A/N: Many thanks to Yahnkehy for the beta work on this story!
Hitomi Espinoza, née Kanzaki, shoved her carry-on into the small compartment and dropped into the seat with a sigh. This would be her fourth transpacific flight in as many weeks and all she wanted was a good meal, an uninterrupted nights sleep, and a long, hot shower to rinse away the dirt from the latest archaeological dig. It had been days since she'd had either, and the cold water sponge baths she'd had in her tent at the dig site had left her presentable but unsatisfied. There hadn't been time for anything more however, if she wanted to meet up with Jason before heading out to yet another site.
Thinking of her husband brought a soft smile to her weary face. They'd only been married a year and a half, and the time they had spent together, or even on the same continent, since their wedding equaled less than six months, but as unconventional as their marriage was, it suited them both. Their respective archaeological careers had taken precedence and kept them apart much of the time. He worked in America, unearthing the secrets of the Anasazi in northern Arizona, and she, with her expertise in mythological sites, crossed the globe, seeking the likes of Avalon, Lyonesse, Ys, Troy, Lemuria, Mu, and Atlantis. Tomorrow she was off again, to Morocco this time, to investigate Majuán Bank as yet another possible Atlantean site, but tonight she hoped to spend in her husband's arms. Granted, it would probably be on a rickety cot in a hastily assembled tent, and it guaranteed that her longed-for night of sleep would have to wait, but she considered it a more than fair trade off.
She buckled herself in for takeoff and closed her eyes, picturing Jason's floppy dark hair that perpetually fell into his laughing brown eyes. Even his ever present Indiana Jones hat- "I can't be a proper archaeologist without it," he had joked when she raised an eyebrow at it- did little to tame the locks he never remembered to cut. Her mind's eye roamed over sharp cheekbones, smudged with the red clay that she had come to associate with him, full lips that were usually parted in a grin, slightly crooked teeth that flashed winningly at her whenever they were reunited. She cherished the warm glow that thoughts of him brought, and pushed the vague sense of guilt to the back of her mind.
No one understood how it was that she and Jason could live the way they were. There were times when Hitomi couldn't understand either. How could he be happy with a wife that put her selfish desires before their marriage? Couldn't he see what she was doing? Did he suspect her laughing protests when he brought up children masked an uneasiness that she herself wouldn't admit to having? If so, he never mentioned it, just watched her quietly with those warm, expressive eyes...
so like Van's eyes... isn't that why she noticed them to begin with?
...before smiling widely and agreeing with her, it was too soon, and changing the subject. Dear Jason. He was as dependable as the sunrise, and Hitomi loved him for it. He let her work as hard as she wanted, chasing myths and history across the globe without a second though, satisfied to see her when and where he could. She owed him more; she knew it, even if she was unable to follow through.
The sign above the plane door switched off, and the flight attendants made their way down the aisles with their metal trays, expertly applied makeup, and perfectly coiffed hair. Hitomi felt grimy and small as she accepted a warm Sprite and a small plastic cup of ice. She poured the soda and turned her attention to the clouds floating outside. She tilted her head so it rested against the small window and wondered what it would be like to soar through them again. She had, once, years ago and a world away, and it was her greatest secret. Hitomi Espinoza, acknowledged expert on the ancient mythological civilization of Atlantis, knew far more about the city and its inhabitants than she would ever want to, or be able to, tell.
As usual when her mind wasn't occupied with work, her thoughts drifted to the young boy-king who had stolen, and then broken her heart. Hitomi didn't blame him anymore for the way their lives had turned out. The truth was, fifteen was too young to make the type of commitment that a long-distance relationship required. Even eighteen, when they had their falling out over Hitomi's unwillingness to leave her world, had been too young when it came down to it. It had taken her years to come to terms with the fact that loving someone was not all that was necessary for a successful relationship, and a failed relationship didn't mean that one did not not love their partner enough. Those beliefs were so perpetuated by her friends and family that she had been afraid to move forward with any romantic relationship, scared to death of it failing and being judged once more as not quite good enough.
Only Yukari had known that Hitomi's heart had been broken, although her friend had no idea with whom she had been in a relationship. In the end, Yukari had decided all that mattered was that Hitomi had been hurting, and she had steadfastly supported her childhood friend until the agony of that first time loss had passed. Hitomi wondered if she would have gotten through those tough years without Yukari's unwavering friendship.
