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Another Chance, For You

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~~~ The First ~~~

He opens his eyes and sees green, sees her, and knows she is all he will ever want. They do not even have names.

The warmth of her enfolds the air between them and his breath stills in his lungs from the proximity. She is beautiful. He does not know how he can know it to be so when she is all he has ever seen, but he knows it; there is no question, no doubt. He is a god, fully formed and filled with knowledge - shimmering with power - and he knows that without her his soul will be incomplete, wretched.

His fingers move of their own accord, straining to meet with that which will satisfy their hunger, and a sound like desperation vibrates in his throat when he sees her doing the same. Their hands touch and it is like light and song and breath, two pulses pounding against one another in discordant, lyrical life. Fingertips dance along knuckles and skin, tracing delicate, ticklish paths up their arms and pausing, uncertain, before resting with tentative, awestruck warmth against each other’s faces. She traces his jaw, his ears, he, her cheekbones and lips, both breathless and trembling.

He is startled by a rustling of cloth and a figure cupping their jaws with tenderness, coaxing them to turn. “Children,” they say, and he looks up to the sight of two towering figures in robes of colorful silk and ropes of silver and pearls hanging from their necks and wrists. Each holds out a hand to help them rise to their feet, the expressions of joy they wear the most beautiful adornments clothing their elegant, beautiful bodies. “Stand, and be glad,” they say. “You are alive and have purpose.”

“Who are you?” she, bearing the greenest of eyes, asks. “Who are we?”

“We are the First and the Second,” one of them says, “and the creators of all that yet exists. But our dreams of the world cannot be accomplished by two or ten or even a hundred and so we are making more like us to help build and design and fill the world.”

“You are Izanagi,” the other says to him, “and you, Izanami,” they say to her, “and you have been tasked with creating earth and stone and clay, tree and grass and flower. It is a noble, difficult task, one that will demand the work and hands of two and will continue to demand of you for many years to come. Will you accept the task?”

He looks to her and she is already looking back at him, verdant eyes sparkling with excitement, and she nods. He faces the First Two and nods as well. “We will.”

One of the Two holds out to them a spear of fine craft, as rich and lovely as they that bear it, and Izanagi wraps the pads of his strong fingers around its smooth, wooden shaft.“The Heavenly Spear, Ame-no-nuboko. Take it to the bridge where Heaven and Earth are joined together and use it to accomplish your work.”

Izanami nods and Izanagi bows low and the two leave for the Heavenly Bridge. It descends toward the Earth with grace, a path of divine starlight and sunlight, the endless ocean of the world visible through the beams.

Izanami rests her hand against Izanagi’s arm and smiles up at him - outshining the dazzle at their feet - and gestures to the spear in his hand. “If you build the land I will make it flourish and flower while you rest.”

He wants to reply, wishes to speak, but her eyes are shimmering and words have fled him. He nods and bends over the edge of the bridge to dip the spear in the water, swirling it through the waves and eddies. The ocean heaves and rolls in its wake, the earth at its depth rising in the midst of churning whirlpools with thunderous sound. Izanagi directs the dirt and clay and stone into shapes that please him, into valleys and mountains and planes that bring smiles to the face of Izanami who stands at his side without wavering as the hours pass. And when the sun has rounded the Earth a time and Izanagi’s hands tremble with the strain of directing the power from his veins, he deems his work done with satisfaction. He drops, knees quivering and a tired grin on his face. “It is what I feel myself to be and, therefore, a reflection of all that I am. I wish for you to see it and see me, know me.”

Izanami crouches beside him, placing a hand to his brow and looks at him with pride. “It is beautiful. Strong and majestic and powerful. I could live with it for eternity and never tire of it.”

He swallows and does not ask her, not yet, if she will. If she will stay with him. “It is not finished yet,” he tells her instead. “It needs your hands to make it green.”

Her brow furrows in thought. “Why green?”

Izanagi reaches up and traces the line of her cheek, dances over the flutter of her eyelashes, pressing a kiss to the fingers of her hand that rise to touch him in turn. “It was the first color I saw and the most beautiful of any I have seen and the world will only seem lovely to my eyes if it is covered in it.”

Izanami‘s face flushes pink and her gaze flies away before darting back with determination and spirit. “Then I will do as you have done and create the image of my soul on the earth and I will do it in green. Know me, Izanagi. Watch me.” And she rises to take the Heavenly Spear in hand.

“Always,” he says, but she is focused, intent on her work, and she does not hear, but Izanagi does not mind. Unless he has greatly misunderstood all her words and actions, then she is as drawn to him as he is drawn to her and he will have time to speak his devotions. He can wait.

She bends and plunges the Heavenly Spear toward the Earth, striking the land and letting the power of a goddess flow. The dirt and clay come alive, plants too numerous to count of every size and shape and color blanketing the ground and towering over it after their kind. Her face flushes with the effort, loose strands of hair sticking to her neck and swaying with her movement.

Izanagi does not know where to look. If that is how her soul appears then it is even more beautiful than he could have imagined, as alluring as her face and her eyes. Will they part after this? With the creating complete will they separate for the years to follow, only crossing paths as they maintain and guide and enrich their domains? Will he catch no more than brief glimpses of her fiery, passionate eyes after this day? Unbearable.

She weaves a tapestry for the ground of verdure and vitality that soaks up sunlight and breathes life into the air. She breathes life and sunlight and Izanagi is certain now. Time may make it stronger but what he feels is undeniable - Izanami is the one his heart and soul yearn for and will yearn for until the world ends.

