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Lev had married into a lot of things when he and Talia had exchanged signatures on the xerin book and knelt under the veil. He'd accepted her flirtatious bumping hips and her information overloads, her longing sighs and her bursts of suspicion and anxiety. He’d embraced her smiles, her odd habits, and her sweet tooth. He’d never questioned her adoration for her kingdom or her insistence on moving to the countryside or her love for simple, primary colors. The only things he’d ever wondered over were if she were alright, if she were happy, and why on all of Ephedia they’d have Iris over every couple of weekends to hide out from her people.

Time had trickled by like the sand humans had apparently enjoyed measuring it in, the years shifting and fading into each other lovingly. A few things had changed over time, like Auriana settling down with Lyna, and Carissa taking over from Carin as queen of Calix, a fiery and loving face to the previously cold mountain nation. Lyna’s elder brother had long since taken the crown, and all felt right with the courts there, especially since Maysa and Kalei had taken over ridding them of their cruel, sadistic underbelly. Izira had settled down with a husband and wife of her own, and was ruling with an iron grip and a gentle smile over Xeris. Praxina was appointed the head guard of Iris’ personal protection squadron, and Lev could tell that she enjoyed the hard work. She’d never been one to sit back and sulk, too fired up and ready at all times. The strict order and rigorous, almost clocklike action of being on the guard… it was good for her.

Especially with the ten year anniversary of her brother’s death fast approaching.

Then there was the hardest one to pinpoint. Iris.

After Mephisto died, Iris and Praxina went head to head for months. They battled and fought viciously, until the grief was too much to bear. They bonded over it then, and since the girls had been closer than ever. But where Praxina found a lover in the earthling Nathaniel- and not even Lev himself had seen that coming- Iris was alone.

She never found anyone on her old home, Earth, despite having been there for nearly fifty-four years. Likewise, there’d been no luck on Ephedia either. There was never any news through the grapevine of her accepting any of the thousands of proposals she received, from the malicious old sky captains who’d patrolled under Gramorr’s bribery, to the harmless children who asked her with flowers and big eyes after they’d fallen in love with their graceful monarch. There was no scandal to be had about her love life, no favoritism of any staff (beyond, perhaps, the feisty runician, but that was only to be expected from their history), and no hints that she even had it on her mind.

Iris did visit Earth, at first pretty often but as the years wore on slowing to just once each time Nathaniel’s birthday reared its head (though she never faulted Praxina for visiting more often, given the girl’s relationship and children with the man). Her hair grew obscenely long and her eyes got early laugh-lines stretching from the corners, her freckles spanning her body like a map of the night sky and her hands calloused from the practice with both sword and spell. All of this was realized at dinner the night of his and Talia’s ninth wedding anniversary, which was an odd date to celebrate with his friends- one of which was queen of the planet- and their children, but not an unwelcome one.

Iris had passed Ajax a bowl of fruit salad with scarred fingers, and dragged trimmed nails (still painted, an earth tradition neither she nor Praxina had parted with) through the now whitish gold locks. She’d laughed at Talia’s jokes until she cried, and she gave thoughtful opinions on every topic Tamra presented with childish simplicity and logic that neither parent could follow but that Iris was keen on. Praxina lounged next to her, hair still cropped short other than her unruly bangs- the only rule she was intent on breaking anymore- and her eyes always roaming calmly. Lev got the sense that she’d seen a lot more than he had, and part of him was ashamed to admit that his life with Talia had been so fulfilling that he didn’t envy her.

Action had never suited him, not when they were pawns under Gramorr, nor when he was a child in Rodney. And then he was left with no one else in Volta, so he turned to the Sky Captains. There he found solace with the lovely Carin Adelheim, Carissa’s older sister. There they patrolled, accompanied by various characters like Aunt Tinnie and Little Jank, until he was captured by Gramorr. Then, full circle, he remained displeased with action. Action was for someone who had no time, no patience. Action was for starving animals and furious children and boys with nothing to lose. Action, and with it the pain, ceased when he married Talia.

But it was hard not to observe their guests, to drink the wine and smile and brush knuckles with Talia, to switch between the stew Praxina had insisted on preparing (just like her father used to make) and Talia’s sweet dried meats and the array of fruits from the nearby village. Tamra and Ajax were happy just to be with family, and it was a nice night.

Afterward, Praxina volunteers to help Ajax with the dishes, and Iris plays a game with Talia, and Lev finds himself leaning over his chair in the dining room, staring blankly at the table.

“Something wrong?” Tamra asks, bumping hips with him. “Mama noticed you looking faraway at dinner and wanted to make sure you were okay.”

Lev ruffles her hair, proud that she’d noticed. “Why didn’t Mama come get me herself?”

“She said Aunt Iris was losing.”

Lev snorts. Typical. “Fair. So, she wanted you to come make sure I was alright?”

She shrugged. “Maybe not in so many words…” She offered a smile as if she’d done something she wasn’t supposed to. “Maybe I noticed it too.”

