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Homeward Bound


by shadowheart90o

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Fern prodded the soggy old box with his right paw, sticking his wet nose in the box hopefully. The grey Lupe sighed and slumped down heavily. Looking around, he began to think about how the Money Tree wasn’t much more than a landfill. All people did was toss useless junk at the trunk. Things they didn’t want. Plus, usually anyone’s nicer donations such as neopoints or intact toys or potions were gone barely a second after dropping them off.

     Satisfied that there wasn’t anything else he could use, Fern parted his jaws and closed them over the old wet box. The dreadful taste from the wet cardboard harassed his taste-buds, but he forced himself to keep his grip firm as he dragged the soggy box out of the Money Tree Park and across the street into a deserted alleyway he knew as home.

     Fern tugged the box all the way to the back of the alley, and into the corner behind a dumpster. Scattered items such as old boots and broken toys were scattered about. Once he was pleased with the position of the soggy old box, the grey Lupe backed away and turned toward the open dumpster. He took a moment to bunch up his muscles and made one big leap to the dumpster ledge.

     At first he was a bit off-balance, but after taking a moment to right himself, Fern was able to balance all four wobbly paws on the straw-sized ledge, as he had learned to do with practice. Fern took several minutes to scan the top layer of waste in the dumpster and then bunched himself up again and sprang into the garbage.

     Fern was one of many abandoned pets of Neopia. He lived alone in the alleyway across the Money Tree. Like many of the homeless population, his owner quite simply left Neopia, never again giving a care to him or the rest of his grey-painted pets, and they had become homeless, though a few of them had found new, loving owners.

     He wasn’t petty or spiteful about his position, though he often daydreamed and wished his life were different. But what was done was done, and there was no good reason to complain about it. Besides, Fern considered himself lucky. He’d found a great spot across the street where he could watch all the more fortunate pets play with their loving owners. He wasn’t jealous, but did warn them through thought to treat their owners well. They were lucky.

     Selecting a half-eaten hamburger, Fern leaped out of the dumpster and landed on the pavement heavily. He trotted over to small a worn-out and shredded blanket that was laid out next to a steep pothole across from his cardboard box. He set the hamburger remains down and lay down himself, leaning over to lap up rainwater that had filtered into the pothole.

     He ate his dinner slowly, savoring each bite of the cold hamburger meat, and each lick of the acrid rainwater. Though life was not exactly what he would call a dream, he was being provided what he needed to survive.

     While in mid-lick, the blissful sound childhood laughter filled his ears, warming the Lupe’s grey old heart. He glanced upward, toward the busy street front of him to see an adorable little girl skipping past with her own red Lupess. The girl had fiery red hair, tied up in a neat high ponytail, a single lock escaping the gold ribbon’s grasp, which fell over her oval-shaped face, her emerald eyes shimmering with delight. Her garments included a long, clean yellow skirt that reached her ankles and a neat navy and baby blue shirt. Her Lupess wasn’t much different in looks: glossy scarlet fur with pearly white underbelly, paws, and tail end, icy blue eyes, and a matching gold ribbon tied in a loose bow around her neck.

     Fern smiled. The little girl danced around her Lupess, dangling a cookie in her fingers. The Lupess barked merrily and jumped up so she stood on her hind legs, tapping her owner playfully with one paw for balance as much as affection while she snatched the cookie gently from the little girl, careful not to connect her teeth with the child’s delicate little fingers.

     Joy swelled up in Fern’s heart, exploding into the rest of his chest, causing a choking grip on his lungs that he just loved. He watched the pair cross his path, wishing so much his alley opening was just an inch or two wider so he could watch them a moment longer.

     That was what an owner-and-pet should be like. He decided.

     ---

     The child and her Lupess crossed Fern’s alleyway almost every day, and the grey Lupe looked forward to their visits. After a while he discovered that the two crossed his path twice a day: Once in the morning, and once in the late afternoon.

     One day, Fern was making the daily trip back from the Money Tree, carrying along his prize with a head held high: A red Lupe plushie with a very small tear in the tip of the left ear. It was a little dusty, and some of the seams were a little on the loose side, but compared to some of the broke-down toys he’d found before, the old toy seemed more like a twenty pound fish.

