I walked the shallows, water splashing and drowning out my calls, my throat raw as I screamed at the waves endlessly crashing against the shore, soundlessly screamed at the dot on the horizon.
Frantic, I waved the dot to come in, to come back, but between one wave and the next, the dot disappeared and I was alone on the beach.
I woke gasping, my body drenched in sweat and mortal fear scrabbling up and down my back, the sour taste of bile at the back of my throat. Pushing myself out of my bedding, I froze to see I was really was alone, Lus' bedding empty and his hunting equipment still missing.
I felt like an idiot, my voice small and frightened, my dream slamming my memory once more.
I refused to believe it, the denial allowing me to push back the panic from before even as I dressed simply and left our home, my feet carrying me to the river to wash the stink of my dream from my skin.
I let the worry wax and wane until just past midday, when I knew I had to inform the elders of Lus' absence. I dressed carefully, hoping he might return and save me this decision, but eventually there was nothing left but to leave our home and make my way through the village.
At my bold appearance in their midst, people forgot to avert their eyes, their staring putting me even more on edge than I already felt, and I had to bolster my courage with deep breaths outside the elders' lodge before announcing myself with a rigidly polite greeting. Their lack of confusion at seeing me almost made me flee, the way they shared knowing glances flaring brittle anger deep in my stomach.
Almost painfully gentle, Ina was the one to say what they all thought, "This separation comes as no surprise to us, Ayan, though we had thought it might have come sooner."
My anger forced my silence, and another spoke; "In situations like yours, we would typically require both of you to acknowledge a wish to sever your bond, but we can make an exception in your case."
"I am not here for a separation," I said sharply, my only apology for the tone being in my averted eyes, "I'm here because Lus went into the woods alone yesterday and has yet to return. I do not feel he would willingly stay away so long without word."
Someone scoffed, and my fingers clenched up into fists that I hid against my thighs, my body otherwise outwardly calm.
"Your mate is known to disappear, Ayan. You have done him honor with your concern, but it is likely unwarranted. However, if he is missing on the morrow, you may take a few of your peers to search, should they agree."
I bowed my head with blank respect, inwardly seething even as I pushed up and left their dwelling with dark humor. I am little more a child to them, despite my status as a mated man. I had not come here seeking permission to look for him, nor to fulfill some notion of doing him 'honor'.
I don't know what I did come here for.
Maybe I am still little more than a child, after all.
The next morning found me seeking audience with my father over the meal to break his nightly fast, his expression carefully blank at seeing me before my time of seclusion was over.
"Lus is missing, Father. I fear the worst."
My to-the-point greeting had him looking at me, really looking, something changing in his eyes. Not pity, maybe, but a type of sympathy.
"But you do not know his fate," he said, and I forced a nod.
"If it is not asking too much of you, I was hoping you would help me search the woods," I said, my spirit sinking at seeing a true regret enter his face.
"I would but my knee is worse than ever, Ayan. A storm approaches."
It was true that the weather always proved the worst for him, his movements limited to our home because he would never admit to needing assistance of a cane or steadying hand for further distances. I thanked him and made up my mind to enlist Janil if no one else, but he stopped me before I could leave.
"Yu will help."
I was not so sure, but nodded and ducked from the dwelling I lived in for all my life before my mating, the view from its door a bittersweet reminder of my childhood. Swallowing down the unexpected nostalgia, I walked instead to my brother's dwelling, my greeting as stiffly polite as one I'd give an elder.
"Oh, no, brother, you severed your bond? Ah, I guess it could not be helped, eh?"
I frowned at his statement, not sure if the ease of his words was genuine or not, until I realized it really didn't matter.
"I have not severed my bond, but Lus is missing. I was wondering if you had time to spare in helping me search the woods where he was last seen, in case he has been injured in some way."
"Of course! For you, I have nothing but time."
I mulled that over even as Yu kissed his mate briefly and gathered up provisions for a long day out in the woods, something I'd not thought about until then.
"I will gather more people, Ayan, and meet you by the black tree."
I nodded, stunned, and left to return to my dwelling to gather my own supplies, my spirit almost numb inside. I don't know if it would better to find Lus out there, or…or not.
The group my brother enlisted to help surprised me, the number far exceeding anything I could have mustered alone, and they all seemed genuinely willing to search for as long as it'd take. Indeed, we spent most of an entire day systematically searching places a man might go to hunt alone, the few who had any knowledge of Lus outside the rest leading to spots that had no sign of the enigmatic man.
