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Ashes of the Alabriss


by salem_822

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Brynn spent the next hour talking with Kali; teaching her how to stretch Storm’s legs, telling her what a good listener he was, how he would get excited on the Day of Giving because he’d learned that gift boxes often contained treats for him, showing her the tricks she’d taught him.

     Her heart glowed at the way Kali giggled when she showed her how to make storm bow.

     “He looks likes like a prince!” she said.

     “He is very noble,” Brynn agreed. She’d always likened him to a knight; the way he’d lower his head and spread his wings so gallantly, filling the space with his bold yet gentle presence.

     There was magic in sharing Storm with somebody else who appreciated him. The bitter goodbye was softened by a sense of renewal and regrowth.

     As she was leaving, wondering when she might see Storm again, a conversation drew her interest. It was rude to eavesdrop, but the two men weren’t exactly being quiet, it wasn’t as though she were trying to listen in.

     She only caught the tail end of the conversation, but it seemed a driver had been injured in a training accident, leaving a disgruntled green Kacheek in need of a replacement before the racing season began. The black Eyrie he’d been speaking with gave him a wave and wandered off soon after Brynn was in earshot.

     Brynn stood up straighter, smoothed her braid over her shoulder, and steeled herself.

     “Excuse me,” she greeted, striking a balance between being professional and unobtrusive. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but if you’re in need of a driver perhaps I could be of service.”

     “You?” The Kacheek gave her a scrutinizing look. “Have you ever been in a race?”

     It was odd how easy it was for her to maintain her composure in moments like these, when other times she seemed to come unravelled at the slightest tug. “Not precisely, but I’m a professional trainer and I have years of driving experience. I’d be honoured to at least have your consideration.”

     “Honoured,” the Kacheek snorted, shaking his head like it was a ridiculous concept. “Well, I suppose you at least have a decent enough body for it- sturdy enough without being too heavy.”

     Brynn drew in a long, slow breath, wishing it would soothe the awkward discomfort of being so casually picked apart.

     It’s just part of the racing industry, it’s not meant to be intrusive. This is what you’ve always wanted.

     “Since I do need someone on short notice, why don’t you come back tomorrow? Take her for a run, I’ll make a final decision after seeing how you handle her.”

     “Thank you,” Brynn breathed, trying to keep the surprise and relief out of her voice. “I’ll be here.”

     “Great,” he replied, his tone bordering on dismissive. “I’m Mike, and if things work out you’ll be racing Spectre of Starlight. Be warned; she’ll give you 100% on a good day, but that one operates on her own agenda.”

     “Fire?” she asked knowingly.

     Mike chuckled, giving her a knowing look.

     *-*-*

     It was late when Brynn returned to Hanso’s house. As she’d left behind the light of the city, the path up to the farm had become shrouded in shadow. Yet with every darkened step, the stars shone more vividly overhead.

     She knocked hesitantly at the door and listened for movement, hearing the scramble and click of Taffy’s hooves on the hard floor. He was all she needed; she just had to face Hanso briefly so she could take him and leave.

     When there was no answer, she knocked again; more firmly this time. Her tail began to flick impatiently as she waited.

     The rattle of the doorknob instantly replaced her mildly annoyed restlessness with a jolt of anxiety. She had no opportunity to prepare herself before the door opened to reveal Hanso. It was startling in itself to be met with his groggy and dishevelled appearance. He was still handsome, she thought begrudgingly, but not in the proud almost magnetic way she’d come to know.

     “You’re back,” he stated, his voice rough.

     “I woke you, didn’t I?” she realized, feeling guilty in spite of how deeply she’d felt the stab of his betrayal earlier. So much had happened since then, it may as well have been weeks ago. She was still hurt, but it was a cold burn now.

     “Mmmm.” He stretched, wincing slightly as something cracked. “Just a nap. Come in, I made dinner.”

     “What?” This man never failed to baffle her. “You shouldn’t be napping this late, it will ruin your sleep schedule. And what do you mean you made dinner?”

     “Well, I wasn’t going to let you cook again.” There was an amused twinkle in his tired eyes as he turned to stroll further into the house.

