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“You’ll come back. In pieces or victorious, you will come back.”

That is the way he sees her off before her first battle. To me, he places a gentle kiss on my forehead; to our brother, Leon, a last straightening of armor and a hair ruffle that would be cute if Leon was younger. Our little sister Elise, after much cape tugging, finally receives a nose boop and a gruff, “Be good,” out of him.

But Kamui only receives those taciturn words.

Marx is Conqueror of Conquerors. He is the man who yearns for nothing but the entire world. Such words were meant to be an assurance, a promise, blunt though they may be. It was a kindness of his own brand. Yet now, with Kamui missing in action, they ring hollow - a cruel thesis tested one too many times.

-

She was never meant to be one of us, yet we made her one anyway. I was five when Father brought her home, hand a vice around her small wrist, dragging her forward, while she stumbled along, struggling to keep up in her long Hoshidan robes. The smile he wore, twisted too high and showing too many teeth, has never left my memory. I hid behind The Queen’s skirts, but Marx, then only an eight year old princeling, stood his ground, already brave, already sure of himself. “Our recompense for those Hoshidan bastards stepping foot onto our territory,” he said, all but tossing her at The Queen. And The Queen accepted her without question, this time, and every time after it. We all did, even in the face of Father’s negligence.

I took to her immediately. She’d come right on the tail of Leon’s birth, and it was like I’d gotten two little siblings instead of one. I held her close when she would cry for a land I had already grown to hate, bitterness seeping into my mouth as I thought of them, her real family, about as real to me as far off stars, light hidden by Nohr gloom.

Marx was... different, though. Old enough to know where she’d come from, heir to the throne, and most prone to receiving Father’s so-called advice. “She is not one of us,” he would tell him day in and day out, pulling him from the rest of us as we played in the gardens, but The Queen - every night when she tucked us in, she would smooth Marx’s blond hair, so much like her own, lean in close, and kiss him on the cheek. “Love Kamui most of all,” she would say as she pulled away. She saw, perhaps, what we had all ignored. The way Marx would smile around her. The way he was Prince Marx no longer - only Marx. Perhaps she thought she could save him.

Yet that happy picture of us - The Queen, Marx, little baby Leon, my new little sister, and I - was short lived. The Queen left without a word one day, much to my own mother’s delight. I could not share her happiness. Naively, I thought that if I could cover Kamui’s ears as Father bickered with his Queen, if I shielded her eyes from all the women that lounged around the castle, that crept out of his room in the wee hours, then that fleeting dream, that picture of happiness would be safe inside her heart. But try as I might, all dreams end. Our happy family broke. I still wonder if it could ever be considered happy or whole. Surely, if it was, it was a picture with only Father, Marx, and Queen Ecatarina. And when she left, even that caricature of an ideal family crumbled too. Kamui was taken to a fortress in the north, isolated from everyone We gained another queen and another sister, and lost them both as quickly as they had come. It was only Elise’s birth that ended the cycle of bloodshed within the royal family.

And as much as I hated that Kamui had been taken from us, I was also glad. That she, like Elise, was able to grow up without bloodshed, still a shining light within the darkness of our country. Though she was the middle child, her eyes were bright, voice light and breathless as she ran to meet us when we visited, daring to hope for a world better than what actually was outside the walls of her fortress.

And so even Marx grew fond of Kamui, even after The Queen left, often sparring with her in the gardens, teaching her some of his princely tricks as they were taught to him, though it was always a distant sort of fondness, intangible, like the way the wind barely brushes your fingertips when you reach for the sky. I thought Kamui considered me her favorite sibling when she pressed a Hoshidan coin into my hand. “I don’t remember who gave it to me,” she’d said, “But it’s for good luck. To protect you.” I’d asked her why she hadn’t given it to Marx, hoping to stroke my ego, but instead she responded, “Oh... I wanted to, but he doesn’t need it. Marx is strong. Stronger than anyone. Stronger than everyone.” Her brow furrowed, an expression more suited to Marx than her, and glanced sideways, as if I wouldn’t notice, over the ramparts to where he sparred on the training grounds.

