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Ashes of the Alabriss


by salem_822

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Brynn pulled her thick orange hair into a tight bun, holding it in place with one hand while the other removed the hairpin she’d been holding between her teeth to finish securing it. The Orange Kougra leaned into the mirror, briefly accessing her reflection as she twisted the two loose strands framing her face around her fingers to tame them.

     It was a hairstyle she wore out of practicality rather than any distinct or meaningful sense of individuality. The only thing she decidedly knew was that she liked having long hair; beyond that she’d never been able to decide how to style it, lacking the patience for some of the more elaborate Altadorian hairstyles. The simple well-kempt bun was at least as becoming as it was functional.

     The morning sun greeted her as she stepped outside, its golden light painting the rooftops of the Bazaar District.

     There was a special degree of peace that came with waking up early, a peace she shared with the electric Alabriss waiting patiently for her in the stall on the other side of her parents’ small yard.

     “Storm!” she greeted with a smile, brightening at the way his ears perked at the sound of her voice.

     This was their time; before the day had truly begun, when the sun had only just begun to peek over the city’s walls and the rest of the world was still shedding the final vestiges of sleep. “Good boy,” she cooed, slipping a halter over his head and tying him outside the stall.

     There wasn’t near enough space to turn him out in the yard, so Brynn would drive him every day for exercise, dreaming that someday her training career would afford her enough Neopoints to move out of the city; somewhere their private world was no longer confined to the liminal space between night and day.

     As a child her dream had been to become a chariot racer, to win glory on the track through upholding and exemplifying the sacred bond between Alabriss and driver; just as her father had with Perfect Storm before he’d been retired from the track in the wake of a career-ending injury. He was still fit for light driving, but he would never race again.

     The track still called to her, but she found fulfilment and pride in employing the knowledge she’d accrued through a lifetime of studying the old masters and the training techniques passed down through her family, adopting the honour and purpose of improving the lives and strengthening the bonds between Neopets and their Alabrisses.

     “How was your night?” she asked softly as crouched to run her hands down each leg and check his hooves. Upon reaching his injured shoulder, she took particular care in palpating the muscle that lay tight and twisted beneath his skin. The memory of the crash drifted like a ghost across the periphery of her thoughts; a chaotic tangle of writhing legs and twisted reins, her world threatening to shatter as the scene played out like a nightmare from a perspective untethered from her physical body.

     It had been a careless driver who’d caused it, cutting abruptly in front of another team and forcing them to collide with Storm and her father. The culprit had been fined, disqualified, and banned from all future events. Both drivers had walked away with only minor injuries, but the punishment had still been a pittance considering the other Alabriss involved in the wreck hadn’t been nearly as lucky as Storm.

     “I’m not going to take you out this morning, I’m sorry. I have an early training consultation but I’ll be back for you in the afternoon,” Brynn informed him gently, giving him a pat before pivoting towards the stall. Entering with a bounce in her step, she let her fingertips brush over the bristles of the broom head she’d nailed to the opening frame for Storm to scratch himself on.

     “Hi, Taffy,” she greeted the mutant Naalala asleep inside, finding his gangly little body hunched into the corner. At the sound of her voice, he looked up and gave a lazy swish of his tail. “I’m going out this morning,” she reiterated, picking up a pitchfork and giving him a light tap on the behind to shoo him outside while she cleaned the stall.

     Despite its ramshackle appearance, she kept it meticulously maintained- hence the patchwork of contrasting wooden boards and planks from years of spot repairs and various levels of weathering. She also had a notebook in which she’d systematically record Storm’s physical condition based on a series of observable parameters. (Were his eyes bright? Was he breathing normally? Was he in any pain- particularly around his injured shoulder?) It had become second nature to her, allowing her to perform and most checks without having to consciously think about it.

     She chatted idly to both Petpets as she worked, finding them to be far better listeners than most Neopets despite only understanding the few words they’d learned by association. Far more important was their understanding of emotional energy. To them she wasn’t bossy, she was strong and confident. They respected her in an unconditional bond of mutual trust and comfort that transcended species.

     The day progressed as usual; after putting Storm back in his stall and giving him a goodbye kiss on the end of his nose, she left for her consultation. It wasn’t particularly eventful, mostly advice on teaching a pushy young Alabriss to respect boundaries.

