The Babysitter's Orchard
Inspired by... apple cider doughnuts. ^_^ Seriously. Loads of thanks to spoonguardonline for editing!
He bobbed up and down as he descended the stairs, not bothering to grab the railing. In his claws he clutched a pale wicker basket, little strands “painted” with marker. It gave an odd look—stripes of turquoise here, bright yellow ones there—but he still beamed with pride, carrying the air of an artist who had sold his first piece. What a tiny, tiny thing! The basket was only half his size; though Kikos did tend to be on the small side, he could be fit into a salad bowl. Not that the idea would ever cross my mind. Such a cute little Kiko.
A leaf fluttered by, sending him into a fit of squeals.
“Nat, Nat!” He tugged on his owner's sweater excitedly, pointing a chubby claw at the leaf. “Mable! Mable!” Nat laughed, wrapping her arms around the Kiko—hugging, or ensuring that he didn't leap out at it? Eyes darting to the sides in search of maple leaves, the Kiko wriggled in her grip, finally giving up. He folded his arms and mumbled. After a few seconds, the brunette leaned over, whispering at the lowest of tones:
“Garlic thinks maple leaves taste like syrup. I don't want him to get sick.”
Garlic? I gripped my hands together, the two green messes of fingers squirming and wrestling with each other. He's cute, I thought with a smile, lifting my hands and pushing up my scrunchie against my floppy Blumaroo ears.
“Luna, right?” The brunette blinked twice, and I gave a nod, still unable to take my eyes off of the Kiko. “You can just sort of tag along, you know, lead the way, pitch in if anyone needs you and I'm too busy.” I bit my lip, hands unraveling to shove up the scrunchie again in a nervous reflex. Catching my look, Nat added, “It's just sort of an intro; nothing too big should happen. You'll be babysitting later, when I'm away.” Garlic writhed and flapped his arms like a crazed weewoo.
“Get off, Ellie, you fat Wocky!” A high-pitched voice that could only belong to a Xweetok screeched. Both Nat and I spun our heads to a tree. A tire, suspended from a branch with a thick weaving of twine, swung like a pendulum, two bodies and two sets of wings sticking out of it. The thinner one screamed and kicked until it finally fell out, and then the other one followed. Giggling, the larger of the two pushed off the ground to her feet, gently brushing bits of dead leaves out of her fur. The other glowered at her, stomping over and drawing back a paw. The Wocky yelped, ducking from the paw's swipe.
“Perri!” Nat shouted. The faerie Xweetok perked up at her name, then positioned her paws on her hips, jutting her tail to the side.
“The ugly pink blob jumped on me, Nat!” she shouted back. Her sister glared at her. Nat sighed, bowing her head and shaking it.
“Whatever it was, can we please let it go? We need to have a nice day—” She paused, then looked up at me expectantly. “Where are we going? You said something about a juppie orchard in the neomail?”
“Yeah. It's this place off of Cairn Close, near the—” Soft hooves clop clop clopped against the road, cutting me off. A cider-hued Uni trotted into view, dragging a wooden cart stuffed with hay. It was just enough to fit everyone... or not? I bit my lip, looking frantically at the cart. Maybe if Garlic sits on Nat's lap, or someone sits on the floor, or maybe I could...
Garlic immediately squealed with delight, bounding up to the cart and landing in the hay with a crackling thud. Nat hesitated, then stepped onto the cart. It managed a creak. She then waved her hands, ushering the rest of us up onto the seats. The little Kiko giggled and squeaked, singing a little song:
“Get a bushel of jubbies, crush, crush, crush, a bucket of doughnuts, fry, fry, fry, drissle on a bretty, bretty glase, miss it all and eat, eat, eat...” Garlic bobbed back and forth as he sang, picking up an armful of hay at the end and throwing it into the air. I giggled, shaking stray bits out of my ears, looking over at Perri. She clung to the wooden bench stiffly, her head roughly shaking out the hay that dared land in her hair, her wings fluttering away bits that dared sit near her. My shoulders began shaking; I squeezed my eyes shut, gritted my teeth, pinched my sides, anything to keep from collapsing into the hay and screeching with laughter.
