Special thanks to kimlascan and Arilus, who weathered both Rieor and I as we made it through this.
“Want to be my friend?” His voice was gentle, kind. There was a light in his eyes and a smile to his lips that he no longer has. Not even the rain that was falling could dampen the glow that shone off of him.
I had looked at this stranger with what was one of the biggest smiles I could muster, and he stared back with bright, chestnut colored eyes.
“Only if you catch me first!” And with that, I took off across the park, with the stranger in close pursuit.
We were both careless then. We were both young. As we ran, mud became thick on our fur which is now so well kept, and we slipped more times than either of us could count.
He could never actually catch me, but that was all part of the fun. No matter how hard he tried to latch his paws around my tail, I flicked it out of the way at the last second. But eventually, with laughs coating our shaking voices and chattering teeth, the stranger introduced himself.
“I’m Arilus,” the red Xweetok had said, “but that’s kinda long.”
I remember thinking for a while after that. “Well, how about I call you Ari?” I received a blank stare in response, once again with those big, warm eyes of his. I felt confused. “It’s shorter, isn’t it?”
“That’s good,” Ari said. “I like it.”
I didn’t notice it at the time, but the warmth from his eyes made its way to his voice.
We played and laughed and hopped in puddles of mud for what felt like hours after that, and eventually the dark rain clouds lifted and the sun decided to make its grand entrance. Ari shook himself off, and I followed suit, and we both basked in the sun for a short while. The sun warmed our trembling bodies and also our spirits. Ari and I exchanged a few grins and laughs, like friends that knew each other for years.
It wasn’t long before the sun went back into hiding as the evening began to replace it. It was time for us to leave, but we both vowed to see each other again.
And two days later, we did. Ari kept wanting to try and catch me - be it by surprise or any other method he could conjure up- but all attempts resulted in me laughing and jumping in victory and him panting in defeat. It was a bit of a joke between us now; that we’d never be real friends until he could manage to grab my tail. That was always laughed off.
It wasn’t until the sixth time that we met up that Ari realized that he never learned my name. When I told it to him, he said, “I don’t think not knowing that made a bit of difference.” Ari’s voice was soft as he spoke, and a smile pulled on his lips. “But Rieor’s a nice name!”
Within minutes Rieor turned into Rie, which turned into Reo a few days later. Through the midst of all the shouting and giggling, that was what Ari called me by mistake. So from that day on, I was Reo.
Every day we met up after that - us, Ari and Reo - my yellow Xweetok mane would go brown after a long day of tumbling and rolling in the grass and dirt, and Ari’s grin would be growing wider and wider.
Ari turned to face me. His face was scrunched into one of extreme seriousness, and it was a funny look for him. I had to try my hardest not to laugh, and returned a similar look.
“We’re best friends, right?” He spoke slowly, testing his words. I learned later that he was tentative about saying it this way, thinking that it’d ruin our friendship.
“Yeah, we are.”
“So... nothing can ever change that, right?”
And even though both of us believed those words with all of our hearts, we were still careless then. And even though we were older, we were still young.
While the others around us busied themselves with trading cards and pushed and shoved each other, we would lay with our backs on the grass and our faces to the sky and just... talk. We shared our hopes, our dreams, even a few of our secrets. Ari told Reo his own stories, and Reo shared his own.
But one day, it was Arilus that spoke.
“Someday,” Arilus began, looking at me with a smile that wasn’t as goofy as before, “I want to travel the world. I want to see the sights, meet the people... I want to see every single inch of Neopia.”
And it was the dumbstruck Reo that replied.
“Oh. Have fun, then.” Reo was never good at feigning sincerity, but Rieor is now.
There was a certain emotion in his eyes that was foreign to me as he turned away. It looked like sadness, but also a bit of confusion. Even now I don’t know exactly what it was.
“Yeah. I will.” A smile. “I’ll come back for you, though. Because that’s what friends do, right?” My eyes met his, and the smile I was familiar with came back to him. “Friends don’t abandon each other.”
That day at sunset was the first time Reo hugged Arilus. It wasn’t the friendly, joyful goodbye that Reo and Ari would share, with pats and too tight of squeezes meant to sent the other squawking in pain and seeking revenge. It was a gentle hug; a sad one. A hug between two friends who wouldn’t be seeing each other for a long time. I just wish I had noticed that then.
Each time after that, Ari was nowhere to be found, and neither was Reo. The laughter and chatter died out, and the cold silence that Arilus and Rieor brought slowly but surely made its presence known. We no longer lay in the sun and chased each other while kicking up dirt, but instead sat down at spotless picnic tables with our eyes facing the ground. Arilus began to fuss over getting his fur dirty, and I grew less and less fond of being unclean with him.
I’m not sure when it happened exactly, but even Arilus stopped showing up after a while. And after half-hearted and fruitless attempts of waiting, Rieor stopped as well. Arilus had left without telling me, and that still cut to the bone.
For a while, I remained optimistic. Maybe he was just sick, or visiting a friend or simply lost track of the days. But eventually, I figured out that I should just grow up and accept the truth. My best friend was gone.
I moved on. I made more friends, although none lasted all that long. I found that I couldn’t connect with anyone as well as I did with Ari. Even through the silence, it still felt like Arilus and I had some sort of connection that no one could end up duplicating.
Years eventually passed, and I nearly forgot all about Arilus. Reo began to cease to exist, along with Rieor. I lost a sense of who I was at one point, and retreated to hide behind a mask. I was rude, I jeered at others and mocked them to their face, and I didn’t hesitate to let people know that I thought I was better than them. This wasn’t who I wanted to be. Clearly Arilus thought I was horrible now too, because he never returned like he promised.
But what if it wasn’t by choice that he didn’t come back? What if..-?
The ringing of a bell dragged me out of my thoughts- the warning bell before the shops in Neopia Central closed. I spent the whole day wasting away and feeling sorry for myself, about how I lost a friend, about who I am. I shouldn’t be like this anymore. I stood up, making sure my posture was extremely straight and I was looking confident.
I decided to act on this tomorrow. It was getting dark, and already I was warned not to stay out too late. I would head home, eat a good dinner, sleep on everything...
It was then that I felt a hard tug on my tail. I swung around, about to yell, until I saw what it was. A bright red Xweetok stood before me with the same giant grin I remember from years ago, but flashing red goggles took the place of where his kind eyes used to be.
“I finally caught you, Reo.”