Stand behind yer sheriff Circulation: 188,960,697 Issue: 537 | 23rd day of Running, Y14
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Stooping Low: Part Three


by ellbot1998

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My fur was already matted and bedraggled. That's how it goes. I get offered a single chance to sleep a while and get in a decent meal and I get myself looking clean again, but five minutes later I'm looking like another urchin out of the wild. I guess I can't help it now that I'm a lone wolf again. It's happened twice; in Monty's home and now Rubia's.

     I didn't look up. Why should I have? What was 'up' that was worth looking at? Nothing. Besides, I was nothing. Why did I keep living free? Because I was a dirty runt who didn't care enough to help a Hunter's collection any with my inclusion in it.

     When was the last time I ate? I couldn't remember. It could've been days ago and I wouldn't have felt hungry. No appetite is a good appetite.

     It was worse than the first time I got shipwrecked like this. The first time, I stopped missing people after three days. But the people I missed... The life I lead... The damage would never be undone. All that dashed my chances of another relationship with the people I could now be with.

     But Cerulean forgave me. I like being around him, and I think it must be vice versa, too. But why do I want to be around him more if he makes me feel insecure? Why? It doesn't make sense. I used to be strong. He weakens me.

     I had been walking restlessly, heading nowhere, and hoping for a miracle that would make me leave that dull rhythm. Anything. Apparently, the Creator heard my silent prayers. Yet perhaps what happened had signaled to me that her brief forgiveness, caused by my rescuing her favorite son, had now run out.

     My paw went down. It slipped. A current of rushing sand suddenly appeared and pulled me into it. One leg after the others, I was sucked into the pit-sand trap. It circled twice, thrice, a few more until just my head was poking out, along with a forepaw raised into the air.

     It stopped.

     I stopped.

     I tried jerking my arm around. It wouldn't move. My facial muscles and the digits on my right hand were all that could. Any other day, I would never have stepped in one of those; they were too obvious to my trained eye. But now, on the morning I lost all of my concern for what happened to me, I got stuck. Stuck!

     It wasn't on level terrain. My head was placed so unfavorably as to give me nothing better to look at than a scrubby fern inches from my nose. The sand looked icky and gray, as aged pit-sand traps were wont to turn, so I guessed that it was forgotten and poorly-set-up.

     All the worse a way for me to die. I'd starve, my skin still getting number by the minute, unless a Hunter chose to bother digging me out. It was out of the rain, so there was no way the downpour could help me by thinning the sand.

     I couldn't take the muggy numbness that my body felt; and I could have sworn that I was sinking really, really, really slowly. There was a greater chance of suffocating than starving. That made things even worse. But I deserved it. I couldn't believe how much I deserved for this to happen. I had nothing to do but count the fingers on that one paw, wiggle them around, wish I was anywhere but there and feel sorry for myself. The sand seemed to be rising, but I knew that I was sinking. It was lapping at the back of my neck, where I could still feel it, although not for long.

     It tickled right there. Not enough to make me laugh or even smile—just enough to be annoying. I growled in frustration at the slowness of the sludge's torture; it was slow enough so that I'd rather be tickled enough by it to die guffawing insanely.

     I wished I could look up. There wasn't much to do besides count, or much to do at all, for that matter; I'm sure that counting the leaves above would prove distracting from my self-pity. I'd memorized the numbers of the leaves of that fern, blades of grass in front of my nose and (obviously) my fingers. If I had anything at all to give right then, I'd give it away if it meant I could have a diversion from that nagging itch.

     The itch rose as the sand did. As soon as part of my neck went numb, it moved on to scratching a little higher, trying to drag out the torment for as long as possible. I'd rather be screaming in pain than enduring that.

     All time went null. Every second seemed to be worth a day, for how bad it felt. There was no escape from my prison. Futile hours passed—hours that I never wanted to bear the hardship of, but I was forced through. Nothing was accomplished besides my own discomfort.

     The tickle wasn't on my wrist, thank goodness. At least, not until only my face wasn't submerged. By then, it was up to the pad of my paw. Then, it took all my effort and strength to not let a false grin twitch onto my face. And then things happened.

     I could still see. I could still breathe. But I knew I wouldn't live for much longer.

     I let a meek smile onto my face as the sludge reached a particularly ticklish area of my palm, just so I'd go out with a pleasant expression. Inwardly, I thanked the Creator for lightening my heart a little before everything was done. Five minutes. I had probably one minute until the sand covered my eyes and I'd have to close them, but five minutes left to live.

     These traps weren't meant to kill but preserve. Yet an expired one like this wouldn't put me in a stasis like it was supposed to. My eternal tomb was laughing at me; I wished so much that it was a real being. I realized something; I had a fear of being alone now. No, scratch that—I was just scared. My guilt tightened around me as that itch progressed to the top of my head, and a drop of sludge trickled down between my eyes.

