Orange threatens to bloom at the edge of the inky sky as dawn announces its arrival on the horizon. The commotion of soldiers bustling around the camp making last-minute weapon checks and saddling horses sound from outside of the tent, but its inhabitants pay no heed to the ruckus. The empress and her general have just finished reviewing the battle strategy, now descending into silence on opposite ends of the low table. Millions of words remain unsaid between them—and they likely never will be heard—but both opt to watch the orange and yellow mar the night sky through a slit between the entrance flaps with the embroidered falcons.
They both know it may very well be the last sunrise they will witness.
When almost all traces of nighttime have been wiped away, Axel breaks the silence. “I should go get ready.” He moves to stand up, but Lexa raises a hand, halting his motions.
“This is it, isn’t it?” Lexa asks rhetorically, still staring outside, where men hurry back and forth amidst the shouting. Axel doesn’t answer, aware that they both know they won’t stand a chance against the enemy forces. Their troops have barely recovered from the last attack, and their numbers have rapidly declined since then. The strategy they’ve devised will only serve to delay their inevitable ends.
“Yeah,” Axel agrees softly, knowing Lexa will want to hear a reply. There’s nothing else he can say though, neither of them being one for false hope nor unrealistic promises.
When the tent is once again permeated by silence, Axel takes that as his cue and stands, already moving for the exit when Lexa speaks up.
The addressed man whips his head back, shocked by his name on the empress’ lips that he hasn’t heard for years now, hasn’t heard since Lexa claimed the throne and “general” became the only title for him.
Lexa looks at him with crinkled eyes and a sunny smile, a genuine expression saved only for moments between the two of them. It’s a sight few, or perhaps even none other than Axel, get to see on the empress, who greets everyone with sharp, cunning eyes and vicious grin when she’s seated on the throne.
“See you later,” the empress says. No, Axel thinks, it’s not a statement.
Those are words with thirty years of whispered nothings and tentative touches woven intricately together, laced with a single thread of red with two hearts on each end. Words with layers of unexpressed emotions and desires, left to be explored in another life. Words that are passionate vows to find each other again in their next adventure.
Axel pulls back the tent flap and looks back with the slightest trace of a smile. “Yeah. See you later.”
Lexa stays hidden in the beams of the roof structure, carefully observing her target: the daimyo of Echigo Province. Her plan for the next few days is to track the man’s movements—having never been to this part of Japan—before deciding the prime time to carry out the assassination. She normally wouldn’t accept a job that requires her to travel far, but the pay is double what she typically receives, and her mother needs the money for treatment.
As she watches the daimyo enter the courtyard of his house, Lexa tries to recall anything the daimyo of her home province, the one who hired her, had said about this assassination target. She realizes she doesn’t know much aside from this man’s address and how he’s exceptionally persistent and successful, to the point where he’s becoming a threat to other daimyos.
After a few hours of observing through the windows and cracks, Lexa finally has the chance to catch the man’s face. Dark, tousled hair with sharp eyes and handsome features…
The kunoichi can’t help but gasp when she recognizes the face.
Unfortunately, the slip-up catches the daimyo’s attention, who draws a katana and surveys the area, firmly bellowing, “Who’s there?”
Lexa decides she has no choice but to show herself if she doesn’t want an entire army of samurai alerted and showing up. She skillfully drops herself through the window and lands silently with the fluidity and grace of a crane while pulling her mask off. As soon as she takes a step forward, the tip of the blade is shoved a mere inch from her throat, a look of fierce determination painting the daimyo’s features before slacking into surprise.
“You…” Axel whispers, staring hard at the woman standing in front of him. It’s a face that lives in many of his childhood memories— sneaking off together to run in the woods, afternoons of chatting about everything and nothing, and countless more. He hasn’t seen those black curls and wide eyes since he had journeyed to Echigo to learn the way of the samurai before rising through the ranks to a warlord, and Lexa had remained behind.
