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bête noire

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Velvet bolted upright. There was some strain in her muscles as she shook, sitting and blinking, trying to locate her fists and whether they’d connected with anything.

Had she screamed? Perhaps not, as her throat wasn’t the raw kind of dry. It was never the ones she thought were screaming ones. Waking up in general felt like a small scream that buzzed along in her head throughout the day. But then, at least she had control, which was a luxury not afforded to the sleeping realm.

Nightmare after nightmare, night after night. No end in sight.

She sat in silence. The nights without the sway of the ship to guide her were the roughest, and she rocked herself gently, like an echo. Magilou was safe this time, it seemed, as she slept soundly in the other bed. No throat-grabbing. No screaming. No incidents.

The issue became falling back asleep. Velvet could tell her eyes had picked up some fatigue, not feeling any relief when she closed them.

She wondered if there were an easy way to escape the Titania of the mind, the nightmares and embarrassing, idiotic shouting. If she could stay up forever, that’d be nice, but daemons weren’t blessed with the power of never sleeping. She’d tire and fall to some foe before they made it to Artorius. But if she kept waking up shaking like this, her body just as tired as when she’d begun to sleep, it would be just as bad.

She remembered that the Abbey had some strange training rituals when it came to preparation for battle. Hadn’t Arth—Artorius mentioned sleeping in short intervals to prevent wasting time? Surely, he kept his schedule. Surely, he didn’t waste this much time sleeping.

Velvet glanced back to Magilou, who murmured something about a see-through refrigerator as she turned on her side. There was still no way she’d be able to drag a human around like that, even if she was a witch. Eizen and Laphicet were malakhim, so they could do it. No word on how Rokurou would hold up other than that he kept pace in Northgand when she steamrolled forward.

Not-sleeping sounded better and better. She could handle this moonlight seeping in through the curtain’s edges. She could sit with her breath and be comfortable without succumbing to sleep. She could train herself to sleep in shorter bursts. She would train herself to sleep in shorter bursts. Ten minutes to an hour asleep. Maybe that would suffice.

She tried drifting off, but couldn’t quite sleep, and when enough time had passed, she resolved to stay awake for the rest of the hour. It wasn’t difficult to see or hear the clock through the dark space.

Tick. She counted. She waited. Then, she tried again.

The night passed with little success, but it was a trial run and her body would eventually get used to it. It had to.

-

“Pathetic…”

The gel went down, if barely. What she lacked in sensing taste was balanced with texture, and she'd never cared for the way gels rolled like rubber on her tongue.

Laphicet had been overstretched with his artes and it was impossible to catch up with her rage when she locked herself into it. Now, Velvet found herself disappointed for not warning him; that she hadn't noticed how bad she’d gotten until she was down. If it hadn't been the end of the battle, who knows when they would have noticed.

When Velvet opened her eyes, Rokurou was wiping off the edges of his blades beside the enemy that knocked her over: a giant hawk. She paused, shook her head, and hoisted herself up with a hand and some counterbalance on her outstretched leg. Enough distractions.

“Velvet, are you okay?” Laphicet shouted as he trotted toward her.

“I'm fine,” she said sharply.

“I didn't realize you were expending so much of your energy.”

“It's not your fault,” Velvet reiterated. “Keep moving.”

“O-okay.”

Eizen rejoined their grouping and glanced sidelong at Velvet, his dour expression tinged with something more unpleasant.

“At least you're right, Velvet,” Eizen barked. “It's not his fault. You were tired and off your guard.”

“I wasn't—I wasn't tired.”

“Dear me!” Magilou sang, strolling beside Velvet as they resumed the path. “If I didn't know better, I'd say you didn't sleep a wink!”

Velvet scowled. “And how would you know better? You passed out five minutes after we closed the door and were an hour late to breakfast.”

“Some things a witch just knows,” Magilou clicked her tongue.

Know how to shut your damn mouth in your sleep, Velvet nearly said.

They trudged on for a while with Laphicet in the lead. As they neared a hill, Rokurou fell back in step with Velvet.

“How’re you doing back here?” he asked her quietly.

Velvet's mouth formed a tight line and she kept staring forward at the gravel.

“Hey, I'll leave you alone if you want. You just do actually seem tired and, y'know, can't have you falling over without anyone noticing,” Rokurou rambled.

