The air shimmered; the tree trunks blurred away and brightened into familiar blue skies. Kaoru held up her hands -- those, at least, stayed in focus -- but the rest of the world faded behind them. Her stomach curled in on itself in fear.
“What’s wrong, girl?” Sandor asked beside her, where he had just dismounted from his horse Stranger after another several hours of riding, but his voice echoed in her ears and grew faint, as if he were falling away from her.
She turned her head to look at Sandor, but in the warrior’s place stood a tall, swaying girl with snarled copper hair and sunburnt cheeks. She wore a black overcoat and pants that looked like they belonged to one of Enishi’s Shanghainese subordinates.
The girl could only be Sansa.
Kaoru opened her mouth to warn her --
But Sansa twisted away as if she had never been there, and she took what was left of the forest and Sandor and Stranger with her. Once again, Kaoru stood upon the white beach of the triad’s tropical island, with the afternoon sun setting fire to the clouds above and the seas below.
She heard a cough not far from where she stood. Enishi, she saw, biting her tongue to keep herself from screaming.
He wasn’t facing her, and his great watou blade was sheathed and strapped across his strong back. He gave no indication that he realized that she had returned.
Kaoru’s fingers found her sword hilt as the last wisps of Sansa dispersed in her mind. She withdrew the weapon from her belt in silence and positioned herself to strike. She would have to incapacitate Enishi now, while the advantage was hers. He wouldn’t get another chance to kill her.
She flew forward, attacking with all her strength.
Enishi’s sidestep was so sudden and his disarmament of her was so powerful that she was still trying to figure out how he’d done it even as he flipped her through the air and slammed her body into the ground. Dazed, she stared at a pink cloud above her and croaked some air back into her lungs.
A shadow fell over her face, and her stomach lurched. Enishi would finish the job now; surely he would separate her head from her neck.
But he wasn’t in the proper stance to strike. He pushed his darkened spectacles up the bridge of his nose with two long fingers and stood up straight, examining the strange sword that he had taken from her.
Kaoru sat up and groaned. Sand rained down as she shook her head. She blinked away the grit and looked up into Enishi’s face, hoping her anger covered the fear in her eyes.
“You’re back,” Enishi said, sounding oddly unsurprised by that fact. His gaze lingered on the bruises around her neck.
Kaoru swallowed, feeling the apple of her throat slide down the marks he had left there. “For now,” she said, and she noted with relief that her lips were forming words in Japanese once again.
Enishi didn’t seem to have heard her. His eyes slid back to the Westeros sword and he adjusted his grip, then lifted up the weapon. As he slashed the air, Kaoru shied away instinctively before comprehending that he was simply testing the blade’s response.
She tried to get up as she watched him, but the bones in her legs were made of jellyfish. She sighed and kicked the sand, cursing the magic had switched her with Sansa, wishing she’d been dropped at home with her friends instead of back here with the white-haired freak.
“You promised you’d take me back to Tokyo,” Kaoru growled in Enishi’s direction, hating that she sounded petulant and scared.
Enishi stopped swinging the sword and turned back toward her. “I will.” His face contorted into an expression she’d never seen on him -- discomfort, or maybe even embarrassment. “My subordinate Wu and his men have left. They’ll return in a few days to report on the progress of my jinchuu, and if it is finished, I will send you home.”
Then Enishi did something downright weird. He held his hand out to her.
Kaoru scuttled backward, sneering at his outstretched palm as if it were a poisonous snake. “No thanks. You almost choked me to death.”
Enishi blinked, and his temples pulsed as he ground his teeth together. “A mistake,” he said, and his eyes crinkled up at the corners in obvious pain. “Battousai’s death is what Tomoe wants. Not yours.” His hand was still extended down to her.
She could only stare. If Enishi changed his mind again and decided to hurt her, he would. It didn’t matter that she was one of the best sword fighters in Japan. Enishi outmatched every warrior she’d ever known, including herself, in speed, strength, and skill. Everyone except Kenshin, who will come for me any day now, her inner optimist reminded her. Or Sandor, maybe, without the armor weighing him down.
Her only option, then, was to feign trust. She took Enishi’s hand. His nails dug into her flesh as he pulled her up.
