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i am drowning (help me to breathe)

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He will remain like stone, immovable and unchanging as the waves of time pass over the land, yet the pain he inflicts will reach every corner of this world, even if it is not by the power of his spear. Memories are precious and important, yes, but how is he supposed to remember, if not even the land which he built can remember the lives he has lived and the lives he has lost?

Fantasy / Poetry
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earth, hear my plea

There is a heartbeat in the earth. It thrums alongside the cajoling of the people in the streets, beats with the passing of time and aging of men.

It is present always, does not falter nor quicken. It never stops, and just as all things have, will soon pass as nothing more than a whisper on the wind. All things have an end and a beginning, a period of time where it shall flourish and then suddenly disappear in a moment so simple it does not feel real, and this, surely, will end at some point. He knows it will be long after he has passed, but even that moment is undetermined, unknown, for he cannot erode under the hands of time. He is unchanging stone, immovable even with the ebbing of the tide and the rising of the sun.

He does not know when the heartbeat began, is not old enough to have heard its birth despite having spent five millennia walking amongst men and gods alike, despite having heard the beginning and end of thousands upon millions of hearts, all equally disruptive to the peace he has built for himself.

It sings in cacophony with the pattering of shoes and dancing of the ocean waves, beneath the stones of this city whose birth he witnessed, whose beginning he created. His steps match the beat, steady as stone and heavy as the memories of time. He watches the merchants selling to gullible hearts and ships arriving in the harbor, sailors searching for the ones that wait for their return. Time passes for these people, and as the sun sets he watches as they slowly trickle out of the streets, turning away to find the warmth of a bed and food, away from the darkness of an unforgiving sea and the silver moonlight dancing on its waves. The heartbeat does not pause for their slumber, continues on as though nothing has happened.

It cries to him and he can do nothing to ease its pain.

You have abandoned me, it accuses. The beat slams against his feet, loud and abrupt and demanding his attention. You have left me and you will not come back and I will never forgive you for it. You are all I have left and yet you have taken my trust and squandered it.

He has not left it. It is with him always, always present and always beating and always crying singing screaming

A seagull squawks against the silence of the night, startling him out of his stupor. The moon is high in the sky now, and all that remains on the streets is the smell of spices cooked when the sky was bright and the echoes of the daily bustle of these people, the money spent and money earned, items bought and items lost. The bird swims in the inky blackness of the sky, wings flapping against the still air. He watches as it flies away, stares at the bird until it becomes nothing more than a speck against the millions of stars dotting the sky. They twinkle as though acknowledging his presence, his eyes watching them as they stare back, witnessing time knit the infinite blanket of fate.

He wonders if they know of his end, if they know what mysterious beast will strike him down, when he will take his last breath on this plane before leaving in a mess of spilled blood and lost tears.

Will there be anyone to remember me?

The question is spoken softly, a whisper that carries itself through the stale air, lifting itself higher above the rolling waves and glowing lights dotting the city he created, running away to find a place where his question will be answered, though he already knows. He has lived through millennia, witnessed the passing of time so great it has warped every single piece of the land he once knew, carefully crafted underneath the hands of fate until only crumbling ruins remain of the life he once led.

Time has passed and people have forgotten and they have aged and he is losing this war against something no one can control, not even a god such as himself. He has forgotten, and no one will be there to remember what he has lost. He knows there were once several that lived by his side, several that remembered all that he did and all that he witnessed. But they are gone now, lost from his memory and this plane, and he cannot find them, will never be able to greet them once more, for they are gone and he cannot remember their faces and names and smiles.

The heartbeat takes hold of his hand.

Let’s go home, it says, and he can do nothing but follow.

~ ~ ~

His home - is it really his home? A home is the place you feel safe and secure, but he does not know if this is something he knows; if it’s something he has forgotten - is a cluttered mess of trinkets collected over the years, most of which he has forgotten the original purpose and appeal for. A small box rests atop the dresser in his room, and while he has forgotten who it was from, he still remembers her voice, one of the few memories he still has from centuries ago, when the land was still grieving from a war that had torn it apart, and the people were still growing out of the grip the gods had placed them in.

“This is my wisdom. Should you find a way to open it, all of my knowledge will be passed unto you.”

He remembers how he responded, ever the idiot he once was, before he understood humans and before he understood the meaning of life. Before he knew what it’s like to lose.

“Why would I ever need to unlock your wisdom when you are always by my side to share it with me?”

He remembers how she had laughed, but it had sounded wrong, like she was holding back tears, keeping something from him. She probably knew she would die soon; he did not, and now she is gone.

Are you still by my side, after all these years? He knows she is not, but he wishes and oh, how he wants. He wants for her to smile at him, wants for her to hold his hand and guide him through the mountains of the country they’d built together, of the land he’d changed to protect the mortals residing amongst his fellow gods. He wants her by his side again, and though he cannot remember her name, or her face, or every moment they spent together, her voice has always been there for him, a steady boulder for him to lean upon should his legs give in against the raging tides of the sea.