     Upon returning home hours later to find the yard empty, the mundane normalcy dampened what might have been a response of full on panic to one characterized more by confusion and mild alarm.

     Both of her parents were still home, she found upon entering the house. Her heart continued to sink, seeming to gather speed in its descent despite her best efforts to cling to the thread of hope holding it up.

     “Where’s Storm?” she asked hesitantly.

     Her mother, a prim White Wocky, appeared as though she would prefer to be anywhere else, looking everywhere but at Brynn.

     Her father, on the contrary, was staring directly at her with a stern yet apprehensive look of pre-emptive disappointment; the burly Red Lupe’s face reading as a warning not to be hysterical.

     “There was an auction today,” he said frankly. “You must have known this was a long time coming. Storm was a good Alabriss. He served our family well, but you’ll never be able to move forward with your life if you’re putting all of your time and neopoints into him. Your dedication was respectable, but you can’t throw everything away for a broken Alabriss.”

     Brynn felt her world shatter beneath her feet, crumbling away until there was nothing left for her to stand on. Except she was still standing, and somehow standing on nothing felt far worse than falling into it.

     “Brynneth, dear,” her mother said gently. “I know how much you care about him, but sometimes the hardest part of love is knowing when to say goodbye. It was hard for us too, but it was done in kindness- so you both might have brighter futures.”

     “Kindness? What kindness?” Brynn’s tone was far more spiteful than she’d intended, anger and betrayal surging through her like a torrent of boiling water. “You know the sort of Neopets who bid on auction Alabrisses- especially ones who can’t compete! Where is he?”

     “He has papers and a legacy on the track. That bodes in his favour,” her father said, condescending in his composure. “Don’t speak to your mother like that.”

     “Then tell me where he is!” she demanded again, raising her voice.

     “Brynneth!” her father barked, seizing her tightly by the forearms. Her instinct to freeze was all but incinerated by the fire raging inside of her, inciting her to struggle against him. “You are too old for these hysterics! You don’t deserve to know anything if you’re going to be this disrespectful and uncivilized.”

     He was in her face now. It was uncomfortable, chaotic. She hated it. Breathing heavily through her nose, she willed herself to stop fighting it. She needed to calm down, that’s all it was. If she was calm he’d let go.

     When he did, it was jerky and abrupt like he was dropping a hot coal, like he was disgusted with her. For once his approval didn’t matter to her. She had no desire for it when nothing could compare to her disgust for him.

     “I will never forgive you,” she hissed, spinning around making for the exit before he could as much as think of restraining her again. The resounding slam of the door behind her elicited a startled bleat from the backyard.

     Taffy. At least he was still here. “He’s gone,” she told the Naalala hoarsely, her eyes welling up as she opened the gate so he could follow her out into the street. She had no idea where she was going, she just needed to go, to move, to get away.

     It may as well have been a piece of her own heart her parents had callously sold off. The little family she’d built for herself was fractured, rendering her utterly lost in the only place she’d ever called home.

     She wandered aimlessly until the city was blanketed in starlight. Crowds thinned and streets emptied, leaving her alone with her broken heartbeat, the click of Taffy’s hooves, and her own footsteps all sounding out of time.

     She rounded another corner aimlessly, beginning to seriously question what plan was, when a flash of electric blue caught her eye. The discordant cacophony of mismatched beats stopped as she stared in disbelief.

     There was Storm, hitched to a post outside a shop. It didn’t seem real- to see him standing so casually along the road. But it was. Like a legend written in the stars, he had come back to her.

     “Storm,” she whispered, glancing around to find the street still empty. A small voice piped up from the back of her head to ask if she was really about to do this.

     She silenced it immediately.

     Of course she was. There was no telling what fate might befall Storm if she left him to whoever had pulled him from the auction. Her responsibility had always been and would always be to care for and protect him. She would get him somewhere safe and figure the rest out later- maybe she could paint him a different colour and find a stable to board him at. It wasn’t her ideal scenario, but it was the best she could come up with on the spot.

     His lead rope was looped into a quick-release knot, unravelling with satisfying ease when she pulled on the tail end.

     “Come on, Storm,” she coaxed, adrenaline pounding through her veins. “This way.”