“You know what it's like not to sleep,” Velvet said.

“Not really. Not since I became a daemon, anyway.”

Velvet sighed and attempted to ignore him.

“What I mean is… you remember early on, when you had that bad dream after you took Dyle’s tail?”

Rokurou's voice was soft and cautious, the same way it had been since he learned to tread carefully with his questions. This one caught her especially off guard. The incident the other day, that was where she… at Laphicet. He didn't mean that one.

She glanced over at him with a biting, “What about it?”

“You don't sleep well, do you? --I mean, I'm assuming,” he replied.

“I don't remember the last time I really slept.”

She did, of course. Not the few hours here and there, but really, in-a-bed slept; it was when Laphi asked to stay with her. That terrible night. Had she but known.

“Well, exactly. But I noticed you've been on edge, like, irritable.”

“Hm.” Mind-reader, that one.

“So, ah… you know you can’t not sleep, right?”

She spun toward him. “I don’t need to be coddled or chastised.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Rokurou eased. “I was gonna say, because you’re worried about causing your roommates harm in your sleep, you might consider letting me watch over you for a night.”

Velvet stomped forward. “I don’t see how that’s different from coddling.”

“Look, you’re a daemon. Not that it would happen, but there’s that whole malevolence thing we got going on, and if you happened to get a hold of Laphicet for too long… I worry you wouldn’t forgive yourself. But Eizen’s a malak too, and Magilou’s human… ish… What I’m saying is, if you’re staying up to try and protect them from getting in the way, I’d be a decent buffer,” he explained. He waited a moment before adding, “Plus, y’know, I’m indebted to you, and if this could help repay it…”

“Oh, enough with the damn debt, already!” Velvet shouted. She ploughed past him.

He wasn’t technically wrong. It would be the safest for another daemon to stop her if things got really out of control in her sleep. All the same, she couldn’t shake feeling like there was no way she’d ask that of anyone, much less him. He didn’t owe that kind of debt. No part of what she bestowed by telling him she’d seen his unwieldy sword involved his obligation to hold her back if she swiped in her sleep.

“Open offer!” he called.

She pretended not to hear it.

-

Laphi.

Laphi slipping off the blade that impaled him, running into the pit, and the pain of the restraints as she wrestled against them. She ran, her muscles barely registering the ground’s resistance, to the edge of the opening in the earth. She jumped. She caught his arm.

But when she looked down, it wasn’t Laphi, but Laphicet, who stole the compass, the Laphicet with green eyes; when she looked up, her arm was already a claw and it scraped down the edge of a stony cliff. She looked down and the kid had morphed into Seres’s face with the kid’s body. She looked up and blood rained down from a vast mouth on the other side of the prison cell bars.

THWACK.

Her body bolted upright and her hand fell before her, and it stung a little. She was standing somewhere in the middle of the floor and opened her eyes to a body crumpled against the wall.

It was Magilou, who let out a ragged cough. Disturbing though it was, at least it meant she was alive. Velvet reexamined her arm to see if the daemon hand had activated, but there were no signs one way or the other. She hadn’t devoured Magilou, but had she been trying to?

“Well, that sure was a—wake-up call,” Magilou sputtered.

Velvet backed up and hit the edge of the bedframe, stumbling then catching herself. Magilou’s blonde hair picked up too much of the light in the darkness.

“I didn’t—…”

The sound of Magilou’s body having hit the wall must have woken up someone. The innkeeper would know, wouldn’t she? They’d know something terrible happened. What if next time she got further than the door that kept her in this space with Magilou? What if Laphicet wandered in, and she...

“I’m… going to go for a walk.”

Without stopping for her shoes, Velvet stormed through the door and vanished into the hallway, leaving the door open. Though her body marched on, her mind jumbled. She’d remind herself to check on Magilou later, or not.

A few doors down, not the connected wall or the one after that, Velvet found herself trying the handle. It wasn’t locked; unsuspicious since the drunks, Eizen and Rokurou, often stumbled to their quarters without locking themselves in. And a good way to check they were, in fact, inside. Of course, Velvet wasn’t looking for Eizen’s admonishment.

She cracked the door and shielded the hall light with her shadow as she slipped inside.

