He crouched in a corner, huddled and shivering, staring at the spot where two walls met the floor. His hands were jammed over his ears, but he could still hear the rest of his mind laughing raucously about unwrapping these unending "presents." At least they were evil, he reassured himself, mouth trembling around the words, at least they needed to die; not like the innocents he would be eviscerating if he'd chosen to betray Death the way Death had betrayed him.
Lord Death, he reminded himself, but the laughter drowned the whispered words out.
He shuddered. No. Please no footsteps. And if there had to be footsteps, why did they have to have the echoing clack of boots? Why couldn't the feet be bare, gliding towards him to speak the poison that would euthanize him entirely? She had been conspicuously absent—except for the first night when she'd come to heap scorn onto him for giving into madness without embracing its temptation. He'd had nothing to say in return, and now her absence ached in his chest. He was such a fool.
The footsteps continued wandering through his mind. Maybe she would get lost. Yes, that was it. By all rights that was what should happen. She was always getting lost.
Right behind him.
And in a moment, he felt a warm hand settle onto his shoulder. A rustle of cloth as she kneeled next to him, and her hand snaked (if only) to his other shoulder and pulled him close. He shuddered.
–You're still here, she said. There was relief in her voice. –I was looking for you.
Still here, still stubbornly existing even though his existence had fallen drastically in prioritization. Not just his own prioritization.
–Are you going to come back once this is all over?
If the Kishin won, there would be no chance of that. Of course, if the Kishin won, they'd all be dead, not just mad. If they won, somehow—he shook in her embrace.
–Don't you want to?
Of course he wanted to; that was his nature, he was the part that wanted to be sane, the part that had fought for so long, gaining and losing ground and nearly going mad himself trying to prevent exactly what was happening now. The god he served had all but called him meaningless and yet it was not in him to give up. Why couldn't he be a fatalist and convince himself that this was the end? Why didn't the witch come to coax him into inexistence?
–We want you to come back, she said, squeezing his shoulder. –I've been so worried about you. I've missed you, Stein.
He did not laugh; laughter was what the other did. Instead a whine trickled out of him. He wasn't "Stein." That was the other, the one out there. He was too small, too powerless, to deserve a name.
–Death doesn't want me back, he rasped. The pronouncement sounded incomplete, so he corrected himself. –Lord Death.
There. Now it sounded right, it burned but it sounded right.
He could feel her frowning. –That can't be true.
No, it wasn't and he was overstating it; the truth was far colder. –He doesn't care.
–That can't be true, Stein. She was using that name again and what was he doing, picking at a Deathscythe's faith like this? He shuddered. –Stein? What did he say to you when you stayed behind to talk to him?
Not much. He'd done most of the talking himself even as he felt himself crushed by DeathLordDeath's (it still hurt even when he scrunched it up like that) impassive silence. Twenty years spent holding back for you and You are damning me and no reply.
–Please go away, he whispered. –Forget about me. It would be easier if you just kill us when this is over. I don't want…
Ah, there it was.
It was that simple.
He didn't want to forgive, didn't want to go back to loyalty when he'd been betrayed, but he could not survive on his own and without Death to be Lord Death he would not be able to sometimes give the other what he wanted, what they both wanted. But if his only options were that or let the other rule, then that was what he would choose.
He was trapped.
He'd always been fucking trapped.
He pulled out of her arms and stood, ignoring her when she said the name that wasn't his anyway. Slowly, he trudged along the wall of the enormous room, keeping his eyes on the floor. Soon he could not feel her anymore. When he reached a different corner, he crouched there, shivering and staring at where the two walls met the floor. He put his hands over his ears as if he'd ever had a chance of blocking Stein's laughter out.