It's been a year from that day. He doesn't think they will ever be quite the same.
He has lied to her. God, he has lied so much. He said he would keep her laughing. She hasn't laughed since. He said it would be alright. It wasn't alright. It was never alright to begin with. But now it's even worse. And he can't lie anymore.
"I remember," he says, not looking at her face. It's not like he will ever be able to forget.
She takes out the picture of her target. It shows a middle-aged man, fair-haired and thin, with tired eyes but a warm smile on his face. Clinging to his arm and looking up at him is a girl around Pisti's age. Ja'far has to wonder about the man who drew this. Why draw the girl as well? It wasn't required. Was it simply his artistic sense? Was it sentiment? An act of pity? Or was it a much crueler reason – easier identification? What a messed up world they live in.
"It's his daughter, probably," Pisti says sadly, weakly. "I don't even know if he did anything wrong. How do you do it Ja'far?" she asks, desperately searching for an answer.
"I have a reason to," he remembers those conversations from a year ago. They seem so distant now.
She barely registers his words: "I could do it, you know," she muses, a hint of sick interest in her voice, in stark contrast to the earlier desperation. Ja'far cringes at the change. "If I knew he murdered someone innocent, or something as vile as that," she carries on. He can't help but notice the ease with which she speaks the horrible word she wouldn't let past her lips just a year ago. "I could, then. But they don't give reasons."
He can tell by her words - she is still so much different from him, from any of them, none of them ever even thinking about asking for a reason, about not carrying out the task, but, at the same time, she is more like them than she's ever been before. More than he thought she would ever become.
There is no other way out of this now.
He pinches her cheek: "Let's run away."
Her eyes are wide with fear as she shouts: "NO!"
He expected something like that. He takes a deep breath, getting ready for trying to persuade her. But she doesn't give him a chance to. Instead, she speaks urgently:
"They'll kill us both, Ja'far! I can't let you. I don't care if I die, but you, you – you said it yourself! You have a reason to live on and – "
"YOU are my reason to live on!" he shouts, then bites his lip hard to keep the tears from showing.
Pisti stares at him blankly, numb with shock.
He cradles her in his arms as he remembers Yamuraiha's words. So he holds her tight and speaks of love and sunshine, of bird's song and the blue skies they fly across, of green meadows so rare in the desert around them and dancing girls wearing veils of tiny flowers around their heads.
She breaks down crying.
After what feels like ages, she calms down and Ja'far can just barely hear a muffled 'okay' whispered into his chest. It's all he needs to make his decision final.
Soon, they will be free. In one way or another.
The thought gives him some kind of twisted satisfaction.
She is given three days to carry out her mission. Three days to plan their escape.
On the morning of the first day Ja'far heads out to carry out a mission on his own. It's the first time he feels grateful for being given one because, this time, his target is nothing more to him than a stepping stone, an opportunity. He gets the job done even quicker than usual.
Nobody is following him. They stopped to long ago, once they realized he would never try to escape alone. Not without her. He would teach them soon - sloth was a dangerous seductress.
He enters a shady place in an equally shady, narrow street. The shopkeeper smiles knowingly at him. He is, after all, a regular customer.
"So, how'd the last one go?" the voice is loaded with sick interest and plainly obvious bloodlust.
"Fine. Quick and clean, wouldn't interest you," Ja'far says through gritted teeth. He can't remember ever replying much differently. The shopkeeper often seems downright devastated at his unwillingness to share what he liked to call 'some juicy details'. Ja'far never quite stopped feeling the urge to vomit at the phrase. He suppresses it yet again.
"What will it be today?" the fat old man smirks, relishing the moment.
"Poison," Ja'far says quickly. "Deadly and quick. Immediate effect."
The man frowns, obviously unsatisfied with this request. He bends down and rummages through the desk drawers in search of something. He takes a small bottle of red liquid and holds it between his fingertips, a taunting smirk on his face.
"Too much. For you at least."
Ja'far sighs and pulls out a small bag of gold which he throws at the shopkeeper. He catches it with surprise evident in his eyes and pulls at the drawstring.
"A hefty amount," he notes. "How'd you get this?"
Ja'far doesn't reply. He thinks it fairly obvious.
The man's eyes glint excitedly: "Was there struggle? Any blood?" he inquires in a sickening tone.
Ja'far grabs the bottle laying forgotten on the counter, simply replies: "No," and exits the vile place before the shopkeeper has a chance to ask him any more questions. He honestly hopes he'll never have to enter it again.
"So, here's what we'll do," he starts explaining the plan to an anxious Pisti. "I'll dip my blades in poison, it has an immediate effect and is fatal if it comes to contact with blood. We can render many of them useless in a short time this way."
Pisti nods and says: "Mine too."
Ja'far looks at her, startled: "What?"
