Special thanks to phoenix_through_fire and vanessa1357924680 for your helpful comments in the draft stages!
Terry woke in a room that was far too bright. He was just about to panic for having overslept, when he remembered that he was back home on holiday break, back in the middle of nowhere.
The cream-coloured Eyrie indulged in a yawn. Stretching his wings, he went over to the window. The land was sparkling white outside. A tourist might say that Terror Mountain was a pretty place—after all, it was home to the Advent Calendar, the Super Happy Icy Fun Snow Shop, and the Ski Lodge—but Terry, having lived here all his life, always felt restless when he was home.
School would resume in two days. It was odd how much he missed the excitement at the Mystery Island Training School when he was home, and how much he missed the comfort of home when he was exhausted from all the schoolwork and physical training.
This school year was especially tough because Terry was preparing for his entrance exams to Brightvale University. He'd always wanted to go to BVU when he was little. Most of his neighbours here on Terror Mountain said he was crazy, but then, they'd said the same thing when he told his dad he wanted to apply to the MI Training School.
"For real?" Mika, one of the two Chias at the Igloo Garage Sale, had scoffed. "An Eyrie from Terror Mountain, going to that hot, far-off place for school? What are you thinking?"
"Eh, it's what he wants," Terry's father, a red Bori, had responded shyly.
"MITS is the best prep school for kids my age," Terry had added.
The blue Chia, ignoring Terry's input, had continued to stare incredulously at the Bori. "But I mean, you're a crafter. You—'scuse me—you don't even know how to read. And I mean, I'm no reader meself. If I had a son, I wouldn't send him to school, y'know? My kid would stay here and help out in the family business, just like everybody else around these parts."
The voice of Carassa, the yellow Chia, had rung out then from inside the Igloo. "Mika, could you quit bickering and come back here to help with this piano?"
Terry, recalling this conversation, felt a surge of gratitude. He could hear his father already pottering around downstairs. Donny the Bori had never stopped working a day in his life. Each morning at six fifty-five, the toy-repairer would wake, as though guided by an internal alarm clock. Donny would then make a pot of Borovan in exactly the same way he had for years, the same way that his wife Mary used to make it when she was alive: close to boiling and black, with a sprinkling of sugar.
Donny would make toast topped with jam and cheese to eat with his Borovan. Terry, in childhood, was given a mug of oatmeal instead. The day he was old enough to drink Borovan too, his father took him outside and showed him how to sand wood. From then on he assisted his father in the daily chores.
Terry admired his father's resilience, but sometimes also caught himself pitying his father. What kind of a life was it, to walk the same paths day after day, to the wood and back, to the market and back, between the stove and the workbench and the doorway—and back? Life was far too short to be walking the same circles a hundred times, a thousand times, a million times.
The Eyrie often felt he had two selves. Terry-at-home was obedient, easygoing, even somewhat chatty. Terry-at-school was wide-eyed and insatiable in his silence. On his first report card, signed by the Techo Master, Terry's instructor had written: "Bright lad. Doesn't talk much, but asks excellent questions when he does. Hardworking. Teamwork skills could be improved."
Donny had put down his tools to look, had nodded, and asked Terry if he wanted any new toys to show to his friends at school.
Terry knew that his friends would be unimpressed with the toys. But, in the same way he'd accepted his mug of oatmeal every morning for years, he'd looked into his father's soft brown eyes and responded with a smile.
"Morning. Did you sleep well?" The edges of the old Bori's eyes crinkled kindly. He'd already started to fry a fish; the warm fragrance floated through the small house. A cool breeze came in through the window.
"Yep," Terry replied, splashing water on his face. As he dried off, he glanced at the red apple clock on the wall—ten o'clock. He'd come down to breakfast three hours later than he usually did.
Donny seemed to read his son's mind. "It's all right, Terry," he said, flipping the fish in the pan over the wood-stove. "You're on holiday break now."
