Luc huffed and puffed, as he cursed these blasted stairs. It was just like a human to insist on taking the unwieldy path, in the grand spirit of adventure. He had half a mind to insist on boarding the elevator instead.
But it was near midnight. Adlai's contraption was taking a well-earned rest; as were everybody else in Yavin Castle.
Well, almost everybody. Luc cast a glance behind him and his companion smiled back, still bright-eyed and red-cheeked from her training session.
"Nanami," he groused, "This is ridiculous. Why don't you just call it a night?"
He supposed he deserved the incredulous look she gave him "All right. Sorry I asked. Then why take me? You could just go by yourself."
"I can't." Nanami said patiently.
"You can't?" This was the second floor landing. The moon shone upon him from an open window. Luc paused, intent on taking a brief rest, but Nanami shoved him at the next flight of stairs.
"Go! We're almost there!"
He let out a defeated grunt which made her giggle. "So I'm running the great wind warrior ragged? They're just stairs, not an army!"
Luc marveled at the ease with which she used her words. Anybody else might have incurred his wrath. But tonight, to her he wasn't a warrior. He was merely the partner she'd chosen for this absurd midnight excursion. He repeated his earlier question, wiping the sweat from his brow. "Why take me along?"
"Because," she said "those guards don't trust me."
An unsatisfactory answer. "They don't trust me very much either."
"Ha. They're scared of you, you mean" Nanami stopped, pressing a hand to her mouth. "Sorry" she said sheepishly. He only rolled his eyes at the mention of an obvious fact, and quickened his mount.
"They fear me. So that's why you asked me to come? If they won't listen to you, they'll listen to me."
Nanami shook her head. "It's more than that Luc. You…hang on"
They had reached the fourth floor. Looking nervous, Nanami ushered him into the darkened hallway leading to their destination. Luc knew that through the walls, Lord Shu and Lady Theresa lounged in their respective bedrooms. Nanami was clearly besieged by the thought of being caught by either one. She tiptoed down the passage on skittery feet. Luc slunk in after her.
The girl was sly, that much Luc had to admit. She watched with a straight face as he drawled out her fabricated story at two bemused guards. On Lord Riou's orders, Luc was to escort Lady Nanami to the castle garden, for a breath of fresh air she had been long deprived of. And they were not to stand in her way.
The guard's faces changed from hesitant to willful at the sight of a stormy Luc. They yielded at once, bidding the two to be careful. One of them unbarred the gates leading to the garden. Luc almost snorted. These so called watchmen couldn't even hold back inhabitants, how would they fare against invaders?
Then Nanami nudged him. "Hurry!" she hissed. She was trembling with suppressed glee.
"They're waiting for us, Luc! Let's go!
And they emerged into the night.
The fourth floor garden was one of the purest outdoor patches surrounding Yavin Castle. This was where two mischievous cross-dressers lolled about on ornate chairs, sipping tea and tittering themselves silly. This was also the place the young sonographer visited when he longed for the blue skies of his forest home.
And here grew the castle's famed moonroses. Dozens upon dozens of them spilled out of marble niches, wafting their heady fragrance into the little garden. Nanami was one of the frequent visitors and had heard a plethora of rumors about this particular blossom Moonroses were aptly named. The castle dwellers missed so much, for only near midnight, by the full moon's light, could they be viewed in their glory. Nanami perked up at the glowing descriptions of the full moon's magic.
I'm going to see it, then she'd told herself. I'll die of curiosity if I don't. And…I'll take him along.
Luc was the most baffling of companions. In a way, she did like him—very much, in fact. After her nightly training, she would take a rest by the stone tablet and talk her heart out to the only person who would listen. In the beginning, he'd been his typical surly self: grunting and even going so far as to push her away. The nights passed…and she didn't know why but she kept coming back to him. There was something about a stranger who listened. She knew next to nothing about him, he was learning so much about her…and that was just the way it was. They never questioned it, nor made a move to change it.
Nowadays, Luc didn't seem to mind her chatter too much. In fact, she suspected that he was starting to like it. He listened with a grave face as she recounted each day's sorrows and glories; not once interrupting her, always with steady green eyes fixed on her squatting form. And most mystifying of all…he didn't snap at her as he'd so often done with other castle inhabitants. At least not anymore.
