Perils of the Lab Ray: Part Two
Now, almost two months later, Terry could not reconcile himself to the fact that Amaletta was still living with them.
"I still don't get why you hate him so much," Lucas said as he fell onto the couch, fanning out his bright red wings behind him.
"Her," Terry corrected, sitting beside him.
Lucas, a Korbat with whom Terry had been raised, shrugged. "Does it matter? Point is, this is getting ridiculous. She's been here long enough... Way longer that any of the other lab rats. I don't think Letta's going anywhere. Can't you just... Learn to deal with it?"
Terry only glowered in response.
Lucas paused for a moment, looking conflicted. At last, he spoke.
"I know you're not gonna wanna hear this, but he's not so bad?"
"Whatever, man! I'm just sayin', it's not... Like... What's a word that finishes that?"
"Justified?" Terry moaned, leaning forward to rest his head on his knees. "I know, it's stupid. I know. But..." He pulled his head up and leant back into the couch, gaze resting on the ceiling.
"Dude, I don't know how much longer I can sit here and talk about feelings," Lucas interjected. "Can't you just... I dunno... Get over it? I mean, he didn't even do anything to you."
"Well, he kind of has," Terry started. "She, I mean. You've got me doing it, now!"
"Kind of has... How? How can that even work?" Lucas asked as he began tossing a cushion in the air and catching it, evidently bored.
"Like... She hasn't done it to me per se..." He stopped for a moment, gathering his thoughts.
"Was it that she fixed the heating for you guys? Was that just taking things a step too far?" Lucas teased.
"She just... She spends too much time with Elly."
At once, all of the irritation that he had been feeling towards Amaletta flared. That was it. That was the problem.
"Good, so you don't have to. Everybody wins there," Lucas caught the cushion one last time before chucking it carelessly over his shoulder. "Why are you complaining?"
"Huh? Oh, I..." Thinking about it, he did often make smart comments when Elly suddenly decided to take him to the Lost Desert to use the fruit machine, and then drag him to the Haunted Woods to glance at the food shop only to go back to the Lost Desert because she'd forgotten to visit the shrine. It was downright infuriating being carted across the globe by someone as disorganised and easily confused as Elly was. He could see why Lucas might not understand why he wasn't thrilled about this perceived freedom.
But he'd always gone with her. That was just how it had been, since the beginning. Then the temporary lab rats came... But they always went.
And after each had left, but before the next one came, Elly would take Terry out with her on all of her daily missions.
And it was just the two of them.
And he missed that.
It seemed, however, that Elly no longer had any intention of taking him anywhere with her. Not anymore. Not now that she had Amaletta.
I'm being replaced, he thought. And with that thought came a rush of anxiety and horror and dread that forced all of the hatred out of him.
"She replaced me," he managed to croak, though his throat seemed to be closing up. "She replaced me with him."
"Her," Lucas grinned.
"Does it matter?" Terry cried. "I've been replaced! She doesn't want me anymore! What if... What if she sends me to a side? What if she sends me to the..." And he found that he couldn't even say the word "pound".
Lucas' laughter did not serve to assuage Terry's rising fear.
"What's so funny?!"
"Are we... Are we really having this conversation?" Lucas breathed out between fits of laughter. "Do you really think that she'd replace you?"
"Aren't you listening? She already did!"
Lucas shook his head, but seemed unable to speak. His lips were pressed together very tightly, and his shoulders shook slightly as he reined himself in.
Finally, taking a deep breath, he said, "I can't believe that this is what you were upset about."
"Can't believe – what? But this already happened! You've seen it! She doesn't take me out anymore! I never go anywhere with her, and she's dragging Amaletta around just like she used to do to me, and... And..." Terry faltered as Lucas motioned for him to stop.
"Trust me. You're not being replaced," he said, managing to maintain a calm and collected tone, although his amusement was still evident in his smile. "If you don't believe me, and I know you don't, 'cause you're a crazy person - "
He silenced Terry's protest at that statement with a withering look.
" – Just ask her. Seriously," He held one finger up as Terry seemed opened his mouth to argue. "Just ask her. You'll see."
His sudden realisation of the real problem, coupled with being talked down to by Lucas (of all people!), served to deflate Terry considerably.
"Okay," He murmured, defeated. "Maybe I'll do that."
"And don't, like, attack Letta or anything."
"... I don't hate her," Terry said slowly. "I just don't like her."
