Bonds of Fate

 

I met the prophet when I was eight years old.

He was a tall man, and some people found him imposing. I don’t remember ever finding anyone imposing or frightening. He had strange eyes. Before my mother had died, she had likely told me stories about him – that he could, in fact, truthfully tell the fate of some. I heard it from someone, anyway. I don’t exactly remember, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t care.

The prophet liked that about me. "You’re practical for a child, Nagi," he told me. For some reason, he seemed always amused. Even the fact that people hated and feared him was amusing to him.

He took me into his care shortly after he laid eyes on me.

I never really got to like him – and I don’t think he did me. He used to tell me whatever that other sight showed him – when it suited him – and treated me as one adult might treat another. I did what he asked me. It didn’t matter, anyway.

I was born with a gift – or so they call it. I never explored the limits of it, and the prophet never asked me to. I can never be certain if he was curious. But that doesn’t matter, either. He raised me for seven years.

"We’re different from normal people," he told me more than once, in that calm voice. "We can do things that others can’t. In a way that makes us superior to them – but any man who can do more than another is superior to him, isn’t he?"

"I don’t care," I’d say, in response, and he would smile.

"That doesn’t matter. As long as you know it."

There were others studying from him, but I rarely interacted with them. The prophet’s assertion that we were superior helped me to cultivate a certain disdain for any outsiders, but those who might have been my equal were hardly more interesting than those who were not.

When I was fifteen, I got curious about the outside. I’d lived in the prophet’s tower for too long, and I was bored with his teachings. He didn’t have anything left to offer me at that point, so why should I stay? Nothing held me back.

He knew, of course. He was a true prophet, not some cheap trickster who would perform some ostentatious trick for a few silver pennies at a sleazy carnival. "You’re going to meet someone – or perhaps several someones," he told me, the night before I had chosen to take my leave of him. "And they’re going to change you."

"Oh."

"Your equal," he went on, as if not noticing my indifference to his words, "your opposite, and your heart’s desire."

I looked at him again, as he straightened his spectacles and gave me a smile. "All in one person?"

"I don’t know that." He seemed amused again. "It may be three different people. It might be one. You’ll have to meet with them and find out for yourself."

I killed him the next morning. He didn’t seem surprised. Perhaps he had foreseen that as well – or maybe he just knew me too well. I didn’t care, either way, as long as he was safely dead and I was free of his tower.

None of the others stopped me from leaving. I don’t suspect they would have been able to, but they didn’t try so I never did find out for sure.

It didn’t grow on my mind, and I forgot it all before I’d gotten out of sight of the tower.

I turned south shortly after, without knowing why. There was no direction to the prophet’s words, and I’m not certain I would’ve followed any directions he might’ve given me. I was at loose ends – with no place to go, not even a place to imagine I’d be going. So I turned south. It seemed like a normal enough thing to do. Pick a direction and find out what lay there. I had plenty of money – that which the prophet had given me, and that which I’d taken, after his death, to ensure my survival. If I needed to, I could survive without it, but it was better to have it, at least right at first.

There was nothing to tie me down, but nothing to stir ambition or excitement in me. I was at a standstill, caught forever in an in-between stage, uncaring and indifferent to the fact. I imagined I’d remain that way for the rest of my life.