The sun takes another turn while Izanami works and the dull earth is robed in color when she finally sinks to her knees and lets the Heavenly Spear go with a dull clatter. She looks up with a bright smile when Izanagi brushes the hair back from her face, touches her shoulder in silent question. “It is done. We finished it.”

He nods, too wrapped up in the light of her smile to find words to respond.

Something in her face softens as she looks at him, absorbs the subtleties of his expression, and she reaches up and pulls his hand down into her lap. Her fingers trace his skin, loops and swirls of ticklish, heart-racing distractions, learning the contour of his bones. “Come down and see it with me?” she asks.

Izanagi tears his eyes away from the dance of her fingertips, the warmth of her hands, and meets her gaze. He swallows. “And once we have seen it, what then?”

She bites her lip and turns to gaze on the land below them. Her voice comes out barely more than a whisper, delicate and clear and full of hope. “Stay with me?”

His breath rushes out, caught in the breeze and exuberant in its freedom while he is reeling. The stars have aligned to give him all he has dreamed of and while he still cannot speak her face begins to tense, nervous and resigned, so he darts a hand out to cup her chin before she can flee. “Always,” he says. “I will stay with you always if it is what you wish.”

Her smile is a sunbeam.

~

They descend to the Earth and see the wonders of what they have built up close, they dig their hands into the loam and clay, they watch the flutter of delicate petals on fragile stalks, they lean against rough bark and smooth bark and listen to the rustling of needles and leaves in the wind, they climb the mountains and peer over cliffs and stumble over sand and stones on the beach, they prick their fingers on thorns and spines and soothe the sting with lumpy salves. It is all theirs and it is beautiful. It is their embodied souls and it is breathtaking.

They stay.

~

He paces along the wooden planks of their porch, fists clenching on air. She should be back by now; if she had let him come he would not be left here wondering, alone.

(“You will be left to wait outside, anyway, and I am not so unwell I cannot walk up a stable, safe bridge on my own. Stay here and do your morning’s work, I will not be gone more than a few hours.”)

He had traversed the northern lands and maintained its rugged stone, shored up a failing mountain, unburied a poor soul trapped in a cave, and returned. She was not back. So he had gone to the ocean’s islands and calmed the volcanoes where humans have moved in and shown them how to use the brittle rocks forged in the heat to their purposes. She still had not returned. The deserts rarely needed any time from him but he had checked them anyway and returned still bubbling like a hot spring with nervous energy and so he had begun his repetitive journey along the floor.

It is past midday now.

He hears her labored breaths breaking from the trees and rushes to her side. She loops her arms around his neck in greeting and he takes the chance to lift her in his arms, carrying her toward the house and ignoring her protests.

“Let me do this for you, my love.”

She sighs, but settles, resting her head against his shoulder.

He sets her on a couch and pulls off her shoes, then pulls her feet into his lap and presses into the aching flesh with his knuckles until she groans and tips her head back in relief. And then he waits; she will tell him when she is ready.

She groans when he kneads in the right places, sighs contentedly over the rest, and the chittering of the birds outside provides the harmony. The shadows shift and they both sink deeper into the cushions as the day begins to wane.

“I’m pregnant,” she says.

His eyes dart to hers, wide and startled. “...What?”

She is smiling, eyes sparkling like gemstones - like the ones he made to match but are never quite right - and she bites her lip to quell a giggle. “I’m pregnant, my heart.”

He swoops her up in his arms again, dancing her around the room to the tune of her excited laughs, heart swelling almost to burst.

This is more than he ever dreamed of.

~

“Something’s wrong,” Inari says, her brow furrowed and her hand hovering over Izanami’s swollen belly. “She’s too hot.”

And the words have broken open a door they did not know existed for Izanami begins to scream. She claws at her stomach, fingernails leaving deep furrows in her skin that bleed and welt. “It burns! Oh gods, it burns!”

Izanagi darts forward to grab her hands, torn by the expression of agony on her beautiful face, and turns to Inari in panic. “What is wrong with her?”

Inari is fighting to hold Izanami’s legs still, lips pursed, and shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

Her screams echo off the walls and stab his ears, his gut, his heart. His wife is in torment and he can do nothing. Only watch.

~

Her hand is limp in his, damp and still too warm. The stench of charred flesh claws at his nostrils and seeps into his pores, festering and grimey.

Inari left with the babe, hands swathed in layer upon layer of cloth to protect them from the heat of his flesh, a fire he cannot control. He stole it from his mother.

Izanagi sits and does nothing. Stares at nothing. What point is there? His wife is…

And his son is the monster that took her away. What point is there in anything?

He does not look up when a wind rushes through the house, a swell of divine power pressing on his mind. Two figures step up beside him, their robes brushing his sides.

“The god of fire,” one of them says. “We… did not expect this.”

He does not know whether to laugh or to cry, so continues his vacant vigil, gaze just south of her face. “If that was meant to be an apology or condolences, it was a miserable attempt.”

The other, the First, crouches beside him and reaches out to run their hand across his wife’s face before turning to him and cupping his cheeks. Their eyes swim with tears. “I grieve your loss, Izanagi.”

His face crumples. Tears drip from his eyes and onto her robes, his robes, and he cannot stop a whimper from escaping his lips. “It wasn’t long enough. We didn’t have enough time. Gods are meant to have eternity and we… It wasn’t long enough.”

