It was probably the eye patch.
Though the green Aisha wasn’t doing anybody any harm, simply by walking into the café and ordering a cup of coffee, she had elicited nervous glances and guarded looks from everyone inside. She sighed internally. The trench coat probably didn’t help, either.
The poor Wocky behind the counter had trembled terribly when the Aisha had made her order, and she nearly fainted when she saw the missing few fingers on the Aisha’s right hand as she handed over the money. But it wasn’t like that could be helped, either. Honestly, it was as if people thought she lost her fingers and eye on purpose, to make some wild statement, such as, “Hey, I’m incredibly dangerous, fear me or I’ll eat you, rawr,” or something equally ludicrous. Normally, if someone asked, she chalked the fingers up to frostbite. The eye she never explained.
Coffee in hand—left hand—the Aisha plunked down into a chair at a small table and stared blankly out the window. She wondered why she even bothered to come out in public anymore.
It was snowing lightly outside, she noticed. It hadn’t been a moment ago, and it seemed a bit early in the year for such weather. But what did she know, truly, of nature’s ways? Or of anything else, for that matter?
She’d stopped trying years ago to never think about them, and now they slipped easily into her thoughts. What was Checkr doing, thinking, feeling at this very moment? Was it snowing where Phyn was right now? And what, oh, what of Lue? The family she could have had, the friends she’d made and loved dearly, and abandoned in the woods out of fear without a goodbye. Were they even in contact with one another? How were they getting on in their lives?
Such questions were foolish, she knew, for they would never be answered, yet there was no use in keeping herself from asking anyway. She, who could not let go of the past—of the bitter regret and inability to forgive herself for the choices she’d made, the things she’d done. Anyone would easily determine her, from her actions, a bad person. And even in her heart, what was there that might be worth salvation? Her heart was black, cold, and unknowing; she would not let herself love or feel, for both were too painful. She was weak, she was pitiful, she was a waste. What would Lue think of her now, if he saw her this way? Would he even recognize her?
The coffee was hot and steaming and it burned her throat, but the warmth that flowed through her was delightful. She closed her eye, both hands around the scorching paper cup, and let the steam warm her face, and tried to focus only on the warmth.
Fortuna Laspus adjusted the scarf over his mouth and pulled his hat over his ears before stepping out into the cold. He would be surprised if it didn’t snow momentarily, and surely enough, on his way toward the coffee shop, it did. He shuffled along in his boots through the quickly accumulating snow, sending flurries of the stuff flying away.
At last he reached the shop, where he always got his morning coffee before leaving for work. “Good morning, Mr. Laspus,” said the Wocky behind the counter, as she did every morning of her shifts.
“And to you, Eliza,” he replied, smiling. “The usual, of course.” He already had the exact amount of Neopoints ready in his hand.
“Your coffee will be right up,” she promised, and took the money, handing him his warm pastry.
He moved out of the way for the line to progress, and waited patiently, as he did always, for his drink. He was about to take a bite of his pastry when his eyes, lazily scanning the room, fell upon a strange and familiar creature. The Aisha was paying nobody any notice—her single eye was closed—and he recognized her immediately. Yet he could not believe it.
His coffee in hand, he made his way over to her table. Yes, the missing fingers, the eye patch, the roughened green pelt, the unkempt short brown hair—there was no doubt, it was her. Of all people.
It’s hardly a dream if you’re awake. It’s even less of a dream if it was actually a memory. Yet the dream-memory was fuzzy and clear on all parts at once, and Daani often had difficulty remembering what was real.
Sometimes she would be on a train, or sitting on a park bench, or lying under the trees in a dense forest. Wherever she was, the dream-memories would swim into her vision, and she would know nothing else. She would see her life as she could remember, and wish so vehemently that she could forget it all that it would make her ill. The days with her tribe, the early days of her life as an Oracle—the loss of her voice, and what it took to get it back—that curséd woman she trapped in Phyn’s camera—and after, everything after, after she’d left...
“Daani! It is you!”
She looked up, stunned. Who was this Lupe standing before her, knowing her name?
He smiled at her. “Fortuna Laspus, remember?” he asked. “That job in Netta? Holly Bowtrickle’s Day of Giving party?”
She blinked; vague memories of snow, parties, and foolish revelry swam into her mind. She’d been invited, she remembered, by this Fortuna Laspus before her; they had been working on a job in the tiny, forgettable town of Netta up north, hunting witches and taking away their magic.
“Yes,” she said finally, slowly. “Yes, how nice to see you again. What are you doing in Neopia Central?”
