Noel could see why Rena was so fond of the Sacred Forest. It was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen, even after living most of his life in wildlife preserves. Nothing on Nede had ever made him feel so alive as hearing the crunch his boots made as he walked through the underbrush. The sweet and musty scents of moss and old leaves surrounded him, and every breath was a pleasure. His ears caught the sounds of animals crying in the distance; a few were birds and beasts he could identify, but he had no names for most of the others. If he had been alone he would have gone deeper into the woods, searched for them, learned everything he could about this place’s wildlife.
Sadly, he did not have the luxury of unlimited time. This was merely a diversion of his, and might be cut short before he was ready for it to end. They were only here because Rena had put her foot down; they weren't prepared to face Gabriel. They needed more medicine, needed to repair their weapons and equipment. The rest of the group had accepted that, but being here wasn't so popular; Dias and Claude had been arguing over it when he'd left, with Claude insisting that they had no time to waste, that the last Wise Man had to be killed as soon as possible, and that they couldn't let their exhaustion hold them back.
Noel had never been very good with arguments. Besides, he was as tired as anyone; he wasn't as skilled at Symbology as the other mages, and the battles had pushed him to his limits. The headaches were only now starting to subside, and his shoulders and back were aching. He wouldn't be able to do much good there. Rena would let him know when things were settled.
Why, he wondered, had Rena and Dias insisted that he needed to be especially careful here? It seemed very peaceful, but something must have happened to them. He remembered Dias's scowl as he'd told them about roving tales of bandits, and the way that Rena's hands and voice had shaken when she'd talked about enormous trolls that would attack without provocation. Maybe he was just lucky, since he hadn't seen or heard anything even remotely hostile. Still, he had promised to be careful, so he supposed a nap would be out of the question, wasn't it? It was just too dangerous, no matter how nice curling up over a bed of sweet dried leaves might sound, or how tired and heavy his eyelids felt.
Oh, well. He could sit down and rest for a while, at least. He sat slowly next to a sturdy tree trunk, wincing at the soreness of his muscles. He really needed to take a load off, he thought; this wasn't the kind of pain he could heal. He closed his eyes, focused on taking a few deep breaths. Sleeping was out of the question, but surely meditation would help -
Something scratched the ground close to him. Noel’s eyes opened as he pushed himself back against the tree again, body protesting at the sudden movement; how had anything gotten so close to him so quickly? Why hadn't he heard it coming? But then he saw a little brown creature dash away, heard a few confused yelps. It sounded so familiar -
He blinked and tried to clear his vision, then gave the little beast another look. He saw it poke its obviously-canine head from a bit of brush, watched it sniff nervously as it peered out at him. Just a little dog, he quickly realized, and it was just as scared of Noel as Noel had been of it. “Oh, hey," he said, forcing a smile through the adrenaline, and tried to keep himself from gasping again as he moved back down to his hands and knees. No need to frighten it any further, right? “Are you okay? You can come say hello if you want. I won’t bite.”
The little dog whimpered in the brush, poking its head out the slightest bit further. It was obviously used to people; Noel didn’t see any collars or marks on its hide, but there must’ve been someone that had talked to it, because it was definitely responding to his gentle tone. So he kept going, making gentle noises and speaking softly, until the dog finally emerged from the brush and cautiously walked toward him, its tail just starting to perk up.
“That’s right, good pup,” he murmured, putting out one gloved hand. He didn’t put it too close to the dog, and he didn’t look it in the face; he just waited, making more soothing noises, until the dog’s curiosity overcame its fear and it came up to sniff his hand. He could hear its breath snuffling and whistling in its nose; its face was too short for its head, a conceit he’d seen several times on Energy Nede and had hoped never to see again. But those had been pampered pets, and this little pup looked like a stray; maybe it had run away.
Or maybe he had run away, he corrected himself as the dog finally came close enough for a proper inspection. He was a healthy pup, completely uninjured and intact, his coat a bit patchy in places but growing back well; maybe he'd just recovered from some sort of skin parasite or disease, and if that were the case he was making remarkably good progress for a stray. He was thin but not bony, and his nose was wet and cool; Noel couldn’t help but notice that when the dog had decided that he was more interested in Noel’s exposed arm than in his glove.
“Hey, now,” he said, laughing. “You’re all right, little guy. I was worried for a bit, but it looks like you’re a good boy.”
The dog sat down next to him, woofing contentedly, and Noel absently scratched his ears.
This was nice, but where had the dog come from? Who was keeping it? Surely not any of the people who lived in the forest; if they were dangerous, he doubted that this dog would be quite so friendly. People who trained dogs to be attackers, they tended to be the sorts who would live on their own; he’d seen it before on Nede, by people who liked their privacy. He’d had to deal with those dogs a handful of times, since he was one of the very few who could tend to their health and get away unscathed.
