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Never Upon A Time


by weaponstar

--------

Entry 137. July 5th. Am writing this to the sound of my brother doing something to the engine. Apart from that and the flatulent noises the thing's making, I could be in paradise. Here I am lying on the deck of this beautiful little yacht (he said he'd done it up a bit, but I didn't realise -- !) on a great big pile of cushions, with a sunshade and everything. But enough of the present; it's back to the 2nd for you and me. I have had quite the interesting few days...

***

     The port rang with noise. Hazel, loitering by a small white building that was attracting the least traffic, watched the goings on with a mixture of fascination and apprehension. A striped Zafara, her pale fur was tattooed with a tigersquash pattern of pink. She wished she'd chosen a skirt now, but she hadn't; white cargo pants, pink tank top. Her feather-like tail-tip stirred in the breeze -- Wait, that was a breeze? More like the sea trying to win a hold-your-breath contest.

     She pulled the back of her hand across her forehead and tried not to look such a target. Gosh, but it was hot.

     "Come on, Ronan," she breathed. A smile crept onto her face. "I have food." (Well, she would have. Once he'd arrived and they'd taken a winding route back through town.)

     She caught the eye of a passing sailor person and flushed. What did she look like, sitting talking to herself? Or maybe it was her hair, the stupid thing, always always in need of a trim.

     The minutes passed. Hazel watched the water, livened by sunlight, lapping at the pilings of the floating docks. Watched the sailors, busy like ants. Watched flags and sails being hauled up and down. Watched the colours on the inside of her eyelids.

     Restless, she left the marina behind and wandered down to the business end of the port. Here nothing seemed to stand still. People, crates, everything moved. On and off boats, the air filled with the thrum of wheels over wood. She found a stray barrel and sat perched on it like a flighty bird.

     Two hours after Ronan said he should be arriving, she gave in to her worries and started picking splinters off the barrel. It wouldn't be long before she moved on to de-linting her clothes. Of course, Ronan had also said travelling by sea was an unpredictable thing. Even she knew how treacherous the weather could be. Squalls. Freak storms. (Or were they the same thing?)

     Scanning the horizon for the hundredth time, she spotted it. Not her brother's boat, oh no. The storm. The most predictable turn of weather possible, considering the heat. She imagined Ronan, still in Tyrannia, gazing moodily at the weather forecast. Shoot, he'd say. Then he'd dash off to mail her, explaining how he would be a couple of days late, even though she would have figured that out by the time she received his message.

     What if he hadn't seen a forecast, though? Did they even have them in Tyrannia? He might be on his way, about to run straight into that Citadel of a cloud.

     Unlikely. She should give up and go home, she knew. But.

     She played games. If he doesn't come by the time that sail's been taken down, I'll go. If he doesn't come by the time those dinghies have been stowed in that building, I'll go. If he doesn't come by the time someone's come to collect this barrel, I'll go.

     "Excuse me, miss? I need that you're sitting on."

     "Oh, sorry!"

     She fell over herself getting out of the way. Then looked on as he deftly lowered the barrel on to its side and trundled it away.

     One last search of the horizon, then. She sighed, turning her eyes reluctantly out to sea. Nothing. No blue-sailed yacht, no little rowboats, not even a Pteri hurrying home before the storm. But wait -- wait. Widening her eyes, she stared out at the greyish water. No, noth-- There it was! Distinct, a small triangle of pale blue against the dark. Not too far away, either. How had she not seen it before?

     "Ronan!" She started to wave, then stopped, colouring. Could he even see her from there? Squinting, she thought, yes, there was a tiny orange figure just below the sail. The dark had moved in so quickly she could barely make out the vessel he stood on.

     Waiting for him to make his slow way up the river mouth to the marina was almost worse than waiting without knowing if he was coming.

     "Ronan!" Beaming, the boat drawing level, she waved and starting walking back up the path. Faintly, she heard him shout something. Saw him wave.

     Finally, the boat nosed into a space and Hazel made her way along the floating docks to it, wincing every time her foot slipped in a puddle. Ronan was throwing down the ropes, and she took one and wrapped it in a figure-eight around one of the post pairs. That gave him time to get down and do something more complicated with the others.

     "We'll make a sailor of you yet," said Ronan, grinning good-naturedly as he picked up the second rope.

     Watching his hands weave in and out of the post things (there's a name for them -- oh, why couldn't she remember?) she couldn't help but smile, though she shrank from the idea of floating about on a plain of bottomless water, no land in sight.

     "I was starting to think the storm had delayed you," she said. Missed you.

