Waiting for Anna: Part Twelve
"Are you nervous?"
Rita is one of the dancers at the Association. The pink Hissi is a nice girl, Annabelle thinks, if a little dim at times.
"No," she lies.
"That's good. It'll be okay, Annabelle. You'll do great, you'll see."
"I told you, I'm not nervous." Annabelle fidgets in her seat. "I'm... fine." She takes a deep breath. It doesn't help. What helps with nerves? The Aisha can't remember. It's been so long since she was nervous about a performance. Almost a year ago, in fact.
She starts to put on her stage makeup, trying to think. Rita sits back in her chair and watches her. Annabelle certainly seems calm enough--calmer than Rita was, the night of her one-year performance.
"Darren!" Annabelle says, and drops her powder. The case cracks and powder flies up in a cloud. Rita coughs.
"What did you say? Darren? Who's that?"
"Nevermind that." Annabelle reaches around blindly for a clothes brush.
"Here, how about we go into the hall and do that." Rita grabs the brush with her tail and floats out to wait in the corridor. Annabelle emerges a moment later from the dusty dressing room, and Rita employs the clothes brush, stirring up a whole new cloud of powder but removing it from Annabelle's clothes.
Annabelle moves away from the cloud quickly. "Am I all right now?"
"Yep. Oh--" Rita edges in and brushes off another patch of Annabelle's jacket. "There. I think that's all of it."
"Good." The Aisha sighs.
"Fifteen minutes to curtain," a stagehand tells her. "Ten to places. Good luck, miss."
"Thanks," Annabelle says listlessly.
Rita beams at her the moment the stagehand is out of hearing range. "See? Everyone likes you, Annabelle. Even Kell, and you don't even have to do his algebra work for him. Even if you do mess up, no one will care."
"Thanks," Annabelle repeats. Does Rita know that her words are more discouraging than encouraging? Probably not. Her thoughts roam to the theater, where every seat will be taken. She knows this. Kell told her earlier that day. He was almost annoyingly cheerful about it, but now she wonders what his own first-year performance was like.
"Want me to walk with you to places?" Rita asks.
"No--no, Rita, that's fine. You go find your seat." Every seat but one taken, Annabelle amends in her head. And that one will be taken in a few minutes.
"Oh. Well, all right. Good luck, Annabelle!" Rita beams and flounces off.
Annabelle stands alone in the corridor with a pile of powder and a clothes brush. She puts the clothes brush carefully on the floor outside of her dressing room door and starts walking to her place--slowly, so that it will take ten minutes.
Even standing behind the curtain, Annabelle knows what the audience will look like. It will go on forever.
She tries to remember, again, what she used to do to calm herself when she had stage fright. Stage fright. Even the words are ominous.
An announcement is going on in the theater, but the thick velvet curtain muffles it and it is incomprehensible to Annabelle's ears.
Still, she sees it when the line of light underneath the curtain slowly fades to darkness, and she hears it when the voice--even muffled--says "Presenting Annabelle the Magnificent!"
And she definitely sees it when the curtain goes up.
She gets through the first few tricks by luck alone, blustering through on charm and hope. She tries not to look out at the audience too much.
The crowd hushes gradually, and there are a few moments of true silence, unbroken by program rustlings or small children crying out, but only at the very climaxes of her tricks.
Annabelle goes through the motions, declaiming her every move, pulling up her sleeves, fooling the eye, tricking the mind. Her voice sounds fake to herself, but she convinces herself that to others it sounds real.
It is halfway through the performance that it happens.
She has progressed from simple tricks to harder ones, but she drops back down every few tricks to do an easier one. It keeps it paced, one of her mentor magicians says in her head, and Annabelle keeps talking, keeps moving.
The moments of true silence are growing more frequent, but Annabelle is too frightened, too used to bluffing, to take any notice of them.
She makes a scarf disappear into her paw, and then reaches into her pocket.
"But! Ladies and gentlemen! What is it we have--"
Here. The grand stage, lit up, the audience waiting, observing, playing along.
Here. The train to Neopia Central. Annabelle becoming less and less herself. More and more someone else.
