No one entered the Banner Pass without the citizens of the free town Rokkaku knowing about it. At least, that was the official word from Hanzo, head of the town, and no one wanted to disappoint him; Hanzo's official Stare of Disapproval made even the most seasoned warrior shiver. Also, it was good training to run around the woods and make sure no one trespassed, so all was well in the minds of the shinobi. Of course, if, for instance, someone who wasn't even attempting to hide his presence happened to be walking down the path, while whistling to himself, there was no way they'd miss it.
It could have been a purely hypothetical situation. But it wasn't, and it was only a matter of time before someone noticed.
Before long, a young ninja heard the sound, and soon thereafter spotted a bright green spot through the trees, and cautiously moved closer. She could soon confirm the presence of a lone man, and sent word to Rokkaku. If the young man walking through the forest noticed the sudden cawing of a raven, he didn't show. After all, ravens were common enough here, and the ninja was very, very good at imitating them.
The cry was passed on until it reached a sentinel positioned just outside the village. He listened to it, nodded to himself as he translated the animal noise to a few simple words; it was easy enough, as this was just a standard procedure, the message detailing simply the number of people spotted and the direction they were travelling - as well as one small, but fairly important extra point - and replied, signalling that the message had been received. Then he whistled, pulled out a slip of paper and a pen, and jotted down a short message. Soon a young boy came running, and the sentinel handed him the paper. "Take this to the vice-chancellor," he ordered. Normally, it should be sent to Hanzo, but because of that one small but fairly important piece of information, it was better off delivered to someone else this time.
The boy nodded, and ran back towards the village, while the sentinel leaned back against a tree, waiting. His shift wouldn't be up in another hour or so. He was rather grateful; he liked it out here. The forest was beautiful in winter.
Meanwhile, the young man kept walking, whistling another tune now. The snow on the ground, quite sparse here in spite of the recent heavy snowfall, creaked under his boots, and his breath made little clouds of condensation in the crisp winter air, but the chill didn't bother him much; he was wearing a heavy green cloak, a few sizes too large for him, which was doing a good job keeping him warm. It was a gift from a close friend, and that, as much as the cloth, warmed him, but more from the inside and out. He was taking his time, walking slowly, and seemed quite content doing so. If one walked fast, it was a three-day walk through the neutral ground marked by the great forest stretching from the Toran border to Banner, which in turn marked the border to the newly-founded Dunan Republic. At this pace, it would probably take five days, but the man looked like someone who had time. And he still didn't seem to notice the shadow following him.
"Well, read it, then," Kasumi urged. She wasn't exactly swamped with work; being vice-chancellor of Rokkaku meant a nice-sounding title, but little work in times of peace. Actually, she gladly welcomed this unscheduled interruption; lately she'd been feeling quite bored. And she didn't have any good excuses to visit Gregminster either... not that Hanzo would keep her from going if she wanted, but it was a little... embarrassing.
The boy held up the now slightly ruffled note and squinted at it. "They've spotted Lord McDohl heading for Banner, alone. That's all it says."
It was all it needed to say. Kasumi's breath got stuck in her throat. But it's so late... During the past three years, Lord Tir had journeyed back and forth between his home in Gregminster and the Dunan republic several times, but mostly in the spring and summer; never during the winter. Kasumi knew he usually stopped by Banner for a few days; he seemed fond of the place. She could understand that. It was calm and tranquil, unlike the capital, and no one was pestering him there, again unlike the capital. Sure, they knew who he was, but it wasn't as if it mattered as much there. Being a hero must be hard...
"...yes? Oh, yes... thank you. I'll... inform Lord Hanzo. It's okay... you can... go back now." She mentally shook herself. The kid ran off; this wasn't anything he cared about. That left her... to report to Hanzo... who undoubtedly already knew already. It was all formality anyway.
Well... that, and she needed to ask a favour.
"...I'd like permission to escort Lord Tir. It... can be dangerous to walk in the forest alone."
"Of course you do," Hanzo replied, his voice betraying nothing of what he felt. "Very well. You may take Sasuke and Hikari with you."
She blinked. "Oh, no, it... I can handle it on my own."
"Do as you see fit, then." Hanzo's eyes glittered as he turned away. He might have been smiling. "But remember your duties. I expect you to return in ten days." ...and he vanished.
Kasumi shivered. After twenty years of practice, she still hadn't mastered more than the basics of the teleportation art her leader used so effortlessly.
But she was happy. It wasn't much, but at least... at least she'd get to see him again.
Tir stopped, suddenly. For the last few minutes, he'd been suspecting that someone was following him, but so far he had seen no sign of this person. It could easily be his imagination; it had happened often, since he'd got the Rune on his right hand. Sometimes he'd turn around, knowing that someone was there - only to stare into empty space, as a feeling of dread swirled in his chest. Somehow, he suspected, the spectres of the Rune were playing tricks with his mind.
But no, this time it was not imagination; nor the Rune's, for that matter. He had seen something; someone was moving between the trees, careful not to reveal himself. But, not careful enough. Tir reached for the staff that was loosely strapped to his back. Now where -
"You... come out where I can see you..."
There was no answer. He hadn't been expecting one. However, he had a general clue as to where his shadow was hiding, and looked in that direction as he spoke. "I can burn the forest down around you instead, if you like. Now come out..." To emphasise his point, he pulled his staff out of its holster and pointed it at the area in question.
A small bush rustled, and an equally small figure stepped out from behind it. Shorter than him by a head and dressed all in white, topped off by a hood that covered its head, leaving only a pair of chilly-blue eyes to stare at him, the figure carried no visible weapons, but Tir wasn't paying much attention to that fact; it meant nothing. The deadliest of weapons, the Runes, were hidden within the wielder's body and mind.
"Who are you?" he asked, without lowering his staff. "And why are you following me?"
The white figure reached up slowly and pulled off its hood, revealing a girl's pale face and a massive shock of black hair. She couldn't be more than fourteen or fifteen years old, from the looks of her, and there was something about her that reminded him of Kasumi.
"You're... from Rokkaku, aren't you?" he asked, and lowered the staff slightly. The girl replied with an affirmative "Mm," and a nod of her head. "So why follow me?"
She shrugged. "Orders. We're not to let anyone pass the woods without keeping an eye on them. We're not supposed to reveal ourselves though." She kicked at the snow. "Of course, I'm just a novice. That's the only reason you were able to spot me!"
Tir's lips curled to form a thin smile. "Of course," he said, not unkindly.
"It's true!" the ninja-in-training said indignantly. Then, after a short hesitation, she added, "I guess I blew it. Boss Hanzo is going to put me on cleanup duty for weeks for this."
"I won't tell if you don't." He shouldered his staff. "But leave me alone now... you should know I'm... an ally. Don't follow me anymore." He stepped forwards; the girl jumped, startled, and stepped to the side. He passed her without another word. From the sounds, she wasn't making any effort to follow. Shadowing someone who knew about it wasn't the most productive thing one could do, he supposed. Actually, he was surprised; if anyone, he had expected Kasumi to show up.
But she hadn't.
He wasn't sure how that made him feel.
The ninja girl stared at the green-cloaked figure walking away from her. So that... is Lord McDohl... She wasn't quite sure of what to do. Orders were orders, but surely Lord McDohl could be trusted. And she'd feel very embarrassed to follow him now, now that he knew she was there, and had even told her to stop... What presence... She wasn't looking forwards to explaining this to Hanzo, but she knew one thing: she would like it even less if this man took offence at her following him.
Not everything she had heard about Lord McDohl was good.
Then, she shook herself, and vanished into the forest again. Perhaps she had better report back to Rokkaku, after all...
It was still quite early; he had set out from the border around dawn, and been walking only for three or four hours. He was considering stopping for something to eat, however; he hadn't had much in the ways of breakfast. Just as he was contemplating this, he heard a rustling to his left, and spun to face the sound, staff at ready. Didn't I tell her to go back home...?
But this was a different person; one who made little attempt to hide the noise of his passing.
No. Her passing.
"It has been a while... Lord Tir..."
"...Kasumi." He'd recognised her as soon as he could glimpse her between the trees, even now that she was clad in white, rather than the red he was used to. That short-cropped, blue-shimmering hair; the slender figure; the way she walked; it all gave her away. He hadn't seen many other ninja, but somehow he thought Kasumi's grace was a rarity even among these legendary walkers of shadows.
He should have known that she wouldn't let him pass without coming to see him. It had been a couple of months since their last meeting; he had been surprised to find that she hadn't been there the last time he passed through.
She stopped just outside the woods; one foot on the path, the other to the side of it. They looked at each other in silence; taking in everything, finding little changed. Kasumi broke the silence first, with a simple question.
"What... brings you here?"
She wasn't too happy about how that came out. ...do I always sound so unnatural? He must think I'm... stupid.
