Chapter 2 – Cinnamon Swirl And The White Bandit.
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“Wh-what... you like...” My eyes fluttered open to the sight of the various half-finished drawings littering my desk. Where is she? We were... oh, a dream. It was only a dream, good. I’m not ready for anyone telling me they like me. I’ll stumble on my words and come off looking like an absolute moron.

“Ashe, you good?” Asked my history teacher, Mr. White, as he got back to sketching something on the blackboard. “Or you just busy scaring yourself awake like usual?”

“Is that rhetorical?” I sighed as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. It’s not my fault I can’t sleep at night. I’d love to, believe me.

Laughing, he intoned in a manner that actually sounded sincere, “You know it is. Just try to get some rest, alright?”

“Thanks.” I nodded, failing to suppress a yawn. At this point, I’m confident everyone here expects me to doze off in class. Classmates included. I don’t get much of a glance. They’re kind enough to wake me when the bell rings, though.

I redirected my attention back to the sketchbook on my desk, flipping it open to the first page. This clearly isn’t mine. Whoever drew this, their style and mine aren’t even in the same realm.

The piece staring back at me was in all grey. Two girls sat beneath a leafless tree, surrounded by a flurry of falling leaves. One was resting her head in the other’s lap as her friend fixed the strands of hair resting in her face. Both of them sported bright smiles while they overlooked a valley with a river cutting through its center.

I didn’t realize it at first, but it brought a smile to my face. I don’t typically see drawings like this. Most of the time, the art I do see from others is just a conglomerate of different sceneries and household items done only for credit and nothing more. This gave off the impression that it had passion behind it.

Wait, was I the girl resting in her lap? Why am I dreaming of myself like that? I nev-doesn't matter. It was a dream, forget about it. Nothing more and nothing less.

“J? Jordan?” I said under my breath, noting the J with a mini heart above it. That girl in the dream was named Jordan. Maybe this is hers? How did I get this anyway? There’s nothing feasible that sugg-

“Hey, chill the fuck out, Aidan!” A masculine voice, one replete with ire, sounded off. “The hell’s wrong with you?!”

“Ashe, do I need to intervene?” Sighed Mr. White as he pointed to the window, likely dreading the rain.

I peered out of the second story window down to the rain-ridden football field.

An entire class was spread out across the field. Rain was falling in sheets, accompanied by a harsh gust, but none of them seemed to care. Instead, their gaze lay fixated on a downed teen rubbing his shin.

“I know, I know, my bad! Just irritated today!” A familiar baritone voice responded, attempting to dismiss their grievances as a teacher made his way down the field to investigate.

“Just keep your inner rage to yourself! I’d rather not be killed by it!” A third voice piped up.

Aidan leaned down to help him up, but the boy exploded on him.

“Oh, like I need fucking help from you!” He shouted at the top of his lungs.

Aidan didn’t bother with him after that. He shook his head with a shrug and walked off the field, stopping to throw a wave my way when he noticed me.

I waved back, answering Mr. White with, “a teacher’s on it,” as I returned my gaze to the sketchbook. We did run into each other. We were in a rush this afternoon and ended up slamming into each other, causing our things to be scattered. If we mixed them up at any time, it’d have to be then.

“Oh, hallelujah.” Mr. White exhaled in pure unadulterated relief.

Wait... mixed up our?

As if on auto-pilot, I dropped my backpack between my legs and ripped it open. It's gone... my sketchbook's gone.

Son of a bitch, he better not have looked at it if he has it! No one and I mean no one is allowed to look at my newer drawings! I should have checked this morning! Damn you, Ashe! Why didn’t you notice sooner? And why didn’t you check after the incident?!

As if a higher power was looking out for me, the bell rang right that instant. I didn’t wait to be dismissed, our teacher wouldn’t care anyway. I darted past the few people collecting their things and shot down the familiar narrow corridors of my school.

Doing his best impression of me, my teacher shouted down the hall, “Hey, Mr. White, may I please be dismissed?” I sprinted around a guy and jumped a flight of stairs, sticking the landing with ease, barely catching my teacher’s parting echo. “Well, of course, you can, Ashe! All you had to do was ask!”

