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Gemini's Dreaming

Chapter Text

One lazy Sunday afternoon, after everything is over, he turns abruptly to Rei while she's curled up sleepily beside him on their bed, her face pressed against his ribs, one arm slung across his waist. The worn wood of the headboard creaks beneath his back as he leans against it, shuffling his tarot deck.

"Let's do it," he says. The cards thrum as they slip through his fingers. "Let's get out of Vesuvia."

She cracks open one eye to peer up at him. He's distracted, momentarily, by the way the sunlight streaming in through the window shifts along the dips and curves of her face as her mouth pulls up into a smile.

"Where did this come from?" she asks, shifting to rest her head on his stomach to see him better.

"Because we can," he says, throwing his head back to take in the room around them. Everything here is familiar: the tattered rugs on the floor, the homey charms of twigs and grass hanging from the rafters, the lingering smell of spilled tea and spices that have sunk into the wood of the lone table. This is their home, and he loves it as fiercely as he's loved anything, but there's an entire world out there just waiting for them to see it.

"We can't just leave the city, Asra," she chides gently, nuzzling into his side as she stretches out from her light doze.

"And why not?" he asks, teasing with words as much as with his fingers in her hair. "You said you wanted to travel the world, didn't you? Why wait?"

She raises herself up on one elbow as her free hand extricates his from her mess of hair. Their fingers tangle together, gilded golden in the sun, resting just below where his heart beats slow and steady.

(Like it has all the time in the world.)

"Well, what would Nadia say?" she argues gently, thumb brushing back and forth, back and forth; stopping tantalizingly just at the edge of his half-unbuttoned shirt. "Julian? Portia? What about Muriel?"

"Nadia has a city to run," he shrugs with a lazy smile on his lips, fingers tightening around hers as he drags her hand over his sun-warmed skin at last. "Portia has Nadia, Ilya has his clinic, and—I may be wrong—but don't you get the impression that Muriel would appreciate a bit less of us dropping into his house on every whim?"

She laughs, the bell-like sound echoing through the tiny space. Faust slithers up from where she'd been lounging on a pillow on the floor, peering at them with inquisitive eyes, and Tulin wakes up with a huff and a ruffle of feathers from where he'd been roosting in the rafters.

Adventure? Faust asks, tilting her head at them.

"That's right!" Asra answers her, then turns back to Rei. "See? Faust is absolutely on board. Tulin too, probably."

An indignant squawk sounds from above them, followed by a vague feeling of annoyance at having been spoken for emanating from the general direction of the ceiling. Asra laughs; he has long ago accepted that the osprey was never going to like him, but he's certain that Rei's familiar would go anywhere she goes.

(It's a sentiment Asra knows well. He shares it.)

"Asra," Rei says, still stifling giggles, rising up only to lean over him, "we can't just leave Vesuvia like thieves in the night."

"We'll say goodbye first," he replies easily. "And we'll visit again, after a while, when they've had time to miss us."

She raises a brow. "And what about the shop?"

"That's just it, Rei," he says, grinning. "We'll take the shop on the road."

She blinks, and he watches the memory flicker to life in her eyes.

Golden wheat stretching out for miles under a dawn sky. A thousand footsteps behind them, and a thousand more to go. Gentle promises for the future they're living in, now.

'I can help you take the shop on the road.'

"Wha—"

(He's seen innumerable wonders in his travels; he'd give them all up for the simple pleasure of watching her remember, just like this.)

"We can go to another big city, like you wanted," he tells her, breathless as he paints a hopeful picture for her with ever-quickening words. "I'll take you to markets bigger than Vesuvia's; I'll take you to the all the places I haven't been to with you, yet. I'll—I'll show you everything you missed and everywhere I've missed you—which is everywhere, really, so wear comfortable shoes." She laughs. "And then—and then maybe—" he starts to trip over his own words in his excitement, "—maybe we can finally visit your family again, across the sea."

Her eyes grow soft, fingers delicately tracing the line of his cheek as her magic and love in equal measure wrap around him like a warm blanket.

"Well," she sighs, wistful, longing. "Doesn't that sound lovely." She looks dreamy and distant for a moment, before her face falls and she begins, hesitant: "But—"

"Here," he interrupts, almost vibrating with unfettered joy and the urge to just go. "We'll ask the cards."

He shuffles the deck one more time before he fans out the cards in front of her, face down. The smile she gives him is a mix of amused skepticism and fond exasperation, but she delicately slides out one card anyway, flipping it over and holding it up between her index and middle fingers so both of them can see.

The wide open landscape of The Fool greets them, its voice beckoning from over the green horizon.

Chapter Text

They had made their way to the Palace the next morning. The plan had been to merely inform people of their intentions and bid a proper farewell, starting with Portia and Nadia.

Except—Ilya had been there too, taking tea with the girls (every second Monday was, apparently, the designated monthly Doctor's Appointment day for the Countess), and while it would have been a challenge to stop Nadia from making an affair of the thing, it was outright impossible with Ilya thrown into the mix. He had demanded a proper send-off at the very least, and of course Nadia had been in full agreement, and their plans had gotten bigger and grander until Asra and Rei had to put their feet down when someone had mused whether the shop was small enough and magical enough to actually take on the road, walls and all.

"We are not," Rei emphasizes, "converting the shop into a walking, moving building."

"But could you, though?" Portia asks, leaning across the table with her face in her hands, a manic sort of gleam in her eyes. "Y'know, hypothetically."

They eventually reach a compromise: a small, intimate farewell party . . . and the wagon.

Rei glances over at Asra with a helpless shrug as the other three begin to refine plans for the construction of their mobile home.

"We won't be leaving within the week after all, I suppose," she says, fondness lining the corners of her mouth when she smiles.

"Maybe it's better this way," he says, winding an arm around her shoulder. "Setting out with all our wares slung over our backs was not, perhaps, the best idea."

He watches their friends throw ideas back and forth; Ilya gestures animatedly about something, causing the others to laugh, and it hits Asra that he and Rei aren't the only ones who will be missed.

(Asra thought he'd learned this particular lesson already, but leaving really does get a little bit harder every time.)

 

---

 

They send word to Muriel, who arrives two days afterwards at the fields outside the palace. Nadia has generously offered one of her largest carriages to be converted, and Ilya has called in favors with some people who might've been carpenters or shipwrights or set designers—or possibly all three. In any case, construction of their wagon is well underway, filling the clearing with the merry sounds of sawing, hammering, and good-natured arguing. Muriel lingers on the fringes, quietly clutching his harvest of forest herbs both common and rare.

"You'll need to grow your own stock," he mumbles, handing them over to Rei without preamble. She thanks him profusely as she adds his gifts to the ones she'd been able to bring over from their little garden at the shop, and Muriel accepts her gratitude as graciously as anyone could without making eye contact.

Asra observes them from a distance, the blueprints he'd been inspecting momentarily forgotten. As his best friend and his lover begin to arrange the herbs into the prepared planter boxes, Asra smiles to himself, musing happily as he watches them, content.

(How strange, how wonderful the magic of the world is—magic that lets people forge bonds even just before an imminent parting.)

The days pass swiftly, and the wagon takes beautiful shape. Nadia's keen eye lends an elegance to the design, Ilya's sensibilities make it sturdy, and Portia's touch gives it the coziness of a home. Muriel, Asra, and Rei spend the last few days pouring magic into the every crevice that will hold it—sealing charms into hidden compartments, carving runes onto the posts, weaving spellwork into the wood. By the end of it all, every useful spell imaginable is threaded into every single nook and cranny: load-lightening glyphs; navigational enchantments; and endless, endless well-wishes for safety, and protection, and happiness.

(It's a potent kind of magic in itself—the care everyone put into this, just for them.)

 

---

 

They stand back when it's done, just the two of them, after the rest have gone for the evening to prepare their farewell feast.

Their new home is certainly a sight, glimmering dimly in the gathering dusk: an indigo roof, magenta walls, purple accents on the posts and lintels. Intricate patterns both magical and mundane creep across the wood in shimmering trails of orange and gold. Someone had the idea to transfer the shop's original sign, and it now hangs proudly by the back door, freshly repainted in lavender and gold.

Rei says it looks like all the colors of a tropical sunset. Asra thinks, personally, it looks like the desert sky they'd stood under, the first time he'd kissed her again after the three longest years of his life.

The interior is no less lovely when they step inside for a final cursory inspection. There are fingerprints everywhere, if one knows where to look: she sees Ilya's touch in her smoothly-sanded apothecary table standing by the window, and Portia's care in the meticulous arrangement of the various bottles atop it; he recognizes Muriel's handiwork in the blooming plant boxes, and Nadia's kindness in the unfamiliar books slipped between his own collection. Love thrums through the walls as strongly as magic, welcoming them home, and even the salamander chirps warmly at them, happily settled in his new stove. Obvious care was taken to make the space as colorful and as cozy as their old room above the shop, and it shows—it looks like the inside of a jewelry box.

Asra laughs when she tells him as much, breathless awe in her voice as she turns to face him, her fingertips still dragging reverently across the polished window sill.

"Of course," he says, stepping closer so he can squeeze her cheeks between his hands as he rubs his nose against hers. "Where else would I keep the most precious person in the world?"

She huffs a quiet laugh, pulling him in for a kiss, and the soft glow of their combined magic brightens the moment their lips meet, illuminating their new home from the inside out.

Chapter Text

The problem with wanting to see the world is that there's quite a lot of it.

They set out with the sunrise, wanting to cover ground before the sun gets too hot for travel. The woods around Vesuvia soon give way to open fields, and before long they find themselves on the same road they'd been on, the first time they made their promise.

"A big city, huh," Asra muses, stretching out on the driver's seat beside Rei. Faust lounges on his lap, soaking in the sun. He gives her a gentle scritch atop her head. "The biggest city I know of is the Prakran capital, but you've been there before."

She blinks, surprise flashing across her features. "I have?"

He immediately stills, biting his lip. He wonders if he'll ever really grow out of it—of the reflexive fear that strikes him whenever she asks about the past she doesn't remember. But this is her story, and she deserves to know, and he wants to be better at being honest now that he actually can.

(He's tired tired tired of keeping secrets, but old habits are hard to break.)

"Yeah," he says at last, looking anywhere but at her. Faust curls around his arm, sensing his distress. (Faust has old habits, too.) "You told me you used to go there with your father and your clanmates all the time to trade."

"Oh," she says, brows scrunched together. "I don't—"

"—remember, yeah. I know."

A stilted silence comes between them as the midmorning sun climbs steadily higher.

She never really got her memories back. That she's grown to love him again regardless is nothing short of a miracle. Some nights she used look out the shop window, listening to the stars, and she'd smile and tell him it must've been fate.

(When she'd fall asleep beside him, he'd be kept awake by the fear that it was nothing more than dumb luck, after all.)

"Asra," she says at last. "Asra, look at me." When he finally does, she smiles at him, sad but gentle all the same. She takes one of his hands and squeezes it, if only to remind him that she's here.

He can live with this, he decides. He already has been for the last three years. He squeezes back, and his smile is a perfect mirror to her own.

(She is here, and she loves him, and that will always be more than enough.)

"We'll make new memories," she assures him. "We have time."

He draws up their linked hands to his mouth, kissing each of her knuckles.

"And the entire world to make them in," he says, lips ghosting along her skin.

She turns back to the road, squinting at the upcoming crossroads. She tugs on the reins with one hand, slowing the horses down. Her other hand stays firmly in his.

"Have we ever been to Prakra together before?" she asks, slowing to a stop where the road diverges. The westward road leads to the desert, and then Nopal beyond that. To the east lies the coastal highway, skirting the ocean as it leads to Prakra.

"No," Asra says with a quirk of his mouth. "Never."

"Well," Rei says, "more than enough reason to go, I should think."

With a light snap of the reins, she turns them east, following the distant dream of the sea over the horizon.

 

---

 

They make new habits too, on the road.

She asks a lot of questions. She might never get her memories back, but there's a satisfying kind of freedom, too, in being able to at least tell her about it at last.

As he drives them past twisting rock formations and cracked, uneven basalt columns, she asks him when his birthday is, and he laughs because he realizes he's never told her in the three years she's forgotten it.

"June thirteenth," he says, and laughs again at the affronted gasp that sounds from the open window behind him, where she's inside sitting on their bed and leaning on the sill.

"You told me that was Faust's birthday!" she cries, indignant.

Twins! Faust chimes in, popping up beside Rei and slithering halfway out the window to give Asra a playful lick on the cheek.