“Oh, I moved here a couple of years ago,” he answered, sitting uninvited in the seat across from her. “Up on Lupe Lane. You still in the witch hunting business?”
She flinched, and looked out the window, her eyes narrowed. Was she still in the witch hunting business, what a question... said so casually, as if he wasn’t asking about the years she spent sniffing for and breaking into the homes and castles and grottos of anyone with magic she could find, for the sole sake of robbing them of their powers. Did he not remember what a person—for that’s what witches and other magic folk were, truly, in the end, she’d realized by now—looked like when they were attacked by people like her? The begging, or the pleading, or the accusations, and the fighting, their fierce protection of something as part of them as their own breath?
Had he forgotten what they’d looked like after they realized their magic was gone? Had he forgotten the tears?
“No,” she answered coldly. “Are you?”
He waved his hand dismissively. “No, sadly, I’ve had to give up on all that,” he replied. “The lifestyle was getting too rough on my body. Rheumatism, you know. No, nowadays I’m in accounting, you know, at the bank. Not quite the same rush as my old work, but it isn’t unenjoyable. I like my coworkers. You’d love a new friend of mine, Jerry Tamun is his name, he’s a bit of an older fellow like me, and a Bruce, at that, would you believe it, but regardless—quite the character, old Tamun, he once dealt with children like yourself, Daani, you know, children who had lost their parents, particularly under tragic circumstances, like yours, you know—I told him all about you; he’d love you, really. Did you know, by the way, that I spent six months editing articles for the Neopian Times? Isn’t that wild?”
She had to stop him there before she punched him in the face. “Excuse me. Don’t you have to be at work?”
“Oh, yes, I do, but they won’t mind if I’m a little late, I never am—and what are the odds I’ll ever see you again, Miss Daani?”
“Never again, no doubt. I never intend to run into old... acquaintances.”
At that he laughed. “Always the loner, weren’t you? Well what are you doing now? If not your old pride and joy?”
What was she doing now? Absolutely nothing, but she wasn’t about to admit that to anyone. She hadn’t spent a thousand neopoints in the last few years or so, scraping by, living on only what would help her to barely survive. She had the money, she just chose not to spend it. Money left trails. And she would be invisible.
But this, this Fortuna Laspus, whom she had not seen for years, had the nerve to recognize her and call her name out in public, sit across from her when she simply wanted to enjoy a coffee, and not only embody all the memories she loathed, but flaunt them. And she would not have it.
“That is none of your business, quite frankly, and I am not inclined to ever answer,” she told him nastily. “And this ‘pride and joy’ career I’d made for myself—how dare you speak of it when I cannot even bear to think it! The pain I caused, the suffering I can never undo! We are evil, we are, and anyone else who has ever been a witch hunter. We deserve the worst of fates one could ever see.”
“So bitter!” he cried. “For one so young, you are so bitter, Daani!”
“And you dare to use my name. My name is mine, and none but I may use it. How dare you.” She stood then, her coffee forgotten on the table, and walked out the door. The other customers, engaged in conversations of their own, barely noticed her. She would disappear again, before this Fortuna Laspus could chase after her—
But it was not to be; he arrived just in time and put his hand on her shoulder. “My dear,” he said softly, as if he truly cared about her well-being, “I may be an old man now, but I know when someone burns with the flame of a one-minded drive. Tell me... in the midst of all your bitterness, your sorrow, your obvious regret of things long past... what is it that keeps you going? What is that one thing you desire, the thing that keeps you breathing?”
The snow wrapped around them, falling heavily now in large, swirling masses. The wind seemed louder than it was in her four Aisha ears. She wouldn’t answer, no—she couldn’t.
“Tell me, my dear, and you will never hear from me again. Tell me and I will turn away and let you vanish, and I will pretend to forget I ever saw you. But you must tell someone. What do you need to be at peace?”
She couldn’t tell if the wetness on her face was from tears or the snow. She bowed her head. “Forgiveness,” she answered, ashamed.
She didn’t see him nod, but he dropped his hand from her shoulder and turned his back to her. “Good luck” was all he said, and when he turned around again, she was gone, and any trace of her was forever erased by the falling snow.
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The blind Ogrin blinked in confusion. He had not been visited by an expert ninja – he was sure of that – but how had that Neopian entered and left the training school without even the slightest sound?
Occasionally a passing guard or security drone would stroll by and break the silence, but nothing else did – nothing, that is, save for three dark-cloaked figures darting through the bright halls.