Chapter Eleven: Amidst the Rays
"He's near the Mana Sword, I think," Popoie had said. "Hurry, Purim; I feel something really awful!"
Purim's heart pounded as she urged Flammie to fly faster. The dragon sensed the urgency that literally vibrated off of its "parent," and it used all of its skills to choose and travel the fastest, most useful air currents. Now, it could feel, was no time to be dallying with the clouds.
Oh, Mana! What could have befallen him? I can't lose him, not when I've only accepted my feelings for him. Please, he must be okay! He must! Her attempts at self-reassurance did absolutely nothing to quell the sickening sensation in her gut. Like a telepathic connection to Randi, somehow Purim detected that he was losing his life to a demon. Flashes of Randi battling the Devil with the Mana Sword entered unbidden into her mind. "I'm coming, Randi. I'm coming."
Sunlight began to peek above the horizon as Purim started to recognize the terrain below her. They were nearing Potos, she knew that. She didn't remember the exact location of the Sword's lake, but surely it would be visible soon.... Then there came the faint sound of flowing water. "There, Flammie!" she pointed. The rushing waterfall should have become louder as the dragon and rider approached, but all that Purim could hear was Randi's voice, like a surrounding ghost, repeating the words I love you.
Purim squinted down onto the distant lake, frantically searching out Randi. A cold sweat almost broke out when she didn't see him in the water or on the periphery of the lake, but then she spotted a lone figure, faintly outlined by the weak light, standing on the single log that crossed high above the fairly shallow waters. Instantly she knew it was Randi. But what was he doing on that treacherously high log? Wasn't that how he had nearly died before? Yes, he had told her and Popoie all about his accident, laughing at the incident as if it had been funny. He had even declared that only a stupid man who wanted to die would ever walk across that slippery log of his own free will.
Now Purim broke out into that cold sweat. Mana...please let me not have hurt him that badly. Her heart burned inside of her, knowing that that was a futile hope. Randi, though he often put on the facade of the invincible warrior, was, in truth, a caring, sensitive person as a friend. As a man in love.... Purim shuddered at her cruel, oblivious actions. By returning his love with hate in her moment of anger, she had carelessly beaten his soul, broken his heart. In horror, she saw that broken-hearted man fall off of the log in slow motions. She didn't even realize that she screamed out his name, so desperate was she on reaching him.
Flammie splashed into the waters near the Sword, sending up a spray of droplets that temporarily blocked Purim's view. In seconds, she had slid down into the water and run over to where she had seen, had heard, the smack of Randi's body onto the lake. He was there, floating underneath the water, his eyes closed and looking as lifeless as Dyluck had been when he had died. Purim damned the overwhelming fear that caused her body to shake as she dragged Randi's still form to the bank.
"Live! Randi, live! You must!" And then softly, "Please...." Her lower lip trembled and tears spilled from her eyes as she put her ear to Randi's mouth. He wasn't breathing. Quickly she opened his collar and unbuttoned his shirt, praying to the elemental of miraculous revivals, Dryad, that he wasn't gone. "No," she whispered fiercely as she placed her hands together on his chest and pushed rhythmically. "No, no, no." She alternated her actions between trying to breathe life into him and trying to force the water out of his lungs. "Randi, breathe!" What good is love if it only hurts? Randi, don't die. I'll never survive your death. Though long seconds passed with no reaction from Randi and her arms ached from the strain, Purim adamantly refused to give up. We never got to be happy...because of me. Again she put her lips to his. I'm so sorry that I never told you that I love you.
Her heart skipped a beat in surprise when Randi started coughing harshly. He rolled off of Purim's lap so that he was using his arms as leverage while he expelled the water in considerable spurts. Eyes wide and unbelieving, she helped support him while he choked out the liquid.
Amid much wheezing, he finally collapsed back down onto Purim's lap, exhausted, his torso across her legs. When he groggily peered opened his eyes again, he groaned. He had thought that dying would be painful enough, but was he now to be accompanied by an angel who looked exactly like his love? Her long golden hair flowed freely over her shoulders, the vibrant color halo-ing her lovely face. He was confused, though, by the expression her features wore; the angel was crying and her forehead was etched with delicate lines that portrayed her worry. Now what? Was he a disappointment for Death, too?
"What's wrong?" he grumbled gruffly.
The angel granted him with a wavering smile. "Nothing. You're alive. Thank, Mana, you're alive." Though her voice was barely audible, Randi could hear the wonder and joy in it even as he didn't understand what she was saying. Then the angel did the most surprising thing; she kissed him. It was a light kiss, a simple brush across his lips, akin to what he imagined a fluttering butterfly would feel like. But the sensations the gesture created were beyond his comprehension and past experience. Damn! Were there butterflies in his stomach?