Here. Just outside the Association chapter in Brightvale, saying goodbye to Biblius.
Here. Not recognizing Biblius as he comes up to her at her six-month performance. It was the Uni who invited him, but he thought it was Anna. He took the train home that night and though he did not cry, he almost wanted to.
Here. In Biblius' shop.
Here. On the stage at the talent show.
Here. Here. Here. The Brightvale Castle. Waiting for King Hagan. Seeing the newspaper. Seeing the date. Seeing the year.
Here. The woods.
Annabelle closes her eyes tightly, and when she opens them, she is in the forest.
And is the forest. She understands that now.
She walks. Her feet hardly touch the snow. It is still snowy in Meridell at this time of year.
There are no footprints in the snow, but Anna knows the way better than the backs of her paws.
Her house stands on its own, small, cheerful, well-lit.
The soldiers are just approaching it. Anna reaches out, and they turn, but they don't see her. They continue on their way, marching through to the house. They reach out, knock on the door. Annabelle is getting closer with every step.
The door opens, and she can see her mother over the swords.
Annabelle breathes, and strength flows into her mother, her father. They fight off the soldiers, not easily, but it is not difficult. Her brother joins the fight, and she puts strength into him too, the wild and true strength of the trees and the birds and the moss.
When the soldiers are all defeated, Annabelle pushes aside the curtain dividing them from her and steps out.
She shakes her head and beckons them outside. The snow is so trampled just outside the door that their footprints don't even make a discernible difference.
They close the door, and stare at her.
"I'm Anna," she tells them. "I am sitting in the secret room, crying. But I'm also Annabelle--that's the way magic works." She glances at Darren, and he grins.
"You look older."
"I am. When I--Anna--leaves, she goes back in time a year. I'm not sure how all of this works yet, but I think all of you should come with me. The Aisha in your house," she adds, when her mother glances back at the house, "is me. I survive. I don't know what will happen if you stay here. I might--disappear."
Her mother and father trade glances, and then they nod, slowly.
"If what you say is true," her father says, "then--we will go."
There is no mist, no wind, no fog. They are simply there--on the stage, in front of the audience. With snow slowly melting off their hair and clothes. They are all still holding swords, except for Annabelle.
Annabelle isn't sure what she expected. She gives a flourish and bows, and then ushers her family off the stage.
The audience, left behind, is thrown into confusion. Glances are exchanged, and whispers quickly bloom into conversations. Arguments about whether that could be considered stage magic or a blessing from the Faeries.
They are standing backstage.
"We can go anywhere," Annabelle says. It is true. She can hear the magic singing through her body. It has settled down to a even flow. She can float on top of it, keep her head and control where she goes. She can do anything now.
"Anywhere," her mother repeats. "Meridell--"
"Is too dangerous for now," Darren interrupts. He looks at his sister. "Where do you think we should go?"
They could go anywhere. Annabelle knows this. They could travel the world.
"I know just the place," she says.
A moment later, when Rita and Kell burst into the room, it is empty.
It's late when they reach Brightvale, but there is still a light in the window of the bookstore.
Annabelle takes a deep breath and knocks on the door.
He appears first as a shadowy figure behind the curtains, and then he pushes them aside and looks out. He's surprised to see her.
Annabelle smiles shyly and waves.
"This is a friend of yours?" her mother asks.
She nods as the door opens. "This is Biblius. Biblius, this is my family."
"Oh," the Ixi says. "Oh my. Well, come in, all of you." He holds the door open, and Annabelle lets her parents and her brother go in ahead of her.
"I didn't think I'd see you again," Biblius says as she passes him.
"I didn't either." Annabelle scuffs at the floor with her shoe. "Sorry about... that." She doesn't say what that is, but she doesn't need to. He nods.
"It's all right. Welcome back."
Two days later, when she's finally able to get away, Annabelle walks up the hill to the forest. She murmurs thanks to the trees and the sky, and then she goes deeper, talking to the woods itself.
What do you wish? it asks her. It is slow-moving and eternal. It does not have magic; it is magic.
Wait, she tells it. Wait for Anna.