Those Dark Eyes: Part Four
“So Rovan came back around the middle of the second act, and when the symphony was over Fyora disappeared. We stayed after a little while to talk with Rovan’s friends, and then we came home.”
“How odd,” commented Darren. He and Afton were enjoying an egg and toast breakfast on the morning after the Neopian Philharmonic had performed at Symphony Hall. Afton had related the strange events of the evening to her friend, but neither Neopet could make sense of the situation. “How odd indeed,” repeated Darren. “And they didn’t even give you a gift bag? Very suspicious.”
“I’m still not sure she was really looking at me,” continued Afton, stirring her tea. “But it certainly seemed like it. She pointed right at our box.”
“Didn’t anyone else notice?” asked Darren. “Surely many of the Neopets must have been watching Fyora.”
“It was very slight,” admitted Afton. “Her gesture could have easily gone unnoticed.”
“I suppose,” said Darren, serving himself more eggs. “Well, I wouldn’t worry about it. She’s probably already back on Faerieland by now.”
“Maybe,” said Afton. “It’s just all very strange.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” her friend repeated. “I think you should just concentrate on getting back on your feet and being successful at the company.”
“You’re right, of course,” said Afton. “I should try to forget about it.”
“I always am,” sighed Darren, taking a sip of his tea.
* * * * *
Darren was right.
When Afton arrived at work, she was surprised to see the lobby already crowded with Neopets looking to invest in Rovan’s company. The workers looked exhausted, although it was still morning, and that was only the beginning. Afton and her coworkers were swamped all day with new investors and small businesses looking for stockholders. The success of the Neopian Philharmonic was only the first step in the company’s growth.
Rovan always ordered the Neopian Times delivered to each of his workers, especially Afton. He said that by reading the news, they would have a better idea of what was going on in Neopia, and therefore could invest wisely. The method caught on easily, and Afton found herself striking gold on nearly every investment. By combining one of the best mathematical minds in Neopia with the daily news on the status of practically every business around, Afton was able to predict stock market trends like a machine. As the days passed, the investors in Rovan’s company tripled, and so did the workload. Afton found herself working around the clock, returning home late at night and rising early. It was difficult, but the satisfaction of success was so great that she found herself enjoying every minute of it.
In only two weeks, the small investments company had bought a new building, hired nearly twice as many workers, and made more money than any of them could count. In only two weeks, Rovan’s business had become the number one “stock to watch.” In only two weeks, Afton found herself standing on the brink of stardom.
It hit the Gelert like a ton of bricks one day when she was talking with Darren over a late dinner. “So you’re becoming famous now, eh?” the Bruce said.
“Well, almost,” said Afton, pausing. “We’re doing so well; everyone knows Rovan. But I’ve been staying out of the spotlight.”
“Your name was in the Neopian Times today,” said Darren, holding up the newspaper.
Afton grabbed it. The headline read Fyora Recommends Rovan. A picture of the smiling Faerie Queen took up nearly the whole page. Afton read the article aloud. “The Queen of Faerieland made a public appearance today announcing her plans to buy stock with Rovan Investments, Inc. Why Fyora, one of immeasurable wealth, would choose to entrust some of her neopoints to Neopia’s newest celebrity seemed unclear at first, but as always, the Queen explained her seamless reasoning. ‘I’m planning a new project,’ she said ambiguously in her proclamation. ‘With Rovan Investments and its star advisor, Afton, I hope to bring an entirely new industry to Faerieland.’ What this new business could be is anyone’s guess, but the latest issue lies in Rovan’s most trusted employee – Afton. Her past is shrouded in both success and scandal, and Neopia waits breathlessly to see what Fyora’s big plans are. Whatever they may be, we can be sure to expect something spectacular from the Queen and her newest ally, Rovan Investments.” Afton put the paper down slowly. “Oh my,” was all she could manage.
“For some reason this all seems very familiar,” said Darren, sipping his cup of tea.
“That’s because it’s happened before,” said Afton with a sigh. “I can’t believe this.”
“What’s so terrible about a little attention?” asked Darren. “You deserve some recognition. You’re the driving force behind that company.”
“I don’t want recognition,” said Afton. “I just want to do my job and support myself. I thought that I could do that with Rovan.”