Figuring that it was highly unlikely that this ethereal being was a unique angel trained in the seduction arts, Randi blurted out, "Are you a demon?"
Her face registered shock. The next thing he knew, she had bent her head so that her hair covered her eyes. Even so, Randi could tell the she was crying harder, because tears fell more rapidly onto his bare chest. What was this? Some type of dream wherein he was to be tortured by showing him how much pain he caused? She spoke softly, her features still shadowed. "I was," she said. "And I'm sorry Randi, I'm so sorry...." She raised her weary eyes to his, which he had kept trained on her face. "I'm so sorry for hurting you."
Randi would have gasped if he had had the strength, for he had only seen that much utter sorrow in the eyes of one person. His love. "Purim?" He slowly lifted his hand to cup her face. Instinctively, she leaned into it. This weeping angel looked so much like her. Was she truly Purim, who, by some miracle, had come to see him again? Then he narrowed his eyes suspiciously, warning the vision above him. "This is some damn trick, isn't it?"
"No, no, no." She clutched his hand to her face. "I truly am sorry, Randi. I never wanted to hurt you. I was just... afraid." She clasped his hand tighter. "I was so afraid! "
Now Randi was curious. Even with his sleepy mind, he wanted to know just what she could be frightened of. "Afraid? Of what?"
"I was afraid of betraying Dyluck."
It was Purim. This was all that she was ever concerned about. Dyluck. Angry, Randi struggled to sit up, but found that his body couldn't manage such a position in its condition. Frustrated, he rested tensely across Purim's lap once again. He glared up at her wide eyes. "Aren't you afraid that you're betraying Dyluck now?" he spat scathingly. Then he pointedly looked away. "Purim, I...I..." he growled, "Why did you even bother saving me?"
It was Purim's turn to become peeved. "Haven't you been listening to a word I've said? First of all, you're my best friend and you were committing suicide! And secondly...I love you, Randi."
Randi blinked. His mind was blinded by the brightness of that one phrase. Then he opened his mouth, but no words came out. He was literally stunned speechless. She loved him!
She did say that... right? He wasn't just imagining things, was he? Just to make sure he wasn't making a fool out of himself -again- he sputtered, "W-what?"
Purim seemed to hold him closer, if that was possible. "Most of all I'm sorry for keeping that from you...." She saw his sherry eyes gaze up at her expectantly, and she continued, albeit slowly. On the ride over to the Sword's lake, Purim had finally uncovered all of the feelings that she had been hiding from herself. However, her reasons for hiding them were difficult to put into words. "I think... I started feeling this way since...since...well, during our travels as Mana warriors. What I felt for you then wasn't too hard to ignore, because I still loved Dyluck. Then, when he died..." Purim downcast her gaze. "And after spending a few days with you, I...I realized that I loved you."
Her words were bouncing around in his brain faster than the speed of light, and there was no doubt that he was now fully awake. As much as he felt in control of his body, however, Randi couldn't seem to wipe the wide-eyed inquiring look that must have been written all over his face. After glancing at his expression, Purim resumed her telling.
"But I still fancied myself in love with Dyluck, and to love you seemed like the greatest betrayal. So," she shrugged her shoulders in a fashion that was in no way nonchalant, "I denied my feelings for you. I buried them." She looked at him meaningfully, struggling to explain. "My love for you was always just beneath the surface though, and I had to convince myself that I still loved Dyluck more than anyone or anything. My guilt burdened me, however, because my feelings wouldn't leave me alone. And then...and then... I... decided that I would only be free of my heartache if I could find Dyluck, be with him again, show him that I loved him and always would."
"So you tortured yourself with memories?" Randi said softly, meaning it as a statement.
She nodded. "And while we stayed in Mandala after escaping the parade, or while we rode Flammie, and... especially during that picnic in Gaia's Navel...my feelings for you started to show. You could always make me happy, Randi, and at those times I just wanted to let you make me happy, and in the process, I forgot about my obsession with Dyluck." Her gaze faltered and her eyes flicked to a spot on the leaf-strewn ground. "That terrified me. For if you could see that I cared for you beyond simple friendship, then surely Dyluck would know that I had fallen in love with you. The guilt...it shamed me. I became bitter. Every time I looked at you, my heart ached with yearning but was also held back by the pain of guilt."