     When he crossed into his alleyway home, Fern trotted over cheerfully to his blanket dining-table and set the toy down gently, careful not to set it on any grimy or dirty spots or tears.

     He was going to give the toy to the little girl and her Lupess. It was perfect! He knew she’d love it. Somehow he just knew.

     Fern waited several hours that seemed like days before the pair finally showed up. During which time he ate and spent a good chunk of time admiring his gift. But when he finally heard her coming, Fern wasted no time in grabbing the toy carefully and trotting out to the edge of the alley to set his present on the sidewalk before darting back to hide behind the dumpster.

     She walked by, happy-go-lucky as ever, her expression gleaming in cheerfulness, she and her red Lupess. At first he thought she didn’t notice the toy, but she stopped and turned her big green eyes amplifying even further.

     “Woooow! Lookie, Roxanne!” she squeaked.

     Roxanne. That was the Lupess’ name.

     “Oooh! Roxy, it looks just like you!” she chirped and leaned down to pick up the plushie.

     The girl studied the toy a minute. “It's really dirty,” she whined, a little discouraged.

     Fern gaped a moment, convinced she wouldn’t accept it. He hadn’t thought to wonder if she would rather buy a whole new plushie rather then take this random sack of fluff off the street. For a minute he thought his heart would break. Then Roxanne spoke.

     “It’s lovely, Kat,” she breathed, nuzzling her head against her owner’s waist. “Don’t worry, we can take it to the toy shop.”

     Fern sighed in relief when the child—Kat—grinned.

     “YEAH!!” she cried. “We can fix it! I just feel bad that someone lost it. I’d hate to think they’d come looking for it just to find out that we took it,” she added, glancing at her pet.

     Roxanne smiled gently at Kat. “You’re right. Well, I guess we should leave it? Someone might come along to find out what happened to it.”

     Fern sighed in defeat. “They won’t come looking for it!” he howled, a bit louder than he’d intended.

     Both Kat and Roxanne started, looking right over at his alleyway. Roxanne took a protective step in front of Kat, searching the back wall. “Who’s back there!?” she howled, more curious than defensive.

     Fern pinched his eyes shut tight. Idiot! He scolded himself. He’d wanted to stay invisible, as not to scare the two into taking a different rout to their destination. Well, that was a bust.

     “Who’s back there?” Roxanne called again.

     Fern sighed again, and took a few steps out from behind the side of the dumpster. “No one will be looking for that. I... I found it at the Money Tree,” he explained, his head hanging low.

     Roxanne blinked and took a step back. “Oh... it’s a Grey,” she more or less whispered to herself, but Fern had no difficulty hearing her.

     “You can keep that,” he added to Kat. “it was a gift.”

     Kat blinked and smiled softly at Fern. “For me? Thank you!”

     Looking up, Fern felt taken aback by the softness and even affection in the child’s expression. Whenever most passersby looked at him they immediately turned away in distaste because he was a mangy grey street dog. Being looked at by such a beautiful little girl so kindly felt a little weird... a good weird. He flushed.

     “I’m Katherine; ‘Kat’ for short. This is Roxanne. What’s your name?” she asked sweetly.

     “Fern,” he replied sheepishly. “My name is Fern.”

     Kat giggled contentedly. “Fern’s a funny name.” She laughed, then smiled back at him. “Where’s your owner, Fern?”

     Roxanne turned to her owner. “Kat, Fern here is an abandoned pet. His owner got rid of him,” she tried to explain as gently as she could.

     Kat suddenly frowned. “Got rid of him? Why would someone wanna do that?”

     “Reasons,” Roxanne replied simply, looking over her shoulder at Fern with a rather apologetic expression. She turned back to Kat. “Katherine, why don’t you head on for the shop, I’ll catch up,” she ordered softly.

     “Okay,” Kat breathed. She turned to go, the paused and nodded to Fern. “Thank you for the present. I love it,” she added, then turned away and skipped along the sidewalk.