"Nothing... just passing through..."
"...oh... so... where are you heading?"
They remained standing as they had when the first word was uttered.
"I'm headed for Banner... just to get away for a few days..." It wasn't as if she could understand... The more time he spent in Gregminster, the more he needed to get away, and yet he wanted to stay. The only thing he could do was take these trips to small, faraway villages, where he could be alone for a while... so the urge to wander didn't take him over. Banner was the best place he had found for this purpose; not surprisingly, he'd found the village after he had searched in mostly every other direction he could think of. Life was like that.
Kasumi cleared her throat. "If my lord... I... would like to go with you... uh, as your bodyguard..."
Get a grip... got to draw myself together... feel so stupid...
He looked at her blankly.
"Only if you don't mind," she hurried to say. "I wouldn't... impose..."
He kept looking at her with those sad grey eyes, the first thing that had drawn her to him. "You want to come along as my bodyguard," he said at long last, as if asking her to confirm that he had understood correctly. She nodded.
He shouldn't have met her gaze. After seeing that pleading look in her eyes, he could hardly refuse such a request. Which was odd; he had got used to getting the same look from Gremio, though usually one-eyedly. He could still hear Gremio's pleas - "Young Master, please don't climb that tree", "please don't get so close to the fire", "please don't go out without your jacket"... And at the same time, the somewhat shameful memory of doing exactly those things that Gremio warned him not to do - and surprisingly often getting away with it, too.
But he couldn't refuse her.
"Fine, then. But it's not necessary... and I may be away for some time. If it's too much trouble..."
She heard it clearer than he spoke it; "please, don't". She wished she could comply, but it was impossible. Now that they were together again after so long, she couldn't just turn and walk away after so few words.
"No..." she said instead, "it's... no trouble."
No trouble at all.
There was a short moment of silence. Then Tir nodded, and resumed walking; Kasumi trailing a few steps behind him; happy, relieved, and sad all at once.
It might have lifted her spirits a little to know that the expression of joy that, without her knowing, had flashed across her face when he accepted her offer, had improved Tir's mood a little.
But most likely, it would have embarrassed her.
Kasumi hadn't expected conversation, and so far, Tir was doing his best to live up to her expectations. It was... as usual. She could have been enjoying the scenery - he seemed to be doing that - but... as usual. Walking a few steps behind him, she found her gaze riveted to his green-clad back. That wasn't his usual style, she found herself thinking, even though the cut and colour were both very familiar. He'd usually worn a jacket, back then...
She could have asked, but didn't think he'd appreciate it. Perhaps she'd ask when they camped for the night.
And so they remainder of the day passed, in silence and snow. As it grew dark, Tir found a small clearing where they could camp right next to the road, and shrugged off his pack. After hours of silence, Kasumi had to ask, "So we're stopping here?"
"Should I clear the ground?"
"No... just stay back." He pulled off his left glove, revealing a glowing red Rune in his palm. "This will be much faster." And so he stepped into the middle of the clearing and raised his hand. The power sealed within the Rune flared up, forcing Kasumi to look away, lest she be blinded by the light. Then it shrank down to a small point of white-hot heat, just for a moment, before exploding into a raging ball of flame. Kasumi cried out in shock as the fire seemed to engulf him - and so it passed, in just a few seconds. The wrath of the Rune spent, she could now see Tir standing, unharmed, in the centre of a perfectly circular patch of burned earth. He winced as he saw the results. "Too much power again..."
"The idea is to burn away most of the snow... leave the ground unharmed, not to cause unnecessary destruction. It was... Cleo's idea."
"...oh. But I'm sure... you'll be able to get it right soon."
A smile passed over his lips, quickly, almost so she couldn't see it. But he did not speak; he merely put down his pack and knelt to unpack his tent. It was a simple thing; a soldier's tent, meant to be small and easy to transport. Apart from four tent-pegs, all that was needed to keep it in shape was a spear, or, in his case, his staff, which was fitted into a metal ring sewn into the cloth. Originally, tents like these had been employed by the armies, but in those cases, they were held up by two spears, and held two occupants. Tir's smaller, one-spear, one-person version wasn't quite as stable, but as long as there wasn't too much wind - something he wasn't counting on here anyway, sheltered by trees - it worked surprisingly well. Kasumi, meanwhile, had something more proper; a frame constructed of several short metal rods screwed together, creating what would best be described as a four-sided pyramid made from canvas.
Before going to sleep, they had a simple meal of soup made from dried meat, vegetables and snow-melt, and Kasumi finally got a chance to ask about his cloak as they sat facing each other over the small fire, lit by Tir's Rune, that was burning between the tents.
"Isn't that... Gremio's cloak?" It wasn't the most fascinating topic, but she couldn't really think of anything to say, even though she wanted to. As usual.
"Yes." It didn't seem as if he was going to say more, but then he shrugged slightly, and continued: "I wouldn't have gone alone... but Gremio caught a cold just a couple of days ago. He wasn't happy about me going on my own, but he finally gave up, if I promised to dress warm." He smiled at the memory. "But my jacket wasn't warm enough for his liking, so he begged me to take his cloak as well. And..." ...just like today... "...I couldn't very well refuse something like that."
Kasumi tried to smile back. It worked, and so, strengthened by her success, she dared to speak again. "It... must be good to have... friends like that..."
Tir's smile faded, slowly, and he nodded. "...yes..." he mumbled. "Gremio is like... a brother... or maybe like... a father." A sound that was almost but not quite a laugh escaped his lips. "If only he's speak my name. Always 'Young Master' this, 'Young Master' that..." The smile returned, thinly veiled in sadness. "But I'm working on that."
"You... loved your father, didn't you...?" She wasn't certain what had inspired such a question, and now that she'd uttered it, she wished she hadn't. But he didn't seem to take offence; he simply nodded, once.
"Yes... very much..."
"I never knew my parents... I... envy you. N, no... I... guess I don't... I'm sorry... shouldn't..."
"It... it doesn't matter... Not mentioning it... doesn't change what happened..."
Tir stared into the fire. But it does reopen the wounds.
"I... don't mind..."
Talking... somehow makes it feel... a little better...
"...it wasn't your fault."
Especially... talking... with...
"I'm tired. Let's rest. We'll be up early tomorrow."
"Y, yes... I suppose... Yes, you're right, of course." Kasumi couldn't shake the feeling that there was something she'd missed; something he had said, that she hadn't heard - but she couldn't ask.
She reached for the heap of firewood they'd gathered, carefully placed a few more pieces in the flames, and looked up, to find that she was alone; Tir had vanished into his tent.
She sat in silence for a few seconds, but then finally opened the tent-flap and crawled inside her own tent. Wrapped in several blankets against the bitter chill of midwinter night, she lay awake for a while, though not as long as she had feared... and then sleep claimed her.
As Tir said, they were up early, breaking camp as soon as the sun rose. Encouraged by the events last night, Kasumi tried striking up a lighter conversation as they walked, but for some reason, Tir was less talkative now, and barely answered as she spoke. Disappointed, but knowing that it was what she should expect, Kasumi sighed deeply, watching as the moisture on her breath formed a small, rapidly dissipating cloud over her, and walked on in silence. Thus, in almost complete silence, two days passed.
The forest wasn't so wide; if it had been flat ground, it wouldn't be more than a day's journey between Toran and Dunan. Certainly, if one was to fly on a dragon, it would take no more than a couple of hours at most. But neither Tir nor Kasumi could fly; the road twisted and turned more than an entire bowl of noodles, and Tir had counted on reaching Banner around lunchtime on the fifth day. He had travelled this road often enough, and his estimation was correct. On the fifth day after setting out, the fourth day since Kasumi's appearance, he could kick off his boots and lie back in a real bed. And have some real food. He was used to spartan living, certainly, but that didn't mean he liked it. Though Teo had not been keen on luxuries, thinking, like most soldiers, that a simple life honed one's skills better, Tir had not lacked much as he grew up, and that had left its traces.
He sat up, and at the same time there was a knock on the door. Who...? "Come in."
The door opened to reveal Kasumi, still in her winter stealth-suit, though unbuttoned to reveal a red shirt underneath. "Lord Tir, the food is ready..."
"...ah. Go ahead, I'll be there in a moment."
Somewhat reluctantly, she shut the door, and he heard - barely - the sound of her footsteps as she walked down the hall.
So... well... He had been planning on visiting Dunan on this trip, but they told him River Dunan was frozen; no ships sailed, and from the looks of it, none would sail for several days, maybe weeks. Walking was out of the question; it would take too long, and he didn't want to worry Gremio, or keep Kasumi away from Rokkaku too long; after all, she had duties to fulfil, having accepted what he assumed to be a high-ranking position in her community. He didn't know much about Rokkaku politics, and frankly didn't care much; he didn't even know much about Toran's politics.
