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Are We Still Friends?: Part One


by sarahleeadvent

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Kass... That single word hovered in the back of his mind, a faint, fading echo that meant so much to him, that had caused him so much pain. Part of him tried to push it aside, to make it leave him alone; but it was only a halfhearted effort, for the rest of him still hung on, not wanting to accept the reality that came with the word. Kass, what did they say to you, all those nights when you lay awake in bed? What did you see, when you tried to take refuge in sleep? How long did they gnaw at you, eating away at your soul? And what have they done to you, now when you are utterly beyond my reach?

      Lord Darigan's muscles quivered with exhaustion, unwilling to obey his commands to hold him upright, commands that nearly turned into pleas. Not now. I can't collapse now, not in front of everybody. It's bad enough that I'm standing here like this, dressed in a tattered piece of brown fabric, struggling to hold myself together, when the last thing they remember of me is... is...

      The last clear thing he remembered about himself, before he had awoken in a ditch with no food, no water, no shelter from the cold, no one to turn to for help, and no idea who he was or what had happened to him; absolutely nothing, except for a vague, disturbing feeling of some horrible memory lurking just beyond the reach of his mind like a dark storm haunting the horizon. That hovering phantom had refused to leave him, menacing him with its shadowed uncertainty... until he'd met a little girl on whom no trace of that shadow lay. In the long, slow, tumbled blur of his exile, in which memory could find no place to rest except for the hurts that bit the deepest, there had been only one place of refuge, to which his thoughts turned now. Sally had seen him in a worse state than this. And she had helped and accepted him anyway. But she didn't know who I am.

      He shook his head, forcing himself to breathe slowly and evenly as he gradually straightened his shoulders. They were staring at him now, the Neopets he had led into the engine room to shut down the engines. He could feel their expectant gazes beating against his back, could sense their tense anticipation as they waited to see what he would do next. The next few minutes would be crucial: it was in these moments that his people would form their opinions of the being that had returned to rule them, opinions that would not be easy to adjust, if he made a false move. Or if I collapsed in an unconscious heap on the floor, he added with a mental grimace which he quickly shook off. There were more important things he needed to take care of. Taking a deep breath to clear his mind, he turned around to face the watching Darigani. "We need to get the engines repaired. Where are the engineers?"

      "They are resting from their work," a deep bass voice informed him, "as should you be, my lord."

      "Galgarroth!" More relieved to hear his old friend's voice than he would have believed, Darigan spun to face him, realizing his mistake when the room spun around with him and kept on going even after he'd stopped.

      The Grarrl watched him with obvious concern, ignoring the startled murmurs of "So he's still alive, too!" that fluttered among the assembled Neopets.

      Darigan looked at him questioningly, and Galgarroth shook his head. "Later," he rumbled, then added, "I will take care of this. You need to rest."

      Wishing he had the physical resources to make protesting a viable option, Darigan allowed the Grarrl to lead him through the war-ravaged streets toward his personal chambers, glancing around as he walked and forcing himself to assess the devastation. So much damage. So many lives torn apart. He couldn't let this happen again.

      He wasn't sure at what point it happened, but sometime during the seemingly interminable journey through the Citadel his focus shifted from the damage to his friend.

      His friend. How many of those had he lost, while he was gone? How many were still here?

      And how would those who had survived react, when they found out that the monster they had driven away all those months ago and supposedly killed was alive and restored to his former self, and had returned to live among them?

      And how will she react? he wondered, his thoughts straying once again to the tiny child he had left standing outside her barn.

      ~*~*~*~

      Sullen, ominous clouds swirled slowly around the Citadel, like sombre grey phantoms guarding a hidden realm. Their slow, ceaseless patrol was intruded upon on occasion by a weak, pale gleam of sunlight which timidly requested ingress, only to be softly shut out by the unchanging march of the dark vapor sentinels that shrouded the airborne land. Somewhere down there, a tiny Usul child would be doing her chores, or playing with her friends, or speaking with her parents... a child who, not so long ago, had been the only friend he had. Would we still be friends now, were you to find out that I am the ruler who nearly destroyed your homeland? Darigan silently asked her as he watched the play of clouds and sunlight beyond his study window. Clouds, sunlight, clouds, sunlight, clouds, paw, sunlight, paw...

      Startled into wakefulness, Darigan twisted around to find a tiny Korbat staring up at him, her sharp, steady crimson gaze flickering slightly as she informed him matter-of-factly, "You were staring into space again."

      "That I was, Mavural. How nice of you to point it out."

      "My pleasure," Mavural replied, her half-cross, age-crusted voice betraying no hint of the humorous spirit in which the words had been spoken. Darigan suppressed a fond smile as he watched the smaller Neopet set an empty bowl, a spoon and a pot of soup on the table at which he sat. The old Korbat had been one of his family's most trusted servants since before Darigan was born, and while his father had been a little too aloof to grant her the status, Darigan had come to consider her a friend. He could still remember the day when he had made the mental switch: soon after his oldest son had died as a result of the loss of the orb, she had ambushed him while he sat alone in his grief and told him without preamble, "Your Highness, I know you haven't taken much note of me up 'till now, and you don't know me well enough to trust me with what's going on behind your eyes, but when you get to the point where you do, I'm here if you need to talk." Whack. Just like that. Her words had been so abrupt and audacious that for a moment he had nearly forgotten the pain he was in; and while he hadn't opened up to her just then, he had learned since that day that he could. True, she wasn't all puppies and hugs- in fact, there had been days when he'd silently compared her to an irked Maraquan Meerca- but beneath that crusty old exterior he knew that she was immensely fond of him, in a half-grouch half-grandmother way. On the day he had succumbed to the orb, she had even gone so far as to ambush Galgarroth, Vex, Jeran, Lisha and the others on their way to confront him, waving her age-stained cooking ladle for emphasis as she told them, "Go gentle with him; there's still some of the old Lord Darigan in there, or you can call me Squeaky the Space Spardel." They hadn't listened to her, of course, and according to Galgarroth she had endured a great deal of 'squeaky' in the intervening time, which had resulted in a merciless dishing-out of "I told you so!"s after his return. Even while he'd been gone the playful abuse toward Mavural had been inflicted at the offender's own peril; that ladle of hers was more dangerous than it looked.