What was he now? Did she dare call him a friend? She didn't know what he would think of that. But Nanami had swallowed her unease and asked him to accompany her. It had taken a bit of prodding but he'd somberly consented to her request.
Now they burst into the night. It was a lovely sky that met them, darkest purple and studded with jewel-bright crystal glints. A gleaming round disk bathed the garden in silver beams. Past the rose arch and swaying in their niches, the silky, pale flowers seemed to capture all celestial light.
Although still breathless from the upstairs climb, Nanami couldn't hold back her gasp. Even Luc gave the glowing flowers an austere, approving nod. They darted forward on a gust of anticipation as the full moon threw their shadows all over silver-lit marble.
Luc stopped several paces from the silvery blooms. He would never admit it but he was getting dizzy. He hadn't realized that the moonroses would hold so much light, that their scent would be so wild and overpowering. He tried to focus on Nanami, darting this way and that with fairy-light warrior's grace. She was beaming, catching sprays of lit petals between her fingers. "Oh, I never imagined…can you believe…?" The rest of the sentence was lost in a delighted laugh.
Here, Luc thought, was human joy, rapturous and unrestrained. He recalled being frustrated with it in the past but with Nanami as its vessel, it was…purer somehow. Pure as the moonbeams on their faces, pure as the lively gale sweeping across the castle.
Nanami shivered. She was clad in thin, frayed fencing garments. "Luc," she implored, hugging herself "could you do something about…?"
She didn't have to ask him a second time. Exhaling, he clenched his fists and concentrated on a crucial point under the heavens where cool winds gathered. A familiar tingle from the answering Rune on his right hand…and the rushing draught stilled, giving way to gentle puffs that caressed rather than tugged.
Luc wasn't surprised at all when, as he relaxed his tensed muscles, she reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "Thank you."
Luc only nodded. He decided not to add that he would never have done it for anybody else.
Then Nanami brushed past him and Luc flinched, as he caught a whiff of moonrose fragrance.
He recalled an ancient saying about this flower…that one who smelled of it would soon see death. Luc finally took a few steps forward, breathing into the soft petals that brushed his face. Just who was he to trust such a ridiculous superstition? It was something a… human might do.
He plucked out the tiniest of silver buds. Remarkable. Even in the cavern his cupped hands made, it retained the sliver of a glow.
"Look," Nanami said in wonderment, "It's almost transparent." Luc had to agree, after examining the blossom she'd thrust at him. The flower seemed to absorb light, as well as emit it. He stroked it gingerly; it was as delicate and satiny as it looked.
Nanami let out a soft, longing sigh, looking up to meet Luc's wary gaze.
He withdrew his hand. "Something's wrong." It wasn't a question and to this, Nanami shrugged morosely.
"I was just…remembering"
Luc peered at an indeterminable point in the sky. "Ah. About your brother again? Or," he added disdainfully, "about that other friend of yours?" He'd never kept his opinions about Jowy a secret.
Nanami bit her lip. "Yeah. I was thinking about one of our silly kid games" She gripped her flower stem a little harder "See this one day, we were playing…war"
"It was Riou and me against Jowy. We ambushed him from behind the big tree and just when we thought he was losing…"
She paused to catch her breath. Luc sank into one of the garden's scattered ornate chairs. He blinked up at the stars but Nanami knew he was still paying attention.
He was listening to her, as he'd always done.
"Jowy held up a bunch of moonroses. He'd picked them from his Mom's terrace. He said we couldn't hurt him because he was holding them."
The wind sorcerer smirked.
Nanami frowned "What?"
"He used flowers as a shield? Pathetic, really."
Nanami was used to his bluntness by now. This was the closest he'd ever come to a direct jibe at Jowy. She'd often wondered if he was just holding harsh words in for her sake.
Luc seemed to take her silence for discomfort and said "Never mind. Continue"
"Well, Jowy said that moonroses warded off bloodshed And then he told us this story. 'Course, Jowy was forever telling us stories.” She turned her gaze towards the moonroses, limned in light.
"He said legend had it that the very first moonroses bloomed on a blood-drenched battlefield, under the very light of the full moon. After the earth soaked up the blood of her children—"
"The same earth would turn her dying children's essence into a thing of beauty, as a reminder of the end of bloodshed" Luc broke in. "To sum it up, they all sprang from carnage," he added coldly. With his eyes half-closed and his pale skin tinged marble-white, he was an eerie sight under the brilliant sky, surrounded by the scent of moonroses. Nanami just stared at him.