Without needing to discuss it, they headed back toward the triad waystation house together. They hiked up the steep path up the bluff, with Enishi leading and Kaoru huffing and puffing behind him, her thoughts scrambled in her skull. Enishi took off his orange jacket and wrapped it around his weapon, revealing a bloom of moisture down the back of his blue undershirt and and a sheen of sweat glistening on his chiseled shoulders. He showed no other sign of having any difficulty with the climb, unlike Kaoru, who was humiliated by how she could hardly keep up with his pace.
As Kaoru failed to hoist herself up over a boulder, her frustration came bubbling out. “Didn’t you think it was strange that I just disappeared and then suddenly came back?” She exhaled and tried a different foothold. Her sandal still scraped the side of the rock uselessly. “Don’t you want to know where I went? Where I got that sword?”
Enishi crouched and reached his arm down, which she took begrudgingly and allowed him to lift her all the way up. She didn’t miss his eye roll as he turned away from her, and she resisted her strong desire to smack him. Enishi was undoubtedly frightening, but he could also be incredibly annoying.
He didn’t answer for a while and Kaoru assumed he was ignoring her, but when they reached a flat part of the trail, overgrown with ferns and leafy, spindly trees, he began speaking so softly that she had to stop walking to hear what he said. “I know that most people think I’m crazy because I can still see and talk to Tomoe. Even my subordinates in the triad whisper when they think I’m not listening.” His knuckles were white as he clenched his fists. “I’m not crazy,” he added, whipping his head around and glaring at Kaoru, as if she had accused him of it.
“I never said you were,” Kaoru replied, holding up her hands in a deferential gesture, thinking of how she had told Sandor exactly that and hoping Enishi couldn’t discern the truth from her expression.
Enishi leaned toward her as if he wanted to share a secret. The scent of his sweat was sharp and salty against the aroma of jungle decay. “Tomoe is still here with me. She doesn’t come to others, but she is real as real as when she was alive. And I know -- I’ve learned in the years since he killed her that not everything I see --” he broke off, licked his chapped lips, and tried again. “Sometimes I see things that others can’t -- things that don’t make sense --” He looked down at his feet.
Kaoru followed his gaze, feeling oddly uncomfortable with Enishi’s words. They both watched as a lizard scurried into the middle of the path, tilted its head up at them, and raced to the safety of the foliage on the other side.
Enishi stood up tall and shrugged. His voice was strong and low when he spoke again. “I can accept things that others can’t. Like you disappearing and returning with this relic.” He jerked his thumb at the sword he’d strapped to his back along with his own weapon. “Like the gaijin girl with the pale eyes.” He removed his spectacles and wiped away the sweat on the bridge of his nose.
Not for the first time since she’d heard Enishi and Kenshin’s tragic family history, Kaoru felt like sobbing. She knew she should hate Enishi for turning her life into a nightmare as he tried to destroy Kenshin, but she only felt pity for him now. Tomoe’s death had crushed him; the grief had turned his hair white and had addled his brain. He was just sane enough to understand how broken he had become. Without thinking, she reached out and placed her hand on Enishi’s forearm in comfort.
“I know you won’t hurt me again,” she said, and she almost believed it. She forced herself to keep her hand pressed to Enishi’s slick skin.
Enishi nodded and swallowed, and Kaoru wondered whether he was listening to Tomoe’s voice at that very moment. Gently, Enishi removed Kaoru’s hand from his shoulder, then spun around abruptly and continued up the path.
By the time they arrived at the house, Kaoru’s clothes were drenched in her own sweat, and she could hardly breathe for the stench of that unnatural smoke from King’s Landing emanating from her clothes and hair. She wanted desperately to head to the bathhouse for a thorough scrub, but first she needed to secure a few more promises from Enishi.
As they stood in the cool shade of the porch, Kaoru addressed her captor. “Before you go do -- whatever you’re going to go do --” she started roughly, then took a breath and continued. “The other place I went to is very dangerous. It’s in the middle of a war. If I somehow go back --” She glanced at the sword over Enishi’s shoulder. “Please, Enishi, let me keep the sword with me. I will need it in that other world. I swear I will not use it against you.” Not that I could best you in combat anyway, she thought bitterly. She bowed her head and hoped that he trusted her more than she trusted him.
His shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His formerly black slippers were coated in the powdery dust of the trail. “I’ll think about it.”
Jerk, Kaoru couldn’t stop herself from thinking. “Fine.” She lifted her eyes to his. “One more thing.” This request could prove even more necessary for her safety. “If Sansa -- the girl from that other place -- if she switches with me again, would you please keep her safe?”