     “No, I mean-“ She reluctantly followed, gently shutting the door behind her. “After- after I called you a coward. I still don’t agree with you, but the way I’ve been acting…”

     Taffy scrambled up to her excitedly, stretching up towards her with his paw-hands held in front of his chest. She bent down to pick him up, holding him as if he were a shield that could protect her from her own embarrassment.

     Hanso shrugged, walking into the kitchen and pulling out a chair. She expected him to sit down, but he left it, moving instead to sit on the other side of the small table. There were plates in front of each seat, displaying what she assumed were slices of Altadorian Pastitsio. It was an oddly lonely sight. “You were upset; I don’t think that’s a reason to deprive someone of food.”

     Brynn shook her head, taking a step forward. She felt uncomfortable hovering around the table but the thought of sitting down with him as if nothing had happened evoked a different sort of uneasiness. “Wait- have you not eaten?” she asked, verbalizing the realization as it struck her in real-time.

     “Neither have you, I presume,” he said. “You don’t have to eat here with me if that’s the problem, you could have it in the bathtub for all I care.”

     Brynn sighed. There was no reason to continue resisting other than stubborn pride. Reluctantly, she sat down with Taffy in her lap.

     “It’s cold, unfortunately,” he informed her, confirming what she already knew. “So, did you find Storm?”

     It was almost off-putting how calm and sincere he was being. “What? No jokes?”

     “Do you think I have no decency? I’m not going to joke about you losing your friend.” He must have seen the sudden flash of guilt on her face, because he added, “That’s Xandra’s job.”

     The mention of the stone-hearted veterinarian all but eviscerated her appetite, but she forced a bite anyway. It was indeed cold, but she didn’t mind. She wasn’t exactly in the mood to enjoy food. “I’m sorry,” she said after swallowing. “I just didn’t realize you cared. I mean, after what happened earlier.”

     “What did you expect me to do?”

     “I don’t know. Kick me out? Turn me in? Definitely not make me dinner.”

     Hanso raised an eyebrow. “Would you have preferred being sent off to a dungeon?”

     “Of course not!” She wrapped an arm around Taffy’s middle. “It’s just- most people tend to get angry when someone disrespects them… Or when they believe someone engages in morally reprehensible behaviour. I wasn’t exactly expecting a warm welcome.”

     “I don’t really see the point in pouring any fuel on that fire.” He looked rather forlorn as he used his fork to poke at his pastitsio. “As pleasant as it was the first time around.”

     Understanding dawned on her slowly, like a dim light flickering to life in a darkened room. “But we can’t just pretend it never happened. I really did want to trust you, and you humiliated me.”

     Hanso sighed, visibly deflating. “So by your logic, I suppose it should be off to the dungeons for both of us, then?”

     “Hanso! I’m not joking!” Taffy wriggled out of her arms with a start, jumping down and scampering off into the other room.

     “Okay, okay, I know.” He looked up at her, seeming no less tired than he’d been at the door. “I don’t think you’re a monster, I know you’re not.” A small, sad smile appeared on his face. “I was thinking about Taffy, actually.”

     “Taffy?”

     “Yeah, how did you get him to trust you?”

     “Oh. Well, I found him in the trash, actually-“

     “Not surprised.”

     “Hanso!” She shot him an offended glare on Taffy’s behalf, which only seemed to make him snicker.

     “Anyways,” she continued. “I felt bad for him, and I was worried he was sick but I couldn’t get close enough to catch him. Eventually, I cornered him and got him to a vet, but he hated me for trapping him like that. He’d still come looking for food, but he was even more fearful of me.” The memory had long been water under the bridge between them, but revealing it out loud was a different experience than recalling it herself, somehow lending far more focus to Taffy’s point of view. “So I’d just sit there with food in my hand and wait for him to come to me. It seemed pointless at first, but he gradually became bolder until eventually he’d let me touch him even when I didn’t have food.”

     “That doesn’t seem particularly monstrous to me.”

     “But that’s not what you were talking about, and he’s not an Alabriss.”

     “I’d still like for him to not hate me. If only I could find a professional trainer somewhere…”

     Brynn almost choked on a piece of pasta. “Are you serious? You want to hire me to train my own Naalala?”

     “I understand if it’s a bit much to ask- he did give me a very mean look when I tried to feed him earlier. Kind of like his owner did when I offered her dinner, actually. Maybe it runs in the family.”