I have to catch Aidan. I won’t be able to cope with the reality of someone seeing my art. Why did it have to be today, of all days?! Just one day prior and I likely would've noticed as soon as I went to draw! I was stuck using loose sheets, so I didn't even bother opening the sketchbook. I set it on my desk purely out of habit.

I kept on the push, a row of familiar blue lockers coming into sight. Classes were being dismissed, so the hallway was growing more crowded by the second.

I dashed past person after person, dodging the occasional straggler who’d cross my path until I reached my destination. Aidan’s locker was located right next to mine, and it’s the end of the day. He should be here soon enough.

“Dammit, he didn’t find that yet?” I muttered nervously at the sight of my gift sitting atop his locker. He’s gonna think I did it. He’d be right, but that’s not the point.

Do I stuff it in my bag and give it to him tomorrow? I really don’t need him to insist on making it up to me. That part alone is why I placed emphasis on gifting him this discreetly. I even went through the trou-

“Hey, Ashe. What’s up?” Aidan waved as he wiped away the water under his blonde hair.

“H-hey!” I jumped. Dammit, too late. “Do you need a towel? I can get one. Oh, and n-not much.” Okay, it’s time for a miracle. If there’s something out there that can grant me that, here’s my request. Make him so oblivious it’s comedic, just until I leave.

“I’ve had better days.” He let out an annoyed sigh as he rolled his hazel eyes. “And no, I got one in here. I predicted going out in the rain.” He entered his combination, whipped open his locker, catching his backpack as it tumbled out, and looked up... No miracle? Fuck me. No miracle.

Seizing the blue plastic bag, he looked up at me with a raised eyebrow, “you know what this is about?”

“Y-ye-ermh, I mean, no. It was here when I got here.” Did I mention I’m an awful liar when it counts? I’m an awful liar when it counts.

“Ashe, you suck at lying.” He said so bluntly I could physically feel it.

“Holy shit...” He mumbled to himself, flabbergasted, as he went wide-eyed. As if handling some sort of precious artifact, he carefully pulled out one of his presents. A jewel CD case with various signatures scrawled on the back in varying degrees of legibility.

“Surprise,” I muttered, desperate to find some way to turn invisible.

He was so quick I didn’t even sense his movement, let alone see it. One minute he was standing there in awe. The next, he was providing me a legitimate reason to visit a chiropractor.

“What are you doing?!” My voice and back cracked in pain-filled harmony as he tightened his squeeze.

“Ashe, thank you! You’re the fucking best!” He shouted with such zeal that I can already feel eyes on us.

“Aidan...” I whimpered, barely sucking in enough air to survive. He’s going to inadvertently kill me one of these days.

“You got every single one!” He continued, letting out a laugh so joyous I could swear I just made his year. “They’re all signed too!”

“Air, p-please.” I sputtered with another gasp of breath. “Space too.”

He released me and backed off with a profuse apology, “sorry. I got a bit carried away, my bad. But seriously, thank you so damn much. I’ve wanted to complete their collection all year, and you managed to one-up that. How?”

“Don’t worry about it. I know a guy.” I assured him with a smile, swiftly changing the topic. “I think you might have my sketchbook. You mind checking your bag for it?”

Casually reaching into his locker, he handed it off to me with a smile, “I didn’t look at anything past the first page. Don’t worry.”

“How’d you know I was gonna ask that?” I questioned as I flipped through the pages to double-check. I’m not sure what’s going to alert me of that, but it helps with my peace of mind.

“It’s obvious you’re insecure about your art.” He replied, walking past me with an assuring pat on the back. I’m going to neglect arguing with him. Primarily because he hit the nail on the head.

“Oh, wait, isn’t this Jordan’s?” I called after him, waving the sketchbook around as he stopped dead in his tracks. He spun around as if he was on auto-pilot, facing me with an expression that implied he was punched in the gut.

“You good? Or is this really not yours?” I repeated, gesturing to the J with a little heart above it.

“Y-yeah... it’s mine.” What’s up with him? I’ve never seen him act like this.

“I didn’t look at it before you ask.” I lied. I’d preferably not tell him I didn’t return the courtesy he gave me. In my defense, I only saw the first page.

