The sand of the dune cushioned him, conforming to his body and offering Ronon a comfortable place to sit and think on matters of import. There was a decision to be made, and the time to make it was drawing very close. He held the soft skin in his hands, letting it flow over his arm. He had found that he needed to touch it now and then, to remind himself of the way it had been at the start. He often came out to this place and sat, cradling the pooled skin like a blanket on his lap.
When Jennifer had presented the soft pile to him, he had not understood completely the responsibility he undertook when he accepted it. For her, the gifting had been her vow, her promise. He had recklessly taken the offering she had given.
He held her heart in his hands, though he had not known it then.
She had left all to stay with him on the shore. She was beautiful and gentle and a little bit wild, and he had been drawn to all of that the day on the beach when he had seen her. He had been sent to the shore to heal from his injuries after a battle to bring down a rogue magic wielder. The rest of his Agone was dead, killed in the fight. He alone had walked away.
Jennifer had been wandering over the beach, collecting bits of driftwood and smooth stones, gathering all into a tiny hoard that she had started behind the dunes. Her innocence charmed him. Her voice was like none he had heard in all his travels, and he had travelled far and wide through the realms, serving the Council as a Runner. She had gone to his arms willingly, happily, and her kisses had been sweet and unlike any other.
Jennifer had been dismayed when he had told her the first time that he had to leave, to see to his duties. Her tears had almost persuaded him to cast all aside, but in the end, he had left, his roving nature not allowing him to be still, his duty calling to him.
If he had known then what he knew later, he might have stayed there on the shore and never Run again. He might have resigned his position with the Council. But Ronon had never met any of Jennifer’s kind before, he didn’t know their ways, he didn’t understand the slight he gave with his decision to stray from her side, no matter the reason. He should never have left her alone.
He caressed the skin absently as he stared at the crashing waves. The silky softness was still the same as it had been then at the start when it had been fresh and new between them. Bit by bit, Jennifer had drifted from him. Each time he returned from another journey on behalf of the Council she seemed a bit more distant. Each Run put more distance between them, though he always returned to her as he had promised.
Ronon often woke at dawn to find her gone from their bed. When he searched, he always found her in the dunes, staring out to sea, her slim arms wrapped around herself. He would call her back and she would come without protest, she would take his hand and return to their bed. But her heart was no longer light; her promise had become a burden.
He tried to make her laugh again, but the quick smiles and shining eyes were but memory, her hoarse, barking laugh unheard for a very long time. Ronon swallowed his pride and mentioned his troubles to a friend at the Council, telling him of his fears and what he thought he was losing. He wanted to find a way to mend the damages. His friend had shaken his head sadly and told Ronon it was too late.
The sun was beginning to set as he sat on the dunes, holding the skin in his lap. He knew what he had to do, his friend had explained it. Ronon had to let go, he could not hold her, could not keep her. To continue to keep her here, bound to his side would kill her. She would waste away.
Ronon saw her walking on the path from the cottage to the sea. She bypassed her hoard of sea treasures, there was no joy in the treasures for her any longer. She climbed the dunes as she did each day at twilight. The breeze blew her long blonde hair into wild disarray and his breath caught in his throat as he took in her beauty once more, one last time.
She watched him with wide, cautious eyes. Her sadness was a tangible pain as he approached, the skin draped over his shoulders. He inhaled the scent of it, the essence of Jennifer: salt and sea and wildness, committing it to memory. He moved to stand before her, reaching out to caress her cheek with the back of his hand, tugging the soft, tangled strands of gold. Then, without a word, he swept the skin from his shoulders and settled it around hers. Touching her fingertips to it for the first time in all the years since she had given it to him, she looked up at him, tears shimmering in her eyes. He saw gratitude and joy and understanding there, she knew what he was doing, what he meant by returning her gift to her.
He bent to kiss her one last time as the sun’s rays dulled and the day became twilight. She broke the kiss and moved away from him, stumbling and tripping as she ran down the dune, hugging the skin around her as she went towards the breaking waves. In the dim light he saw the change as it occurred, saw the shadowed lines of her lengthen and shift as the skin became one with her again. If he had not known what was happening and expected to see what he did, he might have believed it all a trick of his mind or of the fading light.
She splashed into the waves, crying out her joy as she returned to her home, freed from her promise. Wild once more, lost to him forever.
Ronon left the shore and never returned to the cottage. The only reminder of the folly of his youth and the ruin he had made of something so magical was a seashell he took from her hoard. He strung it on a cord and wore it around his neck from that day forward.