The First nods and the Second places their hand on Izanagi’s head. “We understand,” they say. “We can give you more time but there are no guarantees down that path. Misery is as likely as joy.”

Her hand is cold. He drags his eyes to her face. Her eyelids are closed, hiding the empty gaze that haunts him already, vacant and silent and dull. This cannot be the last of her, cannot be the end of their story. His resolve brings him to his feet.

They both nod in understanding and clasp hands. “You must die, Izanagi, and when you have found death as a god you will be reborn as a human, bound to their uncertain, fickle fates, to doom or peace as befits your chance.”

“I will take that chance,” he says.

Fate is not kind to him.

~~~ The Second ~~~

How cruel is fate, he thinks as a child, to be born among a people who worship the god of fire. They dance and pray and honor him in their celebrations of life and he cannot bring himself to utter a word of ablution of his own. His anger is cold and steady where his people’s is hot and always changing. “Cold as ice,” they say of him and he does not mind it.

He does not mind being among them, either, because she is here. He knows the moment he sees her, himself barely walking and her still swaddled in soft skins and furs, verdant eyes shining out of the bundle with eerie intelligence. She is still beautiful.

~

He grows and she grows and he knows her, knows those eyes, but does she know him? He watches her, hoping for clarity, but she has greater concerns than the subtle attentions of a boy and his growing fear is that she does not even notice him, does not care if she does.

~

He is newly a man, weighted with the burden to seek a bride, and still he cannot find his courage. He is watching her gather water from the river while he mends a torn net when she straightens from her crouch and looks him in the eye.

His breath freezes.

She huffs, the twist of frustration on her face so familiar, and marches to him.

His heart races in his chest, the pound of it thunderous and disorienting as her hand clasps his wrist in a grip of searing heat. “Shirokani?” he asks.

Her answer is a shake of her head and a great hauling on the arm in her hand toward the forest and he follows along in silent, confused obedience; he has seen the fierceness of her anger, in this life and the last, and will not test it.

Deep in the trees she rounds on him and burrows a finger in his chest. “Fifteen years, Isonash. I have waited fifteen years for you to speak to me and all you do is stare,” she says, and her anger drains to the dredges of sad resignation between one moment and the next. “Do you not remember me?”

His throat clenches and his heart soars and he reaches out to touch her cheek, like the first time, like the thousands that followed, and hardly dares to breathe. “I was afraid you did not remember,” he whispers. “I was too afraid to ask and look a fool.”

The sadness melts away and she chuckles, her gaze sparkling with fondness. “And yet even if I had not remembered I would have likely loved you anyway. You should have spoken to me.”

He nods. “You are right. Forgive me.” He traces the shell of her ear, the line of her jaw. “I should have spoken to you. And now that I have I fear I cannot be content.” He presses their foreheads together and takes the first easy breath of this lifetime. “I have missed you, my love.”

Her fingers tangle in his clothes and she sighs. “How long did you live after-“

“Please,” he interrupts. “Do not make me speak of it. I- It was agony without you, no matter how long.”

“A long time, then,” she says. Like it can be so simple. But the way she wraps her arms around his neck are a comfort, a balm to the hurt she knows he endured. She pulls back and holds his face in her hands with reverence, eyes roving over him. “Kiss me?” she asks.

His heart surges, his pulse quickening with a different kind of fire, and he closes his palms over her hands. “It is not proper.”

She frowns. “I married you once, already. It being in a previous life does not mean I think it invalid.” Her frown deepens into a look of concern. “Unless you do not wish to?”

The only response he can conceive is to bend down and press his lips to hers, unhurried but fierce, reassuring. She is the same in his arms and the warmth eases the ache that has surrounded his heart since he watched the spark dim in her eyes. All will be well now.

~

The cogongrass wall at Isonash’s back rustles as he shifts, seeking better comfort in his place outside the door to his home. The eastern horizon is dark, brewing with the ink and ash of an overcast sky while fire and heavenly light retreat to the west, fleeing the the approaching army of nightfall to hide behind the lip of the earth; Harukor will be along to fetch him soon. Isonash traces his fingers along the hilt of the sword idle in his lap, its sheath and a woven basket resting at his feet, and murmurs a prayer to the few kamuy he trusts for their blessing, for their mercy.

The steady thump of heavy footsteps on the earth draws his eyes away from the tumultuous sky and he looks up. Harukor approaches, the sash around his chest holding a ceremonial quiver against his back and ceremonial sword at his waist.

Isonash rises from the rush mat and brushes the folds of his robe - freeing the embroidered ruunpe of any dirt that may cling to it - and retrieves the sword, its guard, and the basket from the ground. He straightens his clothes, holds the gifts steady and sure, and breathes deeply.

Harukor’s gaze is serious on him, critical and searching, but he seems pleased with what he finds and offers a rare smile. “Are you ready?”

Isonash nods, stomach beginning to swim as they walk and kick up dust beneath their feet. The village is small and the journey through it short but nods of encouragement and joyful smiles on his behalf are aplenty along the way. None of it settles his sparking nerves. He was an ageless god once, yet even that cannot stop the chaos of a young man’s body and mind, especially on a day like this. He tightens his grip around the sword’s hilt, unable to chase away a tiny, swirling bubble of nervousness in his belly.

The door is open in welcome when they arrive, the dull chatter of a dozen voices dying as they climb the ladder and enter the house. His mother and brother are against the wall near the entrance, close enough to touch and offer reassurance, and he warms at the sight of them. Munkeke’s family fill the scattered planes and corners of the rest of the house, clustered together in small groups and watching on with wide smiles of happiness and pride for their youngest.

And she is waiting for him, seated across the fire with her father and her verdant eyes bright with excitement. She is watching him. A brand new ponkut sash is wrapped around her waist and her arms and lips are dark with the last of her tattoos. A bowl sits gripped in knuckles white with tension and it is that sight which finally helps him calm, just a little. He is not alone.

Munkeke welcomes them with warmth - with the fond, hard-won smile Isonash has learned to cherish - and gestures for them to sit.

Isonash wrenches his gaze from hers and sinks to the floor, laying the gifts he has brought alongside those Harukor carried just as Munkeke begins to pray.

The murmur of his pseudo-father’s baritone joins in the supplications for the god of fire’s blessings and good fortune and Isonash knows he should lend his own voice to the men's harmony but his eyes are drawn back to her, back to the curve of her cheekbones, the waves of her hair, the rich embroidery of her robe - a match to his own robes for they were both made by her hand. Her lips follow along with her father’s beseeching, her voice gentle and subdued next to his boisterous rumble, but her gaze is on him, shimmering and hopeful and happy.

They stay on him as the prayers die and she passes the bowl in her hands into his own, outstretched, their fingertips brushing against the clay. They stay on him as he eats his portion and passes it back, half remaining for her to reject or accept along with his hand. They stay on him as she scoops out the rice and consumes it, consumes it like she has his heart and his soul and left him aching for her with every fiber of his being. They stay on him through celebration and feasting and dancing and drinking and the journey to their own home where he bares them to one another and knows her for the first time in far too long. She does not tear her eyes from him even once and he knows this because he sees nothing but her the entire night.

They are one again.

~

Her breath is fading, shallowing. The rise of her chest weaker with every inhale, the sound softer on every exhale, and her blistered, sore-covered skin cools beneath his touch.

They were supposed to have more time.

He sits and he waits and he prays, his bones stiff with dread and heartache; he cannot move from her side, cannot miss a moment. Should she speak, he must be here to hear it.

His vigilance seems worthless, bespeaks arrogance on his part to think it needed, when she drifts away along with the sunlight, slack and still and silent. She is gone, swallowed up in twilight and contagion.

He gathers up the delicate bones of her hand in his own and bows over it in bridled grief. He will not weep, not again. He has only the strength for a whispered plea, desperation incarnate to any deity who deigns to listen.

Another chance. Another chance, please.

