I - Grains of Sand
Disclaimer: I own nothing, don't sue.
Sand goes wherever it is blown. Tossed in the wind, it is helpless to its fate. But when the world shifts and the sand falls, the wind is fair in its gifting.
They did not hold hands, but the back of their fingers brushed each other as they walked the glowing dunes. Side by side, for once they moved without urgency, without fear. In fact, any clueless onlooker would have just seen a man and a woman sharing a quiet day.
And they would be wrong. Because the Prince and Elika never had a quiet day.
"So. How much further did you say it was?"
Her tone was arch, her eyebrow raised, and her look spoke loud enough that he winced. He stopped and turned to meet her gaze. "Okay, let's get one thing straight. I'm not lost."
Her voice was insufferably patient, enduringly smug. "Of course you're not. Which is why we've been walking for three hours since we left town, and we still haven't reached the sea."
He sucked in his breath through his teeth. "What did I do?" he asked the sky plaintively. "What did I do to get stuck with an impatient woman?"
He spread out his gauntleted hand and carried on his theatrics, even as she folded her arms and rolled her eyes. "I mean, I've never lied - much. I've only stolen from dead people. And everyone I've killed deserved it. Really. So what did I do?"
Elika tilted her head, looking at him through wide eyes. "Oh, I don't know. Cheated? Been a pain? Released a dark God from his prison?"
The look he gave her was injured. "Yeah, but I helped summon back the God of Light, didn't I? Doesn't that, I don't know, balance it out?"
That was it. Elika's unwilling smile widened and she laughed. He traced the sound lovingly with his eyes. She'd laughed too little in the dark times after their first day. The dark times that he'd unleashed, and that he'd willingly unleash again just to see her looking so alive. And two weeks ago... two weeks ago, his gamble had finally paid off.
Ahriman was sealed away once more to rot. She was still alive. The genuine grin he flashed back at her was almost blinding, and at that she smiled again, softer this time. One hand reached up to brush his cheek, affection tingling in its touch. "You got lucky."
"Lucky?" he scoffed, bringing a warm hand up to rest gently against her own. "That was all sheer, one hundred percent planned."
"Even the fall down the cliff?"
He scowled playfully at her, and then let his hand fall. "C'mon, Princess. Let's go find your sea."
She turned as he walked on, his stride surprisingly cocksure considering he had no idea where he was going. She smothered another smile at the thought and followed in his footsteps, the gentle breeze erasing their prints from the sand moments after they moved on. The grains were finer here than in the desert, and many more scrubby plants littered the dunes. She viewed each one with an undiminished sense of wonder, the blue-lit flowers catching her eyes. It was almost with a sense of reluctance that she dragged her gaze away from them and back to the nonexistent path they seemed to be following ahead "Fine by me," she said. "But since we're lost..." - he snorted - "How are you planning to find it?"
He looked back over his shoulder and smirked. The movement lightened the scar on his cheek and darkened his gaze, making her breath catch gently in appreciation. He saw her response and his smirk widened. Oh yeah. He still had it.
He was talking before she registered it. "... just open your ears," he advised, tapping his right one with his un-gloved hand. "You hear anything?"
She was about to fire back with a witty retort when she realised that she did. Hear something, that is. Elika's eyes widened slightly as she picked up the dull roaring.
"What is that?" she asked.
His smirk fell, and a genuine smile leapt back onto his face. "That, Elika, is the sea."
Her eyes closed almost by instinct, letting the sound wash over her like a long-delayed greeting. It was still distant, but close enough that she could feel the enormity of it tremble within her very bones. She breathed in, noticing a slight tang to the air that she hadn't distinguished before.
Elika's eyes opened. "Then what are we waiting for?" she almost sung. The last three hours of heavy walking rolled away from her like the sands in the wind, and she felt as free as she had when she'd first learnt to fly. Laughing, she sped away across the dunes, leaving a momentarily flabbergasted Prince behind.
"Hey!" he started jogging, inwardly cursing the fact that some misplaced sense of chivalry had given him the backpack of supplies. "Hey, you could at least wait up!"
