Time May Change Me: Part Three
An Encounter With the Truth
Ixi stopped suddenly, giving Werty little time to avoid crashing into his back.
"Watch it!" she hissed, trying to be as quiet as possible.
"What's she doing?"
"She's looking in the window. Now she's saying something to Smaug."
Lichen had been acting strangely. Even for Lichen. Whenever she went shopping, she always took Smaug, and only Smaug. Sometimes the two of them would be gone a long time. Ixi and Werty had tried asking Smaug what was going on, but the Hissi was too clever and perhaps too loyal to give anything away. Frustrated at the lack of information, their curiosity had finally overwhelmed them, and they'd followed Lichen to Neopia Central.
"What's she saying?"
"I can't hear. Smaug's saying something back. They're going in."
"But she hates Uni's Clothing!"
The two of them crept to the window, peering in while at the same time trying not to be noticed. It was hard to see behind the racks of clothes, but they managed to barely make out the shape of their owner, Smaug wrapped around her waist.
"This isn't right," said Ixi. "Why would she go clothes shopping with Smaug?"
"If she's buying him another hat, I swear I'll eat her shoelaces again."
Inside the shop, Lichen lifted something large from the clothing rack.
"Well, it's not a hat," murmured Ixi.
"What is it? It's bigger than her!" exclaimed Werty.
Lichen paused, looking down. Smaug uncurled himself from around her and slid to the floor. Lichen folded the piece of clothing and draped it over her arm, then began walking purposefully toward the till.
"Quick!" whispered Ixi, and the two Neopets ran as fast as they could, back round the building, drawing a few stares from the passers-by. Ixi kept his head low to the ground as he peeked towards the entrance.
"They've left the shop."
Whatever was in Lichen's shopping bag, it pushed at the boundaries of its confinement, making the walls of the bag bulge outwards. It looked like it threatened to split the sides and unfold itself on the ground below. Ixi didn't notice this, though. He was more preoccupied with the direction Lichen and Smaug were headed.
"They're coming this way," he gasped, nearly knocking Werty over as they both scrambled to get away from the corner before she passed.
"That was close," gasped Werty, heart pumping. Ixi put the side of his hoof against his mouth, signalling for silence. They watched as Lichen passed by the corner they'd been sitting at, completely oblivious to their presence. Smaug flapped a little behind her, gliding on top of the thermals from the stone pavement.
When they were a safe distance away, Werty and Ixi resumed following them. This time, Lichen didn't visit any shops, instead going straight to the bank. Smaug slithered beside her on the marble floor, the cool smooth surface a welcome change from the hot, rough pavement.
"Good afternoon, Madame. How may I help you?" asked the smartly-dressed green Skeith who always seemed to be sitting at the counter, no matter what time of day she happened to visit.
"I'd like to visit my safety deposit box, please," she said with a friendly smile.
"Certainly," he said, holding out a silver key. As she took the key, he added "Would you like me to add your interest for you?"
"Oh, right! Yes. Thank you."
"Not a problem," he said lazily, turning back to his computer screen and clicking a button.
Lichen and Smaug headed off along a corridor. The Skeith apparently absorbed in whatever he was doing, Ixi and Werty crept through the doorway and began inching along the edge of the counter, trying to make sure they weren't spotted.
"And what do you two think you're doing?" the Skeith said, not moving his eyes from the screen. The two froze. "Come on, I know you're under there."
Ixi stood up. "She's our owner."
"Yes, I know."
"She's been acting odd lately," added Werty.
"Really? I never would've guessed." he replied. "So you decided to follow her and find out what's going on, I take it?"
"Yes," replied Ixi.
"You know, you could've just told me she'd left you behind and you were trying to catch up. You wouldn't have needed to sneak in. Now go on," he said, gesturing down the corridor.
"Nothing says she can't take more than one pet with her. Now off with you. I have work to do, you know."
"Thank you," said Werty, before they took off down the corridor. The Skeith sighed into his monitor.
"Not a problem."
They had plenty of time to catch up with Lichen. The safety deposit boxes were in a separate wing of the building – filled with rooms that seemed to grow with the number of items they held. Lichen approached her door, checking the account name etched into the surface.
"Debbie1188," she whispered to herself. "Yeah, that's me." She knew from experience - bad things happened if you tried the wrong door.
She and Smaug entered. As the door was closing, Ixi ran forward to catch it, and he and Werty slipped in behind them. The room was huge - filled with all the items Lichen felt were most precious to her, or otherwise just hadn't got around to sorting out yet. It was even bigger than their Neohome.
Piles of unused Battledome weapons were scattered here and there, it being virtually impossible to tell which were more powerful just by looking at them. Different coloured plushies were arranged neatly in rows. Heaps of unwearable jackets and T-shirts were stacked willy-nilly alongside a mountain of toys and tiki-tack merchandise.