     “You’re letting her go alone?” Fern questioned Roxanne when the child was gone.

     “Oh, the shop is just around the corner, and she has a fire mote with her in case any lowlife asks for a battle,” Roxanne replied simply.

     Fern blinked. “Oh. So, erm, you wanted to say something?” he asked. The whole ‘conversation’ bit was kinda a foreign art to Fern. Something he’d inherited from his parents, more than likely. Even when his past owner was with him, he wasn’t particularly ‘close’ to any of the other pets.

     “Well, thank you, for one,” she began. “Kat just adores plushies. Also, I wanted to apologize for Kat’s mentioning—”

     “Not a problem,” Fern interrupted. “I’m rather contented with my life. I don’t mind, really.”

     “Contented?” she echoed, taking a half-step back. “With this? No offense, but, wouldn’t you rather a home?”

     “Yes, a home sounds nice, but, after my last home... well, I’m fine as is.”

     “Understood,” Roxanne murmured with a brisk nod. “Well, thanks again.” She added as she turned to go. “If there’s ever anything I could do to repay to, just name it.”

     With that, the gorgeous Lupess disappeared after her owner.

     ---

      The following evening, Fern was returning from a little walk around the block, and when he was just about to settle down for a good drink, he heard a loud pounding from the inside of the dumpster, and some muffled squawking. He started at the sound, nervously jumping to all fours.

      Finally gathering up some backbone, Fern stepped cautiously toward the dumpster. It was then he noticed for the first time the dumpster lid was closed.

      Almost immediately afterward he identified the thumping and muted noises as a fellow neopian trapped inside. “Is someone in there?” he called.

      For a moment the noises stopped, then began again twice as hard.

     “Hold on!” he howled. “I’ll get you out.”

     Fern had made the mistake of letting the dumpster close on him once before. Though it wasn’t something he did frequently, the Lupe had figured out an effective way to open the weighty steel lid.

     Somehow the one inside had heard him over all the clamor and stopped at once.

     Grey Fern pawed at the hard pavement ground with his rough paw-pads, anticipating his pending act. After taking several deep breathes, Fern bounded toward the great green box and took a lengthy hurtle into the air.

     He began to decline before even near the top of the dumpster, his paws scuttling for any sort of surface. Finally his sturdy paws met the rusted metal wall. Fern shoved his head into the cleft where the dumpster cap jutted out further than the side and pushed up quickly before he fell.

     The force he’d applied was only strong enough to pop the lid a few inches or so, but that was all the space he needed to stick his paws in between the space.

     Pain shook Fern’s nervous system as the lid crashed back down on his paws, but he kept them there. His hind legs scrambled for a similar landscape to relieve his compressed front paws from their obligation.

     Fern grunted heavily. The weight from his dangling body formed a steady ache on his front legs, and he still had to pull himself upward. This was not a task he performed often. He managed to hoist himself up enough to poke his nose in the crevice, and after that it was just a matter of climbing through and keeping up some balance.

     When the cover was finally opened, Fern looked down to see just who it was in his dumpster and what they were doing there.

     At first he didn’t recognize Cap, the local Neomail Lenny, but eventually he remembered seeing the red Lenny running errands almost all the time. Right now, his beak was tied up in a wrapper of sorts. He looked generally relieved.

     After Fern helped Cap out and took the wrappers off, the lanky bird shook himself thoroughly and turned a grateful face on Fern.

     “Oh, thank you! I didn’t know how long I’d have been stuck in there if you hadn’t come along!” he praised him.

     Cap had a sort of tidy tone to his voice, the kind you would expect a bookkeeper or scholar to have, rather than a Neomail Lenny.

     “No problem,” Fern replied simply. He was still more curious about why he was in there in the first place.

     As if reading his thoughts, the bird added, “I was waiting for you to return home. I kinda got hungry and decided to take a look in your, eh, dish.”

     “Okay... what do you have for me?”

     “Oh, yes!” He suddenly remembered his mission. Here you are, my boy!” He twisted around to face his messenger began and began to rifle through it, pulling out a compact letter and handing it to him.