      It was menacing him now, replacing the paw to trace circles in the air in front of his nose. "If you aren't going to tell me what's got you so quiet, you can at least come down to Neopia and eat your soup."

      Not many people got away with that kind of nerve. But Darigan had learned long ago that Mavural was Mavural, and it was best to leave it that way. "I'm not hungry right now," he declined gently and only almost truthfully, and got a feisty glare in response.

      "Lord Darigan, you look like a skeleton with fur, and I won't have that." With that, she brazenly scooped him out a few ladlefuls from the pot, then pushed the bowl she'd filled toward him. "I don't know where you've been the past few months, but wherever you were, you weren't getting fed properly."

      If only you knew, Darigan thought as he conceded defeat and accepted the spoon she thrust at him, what kind of trouble Sally had to go to to keep me as well fed as I am. And with the thought came the unwelcome return of the same doubts and worries that had had him staring out the window in the first place.

      "You've got that worried look on your face again," Mavural observed, dragging Darigan back to reality again. "And whatever it is, it's got to come out sometime, so now's as good a time as any." Darigan sighed; feisty little thing, she tended to give people what was good for them, whether they wanted it or not. She'd said as much to him once, almost in those exact words.

      "And if the person in question is the lord of your country?" he'd retorted good-naturedly, only to be immediately answered with,

      "Especially if he's the lord of the country, because in your case, I'm probably the only one who'll do it."

      True enough. But how do I explain to her that I'm pining over a ten-year-old Meridellian farm girl?

      "I'm waiting."

      "Mavural, you can be as stubborn as a bad cold sometimes."

      "I make a point of it. Now spill."

      The Korbat ruler sighed again; there was no diverting his fiery cook's attention when she had something on her mind. "It's a friend I made in Meridell," he explained cautiously. "She offered me food and shelter, and hid me from her parents."

      "A child, then?" Mavural speculated with a raised eyebrow.

      "Yes. About ten years old."

      A faintly amused look sparkled to life behind Mavural's eyes. "How exactly did she keep her parents from knowing about you?"

      "She... er... hid me in her barn."

      "Classy accommodations," Mavural commented, shooting a hawkish glance at the barely-touched bowl of soup. Taking his cue before the action became a concession of defeat, Darigan began to eat, only to freeze as the smaller Korbat asked, "Did she know who it was she was hiding?"

      "Well... no," Darigan answered slowly, taking a deep breath. He was about to go on when Mavural stated pointedly,

      "And you aren't sure how to explain yourself to her."

      Darigan sighed. First everybody, then Kass, and now possibly Sally. "I'm afraid I've developed an unpleasant talent for estranging my friends," he confessed, eliciting a wry look from Mavural.

      "All except the really stubborn ones. Does the kid count as one of 'em?"

      "That's what I wish I knew."

      "And I suppose you expect the answer to fall out of the sky while you sit here and hit you over the head like a- hey!" Mavural glared at Darigan, whose patience for sitting around taking the poor end of the argument had run out and whose spoon had descended out of the sky to swat her lightly over the head. Brandishing her ladle, she warned him, "Mine's bigger."

      It looked so funny, that tiny little Korbat scowling defiantly into his eyes while displaying an age-stained wooden ladle as a prospective weapon, that Darigan came very close to laughing at her. Fiery old terror, no wonder she was his favorite. "I suppose you're about to advise me to go straight down and have a talk with her."

      "Good idea," Mavural answered solemnly, then cleared her throat and began, "Lord Darigan, I think it would be best if you went straight down there and-"

      She lapsed into silence as the laughter to which her threat with the ladle had given birth strengthened enough to escape, her crusty demeanour softening as she watched her friend and leader laugh. It was good to see him do that; it happened far too seldom. She waited until he was finished, then said in a much softer tone than she had used for the rest of the conversation, "Seriously, Your Highness, if you're going to do it at all you shouldn't put it off too long. If she means enough to you to get you this worried over what she thinks of you, you don't want to make her think she's just an afterthought."

      Darigan shook his head, the ghost of a smile lingering on his face. "Mavural, one of these days your advice is going to get me in trouble."

      "Not half as much trouble as it'll get you out of, I can tell you that much right now."

      The Darigani ruler suppressed a fond sigh. Even though Mavural could be a pain in every applicable part of the anatomy, there was no denying that she was good to have around. Besides, in her further defense, he had to admit that it would probably be difficult to hold any exaggerated awe for a person whose diapers you had helped to change during his infancy. Fond amusement warming his voice, he asked, "What would I do without your and your hopeless lack of tact?"

      The answer came without hesitation. "You'd starve. And on that subject, you aren't going anywhere until you've finished that bowl of soup."

To be continued...

 
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