She was as he’d expected she might be, sat on the bed in the dark, curtains drawn so the street lamps of Port Cadnix were soft puffs on the wall.
Her coat was still on. Five, six hours. The sheets of the bed were undisturbed.
He closed the door behind him and worked his sandals off with opposite feet, then set down a glass of water at the bedside. Not that she’d be drinking it. Still, it was the only thing that she would consider since it tasted the same as it ever did: like nothing. If it was the most he could do for her tonight, he was prepared.
His approach didn’t cause her to stir. When he pressed his hand to her shoulder, she took a slow breath. It was enough acknowledgement that he knew he could slip his arms around her, unfasten the buckle, and slough the coat from her shoulders. He could have tossed it to the floor, but he collected it and moved it to the desk on the other side of the room. With it, he left the remainder of his armored outer layer.
If he’d seen it sooner, he might have realized, but only now did the mist of malevolence over her catch his eye.
That’s right. If she’d carried the kid from the Van Eltia to the inn, he would have been afflicted no matter how she tried to avoid it; best that he was with his vessel now and that Velvet was here. As he looked at her, he felt he was watching her inside that cell.
He shuffled back and sat on the edge of the bed behind her.
He’d taken to a routine of checking on her since the morning she’d lunged at Laphicet. Only a daemon could absorb another daemon’s malevolence without being harmed. It was an offer bolstered by the debt excuse that Velvet accepted somewhat begrudgingly, but it was one that he honored every night since then. It mostly entailed waking up in the middle of the night to ensure she had, in fact, fallen asleep. More than a few times, she requested he guard her bed and he woke up to her arms outstretched, reaching for some escape as she slept through dreams he couldn't imagine. Some nights it meant retreating to another room and leaving her alone altogether. Those had been happening more often, but he wouldn’t break this little normalcy after what had happened.
If she didn't want his company, she'd say something now. He waited. When she didn't stir, he replaced his hand on her bare shoulder.
The sound of her hair shifting as she turned her head a few degrees caught his ear first.
Hard to tell, but he could be certain she wasn't in a trance again, that waking nightmare state. If she were, the claw might have come out when he helped her with the coat.
Her flesh under his palm had seemed fragile until he gripped her shoulder wider, as if he could steady her. If she'd bidden him to leave now, at least he could tell she was present. Throw him out but at least he'd know she made it through the worst of the unimaginable.
Velvet wasn't the only one to see a dead Velvet that day, after all.
She wasn't the only one to see her family betray her, either. Everyone except for Magilou had stood there and watched the memories in the earthpulse. Then, as Velvet struggled, they watched her almost give up. The rest of the day demanded batting away various unexpected enemies from all sides, through which she emerged without showing more than an edge of weakness.
The night changed her. Rokurou wouldn't guess at what she felt, as sometimes it was anger more than sadness and guessing what she needed to hear wouldn’t help. Yet, she didn't refuse him at his knock or even now as he held her with that selfish advance of his hand to her shoulder, the tethering point of their meeting.
That was just the way she was.
She turned to him suddenly and pressed against his chest. He caught her, tumbled backward with her in his arms, and landed against the mattress. He spared no time in cradling her head as though they’d fallen back from a particularly nasty hit from an enemy.
She laid like a rock, not bothering to adjust her landing with her head on his chest. Her arms curled around him. When he realized his hand was still around her head and tangling in her hair, he removed it as gingerly as he could.
“You okay?” he preempted. But Velvet didn’t so much as mutter a retort.
He felt a tremor creeping through her as she held onto him.
Even if he’d watched her earlier, felt her pain like he’d felt in himself in his former life, he didn’t quite know what to do when he realized she was crying.
“I…” she choked, “didn’t...”
He hesitated before placing his hands on her back. The malevolence burst through her body, up through his arms, and dissipated near the ceiling. That Velvet, infinitely capable of both slaughter and mercy, finally arrived at this struggle didn’t surprise Rokurou, but it definitely stirred something in him. When she was at the end of her rope, it was Laphicet who ultimately held on. Rokurou had given her space instead of what she might have needed. Until this moment, until she clung to his kimono with the chill of darkness spilling out of her, her vulnerability hadn’t occurred to him in the slightest.
Well, maybe if she was leaving her entire right side open in battle. Or the times she almost knocked herself out when the foes kept being drawn in. Those patterns were easy. All he had to do was rush to her side and block the strikes. Or stop Innominat from taking away her chance to defend herself, and break the sword he’d been saving for Shigure.
She was showing her humanlike flexibility, once more a step ahead of him.
He rubbed his hand along her shoulder blade as she sobbed, waiting for her signal to stop him. This closeness was still unprecedented; he’d never smelled her hair before. He was only just beginning to process the privilege.
“Velvet,” he addressed, his voice low. “What do you need?”
Her chest seized as she inhaled. She shook her head and he felt the place where her tears soaked into him.
Rokurou stopped his hand and looked down at her. He knew that, shouldn’t. The vestiges of shame and regret.
“Hey. It’s okay,” he said. “Feel what you feel. It’s okay to just be.”
