Sunlight. It crept into the cozy room, casting the three sleeping figures in molten gold.
Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.
There was rhythm in their steady breathing. Their lives seamlessly interweaved, having been sundered only a year and a half ago. It was as though no separation had ever taken place.
In the depths of slumber, the sleeping figures were spiritually restored to things that had been.
Then Jowy Atreides awoke, breaking the serene spell that had stolen over him the night before.
He was momentarily dazzled by sunlight pouring in from Nanami's open window. Jowy blinked and tossed off his sheets, stifling a yawn. Slowly, laboriously, he stretched out the kinks that he had acquired from his cramped sleeping position. He curled into a ball and sighed deeply as he took in the quiet loveliness that the morning had to offer. He had never been a morning person, but today--his eyes moved over the rumpled bed and the two exhausted figures sprawled on either side of him--today, heíd be willing to make an exception.
Everything was utterly still and golden, the tranquility uninterrupted, save for outdoor sounds of a world coming back to life. Jowy knew the feeling all too well. He clenched his fist, peering closely at the glowing figure of a Sword etched into it. It slumbered now, his Rune, though its power still crawled beneath his skin, whispering secrets of deeds unthinkable. A shiver ran through Jowy. Somehow, to feel so alive, so utterly rejuvenated with a world he had helped devastate . . .
It wasnít right. If Fate had its way, he wouldnít be sitting here at all.
But Riou . . . Riou had shown him compassion.
Thank you, Jowy thought uselessly. He gazed at the sleeping form of his best friend, forming words in his heart that Riou never heard. Jowy touched the chestnut hair in silent deference, and then bit back a chuckle. The morning sun had caught a glint of gold just beneath Riouís hair; he had forgotten to take off his circlet again. The gold circlet was askew. Jowy quietly straightened it, his smile now replaced by a thoughtful frown.
I was ready yesterday. But you werenít, he thought, watching Riouís tightly shut eyelids. He pulled back the covers that concealed Riouís right hand. The Shield shone in silence, itís radiance a startling contrast to its masterís pale, Highland complexion. Jowy had seen firsthand the things it could accomplish on the battlefield--and yesterday, it had helped heal his body, shattered and broken as he was. The Bright Shield Rune was just as powerful as his own; if not moreso.
And yet . . .
Riou had earned the peopleís deference, not with power, but with all the things Jowy had envied in him. Jowy pressed his hand around the warmth of Riouís, relinquishing the last traces of his jealousy once and for all. He would never have Riouís gallant heart, but he had his own and that was enough.
You werenít ready for me to die. Thank you.
His contemplation was interrupted by a soft moan; Nanami was stirring. Jowy caught a glimpse of her face as she rolled over; she seemed to be rising from the depths of a lovely dream. Still she did not wake; she rolled over and sighed, her face holding an expression that did not fit her seventeen years. Riveted, Jowy could only stare. The early rays of the sun enhanced her features, tinged gold into her flushed cheeks.
Only last night Nanami had curled up in his arms, nestling her head under his chin the way she used to right after Genkaku died. Riou had never known about those long-ago sleepless nights; how Jowy woke her from her nightmares, whispering consoling words in her moonlit bedroom.
Jowy pondered this now as he smoothed back her mussed hair and tugged at the well- worn sheets.
Last night, it had been the reverse. He needed comfort, and she gave it to him in unconditional tenderness. Riou had forgiven him; Nanami held nothing against him Her presence in his arms told him so, and wordlessly begged him not to leave them ever, ever again. He did not feel chastened for his transgressions, only, quite simply, loved.
He collapsed back against the bed, and found himself staring at a ceiling bathed in morning flames. He was engulfed in the sound of their breathing, in his own uneven breaths, until gradually, even those were swallowed by silence. He blinked back tears and inhaled unsteadily, laying a hand on his chest.
Just then, Riou let out a low growl and kicked at the obstruction of Jowyís legs. Jowy hastily swiped at eyes and tried to move but three to a bed didnít leave very much space. Riou gave up and instead draped one arm across Jowyís chest. Jowy grinned, despite himself. He could picture Riouís face if he woke up in this unbecoming position.
Nanami muttered something in the depths of sleep. She inched closer to Jowy and placed a slender hand on his shoulder, completing the trinity.
He didnít know how long he lay there, trapped in their warmth, his heart astir with an uprising of emotions.
Eventually, he got up. He worked his ash-blond hair into a long ponytail and spared a glance at his snoozing friends before leaving the room. Riou grunted and promptly pulled the covers back over his head. Nanami hadnít budged at all.
Smiling, Jowy padded across the empty dojo. It was filled with morning light and shadows criss-crossed at every step. He opened the back door and walked out, crushing grass with his bare feet. The morning air was a rush of pure, wild mountain scent. Pale blue sky made him blink in its startling familiarity.