The only answer was the sound of her laughter, floating back to him on the wind. He shook his head, muttering. "Settle down, they said. Find a girl. Adventuring will kill you." He sighed dramatically under his breath. "They never mentioned the girl was likely to kill you too."
And then, out loud: "Alright then, Princess! If that's how you want to play it, last one to the sea gets the blame for releasing Ahriman!"
The words had their desired effect. Elika momentarily paused, stunned by not only the sheer infantility of the remark, but their newfound ability to joke about the horrible events that had just recently passed. And as she stood still, the laughing Prince sped past her over the dunes.
It was enough to trigger her back to her senses. Slowly, a competitive smile edged across Elika's face, and then she sprinted after him, her feet unnaturally light on the sand.
And that was how they travelled - one chasing after the other, never quite catching, never quite touching - swapping positions as lightly and as easily as trained acrobats. They spun circles around each other, leaping from dune to dune and kicking up a storm of sand in their wake. And the dance only stopped, physically, at least, when they reached the final dune and the land arced out in a soft cliff over the water.
She couldn't help it. She gasped.
It was beautiful. Beautiful. She couldn't even begin to think of words to describe it. The sea stretched out from horizon to horizon in front of her, its vastness incomprehensible to the girl who'd once ventured out into a canyon. Blue waves licked the surface gently, showing her a turquoise mirror constantly in motion, constantly in turmoil as it nudged against the sand. And yet, the beach was also quiet - the great, crashing waves that they'd heard from between the sand were the breakers far away in the distance, their foam crested heads nodding in recognition at the newcomers. But at their feet, the water lapped at the golden sand that was like, and yet so unlike the desert grains she knew.
"It's..." her voice caught in her throat, and she swallowed. She wanted to say something, admit something, but the look on his face was so insufferably smug at the moment that she bit the words away and replaced them with new ones, thoughtless and instinctive. "But how are we going to get down?"
She was cursing herself for her stupidity even before he gave her an incredulous look. The cliff was of soft sand, sandstone and shrubs, perilously slippery in some areas, frighteningly unstable in others. For them, child's play. He surveyed it with a glance, turned back to her, and shook his head in fake remorse. "Oh Elika, why do you even need to ask?"
They moved at the same time, in dual motion. He flipped himself over the edge with a shout of glee, the wind rushing past and tousling his scarves with his exhilarating pace. The sand skittered underneath his sandals, sending him flying down like rapids over a golden waterfall. Elika didn't restrain her smile as she flung herself next to him, riding the sand from shrub to shrub, swinging from their tangled roots to start the hazardous journey all over again. The clear, cool ocean breeze ruffled its fingers through her hair as they fell, flipped and swung. And then the bottom finally loomed close, and without needing to look at each other, they launched themselves off at the same time, spinning through the air to land safely on the sand at the bottom.
He was up first, groaning as a pebble dislodged by their descent thwacked him on the head. She stifled another laugh at his petulant expression.
"Oh, go ahead," he muttered. "Laugh at my expense. I swear, I've got sand stuck in places that you..."
She held up her hands. "Don't need to know about," she finished brightly for him. "Now stop complaining. We're here!"
The sheer exuberance in her face was enough to soften him again, and then she was bounding out to meet the sea. He swung the pack from his shoulders and settled it in the shade of the cliff. When he turned back, she was running across the edge of the waves, a flock of seagulls soaring next to her and her bare feet splashing up water.
The sight was enough to bring a grin to his face again, and he started down to meet her. But even as he moved, she paused, letting her arms fall to her side as she turned to gaze to the horizon.
It was magnificent. Majestic. Royal blue. It was beautiful. Breathtaking. And impossible.
He stopped a few feet away from her as she turned to the side, the exuberance gone from her features and replaced by a tinge of uncertainty. Carefully, she bent down to touch the wet sand. It moulded against her fingertips and she started with surprise at the unfamiliar sensation. Then she turned again, walking up away from him to where the dry sand lay, sifting in the wind.
