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Beauty of the Snow: Part Five


by extreme_fj0rd

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When they ventured out again, Lia was wearing a light jacket of Inga's. The first shop they encountered was a small boutique selling only gifts; the Techo strode past confidently, her boots hitting the pavement sharply, and headed for the large store at the end of the row. Lia trailed behind, frowning at the gift shop, and then glanced back at Inga and hurried to keep up.

      They bought a thick jacket for her; though at first it seemed much too warm, as they proceeded back to Inga's apartment Lia found herself getting colder and colder, until she was shivering even with the coat.

      Inga turned, and saw the Aisha's shudders. She grinned, spreading her gloved paws wide. "Welcome to winter in Neopia Central!"

      Lia nodded, shivering, and clutched her jacket tight around herself.

      The Techo shook her head, grinning, and turned again to keep walking. "It gets pretty cold here," she commented; Lia sped up, both to keep warm and to hear what Inga was saying. "Colder than any other part of Neopia, I think, except maybe Terror Mountain. But then, that's cold all year 'round." Inga shrugged. "Anyway, we have the coldest winters of anywhere--ask anyone you like--and they've been getting worse, too." She sighed. "Ah, well. We have jackets, we have scarves, we have hats. We'll last."

      Lia nodded tentatively. "I... yes," she said.

      "Sorry," Inga said with a smile. "Am I boring you?"

      Lia shook her head emphatically.

      "Good," the Techo said, and paused. "The choir is going out for dinner tonight," she commented, glancing over at the Aisha. "Do you want to come? I'll pay for your food."

      The Aisha hesitated, and then nodded. "I suppose," she said, quietly.

      "Don't worry, they're all terribly nice," Inga said. "You'll fit right in."

      Lia fell silent, pondering the implications of 'terribly nice'. "I suppose," she repeated after a moment.

      Inga grinned. "Good."

      The Aisha stared up at the restaurant in interest and slight awe that evening. It was constructed in the distinctive Krawk Island style; the swinging wooden sign read "Golden Weewoo". There was a picture of that small bird in flaking gold paint next to the words, and Lia tilted her head to inspect it.

      "Come on," Inga said, slightly impatiently, and hurried across the street towards the building. Lia paused, still staring up at the sign, and then hastily redirected her gaze to the Techo, who was already halfway to the restaurant. The Aisha pulled the collar of her coat higher and hastened after her, shuddering against the cold. She took one last glance at the sign as they passed under it, and then Inga pushed the door open and they both stepped into warmth and humidity, coupled with a faint smell of burning.

      Lia wrinkled her nose, still tugging her jacket close; the cold air of outside was not entirely chased away by the interior warmth of the restaurant.

      Inga was already clattering down the passage towards the large group of pets and owners that blocked the hall. The Aisha followed slowly, frowning at them. A few looked vaguely familiar--from that day's rehearsal, she guessed.

      "Hey!"

      The Techo greeted her companions exuberantly, hugging them gleefully and exchanging laughs and jokes. Lia hung back, eyeing them all with a hint of anxiety.

      "Yeah--this is Lia--" Inga said, leading a few of her particular friends back to where the Aisha stood. "Lia, meet--"

      Lia nodded to them, not bothering to listen to their names.

      "Hi, Lia," a Pteri said, offering a wingtip to shake. "Inga's been telling us about you," she added with a grin and a wink.

      "Good things!" Inga put in, grinning back at the Pteri.

      Lia shook with the Pteri dutifully.

      "Yes, yes, well..." the Pteri said, laughing with Inga even as she shook Lia's paw. The Aisha took it back quickly from the shake, nodded politely to her.

      The Pteri gave her an odd look, then turned again to the Techo. "So, did you hear--? Chris isn't coming--"

      "What?" Inga exclaimed, entering the conversation with a laugh--as she nearly always did around her friends, Lia noted. Yet she had never laughed once in the Aisha's company.

      Perhaps she truly was better off in the woodlands.

      Before she could fully explore this thought, the maitre d' announced their table ready, and the choristers trooped into the restaurant, merrily chatting away.

      Lia trailed after them, frowning, and sat without really looking at who she was sitting next to. When she looked up--as the waiter placed a menu in front of her--she was irritated to realize that the Pteri was on her left. A Kacheek sat on her right; Lia hadn't met him before, but he wore a nasty expression.

      The Aisha turned her attention to the menu, which consisted mostly of "Authentic Krawk Island Grub!" She paged through it solemnly, inspecting each item, and found nothing that looked like anything she had ever heard of before.

      She closed the menu and set it carefully on her plate.

      When the waiter came back to take their orders, all of the singers were chatting happily with their friends and laughing. Lia stared wistfully at her plate, wishing that Inga wasn't sitting halfway across the large round table, and told the Wocky waiter that she had already eaten.

      "So," the Kacheek on her right said snootily, "I heard that Inga found you in the snow without even a jacket on, and no shoes."

      Lia bit her lip, nodded, still staring at her plate.

      "Hah," he said. "So it is true. I expect you were a beggar or something," he said airily. "Well, it is all your fault that you were on the streets to begin with. You must've done something wrong."

      The Aisha wanted to say something, but kept silent--wisely. She felt oddly short of breath, and panicky.

      "You don't deny it," the Kacheek pointed out, and then fell silent as well, watching her with narrow eyes.

      Lia lifted her head after a moment; tears were welling in her eyes. She had never cried before.

      "I do not," she said, her voice catching on the words, "but that does not mean that it is true."

      She stood up quickly, almost knocking her chair over, and started for the door of the restaurant. The Kacheek watched her go with something almost like amusement; a waiter whirled swiftly out of her way, and his heavy tray full of water glasses didn't even tip.