With her face still buried, she paused and relaxed a bit into him. Her head over his heart, she eventually slowed her breath to match his. The snorts became sniffles, became soft intakes.
Then, she spoke.
Rokurou tilted his head, although she didn’t look up at him.
“All of it… everything. It was… I’m unforgivable.”
She shifted to free her arm and pulled her great braid of hair aside.
Feeling the space freed up, Rokurou resumed gently stroking her back. “Well, we are daemons.”
Finally, she looked up at him. To glare.
A different approach, then. “I mean, you're not wrong. We've done unforgivable things. Does that make us unforgivable peop—?”
“Yes,” Velvet insisted.
He sighed. “If they felt what you felt, they'd probably understand. Thing is, they just can't. They haven't been there. You probably don't want them to be in your place.”
He imagined an older Laphi struggling to avenge his sister—nope, not going down that road. Maybe Shigure’s blade breaking in front of the Abbey… no, he wanted that, actually.
Velvet eased her cheek back to his shirt, where the fabric left a hint of indentation on her skin. He couldn't help but imagine the possibility that she wouldn't have been there had things gone even slightly differently. This feeling almost like warmth, despite the lurid glow of malevolence surrounding her; he'd never have known it.
“Of course, I wouldn't have forgiven you if you'd given up.”
“Right. You have a debt to repay,” she deadpanned.
“Y'know, for once, I wasn't gonna bring it up,” he retorted. “But at least even when you might not have thought you were worth fighting for, I knew you were. Worth fighting alongside. You were then, and you are now.”
He tightened his arms around her.
“Will you… help me sleep?” she asked wearily.
Right; at the rate they’d be traveling, and without a base of operations, she’d likely be sleeping on a speeding ship for a while. He wished the beds at this inn were softer.
Nodding, Rokurou pulled himself from underneath her and grabbed a pillow for her head. He’d wrap the blanket around her, and maybe retrieve the water—
His hand was stopped by her pulling on the bottom of his sleeve.
“Don’t…” she trailed off, flashing her eyes up at him.
When he turned to look at her, she had curled her legs up. If he squinted, he could see the small girl who lost her parents, her sister, her nephew, her brother-in-law, her village, her brother; almost everything, but not that last, important thread of hope.
“What is it?” he asked.
She turned her face toward the mattress. “Don’t… leave.”
“I’m not, not unless you want me to. Let me tuck you in,” he urged. He tugged at the corner of the blanket. “C’mon.”
She sighed with invigorated exasperation, releasing his sleeve from her pinch. “Don’t make me say it.”
Velvet sat up slightly, the malevolence receding to a murmur. She placed her hand beside her where he’d been. “Please?”
“Oh,” he said, realizing her discomfort. “You mean, next to you.”
Had there been more light in the room and had her face not been turned again toward the mattress, he might have seen the flush in her cheeks. The shame hadn’t shaken out of her, although he didn’t quite understand why she’d feel it now. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t been staying with her during the night for a while.
“Okay, but let’s still get you under this blanket. Okay?”
She let him roll back the covers this time, moving only just a little to get herself underneath them. And as promised, Rokurou followed her. Funny, how even if they didn’t need to regulate temperature the same way as humans, both of them preferred sleeping under a blanket.
“Get comfortable,” he advised. She crept closer to him, arms and legs compromising what she might have thought was stealth as she tried to get her head back up on his chest.
He smirked. “Oh, I see, you want me to hold you like before. It’s okay to want to be held, Velvet.”
Velvet grumbled, but didn’t protest when Rokurou shifted until she laid with her head atop his chest and his arms around as much of her as he could manage. Again, she swept her hair to the side, which Rokurou was careful to avoid.
“Yeah,” she said. He stroked her back with his thumb.
“You… want a bedtime story or anything?”
She clutched the fabric directly above his heart. Amazing how it still beat, and how strongly under her hand, despite all the malevolence and daemonhood within him.
“Might as well,” she mumbled.
He wasn’t sure he was prepared for that. He wasn’t exactly versed in the bedtime story canon.
“Okay. So. Once upon a time, there was… a yak,” he led.
“And he met a couple of really nasty daemons. One of those daemons was really bad at sailing. And the other was really mean on the outside, but inside she didn’t know what she was fighting for yet.”
He paused, in case he’d made her upset again. No signs of that.
“But the yak still thought she was pretty cool. Even if she was pretty bad at sailing, too. So they went to find someone to sail their ship…”
“Oh—right, they didn’t have a ship yet—”
“And the yak didn’t go on the ship.”
He groaned in disappointment, despite having had no idea where he would have driven that story. He remained quiet after that, especially when he was sure her breathing had evened out, and watched the malevolence dim, but not dissipate. On this night, he fully expected she might jolt awake again before long. But if they happened, he’d be there. Long before he followed her into the depths of the earthpulse, he knew he’d do whatever it took to see her living the life she wanted. For now, it was a brief moment of hope that she wanted to live this moment curled up with him.
Maybe next time she’d let him build a fort out of the blankets, too.