"It is Faust's birthday," he clarifies. "But it's mine, too."

She huffs, tugging at his shirt, and wraps her arms around his shoulders when he leans back against the window. "We could've celebrated if you'd just told me," she grumbles, hooking her chin over his shoulder.

He turns his head and kisses her cheek, repentant. "It didn't seem important at the time. And—" he pauses, squinting at the lights shining off the sea. If he looks in just the right direction, he thinks he can see the familiar silhouettes of Vesuvia, there across the water. He imagines a flash of red, and he shudders. "—I was afraid it might—"

He doesn't finish. He doesn't have to. She knows what he means.

She sighs softly and presses a kiss to where his heartbeat pulses under the thin skin of his neck. "We don't have to be afraid anymore."

(There's freedom, too, in letting yourself be brave.)

 

---

 

As they follow a road that hugs towering chalk cliffs ending in a sheer drop, she sits perched on the roof, her bare feet lightly thumping the wall next to Asra's head. Her eyes track Tulin's flight as he skims low over the water, hunting.

"Asra," she says, fiddling with the falconer's glove on her left hand just as Tulin dives into the water, "if you could eat only one thing for the rest of your life, what would you pick?"

Tulin circles overhead with a shrill warning cry. A wriggling fish caught in his talons shimmers silver in the sun, before he promptly drops it toward Rei, who catches it handily in a readied wicker basket. She turns to Asra, proud of their display of teamwork, but she catches the mischief shining in his eyes and scowls.

"I swear—" she says, just as Asra begins to answer.

"Well, obviously it'd be your—"

"—if you say 'your—"

"—pussy—"

"—pussy'—"

She groans, frustrated, and digs her heels into his shoulder, but he only laughs and presses a kiss to her ankle as her mortified shrieks echo down the cliff and over the crashing waves.

 

---

 

When they come across a deserted beach, just before the road turns further north, they halt the wagon and take off their shoes to walk barefoot in the sand, pausing to watch the moonrise beneath a copse of trees.

"What was it like?" she asks quietly. "The first time you kissed me."

She is standing under a palm tree, fingers brushing the rough bark. He imagines she's thinking about the oasis in his gateway, when he'd brought her over and she'd brought the rains and he'd kissed her like a drowning man desperate for air.

"I thought I was dreaming," have answers, voice soft with the memory. "I couldn't even believe you were there, in the oasis, much less that you were kissing me—"

"No," she interrupts, turning to him and pinning him with the heat of her stare. "I mean the first time you kissed me."

Sometimes, he still has to pause and take a deep breath before he talks about their past.

(He's watched his love break her, over and over, and even once is already one time too many.)

"It . . . was during a Masquerade," he says, eyes tracking over her face—but no pain comes, and the tension that builds up inside him eases a bit at the sight.

She huffs a laugh. "Of course it was."

"It was the first Masquerade we actually went to together," he continues, a bit more forthcoming.

"Did we dance?" She sits, leaning against the trunk and patting the space beside her.

"No." He settles next to her. "We couldn't even get into the Palace—it was already full."

"So? Where did we go?"

"The big bridge, in the Temple District. You wanted to watch the fireworks display they always do at the end of the Masquerade, and the bridge had a great view." When he looks at her now, in the dappled moonlight, he can almost see her as she was then—wearing the first mask she ever brought from him, a smile playing on her lips as she moved steadily, tantalizingly close. "It was raining then, too," he says. "Not very heavy, but we had to hide under one of the alcoves while waiting."

She presses closer, breathless with anticipation. "And then?"

He grins. "And then I professed my undying love and caught you as you swooned, and drew you into a passionate kiss."

She snorts, shoving him lightly. "No you didn't."

He laughs. "No, I didn't. I can't even remember if I said anything; I was so tongue-tied."

"Please tell me you did actually kiss me at some point." The roll of her eyes says one thing, but the way her fingers tangle in his says another, and he knows exactly which one she really means.

He smiles. "We were huddling together to stay warm when the fireworks started. You looked so happy, watching them. You were so beautiful, and so close—I just had to kiss you."

He leans in to kiss her just the way he remembers—soft with hesitation and sweet with the heady rush of a first love. (First and only love—lost and found.) He pulls away just far enough to see the amused quirk of her mouth.

"So it was raining, huh?" she whispers, still close enough that he can feel her lashes brush his cheek. "Is that why you can't seem to stop yourself from kissing me whenever we get the slightest bit damp?"

He kisses the corner of her mouth, teasing. "We're perfectly dry right now, though."

"Not for long."

She wrenches herself suddenly away and runs, making a beeline for the water, her laughter mingling with the sound of the waves. Her skirt swishes behind her, as if beckoning him to follow, and he grins, chasing her into the ocean as a bright crescent moon sways gently in the indigo sky.

Chapter Text

They become something of a legend, in those parts.

There are stories told of the small wagon that appears suddenly, like magic. No one ever sees it cresting the far horizon; it always rolls into town with the dawn, already close enough to hear the clip-clop of the horses' hooves. A few moments more and one can make out the painted sign swinging merrily by the back door, depicting a snake coiling around a mortar and pestle.

The wagon's driver differs with each storyteller: sometimes, it's a slight, hooded figure perched primly in the driver's seat, the silver threads in her skirt glittering like stars even in the bright daylight; sometimes, it's a white-haired fellow, reins coiled lazily around one hand as he leans far down enough in the seat that one can't be sure if he's actually awake. And there is at least one old timer who claims he came upon the wagon on the road to Nevivon, and found only a snake coiled on the seat, warming itself in the sun. An osprey perched on the roof, its sharp gaze pinned on him as the wagon passed him by.

The wagon usually stops wherever there's ample space, and if one waits a few moments they will see awnings unfurling over the right-hand window and above the back porch, while a rolled up sign pinned to the side opens to reveal the words 'Potions and elixirs at the window, tarot readings at the door.'

"Witches," some people whisper, herding their children inside houses and closing the shutters. But there are some who swear by the apothecary's brews, and more than a few querents praise the tarot reader and his uncannily accurate advice. They rarely take money, instead asking for things like bread, or produce, or a bolt of thick cloth, or an old but sturdy kettle.

They're polite, too, and always smiling, both at their customers and at each other. They must be in love, some of their friendlier patrons say; and, How happy you two must be, to which the apothecary only smiles and nods, but the tarot reader laughs brightly.

"That's right!" he says, wrapping an arm around her shoulder and pressing a kiss to her temple.

And they are happy, even in the tiny space they share. They have to maneuver around each other to get from one end of the wagon to the other, but it means they can feel each other's warmth while Rei mixes potions at her table and Asra boils water for tea over the stove just behind her. The dining table barely has enough room for two plates, so they only use one, and take turns feeding each other from it. The bed is smaller even than the one they shared in the shop, but they wake up tangled in each other every morning, so it suits them just fine.

They are together, they are in love, and they are the happiest they've ever been.

(He wakes up every morning in contentment and thinks he can't want for anything more than this.)

 

---

 

One evening, well after they've closed up shop, Rei looks up from wiping down her workstation, glancing out the window with a crease in her brow.

"Someone's coming," she says, eyes fixed on the flashing stars, "but I don't know who."

Tulin rouses from the nest Muriel made for him in the rafters, suddenly alert. She opens the window, and he flies out into the night with a warning call. Asra pauses in washing the dishes, drying his hand on a towel before reaching for his deck and pulling a random card.

The Empress looks back at them, but they hardly have time to listen to what she would've said before Tulin flies back in, alighting on Rei's shoulder and looking fixedly at the door.

"It's one of the farmers," Rei says, her gaze turned inward as she sees what her familiar saw. She blinks out of it, and the two of them share a terse look just as a knock sounds through the wagon. Asra answers the door to find that it is, indeed, one of the farmers from the village, peeking up at them from beneath his straw hat and wringing his hands.

"Please," he says. "Me wife's giving birth, and the midwife's outta town this week."

Another look, another silent conversation between them.

"I—" Rei begins haltingly, glancing between Asra and the man, "I can give her something for the pain, but I—I've never—" She looks over at Asra for help, and he smiles at her, encouraging.

"We'll just do what we can," he says, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

"Oh, yes, please," the man says, nodding desperately. "That's all I ask."

Rei takes a deep breath and nods once, smiling gently at him. "I'll gather my things. We'll be out shortly."

Once the door closes, she lets out the breath she'd been holding as she grabs her satchel and turns to her workstation.

"Tulin, look after the shop while we're gone," she tells her familiar, who disappears back up to the rafters with a short caw. Asra asks Faust to do the same while Rei runs quickly through the various herbs on her table. "Ash, juniper, beth root, witch hazel . . ." Her fingers quiver ever so slightly against the bottles as she pulls them from the rack and into her bag. "What else, what else—"

"Yarrow and oak, brewed together as tea, act as an astringent for the womb," Asra recites, reaching for the proper containers. "Jasmine, bergamot, and rose oil infused in hot bath water help soothe the mother after the birth."

When he notices her perplexed look, he smiles, and admits: "You taught me that, after you helped the baker's wife deliver their child." He takes her hands and squeezes them, stilling her shaky fingers. "I know you can do this, Rei. Don't be scared."

She takes a few calming breaths as he places a kiss atop her head, before she pauses, and says, "The baker has a wife!?"

Asra laughs and kisses her cheek. "Later. We've got a patient waiting."

 

---

 

The inside of the one-room hut the farmer takes them to is dark and warm, lit only by a small fire on the hearth. The farmer's wife is attended to by two other women—an older spinster aunt and the farmer's younger, unwed sister, both looking uncertain as to what to do but trying their best to calm the expectant mother anyway.

Asra and Rei stand silent by the door, watching as the farmer approaches his wife to whisper in her ear. She turns her glazed eyes over to them, and Rei stiffens, squeezing Asra's hand reflexively.

"You can do this," he reminds her, with a brief brush of his thumb across the back of her hand, before he relinquishes it and steps back. He watches, a warm feeling suffusing his chest, as her throat moves with a swallow and she steps forward.

"My name is Rei," she says, voice serene, her nervousness only apparent in the way her hand clutches at the strap of her bag. "I'm here to help."

 

---

 

Asra throws more ash seeds and juniper berries into the fire as he waits for the water to warm. He glances over to where Rei kneels by the mother, murmuring words of comfort. She has tied her hair into a high, messy bun, and for a moment Asra relives that day in the baker's house—the warm bedroom with heavy curtains over the windows; the lingering smell of bread and spices that followed the baker as he paced worriedly back and forth; the soft lilting chant Rei had whisper-sung to the frightened young mother as she groaned with the birthing pains.

The stars, they watch over you, sister,
And the lady moon, she smiles on you, daughter.
The pain, it will pass, become no more than a whisper,
Be brave, little mother, and calm as the water.

"—the water?"

Asra snaps back abruptly to the present only to see Rei smiling quizzically at him, brow raised.

"Asra?" she repeats. "The water, please."

It is only now that he realizes the kettle is already boiling, whistling cheerily in the otherwise silent room. He pours some water into a cup and hands it off to Rei, watches her steep a mixture of beth root and raspberry leaves before bringing it to the mother's lips to drink.

"The contractions will come soon," Rei warns her gently. "But I need you to be strong, and push as hard as you can, alright?"

"Alright," the mother says, in a sure, clear voice. No longer are her eyes unfocused and unseeing; now, determination blazes in them as she crouches over the birthing stool.

It is not so difficult a delivery, after all. (The baker's wife had a harder time of it, he remembers.) Soon enough, Asra is helping Rei wash the newborn in warm spring water, his eyes fixed, trance-like, as she coos tenderly to the baby and swaddles it in clean linens.

(The thought comes to him unbidden: oh, what if, what if, what if?)

"It's a beautiful baby girl," she announces softly to the room. The farmer beams, clutching at his wife's hand with tears streaming down his joyful face, and the aunt and sister lavish quiet praises on the mother, who only smiles tiredly and stretches out her arms for her daughter. After Rei carefully maneuvers the baby into her mother's embrace, Asra waits patiently as she packs wool and witch hazel between the mother's thighs to stem the bleeding, and explains to the aunt how to prepare the astringent and the sitz-bath.

Then, her job done, she joins Asra at the door with a wide, satisfied smile, tucking her hand into his as they slip quietly back out into the starlit night.

 

---

 

They lie awake later, well into the early hours of the dawn, squeezed together in their bed with barely a spare inch between them, listening to the cricket-song outside the window.

