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Step in the Same River

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It's a bright summer morning in a small park. The sky is clear and the sun is high, leaving joggers and dog-walkers and frisbee-players turning faintly red in the heat. One jogger slows to a walk, then stumbles over to a railing to lean on it, panting and wiping sweat out of his eyes.

"Do you need some water? You don't look so good."

A jolt of shock runs through the Immortal, and for a moment he is paralyzed with joy. It's Saturday morning in the neighborhood park, and his beloved has come back to him again.

He raises his eyes and sees a young man with a concerned expression, offering a half-full water bottle. Helpless affection bubbles up inside him, and he laughs a little as he replies, "Thank you."

 


 

The immortal has loved so many things about his beloved's incarnations. He's loved them when they were fiery and when they were shy; he's loved them when they were dreamy and when they were practical; he's loved them in all different landscapes and seasons and walks of life. But the thing he loves most, in every lifetime, is his beloved's kind heart.

 


 

It's a quiet afternoon near the banks of the river that will, centuries from now, be known as the Tigris. A man is sitting by the side of the road, visibly drooping with exhaustion, his feet and clothes covered with dust from walking all day.

"Do you need some water? You look very tired."

Startled, the Immortal looks up and sees a young shepherd leaning on his staff, offering a waterskin with a shy smile.

He is very tired, the Immortal, on this hot and dusty afternoon. He's lived three times the span of an ordinary man's life, and the years seem to stretch behind him and before him like an endless barren road. Surely no one was meant to bear the weight of so much time; surely he cannot endure it much longer. But as he takes the waterskin from the shepherd, he feels the burden lift a little.

(A drink of water on a dusty day leads to an offer of shelter for the night, which leads — in the end — to spending thirty sweet and quiet years together tending sheep by the bank of the swift river. As the Immortal works side-by-side with his kind shepherd, the long years are not a burden but a blessing.)

 


 

The young man grins as the Immortal takes a large gulp from the water bottle. "No problem, man. Can't have people passing out in the park. Are you all right? Should we go buy you some more water?"

"I'm all right, thanks. But buying water does sound like a good idea." The Immortal smiles at his beloved and hands back the bottle, then nods toward the kiosk in the distance. "Should I just..." His smile turns sheepish and and a little inviting, and the young man laughs and jerks his thumb at the kiosk.

"Let's go, I'll come with you. Can't abandon you now, I feel responsible for you at this point!" he says.

His beloved's skin is warm medium brown in this life, and as he gestures, the Immortal can see the faint darker lines of long-healed scars on his elbow and forearm. The pattern is more familiar and more dear to the Immortal than any symbol or alphabet known to man. 

 


 

It's a busy market day in a town beside an entirely different river from the one where the Immortal had lived with his shepherd. He's wandered far in the years since then, westward to the sea and southward along this new river. The shepherd is gone and the Immortal's heart is heavy, but when he closes his eyes and recalls his beloved's smile, he finds he can still go on.

The market is full of the noise of goats and cattle and human voices. It's a welcome distraction, and the Immortal positions himself in the skinny shadow of a palm tree and watches the bustle of people haggling over goods. The sun is high and getting higher, and sweat trickles down his face as his little patch of shade shrinks slowly, but he doesn't move. After all, he has nowhere else to be.

A woman from a stall selling beautiful woven baskets has been glancing at him all morning, watching him with large dark eyes. Finally she gets up with a decisive air and strides towards him. The Immortal braces himself to be told to go away, to stop staring if he wasn't going to buy anything, or whatever this woman is going to say.

"Do you need some water? You look exhausted."

The Immortal gapes at her in shock, the painfully familiar words feeling like a blow to the chest. In the face of his silence, the woman's lips firm into a stubborn line, and she crosses her arms.

"You look like a foreigner, so maybe you don't know how dangerous the sun is here. But if you don't drink something and get in the shade, you could die. Come on, I have some water." She turns and heads back to her stall, beckoning him to follow.

He follows her in a daze, trying to convince himself that this doesn't mean anything except that the woman is as kind-hearted as his shepherd. This is not some sort of sign from the gods.

She ushers him in under her stall's awning, and pours water from a large clay jar into a cup. As she holds the cup out to him, he sees on her arm—

—it can't be—

The scars are long-healed but clear and crisp: round punctures and thin scratches from the elbow to partway down the forearm.

"Those scars—" he chokes out, staring at her arm.

She glares at him and pulls her arm back toward her body. "What about them?"

"How did you get them?"

She glares harder and doesn't answer, and even through his distraction he realizes that he's being very rude to this kind woman.