“Jubbies, jubbies, jubbie cider doughnuts—” Garlic's ballad was cut off by a pawful of hay thrust into his mouth. Nat opened hers to scold, but immediately closed it. As sweet as possible, I mouthed an “open” to Garlic, and he opened his jaw. Gingerly, I pinched out the bits of straw lodged in his orange little mouth, flicking them perhaps a little too close to Perri. She had shot a glare that could have willed a sapling to burst into flames.
The Uni at the head of the cart gave an acknowledging grunt, tossed its head, and soon its hooves were cantering against the dusty road.
“So... you're been going to this place for a while?” Ellie asked quietly, legs in a pretzel.
“Ever since I was five.” I smiled, fingering the red leaf of a passing tree as it slipped away. “A friend brought me here, I've never skipped a fall. I mean, they have juppies, pumpkins, mazes, peaches in the summer...”
“Lame,” Perri declared, leaning over the edge of the cart and spitting. She looked at Nat with narrowed-to-slits eyes, eyes that expected agreement. “We can buy them for five hundred neopoints apiece at the shops.” I rolled my eyes up to the sky, balancing my chin on a fist. A light smirk curled onto my face.
“Oh?” I snickered. “Here, you can get them for free. And they're fresher.” Outraged, Perri flashed a glare.
“Well, why don't you just pick a peach and shove it up your big no—”
“JUBBIE CIDER RINGS!” Hay flew up again.
The canter died down, the cart swaying to a halt. Garlic was the first to leap out, shouting out a “we're here” at all of the neopets and owners in the vicinity. Nat jumped off, Garlic tight to her chest as he flailed his chubby arms towards a humongous pumpkin. Dust rose as paws landed on the dry road, and the Uni trailed off.
The entire orchard was abuzz! My ears tingled as crowds rushed in and out, in and out, heaving loads of juppies, balancing stacks of pumpkin pies, dancing past with paper bags smelling of cider. Off in the distance was the corn maze, pets weaving through the labyrinth. Heads shouted directions over the sheaths, some swaying as they balanced on top of others. Even farther off, there was a small green spot of a glowing pet, guiding multi-colored specks on a tour of the entire orchard. And the smells... oh, the smells! Juppies, pumpkins, leaves, corn, syrup, everything that made fall the wondrous season...
“So, juppies first?” I could barely hear Nat amidst the thousands of noises, all threatening to block her out into oblivion.
“Right over that way,” I shouted, waving towards the cluster of red-speckled juppie trees in the distance. I gave my scrunchie another shove, took a breath, then caught Perri's disdainful glare. “Yes?” I smiled at her. She wrinkled her nose.
“You hold your ears in a scrunchie? That is so Usul.”
Their eyes were all wide as we trekked through the orchard.
The little Kiko's golden orbs were largest, unable to settle on one thing—one moment they stared at the bizarre, brightly-colored flags wrapped around limbs, another they shot over at a family waving their picking poles at clusters of many-colored juppies at the very tops of trees. He wriggled, squirmed, jerked, shoved against Nat's shoulders as he tried to escape, but she was adamant, refused to release him. Perri's, at the start smug and superior, had faded to blank awe. The winged Xweetok would tap Ellie on the shoulder, mumble a question—“What's with the tacky flags?” “What's that pole thing?”—and get a sharp response—“For marking the ripe juppies.” “A picking pole.”
“Here... you... go...” I rolled off the baskets that had been dangling from my elbows, passing them around. Garlic immediately whipped out his hand-made work of art.
“I made it myself!” He beamed.
“Wowwwww,” I gushed, dropping down to eye level with the basket. It didn't matter that he'd shown it to me before—I traced the bright stripes with my finger anyway. “It's gorgeous! Good job!”
“I made it myself,” the pumpkin of a Kiko repeated. Giving a quick nod, I stood back up. “I'll go with Garlic and Perri, maybe, and you go with—” Nat's frantic expression said otherwise. “—riiiiight. We'll stay together. Got it.”
With a glance at her Xweetok, who flicked a pale, unripe juppie nonchalantly, she mumbled, “Do you know what you're doing?” I stared at the grass.