Asra lies facing her, chin propped on his hand. He watches as her eyes flutter sleepily; she must be exhausted, and he cannot help the grin that splits his face as he remembers how she looked in that little one-room hut, kneeling next to the mother, just as determined and just as brave.

"You were amazing today," he whispers, brushing a loose curl from her cheek.

She cracks one eye open as she turns to him, snuggling closer. "I couldn't have done it without you," she sighs, settling into his warmth. "Thank you, Asra," she says, "for believing in me."

He kisses her hair as she burrows into his chest, and his heart is so full it hurts, but only in the best way. "Always."

He watches her breaths even out, and when he thinks she's asleep, he says, "You'd make a great mother."

(They'd have his hair and her eyes and oh, but what he wouldn't give for them to have her smile—)

He doesn't expect it when the corner of her mouth turns up the slightest bit, and she mumbles, if a little incoherently, "Only if you're there to help me."

It stuns him stock-still long enough that her breathing deepens into true sleep before he gathers his wits back to himself.

(He has been so happy, here with her, that he had all but forgotten what it was to want something with every fiber of his being.)

Slowly, so as not to wake her, he reaches slowly behind her to the little compartment where he keeps his deck and pulls out a single card.

The Empress is quiet, smiling enigmatically out at him from her abundant garden, and Asra closes his eyes as he recalls the memory of the newborn's first cry as she lay swaddled in Rei's arms, a grin remaining on his face even long after he falls asleep.

Chapter Text

It's late morning by the time they enter the woods, and almost noon by the time they stop in front of Muriel's hut. He's not yet home, but the fire inside is already lit, warming the little space, and so they let themselves in anyway.

"I'm sure he's missed us," Asra says cheerily as he shepherds Rei in front of the fire despite her protests. "He probably won't mind."

"You always did like jumping to conclusions," a gravelly voice says by the door, and they turn to see Muriel ducking into the hut, Inanna at his heels.

Asra grins. "And yet here you are, bringing in lunch for us. We're touched."

Muriel huff-snorts as he sheds his outer cloak and throws it on the bed. "Inanna saw you enter the forest. I figured the sooner I feed you two, the sooner you'd leave me in peace."

He sets down the bundle he'd been carrying for them to peruse. It's full of wild mushrooms, freshly gathered from the woods.

"Nice," Asra says, smiling as he holds up a bolete to inspect it in the dim light. "What're we having?"

"Was thinking soup," Muriel mumbles absently, eyes flicking between the two of them.

"I'll start," Rei volunteers, gathering the mushrooms back into the cloth bundle to bring them over to the pot by the fire. "Have you got any garlic, Muriel?"

He gestures toward the tiny pantry closet before laying a heavy hand on Asra's shoulder. "We'll get more firewood for you," he announces, before promptly dragging Asra outside.

Once the door clicks shut behind them, Asra's brow furrows. "Is something wrong?"

"No," Muriel grunts. "Just wanted to talk." He picks through the wood pile, selecting big, dry pieces. "She looks better."

"She's doing better," Asra says proudly, taking some smaller pieces off his hands. "She's a lot more confident in her magic now."

"How much does she remember?"

Asra's smile falters. "Not . . . everything. Not even a lot, really." He shakes his head. "But I can tell her about things, at least. Sometimes, it triggers a memory. That's more than I thought we'd ever get."

They linger a little in the comfortable silence, before Muriel shifts, muscles relaxing as he looks, really looks at Asra.

"You seem happy," Muriel says.

"I am," Asra replies honestly.

A grunt, softened by the smallest of smiles. "Good."

Lunch isn't a long affair, or a loud one—Asra does most of the talking. Muriel merely nods attentively, slurping his soup in silence, but he cracks a smile at appropriate moments, which pleases Asra; and he asks for a second helping, which pleases Rei immensely. The food is good, and the company even better, but for Asra the best part is when Rei pats Muriel's shoulder when she sets down his second bowl, and he actually smiles, if only a little bit, and doesn't flinch away.

Muriel good-naturedly kicks them out when the heat of the day starts to dissipate, the air in the forest beginning to cool as the sunlight filtering through the canopy turns from buttery yellow to a warm, deep gold. He gives Asra a friendly clasp on the shoulder, then does the same to Rei, to her surprise. And when he speaks, there is nothing but trust in his voice.

"Take care of him," he tells her softly, and she beams.

"I will."

Asra climbs into the driver's seat and watches with a fond expression as Muriel gives Rei a gentle boost up beside him.

"Until next time, Muriel," Asra says, taking the reins.

"Come visit again, both of you," Muriel tells them with a nod, then pauses before adding: "But take your time coming back."

His words may be sharp, and his tone brusque, but his eyes follow their departure until the trees hide them completely from view.

 

---

 

They emerge from the woods and into the familiar clearing just below the Palace, its high lemonstone walls burnished gold by the late afternoon sun. Just up the hill, they can spy the little servants' gate that leads into the gardens. They lock up the wagon and see that the horses are grazing peacefully before setting out for the Palace on foot.

The gate is fortuitously unlocked, and together Asra and Rei walk through the gardens, pausing at the fountain when they hear a hoot coming from the willow's branches.

Chandra is peering down at them, head cocked to the side, before she takes off and lands in another nearby tree. She glances back, indicating that they should follow, and leads them through the twisting garden paths to Portia's cottage.

"Milady Countess?" Asra calls out into the thick greenery.

Nadia's voice answers, imperious and irritated. "Did I not say I was not to be disturbed while I am here?"

"Apologies, Countess," he says, grinning as they step out into the little clearing and in her line of sight. "I'm afraid we didn't get the memo."

Nadia's face splits into a beatific smile. "My dear magicians," she greets them warmly, rising from her seat on the hewn log bench. "I trust you have both fared well?"

Before either of them can answer, the door slams open and Portia appears, eyes wide with shock.

"Did you say magicians!?"

When she finally catches sight of them, she beams, her sunny face bright in the afternoon light.

"Rei! Asra!" She runs over to them, pulling them into a tight hug that almost lifts them off their feet. Nadia's tinkling laugh rings in the background.

"I had been imposing on Portia for some afternoon tea," Nadia explains, "but perhaps she could find it in her heart to accommodate you both, as well."

"Oh, of course!" Portia says, releasing them at last. "Lemme just add more water to the pot. Make yourselves at home!"

"I'll help you prepare the service," Rei offers, linking arms with a smiling Portia, and together they duck into the cottage, already giggling.

 

---

 

"There, by your foot! Grab it!"

"Aha! Got you, you little—argh!"

"Porti—ah!"

Asra snorts over his teacup while Nadia politely hides her smile behind hers. In the garden, Rei and Portia are attempting to tame the graspgourds, wrangling them onto trellises to hopefully prevent them from accosting any more visitors to the cottage. (Primarily Ilya, who falls prey to them the most often; Nadia has somehow instilled the Fear of the Countess in them, but anyone else is fair game.)

They watch as the girls struggle with a particularly feisty vine, finally winning when Rei pins it against the trellis with prejudice and not a little bit of magical help, and Portia quickly restrains it with several loops of gardening twine. It wriggles vehemently but otherwise stays put.

"Tell me about your travels," Nadia says, sipping delicately at her tea as the girls move on to wrestling with the next vine. "You must have some wild tales."

"None so wild as the one we left behind," Asra says, breathing in the jasmine-scented steam wafting from his cup. The smell brings back all sorts of memories, mostly of Nadia. Jasmine was always her favorite. But when he drinks, his tongue is flooded with the sweetness of honey followed by a kick of lemon, and he's reminded suddenly of Portia's sweet, sunny disposition. It makes him smile. "How are things going in the Palace, by the way?"

"Splendidly, in fact," Nadia replies with an air of satisfaction. "The new courtiers are getting on quite well, considering none of them have ever held such posts. Consul Valerius has surprisingly turned out to be quite an effective leader in his own right, once he started spending less time at the bottom of a bottle."

"Sounds like you're doing well enough without us," he teases her, but his eye is drawn to the smear of dirt on Rei's cheek that stretches when she laughs.

"Regardless," Nadia says warmly as he settles against her, close enough that their arms touch, comfortably familiar. "It's good to have you home, Asra."

"I've been home all this time, Nadi," he tells her, smiling when Rei catches him looking and sticks her tongue out playfully. "But you're right, it is good to be back."

 

---

 

Nadia insists they spend the night. Several nights, in fact. She has the stablehands collect the horses from the clearing and taken to be pampered during their stay. Thus they set out for the town on foot the next morning, walking through the familiar streets hand in hand and side by side.

(Neither leading nor following; just going together, wherever they go.)

They take their time rediscovering what's changed and what hasn't, and as such it's almost noon by the time they stop in front of an unassuming little building in the seedier parts of the South End.

(Alas, progress has not moved quickly enough for Nadia's taste.)

A roughly-hewn sign swings above the door, depicting a leech in a bottle.

(For the man who owns this particular establishment, however, the . . . ambience of its location suits him just fine.)

"Ilya!" an old woman's voice sounds from inside before Asra has the chance to knock. "You skipped your breakfast again, didn't you, you impossibly foolish boy!"

"I had a patient," they hear him protest, but evidently Mazelinka is having none of it, as they peek in to find him dodging while she swats at him lightly with a wooden spoon.

"You always have patients!" she retorts. "You're a doctor!"

"Exactly, which is why—"

"Which is why you have absolutely no excuse to neglect your own health!"

"Perhaps we can help, Mazelinka," Asra cuts in, finally opening the door fully. "We'll make sure he eats his lunch."

"There you are!" Mazelinka crows, while Ilya blinks owlishly in surprise. "Perfect timing. Now take this boy off my hands, I need to make more pep-up soup for his patients."

"You couldn't have known they were coming," Ilya says skeptically even as he grabs his coat.

"'Course I did," she replies, waving her spoon around dismissively. "Woman's intuition. Now shoo."

Ilya laughingly evades one last swat from Mazelinka as he herds Asra and Rei out the door.

 

---

 

Ilya is more than happy to take them around the city. They stop first at the baker's, who does a double take when Asra and Rei duck into his store.

"Well, I'll be," he cries, chuckling heartily as he wipes his flour-dusted hands on a towel. "Asra and Rei, back in town. How long will you be here for?"

"Not long," Asra replies with a warm smile. "Places to be, you know how it is."

The baker laughs. "Enjoy it while you're young, I suppose. I'll see you two settle down yet."

"I hope so," Asra replies earnestly, catching sight of Rei kneeling to talk to a young boy of around five, maybe six years of age. "Jona seems to be getting on well," Asra says, a melancholy smile on his lips.

The baker's eyes follow his gaze to rest on his son, whom Rei is coaxing out from beneath Ilya's cloak with simple feats of magic. "Getting big, you mean," he says, chuckling. "Insists on helping around the shop even if he can't see the top of the counters yet." His expression turns somber. "His Ma would've been proud."

"I'm sorry," Asra says, unsure but sympathetic all the same.

"The Plague took a lot of people," the baker says with a half-hearted shrug. "We can't let it haunt us forever."

(They have all of them lost something, and not everyone is as lucky as he is, to have found her again.)

The guilt must be evident on his face, because the baker smiles kindly, though it doesn't quite reach his eyes.

"Never feel like you have to be sorry for being happy, Asra," he says softly. "I wish you both all the good things in the world."

He gives them each a loaf of pumpkin bread for the road, and waves the three of them off as they go.

"Take care of yourselves!" he says, holding Jona in his arms so he can wave goodbye too.

"We will!" Rei waves back, her other hand firmly in Asra's grip as they leave the marketplace behind. Ilya drags them all over the city, keeping them on a brisk walking pace in order to match his long, excited strides.

"They're keeping the building mostly intact for posterity," he tells them, munching on a mouthful of bread as the pass by the Coliseum, "but it's being repurposed as a courthouse. The lower rooms are being modified for use in smaller hearings, and the arena reserved for public trials."

"Like ours, I suppose," Asra says, vividly remembering the color of blood on the sand.

"Well, I doubt it'll be as entertaining," Ilya quips with his usual roguish grin, making the other two laugh.

(He's done with letting the past haunt him, Asra decides. He wants to remember these things and feel happy.)

"I think you'd have made good money in theater, Julian," Rei says, clearly reminiscing as well, "if you weren't such a good doctor."

"Oh, I don't know," Asra says, teasing, (and it's familiar, it's familiar and fun, and he is living for it), "he's okay for someone who doesn't have a medical license."