     “Thief!” a voice pierced through the quiet veil of darkness, spooking Storm and turning Brynn’s blood to ice. The Alabriss reared, threatening to pull the rope out of her hands as she desperately fought to calm him and salvage the situation. She could do this, she told herself. They could still make it if she got him under control.

     “What’s going on?” a deeper voice boomed, prompting Brynn to turn her head in time to see two guards round the corner.

     This couldn’t be happening.

     “I won’t leave you,” she hissed, yanking the lead in an attempt to get his attention back on her. “Please, Storm.”

     Then, she was the one being pulled. One of the guards, a Red Skeith, had seized her from behind and was attempting to restrain him while his Green Draik partner took hold of Storm.

     “No!” she shrieked, watching everything fall to pieces around her as she thrashed against an unyielding wall of armour and muscle with rabid desperation.

     When everything seemed at its most hopeless she was struck with a sudden flash of clarity, like a light breaking through the darkness just long enough for her to orient herself. She twisted, turning her head to bite into the one section of the Skeith’s upper arm that wasn’t covered with armour.

     “Ah!” he flinched, faltering for just a split second but it was all she needed to stomp on his foot and break free, taking off sprinting.

     There were voices shouting after her, windows lighting up as if the commotion outside had shocked them to life, but she barely registered any of it. She just ran. One foot after the other; the rhythmic pounding of each step was almost soothing.

     I’m sorry, Storm. Wherever you go, I swear I’ll find you again.

      *-*-*

     Hanso took a deep breath in the mirror, his fingers numbed by the stream of frigid water. As a concept he craved the refreshing splash of icy-cold against his face, but in practice, his hands refused to obey. Twisting the tap shut, he settled for simply rubbing his wet fingers over his eyelids. Not exactly invigorating, but the slight chill was enough to chase away the final vestiges of sleep.

     His reflection returned his gaze with a slight smile as he proceeded to finger-comb through his bangs, the moisture causing sections of hair to clump together. With his other hand, he reached for the open jar of pomade on the edge of the sink’s basin, swiping over the surface to pick up a thin layer and massage it through each individual strand, gently styling them with a subtle curl to create an illusion of being effortlessly windswept.

     Pleased, he dressed himself in a pale yellow toga that hung delicately from his shoulder, accented by a bold purple sash. The flowing fabric draped loosely over the contours of his midsection, showcasing instead the discernible musculature in his arms and legs earned from years of working on the farm.

     Checking himself in the mirror a final time, he took in his appearance with a slight flutter of satisfaction. While he had no illusions to being the most handsome Ixi in the conventionally chiselled masculine sense, he saw no reason for that to bar him from appreciating the softer charm of his own features.

     The pleasant warmth of the Altadorian sun blanketed him with a sense of lazy contentment as he walked out towards the pastures. On cue, he was greeted by a familiar nicker as a jaunty rainbow Alabriss trotted up to meet him at the gate, his colourful coat shining lustrously in the morning light.

     “’Morning, Grail.” Hanso smiled softly as the Alabriss bumped his nose against his hand. He gave Grail a scratch around the ears, a gesture the Petpet happily leaned into, before proceeding towards the stables.

     Since all of the Alabrisses on the property spent the majority of their time turned out in the field, the barn wasn’t used for much more than storage unless one of the Alabrisses fell ill or sustained an injury that necessitated stall rest.

     There was something atmospherically arresting about walking down the aisle lined with empty stalls, particles of dust dancing in beams of filtered sunlight amidst distant sounds of the world outside. In the years since losing his mother, the solitude of these moments had taken on a particularly hollow poignancy. He’d ascended the ladder to the hay loft countless times, but it never failed to evoke memories of his childhood; inventing games in which he’d climb from the loft onto the rafters. It was one of the few things his mother had been particularly stern about. Unfortunately for him, her warnings had gone largely ignored until he’d fallen and broken his leg. He’d wholly expected her to be furious, but her gentle care and genuine concern in spite of his disobedience had struck him in a very different yet equally profound way.

     His reminiscing was brought to a jarring halt when he reached to top of the ladder and was immediately beset with the alarming realization that he was not, in fact, alone.