She could think about him now without the searing ache of loss, although the experience had changed her. She wasn't the naïve fifteen year old anymore, or the optimistic eighteen year old university student out to change the world. She was a weary twenty nine year old with a husband she adored, a career that drove her, and a heart that had once been shattered into a thousand pieces by a love from which she had never quite recovered. In other words, she was a perfectly normal woman. Still, even though she loved her life, and Jason, she sometimes wondered what would have happened had circumstance been kinder to herself and Van.
She'd been in the middle of finals when he appeared, perched on an invisible chair, strain showing around the lines of his eyes and mouth. He looked too old to be eighteen, too worn, under the weight of too many expectations. Hitomi put down her pen and turned in her chair to face him, a weight in her stomach simultaneously appearing with the young king of Fanelia, her body's reaction to the stress of their relationship.
He spoke first. "I can't keep putting off the advisors. Fanelia's reconstruction is complete, and it needs an heir. They won't take no for an answer anymore."
"I know," she sighed. She did. For the better part of a year, their conversations had revolved around the continuation of the royal line and the marriage the council was demanding.
"If there were anyone else- a cousin, an uncle, anyone- it wouldn't be so pressing."
"I know," she repeated dully.
"I don't want to marry anyone else, Hitomi! Why can't you understand that?" He ran an agitated hand through the unruly mop of dark hair, his voice distressed.
"I don't want you to marry anyone else either, Van! But you have to understand me as well! In my world, I'm barely an adult. I haven't had my first job, most of my things are still at my parents house, I haven't voted or drank alcohol or bought a car. I'm still a child in so many ways, Van. I'm not ready to be a wife and a mother. We've been through this!" She bit her lip hard to keep from crying. Lately it was all they talked about, and she had the horrible feeling that they couldn't keep going like this. Someone had to give in, but neither of them felt that they could.
Van was holding back tears as well as he watched her sadly. "Hitomi..."
"I can't, Van. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry." Despite her best efforts, the tears spilled over and ran down her cheeks, and the weight in her belly doubled in size. She thought she might throw up. "I don't know what else to do."
He reached a trembling hand out to touch her, but of course it passed through her, as insubstantial as mist. The expression on his face matched the searing pain in her heart and she had to avert her gaze to keep from flinging herself on the floor and weeping.
"I love you," he whispered, and the anguish in that simple statement shattered her heart. She wanted to wail with the unfairness of it all, she wanted to change her mind and go with him, but she knew that to do so would be to cheapen both of them.
"I know," she said for a third time, her breath hitching. "I love you too, Van, and I always will."
She heard him whisper her name once more, whether as a curse or a prayer she was unsure, and when she looked up again, he was gone.
She'd been twenty four when she met Jason, at a conference in Oxford for religious artifacts of Britain's indigenous people. He had been seated a few tables over, and when she glanced around the room, her gaze had met his and her breath caught in her throat. Warm brown eyes, so similar to ones she hadn't seen in six years, considered her before turning their attention back to the speaker, but later that evening, he had sought her out, introduced himself with a shy smile and a firm handshake.
He'd been witty and charming, and she'd been absolutely not interested.
Still, he hadn't given up, and after she received a package from him containing a single light bulb, she had called him demanding to know why in the world she needed such a thing. He was nonchalant.
"I just wondered if you knew how many archaeologists it takes to change a light bulb, that's all." She could hear his smile through the bad telephone connection. It annoyed her.
"Fine, I'll bite. How many?" she shouted over the crackle.
"Only one, but it will take years and years of initial site study. We have to first correlate all the surrounding furniture and domestic devices, and then decide whether the anthropological theory about the bulb being a cultic object- based on its central location in the room, its being up out of reach-symbolizing transcendence- and its obviously sun-like shape- is a correct socio-economic understanding-"
She cut him off, laughing, before he could drag it out any farther. "Enough! I get it. What a rotten joke, Espinoza."
"I know! I thought you'd enjoy it."
"You thought wrong," she replied, still grinning.
"Ah well. I often do. Have dinner with me?"
"I'm in Indonesia. No."
"You'll be in America next week. We're booked for the same lecture circuit."
He had her there. "Ok, fine. One dinner, and then you leave me alone. I told you, I'm not interested in romance."
