Good shepherd, tell this youth what ’tis to love.
It is to be all made of sighs and tears;
it is to be all made of faith and service;
It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty, and observance,
All humbleness, all patience and impatience,
All purity, all trial, all observance.
– Shakespeare, As You LIke It, Act 5 Scene 2.
Sunset was always her favorite time. She loved the way color painted itself across the sky in a glorious hymn to all of the possibilities of the day. She loved the song of the birds when the sun dipped to just the right point, and they started their Song of the Evening as though they sang away the light, and she loved how the wind shifted, the air cooled, and everything started to feel velvet and secret and close.
Most of all, though – she loved the stars. She loved how they danced and wheeled in the sky above, and how they seemed to bless every night like they did the very first one that mattered in Northrend, all those years ago.
“Grandmother! Grandmother! Naari says you have to come down for dinner and dancing, and that it’s time!”
She laughed, to herself – when did their private little ritual get to be so big? She supposed it was the first time she shared it with the first little one that ended up staying. “I’m coming, I’m coming – did you hear the birds?”
“Yes, Grandmother – I listened. Just like you told me.”
“And your Shifu?”
“Waiting on youuuuuu… come ooooooonnnn..”
She shifted and stood, proud of the fact that she still moved well, and amused with herself that she was proud of it. Even so, she leaned on the battered and cracked staff she still carried, the carved sheep’s head with its knowing smile winking at her, when the little one wasn’t looking.
“Don’t you start,” she admonished it.
It stuck a wooden tongue out at her – then went back to its usual knowing smile.
The young Pandaren – Saffy? No, no, this one was Sere – bounced ahead of her down the path between the hot springs. She followed at a more sedate pace – noting that the other children, and their children, were already starting to put out the lanterns, to gather in the courtyard between the springs and the great house. In the village beyond, the bell tolled to signal the fading sun – and there, too, the lanterns were checked, put out where they needed to be. Probably old Fei was in the square, telling stories again, probably the exaggerated ones.
Ah well, it certainly didn’t hurt their reputation, and the youngest ones never believed them anyway.
“Sere, go to the house and tell your Shifu that she needs to quit worrying about the dumplings and come outside. You know as well as I do that she’s gone off to start fretting again.”
“Alright, Grandmother – don’t start until I’m back!”
“I can’t start without her. You know that. Now scoot – running, please. The night will not wait for us.”
“Yes, Grandmother!” the young Pandaren took off like a shot.
Eager. She remembered being that eager, once – and she supposed in many ways she still was, just tempered in expectation and experience. Now, the anticipation was to be savored as part of the moment, almost more fun than the excitement that one waited for.
“What… where am I?” The voice came from her left, in the rushes next to the firefly grove.
Curious, the aging Pandaren turned aside from the path, moving unhurriedly in among the low trees.
The other Pandaren standing there was disheveled, wearing sleeping-clothes and was a bit see-through. Still, the purple lock at her brow and her green eyes were familiar in ways that the older Pandaren didn’t expect.
“You’re early.” The elder sniffed, “I never was good at punctuality. Then again, I suppose that dreaming-magic never really is conducive to anything remotely resembling order. Or time.”
The see-through younger stared at her. “Where is this? Who are you?”
“Pandaria, near the low village, at the Wolf’s Heart Inn, in the firefly grove. You know who I am, or will, soon enough.”
“The Wolf’s Heart. I insisted. You will too, unless you come up with something better. I never did.”
“There’s no – “
“Not yet. No. You settle in and build it with her – oh. Hmm. In about twenty years in one possible future? And then you live there, apart from the times that you don’t. You’ll find out – I’d hate to spoil things. What fun would that be?”
“You’re me.” The young Pandaren stepped forward – her feet making no impression in the tall grass. “But you’re..”
“Old? Mm-hmm. I’m also wonderfully sexy. Plus, I know how to do this.” She grinned, and let her eyes blaze, and the corona of power flare behind her head. Sure, it was ostentatious – but she never really got to do it anymore.
“… I don’t understand.”
“You’re dreaming. Our magic does odd things when we dream – and when you are right now? The barriers between dreams are very weak. The dark thing in the Valley is dreaming itself into existence and dreaming at least one reality that should never be. You’re simply accidentally using that yourself – thanks to your .. hmm. Connection. Let’s use that word. It’s a good enough word.” She went on, “I heard this before myself, and it made a lot of sense but I didn’t really understand it. I spent several years researching the concept – you should. It comes in handy quite a few times later.”
