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Ashes of the Alabriss


by salem_822

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"I brought you something," Brynn informed Eclipse as she approached the Alabriss’ box. She'd read an article about Alabriss herd dynamics and the importance of socialisation. Thinking back, after she'd gotten Taffy, Storm's habit of biting wood and kicking the walls had greatly subsided. She couldn't deny the painful amount of sense it made that companionship greatly improved welfare- companionship she alone couldn't provide. What once was naughty behaviour to her, she now registered as stress and boredom.

     To have tried so hard and to have been so wrong, and for Storm to have been the one to have suffered for it.

     Everything had changed. Except it hadn't, she'd changed and the world had stayed the same. It was ruthlessly cruel in its potential to be kind.

     At least she could be better for Eclipse. It wasn't enough, yet it had to be.

     "It's not ideal, but look." Brynn held up a mirror. It was roughly the height of her torso and longer than it was wide. The Alabriss spooked at the sight of her own reflection. "Sorry," she apologised quickly, realising she'd presented it rather suddenly. "Don't worry, it's only you."

     Eclipse snorted, leaning towards her reflection with cautious curiosity. "I got the idea from my friend. Or rather, it was inspired by him." It was the first time she'd called Hanso her friend out loud. It was comfortable to share with Eclipse; safe yet exhilarating. "He enjoys looking at himself as well. It's ridiculous, but if I'm being honest I wish I could admire myself as much." The black Alabriss whinnied at herself and ruffled her wings. "I hope this at least helps you feel less lonely."

     Brynn tied Eclipse in the aisle while she affixed the mirror to the wall. It was meant to be shatter-proof so Eclipse wouldn't hurt herself if she kicked it. Stepping back, she regarded her own reflection. Alone in the stall, her blue eyes and orange hair seemed to clash against the dim lighting of the stable. It was a beautiful facility with sweeping ironwork and gold-plated finials marking the front of each box. Its elegant and imposing architecture was a stark contrast to the ramshackle shed she’d built for Storm, but aesthetics didn’t matter to an Alabriss. Standing in Eclipse’s place and looking at herself now, all that stared back at her was a burnt-out miserable girl in a gilded cage.

      “Do you really love the track?” she asked the Alabriss. “Or is it just the only outlet you have?”

     The lack of response was its own resoundingly clear answer; it was Brynn’s responsibility to figure out what she needed and be her voice. Eclipse knew only to express her discomfort through biting and kicking, eliciting more suffering each time she tried to speak up.

     “I wish I could help you,” she whispered as she led the Alabriss out into the daylight. “I wish I could take you someplace better than this.”

     Eclipse’s restless energy no longer felt powerful and proud, it was the frantic tumult of a chronically stressed Petpet.

     After their run, Brynn returned her to the racing stable and briskly made her way towards the general boarding side of the property. She spotted the vibrant cerulean of Storm’s coat among the smattering of Neopets and Alabrisses circulating around the building. As long as she lived, she didn’t believe she’d ever be able to see that electric blue colour without doing a double take. Kali was with him, struggling to lead him inside as he set back and tossed his head.

     “Hey,” she called in greeting, jogging closer.

     Kali turned towards her with a start before smiling in recognition. “He doesn’t want to go inside,” she explained once Brynn came to a halt in front of her, her face settling into a ruminative frown.

     “Were you trying to put him in his stall?” Brynn asked as her old friend pressed his head to her chest in greeting, prompting her to gently cradle the Alabriss’ face. Her thumbs gently rubbed over his fur.

     “No, I was going to give him a bath since nobody’s using the wash station now,” Kali explained. “He’s pretty dirty.”

     Brynn took a step back to assess Storm’s appearance.

     He certainly looked a mess; his wings and back crusted with a patchy greyish blanket of mud and dust. Beneath the lustreless coating of dirt, however, his eyes were as bright as she’d ever seen them.

     "He is very dirty," she agreed, smiling in spite of herself.

     "He likes rolling in the mud, doesn’t he?" Kali said the hint of a giggle creeping into her voice.

     He likes rolling in the mud.

     It pierced right through her like a stray arrow directly to the heart.

