Twenty-Three: Renewal

"Happy twentieth birthday, Brenda!"

"You guys are the best," she sang before blowing out all twenty of the candles. That was it, then—her first step into the third decade of her life, and what a rite of passage she took! But now she could relax and celebrate with her friends, even though there were still some questions that needed to be answered. Was Maelstrom defeated, or would they come back again? Was the future saved, or had Brenda doomed it? And what would happen to everyone if their mission really was a success? None of that seemed to matter for the moment; it was all cake and presents from then on out.

The festivities were brief, as per Brenda's request; she honestly wanted to see a conclusion to this tribulation. With her five time-traveling friends at her side—no, make that seven, now that Johnny and Trina were tagging along—she distanced herself from her town and looked to the empty distance, where Etherea emerged from the air to conduct what everyone felt to be their final discourse.

"So now what?" was the general question. The golden-skinned woman smiled gently.

"It is completed. You have won, despite all my apprehensiveness. Your enemies no longer have the ability to fight. You have proved to be stronger than they are, and they are lost. Everything you've set out to do has come to pass."

"That's wonderful!" Nalia gushed. She hopped for joy and hugged the nearest person, which just happened to be Cassius. Li went for Lavile and embraced him warmly; Brenda happily settled for a handshake with Renalt.

"Wait," said he, breaking away from their brave leader. "If we really have saved the future, what's going to happen to me? I'm either going to change or disappear altogether. You may as well get it over with, whichever fate I have in store."

"All in good time," Etherea assured him. "It will take awhile for the results of your efforts to take full bloom. It should happen any minute now."

"Then I guess this is goodbye. So long." Renalt waved lamely, accepting his fate with taciturn dignity…but fate had a surprise in store for him. A light overcame Renalt, covering him in a brilliant glow, like an ocean or a cloud might. There was no heavenly chorus accompanying this divine miracle, but sheer beautiful silence, broken only by the amazed gasp of the illuminated man. Everyone squinted and averted their gaze, and when the brilliance faded and they could see again, Renalt had indeed been transformed.

Brenda, Li, and Nalia gawked in astonishment.

"Wow."

"He looks…"

"Sexy!"

The new Renalt had a fair pinkish tone to his skin, and freckles covered his cheeks and nose, descending down to his chest and arms. Instead of the grim white hair he once bore, there was now a crown of festive red locks waving in the breeze, and his once-crimson eyes were now a delicate green, quiet and full of life, just like the smile of amazement that shone forth, and the new voice he had, merry and boyish.

"I…I feel so alive!" he exclaimed, laughing for joy. "I've never felt like this before! What do I look like now? I have to know! I'll bet I don't look anything like I used to!"

"I'll say," replied a very flustered Nalia.

"He does look pretty good," Cassius had to admit.

"You appear as fair as a prince, my friend!" Lavile chirped. Brenda handed Renalt a mirror, and he stared at his new face for a very long time, memorizing his new physical features.

"This will take some getting used to," he stuttered, too excited to speak steadily. He shakily handed the mirror back and laughed again, hugging himself and his new future. "So this is how I might've turned out if my time hadn't been so bleak! I have to admit that I like the change. Wait—my sister! What about her?"

"There is one way to find out," Etherea sang to him. Renalt cackled happily, but then realized what she meant. The time had come for him—for everybody—to return to their own eras. Renalt was prepared, though, and readied himself for the journey.

"Let me first thank them for putting up with me this whole time," he requested. "I've been unworthy of their friendship." He embraced the men and kissed the girls, saving Brenda for last. She got both a hug and a kiss; his lips felt sweet and fiery and wild against her forehead.

"I guess this really is farewell," she sighed, trying hard to hold back the tears. He smiled playfully and stroked her beautiful dark hair.

"Yes, it is. I have a whole new life to return to. Besides, this place is far too primitive for me!"

"Go then," Lavile commanded him, "and may the grace of God be with thee."

"May the great Buddha bless every path you take," Li said in a bow.

"I hate seeing a tough guy like you leave, but it was a blast while it lasted!" Cassius roared. Nalia raised her spear in a salute.

"Give our brother and friend strength for his new future, O Divine Mother!"

Brenda was last. She kissed Renalt right on the mouth in front of everybody.

"Call me if you ever get bored of the future," she added with a sly wink. Renalt just blushed, dear thing.

