“How have you been doing?” Eleanor asks, leaning forward and resting her chin on her fist.
“Good,” the raven-haired woman replies. She looks exactly like Eleanor last remembers her - ridiculously long black hair, piercing amber eyes, clothes that barely cover her toned body - but with a more noticeable smile on her face. Has she always been so beautiful? Eleanor thinks yes. “You?”
They sit beside each other at the top steps of Empyrean’s Throne, facing out into the vast green world beyond them. The sun’s nearly finished setting, as only its afterglow remains on the horizon. Maotelus lays dormant behind them, enjoying a peaceful slumber only hinted at with his deep breaths. The world is quiet, if only for a moment.
“Just fine,” Eleanor replies, rolling her shoulders back. “Quite busy, but fine.”
“You’re not overworking yourself, are you?”
“Oh, please. I can handle myself.”
“You don’t believe me?” Eleanor asks, cocking an eyebrow.
She raises her hands in defeat, chuckling. “I believe you, I believe you. I’m hopin’ that you’re at least getting some sleep.”
“Ah, well…” Eleanor blushes, scratching her cheek. Of course - she’s genuinely concerned, not trying to tease her with every off-hand comment. “I believe about an hour or two is all I get these days.”
“I knew it!” she says with a chuckle. “So not much different from our travels.”
“No, I suppose not,” Eleanor agrees, laughing along with the raven-haired woman. “Everything has changed, but sometimes, it feels like nothing has.”
She doesn’t respond to that one, and Eleanor figures it’s for the best.
“You took a bit longer to visit, huh?”
“Oh? You noticed?”
“Yeah, I mean… no one else says hi.” She sighs, leaning back on her palms, staring up at the distant stars. The exorcist so badly wants to hold her hand or kiss her or anything else, really, whenever she makes a face that vulnerable. “Considering the circumstances, the concept of time is kinda tough for me to understand. But I think I’m figuring it out again with every time you come here.”
“Ah… How many has it been by now?”
“Oh, please, I’m not keeping track.” Another sigh, another wayward look. “I’m just glad you stop by to see me.” A small gentle smile presented just for her, and Eleanor feels that ache again, the one telling her to reach out and hold her close.
But she doesn’t.
“Of course. I’m always here for you.”
“You’re not going out of your way to swing by, are you?”
“What? Such a silly question! Why would I do that?”
“So you are.”
“You’re a bad liar, Eleanor Hume.”
“Ah… Hahaha...” The exorcist giggles a little. Certainly she’s heard that line a few times before.
“I’m happy though. I like our silly chats. You could even say I look forward to them.”
She’s become more open about sharing her thoughts and feelings, and Eleanor wonders briefly if this is who she’d be if she could still live life to the fullest.
Then she decides that it doesn’t matter. They’re here now, and she’ll cherish what time they have.
“What’ve you been dreaming about?”
The conversations often flow like this - they’ll talk and talk and talk for what feels like hours, then their voices lapse into a comfortable silence. Sometimes, she simply vanishes, and Eleanor finds herself alone. Other times, one of them brings up something else to fill the void and keep the talks going strong toward the crack of dawn until Eleanor can’t help but fall asleep.
“Lots,” she replies, one of those rare grins spreading across her face. “Laphi and I have seen so much of the world, Eleanor! We last stopped by Hellawes again and…” She presses a palm to the side of her head, grunting. “Hrm, it gets hard to wrap my head around all of this.”
“Are you okay?”
“Never better.” She waves her hand around, trying to dispel the redhead’s worry, but Eleanor isn’t convinced. “Really. I’m having fun, you crybaby.”
“Hey, I’m not a -” Eleanor cuts herself off with a groan, realizing she’d fallen for the not-so-clever distraction, hook, line, and sinker. “I’m glad you’re having so much fun,” is her curt response instead.
“I’m enjoying the adventures so far. Plus, we’ll see you around sometimes. Laphi really likes you,” she adds, chuckling. Her amber eyes glint in the soft moonlight as she leans back on her hands once more. “He might have a crush.”
“Goodness, I’d hope not.” Eleanor fidgets with the fabric of her gloves, pulling them tighter on her fingers. “I’m not a very good person to pine after. And I doubt this... dream-Eleanor is any better.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Ah…” Her face flushes, and Eleanor averts her gaze from the stunning woman next to her. “Nothing in particular.”
“I think you’re a good person to be interested in,” she says as nonchalantly as talking to the exorcist about the weather.
“Huh?” Green eyes widen, and Eleanor’s cheeks begin to burn as though someone set her entire body alight with a high-level arte. She ducks down in between her legs, wrapping her arms around her knees to hide her face. “No!”