"My daggers. Do that to them as well."
He is shocked by the determination in her eyes, in her voice. "Are you sure?" he has to ask.
"Yes," she replies curtly, looking him, even if it's for no longer than a split second, straight in the eye.
"Alright," he nods in agreement. "When we get out of this place– "
He frowns: "When we get out of this place, we'll head for that small, old house about four streets away. You know which one, right?"
"Okay. No one lives there as of late, I checked. But they aren't likely to know. We'll wait for them to pass, then head in the opposite direction and run as fast as we can, as long as we can. It's tricky. We have to make them follow us, so they have to see in which direction we're heading. But we have to be quick enough to slip into the house without them noticing."
"There are many shortcuts and narrow streets, we can use those. We're likely to lose them there," Pisti notes.
He smiles: "Here," he says, pulling out a piece of parchment from underneath his rags. "A map," he explains and starts pointing out the most convenient routes. Pisti nods all the while in understanding.
"We have to avoid curious eyes as much as possible, right. So, at night?" she asks. Clever girl.
"Obviously," he smiles.
And so the night comes.
It's quiet, dangerously quiet as they tiptoe through the dark, dimly lit halls. Two guards at the entrance to the main room are likely to be dead by now, Ja'far vaguely notes. It's hardly his main concern at the moment. The ones still alive are, however, and he cocks his ears at the silence and listens for any, even the slightest of sounds. Wind is howling outside and it takes him some time to get used to the unpleasant, but harmless melody, to distinguish it from the more threatening sounds.
He takes down the guards down one by one, carefully, meticulously, so the terrified, but determined girl next to him wouldn't have to pierce any flesh with those sharp daggers she clutches in her small hands. The way her fingers wrap around the handles is certain and methodical and Ja'far knows she'll be ready if the time should come. But he prays it doesn't, for both of their sakes.
It feels like years before they reach the main gates and once they do, Ja'far takes a hold of Pisti's hand and squeezes it tightly in encouragement, because he can see there is simply no way he would be able to take all of them down by himself.
She bites her lip hard enough to draw blood.
"Let's go," she whispers, stepping in front of him and taking the lead.
"Wait," he whispers urgently, not letting go of her hand. This is what he was afraid of. She doesn't think things through like she normally would. She can't focus. He puts his hands on her shoulder.
"Listen to me," he speaks harshly to make sure she registers his words. "We have to take them by surprise, we have no chance otherwise. I'll count to three, then we charge. Understood?"
He swallows. "One," his grip on her shoulder tightens to the point of pain. She looks straight ahead, her expression not betraying a thing.
"Two," he kisses the top of her head, lingering for an unnecessary, dangerous second. He releases her from the half-hug. Her face is a mask. They could die in moments. He doesn't want that to be the last expression he gets to see on her face. 'Don't say it; don't say it. She doesn't need that right now.'
"I love you."
There is the slightest smile on her face.
She fights…gracefully. Her movements are quick and precise; she doesn't hesitate, for even a moment of hesitation is bound to be fatal. It's almost like she's dancing her way towards the exit, slowly, ever so slowly advancing towards their goal. It's painful to see her like this.
He cuts through the mass of faceless, dark figures mercilessly; making sure he the cuts are deep enough for the poison to take the effect. It will wear off soon, he realizes – after so many guards and their blood on the blades.
He takes a twisted pleasure in stabbing the guard who had laughed at them on the dawn they came to learn of their friends' fate. He makes sure to push the blade deep into his abdomen, twisting it in one swift, cruel motion. He's quite sure he knows how his eyes look as he watches the last ragged breath leave the guards body – malicious, snake-like. 'He didn't like that. That silly king.'
So many dead; just a few to go. He can hear the bells starting to ring - the alarm. More will be coming now.
"GO!" he yells to Pisti as he starts running towards her.
She spins on her heel, stabs another guard coming at her and holds out her hand towards him, reaching. She starts running before they hands can meet in order to keep up the speed. He reaches out and grasps her by the wrist as he sprints past her, pulling her along.
Now they run.
"They've seen us," Ja'far pants. "Let's go. You see the alley? There, then right, right, left, then right again."
"Yeah," Pisti gasps for breath.
They navigate through the narrow alleys as quickly as they can, not turning back. It's dark, too dark, and they can barely see where they're going, but it means the guards will also have trouble tracking them, so it is, all in all, a fortunate circumstance.
There really shouldn't be people out so late at night. Nevertheless, when they finally get out of the alleys and on the main road, Pisti bums into someone.
"Watch where you're going!" a tall, middle-aged (judging by his voice) man yells and Ja'far can't help but cringe at the volume. That's the voice that carries.