As the years wore on, Marx became more scarce, yet something else changed in him. As hard as I would try to win the brunt of her affection, Marx would ride in sitting proudly atop his horse, and Kamui would flock to him. Roughly, he would dismount, brushing the dust off himself. Forcefully she would slam her face into him as she wrapped her arms around him, without regard to his armor. Hesitantly, he would stroke her hair, as if she would crumble to dust at his touch. An awkward, ungainly dance neither of them seemed to know the steps to, no matter how many times it happened. And then, one day, Marx did seem to know. Because, at Kamui’s rough embrace, a flower - just a simple dandelion, a weed, really - fell out from between the tiers of his armor. And though I wanted to be angry at Marx, her face - the awe, the smile - seeing that was like receiving a gift myself.

“What is this?” she gasps.

“It’s a flower - I wonder how it got there.”

She doesn’t say anything, but her eyes are locked onto its bright yellow petals.

“You can have it... If you want.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

He doesn’t look at her when he gives it to her. Like a man trying to shield his eyes from the sun.

When I tuck it behind her ear, she murmurs, so quietly I think perhaps it wasn’t meant for me, “I wish I could see the flowers. I wish I could see the Queen’s garden again. I wish I could go outside.”

A week later, her wish is partially granted, and a butler delivers a bright bouquet of red carnations, white chrysanthemums, daffodils, sunflowers, tulips, and one pure white gardenia, all bound with ivy. She loved that bouquet more than anything in the world, wearing a flower somewhere on her every day, and diligently watered the rest. I notice Marx’s lips twitch ever so slightly whenever he saw her with a flower in her hair.

“Cam! Camilla! Take me for a ride on your wyvern!” she calls, right outside my door the next time I visit. I don’t think it’s a good idea, but Marx isn’t there and she only wants to see flowers. So I saddle up, make sure there’s enough room for both her and Leon, and take them to a field not too far away, but far enough where the prying eyes of Father’s spies won’t catch us. Kamui runs around joyously, stopping only to thumb a yellow carnation.

“Are those for someone?” Leon pipes up unexpectedly as we sat in the shade.

“Yes- well... Yes,” she stutters out, pink starting to tinge her cheeks.

“Don’t use those, then,” he says. “Those represent disdain and denied feelings.”

We look at our younger brother quizzically, wondering how he knew that. He looks away indignantly stammering, “It’s just - what every Nohrian prince needs to know, you know? We take classes on courtship after all - flower meanings and sash exchanging and all that.” Kamui wears the smallest of smiles as her entire face goes red, a tiny ‘ooooooooh’ escaping her lips.

The next time I see her, she is at the castle on a rare visit. She stands under the dying wisteria tree - the last remnant of Queen Ecatarina’s garden - wearing her best dress, the last daffodil tucked behind her ear like a secret. And Marx is there with her, far taller at eighteen than she is at thirteen, only midway through her growth spurt. My stomach flips; I shouldn’t be seeing this. She offers him the crown, and he takes it, smiling - which is a feat in of itself. And then - she leans in on tip-toe, to kiss him on the cheek, and I panic. I cover my mouth with my hands to stop myself from screaming because this is wrong, this is wrong, but Marx knows better. He stiffens, turns away, and she rocks back onto her heels, stumbling a little. Before he has a chance to respond, she runs away, hiding her face, and I don’t want to believe there are tears. Marx stands alone, tearing the petals to shreds in gloved hands.

Perhaps that was the point of no return.

-

That memory is all I can think of as we meet on the battlefield, intending to rescue her, and she - she leaves us. Chooses Hoshido nobility, strangers, over her own family. “Traitor,” is all Marx can manage to hiss out, and I know he means it, but I wonder if he meant to say it aloud. He does not give the signal to attack. We are not prepared for this - attacking now would lead to a massacre. And so he lets her go. As she backs away, she holds her hand out, as if she means for us to join her. A foolish proposition. Tempting, somehow, but foolish nonetheless. He meets her gesture of goodwill by holding a single fist up, little finger out. She returns the gesture, and it may be the only time their feelings are reciprocated. A promise to meet on the battlefield.

On the field, Marx does not often stray from his tent. I see him only twice a day, to bring him breakfast and dinner. Sometimes he is splayed across the map, finally asleep, lofty peaks of the Arls stamped flat under one hand, the other clutching small horse pieces so fiercely I wonder if man can crush marble. More often than not, I come to find him elbows propped, mouth pressed against gloved hands, scouring the map like an oracle searching cow bones for god. He sits at the war table, moving pieces around, a platoon over to the east - “No, the west, yes the west is better, no chance for an unexpected encounter” - and back again, round and round in circles, over and over until surely he must have covered every possible inch of the table, thought of every possible outcome existing in theoretical infinity. I want to ask him why - our troops are more disciplined, have better equipment, outnumber the enemy three-to-one, not to mention our cavalry as opposed to Hoshido’s landlocked foot soldiers. It is a pointless question. He isn’t looking for victory. He’s looking for a miracle.