He swallows around the lump in his throat, slumps against his kitchen counter with a cup of tea, now ice-cold. He drinks it anyway, savors the way its flavor sticks to his tongue and stays there, a reminder of the tea now gone, of the tea he will forget about come morning. He thinks that if he were to try hard enough, he would remember, but he has always had an excellent memory, so surely these memories lost are ones he no longer needs. His country has entered a new age of men; what’s to say he cannot also be reborn?

You’ve forgotten, and I will never forgive you for it. The heartbeat pounds against his bare feet, rattles his bones and impales his lungs.

He tries to breathe in around the intrusion, but his breaths come too fast, too short, and his hands are shaking as they reach for his bedroom door, as he buries himself underneath his bed sheets as though they will offer protection from the heartbeat that never leaves, from the memories that do.

The blankets are stifling and his breaths are too warm, too suffocating. He hides anyway, and squeezes his eyes shut to block out the swimming darkness that pulls him away from the comfort of a life he once had. Of a life he is forgetting.

~ ~ ~

It is midday when he leaves his apartment, hours wasted from the day because moving feels like he is pushing leadened limbs through quicksand, because he did not have the energy to try. He is glad his job does not start until one, because there is no way he would’ve made it to work on time if it had begun when the sun rose.

Working at a funeral parlor feels like irony is crushing his throat, unforgiving bruises blossoming on his skin. He is there to provide a proper goodbye for those who have passed, to ensure their culture and heritage remains intact, that they do not pass with crimes unforgiven. It is ironic that he is there to ensure those who have died receive a funeral worthy of their memory, when he cannot remember those he once cherished, when their memory is nothing but dust and he cannot live in a way worthy of their lives.

Too often he sees ones too young, ones whose lives have been ripped away either by their own hand or by another’s, by disease or a blade. It is a cruel fate for someone so young, he thinks, but it is not his job to decide what is cruel and what is not. He hides away in his mind while preparing their funeral rites, turning a blind eye to the blood stains on their clothes or the cheekbones that protrude too much to be healthy.

If he does not look too closely, perhaps their souls will find a moment of peace, a moment where there is not someone criticizing their every breath. They do not breathe anymore, but he thinks that if they could, they would appreciate his efforts.

He writes in his neatest hand, ink curling into fancy lettering that distracts him from the obituary he writes. This one is for a young adult, barely twenty-three, who’d fallen off the roof of her home and snapped her neck. She was with her partner, who’d been stargazing with her. They had witnessed the entire event. He pities them, hopes that they can find peace during the funeral. It urges him to prepare everything perfectly, despite the raging torment of his mind and aching of his heart. This person deserves something perfect, even if he is not of the right mind to do so. He pushes himself till his neck aches and his hand cramps, and even then he does not stop until well into the night, when his shift is long over and everyone else has left to find solace in their homes.

He steps outside the parlor, inhales the crisp night air. A light breeze blows past him, seeping into his clothes and ruffling his hair, a soft caress to his troubles. The heartbeat pounds against his feet, and a ginkgo leaf lands in his hair. He brushes it away, watches the yellowing leaf fall to the ground. It is nearly winter, yet this country remains warm, the heat of standing beside a fireplace, not close enough to burn, but far enough that the cold of the season does not reach.

The night sky greets him, stars hiding behind dark clouds. It will rain soon, he thinks, and wonders if his umbrella is still in good condition. It’s hidden somewhere in his closet, but he does not have the energy to search for it tonight.

Moths dance around a lamp, light flickering when they pass under it. He has never really liked moths. They swarm the light he cherishes, the light he wishes could stay with him permanently. And they smell strange, like the remains of corpses long eroded by the steady hands of the earth and life. It reminds him of something he does not recall, of a body turning to dust in his hands, drifting away from his sobs and cries no matter how far he reaches—

He trudges past the market, past the restaurants closing for the night. He avoids the streets bustling with people, night clubs and bars still open, takes a longer route to his home, through the residential area. His apartment is in the middle of the city, far from his work, but that has never bothered him before. Long strolls through the city he so loves are calming, a reminder that the people he once watched over are capable of taking care of themselves, that they do not need him, not anymore.

Vaguely, he remembers a time where they would pray at altars designed for him, would ask for blessings and aid in their times of need. They do not do this anymore, but he does not mind. He has never been one for praise, has never been worthy of these people’s admiration, has never wanted their undying love. It is a good thing that they are forgetting him, then. They are moving into a new era, and he will follow close behind, a mother struggling to let go of her children who have left to live their own lives.

The heartbeat tugs on his sleeve, urging him to walk faster, to hurry into his home to retire for the night. He is starving.

He eats a bit of the congee he’d made Wednesday night, does not heat it up despite hating the way it tastes cold. He shivers against the breeze blowing through his windows, but does not close them.

When he goes to sleep he lays on top of the covers, savoring the way the cold leaves him shaking in his night clothes, his back warm from the blankets he lays on. The heartbeat presses itself against his side, a cold echo of something he cannot remember.

~ ~ ~

It is a Saturday. He does not work on Saturdays, despite wanting to. He has nothing to do besides work, nothing to wait for and nothing to dread doing, but his boss had refused to allow him in to work on the weekends.

“You need to take care of yourself! I can’t have my best consultant dying of exhaustion! You work hard enough as it is during the week; give yourself some time to relax.”