~~~ The Third ~~~

Arcadia is ruinous; flames leap to the sky like dancers clothed in orange and red and the rebellion charges toward the city’s weakly-beating heart clothed in armor of fury and pride. The gates of the tribunal shudder from the press of thousands before flying open on mangled hinges, releasing a hoard as demons come to ravage the earth.

Clarines rushes from the window to the inner courtyard, warning his father as he vaults over the barricades. “King Arcas, they’ve broken through the gates!”

Arcas nods as Clarines jogs to his side, shrugging his quiver over his shoulder and testing the fit of his blades in their sheaths. He turns, eyes burning with bloodlust and a dragon smile. “May your sword be strong,” he says.

Clarines swallows, retying the band holding his hair back from his face and pulling his sword free. “And your arrows fly true,” he returns.

The rebels come charging in and all is chaos for a time.

~

Arcas leads him to the dungeon, a torch held high before him and glinting off the greaves on his forearms, the moisture clinging to the walls, - a field of muted stars. “We believe she is the leader, the instigator of it all,” he says. “I know not how such a tiny thing led so massive a rebellion, but I hold out hope that you of all people will learn her secrets and quell this thing before it grows any larger.”

Clarines nods but has not the time to voice his thoughts before they round the last corner - coming face-to-face with she that stands within - and the breath in his chest is punched free.

“Tiny and delicate” is inadequate; the woman is not even so high as Clarines’s chin, slim in frame and lithe in limb, but the way her shackles groan as she tugs and strains belies the strength she bears. She snarls, spitting insults and ugly promises of death and mutiny, and there is fire in her eyes, verdant and beautiful and as blistering as the core of the temple’s holy flames. He cannot breathe.

Her ire alights on him and she freezes, vulnerability clouding gaze as it roves over his face. To anyone else she might seem cautious, curious, but he sees the hope, the uncertainty, the fragility within. She draws back a step from the door.

Arcas smirks. “Mayhap you will not have need to interrogate her at all,” he whispers, “simply enchant her as you have so many others.”

Clarines’ stomach twists but he smirks as well, unwilling to reveal himself. His father will never understand this, would never permit it even should he, and Clarines does not know how to fix this yet. He needs time. “Leave it all to me,” he says, and barely strangles a sigh of relief when Arcas claps him on the shoulder and retreats.

He waits, stiff and unyielding, as his father’s steps echo up the stairs and into the daylight, shut out by the slamming of the prison door, and only then does he move, yanking the keys from his belt and unlocking the cell with shaking hands. He rushes to her, crowding her against the wall as her hands come up to weave in his clothes and yank him down, mouths meeting in a messy tangle. He kisses her until they are breathless and panting, hungry with restrained need, but the shaking has ceased and Clarines feels peace for the first time in this life.

He pulls back enough to breathe, resting his forehead against hers and holding her face in his hands. “I have missed you, my love.”