What could I say? That of course I do, I'm an experienced babysitter? That I've been trained by the Pound, that I've worked for years, and how could she just assume that I didn't just because of a little bit of bad judgment?
No, it's the client. They don't know you. They don't know you. Don't panic. Just. Pick. Juppies.
“Of course I do, I'm an experienced babysitter,” I whispered, smiling warmly.
Her panic disappeared as if the wind just blew it away. Looking at the ground in embarrassment, she nodded it off.
“Come on, let's pick! We can get a whole bushel!” I called at the pets. Garlic shrieked with excitement, and ended up starting his song of juppie cider doughnuts again.
And so we all flitted around the trees as he added more verses onto his song, spinning juppies off their stems as he sang of “bimblebebbers” and “bumbkin bie”. The two faeries' conflicts seemed to vanish into thin air, lost as they plucked fruit into their baskets. They hovered over the trees. The first juppie of a tree picked would go to the other, have an enormous bite taken out of it, be tossed back, have a smaller bite, and so on, until all that was left was a stem that was tossed to the ground.
“Look!” Ellie shouted. The Wocky stood on tiptoe, pointing up at a tall, thin tree. At the very tip was a cluster of purple juppies, ripened violet with stripes of plum. It towered over the others, mostly bare of leaves and fruit if not for that very cluster. Too high to reach. My eyes darted to an abandoned picking pole. I lugged the heavy thing off the ground, thrusting it up at the juppies. Still too high. Muttering a “let me try”, Ellie grabbed hold of a couple of branches. Perri immediately shoved her away, wrenching them out of her paws.
“You want to make it snap in two?” she hissed. “Let me do it—”
Before she finished her sentence, there was a shriek, and Garlic popped out of Nat's arms. The human girl gasped—a mix between a gasp and a scream, more like it—and wrapped her arms around herself, frozen in shock. The Kiko stumbled as he hovered above the tree, circling awkwardly. Ellie's bright pink paws were over her mouth, she gasped, “Don't fall, don't fall, please O Fyora don't let him fall.” Perri's position was identical to hers, eyes wide across her face.
Oblivious, Garlic danced around the tree, bobbing around the juppies. He giggled as he snapped the fruit off of their stems, hugging them to his pumpkin chest. Corn-colored eyes gleaming, he looked down at us—and then, it was suddenly so obvious what he'd do, at his age, like any little pet...
“FRUIT FIGHT!” he screeched, throwing the juppies straight down as if they were yooyus. The tense atmosphere vanished into thin air, paws that had been covering mouths hastily swerving to shield from the falling fruit. Perri dashed behind the nearest tree as a juppie came hurtling down at her—it exploded in a rain of seeds and juice. I found myself laughing uncontrollably; he'd been on the brink of danger one second, and striking terror (or, rather, disgust) into the hearts of Xweetoks the next? And then, before I knew it, the fruit had slammed into my face and I was drenched with juppie juice. I froze, looking my purple-stained body up and down.
“The burble sbeckled babysitter!” Garlic chanted, prompting Ellie to burst out laughing. I accidentally snorted, and soon the entire orchard was filled with whoops and guffaws. Nat's shoulders shaking like an earthquake, hands pressed against her mouth; the two faerie sisters overcome with giggles and rolling in the leaves and juppie remains, paying no heed to the sticky juice they were coating themselves with. Frowning at being left out, Garlic swerved down to the ground and slammed into the pile, sending up a flurry of leaves.
I'd be babysitting later, Nat had said—what was that in my head, at first? Another job, spooning Musho Mushy Peas into another mouth, shouting and dragging a pair of screeching pets apart. Painful trips to the lab, patting backs and soothing boo-boos, then moving on after some sort of mistake—giving a baby Kyrii an apple (stupid), for example. And then, there was a pull. Even with a relentlessly nasty Xweetok, or a hyperactive Kiko, there was still that pull. Everything could be adjusted, couldn't it?
It would be. Any discomfort or awkwardness was long past, and had made way for wonderful days of juppie cider rings.
The burble sbeckled babysitter rolled in the leaves, laughing her nose off.