His boss is a very young woman, not yet twenty-five. Hu Tao had inherited the business from her grandfather, the one who’d raised her after her parents passed when she was a child. She is a very eccentric woman, too chipper for the business she runs. She treats him like an old man, does not understand just how right she is. She is the closest friend he has. There is another, someone who is much closer to him than her, but he cannot recall their name, if they are someone from long ago or if they are still alive today.

Maybe he does not need to know. The heartbeat clutches onto his bicep, refusing to let go even when he tries rolling out of the bed. He needs a shower. It warmed considerably during the early hours of the morning, leaving him sticky and uncomfortably hot when he woke.

He stumbles out of the bed eventually, trips on a book laying beside his bed, nearly falls if not for the nightstand he grips like a lifeline. The sun glares behind clouds through the billowing curtains, warm breeze wafting over him like a stifling coat.

He breathes heavily, vision swimming with every step he takes. He is crying, he realizes, but does not know why. His heart is gaping, bleeding all over the carpet and his clothes, staining them a deep scarlet. He is grieving someone, he thinks, but he cannot remember who. Maybe that’s why he is crying. Forgetting is a pain far worse than any he has felt before, and he wants to remember, but it is too hard and the heartbeat is holding onto him like he is disappearing with time. Like he is disappearing along with his memories.

It’s okay if you don’t want to remember. I won’t hate you for that.

He ponders as he showers, lathering his body in soap while he considers how important life is for him; if it’s worth anything at all. He pointedly ignores the cracks of gold that stretch across his body, porcelain shattering, a glaring reminder of what he has forgotten; of who he is. If he cannot remember then maybe all that’s left is for him to erode. Stone, while immovable, is not powerless to resist erosion, to fight against waters rising and winds blowing. Maybe that is the life he is destined for, the end to end all of the ends he has caused and the ends he has driven himself - and his loved ones - towards.

The water turns frigid. He shuts it off and watches the soapy water swim towards the drain, fighting against gravity’s pull as it falls.

~ ~ ~

He wanders the marketplace today. It is busy, as always, merchants yelling and people buying and children laughing as they eat snacks and run about, worried parents tailing them like cat to mice. The sun squeezes through the clouds, presses itself against the pavement. Humid heat waves swim amongst the crowds, a school of fish running from a fisherman’s net. Sweat clings to his nape, presses his hair against his neck and forehead. He wishes he could wear short sleeved shirts, but the gold cracking across his skin like spiderwebs is what keeps him in his smothering clothes. These people do not need a reminder of the gods that once ruled over them. They deserve more than him revealing himself for a moment’s comfort.

He hides in the shade as much as possible, though it does not offer reprieve from the stifling humidity. There is a merchant selling paper fans across the street, but he did not bring his wallet today; one less thing to worry about, and he doesn’t plan on buying anything anyway. A few people catch his gaze and smile at him. He does not know them, but gives a small wave in return. Maybe they once met at the funeral parlor, but he does not remember.

~ ~ ~

He sits beside the docks for the rest of the afternoon, feet dangling over the bright blue of the sea. If he pushed forward just a bit more, his feet would be submerged in the water, leather shoes soaking wet. He has always hated the feeling of wet socks and wet shoes sticking and squishing against his every footstep. He taps a finger against the wooden edge of the pier, counting in time to the heartbeat that pulses beneath him. He does not feel its shadow beside him today, and is grateful for the peaceful quiet.

Ships pull in and out of the harbor, sailors shouting and laughing. He spots a bird excreting on one of them, watches as she shouts in disgust and the others around her laugh. She slaps one of their arms, glares but soon falls into laughter with them, loud and harsh against the waves slapping the stone of the harbor.

The sun is fully hidden behind the clouds now, dark and foreboding as they pass through the sky. The water no longer glitters with the sunlight, but he does not mind it; the sunlight makes the murky depths a glittery gem that holds a darkness he cannot perceive. Without the sun to shine upon the water, it looks gray and dark, gloomy and threatening.

The clouds cover the sun until it has set, and only then does he move from his position by the docks, stretching his stiff muscles and hearing them pop as he walks up the steps to the deeper parts of the city, where more people are packed like sardines and street signs flicker against the pressing darkness of the sun setting and the moon rising.

The heartbeat slumps against his side as he walks through the city, whispering in his ear and screaming at the clouds and crying into his shirt. (It is his favorite, a thin, gray button-up that does not stick to his skin, even during the hottest hours of the day.) He ignores its presence, but a part of him wishes to ease its comfort, even though it is not really there, it just feels like it, even though he is alone and there is no one next to him. He sighs, presses through the crowd to his home where dinner awaits, a plate of cold noodles ready for him to eat.

The humid air cools as he walks, and soon he is no longer wishing for a fan to cool himself down. The heartbeat lingers by his side, refusing to grant him a moment more of peace.

You’ve been away long enough, my dear, it whispers. I don’t want you to forget me too.

How can he forget that which is always there? How can he forget something that has tormented - followed - him his whole life?

~ ~ ~

The kettle whistles as he eats, screams against the quiet of his small apartment. He takes it off the stove and pours himself a small cup of tea - chamomile, this time - sipping it even though his mouth cries in sharp agony, tongue tingling. His lips, cracked and raw from his nervous chewing, leave small prickles of blood against the white ceramic.