“Ah.” Lev taps her nose with his finger. “So much like Mama.”

“No, so much like me!” She puts a hand on her hip. “Mama’s not a big sister, and she doesn’t have to look after you.”

“Look after me?” Lev blinked in surprise. “Oh really, now.”

“Yes really.”

It takes another few seconds before Tam speaks again. Leaning against the chair that was normally hers, the braid on the left side of her hair coming loose, he was overcome with emotion over how beautiful she was and how happy he was with his family.

“Papa, why do you think Aunt Iris is here?”

And back to what he’d been asking himself since the Queen breezed through their front door, her overnight bag over one shoulder and Praxina just behind her.

“I don’t know, Tam.” Lev glances at her. “Do you have any theories?”

“Mmm… maybe she doesn’t like being Queen?” Tamra volunteered. “Or maybe she just doesn’t like being Queen all the time.”

“Maybe.” He shrugs. “Has she ever seemed unhappy with it to you?”

Tamra shook her head. “Well, no. But sometimes she’ll look at the backyard longingly, or spend too long touching a doorway, or she’ll smile at you and Mama when you’re not looking.”

Huh. “Well that’s kind of weird.” He offers slowly. “Maybe I should ask her about it?”

“I think you should. If you don’t, I will, and she’s not gonna tell me anything.” She props her chin up and looks at him as if were a bad thing she wouldn’t get to hear the information firsthand.

He snorts. “I’ll make sure to tell you all about it, as long as she’s alright with it.”

“Got it,” She bumps his hip with her own and heads for the doorway. “I’m going to go take over for her at that game so she can come bother you. Maybe I can win against Mama, for once. She’s too good at it…”

Lev can’t help but laugh.

She leaves the room, and his thoughts settle back to what she’d said. Iris, looking at their home like that? Looking at them like that? It could mean honestly anything, but he’d be surprised if it didn’t mean what he’d been suspecting for years, that she was unhappy where she was and escaping to their little paradise. With how often she was there, atleast once a month but sometimes twice or for as long as a week, he’d have been surprised if that wasn’t the case. And the way she’d been proud to perform the ceremony for their wedding… the way she’d drifted between tables with her hair cascading down her back and the way her dress dragged delicately over the petal-strewn floor…

But that was a long time ago, surely something had changed between the homesick seventeen-year-old shakily accepting the throne and the now twenty-eight-year-old queen likely still sitting in his living room. Surely, she’d had her worldview changed, surely, she’d grown accustomed to it all.

Surely.

But maybe not.

 

Lev glances back at the table and picks up his wineglass, slowly inspecting it. He’d been holding it when Ajax collected the dishes, so it hadn’t been collected. Likewise, across the table, Iris’ sat.

“You asked for me?”

He glances to the doorway, and there she is. The Queen of Ephedia, in a loose outfit she claimed was currently popular on Earth containing a loose tank top and large, baggy soft pants that came in tightly at the ankles, with her hair now piled on top of her head and held in place with long, thin crystal shards.

“Want some more wine?” He offers. “I have some cenberry wine, if you aren’t too tired of them.”

Iris laughs, crossing the table to pick up her own dirty glass. “Ah, no, I think I’ll pass on the cenberries.” She shakes her head. “What do you reccomend?”

“Now that would be telling. I save the best stuff, usually. But...” He reaches up to the top of the cabinet and pulls out an unopened bottle, one that must have looked rather familiar once he blew the dust off. Iris blinked at it.

“Is that the wine I had made when I first came? The wedding gift for you two?” She tapped the bottle. “I remember making this. Why not save it for a special occasion?”

“I have a bottle or three saved for those milestones with Talia, but I was thinking you might be craving a taste of home.”

Her mouth clicks shut.

Lev steels himself. “It may not be tactful, but you know me. I’m a thief at heart, not a tactful, prissy prince.”

“No, it’s fine. I…” Iris looked the bottle over, pulling it into her own hands. “I guess it’d be fine to have some. I’m guessing you want to talk, then?”

He nods, and she seems to echo the nod, only more distracted.

“You’re not in trouble, I just want to…” He made a wiggling hand motion. “You know? We’re practically in-laws, or something like that, and I still barely know you. Even despite us meeting first.”

“I guess I don’t talk much one on one with you. In the beginning it was my fault...”

“And I don’t blame you for that, but I will hold you to talking to me more often. Praxina is a great friend to me, but she doesn’t spill secrets, and I’m always a fan of Capital gossip.”

She laughed at that one. “Where do we want to talk?”

“Maybe the balcony over the garden? The night air could help.”

Iris nods once more, sharply, and pulls a smile back onto her face. “Lead the way.”

He grabs a throw blanket as he takes her into the kitchen to get out that way, knowing that the wind blew harder out in the countryside. The moon was brighter, the trees were heavier, and the air tasted sweeter, something he used to despise when working for Gramorr due to how trapped it reminded him he was.

“I can tell there’s something on your mind too.” She comments as she steps out onto the wood, bare feet on the sun-bleached planks. They’d once been dark grays and blues, now faded to pastels and softened with rain.