"Ah ah ah," Ilya tuts. "Not for long. Haven't you heard? Nadia had all those tacky marble Lucios in the Statue Garden torn down. They're using the space to build a university, and I'll be one of the first students in its hallowed halls," he announces proudly.

"That's wonderful, Julian," Rei gushes. "I wish you luck."

"Doctors don't rely on luck, my dear, or we'll never get anything done." His smile is the brightest Asra's ever seen on him in all the time they've known each other.

"I've never known you to be so optimistic, Ilya," Asra observes, curious.

Ilya throws his arms out, his cloak fluttering behind him as he gestures largely to the city, bright and alive under a sunny sky.

"What can I say?" he says. "Life's never been this good."

And his fervent, honest words make Asra take it all in with fresh eyes—the city, scarred but healing; his friends, happy and content; and Rei, who is past and present and future and forever, standing next to him with her hand warm in his. He breathes in and the air in his lungs feels like victory.

"You know what?" he says. "You're absolutely right."

(And it only gets better from here.)

Chapter Text

He's still plagued, sometimes, by terrible nightmares.

(You don't give up part of your heart and expect to come out unscarred.)

"If you want to leave," her hollow voice echoes, blood-stained eyes burning accusations into his soul, "then leave."

He runs, reaching for her, desperate to take her gaunt figure into his arms, bury his fingers in her cropped-short hair, tell her he's sorry, he's so sorry—

The familiar terrain of his gateway seems to work against him, the sand sucking at his boots. The soft magenta sky shifts into a fiery red (the furnace fires stained the horizon even in the darkest hours of the night) as a deep clanging sound booms across the landscape (the metal doors had screeched and banged while he dug and dug and dug). Helpless, hopeless, he watches, horrified, as her silhouette is blown away by a harsh desert wind into a flurry of rust-colored sand.

When he calls out for her, throat scrubbed raw, the wind steals her name away, too.

"Rei! Rei!"

The sand underneath him shifts, suddenly, and he's falling, falling through air and darkness until stars begin bursting into life, one by one. His descent slows until he floats gently down onto the open expanse of a salt flat, its shallow layer of water forming a perfect mirror of the starry night sky. The reflection of the pale white stretch of an arching galaxy forms a diamond-speckled path on the ground, and when he looks up—

—she's there, running full-tilt down the glittering road, calling his name.

He's barely taken a step before she's right in front of him, pulling him close and into a firm, insistent kiss. He's frozen, unable to take a breath, and she pulls away, cradling his tear-stained cheeks between her hands.

"Asra," she says, urgent, "wake up."

 

---

 

He chokes on a sob as his eyes fly open, unable to see through tears and the sudden bright light. He blinks to clear his vision, focusing first on Rei, crouched over him with a sad smile on her face. Her summoned globes of light float like fireflies in the little alcove of their bed, bathing everything in soft turquoise.

"Rei?" he rasps out.

She shushes him gently, brushing his sweat-soaked bangs away from his forehead. "It's alright now," she says softly. "Breathe." She places a kiss on his brow, lips lingering to whisper against his skin. "I'm here, Asra. I'm here."

"Wait," he says, still gasping for the air his nightmare had punched out of his lungs. "You—how did—"

"I pulled you over," she says, "from your gateway into mine." She frowns, worry creasing a faint line between her brows. "You were having a bad dream."

(She's always had a knack, he supposes, for finding him exactly when he needs her to.)

He closes his eyes and sees her again—sick with the plague, a solitary figure standing all alone in the desolate landscape of his gateway, and he shudders.

(A pity, for the both of them, that he couldn't do the same.)

"No, stop that," she reprimands him lightly. His eyes open at the sensation of her thumb smoothing away the furrow on his brow. "You can't keep blaming yourself, Asra. It wasn't your fault."

"I left you," he says, tears beginning anew.

"And I would have gotten sick whether you were there to watch or not." Her fingers are still running through his hair, reminding him that she's here, and it soothes him like nothing else.

He turns, pulling her down beside him and burying his face in her neck as sobs wrack his frame. I'm sorry spills out repeatedly from his lips, all the apologies she wasn't there to hear when he finally came back too late. Her arms tighten around him as she rubs his back comfortingly.

"I forgave you a long time ago, Asra," she tells him. "It's time you forgave yourself too."

He cries until the tears stop coming, until his sobs quiet into sniffles that don't travel past the little space between his heart and hers. She stays wrapped around him all the while, the warmth of her as calming and as assuring as the steadiness of her even breaths.

"It's not yet morning," she murmurs into his hair when he finally falls silent. "You can still sleep a while longer."

Truthfully, he's a little afraid—he doesn't think he's ready to face his demons again quite so soon—but as if reading his mind she begins to hum softly. He thinks at first that it's an absentminded, made-up tune, but soon enough he recognizes the melody of the first song they'd ever danced to at a Masquerade, so many, many years ago, when they were both younger, and lighter, and different people altogether.

They're different people, now. (She, perhaps, has changed quite a bit more than he has.) But there are things that haven't changed—the he is still here with her is one thing; that she still loves him is another.

Holding on to that comforting thought, he falls back into a deep and blessedly dreamless sleep.

 

---

 

When he wakes again, it's to the smell of eggs and bacon frying and the sound of Rei bustling around the wagon. The curtain separating the bed from the rest of the living space shifts, and Faust slithers in with him, coiling up on the pillow beside him with a pleased flick of the tongue.

Morning!

He gives her a gentle scritch just as Rei pulls aside the curtain and sits on the edge of the bed, brushing a hand through his unruly morning hair.

"Good morning," she says softly. "Feeling okay?"

With you here? he thinks. Always.

"Better," he says instead, linking their hands together and kissing the tips of her fingers, but he thinks she knows what he means just by the way his eyes crinkle at her when he smiles.

"Breakfast is almost ready," she says. "Could you go water the horses first? I'll be done by the time you get back."

She kisses his cheek and moves back into the kitchen, where he hears her whispering to the stove salamander before he hears the tell-tale puff and crackle of a fire rekindled. Faust slithers onto his shoulders as he stretches and rolls lazily out of bed. His joints feel a little stiff, and there is a dull ache behind his eyes, but his heart, at least, is light in the morning sun. He pads across the living space, running a teasing finger along the back of Rei's neck, earning him a tickled squeak from her. She sticks her tongue out at him as he slips laughingly out the door, where all the remnants of his fears from the previous night burn away in the spring sunshine.

He takes a bucket, filling it with water with a swirl of his hand, and goes to water the horses, a dappled grey with intelligent eyes named Winterdawn, and a chubby pinkish-hued roan affectionately christened Strawberry Pudge. (Two guesses as to who named who.)

Pudge snuffles at him curiously as he leads them to a shaded grassy area to graze. He laughs, tickled, and gives her a scritch between the ears.

"Alright, alright, I'll buy you an apple at the next market, okay?"

She whickers, pleased, just as Rei leans out the window and calls, "You spoil her, you know."

He turns, grinning mischievously, and winks. "I can spoil you too, if you like."

"Get in here," she says, laughing as she ducks back inside. "Breakfast is ready."

He moves to follow her, and already has a hand on the door when Faust perks up, eyes fixed on a small figure coming up the dirt path from the town. He pauses, squinting, and makes out bouncing pigtails and a flouncing patchwork skirt before he recognizes one of the little village girls.

"Hello," Asra says when she stops at the foot of the little stairs, thumping her boots together to shake the dust off. "Can I help you?"

"You're them magicians goin' around, ar'n'tcha?" she says, looking Asra from head to toe.

He blinks. "That's right."

"Is it true you can tell the future?"

"Not exactly," Asra says, perplexed at this imperious-looking little girl with messy braids and a weathered reed basket hanging from her arm. "But if you have questions about it, I can give you a reading."

"Great!" She clambers up onto the little porch and sits cross-legged, pushing her basket toward Asra. He flips over the cloth to find several ripe apples, their skins smooth and gleaming red.

Well, he thinks, isn't Pudge lucky.

"They're from last autumn's harvest," she explains. "Filched 'em from our store room. 's this enough payment?"

He's received far stranger things as compensation in the course of their travels, certainly, so he nods at the girl and gestures for Rei to hand him his tarot deck. She does so, and smiles at their customer.

"I've just finished brewing a pot of tea," she says. "Want some?"

"Oh! Yes, please," the girl says, beaming up at Rei, who chuckles as she gathers up the apples to bring them inside.

"I'll bring you some, too," Rei says, kissing Asra's cheek, her proximity allowing Faust to transfer from his shoulders to hers. Then she disappears into the wagon, giving Asra and his querent some privacy.

"Alright," Asra turns to the girl, watching her eyes following intently as he shuffles the cards between his hands, "I'm Asra, and you are?"

"Ella," she says, perking up. "Short for Estrella."

"And how old are you, Ella-short-for-Estrella?"

Proudly, "Seven and three-fourths."

He grins, taken by her childlike enthusiasm. "So what are we asking the cards today, Ella?"

"Okay," she says, dusting off invisible specks of dirt from her skirt as her gaze sharpens with focus, "so, I got this friend."

"Uh-huh."

"Like, best friend. In the entire world."

"I hear you."

"But we fought a few days ago and now we're not talking." She pouts, sullen, and then deflates. "I miss her."

(Oh, and doesn't he know about that feeling all too well.)

Rei returns with two cups of tea, leaning out the half-open stable door and passing the one sweetened with milk to Ella, who offers a prim thank you in return. Then she gives Asra the other, prepared just how he likes it. The warmth that spreads through his chest when he takes a sip grounds him, and he's certain it's not just from the tea.

Feeling renewed, he shuffles the deck once more, cuts it, and lets Ella pick her cards. He lays out the three in order of past, present, and future.

"Okay," he says, flipping over the first—the Six of Cups, upright. "This card shows your past."

"What's fish gotta do with it?" Ella asks, nose crinkling in confusion.

He laughs. "This card means that you have very happy memories of something—or someone—but that you should be careful not to let nostalgia affect the present too much."

A beat. "What's nostalgia?"

"It's when . . ." He glances away, sees Rei settled on the bed darning one of his shirts by the light of the window, and swallows around the lump in his throat. (It's the little things that get him, every time.) "It's when you miss the past so much that you forget to appreciate the present."

"Well, the present sucks." Ella frowns, picking at the laces of her boots, not meeting his eyes. "I wish we could go back to before Auri and I fought. Everything was better then."

"When things change," Asra says, tentatively at first, but with conviction growing with every word as he looks at Rei's calm, contented smile, Faust and Tulin watching over her from the rafters, "it's not always for the worse. Sometimes change is a good thing."

"But Auri isn't talking to me."

He looks back at Ella. "Just because Auri isn't talking to you now, doesn't mean she never will again. Give it time."

"But it's been forever."

He raises a brow. "You said you guys fought a few days ago."

"For-e-ver."

Asra chuckles, then flips the next card. "Well, we'll finish your reading, then maybe you'll figure out what to do, okay?"

"'kay."

"This card shows the present," Asra says, tapping the Five of swords, reversed. "It's about the aftermath of a fight. You're tired. You may have won, but at what cost? You just want it to be over."

He expects Ella to be quiet, pensive, but instead her eyes are wide and wondering.

"That's so cool!" she gushes. "How'd you know that!?"

Her smile is infectious, pulling up the corners of his own mouth. "The card told me."

Her lip juts out, skeptical. "I didn't hear anything."

"You have to listen really, really closely," he tells her. "It helps if you can do magic."

"Oh," Ella says, shoulders slumping, dejected. "I can't do magic."

He smiles. He remembers saying those words a long, long time ago.

"Hey, Ella," he says. "Wanna know a secret?"

Her eyes wide, she leans forward to catch his conspiratorial whisper.

"Anyone can do magic," he says, cupping her hands together and enfolding them in his own. When he opens their hands together, a perfect little snowflake sits in the middle of her cupped palms, glistening for but a moment before dissipating in the warmth of the springtime sun. "If they want it badly enough."

Ella squeals, high and excited, the sound carried outwards by the morning breeze.

"Show me more!" she demands, and Asra laughs, ruffling her hair.

"Maybe another time. We'll finish your reading first, okay?"

"Okay!"

He flips the last card over, and the Wheel of fortune stares back at them.

"What goes up must come down," Asra intones, slowly turning the card so the wheel spins slowly round and round, with Ella following its movement with her eyes. "But so must what goes down come back up again. We can't spend our entire lives grieving for its low points, Ella," he says, glancing back at Rei, voice growing soft, "or else we'll miss all the high points that come our way."