"I— I'm sorry. It's just that... a friend of mine had scars just like that, from saving my life." He holds out his own arm and shows her a similar set of long-healed marks. "I was tending our sheep and a lion attacked me. My friend charged right at it to scare it off. Thanks to his bravery, we both got away with nothing worse than a few scars."

The woman relaxes at his explanation, and after a moment offers him a wry smile. "I'm afraid my story is much less exciting. I slipped down a rocky embankment as a child and cut up my arm, that's all."

The Immortal smiles back tentatively at her. She's a small woman, a head shorter than him or his much-missed shepherd, but she projects stubborn confidence in a way that his shy, quiet beloved never did. Her skin is deep dark brown in the way that's becoming more common as he travels south along the river, and her round cheeks curve sweetly when she smiles. She looks nothing at all like his shepherd— except that she has his kind heart, and what looks very much like the marks of courage and loyalty that were on his arm.

"Still," he says. "I think it's a good omen to see scars that look so much like his. Maybe you were destined to save my life too, by getting me out of the sun," he adds, and she laughs at his attempt at charm.

(The Immortal offers to help her pack up her stall at the end of the day, to make up for his rudeness, he says. Then he helps her set up the next morning, which leads — in the end — to spending forty busy, happy years together making intricate baskets and selling them in a dozen markets up and down the river.)

 


 

The Immortal has lived fifty times the span of an ordinary man's life, and has amassed a modest collection of scars: from cooking accidents, from long-forgotten wars, from György's rosebushes and Nandini's wobbly ladder and two separate pirate attacks in different oceans. Most fade over the years like ordinary men's scars do, and the very oldest ones became invisible centuries ago. All except the ancient scars on his arm that still match his beloved's.

His beloved usually has the marks when they meet, long-healed from some childhood accident. Usually, but not always, as the Immortal had learned the hard way. He'd spent three years with his heart breaking over Zhu Liang, who had offered him water when they first met, who had such a bright laugh and such kind eyes, but not a single mark on his arm. He'd signed on with the ship's crew anyway, silently berating himself for his foolishness but drawn by an irresistible pull. And then pirates had boarded their merchant ship and one of them slashed Liang's arm with metal claws, and after the pirates had been driven off the Immortal saw his wounded arm and burst into relieved tears.

("I was standing there bleeding, and you were crying with happiness!" was a regular punchline over decades' worth of playful teasing.)

 


 

"Do you often save joggers in distress?" the Immortal asks as they walk toward the food kiosk. The marks on his own arm are exposed by his T-shirt, but he doesn't draw attention to either of their scars yet. He's had a long time to learn a little subtlety.

"Oh, sure, all the time," his beloved answers, shrugging and grinning playfully. "I'm practically a superhero, y'know?"

"Oh really? So, what, do you roam the park looking for people who need rescuing?"

His beloved laughs. "Nah, sorry! First off, that would be kinda creepy. And second, I'm actually not from around here. Guess you were just lucky that I had a photoshoot here today." He gestures to the expensive-looking camera slung over his shoulder.

"Oh, are you a photographer?" the Immortal asks with interest.

(Solveig would probably have loved cameras. She'd spent every spare moment outdoors, painting watercolor landscapes and sketching wildflowers. The Immortal spent many happy afternoons walking up mountain paths with her then reading or napping in the sun while she painted.)

(The Immortal shakes himself minutely and turns away from that line of thinking. Now is not the time to reminisce fondly; now is the time to start learning who his beloved is in this life.)

"Yup! Event photographer, specialty is weddings and engagements. Today was an engagement photoshoot — apparently the couple met here at the park."

"Seems like this is a good place to meet people..." the Immortal doesn't quite wink, but his beloved huffs in amusement anyway.

"People meet all kinds of places," he counters playfully. "I've had one couple who met at a real estate conference, and another who met on a bungee-jumping platform and decided to hold their wedding there and jump off at the end — now that was a crazy one to shoot!"

The Immortal raises his brows. "Sounds like it! And did you jump too?"

"Not while shooting photos of them, I did that all while safety-harnessed to the platform, thanks very much!" His beloved grins. "But I did do a jump afterwards when all my gear was safely stowed in my car. It was awesome."

They reach the kiosk and the Immortal buys himself a cold bottle of water. "Can I buy you something? Water, gatorade? As a thank you." He gestures hopefully at the drinks.

"You don't have to, that's fine... I was just happy to help," his beloved says, but he's tilting his head and looking open to persuasion.

"Then how about I buy you something, and in return, you tell more stories from the crazy world of wedding photography?" The affection bubbling in the Immortal's chest makes his smile bright and sincere, and his beloved searches his face for a moment then smiles in return.

"All right, but we're going to do the storytelling somewhere nice and shady. I can't believe you were out jogging in this heat."