     A million flashbacks came to me at once. I remember my days as an inexperienced Huntress, when Engar corrected me every time I placed a trap until I got it right. But that wasn't what really hit me—it was the day I put a pit-sand trap in incorrectly and never dug it up again.

     Wait. That fern was sort of familiar. Sort of.

     No! I couldn't die like this! Not in my own poorly-placed trap from years back!

     I began rapidly praying to the Creator as I clamped my eyes shut. Two more trickles of sludge ran over my closed eyelids, tickling them in a taunting manner. The whole situation was a reflection of my past mistakes. I could see traps. Why hadn't I noticed this one?

     Anything. Just save me. Please.

     I felt two hands clamp over my raised paw. One monstrous grunt later, and I dared to open my eyes. Cerulean was standing on his hind legs, holding me in the air by that one hand. He quickly lowered me to safe ground, so I noticed before a bead of sludge made me close my eyes again. I never could close one eye without closing the other.

     I was never happier to be standing in the rain. For one thing, I was free from that torture. For another, I was standing in the rain with Cerulean. Well, I wasn't quite sure that I was standing (in fact, I doubted I could unassisted, as my muscles were completely limp); but one thing I could sense was Cerulean's presence.

     Something brushed over my eyelids, and another was touching the back of my head. I knew they were the backs of his forepaws. The film of sand over my eyes was cleared as he gently ran his paw over them, and I opened them in time to see him scrape the grey sludge off on the root of a tree. And then I realized he was holding me.

     My hind legs wobbled on the ground: his arm around my back was all that was keeping me up. He really didn't need to, but I had a notion—he wanted to. He gently whispered to me despite the fact that we were alone.

     "Faith... Oh, Faith... Can you speak?"

     "I... Think so... Yes, I can."

     Then, a miracle happened. Even if it was brief, only for a minute, I still classify it as a miracle. I could feel everything. I stood up on my own, my legs no longer wobbling. Cerulean noticed this, and, instead of releasing me, he threw his arms around my waist and lifted me up into a hug.

     I didn't even have to ask for one. He held me in air for a brief moment, his heartfelt grip not ceasing as he instead lowered me to the ground. As he held me—actually held me—I saw his expression. The glittering of his warm amber pool-like eyes combined with his signature grin... I buried my face into his mane very gladly; not another word was spoken.

     That is, until my control over my muscles faltered only seconds later. I inwardly screamed out, "No!", as I fell completely limp into his arms. Cerulean had taken notice of this, but his thoughts were elsewhere. His pupils twitched to the edges of his eyes and he set me down in a setting position. He had noticed something I hadn't.

     Cerulean walked up to the ravine still full of grey sludge, unsheathed a single claw so as to avoid getting his hand wet with the slush and fished out something long and stringy. Still wordless, he wiped it on a tree trunk multiple times, taking extra care for a lumpy part. And then I realized—it was my key. I had noticed everything except for it leaving me.

     He returned to me, gently lifted my head up and gingerly slid it around my neck. I thought I was going to faint; not due to my condition, but because of what he was doing. If he were an absolute stranger to me who had just been hugging me, holding me close to him and putting something around my neck (most of all the last one), I would've been scared to death because I couldn't move.

     But he was still a partial stranger to me. Why didn't I object?

     I realized I had been staring at the ground, thinking things over. It occurred to me that Cerulean might have felt awkward, so I shifted my gaze to him, and was met by his wicked smile again. It still made me nervous, but I was at his mercy. I couldn't run if he made me nervous. But still, I'm not sure that I would have run; the part of him that rubbed me the wrong way did it out of playfulness.

     "That cave over there, Faith..." His ears twitched as he picked me up and carried me over to a familiar cavern a few feet away. I couldn't help but be surprised and I was still scared to be in such close quarters to him. "Ah, sorry about this, but I figured that dragging you would be rather disrespectful."

     He set me down by the entry, lay down by my side, and rested his wing over my back—I only half-wished I could feel it.

     "Are you alright?" he asked me, gently nudging my shoulder. I could barely feel it. "You only talked when I asked you if you could."

     I said nothing. If I could, I would have turned my head away from him.

     "Faith. You aren't the same person you were when we first came in here."

     This was the cave from before....

     "I know I'm not," I snapped. "There, happy?"

     "What's wrong?" he tenderly questioned me.

     I ignored him as I usually did when someone said that.

     "I saved you. Maybe you'll be happy later. I fell in one of those before. It took awhile for me to move again, so I'm pretty sure that if I push you a little farther in here, you won't be going anywhere." His words didn't move me much until the last sentence.

     "Don't even think about dumping me here!" I shouted as he picked me up by the shoulders and adjusted me so that my back was at the end wall of the cave.

     "I was planning on coming back here later, don't worry. But if you want me to stay a little while longer..."

     "No! I don't! Get away from me!"

