Thing: Part Six
Sango stirred the chicken dumpling soup slowly, watching the streaks of gold and honey-coloured liquid swirl around the ceramic bowl.
She cupped the bowl in her hands and lifted it to her face, blowing away the steam as it danced through the air in graceful wisps, and breathing in the delicious, warming scent. She could hear the Neovision blaring in the living room, accompanied by the occasional sneeze. She walked out the kitchen and into the dimly lit family room, and sat next to Xana, who was wrapped in a spotted blanket with her knees pulled up to her chin. She stared blankly at the screen, her face a blank canvas.
Sango smiled and held out the bowl. "I got you some soup," she pressed, hoping to get a reaction.
Xana smiled weakly and her hands emerged from the blanket to take the bowl from her owner's hands. "Thanks," she mumbled, before placing it on her lap and returning her gaze to the box. The Zomutt butted her side playfully and she stroked his ears.
Sango grinned. "You guys are finally making friends, huh?" she said, trying to sound casual but finding it hard to restrain the excitement trying to creep into her tone.
Xana smiled. "I guess so," she said as she put the bowl to her lips and took a gulp of the soup. The spoon clattered across the edges and sloshed soup onto her nose. She wiped it away with the back of her paw.
"I'd hope so, considering he saved your life," she laughed. "So... you're going to keep him?"
Xana pulled on the corners of the blanket, pulling it tighter around her tiny frame. Her lank, unwashed hair shielded her face as she stared at the floor, chewing her lip. There was a long, painful pause. Then she spoke so quietly it sounded more like a purr. "I... don't know," she said.
Sango had to consciously stop her hand from whapping into her face. Xana continued, oblivious.
"I mean... he's nice enough. He's sweet and loyal and all the things a petpet should be, and I would love to keep him, really, but... I just can't. I don't know why. I just... can't."
She stood up, swaying slightly on her feet, and walked out the room. Sango listened to her light, airy footfalls as she climbed the stairs.
What a stubborn kid. What had she gotten herself into when she'd adopted her? The poor thing saved her life and she still wouldn't accept him.
She fell backwards onto the sofa and hid her face in her hands.
Xana hung her head over the Roo Island bath tub and massaged raindrop shampoo into her scarlet hair. It hung over her face, and the hot water trickled down the bridge of her nose. She fished around blindly for the shower head, which had been taken from its holder and was lying in the bath, and held it over her soapy, tangled hair. Shampoo streamed down her face, mixed with scalding hot water. A sweet-smelling, soothing combination, and something she adored.
She placed her elbows on the edge of the tub and rested her head in her paws. Time to think, to reflect.
The Zomutt was... well, she wasn't sure. She had mixed feelings, even after what had happened. She wanted to kick herself for being so stubborn, but she just didn't know what to do, and nothing was going to change that any time soon. Sweet? Yes. Loyal? Definitely. But he just wasn't L. He just wasn't the same. She knew she should give him a chance, but...
She wrapped her hair in a towel and walked to her room. He was there, on L's pillow. Curled up in a ball, long, whip-like tail tickling his nose and one ear bent down to cover his left eye, just like her fringe covered hers. A tiny lock of hair stuck out the top of his head like it had been the victim of an electric shock. She couldn't help laugh at it as she sat down next to him and began to dry her hair.
Keep or not? Even the thought of it gave her a headache. She would just have to wait and see where she ended up.
Sango was jolted awake by an impatient desert Lupe, Taladriel, shaking her vigorously.
"Sango. Hey, Sango. SANGO!"
Her hand flew to her head and she moaned. She had a horrible headache. She had fallen asleep on the couch, too. Her neck hurt. "Whaaa..." she said, which, translated into English, meant 'go away, you stinky creature, and leave me in peace to moan'.
"School, Sango. You have it too, you know, and you have to take us first. Get up. Now."
She blew a raspberry and waved dismissively at the flustered Lupe before rolling over and curling into a ball. "Haa guha heh hake," she mumbled. It must be the stress. She had certainly fallen asleep stressed last night.