“Why not?” She lets out a bubbly laugh, one that pierces right into Eleanor’s heart with longing. “You’re attractive, sweet, capable, honest, and stubborn as hell.” Each word stabs another blade into Eleanor’s weak heart. “Plus, you can knock someone like Rokurou on his ass, easy. Those are some fine qualities in a woman.”
“I, umm…” The exorcist somehow hides even more, pressing up against her skirt to muffle her voice. “...never knew you thought of me that way.”
“Oh? Is Miss Exorcist embarrassed all of a sudden?” she teases with a sweet chuckle that spurs Eleanor’s already-rapidly beating heart.
As the lackadaisical woman laughs, Eleanor complains under her breath, now resting her chin on her knee and shifting to stare up at the night sky. At the Empyrean’s Throne, the stars seem so much closer, as though she could pluck a piece of heaven to keep for herself.
“...Tell me more about those adventures,” Eleanor murmurs, still not looking at the woman beside her. “I’d love to hear how the world is like to you now.”
Eleanor hears her scoot closer, and she’s almost certain she’d cry if their fingers touched.
“What do you and Phi even do when you’re visiting?”
“Maotelus will be upset if he heard you,” Eleanor says, chuckling, but she just scoffs away the threat. “Hm, we mostly talk like this. Reminisce about the past, wonder what the others are up to. Plus, he gives me ideas on how to help reform and lead the exorcists who are still around.” Eleanor can’t help but snort at her scowl and grunt of displeasure. “Okay, okay. We do normal sleepover stuff.”
Her face immediately relaxes. “Hmm, so a pillow fight… and a dragon in pajamas…”
“Pfft! No, that’s not right,” Eleanor says before the raven-haired woman’s imagination runs away too fast.
“But would the pillow be human-sized or fit for a dragon….”
The redhead releases an ecstatic laugh before she can stop herself. “You’re so weird!”
“Oh, please,” she scoffs, flipping her wrist in the air. “You’re not curious what would happen if you got hit by a pillow with the force of a literal god behind it?”
“Not… not particularly, no.”
“Eleanor… why do birds fly?” she quotes in a low, sarcastic voice. “Because they had a pillow fight with an Empyrean... and lost.”
“You are ridiculous.”
“Have you ever been in love?”
Eleanor knows she’s being as subtle as a prickleboar charging for its prey and woefully smashing into a tree, but she’s always been curious.
The expression on her face is surprisingly thoughtful. Eleanor expected a snappy counter filled with teasing and what she likes to think are flirty comebacks, rather than a serious answer.
“Maybe,” she says after a moment. “You?”
“I... don’t know.”
Eleanor’s not lying - not really. If her only love is one that she could never fully understand nor find closure for, could she really call it love? Though the dull ache in her chest tells her a different story; she doesn’t think she’ll ever find someone quite like her. So it must be love, as painful and unrequited as it is.
The words tumble out of her mouth faster than Eleanor realizes she’s even said them out loud.
“What does love mean to you?”
“Still rolling with the tough questions, huh?” She sighs, laying down on the cold marble floor with her hands resting behind her head. “Probably someone who’ll be there for me, no matter what I choose to do. And smack me on the head if I’m gonna do something stupid.”
“Hah! If only I’d known.” Eleanor scoots down onto her side to match her. She props her head on her left hand, her green eyes drifting to trace up and down the sharp curves of her face. Beautiful, as always. “I’m sure I could have found at least twenty instances where you deserved a swift crack on the skull.”
“You… may be right there,” she admits with a groan. “How about you, then? What’s love mean to you?”
“Head hitting aside, I believe your definition is fairly similar to mine,” Eleanor replies, rolling onto her back and folding her hands over her stomach.
The stars above twinkle, and she smiles back.
“I’d appreciate a level of unconditional love,” she murmurs, “but perhaps not to the extent that my partner wouldn’t stop me if I began to lose myself.”
Eleanor glances over for a moment, meeting confused amber eyes.
“Someone already pulled me out of my delusions a long time ago,” Eleanor whispers, feeling a gentle smile spread across her lips. “I wouldn’t like to impose on her again.”
“Yeah.” Her eyes soften into what Eleanor interprets as longing, and a ghost of a smile appears on her incredibly kissable lips. “Yeah, that makes sense.”
“So what’re you gonna do, Miss Exorcist?”
Eleanor snaps her gaze over, but the raven-haired woman is staring straight ahead. They’d been sitting in silence, knees drawn up against their chests, for so long Eleanor assumed she left by now. But no… she’s right there - so close that she could just pull her into a tight hug.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t expect you to keep up with these visits,” she murmurs. “And you don’t need to if you don’t want to.”
