Monday, March 14th, 1988
“Mmm, are you sure you have to go?” Haiden Moon murmured while his hand gently brushed through the blonde locks of the woman who had become his wife almost a year and a half earlier, after a brief, six month courtship that had partially involved them running away from their respective groups (a much bigger deal on her side than his). His fingers found the soft skin of her neck, and he rubbed in gentle circles. “Losing you for a week every year is going to get old fast.”
Laying with her head against the man’s shoulder while her own hand gently ran over his broad chest, Sariel gave a soft, sad little smile. “For both of us, I promise you that. This week away from you will be more painful than I can say. But it is… necessary. I will be back as soon as possible.”
Haiden gave a reluctant sigh at that, though the man was still smiling as he leaned down to gently kiss the top of her head. “If you insist. But I’m going to insist on a date day when you get back. You hear me? A whole day where we do nothing but spend time with each other.”
“Only a day?” Sariel teased, winking up at him. “I’m looking forward to a whole month.”
That made his smile turn a little more genuine, as the man pulled her back against him a little tighter. “That sounds like a good tradition to me. You leave for a week, then we have our month.”
Eventually, the two separated. Sariel promised to call whenever she could, and that she would be careful. Under her husband’s ministrations, she very nearly caved and agreed to stay. But this was too important. The things that she had to do, the things that she had to make up for, were too much for her to simply dismiss them. It had already been a year by that point, and the skeletons in her closet were banging against the door of her mind entirely too loudly to be dismissed.
So, after another (entirely too brief) lovely and energizing delay while the two made it clear just how much they were going to miss each other, Sariel used the spell to transport herself away from their cozy little shared apartment.
The place that she reappeared within was actually closer than Haiden thought. Far closer, in fact. Sariel hadn’t actually left the city at all. She was in the middle of an apartment not even three blocks away from her husband. She’d actually thought about renting out an apartment in the same building, but thought that would be pushing things a little too much. Besides, she didn’t want what she had to do here to somehow taint her wonderful life with the man she loved.
It wasn’t a very large place, being only a studio apartment. But then, the place didn’t need to be very large for her purposes. What mattered were the spellforms that had been inscribed over all of the walls. As Sariel glanced around, she assured herself that they were all there and intact. Good. The spells would perform several functions, including blocking her from any tracking spells. The home she shared with Haiden had much of the same features, of course, as did most of their clothing. But this was even more extensive. As she wouldn’t exactly be in a state to take care of herself before too long, making absolutely certain that she couldn’t be found was essential.
And, of more immediate importance, the spells would also ensure that no sound escaped the room.
After assuring herself the spells were intact, Sariel first stripped herself of all of her clothing, stepping out of everything until she was entirely bare. Then she made her way to one of the only two furnishings within the small studio apartment: a wooden dresser. Pulling open the top drawer, the woman extracted a pair of metal bracelets, with spellwork etched into the sides. Carefully, she attached them to her wrists. Next came a metal choker, which was attached to her throat with equal care. Those were followed by a pair of goggles that barely allowed her to see through the dark lenses. Still, she was able to root through the drawers and find shoes that also appear to be made of metal, chainmail gloves, and a cap with spellwork drawn on the inside.
It made an eclectic outfit of sorts when all of those pieces were worn. But then, the point wasn’t to be fashionable, as she wouldn’t be stepping out of the apartment with them. Instead, once Sariel had each piece on, she moved to the room’s other bit of furniture: a small bed. It lay directly in the center of the apartment, surrounded by more intricately drawn spellwork.
Slowly, the Seosten woman lay on the bed, shifting onto her back. She stayed like that for a few long seconds, simply breathing in and out as she stared up at the ceiling through the dark lens of the goggles, in no hurry to get on with what she had to do. Yet despite her reluctance, the woman wouldn’t just walk away. She couldn’t allow herself to. Without this week, she would never be able to enjoy the rest of her time with Haiden. She needed this. They needed this.
They. The names and faces filled her mind then. They were always there, always just under the surface of her memory. They were the people she had hurt, the people whose lives had been harmed or ruined by her actions. Sariel heard them, remembered them, knew them. She knew who she had killed, who she had betrayed, who she had used and abused for the advancement of the Seosten Empire. The things she had done, even if she had thought it was the right thing at the time… she knew. She knew that she had done wrong, that she had ruined lives. And now, for the next week, she would pay a small bit of her debt for that. A small price to at least temporarily quiet the voices clamoring for attention within her vast memory.
One more long, slow breath to steady and prepare herself for what was about to come, and then Sariel activated the extensive spells covering everything she had just put on.