“So maybe the talk will be good for both of us.” Lev suggests.

“Maybe.”

She sets the wine bottle and her glass down on the little table just in front of the kitchen window, the one he’d stared out many a time while doing dishes. He’d noticed that the sink was clean by the time they came through, so he assumed Praxina and Ajax were either spectators to the game or that they’d gone to do something else. As godmother- an earth concept- to the twins, Praxina was in charge of being their best non-parent adult friend. And as often as she and Iris came, she did well at it.

He sighed as he settled into the opposite seat, pushing his own glass towards her and settling the blanket on the table between them. It’s silent for a moment as she pops the cork with magic, setting the bottle down to let it settle. And, of course, she adds a crystal ice spell to freeze the glass and hopefully chill the drink while they waited.

“Tamra notices a lot.” He opens, after the crying virras die down to the background.

“Always been an observant child.” Iris agrees.

“But that doesn’t mean I didn’t notice things too.” Lev finishes the sentence, and she glances over at him. Nothing is said though, so he continues.

“I noticed that you’re here a lot. All the time, it feels like. And it isn’t like you’re not welcome, I know Talia loves having you over and I love getting to hang out with Praxina too. It’s not like you let the rush of royalty get to your head.” He smiles and taps his temple, and she snorts at it. “But it’s still kind of weird. We don’t see Izira this much, and she lives here in Xeris. We don’t see Carissa, or Lyna, or Auriana but once or twice a year if we’re lucky, and they’re some of our closest friends too.”

“I guess that’s the hazard of all of us being princes or princesses or whatever.” Iris shook her head, fumbling with the bottom hem of her tank top.

Lev smiles. “I know that. But with that it makes your visits here stand out. Do you visit Lyna this much?”

Iris shook her head. “She usually comes to me, three or four times a year. Her kids love seeing the capital.”

“And the palace?”

“And the palace.” She rolled her eyes.

Under Iris’ guidance the magic of the castle had turned golden and warm, welcoming and stable as it closed the doors firmly on the tyranny it had escaped. He’d heard from Izira that, being a diplomat, it was as stunning and welcoming as it was towering and warning. It was a show of beauty and one of strength, a simultaneous ‘we’re happy to have you here’ and ‘don’t mistake our hospitality for weakness’. And yet, here sat the Queen, looking small and scolded, as if her tutor had caught her sneaking out. He wasn’t sure how to feel about it.

More time passed wordlessly, him gathering his thoughts and her seeming to study the garden below them. Lev’s eyes roam over it, the climbing vines with cenberries on them and the rows of mounds of dark, rich soil, fruit and sweet vegetables buried beneath and just needing a beautiful day and some kind hands to pull them out.

They didn’t need the income that was usually accompanied with gardening. Growing up, Lev had raised caddas in Rodney, the fat lizards keeping him safe and giving him money to spend. He’d always had a green thumb, always been able to make even the smallest bloom tower.

Talia joked, sometimes, that he was as good a gardener as the queen, but he never got to see her hands covered in dirt anymore. Maybe that was her fault, maybe that was his. Maybe it was just the age.

“Are you trying to figure out how to politely ask me to leave?”

He blinks. “What? No.”

“It’s fine, really. I know that we’ve never gotten along.” Iris sits up, leaning so that her elbows are on her knees and her hands clasped together between them as she stares at the garden. He can see it now, what Tamra meant. How she looked almost longing. “I know you didn’t really like me. I know that I’m just baggage for Talia, and a chance for you to see Praxina more.”

“Hey, excuse me.” Lev turned, tapping the table. “I never said any of that. Don’t put words in my mouth, princ-“

She looks at him as his mouth clicks shut.

She offers a smile. “Guess you can’t call me that anymore, can you?”

“I never really got out of that habit. Talia is still one, and it’s not like I’m in the capital enough to get used to thinking of you as high and mighty and all that.” He waves a hand in the air.

Iris snorts and holds out a hand, showing her magic circle. “Not much has actually changed.”

“Your hair’s longer.”

“And you’re getting a few gray hairs.”

He rolls his eyes.

“You make it sound like it’s a bad thing. All my hair is silver.”

“You look like a lumberjack, minus the plaid.”

“I don’t know what literally any of those words mean.” Lev points out.

Iris looks away and sighs. “Hey, do you think the wine is cold yet?”

That seemed like it was important, but all he can do in reply is pour a little into the glass, wincing a bit at the frozen glass, and sip it.

“Mmm… yes, it should be fine. And Iris, what was in the wine again?”

She studied the bottle one last time before she poured herself some, though she nearly filled the glass rather than just to the typical amount. He had a feeling this bottle wouldn’t survive the night.

“Strawberries from a farm in Sunny Bay, blackberries from Nathaniel’s mothers garden, and some grapefruits from the tree I’ve been taking care of since I was five.” She lifts the glass and holds it out, clinking it gently against his and offering a smile. “I guess your comment about a taste of home wasn’t too far off.”