     "I know, it was a close thing." He glanced up at her, then reached for another rope. "They nearly didn't let me leave, said the winds would be too strong for such a little thing, but I wasn't having that. The Beekadoodle doesn't mind a bit of a breeze." And I couldn't have you worrying all night and tomorrow.

     The Beekadoodle's Song was its full name. She looked it over. Well, it was certainly neater than the first time she'd clapped eyes on it, but still not the 'shiniest gem on the sea' as Ronan had promised it would be. Ronan and his exaggerations.

     He caught her looking fondly at him, finished the mooring ropes at double quick speed, came over and pulled her into a hug.

     "Oof!" Grinning, she touched her nose, to check it hadn't been flattened.

     He scuffed her hair. "Hello, little sis."

     "Hi," she said. "We're going back through the centre, I'm afraid. I haven't shopped yet."

     "Good. I'm too hungry to wait until we get to your place. Starving."

     She waited while he grabbed his bag from the cabin and locked up, then together they set off into town.

***

     Entry 137. Continued. By the time I realised Ronan was not going to arrive, the day was darkening under the glare of a storm and the harbour was filling up. Someone came and took my seat away (I was sitting on a splintery barrel). I hung around for a little longer, then headed for home. No heart to shop for the weekend, as I'd planned to do with Ro. I couldn't stop imagining all the horrible things that could have happened to him, bobbing about out there on what (last time I'd seen it) was nothing more than a rust-bucket.

     Once home, I made an omelette. Ate. Watched neovision until the storm disrupted the signal from the Space Station too much. Watched the lightning. I went to bed to the sound of thunder and rain battling for supremacy. Did not sleep.

***

     Hazel's house was a small, cosy affair on the outskirts of Neopia Central, a half hour walk from the centre. Its first occupant had passed away some years ago, and the new owner was renting it out. The place had felt inviting, lived in, even though when Hazel had first come to look around it had been empty for four months. It was only after she'd moved in did she discover how noisy it was at night. When the creaking and moaning became too bad, she would poke her head from beneath the pillow and tell the empty room in her best Ronan voice to please keep it down because some people were trying to sleep.

     It was drizzling by the time she and Ronan clattered into the hall, panting and dashing water from their eyes. Minutes later it was coming down in sheets and they heard the first roll of thunder.

     "Close thing," said Ronan.

     Hazel agreed.

     She didn't have a dining table, so they settled on the window-seat, plates on their laps, and listened to the storm as it rumbled about threatening anything tall and pointed.

     Neither the neovision set nor the radio would work properly, so they played Neopoly and read from Hazel's growing collection of ghost stories (her brother had bought her a new one -- Haunted Tyrannia).

     "That doesn't make sense," she complained. "How can Tyrannia have ghosts? They're all so old they've forgotten about dying."

     He didn't know. "That's why I bought it. To find out."

     "You'd be easily scammed, then," she teased. "So if someone tried to sell you Faerieland, you'd say yes to see how they'd manage it?"

     "I don't think I'd have the cash, even for a fake Faerieland. Not without selling the Beekadoodle."

     "You don't need a boat if you own Faerieland. You can probably take a cloud to wherever you want to go."

     "Don't trust clouds," said Ronan, wrinkling his nose.

     That night, Hazel slept fitfully. Maybe it was the storm still raging overhead, or maybe it was the excitement of having a visitor staying. Sherry at the NC Mall would have put it down to the stress of having a visitor staying, but there was no way you could put 'Ronan' and 'stress' in the same sentence.

     Curling an arm beneath the pillow, she made a mental note to decant their newly acquired biscuits into an airtight container.

***

     Entry 137. Continued. The next morning I breakfasted slowly. I decided I had better head back to the marina and make sure Ronan hadn't turned up after all, though if he had he would surely have come straight here... Maybe I could find someone to ask about the storm's effect. Had there been delays? Was it safe to assume my brother was still in Tyrannia, and not adrift on a small piece of his beloved Beekadoodle?

     On my way out I noticed the neovision set was on, sound down, the electronic hum and the grainy images moving across the screen the only indication of life. I stepped into the living room to switch it off, but before I could my eyes registered the picture. Tyrannia, definitely. Baked yellow ground, the jungle as a backdrop, a glimpse of the sea. Centre-screen was a mass of shimmering blonde curls and a pink Acara. I hurried to turn the volume up.

     " -- see in a moment, the devastation caused by the storm has exceeded any predictions," said the hair, with a distinct Neopia Central accent.