He blows softly, watches the steaming amber liquid ripple under the weight of his breath. The tea does not cool as quickly as he’d like, but he is millions of years old and patience has buried itself in his bones akin to a mole burrowing into the ground.

The heartbeat watches him drink the tea once it has cooled, stares at his face like it will reveal all the secrets he hides. It won’t. How can it, when he cannot remember them?

~ ~ ~

The moon peeks out behind the clouds when he leaves his apartment again, letting his feet guide him wherever they wish. He ends up near the harbor again, staring at boats vacant and dark, bobbing against the rising tide. He wonders why he is so drawn to this area of the city; perhaps he is waiting for someone to return. He knows it is not because of the smell; he does not like seafood, knows it is because of an incident long ago, but he cannot remember what. Maybe he fought against a giant sea monster, some type of squid perhaps. The thought makes him shudder, and he quickly expels it.

He leans against the cracking paint of a railing before the steps down to the docks, the only thing keeping him from tipping into the darkening waters below.

You are alone, the heartbeat seems to whisper, draping itself over his back like a lover, whispering in his ear like it is sharing secrets no one is supposed to know. This world will never accept you, and you only have me to turn to. So why did you forget what you’ve done?

He does not know what it speaks of, does not remember the moment it expects him to. Millennia have passed and millennia of memories reside in his mind, each one blending in with the others so roughly he cannot make out which one is of his first days of life and which are the witnesses of crumbling nations as the tides of war and time beat at them relentlessly. He tries to find the memory the heartbeat wants him to recall, but his memories dart away from his grab, fish running from a fisherman’s net.

“It’s a beautiful night, isn’t it?”

There is a stranger next to him. They lean their back against the railing, stare at him with piercing blue eyes that hold no light under the lampposts. He recognizes them. He knows them, but he cannot recall who they are, or where they first met.

“Yes, it is indeed.”

“Did you get up to anything fun these past few days? I’m sorry for not being able to join you; work gets extremely busy sometimes,” the stranger—no, it is no stranger, they know him, so he must know them, he must—laughs and it is quiet but stabs through the earth’s beating heart like a spear of the greatest power imaginable.

Do not toy with mortals, the beat whispers, and its body is so warm, so stifling against his back. Sweat prickles the nape of his neck, dripping down his spine like wax running down a candle. He wonders when his candle will run out of wax to burn. You will remain and they will die. Do not cause yourself pain unneeded, my dear.

“I apologize,” he says instead. “Have we met? I cannot recall.”

The person’s demeanor changes visibly, shoulders slumping and eyes turning into something dark and blank. “We only met on Wednesday,” they say, but he can hear the lie, can hear the sadness they are trying to hide—“My name is Ajax.” They push off the railing, turn towards him and smile. It wobbles under the force of an emotion he can do nothing to stop. He yearns to reach out and wipe away the tears they try to hide, but the shadow of memories forgotten presses against his back again, and he cannot move out of its stifling embrace.


“I’ll see you tomorrow, alright? Try not to forget me while I’m gone.” They wink, ginger curls falling into their eyes as they lower their head and turn away.

He does not give a reply, does not know how. Time passes so quickly he can do nothing to stop the memories, the moments he cannot remember floating away like leaves on the wind, like books burning to ash too quickly for him to discover the secrets they held. He reaches a hand for their coat, tries to open a page of this person’s book, one he knows he has read before yet cannot remember, but they are walking too quickly, shoulders raised and head drooping as the weight of his forgotten memories presses down on them. It is something they do not deserve to experience, and so he thinks that perhaps this mysterious heartbeat - the only thing he has never forgotten, the only thing that has remained at his side as time has passed and trees have grown and people have died - is right in one thing, at least.

He will remain like stone, immovable and unchanging as the waves of time pass over the land, yet the pain he inflicts will reach every corner of this world, even if it is not by the power of his weapon. Memories are precious and important, yes, but how is he supposed to remember, if not even the land which he built can remember the lives he has lived and the lives he has lost?

~ ~ ~

There is an old saying in his country:

Be not afraid of growing slowly. Be only afraid of standing still.

Sometimes, he wonders what it means. For all millenia of his existence, he has grown very slowly, akin to a sapling, but not once has he taken a moment to really understand what this means. He supposes that is the true meaning of the saying, to always move forward, to never pause and look behind you.

Looking into the past was once his favorite pastime, and he wonders why it no longer remains a calming experience. He has forgotten, yes, but who is to say he cannot recreate those millions of years, billions of moments and memories? Sometimes he believes that if he were to take a moment to look behind him, to gaze into the deep shadows of his past, all his memories will return like they were merely hiding, children playing hide and seek while he searches desperately for something, anything that will turn over the rock he cannot find, that will reveal the secrets he cannot perceive.

It is not so, but he tries to convince himself of it anyway. The heartbeat stays by his side, while he resides in the dirt, home again with the earth that created him so long ago. Time stretches far past what he can see, seconds and minutes and hours blurring past so quickly he cannot understand their meaning, does not notice the secrets they hold dear, songbirds singing against the raging tides of a sea he cannot see. He does not know how long he has spent in earth’s clutches, does not know how long it has been since he last saw the country he loves. The heartbeat holds him as he lays, brushes soothing hands against his body and presses cold lips against his forehead.