Fate has a strange way of tricking you like that.

~~~~~~

I found the village only a few weeks after I’d left the prophet’s tower. Actually, I looked down on it before I actually came to it. The tiny place was in a scenic little valley – the sort of breathtaking, beautiful sight that inspires bad poetry and half-adolescent songs. It was like any other village I’d seen on my way to wherever it was I was going, but for some reason I chose to enter the village this time – out of curiosity, or perhaps even just because. The prophet had taught me to look down on regular people, but I still felt mild yearnings for company. It was best to satisfy those: that way, they didn’t grow and fester.

There was a small, neat forest around the village. For some reason, the houses had been built right in the center of the clustered trees, as if they were made to ring the inhabited area. I had to walk through the woods to get into the village, and then through the other side to get out.

It wasn’t any particular inconvenience, so I did.

The forest was not an ordinary forest – that much was obvious immediately. There seemed to be voices all around me, whispers that seemed to be a part of the wind. I knew how to tell the difference. There were things talking all the time in that forest. I’d never encountered this, but the prophet had taught me of it. It didn’t seem so strange or unusual – I was new to the world anyway; everything was different to me. But it was the sort of thing normal people found odd.

"They don’t live on our plane," the prophet had explained, after describing the voices that tended to be a constant part of places that were considered theirs. "There is a place where they remain – like wandering souls, or people who have drifted over and lost themselves. They can only be partially present in what we consider the physical world – and only for short periods of time. But they are always curious about us."

"Us?" I repeated, only marginally interested.

"Our plane," he explained. "It fascinates them. They’re like children – everything they see amazes them. They can’t be drawn fully into our reality, and we can’t enter theirs – not without some help."

"What sort of help?"

He smiled. "That’s an old tale – but old tales tend to have some validity to them. I’ll let you look it up if you’re interested. Or even if you’re not. Knowing things gives you power, Nagi. Ignorance is one of the greatest weaknesses a person can allow themselves to cultivate."

The prophet had an extensive library; I spent several of the months following that talk studying up on what regular people called the ‘fair folk’.

It wasn’t surprising, and it wasn’t interesting, to encounter them. I walked on.

Somewhere to my side, somebody started laughing.

I’d heard plenty of people laugh before – but this… this was different. A girl was laughing, and it sounded clear and real, unlike the whispers all around. But at the same time… there was a feel to it that wasn’t quite human. For some reason, it reminded me of something.

… Myself, I think.

"They’re so pretty!" The girl laughed again. She had a high voice, like a child, but something in it made me suspect that she was older. The way she spoke and laughed was simple and unselfconscious. "I can make a halo of pretty flowers!"

I had stopped walking. For some reason, I felt strange. Interested. I was interested in this girl – this unreal girl, whoever she was. It wasn’t even a detached curiosity, like with the village. I felt I had to know her – had to see her, and find out who she was. And why she had such a hold on me just from laughing.

I left the path, and went toward the sound of the high voice.

She was in a clearing, slightly rounded and free of trees or bushes, like one of their mounds. There were flowers at the edges, and she was gathering them up in childlike delight, inhaling their fragrance and touching the petals with something like wonder. The edges of her form seemed somehow insubstantial, as if she wasn’t quite solid.

I don’t think I could explain what I felt, watching her. But I wanted to see more.

A slight breeze tossed a few of the flowers from her loaded arms, and she laughed again, spinning to watch them dance in the air. "Pretty!" she declared, blue eyes bright with excitement.

That was when I realized what I thought of her – a word I’d never thought had meaning. Beautiful…

The breeze settled, and the flowers stopped dancing. The girl sighed, looking disappointed. She bent to gather what had escaped her armful.

I wasn’t sure at the time what prompted me, but seeing that excitement fade caused an unpleasant emotion to surface in replacement of the contentment that watching the girl had caused. To stifle that, I raised a hand and concentrated on making the flowers move again.

"Ah!" All of the blossoms she’d gathered flew from her arms and spun about her wildly. "So pretty!" She whirled around and laughed out loud, raising both arms as if to embrace the storm of flower petals around her.

I was happy then. Watching her made me happy. That was what it was. I had a sudden urge to approach her, but at the same time I didn’t want to disturb the vision.

She seemed to catch sight of me at that point, and stopped dancing, staring with some confusion. "Who are you?" she asked, mildly puzzled. That wide blue-eyed gaze was fixed directly on me, and it caused something funny to happen to me – I wasn’t sure what, exactly.

The girl was obviously not as young as she sounded – her dress hugged her hips and chest enough to tell me that she was probably at least as old as I was. She was about my height, but she seemed somehow very small. Her hair was caught up in two prettily curled tails at the top of her head, and her face was exquisitely perfect.

I think I felt a wrench in my soul at that point. "Nagi," I answered.

"Nagi," she repeated, and smiled happily. "My name is…"

"Tot!" It was the same kind of voice as hers, real and not real, but it wasn’t as childishly sweet. This one was more stern, and throaty. "Come here!"

The girl blinked, as if waking up from a dream. "Lunch time!" she realized out loud, and turned from me. "Coming!" Then she started to run, quickly fading out before she got two steps.

I’d just had an encounter, I realized, with one of the ‘fair folk’.