Pain. Agony beyond description flooded the woman’s body. The goggles made her eyes feel as if they were burning. The hat that she wore made her believe that her skull was being crushed while her hair was simultaneously ripped from her scalp. The bones in her wrists, hands, and arms felt as though they were snapping one by one, turning to powder before returning only to be broken once more thanks to the wristbands and gloves. The same was true of her feet and legs through the metal shoes that she wore. The choker around the woman’s neck cut off her air, crushing her windpipe and turning her resulting screams into desperate, choked gasps.
It only lasted for a few seconds before relenting, little more than a warm-up to give Sariel a chance to work her way into what was to come. Eventually, the pain would continue for minutes at a time rather than only a handful of seconds. In the moments of reprieve between those times, she would recover mentally while the spells surrounding the bed healed any physical damage that had been done. The spells there also ensure that she would not throw herself off the bed itself, holding her in place while the pain spells were active. Which also served the function of preventing her from closing her mouth while they were active, ensuring that she would not bite her own tongue off or crack her teeth together. She was, for all intents and purposes, completely frozen in place. Which was another good reason that the apartment had to stay hidden.
She was given a warning before the pain returned, a count of three slow beeps. The warning would come every time, as the amount of rest she was given between ‘sessions’ was randomized. As the beeps came, Sariel breathed out once more, unable to stop herself from tensing up.
Then the pain came, and her screams returned to fill the magically soundproofed room. Those same screams would continue throughout the week, while she would be given brief breaks to catch her breath, and slightly longer breaks for sleep, meals, and to clean herself up. But all in all, the majority of Sariel’s time throughout that week would be spent on the bed, being put through bouts of incredible agony. Agony that she could stop at any time, but never would. After all, the people she had hurt and ruined throughout her career in the Seosten military couldn’t simply undo that, now could they?
No, she would take the pain. She would suffer it for this week, in order to quiet those feelings of guilt that would otherwise overwhelm her throughout the rest of the year. One week of pain in exchange for one year of peace. She could live with that. That was the best way of handling the memories of what she had done, of the people and lives that she had destroyed.
One week of torture for one year of love. That was a fair trade, wasn’t it?
One Year Later
“A fair trade?” The disbelief, shock, and horror within Haiden Moon’s voice filled the small room as he stood there, staring at his wife. “You… are you… do you really…” Realizing then just how serious the woman had been as she explained the truth of what she did every time she left for a week, the man felt hot bile rise up in his throat.
He had felt, had sensed his wife’s reluctance every time she went out for these trips, though she insisted they were necessary. Finally, this time, he had convinced her to share with him, to trust him enough to show him what the trips themselves were about. He’d had an idea that it was something bad, but this? Without seeing it himself, he never would have believed that Sariel was the type to torture herself. She was too good at bottling up the incredible guilt that she clearly felt. Apparently at least part of that was because of this. She would almost kill herself with pain for a full week, just so that the guilt over the things she had done in her previous life didn’t completely crush her for the rest of the year.
Seeing his reaction, Sariel cringed, her gaze dropping guiltily. “I’m sorry,” the woman murmured softly. “I know it’s stupid and wrong, but it helps. I just… if I put up with it for that long, if I can just deal with the pain for the week, I can live with the good things for the rest of the year.”
She chanced a tiny smile at him then, offering, “You are a very good thing, Haiden. You are the best thing that has ever happened to me. But… but I couldn’t accept it. I couldn’t accept you, or our life, without a tradeoff. I have to pay for the things that I’ve done. The people that I’ve hurt and killed, my love, I can’t… I can’t be happy knowing those things. Some of my people, when they feel this guilt, they erase it from their memories. But I can’t do that–I won’t do that. I can’t erase it, so I have to pay for it. And… and the thought of being happy, of allowing myself to be happy with you while those memories are in my head, it’s… “ Her head shook quickly. “I have to give my penance. One week of pain for one year of freedom and happiness. It’s worth it, to me.”
Haiden listened through all of that. Despite his disgust with the entire situation and urge to simply grab Sariel and shake her until she understood that this was wrong, he stood still, listening to her words. He heard the pain and regret in her voice, the doubts that plagued her. He could feel her turmoil even more than usual. In showing him this, she had opened herself up to him even more than she already had. That wasn’t something he could just dismiss or throw away. He had to try and understand her. She had been alive for much longer than he had, had seen and done very bad things. Things that had convinced her that this was a good idea.
In that moment, Haiden did the only thing that he could do, the only thing that he could think of. Slowly, he stepped forward and embraced the woman that he loved. Now wasn’t the time for recriminations or incredulity. What she needed was understanding, as much as he could give her.
She resisted very slightly at first, her guilt and embarrassment over the situation making the woman stiffen up. But as he pulled her to him, she relented a little. He heard a tiny whimper escape Sariel as his arms wrapped around her, hugging her up against himself firmly.
