Tristepin had faced the prospect of dying many, many times before.
He'd been facedown in mud, sand, snow, dirt, slime, pretty much any kind of terrain imaginable. He had seen his life flash before his eyes so many times he could list how many days he'd had toast for breakfast. (last count was 1,269 mornings but he was debating including the day he'd eaten nothing but toast as 3 instead of one...Iop's Sword, that Xav could bake a killer baguette. Shame the legends mentioned nothing about bread in the afterlife...)
There had been times that had seemed more dire than others, of course. The night he'd been on the road for the first time without Goultard, crushed and robbed by that bwork, that had been rough. During training there had been quite a few nights where he'd crawled into his bunk wishing he could die, he was so sore and ragged. Being sick on the boat to Oma hadn't been quite as painful as say, having been beaten to a pulp by an enemy, but after your stomach tries to empty itself for the fifth time in a row you wonder if being flattened into the dirt wouldn't have been preferable.
The fight with the dragon with the funny name was more on the *actual* near-death experience list. He would have been a charcoal briquette if Eva hadn't hauled his sorry carcass down the side passage. It hadn't been so much the effort of diverting the flame that had worn him out then. It was the tapping into the rage and power and bile that was demonic energy and then pulling his consciousness back out again that was the really draining part. He'd been fine after a while, but every time he delved into those reserves of power his soul felt like it needed a good scrubbing. Especially back then, when Rubilax hadn't been there in his head with him, stemming the flow, shaping the force, acting as a conduit. The effect had been temporary, thank Iop, but again, if Eva hadn't been there...
and he couldn't forget the fight with that bastard Sadida prince, but Tristepin wasn't sure if he liked the idea that Armand had been a true threat to his life. But then again, Tristepin didn't like the idea that he'd used Rubilax in a situation that hadn't been life or death. Because to think that was to admit he'd done it for purely selfish, prideful, angry reasons...
And then the slow ignominious trial of wandering the desert; shirtless, starving, thirsty, seemingly friendless, talking to hallucinations. Wondering which would kill him first, the exhaustion or the lack of water. At the time, he'd keenly felt how un-iop-like a death like that would have been. He would have died in the middle of nowhere, alone and unmourned, eventually just becoming weaker and weaker until the suffering stopped. A Iop was supposed to die on his feet, fighting. But then, Tristepin hadn't felt like he deserved a Iop's death, had felt like he'd lost the right to even call himself a Iop.
A knight's death should be a noble thing, done while protecting one's liege or one's love, a sacrifice of legendary proportions, accomplished at the height of some daring, impossible feat.
It wasn't so much about dying, really, it wasn't like Tristepin was about to just throw himself off a cliff and be done with it.
His true intention was to overcome the dark condemnation his drunk of a father had given him: that Tristepin was worthless, and would one day die slowly and alone, laid out in a ditch somewhere, helpless to protect anyone, unmourned, and unremembered. Tristepin partly knew it had been the drink talking, but the words haunted him every day of his life.
There had been a statue in the courtyard of his hometown, one of the great dragon-killer Rykke Errel. Everyone in town knew the name, knew the story, and even the rare traveling stranger had recognized the tale. Rykke had supposedly died on that spot, fighting for his beloved and for the sake of the whole world. No one forgot you if you were a hero, and legend had it Rykke had died in the arms of his lady, surrounded by the grateful townsfolk he had saved.
And here, lying on his back, staring up at the steel-grey clouds, Tristepin seemed to be being handed his ideal. Here was the best death a Iop could dream of; dying to save not only a princess, but also saving the one you loved, the most beautiful girl you'd ever seen. Then getting to die in her arms, confident you would never be forgotten. Surely a death like this was as far from the anonymous ditch as it was possible to get. This would show all the people who'd ever belittled him just how 'worthless' he was.
This was the kind of death people wrote stories and sang songs about. He might even get a statue out of it if all went well. He would be a legend.
Yet all he could think of was how much he wanted to live.
How much he wanted to live because she wanted him to. The desperation in her gaze made him want to continue to fight the oncoming darkness playing around the edge of his vision. It would have been worth it to go back to being a washed up nobody again to be able to see those green eyes smiling down on him, instead of her howling his name in despair. Time seemed to have stopped, and he could count each tear that fell from her soft cheeks, glittering like stars in her sad emerald eyes.
More than anything, he wished he knew how she felt about him...or how she might have felt about him, if he'd had a chance to woo her. If he'd been able to properly apologize and work on rebuilding the connection from before the bow incident. He wished he'd had time to court her...wished he'd made the decision to pursue her much, much sooner. And maybe if not dying a virgin was too much to ask of the universe...learning what Eva's lips tasted like, just once, would have been nice.
The future had never really been a solid concept with him until he'd met Yugo and Amalia and Ruel. Of course he had his dreams and ambitions...but it had all been very abstract. Very 'one day, when I get to be as strong as master Goultard..." but now he supposed he'd never get the chance to see if he could surpass his master. Not, he sighed inwardly, that he'd had much of a chance to begin with.
But looking in Eva's eyes, suddenly he longed for a future. A future he might have seen written on her face that night under the stars in the snow. A future with her at his side, with epic battles and maybe even epic children, a legacy of heroism and love. He'd never, never, ever thought about the possibility of his having a family before meeting her... yet as he lay there, feeling his strength trickle out of him like dust on the wind, he wondered if maybe they'd have been lucky enough to take after their beautiful, intelligent mother...instead of their comic Iop-headed papa.
He snuggled just that much further into Eva's arms, savoring what he was sure were his last moments. He looked blearily up at her, and despite her tears and grief-contorted face, she was still the most beautiful girl he'd ever met. He tried to lift his hand, to caress that wheat-golden hair like he'd always wanted to, but suddenly his arm felt as heavy as a mountain, and he saved his strength to whisper to her instead.
"Don't worry Eva, I'm not dying, I'm entering the legend."
Even as he said it, even as he looked in her eyes and lied, he smiled. It wasn't so much his words that were a lie; (who knew, maybe he really would be hailed as a legend after this) but the lie was in his smile, and his voice. The lie that he was satisfied and ready to be at peace. The lie that leaving her side was anywhere on the list of things he wanted to do. And it felt like a lie, a denial of everything he felt at that moment, not to tell her he loved her.
But even if he couldn't be with her...even if this really was the end and Iops and Cra don't end up in the same place when they died...he wanted her to find her own happiness and not be bogged down with unnecessary confusion about him. Assuming she cared enough for that to effect her.
He heard her, as if from a long way off, begging him not to leave, yelling at him. This time his smile was genuine.