     "Right, before I leave, I wanted to tell you that I convinced Rubia that you could stay. She's great with all this medical stuff—I bet she'd manage to fix your, um, condition there in two weeks, maybe one. And she's nice when you get to know her, and she wants you to be here now. Faith, you're forgiven! Do you want to come home now?"

     "What home?"

     He sighed. "Don't be so pessimistic. When I got in a trap like that—"

     "I don't want to listen to your lies."

     "I wouldn't lie right now. That stuff was all over my outside and inside. And it was yellow sand, not the old grayish stuff you got in. It was absolutely terrible."

     "I'm sure it was."

     "Faith, what do you want to become?! A wanderer with a bad temper?"

     "I'm already one."

     "Faith, please..."

     "Just leave. Don't come back for me."

     "If I took your advice, you'd end up regretting things."

     "Cerulean. Please, leave me here. Don't come back. I'm never leaving this place. But... I'm glad you didn't let me die there."

     "There's a part of Rubia you haven't seen yet. She forgives you now. I'm taking you home."

     "No! Wait, I don't want to! I deserve to die!"

     "You deserve to live."

     Before I knew it, I was on Cerulean's back as he walked. He'd just ignored everything I asked of him. But then, I realized I was changing. Maybe I would like it at home. I chose to make no objections whatsoever—in fact, I said nothing. It must have concerned him a little, so he started a conversation for me after a few minutes.

     "Faith, I... I realized that maybe I said some things back there that I shouldn't, and I wanted to say that I owe you an apology."

     Nothing. Absolutely nothing came from my mouth.

     "Faith? Please, say something, I'm really sorry."

     "I'm sure you are."

     "If there's anything I can do to make things up to you—"

     "You're doing it."

     Utter silence.

     "Things might take some getting used to, but you'll be fine, trust me."

     "I don't trust you anymore."

     "Are you trying to be difficult? Cheer up a little."

     I sniffed. Cerulean's ears twitched in my direction, as though he was wishing he could see me.

     "I'm sorry, Cerulean. You don't deserve this. It was just kind of... shocking... to go through that for so long. I have no idea how long I was there. It felt awful and then I felt nothing."

     "It's alright. I can understand being trapped somewhere and being really, really guilty like you should be getting out of there... but there's no way that you can. Don't worry. Everything will be alright."

     "...How do you know what it's like?"

     "When I was kept in that cell, before you got me out of it."

     I gasped as he readjusted his wings.

     "We've... saved each other..." I whimpered.

     "Yeah, we have."

     A few moments of happy silence passed between us.

     "Faith, you're already like a sister to me."

     "Cerulean, no one's ever said that to me before, and I was an only child... Not even En—I mean someone I knew once."

     He stopped dead in my tracks. I didn't need to be reminded anymore of my past.

     "Don't worry. Everything is going uphill."

     "Yeah..."

     A little bit later, he knocked on our door. Rubia answered, looking a little shocked at me. "What happened?"

     Cerulean was about to answer, but I beat him to it.

     "Aged pit-sand trap."

     "Oh, you poor thing... Cerulean, take her into the bedroom; she gets the guest bed from now on. And boil some water for her bath while I examine her."

     She flicked open a door at the back of the room and beckoned. My carrier followed her. Once inside, Cerulean lowered a wing to the edge of one bed while she rolled me in; suddenly I felt a twinge of impatience for not being able to move myself, but as the winged Xweetok left the room, Rubia's words distracted me from it.

     I could still feel my ears; she delicately touched my right one with her wing and spoke, her voice scarcely more than a whisper. The tenderness and affection washed my previous dislike of her out of my mind. I typically had an aversion to most Hissies—whenever I caught one as a Huntress, I avoided touching him or her as much as possible. Maybe I'd retain that feeling; but Rubia was an exception.

     "Faith, I'm sorry. Things will take some adjusting, won't they?" she gently asked.

     "No. I'm sorry. Please, I promise that I'll help out as much as possible and I vow that I'll never, ever ask anything more of you than staying here," I pleaded, half-whimpering.

     "I like you already. Not because of what you said, but how you said it. And no, don't worry, I won't enslave you." This she punctuated with a hushed, serene chuckle.

     I liked her already, too. No—I loved her already.

     It was like my degrees of forgiveness were increasing by the day. The Creator was one; she forgave me before I became the hero. Then came Cerulean, and now Rubia.

     Oh, precious Rubia: I finally stopped freefalling, because she had caught me. The Creator dropped me. Maybe Cerulean slowed my fall, but Rubia caught me with herself and her home; a home which I already thought seemed as though it had feelings all its own. And you know what? The person who let me go so that I could start freefalling did me a favor. I loved it on the ground so much. Why didn't I realize earlier that I was airsick?

     Of course, then there had been the thrills of my descent.

     Everything really would be alright. Now I knew it for sure. There was absolutely nothing that could ruin the future now. Now that I knew what it was like to be loved.

     Life had just gone uphill.

The End

 
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» Stooping Low: Part One
» Stooping Low: Part Two



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