He pours himself a glass, a bit taller than the amount he’d typically go for but probably necessary in the face of her tone. “I guess so.”

He sips some more, and she does the same. There’s a quiet moment again.

A bird lands in front of them, swollen fat and craning its neck to see what they have in their hands. He sees the familiar bright yellow underbelly and rolls his eyes, waving his foot at it to make it back up a few hops.

“Is it supposed to be that color?” Iris asked.

“No, the kids were practicing some color changing spells on some big pieces of K.V. cloth and Tamra missed. We tried to fix the bird’s feathers, but…” He tapped the bird on the beak with his big toe, and it squawked at him, pecking his foot in return. “It didn’t work and the bird now thinks we actually like it.”

Iris stares at him for a full few seconds after he finishes speaking.

“What?”

She shakes her head, smiling as she takes another sip of the wine. “Nothing, nothing.”

Lev groans. “What, are you going to make fun of me for it? Atleast joke at Talia first, she’s the one who pointed out the bird.”

Iris couldn’t help but laugh at that, and Lev would admit that it took some stress off from his apparent earlier blunder.

“How long ago was this?”

He sighs. “A few months.”

She shakes her head, draining another long sip.

“So, do you mind if I pry?” He asks. “I know you probably don’t want to talk about it, but I do want to make sure you’re okay. You don’t actually think that I don’t like you, right?” He asks.

That gets her to set the wine down, settle back into the seat, and pull the crystal rods from her hair. When she sets them down they dissolve, confirming that they were made of her magic. Her hair sinks in waves down to hang over the back of the chair and to pool in her lap, providing something for her fingers to comb through.

“Iris…?”

She shrugs. “Oh, I don't know. The whole thing was confusing. I was busy with everything else- with the band, remember that? And fighting the twins, then fighting Praxina. And you and Talia fell in love before anybody even knew, and suddenly you both were so far away and happy. And we never really talked again, and now I'm Queen.”

He groans. “Do you really think I would have let you officiate my wedding if I didn’t like you? That I would have let you keep coming into this house, that I would have took my own ass to the palace every few months just to sit at a big dinner and not be allowed to goof off with my wife, if I didn’t like you?”

“That isn’t a very comforting list of things.” She offers.

“Iris. Sure, I didn’t get to personally come up to you and apologize for tricking you in the castle, or for fighting against everyone, or for lying and hiding on earth and- and whatever else. But klatznik, I thought I didn’t have to.”

Her shoulders sag a bit before she leans forward again, then she gives up on sitting altogether and stands to lean against the balcony railing. A few vines had managed to wrap around and bloom facing her, and he sees her poke one. “You didn’t. You don’t. I just…”

“You just what?” He stands, taking his wine with him to lean against the railing by her. Her hair has gotten much too long, brushing her ankles and looking impossible. She’d grown up to look so much like her mother, and he remembers the bitter gratitude he’d had when the former Queen pardoned him of his ‘crimes’ prior to Iris’ dethroning of Gramorr and ending the tyranny. “I’m clearly not understanding what you mean.”

“I just wish that we’d gotten a chance to become friends.” Iris looks at him, and he can see her deflate a bit with the information. “Before you married Talia, I always thought that I’d get a chance to be your friend. You and Praxina and… fought us so hard before everything, but in the end when you were finally on the same side as me… there was never any time. It’s not like I had time to get out and hang out anymore, it’s not like I was able to just come over.”

“I thought we were friends.” He replied softly.

Iris shut her eyes. “What’s my favorite color?”

“Uh… I don’t know? Pink?”

“What’s my favorite food?”

“Straw… berries?”

She nodded. “Point made. We don’t talk, ever. How are we supposed to be friends if we don’t talk?”

She had made her point.

“It’s hard to talk to you. Half the time you’re with the kids, the other half you’re just sort of silently staring into space. I don’t want to bother you.” And he knows that’s an excuse, but it’s true.

“Did you ever think that maybe I was waiting for someone to come up and bother me? It’s not like I come out here to be alone.” Iris waved at the garden. “I’m plenty alone in my own damn palace.”

“Is that your issue then? You’re lonely?” Lev wishes he knew how to navigate these winds. The breeze had picked up as her tone got more frustrated, and he knew that even if she didn’t sense it, the magic laden in the world around them could.

Iris closed her eyes again and leaned more heavily onto the railing. “That’s not what I said.”

“You just said that. Literally, ‘I’m plenty alone in my own damn palace’.” He quotes. “What else was I supposed to get from that?”

“I don’t know.” She turns and presses her back to the railing, reaching out towards her glass and using a sliver of crystal to carry the wine to her. She moves it too fast though, and it spills down her hand and drips onto the wood. Part of him wonders if it will stain, but the rest just wonders how he’s supposed to take this. Obviously, she had issues, whether it was him or not though was a complete mystery.

“You know how you and Talia always play the same board games when you're over?” He finally offers.

Iris looks at him. “What about it?”