Enishi raised a single eyebrow, clearly not expecting the request. “I won’t hurt her. My fight is with Battousai alone.”
Kaoru blew out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding. The corners of her mouth turned up as she said, “Thank you.”
Enishi’s cheekbones darkened and he looked up at the rafters. “Go wash up. You smell like a tannery fire.” He stalked into the house and Kaoru heard the parlor door slam shut, leaving her to stew over the insult.
Kaoru climbed the stairs and went into the room in which she had been staying to gather her robe and towels, mulling over her unexpected victories. She went to take a sip of water and found the pitcher empty, and she realized Sansa must have drained it.
Unlike the comfortable house, the bathhouse was an uncomplicated shed; it had a full metal cistern of water, a few stools, and an empty round wooden tub that Kaoru could have filled up and stoked a fire under, had she wanted to take the trouble to have a hot bath. She undressed and sat on one of the stools, then washed herself with cold water from the cistern and scrubbed with a cake of soap with a bitter citrus scent. After that she rinsed her filthy clothes, hoping they wouldn’t grow mold in the damp air when she hung them up to dry in her room. She donned her bathrobe, gathered her wet garments, and returned to the house.
When she went inside, she couldn’t hear Enishi, although he was probably still around somewhere. She walked upstairs and went back to her room.
On her futon lay the finest katana she had ever seen. She hurried over and picked it up, then unsheathed it. It was just her size, and the blade had been freshly sharpened.
“Stop what?” Sansa whispered to the Hound.
“Stop touching me,” he said, his voice a low rasp. “I have a soldier’s instinct, girl. You keep startling me like that, I might accidentally draw my sword on you.”
“I’m sorry,” Sansa replied, her sunburnt cheeks stinging anew with the heat of embarrassment. “I’m afraid I’ll lose you here in the dark.” It was late at night and the low moon provided only weak light as they walked alongside Stranger to give the warhorse a rest, but the real reason Sansa kept grazing her fingers against Clegane’s arm was that she was afraid she’d fall back into that other world at any moment. If she could hold onto him, then perhaps she couldn’t leave -- or at the very least, perhaps Clegane would come with her.
They had already spoken of Kaoru Kamiya, the one who Sansa had seen as both worlds had swirled around her, and of the strange Enishi who had both frightened and helped her. Clegane had cursed when Sansa had confirmed that she had been on the island, and she had had to assure him many times that Enishi had only scared her, not hurt her. Later, when they were riding through the forest again, Clegane had related to her what Kaoru had told him of Enishi. In spite of the terror and confusion she felt about Enishi, she felt a pang of sorrow and compassion when Clegane explained that the troubled young man, like herself, had witnessed the death of a family member. After that, they’d traveled in silence, and as Clegane had stared off into the trees, looking for danger, Sansa had remembered her father and eventually had dozed off.
When the sun had set and they’d dismounted from Stranger, Clegane had taken a small knife from a bundle on Stranger’s saddle and had shoved it roughly into Sansa’s boot. Now, the leather sheath was rubbing a blister into her ankle, but she was grateful to have the blade. She might need it for both worlds.
But thinking about the weapon made Sansa’s heart thump and her chest tighten. She tried to take a deep breath and found that the air couldn’t fill her lungs. Her vision blurred, and distantly she wondered whether it was from her fear, or if the forest was about to spin away from her again. She reached out and grasped Sandor’s chainmail sleeve as her legs wobbled.
“What did I -- Sansa?” Clegane’s angry tone shifted to concern -- and a drop in formality, Sansa noted hazily between gasps -- as he turned back to her. He pulled the water skin off Stranger’s saddle unstoppered it for her, then shoved it into her shaking hand.
She drank too fast and choked, but the liquid brought her back to herself. “Thank you,” she sputtered. Her fingers still gripped the Hound’s arm.
The moon had risen over the tops of the trees and Sansa could see more clearly again. Deep shadows exaggerated Clegane’s scars, and although that had terribly frightened her long ago, tonight his face was a welcome sight. Her hopes rose. Perhaps she wouldn’t go back to Enishi’s island. Perhaps she and Clegane could make it to her family, without Joffrey’s men capturing them, without starving to death, without --
“We should rest for a while,” Clegane said, interrupting her thoughts. “The woods witch is said to live near High Heart, to the north, and we’ll need our strength to get there in one piece.”