We had but one clue near the river, where he appeared to have filled his skein, but the direction he'd gone after that was impossible to ascertain, though we combed the vegetation and dirt along both sides for quite a while.
The group gradually whittled down to just my brother and myself until encroaching darkness forced him to stop the search, his hand on my shoulder keeping me from heading out alone.
"Ayan, don't be foolhardy! If you go out now soon it will be Father and I searching for you," he reasoned tiredly.
I started to shrug away from him but his grip hardened, a genuine sorrow in his voice, "Maybe he has fled from you, Ayan. Or he's dead. If he is, we'll never find him tonight, and there'd be little to do for him anyway. Please, brother."
His words burned the open wound in my middle but I let him pull me along, misguided words of comfort accompanying us but I refused to allow myself to hear them. They just echoed the sentiments of the village, that I should have been unhappy in my mating, that I'd be happier now that I was free to seek a more natural courtship and mate.
But as I found myself once again spending a night alone, I figured that maybe the spirits really had cursed me with bad luck.
They officially severed the bond on his third day gone, everyone sure of his death and needing to protect me from his spirit calling mine to the next plane to join him. I felt raw inside, my spirit hobbled with broken wings as I returned to our dwelling, a blade in my hand even as the song of mourning welled up in my chest.
I cut my hair as I sang, feeding the length to the smoldering embers of the fire as I mourned the man who used to be my mate, my grieved words giving him honor. When I ran out of hair I began cutting myself, my cries sharper from the combined pain.
I was nearly dizzy from loss of blood before someone came to take the blade away, hands on my face and arms, my father's stern voice directing them until I finally stopped fighting and gave in to the silence.
Someone held me as another washed and bound my wounds, their strength giving me peace enough to let them do it. It was only when I recognized the thick scars on the arms holding me that I connected them to Father, his face above mine when I could finally look up with clear eyes.
The pain and kinship in his eyes seared me deeper than I would have guessed, the understanding there settling some of the sharp hurt of having to carry my grief in silence, and I allowed myself to slip down into a state of near-consciousness.
"He carries on his duties too severely."
My brother's voice was full of worry and doubt, but a hand touched my shorn hair with almost tender strokes.
"Ayan is a righteous man, but he does not do this out of duty. If I could have but spared him this…. No man should grieve the way your brother grieves now."
"Hush. Let him rest."
The water was calm, deceptively calm, my reflection a perfect image as I leaned over the side of the boat to gauge the depths. That reflection haunted me, was haunted, my hair long and flowing loose as though I'd never cut it.
A sound behind me had me twisting to see but it was too late, a thousand hands shoving and over the edge I went, sucking up water in my struggle not to drown.
Already sinking, I looked down and pulsed into a frenzy of movement; Lus was down below me, eerily calm and sinking faster than I could hope to catch.
I opened my mouth to call him, to say anything to bring him back…and he opened his eyes.
The day that should have been the end of my seclusion dawned hot, my body slick beneath my cover as I stared out at the graying sky. I'd woken early, my dreams punishing me to waking up and despair keeping me from falling back asleep.
The night before, I had drawn the symbol that should have been carved into my skin into the ground inside our dwelling, over and over until I'd finally lay down to sleep. They'd been a comfort, then, but mocked me now, my stomach turning over just to look at them.
Looking anywhere else, I took stock in our belongings, everything stored correctly and nothing out of place. No dishonor there. The fire was out and my sleep roll put away, my clothing stripped down to the basics.
I left everything behind as I set out from the village, heading to the cliffs overlooking the sea because at least there, I'd be alone.
The sun was just brightening the horizon when I finally jumped, my spirit soaring free of my body to guide me to the next plane and I welcomed it, welcomed death, until my body hit the water hard and all the breath rushed from my chest at once.
Instinct had me fighting before I remembered to let it go, my breaths gasps until I slowly let it out and began to sink, my vision going dark as I followed Lus into death.
Sharp pain shot me back, a hand cracking against my face until I gasped in and threw up water, gagging and choking even as I was rolled onto my side to facilitate my revival.
"You stupid…there was nothing for you there!"
Janil ground her words out around choked anger, thumping my ribs and breast to punctuate her meaning. Black sorrow broke me, sobs wracking my body as I came to terms that she'd pulled me from death.