~~~~~~

It was impossible to forget the girl. I’d changed, just from seeing her. I couldn’t not care any more – and I wanted to see her again. I wanted to be able to see her every day. It was the first time something had been truly important to me. I thought about her constantly – after all, I’d never had much else to concentrate on. We’d just met for a few minutes, and she’d become something… special.

This had to be what the prophet had meant when he’d told me I’d be changed.

But was she my equal, my opposite, or my heart’s desire? Or all three?

I dismissed the first – we lived on different planes, so we couldn’t be equal. The second would’ve seemed likely, but there had been something that felt familiar about her. She made me think of myself, of how I could’ve been. If I’d ever had the chance to have a childhood. And the third…

I had a feeling that was it.

There wasn’t much I could do about it right away, so I continued into the village. I needed food anyway.

There was some sort of festival or ceremony happening – everyone in the entire village seemed to be gathered in the street. I didn’t care much for the proceedings, but the participants seemed happy enough. There were open markets selling – or even giving away – sweets and trinkets to commemorate the event, whatever it was. Most people were laughing and enjoying themselves, keeping their children from running away or getting underfoot.

That girl would have liked it, I thought.

"Dance with me!" someone said in a soft tenor behind me, half laughing. I turned slightly, almost thinking that whoever it was might be talking to me. He wasn’t, though.

"Hold on, you’ll knock over the chair!" A young man who looked a few years older than me stumbled free of the seat he’d been sitting on, pulled by the insistent hand of the shorter boy tugging him into the crowd. He was grinning in a good-natured sort of way, eyes soft as they watched his partner.

I happened to follow the gaze, and got a bit of a shock. The shorter boy was maybe an inch or two taller than me, and he had huge blue eyes that somehow made me think of the girl in the woods. He didn’t look much like her, or like me for that matter, but in a peculiar sort of way I felt like I was looking into a mirror – not just because he seemed like me, but because of the way he seemed to be me, reversed.

He saw me, too, because his eyes widened a little. Then the taller boy caught him around the waist, dragging him off into the crowd, and I lost sight of them in the mass of dancers.

The music was starting to give me a headache, so I moved on.

I bought supplies from one of the few stores that were actually open during the festivities, and managed to leave the town just as the sun was beginning to set. I had no desire to stay the night – actually, I wanted to sleep in the woods. Just in case she came back again.

One never knew, with her kind.

I expected that I’d be staying in the area for quite a while – most likely just in the woods. I had a heavy blanket in the bag I’d brought along for when it got cold, and I could always go back to the village. I didn’t want to leave the area where I’d seen her – not until I’d managed to find out more about her, at least.

I wasn’t going to get much sleep, and I knew it.

I’m not sure why I was so certain I’d see her again. Maybe the prophet’s words about ‘heart’s desire’ had meant something more serious than a simple longing – it might imply a sort of connection. There was something between us, even if it was only something that I felt myself. I didn’t need to seek out the other two that the prophet had mentioned; she had changed me more than enough.

And I knew she’d be back.

It wasn’t too far into the evening when I was proved right. She didn’t seem as if she expected me to be surprised at her sudden entrance – all she did was walk out of thin air into the small clearing I’d set my bag down in, kneel down beside me, and smile.

"You came back, Nagi," she told me, seeming pleased by that.

"So did you." I sat up a little more. All of her attention was fixed on me – it was enough to push me over the edge again. I was happy. Her presence made me happy. I don’t remember expecting to feel happy at all since I’d gone to live with the prophet. I much preferred her to him – she was prettier, if nothing else.

"My name is Tot," she announced, watching my face with those guileless blue eyes. "Did you come to bring me back here?"

For a moment, I was confused. "Bring you…?" The books I’d read on the subject of her kind mentioned something… that the ‘fair folk’ weren’t in fact entirely spirits, but real people who had drifted into that plane, and couldn’t find their way back. "You lived here before?"