“Do you want to know how I win?”

“You can beat her? Master xerin strategist, and whatever?”

“Yeah. Do you want to know?”

“Sure.”

“I play it for fun. I don't win all the time, and we don't let it bug us. It's just… a game.”

“And you're acting as if that's not what I'm doing.”

Lev shrugs.

“And what about if I were going against you?”

“You’ve never asked to play against me.”

Iris finished off the last of the wine in her glass. “Because you’re always too busy when I’m here.”

“Touché, I guess.” He offers a smile and finishes his own glass.

“Lev…” She looks over at the bottle on the table. “Can I ask you something? It’s been on my mind all night.”

Well, atleast he was making strides somehow. “Of course.”

“We both know that I’m not having much luck in the romance department.”

He snorted. That was an understatement. The queen had never, despite her message of love, been that great at it. She didn’t have a lot of there-there, he could tell. Maybe she’d been better at it on her planet- and wasn’t that odd, to have a leader with dual citizenship- but here, she found no one.

“You don’t have to laugh at me.” She snaps.

“Sorry, pr- Iris.”

She doesn’t comment on that slipup.

“If I still can’t find anyone in a few years time, do you think maybe… oh it sounds like a terrible idea, now that I’m about to say it.”

“Just spit it out.”

“If you and Talia allow it, maybe one of the twins could train to be the next ruler of ephedia.” She turned to look at him over her shoulder.

“Huh.” The incredulousness of the idea delays the rush of anger. “So you’re the one to finally kill the reign of the Melzors.”

She looks confused, so he continues.

“You already knew about your heritage, princess, don’t play dumb. Halphas, last line of blood Melzors. Still powerful and power hungry, and still in charge.” Lev pours more wine into his glass. “And you’ll right end that, the first chance you get there.”

“I think that’s out of line. I’m not killing the family line, I just-”

“Are looking for a way out. No, it’s fine, I get it. Just don’t drag me into it.” He stands, swirling the liquid in his glass. “Or my kids.”

She bites her tongue, staring at him.

“What, you want to say something?” His eyebrows rise. “I thought you were asking my permission, and I’ve said no. I won’t even think about it. Even if you ask me in the future I’ll say no then, too. It's not that I don't trust you with them, or that you're a bad person, it's the principle. You get that?”

Iris sets her jaw, but he can tell that it's clicking. She looks away.

“Yeah. I'm not trying to force you, or whatever. It was a thought.”

“It's alright, princess.” He's shameless in the title. “You can be wrong sometimes, too.”

There’s a heavy silence for a moment. He glances her direction again.

“Does Praxina approve?”

“Praxina… She doesn’t hate it.” Iris shrugged, but sighed anyways. “And I know it’s not a great idea. But I’m- well, that’s a lie.” She laughs weakly, catching some of her hair to play with. “It’s less that I’m not finding anyone I want to be with, and more that I’m just not looking.”

“What, find your dream fiancee a million years ago and lose them?” His eyebrows rise.

“Before he died, Mephisto and I were…”

She hasn’t even finished her sentence yet, and Lev already feels a punch in the gut. Wow. He really has no tact.

“Were you two a thing?”

“Not quite, but we were getting there. Or something. He kissed me on a beach, once.” She glanced at him out of the corner of her eyes. “I still can’t stop thinking about it, and it’s been ten years. And everything I know always says that when you’re grieving, eventually you feel better. Well, I don’t. It’s not fair.”

Lev reaches towards her, touching her elbow gently. “I’m sorry I pushed.”

“No, don’t be. I came here, and I drank your wine and I asked you if I could borrow your kids because I’m too hung up on my best friend’s dead brother to even consider anyone else.” Iris turns on her heel, stalking towards the wine bottle. She pours another glass, right up to the brim, and he wonders if she drinks like that in her high golden castle, back in the Capital proper.

She knocks half of it back.

He feels his stomach flip.

The back-door creaks open, Praxina stepping out. “Bad time?”

Neither Lev nor Iris have the heart to speak, and Praxina raises her eyebrows and awkwardly nods as she moves to sit down, her glass of cider buzzing with heat and sending some steam into the chilly air. “So, I’m going to assume that Iris asked about the thing.”

Lev rolled his eyes and walked over to the table to set his glass down. “Yeah. And you know about it. And I said something super dumb too.”

“Yes, I do.” Praxina sips the hot liquid, then raises her eyebrows. “And what the hell did you say?”

“Not repeating it. Did you think it was a good idea?”

“It’s something.”

“It really, really isn’t.” Lev rolls his eyes. “Don’t pretend like you actually support it, Prax.”

Praxina looks over at Iris, blowing on the cider with her eyebrows raised. “I told you that you should’ve brought it up to Talia first.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up at all.” Iris retorted, knocking the rest of her glass back. She’s probably bitter about having to bring up Mephisto, but Lev can’t blame her. It looks like she’s mad at him for saying no. Part of him wonders why he’s finally getting to see them be honest with each other now.