"I'm sorry! I'm so sorry," Pisti apologizes profusely, bowing her head. Ja'far can tell by her horrified expression that she knows exactly what this seemingly tiny slip could mean.
The man doesn't spare her a glance, but simply walks away, muttering something like "damn brats nowadays" under his breath.
A split second of ominous silence occurs, so short it would be hard to claim it was even there, but threatening enough to be sure it was.
"Come on," Ja'far hurries her. "There's no helping it now. We'll have to wait and see"
They start running again and soon get to the old house that has been set to be their first step of the way. It's a house much like those in the slums, if in a slightly better condition. Wooden and slowly being eaten away by termites, damp and stinking of old cabbage and dead animals. He finds a dead cat in the corner of an empty room. 'Must have been a pet,' Ja'far thinks. Why else would it end up dying cooped up in such a sad place?
They move to the windows and wait.
Suddenly, Pisti starts to shake violently. It takes a moment for Ja'far to notice her tears.
"So many," she wails, not bothering to cover her eyes with the palms of her hands, like so many other girls did when they cried. Pisti's tears always looked honest, even when she would fake them in order to get away with something, get them both (all four of them) out of trouble, or simply to get her way. Ja'far almost smiles at the memories. What's wrong with him?!
"They didn't even do anything! They were innocent. They probably had families too, most of them. And we killed them, all of them. Because I couldn't kill one man!"
He takes her chin in his hand and forces her to look at him: "Listen to me," he demands, urgency in his voice. "You know why we did it," he speaks in a softer voice. "We did it so we would never have to do it again. Not after today. Neither me nor you, not ever again."
Her eyes fill with hope: "Ever again?"
"Ever again," he promises and this time he's not lying. They'll either be free or dead after this. And both options are better than living this life. He knows she would agree with him.
Minutes pass, one by one. It's unnerving. They should have come by now.
He hears them before he sees them. He utters a quick: "They're coming," and continues to observe.
It's not good. They're pointing toward the house. They're coming this way. 'No, no, no, no, no!'
"Shit," he breathes and turns to face Pisti.
"He must have told them," she observes, and one could almost describe her expression as annoyed. Her reactions puzzled him, sometimes. But he doesn't have time to dwell on that.
"Quick! The back door," he all but pushes her towards it.
They get into the long unkempt backyard and dive into the thick bushes. There are thorns absolutely everywhere around them and they both soon start to bleed from the scratches. Pisti winces as he pulls one out of the palm of her hand, then proceeds to pull one from his own. But they grit their teeth and stay quiet. It's the only hope they have left. They can hear the guards enter the house.
"Not here either," they hear one grumble as they check the house.
"The back door," another one notices and Ja'far can feel his blood go cold.
He can feel Pisti trembling in fear next to him. He reaches out to put a hand on her shoulder, take her hand, touch her – anything to steady her, but he stops midway through – he realizes his hands are shaking as well.
A guard opens the door, takes a quick look around, peers into the bushes and apparently decides there is no one there. The doors are shut as quickly as they were opened. They can hear him inform the others. The guards grumble in annoyance, but feel no need to go check for themselves. Ja'far sighs in relief. He was right – sloth is a dangerous seductress.
"We head down the street. You two stay here, just in case," one of the guards commands.
Ja'far knew they wouldn't be so lucky to have them all leave. They listen to heavy footsteps leaving the house. The two ordered to keep watch grumble something intelligible, obviously not pleased with the situation. Pisti looks at him, anxious.
"What do we do now?" she whispers.
He hasn't thought this through. He always imagined only two possible outcomes – one - the plan works and two – they get caught. The situation at hand never occurred to him. He closes his eyes as he tries to concentrate. They have no place to go, no friends whose help to seek. No family, no caretakers, not even acquaintances.
There is one man, though.
It's stupid, completely reckless and bound to not end well. It's something a mad man, an utter fool would do. But it's also something a desperate man would do.
"We head to the palace."
It's their only hope.
He still can't believe that man actually managed to become a king; or form a country in the first place – the one they live in today. It sounded like a very far-fetched idea just three years ago. Memories engulf him.
He remembers those words:
He remembers that smile – kind and mischievous at the same time, bordering with a smirk.
The eyes – determined, confident, honest.
Teasing tone of his voice when he complains – 'That's no way to talk to a king!'
His reply – 'You! A king? Really?'
The laughter – was it that man's? Or was it his own? The sound is vague.
A/N - Ah, Sinbad, finally. I hope I don't annoy you with all the flashbacks, 'cause the next chapter will be another one - about Sinbad and Ja'far's past this time.
The beginning of this story is kind of messed up, and it takes quite some time to get to what I really want to write and probably what you really want to read too.
But I hope the next chapter makes up for it. At least Sinbad is finally here. This chapter was torture, by the way.
Please do leave a review! I really appreciate them.