"Fine. I'll wake up Mila and she can take us. Again," Tala growled, and stomped into the kitchen with her books nestled in the crook of her arm.
The next fifteen minutes Sango spent with gritted teeth as she was constantly disturbed by twelve pets rushing past, snatching books, applying make-up, blow-drying hair and brewing mug after mug of coffee. She gave up trying to sleep, and surveyed the chaos. It was always fun watching others hurry and get stressed out their minds when you lounged on the sofa and did nothing.
Xana came down the stairs, crimson tresses pinned back with a Meowclops hair clip and grey backpack slung over one shoulder, left open to reveal the tattered, dog-eared books inside. Purple shadows rimmed her bloodshot eyes and she carried herself with the attitude of someone who could collapse with exhaustion at any time.
"You're not going to school, are you?" Sango asked, wide-eyed.
Xana breezed past into the kitchen to grab her morning coffee, as she did every day. Even when she had stared death in the face the previous day and gotten about ten minutes of sleep all night, she still looked like she was walking on air. "Course I am," she replied as she walked past.
There was the sound of the door snapping shut, then silence.
Sango was too exhausted to complain. Letting out a long yawn and burying her face into the armrest, she inwardly decided to take the day off.
The entire contents of Xana's school bag clattered down the stairs. Trainers, pencils and notebooks cascaded down the flight of wooden stairs and landed in a crumpled heap at the bottom. Gooseberry jam and apple juice leaked over her books, sticking pages together and causing the delicate paper covers to tear under the pressure.
Her school bag followed, taking its place on the top of the pile.
Xana leaned over the banister, snatching at it as it brushed past her fingertips and from within her range, to fall freely to the bottom. If she leaned any farther, she would fall too. A thick, clawed paw shoved her as she leaned over, and the air rang with obnoxious laughter as she desperately tried to avoid falling. Tears sprang to her eyes.
"Aaaaw, look, guys, the little freak's crying. Maybe we should stop," sneered a green Hissi, his thin, cracked lips stretched into a cruel smile which revealed crooked, yellowing fangs.
"Nah," a red Lupe growled in reply, his voice deep and menacing. His beady yellow eyes looked her up and down, as if willing her to run, just so he could chase her. "I think she looks cuter when she's scared." He shoved her again, sending her falling to the ground. She lay there, willing herself not to cry, to retaliate.
"You can't make me do anything. You're just doing this to hide from yourselves," she snapped back at them, though her voice shrank under their gazes. Why wasn't anyone coming? Didn't anyone notice all her things flying down the stairs? It was pretty hard to miss.
The Lupe laughed a cruel, dangerous laugh. His arms were folded over his chest and his fur was matted with dirt, staining it brown in places, murky grey in others. He towered over her, at least twice her size. He looked strong, too. Like he trained every day religiously, just to frighten students in the year beneath him, just to howl with laughter at the fear on their faces or the tears in their eyes.
The Hissi, meanwhile, was smaller. Taller than her, still, but next to the Lupe he looked small and pathetic. The typical pair of bullies - the strong, ugly, typically stupid one, and the "sidekick" - the small, thin one who relies on verbal abuse. Such a cliché. She would have laughed, if it hadn't been her receiving the brunt of that abuse.
She stood up, and tried to look calm as she brushed herself down. Her head pounded, a result of banging it off the floor when she fell. She began to make for the stairs, but a heavy paw gripped her shoulder and pulled her back with such force her feet skittered across the tiled ground. She winced - her shoulder throbbed with pain as the Lupe tightened his grip. A tiny ounce of pressure, and he would break her shoulder bone into shards as if it were china.
"Oh, you're not going anywhere," he snarled in her ear.
"Oh, but I am," she hissed back, and, with a final jerk, she broke free and fled down the stairs. She gathered up her bag and books, leaving her pens and pencils in a flood of gooseberry jam and scrap paper at the base of the staircase.
She could hear the pounding of heavy paws behind her, and the sound of rough, unwashed scales as they grated across the metal banister in the rush to reach her. She gulped loudly and slammed her whole frame into the heavy double doors that led out into the corridors to open them. Maybe, if she got out into the open, someone would see her, put a stop to all of this...
