0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u 0u0u0u0u0

Dr3 – The Bear who Squeaks

0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u0u 0u0u0u0u0

"And so the mighty Moose parts the green sea with a wave of His spear!"

Elaine giggled mirthfully at the sight of her overzealous companion swinging the sheathed szabla, yowling some battle cry before unleashing her weapon for real and cutting down a few branches that obstructed their path.

"Follow me, into the Promised Land!" Clarice spread her arms victoriously, holding her sheath and sword in each hand like some kind of holy incarnate as she flicked her tail tuff invitingly.

The blonde Husky, unable to hold back anymore, held her stomach and slightly crouched forward as her body shook with breathless laughter. She could almost see the grin on the brunette's face based on her exuberant voice alone.

"Aww, Princess, you're supposed to walk close to me! How am I supposed to protect you from the Minotaur? This labyrinth is sinister I tell ya!" The Lynxlioness then lowered her voice to a dramatic growl, "the shadows prey upon pretty maidens like you… Rawr!"

Upon her exclamation, she twirled her black-tipped tail upwards to the unsuspecting Canine's nose. Elaine's giggles instantly changed into a hitched yip as she fell backwards in a rather undignified way, for her hiking bag was compromising her balance.

"Whoa! I didn't mean to make you fall!"

"You- ichuu!- You are – ich…ich…ichuu!- wicked!"

Clarice grinned mischievously at the reprimand, knowing that the blonde was not truly angry. "Eh? How could you accuse me of such when you are the sinful one yourself, oh beautiful lady? Ah, this woe, it hurts!"

Once Elaine managed to gather her bearings, she righted herself and attempted to speak as poised as she could in spite of her still itching nose. "What crime have I committed to cause you thus pain?"

The brunette slyly batted her eyelashes and held a hand to her chest. "How my heart yearns for thee~!"

Unused to such bold proclamation, even though it was clearly a joke, the Husky felt her cheeks heat up in an unmistakable blush as she struggled to think of a reply to politely turn down the unfamiliar advances.

"U-Um, I think you are a nice person but-"

Clarice roared into laughter, wiping away imaginary tears and heartily patting the bewildered blonde's shoulder. "Heh, look at you, taking everything so seriously… just when I thought I've loosened you up with our little play! Yeesh, you must be used to sudden confessions, huh? Those poor chaps, nursing their wounded hearts home…"

Ears folded, Elaine was certain that her face was an unhealthy shade of red. "I-I did not mean to hurt them, it is just that I did not know them well and…" She trailed off, blinking uncomprehendingly at the way the brunette grinned so smugly. "Is there something on my face…?"

"Yeah, you bet!"

She yipped again when her nose was assaulted by a devious twirl of that black-tipped tail.

"Y-you fiend, I am not a window to dust," the blonde finally realized the Feline was teasing her all along, so she decided to calm down and willed her blush to recede. She pulled at the straps of her backpack and walked ahead, firmly ignoring the giggly caterwauls of her new companion.

"Aww, Princess is mad! You're just so fun to tease, yeah?" Clarice easily jogged to her side and grinned good-naturedly. "And I haven't met anyone who's as ticklish as you, I couldn't help it!"

Crossed but determined to remain calm as a proper lady should, and also to regain the dignity she has lost so obliviously, she let out a small growl, quiet but loud enough to show how displeased she was. Her nose still felt tingly!

However, the Lynxlioness did not interpret the growl as she intended. "…what was that, Princess?"

Taken aback by the question, Elaine thought her companion was referring to some noise in the woods and cautiously took a cursory glance before turning around quizzically.

"Er, I mean that sound you just made."

Sensing the brunette had found more ammunition to tease her with, the blonde remained silent even when faced with a pair of beseeching chestnut-colored eyes.

"Do it again."

"No, I will not," the blonde sternly tweaked the Feline's whiskers, emboldened by how relaxed the latter was with physical contact. Even then, the action only spurred the other girl on more rather than deterring her.

"Come on~" Clarice grinned wider and leaned close. An inner competitiveness born from years of chess and fencing matches flared in Elaine's chest at such a fearless action, so she leaned forward as well, their noses almost touching.

"No, you will tease me again."

"I promise I won't~"

Unable to remain stern and unsmiling for long, her tense shoulders relaxed as she replicated the sound she always used whenever she was peeved.

"Rrwwrr."

There, that ought to do the trick. Clarice might seem tactless at times with the short period they've known each other, but she felt that the energetic girl was more observant than she let on.

"…Princess…"

"Yes?"

"…you're too cute!" Giggling, the Lynxlioness poked the blonde's nose this time with her index finger, and burst into laughter when the latter squealed and scrunched up her nose from the tickly sensation. Blushing from embarrassment, Elaine flattened her ears and covered the abused area. What was so funny about the sound? Kura-chan did it whenever she was irritated too. She merely imitated her childhood friend the best her vocal chords permitted, that was all.

Maybe it was the thought of the black-haired Foxroach, or the fact Clarice enjoyed teasing her too much, Elaine felt her eyes burn, which in turn made her even more mortified.

Clarice's whiskers seemed to fly up as she hurriedly swallowed another giggle and cleared her throat. "Er, I didn't mean to…um… like I said, you're too cute, I can't resist… making you do more cute stuff!"

Elaine hastily wiped away the few stray tears and tried to reassure her companion. "N-no, it is not all you, Clarice, but could you not… do that to my nose again?"

"Of course!" The Feline truly looked remorseful, so the blonde smiled lightly to show that she has forgiven her already.

"I am just a little overwhelmed, I-I am not usually this emotional." Though unused to such familiarity, especially with a person she just met two days ago, Elaine truly enjoyed the senseless banter and joyous atmosphere from earlier and so she wanted to preserve it as much as she could. "So, are there other branches up ahead, Clarice?"

Eager to change the topic, the brunette sent her an apologetic grin before marching ahead to check their path in the dense woodland.

The blonde Husky took a deep breath and berated herself for getting so worked up over clearly harmless teasing. Clarice meant well and so far their journey had been filled with laughter brought by her theatrical and sometimes satirical reenacting of famous works of literature. Really, Elaine was only so reactive because the recent events kept her turbulent emotions at the surface. Also, she had never experienced this kind of friendly chitchat and so much physical contact, not even with Kura-chan, so she acted purely from instinct.

