He was still shaking as I brought him in.
I'd practically covered every available space with ornaments in the hope of projecting the image of a loving home, but as I re-entered the cottage with the pup in my arms, guilt and shame nearly overwhelmed me. What had I been but a fool to disregard the blatant truth that flaunting such extravagance would have the effect completely opposite of reassuring visitors, and the most traumatised ones at that? Only the pictures, high and mighty on the walls, could compare to the cynicism of the scarlet socks, which, as though delivering a kick in the guts, may as well have been occupied by feet of the undead. But most of all, I regretted the fire. It had seemed like such a good idea to provide an animated aura of light and warmth, but now its mocking capers were nigh impossible to dismiss. I'm stronger than you are, its taunting tone echoed. Stronger and better than you'll ever be.
It wouldn't have mattered, anyway. His eyes were darting about, as if to watch for monsters — or faeries, which in his case amounted to the same thing. So frightened was he that to stare would have been as sadistic as turning a blind eye; the dilemma was painful to think about. But I couldn't give up. It was more than a matter of having made the decision already, though that was an important reason; after all, returning him to the wild would have spelled devastation, little question there. No, I couldn't give up because I cared. Others had gone back in time to change their stocks, or their habits; I had been the only one desiring to change history. And while the triple-underlined warnings on the base of the machine had caused some to hesitate, I had stepped forward with a resolution even stronger than before, if that was possible. I knew saving lives risked one's own. I had known it all along, and seeing it affirmed in front of my eyes was to me not a deterrent but an incentive, a pact that promised rewards beyond riches and glory, fame and fortune. It was a pact I would not break.
And thus, swallowing my fears, I carried the both of us into our chambers. Talk and potions could wait. We'd both had a long day. Indeed, as soon as his head made contact with the pillow, a sigh could be heard rising from his lips, deep and contented. I myself lay awake; weary as I was, sleep was a challenge, partly because time travelling had me head over heels, but also because a certain imperfection nagged at me, a burning stove at the back of my mind that had to be attended to. Watching his chest rise and fall, the source of my unease made itself known in a manner rather like the touch of a blanket, soft and gradual. Yet its significance was anything but that.
As soon as his breaths had turned into the gentle wheezes of dreamers, I knew it was time. The moon bore witness to my fleeting figure, noting without emotion my attempts to keep as quiet as I could as I tiptoed out of the room. It saw me find what I was looking for, and offered a handful of moonbeams to aid my inspections. I accepted them, though they turned out to be unnecessary. I’d already known it’d be perfect.
A change in his expression the following day suggested how quickly the idea was taking root.
No longer did his fur look as though it were struck by lightning. His tail, too, was held at a more comfortable position, and the rest of his body was considerably steadier than it had been, as if firm with the knowledge that he was safe. From the tears that rimmed his eyes I could even have sworn seeing the faintest hint of discontent, like the bitter aftertaste of a lemon.
In short, I hadn’t much time left.
Still, the situation wasn’t hopeless. I was already very grateful to have gained his trust, as evidenced even now by how he didn’t flinch when I approached him. I also knew he was appreciative of the fact that I’d braved the winter rains to rescue him from the clutches of Haunted Woods, despite him not having spoken a word. That much was in my favour.
But was it enough?
It was a war, a competition between me and the Faeries whose winner would ultimately be chosen by him. The Faeries had dealt their move, a short and stinging blow that had opened many wounds. Harmful as it was, I had let them, intentionally travelling to the point in the past after the whip had been cracked. It wasn’t that I trusted my abilities more than the advisors who warned me otherwise; I didn’t. I knew better than to overrule their objections, which were founded upon years of concrete experience. Neither was it the case that I aspired to be renowned as the changer of lives. More than anything, it was because of honour. I would fight fair, even if it meant putting myself at a disadvantage from the start. I would fight fair, and win true.
Grasping onto this thought firmly, I dressed the last of his wounds. That is, the last of the wounds inflicted upon his physical presence. I had yet to treat the other, more major wounds, some of which might already have shown the first symptoms of infection. Nonetheless, when I hanged the scarf I’d found last night around his neck, I knew it was a start, the principal step in a long race towards the finish line. It was also a pendant, bringing me the fortune to get there first.
