It was a long time before Benjamin could focus again. He blinked a couple times and shook his head, trying to clear the lingering dizziness. As he stooped to pick up his hat, he became aware that he was cold and stiff from standing in place for so long, and his mouth, which had been hanging open, was dry. He made a face.

How long have I been standing here? Has the sun moved? Try as he might, he couldn't see anything through the early haze. Wait, would that have burned off if it had been a good length of time? Or did the dense forest growth stop it from burning off? He couldn't think straight; he couldn't even remember what the short stretch of path had looked like in the thick morning mist before.

Benjamin slumped back against a tree and passed his hands over his face. Good grief, what happened back there? Did I get hit on the head? Did someone attack me? Wait… if it was bandits, they'd still be around, wouldn't they… arrgh, focus, Ben!

His thoughts were coming into order, frustratingly slowly, but he still couldn't remember what had come just before the shock. Surely something must have happened, yes? He couldn't have just suddenly passed out on his feet for no reason.

From behind the bewildered man came the clatter of dry leaves. Benjamin turned, but was overcome by another wave of dizziness and collapsed. The man who had been coming up behind him paused a moment, then dashed forward.

"Ben." The voice was quiet and worried; Benjamin opened his eyes and saw his friend Darien leaning over him. There was no trace of concern in his face; it was locked in its usual annoyed scowl. Benjamin smiled faintly. That was just Darien's way…

"Hullo, sunshine. What happened back there?"

Darien's scowl deepened and a faint hunted look came into his eyes. "You… uh… had a bit of a nasty shock…"

"Well, I gathered that." Benjamin quirked an eyebrow and struggled to sit up. Darien reached out a hand and attempted to push his friend back to the ground.

"Ben, stay still a moment. You're not well."

"I'm fine." Benjamin, bigger and stronger than his friend, shook off Darien and got to his feet. It was then that he caught sight of the tableau over Darien's shoulder. The color drained from his face and he collapsed once more, holding up one hand to ward off the scene. He let out a scream of horror and frustration, balling his hands into fists and beating the ground. Darien was at his side in a second, grasping Benjamin's arm and searching his face.

"Ben… I…"

"No! No…" Benjamin clasped a hand to his eyes, trying to shut out the tortured image. Darien tried to pull the hand away, but Benjamin shook him off and pulled away, scrambling backwards over the leaves.

Darien sat hunched on the path, face burning. "I'm sorry, Benjamin."

Benjamin, bent over on all fours on the ground, went still. "Sure you are." His voice was harsh and crisp, halfway between a hysterical, barking laugh and a sob. His breath came heavy and quick, hissing between his teeth. "Of course you are. Do you know, Darien, that I knew you were going to say that before you said it? Think about it carefully, Darien. Choose your next words with utmost care."

Darien turned away from the somber figure, unable to make eye contact. Of course, that brought the cut and staring corpse into his field of view, and he shuddered.

Behind him, Benjamin climbed slowly and deliberately to his feet. Reaching out a hand blindly, he grasped his weapon and stood straight and tall, still staring down the path away from Darien as though watching for someone to emerge from the mist.

"Because you didn't think before, did you," Benjamin said. His knuckles went white where he gripped the handle of his weapon. His voice was strained and harsh, as though he was trying to stop from screaming again. "He was just a bandit. He and his friends ambushed you. He was just a bandit. You were in the right, of course." Benjamin sounded as though he was reciting a learned lesson.

"No, it's…"

Benjamin cut him off. "They ran off when you put up a fight. Great Powers, Darien, did you think of that? But no, you had to chase him down-" he whirled, bringing his weapon up over his head – Darien turned, but it was too late, Benjamin was screaming with fury now – "and cut him open!"

Darien's sword fell from his hand and he scrambled away, making mute little mewling noises in his terror. A drift of leaves slipped from under his foot and he went down, screwing up his eyes.

A moment passed, and Darien felt nothing but Benjamin's heavy breathing on his face. A strong hand gripped the front of his shirt and lifted him off the ground, and then he heard a hissing voice, icy with fury, speak in his ear.

"No court will condemn you, of course," Benjamin hissed, "because you were acting in self-defense, and he struck first, and they were criminals anyway. If I were to strike now, I would be in the wrong, and tried for murder." Darien opened his eyes in panic, and then shut them again at once; the flashing rage and passion in Benjamin's face were too great to cope with. Benjamin kept speaking.

"But that's not why I'm sparing your life now. I'm sparing your life because I choose to believe you can live to learn from your mistakes; because I know you, and I know that, thoughtless little worm you are, you are worth something. You have dreams and hopes; you want to prove to your older brother that you are as strong as him, even if you aren't a famous adventurer like him. You want to win the heart of the girl you fell so desperately in love with, even after she scorned you. You ran away for the taste of adventure in your mouth and the wind of new shores on your face. You are a person, with a beautiful life, and worthy to live."

Benjamin laughed quietly, crazily "But Darien…"


Benjamin, whispering with barely a breath, leaned in so close that Darien could feel Benjamin's lips brushing his cheek.

"You are not the only one who is."

Benjamin opened his hand mechanically. Darien fell heavily to the ground and scampered off, fleeing for the town with barely a backward glance. Alone, Benjamin stared off into the mists for several minutes. Then, slowly, tenderly, he knelt down next to the corpse and pulled the bandit's head into his lap, closing the young man's eyes, then wrapped his arms around the cold, bleeding body and cried.

"Oh, Poupryo, my brother, my brother…"