It was strange, for she was always in control of her actions, yet this was a welcoming change as well. She found it exciting to see what Clarice had in store to make this trip so interesting. Looking ahead, she saw the Feline twirling her tail tuff and whistling as she effortlessly cleared the low branches that have blocked their way. This small route was rarely taken nowadays, for people usually took vehicles on the main roads connecting Ahkalin to Onean. In fear of detection due to their run-in with the police, Elaine cautioned that they should take this more concealed road instead.

The Lynxlioness was boastful of her ability to evade the authority, but she humored the blonde by agreeing with this plan with a "this wayward vagabond will do as her Lady wished!"

Truly, Clarice was very entertaining company.

While it was mostly a leap of faith, Elaine's instinct trusted the Feline not because of the way she selflessly defended her from the corrupt policemen or because of their shared admiration of Kura-chan, but due to the strong conviction she spoke of her goals to the Alsaces.

It still felt surreal that she was here in the woods, a good distance away from her home, in which she had lived for most of her life. Three days ago, she just had her eighteenth birthday, which had also been the first one where her daddy and sister figure were not present, so she was despondent and sick with worry. Two days ago, she just received the letter and plushie from Kura-chan and became even more miserable until the appearance of this rather eccentric stranger who, by the twist of fate, had met the fox-eared girl in Kaltrea and wanted to contribute to her cause. Just yesterday, after a sleepless night, she finally made up her mind after agonizing over this decision for so long and chased after the free-spirited wanderer.

She had dueled against the experienced fighter and somehow won the best out of three in a dance she was proud to have partaken. She had achieved something with her own power, and that was a fantastic first step!

With her tail wagging happily, she smiled and walked up to Clarice when the latter signaled that the path was clear. The brunette grinned shrewdly as she glanced at the blonde's slightly pink ears, "So, Princess, whachu thinking about? Do tell me if you're fantasizing about me, mkay~?"

"You merciless teaser," Elaine spoke airily as she basked in the glory of their battle in the clover field, "A knight must not be this cruel~"

"Forgive me for my insolence, my fair Lady!" The Feline bowed dramatically and gestured at the path she cleared, "Here, allow me to make it up to you by enlightening you with tales of my valor!"

"Do try, my courageous knight, or else I may be forced to punish you for your i-impud-dence…" Unable to keep up with the charade of an austere matriarch, she muffled her giggles and kept her gaze on the ground, fearing she may burst into uncontrollable laughter upon seeing Clarice's funny expressions.

"No fair! What if I want to be punished?" The brunette sighed loudly and deliberately stomped ahead to point her tail tuff at the blonde's lowered face. The black tip twirled in ridiculous circles and promptly pushed Elaine over her reservation.

Now laughing and unable to walk straight, the blonde tried to remember the last time she felt so cheery but could not do so. She knew that it would be inconsiderate of her to complain about her life, especially when she had a loving family and abundant wealth due to her mother's lineage. However, it was also a fact that she always felt caged and lonely, unable to interact with her peers because of her shy personality and formal mannerisms that may seem aloof and unwelcoming. Kura-chan also tended to keep her at a distance though Elaine could not understand why.

She was certain that she had a calling, an inexplicable tug that told her that she belonged elsewhere instead of her sheltered life.

Here, with Clarice, she was able to experience so many new things! Was it because she finally set out to fulfill a grand goal, or because her companion was this optimistic Feline who just seemed to know which buttons to press?

Last night, the blonde Canine had trouble sleeping not because of the lack of roof over her head, but because of how excited she was. She relished in the way the gravel and grass crunched under her steel boots, loving the way the ground felt so solid yet uneven as she trudged on. After the brunette gallantly set up camp, she had shared some of her food rations with the blonde as they were too absorbed in talking about Kura-chan. When Clarice had gone to sleep on a branch nearby, Elaine had simply stared into the endless sky and fantasized the possible adventures that may await her.

When morning arrived, she confirmed that she was not dreaming and that she was truly out on a journey by pinching her cheek. Since then, adrenaline flowed through her veins and kept exhaustion at bay, and Clarice's antics certainly helped.

"So, Princess, first rule of traveling in the forest is… swagger!"

"S-swagger?" Elaine was still breathless from the previous laughter, but she managed to stand up straight as her companion tried to give her some tips.

"Yeah, it'll keep most of the wild beasts at bay," the Lynxlioness stiffened her tail like a flag as she took boastful struts into the more shaded part of the forest. "See, they can sense your fear, so when you radiate nothing but pure awesomeness like I do, they'll think 'oh no, she's gonna beat us easy and eat us!' Ha, it's what usually happens too when I'm out of food!"

"Oh my," the blonde smiled with confidence and followed her friend with quiet but firm steps to express her fearlessness. As the brunette continued to demonstrate more random advises, Elaine fleetingly recalled the times her daddy would take her camping when she was a little girl. Uncle Hector was there, Aunt Heidi and even Mr. Ed, and they often enjoyed simple trips to the countryside with Kura-chan before the situation in Riphaeus escalated more and more until it ended with the battle of Nargtien Barracks.

The thought immediately reminded her of the bombing in Torden, but she managed to shake off her worry before she could dwell in it. She already wallowed about the matter for far too long. Not to mention, she has already decided to walk on her own, to be strong for her loved ones. While she still fretted over leaving her mother alone in Ahkalin, she also trusted the older Canine to take of herself.

"Oh, ma fifille, look at you. You wish to go after Clarice, do you not?"

"M-Maman!"

"I know your eyes, they are just like mine when I decided to go with your father to support Hector's rebellion instead of sitting at home and waiting for things to happen. I do not want you to feel unaccomplished anymore, Elaine. I understand how it feels to watch your loved ones going further away while you remain powerless to stop them or catching up to them. It is time."

"B-but… I cannot just leave you by yourself, Maman, and Daddy has not sent anything…"

"I am still Alainna Calatrava-Alsace, cherie. I will be fine here. I did … effectively ask that robber to leave, did I not? Besides, I know Heidi will ensure your father does not do anything reckless. Depending on the situation, I might go back to your grandfather's estate when I have received a message, so do not worry about me. Just remember, you can always come home if you wish. The doors will always be open."

"…I will miss you so much, Maman, but you are right. I want to… no, I need to go."

