A/N: This fic comes equipped with the general WARNING of being dark. As... you might expect, given the summary. I don't want to go into detail because it would spoil the fic, but rest assured that there is nastiness. You have been warned.
co•da (ko:dә) n.
In music, an independent passage concluding a movement or composition.
It is unimaginable, unthinkable, the possible end Murata had never allowed himself to consider but which has come to pass all the same. In the dark times of his doubt, he had always told himself that they would win, that Shibuya was strong and would live up to all the hopes that had been pinned on him – because failure was not an option.
Except that it was.
The Sovereign is turning away from the boxes with a terrible, terrible smile on his face, taking no notice of the blue pendant crushed beneath his heel when he steps forward; Murata winces inwardly at seeing that expression on Shibuya's face but stands his ground. The others have fled – he made them flee, forced them back to the castle as Shibuya's last effort at resistance was squashed – but he did not. Could not.
He is too old, too tired, has spent too long alone; there is no fire left in him to fight a battle already lost, a battle against his greatest foe and closest friend and king to whom he has sworn loyalty. Oblivion would be a nice change, he thinks and closes his eyes as the Sovereign approaches.
There is a soft laugh, without the edge of malice that he has come to associate with the Sovereign. Warm fingers stroke his cheek and he starts in surprise despite himself.
"Oh, my poor, poor Sage, what have you done to yourself?" The voice is gentle, the tone parody of Shinou's, and he tries to back away but there is a stone wall behind his back – where had that come from? - and he has nowhere to go.
He opens his eyes and stares into Shi- the Sovereign's black eyes. "Please kill me quickly." He tries to keep his voice calm and empty, but a sliver of hopelessness still escapes into it.
The Sovereign smiles. "But why would I want to kill you? When I have looked forward to being incarnate with you, my Sage, for many millenia?"
Murata's breath freezes in his chest, and the anger he thought he'd lost rises inside him. "Don't say that, don't call me that! You have no right- you're not him!" He tries to back away, but the Sovereign has moved without him noticing and is now leaning forward, arms on either side of Murata and hands splayed against the wall behind him so that he is trapped.
"But I am." A brief pause. "The Sovereign isn't intelligent, you know. There is a certain base cunning, I will admit, a kind of raw driving force, but nothing we would recognise as true... sentience. That is all the host's. Mine."
Murata shakes his head mutely, feeling the hot sting of tears welling in his eyes.
"Do you know, I wasn't surprised when you betrayed me. Why? Because I remembered. I remember my first life – our life together – maybe even better than you do. I remember our plan. Of course you were still trying to bring it to fruition. You're stubborn like that." The last is said affectionately, and Murata shivers; he tells himself it is in horror.
"The entire time," the Sov- the other boy whispers huskily. "I knew that when the right moment came, you would support Yuuri in his effort to expel me. And I knew that Yuuri would fail."
Murata makes a small, strangled noise.
The other looks at him in surprise. "It is really not such a surprising thing. Yuuri was weak. Did you honestly think someone who had to create a separate personality to deal with his Maou powers was capable of defeating me? I could split his mind open like a ripe melon. And did." He eyes Murata consideringly as the Sage tries to suppress his horror. "You got too emotional, too attached to him or else you'd have seen this. You overestimated him."
A shake of the head, then he continues, his voice growing ragged. "But I don't want to talk about Yuuri anymore. I want to talk about you. I missed you, you know. So many years, all alone inside that thrice-bedamned temple with only my priestesses for company, not knowing where you were or what you were doing, whether you were going just as mad as I was. I have looked forward to this day, I have thought and dreamed of you for ages and you tell me that just because I have changed, my goals have changed, I am no longer Shinou? No longer your king?"
Murata stares at other boy, feeling as if his entire world is collapsing before his eyes. Behind the Sovereign's evil there is old grief and longing and anger burning in those eyes, the fires of millenia of separation, too familiar, too sincere to be faked. His emotions, theirs, Shinou's burning behind the darkness in Shibuya's eyes – and Murata believes.
His voice is weak and wavering, defeated. "Shinou, I-"
He sees triumph dawn in those eyes before a heavy body presses against him, pinning him against the wall as Shinou crushes his mouth against the Sage's. Murata's lips part almost involuntarily to give entrance to Shinou's tongue, which takes immediate advantage of the opportunity and thrusts deeply into his mouth. The rough stone of the wall digs into his back, his heartbeat is like thunder in his ears and he lets his body fall limp in surrender.