"Papa tells me I did." She seemed to get a distant look on her face, like there was something she couldn’t quite remember. "He says I was scared because bad things happened, and I lost myself. But Papa found me, so I was all right." The distant look seemed to fade, and she smiled again. "This place is so pretty… I’d like to come back. One day someone is supposed to help me. I can’t do it myself. Can you?"

I turned away from her hopeful eyes, a feeling like I’d lost something important building at the pit of my stomach. "I don’t know how," I answered, softly. "I’d like to, but I don’t know how." I looked up at her again. "These people – they’ve lived here a long time. One of them must…"

"But they can’t see me!" She rocked back as if she’d been slapped, eyes wide and unhappy. "You can see me… no one else is like you."

I felt like someone was trying to yank out my insides. The sight of her misery was actually painful. "I’m the only one who can see you," I realized out loud. This couldn’t be the case… I had to be able to do this. "And we can’t meet like this at all?"

She raised a slender hand, as if to press it against my cheek – but there was no contact. I shut my eyes instinctively as the soft-looking fingers passed directly through my face – it felt like a shiver passing over my skin.

I saw her point. "Oh."

"The people in the village know," she said, almost sulkily. Big sorrowful eyes still watched my face closely. "Can they teach you?"

"They don’t know me… and it’d take far too long to learn." I’d read about such practices… they could take a lifetime to learn. I didn’t have that much time. "Has anyone else seen you – ever?"

"No… maybe…" She blinked at me. "Nagi… if there was someone like you in there, maybe they could see me."

I leaned toward her, wishing I could do something to ease her hurt. I wanted to take her face in my hands, or hold her close and protect her from the world. "Are you sure there’s no one else like that in the village? Like me?"

She opened her mouth, seemingly thinking very hard. "I might…someone else might’ve…"

"Seen you?" I finished for her, hopefully. There had to be a way… It would kill me, if we were torn apart before we even had a chance to be together.

"Maybe." She met my eyes again. "A boy. He had blue eyes."

Which told me nothing. "Do you remember anything else about him?"

Tot pursed her lips as if in deep thought. "He reminded me of you," she said, at last. "But he didn’t look like you. He was different… Like you, but not like you. You’re much better," she added, leaning forward and smiling shyly.

Like me…

It seemed to come together right then in my head. My equal… my opposite… my heart’s desire. She was my heart’s desire, and to be with her, I had to go through…

My equal…

My opposite…

I remembered the soft-voiced boy at the celebration, and Tot’s words fit exactly. ‘Like you, but not like you’. He would’ve balanced me perfectly on a scale – like a mirror image. But everything about him was the reverse of everything about me. He and I could both see Tot, and that made us equals as well as opposites.

And he could give me what I wanted.

"What are you thinking, Nagi?" Tot asked, watching me curiously.

