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“Rokurou!”

Velvet rounded the corner, expecting the exact scene that met her eyes.

Rokurou, half-disrobed, whirled around and shouted as he swung that wooden sword. He always looked so uncharacteristically serious when she happened upon him.

“You told me to remind you to stop at a reasonable hour,” she chided.

A week or so before, Rokurou had slain his target at Mount Killaraus. But rather than resting afterward, Rokurou redoubled his efforts to train, citing time and again that his victory was an uncertain fluke. It made travel difficult when he wouldn't rest. She couldn't afford his carelessness leading up to the final battle with Artorius. After all, what was an indebted soldier for?

“Hey, Velvet,” he called back, facing her with a grin he reserved for greeting her. Sweat glinted off the exposed part of his brow, where his bangs didn't shield his eye. Seeing him exposed and in his element like this was a welcome sight. She couldn't complain. She might pretend to.

“You need sleep.”

She rested her hand on her hip, settling in the doorway as he swung through a few more repetitions. Whenever she stopped by to watch him practice, she was reminded how little she actually got to see him fight. Mostly, he fought alongside her, a constant in the corner of her eye rather than her focus. It was clear he’d done this all his life, conditioned his every muscle for it.

She could have come across any swordsman in that prison hallway, but she found him. And he never faltered in her service.

“You staying for the whole show?”

Rokurou had stopped and rested the sword atop his shoulder with bent arm.

Velvet smirked at him. “Probably not. It’s nothing I haven’t seen before. But that’s got me thinking…”

“What?”

“Why is it that you always practice without a shirt when I’m around, then enter battle with at least three layers and armor?” she asked.

“Well, you see, it’s because… hey, why do you only talk to me alone when I’m not wearing a shirt?” He stepped toward her, away from the space he’d emptied in the inn’s storehouse.

Her face heated. “I—don’t only—

“Ha ha!” he bellowed. “I’m just kidding. I enjoy your company.”

She watched him set the sword on a couple crates in the corner, and it finally dawned on her that they were truly alone. It had been a long time since they’d crashed against the shore by Hellawes, dropped Magilou, and sloughed through the snow just the two of them. Back when she found out she couldn’t taste; when she found out he liked to ask a lot of questions.

“I enjoy watching your style change and evolve,” she noted. “You’ve changed since you defeated Shigure.”

He reached for the jug of sake that rested in the same corner, but halted and turned to her instead.

“Have I?”

When met with his questioning expression, she almost backpedaled. Even by having asked, he wasn’t insisting he was a jerk or mean old daemon for what he’d done, or for stalling their journey by staying up well after hours. That was a difference from the week before; but more than that, she felt a strengthening in their bond. Little glances seemed longer. Perhaps because his own vengeance was over and his focus could afford to drift.

Perhaps that’s why watching him practice was a painful delight.

“Seems like you’re staying out later. You’re not gonna give yourself a break?” she asserted.

“My real goal hasn’t changed much.”

“Your real goal,” Velvet echoed.

Rokurou didn’t seem to be bothering to cover himself as he approached her again. Or rather, the doorway, the one she was blocking. Wholly inadvertently.

“Well, I should probably go shower or something, huh? That is, if you’ll allow me to stay up a little later, Lord of Calamity,” he teased.

“Oh… right. I might allow that,” she countered. She let herself look him up and down, a rare moment of shamelessness. She expected when she’d first stumbled across his training sessions that she’d be put off by the sweat or the hollering or, really, anything about him. His closeness reminded her that that threshold hadn’t been reached. Had she allowed herself to feel the jolt it sent through her, thinking of the ways he was the opposite of off-putting?

“Or I could just stink up the place like we did when we first got out of Titania, am I right?”

With him still before her, gazing at her with that wild grin, she envisioned him in the shower he’d mentioned, washing his hair or with suds sliding down his body, this very real body that stood before her. Had she not trusted this man with her life, she might not have tolerated a modicum of desire from her selfish heart. But he wouldn’t mock the burning of her cheeks, even if he would notice them. He was far too close not to notice.

“Never bothered me,” she said. It sounded like a bizarre way to compliment someone, even to her ear. Why was she bothering, in the first place, stopping by to remind him to sleep when she knew he was practicing? This was stupid. There were other things she could be doing.

“Hey… was there another reason you stopped by?” Rokurou asked.

Her pulse raced. She took the slightest step toward him.

“Do I need one?”

Before she could consider which one of Bienfu’s confiscated romance novels she’d picked that up from, his face lowered. She wasn't sure what to do, but she was certain Rokurou could read her expression, as he had countless times before.

He reached for her shoulder, thumb gently swiping over her skin.

“Well, I thought, if there's something you're looking for, maybe I can help you find it,” he offered.

She looked at his smile for the edge of a joke, as though it would give her a reason to hesitate. He simply waited, as he ever did, for her to decide what she wanted.

“I'd like that.”

Velvet lifted her head and closed her eyes. She felt his nose brush along hers, felt his breath on her chin. But his nose veered to the side and his lips were on her cheek. She opened her eyes and he was centered in front of her again. He kept looking at her; didn't people close their eyes? And why hadn't he gone for her mouth in the first place?

