Disclaimer: Much as I love them, I do not own Izark or Noriko. All of the characters, place names, and other aspects of the manga Kanata Kara/ From Far Away are the intellectual property of author and artist Kyoko Hikawa. However, I've added a few of my own original characters to the mix. If you can't find a name in the books, I probably made it up (this means I have either given a name to Hikawa-san's nameless character or I've created a completely new one).

Author's Note: A much appreciated reviewer was kind enough to let me know that the time setting of the introduction was not clear. I had meant that to be a reverse chronological (last event first) thing, but I think this en medias (mid- plot) opening works better.

Thanks to BlueTrillium for looking over this latest version; it really helps.

xxxxx

Chapter 1: Prologue

Winter, Fifth Year of the Awakened Age

She held the reins as they rode up the dirt track. His hands were wrapped around hers, not to help control the horse—Tabiia was an obliging animal—but for the sake of contact. So great was his need for comfort that, had they been less visible, Noriko thought that Izark might have held her.

Nothing happened, really. There were the usual inquisitive glances, the double takes elicited by an attractive young couple. There were also longer looks, flashes of vague recognition, uneasy whispers, and furtive glances. Izark's palms were icy with apprehension.

Still, the hostler at the boarding stable did not deny them a stall. Nor did the innkeeper reject their request for a room. That elderly man, a lifelong resident of Anyitht, was one of those whose eyes narrowed when he saw the swordsman, as if trying to recall why that stoic, handsome face should be so familiar.

"Name, please, sir, and I need you to leave your sword. Any other weapons as well," the landlord said mechanically, still stealing glances at the young man from under his lashes.

Noriko felt the surge of tension that Izark did his best to mask. The warrior set his blade on the bar and met the old man's gaze. There was a hard edge to his voice when he replied.

"Izark Kia Tarj," he pronounced firmly, eyes black with defiance.

The innkeeper froze, his ruddy face blanching under thin whiskers.

Uh-oh, Noriko thought. This didn't look like a good beginning. Not wholly unexpected, but not good either. Izark? She thought at him. He did not respond. Concentrating, she sought for one of the many gateways between her mind and his, only to find that one and all were firmly closed. This frightened her. Gently, she rested a hand on her young man's arm, a comforting gesture, and a restraining one.

Izark went perfectly still, then slowly turned his stare away from the now thoroughly unnerved innkeeper. The young woman looked back at him with a pained smile. His face softened.

"I'm sorry," the warrior apologized, carefully pushing the sword hilt first across the counter. It was not clear whom he addressed––he had growled at the old man, but his eyes were on his companion. "Please rent us a room. We have come a long way, and would like to rest."

The warrior's tone was level and sincere, causing the proprietor to relax a little. Hesitantly, he took up the weapon and turned around to unlock the cupboard in which it would be stored. "It has been many years since you left Anyitht, Master Izark," he said with his back turned, using a respectful term of address, but a very neutral tone.

"Ten years."

"…Begging your pardon, but I believe it is eleven."

"No, ten. I heard about—the house." Those last words came out hoarse.

Surprised, the old man was silent as he lifted a key from where it hung on the inside of the cupboard door. Turning back, he placed the key on the counter rather than hand it to his new guests. "Second floor, fifth door to the right."

"Thank you," Izark responded just as tonelessly as he exchanged coins for key.

"Thank you." Noriko sounded like a friendlier, female echo of her companion.

Perhaps it was her slight accent—or perhaps he was so disconcerted by the reappearance of Tarj and Kia's 'young monster' that he had forgotten her—but the innkeeper started when she spoke. Izark felt a certain wry humor at the series of expressions which passed over the landlord's face: recognition of Noriko's existence, realization of her proximity to Izark, shock at the hand still touching the warrior's shoulder, and speculation as to all the possible relationships implied by such closeness. Cautiously, the old man gave a half bow.

"And your name," he inquired slowly, trying and failing to place exactly who she was, "Mistress?"

"Tachiki Noriko," she replied with a smile, letting her hand down to press against Izark's and feeling his swordsman's calluses as his fingers immediately laced with hers. "Noriko."

"I am Erdon Jetta Marmadu," was the only polite response to be given, so the innkeeper gave it. The uneasiness in the old man's face was now joined by an agony of curiosity as he looked between them.