"How did you…" she swallowed. "There's more to it than that. They may've sprung from blood, but they bloom for virtue, for courage. That's why they're pure white…that's why they reach out to the moon. They're…they're really a reminder of hope, especially during times like these. "
Luc shrugged; an unsettling, all-too-human gesture "I've heard folktales, myths, legends about the moonrose." He sniffed "That was only one of them. Unfortunately, I don't believe a single word of it"
Nanami avoided his cool, green eyes. "But," she said, picking carefully through her words "it can be good to believe in things, Luc. It's not just some made-up myth about flowers, you know. It's about…hope.”
His reply was fraught with cold sarcasm. "Human trifles."
"Luc." Nanami sighed. She wasn't willing to give up. He was stubborn, annoyingly cynical… still he responded to her, listened to her, even considered what she had to say
She noticed his long slender fingers curled on his lap. Carefully, she separated a petal from the blossom she held, pressing it into his cupped hands.
Luc blinked in momentary surprise. Then he raised the petal to catch a glint of moonlight. Nanami took the chair opposite him, her eyes flicking from his face to the petal.
"Is this," he said, "what you call hope?" Before she could answer, he spoke again in sharp, pronounced words.
"It never stops, does it? You bloom, then wither, then die. And on it goes, again and again, for the next few centuries or so."
Nanami only had time to wonder where this conversation was going. "I …I don't think I understand…" she trailed off.
Luc's eyes narrowed. "Nanami," he sighed "you were talking to me about hope. You fight so hard; you lose so much…you hope so much. What do you gain? A few years' peace perhaps. But what do you do when it all starts up again?"
Once he got started, he couldn't stop "You fight more. You lose more. And sooner or later, you're going to lose everything. Listen to me…it's all just part of a vicious cycle."
He frightened her for a moment, elegant and calculating with an ambitious, hungry look in his eyes. His eyes…Nanami's breath caught in her throat. Cool green orbs gleamed, as if lit by something within.
"You must think" Luc said quietly, "that I don't care."
"Luc" she murmured, "well…you don't even know what it's like to hope!"
If it had been broad daylight, she would have seen the color rise in Luc's cheeks. "Maybe not…but I do care." he said fiercely. "It's different sort of caring…it makes me furious that such a state exists. That I'm called upon again, only to help set forth a relentless cycle. I keep thinking…maybe someone needs to rise against it all."
He reached out to take the blossom from her. Caught up in his tirade, she had almost forgotten it. She watched as he twirled the stem and stroke it's smooth, glowing petal.
"This bloom is a cycle. The moon stirs it, sets it forth."
Her voice was low. "And someone should hinder the moon? Is that what you're saying?"
"But… at what price, Luc?"
He had not thought of that. He stared at her for moments before replying.
"I don't know. But everyone must be prepared to pay it."
It was a faded sky they were leaving, faint velvet scattered with points of twinkling light. The full moon bathed their upturned faces in silver beams. They were barely past the arch of roses; they had halted for one final view. Luc scanned the stars one last time while Nanami hovered over the glowing moonroses.
"I wish I could take some of them back" she remarked dreamily. "Too bad it isn't allowed."
"They'd be wilted in the morning anyway."
"Wet blanket" But there was amusement in her voice. "No matter. I'll be back for the next full moon."
"Yes, for the next cycle" He sounded bitter again. Nanami cast him a sidelong glance. He had folded his arms and his features were pursed into an agitated frown. Now might not be the best time to tell him what she'd mused on since their earlier conversation.
Then she sighed. Might as well get it over with. "Luc, listen, about those flowers—"
"Have it your way" Luc shrugged. "they'll be shriveled and broken in the morning—"
"No, I wasn't talking about that!" Nanami drew a deep breath. "I was thinking about what you said earlier, about rising against everything…what you said about stalling the moon."
"…Ah." His stern, moonlit face could have passed for a marble bust.
"I don't really think humans are caught in any sort of cycle." Luc raised a haughty brow but Nanami pressed on "Even if we were, no two cycles….no two lives are the same. And when we wither someday…then so be it."
Luc waited in stony silence, patient and sinister at the same time. Summoning courage, Nanami continued.