Sansa nodded in vague agreement. She knew little of the continent beyond the North and King’s Landing, and she knew only of High Heart from Old Nan’s stories, as a mystical place that had been sacred to the children of the forest. Although she ached to go straight home to Winterfell, or at least to Riverrun, which had declared for Robb, she understood the wisdom in Clegane and Kaoru’s plan to talk to someone with knowledge of magic first.
She looked at the Hound again, expecting him to give her instructions about making camp, and suddenly she understood the extent of his exhaustion. His unscarred skin was sallow, almost grey. His good eye had a purple-black circle beneath it, and his lips were cracking and bleeding in places. “You need rest. I’ll -- I’ll keep watch,” she offered, remembering one of the duties of her guards when she was traveling south down the Kingsroad with Father and Arya so many years ago.
Clegane chortled, but he seemed to realize, belatedly, that he had no choice but to rely on her. His mirthless grin fell from his face as he nodded. “Make no sound if you hear something. Just shake me awake and I’ll figure out what to do. If someone tries to attack you, scream as loud as you bloody can.” He looked down at her hand on his arm. “I can’t tend to Stranger with your claws in me like that.”
“Oh. Right.” She dropped her hand to her side. “Thank you, Hou --” she stopped. That title, that one Joffrey used so gleefully to intimidate his subjects, seemed wrong and rude out here. “Thank you, Clega --” she trailed off. That didn’t seem quite appropriate either.
“‘Sandor’ is acceptable,” he mumbled over his shoulder, sounding annoyed.
“Thank you, Sandor,” she said, and her cheeks stung again, but at least the name felt right on her tongue.
He grunted and shook out Stranger’s bridle in response.
Sansa sat down on a rock and pulled her knife out of her boot. Her eyes felt heavy, but she forced herself to sit up straight and pay attention to what Sandor did to make camp.
After Sandor hobbled the horse and set the tack aside and removed his breastplate, he spread out the saddle blanket as a makeshift bedroll and lay down on his back, with his arms crossed over his chest. The moon had risen high in the sky, and the metal studs on his clothes glinted in the light.
Sansa resolved to give Sandor time to rest. She tried to control her thoughts by identifying the many forest sounds, by gripping her knife in different ways, by naming the members of the Targaryen dynasty in reverse chronological order. But the thick jungle air, Enishi’s wild eyes, the nauseating switch with Kaoru -- the memories crackled at the edges of her mind. Her lungs seemed to fill with cotton and her breaths started coming fast and short and heavy again.
She glanced over to her companion. His eyes were still open, and he was looking up at the stars.
“Sandor,” Sansa whispered, her voice sounding hoarse and far away against her pounding pulse.
“What,” he muttered, still staring at the sky.
She shifted herself off the rock and plopped onto the dirt. She didn’t trust herself to stand. Sandor looked over at her and must have been able to see her fright, for he rolled onto his side and was making to spring up and grab her.
“No, wait, stay there --” she coughed. Her heart slowed and the fear in her chest seemed to uncoil. She inhaled the cool night air and did not faint away. “I’m fine. I apologize for disturbing you.”
Sandor remained frozen in a half crouch. His eyes were narrowed in suspicion. “Is this going to happen every few minutes for the rest of the night?”
Anger flared in Sansa’s breast. Apparently Sandor didn’t fully appreciate the reason for her terror. “I’d rather have more of this than another trip to Enishi’s island,” she retorted, her exhaustion overriding her manners.
The response seemed to subdue Sandor. He gave her one more look that she couldn’t quite read, then flopped back onto the blanket. He lay one hand on his chest and the other on the ground at his side as he shut his eyes firmly.
It humiliated her to acknowledge it, but Sandor had a point. She couldn’t keep bothering him all night, not if she wanted him to be able to help her tomorrow and every day until they returned to her family. But she didn’t think she had the ability to sit alone calmly, not without changing something.
Sansa scooted closer to where Sandor lay. She bit down on her lip and nodded to herself to keep up her courage, then, without asking permission, she placed her hand firmly over his.
Sandor’s eyes shot open and he looked up at her in surprise, but Sansa jerked her head, wordlessly willing him to say nothing. She couldn’t bear to have to keep admitting aloud to him how scared and helpless and useless she felt.
He seemed to understand. He moved so that his great rough hand engulfed her long, soft fingers. He closed his eyes again, as if he was insisting that they both pretend he was sleeping.
[to be continued]