Wednesday, 12/04/2250 – By Nicole Adams.
It hadn’t been a particularly trying day, which Ourani was grateful for. A few unruly students, as there always were, but the older years knew not to mess with her, and the younger ones were usually too wary to upset any professor. Stepping through the gate to her cottage, she closed it with a kick of her foot and then made her way up the short walk to the porch, and inside. It was quiet in the house, except for the soft noise of a T.V in one of the back bedrooms, and a smile crossed her face.
She shrugged off her coat, turning to a coat hanger and draping it over one arm. She tipped her head a bit and then called out as she stepped further into the room. “Aliel?” Listening for the sound of nails clicking against wood, and a smile crossing her face as it came. A dog, a whippet, edged into view. She was a light tan and white, and her floppy ears framed her tapered head. Extremely cautious, she slipped around the doorway and into the room.
The most unusual thing about this sight was the object the dog held- a doll, ragged and dirty, the dress it wore torn and stained. Held lightly between slim jaws, it had red yarn hair, black button eyes and a stitched-in smile. The dog’s brown eyes flicked across the room and then settled on Ourani once more before she stepped further in. The thin tail wagged, but her ears stayed folded back and her head stayed at a level with her shoulders.
Ourani knelt down, one hand going out to gently stroke over the dog’s head, tracing her back and rubbing lightly at one soft ear. “How was your day, Aliel? Were the lessons hard? Did anyone pick on you or Dolly?”
The dog blinked at her for a moment before stretching her head forward, jaws opening and placing the doll on the woman’s knee. Then she looked up and spoke, a high-pitched yet timid tone. “Day was okay. Single lessons with math and reading and plants. Nobody touch, but tease, much tease. Keep hold of Dolly, Aliel must keep safe, need Dolly.” A glance down at the doll, her black nose pushing forward to press against the cloth body.
“Who teased?” the nurse asked, careful to keep her voice airy, even as her eyes narrowed.
But the dog shook her head, opening her eyes to gaze up at Ourani again. “Aliel don’t know. Too many.”
A brief pause before Ourani spoke again, “You know that if anyone teases, you can tell a professor, right? We’ll always look out for you.” She waited for Aliel to acknowledge- a moment passing before the girl in the dog’s body looked up, brown eyes meeting Ourani’s blue ones.
A timid question came, spoken in a quivering voice, a hopeful yet wary look in the dog’s eyes. “Ourani promise?”
“I promise,” the nurse replied, a firm tone and meeting Aliel’s gaze for the moment that the dog allowed. “I will never let anyone hurt you.”
“They did,” Aliel whispered in reply, her body beginning to tremble, her gaze into a corner of the room becoming fixed as her tail tucked between her hind legs, and Ourani recognized all the signs of an impending panic attack. A moment of fierce anger for the ones behind Aliel’s behavior, for damaging the person she could have been, and sadness that she was still so fragile after four years of living at the Academy.
“Aliel, sweetie, it’s okay.” Ourani reached for the girl, gently wrapping her arms around the lean dog’s body and ignoring how she went rigid at the first touch, as she pulled her close, one hand pressing the doll to the dog’s muzzle. “It’s okay. Dolly’s here for you. She cares for Aliel, like Aliel cares for her.”
Words she had said before, a hundred times before, ever since she’d learned the importance of the doll. It was like a security blanket- the kind children grew attached to and carried around with them everywhere. Aliel’s breathing had grown ragged, her chest heaving, but she reacted almost instantly to the feel of the doll; her jaws opened, her head turned, and she grasped the doll firmly between her teeth, eyes squeezed shut. The warmth of Ourani’s body helped too- it came with a scent she’d learned to trust. It was a gradual process, but slowly, the girl relaxed, leaning more into Ourani, her head resting against the nurse’s shoulder.
“Better?” Ourani asked, one hand now soothingly stroking along the dog’s side, glad that her breathing had leveled out, even though she was still quivering.
A slow nod, the dog’s head dropping down and then lifting back up to rest once more against the blue-haired woman’s shoulder. She didn’t speak, the doll still clenched between her jaws, content to remain as she was, held by the nurse, gentle arms hugging her close.
It was Ourani who broke the silence, speaking softly but more than loud enough for the girl to hear. “Are you hungry? I can get you something to eat, if you’d like.”
Another slow nod, this time accompanied by a muffled word, spoken past the body of the doll. “O-ay.”