It wasn't his responsibility to do everything, after all.
Then he realised that he had been staring into space, and went to have lunch.
Kasumi was waiting for him.
The fish in the lake had either swum south to Lake Toran, which generally didn't freeze over even during the worst of winters, or gone into hibernation over the winter. Tir didn't care; he wasn't there to catch fish. To fish, sure, but catching something was far less important than the calm; holding the rod was just an excuse to sit there and relax. Gremio hadn't realised that, or masked his understanding carefully; his constant comments of "Too bad, Young Master", and "Maybe you will have better luck tomorrow" were enough proof of that. Kasumi didn't seem to understand more; at breakfast, she had carefully asked how he could expect to catch anything when the lake was almost frozen over. He had simply replied, "I don't," and left it at that, but her puzzled expression left no doubt in his mind that a thorough explanation would have been needed if she was to understand.
But he didn't feel like giving one. It wasn't anyone else's business. He'd come here to be alone; he wasn't going to waste time explaining how, and why. This was his time.
Not that time was something he lacked. But this particular space of time, he wasn't going to let slip away like that.
By unspoken agreement, Kasumi didn't try to follow him, something he appreciated; it would be hard to tell her he didn't want her around, just like it would have been hard to leave her behind in Rokkaku. So he just left the inn in silence, hoping that she would feel his need for solitude, and was relieved to find that his wish had been fulfilled. He spent his days "fishing", line hanging through a hole too small for any but the tiniest fish and using a hook with no bait - and when the rough planks of the jetty became too cold and hard, he walked around the outskirts of town, enjoying the clear, cold air and pristine beauty of the forest.
Kasumi, meanwhile, spent her days doing what turned out to be much the same thing. Although she didn't try fishing, she took long walks, and even tried skating on the frozen river, without much success; her balance was certainly good enough, but the ice was uneven and rough, making such activities difficult for a novice such as herself. Come evening, she returned to the inn, with her cheeks glowing red from the cold, and several bruises in more or less embarrassing places, to find Tir sitting in front of the fire in the common room, gloved hands clasped over his chest, looking far away into nothing.
She took a seat as close to him as she could without intruding on his sphere of solitude, and leaned back; putting her feet up on a stool, and closing her eyes.
...get used to this...
She would sit there until she almost fell asleep, and at about that time, Tir would rise, causing just enough noise to jolt her back to the world of the waking; it would long since be dark outside, and she'd slowly drag herself to her room, pull off her clothes, crawl into bed and fall into a deep, pleasant sleep. Then she woke up, soon after the sunrise, and did it all over again.
And she enjoyed it.
It wasn't as if she'd never relaxed before; even with her ninjutsu training, she had enough spare time now that things had calmed down in the world. But she'd never actually taken a holiday before. Ninja didn't celebrate many holidays; at most, she'd go to the small shrine and burn a few cones of incense, and maybe leave a small offering to the spirits of her ancestors; it was simple and to the point, and never took more than an hour. This sense of having nothing that she had to do was quite pleasant, and the fact that she was here with Tir... wasn't making things worse.
It only lasted a few days. But those days the memory of which she would treasure.
Hanzo had told her to be back in ten days, and this fact was starting to surface in her mind. With four days spent on the road and another four spent in Banner, that left only two days... even if Hanzo would no doubt understand; after all, she wasn't needed that badly in Rokkaku, and Lord Tir certainly had to be protected. But that evening, when she was just about to ask when he intended to ask him when he intended to return, he spoke first.
She started at the sound of her name being uttered; they had barely spoken during the last few days; Tir being his usual, quiet self, and Kasumi, though she would not mind some conversation, having nothing important enough to disturb him with.
"Kasumi... I am thinking of returning to Toran tomorrow..."
"Mm. I'll get my things packed then... we will be leaving first thing in the morning, I assume?"
Tir nodded, once. "Yes... more or less. Get to sleep early."
"Y... yes. Of course."
"Good... Then... I will be going to bed now. Sleep well... Kasumi..."
Something on his mind...? Kasumi asked herself as he disappeared into his room, shutting the door carefully. Tir had a tendency to sound as if he was trailing off whenever he stopped speaking, whether this was actually the case or not, but this time it had sounded more... pronounced than usual.
But she'd think more about that tomorrow. Now, she would have to sleep if she was to be up early the next day, and she had no intention of disappointing Tir.
It was still dark when they began the journey back. An almost full moon hung just over the horizon, its pale shape barely visible in the overcast sky. The clouds were plentiful that morning, but not dark; it seemed that this day would be calm, without snowfall. It was still cold however, and Tir had wrapped Gremio's old cloak tightly around himself. Kasumi seemed undisturbed, though; her clothes were apparently warmer than his. Or perhaps it was part of her secret ninja training to withstand extreme temperatures, Tir thought wryly. At moments like this, her abilities made themselves more obvious than ever; the way she moved as to not disturb the snow underfoot more than necessary, the way the snow barely whispered as she passed, unlike the loud creaking under his own boots... and the clothes made her almost invisible against the white-shrouded forest, just like that girl who had been following him before. She had her hood down, though, so he could easily spot her unruly black hair, shimmering in blue hues at the light hit it, and red-cheeked face. She seemed to be in a good mood this day, he thought. She always seemed so serious, but now she was looking... free, like a child, enjoying the snow with a kind of immature delight that made her eyes sparkle.
He remembered a time when he had been doing the very same thing. At this time of the year, a lifetime ago, he and Ted had been making snowmen in a small field just outside of Gregminster. Throwing snowballs at passers-by, too... they hadn't been the most polite children in the Empire. And afterwards... chilled to the bone, they would come home and sit by the great fire in the living-room, wrapped in blankets, while Gremio or Cleo told them stories about far away lands. Perhaps Kasumi, too, was enjoying memories of a similar kind... though hopefully less painful. Even the happiest memories could twist the knife in his heart; after all, almost everything he could remember that made him happy now, was gone, some way or another. And perhaps the worst loss was that of his childhood innocence.
Blinking away a tear, he returned his attention to the road...
...and a snowball caught him in the shoulder, spraying his face with freezing crystalline dust.
Kasumi knew she was smiling as she walked; there was no reason not to. She loved this landscape, the forest she grew up in. It was beautiful - even more so in the winter, when the trees were wrapped in their cold, white blanket, when the noise died down and turned the world into a living woodcut; every moment like a scene frozen in time forever. Although she did not know of Tir's guess, it was correct; this sight reminded her, too, of the peaceful days of her childhood, before she knew of war or killing - or, she had to admit, at least before she had experienced any of it firsthand. The path of the ninja was, after all, one of battle and bloodshed. As lord Hanzo had said, We have the power to stop war, but only through killing. Ages ago, ninja had been assassins and spies. In this day and age, that was ancient history; most ninja never needed to fight, and the old skills were kept alive mostly for the sake of tradition - although she would be a fool if she believed that to be the only reason. She had been so young, only six years old, during the War of Succession and the battles following it - even at the very end, in 448, fifteen years ago. But she had heard stories...
Fifteen years ago... That made her twenty-one this year. When she thought about it, she felt ancient.
But Tir still looked the same as always. His hair, or at least what little she could see of it under his trademark green bandanna, was a little longer; his eyes a little sadder, but apart from that, he still looked like the boy she'd seen upon her arrival at Toran Castle. Fifteen for eternity, but with the eyes of an adult.
She let her gaze drift back to him. It had turned into a bad habit of hers. There was no way she could ignore him; his mere presence was like a lead weight on the fabric of her consciousness; the impact too heavy not to feel. No matter how hard she tried, she would always, always end up looking at him.
She'd hardly ever seen him smile before these last few days. Always that pained expression - even now, it didn't leave his eyes. But he seemed... happy. Staring straight ahead, but not looking at anything she would be able to see, he must be reliving memories, just like she was doing... memories of the world as it had been, before it was torn to bloody shreds in the fires of war.
Then, as she watched, the smile faded, died like a candle whose wick is spent. Slowly and ineluctably, it burned out, and the familiar look of pain settled again, smothering the little spark of life and hope that had been burning there a moment ago.
A cold shock, like an echo of Tir's pain, lanced through her. It wasn't fair. He'd done so much for so many, and yet, something as simple as peace of mind was denied him. He had freed so many from pain, but couldn't do anything to ease his own.
It was difficult, seeing things happen, yet not being able to do anything to change them. She knew that very same pain from seven years ago; the assault on Rokkaku, forever burnt into her memory. Too young to be of use in the battle, too scared to run, she had survived, as by a miracle. But the memory...
But there were good memories as well, memories she liked to believe outweighed the bad. The memories of Rokkaku before that horrible day. The memory of the day when Hanzo and many of her friends, friends she had thought dead, returned, during the last few months of the Gate Rune War. The memory of working hard to rebuild their town after the war, and finally seeing the results.