His eyes land on a strip of crimson hidden in Lexa’s hair, a ribbon that evokes the silky smooth feeling of tying the piece of fabric into the girl’s hair when they were six years old, and his heart tightens. The sight is so familiar, it’s almost as if nothing has changed since their childhood days—except, it has.
“Axel,” Lexa greets, surrendering her two hands upwards to indicate she means no harm. She doesn’t know if Axel has changed, doesn’t know if he’ll just slice her apart without another warning, but she most definitely does not want to be the one to spill blood, not Axel’s. “Long time no see, huh?”
“Lexa. What are you doing here?” Axel seems to have recovered from the initial shock and slides the katana back into its sheath. He eyes his childhood friend’s outfit, taking in the pitch-black material and mask, realization dawning on him. “You’re here to kill me.”
Still, he makes no move to retrieve his weapon, instead watching Lexa for affirmation.
“Yes,” Lexa admits with a sigh. “One of the other warlords hired me. Listen, Axel, you have to go.”
“What, I can’t just—”
“No, even if I fail my mission, they’ll just send another one to finish you off,” Lexa states, gaze steadfast, before softening her tone. “You have to go, or they’ll kill you.”
“Lexa…” Axel gapes at her. “What about you?”
“I’ll be fine. I can just tell the lord I was ambushed or that your protection is too strong.”
The two face each other, seven years of wistfulness and longing tangible in the air. Lexa’s heart aches to reach out to the other, to bask in the warmth of Axel’s touch and quiet affection. She doesn’t understand why this attraction to the other boy has never faded, even with the years of distance and separation, why Axel remains permanently etched into some part of her heart. All she knows is she’ll give up the reward money that their family needs so desperately if it means not having to slaughter Axel, her childhood best friend.
And the only person in the world, aside from her family, she’ll never be able to kill.
“I understand,” Axel finally says, breaking them out of the moment. Lexa nods, ready to turn and leave through the window because she can’t bear the agony of being in such close proximity to her childhood friend, the halcyon days and years of yearning crashing back into her.
Axel’s hoarse voice stops her in her tracks.
“I’ve missed you, you know.”
A single tear threatens to spill from Lexa’s left eye.
“I’ve missed you too,” the girl returns before leaping out the window, disappearing into the restful night without a glance back.
“Say, Lexa, do you believe in reincarnation?”
The two children are hanging out in the afternoon summer heat in Axel’s backyard, the girl following a fluttering butterfly with acute interest, and the boy sprawled out on the grass.
“Dummy, reincarnation!” Axel repeats proudly, obviously delighted to know something his best friend doesn’t.
“Don’t act all high and mighty,” Lexa berates with a frown. “You only learned that word today, didn’t you?”
Sheepishly grinning, the boy admits, “Yeah. Sis was watching a TV show and explained to me what was happening. She said the main character kept meeting the same boy over and over again because they reincarnated!”
Lexa’s frown remains in place. “What does that mean?”
“It means that after they die, they’re reborn in another body,” Axel explains, closing his eyes to appreciate the feeling of soft grass against his skin. “Basically, they’re living many lives. But the main character and the boy didn’t recognize each other when they reincarnated— when they were reborn in new lives. Sis said they keep meeting again because they’re soulmates, which means they’re meant to be together. She said it’s almost like they’re tied together by a red string of fate! Isn’t that interesting? Maybe we’ve met in lives from before, and now we’re meeting again in this life!”
“Please no,” Lexa groans. “Meeting you once was enough.”
“So mean,” Axel huffs. “You wouldn’t remember anyway, even if we’ve met before. When you’re reborn, your memories are wiped.”
“Mmm,” Lexa hums just to indulge her best friend, her attention still snagged on the butterfly instead of Axel’s words.
“… or maybe I’ve even been a samurai before! I wonder what you’ve been in your past lives, Lexa. Probably a slug, with how tiny your brain is now— Ow!” Axel rubs his head when a tiny pebble attacks his head, and he sits up to turn around and growl, “Lexa! You could’ve given me permanent brain damage!”