This time, she knelt down and scooped a handful into her palm. The grains lay hot from the sun, and she felt them burn warmth into her skin. The cool wind caressed her cheek like a kiss, and at their new height, the sand danced in her hand. She stared down at them and felt the conflict in her chest. Cool wind. It was such an anomaly, such an alien to her. In the desert, the wind had rarely been anything below warm. In the desert, the wind had whipped mercilessly at the dunes, driving sand through the air until they scratched at your skin and blinded your eyes. In the desert, the wind had been relentless.
But here... the air wafted up from the ocean, carrying the clean, salty scent of purity and space that she had never even been able to dream of. The feeling stirred up something long hidden, something always fought down and locked in within her. Elika squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her fist.
The transformation was nothing if not stunning. The joy and exuberance which had lightened her features before was gone. Instead, the darkness of uncertainty, confusion and hurt welled up in the hollows of her cheeks, her throat, her closed eyes, and at their appearance, he almost instinctively moved towards her.
They'd only known each other for a few months now, each day measured in intensity against the first day where they met, fought together, won and lost all in the space of a few hours. And in the weeks that followed, they had screamed, shouted, fought each other and fought together with the same spark, the same intensity between them. And so it was that she didn't even need to open her eyes to know that he was approaching.
Elika let the sand fall from between her fingers as she felt his shadow, her inner grief leaving her mute. He came a little closer, his arms brushing against her shoulder as they watched the grains fly away in the swirling ocean breeze. Around them, the gulls cried out - a single, mournful harmony that had the Prince reaching out his hand and leaning into the wind even as he waited for her.
Elika wet her lips and tasted the salt on them. Breath moved and swirled in her throat, unwilling and unable to escape. She subsided, and let the sound of the sea wash over her again. Now, much closer, the rush of the waves seemed like music to her, and each chord softened the tense ball of nerves and muscles that was her body. The ocean wind too joined in the chorus, wrapping gentle tendrils around her skin and making her hyper-aware of the distance between them. He was breaths away from her, and still not touching, and yet she was conscious of every inch of him - the hard muscle, the sun-roughened palms, the tenderness behind the machismo.
It was that consciousness of his strength, of his silent support as he stood beside her that finally unknotted the last of the tension within her. Elika took a shuddering breath, expelled it, and felt the words come thick like honey.
"You know, for so long, I thought it was my destiny to save the tree. To die to imprison Ahriman. And now..."
The sea danced in front of her. The coastal wind planted kisses in her hair. She sucked in a breath, and when it came out again, her voice was small. "I never thought I'd live to see the ocean."
It was strange. The Prince felt it inside, an inexorable, inexplicable force reaching up to clutch at his chest. It was funny - they'd traded words now for so long it felt natural, almost like breathing. They'd ran circles around each other with their banter, propelled each other on with their taunts, and in the end, even used words as daggers to pierce through armour and slash and hurt. But now, she'd uttered a simple sentence, and it undid him.
He clenched his un-gauntleted fist, the one he'd held up to the wind, and lowered it down to his side. He worked with the lump in his own throat to get his breath out. And when the words did come, it surprised both of them.
"I promised you I'd show the ocean," he said quietly. She startled at his tone, completely devoid of his normal lightheartedness and levity. When she raised her eyes to meet his, the irises she met were dark with sincerity. "I wasn't going to disappoint you again."
It was a tribute to their closeness that she knew exactly what he was talking about. She closed her eyes and remembered the other coolness she had known - the sweet, black, cold oblivion of death, and a low shiver ran up through her.
Her throat felt dry. "You... you didn't disappoint me."
The look he shot her was disbelieving. "Nah, of course I didn't. I only screwed up your plan to be a martyr and released the evil God we fought to contain. That wasn't a disappointment at all, was it Princess?"
He sounded so angry, so bitter, so acerbically sarcastic that she instantly missed the openness he'd voiced. before. Elika winced. How was she to explain this, when she still didn't properly understand herself? After all, up until what seemed like forever, she'd still been angry at him. Had struggled to forgive what seemed like the ultimate betrayal from a man she'd grown to trust implicitly in hours. Had struggled to mask the hurt.