And so, an impulse. Bending down, scraping some snow off a rock by the side of the path; rolling it into a ball, more difficult than she remembered, with her thick gloves on - waiting for him to turn, and -
Perhaps... she had thought, hoping that she was right.
There was her first memory of snow. Running around the houses in Rokkaku with the few other children... and the snowball fights... Sweet, wonderful childhood memories.
...sometimes... maybe the memory needs to be...
...pushed a little...
And she threw.
Tir stopped dead in his tracks as the snowball hit his shoulder. He blinked several times, a blank look on his snow-dusted face, staring straight at her. For a moment she thought she had made a horrible mistake; that she'd angered him, hurt him, done something wrong. But she drew her lips to form a false smile and waved, shaking snow from her glove. She could see how he gradually floated back to the current now, and how realisation dawned...
He smiled impishly as he bent down to scoop up a handful of snow.
And Kasumi ran, dancing lightly over the snow, her fighting instincts turned into a child's play. Perhaps it wouldn't last, but she was thankful; the snow had bought them a moment... and that was all she asked for.
On the second day after leaving Banner, it had started to snow gently, and the clouds had darkened. Tir was still moving slowly, however, feeling no need to hurry, and Kasumi had no objections. If he had been in a hurry, it would have meant that their paths would part so much sooner, and that was not what she wished. Still, the journey was coming to an end; in only one more day, or maybe one and a half, they would reach the path to Rokkaku, and she felt that Tir would want her to go home when the path there was so short. She would much rather follow him, if not all the way back to Gregminster then at least to the border itself, where the border guard could escort him home, but she also knew that if he asked her to go, she could do nothing else. He had allowed her to accompany him this far; she owed him that, at least.
And so, another day passed; in silence, like most other days, only with a little more snow.
Come night, they set up their tents by the side of the road as every night before; this was a spot they had used on the way out, Kasumi realised as Tir stopped - she recognised way these trees stood, forming a sort of semicircle by the roadside, an excellent spot to make camp. The spot where he had cleared away the snow was no longer bare, of course; in the several days after their last visit, there had been more snow than the little that had fallen this day. The ninja stood back as Tir released the power of the Rune inscribed upon his left hand, and then helped him pitch the tents.
Not long after their evening meal, the wind picked up. So did the fall of snow, and the two travellers retreated to their tents earlier than usual. Tir, usually a good sleeper, at least when he wasn't having nightmares, fell asleep quickly, but it was a restless slumber. He didn't like this wind; it felt rich with possibilities, and not all pleasant possibilities either. Kasumi, meanwhile, sat awake in her own tent; not tired and not in the mood for reading, she meditated instead, something she hadn't done for a long time. It wasn't easy, she found; she was out of practice, and the insistent wind tugging at the canvas around her, rattling the tent's metal skeleton, didn't give her much peace. After several failed attempts at finding the meditative state, she decided to try and sleep instead, even though she knew sleep would probably be just as elusive as any state of inner peace.
Just as she had laid her head down on the cold ground and pulled her blankets tight around herself, a particularly powerful blast of wind hit her tent, and it rattled loudly around her while the wind howled like an angered beast. Kasumi shivered, glad that she at least had this fragile cloth between herself and the rage of the elements outside.
Then there was a flash of orange-red light. She sat bolt upright, scattering blankets as she groped for her weapon; still folded up and sheathed at her belt. The light flared again, and this time it didn't fade; neither did it move. It couldn't be their campfire; it had died out over an hour ago. Cautiously, she pulled away a couple of straps and let the tent-flap fall open. A cloud of snow obscured her vision, some of it making its way into the tent. Clearly, the wind hadn't just redoubled its efforts; it had gone and fetched its great uncle as well. It was hard to see more than a couple of metres in any directions, but she saw enough; Tir's tent had fallen, presumably during that particular windblast a moment ago. The light she'd seen was emanating from his Rune; he had his left hand up, trying to shed some light on the scene, but was rubbing his eyes with his right - apparently awakened by the tent falling on him.
It probably wasn't the most pleasant way to wake up.
The snow was already starting to cling to him. The tent was hidden; in the weak light, its white fabric was indiscernible from the snow itself.
Stupid! "Lord Tir! Over here!" She had to shout to make her voice heard over the storm. Tir shook his head drunkenly; he probably wasn't even sure what had happened yet. Kasumi wasn't the kind of person who cursed at any little thing that went wrong, but she didn't really care much when a word that would, under normal circumstances, probably have her blush made its way past her lips. "Lord Tir! Hurry!" Cursing again, she climbed over the snowdrift that was almost blocking the entrance to her tent - typically, the opening was facing against the wind most of the time, so the snow stacked against the tent at this side - and waded over to Tir. As she reached him, she grabbed his arm and pulled him upright, then gestured to her tent. Tir blinked at her, still confused - as he well should be after what had just happened - but followed, numbly managing to drag his cloak along. She practically shoved him inside, eager to get them both out of the snow as soon as possible.
Tir sat still and silent while she did her best to get the snow out of the tent, and finally closed the flap. The Fire Rune still shed its orangeish light, much more effective once it was out of the snow, but he seemed to have forgotten it; holding his hand up only half-heartedly. Worried, Kasumi crawled closer. "Lord Tir... are you hurt?"
"What... happened?" he asked. Then he shook himself, and answered his own question - "My... tent fell."
"Yes... this storm..."
"Sorry... never meant to cause you any trouble..."
"Oh, stop that. You must be cold... here, take this blanket..." She handed him one of the three blankets she had been using. "Is that cloak very wet?"
"I..." He dropped his hand to the cloak, and in doing so seemed to notice the fact that his Rune was still shining. Jerking his hand back, he shook his head again, and drew his right hand over the green wool, brushing some snow off. "Not very. It'll suffice." Then he rubbed his hands together, and the glow deepened towards pure red. He wasn't wearing his gloves, for once. Kasumi wasn't sure why he always wore gloves, and frankly, at this point she wasn't much interested in that. Without realising, she started rubbing her hands together as well; trying to massage some feeling back into her fingers. She hadn't realised that she went outside with neither gloves nor boots on, and now both her hands and feet were painfully cold. Looking up, Tir caught her mimicking his actions, and sighed. "Here... give me your right hand..."
Without hesitation, Kasumi presented her hand. Tir took it in his left, clasping his fingers with hers. With his right hand, he traced something on the back of her hand - strangely, that finger felt warmer than his left hand, even though that was where the Fire Rune was embedded - and muttered something. To Kasumi, it sounded like "part". Immediately, heat surged through her hand, and Tir pulled away, a little too quickly, as if the touch had caused him pain. As Kasumi examined her hand, she found what appeared to be a tattoo in her palm; a living flame, turning and twisting as she looked at it.
"But," she protested, "you need this!"
He shook his head. "No... I'm done with it. Warm yourself."
She hesitated, but it wasn't like she would be able persuade him to change his mind, and in either case, she could really do with some warmth right now. Wrapping a blanket around her feet and legs, she started to wake the Rune's magic. It was a tricky business, using a Rune for something it wasn't really intended for - the "heat" wanted to burst into an actual flame, but that would do more harm than good. Eventually she got the hang of it, and lovely, wonderful warmth spread from her hands, up her arms, and throughout her entire body. Once she had the Rune under full control, she curiously glanced at Tir, who was sitting cross-legged, with his back bent as to not hit his head on the canvas, and staring into the ground. His right hand was clenched into a fist and he was rubbing at his knuckles with his left hand.
"So..." she tried, "...how... did you do that?"
His reply was more whispered than spoken: "Soul Eater."
"The Soul Eater... doesn't like other Runes. If I let it, it can expel them from my body. Leknaat said that one person cannot wield two True Runes... they repel each other. The same is true for normal Runes as well... only... not as strong." He held up his right hand, palm towards him, and looked at the Rune with little emotion showing. His face seemed to darken, as if the Rune was shedding darkness upon his features, but only for a moment; he soon let his hand drop again, clenching it, like a reflex action. All the while, he had been moving as to only expose the Soul Eater to himself.
"...oh," Kasumi mumbled. She couldn't think of anything to reply to that. "L, Lord Tir... we should... try to get some sleep. We'll have to retrieve your tent tomorrow... and get you back to Gregminster... everyone will be worried if you're late..."
"And you? Don't you have anyone who would be worried if you didn't come back?" His tone was almost, but not completely bitter, and it sounded like a challenge. She didn't reply for a while, and he seemed to lose interest. "Yes... we should sleep. I am... tired..."
Kasumi allowed him to spread his cloak as mattress, and watched in silence as he lay down, facing the wall, and pulled a blanket over himself. A few seconds later, she followed suit, and extinguished the light shining from her hand.