“What, and wait another ten years?” Lev rolled his eyes, heading for the wine as well. He deserved more of it, too. Praxina stays with her cider in her hands, and Iris stands beside him as he tops them both off. “Like that was gonna do you any good, Princess.”

“Maybe it would’ve. Or maybe I’d find someone.”

“Un-likely~” Praxina sing-songs beneath them. “You have way too many personal problems for that, Iris.”

Iris rolls her eyes. “You’re so mean to me. Why do I put up with you again?” She downs more of the wine.

Praxina cackles, kicking her leg out to rest her cold, manicured toes against the Queen’s fabric-covered thigh. “Because I’m the only one who can put up with you, too. You’re so annoying when you’re drunk.”

Iris swatted at her foot, pressing her lips together in a pout.

Lev can’t help but laugh, shoulders shaking.

This was nice.

Iris sighed loudly, glancing over him with her trademark baby blues. “I’m going back inside.”

The door shuts before he lets himself look back to Praxina.

“Now, honesty hour.” The runician grinned meanly. “Sit, sit.”

He nearly flops into the chair, leaning over to grab the blanket and tug it over his thighs.

“I remember when you used to be on my side.” He pointed out.

“And I remember when you were an annoying thief who I only hardly tolerated.” She sipped on her cider, eyes narrowed smugly.

“God you’re annoying when you’re right.”

 

She leaned towards him, ruffling his hair with too-warm fingers. “Whatever.”

He snorted. “But… you don’t really support that idea, right?” Lev hated how much it was bugging him

She sighed. “I don’t know. I’m always up for seeing your adorable little spawn,” she pinched his cheek, nearly killing his concentration. “And I know that they’ve got enough of you and Talia in them to make them want to take on the challenge. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, or that Iris is a good teacher, or that they’d enjoy it.”

Lev sighed in relief. “So you understand? Why I don’t want her to do it, I mean. Why I’m terrified.”

She rubbed his shoulder. “She’s scared too. She doesn’t have a legacy, just the scraps after a civil war. And she’s sad.”

“She has the palace. She has you.”

Praxina shrugged. “Would you be happy if that was all you had?”

Lev looked at her sharply. “I was happy when I had nothing. Or maybe I wasn’t, but I made it work.”

“And you told her no, so she’s not going to do it. You need to calm down, Hellenez.”

His breath catches. He remembers with a warm, fuzzy feeling, that he had taken Talia’s last name.

He smiles softly.

The wind whistles around them, starting to pick up a bit. Maybe it’s a good thing Iris went inside, the capital never got this cold. It was a near paradise, a magical bubble of mostly good weather. Even the rainstorms there were melodic and comforting, promising a better day tomorrow. In the countryside it was less like that, the weather less predictable but more relaxing nevertheless. Garden got uprooted from the storm? Make a weekend of it, invite the neighbors. Need to repair the house in case something crashes into it? Turn it into a lesson with the children. It was just something that happened, part of the day to day.

The air began to smell like rain and he paused to turn his face to the sky, letting the mist of an eventual shower calm him. Then he turned, offering a real smile. “Ready to go in? I think we’ve used up all our luck just keeping the storm from coming.”

Praxina nodded. “Yeah, me too.”

Lev casts one last look to the garden and the sky as the wind comes harder, what had started as a clear night now darkened with thick, rolling clouds and the threat of rain. He breathes in deeper, tasting the cenberries on the breeze along with the static of lightning about to begin, and closes the door behind them.

The house is mostly dark by now, the game probably ended and Tamra likely in bed. That or she was practicing spells in her room, but he wouldn’t know unless he bugged her, and he wasn’t in the mood to do that.

Ajax is still up, sitting on the counter in the kitchen with a cup of cider himself and an open book. Lev ruffled his hair and offered his son a smile as he rests next to the sink for a moment.

“Get some sleep, okay?”

Ajax hums, Praxina hopping up on the counter across from him. “We’ll see about that, zebena.”

Ajax snorts and pokes his dad with his bare foot, Lev can’t help but smile.

This was his life.

Why did it suddenly feel like it was all ending? Despite the assurances otherwise, even the question had left a bad taste in his mouth and stress weighing down on his shoulders.

The trek to his and Talia’s room is a long one… he didn’t think he could handle bumping into Iris again tonight. He suddenly remembers that he forgot to get the wine from outside, but he decides that it wouldn’t be a waste if the whole thing got washed out. It was a gift, but he’d never been the grateful type.

He stops by the bathroom first to wash out his mouth, trying not to look in the mirror either. Too much felt fresh and new right now, reopened wounds from things he didn’t want to think about right alongside ancient issues he didn’t even realize he had. The sudden backwash of fear that he’d be abandoning his children to a life as monarchs, when he himself had never made it off the streets? He didn’t want to think of it. He often thought of his life in terms of that- chapters. First he was alone, then he was a sky pirate, then he worked with Gramorr, and now he was married happily.

His eyes catch their pairs in the glass, and he takes a deep breath.