Her voice trembles, wispy as water. “And I, you. I have never seen you from so close until this moment. I did not realize-”

He shakes his head. “It is I who should apologize. I do not agree with what my father has done with the city but he ignores my counsel. I mean to repair the damage he has wrought once his rule ends but I have tarried too long, it seems.”

She laughs, tears dripping through her bright smile. “Always trying to bear the burden of faults not of your own making,” she says. Her fingers unweave from his shirt and tangle around his shoulders, pulling his face down to press into the skin of her neck. “Carry not the weight of the sins of others or you will never have the strength to change the world.”

His breath hitches and he clings to her. “I fear we were given the chance to change the world only once and it has already been done. Now we will live on this land we have made, suffering for eternity for some reason I cannot fathom.”

She pulls his head away and smacks her hands to his cheeks, gaze warm and glowing. “Or maybe life is just that way sometimes and we need only be patient.”

“Does your optimism have no end?” he asks, stroking a finger along her cheek and trying to quell the smile tugging at his lips.

She chuckles. “It is compensation for your pessimism.”

He laughs, wet and bitter, but does not argue, pulling away a little. “I will get you out of here,” he swears. “It may take a few days to plan all that I must, but I will set you free, legally or not.”

She frowns and curls her fingers in his collar. “I do not want you to put yourself in danger for my sake.”

He wraps his hands around her own and shakes his head. “I am far more clever than my father believes and under no suspicion; I will be safe. But you…” he trails off, eyes welling with tears. Waves of memories wash over him, each more painful than the last, and the weight of them pile on one another from lifetimes of renewed grief. “Please, please do not stay and continue your work with the rebellion,” he says. “I will find ways to help them covertly, to further their cause and advance my rise to leadership. But I would have you out of harm’s way.”

Her frown deepens. “I do not wish to be parted from you.”

“Nor I, you,” he says, “but I will find you when peace is restored. Please, my love. I cannot bear to see you die so young again. I cannot bear to spend so long alone.” Every fiber of his being howls at the very idea of it, yearning for respite from his torment.

Her eyes, her beautiful eyes that he would know in any lifetime, in any world, search his face, delve into his soul, and they dim with knowledge and sorrow. Her fingers touch his cheek. “I understand. I will go. I will hide myself until you can retrieve me once more.”

He sags with relief, burying his nose in her hair and wrapping his arms around her as he wishes to do forever. “What name should I search for you by?” he asks. “What should I call you?”

“Tanbarun,” she tells him, and he remembers it.

~

When he ascends to power and concedes half the city to the rebellion, when he affirms that their cause is just and there is no recompense for all they have suffered and lost, when Arcadia dissolves into two distinct nations and the younger fraction deliberates on what they wish to be called, he stills. He closes his eyes and he prays to the gods who must have cursed them to misery.

Just one more chance. One more chance, please.