Before long, she was asleep.
Kasumi woke to a familiar, uncomfortable silence. She opened her eyes slowly... to an unfamiliar white cloth wall only a metre away. Oh... yes. The tent... The walls were bulging inwards, which had to mean that there had been more heavy snowfall during the night.
Strangely, even though they were buried in snow, she wasn't cold. The air was a little stuffy, but other than that, she was feeling rather... well. Warm and comfortable.
She was -
- lying next to -
She turned her head slightly. Oh...? The motion, slight as it was -
- was she leaning her head against his arm?
- was that weight -
- she looked down. There was a slight weight over her stomach. She hadn't noticed it, or perhaps assumed that it was just a blanket; she wasn't sure which, but in any case, it was nothing that had drawn her attention before this.
Tir was practically embracing her in his sleep.
- his arm -
- his right arm lay across her chest -
- and then that was his hand, and -
Stupid girl... not like he'd ever put it there on purpose... she told herself, mentally kicking herself as her body lay paralysed. Just... an accident...
As soon as she could move, she'd -
- but what if she woke him up, what -
- what would he think -
Kasumi felt herself blushing, heavily. And, for the nth time these last few days, she wanted to kick herself. And at the same time, she didn't dare move, in case she did something to wake him up. For a while, she was afraid the wild beating of her heart would be enough. She could feel its pounding throughout her entire body, and his hand lay just over it; palm nested against the upper slope of her left breast; one finger hooked over the collar of her jacket, a point of heat where skin met skin, just below her collarbone.
Slowly, she turned her head. So... close... He looked so young. His face, for once, was peaceful. The only thing that has aged... his eyes... she found herself thinking. In spite of his youthful features, looking into his eyes always made her feel that he was older than her... all because of the Rune on his hand, the hand... that lay... just above her heart now...
Suddenly his head turned slightly, the tranquillity shattered; his brows furrowed; she felt his shoulders tense. Dreams...? And not pleasant ones; she hadn't even needed to look at him to know that. Then, before she could decide on what to do, he drew a deep, shuddering breath, and suddenly relaxed again. Kasumi realised that she'd been holding her breath, and slowly let it out. What... should I... do? She let her eyes drift back to the white cloth ceiling. If he could sleep through dreams like that, she could probably move his hand without waking him. But... I don't really...
...to let go...
She choked back a sob. It was... so... typical. In his sleep and her dreams, he embraced her; such a simple act, and so powerful, but a symbol of feelings he did not have; it was a wish she could never tell him of... but how she had wished... longed... to feel his arms around her, hear a kind word... but all she found was the deep pain in his eyes whenever she tried to speak to him, and the iron wall of silence around him. A wall separating not only her from him, but him from her as well.
She cried. Silently, calmly, she shed the tears she had left, and then lay staring up at the white cloth.
Beside her, Tir moved restlessly, a shiver spreading through his entire body. A small sound escaped his lips; with a pained expression on his face, he leaned his head forwards, pressing his forehead against her shoulder, and tightened his arms around her. Silently, he, too, seemed to be crying. Without other thought, she put her hand over his, pressing it tighter against her; his skin was warm, almost burning. Somehow she'd never noticed before, but their hands were nearly the same size; it was obvious now that he had his gloves off - she could cover his hand almost completely with her own. She'd always thought he looked much larger, but this close, she realised there was little difference in size between them; he was only centimetres taller than her, just a little broader over the shoulders. So strong, and yet so frail. It only made the pain worse; the pain of having to stay here, still; the pain of not being able to embrace him, like she always wanted to do, even when she knew he needed it. But he would never accept it. Again, the tears came, unbidden. So... selfish of me... But she didn't want to lose what little she had. Even though painful, his touch was warm and comforting; even if he wouldn't ever consciously reach out for her, he still had, in his sleep, without the shell he erected around himself when he was awake, been able to get close to her, to touch her and not pull away. Yes, she was selfish, but it was all she had! He'd never accept her into his life; and the day he told her to leave him, she knew she could never see him again. But until that day...
Tir moved his head against her shoulder, again making that small sound, a sound of wordless pain. Kasumi slowly stroked the back of his hand, and whispered, her voice breaking, into the air. "Please...
"Please don't... cry..."
But soon, she couldn't speak anymore, so she just lay there, listening to the ragged sound of their breathing; clasping Tir's hand to her breast.
Time passed, but she couldn't fall asleep. The faint light seeping in through the canvas, near the top of the pyramid, was fading now; the moon must be setting. The tent was mostly dark; she could barely make out Tir's dark shape anymore. He seemed calmer, though; his breathing had slowed down, and his muscles were relaxed. He had turned slightly; if she hadn't been holding his hand, it would have slid off her. Somewhere in the silence and darkness, she had found that she didn't want that to happen; didn't care what happened next. It was only now here.
She couldn't tell how long she waited; minutes, hours, all time had melted together into one long moment, an eternity or a heartbeat; she, they, were alone in a perfect blink of an eye.
Somehow, she remembered something she had heard, long ago - how the perfect state of mind was one of emptiness; floating above, below and beyond space and time, and she knew she was feeling it now; the state she had sought but failed to find through meditation now came to her, unbidden. She couldn't feel anything anymore, but knew that if she could, she might have been happy.
It ended far too soon, though, shattering the perfection as Tir suddenly rolled over, tearing his hand away from her light grasp. Though surprised, and not so little distressed, Kasumi quickly sat up, allowing him to move freely, withdraw the arm that had been her pillow. She could barely avoid hitting her head against the "ceiling" here; she felt heavy snow on the canvas as she touched it. Cold, but not as cold as the sorrowful chill left by the absence of Tir's hand, a chill not only upon her skin, but deeper still.
In the darkness, she felt and heard rather then saw Tir curl up, facing away from her. Sadly, she lay down again, facing his back. Tir...
Then she made up her mind. Tentatively, she reached out. Her hand found his shoulder; it trembled, and not because of her touch. Slowly, she moved closer, stopping only when the distance between them had shrunk to next to nothing. Slower still, she slipped her arm around him, careful not to make any sudden movements. Finding his hand, clenched and trembling, she again put her hand over his, and relaxed. After a while, the trembling stopped, and Kasumi finally let herself relax as well. Unable to stop herself, she pressed her cheek against Tir's back, and so, at long last, she fell asleep again.
The blizzard was still raging when morning came. Unlike the previous days, Tir slept late this morning, tired from the night's hardships. That was true for both of them, in fact; the fight against the elements, short as it was, had taken its toll. The dank air wasn't doing much to help things, either; the tent was covered in snow, and there was little oxygen left at this point. Still, driven by the knowledge that he had to get up sooner or later, Tir, after several long moments of comfortable dozing, on the border separating sleep and wakefulness, finally opened his eyes, and allowed his senses to take in their first impressions of this new day.
The first thing he felt was heat; most specifically, a soft warmth against his back. He didn't pay much attention, but then, as he moved a little, there was the matter of the slight pressure on his shoulder and side; something slightly heavier than blankets. He tried moving his hands, but found something soft and warm lying over his right. ...hand...? Without moving his right hand, he sought out the object with his left. It was most definitely a hand, yes; and there were few others that it could belong to -
- which meant that the soft warmth against his back -
He couldn't turn around, but as he started to actively feel his surroundings, it wasn't hard for an experienced strategist to verify the situation.
And the situation looked like this: he, Tir McDohl, was in a tent, which was a bit too small for two people, but which he nevertheless shared with a certain female ninja. Said ninja was currently, from the sound of it, fast asleep; her breathing slow and regular - he could barely feel it. She was also pressed up against his back, and had one arm around him.
That summed it up rather nicely. But, Tir had to admit, he had no idea what to do now.
And there was another thing.
His hand hurt again. Always after he dreamed like that, the Rune would throb angrily, as if to remind him that it was still there. Like he needed a reminder. He didn't like sleeping with his gloves on, but he regretted not keeping them on now...
But it wasn't hurting that much. Not anywhere near as much as he'd come to expect. It had been a bad dream; he remembered nothing of it, save that it terrified him; knew that it was the Rune's work - perhaps it was trying to tell him something, in a language he couldn't understand.
But that touch, that soft, simple touch...
The pain was there, but it was as if it couldn't bear that warmth; as if it shrank away from a simple human touch.
So long since he had felt the touch of a human hand... so long since he had touched anyone, anything, without his gloves...
And then he remembered what he was thinking, what he was doing.
Can't- Slowly, he pulled his hand from her grasp. Kasumi mumbled something against his back, sounding like a protest; he closed his ears, and slowly, carefully, manoeuvred her arm up and over his body, allowing him to get away. Again, she protested, in words he couldn't hear. She rolled over slowly, moving her head restlessly from side to side as he let go of her arm.
"Sorry..." he whispered soundlessly. Sorry...
