The woman settled in across from the other. She let her eyes roam over her counterpart, and her slightly changed features. The eyes were the same as ever, but they had dulled slightly from the last time she had seen her. Her hair was shorter, and cropped close to her scalp. Still this was her; she could tell in her soul.
"You've cut your hair."
The other woman smiled with a chuckle. "We've been apart for nearly ten years, and that's what you have to say?"
The woman smiled, "Well it's noticeable." She picked up the menu, and looked it over.
"It was nice of you to come."
She looked up to the other woman over the menu. Though she wanted to voice that she would always come as it was the arrangement it died on her lips. There was something in the way she had said that, and the look in those eyes.
Again the other woman laughed, "Old tiger you always assume the worst. Maybe I just missed you."
She scowled lightly, but something was still nagging at her. "Damn dragon, if you left this horrid desert maybe I would visit more often."
"I can't leave yet, and you know that."
The tiger looked over her menu again, there it was again. "Just remember that next time you come to me Jena."
Jena smiled, "Of course wise one."
Layla didn't look up as the waiter came to the table, "Water and orange juice please."
"Same for me too please."
Jena fixed her gaze on Layla, "Still not fond of humans are you tiger."
"I know you find them fascinating, but very few have earned my respect despite the potential they all carry. Seems such a waste to me," Layla replied. She looked over her menu at her old friend again, and had to suppress a frown. Something was off in her.
Jena looked up and caught Layla's gaze before looking away.
"Attached to another one?" Layla ventured.
Jena watched the cars that rolled past the window. "How soon will it come?" her voice carried all the worry and pain to Layla's ears.
"Soon," Layla replied, "you can feel it as well as I can." She set aside her menu. "You always do this to yourself."
Jena focused back on Layla with a sad smile, "I can't help it. They are such sweet creatures that need my help. They wallow in self-destructive behavior, and fail to see the light in their lives. I can't help trying to give them a bit of peace before they pass."
The waiter returned and took their order after distributing the drinks. Once the man had left Layla sighed.
"Maybe you should come back with me."
"I can't. She really needs me-"
"And you just let her rip you apart? You are living in self-destructive behavior."
"If you could just hold it off a little longer maybe I can-"
"Maybe I will just bring it sooner, and end this for you," Layla didn't let her friend's horrified look phase her. "How many times will I have to save you? How many times will I bend the natural order for you before you finally get it?"
Jena frowned at Layla, "I am trying to help-"
"You are blind to what you are doing."
Jena sighed, "Maybe, but I just can't stop. I care about these people. I care about their little lives, and their little souls. I care too much."
"Yes, but I let you," Layla admitted. Guilt consumed her knowing that just as all other times she would bend to Jena's will. Maybe she was the one in the destructive cycle too. Maybe she needed to get out.
Both women fell silent as their food arrived. Layla didn't look at Jena in the eyes as she considered what to do. They ate silently.
As she rose to leave Jena caught her wrist. Layla didn't look back as she said, "I can only manage a few years. Don't bother me while I do."
"Thank you," Jena whispered as she watched the old tiger leave.
They met in a park this time. A lake stretched beyond them as snowcapped mountains towered above. Green spread from the lake past them as far as parking lot half a mile back.
"You always pick such cold places."
The old tiger didn't shift her gaze from the breath taking sight. "Every time you complain, and never comment on the beauty. So this isn't a warm desert, but the majesty here is incomparable."
"It's still cold," the dragon remarked sourly.
Layla looked over at her friend. She was about to say something, but thought better of it. She looked back at the lake, and held her peace.
Jena sighed. "Maybe the next time around we can agree to meet somewhere comfortable for both of us."
Years and meetings had hurled past them after the last time. The world had nearly ended, and started fresh as it had so many times in the past. They had died along with most the humans, and cycled back into the world. It was an endless, but it was what they did. Once more it was nearing another end. Soon they would begin in a new beginning.
Layla sat silent for a long time, and when she finally spoke it was soft. "I was thinking about not coming back next time."
Jena wanted really to laugh it off, after all Layla had said it before, but it was always in anger. This time it was something else. Layla was calm and collected; she was serious this time.
"Don't, just don't. I haven't decided yet, but I feel like I just can't do this anymore." Layla spoke softly, and didn't dare turn her eyes toward her dear friend.
"The humans can't be that bad-"
"It's not the humans."
Jena felt pain unlike she had ever experience before pierce through her. Her breath left her in a rush, and she felt like she was swimming in her own head. "Then… me?"
"It's me. I can't say no to you. How many times have I pushed back the end for you? I'm surprised I haven't been pulled due to it." Layla sighed, "I just can't do this anymore. I can't sit here and watch you continually abuse yourself over worthless souls that often won't recycle or remember. I know you want them to reach the higher levels, but sometimes it's just too much for me to watch."
"I never realized."
Silence stretched between the two as they sat. Each was immersed in their own misery.
"I won't ask anymore," Jena suddenly offered.
Layla chuckled, "You will and you know it. You care too much for their souls. You would give your own to elevate just one of theirs if you could."
"We've been together for-"
"Maybe too long. Look at us Jena," Layla implored. "Look at what we have become. We have been Guardians for Earth since the beginning of the world and the souls. We have toiled over it and them. Back then we were so eager and willing. We helped every soul we could- even I did. How many did we elevate to higher understanding?
"Now… now… I don't even try anymore, and you… you pick the worst and try to help them despite the way it shreds you. I let it happen which makes me as bad as those souls." Layla held up a hand to stall her friend's protests. "I let you do it, and I even hold back the cycle to help. I can't even look at these souls without disgust, even the brightest souls look soiled to me. I have to stop this cycle Jena."
"Maybe if we tried a different world…" Jena tried, but her words died in her throat as her friend shook her head.
Layla stood without looking a Jena, "I'm sorry Jena." She walked away.
Jena cycled back in and was dismayed to see that her tiger was a new one. She knew this man was the tiger, but it wasn't Layla. She watched the man approach in horror, and tears began to fall.
"Where's Layla?" she asked even before he sat.
"She stayed behind. She wanted to cleanse. She suggested it for you, but obviously you didn't."
"I didn't think she was serious…"
Jena sat in melancholy. Two cycles and Layla hadn't returned. While the world was refreshing Jena tried to find out where Layla was, but she never had any luck before she was cycled back in.
The seat dipped as the tiger sat beside her. Jena suppressed a sigh, and refused to look up.
"I think you just like to make me suffer."
Jena's head jolted up to stare into the familiar tiger's eyes. "You came back!"
"Like I could stay away from you long, but next time we met somewhere else. I'm sick of desert."
Jena nodded enthusiastically, and threw her arms around her dear friend. "Where did you go? I couldn't find you."
Layla smiled as she looked at all the little souls. It was nice to be back.