“My love, my wife, my partner…” the man murmured gently as he kissed the top her head. “I love you. I adore you. But you couldn’t possibly be more wrong about this. But that isn’t your fault. As advanced as the Seosten might be about a lot of other things, they are pants on head stupid when it comes to mental health.”
Coughing once at that, the woman squinted slightly. “We are… pants on head stupid about a great many things, I’m afraid. But… I don’t know what you mean. I… I can’t just forget the things that I’ve done, Haiden. How could I let myself be happy with you when the people I’ve killed, the lives I’ve ruined… everything I’ve done is still there? I can’t ignore that, I won’t.”
Shaking his head at that while holding the woman to him, Haiden replied, “I wouldn’t ask you to. That’s not the point. I–” He stopped, considering his next words before stepping back while keeping his hands on Sariel’s shoulders. Meeting her gaze, he murmured, “Trust me for a minute, okay?”
“I trust you for every minute,” was her immediate response, as her hands moved up to rest on his.
With a brief smile at that, Haiden moved one hand to his pocket, producing a scrap of plastic with a spell on it that, when activated, summoned a pair of comfortable chairs. Once they were in place, he directed his wife to sit down in one while he took the other, directly across from her.
“Now,” the man started, “would you… consider trying something new, something different than… this?” With one hand, he gestured to the bed where the (not to put too fine of a point on it) torture devices had been laid out.
Biting her lip at that, the blonde woman met his gaze a little guiltily. “Something different? I… what is it?”
Several snarky, sarcastic responses sprang to the man’s mind and tongue right then. But he swallowed them back. Now wasn’t the time for it. His wife needed gentleness right now. She had opened herself up to him, had shown him what was probably her greatest secret: her guilt and how she tried to cope with it.
Instead, Haiden carefully answered, “You were handling this wrong. The guilt, I mean. You were dealing with it wrong. By which I mean you weren’t dealing with it at all. I love you, but torturing yourself isn’t how you deal with that kind of guilt.”
His words made Sariel shake her head in obvious confusion. “I told you, I can’t just erase the memories.”
“That’s not how you deal with it either,” the man retorted. “I… look, I don’t know exactly how it works in the Seosten Empire and all that, but clearly the answer is ‘not that well’ if erasing memories or torturing yourself are the top two options that come to mind.”
She still looked lost, as Haiden reached across to take her hands. With a gentle squeeze, he met the woman’s gaze once more. “Tell me,” he started quietly. “Tell me about the first thing that comes to your mind, the first thing that you feel guilty about. It doesn’t have to be the worst thing that you’ve done, or even the first thing that you think was wrong. Just… the first thing that you can think of.”
The suggestion made her flinch a little, glancing down before slowly lifting her eyes once more as he squeezed her hands tighter. “Tell you?” she echoed with obvious reluctance at the very thought.
He nodded then. “Yes, love. Because that’s how you deal with this guilt. You talk about it. You want to deal with the fact that you’ve killed people, that you’ve ruined lives? You don’t pay for that by torturing yourself once a year. You deal with it by keeping them alive, by keeping their memories alive. That’s the problem with those Seosten you mentioned who erase the memories. They’re doing the opposite of what they should be doing. If you want to help things, if you want to pay for what you did, you keep those memories alive. You share them, talk about them. That’s how you process that guilt, you talk about it. Maybe you can’t bring them back to life, but you can share their stories. You can share their lives. And, quite frankly, talking about things is a good way of getting the thoughts out of your head. At least for a little while.
“So please, whatever comes to mind, whoever you’re thinking about right now… just talk to me about them. Share them with me. I’m here for you, Sariel. I’m always here for you.”
Slowly, the woman stood up from the chair. At first, Haiden thought that she might be objecting. Instead, however, she simply stepped over to his chair and perched herself on his lap. Slowly, Sariel lay against him, head against his shoulder. As his arms wrapped around her, the woman let out a soft, relieved sigh.
And then she began to talk. The stories came, stories that continued not only for that one week, but every time throughout their lives that Sariel needed to talk, about her past, about the people she had killed or those that had been left behind. When she needed it, when the memories and guilt became too much, they would take the time to themselves so that she could talk about them. Because part of being married wasn’t just sharing the good times. It was also sharing the bad times, the terrible memories of guilt and remorse. It was him being there for her, to listen when she needed him to. Not to fix her problems, just to be there, to hear them.
That, after all, was what actually loving someone was about. And Haiden loved Sariel. He always would, and whatever came next in their lives, he would always be there for her. And she for him. They were partners, partners who would face things together.
Always and forever, come what may.