No point in moping, he was much too old for that. He might as well just go to bed and let his wife cheer him up.

Actually… He finds his reflection smiling softly, the mere thought of Talia brightening his mood a bit. Yeah, that was what usually brought him back whenever he started thinking himself into a box. She’d pet his hair and talk to him, maybe tell him a story or just talk out his problems, and it would work. She was good for him, and he wasn’t sure why it hadn’t occurred to him earlier to just escape to her side.

He splashes some water in his face and rubs it off with the towel, running a hand through his hair, leaving the bathroom as the patter of rain begins outside. Good timing. He’d find time to lament the loss of the wine yesterday, for now he was just glad that it wasn’t killing his tastebuds.

The light in their room is still on, and when he finally gets inside she’s brushing her hair absentmindedly in front of the mirror. She hums at him when the door closes, but he doesn’t find any words.

Talia had changed over the years too, but not much.

Her hips were still perfect for slotting his hands onto, her hair still the gorgeous shade of teal that he’d come to associate with warmth and home. Her hands, shaped for holding books and scepters, fall to cover his as he comes to inhabit the space behind her. Her hair had never quite grown out, either. He didn’t miss it for anything, especially when she’d let him sit and comb it out, peppering her bare shoulders with kisses and figuring out each ticklish spot again and again.

Her eyes are hidden by her bangs right now but he knows that the clear honey-gold shines through to brighten his dreams when they drift too far from thoughts of her, and her smile at seeing him through the mirror washes over him like a fresh breeze.

He buries his nose into her neck, seeking comfort and cuddles. “Zebetta, missed you.” he mumbles.

“How are you feeling?” She reaches back to pull her hair into a loose bun, unfazed by the face in her shoulder. “How did your talk with Iris go?”

Lev groans.

“Want to talk about it?”

That was what he’d wanted but at the same time his gut reaction to having to talk about it is another, louder groan. She tuts at him and turns to catch his face in her hands, a worried frown on her face. “Debe, talk to me. What’s been bothering Iris? Is something bothering you?”

He bit his lip as he met her eyes, unable to look away from them. He’d always liked honey and gold when he was growing up, but nothing could compare to how pretty her eyes were. Then the dark lashes surrounding them and the barely-there creases at the corner of her eyes, laughter lines… he loved this woman so much.

“I’m scared.” It fell from his lips before anything that made sense could, and he winced at it. It sounded stupid coming out of his face like that.

“Explain?”

Lev lifted his own hand to cup hers against his cheek, sighing. He remembers the tear-filled night the eve of Izira’s coronation, when Talia cried into his shoulder about her stolen childhood. He remembers petting her hair and murmuring that he knew and slowly filing the information away for later, back when they were still learning every line of each other, back when they still felt new.

“She asked if one of them could be the heir to the Ephedian throne. I said no, but it’s… Still freaking me out. That she even thought of it, you know?”

“Iris is lonely.” Talia rubbed at his cheeks, her hands nothing but warmth and comfort against his skin. If he wasn’t careful he’d catch a fever. “But she’s not going to go against our wishes.”

“She spoke to you about it too?”

Talia nodded slowly. “After she came inside, I caught her in the hall. It’s… a complicated thing to think about. If it was later, if she was older, perhaps my answer would be different. But there’s still time. And there’s still you, love.”

Lev blinked slowly. “What does that mean? If she was older?”

“Well.” Talia moved her hands to rest them in his. “It would be an honor to serve the throne like that. I can’t even deny it, Lev. Imagine getting to help bring about the next Ephedian era…”

His heart pauses beating.

She smiles sadly. “But I don’t think I actually want that.”

He’s immeasurably relieved. “Oh?”

“I’d do anything to serve my Queen and the crown she bears. But she doesn’t need that service, so I feel no guilt withholding it. She’ll find someone, or some other Melzor will turn up.”

“You’re really acting like this is just a question of serving the crown or not?”

Talia shrugged. “I know it’s not, but it’s easiest sometimes. Besides, staying focused reminds me that I’m… not Izira. I’m still me, and I’m the one who fought with the Lost Princess against Gramorr, and I’m the one who came out on top, and I’m the one who’s happily retired.”

He shook his head. “She’s just obsessed with Mephisto, still. That’s all it is.”

Talia stared at him.

He should not have said that.

She pulled him towards the bed, sitting down heavily. “Okay, run that by me again.”

“She blames herself for his death and she’s still obsessed with him.” It comes spilling out easily. “She keeps turning down proposals and not giving anyone any chances with her because they kissed on a beach or whatever, and klatznik, I’m not impressed. It’s not some epic love story, it’s a tragedy. They kissed and he died and now she’s the Queen.” He shook his head. “I respect Praxina, but the fact that she hasn’t slapped Iris into some sense is ridiculous.”

“Debe, what if it was us?” Talia offers slowly.

“Then I’d have wanted you to move on and find someone to make you happy.” He leans forward, kissing her quickly. “I’d have wanted you to live your life, not be waiting for something that won’t happen.”