Leon sits with him on the eve of the battle, looking over the neat rows of imaginary soldiers, finally stationary. Marx gestures to the platoons arranged over the plain. “The infantry units will keep a tight formation here - it is imperative that they hold the line while the cavalry works their way around Shian hill,” he explains to our younger brother, who is studiously taking notes. His voice is gravelly, bloodshot eyes sickeningly striking against the dark circles.

“A hammer-and-anvil strike, then?”

“Hopping, but yes.”

“Why not split the cavalry in two and send attack from the east and west? Surely it would be a more devastating attack.” Leon isn’t wrong, but he doesn’t understand.

“It’s too much of a risk. And we aren’t looking to devastate them, Leon. We’re only looking for victory.”

Leon points accusingly at a hole in the map where he suggested the cavalry should also attack from. “And what is ‘victory’ to you now? I don’t know where her piece is, but you can’t protect her. She chose her side. And it wasn’t us.” Marx’s silence is more threatening than words ever could be, and I shoo Leon out of the tent. I look back to see Marx slumped in his chair, head turned to the sky, limp like a marionette with its strings cut, before the tent flap folds back, and he looks more like a shade lingering in the underworld than the conqueror - the brother - I knew. I shouldn’t have looked.

On the battlefield I ride with Marx, much to Leon’s chagrin, and am there to witness his worst fears realized as we catch a glimpse of navy blue and shining silver armor through the trees. We lie in wait, trying to analyze the situation from this distance. It is Kamui, alone, taking on Nohr stragglers. She breathes heavily, and her thrusts are far slower than I’ve ever seen. She cuts one man down, but it takes far longer than it should, and she has to kick him off her blade. I exchange a glance with Marx, hand on my axe in case he gives the okay to help her. His face is hard, much harder than I’d expected. Abruptly he turns to leave and his horse whinnying alerts her of our presence. “Leon is right - she’s made her choice,” he says. I will never forget the look on her face as we turn to leave. Alone, no one to stand beside her, she looks at us not with malice or contempt, but desperation - a look that begs us not to leave, and we - we abandon her. This time I do not look back.

At base camp, a scout runs to Marx, hurriedly whispers something in his ear. Any light that was left in his eyes when Kamui defected dies at once. He works his mount into an immediate gallop, right through our own army, into the thick of the fighting, with no regard to which troops he runs down. I try to follow him, but I am no match for whatever news spurs him on. Fear curls in my throat as a snake, slithering its way down to coil in my stomach. I don’t know when I made it back to camp. I can tell I’m barking orders at the troops, but I can’t hear what I’m saying. The soldiers are frantic, and I know I should be calm, collected, just like Marx would be - would want me to be - but it’s impossible. I won’t lose him. I won’t lose more of my family. I won’t let them have him too.

Leon is yelling something about order, so the camp doesn’t fall to pieces but I don’t care, I don’t care. Elise tugs at my sash trying to find out what’s wrong, what happened, where’s big brother, but I can only turn callously from her, saddle my own mount, words sitting in my stomach like swallowed coals. Soldiers bustle around me, sprinting, bumping into each other, but it’s too slow, everyone is too slow.

And then they stop.

I open my mouth to yell, but the glimmering sea of armor parts slowly, heeding a command far above my own station. I see him then, a glimpse of blond hair through the crowd and I push past the few that haven’t yet moved, relief blooming madly in my chest. That relief wilts as that coiled snake in my stomach bites down, spreading it’s venom until it must be all I am filled with. Marx is cradling something in his arms, tenderly, like a child, swaddled in his own cloak - except, no, the form is far too large, his cloak draped more like a dress and face covered as if wearing a veil, and my knees give out because at once I know. He does not look up from her form, gaze softer, warmer, more reverent than I’d ever seen him look at anything before. Heavy riding boots thud against the earth, each step the rhythm of an unsung requiem. In my peripheral vision I see Elise and Leon push through the crowd too. Leon immediately turns our little sister around and presses her into his chest so she cannot see. She struggles for only a moment before feeling the panic in his grasp, and stills herself. As Marx passes them, Leon brings up a hand, hesitates, then reaches out, trembling, to pat him on the shoulder. “Father will be p-” is all he manages to stutter out before he is cut off. Marx, who has never laid a hand on us, who has never even threatened to lay a hand on his family, nearly slices our brother’s hand clean off drawing his blade at him. Leon averts his eyes, proud visage turned down, and I realize he cannot look at the body even with its shroud. Marx must know he didn’t mean it. Marx must know he only meant to please him. If he did, he does not care. The body starts to slip from his grasp, and he immediately drops his blade - his ancestral Nohrian blade, passed down for generations - to once again cradle her. We watch as the sword falls with a dull clatter, not speaking a word. A scratch runs down the length, marring it.