He begs for one last chance to have peace, to find love, to see her again. He will accept their doom after that.

~~~ The Fourth ~~~

Izana returns to Wistal to whispers of a foreign peasant grafting herself to his naive little brother’s side; to whispers of a dangerous rogue roosting in trees and lounging around the pharmacy, trailing after the Second Prince’s precious friend or secret lover or pitiable charity case or whatever she may be.

Izana frowns. Rumors are always rooted in truth, no matter how small the grain, and he will find the source, uproot it, and prune the diseased flesh.

Some few of the whispers ring true for he finds his brother with a woman wreathed in flame, her hair a vivid chroma to Zen’s pale strands; like blood staining snow, and too like to reality should he let things lie.

He follows her from a distance when the two part and lurks in the shadows of the pharmacy until she emerges with the young Ryuu. They skim through records as they walk the grounds and a gust of wind catches them by surprise, scattering pages across the green.

Their distraction is a cover as he strides forward - of a mind to see her up close - and pauses in her path as she pulls a wayward sheet from her face. Their eyes meet and…

And he knows those eyes, will always know those eyes, no matter the face they reside in, and the need to search, to find, to see her once more that has hounded his steps for years, for decades, finally quiets. His gaze roves her face, relishing the flaws and strengths and beautiful lines, his soul singing with joy. He has found her again. He is whole again, intimate and familiar stitches binding him together with tender speed. In the span of a moment he feels the relief of four lifetimes of pain alleviating, taking in her expression with breathless excitement, but...

But he sees surprise, shock - she did not expect someone to be standing there, had likely not heard his approach - but there is no recognition, no familiarity. Her soul does not sing with his, does not resonate and answer his call. He is unknown to her and it guts him with violence, unravels the infant stitches and tears him open, spilling his blood and his heart on the ground until he is empty and hollow.

The little pharmacist runs up and notices him and he steadies himself, signals for Ryuu’s silence, and then he flees, retreats for his office and into the maelstrom of his thoughts. It had been a mere moment, the agony of three lifetimes condensed to the breadth of a second, to see she did not see and he has died three times but none of his deaths have hurt like this. He has watched her die three times and it could not prepare him for this. He cannot bear to be near her, cannot bear to see those eyes bereft of love, cannot bear to stand by when she does not know him.

He never thought the need to fear this.

She does not remember him and it is a betrayal like no other. He cannot even fault her for it, for there is nowhere to place the blame except upon the cruelty of fate itself, on that which would have their memories be his and only his. For if she does remember him, there is little he can do to bring them joy. How could the Crown Prince take a foreign peasant for a bride? How could he ever convince the nobles that an ordinary girl from Tanbarun is anything more than the bright red hair they will see before all else?

And if she were to remember would her desire for him revive? Her loyalty and affection in this life are said to lie wholly and solely with the Second Prince and Izana is not sure he can bear to watch her give her heart to another, even if Zen is the only one he might deem worthy of her. He does not think he can bear it.

So he returns to his office and he sends for her. He mocks her and scolds her and inside he is screaming. He aches at the bitter, judgmental words he shoves in her face; he tells her what is true and he does it cruelly as only he can because he is angry and hurt and he has always been petty and cruel. But better that she feel hurt and leave, better that she find a nice boy in a small town, and live out her days in peace. Better that she live and be happy in this life where she has no memory of the past than become embroiled in the chaos and savagery of court life.

Better that he knows she is well but where he does not have to see her and grieve while she yet lives. He can be contented if she is safe and happy. He can be contented if he does not have to witness her love a stranger. He can be contented even if she does not remember.

He will have to be.

~

She surprises him. More than she ever has before and it is agony. Her presence simultaneously calms and scolds the Crown Prince of Tanbarun and eases relations between the two nations. Her presence has made Zen stronger, bolder, kinder, and he cannot find complaint in that. Her presence smooths the rough edges of the rogue at the Second Prince’s side and makes him a knight, however unconventional he remains. Her presence is what closes the northern gates to halt a plague and finds the source of the illness and speeds the return of health to the Scholar’s City.

She surprises him again and again and again and he realizes that she would make a fine queen but she wishes to be a princess.

And yet he no longer thinks he has the will to drive her away. Months and years pass by as he stands by for the sake of their happiness, for the sake of his dear brother that he cannot stand to see hurt again and for the sake of his love who he is doomed to never have.

He stands by and he watches and he aches, trying to swallow the bitterness at seeing her eyes light up at the mention of Zen’s name, at how she declares her devotion to him over and over and wears her fondness for him without shame.

They draw closer to one another, spurred on first by his disapproval and then bolstered by his support and he has no one to blame but himself. He has always been weak for her.

~

Of all people it is Makiri who notices, walking with him on the balustrade when laughter echoes from below and they both peer over the edge of the parapet. Shirayuki and her ever-present shadow are returning, approaching the castle with baskets full of greenery in their arms and nudging each other playfully over some jest.

The young pharmacists have completed their studying and their mission on behalf of the Olin Maris, receiving their station in Wilant with pride. Difficulties among the nobility have delayed his marriage and Haki still watches over the Scholar’s District in Lyrias. Zen, new regent at Wilant, insists that he will make Shirayuki his bride someday, but from all Izana has seen on his visit this week she seems to harbor nothing more than fond friendship for him. He cannot say he is surprised, not after how Zen spent the past years neglecting their romance. He half expects his little brother’s vagabond-turned-knight to propose before Zen does.

He watches them go by, a bittersweet fondness washing over him when he sees her pause and tilt her head back to smile up at the sky.

(“It is the same shade as your eyes,” she says, matter-of-fact and no trace of shyness on her face as she gazes up into the heavens, her fingers dancing over his palm where it rests at her side.

He accepts her answer with a huff, inordinately pleased with any compliment he receives from her but unwilling to say so.)

“Haki and I have both grown rather fond of her over the years,” Makiri says at his elbow and Izana‘s gaze slides to him.

“Is that so?” he asks, willing his voice to show now more than mild curiosity.

Makiri nods, glancing over at him. “If you were to ask it, we would not be opposed to adopting her into the family; neither of us would be offended if you wish for a different bride and we would support you fully in convincing the nobility of her value.”

He blanches, the blood draining from his face in a graceless fall. “What?”