When they part, Murata is panting for breath, sweat soaking his clothes. Shinou studies him, then takes a step back and Murata almost collapses at the sudden loss; his knees do not seem quite inclined to hold his weight yet.
They stare at each other for a while as Murata's breathing slows and he steadies himself against the wall. He is about to say something when Shinou speaks.
Shinou turns and starts walking away without even looking back to see whether Murata is following him.
Although the world has changed since they last walked through it together, they still see the ghost of the past in the new landscape. Hills have been worn smooth, mountains lost their peaks, forests sprung up where there was once only wasteland – but somehow the bones of the land remain the same and the old paths still exist, overgrown and faded but there to be followed as they twist through the wild places far from civilisation.
They travel, and they speak and joke and laugh together and slowly Murata starts to let down his guard. It is a long and arduous process, and truth be told it terrifies him – the walls around his self have kept him safe for many a millenium, and now they are starting to crumble, leaving him bare.
Shinou smiles, watches and does not say anything; they both know he could tear down those walls anytime he wanted, but he does not – gives Murata his space and the Sage is grateful for that.
And still they travel, sleeping under the stars and pacing across the plains, through the forests and as long as Murata does not look back and see the destruction in their wake or look forward to see black hair where blond should be he can almost imagine he is back then.
In the third week after Shibu- after, Murata wakes late one morning. He sits up and rubs the sleep from his eyes in surprise; Shinou should have woken him.
There is no sign of Shinou, which should make him worry but does not; Murata cannot ignore the leaden certainty that the only person in this world who could possibly have defeated the corrupted king has already failed. All the same, he leaves their forest campsite, slipping through the trees to search for him.
And finds him, but not alone.
In a clearing, Shinou is kneeling next to a collapsed figure. Light filters through the overhanging branches, falling on long silver hair that flows like water through Shinou's fingers to tangle with the twigs and leaves on the forest ground.
Murata walks forward slowly, almost reluctantly, each step heavy and echoing in the silence until he stands next to them.
Shinou turns his head, smiles at him. "So glad you could join us, my Sage. I would introduce you, but I believe you already know Ulrike?"
He nods jerkily, eyes fixed on the slight form in front of him. Ulrike looks surprisingly harmless like this – deceptively so, as he of all people should know, and if it weren't for the pressure of maryoku in the air she would be trying to confirm that fact. But the maryoku paralyses her and the only thing she can do is move her face, stare at them accusingly. No one would think she is eight hundred years old because her eyes are full of child-like innocence, still there despite the wounds it has taken – Murata is suddenly bitterly jealous of her for that.
"How could you..." Ulrike rasps weakly and Murata doesn't know who she's talking to; it doesn't matter anyway because neither of them answers her question.
"Ulrike, Ulrike, Ulrike." Shinou is shaking his head in mock disapproval; there is a cruel edge to his voice. "You disappoint me, you really do. Eight hundred years you served me loyally, only to abandon me when I needed you most. I shared my power, my strength, my wisdom with you, sheltered you and protected you, and this is how you thank me? To leave me when my plans come to fruition, to return only weeks later in what? A pathetic assassination attempt, one that even you had to know could never succeed?"
Ulrike struggles to lift her head, but the maryoku presses her down. "I was a loyal servant... of Shinou. You are... not... my Shinou."
Shinou waves the argument away, scowling. "Of course I'm Shinou. I remember everything I always have. Everything. I still act the same way, still have the same likes and dislikes. It's just that my goals have shifted a bit." He leans closer. "You know, my Sage thought I wasn't Shinou at first either. But he changed his mind, and since he knows me better than anyone else I think you should listen to him."
Ulrike's gaze wanders to Murata. "How could... you..." This time there is no doubt who she is talking to, and Murata looks away.
"Well, it's obvious, isn't it?" Shinou sounds surprised. "He's loyal to me. He would never betray me."
"He... did..." Ulrike's voice is thin, but still pierces him to his core; Murata shudders. Shinou shifts, resting his hand on Murata's shoulder.
"No, he didn't. He followed the silly orders I gave when we discussed the situation in our first lives, while under the illusion that I wasn't Shinou anymore. Not his Shinou, as you put it." From the corner of his eye, Murata notices Shinou's smile; it seems to have far too many teeth. "All I had to do was rectify the misconception – then he was mine again. No, not again – he has always been mine.
"But then again, my Sage is loyal. Are you loyal, Ulrike? Are you willing to do what you were created to do?" The cruel, toying tone has vanished; instead, Shinou has raised his voice until he is nearly shouting and the words echo about the clearing after he finishes.
