The Prize Most Sought
Neopia Central was bustling with energy as the midday sun shone brightly upon the heads of a girl, a Blumaroo, and a Uni hurrying along the dusty roads. Neopets of all kinds surrounded them, all wandering aimlessly as they did whatever they chose to do to relax on hot summer afternoons. Most seemed to enjoy lounging around the Smoothie place and, as they walked by, Joline was sorely tempted to get one for the three of them as well, a thought apparently mirrored by the Rainbow Blumaroo hopping by her side.
"Can we get a smoothie, Mama? Dixie said she went inside last week and they have the BEST Splime Smoothies ever and-"
"You know we can't, sweetie. Maybe some other time."
"Not that it really matters; Dixie doesn't have taste buds anyway. No Sloth Clone does," grunted the Halloween Uni on Joline's other side, glaring at a particularly loud group of Usuls emerging from Usuki Land as they shrieked hysterically over some purchase they had just made.
"She is not a Sloth Clone!! Mama, tell Mason to shut up!"
"Language! And Mason, stop picking on your sister."
A strained silence followed the trio as they walked on, but Joline paid no mind. They bickered so often that she was just glad this row had ended before any fur could fly. Besides that she was far too absorbed in checking the folded paper in her hand, then double-checking it once more. Assuring herself that everything was in order and would be fine, she put the paper back in her pocket and began to hum cheerily. Jenna the Blumaroo joined in. From that point on Mason lingered quite a few paces behind them, which made Joline grin.
After a while they found themselves in a more sparsely populated area of Neopia Central, and Joline knew they were getting close. They passed the pizza place, then a music shop, before finally arriving at their destination. There, nestled snugly within the edge of the wood, sat a sweet little cottage. They were still quite a distance away from it, yet they could already hear the sounds of many, many voices within. Hanging over the bright red door was a dusty, peeling sign that read "The Pound".
"We're here, guys!"
Jenna bounced around and clapped her paws, and even Mason seemed relieved. It had been quite a long trip from Mystery Island, after all.
They walked up onto the small porch and walked inside. If the noise had been audible outside, it was deafening within. In front of them was a desk with a smiling pink Uni and a formidable-looking Techo. The latter narrowed his eyes at them, gazing at the Blumaroo and Uni.
"Abandon or adopt?"
Jenna moved slightly behind Joline's arm, but the girl simply smiled.
"We'd like to adopt, please."
The Techo muttered something under his breath, but the pink Uni positively beamed.
"How lovely! Yes yes, follow me, I will show you to the cages."
"You still keep the Neopets in cages?"
"Oh yes, we have little money to afford the expanding amount of pets here. Otherwise we would be completely overrun and poorer than the Soup Faerie!"
She opened the door behind the desk, but the three behind her were not prepared for the sight they beheld. Row upon row upon row of cages lined the walls, stretching back as far as the eye could see. If that weren't overwhelming enough, each little cage held a tiny creature with a name and brief description posted in front of it, and bright eyes gazed morosely from behind them. There were already quite a few people wandering up the aisles, seemingly looking to adopt themselves. The Uni sighed.
"There's so many of them, and we don't adopt out nearly as much as people abandon... some of these pour souls have been here for years." She shook her head sadly. "I will be right through this door. Let me know when you've decided."
She left them and the three simply stood there, silent. Where to even begin? How could they possibly choose just one? Joline's heart squeezed uncomfortably in her chest, wanting to give a home to each and every pet she could. A pat on her arm brought her attention back to the frowning Blumaroo next to her.
"Mama? Can we take them all?"
"Of course we can't, smart one. There aren't allowed to be more than four of us to a house, remember?"
Yet despite his words, Mason looked as if he very much wished they could take them all in as well. Joline hugged them both tightly, wondering how so many Neopians could apparently abandon their pets with ease. She wouldn't give her two up for all the Neopoints in the world. Holding Jenna's right paw and with one hand on Mason's back, she led them slowly up the aisles, stopping to talk to any Neopet who showed interest in them.
It was then she noticed something that made her feel a bit queasy. Almost all the other people in the pound were hurriedly snatching only the painted pets before running back to the front desk. Occasionally a plain pet would be taken, which was a welcome sight. Further down she saw someone talking sweetly to a green Lenny who was positively beaming. She was about to open the cage when something nearby caught her eye, and she ran instead to a cage with a Faerie Aisha inside. The girl then ran past the Lenny's cage, clutching the Aisha and not giving a backwards glance to the poor bird, who lay down in the tiny cage and hid her face from view.
Lip trembling slightly, Joline led her two pets up to the cage. She didn't bother to ask what had just happened. One thing she did notice was that the piece of paper on the cage was so worn the info was barely visible.
"Hi there. My name is Joline, this is Jenna," the Blumaroo waved enthusiastically, "and this is Mason," the Uni inclined his head briefly. "What is your name?"
"Horrible," came the muffled voice. "43829234723".
Joline's eyes widened. Certainly she had heard of people giving awful names to their pets before, but she'd never heard of an owner giving one so similar to a serial number to one before.
"What do you like to be called?"
"I'm usually called 43."
Joline could hear the taint of bitterness in her voice, and wondered what this poor thing had gone through in her brief life. Just then Jenna hopped forwards, bouncing slightly to maintain sight of the Lenny in the cage.
"Well we can't have that! My name has numbers too, but at least Jenna was in front of it! Is there a name you've ever read in a book that you like? You should call yourself that!"
"I've never read any books."
The Lenny's voice was close to breaking at this point. It was obvious that she didn't like being reminded of how pathetic a Neopet she felt she was, and turned instead to eat a bit of the dung soup in the bowl next to her. She grimaced with every swallow. Joline opened her mouth to speak but, to Jenna's and her surprise, it was Mason whose voice broke the silence.
"You're coming with us."
The Lenny's eyes widened. She peered down at the grim Uni, then back up at Joline, who was smiling as if she'd just won the lottery.
"Agreed. I think we've found the perfect sister for you two."
"But... but ma'am, I am a boring green Lenny, I have no special abilities, and my name is disgusting! Why would you want someone like me?"
"My dear, because you are a beautiful green Lenny, you shall gain abilities with practice, and you may call yourself whatever you like if you come with us."
Jenna bounced around the room and cheered, and even Mason pawed the ground in appreciation. He smiled at the Lenny as Joline opened the cage and helped her out.
"Jenna and I were both stuck in the pound before, for a very long time. If it weren't for Joline, we still would be. When she gets enough money she will probably paint you whatever color you like, just as she did with my sister and I. You'll like it with us."
The Lenny ruffled her feathers and smiled shyly down at her feet, where a few tears fell. Joline led the three back to the front door and the pink Uni, catching sight of who Joline had her arm around, beamed even more brightly than before.
"Oh 43, I'm so happy for you! You have found yourself a wonderful family to go home with, my dear."
She took the Neopoints from Joline and waved cheerily at the group as they turned to leave. Even Dr. Death nodded approvingly at them as their chattery voices slowly faded away.
"...you'll absolutely love it on Mystery Island; there are so many beaches and we even have our own marketplace!"
"...of course we'll have to stock up on some books and faeries for you and- goodness, what have they been feeding you here? You definitely need some fattening up..."
"...just beware of Jenna's friends. They're all Mutants who eat Petpets as a hobby..."
"Mason, stop teasing your sister!"