Maria leaped up at a diving squirrel, batting it into a wall, she turned to find Spring twirling and stabbing, caught in her own dance with the small monsters.592Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ8YCx9JTKRE
"We're almost to the canyon!" Maria remembered the obstacle ahead, glad that Kokoso went with the others, if it hadn't been for that, she would regret not bringing Byrd, as they would be slowed down by the extra trip, and she was already impatient.
"Wait, quick question, we already haven't found her, and theFall canyon?!" Spring screeched, "She can't fly!"
"I know...let's just go, get ready to lift me!" Maria panted urgently, quickly tiring from the brisk sprint.
"Fine, fine, tell me when it's in sight and I'll hoist you up, but if I'm careful and--may the heavens and all that is holy forbid--slow down before landing, then don't get snippy!" Spring said defensively.
"Sorry, but I'm more than a little stressed out right now." Maria pointed out, "If I do get snippy, then you can pick another leader."
"Ha...nah, I'm beginning to see another side to the whole leader role...might as well not push the others to making these kinds of decisions, such is the path a leader must walk, for right or wrong you must choose, often without time for council."
"Okay, lift me!" Maria held her arms up and Spring picked her up, and crossed the edge, setting Maria down slowly before running alongside her.
"Where is she?" Maria panted, catching her breath before continuing the run.
"I have no idea, but we're getting closer to the mountains...will you please explain why you think she flew over the mountains?"
"I think she lied to me, when she said she was out of fuel that day, I don't know why, I'm still trying to figure that out."
"If I had to guess, she's lying about everything, she might be a spirit, maybe she's convinced she has to work for Unseason, maybe there's someone she wants to protect."
"Hmm...I'm reconsidering everything, now."
"Don't, if she's fighting for Unseason, we have to fight against her, if she's not then we need her to be honest, or we'll never be able to fully trust her."
"Maybe...there's a feeling she has, something related to her past." Maria turned to the path ahead, "Ready to go?"
"Yeah, I'm ready...the real question is...are you?"
"Huh?" Maria turned around and watched Spring search for an explanation.
"If...you have to fight her-"
"Spring, no...I knew it'd be something like that, but no, she's not...right now she doesn't want to have anything to do with the Company, or hurting us, or anything."
"I agree...but something she said made me think...maybe she doesn't know which side she's on, and...if it turns out that she was given some ideas after whatever blocked her memories, that Animen weren't monsters, it might have just been to fit in better, and there's a trigger somewhere...I hope I'm wrong, but...if things turn out like that, could you fight her?"
"I...I don't want to fight her, but I'll try to keep in mind that...everything she said could be true."
"That's all I ask, too many heroes have fallen because they didn't heed a Guardian Angel's advice, and because their hearts were crushed and they...they couldn't handle it, I don't fault them for it, I just wish things could have been better for them, but wishes don't always come true."
"I'll take that under advisement." Maria remarked, starting to sprint.
"Fair enough." Spring huffed, following close.
"So, I've been thinking," Kokoso leaned against a tree while the group waited for Byrd's return, "if we're here to make sure someone finds and delays Noel from running away, then...how are we supposed to stop her?"
"I don't know," Cathryn sighed, "a better question is why we're here."
"Huh, what do you mean?" Kokoso frowned, clueless as to what the cat Animen meant by the remark.
"I mean that there's canyon between here and the Mosaic Rosetta, it doesn't seem likely that Noel ever went pass it." Cathryn explained.
"The Fall canyon would be hard to get over without wings." Autumn agreed.
"Supposedly," Byrd stepped out of the woods, arms folded, "she ran out of fuel...she said she might have had enough for emergencies, but if she could lying, then Maria isn't taking any chances, I don't know what she expects to hear, but I have my suspicions."
"Do you think she'll kick Noel off the team?" Kokoso asked worriedly. Byrd silently stared at the ground and Kokoso revised, "Do you think she should kick Noel off the team?" Byrd sighed and remained silent.
Cathryn cleared her throat to draw their attention and spoke as they traveled to the Refractory Construct, "I think we should sit Noel down and have her explain what's going on, but Maria can make whatever choice she wants, in the end, we did decide that it was her right and burden to choose what she wanted to do, and it's up to us to try to make the most of it, whether we support her or try to convince her otherwise...in the end, this isn't a choice any of us want to make, is it?"
"She does...make an impression," Byrd agreed, "even if she's so taciturn...she reminds me of myself."
"She reminds me of you, too," Cathryn agreed, "she also reminds me of Kokoso, when he was struggling that day, after I took a pipe to his arm, and reminds me of me...and somehow, she leaves her own impression, even in her silence, maybe it's pity, maybe curiosity...maybe it's desire to see something complete, after all, what we see reminds us of ourselves, but then, when it comes to the person herself...when we look at her, what do we see?"
"A void." Kokoso sighed.
"I guess," Autumn smiled as Byrd spoke, and saw the knowing smiles on his friend's faces, "when she saw her, Maria must have seen...a Noel."
"Ah, killer!" Kokoso praised.
"That was pretty good." Cathryn agreed, "The build up and execution was something to be appreciated, as much for artfulness as rarity."
"Ha, ha, yeah, glad you think--hey!" Byrd squawked.
"I'm just so happy to see you guys trying to understand her," Autumn remarked, "having seen the last decade or so before falling into my nightmare, I was surprised when I awoke to see a human among Animen, traveling together, working together, it was very heartening."