So she pushed me away to protect her heart. Mana, now it all made so much sense! Her chilling demeanor, her pleas for him to leave her alone in Mandala, running away from him in Pandora's castle garden.... It had all been a defense for her heart.
"But..." Randi ventured, "that time when you told me that you...that you...." He could barely voice the word. "...hated me."
Purim laid a finger against mouth to silence him. "Forget that. Please. Forget that. I could never truly hate you. At that time, it was as if I would finally be rid of my sorrow. I was so desperate that I was willing to believe Dyluck was finally with me again, even when I should have guessed that it was the Devil. I thought that by finding him, the pain would finally be gone. Then the most loving kiss of my life didn't occur with Dyluck, but with you. And everything I had buried burst into realization, and, to my mind, screamed of betrayal. You, Randi, not Dyluck, had kissed me on the soul. I was so angry. I was angry at everything, especially myself, my feelings. The hurt throbbed so much that I had to strike out... because the truth is...at one time Dyluck and I were madly in love. It was a very young, rebellious love, but a love nonetheless. I used to think that was the type of love I wanted. I was in love with Dyluck. But ...for the longest time.... Now...."
He tried to read her gaze. "Now...what?"
In answer, she enveloped him in firm hug, gently pressing her cheek against his. Randi's senses were overcome by a warm, glorifying glow of love. He could feel her heartbeat, she was so close. Though the move cost him some effort, he placed his left hand on the small of her back in a derivative of an embrace. Then she drew away slowly, smiling softly, and took his right hand in her own. Randi glanced down, not all that surprised to find that before falling, he had subconsciously twined the mourning band between his fingers. She unraveled the worn length of black silk from his hand.
Purim carefully lay Randi down onto the leaves and stood up. He watched in silence while she waded out into the waters and over to the Sword. In defining movements, Purim tied the mourning band around the hilt so that its ends trailed along the blade, and then did the same with the blond strands she had tucked within her pocket. Thank you, Dyluck, for everything. Goodbye, my first love.... An unfamiliar sense of satisfaction washed over her. Everything was alright for Dyluck.
She turned and walked away, leaving the black mourning band and golden strands to rest with the Holy Sword; leaving it in the past.
"I traveled to the Pure Lands again," Purim began to explain when she was near enough to Randi for him to hear. She lay down beside him, her golden hair spreading onto the ground and her eyes locking with his patient brown ones. "I saw Popoie."
"Popoie?" he asked. Popoie had died a long time ago. She knew that.
"Trust me," Purim said, holding his hands. It sounded like a question.
He did. Her blue eyes were clear now, not glazed by illusion. Funny how he believed her so easily, how he was able to distinguish her moods and state of mind with such accuracy.
Purim went on to tell him about the welfare of the Mana Tree and the good health and prevalent overall spunk of Popoie. Randi laughed when Purim told him bits and pieces of the conversation and of Popoie's likewise actions, but he then grimaced at the pain it caused his badly bruised body.
Purim stopped and looked at him worriedly. He would always be beautifully handsome to her, even with those purple marks that splotched him in places. However, those large purple marks couldn't be comfortable or healthy.... "Perhaps I should use some of Undine's magic to help you heal...."
"No!" Randi exclaimed loudly. Then, when he saw her eyes widen, he lowered the volume of his voice. "What I mean is, I... uh... really don't feel like having water of any sort. Not right now, anyway."
Purim laughed softly and grinned. "Oh brave Mana Knight," she teased. Then her features gentled. "I love you so very much."
Randi could see the truth shining through her eyes, and it filled him with joy. He had to know, though. Leaving the mourning band tied to the Sword was symbolic, and doing so obviously held great meaning for Purim, but he had to be sure of its purpose.... "Purim," he began, stroking her hands with his thumbs, "I love you, and I promise you that I always will." He paused for a moment. "But...I don't want to hurt you again. I don't want you to be overcome by guilt. I have to know if -."
Once again Purim stopped his speech with one of her fingers. "Popoie told me something else, Randi."
It was just like Randi to lower his eyebrows in question rather than raise one of them. She found it quite cute.
Smiling, she continued. "He told me that he can talk to the dead. All of the dead. He told me that Dyluck said that he was happy where he was, and that I shouldn't deny my feelings, that I should live happily. I've said goodbye to him, Randi." She slid her hand down along his roughened cheek to cradle his sturdy chin. "I can think of no man other than you who can make my soul complete and happy."
"My love, I promise you that I shall do my best."
As for Randi's lips, Purim discovered, they weren't bruised at all.