Dancing Barefoot in the Rain
Merc the Wanderer

...Finally done, Endrey McDohl thought, placing his pen in the inkbottle with tired relief. He sank back slowly in his chair, wincing at the soreness of his back and the crick in his neck he hadn't known was there. Wearily rubbing his eyes, he allowed himself a yawn; he had been stifling one for the past few hours. Who would have thought building a new government could be harder than overthrowing the old one? the youth wondered absently, his mind too clogged with political matters and fatigue to take the thought much further. Of course, if Emperor Barbarosa hadn't let the records become so disorganized, it would be easier.

Although the new government was doing its best to avoid building itself on the ruins of the old regime, it was still necessary to consult some of the records. Things such as the census, tax records, and the details of various treaties with other countries were all vital to the newborn Republic. It was this last that Endrey found most troublesome; what if another country were to attack before the Toran Republic got on its feet? Jowston was now occupied by Highland, a war that would likely last years, but Endrey still worried.

Shortly after the fall of Gregminster, the new Republic had quickly pushed Jowston out of Moravia, Liberation Army forces combining with the remains of the Imperial Army. Regaining the territory had been easier than anyone had expected, but Endrey knew the victory had been due to Jowston's unwillingness to fight rather than the military strength of the Toran Republic. Even so, morale was high in the new republic. Moravia was no longer controlled by Jowston, and the soldiers who had fought on opposite sides before had become united by a victory over a mutual enemy.

Almost as if it, too, were remembering the battle, the Rune on his right hand tingled. Endrey frowned; the Soul Eater had remained fairly dormant since the end of the war. After gorging itself on the souls of the dying and dead from both the attack on Gregminster and the brief battle against Jowston, Endrey had hoped its hunger was sated, at least for the meanwhile. Still, he had no way of knowing when the Rune would wake again to demand more victims.

Groaning softly, Endrey rose from his seat, his back muscles protesting at the movement. He took a few painful steps with too-stiff legs, pushing the chair up to the table and gathering a spread of papers from the desk. He neatly stacked the lot: a score of old parchments detailing the prices of fish in various regions. He placed them back on the desk, next to a newer page. Endrey picked it up and blew on it gently, the words glistening black as the not-quite-dry ink reflected the candlelight. Although his eyes were too tired to focus properly, he still automatically scanned the page before remembering he had already checked it three times over. With a sigh, he set it back on the desk, then removed his pen from the inkbottle. He wiped the nib dry, careful not to drip ink on himself or the proposal he had spent the last few hours composing. Laying the pen deliberately on the table, he reached for the stopper to the ink-jar and placed it in the small metal bottle. Finally, everything neatly in its place, he bent over and extinguished the candle.

The young master turned away, planning to retire. Even without the light of the candle, his strained eyes still burned. It was uncomfortably hot, and Endrey wished he had thought to open a window earlier in the evening. He walked stiffly to the window, intending to open it, but paused when he saw the glass was blurred with water.

How long has it been raining? he wondered, the sound of falling rain just now reaching his ears. Pressing his forehead up against the cool glass, Endrey peered into the night. The stars were buried under a brown sheet of clouds, but the drizzling water and the wet street still glistened silver in the light from the oil-burning street lamp on the corner. Recalling another night like this one, Endrey smiled sadly. As a young child, he had once wandered out of bed and into the street to jump barefoot in the puddles. The ever-watchful Gremio had caught him before he was hardly out the door, scolding him for being out of bed and worrying everyone, fretting that his charge had caught a chill, and of course, what would Master Teo think, his son wandering about in the night and goodness knows what might have happened to the Young Master?

Endrey drew away abruptly from the window, his heart constricted by familiar grief. Gremio would never scold him again; Master Teo would never be there to know what his son was doing. And they were not the only ones. How many fathers and sons would never meet again, how many families shattered? This question had plagued Endrey incessantly, hiding during the day, creeping up on him when he was too tired to resist, and twining with a myriad other worries and concerns to haunt his sleep. Now, however, Endrey was simply too tired to think, and instead walked slowly away from the window, full of pain.

The bed creaked as he sat on it. Automatically he removed his shoes and stockings, then fumbled with the buttons of his collared vest. After struggling to remove his arms from the garment, he let it fall to the floor and land in a crumpled heap. He was too tired to undress any more, and so lay back on his bed and closed his eyes.

It's hot... he thought blearily. Too hot to sleep... But...I 'm...so tired... The youth lay there for what seemed like forever and an instant, waiting for sleep.

Sleep didn't come. Endrey rolled over, searching for a cool spot on the pillow to place his cheek. Finally, his face still feeling as if it were on, he reluctantly sat up. He put a too-dry hand to his cheek, reminded of the hot candle flame which had been by his face for hours.

There must be somewhere cooler. Without thinking, he stumbled to his feet, and, not wanting to imagine how much hotter he might be with his shoes on, wandered to the door barefoot.

...Which opened with a creak that seemed so loud Endrey nearly fell over. He froze for several long seconds, his heart hammering in his ears as he strained to hear anyone stirring. Nothing; the silence of the house had only made the sound seem to be so loud. Endrey shook slightly in relief, realizing that Cleo was the only one there. Who he had worried about waking, he wasn't certain. Gremio, his father, Viktor, Mathiu, or some other member of the Liberation Army who might wonder about their leader's nocturnal wanderings?

Leaning against the wall, he staggered over to the stairs, then descended, miraculously managing not to trip. At the bottom, he shook his head, the proceeded a bit more confidently across the foyer and to the front door. Once there, he didn't even pause, and without thinking, opened the door and stepped outside into the rain.

The chill night air and the gentle drizzle played on his face. He took a few steps, and suddenly his feet were damp, resting on cool, wet paving stones. Endrey sighed contentedly, breathing in air that seemed so much fresher and cleaner than that in his stuffy room. He shivered comfortably as he felt water tickle down the back of his shirt, seeping through his hair to his scalp and speckling his bare arms with deliciously cold moisture. He stood a moment in the middle of the street, letting the coolness wash over him.

The moment passed. Endrey turned reluctantly, not wanting to return to the stuffy heat of his bedroom but mindful of the late hour. He stepped forward again, and as his foot landed, something splashed against his bare ankle. He had stepped in a puddle.

Smiling, Endrey lifted his other foot, and brought it down to join the first, creating a smaller but more audible splash. He stepped back quickly, then jumped forward and landed with both feet in the shallow depth of water. The resulting spray was much more satisfying this time. Suddenly not quite as tired, the youth glanced around the street, watching the glinting light, looking for where the puddles were deeper. There was one, to the left. Endrey skipped into that puddle, too, then into yet another nearby. Looking down at his feet, he chuckled at the rings of water which expanded outward from them. He jumped and landed, watching the splash create rings in other pools.

Endrey hopped from puddle to puddle, cutting an almost comical figure as he bobbed around. One hand pressed his green scarf to his head as his wet hair flopped about. He was completely given over to the moment, absorbed in the simple pleasure of a young boy in the rain. Past and future receded, worries and grief fell away until only the present remained, and he laughed aloud with childlike delight, as if the puddles had been created just for his enjoyment. The rolling grey clouds still masked the stars and the moon, but in the streetlamp's light, Endrey danced barefoot in the rain.

Far away, beyond the clouds, a star twinkled like laughter... even though the boy was certain to catch a chill.