“Are.. you what I’m going to be?”
“Probably not. That’s not how it all works – I’m what you could be, I suppose, and I am certainly what I am. Whatever decisions you make may not be the same as mine were, but … they’re likely to be terribly similar. Who can say? A leaf falls, and the wind blows. Drop the same leaf in the same place at the same time with the same wind, and it certainly will fall in the same meadow, but not likely in the same place twice.”
“… I don’t really understand.”
“You will. Be patient.” The older Pandaren laughed, softly. “Now, you have a million questions – and this is the part where I don’t let you ask them. You really do need to wait to find out.”
The younger started, “But – “
“I know that too.”
“That is absolutely not fair.”
The older nodded, leaning on her staff. “No, it isn’t.”
“So, what am I doing here, then?”
“I have something I need to tell you.” The older leaned in. “The reason you can’t see the actual truth is that you’ve lost sight of the most important thing – she loves you without reservation, and you love her just as much.”
“It’s true. You’re so worried about all the things you’re seeing that you’ve lost track of your anchor. You complete each other, and that is your actual strength. In the absence of each other, you are both brittle, like reeds in the dry season that break in a strong wind. Together? You are like the great beam that supports the roof of the Inn – so much more than each of you individually that nothing can stand against what you are, and what you’ll become.”
“I know. I know that – I -”
“That. Right there. That is exactly our trouble. We spend all our time knowing, instead of feeling. Instead of knowing this time? Just go and feel.”
The younger Pandaren started to say something, but her words vanished on the wind, and her form wavered and grew dim, then faded away.
The older smiled, shook her head – wondering, truly, if she’d ever been quite so … well. New? She supposed she must have been, once. Of course, all things change, in time.
She was halfway to the house when the children impatiently came and got her, and grabbed her paws and dragged her back, while she laughed and chided them for their impatience. The sky had gone black, by then and the family, all of them, were gathered at the house. She disengaged from the little ones, and shooed them back to their waiting parents – and with a little effort (the steps certainly weren’t getting less steep!) she climbed up on the wind-worn rock that sat on the low rise overlooking the springs.
Cael was waiting, with that impossible smile of hers. Grey, around the muzzle now, a little bit of arthritis showing in her claws, a broken tooth to go with that impossibly cute floppy ear. The worgen held out her clawed hands, and the Pandaren slipped her paws into them.
The two turned together to look down at those assembled – Rain, from the temple. There was Kun, of course, in shining armor and with a truly amused expression, leaning on a hammer almost as tall as she was, while several of the youngest looked at her in awe. There was Gui and Ye La and Skysong’s youngest, and Kara’es, the little draenei that refused to leave, now grown up and holding two little ones of her own. Ha Ten and his wife and daughters, and all the rest. Their children, grandchildren, all a motley crew of foundlings and hopefuls.
The Master Mage, Night’s Petal, freed one hand after a quick squeeze and raised it, drawing on her Chi with easy familiarity.
The stars came out, starting from her, hanging along the rafters and just out of reach, spreading from her and down across the valley, dancing and turning and wheeling. She the spell leak into the buildings and the wagons and the houses below, and the night sky blanketed the little village both inside and out, each star a memory.
That one? The time they danced together in the moonlight above stormwind. That one? The one where Uncle insisted that no one was allowed into the temple until they had a bath after the giant mud fight. That one there? Standing triumphant on Argus against the demons – that one? The day they lost Cho to old age – each glittering mote the frozen memories of a life well-lived. They were so many, and so many were just memories of love, each glittering and turning as a gift to anyone who cared to see.
This was only the beginning.
The magic touched each person in the village, and invited them let their own moments fly free to join the ones so freely offered – a galaxy of glittering forevers, a thousand-thousand loves and losses, all sparkling and shining and spinning there.
Within the village, lovers kissed, children laughed, and stories were told, surrounded by the patchwork moments of all of the lives intertwined within. At the Wolf’s Heart? The family held on to each other and shared the bonds that linked them in love.
On the rock above them all, a Pandaren and a Worgen turned to wrap arms around each other, and get lost in the stars reflected in their eyes.
Another year, another Festival of Stars. None of them would have it any other way.