"Progress!" Lucas cheered, clapping Terry's shoulder. "Man, I am the best at fixing people problems."
So, it had come to this... Again. He had been steeling himself for this moment. It had helped that, this time, he actually knew what he wanted to talk about.
"Elly, can we talk?" Terry asked, gently poking her shoulder.
"Mmmr-brmmr," she muttered, eyes fluttering open. She blinked several times before asking, "Where am I?"
"On the couch in your living room," Terry answered patiently, taking a seat next to her.
"... Oh," Elly mumbled, rubbing her eyes. With a yawn she added, "Did you want something?"
"Just wanted to ask you... A question." Okay, he thought. Let's settle this now.
"What question is that?" she asked, stretching her arms above her head.
"Uh... Do you need a minute to wake up?" No! He chastised himself. Don't turn back now!
Elly shook her head, bringing her arms back down to rest in her lap. "No, no... Don't be silly. What's the question?"
"Is Amaletta... Um... Am I still..." No! Fool! You planned for this! "Uh..."
He was aware that Elly's bleary gaze was still on him, but he seemed to have lost the words he needed. He shot her a nervous smile and said, "Sorry... I guess I don't know how to say it."
"Is this that thing you were worried about with Amaletta?" Elly asked, her eyes showing concern. "I think that I heard her name in there somewhere."
"Well... It's kind of to do with Letta," Terry said, grateful for a segue back onto the topic. "I just... I was wondering if I was still... The main pet?"
Elly straightened up a little, her eyes losing some of their bleariness.
"It's just... It seems like you don't want me to be around as much... And you take Amaletta places where you used to take me. Am I... Am I making sense so far?"
Elly only nodded, and Terry noticed that she no longer seemed to be tired.
"I was just wondering If I was being... replaced," Terry managed, fighting the sudden urge to flee the house. "For lack of a better word."
Elly sighed and, to Terry's monumental surprise, leaned forward and hugged him.
Oh, Fyora, no! This is it! I've been replaced! I'm unwanted! This is goodbye! What do I-
"Silly boy," Elly muttered, patting his back gently before pulling away from him.
He was quite certain that he was unable to move at this point.
"Look at me," Elly said, staring him in such a way that he felt compelled to maintain eye contact. "I need you to listen to me right now, Terry.
"I will never, ever replace you."
"...Oh," Terry said quietly, suddenly feeling childish and stupid. "Okay, then, I'll just go..."
"Wait a minute, wait a minute... Let me finish!" Elly said, placing a hand on his shoulder to hold him in place. It served to steady him a little, as well.
"It's... kind of true," Elly began, "that I take Letta out instead of you now." She paused to let the message sink in. "That's because of a lot of reasons. Chiefly among them is this..." She paused again, and Terry wondered if she weren't doing this deliberately to make him explode with anxiety.
"I don't want you to change."
This pause lasted long enough that Terry realised that was all she was going to say. As her hand was still holding him in place, however, he assumed that she was expecting some sort of response.
"Okay... What does that mean?"
Elly pulled her hand away and sat herself up properly. "Basically, it's like this," she said matter-of-factly. "When you were going through the lab ray, you were changing a lot. Agreed?"
"Yeah. That was terrible."
"I know, sweetie," she said apologetically, "but I'm not talking about species or colour changes... I mean, you didn't really know who you were."
Terry wasn't entirely sure what that meant, so he just nodded.
"But as you got older, you grew a little, and you figured it out... And that was why I stopped zapping you. You know, I had that trans potion long before we stopped labbing."
Terry baulked at that (the torment could have ended sooner?!), but Elly continued on relentlessly.
"The thing is, I just don't want you to change. You were a permanent lab rat, and now Letta is instead. That much is true. But you..."
Terry found himself leaning forward a little.
"...Now, you are a permanent pet."
He was still a little confused, but some of the anxiety was lifting simply because this meant that he wasn't crazy; he hadn't imagined it. Better yet, he wasn't getting kicked out!
"So... I'm here forever?" he asked tentatively.
"Of course," Elly said, smiling at his understanding. "And ever, and ever. True, things aren't exactly as they were before, but that doesn't mean that they're worse. I hope that you're feeling a little better about all of this?"
"Yeah, I think I can relax now," and a weight that he hadn't realised he had been carrying lifted off of his shoulders and he relaxed at last.
"Good. Now, I think that you owe somebody an apology," Elly said in her most parental tone of voice.
