I love you.
Those were three words Aldrich had not heard in a long, long time. Not since his parents were alive. Of course, it was different when it came from them and when it came from Valera, but the warmth of the words was still the same.
Aldrich was taken aback. He had expected to hear them, and they still surprised him. He knew she had feelings for him, but to hear them for real and not just within the confines of virtual reality was an entirely different thing.
The way she looked at him right now, her breath caught in her throat, her eyes faintly red and wide, her hands clutched around his, still trembling in spite of her efforts - it made him realize beyond anything else that this was all real.
Aldrich had known that she and all the other game elements he had brought to this world were real from the very beginning, but to some subconscious degree, he had still considered Valera more like an asset. A tool to leverage and use. A combat unit just as she had been in the game.
But when Aldrich saw Valera as she was right now, vulnerable, remembering a past of pain, scared and hopeful of his answer, he felt even more pressure.
He was not dealing with a NPC in front of him, he was dealing with someone that had an entire lifetime behind their backs, someone that had gone through just as much pain as he had, someone that deeply cared about him, someone whose heart was very, very real.
And that heart, he held in his hands. His answer could comfort it or scar it. This was the exact type of situation he had never wanted to be in. Part of him had closed himself to everyone else after the death of his parents because he knew that anyone close to him, anyone he opened his own heart to, was just a liability to hurt him.
Just like with Adam and Elaine. It was a twisted way to think, but some part of him had been relieved they had died when they had. Because if they had survived and graduated Blackwater, Aldrich would have bid them farewell and cut them off as he went into a hunt for his parents' killers, knowing full well that hunt could have easily endangered them.
"Aldrich - if you do not want to answer me now, then that is fine too." Valera squeezed Aldrich's hands and smiled comfortingly at him. Even now, she saw how hard he was thinking and thought about him. She wanted to hear his feelings, that was for sure, but if it meant pressuring him, she could wait.
"No. I do have an answer for you," said Aldrich. "Or rather, it's more like an explanation. Valera, you know I am a different person now than when I was with you, right?"
Valera nodded. "I do. This is your reincarnation in a new and strange world, but I am happy you still remember me."
"That's the thing," said Aldrich. "I do remember you, but…but the memories aren't as strong as yours." He paused for a moment, trying to explain the concept of a game to her. "You remember simulation crystals, right?"
In Elden World, simulation crystals were an item for players to use to record replays or enter into tutorial battles. It was not an exact 1 to 1 comparison to a game, but it was close enough.
"My life in that other world, it was like I was in one massive simulation crystal. Everything I did, I did with an understanding that it wasn't real. That it was something I could quit out of at anytime and put away." Aldrich shook his head.
He thought about trying to dress up his words a little to make them hurt less, but if Valera showed her honest self to him, he did not feel it right to give her anything less. "You lived a lifetime of adventure with me, but for me, it was not real. It wasn't my real life.
And the real life I lead now, it isn't a life that's shaped me into someone I think can love you as much as you love me.
I've never loved anyone else because I know that I would drag them down to this path of mine, and it isn't one that leads to happiness. It's one that's hard. Painful. I don't want that for anyone that cares about me."
"I see." Valera looked away and closed her eyes for a few seconds.
Aldrich thought he might see more tears, but instead Valera took in a deep breath, and when she opened her eyes, she stared at him with strength, her trembling gone.
"I want to ask you a few questions," said Valera.
Aldrich nodded, wondering where this was going.
"Do you think I am unsightly to look at?"
"Hm? No, not at all-," began Aldrich, confused.
"Then do you think I am unpleasant to be around?"
"No, you're responsible and capable."
"Then do you think I am too weak to walk this path of yours? Do you think I am too frail of heart to bear its struggles? Will you have to push me away because I am weak?"
"No, in terms of strength and reliability, you're perfect, and I'll need your strength in the long run." Aldrich raised a brow. "I don't get where you're going with this-,"
Valera put a soft finger on Aldrich's lips, quieting him. "Then what is there to worry about? You think highly of my appearance, you do not mind my personality even with its rough edges, and you recognize my strength to walk beside you."
"Yes, that is true, but what about our memories not being real?" said Aldrich.
"Your memories may not be real," corrected Valera. "But mine are. All these feelings of mine are real. And they always have been. Everything you did for me - all real.
My feelings for you do not change with you saying this. And, Aldrich, you said so much, but you still did not give me a proper answer of yes or no."
"It truly doesn't bother you that I said it all felt like a simulation crystal?" said Aldrich.
"It does. Or rather, it did.
I knew you were not entirely the same person I knew the moment I was summoned to this realm. You looked different. We were both weaker. You had lived an entire lifetime here as a new person." Valera put her hand down to Aldrich's chest, over his heart. "But the more I watched you in this new world, the more I made sure deep down, you are still the same.
You are competent, far thinking, reliable, and strong. Strong in mind and body. And, perhaps most important of all, you still care.
You are cold and calculating when you need to be, but when it matters, you still care.
Otherwise, you would not bother to consider my feelings and worry about them so deeply. Our life in the other realm may have been but a simulation to you, but you still made your choices there, and no matter how far removed they may have been to your real self, some part of those decisions came from your heart.
And this heart of yours-," Valera blushed, red brightly tinting her white cheeks. "It is embarrassing, but I will say it again: this heart of yours, I love."
"You really don't mind?" said Aldrich.
"You are repeating yourself. How unlike you." Valera smiled. "I am not asking you to fall for me as deeply as I have fallen for you. That would be selfish of me, especially when, as you have said, your memories are not as strong as mine.
What I am asking is for you to try.
I am pleasing to your eyes, my personality is one you can trust, and my strength is something you recognize as helping you, not slowing you down."
Valera briefly looked away, remembering something in the past. Unlike before, she did not a grim expression, keeping her smile. "There was this little heartfelt piece I read from my father's library, when I was but a little girl.
It said that love is nothing but trying. Trying to understand each other, to feel each other, to build each other up. Sometimes, what you build lasts, sometimes, it collapses.
A long time ago, when I was a little girl, I had thought that meant love was hard and full of effort.
Why would anyone put themselves through so much trying? Especially when what you build together may not even last? When it can all collapse on top of you and hurt you?
But now I know: when you find the right person, it does not feel like trying. Whether what you build lasts or falls, it does not matter. The building effort, the trying, that alone is worth it.
I have found the person right for me.
Will you try to find that person in me?
Will you let me walk this path of yours? Step by step from the very beginning, together? Hand in hand? Heart to heart?"