We return to Nohr at once. It feels right, though Hoshido was not meant to still stand. Still, Kamui had come home. In one piece too, not that it mattered. Father was not, as Leon predicted, pleased. He wasn’t anything. He puts Marx in charge of funeral preparations, and only because he insisted Kamui have a proper place in the royal crypt. The morning after we come back, I am forced to eat breakfast with him alone. Marx is rushing, trying to arrange a proper ceremony before not even the healers’ preserving salve can stop her from rotting; Elise is locked in her room, either crying or dead to the world, Leon still probably trying to coerce her out. And so we sit in silence. “Father...” I begin, not really knowing how to continue, used to having Marx as a buffer for communication. “Is it true you would not give Kamui a ceremony?”

“What of it?” he responds, not even bothering to cover his mouth while he chews.

“I just thought... Well, it’s a loss isn’t it?” I try to keep my wording as vague as possible, in case he would mock me for mourning my sister. He actually pauses, taking the time to swallow - thank the ancestors - although he makes up for it by smacking his lips obscenely while he thinks.

“No,” he finally says. “Keeping that girl was merely justice. Those Hoshidans,” he says the word with the kind of malice usually reserved for kin slayers, “dared to step foot in our land, and so I claimed one of their royal brats. She was useful though, I suppose. Would’ve been more useful as a scullery maid, if you ask me, but your mother insisted she be part of the family. I suppose I could’ve made her queen of whatever is left of Hoshido after we lay siege to it.” I am silent. I had expected this answer, but it was still unsettling to hear so bluntly. “Actually,” he continues, and I’m vaguely interested in what could possibly amend the harsh truth, but more scared than anything. “I had a brilliant thought while you lot were trying to herd that girl back. Why not marry her to Marx? Could you imagine the beauty? The last of the Hoshido royal family tainted with Nohr blood!” He tilts his head back, laughing so hard spittle flies across the table. I don’t want to hear this anymore but he prattles on and on, each sentence more vile than the last. “Imagine all the little tyrants she’d pop out! It’s a shame our healers haven’t found a way to preserve bodily functions after death - if they could, I’d still be able to put the plan into motion! I’ve seen those two grow up; I’m sure little Marxy would leap at any chance to fuck her into the mattress - or casket in this case, hm?” He hoots with laughter again, and I stand to leave, swallowing a scream. It takes every inch of willpower not to obey my twitching muscles, to flee from that man immediately. In the doorway stand a wide-eyed Elise and Leon and the Conqueror himself, and I mouth an apology as I pass, but he does not see, the entirety of his focus on Father as his fists clench and unclench at his sides.

Even though Marx was in charge of all functions, I was to oversee the mortician’s preparation of the body. He had pulled me aside beforehand, cornering me against the cold marble walls. The only thing sharper than his gaze were his words, “Make sure he does a good job. Anything less than perfect - anything less than Kamui - and we will have one more funeral to attend, and one more mortician position open. Do you understand?” I could only nod my head. And so I stand, overlooking my dear sister’s body while a stranger pokes and prods her face in an attempt to make her look alive. I have to look over her rather than at her, out the window - let my mind wander lest I start weeping again. Why wasn’t Marx here? He’d planned so much - far more than Father did for Mother - yet left us to oversee it all. Was this only justice to him, and nothing more? Keeping her from her Hoshidan kin out of spite, not even looking at her face - I knew Marx could be cold, but this was on Father’s level. I see a figure move across the garden, exiting the crypt. Marx. His knee guards are off, carried limply in his hand. I can feel tears sting the corners of my eyes again as he pauses under the wisteria tree, looking skyward. His lone figure among a blooming landscape, looking for something that will never return - this is not an unfamiliar scene. Immediately I cast my eyes downward, ashamed. “No, not that color,” I say as my eyes refocus on Kamui. “She is softer. Like spring.”