     “Thank you for dinner, Hanso,” she said bitterly, annoyed but genuinely embarrassed at her lapse in etiquette. “I’m glad to know I can at least be trusted with my own Petpet.”

     “Great! I hope we can get started soon because he’s honestly starting to creep me out.”

     “Hey, he’s cute!” Brynn protested.

     She understood what Hanso was trying to do, but a Naalala wasn’t an Alabriss- and Taffy wasn’t even a normal Naalala. Larger Petpets could be dangerous if they weren’t taught to respect boundaries, and dangerous Petpets seldom found happy endings.

     *-*-*

     Hanso hadn't been particularly pleased when she'd informed him of her job opportunity, but that was to be expected. There was a sort of uncomfortable acceptance between them, leading her to wonder how long the tension would hold before it snapped.

     She arrived at the stables early and made her way to the half of the property that was designated for chariot Alabrissess, finding Mike already waiting at Spectre of Starlight’s box. The fire Alabriss stood tensely, her ears pinned and her wings flared downward.

     Eclipse, as Mike informed Brynn her barn name was, was a striking high-mettled creature. She snorted and flapped her wings as she was harnessed and put to the chariot.

     Adjusting her helmet, Brynn approached from the side and reached out towards her, only recoil when the Alabriss snapped at her.

     “Hey!” Mike barked harshly, his eyes narrowing.

     “No, don’t!” Brynn cried reflexively, unsure if he was even going to do anything.

     “This one has a nasty habit of biting. You can’t let her get away with it,” Mike said gravely, and on a fundamental level Brynn agreed, but wished there were another way. It was, however, a simple fact that Alabrisses needed a strong leader to teach them respect.

     Cruel to be kind, as her grandmother would say.

     “She’s probably just restless from being in her box,” Brynn said. “A run will do her good.”

     She mounted the chariot and took the reins, struck by the stark contrast between Eclipse's energy and Storm's. The fire Alabriss lived up to the hot-tempered and reactive reputation of her colour and gender. Accustomed to Storm's steady temperament, it was both daunting and exhilarating.

     Brynn urged her to walk forward, her restless tension begging to break off flying. "I know, be patient," she whispered. "We need to warm up."

     Mike also seemed impatient with her slow approach, but if she was to do a job it would be done properly. It would not do Eclipse any good to exert herself straight out of the stall when her muscles were so stiff.

     Alabrisses respond to energy. It was one of the first lessons she'd ever learned. Throughout her life, her understanding of the meaning of that energy would continue to expand, the most important epiphany, perhaps, being that energy went both ways.

     That's what made the partnership; the way she knew Eclipse was ready when she felt her relax, the electric rush of her smooth acceleration, the twitch in her wings as she prepared to catch the air.

     Mike, the job trial, and the scattered handful of other charioteers using the track were all pushed to the back of Brynn's mind; left in the dust behind Eclipse’s thundering hooves.

     "That'll do," said Mike when she slowed Eclipse to a halt. After a discussion of expectations and responsibilities, Mike left her to manage the Alabriss alone.

     Eclipse shied away when Brynn tried to stroke her head, so she settled for the shoulder instead. “I always dreamed of racing with an Alabriss like you,” she told her, peripheral awareness that they were technically in public causing her to lower her voice. “I hope you can trust me in time.”

     Nobody really seemed to trust her, she considered ruefully. It had been a long time since she’d had significant interaction with anyone outside of work, but now she had Hanso- and as of today, Eclipse; both of whom seemed to hold their own reservations regarding her character. In fairness, she hadn’t trusted Hanso at first either, but he’d been kind- if insufferably smug- each time she’d given him a reason not to be. She wished she could deny the desire to be able to see things the way he did. It almost didn’t seem fair that someone could be broken so gently and still emerge into the world whole and soft and good.

     Like Alabrisses, though, some Neopets simply had naturally more agreeable natures. Brynn doubted anyone had ever called Hanso firey, or bossy, or hysterical and difficult.

     “I hope you’re given a fair chance,” she told Eclipse as she led her back to her stall, a melancholy weight settling in her heart. Somehow the glory of being a charioteer didn’t shine quite as brightly as she’d imagined it would.