Rubbing his eyes, perhaps wiping away a few tears, he sat up. The tent was just tall enough to allow that. Then he noticed the way the canvas bulged inwards. Snowed in... The storm must have been worse than he'd expected. And he had particularly asked the Seeress of Toran about the weather before he set out, just to avoid this. He had been told that there wouldn't be any bad weather for several more days; he should have been well across the border before the next storm broke loose. Curse your predictions, Hellion... we're going to... have a talk when I get back...
But right now, he had to see how bad things were. The snow was blocking out the air; that had to be taken care of before anything else. He pulled on his gloves, and then opened a tent-flap carefully. There was nothing but snow outside; well packed - even opening the flap didn't cause anything to fall into the tent itself.
He pondered his next move for a couple of seconds. There wasn't much he could do, though; he had only one idea that might be of any use. Carefully aiming, he awakened the slumbering Rune on his right hand, and sent a thin beam of black flames up into the air. Snow sizzled and boiled, and water dripped into the tent as pure magical energy ate its way up into the fresh air outside. Soon, he could see daylight through the hole, and put the Rune back to sleep. It didn't give him any trouble now, fortunately; he was in no mood to fight with it today. Putting his face to the hole, he took a deep breath, which did a good job in waking him up fully. Soon, the stagnant air inside was being replaced, and the tent grew at once colder and more comfortable. Kasumi stirred a little, but didn't wake up just yet; Tir, without thinking, folded the part of his cloak that he had just been lying on over her to shield her from the cold air.
It was still snowing outside, and quite a lot at that. He could hear the wind howl and shake the branches of the trees outside; it was still blowing full storm out there, if not, perhaps, as much as this night. There was no way they'd be able to make it anywhere in this weather; walking alone would be nigh impossible, and setting up the tents in this weather... it was nothing he, or anyone else with half a brain for that matter, would recommend.
Remaining options, then: to wait it out. That shouldn't be too hard, he figured; they had provisions for well over a week, provided they were careful and rationed it a little, and they certainly didn't have to worry about water.
Then, of course, there was the prospect of spending what could be several days... sharing an area of maybe four square metres with...
Fool... get a grip...
Yes. That was what he'd have to do.
Curse it all.
Kasumi had brought two small books along for situations like this. Unfortunately, they were in a language Tir couldn't understand, and he hadn't bothered to pack anything in case something like this happened - after all, he had counted on this not happening. Kasumi offered to read the books to him, which sounded good - until he realised that one of them was a romance novel, and the other a book of history.
He settled for the book of history. Kasumi was the last person in the world he wanted to read him a romance novel.
And somehow, they managed to make the day go by. Kasumi read until her voice turned hoarse, and after that, she tried to teach Tir the written language of Rokkaku; supposedly a secret, but after all, this was Lord McDohl, and he might have need for it at some time. Or at least, so she could tell anyone who might ask. She had some paper and a pen, too, and soon she had persuaded him to try his hand at copying the arcane letters, while she explained their meaning. Tir was a fast learner, but this was not a child's play; he was willing to take a challenge, however, as it passed time, and took his mind off the rest of the world.
There was little else they could do. Cooking was out of the question inside the tent; and having been forced to leave shelter a couple of times during the day, when nature called, they weren't very keen on going outside to light a cooking fire, assuming that it would even be possible. They both doubted that even Runic fire could withstand a storm of this magnitude. Kasumi used the Fire Rune now inscribed upon her hand to warm some water, and they managed to soak some meat and vegetables to an edible state. Soon they returned to their studies, and by the end of the day, Tir could at least recognise and even write his own name - and, to his companion's childish glee, Kasumi's name as well, even though the runes were complicated. During his "lessons", he seemed to lighten up a little, and when, some time later, they went to sleep again, Kasumi was certain that his dreams would be more peaceful this night.
She was right.
Each day, Tir's mornings became more difficult. One day had passed calmly. Then another, in much the same fashion. And on the third morning after the third night of the storm, as he awoke once more with Kasumi's warm body pressed against his back and her hand clasped to his chest, he found that he couldn't move away. It took several tries before he could force his body to respond and climb out from under the light embrace. He forced himself to look away from her as he sat up, closed his ears to her slight mumbling at the unwelcome movement. To wake up, he reached just outside of the tent and got some snow, which he rubbed against his forehead and cheeks. Not the most pleasant way, but the fastest. Then, as each morning before, he reached out again and blasted the snow away to give them air. This is... getting worse... He got another handful of snow and rubbed it against his face, trying to clear his mind. Then, wiping the moisture out of his eyes, he retrieved his pack, which sat right outside the tent, as there was no room for much else besides Tir himself and Kasumi inside, and dug out some more of the dry field rations that had so far sustained them throughout the blizzard - which wasn't looking to be dying down anytime soon - and hurriedly retreated back to the relative warmth inside, to see Kasumi sitting up and rubbing her eyes, offering him a sleep-drunk smile. He forced himself to nod back.
"What's for breakfast?" she wondered, her voice seemingly waking up a little slower than the girl herself.
"Dried carrots, corn and something unidentifiable green; something that seems to be part of a very unfortunate pig; and a side order of snowmelt," he replied, but couldn't help but notice how strained his cheerfulness seemed. Kasumi stopped midway through the process of scratching her head, and blinked worriedly at him.
"Something the matter, Lord Tir?"
"No." He fumbled with the bowl they used to melt snow. "I'm just tired of the food."
"Mmmh..." Kasumi agreed, or at least presumably agreed. "What... how does the weather look?" she wondered through a yawn.
He shrugged as he scooped up some snow from just outside the tent. "Maybe a little better today." It wasn't really better though, and he still didn't like the storm; it didn't quite feel natural. Not only did storms like this regularly not happen in these parts, but there was something else; another quality to the wind that he couldn't quite put his finger on.
Seeing as Kasumi was awake now, he handed her the bowl. "Melt this... I'll see to the vegetables." As she took it, he produced a small knife and proceeded to chop up the vegetables, which were tougher than they looked, although that didn't mean much, as it was hard for most vegetables to look very threatening.
Still sensing something out of the ordinary about Tir's mood, Kasumi kept her silence and clasped the bowl in her hands, letting warmth flow from the Rune and into the bowl's contents. It was remarkable, she thought, how this one Rune could change their entire daily lives; without it, their position would be considerably less pleasant. She found it hard to focus on such thoughts, though, and her mind wandered, as did her eyes; it came as no surprise where she ended up looking. She jumped slightly, almost spilling some of the hot water, as he turned towards her with the chopped-up ingredients, dropping them into the bowl. As she stirred the soup with a wooden spoon, continuing to heat the water, he produced two smaller bowls and spoons. Once the water was warm enough, she divided the soup into the two bowls, making sure, almost instinctively, to discretely put more of the vegetables and meat in Tir's bowl. He wasn't paying attention, and made no comments; she didn't think he'd seen anything.
Then they ate breakfast in silence. Afterwards, Tir went out to rub some fresh snow into the bowls, an impromptu way of washing them, and finally, they sat together inside the tent again. Still, nothing got said. Kasumi made a motion as to get her books, but Tir shook his head, staring blankly at the wall.
"I'm... not feeling up to it. Later... perhaps..."
She started to say something, but found no words; she just sighed, and leaned back against a rolled-up blanket, deciding to read a little to herself, but it was futile; she couldn't concentrate. Something wasn't right with Tir, and she wanted to know what - but he wasn't going to answer even if she asked, and afterwards she'd simply be embarrassed and feel stupid - it was better not to ask.
A few minutes passed without anything being said, without movement. Then Tir abruptly grabbed his cloak and wrapped it around his shoulders, and headed out. "I'm... going to... move around a little..." he muttered, before she could ask, and then the tent-flap closed after him. Kasumi leaned over and pushed it aside again, peering out. She could see him digging about in the snow a few metres away, and come up holding his staff; then he walked away from the camp site, until she could only see him as a green blur. Finally, he stopped, and Kasumi blinked as a strange light shone from the blurry green shape; then it was gone again. That was a flash of the Soul Eater's power...
What... is he doing? He seemed to be moving around, but there wasn't much she could see from where she was. I... should leave him alone... but... She closed the flap, and started buttoning up her jacket, until the collar was firmly closed around her neck; then she tied up her hood as well. It was a standard-issue ninja uniform for outdoors use during winter; not only highly effective protection from the cold and snow, but excellent camouflage as well; all that was left bare was the area immediately around the eyes. Pulling on her boots as well, topping off the outfit with a pair of thin, flexible gloves, she pushed aside the flap again and crawled outside.
There was a narrow, shallow, almost invisible groove in the snow just outside, where they had walked the few times they had gone outside; Tir's tracks were slightly more visible, but not much; almost hidden by the snow already. She ignored them; she could still see the green shape of Tir a little while off.
