Rimuru was no stranger to letting go.
Growing up into an adult involved leaving many things behind: childish dreams, old friends, that playful, naïve innocence . . . he had been through it all.
But he had never experienced the death of a close friend, never underwent the harsh struggles of overcoming the grief of losing someone dear to him.
Not until he woke up one day and found that Shuna was dead.
It was always going to happen eventually. Not everyone could be an immortal Demon Lord, and even in the peaceful world he had created, death would always find a way.
Shuna had passed away peacefully in her sleep, which was about as much as he could've asked for the kind, hard-working Oni who had done so much for the people of Tempest during her time in the Department of Production.
The funeral was a grand yet somber affair. All the townsfolk came out to pay their respects to one who had been one of the first pillars upon which Tempest had been founded.
And as the king of Tempest and the lord of the deceased, it was his duty to deliver a heartfelt eulogy for the dearly departed, so that all may remember her in their hearts.
It was . . . surprisingly hard.
With each word he spoke, each gesture he emphasized, he felt her passing become more real, felt his grief grow more pronounced.
She had been a dear friend to him. And he knew that she had wanted them to be more than friends, but he had turned her down. Because he couldn't return her feelings.
But despite that rejection, the Oni had shouldered on, greeting each day with that same strong smile as before.
Truly, her presence had been a blessing on them all.
And now she was gone. Forever.
He could've saved her. With the myriad of powers available to him, he was sure he could've figured something out.
But that would merely have been delaying the inevitable. No matter what Ultimate Skill or grand magic he used, he could not cheat death. Not without sacrificing the lives of others.
And he knew that gentle spirit of hers would never have allowed that.
He would always remember those final moments: when the casket was slowly lowered into the ground, those thin trails of tears slowly trickling down the faces of the family of the deceased. He had offered to give Benimaru and the others time off, but the stoic Oni had declined the offer, stating that Shuna would not have wanted them to shirk their duties because of her.
If that was how they wished to cope, then so be it.
As he shed his own tears for the flower that had forever wilted, he felt overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Death had always been a part of this world. He had killed many beasts and many people. He should be desensitized to it all, but he wasn't.
Because this was the first time he had experienced true loss.
He was a Great Demon Lord, one who commanded the might of several lesser, yet still formidable Demon Lord class individuals. He was a god, one with power over the space-time continuum itself. With his power, he had been able to protect those under him for all this time.
But even he couldn't protect them from Death forever.
This was the first time he had been a victim of Death rather than the perpetrator.
When Shion had fallen in an ambush due to his own naivete, he had been torn. Enraged. Grief-stricken. But he had managed to revive her, along with many others. And with her revival, it was as if all his grief, all his woes had been swept away.
But there would be no revival this time. No cleansing tide to sweep away his sorrow.
He would have to shoulder this burden for the rest of eternity.
As this crushing thought weighed on his mind, he felt a pair of arms wrap themselves around him, comforting him in his time of need.
". . . Thanks, Shion."
But when he turned to look, he caught a glimpse of black hair, black eyes, and a gentle smile –
And then she was gone.
Rimuru always had mixed feelings about weddings.
On one hand, it was supposed to be a happy, joyous affair: a celebration of the union between two individuals.
But whenever he looked at the smiling couple, he couldn't help but feel a twinge of envy. He couldn't help but remember his old life and the pain and heartbreak of being rejected not once, not twice, but three times.
He hadn't bothered trying again after that. What was the point? He would just be rejected again. And he didn't think he could withstand the feeling of his heart shattering for a fourth time.
But even with his heart in pieces, he forced himself to smile and bear with it. He was the leader, after all. If he showed the slightest sign of displeasure, it would spread and infect the other guests as well.
And he wasn't so rude as to ruin the most important day of the bride and groom.
Speaking of which, here they come now.
A hobgoblin and goblina. He couldn't remember their names, even though he personally named them. He knew Ciel would tell him if he asked, but that felt like . . . cheating, somehow.
They both looked stunning. The Department of Production had really outdone themselves making the wedding attire; he could see traces of Shuna's lingering influence on the designs, those small artistic flourishes that he had come to associate with her.
The two of them approached the altar, where a priest from the Western Saints Church awaited them. The human didn't seem at all perturbed by the idea of joining the hands of two monsters in marriage, a testament to Ruminas's excellent judgment of character when she sent him over.
As the rite unfolded, each line foreign yet hauntingly familiar, Rimuru thought back to his old self, the one who had been fated to die but was now saved. Did he also have to endure this, witnessing the matrimony of those he should be happy for? He had no doubt his junior would've invited his past self to the wedding, and he had no doubt he would've attended out of politeness, if nothing else. And he would've sat through it all with a frozen smile on his face, each moment a stabbing reminder of what he did not have.
