Ja'far remembers the day they met as the first day he laughed in a long while.
Pisti watches the pair in amusement, peeking behind the dungeon wall. Every so often, she giggles and has to stifle the betraying sound with her hand.
"Stop stalking them," Ja'far chides, irritated. He can't quite figure out why Pisti is suddenly so insistent on following the girl's and the boy's every move.
Pisti sticks out her tongue at him: "'m not stalking," she grumbles.
She takes is as a challenge: "Am not!"
"Are too," he sighs in desperation, begrudgingly accepting the childish game.
The next 'are too' comes soon enough, but the voice is not the same.
"AM no – huh?"
She looks at Ja'far in bewilderment, but he has his attention otherwise occupied by something very much obviously situated behind her, since he seems to be looking over her shoulder with a look of bewilderment of his own, which not only matches, but, she would dare say, far exceeds her own.
She spins on her heel and – sure enough, there is something – or rather, someone there, and it's someone she's become quite familiar with in the past few weeks.
The dark-skinned boy has his arms crossed over his chest, a contemplating frown on his face:
"Did you think we were stupid or something?" he grumbles, clearly unhappy with that possibility.
"N-n-n-o…" Pisti stammers, eyes big as saucers.
"You thought we wouldn't notice?" he prompts further.
"Well, we – "
"Hey! Don't bring me into this," Ja'far complains. He really doesn't want to get on anyone's bad side. Although, when he thinks about it - if Pisti gets on someone's bad side, he'll be right there in the same boat with her. Hell, he'll even take the wheel, judging by the way things normally go.
Pisti shoots him a look which morphs back into a charming smile impossibly fast as soon as she turns her head to look at the boy, a sheepish expression on her face:
"Yeah, I kinda hoped you wouldn't."
And then the boy, obviously confused by this embodiment of innocence and purity, turns his attention to Ja'far: "Why were you stalking us?"
Ja'far's jaw almost drops to the floor as he stares at the boy with wide eyes: "I didn't have anything to do with it! She was the one stalking you!" he exclaims, to hell with all friend-protection business.
"Well, I can't exactly yell at her when she looks at me like that, now can I?!" the boy states, as if it's the most obvious thing in the world.
"That's really not my problem," Ja'far mumbles, not exactly knowing where the boy is going with this.
"She's your protégée, isn't that right? Take responsibility!" the boy demands, his head held high, pointing his finger at him. Ja'far can almost imagine a sword being pointed at his chest at the intensity of the boy's glare. He has the stance of a swordsman too, Ja'far notes, with no small amount of worry.
"I'm telling you, I really don't – "
"Umm, excuse me…" Pisti mumbles, smiling slightly. "The reason I was stalking you…well…I-I just thought you were really cute and…and…"
Jaws do drop to the floor this time, two of them, in fact.
"PISTI!" Ja'far yells, scandalized.
The other boy, on the other hand, looks incredibly pleased with himself:
"Well, if that is so, my lady…" he bows, putting one hand on his chest and reaching out to take Pisti's hand with the other one.
Pisti, realizing what is going on, goes beet red: "AHH! NO! No, no, no! I didn't mean…I mean…that is, err…"
The boys look at her in confusion. Ja'far, seeing a spark of hope, prompts cautiously: "Well, what is it, Pisti?" He doesn't think she's ever looked so embarrassed in her life.
"I-I-I just m-meant…you were really cute…you and that girl you're always with," she finishes in a small voice; gaze firmly fixed to the ground.
He's pale, so very pale, sitting on the floor, his back against the wall and head between his knees. It would be a sad sight, Ja'far thinks, if it wasn't so damn amusing.
The boy seems to be positively agonizing over Pisti's previous remark. One might actually be worried if not given information about the cause for his current predicament. He does look like he's going to be sick, after all.
He mutters something about crazy little girls and serious brain damages.
"Aww, don't be like that. She has a point, you know. You two are really cute," Ja'far teases. He doesn't really know what he thinks about the pair, not having stalked them nearly as much as the bubbly girl whose eyes light up at Ja'far's approval. He's seen the girl a couple of times – light blue hair and a staff in her hand, dressed in rags just like the rest of them – that's mostly what he can remember; he's heard her too – throwing insults at the boy which he would then promptly throw right back at her. He tried not to concern himself too much with their antics. But then Pisti happened. And this boy happened. Now his interest is peaked and he doesn't see the way out of this showing itself anytime soon.