"No matter what circles or wars I'm caught in…I can't cheat them. I can only face them. I'll stay where I am and tough it out, like Grandpa always taught me to. My brother's doing the best he can and—and Jowy's doing it too. Luc, it's what I have you see. It's what all humans have. There are some circumstances that can't be controlled…but they can be faced. Even fought."
For a second, she thought she saw an odd glint in his eyes…no, it must have been a trick of the light. He stared out at the garden.
"Then so be it," he echoed her. It was an unusual statement, stranger still was the question that followed. "Are you strong enough to fight them, Nanami?"
She spoke with firm decision. He'd unknowingly infused her with renewed vigor and she could only hope she displayed some of the bold insolence she had seen in him earlier.
She was in awe of it, though she would never be fully capable of it.
She thought she saw the corner of Luc's mouth turn up, in the beginnings of a smile. But, it must have been another trick of moonlight, for it was gone, quick as a star's twinkle.
Nanami blinked, stifling a yawn. She had to be hallucinating from lack of sleep. "Let's go" she said, turning away.
Luc held her back, actually tugged at her sleeve. "Wait. Take flowers some back with you."
"Eh? But I thought you said—"
"Never mind that," Luc broke in. "Some of them can be much stronger than the rest. They survive…they still glow after being picked…."
Nanami hid a smile. "How'd you know that about them?"
"Oh…I think spending time among humans has helped me understand them a little bit. The moonflowers, I mean. Go on," he said "I'll even help you."
When they left, Nanami's handkerchief bulged with choice blossoms. She thanked the guards and paused for one last look at their moon garden. One night of splendor…it would all be gone in the morning.
Doesn't matter, she thought, I'm carrying the scent of the moon back with me. It was a good thing she carried a handkerchief. She grinned, trying to imagine Luc smuggling flowers in his robes. Hey, stranger things could happen! Had happened in fact, on this wonderfully odd night.
But the night still held another surprise in store. They descended the stairs in comfortable silence, finally stopping at Nanami's 3rd floor bedroom. Just the sight of its shut door flooded her with sleepiness.
"I'll be going now," was Luc's detached goodbye. Nanami watched his straight-backed figure descend the stairs. On an impulse, she called "Luc?"
He turned. "Anything else?"
"I'm really glad you came," she said simply. Then she nearly dropped her bundle of flowers. The wind mage had just given her a smile, a beautifully genuine smile. It lingered and then disappeared, but Nanami would never forget its gentle sincerity
"Goodnight, Lady Nanami." he said, bowing slightly. And then he was gone.
A few months later
I knew it, Luc thought. Rage and swelling relief fought for domination. With furious resolve, he emerged from behind the tall shipping crates. There had been something suspicious about the strategist's manner as he'd told the stunned crowd of the castle that Nanami Genkaku hadn't survived her injury.
Further along the harbor, a reluctant, very-much-alive Nanami took a few faltering steps up the gangplank. She risked a nervous glance over her shoulder. Instantly, she was flanked by sailors whose whispered conversation reeked of the conspiracy.
Tricking all of them into thinking she had died. Luc ground his teeth. Only she could have thought of something so audacious.
And only he could have known her capable of it. By gods, not even her brother had suspected a thing!
He stopped a few feet short of discovery, still concealed in the ship's shadow. Without stopping to think, he silently commanded his Rune to let loose the tempest within. With his slow harsh breath, the wind broke calm see into choppy ripples. A gale whooshed out of nowhere, rocking the little vessel so badly, the sailors half-yipped in surprise.
The captain's voice rang out "Lady Nanami! We haven't much time! A storm could be brewing!"
Oh it is, Luc thought sarcastically.
But Nanami stopped in her tracks and peered over the surrounding sailors' heads. "Luc?" he heard her call out uncertainly.
The nervous sailors rallied about her, calling out admonitions. Nanami elbowed her way out of the cluster, stepping onto the pier. "Where are you!" she cried. "I know it's you, Luc!"
He stepped out of shadow, and despite Nanami's confident stance, she flinched. Then he couldn't help it anymore. He glared at her, struggling with a mad urge to shake her. They stayed that way for a while, gaze holding defiant gaze.
Then Luc reached into his robe, drawing out the object he had taken earlier. The ruined moonrose was ominous under tonight's moon; stark, pale and horribly shriveled. He watched as fear, shame, and a myriad other emotions flitted across Nanami's drawn face. He had hurt her. Good, Luc thought, shuddering. But then he looked deeper into the wounded girl's eyes and felt no triumph.
