Guts awakes to the smell of salt and butter. It’s early, and the mist creeping through the slit where Griffith enters his tent, a tray in hand, licks at the foot of Guts’ bed.
“How did you sleep?” Griffith asks as he puts the food down. Guts grunts in reply; he’s never been much of a morning person.
Clouds of cream billow through the coffee, curling in on itself, like little drops of blood suspended in water. The steam hits Guts’ face as Griffith pushes the cup toward him, eyes not breaking from his task of setting up the table. Guts’ helping is stacked high with meat and jam and cheese and fried tomatoes and eggs and pickles and toast, all foods classically reserved for the nobility. Perhaps Griffith spoils Guts, but he likes to know Guts is well-fed and taken care of - nothing fills Griffith up the way watching Guts eat does.
Griffith plucks a thick strip of ptarmigan and holds it up, bait on the fisherman’s line, watching as Guts takes it between his teeth and it disappears behind his incisors.
“You know, I’ve heard that fingers can be bitten in half just as easily as a carrot,” Griffith remarks, cheek resting against his palm.
“Wouldn’t be surprised,” Guts replies, shovelling in a mouthful of gruyere, “when I was a kid I saw someone rip another guy’s throat out with his teeth. Looked more like an animal than a person by the time he was through with ‘em - part of the windpipe was still hanging from his mouth, like a link of sausage.”
Hearing of Guts’ past made something ugly twist in Griffith’s chest. The time before Guts’ was his and now aren’t even comparable, they’re two separate periods, barely existing in the same universe.
Griffith hums, then drives the tongs of his fork into the eggs soft belly, yellow oozing from the twin sets of puncture marks. The yolk dribbles down the slices of bread, cutting through the sheen of grease atop the bacon and forming a thick puddle at the plate’s lip.
“He must have been desperate, to kill someone in such a way.”
Guts shakes his head, “Nah. As far as I remember, they were fighting over a game of cards.”
Griffith is quiet. His eyes don’t stray from the gnashing of Guts’ jaw.
Griffith dreams of Guts leaving, and he wakes up gasping to fill the hollow ache in his chest where it feels like his lungs have been ripped through his sternum. Sometimes, in these brief moments where he totters the line of consciousness, he feels footsteps crunching through snow and a sword swinging towards him and the broad span of Guts’ back blotting out the rising sun, and tears prickle at the corners of his eyes.
He rolls over and tries to ignore the ceiling gaping open above, an aching black chasm yawning, watching him like the all-seeing eye of a god.
Veins stick out of Guts’ arms like unspooled thread, and Griffith can feel Guts’ pulse through their joined fingers.
“Do you remember the first time we held hands?” he asks, bending Guts’ thumb at the knuckle, running the blunt edge of his nail over the lines in Guts’ palm.
“Uh… don’t think so.”
“It was the night we raided that camp, after I won you. You took up the rear and I came back to get you, then rode us both through the trees and away.”
Guts whistles, “feels like a hundred years ago - but it’s only been three, hasn’t it?”
Time hardly even registers with Griffith any longer. For him the days are measured by the next battle, the next meeting with the king, the next war. It’s been so long since he’s slept a full night through. He nods. “Do you remember what I told you then?”
Guts’ eyebrows furrow, wracking his memory.
“I told you not to talk. I told you not to open your mouth, or else you’d bite your tongue.” Griffith squeezes Guts’ hand and wonders at how warm Guts always feels.
“Honestly, I thought you were gonna cut my tongue out when we fought. When I bit down on your sword, I wasn’t concerned with anything but winning, but later I realized how easy it would’ve been. If you moved that blade even an inch it could’ve sliced me right open,” Guts says, looking away from him.
“I’d never do that to you.” Griffith nuzzles his face into Guts’ shoulder, “I can’t imagine anything worse, really, than having my tongue cut out.” He shivers as the space around his gums suddenly feels empty, a phantom memory of loss there that made his vision blur and slats of pain shoot through his head, like he’s remembering something he isn’t supposed to.
Guts coils a little white curl around his forefinger, smiling halfheartedly in that way he always does when he can tell Griffith’s tense. There’s a tug in Griffith’s stomach, nervous and desperate, and he doesn’t know why, but he thinks again of Guts leaving him.
Griffith lifts Guts’ hand from his hair to his lips, kissing his fingertips, and then closes his eyes as he takes Guts’ third finger into his mouth, all the way down to the proximal phalanx, and sinks his teeth in. Guts jolts and when Griffith pulls away already a mottled bruise is beginning to form there in a full circle, almost like a ring.
The back of Guts’ neck fills Griffith’s vision when he jolts out of sleep. There’s only starlight to guide him but Griffith swears he sees a shape carved into the skin there - a figure-eight with a hand reaching up through the centre, fingers spread, clutching for purchase in unforgiving nothingness.
Griffith blinks, and it disappears. Bile rises in his throat and Guts doesn’t stir as he stumbles away from bed and retches into the grass.
When they have breakfast together now, Griffith piles all the food on Guts’ plate and observes quietly as Guts eats. There are violet half-moons under his eyes and his cheekbones protrude just a little more than they used to, but he still smiles as Guts scrapes the honey from the milk of his porridge.
Having Guts at his side alleviates the malaise that hangs over Griffith. If Guts notices the way Griffith clings to him tighter than before, he doesn’t mention it, yet Griffith knows Guts stares at him when he thinks Griffith can’t see, and he knows that if he were to turn, he’d see worry in Guts’ eyes.
“Want some?” Guts offers a piece of ham skewered on his fork, and Griffith takes it like a baby bird, just because Guts asked. Each bite is tasteless and heavy in Griffith’s mouth. He grinds it into a thin paste with his molars so it doesn’t stick to the lump in his throat on the way down.
Guts' head is resting on his stomach and Griffith listens to the slow pattern of Guts' breathing as his thumbs stroke Guts’ cheekbones.
“Have you ever thought about leaving? About doing something else?” Griffith asks, voice quiet. He watches Guts’ face, as though he might catch Guts in a lie, but Guts doesn’t look guilty - only confused.
“Why would I wanna leave? My life’s the best it’s ever been. And it’s not like you’re gonna be ready to abandon your dream here anytime soon, right?”
Griffith breathes, then nods, then shoves his face into Guts’ neck. The illusion of peace doesn’t last long before he’s reminded of that brand, bloody and raw, with the hand reaching toward him.
Nothing feels right anymore. There’s something wrong with him, he knows it, and it rots in his brain and leaks into his dreams and he fears for the day even Guts can’t quiet it, because he knows that day is coming.
His teeth scrape over Guts’ jugular, and Guts’ fingers twist into the fabric of Griffith’s shirt. Distress drowns Griffith and yanks him under, sending him clawing at Guts’ chest, kissing the length of his mandible, dark bruises flowering where his lips and canines meet Guts’ skin.
Guts snores against him, the marks Griffith bit into him already fading. The bonfires of the Band are fading, too, slowly consumed by their own ashes, but through the canvas walls of the tent, they look more like smudges of carmine. From here, it was as if each flame were a person dancing on its last legs, as if each flame were a part of the Band, struggling to stay so that Griffith could watch them as he pretends to sleep.
All those lives flicker and dim before him. Guts’ is the only one that matters.