No, this dog obviously hadn’t been trained to be mean, but it wasn’t trained to be specifically tame, either. Otherwise he wouldn't have had such a hard time convincing it to come to him, would he? Unless he was just naturally nervous... still, if he was a stray then why would he be so well-fed and cared for? Someone must’ve been feeding him, if nothing else -
Suddenly the dog perked up, and his tail hit Noel in the back as he started wagging it hard. “Hey,” he said, scooting away, “what’s up? You hear something I don’t?”
The dog’s only response was a low whine, as he stared intently into the distance. Noel perked his own ears up, straining to hear whatever it was that had cheered up his new friend. Maybe he was about to meet the person who was taking care of him, or -
“Noel!” He heard her that time. Rena’s voice was unmistakable. “Are you still out here?”
“I’m here!” he shouted, but didn’t have time to say anything else; the little dog jumped up and bolted towards her voice at full speed, barking loudly. Noel could see the divots that his claws had left in the dirt, he’d taken off so quickly. He couldn’t help but smile as he pushed himself back to his feet and followed the trail.
Rena didn’t answer; Noel would’ve heard her voice even over the noise, now that he knew to listen for it. He ran as fast as he could, even though he could tell she wasn’t that far away, forestalling any reason to worry. He didn’t need to give himself any more reasons.
He finally caught up with the dog, and saw Rena standing near the entrance to the town. She was staring down at his new canine acquaintance with... surprise? No, that was too mild a word, he thought. She was utterly shocked, and yet not afraid or angry in the least, a strange combination. The little dog, meanwhile, was utterly delighted, dropping down onto his belly in classic play behavior, his tail wagging even harder than before. She glanced up as Noel approached them, then back down again, still unbelieving. The dog didn’t even seem to notice his approach.
“Rena?” he asked, trying not to frown. She wasn’t unhappy, but the reaction was still confusing him enough that he had no idea what to do about it. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I just... I didn’t....”
Noel looked down at the happy little pup. “Looks like I met one of the locals,” he said. “Friendly little guy.”
“I know. I mean... he is.” She broke into a smile, dropping down to one knee. “Hi, boy,” she said quietly, rubbing his short, rough fur. “It’s good to see you again.”
The dog whined as he jumped up to lick her face, but not so quickly that Noel didn’t see the beginnings of tears in Rena’s eyes.
He didn't know what to do, in all honesty. He could deal with emotional animals by staying calm and keeping his distance, but that didn't feel appropriate with other people. But... maybe the calm part would be okay. Maybe he just needed to be here for her.
He gently guided her over to a nearby stone, and helped her sit down, with the little dog following them all the way. She wrapped her arms around the dog as it leaped into her lap, and the pup didn't seem the slightest bit distressed about it at all, unlike most dogs he'd seen. He kept wagging his tail and trying to lick her face.
Noel put his arm around her shoulders, and waited for her to say something.
She finally took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and released her grip on the little dog. He didn't move away; if anything he leaned even closer to Rena's legs, whimpering as if to ask for more attention, then licking her hand when she drew it close to pet him again. "Thank you," she said quietly. He could still see the tears in her eyes, but her voice wasn't shaking anymore. "I... I was surprised."
"It's all right," he said gently, and reached down to scratch the dog behind his ears. He wagged his tail some more, although his attention never wavered from Rena. "He must like you a lot."
"Yeah. He did." She smiled again, looking back down at the dog. "His name was Shorty. I took care of him for a long time."
"Shorty," Noel said, and smiled as the dog yipped slightly in response, reaching out again to ruffle his fur. "When did you meet him?"
"I... I barely remember. I was so young. I must've been four or five years old. The forest was safer then, and Mom would let me play by myself as long as I didn't stray too far. I met him one day, sleeping under some branches. He looked hungry, I remember that, so I shared half of my sandwich with him, and after that he'd start following me every time he saw me.
"I couldn't take him home. My mother was okay with dogs, but a badly-trained, really big dog had attacked my father in Krosse when he was a boy, and it was hard for him to be around them ever since. I was afraid he'd tell me I couldn't play with Shorty anymore, so I would only play with him in the forest. I would leave food and water for him near the entrance to the forest, and he'd wait for me there every day so that we could play together."
"Was there someone else taking care of him? Other children, maybe?" He doubted that there were even as he asked it; the dog seemed totally fixed on Rena. But he was still curious.
"Not that I know of." She paused for a moment, reaching for the points of her ears. "The children... they didn't like to play with me. They'd do it if their parents told them to, or Mayor Regis, but they'd stop as soon as they could. They thought I was too different."
Noel nodded, felt his own fuzzy ears start to twitch. The difference might look subtle to someone who hadn't grown up on Energy Nede, but even the other children had noticed, when they'd finally let him play with them. "I know what that's like," he said quietly.
Rena seemed to notice where her hand was, and pulled it down, looking embarrassed. "I guess what I'm trying to say," she continued, "was that Shorty was the only one besides my parents and the Mayor who always looked happy to see me. He was the best friend I had for years."