The boy glares at him: "You know, I think this disease is spreading at a worrisome rate. How 'bout I just off you two and save the sanity of many?" he suggest, eyes narrowing dangerously, as he unsheathes his sword in a threatening gesture. 'So, swordsman then, or a wanna-be one at least,' Ja'far confirms his suspicions.
He eyes the sword suspiciously, fingers curling around red wires underneath his baggy robes. Before either of them can make a move, though, they are interrupted by an angry voice:
"Hey! You idiot old men! Stop bullying them!"
"I'm not bullying anyone, stupid witch!" the boy yells back immediately, as on a reflex. "And what kind of idiotic insult is 'old man'?! I'm thirteen for God's sake!"
"Shut up! It's because that stupid white hair! You look like a miniature old man! No! It's an insult to old men! At least they don't have your ugly face! And you're not thirteen, you're twelve! I'm two years your senior! Show some respect!"
"I'll be thirteen in less than a month and you just turned fourteen, witch! Don't twist everything around to your liking! God, this is why I hate magicians!"
The girls face turns red with anger: "What did you say?! Magic is a hundred, thousand, no – a million times better than those idiotic swords of yours, idiot swordsman! And don't call me a witch! I'm a sorceress, s-o-r-c-e-r-e-s-s, get it?!"
"Yeah, yeah, witch. You're right – swords are awesome! What did you say? A million times better than magic? Well, I don't know, I was thinking – a billion! How's that?"
"Y-Y-YOU – "
Suddenly, Pisti is laughing. The foreign sound fills the room as she clutches her stomach with one hand and tries to stifle it with the other one, her body shaking with every breath she manages to suck in between her giggles. Her eyes fill with tears and she hiccups: "Ahh-hah – don't - don't mind me," she laughs. "Carry on, please," she tells the odd pair who have ceased their verbal battle to look questioningly at the young girl.
The blue-haired girl seems to snap out of her daze as she runs to Pisti and kneels down next to her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry! I'm sorry for all the trouble this idiot caused you! I'll make sure he pays!" she promises, determination flaring in her eyes.
"Hey! Who said I caused trouble?!" the boy complains loudly. "They were the ones stalking us!"
"You shut up! I don't believe a word you say!" she yells back, then turns to Pisti once again and smiles: "What's your name?"
Pisti grins happily at her soon-to-be-friend: "Pisti! And this here's Ja'far," she chirps, pulling a very confused Ja'far closer by a sleeve.
The blue-haired girl casts them a bright smile and Ja'far has to wonder where the loud, hot-headed girl from just a minute ago went.
"I'm Yamuraiha," she says and turns her attention to Ja'far: "Is he your big brother?" she asks Pisti.
"Something like that. He's always looking after me and protecting me" Pisti says smiling.
"Really? That's amazing! You seem like a really nice person, Ja'far-san."
Ja'far can't help but to blush a little at the praise: "Just call me Ja'far," he mumbles, trying to regain some composure as to not make the first impression of a complete wimp. Pisti would never let him live it down – her usually calm and collected 'big brother' being shy in front of a girl. He'd never hear the end of it.
"Pfft! Isn't he just another old man? His hair is also white, if you haven't noticed," the white-haired boy grumbles.
"No way! His hair is silver, not white! Besides, he seems like a very nice person! And he's much more handsome than you, idiot old-man!" Yamuraiha explains like it's the most obvious thing in the world.
"Whatever," the boy says coolly, apparently not in the mood for another verbal spat.
Pisti, though, grins widely, gets on her tiptoes, puts both of her hands on the boy's shoulder and pulls him down a bit, whispering teasingly in his ear: "Someone's jealous."
Ja'far overhears and suddenly, he can't hold it in anymore. He starts laughing.
And Pisti is looking at him with bright eyes welled up with unshed tears, laughing as she launches herself at him and tackles him to the ground. She hugs him as tightly as she can, puts her chin on his shoulder and whispers in his ear: "You should do this more often."
The pair look at them oddly, but he doesn't care. He only hugs her tighter.
That night, the two of them lay together in the cold, hard bed, tangled among the thin sheets. She smiles as she whispers: "My stomach hurts from laughing. So do my cheeks."
"Hey, Ja'far?" she says gently as she snuggles closer to him.
"I want my cheeks to always keep hurting."
He smiles and pinches her cheek: "I'll make sure of it," he promises.
