I want to thank everyone who voted in my fabulous poll earlier today. I've decided to go with Ash for the avan. However, I think I'm going to change Jak to Anthony at some later date, but I'll leave him Jak for now for the sake of not wanting to confuse anyone, least of all myself.
I hope you enjoy this, and thank you very much for voting for me last week. I also should mention that the icon is related to the vignette, and not so much how I feel about the vignette, though it is nonetheless true for that as well.
The theme this round was 'Harmony'. And here's a link to brigits_flame.
The playground wasn't too far from Elise's building, though as playgrounds went it wasn't much of one, just a small stamp of grass with foot-worn paths of hard-packed earth threading between the two splintery park benches, a decrepit, listing slide and a swing set with two ratty rubber swings. Elise almost never saw children there even in the daytime.
Now, though, it was night, and Elise was just as glad there was no one else there besides her, other than her brother and the avan.
Jak was sitting next to her, his elbows on the backrest of the park bench and his eyes fixed on Ash. Ash was at the swing set, his feet planted on either side of one of the rusted metal supports and his hands wrapped firmly around it. He was exercising his wings, making sure he didn't accidentally pull himself into the air. His wings were moving fast enough that they were hitting each other on the upstroke, making a sound like hands clapping. The wind they were generating was swirling leaves over the grass. Ash's upper body was gleaming with sweat in the glow of the nearby streetlight, his face contorted with determination and pain.
"He's working too hard," Jak said. "He's going to damage something."
"I'm sure he knows what he's doing," Elise said. She was leaning against Jak and wearing his jacket, arms crossed over her chest. She was still cold. She tilted her head so she could more-or-less see the side of Jak's face. "If you're worried, you should go over there and tell him."
Jak didn't answer, but she saw his jaw twitch, no doubt because he was rubbing his teeth together.
"He doesn't need me telling him what to do," Jak said.
Elise sighed. She leaned away from Jak to grab the thermos she'd brought off the bench. She unscrewed the cap and poured out a cup's worth of tea, smiling as the heat from the hot liquid warmed her hands. She passed the thermos wordlessly to Jak, but all he did was close it and put it at his feet.
"He's looking healthier," Jak said.
Elise murmured agreement, smiling into her cup as she took another sip. Ash had gained weight and muscle since he'd been staying with her, and his wings weren't scraggly or dingy anymore but glossy red-brown. But he didn't seem any happier than when she'd first found him in the alley, starving and beat up and soaked with gasoline. "He's better," she said, watching as the avan lifted up onto his toes with the force of his wing beats, "but there's something still bugging him. He doesn't smile much."
"It's because he can't fly," Jak said.
Elise took another sip of tea. Her brother scratched the side of his neck.
"I guess you'd know," Elise said.
Jak dropped his hand and she could see his shoulders go rigid. "It's not the same," he said.
"No, it's not," Elise said quietly. She turned her head so she could look at Jak's face, but he was still staring across the small playground, watching Ash like Jak had to catalogue him, save as much as he could before Ash was gone. It made her sad.
Ash was resting now, leaning against the swing set, his wings moving with every one of his heaving breaths. "Why don't you take your shirt off, Jak?" Elise asked her brother. "It's nearly midnight--no one's going to see you."
"I'm fine," Jak said.
Elise took a deep breath to disguise her frustration. "You need to at least expose them to the air," she said. "You've already had, what, eight infections this year? I'm worried that if you get another one you won't be able to fight it off."
Jak just gave a sharp shake of his head. "I'll do it later," he said.
Elise clenched her teeth, then purposely turned her attention back to the avan. He was still leaning against the swing set support.
"Hey, you okay over there?" she called to him.
Ash moved an arm enough to give her a thumbs-up, but didn't answer.
"Great," Elise responded. "Just let me know if you're about to drop dead."
She got another thumbs-up in return.
"You know, I don't understand you," Elise said to Jak. She took another sip of her tea, mostly as a way to keep her temper down. "What are you afraid of?" She gestured at Ash with her free hand. "That he'll see? He's got wings sticking out of his back! Do you think he'll really care that you can breathe underwater?"
Jak looked away from her. His jaw was still twitching as his teeth ground back and forth. It was a terrible habit. "You don't understand," he said.
"You're right," Elise spat. "I don't understand." She jerked her chin at the avan. "There he is, working his ass off to get back into the air, and there you are--hiding your gift for ten years, making yourself sick, wearing sweaters all the damn time, and for what? Because the Olympic committee broke your heart once? Get over it, already! Who cares if you've got gills, Jak?"