Ixi knew the place well enough to find his way about it blindfolded. It had grown ever-so-slightly since the last time he had been there, but the room was big enough already that such a change was lost in its cavernous volume. They had to tread carefully; even the most gentle of whispers might create an echo loud enough to betray their presence.
The tip of Smaug's tail disappeared behind a stack of books, and Ixi motioned for Werty to follow. The path through the piles of junk was long and twisting. Ahead of them they could hear the voices of Lichen and Smaug, muffled and distorted by the hundreds of items and the cold hard walls.
They were heading to a place that Werty had never been before, and Ixi hadn't been for years. A place that had lain undisturbed for almost a decade, when Lichen had first decided to stash away the items she didn't know what to do with.
It had changed.
What Ixi remembered as a motley mess of extra books, concert souvenirs and the occasional weapon had been pushed back to create a small clearing. The space's former occupants were now stacked or piled neatly at the sides, but what was truly shocking was what it now contained. Ixi's mouth hung open, and Werty, who hadn't had any expectations whatsoever, had to clamp a paw across her mouth to stop it from letting out a squeak.
Inside the clearing were items – several toys, a pair of socks, a cardboard cutout, and even a statue or two – all bearing the likeness of a certain well-known figure. Neither of them could believe what they were seeing.
Lichen and Smaug were a little ahead, Lichen chatting away, with Smaug giving small contributions every now and then. They were slowing down. Smaug's head whipped round just as Ixi pulled his sister behind a pile of snowballs. He glared at them a moment and shook his head, turning back to his owner.
The two spies were confused. It appeared he had seen them, but he wasn't going to tell Lichen they were there. "Perhaps he wanted to tell us all along," thought Werty, and her anger towards him began to be replaced with sympathy.
"...and then the whole thread disappeared. Poof! And everyone was like 'Where did the board go!?' and I was like 'Sorry, I got warned for making a joke about trolls.'. And everyone was really confused, because usually they'd just delete my posts, but the whole thread went poof!"
"Wow," said Smaug. "So you really do have to be careful what you say."
"We all had a good laugh about it, though," Lichen continued. "And it's not like we lost anything important."
She stopped next to a conveniently placed clothes hanger.
"Anyway, let's get this one hung up and get out of here. They'll be wondering where we are soon."
Lichen unzipped the large shopping bag, and black fabric spilled out from the top. Reaching inside, she pulled the garment out, holding it high so as not to let it drag along the floor. From Ixi and Werty's hiding place, Lichen's back hid the vast majority of the garment. Until, that is, she turned to place it on the hanger.
"NO WAY!" yelled Werty.
Lichen froze – the Dr Sloth Halloween Costume hanging from her outstretched arm. Ixi ducked, as if that would fool everyone - including himself - that he wasn't really there. Werty stomped into the open on her hind legs. She clenched her fists as she walked, incredulous and incensed. Ixi followed at a distance, wishing he could hide and pretend this wasn't happening, but fearful of what might happen if he did.
"I – I –" Lichen stammered. She couldn't speak. She couldn't think. It was as if the speech centres of her brain had suddenly gone on strike.
Werty pointed an accusing claw.
"HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO US?" she screamed. Tears began to spill from her eyes. "You promised!"
"This isn't what it looks like!" exclaimed Lichen. Tears were also threatening to spill from her own eyes. She looked from Werty's mix of rage and betrayal to Ixi's anguish and shock. She hadn't wanted them to find out this way.
Smaug hung his head in shame. He didn't like lying to his family, but the secret had brought him and Lichen closer, and he'd felt good about that until now. He couldn't look his sister in the eye. He glanced at Ixi, who returned his gaze. They both shared a sense of sorrow, and took a little solace in their solidarity.
"Then what is it?" Werty accused. "You said you'd never become a Sloth supporter!"
"I'm not!" cried Lichen. "It's just I – look." She plonked the costume onto the hanger and came towards Werty. Bending down, she took the Bori's face in her hands. "You're like a little sister to me. I'd never do anything to hurt you," she said softly, a tear rolling down her cheek. Werty shook herself free and dropped onto all fours. Lichen sat beside her. Werty refused to look at her.
Smaug slithered forwards slowly, unsure whether to approach or to leave them alone. Ixi sat down a little away from the two, not wanting to disturb them but not wanting to be on his own.
Lichen stared at her shoes.
"You know that party me and Smaug went to?" asked Lichen.
"That one on the space station? That I was too sick to go to?" said Werty quietly.
"Yeah," replied Lichen. "Well..."
"What about it?" she snapped.
"He was there."
"But you said he was still trapped."
"I was wrong."
Ixi crawled over and sat beside them. Smaug did the same.
"Were you scared?" asked Werty. Lichen nodded.
"Yes, I was. I managed to hide it mostly. Smaug was a great help. I don't know what I would've done without him." Lichen patted the Hissi on the back, and his expression brightened a little.