He wanted to be up there. To hold hands with a woman and proclaim their devotion to each other in front of a crowd of well-wishers.
And he knew there was no shortage of woman in Tempest who would love to tie the knot with him. Shion and Milim were not exactly subtle about their feelings for him. If he asked, he knew they would accept without a second thought.
But . . . it wouldn't be fair to them. Not when he couldn't return their feelings. Couldn't love them the way they wanted him to.
They were dear friends of his, that was for sure. But there was something missing, something intimate between them that never was and never will be. Even if he was a monster in body, he was a human at heart. And no matter how human they looked, how infinitesimally close to human they were, there was that small imperfection, that nagging feeling that something was off.
That small flaw was a chasm between them, an insurmountable distance that would keep them apart forever.
Besides, this wasn't his world. They didn't know him, the true him. They fell in love with Rimuru Tempest, the Great Demon Lord, King of Monsters, God of Time and Space. But . . . that wasn't him. Not really. Rimuru was more like a façade, a surreal dream that he had yet to awaken from.
It all felt so fake, so pretend. He was fine with pretending for the sake of those he led, but he didn't want to play pretend for the one he loved. Not her, at least.
He wanted his partner to be someone who could understand him. Understand that he was not just a God-King of this world, but also an ordinary person deep down.
Without that kind of understanding, it would feel like taking advantage of their feelings for him to make himself feel better.
He wouldn't be able to forgive himself if he did that.
The newly-wed couple kissed, and he joined the rest of the crowd in showering the lucky duo with applause.
There was another set of hands clapping next to him, someone else celebrating the latest union of love.
But there shouldn't be. He was sitting alone in a booth specifically prepared for him, the lord of Tempest. No one else was supposed to be up here.
He glanced to the side and a ghost from his past was sitting there, smiling and clapping every bit as vibrantly as she did when she was alive.
And then she was gone.
It was Christmas, and Rimuru was lounging in his home alone.
Of course, the holiday hadn't been a part of this world originally; Christianity didn't exist here. But he thought the spirit of giving perfectly encompassed what he wished to achieve with Tempest's founding, and his subordinates had been more than happy to make it an official holiday for him.
That, and it gave them another excuse during the year to party hard.
Some things just never changed.
He had let the various Departments handle the logistics of the whole affair, and as usual, they didn't fail to deliver.
Christmas lights were strung up all over town, and a huge, decorated tree had been set up in the center of the city (courtesy of the Dryads). Vendor stalls had sprung up everywhere, each peddling some sort of rare or exotic food.
Milim had practically dragged him all around town to sample the various sweet confectioneries that enterprising merchants had brought in (quite a few of the vendors gave them free samples once they realized who they were). Afterward, Shion had swooped in and dragged him to a drinking party with the other Oni.
The subsequent drinking contest was . . . legendary, to say the least.
He was glad he had Poison Resistance. He didn't think he would've survived without it.
And of course, after that was the gift exchange.
He had proposed a "Secret Santa" gift exchange for the entire town. That way, everyone would feel included, and he wouldn't end up receiving a gift from everyone in town.
He had selected a fairly mundane gift to give away; he didn't want to pick something too extravagant, lest the receiver figure out who it was truly from.
When he had opened his own gift, however, he found a cake.
A cake with the words "You're the best, Rimuru-sama!" and a picture of Shion's face winking at him in icing.
Looks like someone in charge of logistics got bribed.
He didn't really mind though; the rest of the town seemed happy with the outcome of the exchange, and that was all he wanted. Besides, the cake was delicious (as expected of someone with the Unique Skill Cooking).
Now he was back in his house, lounging around and reminiscing about the past.
He wondered how his older brother was doing. Was he holding a Christmas party for his family around this time? Were his parents there? Was his past self there?
He never really spoke much with his family ever since he graduated from college. He had been too focused on making a living and sustaining himself. But Christmas had always been the time he reconnected with old acquaintances, the time where he got to see everyone again.
He could see them again, he knew. With his powers, it would be a piece of cake.
But that would be all he could do. He couldn't interact with them or talk with them like he used to.
He wasn't Satoru anymore. He was Rimuru Tempest, a godly being who had no place on Earth.
But it was hard to just let go of his previous life. His old life had shaped him into who he was today, was what had inspired and carried out his dream of peace in this new world of his.
If he had reincarnated without his memories . . . then he would've just been another mindless monster.
That was why it felt so wrong to just abandon his old life. It was too important to him to just be discarded.
