Disclaimer: I don't own anything!
Author's Note: Its my eighteenth birthday and I spent half of it in a moonbounce. Best birthday ever. Slightly morbid ideas for a birthday, but whatever. The idea for this was rather random, since I was staring at a glass Coke bottle when it hit me in the middle of my AP Lit class.
The next chapter for Offerings to a Star is underway, but I'm having trouble getting Point A to connect to Point K, so that's what's taking so long.
Anyway, happy holidays!
We understand death for the first time when he puts his hand upon one whom we love.
~Madame de Stael
Sometimes, if feels like the world changed without anyone sending him a memo. Sometimes, he turns on the scratchy radio or walks down the street to the newspaper stand and he doesn't recognize anything or anyone. He walks around the town sometimes, going in circles around the town square. People used to try to talk to him, but they don't any longer. They learned a long time ago that the old man who lives in the old farmhouse just on the outskirts of town isn't a people person, that he's half-mad.
His leg is constantly aching, the scar tissue mottled against the skin of his thigh. The doctor recommends a cane every time he goes to refill a prescription, but he waves the old man away anyway. (Really, the old man isn't an old man. The doctor is younger than he is, too young to understand that pride isn't the issue, but that he doesn't need the damn cane.)
Sometimes, it seems like his bottle is all he's got left of the old, familiar world.
The bottle sits on his mantelpiece, the only thing on it. It's an old Coca-Cola bottle, glass, smooth and streamlined. Or, it used to be smooth. There's a single crack running through it, a hairline fracture that, at the right angle, seems to be filled and overflowing with light. The bottle is filled with fine, white sand that shines in the setting sun that slants through the window.
Sometimes, he dreams of that beach, with its white shores. Sometimes, he hears the silvery laughter, the familiar teasing, sees the flash-of-gold grin. Sometimes, those things have the good grace to stay in his dreams. Not most of the time. Most of the time, he sees the grin out of the corner of his eye, hears the echo of the laughter in those quiet moments in between sleeping and awake.
He remembers the fire, remembers the way if flickered across familiar faces, the way it threw exotic shadows along the sand. He remembers the smell of roasting fish, of seawater and stars in the sky.
Sometimes, he's afraid that he's forgetting them. That those faces—once as familiar as his own—are blurring beneath the pull of time. That's when he pulls out the one photograph that's yellowed and creased, the faces frozen in forever smiles.
(Sometimes, he can't remember being that young)
Sometimes, someone will knock at his door and he goes to answer it, already knowing who it is because only one person visits him anymore.
The person should be as familiar as himself. Once upon a memory, they'd known everything there was to know about each other. They'd known each other's fears, their dreams, their passions and loves.
Now, sometimes, he's lucky to remember the other's face.
It isn't a particularly memorable face, so perhaps he can't really be blamed. A strong jaw, a nose that's been broken more than once and a broad brow. There were lines on that face, at the corners of his eyes and, very faint, laugh lines around his mouth. The other had laughed once, had laughed a lot. There's a scar running through his lip (A barroom brawl that was the both of them snapping and snarling against the world. He remembered sitting outside the bar later, faces swelling and noses bleeding, and he'd looked over and grinned. "So much for our pretty faces, huh?" It had made them both burst out in laughter that had fallen out in ringing echoes up and down the empty street).
The colors aren't even all the same anymore. The once rich auburn hair that no brush could tame is now thinner and the color of pale spring thunderclouds. The skin is a little paler than it used to be, but the eyes remain the same. Sharp, red-brown and always always too old for his face, even now when Time has crinkled and folded and bent him into the man before him.
"…Yuan." His voice is hoarse from disuse, but still, it rings of cowards and courage and summer days spent beneath leafy canopies in forests that don't exist anymore because Time takes everything until there's nothing left to take.
Yuan blinks out of the direction he knows his thoughts are going. His friend has always known what's on his mind, has always managed to guide him for the better. It takes him another moment to regain his manners. He has so little company these days. "Kratos…come in."