     In all the years she'd spent pouring her heart into intensive management and highly regimented care routines, she hadn't known that. She couldn’t have known that. She'd never afforded him the freedom to engage in such a simple, innocent joy. He’d been her best friend, he’d listened to her, he’d been her comfort and support, he’d trusted her, and she’d been so selfishly determined to keep him close and protect him that he’d never had the opportunity to show her who he wanted to be.

     "Are you... mad I let him get dirty?" Kali questioned with incredulous hesitation.

     "No," she said softly. Her heart ached as it filled with all that storm was and could have been; all of his gentle patience and unconditional goodness. "No, I'm happy."

     “Oh good.” She let out a wispy little breath. “Can you help me get him in?”

     Brynn regarded Storm, who now seemed relatively calm. “Why don’t you walk him back a bit and try again?” she suggested. “Let’s see what he does.” She observed curiously as Kali turned Storm around, leading him away and then back towards the door. He made it several paces farther than the last time, but stopped a few meters short of the threshold, pulling his head back and flapping his wings.

     “Why’s he afraid?” Kali asked. The question rang with innocent objectivity, its simple purity leading Brynn to question when she’d begun seeing power struggles and wilful defiance in place of anxiety and discomfort.

     “Maybe because it’s darker inside?” guessed Brynn, walking over to scratch Storm’s neck. The gentle touch sent a surge of emotion ripping through her the instant her fingers connected with his fur. All at once she was reeling with intrinsic awareness that this was an apology for all the times she should have listened to and comforted him. It was too abstract of a concept for an Alabriss to understand, yet she hoped that somehow through a power deeper than magic or science, through the transcendent force lived in the heart of every sentient creature, that he knew she was sorry.

     “That was good,” she said stuffily, giving both Storm and Kali a smile as she dangled by a thread over a sea of past mistakes. “Let’s try again and see how far he goes this time.”

     Kali brought him around again. This time there was a slight stutter in his stride, a brief hesitation when Brynn thought he was about to baulk again, but he kept going, crossing the threshold without so much as ruffling his feathers.

     “That was wonderful!” she cheered, too lit up with excitement to succumb to the bitter sting of regret. “Make sure you let him know he did a good job.” Kali beamed and gave Storm a hug, waving at Brynn from over his shoulder.

     “Thanks!” she called.

     Brynn smiled and waved back, taking her cue to head home.

     Home

     It nearly made her blush how casually the thought came to her. Despite everything she’d been through and all the strife their meeting had caused her, she found herself feeling more comfortable with Hanso than she had anywhere or with anyone aside from her own Petpets.

     As she turned, a vision of detestably familiar green hair and white spots pierced through the hazy veil between her immersive thoughts and the world outside.

     “Interesting technique,” Xandra droned, standing next to a paddock fence with her arms folded.

     “What do you want?” was the only thing Brynn could think to say, continuing on her path in the hopes that Xandra wouldn’t bother to follow.

     She wasn’t so lucky.

     “I want a lot of things. For one, I’d like to know if you truly believe that getting a new look and employing a few new handling methods actually changes anything.”

     Brynn’s stomach churned, as if her body wanted to reject the way indignation mingled with her self-condemnation. “What do you want from me, if not change? To punish me so you can use me as an example of what terrible and violent people your chosen enemies are?”

     Xandra grinned, twisted and cruel. "You're more clever than I gave you credit for."

      "And how would that help? Isn't using force instead of encouraging people to do the right thing what you claim to be against?"

     Xandra looked pensive, yet almost satisfiedly so; as if she were mentally reflecting on a speech she'd prepared 1000 times over. "We are quite alike; Neopets and Petpets- more so than many people care to acknowledge. We all break-in time because there is no reward for being unbroken. There are some, of course, who cannot take that kind of pressure- they are deemed problematic or dangerous and dealt with accordingly."

     Brynn stopped. "What are you trying to say?"

     "The main difference," she continued. "Is that Alabrisses do not have the capacity to plan, to be premeditatively spiteful or to disrespect us, but it's more convenient for us to interpret their behaviour from the point of view dictated by our own culture. We, on the other hand, can see the bigger picture." Her expression darkened. "We project our stereotypes and biases onto them, it's a system of exploitation that affects all of us."