Christmas was supposed to help him remember the old times, help him find closure.
But right now, it was just reminding him of who wasn't here. Who would never be here.
Maybe . . . it hadn't been such a good idea after all.
A plate slid towards him. A plate that he most certainly hadn't brought out himself.
On it was a sponge cake, decorated with trees, flowers, and a figure of Santa Claus.
He blinked. He hadn't told the Departments about sponge cakes. He hadn't even told them about Santa Claus!
It was her again. That beautiful, doe-eyed phantom of his.
"Thanks." He brought the plate closer to him. "I didn't know you celebrated Christmas."
Shizu smiled. "I didn't know about it until recently," she confessed. "But Ciel-sensei graciously taught me all about it."
Ah, yes, Ciel. He should've known that the evolved form of Great Sage and Wisdom King Raphael had something to do with a dead girl walking.
"Did she wake you up for this?" he asked. "I'm sorry about that; you wanted to rest in peace, but it seems you've been dragged out for something so trivial."
"My apologies for acting on my own, Rimuru-sama. I had sensed that you were distressed as of late, and I wished to . . . cheer you up, so to speak."
He rolled his eyes. "Don't worry about it; I know you mean well. But did you really have to bother Shizu-san about it?"
"Please don't be too hard on her. After hearing her request, I knew it was something I wanted to do," Shizu said.
He blinked in surprise. "You heard that?"
"Of course." She smiled. "I'm a part of you too."
Right, that made sense. It had been a long time since he last used Predator, so he almost forgot about that tidbit.
"After extensive analysis, I deduced that Shizu-san would be the most likely to succeed at improving your state of mind, which is why I consulted her about it. Do forgive me."
"As I said, don't worry about it. I understand where you're coming from."
"Thank you very much, Rimuru-sama! I'll leave you two to it then."
He felt Ciel's presence diminish, leaving him with a smiling poltergeist only he could see.
She was looking at him expectantly, waiting for him to do something.
Oh, right, the sponge cake. Looking at it more closely now, he could see it was uneven, bumpy, and slightly charred.
Well, it still looked far more edible than what Shion initially put out at least. And if Shizu was anything like his temperamental secretary, she wouldn't relent until he had at least given it a try.
He took a bite.
It wasn't particularly good. Compared to Shion's borderline miracle cooking, the light, chewy texture and the mildly sugary vanilla flavor weren't anything special.
But the moment he tasted it, he was flung down memory lane, years of Christmases in another world flashing by in an instant.
He remembered eating sponge cake every Christmas during his childhood, a treat that his mother had baked for the family. He remembered giving and receiving gifts with his family, each one of them laughing and smiling as they unwrapped gifts. He remembered setting aside time to continue this tradition each year, even after he had grown up and left home to live on his own.
All of this came flooding back in a single, nostalgic moment.
". . . Are you alright, Rimuru-san?"
Shizu's concerned voice broke him out of his reverie, and he realized something wet was dripping down his cheeks.
". . . You're crying," she said softly.
He blinked, trying to stave off the waterworks. ". . . Yeah," he whispered. "I am." He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Sorry you had to see that."
"You miss them, don't you?"
Once upon a time, he might've hesitated when asked that question. He might've lied to himself, might've cut ties to reinforce the façade, the image he was trying to cultivate in this world.
But on this day, this moment . . . he just couldn't. Not . . . not on this holiday.
"I do," he admitted.
She smiled sadly. "I miss my family too, at times." She sighed. "Sometimes I wonder what it might've been like, if my mother hadn't died, if I hadn't been summoned here by that Demon Lord . . . ."
That's right, she understood, didn't she? The sorrow of losing family to forces outside one's control. The struggle of trying to adapt to a new, unfamiliar world. The pain of persevering against all odds.
Christmas was meant to be spent with family. He didn't have any family in this world, but . . .
He looked at her. This kind, sweet girl in front of him. She was Japanese, just like him. She was a World Traveler, just like him. She fought for the sake of peace, just like him.
With her here, it felt like there was someone who understood him, someone who felt like kin.
Perhaps this Christmas wouldn't feel so lonely after all.
"Do you remember my name?"
"Yes." She didn't need to ask for clarification.
"You can . . ." The words were stuck in his throat, difficult to dislodge. "You can call me by that, if you want."
A raised eyebrow. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. Not like anyone else will hear you."
A precious, genuine smile. "Okay . . . Satoru-san."
He closed his eyes and breathed in. It had been so long since anyone had called him by that name.
Hearing it again from someone else's lips felt . . . nice.
"Thank you, Shizu-san."