"I wish you the best of luck, ma petite. I believe you are ready."

Even though her farewell to her mother still made her heart ache, she was grateful to the older Husky for giving her the nudge she needed to set out. This was only the second day of her journey, but she felt tremendously satisfied of her decision.

"So, Princess, we're gonna walk a bit more before we set up camp," Clarice jerked her thumb at the canopy, where the leaves were not dense enough that they couldn't see the darkening sky. "Heh, I'm sure we're near the intersection that connects Siensa to Onean, so we've covered great distance today!"

Having rigorously studied her geography in the Academy, Elaine wagged her tail proudly at how far she had travelled on her two feet. She recalled all the idle time she had back then, staying in one place as she tried to occupy her restless mind on anything productive. She just hoped the knowledge she had gained in Ahkalin would prove to be useful in her journey. Surely her organization and planning skills would come in handy?

"Oho? That looks like a good place," the Lynxlioness raised her arms high as if hailing her discovery. Amethyst eyes looked ahead and spotted a small clearing, possibly made by travelers from long ago that also had a nice shade over head with a sturdy-looking low branch for the Feline to sleep on. Elaine was relieved, for the combined weight of her backpack and her greaves, as well as her lack of proper sleep, were finally taking its toll on her.

Before she could even blink though, Clarice sprinted ahead with an impish yowl. "Race ya there! The winner doesn't need to set up camp~"

"T-that is unfair!" Huffing, the blonde tried to run but almost stumbled, her tired limbs refusing to cooperate. By the time she reached the brunette, who was leisurely sprawled against the thick tree trunk, she was already out of breath and almost collapsed onto her knees.

"Awww, I did get a head start, so I'll catch us dinner later, yeah?" The Feline went over to the puffing blonde, who pouted rather indignantly but allowed her companion to ease her out of the heavy backpack. "Yeesh, what do you carry in this thing anyways, Princess? Gold bars? Granite? A statue of Puppy?"

Unable to feign anger at the good-natured brunette longer than a few moments, Elaine chuckled and sat down tiredly. "Everything I think we might need. See, here is the sleeping bag I used last night and some canteens of water. And, well, you have seen this already…"

When she pulled out the scowling Fox plushie, Clarice giggled and brushed its bronze bell with her tail tuff, making it jingle quietly. "Heh, you brought lil Puppy with you huh?"

"Yes, it is a special present after all, and I believe it could be a good luck charm on our journey," the blonde blushed slightly as she hugged the stuffed animal close, "do you find it strange of me to think that Kura-chan is watching over us… maybe even protecting us through this toy?"

The brunette's gleeful demeanor faded a little as she looked at Elaine with a soft grin. "Naw, you're probably right. Puppy seems like the kind of girl who's very devoted to her friends… like you, Princess."

Ears folded after hearing the sincere opinion, the Husky coyly smiled at her companion before gently placing the plushie on her lap so she could unpack more.

"Heh, it's too bad the toy doesn't buzz like Puppy does in real life," Clarice snickered and scratched her whiskers, "It could serve as some sort of awesome intruder alarm so we won't have to take turns doing night watches when we go deeper into the woods!"

Elaine giggled at that, for she could not deny the fact her black-haired friend really acted like an alarm sometimes. It was endearing, really. "So, I have also brought some emergency rations, such as snack bars, cookies and dehydrated food that just needed to be boiled to be edible…"

"Wow, you're really prepared aren't you, Princess?" The Feline twisted her tail into an S shape, her eyes gleaming in both amusement and amazement. "Yeah, those will come in handy! But, er, Princess, don't you think you've brought too many cooking utensils…?"

The Canine thumped her tail on the ground in a wagging motion. "I have planned the contents of the backpack just in case if I ever had to go on an impromptu camping trip, Clarice. As for the equipment… well, perhaps we could acquire flour or eggs at some towns and we could prepare some snacks…"

She trailed off uncertainly as she just understood how silly she must have sounded. Baking little treats or even making waffles were luxurious activities after all, so she probably sounded quite spoiled to this simple wanderer. She guiltily looked over at the items she took out moments ago with pride: a waffle iron, a spatula, a rolling pin, a cutting board, several kitchen knives, a set of measuring cups and spoons, a whisk, a set of bowls, a cheese grater, some frying pans and even a complete tea set.

What had she been thinking, that they would have enough time to have afternoon tea on this potentially dangerous journey? Most of these items weren't practical at all!

"Heh, I'm actually more surprised by your ability to pack so much stuff in that backpack, though now I know why it's so heavy!"

Though relieved that Clarice didn't seem scornful or annoyed by her naivety, Elaine timidly pulled out the last remaining objects in her bag other than some spare clothes and blankets.

"…you brought books?"

"Yes," the blonde lowered her head in shame but she affectionately caressed the book covers, "Raindrops by Iris Cypress… it is a romance-adventure novel that is easily my favorite book of all time, and Vendetta by George Poplar, a suspense-mystery classic I have yet to read."

"Whoa, I'm gonna need to borrow that book sometimes, Princess! I've heard about it too but haven't had the time to check it out," Clarice then chuckled awkwardly, "but I'll have to pass up on Raindrops, not that I have anything against romance stories – I love them too – but my mom has a lot of that authoress' books so… yeah…"

"Oh, that is quite alright. You are welcome to borrow Vendetta," Elaine smiled amiably, glad that Clarice seemed to approve of her reading hobby, even though the latter looked incredulous that she would even bring them. It was true though, that she probably would not have time to even skim through a few pages.

"What's this then?"

Amethyst eyes gazed fondly at a worn hardcover. "That is a collection of epic poems about the Golden Ages, a book that belonged to my late grandmother Ran Gerisyr. It is written in the Old Language though, so I have yet to decipher it completely…" She felt her ears heat up from embarrassment again. Really, when would she ever get the chance to sit down and study the ancient writing like she used to do in the Academy?

The Lynxlioness, however, was filled with excitement. "The Golden Ages! I love all the stories about that era! The charismatic Golden Emperor, the wise Lady of the Lake, the kind High Queen of Lemuria, the mysterious Guardian of the Highlands… all of them! This book of yours looks like the real deal though, not like those abridged translations I've read. Heh, remember to tell me everything whenever you're done analyzing it, Princess!"