"Oh, jeez, you've put me on the spot. I can never thank you all for what you've done, so I hope this feeble little gesture suffices." He waved at them until Etherea nudged him into the river of time, where he vanished and was never seen again. Everyone believed that he made it home safely, and lived there happily to the end of his days.

……

"And now for the others." Brenda felt her heart breaking as her four most cherished friends parted from her, preparing to return to the past. Saying farewell to Renalt was one thing. He deserved to have a happy life, and to see what kind of glorious future awaited him in his home. But Lavile, Cassius, Nalia, and Li felt more like her family. They had been with her from the very beginning, and through trials and conflicts and terrible battles, she had forged unbreakable bonds of love and friendship with each of them. She couldn't bring herself to say goodbye, she just couldn't…

Thankfully, nobody else could either.

"Not me," Li announced, sidling next to Johnny. "I will stay here. I cannot leave this place! How could I possibly abandon my dear friends when there is so much more to learn? I could never live with myself if I deserted Brenda, who still has much to teach me…and if I leave this precious man, I shall never really know love."

"But…"

"I stay as well!" Lavile proclaimed. "Never in all my years have I met one so magnificent as this Lady Brenda! I thank you, ethereal one, for introducing me to this lioness, this queen, this mighty champion. I have sworn eternal fealty to her; prithee do not part us nor make my vows meaningless."

"Wherever Lavile goes, I follow," Nalia added, clinging to his arm. "I could never return to the clan now that I have fallen in love with a man. They would not understand my feelings. Besides, Brenda is a worthier sister than all the other warriors I've known. You'll have to kill me before I accompany you!"

"I don't think you'll win this argument, milady," Cassius concluded, nonchalant as ever. "I'll be the most vehement of them all. I've got a lovely woman here and a world I've grown to enjoy. It ain't Rome, but that's what I love about it. If you intend to send us back anyway, just you know that I won't go away without a fight."

"You are all serious," Etherea stated in awe. Anyone could see from their faces that they were. "You really want to stay. Each of you has homes and families to return to!"

"Not I," snorted Cassius.

"My loss will not crumble the kingdom," Lavile stated.

"It is the highest honor of an Amazon to leave her clan and begin a new life anyway," Nalia shrugged. Li reached for Johnny's hand, kissing it several times.

"I am leaving a brother, yes, but this journey was mine to accept. As long as we never forget each other, we shall still have that bond! We are all staying."

"You guys…" Brenda was overcome with emotions; she hugged them all. "I love each and every one of you so much."

"Not as much as we love you!" Cassius growled, leering perversely. This just caused the dark-skinned girl to laugh.

"So that is really your decision?" Etherea wondered.

"It most certainly is, O goddess," Nalia answered. "Please don't make us repeat it."

"Then I have no choice." She smiled gracefully and bowed. "You may stay. Your loyalty and love for each other is powerful. I know it won't fail you in the future. I must be off now; I've done enough damage here. Suffice to say, we shall never meet again."

"Thank goodness!" Brenda sighed. Etherea just smiled sadly, so she decided to alter her response. "Right. Thanks for everything, even if you were a pain in the neck. I just don't want anything more to do with three-eyed prophets, or robot Soldiers, or dictators, or anything else."

"I understand. So long." She vanished with the wind, and soon it was like she had never been there at all. Johnny scratched his cheek.

"Well, if that's all there is, I suppose we should go back now. I dunno about you all, but I'm starving!"

"I feel like I could eat for days!" Trina whined. Cassius and Li both laughed for joy and accompanied their loved ones back to the village, followed by Lavile and Nalia, firmly holding hands, and Brenda at the rear. The weight of the world was off her shoulders at last. It really was over.

"Well," she sighed, "that took forever and a day!"

……

End theme Going outside, feelin' the sun rise

Marching away, going to surprise

I got to be leaving, I got to be leaving now!

Rays of the sky hit me in the head

Feeling like a new day's gonna spread

Love everything around me up and down

Wonderful feelings circling all around

Dancing in the street, nobody don't care

Sunlight coming down, hitting me in the hair

Love everyone, it's a new day now

You gotta love everyone and I don't care how

Gonna be leaving for that golden horizon

Gonna go now, leave the old world behind

I got to get going, see the new world risin'

Travelin' the world, I know you won't mind

Got to be leaving, I got to be leaving now!

Filling the streets with joy, boy, don't ya know

I only stay here because here is where I go

Destiny on the road leading me down the path

Left and right I go, cut the road right in half!