     Orange struck him first, drawing his eyes to the warm glow enkindled by the shaft of light beaming through the small gable vent. Panic and confusion gripped him as he grappled to process the realization that there was a strange woman in his barn, asleep- perhaps unconscious- atop a hay bale. Unconsciously, he leaned forward to take in her features.

     From what he could discern, the Kougra wasn’t anyone he recognized, and he was certain nobody had come home with him last night.

     Sudden movement cut his pondering short, the alarm of unexpectedly locking with another pair of eyes shooting straight to his heart and nearly sending him tumbling backwards off the ladder.

     Like a lone spark that failed to ignite, the shock passed as quickly as it had gripped him and he found himself staring bewilderedly at a nervous-looking blue Naalala who was peering back at him from behind a hay bale. At least he thought it was blue- it was abnormally scruffy and honestly rather ugly compared to the wild Naalalas he’d sometimes see frolicking through the pasture. Those ones were cute and spritely, while this creature had a sort of droopy and bedraggled vibe about it.

     Just how many intruders was he dealing with?

     The Petpet let out an anxious squeak that sent the Kougra shooting bolt upright like she’d been poked with a hot iron. She was clearly disoriented, frantically scanning the space and freezing when she caught sight of Hanso, an unmistakable glint of fear in her eyes.

     For a heartbeat, time was suspended between them; millions of half-formed questions and calculations hidden behind blank stares. Then, all too abruptly, she broke the illusion by leaping to her feet only for her knees to buckle, causing her to stumble as she caught herself. Hissing, she backed into the hay with a startled flinch.

     He was blocking her only escape; a realization mirrored by the sudden clarity that dawned in her wild gaze before she broke off staggering towards the railing.

     “Stop!” he shouted reflexively, surprised it actually caused her to freeze.

     “I’m leaving.” Her voice was firm, ringing with unexpected confidence.

     “Really? It seemed like you wanted to stay.” Hanso couldn’t help the amused smirk he felt spreading across his face at the sheer absurdity of the situation. His joke, sadly, provided little in the way of levity. In lieu of acknowledging him, she beckoned to the Petpet and outstretched her arms like she was planning on picking it up.

     “You can’t seriously be that desperate to get away from me!” His voice hitched, producing an embarrassing squawk of disbelief and desperation. “Don’t jump, it’s higher than you think.”

     “I know how high it is,” she snapped, finally paying attention to him. The Naalala was standing next to her now. With its hunched posture, its head reached just above her knee. She lowered herself slowly into a crouch and wrapped her arms around it protectively.

     “Look, I’m not going to hurt you or your… friend.” He gestured to the unsightly creature that now also seemed to be glaring at him from her embrace. “I’ll climb down and get out of way- just please use the ladder.”

     “You shouldn’t store hay in your barn,” she said matter-of-factly, as if she were some wild flinty apparition sent to deliver a message before flying over the railing and vanishing into the abyss.

     “What?”

     “It’s a health and safety hazard; dust, mould, spontaneous combustion.”

     “You think I don’t know that? If you’re so concerned about it, why were you sleeping in here?” Hanso still hadn’t the slightest idea how this conversation had come about, but he was grateful, at least, for the lull in the storm of chaos that had been triggered the moment she’d opened her eyes. Features that might have been cute and disarming on another Neopet read on her as rigid and severe. She was still relatively pretty, he thought, though equally filthy and dishevelled. What might have once been a neat bun hung limply atop her head, stands of untamed hair and loose hay sticking out in every direction like the quills of a threatened Petpet.

     “Maybe I don’t care,” she spat, her blue eyes flaring with an emotion he couldn’t quite place beyond the surface recognition she was upset. Maybe she was crazy-crazy, he considered with a pang of concern.

     “Hey, I’m trying to help you! Do you have somewhere to go?”

     The question seemed to hit her like water over a flame. Without her raging temper, she appeared much smaller, more vulnerable. “It doesn’t matter,” she muttered, stroking her Petpet’s head as she stared blankly at the ground in front of her.

     “Hey…” His mind was reeling, searching for the answer to a question he couldn’t even begin to understand.

     “I’m sorry,” she whispered so softly he almost missed it. “I shouldn’t have intruded.”

     Hanso made another attempt to offer her a charming smile, but she wasn’t looking at him. “As long as you’re not hurting the Alabrissses, it’s not a big deal.” He shrugged, finally climbing the final rungs of the ladder and pulling himself up into the loft.