There is a brief moment of silence, interrupted by the raucous calls of birds in the treetops. Shinou looks upwards, snarling; there is a brief screech and the birds fall silent.
"You have gone mad," Ulrike states serenely. "You are mad and neither of us owes you any loyalty." She closes her eyes; her expression is peaceful and she suddenly looks her age – looks old, yet somehow still innocent.
"Well, my Sage doesn't seem to agree," Shinou says. His tone is jovial, but his hand tightens on Murata's shoulder. "But if you're so certain, I suppose we have nothing left to talk about. And I do so hate it when people try to kill me-" and he snaps his fingers and the maryoku in the air tenses-
Ulrike's scream is just as thin and weak as her voice and seems to go on forever.
They leave Ulrike's body behind in the clearing, blank eyes staring at the empty sky as carrion birds swoop down around her, and continue to travel; it is just as before except that Murata no longer tries to pretend they are anywhere other than now.
A week after Ulrike's death, they stand at the edge of a forest and watch a patrol go by. Murata squints at the banners they carry; von Spitzberg, the fourth infantry. Surprising, given how far they currently are from Shin Makoku.
Shinou comes up behind him, hot breath ghosting over his neck; he doesn't shiver. "Looks like Stoffel's troops are out and about. Maybe offering support to their allies... important thing to do in these war-torn days, no doubt. Trying to secure power for himself now that Yuuri's gone, you think?"
"Possibly," Murata murmurs. "He wasn't so power-hungry when I last- Shibuya had had quite an influence on him, but I was never sure how long it would last if he wasn't there."
Shinou shifts closer to him, wraps an arm around his waist. "Sending his army out, how amusing. Shall we show him... the downsides of such activities?" His lips are only inches from Murata's ear now and this time Murata does shiver.
"I'd have no object-ah!" Murata yelps as Shinou licks the tip of his ear. Shinou chuckles.
"Shall you or shall I?"
Murata pauses. Up until now, Shinou has killed all the patrols they'd come across, a division of roles Murata had never objected to. And he knows, he knows that if he said "you" Shinou would kill them all with no trace of disappointment or recrimination in his eyes.
He stares out at the soldiers. They are tiny figures, faceless at this distance, their banners mere splotches of colour if he does not will his eyes to focus. Like toy soldiers fighting an imaginary war, just waiting for someone to come and return them to their box.
His hands clench.
He steps forward slightly, Shinou moving with him, as he searches for his maryoku. He has used it over the years but always in carefully measured amounts, trickles really, channeled through the Maou. The last time he has used it for himself, the last time he really loosed his power, was thousands upon thousands of years ago, so long he had almost fooled himself into believing what he told Shibuya – but it is not something you forget, and as the power fills him it feels as if it were only yesterday.
It is an intoxicating, heady rush as power fizzes through his blood like lightning; his skin prickles, his lungs expand and he feels as if he is flying, held aloft only by his own will and all he has to do is push like so-
The soldiers scream as one, briefly, before they are crushed.
He comes back to himself slowly, panting, teeth digging into his lip, drawing blood and the only thought in his head is how did I ever give this up.
Shinou is pressed against his back and Murata turns around. Wild black eyes meet wild black eyes and they stare at one another for a few seconds until Shinou growls, grabs his face in both hands and yanks him forward. Murata's eyes slide shut as their mouths meet and Shinou's tongue forces its way past his lips in a violent kiss, tasting of death and ashes and blood.
And Murata kisses him back.
It is five weeks later and it is night, stars glimmering down from the sky clear of clouds. Not that Murata sees them; after the rainy season had begun, they had both decided that sleeping under an open sky was no longer worth it and appropriated a tent as soon as possible.
"I have something for you."
Murata looks up from the battle plans he was studying with a tired sigh. Shinou is standing at the entrance, the candlelight illuminating the smirk on his face. For a moment, he remembers how in the beginning it had been hard, nearly painful, to see a mockery of Shinou's expressions on Shibuya's face – but now they've become natural, familiar and he's almost forgotten Shibuya's open smiles.
"Please tell me it's not another patrol, because if you do I swear I will scream." They are nearing inhabited lands again and have spent most of the afternoon destroying wandering army divisions; he is rather tired of it at the moment.
Shinou laughs, a cheerful sound – many would doubtlessly consider it surprising. "No, no. This is different; you'll like it."
Murata raises an eyebrow.
"Over in the white tent."
The white tent. The other tent, the one that is specially reinforced with maryoku, the one they keep prisoners in. "Now I'm curious."
Shinou cocks his head in the way Murata knows means Go indulge yourself, then.
