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Are We Still Friends?: Part Two


by sarahleeadvent

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Tarik's paw swept out a quick, sharp arc through the air, sending a graceful spray of pale golden seeds scattering across the claw-scratched ground where his chickens were busily feeding. The sounds of their arguments over the rights to one patch of ground or another cluttered the air, and Tarik smiled as he watched them hopping and pecking around the yard. It was good to see that so many had survived the war; he had been afraid of what he might come back to when all was said and done.

      On the other hand, he was far more grateful for what had come back to him. His wife had been beside herself with despair when they had returned to their home to find it intact but completely devoid of life, and for a while he himself had been all but crippled by the realization that their sweet, gentle, vulnerable daughter had not returned from wherever she had gotten to during the chaos of the war, and by the fear that she would never return. How grateful they both had been when she turned up only hours later, completely unharmed.

      Or at least, outwardly unharmed. Truth be told, she'd been distraught; glad to see that her parents were all right, but unable to stop going on about the horrible truth that "I can't find Mr. Scary anywhere!" Tarik and his wife had both been confused, until the little girl had guiltily confessed that 'Mr. Scary' was, indeed, 'Fluffy', the same creature who had been eating their crops. "I thought he'd stop if I fed him," she'd explained through her tears, "and I started to like him, and I think he liked me. I tried to make him come with me when I ran away from the soldiers, but he wouldn't come out until this really big Skeith grabbed me." Her eyes had widened, and her paws had sprang into motion to animate her tale as she went on, "And all of a sudden his eyes went narrow, and he came flying out of the barn and knocked the Skeith off of me! And he went after the other ones, too, and knocked them all out, and after he'd saved me, he..." She'd paused, and choked up, the dismay that her momentary excitement had banished defying its exile and returning to tear at her round, innocent face. "He flew away, and he looked like he was going toward the Citadel, and... I don't know if I'm ever gonna see him again!" With that, she'd started bawling in earnest, burying her face in her mother's apron and sobbing her little heart out. The sight had torn at Tarik, but at least Sally seemed to have calmed down and moved on by now.

      The Usul farmer glanced to his left, in the general direction of the Snorkle sty, which was hidden from view by the chicken coop. Sally was supposed to be feeding the little pink Petpets, but ten to one she had stopped after doing so to pet the old sow that had been her favorite ever since the thing had been born, the outcast runt of the litter. Tarik felt a fond smile pulling at his face. Sweet little Sally, she always had had a soft spot for the lonely ones.

      "Excuse me?" A soft baritone voice pulled Tarik out of his musings, and he turned around, expecting to see one or another of his fellow farmers who populated the area.

      Instead, his gaze fell upon a tower of black and grey, with huge ears flared on either side of a thin face and vast bony wings half folded against a narrow back. The bucket of chicken feed slipped from Tarik's nerveless paw, scattering its contents, and a high-pitched chorus of celebration arose from the chickens who instantly laid siege to the area around his feet.

      The giant's ears angled downward, his topaz eyes flickering with what might have been chagrin. "I didn't mean to startle you," he said quietly, and Tarik finally found his voice.

      "Lord Darigan?"

      "Yes. And you will be Tarik, no doubt."

      The Usul blanched. "How do you know my name?" It was one thing for him to recognize a famed ruler by description despite having never seen him before. For the ruler in question to know the name of a common Meridellian farmer was another altogether.

      A faint smile touched the lean face. "Your daughter told me."

      "Great Fyora..." Tarik's voice came out faint and trembling as horror crashed through his mind. Did he capture and interrogate her, and then threaten her to silence? Is that where she REALLY was during the battle? But why her? She's just a child! And why come after her now?

      "I wish to speak with her," Lord Darigan was saying softly, seeming to realize that his words would not be welcome.

      "No!" The word burst from Tarik's mouth before he could think, before he could even realize that he was blatantly defying the lord of the Citadel. And even as his mind began to wrap around this, his mouth rushed on: "No, I don't want you anywhere near her! I don't know how you know her or what you did to her, but I won't let you near her again!"

