Different This Time
You can take the Kougra out of the underworld, but you can’t take the underworld out of the Kougra.
Shafts of sunlight played over the dim streets that snaked through the Darigan Citadel, darkness and light competing for each patch of stone like the conflicting thoughts that strove for possession of Tenultra’s mind. Not far away, excited shouts rang out as a far more cheerful competition sent a ball zipping to and fro between the paws of the children who pursued it, each side struggling determinedly to shoot the pseudo-Yooyu into the opposing net. Large feline eyes, lit as if from within by flashes of grey, black and gold as the alternating sun and shadow reflected off them, took in the two teams’ every move, the fathomless gaze not truly blank, but still concealing the thoughts that swam beneath it.
I used to play like that. I could again, if I tried. But it wouldn’t be the same as it used to. Because I am not the same.
No, surely too much had happened, too many miles had been crossed by her young heart for her to retrace those steps and go back to where she once had been. Staring up from within a pool of thought and memory, the fleeting play and laughter of everyday life was now perceived not as what was truly happening, but as passing glimmers that played across the surface, like sunshine flickering over a pond whose half-seen depths no light could touch. Those shallow, sunlit waters could be visited- she was still capable of bringing herself to rise to the surface and take part in these small joys- but never again would she be able to do so without a constant awareness of the gulfs that lurked below the surface of her soul.
Of course, things were not the same now as she’d once thought they would always be. Now she knew people who could meet her in those depths, people who had been hurt the way she had, and who knew what storms might lie beneath the stillness of everyday life. It was because of them that she had been able to leave her former life, and enter this world where the next friendly conversation was just as important as the next mortal battle.
Ironic, that the closest of these new friends was listed in the Gallery of Evil. Stranger still, perhaps, the he was also the lord of the Citadel. But then, considering the battles that Tenultra and Lord Darigan had fought side by side, maybe it wasn’t so unnatural after all.
Still, no matter how much the Korbat ruler and the Kougra warrioress liked each other, the former was busy, and the latter was hopelessly inexperienced in the matters that currently claimed Darigan’s attention. For Tenultra, politics had almost always been governed by the question of whose implants could generate the strongest lasers and forcefields, and whose shapeshifting abilities could be used the most effectively to penetrate an enemy’s defense. Official diplomacy simply wasn’t Tenultra’s line of work- especially when, like today, the person with whom the diplomatic interactions were taking place happened to be King Skarl. Their last meeting had been anything but diplomatic.
Tenultra’s ears suddenly perked. It appeared that her dealings with Skarl weren’t the only breaches of diplomacy worth noting- the game seemed to be deteriorating into a fight. It looked like a Grarrl had taken exception to something a young Gelert had done, or vice versa; the two young Darigani had both adopted visibly aggressive stances, and teeth were beginning to show.
Calling on the mutations that had been forced upon her years ago, Tenultra faded into invisibility, her dragonlike wings vanishing into her back as her black-striped purple pelt was wiped from the world of sight. Long practise silenced her movements as she approached the brewing confrontation, her genetically enhanced ears catching every angry word loud and clear.
“You were outside the line and you know it!” the Gelert was barking, his hackles rising to their limit as the much larger Grarrl took a lumbering step toward him.
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“That depends whether or not you admit that you were outside the goal line.”
“Even if I was,” the reptile challenged him, “are you gonna make somethin’ of it?”
Oh, please. This guy was as cliché as Miaglo Darkwind, and a musclehead who apparently had nothing better to do than throw his weight around ranked very high on Tenultra’s list of pet peeves.
Tenultra hated drawing attention to herself- in the world she came from, secrecy was more than a way of life: it was a prerequisite for survival- and so she hesitated to reveal herself, waiting to see if the situation would require it.
“Yeah,” the Gelert shot back, refusing to be intimidated, “if you’re going to cheat, then I will make something of it.”
The Grarrl laughed, evidently looking forward to an obviously one-sided match of strength. Petty showoff, the Kougra thought in disgust.
“Why don’t you come here and do that, then?”
The Gelert hesitated, clearly unsure as to which part of his antagonist his claws and fangs were likely to make the biggest dent in. Or, for that matter, if there was any part of him that would offer a viable target. Reluctant to be cheated out of a muscle match, the hulking reptile took another step forward. “Well, what are you waiting for, chicken?”
The watching circle of Neopets receded, with the exception of one small Kougra who remained invisible and unnoticed as a couple of nervous voices called out tentative protests against what looked like an imminent fight.
“I’m waiting for you to get your north end out of your south end so I can take a shot at it,” the Gelert snapped back, bristling and sinking into a crouch as the Grarrl drew dangerously close.
“All right, that-”
“-is more than enough.”