 


 

The Immortal will admit that he spends more time in the sun or doing strenuous work when he hasn't found his beloved's current life yet. He tries to avoid pushing himself too hard, as he'd frequently been warned against this after he told his beloved the truth about the cycle and how he always found them again. He particularly remembers calm, soft-spoken Tamim raising his voice in a lecture about the idiocy of deliberately risking heat exhaustion; Nandini on the other hand said nothing but spent several weeks very pointedly shooing him into the shade at noontime, until he earnestly promised that he'd learned his lesson. But in all his long centuries, no real harm has come from waiting a little while in the sun for his beloved, only many joyful reunions.

 


 

New bottles of water in hand, they settle themselves on a bench in the cool shadow of a tree.

" Do you get to go a lot of places for your photography, then?"

"Oh, yeah, I've gotten to shoot events in some amazing places. Mostly just within the state, but you wouldn't believe the kinds of great venues that people find. Farmhouses, historic buildings, some great spots in national parks..." His beloved's eyes in this life are an arresting light brown, and they seem to glow with enthusiasm as he speaks. "Those are actually my favorite, the ones out in nature. I thought about becoming a travel photographer once, but it's a really difficult field to break into. And anyway, I love being part of people's wedding day, helping them capture the memories and everything."

 


 

It seems to be mostly up to chance whether his beloved will have the wanderlust in any given life. The Immortal sometimes spends an entire lifetime traveling with his beloved, like the one he spent sailing from port to port with Liang, and another one spent camping out under the stars with Tamim, who had still been guiding caravans through mountain passes at the age of eighty. And sometimes he and his beloved dedicate their lives to one place, like the lifetime he spent with György in a little monastery, lovingly tending the gardens year after year, brewing beer and making cheese and hardly ever setting foot outside the walls.

They take turns traveling, sometimes. Azcueitl had firmly set down roots, and never went farther than a day's travel from her hometown in all her life, but she still needed someone to bring her weaving to the city to sell. The Immortal was happy to do that for her, and also to use several lifetimes' experience of trade and haggling to get the best possible prices for her cloth. He used some of the extra money to scour the market for unusual gifts to bring back to her, and their little house in the village was decorated with trinkets from distant lands.

On the other hand, Adela loved the glitter and freedom of life as a touring actress, the thrill of performing on a new stage and of charming the theater-goers of a new city. But it was a hard life too, filled with damp dressing rooms and bumpy roads, and she loved having a cozy home to return to. The Immortal had decided to take a break from bumpy roads himself, and was entirely happy to keep house for her, give singing and music lessons in their parlor, and listen to her stories of life on tour.

 


 

"Do you have a dream location where you want to shoot a wedding?" the Immortal asks, grinning.

"Dream location? Hmmmm." His beloved makes a big show of thinking deeply. "Well, if I'm dreaming big, I would love to be hired for a destination wedding at one of the big national parks. Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park... yeah, shooting a wedding at any of those would be living the dream!"

 


 

(Five years later, his beloved is photographing a wedding at the Grand Canyon, and his face is aglow as he shoots photo after photo of the couple hugging in front of the breathtaking landscape. The Immortal is waiting off to the side, guarding the rest of the camera equipment and consulting with the wedding coordinator. They'll stay for a few days after the wedding and make it into their own vacation, so that he and his beloved can enjoy the landscape to their hearts' content.

It had taken a couple of years before his beloved was comfortable taking him on as a business partner. This newfangled idea that you should keep personal and business relationships separate still seems a bit foreign to the Immortal, who's run everything from an isolated farm to a busy import-export business with his beloved. But, as he realizes anew in every lifetime, this is what the world is here and now, and this is who his beloved is here and now, and it's a gift to embrace and enjoy.

After his beloved agreed to let him join the event photography business, the Immortal took over the bookkeeping with centuries' worth of skill and practice (and the deep appreciation for modern financial software that comes from someone who's kept accounts on tally sticks, clay tablets, and handwritten record books).

He's also started helping with the marketing, a role that's new and familiar all at once. He's posting online instead of calling people to a shop or a market stall, but the principle is still the same. He's always loved the beautiful things that his beloved offers to the world: wedding photographs, woven baskets, beautiful cloth, rare goods, soft fleece, sharp cheese, the talent to captivate an audience, the skill to navigate mountains. He adores all of them, and it's always been the most natural thing in the world to try to convince other people to appreciate them too.

The business has grown steadily, and they've been hired for more and more destination weddings every year. The Immortal watches his beloved dashing around a new location as he scouts out the most beautiful angles, or singing and tapping on the wheel as they drive cross-country to an event, and gives thanks that for the past forty-seven lifetimes, the years have no longer been a burden but a blessing.)