"So you say, yet you study those lovely old myths full of heroes and thwarted love. You'll never convince me otherwise, Kanzaki," he laughed softly, and she cursed his understanding and insight.
He had won her heart through that same clarity, moving as slowly as she needed, his gentle humor and resolve finally weakening her defenses. Upon waking up in Jason's arms for the first time, it occurred to Hitomi that every morning since returning from Gaea, it had been Van's name on her lips, but no longer. Somewhere along the line, she had given up her adolescent romance for one that was just as real and true, but also of this world.
She told Jason a little about Van, leaving out most of the story, mentioning only that her first love had wanted to get married but she was far too young. She spoke as Jason held her, feeling only sorrow for the circumstances surrounding their parting. The heartbreak had passed, leaving only a muted regret for what might have been.
When Jason proposed to her, both of them waist deep in a hole, extracting bits of pottery from cliffside caves in Arizona, she hadn't hesitated in saying yes.
If Van crossed her mind in that moment, well, she was much too decorous to say so.
Hitomi climbed out of the rented Jeep, wincing a bit at the stiffness in her limbs, and into the waiting arms of her husband. She breathed in deeply as his scent permeated her senses and relaxed for the first time in weeks.
"Welcome back, love," he murmured, brushing her long hair aside to nuzzle her neck.
"I've missed you," she admitted, turning her face to his for a kiss. He complied with a smile before grabbing her grungy bags from the backseat.
"You're sure you've got to head out again tomorrow?" he asked, leading her to the largest tent set up in the desert dig site.
She nodded, her face apologetic. "I wish I didn't have to, but it was the only time we could charter a boat to the island. The locals are suspicious of it to begin with, and when word got around that some of us thought it might be a possible site for Atlantis..." she shrugged, knowing he would understand the locals' attitude to mythological happenings.
He frowned briefly, concern flashing in his eyes. "You've got a guide lined up already?"
"Well, no, not yet. I had hoped to meet with someone tomorrow," she admitted, chewing on her lip.
Jason looked like he wanted to argue, so she silenced him with a kiss. Neither of them said anything more for several hours.
Later that evening, they were standing out under the stars as Jason eagerly explained their latest find. He gestured down into the canyon with a grin, looking for all the world like a boy with a new toy, as he chatted about the baskets his team had unearthed. Hitomi stood far from the edge, peering down into the blackness. The canyon looked bottomless in the scant moonlight and it made her uneasy.
"Jason, please come away from the edge," she asked nervously, and he had moved closer to her, wrapping his arms around her from behind.
"Don't worry, love, I could navigate that cliff face with my eyes closed."
"I know, just- I don't like heights, you know that," she shuddered a bit and he drew her closer, sharing his warmth.
She placed her hand over his and threaded their fingers together, their gold rings glinting in the pale light. "I love you," she murmured as he dropped a kiss on the top of her head.
"I know," he replied, and she smiled.
It was the next evening when she disembarked her plane in Africa and caught a taxi for her hotel. She hummed a bit under her breath as she waited to be checked in, in a better mood than she should have been, considering two long layovers and one missed connection. She was several hours later than she had planned, and she was starving. But the hotel was a tourist destination, which meant hot running water, clean towels, and room service. She'd stayed in worse.
The couple ahead of her finished with their registration, so she moved ahead to the counter and gave the clerk her name. He typed haltingly on an ancient computer and she drummed her fingers softly against the counter top, eager to get checked in and settled.
"Mrs. Espinoza? We have a post here for you," the man spoke in halting English, holding out a slim envelope which she took and tucked into her bag. The university foundation that funded her excursions often communicated with her through the hotels on her itinerary, so it was unusual but not unexpected to find mail waiting for her at a site. She thanked the clerk in passable English and accepted her key, shouldering her own bags rather than wait for the bellboy.
Once she was installed in a serviceable room, complete with a small shower which she immediately made use of, she sat on the edge of the double bed and pulled out the envelope.
Mrs. Hitomi Espinoza,
We regret to inform you that the Stanford Archaeology Center will be unable to renew the funding provided for the upcoming fiscal year...
She read it again.
The words didn't change. They were still placed one after the other in the same hateful pattern, shattering her hopes and dreams with sparse black ink.