The longer she blinked, observing him, she realized he was still waiting for her to cue him in. Perhaps if he'd been foolish enough to join her vengeful quest, he'd be foolish enough to follow her through her ignorant expressions of desire. She had the feeling he wasn't planning on bailing even if he did aim wrong.

She leaned in, heart pounding, looking into his eyes until just before she met his lips. There it was, that jolt again as he kissed her, then again a little stronger. His hand slipped down her shoulder, over the bandages until he held her hand.

Rokurou pulled back gently.

When she opened her eyes, Velvet glanced meekly at her hand joined with his. He squeezed it, sending another warm rush through her that pooled between her legs. She kissed him again, mouth tense and focused. A moment later, he brought his other hand up to her cheek.

“What?” Velvet snapped.

He kept grinning. “You nervous?”

She furrowed her brow. “No, why?”

“Gentler.”

Running his thumb over her lower lip, he encouraged her to open her mouth slightly. She complied. To her surprise, his next kiss was barely a flutter on her lips, yet it felt multitudes deeper. His hand drifted to her jaw, her ear; he brought their clasped hands toward his shoulder and let go.

As she slanted her mouth to his, she realized she was touching his bare neck, his blighted skin under her wrapped hand. Her fingers crept up to the side of his face, lifting the hair that obscured the rest of his markings. This was where he’d defeated death and was born anew.

Rokurou’s upper hand now weaved behind her ear, bordering her hair. His other hand rested on her back, although she wished it had ventured further. She fitted her unoccupied arm around his neck to draw him closer. Then, his mouth drifted along her jaw, turning her head as he found her ear. Suddenly, she felt his teeth on her earlobe.

“Ah—”

Her little sigh must have startled him as much as it had her. Though he pulled back, she buried her face beside his neck to hide her embarrassment. She led him with her arm, entreating him to try it again.

He didn’t need to be told twice; his teeth grazed the soft skin of her ear, accompanied by the exhale of his breath all around. She felt his fingers dig a little more into her back but he kept his distance. She ached for something more.

Rokurou pressed his lips to her ear.

“I can… smell you,” he said softly.

She pulled away from his mouth’s attention. “... What?”

His eyes burned as they darted to hers. “Y’know, how you smell different when…”

She blinked, feigning understanding but tripping to put the sum together. If she didn’t, he might catch on. Though she supposed it wasn’t difficult to surmise that an isolated rural life followed by an isolated prison life didn’t account for much experience.

“R-right.”

“Don’t I smell different?”

He lowered his head toward the crook of her neck, and she flushed.

“You can’t possibly ask me to keep track of how you smell,” she said.

He inhaled through his nose, then exhaled gently on her skin. Her skin rose in bumps all up and down her body; not unlike when she used to be cold, except the chill felt like lightning.

“No, like... how I can tell you’re aroused.”

She straightened up and he backed off instantly, searching her expression.

“Too much?” he asked. “We don’t have to—”

Velvet stammered. His remark wasn’t untrue; she could feel the change herself, but wouldn’t have named it so outright. But maybe he needed it to be spelled out. “W-we can skip all the unnecessary stuff.”

“Unnecessary?” he scoffed. “It’s not, for me. Rushing this isn’t an option.”

“You have options,” Velvet said, glancing around the storeroom. Though there were stacked boxes in each corner and lining the walls, a fair amount of space remained on the floor. They could easily throw down his robe and no one would be the wiser.

“What I mean is, you’re not an option to me, Velvet. I want you.” He reached again for her shoulders.

Such a line wouldn’t cause her to swoon so easily.

“You bound yourself to me all because I’d seen Stormhowl in passing,” she conceded. Now wasn’t the time for the impossible debt, which he would say he couldn’t possibly repay even if he did address the ache within her. She knew what the flicker across his face was; devotion beyond duty.

“That wasn’t why. Er, it might have been at the beginning, but…”

She placed her hand on his chest. Staying by her side was a risk she’d disclaimed for him countless times.

“Don’t say anything you might regret. There’s... a chance I’m not going to get out of this alive.”

Concern darkened his visage. He offered his hands to her.

“I don’t regret a single second of my time with you, Velvet. Whatever that ends up being. Whatever you want.”

She sighed. “You really do go all out with that debt.”

“... You have been listening, right? The debt isn’t—”

She took his hands. “Shh. Why don’t you show me how this isn’t unnecessary?”

After a moment, his devilish grin returned, the one that set her trembling.

“As you say.”

He let go of her hands and leaned into her, reaching for her waist. Expecting him to resume his path upon her neck, she opened to him. Instead of diving toward her, he paused and took stock of the space around them.

“We should, uh, probably go somewhere a little comfier? I don’t want your first time—”

“It’s not—...”

He squinted, eyebrows raised. There was no hiding her weaknesses, not to him. If he managed to defend her as she raged in combat, how could he not know? She tensed.

“You know it’s nothing to be ashamed of, right?” He placed his hand on her cheek. “It doesn’t change anything. You lead the way, just like always.”

Her heart skipped.

“Then… exactly which room am I leading us to, if the others are sleeping in the room Tabitha rents us?”

The glint in his eye reflected he’d already been considering their options.