There'd be no honor found in trying again.
After my tears had exhausted themselves I pushed up from where my friend sat trying to forgive herself for saving me, for destroying my one chance at joining Lus permanently. Removing my clothing, I went and sat down in the surf, half hoping my body would dissolve into the bits of foam or rough bundles of weeds from the sea that washed up along the shore.
Maybe, if I sat there long enough, my spirit would change me into a heron and I'd soar away, forgetting what it was to be human, what it was to love a human and be loved in return.
I was only half-aware of Janil's naked body sitting down next to mine, my eyes out on the horizon so I wouldn't have to look at her before I could do so without hate.
"Ayan, I'm sorry."
I didn't respond, couldn't respond, and she let the apology sit for a while before trying again.
"There remain those here who wish you to remain. Your father, he is too frail to mourn again, your brother busy with Tiin heavy with child. We don't want you drawn to the next plane. Not yet."
I should have been angry at this attempt to guilt me into living, but I only felt tired.
"I have two hearts, Janil. Two hearts, because he gave me his before I had the chance to give him my own."
I did not have to explain the significance to her, her silence telling me she knew, and I found myself repeating it to myself because the burn was more than I deserved.
Time had ceased to matter to me the day I woke naturally, the nightmares that had plagued my sleep easing into dreamless rest that had my body as close to normal as I could recall, though my mind remained an exhausted slab of despair.
Despite that, I was aware of myself for the first time in days, noting the stains and grime of my clothing, the dirt coating my skin. I was dimly ashamed of myself for allowing my hygiene to suffer so, thinking only of the distaste Lus would have felt at seeing me like this.
Sighing, I forwent a morning meal and head instead to the river, choosing a spot near where I'd bathed with my mate that last day but unable to bring myself to return and suffer the fresh memories. I scrubbed myself harshly with sand until my skin felt raw, some of the wounds on my arms breaking through their scabs to well up blood until I'd applied saliva to help induce coagulation.
The slice on my finger from the first night of our mating was now a fresh scar, the flesh lighter and more thin, my spirit pinching tight whenever I remembered its origin.
Feeling cleaner and less ashamed, I pulled myself from the water to rest upon a relatively large boulder nearby, the sun licking my bare skin with a heat that refused to reach within.
I sat there for several hours, watching the play of light against the water until my head began to ache, my eyes closed so I could watch the play against the backs of my eyelids instead. A faint breeze picked up and made me shiver, my knees pulling up to rest beneath my chin.
There was no honor in dying for my mate, now, but there was little left for me to live for anymore. My father didn't need me, Yu didn't need me. Their lives were moving on without me.
Sitting there, I mulled over an idea that had come to mind before, of leaving the tribe and heading inland.
Maybe I'd see if the stories were true, if there were really tribes out there who traveled with the seasons, roaming like deer across the land. The sea couldn't taunt me with its endless call for my spirit beneath the waves if I was too far away to hear.
Even now, I felt my name upon the wind, urgent and yet still faint.
When the call strengthened I wondered if maybe the sea really was growing bolder, freely calling me when it otherwise waited until I slept, until I realized the call was human, its purpose less encompassing.
Once I recognized the caller I grew less attentive, bitterness still within my spirit for her intervention, though I was growing closer to a time I could forgive the depths of friendship that had led her to seeking me out on a day she knew I'd be at my lowest and following me to the sea in fear of what I'd been about to do.
At my non-response, Janil closed the distance between us, rough urgency in her voice as she demanded; "Ayan!"
I ignored her and she brewed anger, her face thunderous as she interjected herself between me and where I stared at the water. With a force of effort I could not help but admire, she bit back the anger and calmed, though the urgency from before remained.
"Ayan, please dress and return with me."
"If it's Tiin, they don't need me."
She hesitated, but said, "It's Lus. They found him."
I felt sick, as though my spirit was surging to break free of my skin and leave me husked and empty upon that rock.
"Lus is dead. I don't want to see."
My voice was dull, grief rising up fresh, and I'd shed enough tears in others' presence already. I needed to be alone. She walked closer and bent to be gentle, one of her hands finding mine in that way I used to love so much about her.
"He's alive. But they don't know for how long."
Numb. I'm numb.
A foreign hand brushed tears from my face, her smile kind but edged with worry, and she pulled on me a little.
