Ruined Library: Part One
This is part of a series; it is a sequel to my previous submission, Cloud Flute. Read that before reading this!
"Hurry up, Laerya, they're all expecting you out there!"
"You mind hurrying it up there, kid? We've got a show to put on."
"You're normally so fast, Lae, why does it take you so long to put on a dress?"
"Lae, hurry up!"
"I'm hurrying, okay?!" Laerya shouted, hoping to appease the onslaught of nagging voices hidden behind the curtain. She fumbled about with her dress, trying desperately to slip it on. It was so unlike the casual blue top and trousers she always wore that she was having a hard time figuring out how to put it on. And of course she didn't want help from anybody, not even her mother, who had come to witness this 'spectacular show', as she called it. Lae was determined to show everyone that she could put on a dress, though the task was proving more difficult than it had originally appeared to be.
The purple Cybunny stood awkwardly in front of the mirror, examining her irritated expression. Her hair, normally tied up in a ponytail, had been let down for this occasion, with the two strands at the front slightly curled so they hung just below her shoulders. "Don't I look special?" she murmured sarcastically, loathing her girlish appearance. Once she put her dress on she would be unrecognizable as the Cybunny who defeated Vacerus.
That was what the celebration was for, after all: to 'honour' the 'heroes' that 'defeated' the mighty Draik, Vacerus. Laerya scoffed at her mother's choice of words. There was nothing to honour, there were no heroes, and Vacerus was not defeated. He had simply been put to sleep. He was not the enemy; Lorelei was. But this celebration decided to ignore that fact and simply highlight Lae's struggle against Vacerus. The Draik hadn't been to blame for his ferocity, as it was Lorelei who had woken him with the Cloud Flute and disturbed his slumber, and yet... they were celebrating this occurrence?
"I should be out hunting Lorelei, not entertaining people!" Laerya groaned as she fumbled once more with her dress. She managed to put it on, finally, and she stared again at her reflection. Yes, she really wasn't 'Laerya' right now, but at least her pink hair streak and yellow scarf stayed, allowing some resemblance to her normal self. Her mother had disapproved of her wearing the scarf on her neck, but Lae managed to persuade her to wear it as a ribbon on her dress, since there was no way she would be parted from it.
"Laerya!" Elora, a shadow Zafara and Lae's adopted sister (of sorts), called to her from behind the curtain again. "You done yet? Akorri's ready and waiting!"
Ah yes, Akorri. The red Xweetok, the Red Rogue as he was also known, who was just as responsible for defeating Vacerus as Laerya was. Lae stifled a giggle as she wondered how ridiculous Akorri must look, as Lae's mother had demanded that everyone must dress appropriately for this occasion. And since he was playing the lead role alongside Laerya in a play accounting the tale of Vacerus, he was bound to look absurd.
"I'm done!" Laerya replied, flinging back the curtain to see Elora frowning impatiently at her. And behind the Zafara stood Akorri.
The Xweetok wore a long, dark red trench coat with black cuffs, buttoned up to cover almost all of his neck fur. His hair, normally a red mess, had been combed so it sat neatly on his head. He still wore his purple gloves – Laerya guessed he must have fought hard to keep them on – and his tail flicked elegantly behind him. In short, he looked quite nice, but Lae found it odd to see him looking so smart.
"You two look great," Elora said, ushering them to the stage. "Quickly now, no time to waste."
As they walked together, the noise of the crowd grew from an audible hum to a loud grumble, almost like thunder. The event, originally thought up by Denise, a pink Zafara Laerya's other adopted sister, had been organised by Kyraviolet, a strawberry Zafara and another adopted sister, and she had invited all of the family – close and extended – and even their friends to a celebration detailing Laerya and Akorri's triumph.
The closer they came to the stage, the more nervous Laerya became. She wasn't a very good actress, and even though she had experienced this event for real, her mother had given her a script to follow. Lae just hoped she wouldn't mess it up, and she knew she appeared ridiculous in her dress. "I look so stupid," she muttered.
"You do look stupid," Akorri agreed. Laerya was about to thump him when he continued, "But so do I, so we can look stupid together. Okay?"
Laerya raised an eyebrow at him. "You do look more idiotic than I do, so... okay." She grinned, grateful for the Xweetok's words.
Akorri nodded. "And don't worry about the play. It'll be a big flop, because I know you won't be able to remember your lines and you'll probably knock over a bunch of the props, but at least we'll have fun doing this, right?"
"... Right..." Lae sighed, trying not to grin again. Akorri sure did have an interesting way of cheering her up.
They approached the steps leading to the stage and Elora peeked her head through the large theatre curtains to let the crowd know that the play would now begin. Bellows of excitement met her words and Laerya had to wonder just how many people were there to watch her and Akorri. She shivered, only stopping at the calming touch of Akorri's hand on her shoulder and his encouraging wink.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Denise's voice could be heard through the curtain, bright with excitement for what was to come, "May I present the play – 'Sky Recorder!'"