That is the only time my thoughts ever aligned with Brother’s.

Elise and Leon are the only ones who join me for dinner that night. “Do you think he took her to bed?” I blurt the question out without thinking. I don’t have to specify who, after that morning’s incident. Leon glances up from his plate, then back down, silverware dragging along the plate to fill the silence. Elise doesn’t even acknowledge my question, continuing to graze on lettuce. Their reactions tell me all I need to know, but still I wait for someone to say something, anything. “Well?”

“Of course not,” Elise pipes up unexpectedly. “Sorry - I thought the answer was obvious, so I didn’t think you wanted a response.”

“How is it obvious?” our brother retorts, folding his arms. “Brother’s always been kind of...weird about Kamui, right? I mean, he abandoned a military campaign once because he heard she was crying or whatever, he’d only ever smile while she was around... You can’t tell me there wasn’t anything there.”

“Because he loves her.”

“And that disproves my point, how?”

“He loves her so he wouldn’t bed her. It’s simple.”

“Maybe if I were talking about familial love. I’m talking about the romantic kind. You don’t think he would’ve wanted... more?”

Elise shrugs, “The type doesn’t matter. He loves her, so he wouldn’t want to do such a silly thing. It’s like you don’t know Brother at all.” Leon stares at her incredulously. She thinks for a moment, twirling her fork in the air casually. Finally she simply shrugs again.

“Brother is strong.”

The ceremony passes in monochrome snapshots. I vaguely hear the priest’s voice reciting the invocation to our ancestors to lead Kamui into glory, but it is distant, as if I were listening to him underwater. My body feels like it’s shutting itself down. Elise is sobbing, pressing the meat of her hand into her mouth to keep from crying out. Leon is hunched between us, shoulders shaking, and he cannot look up, cannot let anyone see his tears. I should take them into my arms, wipe away their tears, stroke their hair, just like before, but this isn’t “before” anymore. All I want to do is hold Kamui again. If I held Leon, if I held Elise now, it would be wrong, I would be replacing her. I wrap my arms around myself. It is unbearably cold.

Marx is standing to the side of the podium instead of with us. I half expect him to speak, but he doesn’t and I’m not surprised. We queue up for the wake, even Father. He kisses her forehead and I cringe, and I almost walk away when I see him wipe his lips with the back of his hand after. Elise has brought freshly picked gladioli, and Leon has only his tears to give, but I think that in itself is a worthy gift. I myself have but a meager offering - the coin she gave me only a year after she first came to us. I was sorry I ever took it from her.

Then, it is my turn. I carefully approach the casket and - nothing could have prepared me for seeing her again. Fresh flowers adorn her, hydrangea petals strewn around the bedding, and two sunflowers halo her pillow. Small bouquets of red carnations, white chrysanthemum, and tulips are placed in the corners, ivy lining the casket, connecting them. Daffodils pepper her splayed out hair - one, I notice, diligently tucked behind her ear - and she looks like a piece of art. As extravagant as the display is, it does not detract from her righteous figure, sword clutched to her breast, clad in full armor, instead accentuating her being as if she were the centerpiece of the bouquet. I turn to Marx - this was all his doing, right? - but he looks straight ahead, stiff as a sentinel. As alive as she looks, seeing her like this makes it real. She is gone, will wilt soon enough, just like the flowers that grace her form. My face contorts hard, and tears spill down my face and her visage blurs. The world is only muddled color, and I notice one missing from her palette - the navy blue of her royal family sash. I stumble over to Marx, tears burning my cold cheeks, and as if he knows, he simply states, “She was not one of us.” His chest feels like stone when I pound my fists against him.

That night, I stare blankly into the darkness, unable to sleep, turning Kamui’s coin over and over, regretting being unable to return it. I could, if I really wanted to. She would be laid out on the altar facing the ancestral epitaphs in the crypt, before being placed again in her casket before the dawn. I know this. Still I hesitate, the thought of seeing her again, disrespected, without her royal sash making my stomach turn. No - if she was going to be dishonored in such a way, then it was of the utmost importance that I give her coin back.