Pleased by her companion's shared love for literature, Elaine nodded keenly and wagged her tail a few more times.

"Hmm, I think I've seen this in your room…" Clarice raised an eyebrow at the small notebook in the blonde's hand.

"This is my journal," the blonde Canine smiled softly and flipped through the pages to show that it was mostly blank. "I am not sure what I will write in it yet, but perhaps I will just jot down anything that comes to mind, records of notable events, or perhaps even letters to Kura-chan… well, I suppose I might even write drabbles about our lively journey."

"I love that idea!" The brunette's lips stretched into a wide grin as she pumped up her fist. "I'll make sure you'll have lots of stuff to write about our amazing journey, Princess!"

"I am certain you would." Perhaps it was the thrill of the moment, for Elaine also raised her fist and lightly bumped it against the Feline's, and the latter's grin grew larger if that was even possible.

After the blonde efficiently packed away the excessive cooking utensils under Clarice's impressed stare, she began to set up camp the best she remembered from her daddy's lessons. She could not help but smile as the Lynxlioness grabbed a leaf and blew some tunes with it, providing suitable background music as she went about her task. Meticulously, the Husky gathered enough rocks to form a ring at a safe distance away from the grass and trees. Once satisfied with the size of the stone circle, she selected the best twigs from the vegetation nearby and piled them up in the center in a tipi shape.

Clarice flicked her tail and tapped her fingers on the ground, restless and wanting to help, or perhaps simply unable to sit still. However, she only watched with interest as Elaine took out a portable flint from her backpack's side pocket. Easily, she lit up a piece of tinder and ignited the wooden pile with utmost caution. When the campfire grew into a sizeable flame, she turned around proudly and wagged her tail, waiting for her companion's evaluation.

"You always do everything properly, don't cha?" The characteristic black-tipped tuff twirled in playful jest as the owner shook her head, "See, outdoor traveling and living are all about doing whatever works! You don't have to do everything by the book, Princess, you gotta improvise!"

"Right," Elaine's ears drooped a little but her eyes also lit up in determination, eager to improve under the instructions of a veteran trekker. "I promise I will try something new next time."

Clarice's lips twitched. "Well, that's not what I really meant, I was just… bah! You're too fun to tease!" She rubbed her neck and practically oozed sheer amusement. "Okay, listen up!"

Though confused, the blonde only tilted her head as she followed the brunette's suggestion to set up a simple grill while the latter went hunting for them. The Husky was nervous to be left alone, certainly, but she tried her best to maintain the brave demeanor by unsheathing the Valentia and cleaned the saber with a custom fabric. The Lynxlioness had proudly proclaimed that she would return soon after all, so there was nothing to be frightened about.

She gazed almost sullenly at the direction her companion went, willing the familiar silhouette to appear. The sky was now dark enough that Elaine was intimidated by the flickering shadows from the campfire. It wasn't as if she was afraid of the dark or anything, but to be out in the wilderness alone was nerve-wrecking for someone as inexperienced as her.

"Honey, I'm back~"

The blonde fought the need to express how relieved she was, but her tail still wagged in greeting anyways. "Welcome back, Clarice. I see you have a successful hunt."

"Of course! Remember you're talking to Robin Hood here," the Feline sniggered and tossed her cloak behind her shoulder, "Heck, I'm better than him because I didn't need to use any arrows!"

Impressed, Elaine watched curiously as her companion prepared the lepori, a long-eared creature that was common in wooded areas and sometimes even people's backyards back in Ahkalin. According to the brunette, game was plenty in central Riphaeus so they should have plenty of food before reaching Onean and even in the Mountain Pass.

"How does my fine cuisine suit my Lady's taste?" Clarice rubbed her whiskers like a gentleman would his moustache before tearing into a grilled leg that was skillfully de-furred and skewered.

"Absolutely exquisite," the blonde smiled humorously after she bit into the juicy food. It's been a long time since she ate something so gamy and was not prepared in a kitchen, yet she quite enjoyed the robust flavor because of the added tang of reality to her exciting journey.

"Good, good! Dat 'ike 'roper 'anine 'nlike dat puppeh…!" The Feline quickly swallowed her mouthful and tried again, "We're Carnivores and proud of it! A proper Canine should enjoy meat like you, Princess, but Puppy told me her favorite food is carrots! Unbelievable!"

"Well, while I enjoy meat, my favorite food is sponge cake," Elaine spoke helpfully.

"What! That's…that sounds like something you'd like, Princess," Clarice smirked and waved her tail tuff in front of the blonde, who could not push away the appendage because she was nibbling on her portion of dinner. "Fluffy, fluffy and fluffy!"

When the Husky was sure that her food was properly eaten, she sipped from her canteen of water and asked curiously. "What is your favorite food then?"

"Nuts!"

Her lips curved into a mischievous smile. "I can see why, since you seem quite… nutty yourself, Clarice."

The Feline's jaw went slack, completely unprepared for the remark. Elaine grew worried after a few moments had passed, fearing that her new friend was offended. Before she could apologize for her uncharacteristic comment, which took her by surprise as well, the brunette cackled as if she discovered a brand new world.

"Heh, I'm gonna enjoy this trip with you, Princess. I thought you were pretty uptight but it looks like you can make some good comebacks too~"

"W-what… I am not uptight," the blonde stammered hesitantly, "I am pretty open to anything…"

"I don't mean it in a bad way. It's just, hehe, I'm not used to someone who talks the way you do."

"The way I do? What do you mean? I am aware that people speak in different manners but I am just…"

"You're just so dignified," Clarice smirked and held up a finger, "Now that you're with me, you gotta talk like a pro traveler! Repeat after me: I'm gonna use contractions and idioms from now on!"

Flustered, the Canine folded her ears and was surprised to find great difficulty in repeating those words. "I-I am…I'm… go-goin…gon…"

The wicked Feline laughed loudly before scooting close to the miffed blonde to pat her shoulder. "Sorry sorry! I just couldn't resist! Don't be conscious of how you talk, Princess. Like I said, I just love teasing you, heh."

Determined to express her displeasure, she turned her head away but quickly found her attention recaptured by the brunette's next question. "I do wonder though, how come you call Puppy…er…Kurachin? Is that it?"