Kratos' eyes narrow at him even as he steps inside. Time may have take away his physical ability, may take away the ability to run forever through everlasting fields in youthful competition, but his mind is as sharp as ever. "When was the last time you went outside?"
"It was…" He has to think about it. He spots a newspaper lying on the coffee table and has to squint to read the date. Time is a greedy master indeed. "What's today?"
"The twelfth. Of March."
The date rips through Yuan and the hollow in his heart aches. "Again?"
"Every year." Once, in his youth, Kratos would have had impatience, would have hated Yuan for his fragility after…well. Now, Kratos doesn't think he has any energy left in him to devote to hate. "Walk with me."
Kratos doesn't think about the bottle on the mantelpiece, doesn't want to remember bright, identical smiles and the shine of firelight on summer-sunshine hair and how very lovely her smile was. Doesn't want to remember what it was like to be whole and young and feel like Time couldn't touch you.
He knows all too well how it can. Not from Yuan. Not from himself. He's seen Time take away another woman, just as fiery, just as intelligent, just as wonderful. He's only ever loved those two women—in different ways to be sure, but love is love and each love makes a different scar when they're gone—and those women are gone.
The outside is different again, Yuan notes. The place he lives in isn't a city. It's a small town, where things aren't supposed to change and where things are quiet. But he sees the change anyway. Things are slowly becoming modern; boxier homes, taller, shinier buildings, newly paved streets, the air no longer as clean from the factories out on the other side of the town.
(She might've cried to see the town they'd chosen to live in come to this. Or she would've lifted her chin and changed it with all the steel-and-fire in her spine and heart. Or some mixture of both. Sometimes, she succumbed to the softer emotions and other times, she was all uncompromising, whiplash strength and temper. But always, she was a woman. She'd been ashamed, early in their relationship, of her temper, of the way she acted beyond how society believed ladies should behave.
He remembered smiling and kissing her gently. "Believe me, if you were any less, you wouldn't be you." He'd told her.
She'd stared at him before laughing, all silver bells and joy. She'd reminded him of his words years later, when they were lying in bed together and he'd teased her for her energy.)
The memory makes him ache for her all the more. Loss is like that. The initial grief goes away after a while, but the ache remains and there are times when nothing more than a smile or something someone says on the street or something entirely unrelated reminds you of them and the grief slams into you like a freight train.
What Yuan registers next is where his old friend—for they are still that, will always be that, even if they aren't as close as they used to be—has led them.
The grave is plain grey stone, unassuming and without decoration save for the image of an angel carved into the stone above the familiar name.
May 15, 1929—March 12, 1955
Beloved Sister, wife and friend
Hope is patience with the lamp lit.
There are fresh flowers already on the grave. Amaryllises, dandelions and sunflowers. Her favorites. Yuan knows as soon as he sees them who put them there and he wonders where the sunshine and summer-skies boy is now.
(He knew, logically, that the boy wasn't a boy anymore. The boy would be grown now. Did he have a family of his own? A wife who would see the snapshots of Them As They Were and not ask? A wife who could live without knowing all that happened in those battlefields, without knowing why, sometimes, the boy-who-wasn't-a-boy would sometimes be overtaken by a swift, sudden sorrow at the sight of sunflowers? Children, perhaps? A daughter who had her spine of steel, who would bow to no man, who had her sweetness? Who preferred the garden to embroidery? A son who grinned like she had, full of a child's mischief and who liked to play the pipes?
Or perhaps those were his own dreams.)
"…It never goes away, does it?" Kratos asks.
Kratos asks him the same question every year. Sometimes, Yuan thinks that Kratos is braver for having the courage to hope that it would, to hope that, one day, the ache won't be there anymore and that they can smile without bitterness at the memories. Sometimes, Yuan wants to hate Kratos for being that strong, but he can't because he knows that Kratos is in the same boat. He sees the ring on Kratos' finger and knows that he hasn't entirely forgotten Anna either.