He found his voice at last. "Let's go." he choked, gesturing towards the far end of the harbor, where stone jutted out into the black sea. Nanami nodded, understanding his desire to be alone when he said what begged to be said. This only made Luc angrier. With every step he took, he braced himself further for his assault. He curled his hand around the withered moonrose, finding sick satisfaction as he crushed it.
Finally they stood at the harbor's edge. Luc's robes billowed in the wind, in synchrony with the tossing sea.
"Don't." came Nanami's whisper. Luc turned to face her, knowing full well that his eyes were blazing; that he must have looked utterly alarming under the night sky. Nanami's face was beseeching. "Please don't tell them." she pleaded.
Luc gave a harsh, sardonic laugh. "Your brother is suffering"
He saw what could have been the glimmer of tears as she lowered her head. "It's all for the best." she said miserably. "I can't be here anymore, Luc! It's easier to just disappear."
"Why tell me all this?" he snapped. "Why should I listen to you now! You told me once that you wouldn't back down."
"You told me once," he spat "that you would continue to fight. You told me you were strong enough! " The last word ended in a shout.
Nanami faced away, looking out at a vast black sea. He thought for sure that she had started crying. But no…she stood in silence; her breathing was tremulous yet controlled.
"I just want to know" Luc's voice sunk to a tight, near-whisper. "Why? Why did you change your mind?" His own breathing had become constricted; he shut his eyes and gave a guttural groan. Did she even know? No, of course not. He hadn't told her…he never told her anything.
When he opened his eyes again, she was looking at him straight on with unabashed honesty. "Yes I did tell you" she said. "I told you that I would try and fight the circumstances. Well Luc, I'm fighting them now. Riou's starting to depend on me too much. It isn't good, not for me, not for the army. So I think…I know…that I have to go.
A thousand questions fluttered away. "For your brother?" Luc blurted out "That's why you're doing this?"
"Well if you really want to know…" he saw the ghost of a sad smile "for me too. Really, I can't do this anymore! This is war. It's all a mess, Riou and Jowy fighting; bloodshed on both sides…and me! I continued to fight, kill people…I kind of lost track that I was actually in the middle of…of war."
And the tremor in her last word made all the difference. Luc quelled the winds he had summoned in his anger. She's only a child, he realized with a pang. A human child. Why, why did she have to go through all this? She had been luminous in the moonlit garden, fiercely declaring that she would go on, despite everything. He'd thought he was on the verge of understanding what humans treasured, what drove them forward, what went on in their hearts. He'd found all their dreams, captured in a sprig of ephemeral moonroses.
Now…now Nanami had crumbled, left him with a bitter stab of regret. And…there was something else, something that raged and tore and cried out that it wasn't supposed to be like this, she was supposed to stay on.
She was supposed to make him understand.
Nanami took him by the shoulders; Luc nearly cringed. He forced himself to look at her face and was stunned by the strength he still saw. Why! You're leaving; you're giving up…why?
"It'll all work out without me, Luc." Nanami said firmly "I know my brother and I know he can do it without me." She stumbled and he sensed she was moving closer to an edge…perhaps trying to contain tears. Then she cleared her throat and continued in a shaky voice.
"You know, I wanted to thank you. For being there, for listening even though you didn't want to."
"I did want to." It was the only thing he could think to say. He saw her smile very, very sadly, and he thought he wouldn't be able to stand it. Then she drew closer to him, putting both arms around him. It was an almighty struggle not to pull away for he was repulsed and warmed at the same time and it confused him, it confused him…Luc shut his eyes which had began to sting mysteriously.
It seemed an eternity later as he watched the little vessel sail away, blessed by moonlight. On deck, the young mortal who had called him a friend leaned over the ship's railing for one last glimpse. Looking at the sweet, slender figure, Luc thought of moonroses. Blooming in their fragile beauty, glowing in ephemeral splendor…only to be swept into the cycle that the relentless moon had set them on.
But it didn't have to be that way. It wasn't right for them, or for anybody else. Somebody should have hindered the moon a long time ago.
Luc sent out a good strong breeze. Nanami was on that ship. It would help her. At least he would help her one final time on her journey home.
Her parting words…her earnest request…
"You'll take care of them for me? Watch the moonroses for me?"
I'll try, Luc thought
And in his mind's eye, the moon was torn asunder, and the moonroses withered one by one.