In a small voice, Ella asks, "But what if Auri never wants to talk to me again?"

"Maybe, maybe not. But Ella," he says, brushing back a stray curl that has escaped from her braid, "if you keep staying away, you'll never know if maybe she misses you, too."

Ella is quiet for a long time, and Asra leaves her to her thoughts, instead watching the sure, steady motion of Rei's hands as she slips her needle in, out, in, out—patient as she ever was when mending broken things.

"I'm gonna talk to her," Ella announces at last, standing up with a determined gleam in her eye. "I'm gonna apologize and maybe we'll do that thing Papa says he and Mama do when they fight. The comm promise thingy."

"Compromise," Asra corrects her patiently.

"Yeah, whatever." Ella gathers her empty basket and hops off the porch. "And then maybe we'll be friends again and then someday maybe we'll even get married and live in a wagon and go on adventures just like you two!"

A beat, and Asra flushes.

"Oh," he stutters, "we aren't—"

But then he looks over at Rei again, and he thinks—

—well, why aren't we?

"Bye, Asra!" Ella calls out, already sprinting back down the dirt path before Asra can finish that train of thought.

Rei chuckles softly, putting aside her sewing and crossing over to where he's still sitting dumbfounded on the porch.

"Well, that was certainly something," she says, eyes crinkling in a way that makes him terribly unsure as to whether or not she heard the last part of what Ella said. His insides twist at the thought that she did, and then droop at the thought that she didn't. "You don't think it was too much, telling her anyone can do magic?"

"She's got that spark," he says absently, vaguely—still distracted by why aren't we?

"You would know, magician." She dimples at him, then tugs at his wrist to get him to stand. "Come on, before breakfast gets cold."

He lets her lead him inside, listens to her chatter over their shared meal as if he isn't having some kind of astral experience, and it's only when he's washing the dishes, back to back with her as she prepares her potion orders for the day, that why aren't we is replaced with the earth-shattering realization of we could be.

He almost drops the cup back into the tub of sudsy water.

We could be.

 

---

 

He dreams of the desert again, but it's different, this time.

Asraaa, the beast greets him, ambling slowly over the sand.

"Oh, hello," he greets back. "Long time no see. I didn't expect to see you here. We're a bit far from the desert, I thought."

Distance works differently in dreams.

Suddenly he can see Rei, a little ways away, but he knows, somehow, that she's just a part of his dream, and not walking in from her own. The edges of her figure are smoke-like, mutable, constantly changing. First he sees her at fourteen, like the very first time she stumbled into his stall; now he sees her as she was when she first woke up and the burning sensation of the mark flared over his chest. She shifts, again—now she's lit by the multicolor hues of fireworks; now she's lit by soft firelight as she hums softly to a farmer's newborn child. That image lingers the longest, moving close enough that he reaches out, entranced, to touch it—

—before even that fades away and Asra blinks, snapping back to himself.

You know your path, the beast observes. And yet still you hesitate to take it.

"Everyone does in these kinds of situations," Asra argues, but he feels petulant, like a child waiting for a scolding.

If you're uncertain, the beast asks, why don't you ask your cards?

A single card appears and floats down to his eye level before turning itself over. A bright light, an insistent pulling sensation, and Asra finds himself standing suddenly in the realm of the Lovers.

Sunlight pours over the gently sloping hill, its gradual incline leading up to a sprawling old apple tree that towers over the grassy knoll. Asra steps into its shade, and with a rustle of leaves and the stirring of branches, the Lovers slither close, winding down the trunk to greet him.

"Asra," the purple one says, in the purring, heated voice of a lover whispering sweet nothings in a beloved's ear, sending an involuntary shudder down Asra's spine. "Our little Gemini child."

"You came here to ask a question," the yellow one says, peering into his face, and their voice sounds like bubbling laughter, like lazy golden afternoons, like holding hands in a crowded room. "But we think you already have an answer, no?"

"You have made your choice," the purple one says, as if reading his mind. (Or his heart.) Their human hands settle on each of Asra's shoulders as they circle around him, still hanging from the branches.

"And yet you are afraid," the golden one continues, laying a hand over his cheek, "because you think she might have made a different one."

"I—" He clutches at the fabric over his chest, just above his rapidly-beating heart. "We're happy as we are," he says, more to himself than anything. "She's happy the way things are, right now. Maybe this is enough for her."

Green eyes stare piercingly into his own. "But is it enough for you?"

"I—" he begins, and then continues, as honest as he's ever been in his life, "I've only ever wanted for her to be happy."

The Lovers hiss in tandem, but not hostilely—more enigmatically amused if anything.

"We cannot answer for her," the purple one says, retreating slowly back up the trunk.

"Nor can we tell you which path to take." The yellow one slithers over their lover, bodies intertwining.

"But know you this, Asra." The purple one turns, red eyes blazing with a passion that seems to burn with infinite fire. "Love requires courage."

"And sacrifice," the yellow one adds, melancholy seeping into their tone. "And you know about these things better than most, don't you?"

Asra startles awake in the pre-dawn darkness, breathing hard. He blinks until he reorients himself, slowly making out the familiar shapes of the wagon's interior. Rei stirs where she has her head resting on his chest, peering up at him with one eye open.

"Asra?" she mumbles, voice still rough with sleep. "Is everything alright?"

"Yeah," he breathes out quietly, willing his heart to slow by matching his breathing with hers. "Everything's perfect."

Rei blinks slowly, scrutinizing his face. And then, perhaps realizing it's only a false alarm, she closes her eyes again, clutching him closer briefly before she falls back into a deep, restful sleep.

Asra lies awake until the pale blue light of dawn filters through the windows, meditating on courage, and sacrifice.

And before he slips back into unconsciousness, one last thought passes his mind.

Love requires honesty, too.

 

---

 

On a tree-lined road, under the shadow of gently swaying branches laden with apple blossoms, Asra finally asks her to marry him.

They'd stopped for their lunch, letting the horses graze while they sit together on the roof of the wagon, admiring the snowy white flowers in full bloom above them. They'd already finished eating; he's started braiding flowers into her hair absentmindedly, and she, in turn, has begun weaving a crown for him. She works quickly, finishing a loop of white blossoms, and proudly places her creation atop his fluffy head.

She smiles at the sight of him; such a simple thing, really, but she lights right up all the same, and Asra is suddenly overcome. The gentle breeze slows, the soft birdsong fades into the background, the sunlight filtering through the trees dulls in comparison to the brightness of her. And it occurs to him then that this is it; he wants her for the rest of his life (he had wanted it badly enough to give up unspeakable things when all hope of that future seemed lost) and now he can have a life with her, he only needs to ask—

"Marry me."

She blinks. "What?"

"Marry me," he says again, surer and clearer, and adds, "please?"

She stares at him blankly, before her brow furrows slightly, and she hums one lengthy, pensive note.

"Rei?" he asks, fear slithering insidiously through his ribs, squeezing his heart. All his meditations on love and courage fly out the window.

"I'm sorry," she says, distracted, and his heart drops— "I'm just—" Her face scrunches up, like it does when she's trying to remember something. "There's supposed to be a cup, I think, and a cord? And—ugh, I can almost remember the words, but—"

"Wait," Asra says, head spinning and heart suddenly, deliriously hopeful, because he knows what cups and cords are for but she still hasn't said— "What words?"

"The vows," Rei clarifies, focusing back on him. "The wedding vows, from—from home. Oh, I know they were lovely and I almost remember—"

"Wait," Asra begs, struggling to catch up, "so—so, yes?"

She blinks again. "Yes what?"

"Yes, you'll marry me?"

Another pause, another blink. Her brow furrows. "Yes, of course," she says, as if it should be obvious, as if merely stating fact. And then realization widens her eyes and she says, "Oh! Didn't I—?"

"No," Asra says, dimples coaxed out by immense relief, "you didn't."

"I—" And then she bursts into peals of laughter, and takes his hands in hers. "Sorry, sorry. Ask me again."

He gently extricates his hands only to reach for a single fallen apple blossom, twisting the stem into a loop that just about fits her finger. Holding up the makeshift ring, he takes her left hand and looks at her with all the love he's ever held for her in all the years he's known her.

"Rei," he says, then corrects himself. "Astreia di Lisuga, will you marry me?"

He's barely gotten the last word out before she's kissing him, palms warm as they cup his cheeks. He can feel her smiling against his mouth and finds himself smiling in turn, burying the hand not still holding the ring into her hair and dislodging the artfully placed flowers there.

"Yes," she breathes in between kisses, pulling away just enough that her lips brush his when she speaks. "Yes."

And everything is warm, and bright—she's too bright; he has to keep his eyes closed as he nuzzles, still smiling, against the corner of her mouth. He feels for her left hand, counting fingers until he can slip the flower-ring onto the third one.

When he pulls away to look at her at last, her lashes are damp with happy tears, and he sees all his love for her reflected right back at him in those eyes.

"I remembered the words," she whispers, "when you said my name."

His lips quirk upwards. "Names do have power, or so they say."

Once, in his younger years, he'd had silly daydreams of taking her clan's name as his own. It's a bit more than just a daydream now, it seems.

She smiles, presses another light kiss to his mouth. "And yet you never needed it to get me to say yes."

"Will you say them to me?" he asks, earnest. "And I'll make you a vow of my own in turn."

She giggles. "You know, Nadia'll have a fit if we have a wedding without her. Portia too."

"Ilya will throw the biggest fit, let's be honest." He grins. "We'll have another one. A bigger one, back in Vesuvia. We'll have to write your family to invite them. But I was thinking we could . . ."

"Have one just for us," she finishes quietly. "Yes, I'd like that." She ponders it a bit, and says, "We can save the rest of the trappings for the next one. The vows will do for now."

She shifts, kneeling so that she's sitting on her ankles, and takes his hands and squeezes them. He sits, mirroring her posture, and squeezes back. A smile blooms across her face, putting every single flower above them to shame.

"Ready?" he asks. She nods, closes her eyes, and takes a slow, deep breath. When she opens them again, he sees no hesitation whatsoever, and wonders why he was ever afraid.

"I chose you," she begins, solemn and serious, with all the gravity this commitment means to her, and to him, "when everything was new, and bright—when I could look into your eyes and see constellations. I would follow these stars and know they would always lead me home."

"I am choosing you, even as I see the whole of you with all your imperfections, even as I look past the stars in your eyes into the moonless shadows tucked in the corners of your heart. I will take your hand. We will walk back into the light together."

"And I will choose you, day by day, heartbeat by heartbeat. May each sunrise find us together, and if it does not, then may the stars watch over your steps until I can walk them with you again."

She brushes her thumbs over his knuckles when she finishes, and for a moment Asra is helpless to do anything but smile, a single thought drowning out everything else.

She made a choice, he thinks, and that choice was me.

(It has always and ever been me.)

"Asra?" she prompts, squeezing his hands again.

He tries and fails to hold back a sniffle as he recalls the traditional vows he'd heard while passing through Hjall, vows he'd whispered to the wind every single night he'd been away from her, every single night he'd had to leave her to find a way to bring her back to herself. The words roll off his tongue with the ease of countless nights of practice.

"I swear to be faithful, and to always be true,
I swear to love no other the way I love you.
Wherever I may wander, or however far,
I'll love you just the same although we are apart."

"And at every crossroads my journeys take me to,
I swear to choose the path that leads me back to you.
For you are ever my home, my light in the dark,
And in your arms I find rest for my weary heart."

She brushes away the tears that begin to slide down his cheek, and together they recite the binding words common in Vesuvian ceremonies. And if Asra's voice cracks a little bit with emotion as he fights back tears, well—he can be forgiven for it, because Rei is misty-eyed too.

"With these words, I bind myself to you.
With the beat of this heart, I offer freely all that is mine to give.
And with this kiss, I swear to love and cherish you all the days of my life."

Moving in sync, they lean in, pressing their lips together in a ritual as old as time. In soft sunlight and gentle warmth, another bargain is struck; he gives her the whole of his heart, this time—and receives the whole of hers in exchange.

 

---

 

They make love, that night.

It is not the first time he's laid with her—not even the first time since that fateful Masquerade, but this feels different, somehow. New.

They are married, more or less, and it's a novelty he's never even dreamed of until he met her, and a dream he'd desperately tried to stop himself from hoping for since she first woke up without any memory of what came before—of what they were, before.

But now, here, this is real, and he, ever thorough in his curiosity, intends to take his time.

