The answer should have been simple. Lyle was in trouble, and Lyle was his brother. Blood was thicker than water; kinship meant more than anything else.
But Manuel didn’t even know his brother – and if it was possible, he was starting to feel like he knew him even less than he had when they’d met each other at the Catacombs Coffee Shop.
Lyle was a thief. Cutting in line was something Manuel would never even consider, not once in a hundred years. But Lyle… probably had done a lot more than just cut in line. He scrunched his eyes shut. Worse things. Like going into other Neopets’ houses… and taking things. Or crossing the street out of turn. Or taking more than one piece of the Giant Omelette on the same day!
Thieves did bad things. Lyle was a thief. Manuel gave him a quick glance, flinching a little when he saw the raw impatience in his brother’s eyes. Thick, gnarled wings, massive ears, long talons, dull and lumpy skin. So different from himself, small and white and petite. Manuel wasn’t one to judge on first impressions – or to judge at all, really – but could color mean more than just surface looks? Could first impressions be right?
Could… could Lyle do bad things and still be a good person?
Could Manuel follow him? Could he really give up his principles, just like that?
Lyle was asking quite a lot of him. Personal qualms aside, if he got caught breaking into the Soup Kitchen – that was where he got lunch and dinner each day. The Soup Faerie was a gentle and patient being, sure, but even the thought of making her cross made his legs feel weak. And what would they even find in there? More explosions? More monsters, more ear-splitting screeches?
Manuel didn’t have any experience with brothers. If he did, he didn’t remember it. But none of this… really seemed like a very brotherly thing to do.
And Manuel wasn’t one to take debts. He did volunteer work daily – it just wasn’t his nature to expect payment for a job well done. But what was Lyle offering him for all of this? Not brotherly bonding time, if what had happened in the catacombs was any indication. Treasure? Manuel didn’t want treasure. Right now, the only thing he really wanted was to go home.
Memories of a past life? Looking at Lyle – if this hypothetical past-Manuel was like he was, even one little bit… he’d rather leave him buried where he was. If past-Manuel was there to speak, maybe he would have disagreed. Present-Manuel was quite happy with who he was, thank-you-very-much.
And furthermore… if he didn’t like the idea of a Manuel that was like his brother… maybe he didn’t like his brother very much, either.
When volunteer work ceased to be voluntary, it became exploitation. And the more thought he lent this whole situation, the more he realized he was being used.
When Manuel opened his mouth, his words were measured, slow, and much colder than usual.
“You came here asking me to meet you for tea. I accepted – I might not be the best with meeting strangers, but I had an opening in my evening schedule, and I had always wanted to meet my twin brother.”
“You didn’t offer me tea. You offered me terror instead. You put me in danger, from angry thieves and now some kind of monster that’s trying to hurt you. And now you want me to break the rules for you. This –“ Manuel gestured sharply to Neopia Central around him. “I don’t know what this is to you. But to me? This is my life. And this might be a rather mean thing to say, but I think I liked it better when you weren’t in it.”
They were cruel words, crueler than he normally would ever say, but they were true. Lyle could shake off the shadow beast himself. Would it make much of a difference? The thieves, the monsters – Lyle’s life was a shadow of its own.
The Mutant Korbat’s eyes widened in concern. “Manuel, I told you, I’m sorry. But-“
“I’m sorry too, Lyle. But you lied to me, and I just can’t trust anything you’ve said since then.”
Lyle’s eyes darted from side to side. “I can offer you wealth! Jewels! Do you want the artifact? You can keep it! I just…” One look from Manuel’s eyes sent him trailing back into silence.
“About that. Your letter, the one you sent me. Maybe I do have some past with you that I put behind me – and for good reason,” he added bitingly. “Maybe I don’t. Maybe I’ve never met you at all. I’m simple, Lyle, not stupid. Whatever the truth is, you knew I wouldn’t know you. And the first thing you told me about yourself wasn’t what you liked to do, or where you’ve been, or how it felt for you to finally reach out to your long-lost brother. It was how rich you were.”
He lifted a wing. “Some Neopets, that might impress. But me? Everyone here calls me Modest Manuel. You’d have learned that if you were more interested in me than you were yourself. I might not have much. But I don’t need much, and I don’t want much. And I was having a fine day until you came here and almost got me killed.”
“You’re not interested in me. You’re interested in what I can do for you. And Lyle, I’m very sorry, but you’ve got the wrong Neopet for the job.”
A screech, hollow and furious, echoed in the distance.
Manuel pointed towards the metropolitan sprawl. “The Defenders of Neopia Headquarters are that way. If angry shadow monsters are giving you trouble, I’m sure they’d love to help.”
“Brother-“ Lyle started, something like desperation in his beady eyes. There was a beat of silence, and then he blurted out all the panic that had built since his brother first stood up for himself. “The monster! It’s going to kill me! You’re the only one who can trick it – we’re twins, it can’t tell the difference, I need you to- to-”
One step from liftoff, the perfectly ordinary Korbat turned around.
“Ah,” he said, softly. “So that’s what this was about.”
He tossed the package to his ‘brother’. Whatever was inside, it didn’t concern him any longer.
And then he flew away.
It was dark when he reached his house. The lights came on with a flick of the wrist, greeting his tired eyes like an old friend, and the interior of his Neohome stretched out before him, lit in a soft yellow glow.
It was a relief to see that nothing had changed, after the long and trying evening he’d had.
He heated up a mug of hot water and took out a cocoa packet from his sparse cupboards. Only three left. Well, he’d have to use them sparingly; he didn’t have the Neopoints for these frivolities very often.
But today? Hmm… today called for it. He stirred in the cocoa, and on second thought, took out a carton of whipped cream and put a dollop of it onto his drink.
Yes, today definitely called for a treat.
He took his mug and settled into his threadbare armchair, and let his mind wander. The crack in his wall was still there; the paint around it had begun to peel. Maybe it was time to touch up the finish. Or maybe it wasn’t. He didn’t mind it.
The crack sat there, unmoving. Unchanging. Like a scar on the wall; it would remain until he tended to it. Perhaps, if there was another storm, it would grow, splinter, spread.
Maybe there had been a different Manuel, once. Maybe there hadn’t been. Whatever the truth was, it was concealed beneath layers of paint.
On second thought, perhaps he did mind. Tomorrow. He’d fix it tomorrow.
He sat there for a while, his drink untouched. Tomorrow, he had volunteer work at the Kadoatery from eight ‘til eleven. A half hour’s stroll around the city, and then lunch at the Soup Kitchen. Maybe he’d ask the Soup Faerie about any unexpected visitors, or disappearances…
…No. It didn’t concern him. Lunch at the Soup Kitchen. Then cleanup at the Money Tree, and after that he could visit the Neohome store for some new paint. Perhaps if he was done early, he’d make it in time for the evening poetry reading at the Catacombs.
But for now… hot chocolate on a warm night. He lifted the mug, took a sip, and closed his eyes in bliss.
The simplest of pleasures.