Talia lifts her hands and cups his face again. “Oh, Lev.”

He presses their foreheads together. “If she’s going to find someone for herself, then she’d better hurry up. Because we have our happily ever after.”

Talia snickers. “More than just a happily ever after.”

She slides a hand under his shirt to cup his hip, and he steals another kiss. Lev pushes all his fears and thoughts of anyone else out of his mind and pulls his wife to rest on his chest, tracing a line from her collarbone to the dip of her navel. “Want to stop talking?” He whispers.

She steals another kiss like the breath from his lungs, answer enough.

~

On the other side of the house, Iris was in the library.

“So, what are you doing?”

She jumps, clutching her chest.

Tamra always had been good on sneaking up on people. She grins to herself, stepping further in. “Come on, talk to me. I know Dad went to talk to you earlier.”

Iris stared at the younger girl.

She didn’t have a problem with kids. She never had. Maybe it was just this one specific kid who got on her nerves.

Iris flashed a nervous smile. “Ah, that was personal.”

“Yeah, and?” Tamra rolled her eyes. “Lots of stuff is personal.”

“Personal as in grown-up business.”

“Grown-up business is just a made up term for saying you don’t want to explain it.”

“Well maybe someone was onto something when they invented it?”

Tamra didn’t bite. “Spill.”

Iris groaned, moving to collapse on the chaise dramatically. Her hair spills down, towards the carpet.

She’d thought her hair would stay pinkish on the planet, but it was much more of a white-gold. And she already had callouses and wrinkles in spades. She felt like her Aunt Ellen.

Tamra starts moving the hair out of the way so she can sit next to the drama-queen. “Well?”

“Fine. Your daddy wanted to know why I was here. And my secret is that I’m lonely.” Iris peeked at the girl. “Are you happy now?”

“Not yet. Is the castle secretly an ice palace?”

“God, did someone let you watch Frozen?”

“What’s that?”

“Nothing, nothing.” Iris pressed her face back into the pillow. “It’s nothing, duh.”

“Whatever.” Tamra starts braiding thick chunks of white-gold hair. “What else did you talk to my dad about?”

“You're relentless.”

“And you want to talk about it.”

“Do not!” Since when did she let eight year olds tell her how she felt?

True answer: she didn't. This was just a particularly pushy eight year old.

“Don't lie to yourself. Let it all out!”

“I really don't think you're in a position to tell me what to do, Tam.”

“Well, no, but. There's lots that you have to do. So why not just tell me and get it over with?”

Iris hummed, feeling the soft tugging on her hair.

“Fine.”

She was about to continue, when there was a sudden bright light coming through the window. Iris sat up, one arm hooking around Tamra's waist to hide her behind herself. The girl yelps and clings.

One thing Iris hated about xerin glass was that it was thick and wavy, textured with the heat and weight of a hundreds-of-years-old pattern piece. It was not good for seeing through.

“Tamra,” She hisses quietly, “If I tell you to stay, will you?”

The girl shakes her head vigorously. Of course, that was her luck.

“Climb onto my back, now.” She might as well do this smartly, then. Once the eight year old has her arms wrapped around Iris’ neck and legs around her middle, she pauses.

“Is there an immediate way to this side of the house?”

“A door, through the hallway…” Tamra whispers back.

Iris nods.

She moves slowly, feet padding over the hardwood floors silently. She should have put shoes on, especially from how on edge the conversation with Lev made her, but she doesn't have the time.

Her mind races.

She whispers a spell of protection and stomps as she crosses the threshold of the hallway into the cold night. A line of pink magic glows across the doorway, and Iris feels a buzzing inside herself.

Tamra gasps and clings closer.

Outside, everything has gone dark again. The wind whips around them, blowing both of the girl's hair out of the way. It's freezing, and Iris can't wait to be done with this.

What could it be?

Was there some rogue sky pirate crew, prowling through the skies and attacking them? Or maybe Gramorr was inexplicably returned…

The darkness creeps and claws in closer. Iris’ heart beats harder.

“Crysta luxtra!” She shouts, and the side of the house explodes in light.

There's colors she'd never even seen before, exploding like fireworks. It's roaring in her ears, but she can still hear Tamra screaming as she clings closer.

In the heart of it, Iris sees it. A portal.

Likely, it had reacted poorly to her magic, or her magic overreacted from fear. Nevertheless she raises her hand and flattens her palm towards the portal, towards the emerging, glowing figure.

“Chrystem reveles!”

The world returns to pitch black, darker than before. Iris sets her jaw and remains put, willing sight to return.

The figure was still glowing. They had collapsed against the barrage, but now they get up again.

Iris drops to one knee. “Crysta decipula!”

A rose colored crystal cage erupts around the figure.

The world returns to normal.

Tamra had hidden her face, but as everything calms, they both realize what they're looking at.

Iris steps forward.

The figure wheezes, shifting to look up at her.

She can feel his dark green eyes.

“Aunt Iris?” Tamra whispers. She's shaking.

“Who's that man?”