The even, frosty female voice that fell into the confrontation like snow drifting down to quench a flame was as soft and unyielding as the paw that had appeared out of nowhere and fastened itself around the Grarrl’s tail. For a moment, the reptile tugged against the restraining grasp, his claws dragging at the dirt. He wasn’t moving! Startled and dismayed by the unexpected presence of a Neopet stronger than him, he twisted around, and was further stunned and embarrassed to find that the owner of the paw was not only a girl, but a ridiculously tiny one at that. His tail and one of his massive legs would probably equal the young Zafara’s entire body weight. And yet, despite the formidable size difference, the girl’s next words were offered not as a request, but as a simple statement of the way things were and how they were going to be. “You were across the goal line by a significant margin. That means the opposing team is entitled to a penalty shot.”
“Who died and made you ref?”
“I do not have to be a referee to point out an obvious rule. If you are unaware of even the most basic guidelines of the game, you should not be playing.”
“I had not been aware that the origin of the voice you are hearing was that much of a mystery to you.”
The Grarrl was getting ticked off. “Listen, you little punk, if you think I’m going to take an order from a shrimp like you seriously, you’ve got another think coming! You’re hardly even worth putting in my radar.”
For the first time in the confrontation, a hint of emotion coloured the Zafara’s features as amusement quirked the corner of her mouth. “If ever it becomes important to me for you to take me seriously, I am certain that I could arrange for that to happen. In the meantime, my position in your sonic scanning system hardly matters.”
Mildly bewildered, the Grarrl ducked behind the first question that popped into his head. “Do you always talk so weird?”
“Do you always talk so much?”
Exasperated and rattled by the Zafara’s cool demeanour, the Grarrl demanded, “Since when is it any of your business, anyway, whether I cross the goal line or not?”
“Since the moment when I noted that you are incapable of behaving yourself without proper supervision.”
The Grarrl gritted his teeth. Since when was he a little kid who needed ‘proper supervision’?! “Supervise this!”
The Zafara’s leathery wings flared for balance, but the only other move she made to acknowledge the fist that sped toward her head was to raise a paw and block it. The Grarrl took hold of the intervening appendage and squeezed fiercely, hoping to elicit some display of pain... then he backed off in startled alarm.
The claws that had been forced into visibility by the crushing pressure his paw had exerted glittered with mechanical implants, scattering whispers of “Tenultra!” through the assembled kids and causing several of them to take a step back. The Grarrl backed off even farther, the better part of his cockiness vanishing.
A soft sigh rose from Tenultra as she resumed her natural Kougra form. She had hoped to quench this fight in anonymity and then quietly slip away; after years of living in the shadow of other peoples’ prejudices, the building of a reputation was something she preferred to avoid. Too late for that, now. “So,” she asked, a trace of weariness carried over from years of witnessing such strong reactions to her presence making itself heard in her voice, “do you still want to fight me over this?”
The Grarrl backed off another step. Whether Tenultra liked it or not, her reputation already preceded her, and messing around with a cybernetically enhanced shapeshifter was not high on the boy’s list of Things He Was Keen On Doing. “Hey, um, look, I didn’t mean-”
“Just go,” Tenultra said tiredly. “I don’t want to have to babysit you any more than you want me to, so just... go.”
The would-be bully may have come across as an oaf, but at least he had the sense to perceive it as no dampening of masculinity to give way to an opponent who was capable of vaporizing him with a flick of her wrist. Slowly, so as not to give the appearance of running away, he turned and trudged off, muttering over his shoulder as he went in an attempt to save face, “You losers are no fun anyway.”
A long moment of silence stretched itself over the scattering of children as they watched the defeated bully retreat; then the Gelert suddenly rounded on Tenultra. “You didn’t have to jump in, you know,” he snapped at her. “I could have taken him.”
The words fell over Tenultra like the sound of a door being closed in her face, a cold echo of the many rejections that her attempts at friendliness had suffered over the years. Why do I do this to myself? she wondered for perhaps the thousandth time. As long as they’re enemies or indifferent, it’s one thing; but the moment I come to their defense I open a hole in my armour that I have such a difficult time closing. The way they respond to me is so much easier to take when they have justified enmity or discomfort around strangers to excuse it.
More words fell through her mind to join the inner turmoil. “As dedicated as you are in defending other people, when it comes to defending yourself, you let people get away with too much.” Ah, yes, the wisdom of a frustrated Korbat, given a few days after Tenultra had first arrived on the Citadel.
True enough, Lord Darigan; but right now I don’t want to fight.
“Perhaps you could have,” she answered the Gelert, meeting his glaring eyes. “However, I have a guarantee of safety in a fight that you do not.” And with that, she turned away from him in an attempt to preclude any further exchange of words between them; and as she moved, the kids who stood in her path took another step away from her. Tenultra forced her shoulders not to sag. Even now, when she had partly laid down her duties as a covert defender and joined the world of civilians, she could never escape the cold reality of what she was, and what people thought of that. “I apologize,” she murmured to the nervous children. “If you find my proximity so distasteful, I will try to maintain my distance.” Crouching down, she sprang into the air, spiraling straight up and away from the halted Yooyuball game.
As the familiar sensation of wind streamed through her fur, Tenultra finally allowed the current of emotion that flowed beneath her surface to become visible on her face. Loneliness, pain, and a deep world-weariness etched themselves into her young, delicate features, carving deeper and deeper into the gulfs behind her eyes as the source of this turmoil shrank beneath her.