I moved without conscious thought, dressing in my inner wrap for propriety's sake but nothing else, my steps taking me closer to the one who used to be my mate.
I had to stop just outside the village proper to empty my stomach, my spirit roiling inside and making me queasy. Still, I forced myself on, half-hoping I'd make it to Lus' side too late to see him die, my spirit dying with him because this was simply too much.
Lanrian's dwelling smelt of death and disease when I entered, almost forcing me back out until I caught sight of Lus and forgot everything.
He was thin, little more than bone and skin, and covered in patches of severe sun exposure, his eyes sunken and his lips cracked. Either I made a sound or he sensed my presence, but his eyes opened, glassy with fever and half-mad with disease but alighting upon me with unerring clarity.
His lips moved and I found myself at his side, tears on my face as I touched him, convincing myself that he was real.
And knowing that I might never have another chance, I leaned close and whispered; "I had two hearts, yours and mine. But mine I give, and yours I keep."
His eyes closed and I could only hope he'd understood until one of his hands moved just enough to touch my leg, his fingers firm and familiar. I touched his hand, taking it into my own, pleased when he again opened his eyes.
"You need to live, Lus, because I don't have any more hair to lose in grieving."
He made a strangled sound I understood to be a laugh, and I pulled his hand up to my mouth, kissing his fingers and stroking a healthier bit of skin on his arm until he slipped back into unconsciousness.
It was only then I looked to the healer, silently asking Lanrian her diagnosis.
"Too soon to tell if he'll make it, but he's held on this long. I'm almost positive a fracture to his left leg happened some time ago, probably the reason he went missing. It was clean, and was set fairly well and is already healing. The rest, the dehydration and malnutrition, resulted from prolonged exposure. They found him far down the shore, they said, and almost thought him dead but that the man opened his eyes."
She let it sink in before saying, "To be honest, I'll be surprised if he lasts the night. But if he does, I see no reason why he won't return to health fairly quickly, and with little to show for it but a limp that will follow him the rest of his life. But if that's all he has, I'd count him lucky."
I nodded, swallowing thickly. "What can I do?"
Her mouth quirked; "Go home. Put on some clothes and eat something. You're looking little better, Ayan, and I mean that. Leave."
I hesitated, and she sighed. "I will send for you if anything changes."
Knowing arguing would get me nowhere, I bowed low with respect and excused myself, only belatedly embarrassed to be walking around mostly-naked.
Three days saw Lus strong enough to come home, though I was drilled endlessly by Lanrian on the proper nourishment I was to pour down his throat every chance I got. It was easy, at first, as he was too weak to refuse, and later, the pain drought left him too drugged to think about it.
I pulled a muddled story from him about what had happened, something about his leg and the river and being pulled out to sea. He insisted his spirit, the sea turtle, found him in the water and asked what he wanted most, though he couldn't remember his answer except he later found himself washed up on land and the bone set.
The look in his eyes as he silently begged me to believe him made me shiver, a chill against my neck and down my spine.
"Is the bond severed?"
The burned patches of skin were peeling, his eyes no longer sunken and some of the weight returning to his bones. The drought for pain now only made him angry and I stopped offering, dreading the return of his mind but also happier to see him more like himself, more like the man he was before.
"Ayan, are we severed?"
His voice was brittle, afraid of my answer, demanding my response even though my bitter silence was my answer.
Fingers found the neck of my shirt and tugged, pulling me closer and allowing him to see the unblemished skin where the mark of our mating should have been cut. The pain in his eyes mirrored my own, his anger melting to see the tears I couldn't hold back.
His hand moved to my hair, and then down to my arms, running over the scarring lines I'd put there in my grief, his voice breaking; "I feared to find you dead if I ever got back, that they'd tell me you sank beneath the waves when no one was watching. It's what gave me strength when I wanted nothing more than to give up and wait for you on the next plane."
"…I tried. Janil pulled me from the sea."
Those words were some of the hardest I'd ever had to say, the expression in his eyes making me feel like maybe she hadn't.
He swallowed hard but said nothing, blinking away tears until I began to sing low a song about a man who was taken alive to the plane of spirits, where he was very happy until the day he looked down and saw his mate alone and crying, her wails of sorrow piercing his happiness until he fell to his knees and caused floods of rain for all his tears. The spirits taking pity on them, the mate was eventually allowed into the plane with him and the two of them were then very happy, their job being to watch over the birth and death of the stars and their children drawing shapes we can see in the sky to help us keep track of seasons and passing of cycles.