“Well, you know what to avoid,” said Darren. “Just don’t get too caught up in your work. And don’t do anything illegal. And don’t move to Faerieland.” He punctuated each statement with a sip of tea.
“But all of that seems to be inevitable,” said Afton. “This article says that Fyora is planning a new project in Faerieland, and that I’m a part of it.”
“They can’t force you to go,” said Darren. “Why, Rovan hasn’t even consulted you yet!”
“That’s true,” said Afton. “I wonder why. Now that business is picking up, he’s been acting a little differently. He should have told me if he signed for a new project, especially one with Fyora.”
“That is strange,” agreed Darren. “Maybe he’s just overworked.”
“That’s not it,” said Afton. “He just seems... different. He sees a lot of important guests now and talks for quite a while in his office. He acts so much more confident and professional, but it’s only been a few weeks since I met him.”
“Success changes some Neopets,” said Darren. “Remember what happened to you.”
Afton remembered. “Maybe I should talk to him,” she said. “Maybe I should get him to rethink his plan. We both said we wanted a small company, and that’s all. Perhaps I can convince him to keep it that way.”
“And turn down Fyora?” said Darren. “That will take some convincing.”
Afton stiffened with a firm resolve. She had been in Rovan’s situation once. She knew how it felt to go from complete anonymity to utter fame. She also knew how painful it was to lose everything that she once had held dear for the sake of success. Afton had been through it all before, and now here was her chance to save a friend from the same fate.
“I’ll convince him,” Afton said, and she meant it.
* * * * *
Afton knocked on the door of Rovan’s office. She had arrived early, before the business day had begun, but the Lupe was already working and welcomed her in. “I have some good news,” he said as Afton sat down.
“I’ve heard,” said Afton bluntly.
Slight surprise flashed in Rovan’s dark eyes, but then he said, “Isn’t it wonderful? Imagine being selected by Queen Fyora herself to spearhead a brand new project! This is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Afton. Again, an odd look passed across Rovan’s eyes. “I need to talk to you about this,” continued the Gelert. “We absolutely cannot accept this offer.”
“Why not?” asked Rovan, raising an eyebrow.
“I know what this will lead to,” said Afton. “This happened to me once. I was offered a new job in Faerieland, and I took it. I became famous for a few months, but then our illegal activity was busted and I lost everything. It ruined me. I don’t want it to ruin you.”
The red Lupe paused for a moment. “I see,” he said finally, looking away from Afton.
“I just want what’s best,” she said, leaning over to grab his paw. To her surprise, he pulled away.
“Look,” he said. “Afton, I think you might be overreacting.”
“Trust me,” she said. “I’m not.”
“You were alone last time,” said Rovan. “You took a job all by yourself and tried to manage a company that was doomed from the start. The Rainbow Bath was blatantly against the law. I mean, you monopolized flasks of rainbow fountain water over the entire market. You inflated prices far above what they had been before. It’s a wonder you lasted as long as you did. But this new project... this is different. Fyora is starting a company that—”
“Wait a minute,” interrupted Afton, standing up from her chair. “I know I told you once, a few weeks ago, what I had done. But you just told me every little detail of my business dealings as if you knew it like the back of your paw. What’s going on?”
Afton sensed her friend turning red, although through his already crimson fur it was hard to tell. “That’s not the point,” he said. “The point is—”
“The point is that you’ve known about me this whole time,” said Afton, now feeling herself turn red with anger. “You have known, haven’t you? Is that why you hired me? You just wanted the world famous Afton to bolster your little company to success?”
“I’ll admit that I had heard of you,” said Rovan, still sitting at his desk, “but that was only coincidence. Besides, of course I wanted to hire you with your reputation, and you agreed freely.”
Afton’s mind was fitting the pieces together so fast that when the realization finally dawned on her it was almost too difficult to react. “So you knew about me months ago,” she said slowly. “You knew about me when I was famous, and you knew that my business would get shut down. So you bought my old house, knowing that I’d be back someday, didn’t you?”
The dark eyes which had shown such friendly potential just a few weeks ago now seemed to grow darker with anger. “So what if I did?” Rovan said, standing up to face Afton. “It’s all part of the business. Without me, where would you be now?”