“Of course I’ll visit!” Eleanor retorts immediately, shifting to stare the amber-eyed woman down. “I’ll visit you every time I’m free! No matter how much time passes, no matter how long you wait, I’ll -”
“How long has it been? Months? A year?” Amber eyes drift over to examine the exorcist up and down, gauging her reaction. “Longer?”
Under her gaze, Eleanor flinches and crosses her arms over her chest. “No, that’s not…”
“I don’t want your life to stop because of me.”
The words stab into her heart like a daemon driving its claws into her chest, instead of that sparkly, heart-fluttering version from only conversations - hours? - ago. If it weren’t for her intervention, Eleanor wouldn’t have much of a life left to live; she would have continued being one of Artorius’ naïve pawns.
“Don't say that!” Her voice catches in her throat. “Don’t… say that.”
Eleanor pulls her legs up to her chest again, resting her forehead on her knees. The tears sting her eyes, and she bites down on her lip hard enough to draw blood as she forces the tears back.
A soft breeze drifts through and ruffles Eleanor’s locks.
“Do you ever wonder what you’d be doing if…” Eleanor’s voice trails off, and she takes the opportunity to wipe her face with her sleeve.
“If you didn’t have to go and sacrifice yourself to save the world…” Eleanor’s emerald eyes lock with gentle amber ones. “Would you still want to see me?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t -”
“No!” Eleanor releases a sharp breath. That’s the response she wants to hear. Not the one she needs. “Answer me honestly.”
“The others have moved on, and I can only imagine they’re growing and completing incredible feats. But I’m still here. Waiting, hoping, wishing.” A few tears manage to find their way down her cheeks, and she clutches her arms, trying her damnedest to retain control. “Would you have a reason to talk to me? Would I see you again? Would we go our separate ways… like everyone else?”
“Does it matter?”
Eleanor blinks a few times.
“What’s the point of worrying over that?” she continues, her voice sharper and stiffer than before. “We made the choices we thought were best. Besides, didn’t you say it’s on you to face your fears now?”
She laughs a little, a low, tired one that the exorcist hasn’t heard in a long time.
“I don’t have anything else, Eleanor.”
She smiles ruefully, and Eleanor’s heart tightens.
“So I don’t want to lose you. But I don’t want to hold you back either.”
What does she mean by that? After that reckless, stupid, and necessary sacrifice, the remaining five went their separate ways. Looking back on their journey, Eleanor almost wishes that they could’ve continued adventuring around the world - that their time together would never end. But it did end, life moved on, and so did the others.
Yet that woman feels she still has something - someone - left to lose, even though...
“I… I know you’re never coming back,” Eleanor whispers, rubbing at her eyes. “I just… I think I just want reassurance that what I choose now is right. How do I keep moving forward?”
“Ah.” She nods, and Eleanor’s happy to see a smile on her face, even if it’s a tiny one. “Eleanor, I’m awful for this talk. You've seen my one-track mind. But you know…” She plays with the tail-end of her messy hair. “I think you’ve got a better head on your shoulders than I ever did. So I trust you’re doing fine.”
She lets out a playful laugh, throwing her head back for a moment before flashing a grin at the redhead.
“Keep going. Quit looking back.”
The sun begins to rise in the distance, its beautiful yellow and red rays casting a shimmering glow onto her silky raven-colored hair. Eleanor can’t help but stare into those captivating amber eyes, and another crooked smile appears on her lips as she gazes right back. The silence is overwhelming, and a buzz rings in her ears.
This would be the perfect opportunity for a kiss, and Eleanor flushes at the thought.
“...I’m sorry for shouting,” she says instead.
“Nah, don’t be. I’m sorry for bringing all that up. I don’t think we’ve had a proper serious chat like this.”
“You really didn’t think I came here because I liked you?”
“No. No, I didn’t,” she says with a sigh, rolling onto her side. “I thought you were pitying me, and I…” She grumbles to herself for a moment before finishing her sentence. “...care about you. But I wanted to make sure my selfish choices weren’t hurting your chances at a happy life.”
“I am happy.” The redhead matches her position to keep the eye contact level, the cool marble comforting against her warm cheek. Though… a part of her simply doesn’t want this conversation to end. Maybe if she keeps watching, keeps talking, keeps her hands away, then she can stay by Eleanor’s side forever.
One nagging thought keeps drifting through her mind.
If you continued living, do you think you could’ve fallen in love with me as I so foolishly have with you?