"Kura-chan," Elaine explained affectionately, recalling the first time she uttered the foreign suffix of endearment, "When I first met her, she was only three and seemed so lonely. I remember Daddy mentioning how she probably lost her parents… so I wanted her to feel at home with us as much possible. I looked up some books on Foxes and read about Yasumaro, where most of their race lived. I tested the term of familiarity and she seemed to like it… so I kept using it ever since."

"That's a cute story," Clarice chuckled and nudged the smiling Canine's side with her elbow, "Heh, I can easily see a scruffy ball of black fur and a fluffy blonde ball rolling around already! Gad, you two must be friggin' adorable as pups."

"Come now, Clarice, I am certain you were quite adorable too," Elaine tried to imagine a younger Lynxlioness, who probably bounced around like the energetic kitten she was. She probably even mewled!

"You bet I was," the brunette was completely unabashed, "everyone loves me back home because I was just so darn cute, heh. I bet you're wondering how I'd sound like if I mewed, yeah?"

"I-I was not…"

"I knew it! Alright, in return for your sweet little … 'rrrwr' from earlier, I'll demonstrate~ But!" She stood up and patted her cloak. "I'm gonna get more firewood for the night because I'll be warm and cozy later and won't want to move. Be right back, Princess."

Elaine giggled at her lively companion and quickly tried to occupy herself now that she was alone at the campsite once more. She pulled out her sleeping bag and a folded blanket, determined to have the brunette use it because she might get cold, sleeping high up away from the campfire. It did get breezy at night after all.

Using a gardening spade taken from the backpack's other side pocket, she diligently dug a small hole and buried the skewer sticks as well as the lepori's bones, letting nature do its job to integrate the organic matter back into the environment. When she decided she had done everything she could and she only needed to roll up her sleeping bag the next morning to be ready to go, she settled down comfortably and took down her hair clips. With her wavy tresses free from their confines, she exhaled tiredly and stared into the fire, pensive and forlorn.

The bright shade of amber and yellow strongly reminded her of the garnet eyes of her childhood friend. Kura-chan has always been brilliant in her eyes and, in spite of her child-like innocence at times, she was much smarter than her years, more than she gave herself credit for. She was such a bright presence, like a burning flame that could illuminate even the darkest of nights.

The flare of the rebel leader's dreams needed support in order to continue burning, and Elaine wished to become that very kindling.

"Wait for me, Kura-chan," the blonde Husky spoke quietly, hugging the Fox plushie as if the black-haired girl could hear her, "I may not be near you but you are not alone, not anymore. I will… no, Clarice and I will make certain that Riphaeus and even Tyradum is ready for your return when the time comes."

Indeed, this journey had an unknown end date and the Canine couldn't even begin to imagine the obstacles they must overcome to cause just a tiny ripple. But it would still be something, wouldn't it?

Just as she was deciding whether to clean the metal plates of her greaves or not, she heard a terrified shriek that made her jolt upright. Her hackles rose as she growled tentatively at the surroundings, since she disliked sudden noises for how easily they made her lose her composure. She gripped the Valentia tightly as she flicked her ears to determine the source of the disturbance.

The distressed call had come from the direction Clarice had gone, but it was too shrill to have been the Feline's voice.

Alarmed, she carefully doused the campfire until only a tiny ember remained, because it was never wise to leave an open flame unattended. She allowed a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the darkness before deciding to check out the situation. Whatever the matter was, she wanted to be there to lend a helping hand should the brunette needed it.

With her pounding uncomfortably against her ribs, Elaine bravely stepped into the shadows and ventured after her friend.


And undignified belch escaped Clarice's throat.

"Man, that lepori was great!" She exclaimed as she rubbed her satisfied tummy and stretched her arms without a care in the world. "I should've tried to catch another one… oh well. Hehe, Princess likes it too… I can make a badass sojourner out of her yet!"

In spite of the dark forest that loomed all around her, she was particularly upbeat even after a whole day of hiking and slashing branches and shrubs. This was the first time in a long while that she had a traveling companion after all, and it gave her this inexplicable amount of energy. It was so different walking with someone who she could share tales with and who would respond to her aimless chatter.

It was so much more fun than traveling by herself, and definitely less lonely.

"Heh," she leisurely rested her forearm on the Teresa's hilt, dismissing her rather sappy thoughts. "I should hurry and get that fire wood."

The brunette didn't want to leave her companion alone for longer than it was necessary because she knew that it was unnerving to be unaccompanied in a dark forest at night. She was sure that Elaine wasn't used to the outdoors, at least not like her who had been traveling for so long. And, as the Husky's knight, she mustn't allow her princess be by her lonesome self!

Looking around, she noticed that the trees were much too healthy to be used as tinder. She must find discarded branches, ones that have dried enough, or else they would have too much smoke coming from camp. But then again, having smoke meant less pesky bugs as well. Clarice weighed out her options as she continued to hike, her Feline eyes serving her well in the near darkness. There was still light from the camp that managed to filter through the tree trunks but it was moonlight that allowed her to see just fine in this woodland.

She mimicked the crescent moon's Cheshire grin, as if greeting a long lost friend. She mentally told the heavenly body that, at least for a long while, there would be more than just the two of them.

"At least I don't have to worry when you disappear on me for a night or two!" The Feline suddenly chuckled to herself and felt rather silly talking to a huge chunk of rock tens of thousands of miles away. But it was hard not to consider the moon as a companion for it provided a veil of security during the night when she actually thought of herself and her clandestine future that refused to reveal itself.

Those musings typically ended with her just deciding to continue on forward, no matter how directionless her path might seem. Sometimes it was the only thing human beings could do, wasn't it, bravely marching forward day after day until they found the thing that was most precious to them.

She supposed she was one of the lucky ones that were strong enough to live like this. Many others would have crumbled and fortified themselves so the will to search for the unknown and unexplained would leave them alone for the rest of their lives. Yet here she was, still marching, still blazing a trail even if the road might only have a dead end in store for her. If that happened, then she would just carve another path until her goals were met.

This mental pep-talk bolstered her resolve even more and made her footsteps lighter, her fatigue forgotten. Maybe she could tell Elaine another story from Pestovo when she returned, that should lull the Canine to sleep. She knew that her friend wasn't able to sleep enough last night for some reason. That wouldn't do, a sojourner needed energy!