Sky Recorder? Who thought of that name? Laerya thought, exchanging a confused glance with Akorri. On the other side of the curtain most of the audience cheered, though Lae heard a voice shout, "It's 'Cloud Flute', Denise!"
"Oh, right." Laerya assumed Denise was fumbling with the microphone since the sound quality lessened. "Sorry! Um, uh, ladies and gentleman, 'Cloud Flute!'"
"Now that wasn't awkward at all," Akorri muttered. "I hope it's not an indication of how the play's gonna go."
"Oh, it is." Laerya swallowed her anxiety.
At that moment, the curtains were drawn back agonisingly slowly, yet far too quickly at the same time. Hundreds of eyes burned on Laerya as she stepped onto the stage, her blue gown sparkling in the artificial lighting.
She took a moment to try and meet all of the gazes that stared back at her, but there were so many. She thought she saw Fericeus the white Xweetok and Kiyake the faerie Xweetok eyeing her especially closely.
And then her gaze drew over one familiar brown eye, blending in with the crowd, yet standing out brilliantly with recognition. What was Jinny doing here?
A deafening silence filled Lae's ears. Was she supposed to speak? The appearance of Jinny caught her completely off-guard and now she couldn't remember a single line of the play.
"... Lae. Time's a wasting." Akorri's hushed breath broke the stillness and snapped Lae back to reality.
"Right." She cleared her throat, struggling to keep her body still. She was aching to leave the piercing stares of the audience and disappear, but she had a show to put on. And who was she to run away from a challenge? With this encouraging thought, she began the play.
"I am a curious Cybunny," she said. "And I enjoy going on adventures. It is fun." Oh Fyora, this doesn't feel natural at all, she thought. Who says 'it is fun?' "So of course, when Fericeus, my very smart white Xweetok friend, told me the story of the Cloud Flute, I was intrigued."
The sea of eyes stared, unblinking, as Lae continued her train-wreck of a monologue. Who wrote this play, anyway? "Being the... silly Cybunny that I am..." She winced. "... I thought that the Cloud Flute might be a real thing. But I wasn't the only one!" She paused. Something was missing there... what had her script told her to do? Oh yeah, I remember. She gave the most unconvincing gasp, putting a hand to her mouth to dramatise her emotions. I probably look like I'm yawning. With my eyes wide open.
"Yes," a voice declared behind Lae. She turned to see a red Kyrii dressed in a purple robe that looked alarmingly similar to Lorelei's. The Kyrii grinned at Lae – her smile was more rogue-like than menacing, but Jazzikai pulled it off well enough – and went on, "I am Lorelei Sejir, the most fearsome Bori that ever lived!" She opened her mouth and her exaggerated evil laugh echoed across the stage. "Haha! So when I found out about the Cloud Flute, I decided to see if it was real!" Jazzikai threw her hands up in the air as she finished speaking.
Jazz is really milking this for all it's worth, Lae thought with a quick smile. She fits the role of Lorelei quite well. They're both crazy.
From the corner of her eye she saw Akorri take a step forward. "I am Akorri, the Red Rogue." The serious tone in which he spoke immediately attracted Lae's attention. It sounded so different from her or Jazz's performances – it was professional. "My job is thievery and my skill is stealth." He looked up to meet the audience's gaze, which had at this point all become one collective stare. "Knowing this, Lorelei hired me to steal the Cloud Flute from Faerieland's gallery."
Akorri can act! Lae found herself staring in amazement at the red Xweetok. They had not rehearsed their lines together, so watching Akorri perform was a new experience for her.
"The Red Rogue brought me the flute and I paid him a bunch of money," Jazz explained to the audience. "I decided to go down to the caverns in the Endless Plains..." The wily red Kyrii took a few steps forward, but was obviously unused to walking in such a long robe. She stumbled awkwardly before her face crashed into the stage floor.
Ouch! Lae flinched as Jazz made contact with the floor. This is going to be such a long play...
The play resumed without a hitch - well, serious hitch. If Lae's appalling acting and tendency to slip on her dress and crash to the stage floor weren't counted. Akorri was much better at this sort of thing, Lae concluded. She'd watched him act as though he'd done it all his life; put on the gruffest voice he could muster, maintaining eye contact with her whenever the need arose (the scene where Vacerus rose up and Akorri refused to run away was particularly daunting; an allusion to their real experience, no doubt, and he acted much the same, if not scarier). Laerya breathed a sigh of relief as Elora took the stage and finished the play with, "That's all, have a great day!" Not the most professional of closing lines, but it did its job.
The crowd dispersed to attend to their own needs - mostly to grab some food from the buffet that lined the area. Since this room could house both the stage and the large amount of Neopets inside it, it cost a lot to rent out. Laerya remembered guiltily that her mother had paid for it to see her daughter perform. "Not my best moment up there," she muttered.
"I have to agree," Akorri said as the two of them descended the stage steps to join the masses. "I mean, I knew you couldn't act, but that was downright terrible."