      Lia ran on, out of the room, down the long hallway and out of the restaurant.

      It was snowing.

      She found, after a moment, that she was still wearing her coat. She struggled out of it angrily, threw it on the sidewalk as she ran, and let the cold suffuse her. It washed over her, stinging and soothing at the same time; the wind blew gently at her fur, tugging it away so the cold could creep into her skin.

      The Aisha shed her boots after a further block or so. The concrete was harsh on her paws, but not as harsh as it once would have been, and that angered her, too. She found the deepest snowdrifts to run through, padding her paws with the snowflakes that had once been her friends.

      She ran. She lost herself a dozen times and more in the maze of Neopia Central's streets, and found herself as many times, and always followed the faint tug of Neopia Central Park.

      Eventually she found herself in Market Street, just in front of the park, and she slowed, tottering on sore and numb paws. But still she hurried, nearly bumping into countless Christmas shoppers. She didn't bother to apologize.

      Inga only noticed Lia's absence a moment after the door closed behind her. She stood up quickly, extricating herself from the conversation, and stared after the Aisha for a moment. Then, wrestling on her coat, she buttoned it tightly and wound her scarf around her neck.

      She ran for the door, ignoring the questions that sprang up behind her, and pushed through it out into the cold.

      The first thing she noticed was the snow that fell. It could not have been more suitable.

      The Techo glanced around hurriedly, stamping her booted paws to keep the cold away, and saw no sign of Lia. There were a hundred paths of pawprints on the sidewalk, and tracing them all would take time--

      --Where would Lia go?

      She had her answer within a moment: Neopia Central Park. Living in the city all her life had some advantages, she found as she pounded down the pavement towards that location. Perhaps she would even get there before Lia, and be able to head her off...

      She cut off thinking and swerved around a large group of Christmas shoppers, darting into the street for a moment before jumping back up onto the sidewalk.

      She found Lia's coat a moment later, already trodden into the slush by a few people, and grabbed it up. Tucking it securely into her arm, she ran on, avoiding the other pedestrians where she could and apologizing to those she bumped into.

      In Chia Close, a parade was going on to celebrate the Day of Giving. Inga paused, glanced around quickly just in case Lia had stopped here, and saw no sign of the Aisha. She pushed through the crowd hurriedly, muttering apologies under her breath as she worked her way to the street.

      There, she found a steady, slow procession of floats going past; they were not elegant, nor overly decorated, and most of the groups had simply roped together a few bicycles, slung a sheet over the bikes and the riders, and tied things onto the sheets. Nevertheless, it would be hard to cross in the midst of all this, and despite her worry for Lia, Inga found her spirits rising as she watched the parade go past.

      It was only about five minutes until she could cross, and she did so quickly, speeding her pace up to a run again. And then somehow she got lost, taking a right turn when she should have taken a left; when she realized it, she was already several blocks from her wrong turning.

      With a sigh of frustration, Inga paused on a street corner and planned out a new route that would use her wrong turn to advantage; it was a few blocks longer, but so be it. She sped up again, shoving one paw into the pocket of her coat and hefting Lia's jacket in the other.

      When she reached Market Street, there was no sign of the Aisha, though a small group of young pets had gathered to ask passersby to donate clothing or Neopoints to the poor.

      Inga paused before the gates of the park, and then ventured in, her gaze sweeping the snow. She realized after just a moment that Lia would not have remained on the path, and she quickly stepped off it into the snowbanks. Snow almost immediately found its way into her boots, melting around her ankles, but the Techo paid it no mind and sped up, peering behind bushes and around trees.

      "Lia!" she called. "Lia?" She ran through the knee-deep snow, kicking drifts apart and skidding on the occasional slick patch of ice. "Lia!"

      It took her hours to cover the whole park, but at last she had to accept it: Lia was nowhere to be found.

      Inga slowed, then stopped, near the gate on the opposite side of the park from Market Street. The voices of a choir performing near a lamppost in the next block came faintly to her ears, and she sighed. Then the Techo bundled up Lia's jacket in her arms, shivering with the cold, and started back toward her apartment.

      As she reached the central, paved area around the fountain, Inga slowed down. For reasons she couldn't quite name, she stepped off from the straightest path through and instead walked through the drifts on the edges of the cobbled area. It felt easier somehow, more right.

      She kept to the edges of the path from then on, until she reached Market Street gate. There she stopped again. It didn't seem to be quite so freezing cold any more, Inga thought with slight surprise. She unzipped her parka and shrugged it off, bundling it in her arms with Lia's.

      Her boots, too, seemed unneccessary... but no, she still had a task to complete. She couldn't just leave these jackets lying here, after all.

      With bootlaces half untied, the Techo crossed the cobblestones to the group of pets standing there.

      "Donate new or gently used clothing!" a young Ruki called out. He sounded exhausted, and his yellow color was barely visible for the hood of the parka pulled over his head.

      Inga approached him. "Here," she said, giving him both coats. She stepped out of her boots, too, and bent to pick them up.

      "What? I can't take--" the Ruki started, staring at her. "But that's your--"

      "I'll be fine," Inga said. "My apartment is close."

      She offered him the boots. He took them, still staring at her.

      "Thank you," he stammered awkwardly. "Thank you!"

      Inga smiled. "You're very welcome."

      She turned and walked into the park, and into the beauty of the snow.

The End

 
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Other Episodes


» Beauty of the Snow: Part One
» Beauty of the Snow: Part Two
» Beauty of the Snow: Part Three
» Beauty of the Snow: Part Four



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