The far bed hosted the one who slept without blankets—that is, Eizen, who once complained that he’d never gotten used to that human comfort. It was a wonder he didn’t rest with his eyes open, but he may have learned that etiquette somewhere in the past thousand years.

That left the other, nearer bed to be Rokurou’s, and he might have awoken at the noise from earlier. With his head mostly under the cover, only his arm’s frantic searching gave him away. Velvet looked at the blades that lay about two inches out of his reach. If he’d really thought she were a threat, surely he would have grabbed them.

“I thought daemons didn’t feel cold,” she announced.

He peered out from his blanket.

“Velvet…?”

“You know why I’m here.”

“I do,” he replied, in a pitiable sleepy non-whisper.

Velvet followed his voice and strode to the bed, where she flipped up the far corner of the blanket. She held it aloft for a moment.

“You’ll sleep facing the door and stop anyone from entering,” she instructed. “Or me from getting through.”

“Nnnkay.”

Rokurou’s arm still dangled off the bed, so she moved into the wide space he wasn’t using, settling as close to the edge as possible.

She felt childish. Having been the one Laphi had gone to when he’d been afraid, she associated it with weakness, of needing comfort. Foolish, as she knew she'd never feel comforted by any such effort. She wasn’t sure if this was even the right thing to do, leaving a possibly-injured Magilou in order to attempt the opposite of her no-sleep regime. But she wouldn't go back to that room tonight.

She pulled the covers up to her shoulder, hoping the slight tug of resistance from Rokurou’s side of the blanket was the only battle she’d have to fight the rest of the night.

Slowly, and by some miracle despite the awkwardness of her position, she found her eyes closing.

-

Nothingness.

She didn’t dream, but the nightmare didn’t follow her as much as she had suspected, either.

She roused to the light of the sun through the windows and with her nose buried in hair. But her arm, her human arm was wrapped against Rokurou’s back as though she’d reached out for him, and her body had moved from the far edge to somewhere in the middle. She could feel the weight of most of the blanket on her body. At least he seemed not to notice she’d stolen that, along with his bedspace; or if he had, wasn’t perturbed. Even though he should have been. She wanted to fall back asleep and wake by herself in her other bed. If she dared to think his company felt nice, that'd be her undoing, all her focus too scattered to fight her enemy.

It was a fluke.

Rokurou’s chest rose in a sudden, loud inhale and she was shocked to realize that he must have been awake, too. Instantly, she took her arm away from his back and tried not to make obvious movements as she inched away from him.

“You’re awake,” she heard him say to the opposite wall. She wondered if Eizen was still in the bed.

Velvet turned again and sat directly up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed, where even the air felt more comfortable than facing the entanglement she’d caused in her sleep.

“No use stalling,” she replied. She glanced over at Eizen’s bed only to find nothing there, and hoped Rokurou wouldn’t notice and make her feel foolish for sharing his space.

“Hey, wait,” Rokurou pleaded. He rolled onto his back and looked up at her, the charm of his having not changed into nightclothes reinforcing his oddness. “You slept, didn’t you?”

She stared at the wall. “Some.” With his eyes still on her, she felt too self-conscious to rise out of the bed.

“Hey, I’m glad. You gotta get your sleep after a night like that.”

She looked back at him. “If you say, ‘I told you so…’”

“Wasn’t planning on it,” he replied, matter-of-fact. “I just thought maybe it wasn’t a horrible suggestion after all.”

She felt her face get… panicked. Like prickles rushing too much into the center of her cheeks.

“Until I hurt you, too,” she muttered, and fled to her feet. 

“Uh, excuse you, did you see these?” he bellowed, producing the two short swords that had been at the side of the bed before. “You’re not gonna hurt me.”

She rolled her eyes lightly. “Fine, then. But I’m not thanking you, since you literally did nothing. You didn’t even attack me when I first came in.”

He whipped the blades onto the night stand. “That’s ‘cause I knew it was you. Daemon senses and all.”

Velvet hummed lightly in reply as she headed for the door. “You sure are something.”

“I’m just me, c’mon. But if you wanna try that again, offer’s still open,” Rokurou said.

She turned to look at him one last time before leaving, finding he was grinning back. “We’ll let the damage I did to Magilou decide.”

“Oh! Yeah, tell her I say rest in peace. It’s the least I can do,” he called.

Rest in peace, Velvet repeated to herself. Maybe she would.