"You don't know what it's like," Jak said, voice tight. "You've never known what it's like. Being stared at, being treated like something subhuman. You don't know what the hell you're talking about."
Elise realized she'd started grinding her teeth as well and forcibly made her jaw relax. "I grew up with you, Jak," she said. "I work with people like you every day of my life. Don't you tell me I don't know what you're talking about. I know exactly what you're talking about. Do you think it didn't matter to me when someone pointed at you? When that asshole official at the swim meet accused you of cheating when you were ten?"
"If you know, then leave me the hell alone," Jak said.
Elise shook her head. "I can't," she said tightly. "And I won't." She took another breath. Ash had started flapping his wings again, slower this time, more controlled. She watched him until she felt like she could speak without yelling.
"Let me tell you something you don't understand," she said. "I used to watch you swim, remember? I can't do more than doggie-paddle without sinking, but I loved watching you swim. I did it all the time.
"And you were…." Elise shook her head. She'd begun smiling without realizing it, remembering. "God, you were like…it was like watching a dolphin, or another part of the water. Water made human. It was gorgeous, amazing." She smirked ruefully. "And I hated you sometimes, because we're twins, but I couldn't do that. But God, I loved watching you.
"And now that's all gone," she said. "And instead you hide behind turtlenecks and you're angry all the time and you never swim anymore. For no reason. For no reason at all."
"I hate people staring at me," Jak said.
Elise snorted. "That's bullshit and you know it. They used to stare at you all the time at the swim meets, and you never gave a damn." She looked at him again. His expression was rigid. "I don't know why you're doing this, what you're afraid of. So what if people see what you are? You're…." She faltered, unsure of the words, then finally pointed at Ash: the strength in his body, the miracle of his wings. "You're like that," she said simply.
Jak didn't say anything.
"He's beautiful, isn't he?" Elise asked quietly.
Jak closed his eyes, as if in shame. "Don't," he said.
"I know you're interested," Elise said.
Jak made a small noise, a mix of pain and anger. "Don't."
"Fine," Elise sighed. "Sorry. Forget I said anything."
"You just can't leave anything alone, can you?" Jak said.
"I told you to forget it," Elise said. "And I won't say anything. I promise."
"Good," Jak snapped. He glanced at his watch, scowled. "It's nearly one in the morning. I have to work tomorrow."
It wasn't like Elise had asked her brother to come with them tonight, but she didn't mention it. Instead she started gathering the things she'd brought, snagging the thermos from between Jak's feet. "Hey, Ash!" she hollered across the playground. "Time's up! Let's go!"
Ash stilled his wings. He wiped his forehead with the side of his wrist, then pushed himself away from the swings and came over to them. He was breathing hard again. His wings were hanging loose on either side of him, all but dragging on the ground, which showed how tired he was. Ash normally kept his wings folded as tightly to his back as possible, even the still-healing left one. Otherwise they kept hitting things, especially in tight spaces.
"Time to go," Elise repeated. "Here." She passed him the thermos.
"Thanks," Ash said. He unscrewed the cap and drank straight from the container. Elise allowed herself a few seconds to admire the glistening expanse of his neck and chest before she tossed the towel at him. He caught it deftly with one hand.
"You should be careful," Jak said. "You'll make yourself sick, if you push too hard. Or you might damage the muscle again."
Ash didn't answer right away, just used the towel to wipe his face and chest. His expression was as inscrutable as always. "I have to build my strength back up," he said.
"It's not going to happen in one night," Jak said.
Ash sniffed. "I know." He finished the tea and gave the thermos back to Elise, then started scrubbing his hair. He smiled then, small and tentative, like he wasn't entirely sure how to do it right. "Thanks. For coming out here. It's easier to do this stuff when no one's around."
"I know what you mean," Jak said.
Ash smirked. "Sure." He grabbed the pack from Elise as she was lifting it, and swung it onto his shoulder. The strap slid neatly under his wing. Elise knew he didn't believe her brother; he had no reason to.
"Come on," Elise said, "let's go home." She started walking, moving quickly and hoping to get ahead of Jak and Ash. Maybe they'd actually talk, if she wasn't right there. Maybe Jak would find the courage to say something, to show Ash how he knew what it was like to be different. Maybe he'd finally stop denying who he was.
Maybe. But Elise doubted it.