Once she reached the spot, she found him standing in the middle of a bare circle of blackened earth, performing a fast, furious practice routine with his staff. She couldn't hear a sound; the snow dampened and absorbed every noise - but she could see clearly now. He had a look of bitter determination on his face; he snarled, animal-like, as he struck and parried against his imaginary opponent, and his breath came in short, rapid puffs of smoke. While she watched, his eyes flashed angrily, and his deadly dance picked up speed. The staff spun, reversed direction, struck in a hundred different ways; as if the air itself was his enemy.
Kasumi realised that she had been holding her breath, and slowly exhaled. I wonder... what he's thinking...
He didn't seem to notice her, which was understandable. She didn't think he'd appreciate her interrupting right now, either, and so she headed back, following her almost snowed-over tracks now, as the tent, covered as it was, seemed like just another snowdrift at this point.
She got back safely, plucked off the excess garments, and unbuttoned her jacket; she couldn't take it off, even in the tent. A little cold, she wrapped herself in a blanket, and lay back, again picking up her novel. Now, without Tir stealing her attention, she could at least read a little, and when Tir before long returned, slightly out of breath and with snow clinging to almost every part of him, she was relaxed enough to keep her attention on the book. She noticed that he, too, seemed a little more relaxed now, however, and that, at least, was a step in the right direction.
The remainder of the day passed without much being said. Kasumi finished reading her book, and Tir simply rested; eyes closed, but not asleep. They had one more meal, still in silence, and then the day was all but over. Soon, they lay down to sleep, without the uncomfortable silence lifting even once.
The sun rose on a day calmer than the ones before. The wind had died down substantially; it no longer howled through the woods, but mainly rustled the bare branches a little. Snow fell still, but though it was far from a light snowfall, it was not as heavy as it had been.
Morning found a young man just about to wake from a deep, but not particularly restful slumber.
It found him slowly rising through various states of unconsciousness, until he finally became awake, and then, another few states that would make him aware of this.
It found him finding himself in a situation he could only describe as... awkward.
He knew he had been dreaming again. His palm throbbed with dull, far-away pain. But, again, the pain was... diluted.
It wasn't the pain that bothered him, however. He was used to that. What he wasn't used to, was waking up and finding a decidedly female shape in his arms.
His eyes opened far too fast, and he was blind for several seconds before adjusting his vision to the dusk inside the tent; the amount of light that filtered down through the snow and canvas was not much, but it was enough to make things much brighter than they had been with his eyes closed. As soon as he saw enough to fully realise his predicament, he closed his eyes again. Oh... no... please, no...
He had both arms wrapped tightly around Kasumi. She was lying partially on top of him, with her head on his shoulder; her right arm around his chest. She snoozed contentedly, features peaceful and angelic. He had his left arm around her waist; he could pull that away, but then -?
He had to get away, without waking her up. She couldn't get this close... it was unthinkable. He couldn't let anyone so close; her, least of all.
The blankets were in disorder, of course, and it was hard just to pull his arm away from its position around her waist. Then, he slowly pulled away the parts of the blankets that he was lying on, allowing some freedom of movement. Have to... get away... It was pitiful, that all he could think of was escape. He had learned much since the day when his world shattered and his life turned upside down by Ted's apparent death and the appearance of Windy; how to devise a strategy to defeat a force of ten thousand men with only half their number; how to survive by himself, alone in the wilderness; how to at least partially control his Rune - but nothing that could help him to deal with a situation like this. All the walls he had carefully built up - useless; she was already far past those. He hadn't allowed himself contact, physically or mentally; painful though it was, it was better... had to be better than the alternative. But now...
Kasumi stirred, moving her head against his chest a little; letting out a soft "mm" noise. To his horror, she rubbed her cheek against him, smiling.
No... please... don't...
But his prayer was in vain. As if paralysed, Tir watched his companion stir from her sleep; saw her eyes move, her eyelids flutter, and then open... Felt her move slightly...
She turned her face up, and their eyes met. There was a second of absolute silence and calm.
Then, in panic, he pulled away, tearing himself from her embrace; sitting up, hugging his knees with trembling arms. Kasumi, unprepared, rolled onto her back with a soft yelp.
Fool... idiot! something in Tir's mind screamed at him. You fucking idiot! Now what did you do? What was the point of keeping her away? It was so that you wouldn't hurt her! Look at yourself now! Are you proud? What have you just done, Tir McDohl?
Through eyes misted with tears, he looked to his side, finding Kasumi sitting up now; her head bent, facing the ground; unwashed, matted dark hair falling over her eyes, effectively shadowing her features. She didn't speak, didn't move.
"K... Kasu...mi..." his voice came out as a croak.
Kasumi's shoulders shook, just once.
"Why?" she blurted out suddenly. "D... do you really... hate me that much? So much you can't even stand to touch me?"
She was already heading for the exit. "I'm... sorry!" she half-sobbed, half-shouted as she made her way out.
"Kasumi!" Tir called out, reaching for her, but she was already beyond his reach.
As the flap closed behind her, he lowered his hand slowly, feeling all strength leave his body. Powerlessly, he pounded a loosely clenched fist against the floor. "K... Kasumi... please..." He couldn't keep his tears from flowing. "Please..."
Kasumi ran, unmindful of the cold, just wanting to get away, as far away as she could. But she didn't have any strength to run, and when she stumbled and fell while the tent was still dimly in sight, she couldn't force herself to get up; she just lay there and let the snow soak up her tears.
I'm... never... going... back... Never...
He had sent her away.
Never... going... back...
His tears had long since dried out. He had no idea how long he sat in the semi-darkness, head leaning against his knees, rocking back and forth gently, babbling nonsense; cursing himself, and begging for the forgiveness of a girl who could not hear is pleas.
He should have followed her. It was too late now. He'd never find her. But where would she go? Would she come back? She had to come back. She just... had to...
He finally lifted his head. No... she's... not coming... He had cast her away. Hurt her. The very thing he had tried to avoid all these years by keeping his distance, everybody else at arm's length - and it was all in vain. He couldn't ever make up for that. And still that tiny part of him was raving in his head: Idiot!
He had to find her. It was the only way. She'd never come back to him after that.
He had to find her.
Slowly, as if in a daze, he pulled his cloak around his shoulders, and headed out into the snow.
The blizzard had subsided, but it still wasn't easy to see. And Kasumi was dressed all in white. He could see faint tracks, but they were smudged, almost filled in. They were going straight for the woods... Tir headed off in the same direction, eyes fixed on the ground. If I lose her now...
The track wasn't long. Abruptly, it ended, and he stopped, confused. What... how -
Then he saw a small patch of darkness in the snow a few metres ahead. No-
She hadn't pulled her hood up. If she had, he would never have seen her; the most he could have hoped for was to stumble over her prone form.
Hurriedly, he knelt down next to the patch of blackness. His questing fingers found the body halfway buried in the snow, and he carefully turned her over. She seemed unconscious, if not worse; his heart nearly stopped at the sight of her pale face. As fast as he could, he pulled her up and stumbled back to the tent, the snow and his unfamiliar burden making it hard to walk. Not a second too soon, he reached the tent and could pull her inside. She was still breathing, at least, but her skin was icy cold, and she was shaking hard enough to make her teeth chatter. As gently as he could, he dried her off with one of the blankets, but there wasn't much he could do; her clothes were soaked, but neither one of them had anything else that was warm enough to replace what she had now. Pulling one arm around her shoulders, he held her as close as he could, wrapped in all three blankets as well as his cloak. He held her right hand in his left, focusing on the Rune; doing his best to take control of it, anything to return the warmth to the ninja's body. He succeeded only in awakening the Soul Eater, and instinctively pulled his right hand away, almost dropping Kasumi on the floor. Gritting his teeth, he switched hands, and pressed the Soul Eater against the flame-shape in Kasumi's palm. Cold, black light reached out for the life flickering in his arms, but he tightened his mental hold on its power; wouldn't allow it to even touch anything else than the Rune it was facing. Curse... you... You are the reason... for all this... Now I need your power... and I. Am. Going. To. Have. It!
The Soul Eater pulsed; perhaps understanding, perhaps not, but now its power flowed directly into the Fire Rune, awakening its power. Even under his Runed hand, he could feel Kasumi's skin grow warmer; she stirred a little, still shivering.
"Kasumi... please... you have to wake up..." He shook her as gently as he could. Her head lolled backwards, and suddenly her eyes snapped open. The look on her face was almost as painful as his actions earlier; shock, pain, more, things that he couldn't even name, but he knew their significance well. She started to pull away, weakly, but didn't have the strength to break his one-armed hold. "Kasumi... You have to use the Rune yourself... I don't dare keep this up any longer..." Reluctantly, he let go of her hand, clenching his own. Enough! Sleep, Soul Eater! The Rune's power slowly dwindled down, until he could barely feel it anymore.