The boy's name, they learn after many failed attempts (Yamuraiha would just yell: "Idiot swordsman!" – whether the question was directed to her or the boy himself) is Sharrkan.
And boy, can he hold a grudge.
Days turn into weeks and it's almost been a month, but he still shoots them unfriendly glares whenever they happen upon each other, accentuated with a hand on his sword whenever he locks eyes with Ja'far. But Pisti smiles innocently at him all the while and eventually – he starts giving her an odd smile back. She beams happily whenever that happens, drawing nothing short of a grin (albeit an involuntary one) from the stubborn boy's lips, and – even though Ja'far expertly hides it and won't admit it in a million years – from his own lips as well.
Yamuraiha, on the other hand, smiles whenever she isn't engaged in a fierce battle (verbal or physical, either seems to work) with her sworn enemy, as she sometimes refers to him. So yeah, she doesn't smile much more than Sharrkan does, in the end.
On sunny days they sneak outside, just for under an hour, since patrols are anything but rare during the day. Yamuraiha proclaims Sharrkan's worrisome condition the main reason for the absolute necessity of such actions. "Imagine what he would look like if he lost this color because he was always cooped up in that place! He'd probably look like he's going to be sick all the time. He'd be an extremely unpleasant sight to behold," she says seriously, nodding to herself.
"I thought he already is one," notes Ja'far helpfully.
Yamuraiha smiles broadly at him: "He is. So let's not make matters worse, agreed?"
"Agreed," Ja'far and Pisti say simultaneously, earning a very angry look from the object of the conversation.
They head to a nearby lake and soon come to stand on a small wooden bridge across it. Pisti spots a turtle swimming leisurely under the bridge and soon both girls let out excited squeals and carelessly bend over the short fence to catch a glimpse of the turtle before it decides to dive. Sharrkan takes this opportunity to kick Yamuraiha in the butt with the sole of his foot and send her over the fence and into the water. For a minute, everything is quiet as Ja'far and Pisti look at him with identical looks of some terrible premonition.
"What?!" Sharrkan inquires, confused.
"Sharrkan," the voice sounds anything but angry. In fact, it sounds relaxed, almost pleased. The young sorceress is floating on her back on the water, a look of complete contentment gracing her features, blue hair meddling with tiny waves, fingertips absentmindedly stroking the turtle's head.
"Oh, it's a friendly turtle!" Pisti beams, forgetting about the evil premonition.
Ja'far takes her hand and whispers: "This is going to get bad. Come on." She frowns, clearly not understanding what he's getting at.
"Think. Did she ever call him by his name before?"
Realization dawns on her face and she scurries along obediently, throwing Sharrkan one last compassionate look.
"Sharrkan," Yamuraiha grins wickedly. "Did you forget I am a blue magician? Did you forget my specialty?" she asks all too nicely as she forms a big ball of water between her hands.
Sharrkan has only enough time to think: 'Oh crap,' before a giant water balloon is coming for him.
Needless to say, they all end up soaked to skin and, since they have no way of explaining it to the guards, are given a standard punishment of three days without food. This time, Ja'far can hardly deem it worth it.
On cold, stormy nights, they steal a torch from the hallway and sit close together. Yamuraiha makes four balls of fire and levitates them so that one floats in front of each of them, as they reach out to warm their hands. Pisti once comments on how pretty they are. The young sorceress smiles kindly at her and says: "I like water better." But water is scarce for them, and they don't speak of it again.
They share what little food they have and talk long into the night. Yamuraiha talks about magic and Sharrkan talks about swords, but there are no snide comments, no biting remarks. Their voices are quiet and gentle, their eyes show understanding and there are hints of smile on their faces.
In the mornings they are back to their usual selves, bickering and bantering, but Ja'far can't help but think each of those nights bring them just a little bit closer. And the memories remain.
On the day of Sharrkan's thirteenth birthday, Ja'far steals a cake.
Fresh out of a nearby bakery, it's probably the best cake any of them tasted in a long while. For Ja'far and Pisti, it's the best cake of their life. They've been here for as long as they can remember. He sometimes wonders how they managed to stay sane. He knows she saved him then, all those years ago, when they dumped the tiny blonde girl in his arms and left her in his care. He vaguely remembers fragile fingers wrapping around his own, toothless smiles and loud giggles and what it felt like to really smile, for the first time in his then eight years of living; no, existing – it was with her that he started to live.