“Good. Now, let’s go see what we’ve got.” A last light hug, and then Ourani rose, turning back to the kitchen and the fridge. She couldn’t cook, but it couldn’t be that hard to warm something up, and she had plenty of stuff, food left over from meals prepared by the school chefs. And of course she had to give the girl something that wouldn’t disagree with her. She’d looked into that when Aliel had first come into her care, once she understood that she felt safer, and more comfortable, as a dog.
Picking up a plate of boneless chicken from the previous day’s dinner, Ourani set it on the counter as she spoke. “Okay, now to warm them up for you. Shouldn’t take long and then you can eat. Sound good?” she added, glancing back to where Aliel had been, and pausing when she noticed the spot was empty. She blinked at the sight of the dog sitting in the doorway of the kitchen, still holding the doll in her mouth and gazing back at the nurse.
Placing the doll on the floor between her front paws, she lifted her head and spoke, a simple sentence: “Aliel wait here.” Her brown eyes briefly met Ourani’s momentarily confused gaze before flicking off to another point in the kitchen. With a huff, the woman turned back to the stove. Annoyed and yet trying not to show it too much, knowing how sensitive Aliel was- did nobody have even a little faith in her? Sure, she’d had a few mishaps before in cooking, but they were accidents that anyone could have made, right? Nobody started out a pro and you had to make a mistake or two in order to learn. She couldn’t take this out on Aliel, but it took a moment before she spoke.
“Okay, you wait there, and I’ll get dinner going.” Fetching a bowl from a cabinet, Ourani scooped some of the chicken into it, covering the rest and putting it back away in the fridge. Bowl in hand, the nurse pulled a can of green beans from her pantry and set both in the microwave. She hit start and turned to Aliel with a smile. “See? That wasn’t so hard. It’ll be a minute before it’s ready. Why don’t we turn the T.V on out here and you can watch while it cooks, and while we eat?”
“Okay!” Aliel readily agreed, taking up Dolly again and trotting ahead of Ourani toward the couch. Easily leaping onto the cushions, she settled down as the woman picked up the remote and turned on the T.V, already tuned to a suitable station. Ourani sat beside Aliel, watching with a pleased expression as the girl edged closer, her head resting on the nurse’s leg with the doll tucked between her own front legs, up against her chest. Her eyelids lowered as the nurse began to pet her, a light hand running from her head to her back. It was proof- that no matter how skittish she still was, she’d made progress nonetheless.
There had only been a minute since they’d sat down, the sound of the T.V drowning out the sound of the microwave in the kitchen, but there was no missing the loud bang, and both jumped- Aliel to a greater degree. She was off the couch in a heartbeat, paws skidding on the wooden floor; eyes wide and mouth open as she panted, shaking at the unexpectedness of the noise, and jerking away as Ourani reached out a hand to her.
“Aliel, it’s okay.” Speaking in a soothing voice, and not pushing the dog to accept her comfort. Pulling her hand back, and pointing to the doll, now lying on the floor. “There’s Dolly. It’s all right; I’ll go see what the noise was, okay?” Carefully standing and heading around the couch to the kitchen, a low curse as she saw the mess- at least it was contained by the microwave, but the can had exploded; the lid was half off; water and green beans lay around it. A hand clapped to her forehead and she heaved a sigh. Could have been worse, she supposed, and she opened the microwave to begin cleaning. But the food was no good now, and she wasn’t so sure about her abilities anymore.
It wasn’t that late. Some people would just be going to eat, and fresh food might be more to Aliel’s liking anyway. Using a rag to mop up the water and scooping the beans onto the plate that held the chicken, Ourani dumped them into the trash. Resisting the urge to slam the door to the microwave shut, the nurse instead closed it gently and then returned to the living room where Aliel was waiting, still on the floor, but with the doll once more held between her teeth. “Maybe we can head to the dining hall for dinner. That sound good to you?” the blue-haired woman asked, watching the girl and waiting patiently for her answer.
Aliel hesitated. She’d eaten in the dining hall many a time, but seldom on her own- her refusal to take her human form made eating awkward, and she always risked being taunted by those who saw her as an easy target. On the other hand, she was hungry- and with Ourani, nobody would dare. “With Ourani?” she asked, placing the doll on the couch in order to speak.
“Of course I’ll go with you,” the nurse assured her. “You should dress warmer though, it’s chilly outside.”
Aliel nodded in agreement and within a few minutes she was dressed; small shoes to keep her paws warm and dry, a sweater and a hat to give her added protection from the cold. Waiting a moment more for Ourani to get her coat from the rack and then to open the door, with her doll tucked securely into the neck of the sweater, leaving her free to talk as the two made their way to the dining hall for a meal prepared by others.