I looked at her again. "I’m thinking… I have a way for us to be together."

~~~~~~

"How come we’re leaving so early?"

A breathless laugh answered that, and the second voice spoke up, cheerfully bantering. "Why do you think, stupid?"

"Considering that you just called me ‘stupid’, I’d say you’re in a hurry to keep the couch company," the soft tenor answered, trying without success to sound severe. The owner sounded as breathless as his companion.

I moved away from the corner as the voices passed me by, trailing behind the two.

"Who’s in the mood for sleeping?" The taller boy didn’t seem even a little contrite. "I’m in the mood for… dancing!" Without warning, he turned and whipped his arms around the waist of his partner, pulling him suddenly and forcefully into a clumsy, spinning dance.

"Aaaa! Ken!" The shorter boy’s shout of protest turned into helpless laughter as he was spun about. The streets were empty, most of the neighbors continuing to attend the celebration, and the happy noise the two were making echoed eerily. "Put me down!"

"Not a chance! It’s your fault, after all." The dark-haired boy – Ken, apparently – dipped his partner back in an exaggerated motion. "Who was it who wanted to start dancing at the festival? You planted the idea – now it’s stuck."

"Everyone was dancing at the festival, you madman!" the blond boy retorted, a short burst of laughter escaping him again. He tried to push his way up, but his partner seemed determined to stay in that position all night.

"So, if everyone decided to jump off a cliff, would you?"

"Well, if everyone was jumping off a cliff, there’d have to be a good reason for it, wouldn’t there?" the shorter boy retorted, a playful smile barely visible in the dim light of the lanterns at the sides of the streets.

That was an interesting viewpoint.

"Why do you have to be so smart all the time?" Ken raised his partner back up, but did not let him out of the tight hold, smiling down with the kind of shining eyes that were so often described in bad poetry.

"To make you look bad."

They both snickered a little at that, resting their foreheads together and gazing into each others’ eyes with a kind of star-struck fascination – as if they’d never seen each other up close before, even though they had obviously been together for a long time.

Ken broke the silence first. "Omi…" His voice lowered, as if he was worried that someone would overhear him being overly sentimental. "Did I ever tell you that I love looking at you by moonlight?"

Omi. So that was his name.

"I think so." Omi managed to free his arms, and slid them around his partner’s neck. His eyes appeared to be half-lidded. "But I like hearing it."

"Then I’ll keep saying it," Ken promised, with absolute sincerity. He bent his face to close the last few inches between them, meeting his lover’s half-parted lips softly. The kiss grew rapidly into something more passionate, their arms tightening around each other as they reveled in the sensation of feeling the touch of one they loved.

Lucky fools. My eyes narrowed slightly, and I recognized the feeling building in my gut as jealousy. To be able to hold each other – kiss each other – the way they did… I was willing to bet they took those things for granted.

Ken’s hands slid possessively over Omi’s back, grasping at the curve of his shoulders as if it looking for confirmation of his reality. They were so deeply involved in the open-mouthed kiss they shared that I could’ve sounded off a trumpet fanfare beside them, and they wouldn’t have noticed. Omi’s fingers clenched in the fabric of Ken’s shirt, pulling himself closer.

Or maybe they didn’t take it for granted. But they were still able to enjoy it, and the sight made me irrationally angry.

They parted slowly, breathing heavy and heated, eyes still half-lidded as they regarded each other from that close vantage. The fact of their love was more visible in that simple look than the previous insistent kiss.

Envy churned in my stomach. It wasn’t pleasant.

"Everyone’s at the festival, right?" Omi’s voice was even lower and more breathless than before. His fingers toyed absently with Ken’s shirt collar. Even I could catch the implications of that.

"Here?" It wasn’t even much of a question. Ken’s grip around Omi’s waist tightened. "What if somebody leaves the festival?"

"We’re the only ones stupid enough to leave before dawn, Ken."

The taller boy smiled. He didn’t seem to mind the fact that he’d just lost an argument. If it was an argument. "Guess you’re right," he agreed, softly, and leaned down for another kiss.

This had gone far enough. I concentrated on a gate somebody had left down around another street corner, and wrenched in far enough to smash into the side of the fence around it. The crash was loud enough so that it could’ve been heard much farther on, if the noise from the festival didn’t cover everything.

Ken and Omi jumped apart as if they’d been burned.

"What was that?" The shorter boy glanced down the street. The corner blocked his view of the source of the noise.

"Maybe we weren’t so right about everyone being at the festival." Ken gave him a rueful look. "I’ll go and see what it was. You wait here." He ducked down the street without waiting for an answer.