She tried to pull away again.
"No... wait... Please... please listen..."
She stopped struggling, and looked at him, no emotions showing in her eyes or face. She simply went limp, just barely sitting up by herself. Carefully, he pulled her closer again, expecting resistance, but finding none. "You have to get warm... and... I have... something I have to say... You can hate me if you want, but please... listen..."
Still there was no reply.
"Kasumi..." he tried again, "I... can't apologise for... what I did. I know I've never been... too kind to you... always tried to push you away... but it's because I have a reason..." She moved slightly, muscles in her shoulders tensing. "No... please don't do that... just listen." He leaned his head against her shoulder; finding words, more than ever, was difficult. "I have... a burden to carry. This Rune... You know what it is... It's caused countless wars... and it... caused the death of almost everyone I ever loved..." He drew a ragged breath. "And as long as I have it... You... see, I... do care about you, but..." Another long, ragged breath. "I care enough not to want to see you hurt!" he forced it out quickly, the words stumbling. "This Rune! It killed Ted... my best friend. Because of it... Odessa... Gremio... even... father... they all died because of the Rune... And not just them... countless soldiers, people I never knew, fought and died because of this Rune. And as long as I have it, I will keep getting dragged into conflicts. There will always be those who desire power, and would try to take the Rune by force, just like Windy. I could die tomorrow! And that is unless the Rune decides to steal my soul this instant!" He didn't notice how his grip around her tightened; barely noticed as she leaned her head against his shoulder and put her arms around him as well. "And even if that doesn't happen... Kasumi... I could never have children! I would outlive them! I would outlive their children! Their grandchildren would wither away and die before my eyes! And you..." He took her by the arms and pushed her away, looked into her eyes. "Do you want that? Do you want to spend your life on the run? With someone whose mere existence will draw death and destruction to him and everybody who's close to him? I would love to be a normal man again! If I were, I could spend my life in a quiet town somewhere, live a normal life... grow old... but that won't happen. It will never happen now! Not after all this!" He was almost shouting now. "Do you want that?"
Kasumi shrugged off his grip on her arms, and leaned forwards again, burying her face against his shoulder. "No..." she whispered shakily. "I... I don't want that..." She faltered, but continued, louder: "But... when... when I'm with you... I... feel happy... When I see you smile, I smile too... and... and when I saw you crying in your sleep, I cried too! When you're in danger, I'm scared... I, I don't know... what I'm feeling... I've never... felt anything like this before! But... but I know enough! Enough to know that I love you!"
Tir felt a shudder pass through his entire body, and, unable to stop himself, started to sob against her shoulder. "I... I know..." he choked out. "And... that's why... I can't... love you. I... can't let that... happen..." His body shook again as he tried to hold back tears that wouldn't stop falling. "Because... I don't want you to... get hurt. Can't you understand? I can't love! Because if I do... I'll end up hurting people... again..."
Kasumi held him in silence, stroking his back as she was trying to find words. "But..." she managed at long last. "But... you don't understand... Anything you do... to hurt me... Anything at all... wouldn't be as bad... as if you left me! I know what happens in your life will hurt me, and it will hurt you too... but if you leave... if you... that pain... would be the worst... of all."
As she trailed off, Tir's arms threatened to crush her. She could both hear and feel how the intensity of his sobs deepened, and knew that she wouldn't be able to hold back her own tears much longer. She had never felt such pain, anguish or relief in her young life, and now she was overwhelmed by those emotions, and many more. She had finally told him. The words she had been trying to find for over six years had finally been said.
Now there was just one more thing to say, and she repeated her words from three nights ago:
"P... Please... Please... d... don't... cry..."
But then she buried her head against his shoulder and let out her own pent-up emotions in one great river of tears.
Some time later, when exhaustion had taken over, they fell asleep in each other's arms. For a while, peace reigned in the small meadow. Years of pain and loneliness burning out of one's system causes fatigue like no other, and for several hours, the two lay in deep, undisturbed sleep. It wasn't until a couple of hours after lunchtime, when there was a sudden scratching at the tent-flap, that they started to stir. Kasumi was the first to regain consciousness - just in time to see the tent-flap swing open. She untangled her right arm from Tir, desperately searching for the sheath in her belt that held the twin blades of her claws, and froze as she saw a face carefully peek in through the opening. It was a man's face; an ageing man with short-cropped blond, slightly greying hair and beard.
"M... Mondo...?" Kasumi blinked, and rubbed her eyes, certain that she had been mistaken.
"Miss Kasumi." The voice was undoubtedly Mondo's. Kasumi shook her head, and carefully sat up. "Mondo...? What are you doing here?"
"Lord Hanzo sent me," came the senior ninja's reply. "After the blizzard struck, he believed that you might need some help to return to the village. He sent me with skis."
"Oh! Really?" She was wide-awake at this point. "Tir!" She shook him gently, producing a sour "Mngf" grumble. Sighing and smiling, she prodded his shoulder. "Wake up!"
After some persuasion, Tir finally opened his eyes, and heard the entire story - such as it was. He happily agreed to use the skis Mondo had brought, as the weather still wasn't very good for walking - it would be hard to get anywhere without some kind of help. The ageing ninja also brought a couple of extra cloaks, which they gladly accepted before gathering their gear. It took a while to dig out Tir's tent, which had a large hole torn up near the metal ring in the centre, and a few more minutes to fold Kasumi's tent to gather and strap it to her pack. Then, standing on the long, wide skis, they started for Rokkaku.
They were about one day's travel away from the hidden hamlet of the ninja, and they decided to push for as long as they could. The results were well worth it; they reached Rokkaku soon after midnight, and were received by Hanzo himself, who upon seeing the condition they were in, promptly sent them off to get a hot bath.
After their baths, Kasumi retreated to her house, while Tir politely accepted Hanzo's offer to use a guest room.
And, in so many hours, suddenly the adventure seemed to be over.
Come morning, both Kasumi and Tir slept late, and joined Hanzo for breakfast around lunchtime. Various small talk was tossed around the table, until Kasumi finally got to the topic she had dreaded: "Lord Hanzo... I... apologise for my late arrival..."
The ninja master looked at her with the same amount of emotion as one can expect to find in a snake. "The elements are beyond our control," he said evenly, "and you were on a mission of some importance. I will not hold you responsible for this delay." As Kasumi breathed out, very slowly, he added, "I do, however, expect you to catch up on your work."
Kasumi's slow breath broke into weak laughter. "Y... yes sir... Naturally..."
"Good." Hanzo, again, might have been smiling. There was simply no way of telling; he never removed his mask in the presence of an outsider, even if that outsider happened to be Lord Tir McDohl; he hadn't even eaten with them, but just sat there. "I shall leave you... Kasumi, you are charged to escort Lord McDohl back to the border. Mondo will accompany you there. Presently I have business to attend to..."
And with that, he vanished.
"...you're lucky," Tir commented, once the slight unease from seeing someone fade into empty air released its hold on them. "I can expect a thorough chewing out from Gremio when I arrive this late... as well as when I tell him I got caught in a blizzard..." He smiled thinly over his teacup. "I've missed his bickering," he admitted.
Kasumi smiled back. "I'm sure you'll hear enough to last you all the way to your next journey," she told him sweetly.
Tir chuckled. "Yes," he said. "I do believe you're right. But..."
"...but it was worth it. Kasumi..."
"We have to... finish that talk sometime... but until then..."
"I..." Tir shook his head. "I don't know. I honestly don't know what to do. But for now... I know I can't keep pushing you away. That's... all I can do for now, but..."
Kasumi leaned over the low table and clasped his hand. "It is a beginning," she said quietly. "Isn't it?"
"That... will suffice. Enough, Luc."
"About bloody time..." Luc groaned. The sphere of green light he had held cupped in his hands flared up, and died out; The True Wind Rune slept again, as did the storm. Panting and sweat-soaked, the young sorcerer glared at his mistress. "Wasn't... this a bit... too much?" he asked.
Leknaat smiled. "No, dear Luc," she said softly, and stroked his hair affectionately. "It was just enough."
He sighed. "I still don't see what we have to do with it... it's not as if Tir's love life is of any importance to the world."
Leknaat smiled again. "No, Luc. It is of no importance... to the world."
"But someone who has suffered so much must have a chance at happiness as well, don't you think?"
Luc hesitated. He remembered events of several years ago...
"Yes..." he managed finally. He took a deep breath, and continued, "Yes... of course... you're right." He fell silent, but after a few moments, added, "And..." but ended up trailing off again, uncertain of what to say.
"And?" Leknaat pushed.
"And..." Luc smiled, knowing that she could feel it, even if she couldn't see, "'Thank you'. Thank you for reminding me."