“C-cool. T-thanks for that. Jordan’ll appreciate it.” He nodded as he accepted the book, promptly marching off. Was that a blush on his face?

“See you tomorrow!” I waved and made my way out the backdoor to a sight that made my heart melt.

“How... did?” I mumbled at the sight of a relatively sizeable grey cat.

“Mew.” Responded Smokey in his typical deep meow, one that never ceased to say that he loved me. His pale green eyes met mine. He threw me an ecstatic nod, appended by him fervently shaking himself off, throwing water everywhere.

His fur was smoke like in its appearance, patterned in a way that he possessed a swirl on his side. His name was going to be Cinnamon Swirl. I was five, give me a break. The only reason he wasn’t graced with that name is that he isn’t brown in the slightest. More importantly, how did my cat get out of the house? And follow me to school at that? Did I leave the door open? Shit, I hope not.

“Really?” I groaned as droplets of water pelted my legs. He could’ve just waited for me, and he wouldn’t be soaked. Now I have a cat to dry off, great.

Smokey seemed pleased with his now partially dried fur and marched off with triumph in his step. I went to follow after him with an umbrella but was stopped by my glowing smile when I saw her scurry after him.

“I don’t know how you guys did it, but by god that is fucking adorable.” I internally jumped for joy at the sight of my almost entirely white pet ferret, Kirra, sprinting after him, desperate to use him for shelter. The only nonwhite part is a little black spot on her face giving the appearance of a burglar. Stereotypes be damned.

Before Smokey could realize what I was doing, I whipped out my phone and snapped a picture of them. Kirra froze for a second, quickly realizing who the flash belonged to. With what seemed to be relief in her eyes, she darted over to me and hid behind my legs, clearly awaiting her preferred means of transit. I'm honestly impressed. I didn't try to get her into the habit of hitching a ride on me. She just started doing it all on her own. I'm not arguing, though.

Smokey stopped in place, slowly turning to face me with eyes replete with indignation. He was practically glaring at me as if silently saying, “how dare you capture my glory.” Objectively the best cat ever. I swear, he thinks he’s a king. I’m half-tempted to buy him a tiny crown one of these days.

“Yes, I know.” I laughed as I walked past him, kneeling down so they both could slip into my backpack. “I’ll pay for my transgressions against the kingdom of Smokey.” My money’s on copious amounts of cat hair plaguing my clothes in the coming weeks.

He was hesitant at first but caved immediately after my ferret slithered into the bag for shelter. He drooped and followed after her, leaving only his head to peek out as I unfolded an umbrella.

“It’s not that bad.” I prodded him to be rewarded with another scowl. “Hey, you wouldn’t be in this if you just stayed home.” I’d still like to know how they got out. I’m almost positive that Kirra was in her cage, and Smokey can’t exactly open doors. I hope she didn't get too wet. Yes, it was cute seeing them together like that, but I don't want them following me to school if it means they put themselves in harm's way even a little bit.

Resting his head on my shoulder, he let out a small mew as I began my rainy journey home.

- - - - -

“Sweet.” I beamed at the sight of my target today. I need a picture of it. My goal today was to get a picture of that tree and its surrounding buildings. I’m sure I can find a way to incorporate Smokey and Kirra into it.

I got my phone ready as I traversed over the cragged sidewalk. Tree roots were taking shape, digging underneath the path, and progressively, making it more hazardous to navigate. The unrelenting rain was beginning to freeze, slowly coating everything in ice. If they don’t cancel school tomorrow, I swear to god.

With bubbling excitement, I trotted over to the brick wall, separating me from that tree and peered through the iron gate. The same tree that always drew an air of curiosity from me. Of what it used to be. It’s dead and decaying now, so I’ll never know, but it’s unlike any tree I’ve ever witnessed before. Its body was twisted and stretched upward, like how someone would appear if they were tangled in a robe. Its top actually looked like a head, as if it were a giant person with their hood up.