Rest, my dear, the heartbeat murmurs into his ear, and he does not know why, but it reminds him of something, a memory just out of reach, a forgotten dream moment echo that he cannot reach towards, buried as he is under mountains and oceans and trees and gravestones. You need not worry; you are safe.

He knows he is safe; the earth has always cared for him, has always brought him - what has it brought? He does not know, but understands its worth nonetheless - comfort and joy and aid, even when he was drowning in waves of emotions he could not control, of emotions he did not know, could not name, pulsating tides dragging him down towards the seabed like a child seeking comfort in its parent.

He knows he is not in danger. That is not what worries him, but he does not understand why he is worried in the first place. The heartbeat drapes itself over him, a blanket to keep away the cold of glittering snow falling onto the land, and he lets it take away his mind, lets his thoughts drift along the tide. There is something important he must do, he thinks, but it is so cold whenever he pushes away and tries to escape the earth from which he was born, and he is so tired, bones aching and grinding each other into dust as he erodes into nothingness.

There is no space for him to think upon his worries, but he does not wish to let them go, instead wanting to pull them closer, to tie their knots around his body tighter, to ensure they never leave him as his memories did, to make certain he is not left alone with only the earth and its heartbeat. Perhaps that is why the heartbeat longs for him to lose his worries; maybe he is the only one out of the three who has something he is waiting for, something he wanted to do before he left. They are eternal, and so is he, but he has a bleeding heart and they do not, for they are the earth and a heartbeat and heartbeats do not bleed, and the earth has no need for something so trivial.

His heart bleeds and flowing red rivers seep into the land above, spill out of mountaintops and through cracks in the seabed, molten magma that turns to hardened rock when it touches the water he so desperately tries to hide from. He is of the land, and the ocean is not kind to the land, it takes and takes and it will not rest until all that is left is drowning trees and dead bodies floating along the infinite rivers of blue, mottled and bloated like balloons. He is from the earth, and the water is going to drown him the moment he touches it. That of which he is certain. He does not remember, but he knows there was someone of the ocean he once cared for, someone who was not like the rest of the ocean-borne gods (Were they a god, or a mortal? He does not know) and monsters, who cared for him and healed his wounds and who he healed in return. It is a memory that floats atop the drowning piles of the others, the one singular, fleeting idea that he still remembers.

This heartbeat tries to help him forget. To help him be reborn, to help him forget all his past troubles and joys, pains and laughs. He does not want this, but he knows it is necessary for the earth to continue on, to live through his heart that bleeds and his mind that loses everything like a sponge squeezed too tight, water seeping through the cracks of his fingers, leaving a wet reminder of the liquid that once filled it.

He does not understand why the thought pains him so. Surely this is something he has done before, surely he is not alone in this everlasting reminder of aches that he once felt, echoes of wounds long forgotten. Surely he is not alone in his hurt. But for now, until the heartbeat has determined he is ready and the earth has decided he does not need to hide anymore, he will stay alone, bleeding out as the heartbeat holds him and the earth encases him, stone and dirt and soil digging into his sinews and flesh, ripping him apart and stitching him back together again.

He wishes so desperately to remember, to be reminded of the people he once knew, of the lives he lost and the moments shared between close friends and companions. Did he have many friends? Did he live a good life, one fulfilling the requirements of a god such as himself? Did he fail? Is this the reason why the earth has swallowed him up again? To wash away his failures and bring him forth anew, to try completing the tasks which were assigned to him once more?

Did he ever lose?

That question should be fairly obvious; of course he has. He may not remember, but he is certain that every life is full of loss, of victories and failings, triumphs and neglects. But it leaves him hesitating nonetheless. If he did lose, what was it that disappeared? Was it a life he held dear? A privilege he once loved? Maybe he is losing right now, letting the earth and its heartbeat push and pull, rip him apart and put him back together only to rip him apart once more.

Do not think such things, the heartbeat retorts. He did not know it could understand him here. I am here to help you, not ruin you. The earth shall see what you will become and it will love you once more.

He wonders why the earth has stopped loving him. What will he need to do to earn its love once more? He feels like this is wrong; this is not the way love is supposed to be. But what does he know? He does not remember and so he has no way to prove his statements and thoughts, to bring to light the truth - if it really is true, not just some wayward thought passing by his mind like a fish swimming past a coral reef.

The heartbeat pulls him away from his mind again. He lets it.

~ ~ ~

Are you ready?

He does not understand. The beat holds onto him, pulls him forward. He stumbles against the oppressive gravity of the being before him. This is the earth, he thinks in fascination. It is beautiful. It spins ever so slowly, as though the rest of the empty space in which they lay must wait patiently for its earth to make a decision that will either harm or help them. It is like standing before a god, he thinks, though he does not understand why.

He kneels before the earth, the one that created him and that destroyed him in one breath, in one simple flick of the finger.

“I am here, and I am ready,” he says but does not mean. I am scared and I want to remember but I do not know why. I do not understand why I must forget in order for you to stay happy, in order for you to love me.