He kisses her, slow and deep, and would kiss all the rest of her if she didn't insist on keeping his mouth trapped (or as trapped as it can be called, willing captive as he is) against her own, refusing to let him move more than a handsbreadth away. He lets his hands wander instead, mapping out every curve of her as if he didn't already know all of them by heart—brushing lightly where he knows she's ticklish, eliciting giggles; and pressing more firmly where he knows she's sensitive, drawing out lusty sighs.

When her desire stokes his own higher still, his hands move to divest her of her clothing, revealing the fever-warm expanse of skin beneath. Her breath comes in quick pants as he strokes her thighs, coaxing them open. She spreads her legs for him, inviting him to settle between them, and finally allows him to start trailing his kisses lower—first down the column of her neck, where he sucks rosy petals onto her skin; then along her collar bones, where his hot tongue darts into the dip at the base of her neck; and then lastly over her breasts, where he teases her with light, barely-there kisses until she's mewling for him, fingers tugging at his moonlit hair.

His laugh rumbles low in his throat as he teasingly kisses the pendant resting on her sternum, a match to his own—the other half of a pair of teardrop aquamarine earrings shared between them.

("For safe travels," she'd said once.)

("And to keep lovers faithful," he'd replied, winking playfully at her.)

Well, they've certainly done their job, he thinks, as his own pendant dangles down to clink against hers, the protection charms they'd long ago inlaid for each other flashing briefly with the proximity.

"Asra," she moans, fingers tightening in his hair, and he remembers what he's supposed to be doing, latching on to a nipple and sucking as he pinches and squeezes the other with his thumb and forefinger. She arches into his touch, hips raising to grind against him through his clothes, desperate for friction. He gasps at the contact, warm breath ghosting over her sensitive nipple, and she shivers, her hands moving from his hair to unbutton his shirt in quick, deft movements despite being otherwise distracted.

"Had a lot of practice, haven't we?" he says, stifling a laugh against her chest.

"Only because you'd been such an enthusiastic volunteer." He can hear the grin in her voice as she impatiently tugs off his shirt, his pants following it to the floor soon after. Laid bare before each other now, he feels young, again; new—as if he's the one with a new body; as if he's the one who'd been reborn.

And as it is, hers is still familiar—he remembers each sinuous, sinful line of her body, though his memory has never been able to do it justice each time they had to part.

He's so, so done with leaving, now; each kiss he presses down her body is a promise to stay—all the days of my life, as he'd avowed—and the one he presses to her center says I love you, which means much the same thing.

She cries out as he presses his face between her legs, licking a stripe up her slit and taking her clit between his lips, tracing circles with his tongue. Wetness trickles out of her, mingling with his own saliva to ease the slide of one, two of his fingers into her cunt. He glances up, expecting to see her lost in the throes of passion, but finds instead that her eyes—though glazed over with desire—are fixed on his own. Her hand wanders down to brush an affectionate line along his cheek, and his brain screeches to a halt at the softness, the tenderness of it, that he sort-of-maybe panics and curls his fingers inside her hard, tipping her suddenly and without warning over the edge.

Her loud moan snaps him back to himself and he strokes her through her orgasm, placing gentle kisses on her thighs as she comes down from her high gasping his name. She shudders when it becomes almost too much, tugging at his hands to bring him close once more and kissing him, her tongue thrusting into his mouth, humming long and low at the taste.

He feels her heart beating like a hummingbird's wings against her ribcage—her heart, now—exactly where it should be, because everything is where it's meant to be and where he's meant to be is here, in her arms, warm and safe and loved.

Her hands are firebrand-hot as they wander, her touch firm enough to convey how much she wants him, but still gentle enough that it speaks of how precious he must be to her. Her fingers trace reverent, scalding lines down his back before kneading at the muscles of his ass, earning her a throaty chuckle that he muffles against the side of her face.

The bunching of her cheek in a sly grin is his only warning before her legs wrap around his waist and she manages to flip them over even in the cramped space. Straddling him, she fits their hips together, her slickness easing the slide of his cock along her slit. She shoots him a playful smile when he bites back a groan, but there is nothing predatory about it—he does not feel caged even as she leans over him, her hair falling in dark curtains around his face. And though she keeps grinding against him, she does not hold him down, her hands on his chest warm but weightless.

"Yes?" she asks, soft, so soft, as the tortuously slow drag of her heat makes him lose his mind.

"Yes," he breathes, fingers pulling her down, settling her full weight on him, relishing the solid presence of her.

Keep me, he begs silently, kissing her with renewed need. Hold me down, he thinks, arms wrapping around her back as she returns his ardour in kind. Don't let me float away.

When she takes him in hand, guiding him to her center; when she sinks down, warm as a hearth and welcoming as a home; when he remembers that they are married and she is his wifehis wife! How is that even real?—when she whispers I love you into the corner of his mouth, the look in her eyes soft as starlight, he gets his answer.

Stay, is what she means, with every shuddering clench of her walls around his cock, with every staccato beat of her living heart—and now, now, she no longer has to ask him twice.

They go slow. Sex this time isn't a raging fire, burning them up and burning them out. She rides his cock with a steady rise and fall that feels more like the tide kissing the shore—relentless, but tender. He watches, eyes hooded, as she sinks down and he disappears into her, again, again, again; she takes him without demanding anything he doesn't give freely, and gives as good as she gets. He watches her ride him until she bites her kiss-swollen lip to tamp down a moan in her throat, and he can't bear to have any more space between them.

He pulls her close, one hand behind her neck, tangled in her hair, the other wedged between them, rubbing quick, insistent circles on her clit, and captures her answering gasp in his mouth. The heat is still there, banked between the press of their bodies, but it isn't coal-red, or plague-red. When he kisses her everything is pastel-soft.

And when she comes, back arching like the crest of a wave, her pulsing walls pull him over the edge with her and then under, until he feels like he's suspended underwater—everything muted and slow as they flow over and around and into each other, swept away in the afterglow.

The blue shadows of the spring evening settle quietly around them as they curl into each other, fitting parts of one into the other's nooks and crannies until they're slotted together perfectly—legs tangled together, his arm around her shoulders, hers folded up between their chests so she can trace a thumb, feather-light, along the sharp line of his jaw. The flower wound around her finger is, miraculously, still whole and uncrushed, bleached a stark white in the moonlight. As he lays there, close enough to breathe in what she breathes out, Asra fixates on that tiny white blossom, his thoughts running incoherent as sleep threatens to overcome him.

Apple blossoms bring luck in weddings, he thinks, and, I should get her a real ring, and, We're married, I can't believe it, and, I love her so, so much.

His last thought, just before sleep finally claims him, is that he's never been more excited to see the next morning, already impatient for the rest of their lives to begin.

Chapter Text

Asra watches Muriel's face as he blinks up at him from within the gently sloshing water of the bowl resting on his lap.

"Why," Muriel asks, slow, exasperated, "are you calling me through my soup, Asra?"

Asra laughs, breaking the quiet stillness of the evening, the sound reverberating within the wagon walls. Beside him, Rei opens one eye to shoot him an amused smile as she lays on her side, pressed against him in their cramped little bed. He lays a hand on her head, scratching lightly at her scalp until she settles back down into the pillows, eyes closed. "It isn't my fault that your supper is the only water source nearby."

Something drifts across the surface of the water, obscuring part of Muriel's eye. It looks like a thin slice of leek. Muriel pushes it away with a spoon and heaves a sigh.

"Do you know what time it is, Asra?" Muriel asks, already resigned to the silliness of berating Asra through his dinner. "Do you know time zones are a thing?"

"Yes, I know what time it is and yes, I know time zones are a thing. We're in the same one you're in."

Surprise flits across Muriel's face, barely apparent through the ripples the motion of the wagon makes in the water.

"You're in Vesuvia?"

"Not quite," Asra says, grinning down into the bowl.

Here! Faust calls to him from her perch on the driver's seat, her tail coiled lightly around the reins. The wagon slows to a stop. In the water, Muriel looks up at a sound he must've heard from outside, then turns back to Asra, an incredulous look on his face.

"I can't believe you," he says, monotone, before he gets up and his image disappears from the water.

A moment later, the door to Muriel's hut opens, firelight spilling out the door and filling the clearing. He's greeted by Asra's smiling face as he pokes his head out the wagon window.

"Hey!" he says, waving cheekily. "I was wondering if I could crash on your floor for the night."

"You have a bed in your wagon," Muriel reminds him even as Inanna brushes past, her tail swishing at the sight of Asra. "Where's Rei?"

"Yeah, about that . . ."

Asra ducks back inside, and after a few moments of shuffling around, he re-emerges with Rei at the door, one arm around her waist to support her. He grins.

"Bedspace is getting a little tight."

The look on Muriel's face when he takes in Rei's swollen belly is priceless.

"What happened?" he blurts out.

"Well, when two people love each other very much—"

"Do not," Muriel sighs, dragging a hand over his face before stepping forward and picking Rei up off the wagon's porch with ease. He sets her gently on the ground, studiously ignoring Asra as he playfully reaches out his arms, gesturing to be picked up too. Muriel looks Rei up and down as she steadies herself on his forearm.

"You're . . . big," he says bluntly, causing Asra to gasp and jump down from the porch to clamp his hands over Rei's ears.

"Muriel!" he scolds, mock-affronted. "We don't say that to pregnant women!"

Muriel closes his eyes a few seconds too long for a proper blink. "I mean," he says, voice too even to be anything but deliberate, "she has to be a ways along already, isn't she?"

"Eight months!" Asra says proudly, positively beaming as he shakes her lightly by the shoulders.

"Eight and a half," Rei corrects quietly, smoothing a hand over her middle.

Muriel closes his eyes and takes a long, drawn-out breath, air escaping from between his teeth in a tempered hiss.

"I hope you're not planning on delivering here."

"Of course not! We're just here to crash for the night." And then Asra rests his chin atop Rei's head and gives Muriel his best pleading face, honed from years and years of a friendship based on annoyance as a form of affection. "And we missed you, Muriel; didn't you miss us?"

Muriel looks between the two of them and sighs. He jerks his head in the direction of his hut. "You can take the bed," he tells Rei, and leads them both inside, very carefully not looking at Asra's triumphant grin.

 

---

 

"Thanks again for letting us stay, Muriel," Asra whispers as the two of them settle down near the fire. Rei is already asleep in the bed, Inanna pressed against her legs to keep her warm, Faust fitted against the curve of her belly, already fiercely protective of the life growing inside. Tulin dozes next to Rei's head, a fluffed up ball ready to spring awake at the slightest provocation.

"I didn't realize I had a choice," Muriel deadpans. He shifts, trying to find a comfortable position on the floor.

"Heh, sorry," Asra says, but his ear-to-ear grin is anything but. "I hoped we'd reach the Palace before nightfall, but traveling for too long makes her tired. And like I said, bed's a little tight." Asra draws up the blankets to his chin and curls up into himself. Like this, it feels like they're kids again, huddling for warmth as they slept on the cold sand of the beach, only better—because now there's food in their stomachs, and a roof over their head, and someone else who loves them besides each other.

(More than they ever dreamed of. More than they ever thought to dream of, lonely little things they were.)

"Some more warning might've been nice," Muriel grumbles, shifting closer to Asra like he's remembering the same thing. "But it's nice to know you're still alive."

And Asra doesn't know how to tell him that he's never felt as alive as he did when Rei first told him she was pregnant; when he first felt the baby kick; when it truly, completely dawned on him that he was going to be a parent and that he'd helped make this—he'd brought something good into this world and made it a little brighter.

He doesn't know how to tell him that he's never regretted bringing Rei back, and how could he possibly regret it now, when she's here and alive and carrying a whole 'nother person inside her, new life sprung from new life?

(He'd given her half his heart and she gave it back along with her own, and then some.)

How else would that make him feel, if not wholly, vividly alive?

So instead he settles for, "So do you want us to teach the baby to call you Uncle Muriel or just Muriel?"

"Go to sleep, Asra."

 

---

 

And so, three years after they left Vesuvia for the first time, a familiar sunset-colored wagon drives up to the front doors of the Palace. Its two passengers are quickly ushered onto the veranda, where the Countess is taking her midmorning tea.

"Oh, goodness!" Portia exclaims, a bright grin lighting up her face.

Nadia takes one look at his very heavily pregnant wife and gives them a composed smile.

"You two always did have such impeccable timing, didn't you?" She sips at her tea at gestures for them to sit. "I'll have your room prepared. So, have you two considered having a baby shower—?"

