liked the concept of having to decide to fight for the world vs the people. I thought that was so interesting so expect that to play heavily in this fic.