     The camera panned and there was Tyrannia's port, a semicircular wall biting into the jungle and the mouth of the river that fed it. Further up that river, before the volume dwindled too much for anything larger than a paddleboat, was Tyrannia's own marina. Of a kind -- a maze of wood and rope, from here it was mostly hidden beneath the canopy. Hopefully that had afforded it some protection, because it looked like the vessels moored around the harbour wall had had a bad time of it.

     The hair was back.

     "Quite amazing. The phenomenal waves caused by the storm literally pulverised everything within Tyrannia's unprotected harbour. Even the surrounding wall has broken in places, and three small settlements have been flooded. The damage is still being assessed, although so far no one has suffered serious injury. Vic Clide, in Tyrannia."

     It was amazing indeed. I nodded, agreeing; Virtupets, it seemed, was broadcasting international news. Who'd have thought it?

     I mentally shook myself. I had to think: had I seen the Beekadoodle amongst all that debris? Had Ronan ever mentioned where he made harbour? No, he hadn't. Realising I didn't know if he was okay, never mind his silly boat, I switched the set off and made for the door. Then stopped. Might they not give a list of all the vessels moored up the river? But no, when I switched the set back on again all I could find was today's Gormball scores. I made a mental note to check for updates later, then headed for the door; I needed company.

     When I first told my brother about Sherry, it was a while before I realised my mistake. Sherry doesn't work at the NC Mall, she just lives there. Or that's how it seems. I suppose they chase her out at closing time; although, now I think about it, I don't know where her house is. Maybe she sleeps on the Mall's doorstep. As she says often enough, No time to waste time.

     "Hazel!"

     "Huh?"

     I hadn't even reached the doors of the Mall yet, so that one took me by surprise. But there she was, slouched in the entrance to the Art Centre, waving with the hand that wasn't clutching a hotdog. A purple Eyrie, today she was wearing the usual jeans and white shirt with too-long sleeves and an off-centre, purple paint-splat. Her hair was scruffy. I admired her scruffiness.

     Along with Ronan, Sherry is one of those people I try to emulate when being quiet and self-conscious just won't cut it. Sometimes I hold imaginary conversations with her to boost my confidence. I've never mentioned my borrowings to her in actuality, though I doubt she'd mind. She's always telling me to think aloud more.

     "I can tell you think wicked thoughts in there. It's in your eyes," she says sometimes. "You've got to let it out, Haze."

     I tell her I kind of like it where it is. Thanks all the same.

     Now, she scooted over, embraced me, then held me at arm's length (strong as an Eyrie, though a petite one) and eyed me.

     "Bad night?" she said.

     I smiled wanly. "Uh-huh."

     "Well, dump on me."

     "I... don't dump standing up."

     "Of course you don't," said Sherry. "Let's go find a caff."

     So we did.

     "Have you seen a neovision this morning?" I asked, once we were ensconced in a corner of a cafe, sipping coffees.

     "No, but I grabbed a paper," said Sherry. "Nasty storm. It kept me awake all night." The injustice of it was evident in her voice.

     Imagine it would keep you awake if you sleep on the Mall's doorstep, I thought.

     Then Sherry gasped. "But your brother's over there, isn't he?"

     I nodded, started to explain the ifs and buts. When I'd finished, Sherry looked thoughtful.

     "My favourite is: If he moors in the marina here," she said, "wouldn't he do the same over there? Up the river, as you say?"

     "Probably," I said.

     "But probably isn't good enough."

     "If he's okay, or even if he's not, there will be a neomail on my mat tomorrow morning. I just can't wait that long."

     "Well, honey, I may have wings, but I can't go flying halfway across the ocean. This is only my first coffee of the day."

     "I know. I know." I knuckled my forehead, elbows on the tabletop. Listened to the clatter of crockery on the other side of the partition beside us.

     "You need a distraction," said Sherry. "Isn't that why you came looking for me? To dump and be distracted. I'm good at distracting, you know."

     "I think I've changed my mind," I said, standing up. "Thanks for the coffee." I pushed my seat back in and left.

***

     Hazel's friends (well, Sherry's friends whom she'd been pressured into meeting) said they admired her and Ronan's relationship. Most of them admitted to not having completely bridged childhood rifts with their own brothers and sisters. Hazel would smile and pretend she knew what they meant; there had never been any rifts between her and Ronan.

     "You must have argued sometimes," Sherry once said.

     Hazel had rifled through her memories. "It got quite heated once when we were discussing the quickest way to fold a T-shirt," she offered.

     "Nah," Sherry had said, after a pause. "I don't think that counts."

     Now Hazel and Ronan were taking a winding route through Central, slower than the evening before's mad dash from the rain. They were headed to the NC Mall to find Sherry and see if she would not join them for lunch.