     That got her attention; her eyes snapping dangerously in his direction. He raised his palms in a placating gesture, taking a step back. “I do need to get their food, that’s what I came up here for.”

     “Can I help?” she asked suddenly, seeming to surprise herself with the question as much as she’d surprised him. “I wouldn’t want to keep you from caring for your Petpets.” She hesitantly let go of the Naalala and stood stiffly, as though she were quite literally holding herself together.

     “Ah, so you like Alabrisses.” he felt the smile creep back onto his face. Common ground, familiar territory. He could work with that.

     “Yes.” It was captivatingly paradoxical and almost disquieting to look at her. Though she had brightened considerably, all of her feral anger seemed to have been replaced with equally poignant sadness.

     “I’ll introduce you to my herd when you come down, but only if you promise to use the ladder.”

     That finally seemed to get a smile out of her. It was faint, but its delicate authenticity was his heart’s prize for the small victory.

     “All right.”

     She moved slowly towards the ladder with an awkward, halting gait, leading him to wonder if she was injured or if that was simply how she walked.

     “Are you hurt?” he asked cautiously, hoping he wasn’t being offensive.

     “No!” The response was automatic and defensive. “I’m fine- just… I was just exercising.”

     “Must have been quite the workout,” he commented, looking her up and down. “You look great, by the way.”

     “What’s that supposed to mean?” Her face was visibly flushed and she was glowering at him again.

     “It’s a compliment,” he deadpanned.

     “Right.” She huffed, proceeding to step onto the ladder and once again ignoring him as she climbed down, gently commanding her Naalala to stay when she ‘d descended to the point where only her head was visible above the loft’s floor. Once she’d gingerly made it to the bottom, she called for him. Taffy, he learned his name was.

     Hanso had been prepared to have to help him down somehow, but the creature scaled the ladder with unexpected ease, its little hooves hopping from rung to rung while it used its gangly arms and oddly Neopet-like hands to hold on.

     “Heads up!” Hanso called from above, checking they were out of the way before tossing a bale down into the aisle. It hit the ground with a heavy thud, stirring up a cloud of dust particles. “I’m Hanso, by the way.” He leaned against the railing, grinning down at her.

     “Brynn,” she answered curtly, gazing up at him with a demure smile that actually seemed to meet her eyes.

     *-*-*

     Brynn limped awkwardly alongside Hanso as he pushed a wheelbarrow filled with hay out of the barn. He seemed harmless enough, but being alone and debilitated with a strange man still made her stomach twist with unease. She wasn’t sure if she should be reassured or disquieted by his willingness to be relatively kind to her in spite of her less than becoming attitude.

     “I’m sorry,” she murmured again, picking at the fur on her upper arm.

     “Hey, all you did was make my morning more interesting.” He shot her another incandescent smile, his easy forgiveness only fanning the flames of her guilt.

     “I also trespassed, drank from your hose, and I think I threw up somewhere in your barn.” The jumble of words came spilling out of her like the honey toast she’d eaten for breakfast yesterday, along with a vague recollection of crying herself to sleep. The memory of Storm made her feel sick all over again.

     Don’t cry in front of him.

     “I promise I’ll clean it up,” she vowed hoarsely, focusing on the pain radiating through her leg muscles to ground herself in the moment.

     Like putting a twitch on an Alabriss, she thought.

     She’d used twitches a few times to help owners manage their difficult Alabrisses during routine veterinary procedures; a clamp that applied light pressure to the upper lip to calm and distract the Petpet from the unpleasant task being performed.

     In her case, the acute burn in her legs was far more tolerable than the searing pain in her heart.

     “It was an accident.” His assurance sounded gentle, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at him. His expression probably betrayed his disgust. Her eyes moved sadly to Taffy who was trotting stiffly beside her. She hadn’t expected him to follow her all this way, but he had- and he’d suffered for his loyalty. The dizzying gravity of her actions hit her all at once, and if she hadn’t been in the company of a stranger she might have crumpled right then and willed herself to sink into the earth.

     Choking back her emotion, she extended her arms to Taffy and bent down to scoop him up, her thigh muscles threatening to give out as she forced her legs to straighten back into an upright position.