Incense smoke hangs thick in the room, shadows of the tall stone epitaphs dancing along the walls like spirits in the flickering candle light. I place the coin in her left hand, closing it tightly so it will not fall when she is moved. I linger a moment longer, gazing at her, so light and alive against the gloom of the crypt, and my heart sinks as I realize she too will become a part of this lifeless place. And then, I hear the heavy stone door swing forward like the toll of yet another funeral bell, the cold wind from outside making the shadows frantically disperse. I hide too, slipping in between the epitaphs to see who the intruder is.

It is Marx. Of course it is Marx. I remain hidden, though I have as much a right to be there as him. Something feels off, though, like I’m not meant to see him here. The shadows tower around me, looking down, condemning me with their gazes. I try not to see, focusing on Marx instead, but their judgment seems even more disparaging when I do. But I cannot look away either, not when Marx is finally with Kamui. He holds in his hand a gardenia flower, and strokes its petals open into full bloom before laying it just beneath her clasped hands, right over her heart. It doesn’t surprise me when he lingers, looking down at her for a long time. Finally, he unclasps his own sash from his armor, and leans over her lengthwise, resting his forearm on the opposite side of the altar so that they are nearer, more equal, and he looks like a prince from a storybook, about to break the spell on the sleeping princess. He fastens his own sash around her, and the royal violet of it suits her even more than her own navy blue - makes her look like a queen. I expect him to leave after such a poignant gesture but he doesn’t, instead maintaining the pose, and then lowers himself even further, until their lips are only a hair’s width apart. My heart pounds in my chest, but it isn’t like last time, and I realize - I want him to kiss her. I want him to make things right. His lips are barely parted and it looks more like he’s trying to give her his breath than the prelude to a simple kiss and it is only in his weakness that I realize what Kamui meant when she called him strong. Marx does not yearn. His brow furrows as he pulls away, instead moving a lock of hair behind Kamui’s ear as if apologizing. “It won’t change anything,” he murmurs into the darkness, and the candles sink, shadows dipping, as if they too were mourning. He pulls her shroud over her, and instead places a careful kiss onto her through that. I wonder what he means.

He holds vigil, kneeling before Our Lady of Victory, though he had never bent the knee to anyone - ancestors or otherwise - before. I cannot leave, not after that display. I have to know. It is wrong to watch, but I have to find the truth. He pulls something from beneath his armor - some kind of fabric - careful not to let it touch the bare skin between his gloves and gauntlets, and clutches it reverently as he mouths prayers to our ancestors. In the flickering candles, I see blue against the black of his gloves. I involuntarily shift in surprise, clasping my mouth to conceal a gasp, and my foot hits something that shouldn’t be there. It is Kamui’s piece from Marx’s war table set, hidden behind her favorite epitaph. A missing sash and a missing piece... One something she was never supposed to receive, ever protected by him, the other an honor she would never receive, given to her anyway by the person who loved her most. My eyes grow heavy as the candles slowly die; those warm thoughts enveloping me like a blanket.

I dream of the gardens, flowers bursting into bloom on the honeyed wind. I hide in the brush, a child again, and there they stand, older in my mind’s eye, grown up, reenacting that scene from so long ago. Kamui wears the single dying daffodil tucked behind her ear, barely visible, like a love note meticulously pressed into a door jamb. In her hands she holds a crown of hydrangeas bound with ivy, balanced between loose fingertips. Head bowed, she gazes at it, idly thumbing a leaf, peering up at him from behind her bangs every so often. The distance between them is a held breath, their silence miles long.

Finally, she speaks. At least, her lips move just so, and Marx shifts toward her, though even in my own mind I cannot hear her words. I could imagine, perhaps, what Kamui would say to him - did say to him - but that is sacrilege. It is better this way, not knowing. It is right. She offers him the crown on trembling palms, and he looks at her, really looks at her, before plucking it from her outstretched hands, such delicacy looking somehow wrong against his rough leather gloves, like it would shatter under the weight he already carried. And then she leans in on tiptoes, and this time I smile. Nothing will be the same. Everything has changed - I understand that now. And Marx - he will lean forward, accept the kiss, finally able to reciprocate, finally able to fix this mistake of seven years, and his heart would be exhumed; and perhaps that is enough. Too late to salvage the tragedy, yet still a kind of absolution. I will tell him when I wake, and he will smile, at long last he will smile again, because someone understood him, and he was granted even that small mercy.