“Whatever. There’s nothing in your head to damage anyway,” Lexa replies with a snort, giving the butterfly—now disappearing over the fence—one last glance before lying down next to her annoying best friend. The sun has started dipping beneath the horizon, painting the sky a swirl of pink and orange and red. It means that they’ll have to go home soon, before nighttime arrives.
“Do you think we’ve actually met in another life?”
Lexa watches a bird, perhaps an eagle, fly through the fiery-tinged sky, reminding her of phoenixes.
“Maybe. Who knows?”
“My parents have arranged my marriage.”
Axel feels his heart stop. A light breeze sways the tree branches, the sound of rustling leaves filling the clearing where they sit against a fallen tree trunk. He tightens his fists on tufts of grass on either side of him and clenches his teeth, the five centimeters between him and Lexa suddenly so much more distant. He already knows there’s an unfathomable distance between Lexa, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, and himself, a simple peasant, but the knowledge doesn’t make this hurt any less.
“It’s the son of another merchant,” she explains, leaning against the log to stare up at the cloudless sky. “My father wants to establish a better connection with their family so he can get better goods.”
Silence, save for a distant pheasant call, dominates the clearing.
“So,” Axel eventually says. “It’s decided then?” A tiny part of him harbors hope that this arrangement is only tentative, and that it will fall through. He fiddles with the sleeve of his tunic and stares hard at his feet stretched out in front of him, focusing intensely on the black cotton material of his shoes before looking away. It just reminds him of how much more obvious the social gap between them is when his drab, hemp clothing is compared to Lexa’s red, silk robes and the lotus shoes on her bound feet.
“Pretty much,” Lexa admits reluctantly. “Father’s dead set on making the marriage happen.”
The dread in Axel’s stomach pools until he’s lying in nothing but unease, anger, and despair. Once Lexa gets married and has a family to care for, she won’t be able to spend lazy afternoons together, or stroll with him in the forest, or go stargazing on clear nights—
“Let’s run away.”
Lexa’s voice is loud and clear, but Axel still swivels his head in bewilderment and asks, “What?”
“Let’s run away,” Lexa repeats, turning to meet his dumbstruck brown eyes. “Go somewhere else, where we won’t be found.”
“Are you serious?” The boy questions breathlessly, leaning closer to the other, needing confirmation that this isn’t some sick joke.
“Of course,” Lexa answers gently.
“What about your family? The marriage?” Axel presses, making sure Lexa knows whole-heartedly what she’s getting herself into. Once she crosses the line, she’ll never be able to see her family again or return home.
“They’ll be fine.”
It warms his heart to hear Lexa’s affirmation, but Axel isn’t entirely selfish. He would readily give up Lexa for the rest of his life if it means that she’ll be happy. “Are you sure?”
“Positive,” Lexa states, voice unwavering.
“Where should we go then?” Axel ponders thoughtfully. They could leave the village, then head south, where the weather will be warmer. Overhead, a kite soars high and free, the red tails fluttering furiously in the wind.
Lexa’s response is immediate. “It doesn’t matter. Anywhere. As long as I’m with you.”
“Careful. It almost sounds like you’re in love with me.”
The merchant’s daughter reaches out to lace their fingers together.
“Yeah,” Lexa declares, meeting Axel’s eyes with her own brown ones. “Yeah, I am.”
A sea of chatter and sobbing surrounded Lexa, yet it all sounded muted to her ears as she gazed at Axel’s face, trying to etch every single feature into her mind permanently. Letting Axel go should’ve been a simple act, one she’d been mentally preparing for in the past few weeks. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to loosen the iron grip she had on his hand, not when she knew Axel would be heading onto the battlefield like a lamb to the slaughterhouse.
“Axel…” Lexa tried to say something encouraging, tried to put their lifetime of friendship and love into words during this last chance she’d ever have to communicate them. Instead, tears streaked down her face, swallowing the words in her throat. She glanced down to her left, where a raven stared curiously at her and hopped a few steps.