They were cutting off her funding. It would take at least a year to research and write grants for more, and possibly a year after that to convince any foundations to fund the search for sites that most archaeologists considered fictional. It had been a hard fight to get funding in the first place, since she wasn't looking to uncover Biblical sites or Egyptian artifacts. Her specialty was mocked by many as being frivolous, and that attitude directly correlated to her ability to earn money for her excursions.
She would have to hire on as an assistant, follow someone else's orders, work for someone else's dream. She would have to give up Atlantis and her last link to Van.
She crumpled the devastating letter in her hand and wept into her pillow.
Jason was sympathetic, of course. He immediately offered her a place in his team and volunteered to call around to his friends from university to see if he could garner any leads for possible grants. She thanked him quietly and tried to straighten her shoulders.
"It'll be ok, Tomi. We'll figure out something, alright? Keep your chin up."
She nodded, then realized he couldn't see her. "Hai, arigatou," she agreed, slipping back into her native Japanese.
"That's my girl. I love you."
"I love you too. I'll see you in a few days. I have to cut this trip short to be able to pay everyone."
"I look forward to it, even if I don't like the reason for it," Jason replied, his usual good humor gone.
She sniffed and wiped her eyes. He always knew just what to say.
She replaced the receiver and splashed her face with cold water. She had a team to meet and a sunken island to explore.
Three hours later, Hitomi was outfitted in diving gear, standing on the deck of an old fishing boat, going over the preliminaries with her team. She'd broken the news already about the lack of funding, so there was a glum air on the deck, but everyone was rallying around what might be their last excursion together. Hitomi looked at their faces and felt the weight of guilt even stronger than before. She was letting everyone down and she hated it.
One of her junior researchers, Thecla, reached out and grasped Hitomi's hand through the heavy diving gloves they both wore. "Don't worry, Espinoza. Everything'll work out. Maybe this will be it and the universities will be tossing cash into your lap after today." The girl smiled brightly beneath rows of braids before donning a full face mask for the deep dive to come.
Hitomi returned the smile and promised herself that she would make sure the rest of her team was well-placed. They were young, eager, and shouldn't have to carry the stigma that she herself had earned by focusing on mythological archaeology.
They anchored at the location Hitomi had given the captain, then one by one they entered the water. Hitomi usually loved this moment when the world became muted shades of green and blue and the rush of anticipation for what she might discovered overwhelmed her, but today she felt like she was just going through the motions. She couldn't believe this was the last time that she would be leading her team on the search for Atlantis.
They descended as rapidly as was safe, then moved out to their assigned quadrants. Hitomi herself would be taking the top of the submerged island, a depth of 56 meters, not as deep as the other areas, but the one most likely to turn up any evidence, providing there was any here to begin with.
Time to get on with it then, she said to herself, as she began to search the area.
There was nothing there. It was evident fairly quickly, yet she delayed her ascent for as long as possible, not wanting to return to the surface and the depressing reality. She checked her watch- she and her partner would need to start the ascent in less than two minutes. She started to move towards him when something on the ground caught her eye.
It was half buried in mud, but sparkled slightly when the beam from her flashlight hit it. She should mark the spot, come back down with more team members to carefully extract it. She checked her watch- a minute and a half. They wouldn't be able to descend again; they hadn't brought the extra tanks they had planned on. She couldn't afford any extra days. Forty seconds. Hitomi reached down, scooped it out and let the mud filter from her fingers. It was hard, about an inch long. She started to inspect it, but right then her partner gestured- they had to start the slow ascent. She nodded and tucked the object into her pouch, then followed her teammate upwards.
Two hot showers in as many days. It was a miracle. She wished she were back in a tent somewhere, making do with birdbaths, if it would mean that she could continue her work.
She had tried Jason's cell again, but it was switched off. She left a message and flopped back on the bed, unsure what to do with herself. She felt the tears start again so she sat up angrily and decided to sort through her equipment, cleaning the various pieces of her dive suit.
She'd forgotten the glittery object, but it slid out of the pouch and bounced under the bed. She stuck her head underneath, blinked into the darkness and backed out again, banging her head on the frame of the bed, switched on the light, and renewed her search. It had landed amongst some dust bunnies. Hitomi sneezed a bit and vowed to speak with housekeeping. She blew on the thing a few times to clear off the furry layer of dust and almost dropped it again in shock.
In the palm of her hands lay a shard from a drag-energist.