But as Kamui leans in, he stiffens. Nothing has changed. He turns away, rigid, and Kamui pulls back as if she’s been struck, looking him over, once, twice, searching for the lie, searching for some sign of betrayal, for a cruel smirk or eyes narrowed in disgust. But there is only sincerity in his hard jaw and soft eyes and lightly tinged cheeks and he can’t even look at her and - it is done. She turns and walks away because it is the only thing she can do. She cannot kiss him. She cannot stop her tears. I see them dripping down her cheeks, and I cannot ignore them this time. I want to scream at them - at him - but that isn’t how it goes. I stand, small fingers clasped over my mouth, powerless. He stands, watching her go, flower crown still in hand. Between his thumb and forefinger he shreds the petals of a hydrangea. His ring finger brushes against an ivy leaf so delicately, so tenderly, as if he means to wipe her tears.

Something inside me breaks. I am on top of Marx, knobby knee pressing into his chest. My fingers wind around his sinewy neck, looking like they could snap if he breathed too hard. He does not struggle. I press down harder, focusing on Kamui’s broken flower crown scattered around us rather than the rise and fall of Marx’s chest getting more rapid, more shallow. I count the petals littering the ground like they littered the inside of Kamui’s casket, following the trail of blue, one - two - three, only to find the fourth caressing the blond curl of Marx’s hair - or perhaps the curl was caressing it - I don’t know, I don’t know anymore, and that’s when I make my own mistake.

I look into his eyes.

I have to. I have to know. I have to understand. And his eyes are narrowed, lips pulled into a disgusted snarl, even as his breath slows. Instantly my fingers pull back, and my knuckles lock. This isn’t what he wants. Why did he let me, then? He lifts a hand, such a simple movement taking all of his strength, and puts it over mine, trying to make me finish what I started. But he’s too weak to even curl his fingers, and my hands slide out easily from beneath them. “Pathetic,” he spits between gasps of air. He would let me kill him. Even if he was disgusted with me, he had tried to make me kill him. Was I worthy of contempt because he knew I would not - could not kill my own family? Kamui’s voice rang in my head. Marx is strong. Stronger than anybody. Stronger than everybody. But he couldn’t kill you either, I wanted to tell the ghost of her. I wonder if he would have pulled away if Kamui had been the one to strangle him. Was he looking for justice? A justice only she could provide? Or was it something more?

I need to understand. I need to see what he saw. Strangely calm, I push my thumbs into my own eye sockets as casually as removing a stray thread from a dress. They give easily under the pressure, turning to jelly. Useless things. I feel him sigh under me, heavily, as if this was just another unpleasant yet inevitable end. I grope blindly, fingers grazing only wind before I feel the leather of his gloves wrap around my wrists and lead me to his own eyes. He does not react as my fingers plunge in, tearing his own eyes from his sockets, as if nothing had changed for him. “I’m sorry.” The words are barely a breath but they ring crisp in the darkness, and I pause, contemplating them, before figuring it’s a waste of time when the answers are in my fingertips, wet and soft and flimsy. I have to push to make them fit.

And then the world is alive. Bursts of light so radiant all else falls into shadow and colors I didn’t even have names for bloom all around, gently wrapping me in a tender embrace, memories like stain glass windows in the sticky blackness of the church shine before me, the only figure able to stand against the radiance, Kamui, and - had she always been so ethereal? With her starlit hair, armor shining like the way sunlight filtered through the snow encrusted forest. And her hand is stretched out to me and that is enough. I do not reach back. Its presence is enough. Her presence is enough. It is as if I am looking at the entire world; how could I want for anything more? And then, all at once - she is gone. And even if I wanted to, there is nothing left to hold - nothingness upon nothingness makes up this world.

I wake, eyes closed, shaking, curled into myself as if I was just birthed. I huddle like that for a time, afraid to open my eyes. I know that when I open them, never again will I see the world in such completeness. Never again will I experience such warmth. Never again will I be as complete as in that vision. But, neither will he.

I find him curled next to Kamui in her casket. Only her shroud separates them. His bare hand grasps hers through the fabric. Even now he will not allow himself the smallest of comforts. Conqueror of Conquerors, where has your world gone? I tug the shroud gently as I can, working it out of his iron grip, out from under his body, and lay it over them both. His hand touches hers, pinkies entwined - promising even now. Skin on skin. His body rises and falls slowly, each breath accentuating her own stillness. It is not supposed to be like this. Still, it is the closest to fulfilling the singularity of his unspoken weakness. Here, Marx is neither strong nor weak. He just is.

In the dimness of crypt, I want to believe they are smiling.