The white tent stands slightly apart from theirs, now more grey than white in the dusky twilight just before dawn. It has stood empty since the last time they captured an envoy from Caledonia, several weeks past. The messenger only survived less than a day; Murata's interrogation technique has been honed to perfection over the millenia and the boy didn't know anything useful anyhow.
Now the flaps are tied shut again and he can hear the noise of harsh breathing from inside. He has to admit to curiosity, as Shinou is usually against taking prisoners at all; it is Murata who argues the importance of knowing their enemies' movements. What is so different about this one?
He touches the tent-flaps, which recognise his maryoku and open slightly. Pushes them aside and slips through the opening inside.
Although it is dark outside, the inside of the tent is lit by candles; the light is enough to recognise Yozak Gurrier lying on the floor, firmly trussed.
Murata fights the urge to turn and leave again. Yozak was his friend in Shin Makoku, one of his only ones. They hit it off almost immediately, having similar senses of humour, predispositions to banter and a healthy respect for the idea of grey areas and necessary evils. Murata always admired Yozak's quiet competence.
He likes Yozak, damnit, and would believe this is some kind of test of Shinou's except that he knows it isn't, and for a moment he could almost hate Shinou for that.
"Get out of his Majesty's body, you bastard!" Yozak hisses at him and Murata realises that, standing in the shadows at the entrance as he is, Yozak hasn't recognised him.
Time to rectify that.
He steps forward into the light. "Why, I hadn't known I was the Maou – is this a new development?"
It's lucky he didn't expect Yozak to calm down upon recognising him, because the fury in his eyes actually grows stronger.
"You!" Yozak positively spits the words; Murata guesses he should feel insulted. "Traitor!"
"Well, if we want to get technical about it, I'm following the lead of Shinou and the Maou. You, on the other hand, are actively working against us. Who's the traitor supposed to be again?"
Yozak snarls wordlessly and Murata stills. Of course Yozak would be angry, but this... this is too much anger, reducing Yozak to speechlessness where he always has a pithy comeback, and the fury evident in his body has a false, bitter edge.
It only takes an instant to slam maryoku down on them, a thick blanket of power that smothers everything inside the tent. He shakes it off quickly, then approaches the motionless form of Yozak, paralysed in the act of reaching into his boot.
Murata shakes his head sadly. "A hidden dagger? I should have known. Shinou has no experience at tying up rogues like you, it's amazing you were still here when I came." A dramatic sigh. "I'll have to teach him."
The only thing Yozak can move is his eyes and they stare at him angrily as he slips out the knife – small but sharp and well-balanced. For a moment, a memory washes over Murata, a memory of a time when they had both been captives and Yozak's habit of carrying hidden weapons and lockpicks had been of great use...
He shakes his head to banish the thought.
"Feeling more inclined to be civil now?" he asks and loosens the paralysis just a bit.
Yozak coughs and blinks rapidly. His limbs twitch slightly and he furrows his brow in agitation.
"You can talk and move your head. That's it. I'd prefer to conduct this conversation without further distractions," Murata explains, spinning the knife around his fingers.
"Nice trick," Yozak says wryly, giving a smirk that is pure Yozak despite the – genuine – anger in his eyes and Murata feels his heart clench.
"So, anything you want to say?" he asks, keeping his face smooth by an effort of will.
"Yes. Come back to Shin Makoku with me."
Murata knows that the effort has failed and his face betrays his shock."...what?"
"What I said. Come back."
There is a moment of silence while Murata tries to gather his thoughts. He is not used to being surprised anymore.
"Look, your Highness, I know you. You're smart, you're cunning and you're very... realistic about things. This... what he wants to do is of no benefit to anyone. We can stop it together."
"No." Murata shakes his head. "No one can stop it; the world is lost already. Yuuri was the only hope."
Yozak's voice is rising. "Well, how would you know – you're helping him! How can you say we've already lost without even trying?"
Murata remembers the Sovereign and his awful, overwhelming power, power to destroy the world, power only equalled by Shinou's on the battlefield, and does not respond.
"Why won't you at least-"
"I can't betray Shinou." It's a statement of fact.
Yozak growls. "Damn it, your Highness – no, Murata, since you have no right to that title anymore! He's insane, he's not the man you remember, you have to help us-"
"I can't betray Shinou." Murata hardly even recognises his own voice, strangled and panicked and filled with horror. His hands twist together and his breath starts coming quickly. He cannot even imagine betraying Shinou anymore, but even trying to brings with it a feeling of nauseating terror, of teetering at the edge of a cliff about to fall-
He forces himself to breathe deeply, loosens his fingers, and soon the panic subsides to leave only a vague feeling of being irked at letting Yozak get to him like this.