Things like this had been so much easier to take not all that long ago, when her heart had been frozen and buried in snow. But now she was thawing, the distance between her hidden soul and the world outside her surface was lessening. Back in her days as a clandestine defender, incidents like this, times when she interacted with other people, had been no more than blips on her screen, brief interludes in her ongoing mission to keep herself interposed between the people around her and whatever might threaten them. Now it was that duty that existed primarily on the side, and her open interactions with the people she had once secretly protected had become the primary facet of her life.
It was a life she was beginning to think she really wasn’t prepared for.
“Hey! Hey, wait up!”
Of course. No sooner had she finished thinking that she wasn’t ready to deal with people on an open, noncombative basis than one such situation came flapping right up to her.
“Look, I’m sorry!” the Gelert called, startling her. “I just want to talk, OK? Could you slow down a minute?”
Tenultra didn’t particularly want to, but she flared her wings and braked in midair anyway. She wasn’t sure that she wanted him to apologize to her. That would mean that their brief conversation had fixed his attention on her, and her past years of being constantly on the run had ground firmly into her a potent aversion to being the center of other people’s attention. Still, if she must be a freak, there was no point in appearing to be a petty, sulky freak on top of that. Turning to face her pursuer, she hovered in silence, waiting for him to speak first.
Panting slightly, the Gelert began to fly around her in circles, evidently lacking the ability to hover. “Look,” he said, “I didn’t mean for you to take that personally. Don’t you think you’re overreacting just a bit?”
No, I think I concealed the full extent of my reaction rather well, although perhaps I might be wrong about that. “You had taken me by surprise,” she said simply, then hesitated. How much to explain? How much did she want him to understand? Decision came, and she continued to speak. “When I come to the defense of another person, it causes me to mentally classify that person as a friend, whether I choose to or not, until that person proves otherwise. That being the case, I had not expected you to overreact to my attempt to assist you- particularly not in such a hostile way.” ...Even though that’s the way people often reacted to me in the past. Why didn’t I see it coming now?
Because I’d hoped that things would be different this time.
Slightly taken aback, the Gelert stared at her for a long moment, taking her words in, then grinned sheepishly. “Touche,” he answered. “I guess I was a bit of a jerk, and like I said, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Tenultra smiled, and was surprised to find that the expression was only half forced. “It’s all right,” she said quietly, and the Gelert brightened, evidently disinclined to hold the incident against himself any longer than Tenultra did.
“That’s good. So, since you apparently consider me a friend, I don’t suppose you’d be too dead set against coming back with me to play ball? After all, we are out a goalie.”
Tenultra hesitated, once again ill at ease. “I doubt your friends would appreciate that,” she said softly. “Did they know you were going to ask me?”
The Gelert shrugged, as best one could in midair. “Does it matter? They can think what they want, and try to do something about it if they’re stupid enough.”
Tenultra frowned. “I’m not going to fight them over it.”
The young canine grinned, displaying sharp teeth. “Of course you’re not. Like I said earlier, you don’t have to jump in- I can take ‘em.”
A long moment of hesitation passed; then Tenultra shook her head. “No,” she said simply. “I dislike being where I’m not wanted.”
The Gelert’s expression echoed Tenultra’s frown. “Don’t take this personally,” he said, “but how can you be so tough and be such a wimp at the same time?”
Tenultra blinked, surprised. Freak, monster, Sloth experiment... she had been called many names in her short life, but wimp had never been one of them.
“Stop being so hung up on not offending people,” the Gelert told her firmly. “You’ll have to, if you want to be friends with me; because I tend to tick people off on a regular basis, and you’d better not be scared to be guilty by association.”
They met each others’ eyes for a long moment, Tenultra’s startled, searching feline gaze flooding and being flooded by a canine stare from which strength and confidence flowed. He’s right, Tenultra realized. He may be brash and arrogant, and perhaps somewhat shallower than me, and he wouldn’t last long in the world I come from; but even if he could not stand against some of the enemies I’ve faced, he has strength of another kind, and while my mind no doubt surpasses his in many ways, he has his own brand of wisdom that I could stand to learn from.
A slow smile crossed Tenultra’s face. “Very well, then,” she said. “I will come down with you, and if anyone objects to my presence I will stay out of the way while you bounce a Yooyu off their heads.”
The Gelert’s grin glowed with pride and feral delight. “Perfect,” he said, and the two of them began to swoop down together. “By the way,” he added as the playing field and its waiting occupants slipped into sight, “my name’s Dayjan. And of course, just about everyone knows who you are.”
Everyone knows... now that was a scary thought. Most of the choices she had made in the past had been influenced by a desire for people not to know who she was; for her enemies to remain oblivious to her whereabouts, and her allies to remain as such, their friendliness toward her due solely to ignorance as to who they were really dealing with.
But her enemies were no longer a threat, and this Gelert beside her, this Dayjan, knew who she was, and accepted that without a thought. I was right, she realized. Hope had spoken true even when her heart said no.
Things really are going to be different this time.