 

---

 

Impending parenthood is a giddy high that follows Asra through the halls of the Palace. Most days he's sure he must be floating a few inches off the floor with how light he feels.

(He wonders, almost deliriously, if perhaps it's a counterbalance to how heavy Rei feels, most days, carrying around their baby.)

He spends his mornings deciding on this or that baby item with Faust, holding up booties and rattles and jumpers for her inspection. Nadia has, of course, procured only the best the markets have to offer. His child isn't even out of the womb and they're already spoiled.

"Alright, Faust," Asra says as he sits cross-legged in the midst of baby items scattered around the bedroom floor. Rei watches him from the bed, a still-sleepy smile on her face. "This one—" he shakes out a geometric-patterned blanket, woven through with shimmering jewel-toned threads, "—or this one?" He spreads out a lilac one on the floor beside the other, its edges lined with delicate cream lace.

Pretty!

"Yes, they're both rather pretty, aren't they?" He sits with a hand over his mouth, the very picture of serious thought. "What do you think, Rei?"

"As long as it's not cheetah print," she says, eyes closed, hand curled absentmindedly around her abdomen.

Asra grins despite knowing she can't see it. "You know, we could recycle the—"

"Absolutely not."

Afternoons find him in the library, poring over stacks of books for name ideas. Rei has developed a habit of napping late in the day, so he leaves Tulin to keep watch while he and Faust go hunting through pages of fairytales and mythologies and foreign histories, looking for the perfect name.

Asra thumbs through a genealogy of ancient Gabraldine rulers, lips pursed as he runs through the list.

"I don't know, I don't really like any of these," he murmurs to Faust, who hisses softly in agreement from around his arm. "Are there any names you like, Faust?"

Asra!

He laughs, the sound stirring motes of dust floating in the golden afternoon sunlight. "Well, that would just confuse people, wouldn't it?"

Faust!

"That would just confuse me."

Mix!

"What," he says, grinning skeptically, "like, F . . . aura? Farah."

Fara?

"Farah, with an H," he clarifies. "Yeah, Farah's a nice name, isn't it? Bit conceited of us, though." He chuckles, giving Faust a scritch on the chin as he continues to peruse the stacks.

Like it!

"Yeah?" he smiles, indulgent. "Maybe when you have kids of your own you can name one of them Farah."

Snake babies!

(He pauses to imagine a mini-Rei wandering Vesuvia with a mini-Faust, and there's something doing somersaults in his chest because wouldn't that be just perfect?)

Nadia joins them sometimes, when she finds a spare moment, lounging with them on the pillow pile that has since made a return to the library. Her shoes are off, her hair down, a glass of wine in her hand as she watches Asra flip through the list they've compiled so far.

He's started going through the entire alphabet, listing names he likes or thinks Rei might like. Currently they're at the letter i.

"Inari is, I believe, a deity from the lands east of Prakra," Nadia suggests, sipping at her wine. "Associated with foxes."

Asra bites lightly on his thumb, teeth tapping restlessly against the nail as he deliberates. "Foxes, huh." His tea, neglected in his focus, has grown cold in its cup beside him. "I like the sound," he says at last. "Faust, write that down."

Obediently, Faust dips her quill in the inkpot and adds it to the list. She looks up expectantly when she's done, waiting for the next with her quill held tightly in her mouth.

"Or Indra, perhaps," Nadia says, setting down her glass and stretching luxuriously against the pillows. "An old deity from Prakra, god of the heavens, who brought rain down to the earth."

(You must have brought the rains with you.)

He only smiles, a private little thing, and says, "Faust?"

They continue on like that as the light streaming in from the window shifts from gold to pink and finally to purple, leaving them bathed only in orange lamplight until Portia calls them for dinner.

His evenings, of course, belong solely to Rei, and he has lost count of the nights that he's fallen asleep with his hand on her belly, ever fascinated by feeling their baby move.

Their baby.

(That's magic, or he doesn't know what is.)

"Hey there," he murmurs, thumbs brushing soothing circles over Rei's tender stomach. "I hope you come soon, sweetheart. Mama and Maddy can't wait to meet you."

Movement stirs from within; a firm pressure thumps against where his palm rests on her skin.

"I swear," Rei says, "they kick every time they hear your voice." She smiles, resting her hand over his. "I think they can't wait to meet you, too."

Something tight around his chest that he never really knew was there finally loosens. He had been afraid, once, many years past, that he might never be able to love another person again with only half a heart. But the way his chest feels too full, now—the way his love for a person he can't even see yet seems to settle just below his sternum, well. He thinks that proves, more than anything, that his baby is a damn miracle if he's ever seen one.

The days pass by in a euphoric blur, everything bright and perfect, until the rains roll in, and on one dark, stormy night the baby arrives at last.

 

---

 

Asra has never really been much of a crier.

There had never been a point to it, living on the streets. Useless, when you had to spend most of your energy just trying to survive. He had cried a lot, in those span of months that Rei had been lost to him; and then when he got her back he'd put his emotions under lock and key—keeping them out of sight until no one was around to see him break down. He'd had to be strong, then. For her.

He hasn't cried the past few years, either. He'd been too happy to shed too many tears.

But now—now he cries, standing in a hallway of the Palace, a warm bundle cradled in his arms. Great big globs of tears fall on the impossibly round cheeks of his child—their child; his and Rei's.

The baby stirs, and Asra wipes away the teardrops with his thumb, murmuring soothingly as he bounces them in his arms.

"Hey there, sweetheart," he coos. "Did I wake you? Sorry about that, precious, I just couldn't resist."

Their eyes open, and he finds himself staring into amethyst irises a perfect mirror to his own. They give him a slow, sleepy smile, and Asra starts crying even harder.

"Oh, oh," he blubbers helplessly, "oh, stars, you're so precious. I love you so much. You hear that, sweetie? Maddy loves you so much."

"You're so embarrassing," Muriel rumbles, approaching with an exasperated smile on his face.

"But Muriel," Asra snifflingly protests, messy tears still streaming down his cheeks, "Muriel, look at them, they're perfect."

Muriel looks a little perturbed at the splotchy-faced little thing in Asra's arms, but his expression softens when they turn their head to look at him, regarding him with wide eyes. He pokes one chubby little cheek curiously.

"They look like you," he comments, a tinge of wonder coloring his usually stoic voice.

"I know," Asra chokes out, a half-squeak caught in his throat as he nuzzles their little head. Muriel huffs a quiet sigh, a fond twist on his mouth even as he rolls his eyes.

"They truly are a wonder," Nadia says quietly as she comes up behind them, making Muriel jump, but she settles him with a soft brush of her fingers on his forearm. "May I hold them, Asra?"

Gently, he shifts the warm bundle into Nadia's hold, deftly arranging her arms to properly support their head, and watches as she begins to rock them, a slow smile spreading across her face.

"They're going to grow up so spoiled, this one," she says, eyes crinkling with affection. "Have you and Rei decided on a name yet?"

"Well—"

"Asra?" Portia calls, poking her head out of the room. "Rei's asking for you."

"Go," Nadia tells him, handing his child back to him. "We can speak later."

Asra enters the room on light steps, matching the hushed atmosphere that still lingers in the room. Mazelinka is tucking in new, clean sheets around Rei as Portia carries the soiled ones away, shooting a grin over her shoulder as she hurries out the door. Ilya puts away the last of his medical supplies in his kit and bounds over to Asra, tapping the baby's nose with a gloved finger.

"Well, aren't you just darling," he crows, his usual cocky grin playing on his lips, before Mazelinka hustles him out the door.

"Scurry off and give 'em some privacy, you little rascal—" is the last thing he hears before the door clicks shut and it's just him and Rei and their baby—their baby!—left in the room, and he's helpless to do anything but smile.

"It's really coming down out there, huh?" Rei says, voice hoarse, patting the space beside her weakly.

He settles down beside her, careful not to jostle the sleepy infant cradled in his arms. "There's a storm out at sea, the servants said."

"A gale, hm," Rei murmurs absentmindedly, staring out the window, before inspiration sparks in her eyes and she turns to him and asks, "Asra, what do you think of naming them Gale?"

"Gale," he says, rolling the letters on his tongue, feeling them settle comfortably in place, and thinks, oh, perfect. He smiles. "I like it. You don't think it's too short for a true name?"

Rei quirks her lips up at him, looking pleased that he remembers her clan's customs. (As if he could forget.) "Gale could be their byname. Though we do usually give babies their true names first, not the other way around."

"What's Gale going to be short for, then?" he whispers, voice automatically going soft as Rei yawns and leans her cheek against his shoulder.

She hums, pensive, before she says slowly, "Galenei is an old name from home." A smile quirks her lips as she stares down at their child's face, their delicate white lashes quivering as they slumber peacefully. "Supposedly, it means 'calm'."

"Galenei," Asra breathes reverently, like a benediction, or a baptism, as he looks down at the infant fast asleep in his arms, unheeding of the raging storm outside. "So they'll be named for both the calm and the storm, huh?" He smiles. "It's perfect. Gale." He rocks them gently to and fro, whispering their name over and over again, as if to imprint it on his heart. "Gale. Gale. Gale. Our precious little tempest."

"Ours," Rei murmurs in agreement, eyes closing contentedly as exhaustion finally drags her under, and she succumbs to sleep there beside Asra as the rain continues to fall.

 

---

 

Someone—probably Muriel—lets Faust and Tulin into the room a while later. Tulin swoops in and alights on the headboard, trilling softly with relief when he sees Rei sleeping peacefully. He fluffs up his feathers, settling in to keep watch, though he throws a curious—and dare he say affectionate—glance at the tiny, burbling human cradled in Asra's arms.

"You realize they're half me, right?" Asra asks the bird with a smirk.

Tulin glares half-heartedly at him, his usual dislike for Asra warring with a warmth for the newborn typically reserved only for Rei. Asra snickers, allows Faust slither onto his shoulders, and rises from the bed.

Satisfied that Tulin will inform him if anything is amiss, Asra moves across the room, intent on letting Rei sleep while he sits with Gale in the rocking chair by the window. They're awake, wide purple eyes locked on Faust as she peers down at them from around Asra's neck.

Friend! she says, with a joyful flick of her tongue in his ear.

Asra chuckles and bumps his nose against Faust's. "That's right. Faust, this is Gale."

Gale!

She dangles her tail near their face and lightly pokes their nose, and in his mind Asra can feel her giddy excitement when Gale smiles at the sensation, their chubby fingers grasping for the strange, scaly appendage.

"Gale, this is Faust," he says softly. His cheeks already hurt from smiling so much, but he couldn't care less. "She's an old, old friend, and she's going to love you so much."

Love already! Faust corrects him, curling her tail around Gale's head as if she wants to cradle them too.

"Alright," Asra concedes, smiling, "she already does."

Gale follows Faust's movement with their eyes, until the flash of lightning and crack of thunder draws their attention to the window. Asra worries, briefly—the unfamiliar but not unwelcome feeling of parental concern already making a home in his chest. But there is no fear in Gale's eyes, only a curiosity in their gaze that he'd recognize just as readily in a mirror—assured, perhaps, of their absolute safety in his arms. Asra's face softens.

"Do you like the rain, sweetheart?" he says, rocking them slowly to and fro. They make a small, contended noise that shoots straight to Asra's heart. He thinks he might start crying again.

"They must take after you."

He glances up to see Rei resting heavily against the pillows, a languid smile on her face. He rises, crossing over to settle beside her, and Faust makes herself comfortable around the bedpost, leaving his shoulder free for Rei to lean on. Gale smiles, burbling happily when their mother plays with a tuft of their white hair.

Another roll of thunder crashes outside, piercing through the calm of the room. Rei's brow furrows slightly as she looks out at the sheeting rain coming down against the glass panes of the window. "Rather inauspicious, don't you think?"

He nuzzles into her hair. "I happen to have many happy memories of the rain, I'll have you know."

Rei smiles. "I suppose you're right," she says, and kisses his shoulder.

They lay there, listening contentedly to the storm and Gale's soft cooing, until Asra's world shrinks to just this: three different heartbeats in a quiet room, the warmth of the two people he loves most seeping into his chest. And when they both look up at him, twin smiles on their faces, there is no other word for it but perfect.

He has been all over the world; he has seen mountains reaching above the clouds, has seen auroras light up the night sky, has seen wonders that exist only in realms of magic and mystery—but not one of them compares to this moment, this miracle so many years and so much heartbreak in the making, when his heart feels whole and full and he has too much happiness to know what to do with.