      A long moment of silence stretched between them, and suddenly and acutely aware that the Darigani leader was more than twice his size, Tarik stooped to pick up the mostly-empty bucket he had dropped, painfully conscious of the fact that the thin metal posed not the slightest threat to the tower of black robe and pale grey fur that stood before him. All the same, as he stood braced with his feet splayed beneath him and his knuckles turning white with the force of his grip on the handle, he felt that he was ready for any reaction with which the larger Neopet could respond.

      But he was proven soundly wrong by the unquestionably genuine pain that sliced across the giant Korbat's features in response to his harsh words.

      ~*~*~*~

      Lord Darigan had expected some measure of dismay on Sally's part in response to the revelation of his true identity. Maybe a few distrustful glances, and, as much as he hated the idea, most likely a great deal of fear. But he hadn't reckoned with her parents- at least, not nearly enough to prepare him for the outright hostility with which the child's father had greeted him. The Usul had his reasons, of course. To trust the safety of his child, especially a child as precious as Sally, to the leader of a people who had nearly wiped out his own was a leap of faith for any parent.

      But the rejection still hurt. It reminded him how deeply he had failed, how much suffering he had caused in the past to inspire such antipathy. And how difficult it would be to regain the trust he had lost.

      "You probably aren't in the habit of takin' orders from farmers," Tarik was saying, his voice slow and even, "but I think it would be best if you left."

      Darigan took a deep breath, feeling his heart make a slow migration toward his feet. No, he wasn't in the habit of taking orders from farmers. But his reply to the Usul was true. "Your daughter saved my life, sir. I have no desire for any quarrel with your family."

      Surprise softened the farmer's wary gaze, which ignited with renewed concern as a soft, innocent voice drifted toward them from behind the chicken coop. "Daddy? Who are you talking to?"

      Darigan stiffened, his pulse accelerating. He knew that voice. He had heard that voice, speaking gently to him on more cold and otherwise lonely evenings than he could count. And oh, how he had missed it! "Sally?" he called, and a small, round, and heart-joltingly familiar face poked out from behind the chickens' wooden home.

      Round, questioning azure eyes darted between the two adults, but before the older Usul could speak, Darigan asked softly, "Sally, do you remember me?"

      An errant tendril of ginger hair strayed into the child's eyes as they narrowed with concentration. "Lord Darigan?" she asked slowly; then recognition made those startling blue eyes fly open. "Mr. Scary?" she ventured, her soft voice breathless and tentative as if she scarcely dared to believe, and was shocked to hear herself connecting the name with the towering Darigani ruler.

      Tarik was visibly flabbergasted. "Sally," he began, as if to reprimand her for such foolishness; but his voice trailed off into silence as Darigan nodded.

      "Yes," he answered quietly, "you called me 'Mr. Scary'."

      Startled delight blossomed on Sally's face like a firework lighting the night sky, and before either of the two men could anticipate the action she bounded across the intervening distance and shocked both adults by catapulting into Darigan's arms, her mouth racing with the speed of childlike excitement. Darigan made no attempt to interrupt, and was content to smile and listen, enjoying the softness of the warm fuzzy bundle in his arms and the absolute trust that was conveyed by her decision to put herself there. The torrent of words came like a cleansing flood washing doubt and apprehension away.

      "This is such a wonderful surprise! I never would have guessed it was you! I'd thought you had forgotten me, and I was scared that I was never going to see you again! I never got a chance to thank you for saving me from those soldiers. You weren't hurt in the fight, were you? I never got a chance to check. There are some bandages in the house if you need them. Are you going to be staying for a while? I hope so- I really missed you!" Suddenly she sobered, her round, gentle features solemn and slightly anxious as she asked quietly, "I don't think lords and farm kids usually go together, but... we're still friends, aren't we?"

      Warmth flooded Darigan's heart and features, and his smile widened as he answered gently, "Yes, Sally, of course we are."

The End

 
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