Her companion silently reached out to wipe them away with his thumb, similar to how he used to when they were simply children frolicking on the sidewalks.
Despite the clear pain that tugged at Axel’s heart at the sight of Lexa sniffing and sobbing, he pulled her close to his chest and muttered gently, “It’s okay, Lexa. It’ll be fine.”
“Axel…” Lexa cried, staining the front of Axel’s uniform with tears of grief. The man did not answer and simply tightened the embrace, closing his eyes to savor the feeling.
Too soon, a horn blared in the distance, signaling the end of their last moments together. The two of them remained entangled for a few more seconds as men around them hurried in the direction of the building until Axel regretfully pulled away. Lexa clung on for a moment longer but ultimately let go when the man gently pried her hands away from where they gripped onto the soldier’s shoulders.
“I’ll see you on the other side,” Axel said, squeezing her hands.
Lexa wiped her face with her right sleeve, revealing a sliver of hope in those red-rimmed eyes brimming with anguish. “You’ll wait for me?”
Axel pressed their foreheads together and stared hard into his partner’s eyes, conveying an eternity of promises and devotion.
Droplets of tears drip onto the letter Lexa holds, the last words Axel had left her, tucked into a drawer she had overlooked until a few days ago.
The same day she had received the life-shattering news over the phone from the military office.
She continues staring at the letter even as the words blur into a mass of black ink, crying for the arms she’ll never rest in again, for the laugh she’ll never hear again, and the life they’ll never share again.
Sleep eventually overcomes her, bringing her dreams of longing and death and sorrow. At some point, she finds herself standing in a void of light, nothing in her sights save for a single thread of red in front of her. Her hands frantically try to grab onto the frayed ends because, somehow, she knows whatever is on the other end is something she wants desperately, and holding on is the only option she has. Still, no matter how much she grabs at the thread, it keeps drifting further and further away.
Eventually, it disappears from her line of vision, leaving only a crimson trace of something broken and lost.
It’s her first day on the job, and Lexa is already running late as she rushes into the office building and makes a beeline for the elevators. She calls out to whoever is inside the elevator to wait for her, and a wave of relief surges through her when the doors reopen.
“Thank you so much…” Lexa pants after pressing the button for floor 37, about to comment on her terrible morning when an unexplainably familiar feeling stops her in her tracks. It’s almost like déjà vu, except Lexa’s absolutely sure she has never been in this building before, let alone been with this man in this elevator. Still, a tingly sensation spreads across her skin, and there’s an odd feeling—like she’s somehow forgotten something—that she just can’t seem to shake off.
The man merely grunts in acknowledgement, and the elevator descends into silence as the numbers on the screen go higher and higher. Lexa tries to stare straight ahead, checking over her appearance once more in the elevator doors and reaching up to straighten the red ribbon holding up her ponytail when she catches him watching her in the mirror. She glances sideways furtively at the person, who’s wearing a navy-blue suit with a dark red tie and now looking down at his watch. Lexa considers asking the man if they’ve met somewhere else before—after all, she’s pretty sure he was staring at her too—but the elevator stops with a ding before she can do anything. The man looks at her for a brief moment before turning back to face the opening doors.
Lexa watches as the man steps out, and the elevator’s about to close when something—maybe it’s the strange familiarity, or the undeniable connection between them, or just some unknown universal force—prompts her to jam her finger onto the open button.
The man turns back, and his gaze locks with Lexa’s, something unreadable in his eyes.
“Are you… Uh, I mean…” Lexa falters, suddenly lost for words as she fiddles with her dove-white sleeves. The connection between them only intensifies as she holds eye contact with the person, and she finds herself saying, “I just thought you seemed really familiar. Have we met before?”
The man cocks his head slightly to the right. “I don’t think so, but I was just thinking the same.”
Lexa steps out of the elevator and onto the navy blue carpet. “Well, in that case, I’m Lexa.”
“Nice to meet you,” the man says with the slightest trace of a smile. “I’m Axel.”