Makiri harrumphs, face set in a grimace but there is amusement dancing in his eyes, and kindness. “I have seen the way your gaze follows her when she is nearby,” he says. “I do not presume to understand how you developed such depth of feelings for someone so rarely nearby, but I’m not an idiot. And Haki is fond of you but her feelings are nothing so much as what we both can see you harbor for that girl.”

He is reeling, the earth has tilted beneath his feet and thrown everything off kilter. He cannot find his balance, cannot think through the chaos and the fog and the fear. “Have you told her?” he asks, rushed and breathless, gripping the stone parapet until it begins to crumble beneath his fingers.

Makiri shakes his head. “Even if I had, do you think she would believe me?” He laughs, a gruff sound from disuse and irony. “The King of Clarines, in love with a peasant girl from Tanbarun? Pah. No one would believe it. I hardly believe it.”

His heart clenches, quivering at hearing it spoken aloud. He has kept those words secret in his soul for a lifetime, weeping in a shadowed corner of his withered, weary spirit as he watches her from afar. She does not remember him. She chose Zen. Even a kiss to her gorgeous, magnificent, precious eyes had not made her remember and he had accepted that long ago. He has never even dared to whisper the words to himself in the dark of his chambers in the dead of night. He loves her and will love her until the sun dies and his soul fades, but he has let her go. He continues to let her go, day after day after day, and it tears him asunder each and every time.

Izana nods, eyes shut and fighting to control the way his limbs shake, and Makiri stays silent at his side, patient and gazing at the horizon with the serene calm only those who spend months of cold, bitter winter doing nothing at all can achieve. He opens his eyes and stares up at the sky. “Thank you,” he says, “but her regard for me has only ever been for that of her King and the elder brother of a dear friend. If that is what she wishes us to remain I will be content.”

Makiri huffs, but does not voice any protests. “The offer stands till the day you wed,” he does say, before turning abruptly and heading toward the watchtower.

Izana lowers his head and sighs, fingers clenched and elbows braced on the battlement. This will never stop rending his heart like wet paper, will it?

~

He is strolling through Wilant’s library, on the lookout for a particular novel he remembers having enjoyed as a child, when he sees her. Shirayuki, Ryuu, Obi, and Zen are crowded at a table in the open center of the room, flipping through a pile of hefty volumes.

“I can’t believe Master does not know the story of the beginning of his own country!” Obi says, grinning and shoving an elbow into the Second Prince’s side.

Zen huffs and elbows him, hunched over a book and running a finger down the text. “I do, it’s just my memories are a bit vague. That was one of my first history lessons and it’s been a few years.”

Shirayuki snickers. “Try two decades,” she says, head propped on her fist and skimming each page before moving on to the next. “You told me those lessons started when you were, what, five?”

Zen nods. “Yeah, about. I know there was some sort of conflict going on in the city-state that Clarines broke from and that that’s when the Wisteria line started, but I’m a bit hazy on the rest of it.”

Obi hums, moving to rest an arm on Ryuu’s head and dodging when Ryuu swats at him.

Izana’s gut swims, head aching and pulse pounding in his ears, assaulted by memories he has been avoiding since his mother birthed him.

(“Your Majesty, please, you must see a physician.”

He slumps against the wall, sliding to the floor with a hand pressed to his belly, and shakes his head. “It is too late, it is already septic.” He heaves for breath, sweating and aching and exhausted, but he still has a few tasks to left. Just a few more hours and he can let go. “I need a scribe, go.”

The aide rushes off and when the nearest scribe has seated himself on the floor with ink and parchment, he outlines his decrees: Consul Wisteria will take the throne; relations with the rebellion are to remain cordial and peaceful at whatever cost necessary; a certain percentage of the royal treasury will be devoted to supporting and caring for the poor, orphaned, widowed, and grievously injured citizens. On and on the list goes, all the ordinances and laws and projects he had planned to implement himself listed in painstaking detail for his successor to now take responsibility for. There is no guarantee that Wisteria will do any of it, no promise that this country will become what he hopes it can be, but he has tried. He has done all he can, done all that he swore to her he would do once he had power. It has to be enough.)

Zen makes a surprised sound, straightening for a moment before sinking into the chair beneath him. “Here it is. It’s not as long of a passage as I remembered but maybe that’s because stories like this were so boring to me back then.”

Shirayuki and Ryuu both push their books aside and lean as far over the table as they can, trying to see the page Zen has his fingers splayed over.

“What’s it say?” Obi asks.

Izana’s fingers clench around the pommel of his sword. He should leave. He does not wish to hear this. He has avoided this passage, this portion of his country’s past his entire life, thwarting his tutors until they rescinded and moved on. He has no desire to hear it told in the cold, clinical manner of historical record. But his feet do not move and he hears everything as the open room echoes the Second Prince’s voice like he means to address a crowd.

“Well, like I said,” Zen starts. “A city-state called Arcadia had been around for about two centuries when King Arcas took the throne and started fighting with neighboring lands, enacting extremely high taxes on his citizens to compensate for the draw on the treasury. It drove the city toward poverty and collapse pretty quickly The people started to starve and it was only a few decades before riots and revolts started popping up, though they were easily put down by the military until a massive, highly-organized mob attacked the tribunal. They didn’t capture it but they destroyed most of the city’s records and documents and made a huge dent in the infantry and ruling class’s population. King Arcas lost a lot of sway among the nobility and it was only a few weeks before his son took the throne by force. He quickly negotiated with the rebellion and granted anyone who wished for it independence from the state, no longer tied to Arcadian citizenship. The rebels were granted the eastern half of the city since that was where the majority of them already resided and a wall was built to separate the two sides.”

Ryuu hums. “Wow. I didn’t know any of that.”

Obi nods. “I had heard some of it before, oral histories that embellished things a bit, but they were pretty much the same as this.”

“Wait, that’s not all of it,” Zen says, turning the page. “The new King, Clarines apparently died only a couple of weeks after his reign began. The rebellion’s leader had been captured during the raid on the tribunal and escaped the prison. During the chasedown, Clarines was severely injured, though it doesn’t say how, exactly. He died from infection right after naming his successor and, for some reason, asking the ceded nation to name their country after the executed rebel leader, Tanbarun.”

“Oh,” Shirayuki says, and her voice is soft and surprised, wondrous to match the far-off look in her eyes as she sits, frozen, half out of her seat and arm outstretched toward the book in Zen’s hands.

Izana’s heart races and he cannot help the way he sucks in a sharp breath, anticipation and hope raging in his chest, and her eyes snap to him at the sound. Does she…?