Yozak looks frustrated, incomprehending; his hand twitches against the maryoku as if he wants to run it through his hair in annoyance. "Your new career as a brick wall does not suit you, your High- Murata. He's going to destroy the world, you can't seriously tell me that's what you want?"
A heartbeat of shocked silence, then Murata sighs.
"Do you have any idea what it's like to be alive for four thousand years?" It's not what he had meant to say, but now that he is speaking he can't stop. "Do you have any idea what that does to you?" This is something he has never told anyone, not Jose, not Shibuya, not any of his previous friends and loved ones. Not Shinou, because Shinou already knows. "I've seen the world. I've seen it from every possible angle, its beauties and its horrors, its kindnesses and cruelties, over and over and over again. And I... the world is a terrible place. I know. I've lived it. For every life I lived to a happy end, there were ten, twenty, a hundred where human greed or fear or foolishness killed me before. Because people are unjust, selfish and cruel."
A mocking laugh. "Do you know what it's like to be burned, Yozak? I do. It's the worst pain you can possibly imagine; nothing in the world comes close to it. I know since I've had ample opportunities to compare, you see. But they keep doing it to me, keep torturing and killing me out of their own fear and ignorance, over and over and over again. And they just won't stop, and I – I hate them for it."
His voice has grown shrill, but he still can't make himself stop. "I'm tired. I'm so tired. I just want it all to end."
Murata catches a flare of reluctant pity in Yozak's eyes. "I'm sorry," Yozak says, and he knows the "but" is about to follow but all the same Murata really wants to believe he means it.
"I'm sorry too," he whispers.
Sliding the knife in is the work of just a second and Yozak jerks, an expression of surprise etched on his face. Murata likes Yozak, so he used all his skill to make it quick and the "why?" barely makes it past his friend's lips before he falls limp.
Murata doesn't answer.
Shinou looks up when he enters their tent. "Well, did you like it?"
"You are a complete bastard sometimes, you know that," Murata retorts, but his words lack sting.
In Shin Makoku, he had made an effort to connect with people, an effort he had not made for a long, long time. It had been solely for Shibuya's – Yuuri's – benefit, but the connections had remained even after Yuuri's death, ties to Yuuri's friends, ephemeral yet strong, seemingly unbreakable, and so very unwanted.
With Yozak's death, it feels like these ties have been severed; now, thinking of Wolfram, of Gwendal or Conrad no longer brings up the thick heaviness of guilt or the plaintive wish things had gone differently or any emotion at all. He can think of Cecilie von Spitzberg, and although he remembers she prefers to be called Cheri that is unimportant and he first thinks of her weaknesses and how they could be exploited.
It is as if a heavy weight has finally fallen from him, leaving him light and free, no longer bound to these mortals with their tiny lives that are over in the blink of an eye and who then dare to demand that he grieve for them. It has been too long, too much, too many deaths and he simply doesn't care anymore – and for the first time in far, far too long he smiles a real smile.
"Of course I'm a complete bastard. It's why you love me, after all," Shinou is saying, striding towards Murata. He catches the sage's chin between his fingers, holds it steady and studies his face. "Much better. You don't look nearly so conflicted anymore."
Murata swallows. "You know that I'll always follow you, no matter what-"
"Of course I know that. But now I know that you'll want to, as well." Shinou smiles, then leans forward.
This kiss is soft and gentle, like earlier times except that Murata doesn't like to remember them these days. Before, Murata always closed his eyes during their encounters; cowardly as it was, it was simply easier that way. Now, he locks his gaze on black eyes with madness and brooding darkness behind them, unafraid, and smiles into the kiss.
They part slowly, reluctantly, and only move a short distance; Murata lifts his hand to touch Shinou's face, leaving bloody streaks on his cheek – he hadn't washed his hands before returning.
"So you killed him, then." It's not a question and Shinou sounds much more interested in tracing his face than in speech; Murata nods an answer anyway.
"In this world, there isn't room for anyone other than the two of us."
Shinou musters him, a slow smile growing on his face and Murata would feel as if he'd just passed a test except that there are no tests between them, and their lips meet again.
After a long silence Shinou draws back slightly, speaks. "The sun will be rising soon. Want to come watch?"
It is a question, but one with only one answer and laughing, they make their way side-by-side up to the nearby hilltop to watch the dawn; the dawn and the world's ending.