Rokurou wondered if it was his destiny to forever be in the company of strong-willed women. From the woman who had birthed him to the women he had traveled with, and ultimately to the young woman who would undoubtedly witness his end, he had always somehow been at their mercy. Whether it was because of their power, their stubbornness, or their steadfastness, he thought, this time would be no different.
He wasn’t sure why his feet had brought him here, to this spiky mountain. Perhaps he had heard something about it on his many travels, when too-loud caravans camped by where he was sleeping for the night. But there had been something about it that felt familiar, and that feeling had only grown with each slow, labored step he had taken to climb it.
Now, as he gazed at the girl spinning a lace parasol on her shoulder, he finally had the faintest inkling as to why. “Your kind aren’t allowed here,” she told him, regarding him with blue eyes that were brighter than he remembered. “Leave, before I blast you off this mountain.” She stood quite a distance away, which would’ve been understandable had there not been a tiny normin dangling from one of the ribs on her parasol, but he supposed she didn’t understand the power that it held.
Well, not that he was surprised. That pale excuse for a pirate was never good at communicating honestly with her anyway.
He must’ve taken too long to respond because the expression on the malakhim’s face darkened into something a little more familiar.
“Ah, don’t worry. I’ll be gone before you know it,” Rokurou said, raising a hand placatingly. “Just wanted to rest up for a few moments.”
Her gaze flickered over him before lingering on his midsection. “You’re contaminating my mountain,” she said flatly.
He blinked lazily at her. “Is that so?” he asked, even though he could feel the sticky heat dripping down his waist and pooling around his rear. “I’m sure it’ll get purified in a little bit,” he said as he felt a breeze wrap gently around his fingers. He dropped his hand back onto his lap and inhaled deeply. “It feels like there’s fresh wind coming.”
The young woman stiffened at his words and an eerily nostalgic scowl flashed over her features.
Rokurou felt the corners of his lips lift without his permission and he shook his head with amusement. He’d laugh if he could, but somehow it felt like it’d drain him too much if he did. “Well, if it makes you feel better, he’s probably going to be too preoccupied with cleaning me up to come and bother you,” he reasoned. He paused and blinked up at the jagged crag at the very top of the mountain. “But now that I think about it, I can’t imagine the air here is very comfortable for a malakhim like yourself.” It was oddly stuffy for even a daemon like him, so it was strange that she could look so unaffected.
Her shoulders relaxed and for reasons that were beyond his comprehension, she seemed to look at him with a little less animosity than before. “We aren’t called that anymore,” she said.
“Is that so? Now that I think about it, I think I heard some shady-looking priest say something about the ‘blessings of the seraphim’ or some other rabble a year ago.” He frowned as he wracked his memory for details. “Or was that a decade ago? A century?”
The seraphim stared at him. “You’re very talkative for a hellion,” she observed.
“Is that what they’re calling us these days? I liked it better when they called us daemons,” Rokurou chuckled. He quirked his eyebrows at her. “You’re very calm for a seraphim,” he shot back. “Most of your kind would be screaming at me to scram by now. Say I’m contaminating your air by breathing or something.”
“I did tell you to scram,” she said, rolling her eyes. “And you are contaminating my air.”
He grinned at her. “And your mountain?”
She shot him an unimpressed look. “And my mountain.”
“But you don’t seem like you’re in a rush to shoo me off?”
Her eyes fell back to his midsection. “Doesn’t seem long before you’ll go.”
For some inexplicable reason, her words put him completely at ease. “He wasn’t kidding when he said you were a smart one,” he mused under his breath.
Her blue gaze shot up to meet his. “Did you say something?”
“What’s a fragile thing like you doing on such a ragged mountain?” he asked. “The malevolence here is thick enough to choke a human.”
Her fingers tightened around the handle of her parasol. “I chose to live here,” she gritted out.