Oh,” she says again, dawning realization written all over her face. She steps away from the table, approaching with that fierce determination that he has come to know so well. Her eyes are blazing, alight with emotion and boring in to the organic cage around his soul like it is nothing but dust, to be swept aside by a flick of her wrist, baring him to her.

He is shaking, shaking so fiercely he fears he will fall apart at the seams, his tendons made of ragged string, his bones as fragile as charred and blackened wood, his heart a pulp of loose and tender flesh. He is a withered husk in the wind and if he even dares to breathe he thinks he may die from the strain of it.

The crowd at the table is still and curious, sensing the tension in the air and poised on anxious toes to intervene, but they are nothing, gossamer threads caught in a breeze for all that he pays them mind; he is already caught in her web. She stands before him with the power of a righteous judge, ready to dictate the course of his future, and it does not turn her manic or proud. She gazes up at him with tenderness and sorrow and the touch of her hand on his cheek is delicate, like he will draw away or disappear if she grabs hold. “You have known this whole time, haven’t you?” she asks.

He says nothing. He does not think he can speak through the dryness of his mouth, the ache in his throat, even could he find the words to answer.

But his silence must be enough, for her brow furrows and sorrowful tears slide down her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I left you alone. I’m so sorry.”

And he breaks. The anguish of lifetimes coalesces in his chest as a wretched, violent spear, piercing him over and over again and a sob tears from his throat, relieved to the point of agony. The strength of his legs fails, the ice around his limbs cracks, and he sinks to the floor in a weeping, mangled heap.

He hears Zen cry out in surprise and fear, sees the knight stiffen and the young pharmacist rise from his seat to attend him, but it is mist in the wind to him. She is close and she knows what ails him, knows how to mend him. She sinks to join him and wraps her arms around his head, pulling his face to her shoulder and murmuring nonsense words that soothe; just the sound of her voice, so close and so tender, is more than enough.

The others gather round, wary and concerned, but she has always made even the most stubborn of men bend to her will and she assures them all will be well in time. So they retreat one by one, trusting that even their King, their brother, is safe in her capable hands, that an explanation will be given at a proper time, and the silence that falls over the room is blessed.

He clings to her. “You remember? Truly?”

She nods, the brush of her hair against his ear soft as silk, and turns to press a kiss to his temple. “I remember. I remember . Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

He draws away from her, but the need to touch, to stay close, is overwhelming and he pulls her hands into his own, brushing them with careful, gentle fingers. “You had made your choice. And it was not me. First I was too angry to say anything. And then it hurt too much. And then it had been so long I feared if you remembered you would not forgive me for my silence. Your wrath has always been mighty,” he says, a trace of a smile ghosting his lips as he brushes a knuckle along her cheek.

She huffs, lower lip pulled down in an attractive pout. “Don’t you know me better than that?”

He drops his head, playing absently with the nails on her fingers, the bones of her wrists. “Perhaps not.”

She shakes her head and pulls her hands free to reach up and cup his face, tilting his gaze to her own. “You’re an idiot,” she says, and kisses him.

It is fierce, demanding, but as soft and kind as her spirit and he melts into it, draws her closer into it, eager and desperate and aching. Her tongue slides against his, her fingers tangle in his hair, and her body is pliant against him, sinuous and warm and comfortable like home. Oh, he has missed this.

He nips at her lips, relishing in the whine she spills into his mouth, and pulls back to nuzzle at her cheek and down her neck. “I have missed you deeply,” he says, murmuring into the bones of her chest, the heart of her, and she folds around him like she can live inside his skin if only she tries hard enough.

“I have ached for you all my life,” she says, her voice quavering, “without ever knowing why I hurt so much. I have missed you from the day I was born even without my memories of you. Izana!”

He rises from his worship and pulls her into another kiss, devouring her mouth, devouring her plea, and relishes in the way her hands on his skin and her soul held before him knits his own back together with every second that goes by. He can breathe again.

She lets him consume her, consumes him in return, until they dwindle down to little more than gasps and trembling fingers and they part their lips only to press their foreheads together in the void.

The sun is flirting with the horizon, flaring out the train of its golden dress across the land and blanketing the snow in a glittering plane of frozen crystal. The light pierces through the library windows like holy blades, divinity touching the earth in a hazy glow that wreaths her head in sacred fire. And she is beautiful but the sight unnerves him with echoes of past screams and Izana pulls her to her feet to escape the memories.

“Come with me.” He grips her calloused hands in his own and brings her through chill and shadowed corridors to a quiet parlor. The windows are framed in heavy drapes of rich brocade, a low couch and a pile of furs nestled in a corner by a dead fireplace. Izana moves toward it to light the logs resting in its bed, directing her to the cushions with a gentle nudge of his hand.

She is standing with a massive fur wrapped around her shoulders when he rises from the grate, looking vulnerable and uncertain in a way he has not witnessed before, and that will just not do. He moves to the couch and sinks down, opening his arms to her, and the way she fits against him is sublime. Right.

Izana noses into the crown of her head, inhaling her scent. “You have been lost to me over and over again, our time cut short before it could truly begin.” He shudders. “I do not think I can bear it again.”

She remains quiet, thoughtful, fingers twisting in the furs and gaze distant as it always is when she contemplates a difficult problem. “Maybe,” she begins, slow and careful with her words. “Maybe this time is different. In all our other lives we knew each other from birth, both of us, and as soon as we met we sought each other. But we’ve known each other in this life for a long time without one another, without knowing one another. Maybe it will be different.”

He nods, pulling her to his chest in a tight embrace. “I don’t think I have it in me to believe you right now. I have watched you die too many times.”

She nods as well and grasps his hands in her own. “I understand. I’ll just have to have enough faith for the both of us.”

When she speaks with such confidence, such passion, he can almost believe already.

~

Nothing is easy in their last life; peace eludes them with finesse and manic laughter and their official, legal marriage comes far later than either would like. Clarines’ political realm is its own nightmare that hounds at their heels for decades and the tumult of royal life leaves them little time for each other alone but they are together, they are alive and well and creating a lasting, beautiful life with one another as they have always wished to. The trials do not hinder their love or their happiness.

They were given the chances to find a life where all would be well.

Fourth time's the charm.