Everything feels so far away—the thunder rumbling outside no louder than a whisper, the pattering rain soft as a lullaby. The whole world narrows down to Rei's quiet breathing, the comforting presence of their familiars, the solid weight of Gale in his arms, and the bright smiles of his wife and child—his family—huddled close and warm as the storm rages on.

 

---

 

"Master!"

Urgent knocking on the bedroom door startles Asra awake, and it takes him a moment to regain his bearings and recognize the familiar half-timbered walls of the shop. He blinks, eyes adjusting to the winter morning light coming through the frosted-over window. He has the vague sense of waking up from a good dream he can't quite remember. A groan escapes him, and he buries his face into the pillow.

"Master—Asra, I know you're awake!" his apprentice calls through the door. "We're due at the Palace in two hours! We're gonna be late!"

"Mmngh." Asra closes his eyes tighter, still unwilling to face the day. He tries to recall what he was dreaming about, and remembers only warmth.

"Master!" she says, her knocks turning even more insistent.

"Five more minutes," he begs, voice still scratchy with sleep, knowing full well it would only serve to further provoke her.

Rei huffs a soft laugh beside him, lightly stroking the arm he still has draped across her bare torso. "She's not going to stop until you get up, you know," she murmurs.

"Asra!" Ella shouts through the door. "If you don't get up in three seconds, I'm sending Gale in there, clothes or no clothes!"

Rei's laughter bounces around their attic bedroom, making the dull gray light seem just a little bit brighter. He decides it's a good sound to wake up to, all in all. "I'll make sure he's downstairs and ready in ten minutes, Ella," she calls out.

"Great!" Ella chirps, mollified, already bounding down the stairs. "Thanks, Rei!"

Asra sighs, defeated, his arm tightening around Rei. "Why," he grumbles, sullen, "did I take on an apprentice?"

"You did say she had a spark," his wife reminds him. "And you've always had a soft spot for troublesome little things." She turns over, nuzzling his cheek, coaxing him from the pillows with a series of kisses. "Come on, love. Nadia's expecting you at the Palace."

He raises himself swiftly, pinning her beneath him, and attacks her neck with a flurry of nips and kisses. She giggles, swatting at his shoulder, but he only smiles against her skin. "It's my birthday," he murmurs against her jaw. "She'll forgive me for being a little late."

"Ella wouldn't."

Right on cue, his apprentice's voice drifts up from the main living space below. "Eight minutes, Master!"

He groans loudly in frustration, rolling off Rei and flopping listlessly on the bed. She chuckles, rising to collect his discarded shirt on the floor before shaking it out and putting it on. Asra props himself up, a dreamy look on his face, and watches as she moves to their closet and starts tossing him fresh clothes.

He pulls each item of clothing on, not bothering to check whether they match, knowing Rei would never let him show up at court in an ensemble that would horrify Nadia. As he stands at their dresser mirror trying to tame his bedhead, Rei comes up behind him and wraps her arms around his waist.

"I'll make your favorites for dinner, alright?" she says, pressing a kiss to his shoulder through the fabric of his shirt.

"I'll look forward to it," he says, grinning, and takes her hand as they descend to the shop proper, already feeling a bit more enthusiastic about the rest of the day.

Ella is waiting behind the counter, making sure Gale doesn't fall off from where they sit atop the glass case. Faust is wrapped around their shoulders, already wearing her favourite snake sweater. His apprentice watches as they come down the stairs hand in hand, noting the rumpled look of Rei's borrowed shirt and the haphazard way her skirt is tied.

She purses her lips. "You know Gale's at that age where they start asking questions, yeah?"

"Let me worry about that, alright?" Rei answers smoothly, fixing Ella's scarf with a motherly tut, making her flush and grumble as she hurries out the door.

"Be well," Rei says, turning to bid Asra goodbye with a peck on the lips. "Say hello to Nadia for me."

Gale raises their arms to him, and he picks them up to nuzzle against their cheek. "Gale, be good for Mama, okay?"

"Okay!"

"That means no lightning the stove on your own. That's what the salamander is for."

"Okay . . ."

He laughs at their pouting face, and presses a kiss atop their head. He lets Faust slither over from Gale's shoulders and into his shirt before handing them off to Rei.

"Love you," he murmurs, in the split second they're all pressed against one another, before he pulls away and heads for the door. Ella is already out on the porch, hopping impatiently from one foot to another as he grabs his hat and scarf from the coat pegs by the door.

"Bye Ella! Bye Maddy!" Gale calls out from their mother's arms, waving a little hand as he and his apprentice make their way up the street and out of sight.

 

---

 

As Court Magician, Asra isn't always needed at the Palace, an arrangement that suits him just fine. But Court is in session today, specifically to discuss what to do with the Lazaret, and so Asra has to attend.

He reclines lazily in his seat as he listens to the courtiers' back-and-forth, scratching absently at Faust's head. Nadia shoots him a discreet smile from where she sits to his right at the head of the table, and a moment later he feels her surreptitiously nudge his foot with her own. He grins, straightening in his seat just to catch the tail end of Aedile Vianna's impassioned speech about vengeful ghosts and leaving them well enough alone.

One of the tribunes begins, "But the land could be invaluable if we used it as—"

"Repurposing it doesn't change the fact that it's haunted—"

"Thank you for your input, Vianna," Nadia says, cutting off any additions to her already lengthy declamation, and turns to him. "Asra, as Court Magician, do you have any insight you might want to share?"

He hums, reaching for the deck in his satchel. He raises his hands above the table as he shuffles, drawing the eyes of the Court as the cards slip easily between his fingers in practiced motions.

"Magic lingers," he says. "As do memories, and the Lazaret is steeped in both."

"That's what I've been saying—"

"So what do you suggest?" Nadia asks.

He rearranges the deck, realigning the sides, and hands it over to Ella. She throws him a nervous glance disguised as a dirty look when she accepts it, the subtle tremor of her fingers apparent only to him. He gives her an encouraging smile.

Ella pulls out a single card and flips it over to show everyone in the room. Murmurs immediately arise around the table.

"Death," Nadia says, leaning back expectantly. "How fitting. And what do they have to say?"

All eyes turn to Asra, but he just shrugs and raises a brow at his apprentice. Her throat bobs anxiously before she begins, "Death does not necessarily mean a literal death."

Ella clears her throat and continues, louder, "Death is change. Death is learning to let go and not allowing the weight of the past to hold us down. Death is putting the ghosts of the past to rest."

Silence. Nadia steeples her fingers in front of her as she looks around at her Court.

"Say we were to repurpose the Lazaret," she says slowly. "What, exactly, would it be repurposed as?"

"Well," the Procurator offers tentatively. "The Lazaret isn't that big, but the land is still arable, and I think certain produce would be more affordable to the populace if we grew it locally instead of importing . . ."

"A worthy suggestion," Nadia nods. "Asra?"

By the tone of her voice, he knows she's not asking his opinion as Court Magician, but rather as himself. As someone who'd lost a loved one to the Plague, however temporarily, and for whom the Lazaret still looms large in the mind. Faust senses his growing melancholy and hisses softly in his ear, trying to comfort. It takes him a moment to speak.

"There's . . . a lot of ash, on the island," he begins, and then gulps, something sticking in his throat. Nadi nudges his foot again, a subtle offer of empathy, and he finds his voice once more. "Ash is a fertilizer, yes?"

"Not cremation ash, usually. But it could be, yes," the Quaestor affirms. "With a mix of some necessary nutrients, and chemical balancers, perhaps—"

Asra closes his eyes for only a brief moment, but immediately the memory flashes in his mind—broken, bleeding fingers clawing in the earth, pulling up only charred bone and gritty, gray ash—

And then Faust squeezes his arm, and a different image comes: he pictures Gale's little hands cupped in his own, placing a sapling down into the hollowed out ground. He imagines their hands burying the roots in rich, tilled earth, and then imagines his own summoning water for it to drink, to grow healthy and strong from within the ashes of the unnumbered dead.

(I forgave you a long time ago, Asra, she had  murmured once into his hair. It's time you forgave yourself, too.)

He opens his eyes.

"Letting go of the past doesn't necessarily mean forgetting it," he says, tasting the words in his mouth to feel if they're the right ones. He thinks they are. "I think planting seeds in memory of those who passed is . . . something they would want."

A slow, satisfied smile spreads across Nadia's face. "A memorial garden."

"A memorial orchard," the Procurator catches on, "with fruit-bearing trees—"

Voices rise up again in the Council Chamber, but Asra doesn't hear any of it, too caught up in the wearying rush of putting the last of his ghosts to rest.

 

---

 

"You did fine, Ella-short-for-Estrella," he reassures his apprentice, mussing her hair as they step out of the Council Chamber.

"Some warning would've been nice, Master," she grouses, still grumpy from the surprise reading she'd had to give. "And I told you not to call me that. It's been eight years since then—"

"Asra," Nadia calls out to him, catching up to them as they walk down the hall. "And Ella. Good work earlier, dear."

"Oh, um—thank you, Milady," Ella stammers out, looking down at her boots.

Nadia laughs, a relaxed sound he's been pleased to hear more of in the years since the end of the last plague. "Allow me to give you two a lift back to the shop. It's the least I could do for pulling you away from home on your birthday."

"It's no trouble, Nadi," he assures her. "But I'll thank you for the ride all the same."

"Good," she says, slipping an arm through his as they make their way outside toward the waiting carriage. "Because I've not seen your family in ages. Tell me, how are Rei and Gale?"

 

---

 

The familiar facade of the shop comes into view, the lamp hanging by the door casting a round pool of light on the front steps. Rei insists on always keeping it lit as long as at least one person hasn't come home yet.

(It's a lovely thing, to have a light in the dark to aim for.)

He looks at this lived-in old building, full of magic and light and love, and feels the tension bleed out from his shoulders. This is home, and most of all it is not only his but theirs—a home he shares with people he loves and who love him wholly and unreservedly back.

(He'd give up all of his heart just for that, and he thanks his lucky stars every single day that he doesn't have to.)

"Would you like to join us for dinner, Nadi?" Asra offers as he and Ella alight from the carriage. "Rei's cooking, and I'm sure she and Gale would love to have you over."

An enigmatic smile tugs at Nadia's lips. "It would be my pleasure, Asra."

He leads them into the shop proper, empty as it usually is at this time of night. The smell of freshly-cooked food drifts down from the living area above.

"Rei?" he calls out as he climbs the stairs. "I asked Nadi to join us for dinner—"

"Surprise!"

And he is indeed surprised as he reaches the landing and rounds the corner into the main living space, barely registering Ella and Nadi's chuckling behind him as they hustle him into the room. Everyone he loves is here—Rei and Gale; Muriel and Portia and Ilya; even Ella's not-so-secret girlfriend Auri, who apprentices at Ilya's clinic.

"Happy birthday, Maddy!" Gale shouts, hurling themself into his arms. He catches them with practiced ease, lifting them up and balancing them on his hip as he looks around. There is a bountiful spread of his favorites on the table, enough that he knows they'll be having leftovers for sure in the next few days. Garlands hang from the rafters, woven with flowers he recognizes from Muriel's and Portia's and Rei's respective gardens, forming a cascade of blooms carefully tended to and arranged by the people he cares about. A banner dominating the far wall says Happy Birthday Asra! with a smaller, messier addition of And Faust, probably by Gale, judging by the handwriting. Every lamp in the room is lit; he can feel the spark of Rei's magic—familiar to him as his own—altering their hues, casting a riot of color over everything, reminiscent of the kaleidoscopic sunset sky of his gateway.

Rei lights the candles on the cake with a snap of her fingers, and as she moves closer with it he's assaulted by the smell of honey and cinnamon and nutmeg, the familiar spice-filled scent of pumpkin bread wafting around him as Rei comes to a stop before him.

"Make a wish, love," she tells him.

(As if the sight of her candlelight-gilded smile isn't a dream come true enough.)

Faust pops out from beneath his scarf, wriggling with excitement. They share a look, and together they blow out their candles to the cacophony of applause and laughter filling the room.

Rei hands off the cake to someone else, leaving her hands free to cup his face and kiss him, lightly but ardently, on the lips.

"What'd you wish for, Maddy?" Gale asks, wrapping their arms around his neck and resting their head on his shoulder. He shifts their weight to one arm so he can wrap the other around Rei's waist, the three of them curling into one another's warmth as they watch the others gather around the table and begin to dig in to the food.

"Nothing," he answers in a quiet, honest whisper, and smiles, holding them close, feeling their heartbeats against his own. "I've already got everything I want right here."