When I know where I go I know I'll tell you

When I get to where I'm going you know I'll see you

Wind of wonder, earth of joy, fiery sun, man

Sailing water, spirit's love, unknown horizon

Every day is new, every day is new, every day is a day when I say I go all of the way!

I got to be leaving yeah I got to be leaving now!

I gotta go, but I'll be back, but you won't know when or where!

But don't sit down! You get up and make something of yourself!

Because the journey is what everything is all about!

Peace and love the world over—we'll meet again someday.

Ha-ha-ha…

……

Epilogue

Waking up before the sun was becoming a nasty habit of hers, but it was better than staying indoors hearing her uncle rambling about how she should go out and find another job. Sheesh! She had just helped save the world and the future, so couldn't he cut her some slack? Brenda raced outside, jogged around her hometown once, and skipped off to be by herself when the sun came up. The morning slowly drawled, passing her by moment by moment, each stolen time a new sensation, living and breathing serenity. She was looking forward to this day, because she knew it was going to be a good one.

She heard the sound of footsteps in front of her, and wondered who could be visiting at this hour. Her guard went up reflexively as she recognized the approaching people as Ari Shirov and Romia Hathoway, her former enemies. Their gait was slow and deliberate, as if they still festered from their defeat. She didn't think they were here for a rematch; she didn't sense much hostility anyway.

"Hello there," Romia called out to her. Brenda did the only thing she could, and waved at them.

"Hey. What's up?"

"We're not here to fight," Romia explained, holding her hands out in surrender. "Ari and I have been thinking a lot. We've had those events of the other day weighing on our minds. You were right to sentence us with it; we haven't even thought of anything else."

"All right." What else could she say? They all seemed to be struggling.

"What milady here is saying is…we'd like to call a truce."

"A truce? I thought we already had one."

"A formal truce," he remedied. "We never expected somebody to defeat us in that manner. Apex—Romia has always believed that somebody would destroy her with hatred, and she's prepared for that scenario. But…to fight us like that…to put your own life at risk for your friends…to prove us both so wrong…"

"You have utterly vanquished me," Romia summed up, kneeling to the ground in abject surrender. "I've never met anyone with your strength and courage. I can't even believe how wrong I was—about humans, about their beliefs, about everything. I was so mistaken, and you've helped me open up my eyes. I want to beg your forgiveness, and I pray you can find it in your heart to forgive me."

"Don't bow," said a bewildered Brenda. She even helped them stand. "I told you, I don't want trouble. I've shown you mercy and grace; that should be enough. All I've ever wanted was to be a normal girl living a peaceful life—that's it. I was just thrown into situations beyond my control."

"That's what lady Hathoway and I both want as well," Ari murmured. "Strange how we should go about different ways of approaching it."

"Listen," Romia said, "I didn't just come here to apologize. I want to assure you that I'll never do anything like that again. I'm going to have Surt's resources liquidated and split off into countless other small branches. Nobody's going to amass his resources ever again. I also…want to do whatever I can to make up for my wrongdoings. Please, Brenda—if I may call you that—I want to start over. You've beaten me, and I respect that. Please give me a second chance."

Brenda McIntire felt a grin crawl up on her mouth. She really was a great warrior—not because of her skills in battle, but by the measure of her heart and mind. Who else (with the exception of Cassius) could turn an enemy into a friend like that?

"Do you like working with kids?"

"Huh? Oh, uh, yes, I adore children. I actually want to have a family myself, but now I'm not so sure."

"Well, Surt's tyranny created a lot of orphans. We have kids who have lost everything except hope. If you want, you two could help with that."

"We'd be honored!" Romia exclaimed, grinning broadly. Ari chuckled as he rubbed his neck.

"She's so predictable. Put a kid in front of her and all those motherly instincts kick in. I suppose it's okay if we live in your town, then?"

"Sure, we'd love to have you. You can even visit the graves of your friends."

"You made graves for the others?" She nodded her head.

"We did, four in all. Everyone prays for the souls of your comrades. It's…the least we could do." Romia and Ari smiled sweetly, locked hands, and made their way to Brenda's town.

"That's very kind of you. I have a feeling we're going to enjoy living here."

"Yeah," Brenda whispered lovingly, "me too." She walked behind them, filled with light and joy anew, but couldn't resist one last peek at Ari's backside. "Hey Shirov!" she called to him. "If you ever get bored with blondie here, come on by my place! I think you and I could make a great couple. Don't be a stranger, now!"

The poor guy blushed furiously as his lover laughed out loud.

"Oh for Pete's sake!!"

The End