The young Eyrie nodded. "I know, but I still feel like there's so much I'm missing out on. I mean," he added quickly, "it's always great to be home, to talk to you and everything. It's just that the exams are coming up soon, and uh... I wanna be prepared." Faced with that gentle, ignorant expression on his father's face, Terry chose not to say more.
The fish sizzled in the pan. Donny put out the flames and tipped the fish onto a plate. "Thought I'd make you something filling, seeing as it's almost lunchtime," he explained.
Terry looked gratefully at his father. "Thank you, Dad."
Donny watched him while he ate. "Good?"
"Yes, Dad. You always cook a good fish."
The old Bori's eyes crinkled.
"Is everything going well at home?" Terry asked, between bites.
"That Kacheek over at the Ski Lodge—she break anything recently?"
Donny chuckled. It was a joke between him and Terry that the skier was a major source of income because she broke things so frequently. "Yes, actually," he said. "She broke her new ski pole. I fixed it."
"Haha, there's nothing you can't fix, is there, Dad?"
Donny chuckled again.
But by the end of the breakfast Terry had begun to feel rather bored. He wished his father would talk more. He found himself wishing—guiltily—that the day of his return to school would come sooner.
Water ran in the sink as Donny cleaned the dishes. Terry, after wiping down the table, brought him the kitchen rag.
"Thanks, son. You mind flying over to Mika's to see if they have some paint? I'm running out of red and yellow."
"Sure. Anything to help you, Dad."
With wind in his wings, Terry remembered his first day at MITS, how impressed he'd been by the tall stone pillars, the volcanic scent, and the hum of insects in the deep, lush greenery. The very ground underfoot had seemed to throb with life. Mystery Island was so unlike Terror Mountain. Mystery Island was where things happened.
A long line of Neopets moved through the courtyard, each carrying a codestone to offer as payment. A signpost on the gate said: Welcome New Students!
"Is this your first day too?" came a voice somewhere behind his right wing.
Terry turned and found himself face to face with a pink-eared Wocky, about the same height as himself, with the same pale fur, and astonishing eyes. "I uh, yes, it's my first day," he stammered.
The Wocky beamed with what, to Terry, seemed an inordinate amount of joy. "My name is Gina. Well, my full name is Aurigin, but everybody calls me Gina. Where are you from?"
"Terror Mountain," Terry replied, looking at the ground. "And, my name's Terry. Fitting, eh?" The joke already sounded lame before it left his mouth.
But to his great surprise, Gina let out a peal of laughter. "Oh, you're funny!" she said. And then, a little more seriously, "I mean, I'm sorry if you feel like I'm laughing at you. I just—but oh, you're funny." She leaned back and patted her front paws together in delight, dropping her codestone in the process. And, completely without embarrassment, she bounded off to retrieve the codestone, returning a moment later to her place in the queue. "Sorry about that!" she exclaimed.
Terry, despite himself, felt a chuckle swell up at the back of his throat, too. "And where are you from?" he asked, politely.
"I'm from Neopia Central," said the Wocky. "I've come here a few times with my parents, to go to the beach and stuff, but this is my first time going into MITS. I was so worried I wouldn't get in. My second choice would've been the Swashbuckling Academy over at Krawk Island—you know that place?"
"Yes," Terry lied.
"Ugh, what a horrible place, don't you think? I've been there once. Smells of sea salt. This place is way better, if a little more expensive."
Terry looked at the codestone between his talons. "Yeah," he said.
"I'm really hoping that if I do well at MITS, I can go to Brightvale University one day," Gina went on.
"It's just absolutely the best place to be. King Hagan himself is an alum. They have all the best books and teachers and everything. And the neighbourhood is just perfect. It's like a real college neighbourhood."
"Oh look, the line's moving. And there's the Techo Master—yes, I think that's him! Oh my goodness. I'm nervous. Are you nervous? I feel like I'm nervous." She gazed sincerely at Terry.