     "In what way?" Brynn asked curtly. It was unnerving how deeply engrossed Xandra was in her own rant, like it had built up inside her to the point of becoming volatile.

     "Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to brand someone as stroppy and unpredictable than it is to acknowledge that there might be an underlying cause for that behaviour?" she challenged. "Or how we value tradition over progress, upholding the status quo to the detriment of both charioteers and Alabrisses."

     Brynn stared, trying to reconcile the cold burn of recognition with Xandra’s infuriating hypocrisy. “Then how do you propose to fix it? Just do away with everyone who opposes you?”

     Xandra actually laughed. “If you’re not the one holding the whip, the best thing you can do is bide your time until you have the opportunity to seize it for yourself. They don’t respect people like us, Brynn. I may not like you, but I’ll tell you this; if you want respect you need to take it by force.”

     “That’s awful,” Brynn said, a complex web of nuanced truths and conflicting ideals straining the very fabric of her being. “I can see the difference between respect and fear. And I don’t want to live in a world of distrust and isolation anymore.” Xandra frowned, disappointment and frustration etched onto her face. “What makes you think people are so irredeemable?”

     “Think of everything you’ve done, all the people you’ve passed your methodology on to. You can’t undo that, and no matter how much you try to atone, it’s not up to you to decide whether or not you’re forgiven.”

     ’It’s not up to you alone to decide that for everyone else either’, Brynn thought; her mind’s feeble attempt to shield her from a crushing truth. “I know,” she said instead, folding her arms and pulling absently at her fur. “And I’m sorry for whatever happened to you.”

     “Sorry doesn’t hold water for me anymore,” Xandra said flatly. “And if you do anything to hurt my brother, facing justice for your crimes will be the least of your concerns.”

     “It’s nice he has you,” Brynn sighed, glad someone cared so much about Hanso in spite of the thinly veiled thread of the fact that ‘nice’ was one of the last words she’d use to describe Xandra.

     “You really like him, don’t you?” Xandra was studying her with condescending amusement now. “Don’t be too angry when he disappoints you. You’re not that special to him.”

     “Whatever you’re trying to do, I’m leaving,” Brynn huffed, turning away and trying to block out the attempts to get under her skin. “You just want to make me doubt him, it won’t work.”

     “Convince yourself all you want,” Xandra said indifferently behind her. “You’ll find out soon enough.”

     *-*-*

     When Brynn returned home, her head filled with a discordant symphony of conflicting thoughts that reinforced some ideals and clashed with others, only Taffy greeted her.

     “Where’s Hanso?” she asked, crouching down to pet him. At the mention of Hanso’s name, the Naalala glanced towards the door as if expecting him to appear. “Ah,” muttered Brynn, her heart sinking slightly. It was just her luck that he’d be gone when she needed him most. If she didn’t know any better she’d think Xandra had planned this somehow.

     Hours later, when Hanso finally returned, the glow of the sun was fading from the horizon and the first stars had begun to appear. “Brynn!” he greeted warmly, kicking the door shut behind him. “I have something for you!”

     “Where have you been?” was the first thing that came out of her mouth. She hadn’t intended to sound so severe, but all the anxiety that had built on account of Hanso’s unknown whereabouts erupted into annoyance when he had the audacity to waltz through the door like he hadn’t disappeared without so much as a note.

     “I had dinner already,” he said, at least having the decency to look somewhat guilty while simultaneously answering and not answering her question. “But I brought you cake!” In his hand, he proudly presented a crumbled paper bag.

     “When? With whom?” It shouldn’t have mattered so much to her; he had his own life and his own friends, she’d always known that. And now he was home safe, so why did she still feel so panicked?

     “Oh, um. Just a friend,” he said casually, the relaxed reply making her feel irrational and angry. “Do you want your cake or not?”

     “I don’t want your stupid cake!” she snapped, slapping the greasy package out of his hand. It hit the ground with a sad flump.

     For once Hanso didn’t seem to have a comeback. He simply stared at her, his eyes wide and glazed; looking no less perplexed than he was shocked.

     Idiot.