Rimuru had a major problem on his hands.
There was nothing left for him to do.
There were no more enemies left to fight. Yuuki and the Eastern Empire had been crushed under his heel.
There were no more alliances to form. Every other country of note was allied with them, had a treaty with them, or was one of their vassal states.
There were not even any duties for him to do. Despite being the ruler of Tempest, the day-to-day affairs were managed by his subordinates via the various Departments that had sprung up.
He was the strongest being in the world, but he had nothing to do.
Sure, he was occasionally consulted by the Department of Production about new ideas (all of his "ideas" were just ripped from his old world, though) or perhaps by the Department of Governance if a particularly bothersome issue cropped up (he didn't know anything about law, so he just went with his gut half the time), but neither of those were able to occupy his attention for an entire day.
It was Shizu who had come up with a solution.
"Why not become a teacher?" she had asked.
It was an intriguing idea; he recalled his time as the S class Homeroom Teacher quite fondly. And by teaching future generations, he would safeguard the peace he had fought so hard to built by ensuring that those who would inherit it wouldn't carelessly shatter it.
Besides, the commute time wasn't a problem. Being able to control space-time itself meant he could wake up, teleport himself to the Freedom Association to teach classes, then be back in time for dinner.
Thus, after informing Souei (the son and successor of the original Souei, to be specific) of his intentions and instructing the Oni to inform him if any problems arose while he was away, he set off.
Of course, he couldn't register as Rimuru Tempest. He was practically a household name at this point, and he didn't want to attract unnecessary attention.
So instead, he registered as Satoru Mikami.
He thought it was fitting, in a way.
And that was how he, a god of this world, became a teacher.
A teacher with quite a few ghost stories about him, in fact. After all, he had an invisible assistant, and he wasn't afraid to use her.
He lost count of the number of times one of his students asked him how the heck the papers were passing themselves out without him lifting a finger and he would just tell them "magic."
It wasn't a lie. Technically. Shizu could only manifest thanks to his and Ciel's magic.
However, she was far more helpful than just spooking his students. She had been a teacher for longer than him, after all, and she had a plethora of advice for him.
They spent quite a few late nights together, grading papers and thinking up lesson plans for the students.
And after a while, he realized something.
He enjoyed spending time with her.
She didn't treat him with strict formality like the denizens of Tempest did. To the people of Tempest, he was a god, a legendary hero to be placed on a pedestal and revered for all eternity.
They didn't treat him like he was one of them. Not really. To them, he would always stand above them, at unfathomable heights that no one else could reach.
But not her. He felt grounded when he spoke with her, felt like he was being treated as an equal rather than a superior.
It was a nice change of pace after all the suffocating formality he had to deal with.
And the more he thought about it, the more he realized that maybe, just maybe, that fortune-teller from so long ago had been right. That Shizu was the one he was destined to be with.
She wasn't as obsessive as Shion. He appreciated the Oni's enthusiasm, but it was overbearing at times.
She wasn't as difficult to understand as Milim. His fellow Demon Lord was quite endearing at times, but he always felt like he was walking on thin ice around her, like a single wrong move would plunge him (and the rest of Tempest) into a fiery ruin.
She was linked to his soul, an eternal part of him. He wouldn't have to worry about outliving her like Shuna or so many of the other girls who had tried to court him over the centuries.
And above all else, she understood him. She understood that there was a normal human behind the monstrous mask he wore, that before he was Rimuru Tempest, god-king of the world, he was Satoru Mikami, an ordinary man.
She was, in essence, perfect for him.
But . . . it wasn't fair to her, was it? She shouldn't have to give up her eternal rest to comfort a lonely god throughout the ages. He couldn't make her do that.
"After hearing her request, I knew it was something I wanted to do."
But she had said she wanted to comfort him. Was it possible? Dare he get his hopes up for a fourth and final time?
Even if it was only the smallest of chances, he had to try. He had to know.
He knew he would regret it for the rest of eternity if he didn't at least try.
"How much longer are you going to stay?"
Shizu looked at him with a perplexed expression. "What do you mean, Satoru-san?"
He closed the folder containing tomorrow's lesson plan. "I mean, Ciel-sensei woke you up so you could help me through some hard times." Memories of that fateful Christmas flashed through his mind. "And you've managed to accomplish that remarkably. I don't think . . . I don't think I've enjoyed myself like this for a long, long time."
He had been teaching for years now. The first few months had been difficult, but with Shizu's help, he managed to figure out the right attitude he needed for the job.
Teaching kids was like trying to solve a puzzle. He needed to figure out what made them tick, what engaged their attention, what they were likely to connect with so they could retain the information.