Once I finished, he asked overly-seriously, "Did you have wails of sorrow?"
I thumped him and he smiled, silently inviting me in along his side.
Sliding into place cured an ache I'd already gotten too used to feeling, and I hoped I had many cycles before having to feel such an ache again.
Lus' steps were slow and measured, his leg still gaining strength and the healed bone fragile; despite that, his bearing was straight but for the smallest hint of a limp that would no doubt become more noticeable once he was older.
There was no shame in that, more of a badge of his will to survive, to return to me. Had he no leg at all, I would not care.
We approached Yu's dwelling and were called to enter, clasping our hands respectfully in greeting to Yu's mate, and my father who was already inside. Lus lowered himself down with stiff movements, my hand already out to complete this new ritual of ours, and I saw that he was comfortable before seating myself at his side.
Tiin was nursing my brother's first child, a girl named Gi, and she beamed when Lus presented her with a shell necklace he'd made to be passed down to Gi once she was old enough. His handiwork was always exemplary, but this one was truly beautiful; he'd had nothing but time and patience for crafting it, after all.
We exchanged pleasantries and the like before finally taking our leave so Tiin could rest, and I went through the reverse ritual of helping Lus gain his feet with some method of grace.
Father called to me just outside and I turned after silently telling Lus I'd meet him at home, his hand discreetly brushing my arm in response. After we were alone, I stood waiting for Father to speak what was on his mind.
"You are looking well," he said finally, and I nodded because it was true.
My hair was finally growing out again, and Lus no longer teased me for looking as underfed as I had before. Both of us had suffered extremes.
When he didn't elaborate further, I felt my brow pucker slightly; "Father?"
An uncharacteristic smile graced his face, one side rising further than the other; "I just wanted to look you over. I am glad you are well, that you are strong again."
I stumbled out gratitude for the sentiment but he just smiled as before, something passing between us even as he turned and head for his own dwelling.
I was slower to turn toward mine, mulling it over even as I found my fingers rising up to my mouth, tracing the path of Lus' thumb on that day not so long ago. I was thus preoccupied when I ducked inside my home and saw Lus with materials spread about for yet another necklace made of shell and bone.
"Who is that for?" I asked.
I raised an eyebrow, looking over the pieces he thought to use.
"If you're not careful, people will begin to think we mean to court her into our household."
He snorted, flashing amused eyes my direction but choosing not to grace it with further comment. I knew what he was about anyway; it was meant as thanks for saving me, in the only gesture he felt comfortable in making. I had already made a gesture of my own, a pendant woven from reeds with the symbol of her spirit prominent, given with a kiss to the side of her mouth that made her blush from head to toe and thump me with the familiarity we had shared before my mating.
"What did your father have to say?" he asked instead, and I hummed a bit noncommittally as I took a long draught of water to slake my thirst.
"He said I look well."
"You could look better."
My tone made him grin; "You could be naked."
"I could be," I agreed genially, unable to help the soft grin that spread across my face at his suggestive look.
Overly casual, I plucked at ties and pulled off layers until I was indeed naked, my cock already half-roused. The smolder in his gaze was pleasing as I walked over and lowered myself onto his lap, his hissed instruction of "Easy, easy!" making me laugh.
"That's not what you said yesterday."
He scowled, fighting the urge to kiss me and obviously already losing. He had no chance once I smiled, one side pulling up further than the other, his grumbles good-natured even as our mouths met and then parted, kissing with grown intimacy.
His fingers on my chest, tracing the blackened cut lines of our resurrected bond, had me pulling back enough to watch, my eyebrow rising in mock derision.
"You always touch mine when you know you have one exactly like it that you can rub all over."
"How can I, when you're already touching it?"
I acted surprised; "Me? I only touch yours because I can't get to mine."
"I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree."
I laughed; "Idiot."
The scent of Lus amongst our bedding was heady, the sight of him splayed out awaiting my hands and mouth visceral. We are of two minds, two hearts, and two spirits, but just one bond. When I did nothing but drink him in with my eyes, he shifted impatiently and I grinned, one side rising up further than the other.
Yeah, I guess I really am favored by the spirits.