     They were admiring a selection of wacky headgear when Sherry swooped from behind a rack of glaring purple and engulfed them. Perfumes ganged up on their noses. Hazel could have sworn her pupils shrank, confronted as they were with... well, whatever you called the thing Sherry was wearing. It looked (inexpertly) homemade to her, but the price tag said otherwise.

     "Hazel! And Ronan!" Sherry's grin became worryingly wide. "I'd forgotten you were visiting."

     "We're here to drag you out into the daylight," said Ronan. "And buy you lunch. I suggested bringing sunscreen, but Hazel says you aren't quite a Bori yet."

     Sherry mock-punched his shoulder. "Not quite, no," she said. "I hope never. Be the death of me doing up buttons with great big claws instead of hands. Back in a minute." And she disappeared into the changing rooms, returning kitted out in her favourite I'm-individual shirt and jeans.

     "You decided you liked my idea, then," said Hazel, pointing at the new drip of purple that ran down one leg.

     "Quick, claim copyright," said Ronan in a stage whisper.

     Sherry smirked. "She can't, she was only furthering my idea. So where are we going anyway?"

     "Ro suggested we take a picnic to Kiko Lake, if our stomachs can wait that long."

     "A picnic?" said Sherry. "I thought you said you were buying me lunch, not feeding me to the midges. Besides, I don't have a sunhat."

     Hazel dug around in her bag and handed her a peaked cap.

     Sherry looked at it in mild horror.

     "I'm not getting out of this, am I?" she said.

     ***

     Entry 137. Continued. I swung by the bookshop on my way home and asked if they had any real life stories on missing persons. Armed with a book to relate to, I headed home to settle in my favourite 'Sherry' position on the floor, back to an armchair, coffee table before me. Sitting in the middle of the coffee table was a framed shot of a beaming Ronan, taken that time he convinced me to visit The Cyodrake's Gaze with him during its stay in the Lost Desert.

     After an hour of trying and failing to concentrate, I closed the book. My eyes ached from reading too close to the page, so I decided to grab a glass of water. Well... as Sherry would put it, you know how the craziest ordinary things just turn around and give your memory a kick? Like, say, the cupboard door banging closed behind you and sounding just like a certain previous occupant on bad night?

     It gave me an idea. I turned the tap off and stood for a moment, glass in hand. When I spoke, for some reason I tilted my head upward.

     "You remember Ronan, don't you? He visited once. He liked you." I tried a smile. It's true, I felt a complete twerp standing there talking to myself. Though I guess it's not the first time.

     "You'd tell me if Ro was in trouble, wouldn't you?" I said. "Come on." The smile turned goofy. "I know you would."

     No answer.

     Well, I went back into the living room. But -- can you guess what's going to happen? -- as I did, I became aware of a sound. Of water running from a tap into a basin, an uneven patter. Except before I heard that, I had known with absolute certainty that I'd turned the tap off. Now I wasn't so sure.

     I stood irresolute, eyes fixed on the small slice of hallway I could see through the living room door. I couldn't see into the kitchen at all. Then I took a couple of steps backward toward the sofa. Reached behind to place my glass on the table. BAM. I misjudged the height, the glass met the edge and twisted in my grip. I turned, grabbing for it with my other hand and -- wouldn't you know it -- sending it flying. A single wave drenched everything on the table and gushed over the edge. Well. Not quite everything, as I discovered when I returned with a box of tissues. The picture of Ronan was untouched. Dry as a bone.

     Maybe, I thought as I dabbed ineffectually at my new book, that was enough.

   ***

      It was morning, the second day of Ronan's visit. Hazel woke to the smell of coffee. She went down to the door to fetch the mail, pausing on the way to poke her head in the kitchen and say good morning.

     At the door, she skimmed through the mail. Nothing interesting but -- wait a minute. A letter from Ro? She smiled, supposing it was one of his jokes, and tore it open.

     Hi Hazel, she read. So sorry but I've just seen the forecast and there's one nasty of a storm heading this way! Don't know how they didn't spot it sooner. Folks here aren't letting anyone leave port. Don't worry about coming to the marina to meet me, cause I'm not sure when I'll be getting there. If it is as bad as the rumours are saying I might stay a little longer to help out with any damage. Hope you don't mind. Love you. Ronan. xxx

     Hazel folded the letter slowly, musing. Then she went back into the empty kitchen and started to make coffee.

    ***

      Entry 137. Continued. I've decided not to tell Ro about what didn't happen. Nor about the tap incident. I'm still not sure if I did turn it off or not. I'm good at fooling myself; it might have been another of my own tricks. Best not to jump to conclusions.

The End

 
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