And there it was, the unmarked gravestone, the simplest testament to the man who had taught them so much. Stopping in front of it, Jowy traced the stone with his fingertips. He could almost imagine Genkakuís stern but kindly eyes, his grave voice guiding them into a world that was not quite their own.
What would he have said ? Jowy thought fleetingly. He knelt, bowed his head in deepest respect. Before he could stop himself, the words bubbled out of his lips. He told him. He told his dead mentor everything. I know you may have heard of this from Nanami . . . but hear me out, Master, please. The betrayal. The separation. The interminable war. Jowy now dared to speak of his blameworthy cowardice.
"You wouldnít be proud, Master." His shaky whisper mingled with the early calm. "I deserved . . . I deserve punishment. Look what I got instead "
The errant breeze brought him no answers, so Jowy sought comfort in the quiet. Rich, profound, listening quiet, not speaking or preaching, embracing him without judgement
What will I do? he asked silently. The answer was in his very breath. Only what I can do. Rustling leaves filled his ears, almost like chimes. What was he hoping to find here? No answers from his departed Master. Only solace and quiet guidance, as it always had been
All of Highland seemed to stretch out before him. Riou had called this their own private kingdom--irony at its finest. And he was a captive spectator of the sight he had beheld so many times before. It wasnít magnificence or splendor, but the land lay in fine simplicity, caressed by the rays of the morning.
Jowy leaned against the old treeís rough bark, breathing deeply. The golden-green world that they had called theirs hadnít changed one bit. He easily spotted the gray curve of road winding through the earthís rough contours until it disappeared into the thicket of trees that led to Tenzan Pass. Ever a slave to the sunlit land he had once called his own. And further beyond, the mountains loomed, fringing Highlandís entirety. They made a jagged junction of earth and sky, throwing perpetual shadows over the land when sunset approached.
He had built dreams here. He remembered standing entranced as they watched the last sliver of burnt daylight gradually disappear beyond the great peaks of the western mountains. Tomorrow, weíll come back. It was a promise repeated for as long as he could recall.
Morning was kind. After the sun exhausted itís glory, after the night had swept over his homeland, light always, always atoned for the darkness it had caused. It swept back the ashes, took away the darkest of shadows.
Jowy flinched. The Black Sword Rune was stinging, blazing white-hot lines of strange comfort through his yielding body, almost like it was echoing his thoughts. Like itís got a life of itís own, he thought, not for the first time. What are you trying to say? Yes, I know. I can start over. I can take sorrow from this world, just like the morning takes away the night. No, the dialogue with his rune was a farce. He was reflecting, trying to restore his faith in himself. And perhaps that was the very first step.
He clenched his runed fist and allowed a wry smile to grace his face. He was getting a bit too philosophical; Genkaku would have been proud. Making amends, taking sorrow from the world, that was something he knew how to doÖsomething he had always resolved to do.
But learning to live with himself was a different lesson altogether. And even with Riou and Nanami at his side, he knew he would be its sole student. Sins didnít disappear. They stayed on in the deepest recesses of the mind, shadows even in the brightest of mornings.
Maybe, with time and with atonementÖhe could even learn to live with his shadows.
He followed Highlandís careworn path. He followed it with his eyes and with his heart, through the mountains and beyond. In his youth, that road had held so many promises, of lands and of quests beyond their own world of make-believe. And in a sense, in this bright and early morning, Jowy was a child once more, keeping faith in the promises of a new day.
The voices shattered his reverie. Riouís and Nanamiís. With once last glance at the waking Highland, he headed back towards the dojo. Nanamiís voice had held a current of anxiety as though entertaining the possibility that he had gone again. Never, he swore, pushing the door open
"Hey." He and Riou shared a knowing, half-embarrassed grin as he entered. The last time their eyes had met like that, they had been pooled with joyous tears. Riou was slumped at the dinner table, his hair a tousled mess. Nanamiís voice drifted from the kitchen, in a meaningless, gleeful song.
"Breakfast," Riou mouthed. He pulled an awful face that Jowy immediately understood. It was impossible to forget Nanamiís cooking skills--or lack thereof. "Great eh?" Riou said as Jowy pulled up a chair "So much for a new beginning. It all ends with her poisoning us."
They both chuckled, much to Nanamiís indignance. "Shut up!" she yelled, but Jowy knew without a doubt that she was smiling too. It felt almost euphoric to be able to exchange careless banter again.
"Whereíve you been?" Riou yawned. Jowy gestured outdoors.
"Just by our tree."
Riouís brown eyes held a glint of understanding. "Oh. Where we used to plan our journeys."
And Jowyís smile was vibrant in the morning sun.
"Yeah," he said, " Iíve been doing just that."