"Are you... leaving?" Your voice is hollow and silent fear punctuates each syllable. "Do you really... mean to leave the Band of the Hawk?"
Rimy wind laps at your hair and your sword feels heavy at your side. Guts won't look at you, his gaze cast downward in shame. Or is he just too disgusted by you to even meet your eyes? His words - spoken only a month ago, with the flames of the queen's tomb ablaze burning against the insides of your eyelids and his hand on your shoulder, warm and solid, telling you that if it were for the sake of your dream, nothing you do could be cruel - betray their true meaning now. They were not meant to reassure, but to convey the loathing Guts held toward the assassinations, the subterfuge, the sordid schemes he was involved in by virtue of his closeness to you. Perhaps that's why he could never stand to dirty his hands voluntarily - he had to be ordered, instead. Foolish, to think he would have done any of it for your sake. You should have known better.
There were times when you came close to telling him how you feel - kneeling next to his fragmented body, stained with the viscera of a hundred men, or leaned up against the stone railing of the castle, face in your palms as you said that for him, you'd risk your life over and over. But whenever you thought to describe the gnarled snag of emotions that stirred in your chest at the sight of him, those things you were terrified to admit sliced up your lips and the insides of your cheeks and filled your mouth with blood.
“I’m sorry,” Guts replies, and if you were any dumber you might believe him. He won’t even dignify you with an explanation. If he’s trying to spare your feelings, he must find you pathetic - or dread you. You imagine contempt in his eyes and the scars where once you’d dug your nails into skin like a desperate animal trying to escape your own guilt begin to sting.
“I once said you are mine,” he still is, and always will be, because you’ll never let him leave you, “I used this,” your fingers nearly shake as you unsheathe your blade, the tip pointed toward Guts’ throat, “and won you. Your sword and your death belong to me. If you want to leave… you must win your freedom, like last time.”
He’d been the only person to ever refuse you, throwing himself from battlefield to battlefield, no purpose other than those evanescent rushes of danger to give his life meaning. From the moment you first saw him you were filled with restless longing. With your sword, you'd won him, and he's been yours ever since, but not in the way you wanted. Never in the way you wanted.
“Guess we can’t just smile and say ‘take care’?”
Your eyes narrow, but his remain infuriatingly calm. The fact that you can’t see hesitation in his movements tells you that this is his will, not a fluke or a test. Does he really want to leave you this badly? How long has he been planning to slip out of your grasp, to abandon you? Who would you have if you lost him? Charlotte? Casca? They're not the same, poor substitutes for what you truly need. You'd cast them aside in an instant if it meant you could have him.
This is not the same as that day three years ago. He’s stronger now, surer, and the weight of his sword could snap yours in half with a single swing. Your opportunity lies in the first move; there’s no way you’ll be able to hold your own against him after that. You’ll slice deep into the socket of his arm, incapacitate him, then return to the barracks with him in hand and forget this ever happened.
But… the force of his sword may interrupt your course, causing your blade to slip, splaying his skull into ribbons over the unsullied graupel.
It doesn’t matter.
You have to do it. There’s no other way. You’ll tighten your grip on him, even if it makes him hate you, even if it hurts, even if it kills him, as long as it stops him from leaving. He’ll die a Hawk, and your face will be the last thing he sees, your voice will be the last thing he hears. In death, you’ll have him, and he will be yours forever.
Your dream settles away from you like the dust picked up by Zodd's ophidian wings, like the bodies of broken, dying men carried on stretchers off the battlefield. You're so close, all you've sacrificed to get here from where you once were, tripping over cobblestones below the sun-kissed castle walls, and yet.... it fades into nothing if Guts isn't at your side.
You want to be king.
You want Guts more.
Your eyes widen as the broad blade of his sword swings, whistling through the air while your body tenses under a phantom impact, lithe sabre snapped in two as easily as a string held taut. You wish he’d hurt you, give you one more thing to hate him for. At least a scar was easier to reconcile than this invisible blow to your pride, the transcendental splintering of your ill-preserved convictions. If Guts cares, he doesn’t show it.
A shuddering breath escapes your lips of its own accord. You’ve always lived ten steps ahead of everyone, how has Guts managed to evade you? Did you underestimate him? Or were you blindsided by the expectation that he saw himself in your future?
You want to grab hold of Guts, beg him to stay, but you can't will yourself to move. The sound of snow crunching under boots grows distant behind you.
You're paralyzed, on your knees, ice melting through the thick fabric of your breeches. The cold seeps into your bones and, unlike Guts, it never leaves.