The earth does not know what he thinks. It does not respond, either, but he can feel the moment its love shines upon him, bathing him in warmth and affection that he has so dearly wished for. The earth sees that he has changed and it loves him for it, but he does not understand why this change was necessary. The earth does not answer and the heartbeat does not say.

He is pressed against the ground-not-ground of the space-not-space that they reside in, sinking into the gravel that is water that is grass as the earth welcomes him into its lands once again. The heartbeat does not follow, and for a moment he wishes it would, but he is so tired, and so he lets it disappear in a shower of dust, watches as the dust lands on his face and hair. Dust trickles into his eyes, but he cannot rub it away, for the earth is taking him back and he cannot move, cannot breathe and cannot speak. It is not needed, he knows this, but mourns the loss anyway. He falls into the earth’s welcoming embrace, and dust shines in the light of its magnificence.

~ ~ ~

He opens his eyes and is greeted with the bright blue of the sky, white clouds dotting the horizon. The sun glares into his face but it is kind and he enjoys the heat that blazes across his cheeks like arrows sailing through the wind. It lands in his heart and he does not remember how he got here, where he once was, but he knows he is here because the earth has taken him in. Because the earth loves him and therefore he must live to make its love worthwhile. Dust rains into his lap when he sits up. His shirt sticks to his back from the grass covered in dew. A woman sits beside him, draped in silks that flow off her body like the clouds splattered across the sky

“Good morning,” she greets. He recognizes her voice. It shines a light into the white blankness of his mind, but he cannot hope to understand the echo of the memory her voice brings forth.

“Good morning,” he replies. He wants to say more, wants to ask if they know each other, if she recognizes him as he does her, but he knows that searching desperately through lost memories will not help him remember. He does not need them. The earth has brought him here and he is born anew (Anew from what? What was it that he once was, and why has he forgotten?) and he does not need to remember. Life ahead is all that matters now, all that will ever matter. He does not need memories in order to live like the earth has asked him to.

“Would you care for a walk? I would offer we play in the brook, but your clothes are very nice and I’d rather not see them dirtied.”

Indeed, the clothes he wears are fine, silk of the highest quality in varying shades of brown and gold, dark and bright all at once. It is rather nice, he thinks, and though stains would come out easily, he does not wish to tarnish the only thing he currently owns. He nods, stands, and the woman smiles at him.

“Do you have a name, by any chance, little one?”

He frowns. “Is a name really necessary? I was not aware such a thing was required of me.”

The woman laughs, loud and harsh against the quiet of the day. A bird sings in the distance, and another sings in reply. “Would you like me to give you a name, then? I’m quite good at names, you know.”

No, he does not know, but nods nonetheless.

She hums as she, too, stands, graceful like a crane and soft like dust. “Well then, I shall name you Morax. I am Guizhong.”

“Hello, Guizhong,” he says. She takes hold of his hand and guides them both through the grass. It is tall, nearly reaching his knees, but green and luscious and swaying in the soft breeze of the summer day.

She leads him down a barren dirt path, guides him up hills and through holes carved into mountain sides and past cliffs hanging over rivers far below, shrouded in soft clouds of mist. They pass a waterfall, glorious and loud and crashing against stones. She shows him the rainbow shining through the mist, explains the way the sunlight glints off the water and creates a colorful view. Her silks glitter against the sunlight, soft and silver like the moon. Her hair, brown like the muddy paths they jump across, shines and moves with every turn of her head, swishing back and forth when she runs through a water puddle, splashing all over him.

She laughs, and he laughs too, and it feels like he is finding something he once lost, but he cannot remember what.

It does not matter.

“I thought you wanted to keep my clothes clean,” he smiles, so big it hurts his cheeks, and kneels down, cupping water in his hands to throw at her face. She gasps when the cold water hits her bare arms and the sleeves of her dress.

“How could you!” She heaves.

He laughs, even when she kicks his leg for getting her sleeves dirty.

She races after him as he dashes into the forest they stood by, darting around trees and over bushes like a deer running from a bear, prey running from predator. It is not frightening, but his heart races and his lungs seize and his side cramps when he takes in a wrong breath.

Guizhong catches up to him quickly, pushes him into the dirt. She laughs when he falls, and he feels his lungs constrict once more when he sees her face. She looks so happy, so filled with joy, and it is something that reminds him of a memory he cannot recall, of a moment they’ve shared together before. Maybe that is this moment, one he has lived before. Maybe he has been punished by the earth to relive all of his memories for all of eternity. It would not be such a punishment, if it means he can see her smile so wide like that again.

~ ~ ~

He feels like the earth hates him, like the earth has seen the crimes he has committed to save the country he built and has decided he was unworthy of good fortune.

“Do not cry, little one,” Guizhong says.

“You are dying.”

“I will survive in your memory. I will fade into dust but you will not forget. I won’t let you.”

He shakes his head, presses his forehead into her hair, dark and mottled with blood - her blood - just so that he does not have to see the smile she holds for him. It is soft and it is kind and it does not waver under the pain she must be feeling. He hates that he is the one crying when she is the one dying. He hates that she is wrong; he has forgotten before, he has lost his memory and he cannot be certain that it will not happen again.