     Fern took the letter, balancing it on one paw to look at it.

     “From Miss Katherine and Lady Roxanne.” Fern blinked, and set it down on a dry spot of concrete. He opened the letter with his claw and unfolded the letter. Roxanne’s neat script wrote the words:

     Dear Fern,

     I would just like to thank you for the plushie once more. Katherine really loves it. If you’d be so kind, please join myself and Kat tomorrow afternoon in the park down the street, please? We’ll be waiting.

     -Roxanne

     P.S. Hi Fern! It’s Kat! Thank you sooooo much for the plushie! I named it Cherry!!

     Fern closed the letter and blinked. “I didn’t think they’d like it that much,” he murmured, and then smiled. “Thanks,” he added to Cap.

     The red Lenny took a modest bow, and asked if he would like to return a letter to the pair.

     He almost took him up on the offer, then thought better of it, deciding not to embarrass himself through showing what terrible penmanship he had.

     After Cap left, then sun was already setting. Fern curled up in his old soggy box, feeling warmer and happier than ever before. The most wonderful child and most beautiful Lupess in all Neopia wanted to meet him again.

     ---

     Fern trotted happily down the sidewalk, ignoring the stares and the way mothers shied their children away as he passed; he really could care less.

     The grey paintbrush usually weighed down on Fern’s emotions, giving him a sense of depression 99% of the time, but right now, he felt as optimistic as a baby Lupe, rather than a grey one.

     He bounded ‘round the corner, and had to steady himself when he saw the two sitting on a park bench, waiting for him. They were indeed a magnificent pair, the two of them, dressed in their usual wardrobe of ribbons and other fitting garments.

     He hesitated before walking to meet them, calming himself. He wished so terribly he could comb out his mangy tufts of fur. He did look awful scruffy, but that really couldn’t be helped.

     Satisfied he’d composed himself enough he wouldn’t trip over his own paws in exhilaration, Fern padded on, across the street and into the park.

     Roxanne saw him first, and then motioned to her young owner. Kat whirled around cheerily; locating him with eagerness, then turned around and began rifling through her backpack.

     Fern slowed to a walk as he met up with the two and they both stood up to meet him.

     “Hello, Fern,” Roxanne said in a voice like silk. She smiled at him, and he could only smile back sheepishly. “Glad you could make it.”

     “Yeah!” Kat chirped. “We wanted to ask y’ somethin’!”

     Fern blinked in surprised. “Ask me something?” he echoed in surprise. “What’s that?”

     The two smiled, and exchanged a grin, then Kat pulled out something from behind her back—something that made Fern’s breath catch in his throat... a collar.

     “You seem really nice,” she explained. “Not rowdy or mean, like a lot of the homeless gangs of Neopians we see and hear about. So, we were just wondering if you’d like to come and live with us,” she said, her grin widening even as she spoke.

     Fern said nothing. He couldn’t. The Lupe had expected a thank you and gotten an offer at a better life. He stared at the collar in wonder. It was a neat, firm red band with a golden plaque that read the name ‘Fern’.

     Not even his first owner had bothered to get him a collar, especially not such a well-crafted one like this.

     “Well?” Roxanne prodded gently, pulling Fern from his daze. “What do y’ say?”

     Fern let out a little snort breathy snort. “W-Well, yeah,” he managed, through his shock. “Absolutely!!” he said, a little stronger.

     “Yayy!” Katherine sang, bending over to hug Fern’s neck affectionately. He stiffened at her touch at first, taken aback, then relaxed, and smiled.

     Kat pulled away a bit, and fastened the collar around his disheveled neckline.

     “Then we have one more present for you!” Roxanne said, coming over to them.

     “Yup!” Kat agreed, and then bounced back over to her backpack. She looked through it a moment then pulled out another item that he would never have expected.

     “I was going to use this on Roxanne, but we think it’ll look better on you, anyways,” she explained, as she pulled out a Brown paintbrush.

     Finally, after all these years of being depressed and alone... the grey feelings would finally be gone...

     “Well,” Roxanne cooed. “Ready to go home, Fern?”

The End

 
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