But then again, Elaine was probably not used to sleeping on the ground being the princess she was. The brunette supposed that it was alright since they should reach Onean after another day of travel. At least in town, they could probably rent a room in an inn where the Husky could relax on a real bed.

Clarice was glad that the first leg of their journey wasn't as long as it could be, or else it might be too much for the amateur traveler. It's better to slow the pace down a bit until her companion could adjust properly.

After a few more steps, she stumbled across another clearing in the forest. It wasn't as big as the one she had found for herself and Elaine, but for some reason, there was a small stack of branches and twigs in the middle of it, as if someone had placed them there. The Lynxlioness looked around, her whiskers twitching as she observed the surroundings, and wondered if there was a camper here who had yet to light his fire. She could certainly sense a presence but she was unable to pinpoint anything. Maybe the traveler just decided to move on or something. The scent was relatively faint and it was possible that the firewood had been left there for hours.

Scratching her cheek, the brunette deliberated whether she should just take the firewood and return to her friend, who was probably uneasy being left alone for a long time. It didn't seem like there was anyone here anyway. And like the proverbs said, one man's trash was another's treasure.

"Welp," Clarice flicked her tail tuff, "this should last us a few hours. I'll just have to grab a bit more before going back."

She gathered the firewood in her arms and continued on. She noticed the silhouette of a dead tree from the clearing, where she would be able to get the rest of the tinder that would see her and Elaine through the night. However, it wasn't only the tree's shadow that she saw.

There was something moving upon one of its branches, a small figure coupled with the sound of chipping wood. The Lynxlioness's eyebrows furrowed as her whiskers rose in alarm.

So there is someone here…

The Feline closed in to see if the stranger was potentially dangerous, but her eyes only picked up the form of a small girl. Oddly, the person was trying to wrestle a branch from the tree with a switchblade, hacking down on it while grunting annoyed grumblings under her breath.

"Break… off… already!" The girl groaned impatiently as she stabbed the poor piece of wood.

From Clarice's standpoint, it didn't seem that the branch would go down anytime soon since it was still snuggly held by sinewy bark, even if it did precariously hung down from the tree's limb. She was certain that if the girl truly wanted to take it down, she would need something bigger than a switchblade to accomplish it.

Frustrated, the girl hopped down from the tree and tugged on the dangling branch, or at least she tried to. However, she couldn't quite get a good grip since the thing was high enough that she could barely reach it when she jumped. That didn't seem to stop the stranger's fastidiousness, however, and she merely continued to try and reach it, making the belt around her hip jingle heavily with each leap.

The brunette watched this for a few more moments before she finally felt sorry for the girl and stepped out of the bushes.

"Ya need help there?" She asked amiably as she put the firewood she had picked up earlier on the ground. The pile was probably the girl's property anyway.

The stranger squeaked and jumped at her sudden greeting, apparently not having heard or noticed her approach. Not that Clarice could blame her for it. She was a Feline after all, and they were known to move silently even if they didn't mean to.

Holding a hand up, the Feline showed that she didn't mean any harm, "Whoa there, no need to get so worked up. I'm gathering firewood just like you! Heh, I guess you own the tinder in the clearing over there, so I'll just put them back later. I thought those things were abandoned. Anyway, lemme help you getting that branch down, yeah?"

The Lynxlioness thought that a swing from the Teresa ought to free the tree limb from the trunk, so she unsheathed the sword from her hip. "Are you traveling alone? If you are, you might as well camp out with me and my friend. It's kinda late to build a fire now that it's dark."

However, she didn't notice the sheer terror in the stranger's eyes.

"Hey, uh…" she tilted her head and perked her ears when the girl didn't make a sound, "err… you okay over there? I didn't mean to scare you or anything." The brunette crouched down and grinned at the smaller girl who was wearing a blue tuque, a mesh shirt over a blue tank top, and khaki-colored cargo shorts.

The girl didn't seem to hear her and shrieked loudly in such a high pitch that Clarice was stunned and forced to cover her sensitive ears.

"What the heck!" She yowled at the girl, "I wasn't gonna use it on you! Geez, why…!"

She mewled and groaned as she waited for the ringing in her ear to subside.

The stranger's expression of absolute horror didn't change though, and she backed away from the Feline until the tree trapped her in place. She was trembling and her lips were quivering, as if she had seen the boogeyman or something went bump in the dark. She even used a plank with wheels that looked like a skateboard as a shield, hiding behind it as much as she could.

Clarice immediately sheathed her szabla and tried to get through to the girl once more, "hey, look at me, the sword is gone, okay? Don't be scared."

But the closer she went, the more pitiable squeaks came out of the round-eared stranger's mouth.

"Err.. Do I really look that scary to you?" She blinked in confusion. It wasn't like she was growling or anything, and she thought of herself to be quite the charming individual so there was no way that the girl could be scared of her face!

Even if she was, well, then that called some dignified indignity!

The terrified expression quickly formed a block of chilly guilt in the pit of her stomach, for it looked so similar to the way many other non-Felines viewed her kind. The thought quickly tamed the roguish grin on her face as it painfully reminded her of how she had been judged so unfairly and cruelly for looking like the many others who have done heinous crimes.

"Bring my son back! Bring him back now, you cursed Feline!"

"Pops! W-wait! I-I didn't do anything. Stop!"

"I'll kill you! I swear I'll fucking kill you! Give him back… g-give him back to me."

Clarice stood up solemnly, her typically expressive chestnut eyes overshadowed by her bangs. Mr. Scott had been intoxicated then, so she could hardly blame him for his actions. She gripped the Teresa's handle as her lips narrowed into a thin line. She wanted to blame those Felines who have done the wrongs but that seemed hypocritical, didn't it? She couldn't blame anyone, could she?

So, usually, she blamed herself for the crime she didn't commit.

"I'm sorry," she stepped back and murmured, more to herself than the frightened girl. Deep inside, she wondered what she was apologizing for.

"Clarice!" Elaine's call was announced not only by her worried voice but also the clanking of her metal greaves. The bushes that surrounded the clearing rustled as the Canine joined them, huffing a bit since she ran all the way from their camp. She was also holding her saber just in case it was needed.

After taking a deep breath, the Lynxlioness turned to her friend while scratching the back of her head and chuckling sheepishly. "I think I kinda sorta scared her, Princess. I didn't mean to though, I swear." She then stepped to the side to reveal the girl she had found, who was still frozen in terror and chattering her teeth off.