“That isn’t enough,” is what he says, hiding the hundreds of things he wants to say behind a thin curtain of few words and enough emotion in his voice that surely she must understand, she must

“You’ve always wanted more than anyone could give you; it’s why I love you so much.”

She does not peek behind his curtain. He swallows the lump in his throat, tries to speak around the blood and tears and grief making a home in his heart. “You don’t understand.”

She smiles again, and a few tears fall down her face. He swipes them away with a dirtied hand, smears blood and mud across her pale cheeks. “I know. I won’t ever understand what goes on in your brain, little one.”

He shakes his head, raises it from her hair and stares into her gray eyes. “Then stay so I can teach you.”

She breathes heavily, grunting in pain. The blood stains her dress like a blossoming flower, spreading to all areas of her body from the wound in her side. “I - You’ll be okay. You will push through and you will not forget but you will not grieve. Do not grieve for me. I forbid it.”

He sobs. “How can I not miss you? I have always been by your side; how am I supposed to live with you gone? How can I not grieve that which I care for?”

Already her body is disappearing, turning back into the dust which it once was. Guizhong is a goddess of dust, borne from it, and to it she shall return, nothing more than that which swirls underneath footsteps and wind and turns clear water murky. Her hair, once soft and smooth and shining, now dull and dim and everything other than what he knows it is.

Guizhong is dying in his arms, but he is a god of the land, not of the sea or life. He is not a god of healing. He cannot do anything to stop her death, but he presses his hand against her wound anyway, cries harder when she winces from the sting of dirt against her open wound. He bunches up her silk - silk that quickly turns to dust under his touch - and presses it against the wound that is disappearing, against the blood that is staining silks that are disappearing that rest atop a body that is fading into dust, against a life which he is losing.

This will be the first time he has lost someone. It is a war they are fighting, and he was stupid to expect that he would come out unscathed, stupid to think that Guizhong - a kind goddess and not one meant for battle, wise but not in the ways of bloodshed - would stay alive and by his side through it all.

“Don’t leave me,” he begs, when she is nothing more than dust in his hands, blowing away in the wind. He cannot afford to rest here; there are gods who have been waiting for a moment of his weakness since the moment this war started, but he does not move. He cannot find the energy in him to try.

Guizhong is gone. She is never coming back.

This is the first time he has lost someone. But it isn’t. He has lost before, even if he cannot remember it.

Her dust swirls away and he can only cry harder when not even her remains are there to comfort his bleeding heart.

~ ~ ~

He thinks that he might be dying. But he cannot die, not unless the earth asks it of him, or he is slain in battle. It is the price of being a child of the earth, he thinks, but that thought does not bring comfort like he wishes. Immortality is his punishment, a curse for his sins committed during the wars he fought, a poison he cannot find the cure for - has not earned the cure for. He cannot even die by his own hand, and that is a much crueler punishment than what he thinks he deserves.

“Hey, Zhongli!” Ajax is running at him. There is a new cut on their arm, covered in a messy bandage that shifts with every movement they make. Zhongli is the name he has donned now that he has stepped down from the role of god that had been placed upon him millennia ago.

“Ajax,” he greets with a nod of his head.

“Did you get anything cool today? I can’t believe you spent forty mora on fancy tea yesterday.”

He shakes his head and Ajax falls in step beside him as they walk down to the harbor. It is Ajax’s favorite spot in the whole city, because they are from overseas and have always been fascinated with the ocean. He cannot understand their adoration for the rippling waves and tides, but their bright smile reminds him that he does not care where they spend their time together.

“I’m afraid not; the market was unusually empty today, and my favorite stands were all closed.”

Ajax frowns. “Damn. I heard a lot of people are leaving the city to spend the summer up north. There’s gonna be some big festival up there or whatever.”

He hums, rests his chin in his hand while he thinks. “It is plausible. Perhaps they have had enough of the fish stench you always carry and have run away.”

Ajax laughs, loud and boisterous, sharp and fast. “Are you just going to tease me for the rest of the day? I took a shower before meeting up with you; Harbinger's honor.”

They both stop before a large ginkgo tree, surrounded by a small patch of grass still wet from the morning’s dew. He sits down and Ajax follows, resting their head on his shoulder. “I’m afraid I do not believe you. You stink of rotten carcasses.” He screws his nose in distaste, and they laugh against his coat.

“Well you always smell like ink so you don’t get to complain.”

He laughs softly. The ocean is bright and it hurts to stare at it but he does not stop looking, even though he can tell Ajax is looking at him, even though he wants to look back at their face, pale and sunken. He wonders if Ajax is dying. He does not want to think about it. He looks away from the ocean, stares at the sunlight shining onto Ajax’s face through spots in the leaves that blow in the wind. He thinks he has found a home in them, and wonders if such a notion is even possible.

~ ~ ~

The earth surely hates him. He is being punished, but he does not know why. His heart hurts and there is something in his throat and his chest aches like someone is pressing five billion pounds of brick against it, and it beats against his lungs, deep and harsh. He wants to cry out, to scream, but he cannot, and so he must suffer in silence. The waves of anguish wash over him, sink into his eyes and mouth and choke him and he can do nothing to stop them.