It had always been this way, in all her homes. She had been adopted and abandoned shortly after so many times, she had lost count of the homes she'd been in years ago. How many was it now? Fifteen? Twenty? Thirty? And every school she'd been sent to, every park she'd been forced by her owners to "play" in, every pavement she had walked down in her frenzy to reach the comfort of her bedroom, it had been the same. "Oh look it's that freak Xana let's throw gravel at her push her down the stairs steal her lunch money when she isn't looking she's so stupid what an outcast she'll never fit in." The same snide comments, sticky notes taped to her back reading "kick me" or "I need friends", or something worse, girls with gossamer wings and long, perfectly-styled hair, clad in powder-blue dresses and tiny leather handbags sneering at her as she walked past, snorting with laughter every time she opened her mouth in class, pushing her down the stairs and sending her flying through the crowds. Even her owners. She would grit her teeth every time they cast disapproving glances at her CDs, or shake their head in shame every time they were sent to school to collect her for writing on the mirrors in the girls' toilets, or skipping a class she hated. She knew they didn't want her -- that was why they would give up, and she would find herself cowering in a freezing cage all over again, as passersby tutted and shook their heads at her lank, greasy hair and trembling frame. She knew she wasn't perfect. But did she deserve this?
Did anyone deserve this kind of treatment? Treatment she had been forced to endure for thirteen years of her pathetic little life?
Tears were clouding her vision, and before she knew it she was on the ground, having tripped over her own feet. She didn't get back up.
The bullies caught up instantly, their mouths twisted into spiteful sneers.
"Aaw, look, the little freak's given up." the Lupe laughed. He snatched a handful of her hair and pulled her onto her feet.
She didn't deserve this. So why was she letting this happen?!
She spun around and sank her fangs into the Lupe's arm. He roared in pain and she broke away, half laughing, half crying as she ran out the door and into the playground. The alarm shrieked after her - "Intruder intruder intruder" - but she ignored it. By the time anyone reached the scene of the crime, she'd be miles away.
Sango liked days off. She liked them a lot.
She gulped her Borovan and closed her eyes, sinking into the luxurious sofa.
Sango nearly jumped out of her skin, and the Borovan flew from the mug she held and splashed over her jeans and brand new T-shirt. She shrieked and slammed the mug down on the coffee table before standing up and running to the kitchen to grab a sheet of kitchen towel, as the puddle of brown liquid began to spread over the thin, red material of her T-shirt and run down her legs in streaks like raindrops trickling down a window.
She didn't notice Xana come in. She was too wrapped up in soaking a cloth under the tap and scrubbing her jeans with it.
Borovan was trickling down the arm of the sofa and Xana could hear her owner's agitated moaning as she furiously tried to scrub the stains out her clothes with a drenched cloth. Her back was turned, so she didn't notify her. She didn't want to burden her with her own stupid problems when she had stupid problems of her own to deal with.
She crept up the stairs, her breath still ragged from the run and her legs still trembling with nerves. She would have to be silent. If Sango found her at home at eleven o'clock in the morning, she would be grounded for a minimum of fifteen years. Possibly twenty.
When she reached her room, she shut the door as gently as her shaking hands allowed and tried not to touch the floor as she fell from the doorway onto her bed. One advantage of having a tiny bedroom. She stared blankly at the ceiling. She didn't cry again. She didn't have any tears left. She had probably used up ten years' worth of tears in the past few weeks.
Hopeless. She was hopeless. Maybe she should listen to them. To the bullies, the "popular" girls, all her previous owners from years gone by who had shaken their heads and tutted at their little hopeless case and thrown her back in her personal cell at the Pound like she was a piece of dirt they'd found stuck to their shoe. Maybe they were right.
Maybe she was a loser.
The door creaked open slowly and she nearly jumped out of her skin, grappling at handfuls of the duvet as if she could pull it over herself and keep herself magically hidden.