Unfortunately for Erdon, Izark was not in the mood to reveal personal details, and with a curt nod ended the conversation. The innkeeper was left to wonder as he watched the pair make their way down the hall. Guardian and ward? No, that is only ever a pretense. Perhaps she is his slave? But slaves do not speak unless bidden. Still, she can't have a choice but to follow him. Or perhaps she did choose, because she does not know what he really is. He is very handsome, after all, and it is not so uncommon for naive girls to be led astray by handsome rogues. I must speak to my brother and see what he thinks…

I I I I I

Noriko let the door to 'second floor, fifth door to the right' swing closed behind her. Izark had already dropped the saddlebags and was sitting slumped on the edge of the nearer bed, looking wilted. Setting her satchel by the door, the young woman walked over and sat down beside him.

Izark.

He looked up, finally. "This place hasn't changed much," he muttered bitterly, absently putting an arm around her.

She laid her head on his shoulder. "It does seem a little backward." Or backwoods, she thought privately. "But that's not what you mean. Do all the public houses in this country lock up guests' weapons?"

"Most," Izark confirmed. "Tazasina has always had trouble with bandits, even more than Zago. You could say that raids are an annual rite here, or they were when I was young. It makes the people who live in isolated places suspicious and careful." He sighed. "Not that I mind; it's actually a good practice, but it's not much use if the owner asks someone to hand over their sword if that someone turns around and stabs him, or her. Noriko, this—" the young man twisted to pull her close and murmured, "I've made a mistake, bringing you here."

She smiled sadly into his shirt as she wrapped her arms around his chest. "Not a mistake. A lost cause isn't the same as a mistake. But this isn't a lost cause. Not yet."

The warrior drew back just enough to face her, cupping her chin so that she looked him in the eyes. They were the dull, washed-out gray of an overcast sky, the color of defeat. "They will never accept me. They will not accept you. And they certainly will not accept our child." His words fell like stones, and it grieved her that he believed them.

"You don't know that. Izark–"

"Didn't you feel it? They are full of fear. They think I'm a demon, and they think you're a fool for being with me. I could stand it—if we lived out in the forest; never came to town—but you..." His hand left her chin as he shook his head, dejected. "I know you. You need other people; other friends to talk to at least once in a while."

"Three months. Just three months, and if things don't get better then we'll go. Izark, it isn't your fault they think that. The Source of Evil is gone now. I can prove I'm not a fool, just as you can prove you're not a monster." Please don't give up! "We have to try." He was looking away. She bit her lip, searching for a good argument. "We need to stop traveling soon anyway…" This place has haunted him. He'll never be able to move on if we don't at least try.

She had not intended him to hear that thought, but she knew he must have when his eyes widened. Slowly, Izark turned his gaze back to her face, a world of pain in his own. Softly, he told her, "If I agree to that, then we might as well plan for a year." In three months it will be dangerous for you to ride. "And if we can't convince them? What then?"

"Then we'll leave. We'll return to Zago, or to the Kilahb. But Izark, we have to try." This time, he did not look away, and he saw her eyes brighten with hope as she smiled. "Besides, I want to see the place you talked about, the one you thought we could have."

"What?" He smiled for the first time that day, but warned, "I said, we might be able to have it. I don't even know if it can be made livable. It wasn't when I found it, and that was a long time ago." He paused, thinking. "But—very well. If you like the place, and if it can be saved, then we will stay the year. You're right," he whispered, embracing her once more. "I have a duty here, and I must fulfill it."

xxxxx

Noriko: Um, huh? How'd we suddenly get here? What happened in the last—three years? Izark, it's been three years, hasn't it?

Izark: More or less. It took us a few months over a year to make it back to the Sea of Trees, and then we spent another year on the Western Continent before leaving to help Clairgeeta. If this is the end of year 5, then we're missing most of year 3 and all of 4 and 5. So, what are we doing here? And why would I want to come back this god-forsaken speck on the map? Or rather, not on the map?

Muse: Be patient. Like I said, the format is different. A reviewer mentioned that the timeline was a little hard to follow, so I took out the introduction and added an en medias prologue. Just pay attention to the italics under the chapter titles, and you'll know when the chapter begins if the setting has changed significantly.

Izark: (skeptically) And you think that's less confusing––

Muse: You be quiet. Readers, please let me know what you think!