The earth is supposed to love him, he thinks, and wonders why it does not. It pounds against his head and slams itself into his heart and he doesn’t know what this feeling is but he does not like it, not at all. It will not leave, presses itself further into his body like it’s trying to merge into him, like it wants to take his soul and replace it with its own, shift his body until it becomes a mess that he does not own, a mess that he cannot control. He tries to breathe around its weight - heavy like gravity and harsh like arguments he cannot escape - but it does not let him. It crushes his lungs and shatters his ribcage and breaks his bones and rips into his sinews and flesh, raw and gaping and bleeding all over the floor of his apartment, rough carpet digging into his wounds and he sobs and pleads and cries when it does not listen, only presses harder, squeezes his body like it is wringing a wet rag.

It is painful and he does not understand. Why is he hurting? Why is he crying? Why is he suffering through something when he does not know what he has done to deserve it?

Ajax was sitting at his table, waiting for him to finish preparing their dinner - it was soup that he’d spent the whole day making - but he does not know if they have followed his gasping breaths and choked sobs. He wishes they would not see him like this, when he does not know why and he is certain they would worry, but he wants for them to find him, for them to help him because he cannot escape this and maybe they will be able to help.

He does not hear their voice, does not feel them touching his arms. The pressing weight of the earth he has disappointed presses harder and he cries against the floor, body shaking but he cannot stop his tremors and jerks and its hurts-

“Hey, hey, Zhongli, look at me.” Their voice is calming like the ocean on a warm day, soft tides lapping against his bloodied, mottled feet, rising up to greet the flaming inferno of his mind that warps his body and presses into his skull, crushes it, leaves his body raw and disfigured and drenched in sweat and blood and salty tears that run freely like rivers down a mountain. It is a fitting description, for a god of the land to be suffering like the land does, erosion and gravity pulling on it at all sides, changing it, taking what the earth has created and molding it to fit into an image that meets the wind and the ocean’s needs.

“Shit, uh, hey, hey, Zhongli, look at me.” Calloused palms press against his tear-stained cheeks, blood smearing across his tears. He tries to wrench open his eyes, tries to focus on their voice - quiet and soft, for once - but he cannot open his eyelids. The weight presses against his eyes, forces them further into his skull and he thinks they are going to pop if the weight does not stop. “Look at me, can you do that? Can you try to look at me?”

He feels like he is being babied, treated as a child. It is funny, he thinks, and laughs. He tries to open his eyes and finds that no heavy throbbing - like a heartbeat, he thinks - pushes against the movement. His breaths come short and fast and are drowned in his sorrow and anguish.

Ajax grants him a small, victorious smile. “There we go. Okay, uh, try taking deep breaths with me, alright?” They inhale. “In, out.” they exhale. “Just breathe with me, okay?” They look extremely out of place, and the weight presses harder and he tries to close his eyes again but they will not close, they stay wide open as Ajax’s eyes bear holes into his gaping flesh.

He breathes. He exhales, inhales, follows Ajax’s movements like a baby bird learning to fly with its mother. Ajax smiles bright and exalting when his breaths are longer, deeper, and his tears do not run so freely. The weight fights against Ajax’s glowing calm, slams against their crashing tides and cascading waves and it slowly disappears, thrown into the depths of the sea and sinking towards the bottom of the depths where it cannot reach him. The heartbeat fades out of existence, dies and falls silent.

“There, are you alright now?”

He nods, small, and feels like his limbs are so heavy, but the agonizing weight is gone and so he can only feel relief. “I apologize,” he whispers and it hurts, like sandpaper rubbing against his throat. “I did not mean to ruin the night.”

Ajax holds him close, lets him rest his forehead against their collarbone. They draw small circles into his back and it reminds him of the moments he has comforted them, and it is calming and soft. “Don’t worry about it; your well-being is far more important than this fabled soup you made. We can have it later, once I’m sure you’re okay.”

They sit on the floor of his living room and he knows Ajax has a million questions for him, questions that he cannot answer because he does not know, either. But Ajax does not press and so he is grateful that he does not have to lie. (Because if Ajax asked he would tell them everything; his past, his life, his existence would spill onto the floor of this room and he does not know if Ajax would pick up the pieces or run away. He is scared to try.)

He is not alone, Ajax is beside him, and that feels so nice, because he has been alone for so long and for so long he has desired company and now that he has it, he is afraid to let go, even though it is necessary. He is a child of the earth and Ajax is not, and they will die and he will live on because that is what is required of him, that is what the earth has demanded he do. He cannot deny the earth, because he does not want to die and he does not want to forget.

“I’ll miss you,” he whispers against Ajax's shirt, stained wet with his tears. Ajax hears him but they do not respond, only holding him tighter. Maybe they understand what he means. Maybe they just want to provide comfort to a man too exhausted to do anything but accept it. Ajax presses a hand against the back of his head, light and soft.

“I’ll be here,” they whisper.

You won’t, he thinks. You won’t be here and I’ll be all alone again.

It is dark outside, stars hidden behind clouds, dark and ominous. The soup is cold. Ajax is warm and he is left shivering in the dark shadow of something he cannot remember, an echo he wishes to hear again. The earth presses its heartbeat against his body and it is soft and it hurts and he does not understand. Maybe he is not meant to.

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