     “I’m so sorry,” she whispered, clutching him against her chest and nuzzling her face between his curled horns. His tail gave a single wag in response, which wracked her with yet another facet of the pain that had made its home in her heart.

     “Hey, uh, are you sure you’re all right?”

     She chanced a glance at Hanso, her cheek still resting atop the Naalala’s head. She nodded.

     “He could ride in the wheelbarrow if, you want. Might be fun for him.”

     “No, I want to hold him.” Now that she had his weight resting in her arms, the idea of him being taken from her was a thought she could scarcely bare to entertain. “Thank you, though,” she added quickly.

     The walk from the barn to the pasture gate had taken only a couple of minutes, but for Byrnn, who was typically a brisk walker when she wasn’t hobbling along with her body screaming at her to stop, it was a frustrating reminder of her own limitations.

     A rainbow Alabriss arrived to greet them at the fence, his resplendent coat flashing in the sunlight. Behind him followed a smattering of Alabrisses in different colours. None of them were electric.

     It was like a scene from a storybook, picturesque pasture surrounded by pristine post and rail fencing. She recognized the subtle glow of magic topping each post as specialized lightning motes designed to contain Alabrisses by creating a sort of energy field around the perimeter. Most flying Petpets were small enough to pass through completely unbothered, but if an Alabriss attempted to fly over the fence they’d receive a shock. She’d once tested a system like this herself by jumping over it- as any contact with the ground nullified the effect. It wasn’t exactly painful, but it delivered enough of a jolt to teach Alabrisses to respect boundaries.

     Taffy shifted abruptly in her arms and let out a startling bleat at the sight of the other Petpets. “Don’t do that,” she scolded lightly. “I could have dropped you.”

     Hanso chuckled softly beside her, but the Alabrisses seemed far less amused, standing stiff and alert as they assessed the threat- one letting out a displeased snort.

     “They’re friends, relax,” he assured the apprehensive Petpets with the sort of unflappable nonchalance Brynn wished she could embody.

     “Are they all yours?” Brynn asked, feeling self-conscious under the piercing gaze of the rainbow Alabriss currently flaring his wings and pinning his ears at her.

     Hanso reached over the fence to stroke the colourful Alabriss’ neck, looking every bit as proud as the showy Petpet. “This is Grail. They’re all mine, but he’s mine specifically,” he explained as if what he was saying made perfect sense. Oddly, it did. “Smile for the weird lady, Grail.”

     Then Hanso was holding a finger up, a signal his Alabriss took to raise his upper lip and display a row of grass-stained teeth.

     She needed to put Taffy down, suddenly feeling unsteady as another wave of realization rocked her very foundation.

     Storm was gone. Her career was probably over. She had nowhere to go. No means of caring for Taffy. Nowhere to run. No escape. All that was left was to find another metaphorical railing to throw herself over. Not a leap of faith, but of desperation.

     “Brynn?”

     “Yes?” Like the sound of her name had flipped a switch hidden deep within her psyche, her face lit up with a polite smile.

     Perhaps the outward shift in her demeanour had come too reflexively because Hanso faltered for a split second before quickly covering his unease behind a forced smile of his own.

     Certainly not an ideal reaction, but slipping further into the façade imbued her with enough confidence to believe she might make it through at least this moment. She was poised and in control, wearing her smile like a placating shield.

     “So, um.” Hanso leaned back against the fence, reaching up behind him to scratch Grail’s neck. The Alabriss relaxed into his touch, no longer paying any mind to Brynn or Taffy, who, for his part was currently far more interested in eating wildflowers growing along the fence line. “As much as I’d love to spend the day in your charming company, I have some errands to run after I refill the slow feeders.”

     “I could fill them for you.”

     It wasn’t exactly a monumental task, but the idea of trying to ingratiate herself to him still made her feel dirty- dirtier than she already was, she noted, cringing internally at how she must appear to him, let alone smell after being drenched in sweat, sprinting through mud, throwing up, and sleeping in a barn. He had no concept of the immense favour he’d done her by not calling the guards on the filthy tempestuous woman he’d found trespassing on his property.

     “You sure you don’t want to relax after that workout, princess?” Brynn’s practised smile wavered at the patronizing pet name, but she couldn’t afford to be confrontational now. “You’re going to hurt yourself if you overdo it.”