Omi sighed, frustrated, and started out after him.

I took hold of his limbs all at once and brought him to an abrupt halt.

"What…?" His eyes widened as I spun him around and stepped out into his line of vision. He recognized me from earlier, I could tell right away, and it unsettled him. "Who are you?"

"Nagi," I said shortly. It was unkind of me – he hadn’t done anything wrong, after all – but I wasn’t inclined to be patient with him. "I’ve been told that you can bring people over from their place."

I didn’t expect the way his expression contorted. I had expected surprise – maybe mistrust, or even wariness. I hadn’t expected stark terror. "Who told you that?" he asked, voice little more than a squeak.

Ken was coming back. I flipped open a gate, more quietly, to catch his attention again.

"A reliable source." I knew that he could because of the way he’d replied to the question. It also told me he was afraid of something, and I wanted to find out what that was. "Now that I know you are capable of it, tell me why the question scares you."

If anything, he looked even more frightened, and I could feel him trying to break free of my hold. "If you knew anything about it, you wouldn’t have to ask that," he answered, managing to sound brave.

I distracted Ken with a door that opened on its own.

"Enlighten me."

"You can’t just invite them through without problems." His eyes darted around – looking for his lover, maybe. Or he might’ve been debating how safe it would be to call for help. "They pass through your thoughts and pry your mind open. It’s stupid to try – one false move, and they’ll rip your soul to shreds and leave you with a husk of a body left. It’s worse than death to get it wrong!"

So that was it. I frowned. The risk was one I’d take myself without a second’s hesitation, but there was no way I could do it myself. The image of Tot’s face was like a balm on me… I hadn’t thought I was capable of emotions as strong as she could invoke from me. "Have you ever seen a girl in the woods?" I asked him softly. "A girl with long hair in two tails, who acted young but wasn’t?"

His eyes widened again, giving him away. "No!" he lied, denying it.

I gave him a contemptuous look. "You’re frightened for your own safety."

"Of course I am!" He was stealing quick glances toward the street, obviously wondering what was taking his lover so long. He had to have realized the reality of the situation, because his voice got softer, pleading. "Someone I care about more than anything in the world is in love with me, and I know that the thing that would hurt him the most is if something happened to me!"

That was a bit surprising, but not entirely unexpected. I gave in to curiosity for the moment. "How do you know that?"

I flipped another gate, but I seemed to have lost Ken’s attention. He was coming back.

"Because I feel the same way about him," Omi confessed, simply.

"It might make you feel better," I said, instead of responding, "to know that you’re making that sacrifice for a similar kind of thing to what you have right now."

He didn’t get a chance to reply, because Ken came jogging back from the street I’d sent him off on a fruitless chase down. "Hey, Omi," he called, not seeing me at first. "There’s something weird going on down – hey. Who’s this?"

"Ken – !" Omi barely had a chance to begin his plea for help.

I pushed him to the ground and lifted Ken up off of it – rapidly. He gave a startled yell.

"Ken!" Omi cried, watching him rise helplessly.

"Omi, what’s going on!?"

I glanced back at the frightened younger boy. His eyes were riveted to his lover, who was much too far away from the ground to fall without being splattered all over it. "Please don’t let him fall," he begged. "Please don’t… don’t hurt him…"

I let go of Ken, and he dropped like a stone.

"NO!" Omi’s scream was the most desperate sound I’d ever heard.

Inches before the taller boy hit the ground, I stopped him. His face was pale, and his eyes were wide. If I hadn’t been tightly controlling him, he would’ve been trembling violently – but he was alive.

Omi sobbed. It was a relieved sound, but the look on his face was terrified. No single act I could’ve performed would have frightened him as much as the threat to Ken.

"I’m going to hold onto him when we go," I told the almost hysterical blond boy. "You won’t try anything stupid, because if you do I’ll rise us both up so that you can watch him fall."

"I won’t do anything stupid," Omi said, hoarsely. He was watching Ken, not me, and his gaze was that of someone filling their eyes with one last pleasant sight before they died.

"Omi, don’t – !"

"Good." I sent Ken smashing into somebody’s fence, completely crashing it inward. He didn’t get up.

"Ken!" Omi struggled against my hold again, pushed that much closer to hysteria. "No… please don’t… let him go… don’t hurt him! Ken! Is he all right?"

"Fine." I tugged that hold, and he rose, stiffly, to follow me. "As long as you cooperate."

He stared back at his fallen lover until we were out of sight, even after I was sure he couldn’t see Ken through the debris left by the wooden fence.