It was difficult at times, but it felt so very rewarding whenever he succeeded in showing another student the light.
"You don't . . . you don't have to stick around anymore. You wanted a peaceful rest inside me, didn't you? You can go back to that now, if you want. You don't have to keep me company anymore."
God, what was he saying? She might get the wrong idea and think he didn't want her around!
But that was just how he was. It was in his nature to be considerate, and he didn't want to guilt her into staying by leading with his feelings for her.
She sat down next to him, and he felt an electric tingle race through his body from their closeness (but wait, wasn't she inside him? He shouldn't be fazed by this!).
"Am I troubling you, Satoru-san?"
"N – Not at all!" Damnit, why was he so flustered? He could topple empires, forge alliances between nations, but apparently, he couldn't talk to a girl without getting nervous. "I just thought . . . that maybe you felt obligated to stick around because of what Ciel-sensei asked you to do . . . but if that's all, then you don't have to worry anymore. I'm fine now!"
She looked away. "I see. Have you grown weary of my company already?"
He waved his hands frantically. "T – That's not it either! I – I just meant –"
Before he could embarrass himself any further, a stifled laugh interrupted him. A laugh which quickly evolved into giggling.
He stared at her with a dumbfounded expression. "Wh – What's so funny?"
"I'm sorry, Satoru-san." She wiped her eyes. "I know what you meant, but I couldn't help but have a little fun at your expense."
Oh. She had been teasing him.
What a novel feeling.
He cleared his throat to hide his embarrassment. "A – Anyway, like I was saying, you can go back to resting in peace if you want. I can handle myself from here."
"Oh? Are you sure about that?" She flipped through the folders containing previous lesson plans. "I seem to recall a certain someone scheduling three self-study periods in a row on one day."
"T – That's because I wasn't done grading papers yet! I know how to manage my duties better now!"
"I see." She nodded. "I suppose I won't have to watch over you anymore."
He felt his heart might stop. Was that it? Would his cowardness once again damn him to a life of solitude? He knew he shouldn't have been beating around the bush so much!
But despite her words, her form did not disappear. She lingered there, a phantom caught between the physical and spiritual realms.
He was almost afraid to speak, afraid that the mere act of talking would shatter this ephemeral scene and cause her to vanish forever.
". . . What's the matter?" he asked.
She looked at him in bemusement. "Hmm? What do you mean?"
"I mean . . . I thought you said your work was done. So, aren't you going to . . . ?" He made a vague gesture.
She began giggling again, and Rimuru was struck with the realization that maybe he couldn't understand women after all.
"Sorry, sorry." She finished wiping her eyes. "I just thought it was funny how hard you were trying to be considerate of me."
Wait. Had she known all along what he was trying to do?
". . . What gave it away?" he asked.
"I'm a part of you now, remember?" she said. "I just had a feeling . . . a sense of intent, I suppose, of what you were trying to do."
Well, that was something to keep in mind for the future. He had never been a particularly good liar anyway.
In any case, it was time to get to the heart of the matter.
"What will you do now?" he asked.
She peered at him closely with an inscrutable expression.
"What do you want me to do?" she asked.
He hesitated. But at this point, he was tired of beating around the bush, tired of trying to be overly considerate.
It was time for the simple, honest truth.
"I want you to stay with me."
A single, heart-stopping moment. Her face was frozen, stony and cold.
And then it softened.
"What a coincidence," she said softly. "I wanted to stay with you too."
It was almost too good to be true. "For how long?"
"For as long as you need me."
He felt the tension flee from his body, like an overwhelming burden had finally been lifted.
"That might be a very long time," he said with a chuckle.
"I know. But I don't mind at all."
A lingering trace of curiosity welled up within him. "Why me?"
She gazed outwards, at something only she could see. "Because you were there for me when I needed someone the most. You saved me from the demon inside me. You saved those kids I left behind. You confronted Leon Cromwell for me, even if he wasn't who either of us was expecting, in the end." She paused. "And you helped me find closure for that cruel world that I was forced to leave behind."
That's right, he had shown her Japan's future, hadn't he? A great and prosperous future, a far cry from the war-torn country she had known.
"After all you've done for me . . ." She leaned in closer to him, and despite her phantasmal existence, he could've sworn he could feel the warmth of her body and the softness of her skin.
"How could I not fall in love with you?"
Their hands touched and entwined together, a symbol of their promise to each other.
"I love you too," he whispered.
He gazed into her dark eyes, those beautiful, black gemstones, their hearts racing and their faces slowly drawing closer and closer –
Their lips met, and for the first time ever, Rimuru experienced true happiness.