You sure someone didn’t just leave you here? Rokurou thought. Far away from humans, far away from demons, far away from everything…He took in the sight of her: her oversized boots, the too-loose glove on her right hand, the familiar-looking pendant looped around her neck. Did he ever come back for you?
“I really am cursed,” he laughed instead. He could feel her eyes boring into him, but he didn’t feel particularly bothered to explain. Rokurou raised his head to look at her head-on. “Say,” he started, “does it ever feel exhausting to walk around with the world on your shoulders?”
She looked stunned for a brief moment before her eyes narrowed. “You—”
“I’m asking for a friend,” he said, cutting her off. “You see, there was this woman I knew—pain in the ass, don’t ask—and she always acted like the world was going to end if she ever let her mask slip. She got better about it toward the end, but she never really changed, you know? She just up and left on her own.”
To his surprise, the seraphim didn’t turn her nose up or roll her eyes at him. Instead, she regarded him with mild curiosity. “Was it exhausting to be with her?” she asked, choosing her words cautiously.
Rokurou thought of gold eyes and unflinching stares, of raw grief and cold masks of self-restraint. The way she stared up at him like he was an enigma, when both of them knew that word fit her best. The way she let her shoulders fall when she thought no one was watching, the way her face clouded over as she stood in the ruins of her childhood village.
He thought of long hair that always smelled faintly of princessias and the way he had imagined it would glide through his fingers like black silk. The fantasy of her hard body softening in his hands, of the clink of her gauntlet as it joined his daggers in a heap by the bed, of the quiet unraveling of bandages so no inch of skin would go neglected between them.
He thought of how she had leaned into him the night before they charged up the steps of Artorius’s throne, the faintest weight of her shoulder against his, the lightest press of her bandaged fingers against the rough palm of his hand. Her quiet, “Thank you,” which had encompassed so much more than what two words could ever think to carry.
Thank you for never questioning my motives. Thank you for fighting by my side. Thank you for being there for Laphicet, for Eleanor, for Eizen. Thank you for staying the same throughout our journey.
Thank you for coming with me. Thank you for saying that all this was for you instead.
These days, he couldn’t help but wonder if she had understood the way he looked at her towards the end of their journey. If in her “thank you”, she had been speaking about his love for her as well.
Or perhaps he’d been overthinking it and all she had really meant was “thank you for understanding”, “thank you for letting me be selfish until the end” …or simply, “thank you for letting me go.”
Ah, she was so unfair.
“Exhausting is an understatement,” Rokurou told the seraphim. He felt like a ship at the bottom of an ocean, water-logged and immobile. Distantly, he wondered if Eizen have scowled at his comparison (“As if you could ever be a vessel carrying valuables,” the malak would’ve argued) and chuckled quietly to himself. “Well, I would say ‘was’, but I have a feeling I’ll be going back to her soon.”
Her eyebrows furrowed slightly. “Because you’re dying?”
“She, who consumes malevolence,” Rokurou sighed as he felt the last of his strength trickle from his limbs, “will always have demons drawn to her. At least, that's how it was when we journeyed together. Somehow I can’t shake the feeling that it’ll still happen, even if she isn’t awake to realize it. This time, she might just draw me in too.” He let his eyes slip shut and leaned back to rest his head against the hard, unforgiving mountain behind him with a humorless smile. “Even in death, I can’t get away.”
He heard the crunch of a loose rock digging into packed soil as the seraphim— “Edna,” he heard his memory of Eizen say—took a step closer. “Do you want to get away?” she asked.
It was getting hard to breathe, Rokurou thought. But somehow, it didn’t hurt. He just felt like he could sleep for a thousand years. “What do you think?” he whispered, his voice barely audible, even to his own ears.
The rasp of thick-soled boots shifting over dusty ground accompanied her answer: “You don’t look all that reluctant to go.”
His next breath felt like it could be his last. He might as well use it wisely. “Neither did she.”
As the last of his consciousness faded from him, he thought he heard a dragon roar.