     She snatched the cake off the floor and stormed out, slamming the door behind her.

     There was no reason for her to be upset, it was selfish to feel she was entitled to him over everyone else just because she’d had a difficult day. This wasn’t even her real home- nowhere was, really- and she couldn’t pretend it would last forever. The seeds of doubt that Xandra had sown were already threatening to sprout.

     She looked at the beaten-up bag she was holding, walking over to the pasture and sitting on the fence as she opened it. She wasn’t sure why, but looking at the squashed piece of cake with half of its icing smeared all over the paper made her feel like crying. She’d told him once that she liked cake with tangella, but she hadn’t actually expected him to remember. He really had been thinking of her.

     Like the feral beast she was, she dug her fingers right into the cake. A few crumbs tumbled from her icing-covered hand as she lifted it to her mouth. In spite of the abuse it had suffered, it was still rich and sweet and wonderful.

     She watched the Alabrisses grazing at the far end of the pasture as she fished more cake out of the bag. The herd slowly made their way towards her. As Grail came trotting over, she switched her bag-holding hand with her cake-eating hand so she could pet him. “Hi,” she greeted softly. "Good boy."

     When a white Alabriss named Olive joined him to investigate, Grail responded by pinning his ears and snaking his neck, effectively shooing her away from Brynn.

     What she once would have interpreted as dominance, she now saw as the insecure expression of a misplaced guarding instinct.

     "I need to apologise to Hanso," she said, licking her hand clean. "And you should apologise to Olive."

     Walking back up the house was nerve-wracking, but she was determined to make things right. She found Hanso on the couch, looking terribly forlorn as he absentmindedly stroked Taffy, who was curled up beside him.

     “I’m sorry,” she said meekly. “The cake was really thoughtful.”

     “Are you mad?”

     The fact that didn’t snap back made her feel even worse. She actually wanted his smarmy raillery and sarcastic banter.

     “No,” she sighed. “Well, yes, I was at first. I just wish you’d have at least left a note.” She shifted her weight, struggling to piece together a string of words that honestly communicated her feelings. “I… I was worried when you didn’t come home, and then to find out you were out with someone else- it made me angry.”

     “Sorry,” he mumbled, looking and sounding no less sullen. “I didn’t think my not being here would bother you that much.” None of this felt right; he was supposed to be saying something obnoxious about how he knew she couldn’t live without him, and then she would rebuff him because the little flutter in her heart was too delicate to be exposed to the outside world.

     “Can I sit?” she asked awkwardly, still unsure exactly how he felt about her at the moment.

     “’ Course.”

     He managed a watery smile as she sat down next to him. She longed to chase it away, to fend off whatever was hurting him and see the light return to his eyes. Comforting people wasn’t something she had much experience or expertise in, however. Her childhood was filled with a chorus of ‘you’re okay’s and ‘walk it off’s.

     “What’s the matter?” she tried, tilting her head. Impulse told her to pat him on the back. But was that even something people did in real life? What if he found it patronising? Why was it so hard to stop overthinking this?

     Her hands remained clasped tightly together in her lap.

     “I don’t know,” he groaned, hunching forward to bury his head in his hands. “I just… feel so empty.”

     “In what sense?” Brynn’s hand shyly extended to pat his back. It felt clumsy and forced, but what mattered was that perhaps, in some small way, it was a comfort to Hanso.

     “When my mother got sick… she’d always tell him she wanted me to be happy after she was gone. She gave me everything, Brynn.” He sniffled and looked up at her through glassy bloodshot eyes. “I thought… that was the least I could do for her, I was good at being happy. But then I wasn’t. I kept going for her, I kept painting. I would meet people and go to parties, and restaurants, and dances…” He trailed off, but she understood.

     “Hey…” She was out of her depth, but her panic and uncertainty were overridden by the instinctive drive to be Hanso's strength in this moment. "I don't have much experience with things like this... but whatever you need, please tell me. I want to help."

      "You do help," he said, sitting up slightly as Taffy pushed to lay his head on his lap. "Since you came along, I've felt... inspired, and excited about life again."

     Brynn reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze, feeling far more confident about initiating contact. "Even though it's not the same, I think I understand. I sort of feel that way about you too."