     After visiting Storm, Brynn decided to make a detour to the archives on the way home. Working with Eclipse instilled in her with a sense of responsibility to honour their temporary partnership by making use of the resources available to her. As much as she already knew about Alabrisses, if there was anything that could refresh her knowledge or provide supplementary insight into bonding with such a moody Petpet. She’d read once that olive leaves could help temper a high-spirited dominant Alabriss, but she was dubious.

     The library contained surprisingly little in the way of recent knowledge regarding Alabriss training and behaviour, and nothing about olive leaves based on a cursory skim of the few nutrition books she’d found.

     Optimal Care for Chariot Alabrisses stood out as she scanned the shelves. Her own tattered copy was back home in her bedroom, probably already collecting dust. Internally, she felt the dust settle as she passed it over. She’d read and reviewed that book countless times, it had already given her all it had to offer.

     She settled on a recently published book summarizing the information and insight gleaned from various studies on Petpet behaviour throughout the years. Written, she presumed, by the type of person her father would call over-educated and under-experienced. The prospect of being over-educated had always seemed laughable to her, but she understood what he meant. Many things seemed fine in theory, but it was different when the responsibility of safely controlling a Petpet with the strength of 10 average neopets rested solely in your hands.

     On her way home, she was confronted with the sight of her own wanted poster; its off-white colour appearing a sickly yellow against the side of a pristine white building, with its corners flapping in the wind like it no longer belonged there and was desperate to fly away. Would it be another crime, she wondered, if she were to give it a little help? She approached the wall cautiously, not fully committed to the idea of tearing it down but still fascinated by the surrealism of its existence.

     “Terrible the things people will do.”

     Brynn startled, eliciting a full-bodied flinch she instantly regretted. Snapping her head towards the voice, she found an older silver Kougra standing next to her. She was prim and polished, her metallic coat gleaming in the sunlight. For an instant, Brynn thought she was done for, but the Kougra kept talking. If there was any suspicion on her face, Brynn couldn’t detect it.

     “Stealing Petpets… who would do such a thing?”

     “Um,” said Brynn, looking back to the poster. The portrait was so cold, so mean- like a villain from a children’s story. Was that really how people saw her? A voice from her past echoed in her head, accompanied by the contemptuous face of one of her schoolmates:

     ”No wonder your only friends are Petpets.”

     “Somebody desperate, I suppose,” she concluded.

     “What is this city coming to?” The other Kougra snorted. “Altador used to be great, but now it’s rampant with low-lives emboldened enough to steal Alabrisses right off the street. The council needs to get a handle on these people.”

     Brynn was trying to avoid looking at her for fear of recognition, but she couldn’t help turning back. It seemed like a bit of an overreaction. Sure, stealing wasn’t right, but like all Altadorian children, she’d grown up learning the story of how Kelland would take only excesses from the rich to help those who needed it most. Not that she’d done anything so noble… she probably shouldn’t have tried to take Storm back by force, and she definitely shouldn’t have bitten that guard, but she hardly thought she represented the downfall of society. “For everyone to live out their lives in comfort and dignity… is that not meant to be the Altadorian way?” she asked meekly.

     “Precisely. It’s hardly fair for those of us who carry ourselves with dignity and spend our lives playing by the rules to be subjected to torment from selfish cretins. As King Altador once said, ‘One appreciates a home far more when it is he who places its stones.’”

     “I’d never interpreted the quote like that,” said Brynn, taken aback.

     The Kougra shook her head, glowering as if she’d been deeply offended. “It’s about having the strength and determination to be self-reliant.”

     “I suppose…” Brynn muttered.

     “Your generation is going to have a lot to learn the hard way, I wish you luck,” the old woman said curtly before walking off.

     Brynn had been taught to respect and trust her elders, but something didn’t sit right about how the Kougra had somehow taken what had once seemed to her a motivational message about the value of putting time and effort into important things, and twisted that meaning into something that seemed far colder.

     If nothing else, the close call served to remind her that perhaps she had become too bold in assuming she was safe to circulate about the city freely.

     *-*-*

     “Try leaving it on the ground,” Brynn suggested.

     She was sitting cross-legged on the floor with Taffy in her lap while Hanso lay on the other side of the living room, lounging on his side. He was propped up with his chin resting in one hand while the other was outstretched with a slice of carrot in his open palm.

     “Maybe throw it forward just a bit so he doesn’t need to get too close,” she added.