Days passed. Each day I would wake up, stumble a little on the realisation that I was in the past with a heavy burden on my shoulders, and groan inwardly at the task that lay ahead. Even for an optimist, I could hardly be blamed. Keeping one’s guard up at every second of the day, with only the ephemeral nights to recharge, was to say the least taxing, especially since I’d had to watch out for hazards at each corner, which I knew would ruin my efforts if I was the slightest bit careless. At the same time, it wasn’t as though I disliked spending time with him; on the contrary, I took pleasure in what we did. For one, he enjoyed reading. I’d been attempting to teach him the alphabet when I realised just how bright he was for his age; not only was he already familiar with the structure of full sentences, he was also able to comprehend long chunks of text. It made sense, in a way – I did recall him having asked the Faeries for help when he’d gotten abandoned in the woods. It was too bad, though, that all I’d transported from the future was my journal. If I’d known his love for books, surely I’d have brought a few more, even if it meant footing additional time travelling fees. Because of the thrill we both derived from reading, I began to think of activities as opportunities from which we both benefited, rather than danger zones to be wary of. Indeed, that turned out to be the case most of the time.
This morning, we were going for a walk. Of everything on my list of to-dos, walking was the project I’d been putting this off as much as I could, even knowing full well that it had to be done eventually. Whether or not this had been a wise move would have been debatable, though what I knew for sure was that there was a lot at stake. Everything about going outside spelled trouble; from the chance that he might run away to the risk of a break-in while we were gone, I could only pray that the problems I’d face would be inconveniences at best. And of course there was the point of the walk in the first place, of which the possibility of failure was something I wasn’t quite prepared to think about yet. I was counting on two things. One was his role as a forgiver. No doubt even a small glimpse of the clearing would fill him to the brim with trauma, but it was the pain I needed; pain, which had unparalleled powers to heal, and whose only intention was not to reopen old wounds, but to erase fresh scars.
The other was my role as a friend.
Without warning, I found myself leaning forward, overtaken by nausea. Blood was rushing to my head like the time I’d been invited to the stage to sing with Jazzmosis, the words I can’t do this already starting to form on the tip of my tongue, caught in my throat like a mute’s war cry, only with none of the conviction. But the tears also illuminated the scene in front of me, and I saw, for the first time, how beautiful the forest was. Fallen blue leaves were bathing in a pool of amber, while rays of sunlight interweaved with the branches above in a graceful waltz, accented by the sky in a grand crescendo of colour. A regret that I had no way of documenting the experience had wheedled its way into my mind, but I barely noticed; so enchanting was the landscape. Only when I snapped out of my reverie a few moments later did I realise that he was there too, drinking in the sunrise as though it were molten gold. In my head, I raised a toast to him.
But my glass was ultimately lowered.
I had stared at him with rising agitation as we neared our destination, yet with every ensuing step, it was as if a part of me was continuously being replaced with a part of him. Never once did it occur to me, however, that what I was feeling was not his pain, but my own. For upon arrival, it was not him but me who suddenly saw, in my mind’s eye, the glares, the rocks, and the dark; me who was suddenly overwhelm with emotion; me whose knees buckled like a disjointed puppet, catching, as my world fell apart, a last glimpse of his paws kicking off the ground as he vanished into the air. This last image couldn’t have lasted more than a second, yet it might as well have been a theatrical production; forever locked in my memory was that scene, replaying over and over like a broken reel, each time with an increased distance between us, and along with it the horrible knowledge that I’d pushed him too hard. Pushed, like the shame that was thrusting the tears into my eyes, denying me of anyone’s pity, and the guilt already running through my veins that was forcing my eyes closed, preventing me from seeing his absence for myself.
I couldn’t have.
The unmistakable feel of a Lupe’s tongue brushed against my knee, a paintbrush of affection. My head whipped up, half-expecting it to be a mirage, but there he was, paws outstretched, eyes wide with comprehension, looking for all of Neopia like a hero. At that point I couldn’t help myself. Out flowed my despair and dejection and above all my remorse, bitter and grey, that at the most critical of moments I’d lost control and abandoned him for my own miserly sake. I didn’t deserve to be forgiven, didn’t deserve holding him in my arms as I was doing now, but if it meant anything anymore I would treasure it like no other. Even more than the life force that had pardoned me release, every heartbeat was a constant reminder, each pulse a separate reason as to why I no longer cared about the battle, but solely his happiness and wellbeing, and nothing more.