The blonde glanced at the Feline inquisitively, to which the latter responded, "I don't think she likes me very much. I found her gathering firewood too, and it seems like she's alone so…"

Elaine's ears drooped in instinctive compassion, and approached the quivering girl. "Please, do not be afraid of us. We will not hurt you."

The Lynxlioness watched as the latter peeked from behind her skateboard, sniffling like a little kid as she looked at the kind blonde. If there was someone who could look unintimidating, it would be the Husky so she placed her faith on her friend to quell the other girl's fears. Who knew what the tuque-girl could have faced travelling alone?

However, even though the skateboard was slowly lowered, the stranger couldn't seem to speak and her eyes would dart towards the Feline every now and then, her trembling never relenting even for a second. Gently, Elaine took the girl's hand and wagged her tail reassuringly, "See? There is nothing to be afraid of." She then smiled soothingly, an expression that was like the one she showed young Luis in Ahkalin. "My name is Elaine and the one who found you is Clarice. May I ask yours?"

The tiny girl let out a hitched squeak when the brunette waved a friendly greeting, making the latter stop and frown sadly. Sighing, the Feline scratched her cheek and moved away from the two to give the girl some room, but she was close enough to hear their conversation.

The tuque-girl looked down, as if willing her tiny hands to stop shaking before fixing her gaze on Elaine.

"M-my name is M-Mariel."

The blonde smiled serenely, effectively giving the round-eared stranger a bit more confidence, "nice to meet you Mariel. Would you like to join us in our camp? I think it will be safer for all of us to stick together, unless you already have a companion."

Mariel glanced at the Lynxlioness' direction once more, "N-no…" she squeaked haplessly again, "I-I'm t-travelling alone… but is it a-alright?"

"Of course it is, right Clarice?"

"I don't see any reason why not." The brunette shrugged almost lethargically. So the kid was definitely alone. "Where are you from anyway?"

Instead of answering, the tuque-girl only hid behind her skateboard, as if anything the Feline said would somehow hurt her. Confused, Clarice turned to Elaine instead, "err, think this is a good idea, Princess?"

The blonde nodded her assent, "she is already terrified. I do not think leaving her alone like this is an option."

At least the Husky didn't seem to suspect her for doing something atrocious to the smaller girl. The last thing she wanted was for the Canine to suspect her as well. Sighing and feeling the day's journey catching up to her, the Lynxlioness rubbed her nape and flicked her long tail, "okay then… I … uh… should probably go first. Heh."

She heard Elaine coo at Mariel as she stepped into the bushes after picking up the discarded firewood. After all, if the tuque-girl was going to join them, she might as well take the tinder to keep them all warm. It took a while for the blonde to convince the newcomer to get her on her feet after that rather random and acute phase of terror.

Truth be told, Clarice still didn't know what to make of that display. Was the girl attacked? By whom? She supposed that if Mariel was unfortunate enough to run into some racist Feline hooligans, then she really couldn't blame the girl for being so upset. She did look like one after all.

All the more reason to take her along... I guess.

She glanced over her shoulder and watched as the round-eared girl looked on fearfully while clutching the ribbon on Elaine's sleeve. The Husky was wagging her tail like a pendulum, showing that she was completely at ease in having Clarice around, which, in turn, somewhat reassured the other girl as well. Even though the Canine was indeed speaking every now and then to quell the tension, the brunette didn't like walking with this awkward silence for too long, so she voiced her thoughts, "So… what are you anyway…?" She jokingly asked.

It seemed like even the blonde wasn't sure since she looked at their new companion with curiosity and opted not to guess, which left the naturally clueless one to try. Walking backwards with a pile of firewood cradled in her arms, Clarice flicked an ear and observed Mariel.

"A Bear?" Bears had round ears, didn't they? And it seemed like the tuque-girl didn't have a tail either.

The shorter girl bit her trembling lip and shrieked with some newfound courage, "I'm a Hamster!"

Or was that indignation? Clearly she wasn't pleased with being called a Bear.

"A Hams—bahahaha!"

"What's so funny?" The Rodent squeaked angrily and held up her fist. However, as if realizing who she was snapping at, she quickly retreated behind a rather confused Husky.

"How the heck could I have guessed that?" She rarely met Rodents since they were scattered throughout the main continents, and the ones in Tyradum stayed away from Feline influences. The last time Clarice met one was in Middleport almost a year ago, where she worked with a Rat in garbage disposal.

It was definitely not the most pleasant of memories.

"A Hamster, huh?" Snickering, the brunette stepped over an upturned root without even looking down, "to be honest, this is the first I've even heard that. Hmm… oh, I know! I'll call you Hammy from now on!"

Mariel gawked and seemed like she wanted to shriek in protest, but when the Feline grinned and exposed her distinct fangs, the Rodent retreated behind the Canine once more, her teeth chattering.

"Hey," Clarice frowned, "where did the spunk go?" And here she was thinking that the smaller girl was more comfortable around her.

When the Hamster didn't react anymore, the brunette sighed in mild confusion. What gives? Why was Mariel acting all frightened again?

"We are almost there," Elaine spoke up as the mediator as she patted the Rodent's quaking shoulder. "The sooner we get to camp, the sooner we can get this all sorted out, alright? Perhaps I can also serve snacks to everyone."

She supposed that the blonde was right so she didn't say anything more. She merely chuckled and grinned sheepishly before turning around and walking several steps ahead like she had initially done. It didn't take long for them to finally reach the camp, where she sighed tiredly at the fact that they must reignite the camp fire.

"Hey, Princess, lemme borrow that good-girl flint you have."

"Good-girl flint?"

"Yep, hehehe. I'll get the fire going while you tend to Hammy over there."

"Alright, it is stored in my pack's side pocket."

Clarice carefully piled some thin twigs in the fire pit before fetching the said instrument from the huge hiking bag situated against a nearby tree trunk. Upon lighting the fire with practiced ease, she couldn't help but notice the purple handle of the recreational campfire flint. Really, Elaine was so girly!

The Husky seated Mariel on the opposite side of the camp, where the latter kept her skateboard close. As the Feline watched, she noticed that the Rodent's wary gaze would flit towards her every now and then, like some sort of defense mechanism making sure that she was where she was supposed to be. The brunette tried her best not to let it bother her but it did feel rather awkward, considering that distrust and fear just seemed to ooze from the Hamster's eyes.