     "And if you hadn't attempted to steal an Alabriss, we never would have met." He squeezed her hand back, the subtle smile in his golden eyes shining like the break of dawn.

     Brynn let out a breathy laugh, silently thanking Storm for bringing them together.

     "I'd like to hear more about your mother sometime. To get to know her through you, if that's something you'd be comfortable with, or would help."

     She felt Hanso's thumb rub over the back of her hand. "Yeah... I wish you could have really met her."

      "I know, so do I."

      "Hey, Brynn?"

     She looked at him expectantly, offering silent encouragement as she prepared to listen to whatever she he had to say.

     "Why is your hand sticky?"

      Her face fell. "Oh. It's cake."

      He stared for a moment before knitting his eyebrows in bemusement. The instant he cracked a smile, she snorted, like an initial trickle of mirth that grew into a giggle then exploded into a torrent of shrill unbridled laughter.

     Hanso's warm chuckle sounded beside her, and she reached out with her heart to embrace it.

     The laughter gradually faded into a span of comfortable silence, their hands still clasped together. She’d been afraid she wouldn’t know what to say, but something deeper than words existed in the connection between them.

     “I’m afraid I’m going to mess this up,” she whispered after Hanso’s eyes had been closed for several minutes, assuming he’d fallen asleep.

     “Hm?” He blinked at her. “You’re great, don’t worry about it.”

     “Thanks, but I don’t feel great.” She tilted her head up towards the ceiling. There was a crack forming in the corner. “I keep making mistakes.” She wondered if someday it would open up, expanding into something far more serious than just an innocuous blemish on an otherwise beautiful home.

     “Nobody’s perfect. Stop beating yourself up and just move forward, you only make yourself angrier when you do that.”

     Brynn exhaled, lingering on the crack before turning her head to look at him. “I guess you’re right.”

     He gave her a little smirk, his eyes crinkling at the corners like it was an inside joke. “Of course I am. I mean, feel what you need to feel, but… maybe you could talk to me instead of punishing yourself for having those feelings.”

     She briefly loosened her grip on his hand, repositioning it so their fingers intertwined. “I’ll try,” she said with soft sincerity. “You should take your own advice. I don’t know if you can be truly happy if you’re always running from being sad.”

     “Such wisdom.” He gave her a thin, lopsided smile

     “I mean it. I just want you to be okay.”

     He squeezed her hand again rather than replying verbally, his smile seeming to extend to his eyes. She smiled back in understanding, holding him in her gaze.

     "I think I need to go back to my parents," she said, reality beginning to knock more loudly at the door of their peaceful sanctuary.

     “You’re leaving?” Hanso suddenly looked very awake, his golden eyes panicked and pleading.

     “I just need to talk to them,” she assured him as Taffy clambered across Hanso’s lap to squeeze himself into the space between them. “I’m much happier here. I don’t want to impose on your hospitality, but I’m grateful to stay as long as you want me. I should look for my own place, though.”

     Hanso blew a puff of air through his nose like she’d said something amusing to him.

     “What?”

     “Nothing. I’m just thinking about how you swing between stilted etiquette and eating cake with your hands.”

     “That was one time! Maybe if you had given me a fork…”

     “What was I supposed to do? Steal one from the restaurant?”

     “Maybe- I don’t know… It’s a fork, how much could they really miss it?”

     Hanso was laughing now, bringing up another fit of giggles from within her own chest.

     “You know, I truly believe I could have gone on to become a master thief if things had turned out differently for me.”

     “Of course you would.”

     “No, really. I’ll prove it. I’ll get you your fork- I’ll bring you all the forks!”

     “What use would I possibly have for that many forks?”

     Hanso shrugged his shoulders. “Sky’s the limit.”

     “You don’t know either, do you?”

     “Maybe not, but it’s the principal. Lately, I’ve been thinking I could stand to share more of my talents with the world.”

     “By stealing cutlery?” Brynn raised an eyebrow. “Am I really that bad of an influence?”

     “No, darling.” He grinned, bright and mischievous. “You’re a wonderful influence.”

To be continued…

 
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