“Somewhere else!” cried Afton. “Somewhere where Neopets like you wouldn’t be taking advantage of me and my skills. Somewhere where I’d be appreciated for who I am, not just what I can do with graphs and numbers!” Another realization shot through Afton’s mind, suddenly numbing her. She paused. “That night at the concert,” she said slowly, recalling the evening in her mind. “Fyora pointed at our box. I thought she was pointing at me.” Rovan’s eyes seemed as if they were trying to burn through Afton’s body, but she continued. “She was pointing at you, wasn’t she? That’s why you had to leave so suddenly right before the symphony began. You were working with her the whole time!” The final pieces fit together in Afton’s brain, and the solved puzzle that lay before her made everything brutally clear. “You’ve been in this for the money ever since I left for Faerieland,” said Afton. “You planned it all out, just like some sort of criminal. You bought my house, befriended me in my time of need, got me to work in your investments company, made us famous, got Fyora herself to recommend us, and now you’ve signed a deal with her to start a brand new business in Faerieland.” As she spoke, Afton found herself not furious but suddenly heartbroken. She gazed into the dark eyes of the Lupe in front of her, but this time no emotion flowed from them.
Like windows, Rovan’s dark eyes had seemed to be the indicator of his emotions from the moment Afton first saw him. They had glowed with appreciation and honesty, shown Afton friendship and loyalty, and had yet been deceiving her every step of the way. The curtains had been shut from the beginning, showing only what Rovan had wanted Afton to see. The Lupe had been scheming after her since before they had met, but his eyes pulled her along with a leash of false sincerity. Now, as Afton stared deeply into those dark eyes, the curtains were ripped away and she saw for the first time who Rovan really was: a liar.
Words simply did not seem to be enough. Rovan merely gave Afton a blank stare. His plan had been laid bare in its entirety, and Afton could do nothing but stand there, in the Lupe’s small office, feeling suddenly alone.
Afton turned around, and without a glance back at the red Lupe, she walked out the door, down the hallway, and away from the office forever.
* * * * *
Rovan did not return home that evening, or any evening after that. After a few weeks, Afton found a realtor and bought her house back, glad to finally be home again. She and Darren still met every afternoon for tea, and Afton realized how much she enjoyed her one true friend’s company. The days passed, and summer drew to a close, but Afton still had not found a replacement job. Her wealth from Rovan’s Investments continued to support her, but after so many days spent moping idly in her empty house, Afton realized that she needed to restart her life – again.
“You’re a very strong Neopet,” said Darren over their afternoon tea one day. “You just need to find a job that’s worthy of you.”
“I don’t know how I can do it,” said Afton. “Everything I’ve tried has only ended in disaster. Every time I put my faith in someone, they let me down.”
Darren choked on a biscuit he was chewing on. “Everyone except you,” corrected Afton with a smile. “How could I live without you, Darren?”
“You couldn’t,” admitted the Bruce. “But since I’m here, and you’re still alive, you may as well find a new career for yourself. Although I’d advise not going into investments again.”
“No,” said Afton with a small smile. “I don’t think so.” The two friends were silent for a moment, happy simply to enjoy each other’s company. “I think I’ll take a walk,” said Afton finally, putting down her teacup. “Maybe I’ll get some inspiration on the way.”
“Let’s hope so,” said Darren with a smile. “You need it.”
* * * * *
The red leaves of autumn swirled through the street as Afton walked into town. The brisk air was a pleasant relief, and the Gelert found herself feeling peaceful for the first time in a while. There was no pressure to make money, no fashionable parties to attend, no one to impress. It was just her.
As she passed Morning Sun Coffee Shop, Afton took a glance through the window. The afternoon crowd was small, but for a moment she thought she saw a red Lupe sitting at one of the tables. At that moment, his face flickered up to meet hers, and Afton thought she saw a familiar glint in the dark eyes. For a few seconds of eternity, she stood there, locked in a timeless gaze, and all of the pain and regret threatened to burst the floodgates she had constructed and overwhelm her.
Afton took a deep breath, turned her head away from the window, and walked on, leaving all of the memories, all of the pain, and all of the regret behind her. Each step felt like one of a new life, a life that she felt was, at last, heading in the right direction. Afton felt herself walk taller, confident, assured that this time, everything would work out. This time, Afton knew, everything would be all right.