Something always caught my eye, apart from that tree. It was the buildings that covered its flanks. They weren’t of this era. They seemed to take inspiration from some sort of fantasy realm. All the smaller buildings featured white wooden walls with brown rooftops and stone stairways leading up to them. The catch is they always had a constant coat of frost on them, even in summer, and were twisted in ways akin to the tree. Not quite as severely, but it was noticeable.

I could never figure out why. The city doesn’t seem to care as it’s a great tourist attraction during spring. Apparently, the buildings don’t require maintenance either. Odd.

Snapping my picture, I walked off with a fresh fire for my drawings. I have a picture of my two adorable pets and that tree? Fuck yes, do I have motivation. I can see it now, I’m gonna restore that place in my drawing and feature a close up of Smokey and Kirra snoozing somewhere.

“Hey!” I laughed as I shrank away, hopeless to keep Smokey at bay. “Why do you alwa-stop it!” I shook the ice off my umbrella and rubbed his chin to sate him as I rounded the street corner. Why are they both so affectionate as of late? I’m not complaining, but Smokey’s a pretty aloof cat at times. He’s been glued to me for the last two... oh. Nevermind, I realized what it’s about. I wonder if it’s more for him or for me at this point. If it’s the latter, I appreciate the sympathy.

Smirking, I conceded to his hidden demands as he slipped into a happy purr. “Just in case you’re getting treats when we get home.” Moments after our exchange, I withdrew my sketchpad from my backpack, mindful to not disturb Kirra.

Someone wrote on the back of it?

I vaguely remembered you mentioning that you used to play Viicirne. They have a beta dropping soon for the newest expansion, and I have a spare code, so I figured I’d toss it your way. You can thank your sister for that one. Hit me up with a friend request if you decide to use it. If not, just sell it. I won’t be bothered, and you can get a nice chunk of change for it. Oh, if you see me at lunch, feel free to grab a seat at my table too. Seeing you sit alone is a bit depressing. - Aidan

I do appreciate his lunch offer, but I sit by myself deliberately. It’s significantly easier to draw and sleep during lunch. As for a beta code for Viicirne? I’ll pass. I’m confident the beta will be fantastic. They always are, but I quit two years ago for a good reason, and I’ve no intention of going back.

Opening the book, I started skimming through my various half-finished drawings. I should try and finish these tonight. It’d actually give me a grade in art. Then I wouldn’t have to face Mom and her disappointment when she sees a zero for one of my classes. Provided they don’t cancel tomorrow, I can catch Aidan and tell him I don’t need the key. He can sell it. It’s his code anyway.

Let’s see what do I have started? There’s a rough draft of a girl drifting in the ocean, but I have a larger version of it in my bedroom, so that’s redundant. My drawing of Ruby... I don’t have the heart to complete that one yet.

“Mew.” Smokey sounded off, alerting me to the fact that I almost walked right past my house.

“Not sure what’d I do without you sometimes,” I grinned as I spun around, making my way up the deserted frost-laden driveway. The door’s shut, good. I should be fine.

“I’m home,” I called out through the darkness of my vacant house. No one’s going to be here for at least the next few weeks. My family left the house to me after a bit of insistence on my end.

I nudged the door shut, hit the lights, snagged a bag of cat treats off the glass table, and gently set my backpack on the couch.

“Reward time,” I smiled as Smokey bolted out of the bag when his eyes landed on my hand. He wasted no time with them. He didn’t even inspect the food with his nose, he just chowed down, all while purring.

I left out some food for Kirra on the couch cushion and trotted out to the kitchen. They should be fine together, I haven’t had to supervise their interactions in years.

“A box?” I muttered, rubbing my eyes to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. This wasn’t here this morning, I’m sure of it.

I made my over to the table to have my suspicions validated. They were here this morning. Maybe they unwittingly let Smokey out. That still doesn’t explain Kirra, though.

The box was wrapped in cosmos-themed wrapping paper, so its owner was self-evident. My older sister and brother gave me an early birthday present.

I strolled around it and pulled off the card stuck to it. Yeah, unmistakably from them, this is Riley and Connor’s handwriting.