"Thanks." The heat on Lae's cheeks rose as she remembered the part of the play where she'd run off to face Vacerus again on her own. Nobody knew the real reason for why she'd flaked out the first time (fright had gotten the better of her) so the scriptwriters had put it up to Lae and Akorri being unable to find anything in the tunnel. Which had been true, of course, but Lae couldn't play her part there convincingly at all, when she secretly knew why she had backed out. Her performance in that scene had been especially lacking, all her words were wooden; even she could hear how fake she sounded.
Her mother, bless her, paid no attention to such bad acting. The blue Cybunny approached her daughter and wrapped her in a tight hug, declaring proudly, "You were great up there!" Well, love is blind, Lae supposed.
"Thanks, Mum," she sighed. "But I don't ever want to do that again."
"Nonsense, nonsense, we have a great script for your adventure in Greenglade already," Lae's mum countered with a smile as she released her daughter.
Laerya's jaw dropped and her eye gave an involuntary twitch at this piece of news. Greenglade was an episode she was more than willing to forget, and to act it out was beyond her tolerance level. She didn't want to relive the pain of being unable to help the Greengladers, and for her mother to treat it as just another one of her daughter's adventures was a horrible thought to discover. "No," she hissed with more vehemence than intended.
Her mother responded with a worried frown and a shake of her head. "But it's a good script, dear; you'll enjoy acting it out."
The blue Cybunny was blind to common sense as well, it seemed. Anyone who spoke to Lae after the incident knew how much it bothered her. She remembered what she had told Fericeus: that she was a failure and Lorelei was worse than an evil witch. "Please, just..." Laerya gritted her teeth to remain calm. "No."
"Uh," Akorri interjected awkwardly. Laerya glared at him; what nerve did he have to get involved with a family matter? He was no doubt going to back her mother up, just to get another chance to act. He liked performing too much. "Miss, if it's okay, I really don't think we should do another play."
At this, Lae's mother finally took some interest. "Oh? This is coming from our second best performer!" She folded her arms and looked at him with concern. "Why don't you want to do the play, Akorri?"
"It's painful to think about," the red Xweetok admitted. Was he being honest or just speaking for Laerya? Either way, she wasn't sure she was glad about him helping her out. Sure she didn't know how to get through to her mother, but what made him think he could? "What happened back there isn't something to be celebrated."
That's what I thought about this play! Lae's eyes widened as she realised they shared the same idea.
"If..." her mother trailed off with a heavy sigh. "If that's what you think, then we shouldn't do the play." She turned her pink eyes on Lae. "Laerya, if that's why you didn't want to do this, why didn't you just say so?"
Laerya was about to protest, but found she didn't know what to say. She'd been so sure she told her mother about her misgivings... she had, right? Why wouldn't she? As she fought for words, she realised that in fact she hadn't said a word to anyone about her inner turmoil. Not even Akorri. So had Lae's mother just pinned her daughter's reluctance to perform on the chance of her developing stage fright? "... I don't know," she admitted, hanging her head.
She felt a gentle pat on her shoulder and looked up at her mother. "You don't have to lie to me," she said in a firm but gentle voice. "You can tell me anything, you know?" She hugged her daughter close to her. "Oh, with you going off on your own all the time I think you might have developed some bad habits."
Laerya stiffened at this. "Bad habits? Like what?"
"You are too independent for someone so young." Her mother glanced over at Akorri. "You never used to be this proud, either. You've changed."
Laerya narrowed her eyes. She thought she'd hit an understanding with her mother, but relationships never were that easy, were they? "Of course I've changed, Mum. Everybody does."
"I'm just saying you should relax a little more, okay? Enjoy the smaller things in life. Keep the new friends you make. Like you used to."
Lae turned away and crossed her arms. Her mother was feeding her lies. Of course she kept her friends, and of course she enjoyed their company!
"Let them help you, for once."
The purple Cybunny swallowed as the realisation hit her like a tonne of bricks. Throughout most of her time as a traveller, she'd been fully committed to helping others in need, without much thought for herself. Unfortunately Lae now noticed that also included shrugging off any help offered to her. Anything Akorri had ever done for her, especially when he healed her in the Haunted Woods the first time they met... his help in particular had been difficult to accept. She'd found herself sharing some sort of rivalry with the red Xweetok and all of this must have culminated into the sort of crippling pride that prevented Lae from being the open Cybunny she once was.
Well, now she knew how Akorri felt. He was much the same, if not worse.
"I'm sorry," she apologised earnestly. "I never realised." She smiled ruefully, gazing around the mass of Neopets that were meant to be her friends and extended family. She really took them for granted.
"It's fine, Laerya," her mother sighed. "Just remember that it's okay to accept help every once in a while. And try to have fun today, we're meant to be celebrating." She looked on thoughtfully. "Oh yes, there was a white Kyrii with a big black Gallion earlier asking specifically for you. You should go say hello."
To be continued...