And yet, she saw the same hurt shine now from his own eyes, beneath the bitterness and acridity. She sighed again with the irony. He still wasn't sorry, she knew that. He was only sorry that he'd hurt her; that was the limit to his caring. The towns poisoned by corruption, the cities that had fallen to Ahriman - he had helped her painfully liberate them, inch by inch. But they hadn't been his driving force. They hadn't been his motivation.
Elika bit her lip. Weeks ago, she would have, still had, judged him for that. And yet, that was just who he was, and she'd learnt to accept that.
Now the struggle was just finding the right words. She breathed in. "I'm not sorry I'm alive," she whispered, finally. "I was at the start, but I'm not sorry now."
She gestured wordlessly at the sea, as if its vastness could contain all the feelings she wanted to convey. "What you did was wrong. So, utterly wrong. But you did fix that. You did. Finding Ormazd - that was the greatest miracle anyone could ask for."
His voice was hard. "But this isn't about Ahriman and Ormazd, is it, Princess? This is about you."
She breathed again. Ormazd give me strength. "I... I was the Princess, I am the Princess of the Ahura. It is, was, my duty."
"Screw duty," he cut in, shaking his head angrily. "I..."
She held up her hand. He fell rebelliously still. She sighed, and inwardly prayed. And when the words came out, they were much simpler than either expected.
"I like being alive. I love the places you've taken me. I love that I finally got to see the sea. It's just that... it was my life. Wishing, and knowing they would stay only wishes. Dreaming, and knowing that they'd stay dreams. Never wanting to wake up, but already being awake. To live this now - I can't describe it. For so long, I thought it was my destiny. My destiny to die like a Princess of the Ahura. But you..."
His unnatural silence was beginning to scare her. Not that she'd admit it. She summoned the last bits of her courage and moved on.
"You gave me Elika," her voice was wondering, awed, like a sleeper awaking to a dream. "You saved the world, damned it, and then saved it again, and because of that, you let me be Elika."
The world slowed. He felt the clarity of her words, the truth with which they rung, and most of all, the strength of what had been left unsaid. Because that was half the spark between them, what was left unsaid. The Prince loosened his fist and felt the moment change, felt time shift around him, felt the world rearrange itself into a brighter whole, and thought that he had to be the craziest, luckiest bastard on the face of the planet.
The sea whispered lovingly against the sand. He turned to meet her, his body no longer taut with hurt or shadow, his hand reaching out to touch hers. He saw relief and gratitude in her face at the sight, and then slowly, Elika rolled her fingers over his roughened palm, feeling the gentleness underneath the calluses. He closed his eyes at the tenderness of her touch, of the joining of hands which had fought, bled, and died for each other. And then her fingertips met two tiny obstacles, and she realised with a start that when he had lifted his hand up to the wind, he had caught two grains of sand.
She glanced up, startled, to meet his eyes. They gazed back warmly into hers, a soft smile completely devoid of pretence or defence gracing his lips. and Elika felt his hand fold up around hers, the two grains of sand resting between their palms.
The air was a spell between them. He leaned forwards, and she forgot how to breathe, the closeness of him and the sea intoxicating her senses. Instinctively, she tilted her head, and his forehead came down to rest against hers. Her eyes fluttered shut with a sense of rightness. Touching. They were finally, properly touching.
"You know," he said, almost conversationally. "I never did believe in destiny."
She opened her mouth to reply, decided against it, and shut it. Slowly, she felt his other hand slide lower, the gauntlet settling to a rest at the curve of her back. For a moment, they stood still in position, like dancers in some eternal waltz, and then their joined hands melted to cup each other's cheeks.
He descended. She reached up. And as they met, the two grains of sand he'd caught soared back into the arms of the wind, ready to be carried to the next adventure.
A/N: I must admit, I never planned this. But after the wonderful reviews and feedback I got for 'I Believe', as well as some new inspiration from replaying the game, I've decided to embark on a series of oneshots and drabbles to further explore the wonder that is the new, revamped Prince of Persia. So thanks to all of the awesome reviewers who set this in motion, and thanks to all of you who are reading this - I hope you enjoy this endeavour as much as I will.
-Shadowhawke (aka newly converted and dedicated PoP fan).