“What happened to him, Rena?” Noel knew where this was going - the sad look in her eyes gave it away, along with the she’d only used the past tense in talking about him. Besides, she was far from being a girl now. This dog couldn’t have possibly lived so long.
“It... it had been three years since I’d found him. I don’t know how old he was, or what kind of life he had when I wasn’t there... but I was so young, I didn’t know anything about that. I just thought we’d be friends forever.” She took a deep breath, but her voice was still quavering when she started to talk again. “So I went out with food and toys one day, like I usually did when I could get away. I found him, lying in a clearing in the woods, and I thought he was just asleep - that he’d wake up when he was hungry and eat, and then we could play together. But he never got up.
“I didn’t know what to do. I sat there for a long time, waiting for him to get up. I was gone so long that my mother came looking for me. She didn’t explain what had happened, but... I wouldn’t have understood it anyway. She just said he needed a long rest, and if he heard me crying too much, he wouldn’t be able to sleep. So I... I left him there to rest. I didn’t come back for a week, and when I did, he was just gone. I thought he’d found a quieter place to sleep, and he’d come back when he was ready. I didn’t know what had really happened. Not for a long time.”
The little dog barked up at her again, nudging her hand. She reached down again and threw her hands around Shorty’s neck, and he could see her shaking slightly as she pressed her forehead against his neck.
Noel patted her back gently as she cried. He didn’t know what to say; he’d been raised around animals, and if there had ever been a time when he didn’t understand death, he couldn’t remember it. Their lives had been difficult at times, but in different ways, and he wasn’t sure he’d ever quite understand. But he’d had his share of crying alone, and he didn’t want her to go through that again, not if he could help it. He just hoped he could be there to cry with her, when... when all of this was over. If he could be with her.
At least now it made more sense. He remembered what the old man had said when he’d told them about this place, that it was created from their memories. Rena must’ve had her childhood on her mind, and that little dog had appeared, even though he wasn’t supposed to be there anymore. Noel looked down at Shorty, who was still wagging his tail and licking Rena’s ear, trying to comfort her.
“You’re a good dog, Shorty,” she said. “You always were a good boy.” She sat up, kept her hands on the dog’s shoulders as she glanced up at Noel. “I feel like I’m being childish,” she said, trying to smile.
“I don’t think you are. Losing a companion is never easy.” He shook his head, remembering every single one of them he’d had over the years. He couldn’t forget them, no matter how hard he tried. It was a gift, he supposed, and part of the reason he’d been given his job, but it didn’t feel like much of a gift sometimes. “I’ve lost so many, but I’m sure they were satisfied with their lives. And I can tell that Shorty’s life was better because he met you.”
She nodded, wiping away her tears. “I hope so.” She stood up. “I’m glad to see you again, Shorty,” she said, gently. “But... you should go back to sleep, okay?”
The dog whined, and licked her hand, then turned to Noel, nudging at his hands too. Noel forced a laugh as he rubbed his shoulders. “It’s okay, boy,” he said. “It was good to meet you.”
Shorty yipped again, and then slowly turned around and ambled away, older and slower than before. With every step he seemed to fade a bit more, until he finally disappeared from view into the underbrush.
“Bye, Shorty.” Rena stared off into the brush where he had vanished. “I’ll miss you.”
Noel stood beside her. “Are you going to be okay?”
“I... yeah. I’ll be fine.” She didn’t look at him, kept her eyes focused on the brush, but her breathing was easier now. She reached out for his hand, and squeezed it tightly when she found it, and he stayed beside her and watched the brush with her, half-convinced the little dog might appear again.
Rena finally sighed, turning around. “We should go back. The others are going to be wondering if we’re okay.”
“Oh, right.” Noel blinked. “Are we going back now?”
“No. We’ll stay here for a while. I thought that we might go back, as angry as Claude was, but... well, Dias managed to convince Claude to stay, without anyone’s help. He just said that sometimes people had to be reminded of what they were fighting for.”
“Hm,” Noel answered. “You know, I think he’s right. I mean, I’m glad to see what Expel is like, even if it’s just like this. For now,” he added quickly.
She nodded, pulling him back onto the trail as he misstepped. “And it's nice to visit my hometown again. It hurts a little, but... it helps, too. Somehow.”
He held her hand more tightly. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll come home again for real soon. I promised, didn’t I?”
“We’ll both come home,” she corrected, glancing up at him again. “Don’t forget that I promised to show you around. I can’t do that if you don’t come back with me!”
“Yeah,” he said. He hoped so. He hoped so much that he’d be able to come back to this planet with her. If only he could promise her - if only he could know. “Sorry.”
“It’s all right. We’ll get through this. Don’t worry so much.”
"I'll try," he answered, because he couldn't have kept that promise, either. He would just have to hope, he thought as they walked back to Arlia, hand in hand.