"Right... Sorry, Mum... I should have known better than-"
"Not me, silly!" Elly laughed, shaking her head. "Letta! She's been dying to meet you... She thought she must have done something terrible to you since you haven't spoken to her since she arrived."
"Oh, right!" Terry said, the weight dropping back onto his shoulders. "I guess I should-"
"Say something to her, yes," Elly beamed at him. "She'd just love that."
"Okay, I'll... do that now," Terry said as he stood to leave.
"Good... Let me know how it goes."
Terry found Amaletta sitting in her room, gazing out of the window next to her bed. She had changed since he had last acknowledged her, having been zapped into a blue Shoyru.
Looking at her now, she seemed almost... Sad. He could see it in her face, her posture, and the way that her wings were wrapped so tightly around her. Everything in her demeanour seemed to speak of melancholy and hopelessness.
"Hi, Letta," he said, the softness of his own voice surprising him.
His voice surprised Letta similarly, evidenced by her yelp of shock.
"Agh! Who- Oh!" She paused when she noticed who it was she was talking to. "I'm sorry, did you need something? I..."
Terry could see that she didn't know what to do. Her eyes darted around the room, occasionally coming to rest on Terry but never making eye contact.
"Look, I just wanted to say sorry," he said. "I've been kinda... Rude to you."
"Oh?" Letta said awkwardly.
"You don't have to pretend that you didn't notice it."
"Right," she whispered so quietly that Terry strained to hear it.
"I mean... The reason I didn't want to talk to you... Was dumb. Okay?" Terry explained. "And I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. I was just upset about... Something else."
"That's okay," Letta choked, putting a hand over her face turning away from Terry. "I don't mind, it's – it's -"
"Are you crying?!" This was so much worse than he had thought it would be. "I- I'm really sorry!" he stammered. "I didn't think that you cared all that much about-"
Letta turned back to him, shaking her head vigorously. He could see the tears running down her cheeks.
"N-no, it isn't you," she blurted before openly sobbing. "It's... It's Spiffy! "
"Spiffy?" Terry ventured, wishing he had waited until tomorrow to do this.
"My p-petpet! He-" She seemed unable to continue, collapsing back onto her seat by the window and continuing to cry into her hands.
"Oh... This is a lab ray thing," Terry concluded. "I see."
"H-he was... A checkered P-pandaphant... W-when he..."
"Calm down! It's okay," Terry murmured gently, sitting on the arm of Letta's chair and placing an arm around her. "Most of us have lost petpets to the ray before."
"Y-you have?" she asked timidly, wiping tears from her eyes.
"Yeah, it happens all the time. I had Snarkie for about two years before she disappeared," Terry consoled her.
"That's awful," Letta whimpered. "How did you cope?"
"Not very well," Terry answered truthfully, and Letta's lips twitched into a smile.
This was just like the others, Terry realised. Whenever the other lab pets had had a problem, he was there to talk them through it. It must have been traumatising going through it alone, like Letta was.
... Like he had.
"I didn't even know him for very long when he disappeared," She continued, although Terry was very glad to see that she was no longer crying. "I just... It got me thinking..."
"Go on?" Terry encouraged.
"...Can I disappear? What if I go the lab one day, and I never come back? Like he did?" And she looked at Terry with the most despondent look in her eyes.
"No, don't worry. There are only certain things the lab can do..."
And for the remainder of the evening, Terry sat and gave Letta a detailed list of what to expect from the lab. He told her the parts that would be bearable and the parts that might be problematic. He told her stories of what he'd been through, of what he'd turned into, and sometimes she would laugh and often she would gasp and, at the very end, Terry led her to the safety deposit box and pulled out a little Mallard.
"Take this guy... He looks pretty lonely," Terry said gently as he handed Letta the petpet.
"I really, really don't know what to say," Letta gushed as she took the little bird. "Other than thank you, I suppose."
"Don't mention it," Terry grinned, feeling the guilt leave him as Letta cuddled Spiffy the Second. "If you've got any other questions about the ray, let me know."
"I do have one more question," Letta said quietly. "When will it stop? When do I get to be like you, and not have to be zapped?"
Terry faltered. No one had ever asked him that before.
"I guess..." What had Elly said? "When you know who you are."
Letta nodded, but her eyes were narrowed in confusion. "Right... What does that mean?"
"I have absolutely no idea."