      “I can manage myself just fine,” she insisted. “Please just let me do this for you- it’s the least I can do.”

     “You sure?”

     Brynn nodded resolutely, left with the rhythmic thumping of her own heartbeat while Hanso’s gaze wandered off in contemplation.

     “All right.”

     Brynn exhaled her relief as Hanso explained the logistics of filling the hay feeders.

     “Thank you, for allowing me this opportunity.” It was such a simple task yet somehow it felt like a fleeting chance to gulp for air before the tumultuous tidal wave of reality threatened to drown her again. She hoped he could see that her smile was genuine now, shining with the gratitude she was unable to convey through words.

     “You’re really the one doing me a favour here. Are you… always this excited to do other people’s chores?”

     Brynn snorted and brought her hand up to cover a laugh that was immediately shadowed by the guilt of allowing herself to indulge in such levity so soon after losing Storm. She watched Taffy as he curiously sniffed at a white Alabriss grazing by the fence several meters away. With a sharp pang, it struck her that he had no idea he might never see his friend again.

     Against all rationality, she still believed there was a chance to get him back. As long as Storm walked in this world, there was hope, and as long as there was hope she refused to give up on him.

     In this moment, however, finding a way to care for Taffy had to be her priority.

     She looked at Hanso again with renewed confidence, her practised smile falling naturally back into place.

     “No… I mean, yes, I do like helping, but I’m not usually like… this.” She gestured to herself. “I apologize again for earlier- I wasn’t myself, but if you need a trainer I’d be happy to offer my services. I realize we didn’t meet under the best of circumstances, but I’ve been studying and working with Alabrisses all my life.”

     Uncertainty gnawed at her as she searched his face with bated breath, noting how his carefree expression had taken on a far more serious air.

     “I have my own methods,” he said breezily. “I’m not exactly in need of a trainer.”

     Her heart plummeted.

     “I would be honoured,” she pressed, her skin crawling with the disconcerting prickle of vulnerability. “To be honest with you… for personal reasons, it’s not exactly safe for me to go back home, but I need to take care of Taffy, and-“ She cut herself off as the weight of her own words set in. Out in the open, they sounded far more pathetic and manipulative than the glimpse of honesty she’d felt she owed him in her mind. Guilting a stranger with a lie by omission? Was that truly how low she’d sunk?

     She was locked between two opposing forces; one screaming at her to keep barrelling forward at any cost to escape the corner she’d backed herself into, and the other burning with the shame of her dishonest manipulation. She shook her head;

     “No, sorry. Never mind.”

     The sympathetic and contemplative frown on Hanso’s face seemed out of place in contrast to his beguiling persona. She wanted to take it back.

     “Well, I suppose I could use some help around here,” he said after a harrowing span of silence.

     His answer rang in her head like a deafening clap of thunder. It wasn’t so much relief she felt as it was disorientation and the drive to keep blindly ploughing forward in spite of it.

     “Really?”

     “Just worry about the hay for now- I’ll think about it while I’m out.”

     Brynn stood up straighter.

     “Right- of course! Thank you!”

     He flashed her another smile, holding her in his warm golden eyes, and for just that instant she believed with wholehearted certainty that somehow everything would work out.

     Before he left, he leaned over the fence and whispered something in Grail’s ear. The Alabriss nickered softly and tried to nibble his hair, but Hanso ducked away and gave him a scratch on the forehead instead.

     Once Hanso had left and Brynn was confident she was alone on the property, she collapsed to the ground, lying on her back with the sun beating down on her haggard, aching body and her heart pounding so heavily in her chest each beat seemed to reverberate throughout the entirety of her being.

     Taffy let out a chocked noise of concern and came trotting back to her side, hunching down to nudge her face.

     “I’m fine,” she whispered raspily, absently bringing one hand up to scratch the scruffy fur around his neck as he plopped down beside her and laid his head on her chest, like a warm blanket over her careworn heart. “We’re fine- we’re going to be okay. Storm is going to be okay. We’ll need to get up, though. We have a job to do.”

     Somehow she’d jumped and managed to land in one piece. She hadn’t the faintest idea where to go from here, but perhaps she really did have a chance if she just kept running forward.

To be continued…

 
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