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but for the grace of god

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The silence is crushing when it’s over. Kazuma remains rooted to where he stands in the road; the only movement he can see is the dissipating remains of ayakashi drifting over the wreckage of the buildings.

The god of calamity had shaken the blood off his sword and walked off down the muddy street without a second glance. Still trembling, it doesn’t occur to Kazuma to stop him. When he finally turns around, the road is empty, only dust and shreds of tattered fabric riding the dying wind to the ground.

It confuses him, in a way that leaves his chest feeling stricken and empty. He should have died with them - he hasn’t paid Yato a cent - his cursed name is forfeit now and he has no right to bear it so boldly on his hand, the red lines harsh against his ashen skin. Yet it remains, and a broken sob in the distance reminds him of Touma’s sharp voice, so long ago and still so fresh.

Is your name just a decoration? Go protect your master!

He has to tell her the truth.

Fighting off the urge to throw himself back at Yato’s feet, or simply look away until the dust settles, Kazuma picks his way through the wreckage of the estate until he finds Bishamon, collapsed and wailing against the floor. Dirt and blood smear her skin, but the dark edges of the blight are already beginning to recede from her neck. She’ll be okay, he thinks with a sense of hollow relief, despite her choked sobs and her body convulsing in pain. The source is gone; all she needs now is purifying water and time.

Dutifully Kazuma kneels in front of her and grips her shoulders. Bishamon’s own hands find his clothing and cling to the folds with a desperate force, but she won’t look up, won’t stop wailing, won’t respond to anything he says. She merely collapses against his lap, and as her tears begin to soak through to his skin, Kazuma realizes she couldn’t hear him now even if he had the words.

 

* * *

 

Bishamon weeps for days, huddled under her blankets and turning away from all of Kazuma’s attempts to rouse her. When she sleeps her rest is brief and fitful, and she wakes screaming, tears already running down her cheeks before Kazuma jolts awake across the room. She eats nothing and hardly moves at all.

Kazuma watches with a renewed sense of helplessness, a child seeing their parent cry for the first time. His own actions are mechanical, nothing more than a necessity - prepare food, wash clothing, heat a bath, close the shutters. The size of their loss daunts him, tortures him with empty halls and shattered walls and clothes folded neatly in dust-covered chests. Every old possession that stirs up memories, every abandoned room begs him to tell her and get it over with. The last thing this haunted manor needs is a traitor, polluting the air with his very presence.

The words burn on the tip of his tongue as he kneels down beside her bed. He has almost materialized them on his breath when she throws herself back into his lap, crumpling from fresh grief, and begs him to stay, and every carefully rehearsed line dies in his throat.

You are the only one I need.

Kazuma takes a slow, deep breath, and lets his hand come to rest on the floor beside him instead of on her body.

 

* * *

 

She gets back on her feet with time. He could tell her today, he thinks.

But she still totters when she walks, and is too listless to comb her hair or dress herself unless he guides her limbs through the process. Sometimes she stares out the open shutters for hours, still as the statues that adorn her temples, eyes fixed on nothing in particular. Watching her from the doorway, Kazuma realizes with a stab of panic that if he wasn’t here to move her hands she might simply waste away.

He turns back toward the hallway, and decides he’ll tell her tomorrow. Tomorrow, next week, as soon as she can take care of herself without him. Sooner or later the grief will pass and he will return to being a simple disposable nail, a thorn in her side. Then he will disappear and never trouble her again.

 

* * *

 

Years pass. Perhaps time cannot heal all wounds, but it can stitch them shut until only a delicate scar remains, and things almost go back to normal.

The thought is immediately followed by a fresh wave of guilt and a burning sensation in Kazuma’s throat. He pushes back the feelings so as not to sting her, and swallows back the words again, scrubbing the robe in the washbasin before him with renewed force. Bishamon has returned to something of a routine, albeit a different one from before - she takes walks in the garden, and visits the nearby town, and sometimes even offers to help Kazuma with the chores. He bows to her and purses his lips, unable to interrupt, unwilling to throw a wrench in her semblance of a normal life.

She is finally happy again; who is he to tear the wound open anew?

 

* * *

 

He has one last chance.

His chest squeezes tight when she finally agrees to take another shinki. He knows this is what she needs. She is at her best around others, when she has someone to protect, a family to brighten her days and remind her of the good in the world. A new shinki means more hands to work, more ears to listen, more lips to smile and assure her that everything will be okay.

It means that Kazuma will no longer be necessary. The realization is painful, but not sudden. He has been expecting this, pushing for this for years.

At last, he will be out of excuses. Bishamon won’t be alone. He can vanish without regret, just as soon as he tells her.

But the words desert him when he sees his new brethren. They are only children - shinki to be taken care of, not old or wise or responsible enough to care for their master alone. Bishamon gives them a new clan name and her eyes sparkle when she takes one of them up into her arms.

They walk home together, the other child gripping Kazuma’s hand. The sensation is unfamiliar and almost disconcerting; his mind swims, until Bishamon smiles at him. She speaks of a future, a family, already laying down plans not for herself but for them, all of them, and Kazuma bites his tongue.

The chance is gone.

 

* * *

 

There was really no excuse. He tells himself that over and over, in his worse moments, with carefully-tamped down shame choking the back of his throat. He could have told her at any time. It would have been better for her, in the long run, to rip that bandage off and get it over with. Instead he has let it fester and fester, making her believe they could let the past be the past, concealing the wound instead of healing it.

He tries to convince himself that it will only hurt her to bring it up again after all this time. He watches her speak with her shinki, radiant and happy among her new clan, and thinks, briefly, that maybe someday they will forget. Maybe someday it will no longer matter, and there will be no need to assign blame.

It’s the coward’s way out, but maybe that suits him best.

Every time she smiles, his heart and voice both fail him, and he’s left awash in a chest-deep mixture of guilt and joy. He doesn’t deserve that smile. He doesn’t deserve the way she holds him close, laughs with him, keeps him in her confidence like an old and trusted friend. She wouldn’t, if she knew. If he had told her.

But he hasn’t, and he won’t. He comes to embrace the bitter truth that he is simply too selfish to let her go.

 

* * *

 

He tells her in little more than a whisper, chin propped on her shoulder and arms tight around her body. The blight seeping into his skin burns, and the blood pouring from his chest makes him dizzy, but the words are far too old to forget. He has rehearsed this for centuries, locked the truth up inside, and now that the dam has been broken not even the rapid weakening of his body can stop it from rushing out.

Bishamon trembles in his grasp. Kazuma does not get to see the reaction he has been dreading for so much of his afterlife; he hears her sword hit the pavement beside them, feels the heavy hands of gravity dragging them down, and then everything goes black.

 

* * *

 

When he comes to, pain sears his breast. He thinks first of the confession he kept tight there for so long, and only after that does he remember the blade digging into his flesh. No weight has been lifted; instead it looms up in front of him, more stifling than ever.

And yet Bishamon smiles. She does not censure him, does not question him, does not even think about casting him out like he deserves. Light from the open window frames her face, and tears well up in Kazuma’s eyes.

She is far, far too good for him.

For a moment he considers telling her everything. His regrets, his fears, the feelings that have exhilarated and oppressed him for centuries. But that is still a burden for his shoulders, not his master’s, and there will be time.

Someday, he hopes, he will be able to tell her how he truly feels. For now, this is enough.