Happy birthday, Ashe! I’m kinda writing this on the fly, so I’m gonna keep it quick. Me and Connor decided we’d pool our prize money to buy you a new VR headset, one waaay better than your old one. You can use it while sleeping now! We decided since a beta was starting up for Viicirne, midnight tonight (be there), you could hopefully give it another chance. Your account details are scribbled on the box. I kept it despite you telling me to do whatever I wanted with it. Love you! - Riley

Happy birthday. You should play. And Riley’s the one making me write this, but I love you too. God, that’s weird to say. - Connor

That’s Connor, all right. He prefers to spell things out in as few words as possible. The most you hear him speak is when he’s providing call-outs in the midst of battle.

As for Riley, she gets so engrossed in combat that he has to remind her of her surroundings. She’s perfect for taking down single targets. She may be physically incapable of stopping until something knocks her out of her rhythm. Otherwise, she’s going to keep pushing until she memorizes precisely how you react to each attack.

“That’s just great.” I sighed as I tore away at the wrapping paper. I’ll feel bad if I don’t give the game a second chance now. These things aren’t cheap, and I know for a fact that Mom and Dad would honor my wishes. That means this wholly came out of their pockets. Maybe my eldest brother, Ryan too, but he just asks me what I want directly, so that’s questionable.

Snatching up the box, I made my way to the stairs with a disgruntled, “think about it later.” My seeds of creativity require nurturing! That alone is far more valuable than videogames. To me, anyhow.

“Play nice you two,” I called into the living room, peeking in just in time for the show. Smokey versus Kirra in a game of cat and... well ferret. She was poking her head out from under the couch, tactically retreating right before Smokey pounced on her.

I didn’t get so much of a nod in my direction. Smokey’s whole purpose for being was trained on catching his prey.

Trudging up the stairs, I merged into the narrow brown hallway with a yawn. Feeling sleep’s overwhelming presence, I opted for an impromptu shower in the bathroom via the sink. I need to stay on schedule, so save it for tonight.

“Ugh... you look awful.” I bit back a scowl at the sight of my disheveled reflection as I turned on the sink. The dark bags under my brown eyes spoke of a restless night. My unkempt blonde hair wrote tales of the constant tossing and turning plaguing my last attempt at slumber.

I splashed a bit of cold water against my face as a hiss rang out from downstairs. It sounds like Kirra’s soon to reign triumphant... as usual.

My issue isn’t with how horrid I look, thanks to sleep deprivation. It’s how I look overall. I’m not even in the same dimension as my siblings in the appearance department. They all have blue eyes and black hair, just like our parents. Me? No, I’m not that fortunate. My genetics effectively scream to the world, “hey, this kid’s adopted!” I am, but I don’t need constant reminders.

I switched off the sink and slugged down the rest of the hallway. I paused for a second at the sight of the avalanche of flipped over family photos. Mom insists on regular family photos, much to my dismay. The one boon I have with them being gone is that I don’t have to see any pictures. Making a mental note to flip them back over later, I moved on and stepped into my bedroom.

“How is everyone,” I beamed at the litany of pictures hung up on my wall. Every single one without exception was of my design. My older ones were all finished, but that stopped being the trend a few months ago. My doubts about my work started to swell over time. That manifested itself in the lack of their completions. Ultimately, that escalated to me being swallowed up by the mentality that none of it is good enough for viewing.

I’ve been trying to break free from that viewpoint, but to no avail.

Gently pushing the VR headset under my bed, I turned to face my current pieces, “Should I start with Adellah or resume Kythala? Maybe start something new while the iron’s hot?” I debated as I retrieved a pencil.

To my left, an elf, called Adellah, standing victorious over a downed wyvern. Her elvish bow was cracked and worn to near nothing from her ordeal. She was coated in scorch marks, and her blade, typically strapped to her side, was lodged in the creature’s eye.

As for my right, a girl named Kythala drifted across the ocean, her face barely being visible due to the light and silver hair obscuring the finer details. Her leg was fastened to her crescent-shaped boat with a candle providing light and a means to ward off sleep. It was enchanted to steadily drip candle wax onto her leg as she drifted away. One couldn’t afford to succumb to Hypnos’ temptation while out on the ocean, you see.

“I’m feeling hot candle wax today.” I nodded with a fire in my eyes, one so intense it dwarfed its sibling in the picture.

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