But all that came in was that Thing. He hopped up onto the bed and sat right in front of her on his haunches, his head cocked to one side and his eyes wide with curiosity. If this had happened two days ago, she would have screamed at him, thrown him out the door and slammed it behind him. She couldn't have tolerated seeing his face. But this wasn't two days ago. This was today. The worst day of her life to date... or perhaps second-worst. Yesterday probably took first prize.
She leaned against the headboard and looked down at him. Their gazes locked and she found herself unable to look away.
It was as if he was speaking to her, albeit silently. But, as Sango always said, 'a picture is worth a thousand words'. And his face was the perfect example. His soft expression and curious eyes seemed to say 'you look troubled, Xana. Tell me about your day. Get it all off your chest. I'm listening.'
And before she knew it, she was doing exactly that.
The entire time she spoke, his gaze didn't wander even once. He lay down next to her and looked up at her from underneath his eyelashes, taking in every word. And when she finally stopped, he let out a long sigh in perfect synchronization with hers and rested his head on her leg. She reached out and stroked him sheepishly.
It had never occurred to her before how sweet he was. He was very small, probably half the size of L, and very slight, with a thin layer of satin-like, charcoal fur. His eyes were the most piercing lime-green she'd ever seen, wide and playful and brimming with curiosity. His paws were much too large for such a small body, big and ungainly, like he could trip over them without even taking a step first, and he had massive ears. Each ear was twice the size of his head, and very thin and silky. One bent down and hung over his face, hiding his eye the exact same way her fringe shielded hers. He smiled at her and revealed lines of tiny, blunt baby fangs.
She smiled back.
"T-thanks," she said. He scrambled onto her lap and put his paws on her shoulders, and began to cover her face in wet, sloppy licks in reply.
She began to laugh. It started out quiet but soon evolved into a loud laugh, the kind that made you double over with tears flowing from your eyes and left you giggling for hours afterwards. She didn't care who heard.
She felt so much better. Because she knew that there was someone there for her. Someone she had refused to acknowledge before, but who had forgiven her for it and followed her through thick and thin, even when he wasn't receiving anything in return. She held him up to her face and kissed his nose.
"Xana? What are you doing here? Did you get sent home? I told you you shouldn't have gone."
Xana looked up at her owner and smiled widely. "Long story, Sango."
Sango shrugged it off and sat down next to her pet on the bed. "Since you're here now, I can neomail Hayley and tell her we're coming round to give her the pup back," she said kindly.
Xana shook her head and fondled his ears. He licked her fingers in return. "Actually," she began shyly, "I was hoping I could keep him."
Sango's jaw dropped. Clearly, that had been the one reaction she hadn't been expecting. She blinked once, twice, three times. Then her whole face came alight with joy and she leaped off the bed, carting Xana with her and sending her whirling through the air. She whooped and laughed with joy, only stopping to transfer Xana to one arm and pick up the Zomutt in the other. She hugged them both so tightly Xana worried it might cut off her air supply.
"Really? Oh, Xana, I'm so happy!! I can't believe you're going to give him a chance!" she squealed, finally dropping her pet back onto the bed and collapsing next to her. The Zomutt wriggled out of her grasp and sat on her chest, licking her nose.
"Well... It'll take a while for me to accept him properly, y'know?" she said, "You should know I don't get over things the way you do. But I just realised that... well, since he came here, I've never been nice to him, never given him a proper chance. And the whole time I've been hostile and nasty towards him, he hasn't held it against me once. He's always been there for me, always been really sweet and kind and loyal. He deserves to be given a proper chance in return."
Sango's eyes were watering. "That's... so lovely of you." she whispered, "Oh Xana, I just KNEW I'd done the right thing when I adopted you!" she pulled her pet back into an affectionate hug, " I love you so much, my darling."
Xana laughed and grinned as widely as her ecstatic owner. Why? Why had there ever been one ounce of doubt in her mind that she wasn't loved, wasn't wanted, when she was surrounded by family who loved her like she was the most wonderful thing they had ever laid eyes on? Why was she so lacking in confidence? She had no reason to be, not any more.
"So, you've got a name for him, then?" Sango asked her.
"Yup," she said, beaming.
Sango waited, leaning forward in anticipation, eyebrows raised.