The unspoken words hurt more than watching her fall into an eternal slumber.
No… most likely not.
Her hand drifts closer, and soon, their fingers are mere centimeters apart.
Emerald eyes stay locked on amber irises, and Eleanor wonders, briefly, how warm that bracer-covered hand would be if she laced their fingers together. Or how soft the touch of her lips would be. Or how wonderful she would feel, wrapped in a tight, loving embrace. How much love could she feel protected by those powerful bloodstained arms?
“Go get some sleep,” she finally says, bursting into laughter. “You look like hell.”
Eleanor starts laughing with her, shaking her head. “I’m afraid I’ll need to make a headstart on my journey back to Loegres. But please do not fret so much. I took a nap earlier.”
“Eh, you’re always pushing yourself too hard.”
“I just want to better the world you loved so much.”
A grunt, then a scoff, then a roll of the eyes. “Quit making me sound so noble.”
“Even if the world hates you, I never will.”
She’s smiling though, and that’s enough for Eleanor.
The dragon stirs, his quiet, childish voice rumbling in his chest. “Eleanor? Who are you talking to?”
The redhead laughs as she sits up, glancing at the Empyrean. She smiles as Maotelus rubs at his eyes. Her gaze returns to her left, but she’s already gone.
She can feel her smile falter as searing loneliness squeezes her heart.
“Oh… I thought you were. Guess I’m still a little sleepy,” he says with a snort. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry! I was just thinking out loud.” She hops to her feet and starts gathering her things, though she doesn’t have much. Other than her spear, she carries all the necessities in a small backpack. “Nonetheless, I should head out. I still have much work to attend to.”
“You’re sure you don’t need more rest?”
Eleanor chuckles. “I think I’ve been resting enough, so I will head out before the temptation to laze around strikes again.”
“Ah, ever prudent,” Maotelus hums. “See you next time, Shepherd Eleanor.”
“Maotelus! No need for the formalities.”
“Hehe, it just sounds fitting though!” Maotelus smiles, in that weird dragon way. Sometimes Eleanor forgets he’s still a child. “Take care.”
“Thank you! Goodbye!” Eleanor exclaims, dashing down the steps of the Empyrean’s Throne.
How many times has she made this journey by herself? Surely too many to count.
“Oh, yeah... see you later,” she murmurs, wishing that strong-hearted, beautiful woman could hear her.
But she can’t.
She’s been gone for a long time.
Eleanor comes to the Empyrean’s Throne to have those secret conversations, the ones where they talk for hours at a time without saying anything at all. She talks to the wind and pretends that it responds. She’d wonder, stupidly, if their conversations could be real, that she could stroke her soft cheek, touch her gentle lips, inhale the woody scent of her hair, and pull her close, and she wouldn’t disappear the moment her fingers made contact.
Tears well in her eyes, and she feels her heart tighten again.
The sun continues to rise across the plains and hills, casting a gentle light over the steps of the Empyrean’s Throne.
The day will continue marching onward, even if Eleanor isn’t ready to follow.
She begins to wipe her eyes but freezes as a pair of warm, familiar arms snake around her waist. Eleanor glances down, seeing a bracer-covered hand lock around a bandaged arm as she’s pulled into the embrace. Her back presses against soft flesh, and she lets out a quiet yelp. A gentle breath caresses the shell of her ear, causing a shiver to run up the redhead’s spine. She smells like beautiful forests and dewy grass during the early foggy morning, a stark contrast to the cold, scentless marble around them. Eleanor’s so comfortably wrapped in love and care and sinks into her touch a little, shoulders relaxing.
“I guess you’re right. Some things never change.”
That low, gentle rumble is clear… clearer than she’s ever heard before.
“You’re still a crybaby.”
Eleanor wants to look up, to see the raven-haired woman’s beautiful face, to lean into her loving touch, to explore her soft skin, to stare into those piercing amber eyes, to make her heart pound as painfully as hers is, to kiss her rosy red lips, to tell her that she loves her, and yet…
She starts laughing, the tears flowing freely down her cheeks.
“You… You selfish, stubborn daemon!”
Her laughter is joined by a quieter one, and Eleanor feels a little calmer as the sound reverberates in her ear.
“Thank you, Velvet.”
She snorts, the warm air gently blowing over her temple. Those lips - the ones that Eleanor had been yearning to taste - press against her cartilage, and her grip tightens on the exorcist’s waist, leaving her breathless as she’s pulled in even closer.
“Come back soon.”
Eleanor stares ahead at the sun glowing in the distance, never looking back.
“I will. I promise.”