"…No. It doesn't." Yuan rubs his thumb against the steel-and-gold ring on the fourth finger of his left hand. Sometimes, he swears that he's worn away the inscription upon the ring. Those times, he brings the ring up so he can peer at it and focus on the words.
Semper deliciae meae! Parcae nobiscum, quis separabit?
Forever, my love. The Fates are with us, who can separate us?
"We forgot the flowers." Kratos says quietly, running a hand along the top of the tombstone.
"Somehow, I don't think she minds." The twist of Yuan's lips isn't a smile, but it's close and that's enough. "We're old men, we're allowed to be forgetful."
Kratos snorts. "I suppose we are." He glances at Yuan. "Who are you again?"
Yuan elbows him and he suddenly feels all of eighteen again, young and confident and on the road with his best friend, heading to the big city because they were tired of too-open spaces and lazy days stretching out into eternity. But it makes him smile a little and he knows that that's what Kratos had been after.
(He'd always been watching out for Yuan, just as Yuan had always looked out for him. It's been that way since before they can remember and it'll probably always be that way—not really. Yuan knew that. But the thought of he or Kratos utterly alone made him want to shrink and curl up on himself because the very thought is so terrible.)
His memories shift with the ease of grains through a sifter. (They were ten or nine or eight and they were lounging in apple trees that were heavy with fruit, occasionally reaching out and snatching one off a branch and munching on it. Kratos was on a lower branch than Yuan was. They'd been dozing out in the summer sunshine, enjoying the school vacation, and Yuan had been struck with a sudden thought.
"What happens if we get to be a hundred years old?"
Kratos glanced up. "I dunno. We get canes and shout at kids to get off our lawns?"
Yuan laughed a little. "Sounds like fun. But…I dunno if I wanna grow old. It sounds like it'll be awful boring, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, I guess. But," Kratos sat up. "If the both of us are together, we won't get bored."
"Good point. So if I live to be a hundred…"
"I'll live to be a hundred minus a day. Because I don't wanna get bored."
"Hey, I don't wanna get bored neither!" Yuan paused. "How about if we both promise to live to be a hundred minus a day? That way, we won't be bored. Ever."
Kratos nodded and stretched out his hand, pinky outstretched. "Promise."
Yuan hooked pinkies with him. "Promise."
He doesn't know when they started walking out of the cemetery. But he can hear the cars, can hear the school being let out two blocks down.
"Til June, I guess." Kratos' voice is capable of holding a wonderful myriad of emotions, particularly when he reads, but Yuan always hates the sound that sorrow makes in his mouth. It doesn't belong there, doesn't fit with the boy he always remembers Kratos as.
The words spill from Yuan's mouth without censor. "Earlier. Because we both know you'll get bored without me."
Kratos looks back at him, surprised. But then he smiles, red-brown eyes smiling with his lips. "Same time next week?"
"Sure thing, old man."
That night, Yuan dreams of that beach again, with its white sands and cold waves. The boy is there, still as a boy, with the gold-glint-grin from across their campfire, sunshine hair damp from playing in the waves. Kratos is stretched out beside him, face smooth and unlined, hair unsilvered, and leaning on one elbow, the other holding a stick that poked through a marshmallow. And Martel is there as well, lovely as ever. This is where the memory diverts from the dream. In the dream, the ring is already on Martel's finger and she's lying in between Yuan's legs, head on his chest, her hair heavy with seawater and soaking his leg, but he never brings himself to mind because she's there, smiling, her panpipes in her lap and her voice like music in his ears. Yuan sips at his Coca-Cola, playing keepaway with Martel at one point and she kisses him as a distraction. It works all too well and she grins smugly at him when she pulls away.
When he wakes, staring at the ceiling and still seeing their smiles, the flicker of the flames, he doesn't wake up entirely just yet. He still sees them. But a moment later and reality plunges itself back into his stomach.
He goes to the kitchen to make himself his coffee—it's bad for his health, according to his doctor, but he never listens to him anyway—but just as goes to step from his bedroom, he turns at the ghostly sound of her laughter and he feels a phantom kiss on his lips.
It tastes like Coca-Cola and tears.