     Hanso tossed the carrot into the space between them with a bored expression, shifting to sit up and grab another piece from the bowl behind him.

     “And don’t move around so much. You’re supposed to be trying not to scare him.”

     “By the stars, Brynn. You’re the one who won’t stop talking!”

     “Well he’s not afraid of me, is he?” She looked down at Taffy for confirmation, the Naalala only tilting his head up to blink absently at her. “Look, Taffy. Carrot,” she encouraged, tapping the ground in front of her and pointing. Taffy sniffed, cautiously hopping out of her lap to grab the treat. “Good,” Brynn praised. “Put another one down, Hanso.”

     Hanso, who seemed far more attentive now that something was actually happening, put another piece down closer to him. Taffy eyed him warily, but inched closer and accepted the offering. Emboldened, Hanso tried once more to get Taffy to take the carrot from his hand. The Petpet was visibly more tense, rooted in place as if weighing his options until in a sudden flurry of movement he snatched the carrot from Hanso and went dashing back to eat it in Brynn’s lap.

     “Huh,” she muttered as Taffy crunched messily. “That’s progress, at least. Maybe we need something more enticing to him. You can keep practising with him while I’m at work.”

     “Speaking of enticing,” Hanso interjected. “I have a present for you.”

     She blinked. “You do?”

     “Yeah,” he said, the word holding a slight huff of exertion as he pushed himself to his feet. “Hold on, I’ll get it.”

     Brynn hadn’t the slightest idea what to expect, but the way he’d brightened at the prospect of giving it to her was touching in itself.

     “Close your eyes!” he called from the other room.

     “Do I have to?”

     “Do you want to spoil the surprise?”

     Brynn smiled to herself, placing a hand on Taffy’s back and letting her eyes fall shut. “Okay, they’re closed. This had better not be a prank.”

     “I would never.” She could hear the smile in his voice as he walked back in, Taffy slipping out from under her hand as he approached. “All right, put your hands out.” She obeyed, feeling him place something across her waiting palms. The hum of magic radiated from the object, a charge that coursed through her like her body was a circuit. She crinkled her nose as she tried to place the feeling.

     “Hey, you’re supposed to open your eyes now.”

     Hanso was the first sight she was met with, his face a vision of proud anticipation. Looking down at the Electric Paint Brush sitting in her hands, she gasped. “I can’t take this! It’s too much- I don’t understand.”

     Hanso remained unperturbed, fixing her with a knowing smile. “That’s exactly what I thought you’d say.”

     “But- why?” was all she could bring herself to say.

      “I thought blue would look good on you,” he stated like it was a compliment. “And I don’t want anyone recognizing you out there.” His tone had become more serious, his expression concerned and sincere. “I thought you might like that colour. You know, because of Storm.”

     “I do,” she replied quietly, wrapping her fingers tightly around the handle. “But you’ve been so kind to me, and now that I have a job again and I’m not helping as much around the farm, I really do feel like I’m taking advantage of you.”

     He opened his mouth to speak, but she continued. “And it’s not just that. Nobody has ever given me anything like this before, and I can’t tell you how much it means to me, but I want to be honest with you and I don’t like the idea of you getting to decide how I look. I know you didn’t mean it like that, but after you helped me with my hair- I don’t know. It feels like it’s too much somehow.”

     Her hands were trembling now, a combination of the paint brush’s magic and overwhelming frustration towards her own feelings. She didn’t understand why she felt like this, or what exactly ‘this’ was. The most identifiable emotion she had was the distinct urge to hit something, which she knew was misplaced.

     “It’s okay. I’m glad you told me.”

     Hanso’s words fell over her like rain on smouldering embers.

     “Thank you,” she nodded slowly. “I’m sorry, I really am grateful for everything.”

     “Believe it or not, I do enjoy having you around, so I’d rather not have you locked away in a dungeon somewhere. I wasn’t trying to dictate how you look.”

     Brynn managed a smile, the trembling sensation still present in her body but her mind far clearer. “I know.” She wanted to tell him that she liked him too; that she wanted them to be friends, but the words got stuck in her throat. She tripped over an invisible barrier and the moment passed her by.

     “But if you could paint yourself any colour, what would it be?”

     “Fire,” she replied instinctively, surprising herself.

To be continued…

 
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