~~~~~~

"Where are we going?"

I glanced over my shoulder. Omi had been quiet for the entire walk, but now he watched me with solemn blue eyes, expression blank. I believe he might still have been in shock.

"To the first place I saw her."

He swallowed, and a sort of frightened hopelessness replaced the blank expression. "You're really going to make me do this?" When I didn't answer, he continued, voice hoarse. "Why? I haven't done anything to you."

"It has nothing to do with you," I told him.

"But you're forcing me to do something that might make me kill myself." He said it in a flat, steady tone - keeping away hysteria, I suspected. "And subject the person I love most in the world to living alone."

"I'm selfish." I don't think he was expecting that; he didn't answer. "I'd sooner sacrifice your love and keep my own. Wouldn't you, in my place?"

He said nothing, but glanced away.

"Here." I stopped walking, just after stepping into the meadow I'd first seen Tot in. It wasn't nearly as bright now - the shadows from the trees made it seem cold and dark. But no less magical. "This is where she was."

Omi didn't meet my eyes. "Y-you'll have to tie me down," he said, very softly. "I won't be very rational when it starts. Might… run away." He appeared to be fighting back tears.

I tied him to the tree I'd been standing beside when I had watched Tot gathering flowers. I could have held him in place, but I had my concentration elsewhere. Omi's lover was already awake, and I didn't want him to find us before this was over. Instead, I used twine, and tied his wrists together securely behind the thick trunk.

Omi made one last plea before I was done. "Please don't do this," he whispered simply, just the faintest trace of fear showing in his voice. "Please don’t… I can't leave him behind." He had tears spilling freely over his face by then, frightened eyes staring imploringly into mine.

I understood then that this was what all my training in indifference had built up to. There was only the faintest pang of sympathy in me for him, and I ruthlessly smothered it. "Do what you have to."

Biting his lip for a brief, panicked moment in order to hold in a sob, Omi took in several deep breaths to steady himself. Then he drew himself up, probably thinking about his fallen lover, and began to speak very softly, in a language I didn't recognize.

Behind me, a breeze stirred the flower beds.

Omi's voice grew louder, and the syllables tumbled from his lips more quickly. The breeze became a wind, and it rustled the pine trees around us. I could feel its power, but it didn't reach us at all.

Tot… I wanted to make her hear me, get her answer. I fixed her image in my mind, shutting my eyes. Soon she'd be there. Soon I could touch her, and we'd be together. Soon… soon…

Omi was almost yelling, and the words formed were hardly recognizable as separate sounds. His eyes were shut tightly, like he couldn't bear to have them open, and his face was scrunched up as if he were in pain. His shoulders heaved against the bindings, but they held him in place.

The meadow was glowing, as if fireflies had lighted it. The grass and leaves and flowers danced in the wind that didn't reach the two of us, and they were glowing a soft, bluish color, matched by the moon above.

A sound like a choir of humming voices began to accompany the loud chanting.

Omi was screaming, and it sounded like it was disjointed and wordless. His face was almost distorted, and his body arched and squirmed as if he were in terrible pain. His feet kicked helplessly at the ground as he writhed, caught in throes of something that might just be too much for a human to contain.