Sharrkan mumbles a thank you.
He leaps on his feet then, eyes shining with childlike excitement, and yells: "Hey, witch! Get over here!
The said 'witch' grumbles something that sounds very much like: "Why the hell should I do what you tell me to," but complies anyway. Ja'far concludes it must be because it the guy's birthday, so she decided to cut him some slack.
The boy grins widely when she does what he demanded and moves so they are standing side to side.
"Hey, you guys!" he calls out to the other two. "Who's taller?"
'So, that's what it was all about,' Ja'far thinks, somewhat amused. Yamuraiha just growls about how, even if he's getting a year older, he is still an immature brat.
Ja'far takes a good look before proclaiming: "Yamuraiha," at the same time as Pisti confidently announces: "Sharrkan!"
Ja'far smirks and whispers into her ear: "He's standing on his toes."
A horrified look appears on her face as she takes a look to confirm his words: "Ahh! That's right. Sharrkan, you cheater! Yamu is taller."
A look of victory lights up the young sorceress's face. Sharrkan, on the other hand, sulks throughout the rest of the day.
They form a dynamic of their own - laughing or fighting, teasing, playing pranks, talking, sharing. They are a weird group, the four of them, but Ja'far suspects they laugh more than any other kid ever to enter these walls. The walls which are still there around them: heavy, suffocating, closing in. But it is in their moments together, only in their moments together – that they manage to crush those walls, if even for a second. It is in those moments that they manage to forget the world.
At other times, it's almost too much to take.
Yamuraiha is sitting on the bed one night, staring pointlessly at the ceiling, then at the floor, then at the ceiling again. Pisti and Sharrkan are nowhere in sight. Ja'far supposes they are out training.
He walks towards the girl's bed and tentatively sits next to her. There is a lump in his throat as he speaks:
"She was asking again."
The young sorceress seems to understand without further elaboration. "Let me guess," she sighs, keeping her gaze fixed to the ceiling. "Why?" (Why do we have to do this? Why do you do this? It's not right. Why don't you refuse?)
"She'll come to understand."
He shakes his head gently: "Even if she does, even if she's forced to understand eventually…I don't think she'll ever be able to…" (Kill.) He knows that Pisti isn't weak. She can fight. She hates to, but she can. She's been trained for it her entire life. She isn't like the rest of them, though, and he doesn't think she ever will be. Ja'far carries his wires, Sharrkan his sword, Yamuraiha her staff. But Pisti doesn't carry her weapon around, despite being allowed to. There is too much kindness in her eyes and too much love in her heart. Ja'far has known it for a long time. This girl will never be able to take a life.
Yamuraiha turns her head to look at him, her expression solemn: "You're planning on running away," she states – a simple, confident statement, no doubt or wondering in her voice. "Once she has to…when she gets her first mission – when that time comes, you plan to run away."
"How did you – "
"She's your reason," the blue-haired girl says simply, a slight smile on her face. Ja'far understands. His reason for living, for fighting, for persisting. He can't help but ask:
She smiles, but there is no happiness in that smile: "There are many," she answers simply. He doesn't push her to elaborate.
"I should be so lucky."
She seems to contemplate this for a moment, then shakes her head and lets out a quiet, bitter laugh: "It only hurts more."
"Sometimes pain is good," he murmurs, more for himself than her.
"It reminds you." (Reminds you that you're alive. You're still fighting. You haven't lost yet.) It's almost unnerving how well this girl understands him. He wishes she didn't have to.
"How will I remind her? When the time comes?"
Her smile tells Ja'far that she has an answer.
"You'll hold her tight and you won't let go. You'll tell her how much you love her and that you can't bear to lose her. You'll whisper in her ear and speak of songs of the birds that she loves so much. You'll speak of warm sunshine and green meadows, of flowers and dancing girls, laughing children and the smell of fresh baked bread, of great ocean and it's power, lakes, rivers, even the smallest of torrents…" her voice becomes softer and softer as she speaks and, by the time she finishes, Ja'far can tell by the far-away look in her eyes that she is not only trying to give him an answer, but also to reassure herself.
They stay quiet for a long moment.
"She calls me Yamu-onee-chan sometimes, you know?" she laughs through the tears.
He pats her head gently as he softly replies: "I know."