Sometime during the night, I awoke drenched in sweat, all traces of happiness replaced by fear. I must have had a nightmare, as usual. Only this time, my breaths came short, and my heart wouldn’t stop palpitating. Something wasn’t right.
I turned in a haste to my left, anxious to see nothing but a crumbled pile of blankets, and was instead reassured to find him still sleeping soundly. I must have imagined things, after all. Or so I thought. My unresponsive brain was about to re-enter a state of rest when it fully registered the image that it’d taken three seconds ago. He was there, all right, but without his scarf. I sat up, alert again. He never went anywhere without his scarf, not since I’d given it to him. In fact, his scarf was virtually part of his body. It occurred to me that he might have dropped it in the forest yesterday, or that even now it might be on the floor, fallen as he scrambled onto the bed, but something else told me strongly that that wasn’t the case.
A floorboard creaked. My nerves turned to ice.
When a burst of bravado lifted my vision, there was no mistaking the Faerie. The nights I’d spent awake had sharpened my vision in the dark, and even in my current state of befuddlement I could easily make out her form, creeping about in the shadows as though she were one herself. And perhaps she was. I didn’t understand her reasons, but I wasn’t about to spend limited time and energy trying. I had to act. The scarf was my first gift to him. His fate was on the line. That was all I had to know.
To my extreme chagrin, though, I quickly realised that night vision and being sneaky were two different things altogether. Just as unfortunate was the fact that she seemed to be experienced in both; before I had taken two steps towards her, she had noted my presence and abandoned all attempts to remain silent, scrambling at the front door like a panicked puppy. Teeth grinding, I followed her out into the night. I would get the scarf if it was the last thing I did.
We ran on for what seemed like forever, leaves whistling past us at such a speed they were almost shurikens. Yet I was concentrating less on minimising my injuries than on the turns we were making, so much so that when the first blow came, I was hardly prepared, tumbling heavily like the time I’d collapsed in the clearing. This time, though, I picked myself up and met fear and my opponent in the face. A fierce scuffle ensued. In my desperation to regain control over the future, all I could remember from the fight were claws and black, interspersed with the fists from my part. But that wasn’t to suggest that I would survive to remember it, for she had her magic, and the benefits of a good rest. I had nothing.
True enough, I eventually fell. As her final burst of darkness threw me to the ground, she grinned triumphantly, shaking off the sparks of evil from her hands before tearing away into the woods, never turning back.
She should have. Out of respect for her opponents, as the standards of honour decreed, and out of wit to see what they had to offer. Only then would she have seen me tearing away my look of dismay as though it were a mask, betraying a knowing smile underneath. Only then would she have understood who the victor truly was.
It was a feeling I’d dealt with more in the past few days than I’d encountered and probably would encounter in the rest of my life. I was grateful for the chance to be sent back into the past, not to mention the opportunity to perform an act of such significance. Looking back, I was even grateful for the failures, which had revealed that my efforts to make a difference to his life had, far from going to waste, come to fruition. And of course, it was only her failure to see how I’d executed a sleight-of-hand at the very last instant that I could now trudge back home with the vigour of a zombie, barely able to summon the strength to brush off the snow that speckled my face, yet feeling more alive than ever.
My diligence paid off, too. With the first rays of day illuminating the path, I felt more practised than a conquistador as I made my way home, never once having to backtrack.
The cottage came into view. I was reminded of the first time I’d come when I’d first entered the timezone. I’d approached from the same direction then, with a little more trouble locating the lodging I’d been promised. When I’d found it, it had been unoccupied, dark with dust and forgotten responsibilities. By contrast, it was now bright and full of vitality.
I was sure I hadn’t turned the lights on. That could only mean someone else did. Sure enough, I saw his light blue figure perched at the windowsill, as if to watch for visitors while awaiting my return. At this, fierce emotions soared through me, almost making me miss the full picture. Only after a period of time was I conscious of the fact that he was reading a book of above average proportions, one with an indigo cover. My journal. By the time I blinked back my tears, his eyes had met mine.
We’ll be friends in the future, the thought manifested itself in my mind.
And perhaps for the first time in his life, he smiled. We already are.
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