"It still is, especially for us," Kokoso rested his arms on either of Byrd and Cathryn's shoulders, "isn't that right, guys?"
Autumn smiled, an amused chuckle flew from her lips as the pair agreed with Kokoso's statement, "Then we have very little to fear, together we can find a way to overcome most any challenge."
As Maria pulled herself up over the edge of the third cliff leading to the former campsite, she saw four silhouettes rise against the starry sky, and to her right, motionless against the mountain, she saw Noel.
"Hey, Noel, are you okay?" Maria nudge her shoulder gently and Noel's eyes opened with no mild alarm.
"I-I'm sorry!" Noel cried.
"E-Etern--eh?" Noel looked around, breathing heavily as she realized where she was.
"It's okay, we're here now." Maria smiled, but yelped in surprise as Noel knocked her down.
"Why did you look for me? I'm trying to stay away from you guys!" Noel screamed, "I want to be alone!"
"Then why did you come back here, the place where you started to open up to us?" Maria inquired, watching relief pass over Spring's face as her stance shifted from a diving starting point, to a more relaxed position.
"I-I don't know...it doesn't make any sense...I should have just...gone elsewhere." Noel whispered.
"Maybe you remembered being happy here, and you wanted somewhere to run back to." Maria suggested, "Just...what do you feel like now?"
"I...I just want to go back home...but I...I don't have one."
"Look," Byrd sighed, "at the risk of sounding sappy and cliche, they say that home is where the heart is, and before you try to figure out what that means exactly, tell me this: Are you happy now?"
Noel sat up on her knees and shook her head, "Whenever I'm around you guys...I feel...I guess it's happy? But I'm also terrified."
"Well, you just gave yourself the answer, then." Byrd folded his arms and turned to glare at the giggling rabbit Animen behind him.
"So...you mean-" Noel looked up at Byrd and Kokoso, Cathryn was shaking her head behind them, but smiled and nodded when she saw Noel watching them.
"Welcome home, Noel." Maria offered her hand to help Noel up and Noel accepted.
"Oh, Autumn, no!" Spring cried out, "We forgot something tremendously important! We need to go back to the village right now and prepare a party for Noel!"
"Ah, you're right, Spring!" Autumn smiled, "We forgot...something that we never even planned!"592Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ6rtZlXb3An
"But you get me?!"
"Yes, I get you!"
'We have to hurry! It must...be...done!"
Kokoso, Cathryn, and Byrd stepped away as the Seasonal Girls ran down the trail, "What do you think the odds are," Byrd mused, "that one of them is the whimsical spirit who created gorgon noodles?"592Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡNg1dizmQxP
"And upside down pineapple cake?" Cathryn shrugged, "seems likely to me."592Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡP40cEWgOYX
"I guess we should hurry after them." Maria turned to Noel, "You're not staying here, are you?"592Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡbUnTBUj65b
Noel stared at her feet, "I don't know...I feel like I just want to...freeze where I stand."
"We would only dump gorgons' bane on you." Maria smiled.
"I wish it was the kind you can't cure...I feel like it'd...fix everything."
"There's no such thing as a cure-all."
"I know...but I'm not sick, just...decrepit." Noel looked up at Maria and smiled, "You do realize I lied to you? W-why would you just...why aren't you...why?"592Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡrYzofFDblt
"I already figured out you were lying to me, I thought I'd let you explain yourself."
Noel nodded and started after where the Seasonal Girls had ran.
The Seasons got a head start on the midnight dinner, and had it ready shortly after the companions returned.
Noel stood in front of the door and waited until they thought look at her. She glanced up at them and closed her eyes, "I lied to you...because I was afraid you'd be suspicious of me, that you'd never trust me and...I was afraid tonight, after telling you guys...you'd push me away." she looked up at the group to find sympathetic gazes trained on her. She turned away and held her right forearm, "I was afraid that tonight, you'd let me push myself away, but you didn't...I still...can't make sense of it all, but I'm happy...but I'm still worried, after tonight...things won't be the same."
"Noel, you've probably got a reason or two, you said yourself you thought we'd mistrust you, and you must have had a basis for that," Maria waved her over, "for now come on and grab seat, if you remember something, don't be afraid to tell us."
"You guys...feel the same?" Noel smiled as the group agreed and beckoned her to dinner.
"If we don't agree with something our leader says, we'll make sure to let her know." Spring assured.
"I feel like this can't be real...some kind of cruel trick." Noel shook her head and slowly stepped over to the others.
"Remember what I told you," Maria said, "when we first met...if we could do something so cruel-"
"Then," Noel looked up and tried to keep her eyes on Maria's, "you would be...truly disgusting...but I can't even imagine such a world exists."
"The only cruel trick here," Autumn pointed at Spring, "is that this one made the yummiest lasagna ever...and...pause for dramatic effect...none of us will ever be able to eat it all! Fate has the sickest sense of humor."
"I guess I can see how that's cruel." Noel smiled, "Funny...I can't seem to decide on anything these days...I still don't know if I should hide from them, to avoid hurting them, or if I should...try to get closer to them. If I turn, and I believe harming them is right...then I'll be a very disgusting person."592Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡnRIHHDfyiU
She watched the Seasonal Girls expectantly watching her and saw the others were also watching. She took a bite, smiled and held her thumb up.592Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡK3gTbjcfWYns 184.108.40.206da2