"What was he like?" asked Werty.
"Dr. Sloth?" asked Lichen. Werty nodded. "It was surreal. Everyone there was so happy. And Sloth seemed... almost pleasant."
"And he was big," added Smaug. "Very big."
The corners of Lichen's mouth rose slightly in amusement. "Bigger than you expected?"
"I thought you were big," he said.
Ixi smiled also. However, he couldn't help but feel a little sense of foreboding. He hoped his intuition was wrong. He didn't want to lose Lichen for a second time so soon after the first. He might even lose her forever this time. For now, he kept his worries to himself.
"So what's all this for?" asked Werty, gesturing towards Lichen's collection.
"After the party, I started thinking. What if Sloth is actually a nice guy, and we've all just got the wrong impression of him?" Lichen explained.
"What?" exclaimed Werty, shocked by what she was hearing.
"But then I remembered all those vile things he's done," she continued. "Like trying to destroy Sakhmet, and attacking those poor Grundos on Kreludor. So then I thought perhaps he's only nice to people who are nice to him."
"Who would want to be nice to Sloth?" asked Werty, disgusted.
"People who want some of his power," Ixi said gravely. He looked straight at Lichen. "Or those who don't see that he's morally corrupt."
Lichen shifted uncomfortably. She hadn't known Ixi felt so strongly about the subject, and she didn't like what he might be hinting at.
"Or," said Smaug, coming to the rescue. "People who are scared of what he might do to them if they don't."
"Exactly," said Lichen. "I hadn't realised how scared of him I actually was until I saw him at that party." She took a deep breath before continuing. "Even if he did like my poem."
"What!?" Werty exclaimed. "He actually talked to you?"
"Yup," said Smaug.
"I nearly dropped my drink," said Lichen. "And then someone mentioned the Cylara poster, and I really did drop my drink."
"I had to help her pick it up," added Smaug. "Because she was shaking too much to do it herself."
"What did he say?" asked Werty, concerned.
"He just laughed and walked away," said Lichen clearly bemused. "I think I was lucky, but I'm not leaving the next time to chance."
"Why didn't you tell us?" asked Ixi.
"I didn't want you to worry. And besides, I was embarrassed," said Lichen, staring at her shoelaces. "I try to be infallible for you guys, but it doesn't always work."
Tears started dripping off her face. Werty shuffled over and wrapped her arms around Lichen's chest, and she hugged the Bori back.
"You don't need to be any stronger than you are," said Werty quietly. "You're our owner and you love us, so it doesn't matter when you make mistakes, we still love you."
"I'm so sorry I scared you," Lichen sobbed.
"It's okay," she said reassuringly. "You were just trying to protect us - like an owner should. We forgive you, don't we Ixi?"
"Yes," he said.
Lichen was clearly telling the truth. However, there was one thing he still wanted to clear up with her, but now wasn't the time.
Smaug was relieved. He had been worried that the argument might not resolve, and the other two would never forgive him for keeping Lichen's collection a secret.
"Thank you," said Lichen, drying her face on her sleeve. "I love you all so much, and sometimes I try too hard to protect you."
"It's okay," said Ixi. "Just – tell us next time something like this happens so we can work it out together. You can rely on us. Do you remember when it was just you and me, and we told each other everything?"
"That's how it needs to be. We're a family – we don't need to keep secrets from each other."
"Unless it's someone's birthday," added Smaug.
"Yes," smiled Ixi. "Birthday surprises are the exception."
"What should we do with all of this?" Lichen queried, gesturing toward the Sloth merchandise.
"We can decide about that later," said Werty. "Let's just go home."
"That okay with everyone?"
Ixi nodded, and Smaug tipped his head in agreement. It had been a tiring day for everyone.
"We can maybe stop off for some smoothies on the way back," said Lichen as they began to make their way back through the piles of junk.
"Yeah!" shouted Werty gleefully.
"What's a smoothie?" asked Smaug.
"You'll find out soon," said Ixi, smiling. It had been a while since Lichen had spent any amount of money on such a spontaneous treat. He hoped this might signal the start of a new effort on Lichen's part to try and be closer to them. He knew from experience she didn't cope well with emotional pressure. Last time, the problems had started when she stopped sharing her feelings and started trying to do everything on her own.
"I won't let her do that this time," he thought. "This time, I'll make sure she feels safe confiding in us." He'd lost her once, and he didn't want to lose her again. But as they walked and talked and laughed together, Ixi felt reassured. Their time apart had been hard for Lichen as well, and he knew she would do everything she could to stay with them. Besides, he knew what signs to look for now, and he was confident that he'd be able to spot them and warn her before it was too late.
It had been a rough few months, and there would probably be many new hurdles to come. But he knew they'd be able to tackle them - as long as they faced them together.