Unable to keep quiet anymore, the Lynxlioness scrunched up her nose as she flopped down neared the campfire. "Why are you so scared anyway?"

The straight forward question made the Hamster's posture rigid and the grip on her skateboard even tighter than before. Now that she was under the light of the fire, brunette could tell that her knuckles were white due to the taut clutch and her mahogany eyes held true terror of Felines. "It's unfair, don't cha think? I didn't do anything to you..."

"Clarice…" Elaine spoke with caution, not wanting to frighten the poor girl even more.

The Feline sighed as she scratched her forearm, "I know… but I think it's only fair that I learn why she's so scared of me when I'm so… harmless."

"Cats aren't very nice to us Rodents," Mariel mumbled under her breath and it was only due to Clarice's sharp hearing that she was able to hear it. Elaine's ears perked as she listened attentively to the Hamster's squeaky explanation. "…they do many bad things and bully others." She then hugged her knees to her chest and hid her face, "and they're so much stronger and bigger and always get their way. They're b-bad people that always pick on others because they can!"

"But did I do any of those to you?" The Feline hissed defensively, insulted about being generalized and lumped together with her other brethren. "I even wanted to help you! Don't you think you're assuming too much—?"

"Clarice!" The Husky spoke sharply to silence the tirade, "you are only scaring her even more."

The Lynxlioness looked away from the trembling Hamster and sighed hoarsely, "right… sorry."

With her ears drooping against her head and her whiskers flaccid in guilt, she regretted what she said. Maybe the Rodent had a legitimate reason to be wary, to be so scared and almost hateful of Felines. She was in no place to judge.

Look what you have done to yourself, Tyradum…

After running her hand through her bangs, she inhaled deeply, shaking off the ill-feelings that brewed in her heart. Sometimes she was no longer sure what she felt, if it was boundless sorrow or some sort of irrational anger. But the feelings were strong and it had been haunting her ever since she left her hometown. Even in a city full of Felines, there was still discontent, hate, and distrust brought forth by Tyradum's arrogance.

And now, the negative feelings have reached even a remote forest like this.

In an attempt to change the subject, Clarice tossed the ill thoughts behind her and spoke with her usual cheerfulness, although she sounded albeit more apologetic than necessary. "Can you at least tell us where you're from? We're traveling south, you see, and we wanna know what's down there."

"I-I'm actually from the west," Mariel squeaked fearfully, unwilling to entice the Lynxlioness' anger again.

"The west…? That doesn't make sense…" The only thing to the west was the Theraetou Sea. "Where are you going then…?"

The Hamster didn't seem like she wanted to answer that question, but she still murmured, "K-Kaltrea… b-but…"

"I think it would be unwise for you to go further north, Mariel," Elaine explained softly, in a way that wouldn't jar the Rodent's flighty disposition. "Kaltrea and Middleport are being searched by the Tyradum Army right now, meaning there would be many Felines. If you do not wish to meet Felines that may harm you, you should turn back."

"R-really…?" The Hamster probably tried to imagine the notion, for she shook even more.

"Yep," Clarice stretched to relieve her body of some tension. "And if you can't handle little ol' me then you'll be in trouble if you go up there, Hammy. The army is turning all the towns there upside down in search for Rebels…"

She almost slipped out that the Feline contingents were arresting non-Felines out of suspicion that they were Rebellion supporters. Fortunately, she was able to stop her mouth before she did, otherwise she would only make herself look even worse in the Rodent's eyes.

"We are going to Onean," the brunette announced before she climbed the low-hanging branch on which she had planned to sleep on. "You're welcome to join us, yeah? Believe me, you don't want to go north right now. Have you been there?" Judging from the direction, the Hamster should have gone through the small city.

"N-no…" Mariel hugged her skateboard close. "I came from Zylo and w-went north immediately afterwards…I-I've heard of Kaltrea s-so I'm actually going back south. The folks I ran into told me that Rodents have better luck if they go south so…"

"Well that settles it then," Elaine smiled calmly, "we are due south as well. You should join us. I would be safer being in a party rather than travelling alone."

"Yeah, we're gonna catch a boat in Onean to get to Reft," Clarice explained further. "We can stick together until then. From there you can go further south if you already have particular destination in mind, yeah? Princess and I are gonna try to go through the pass to the east."

"O-oh… okay… I guess."

"I'll do first watch while you two get some shut eye, alrighty?"

The Hamster looked at the Husky for some sort of input, but as expected, Elaine only agreed to the brunette. "Wake me when you want to sleep, Clarice."

"Will do!" She gave her a smile, grateful that the Canine had such a profound and caring understanding in her gaze. She then chuckled quietly to herself. She must make sure that her troubles weren't be so obvious that Elaine would get worried about her.

Now that the situation had somewhat calmed down, the Feline climbed up and flopped down on the branch, settling herself as comfortably as she could. She watched the blonde drape a blanket over their new companion like a mother would to a daughter. Trust the Husky to be maternal to this seemingly lost kid. Elaine even rubbed the girl's head while cooing comforting words to her, words that Clarice hoped would better her interaction with the Rodent tomorrow morning because if the latter was supposed to travel with them…

It would be nice to just be able to talk casually.

The Lynxlioness wrapped her cloak around herself as she tore her chestnut gaze away from the two sitting against the trunk of a tree opposite to where she was, and looked at the grinning moon through the canopy of the trees. She didn't expect her job to come by so quickly, but she supposed that it was the point of this journey. The least she could do for herself and Mariel was to convince the latter that not all Felines have bad intentions and certainly not all of them were evildoers.

But Elaine was right. At least for tonight it would be best for them to just rest. Tomorrow their journey would continue with her latest conquest, her first challenge. So as she half-listened to the Canine sooth the Rodent several feet away, Clarice threw her worries behind her and resolved to face the Hamster with a renewed spirit tomorrow, hoping that maybe if the latter saw her for who she really was then the fear associated with Felines would ebb.

Yes, if she could do that, then it would be her first victory.


A/N: Thank you for reading CC so far! We will switch back to TBK Book2 with the next upload!

A/N2: lepori is basically a wild hare. These game animals will be referred to with names modified from their scientific names to distinguish them from the 'people'