Ja'far and Sharrkan never form much of an understanding. Nevertheless, there are some questions that keep gnawing on their minds, however hard they try to push them away and ignore them. One day, Sharrkan asks one of those questions:
"What's your reason?" Everyone has a reason, that much is understood, and, once again, no further elaboration is needed. What amuses Ja'far is a faint similarity of this conversation to his conversation with this boy's so-called greatest rival. He suppresses a knowing smile that threatens to break on his face.
"Pisti and…lately, you two," he answers. "What about you?"
He scratches his head in embarrassment: "You two…," he copies Ja'far's answer. "And…" He looks over Ja'far's shoulder and suddenly goes beet red. Ja'far doesn't have to look to know who is standing behind him.
"You know…" Sharrkan mumbles, his blush increasing tenfold.
Ja'far tries his best not to laugh. He fails. Miserably.
All too soon Sharrkan is going at him with his sword and Yamuraiha just looks confused. All in all, it's as normal a day as they get.
It is a windy night when it happens.
They would sometimes hear screaming in the night. From up above, where they knew the rich had their chambers. The thick dungeon walls felt as thin as paper on those nights. It wouldn't be long before it quieted down, only occasional cries remaining - so soft, faint that they could barely hear them. They would lie close to each other, Pisti's fingers digging into his shoulder blades, her cries much louder to him, much more real. He would shush her gently and tell her to go to sleep, even when he knew neither of them would be getting any sleep that night. They would turn a deaf ear and pretend they weren't real, praying for it to be over soon. The next morning, they could always recognize the girl, or, in some cases, the boy. They would have an empty look in their eyes.
They can't turn a deaf ear that night, though, because the screams coming from above are sickeningly familiar and very real. Pisti jolts awake, horror on her face as she screams:
They don't stop to think, running frantically towards Sharrkan's bed, but the boy is nowhere in sight.
"No," Ja'far breathes as realization dawns on his face. He puts his hands on Pisti's shoulders and says: "Stay here. I'll go."
Pisti runs after him anyway, but he knows he has no time to reason with her. They hear a series of crashes from up above, then nothing.
Ja'far takes out his wires and, with expert skill, binds the two guards on watch in front of the room's doors.
"You have no other weapon!" Pisti cries out.
He takes her by the hand and pulls her along, whispering: "We can't let the others see us. Those two will warn them, I can hear them shouting." They manage to get to the first floor without being noticed. They navigate through the narrow hallways until they reach their goal.
"This room. That's where it was coming from," Ja'far points and puts his hand on the handle. It's completely quiet now, and they are terrified of what that could mean.
They both squeeze their eyes shut as Ja'far pushes the door open.
The room is dark except for the two lit up torches at the other end, but with his trained eyes, Ja'far manages to make out something that makes him cover Pisti's eyes before she even dares to open them.
There is a human skeleton sprawled across the floor.
He walks towards it and crouches down to get a closer look, his hand still covering the eyes of a terrified girl next to him. He tries to pick up a bone. It turns to ash. His eyes widen as he takes in the burned skeleton, a couple of blue hairs on the floor and unlit torches on the walls.
"Ja'far," Pisti whimpers shaking furiously, hot tears wetting his hand.
He urges her out of the room and closes the door behind him.
"It's ok. They're still ok," he reassures her. He doesn't tell her how the sorceress's magic got out of control, burning the man to a crisp. 'Serves him right, son of a bitch,' he thinks, but doesn't say. He realizes one thing, though, and he can't keep this from her:
"They're running away."
Pisti's head shots up, eyes suddenly filling with determination: "Let's go with them."
He gives her a curt nod.
They don't get far.
The guards apprehend them before they can reach the gates. They are beaten up and thrown into the cells and Ja'far knows three days with no food won't cut it this time. He desperately wishes that was his biggest concern.
He spends the night whispering empty promises into Pisti's ear.
In the morning, they are taken to the nearby river.
"The wind was strong yesterday's night," a guard speaks venomously. "Big waves. The bodies were washed away. There's no finding them now."
Ja'far doesn't register the words at all. He stares blankly at the ground. Before his feet, there lies a bloody sword. A few meters further, a muddy magic staff. He tries desperately to search for any sort of explanation, no matter how unbelievable. But he knows they would never in a million years let go of their weapons willingly, just like he knows no guard came back injured from yesterday's chase and there is simply too much blood…God, there is so much blood.
His knees give out and he falls to the ground. Pisti's cries feel a million miles away.