That was when I saw the outline of a face start to form around his.

~~~~~~

Her eyes were closed, and her features were indistinct. I could just barely made out Omi's face beneath them, but it hardly seemed real any more. Over his form, hers was materializing. I couldn't even hear him any more; in my ears, the choir of voices raised in that otherwordly humming was the only thing capable of being a sound. And the only thing I could see was her face.

"Tot," I whispered, unable to tear my gaze away.

She opened her eyes, and smiled at me. I felt like a wave of benediction had crashed through my body, and I shivered. Please… I reached out with both hands, silently begging her to come through. To be with me.

Tot flowed forward, her misty, half-formed body seeming to separate from Omi's then. As it did, it solidified into the girl I had seen in the woods - a real girl, firm and alive, her hair mussed and face flushed with some emotion.

She took a step forward, tentatively, and all at once the choir receded.

The meadow's glow faded back into the night shadows, and behind Tot, Omi's screams faded into nothing. The boy toppled down, slumping to the ground with his arms still bound behind the tree.

I couldn't tell if he were alive.

"Nagi," Tot said slowly. Her voice, too, was plainly human. She held her hands in front of her face and stared at them as if she'd never seen them before. "I am…" she began, and stopped, as if puzzled. "I am…"

"Human," I finished softly, and stepped froward slowly, reaching out for her. It felt like I was caught in a dream. The only thing that convinced me that it was all real was the soft feel of her skin as I raised shaking fingers to touch her face.

"Tot…"

"I am alive," she said, in a wondering tone. "Oh… Nagi!" And she threw herself into my arms enthusiastically, hugging my neck tightly and laughing with happiness.

I don't remember when I had tears start to flow down my cheeks, but I remember that I first felt them when my arms closed around her waist and held her to me. I could touch her. My whole body started to shake, and for a while - I don't know how long - all I could do was stand there and just hold her.

"Omi? Omi!"

I opened my eyes. Caught in the moment, I hadn't been paying attention to Ken. I could hear him calling for his missing lover, a frantic note in his voice. At that moment, finally holding Tot in my arms, I was in a position to sympathize. And… I glanced down at Omi, still unmoving on the ground. I actually hoped he wasn't dead.

I thought, then, that I would have at least one regret if he were. It was the first time I'd ever felt anything like that.

Perhaps he had changed me, like the prophet foretold. I should have known. The prophet's visions were never wrong.

"Omi! Omi, if you're all right, answer me!" Ken's voice cracked, and he kept calling out the younger boy's name. I could hear him crashing around nearby. We didn't have too much time before he'd find us. And Omi…

"Is he all right?" I asked Tot. Surely she would know; she'd been merged with him for a moment there.

"I didn't hurt him," she assured me. "Not me."

"We'd better get out of here." I bent for long enough to untie Omi's hands, and then returned to pull her into the trees. "Just wait for a moment."

She smiled. "We get to watch?"

"Yes." I actually did care about what happened. It felt strange.

But not necessarily bad.

Ken came crashing out into the clearing a moment later, and almost literally stumbled onto his fallen lover. "Omi!" With a strangled cry, he pulled the shorter boy into his arms, checking for signs of life. "Oh god, Omi, be all right. Please…"

Omi was right, I realized, watching the dark-haired boy frantically plead with the limp form in his arms. His death would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to Ken. I suspected it might even incapacitate him.

To love that much…

I think… I understood.

Then Omi sucked in a sudden, gasping breath - and started to quietly sob.

"Oh, thank god…" Ken breathed, pulling his lover close against his shoulder. "Thank god… Omi, you're all right. I'm here, I've got you. Relax, okay?" He kissed the top of the boy's head, then his forehead, then moved down his face, desperate to convince himself that this was real, and that the most important person in his life was really alive and unharmed.

"Ken…" Omi choked out, and the two of them clung to each other like it would mean their lives to let go.

I hugged Tot's shoulders a little tighter, then turned and led her away. We had seen enough of that.

~~~~~~

We lingered around in the general vicinity of that village for maybe a week. There wasn't any reason to, but I know I - and, I think, Tot as well - wanted to see how things would turn out.

I'm not entirely certain why, but after Ken and Omi returned home, they seemed to forget about the incident completely. The next morning, they went about with business as usual - as well as what I assumed to be the usual… kissing in public, carrying out unpredictable and often silly displays of affection in unusual places, and the general sugary sweet business of being in love.

After some few days of that, we made the decision to move on.

Neither of us was interested in settling down until we were too old or worn down to move any more. For myself, I hadn't even outgrown the wanderlust that had come over me when I left the prophet's tower. And for Tot… well, she hadn't seen much of the world at all, beyond that little village and the surrounding forest. I wanted to show her everything, and I know she wanted to see it.

I think back to that village all the time. That place, and the two people I know of who live there, made a huge impact on my life, probably without even realizing it. I watched them go through both safe times, and a very dangerous one, and I think in a way it's shaped how I treat Tot, and expect to be treated in turn.

She's mine, but I never take that for granted. That's the lesson I learned best. Any time, someone or something could come along and rip away what's most precious to me. If I live for every second of the time you have together, I'll never have regrets.

Perhaps I'm not as quick as I thought - it takes me years to learn what two ignorant, powerless people had known all their lives.

It doesn't matter, though. As long as I've learned, nothing else matters.

 

The End