And so the Eyrie had known, ever since that moment, that he wanted to be as good as Gina. Good enough to be her friend, to feel her looking at him in that genuine, unabashed way, forever. In some ways he could never be as good as her—he had only one parent, not two, and Neopia Central seemed to him impossibly far-off—what would she think of the quaint little houses on Terror Mountain, after a life among crowded avenues, dining at Pizzaroo, having her fur trimmed at the Grooming Parlour?
But he knew that he wanted to impress her somehow. She seemed to like him well enough, though for the life of him he couldn't figure out why. He had to hold on to that. If she was going to go to Brightvale University, then he was determined to go, too. Even if it meant long hours of studying, studying well into the night.
Terry brushed the snow off his wings and entered the Igloo Garage. "One can of red paint, please," he told the blue Chia. "And one can of yellow paint."
"Would you listen to him!" Mika called to his wife in the back. "Saying 'please,' like a tourist from one of them far-off places."
"Oh, shush. The boy's just trying to be polite."
"'One can of red paint, please!'" Mika repeated. "That'll be a hundred Neopoints, kiddo."
Terry frowned. "I thought it used to be forty Neopoints per can?"
"That's the price for locals."
Terry felt his face grow hot, but he handed over the Neopoints without saying anything.
"Why, what's the problem, kiddo? You wanna wrestle me? Huh?" The blue Chia put the cans, a little too roughly, into a brown calico bag. "Put them cool skills you learned over at MITS to use? They teach you anything useful you can't learn back here?"
"Over there they don't call me 'kiddo,'" Terry managed to say.
"What they call you then? Bet they just bow down in admiration when you tell 'em you're from Terror Mountain, huh?"
"After I graduate from MITS," said Terry, slowly, "I'm gonna go on and attend Brightvale University."
"Oh-ho! Listen to that! Carrie, would you listen to that."
Carassa came out of the Igloo. "That's enough, Mika. Cut it out. We've known Donny and his son ever since Terry was a little baby."
"They were both a lot saner when Mary was alive," Mika complained, as he went back into the Igloo with Carassa.
The snowflakes fell silently. Terry gathered up the two cans of paint. They clinked together in an annoying manner as he tightened the strings of the bag. Suddenly he found himself trembling.
Was it his fault that he wanted to get out of here? Was it really his fault that he wanted to go—oh, anywhere, to Mystery Island, or even to Brightvale—with its tall, smooth towers, its neatly shaped turrets, its trumpets, its banners, its libraries and steel helmets. "Brightvale University," the way Gina said it.
Anywhere, as long as it was away from here. Away from the likes of Mika.
"Did they have any paint left?" Donny asked, as Terry stamped on the welcome mat.
"Yes," said Terry. "I got you the ones you needed. Red and yellow."
Donny looked up from his workbench, a note of concern in his voice. "Everything okay, Terry?"
"Yeah. I'm just stressed, that's all, Dad. My exams are next month. I'm stressed." Terry put down the two cans of paint on the table. He felt his voice wobbling dangerously. But it was too late—before he knew it, he was sitting down and crying. Big drops of tears splashed onto the wood, ruining a newly-glued toy train that Donny had set there to dry.
Donny put down his tools and came over to him. "Look here, son. Don't worry. No matter what happens, you're still my son. Long as I'm here, there'll always be somebody to love you."
Terry held on to his father. And for once at home, he was the silent one, while his father offered words of comfort.
Terry woke in his bed at the Mystery Island Training School. Small beams of sunlight were just beginning to peep through the bamboo shutters. Across the dormitory, his classmate Egg the Chomby was still sleeping, the emerald spots on his back rising and falling with every breath.
Terry glanced at the clock on his bedside table.
Six fifty-five. Five more minutes till seven o'clock, when the Techo Master's apprentice would come down the corridor, banging a gong and saying, "Rise and shine, folks! You gotta be in tip-top shape for the exams next month! Come on, rise and shine!"
But for now, Terry had a few minutes all to himself, to drift in that hazy realm between sleeping and waking.