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Strawberry Blonde


by hmlanden

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Outside the dusty Neohome, rain pounded the remains of a garden. Inside, seven Neopets huddled around a fireplace, snuggled against each other for extra heat. The little food they had was gone, and the bank account was drained.

     The red Gelert, named Oreo123131, had no idea what to do.

     It had been a year since Landen, her owner, had vanished without warning. The cheerful spazz had said she was heading to the guild (“I have a Post War to get to, silly! I must defeat Rowan!”), but she never came back. Ever since then, Oreo had been trying to make things work. She bribed people on the street to dress up as Landen, so she could make withdrawals from their bank account, and spent hours a day at the Money Tree, trying to snag omelette or anything that was remotely edible. (Unfortunately, this usually consisted of burnt grackle bugs.)

     Now she was at the end of her rope, slumped in a dirty Chia print chair. No money, no food, and six little ones to care for. Why did Landen have to love so many pets? she thought angrily, glaring down at the five Gelerts and one Lupe before her. It would’ve been easier if there were fewer of us...

     An antler poked her in the eye. With a shriek, she shot up in the chair and flopped onto the floor. Noelk peered down at her, snickering. “What’s up, fearless leader?” she asked, regally perching herself on the chair. “You look like you did that one time Landen packed rainbow dung in your lunch by mistake.”

     The memory made the Gelert twitch violently. “Well...” She glanced over at the huddled mass of Gelert (and one Lupe), snagging Noelk by an antler and dragging her into Landen’s old bedroom, which was even dustier than the rest of the house, as Landen cleaned as often as Darigan purchased pink sofas. Settling onto the ice sofa, Oreo sighed. “We’re out of money and food. I don’t know what to do.”

     Noelk shrugged. “Neither do I.”

     “We need to do something, but I... I don’t even know anymore.”

     “Unfortunately, I am by nature pessimistic, and thus am no help.” Noelk smirked.

     Oreo sighed, curling into a tight ball on the icy couch. For years, she’d thought she was the responsible one in the family, that Landen was more of a burden than a help, as she spent most of the time dancing around Neopia, overly hyperactive due to Achyfi and Oreo’s caramel cream addiction. But now...

     “I wonder...” she stopped, hugging herself tightly.” I wonder if Landen left because she knew that I...”

     Noelk threw a pillow at her, raising a dust cloud of epic proportions. “Landen didn’t leave, silly. If anything, she probably got trapped somewhere and just never was able to get out, as she’s not always the brightest buzzler. You should know that.”

     Oreo sat up straight. An idea had struck her with the amount of force that Jeran would’ve hit the ground with if he hadn’t been caught by that faerie. Landen had gone missing before, but Rowan and Bear had usually found her before she’d gotten too lost (or annoyed too many pirates). “Let’s search for her!” she cried. “We have nothing else to do, and we’ll be able to snag food along the way, I bet.”

     Noelk yawned. “Fine. But we’d better go somewhere warm.”

     “And you’re supposed to be a Christmas Gelert. Yeesh.”

     ~*~

     Rowan shrugged. “I dunno what happened to our little cousin. I haven’t seen her in any of my travels for a long time, and Bear and I couldn’t find her the last time we tried looking.” Beside her, Whatsi, a grey Kougra, snored. “I wish we knew what happened to her... we really miss her around here.”

     Oreo smiled a little. Landen had put her hyperactivity to good use for the guild, driving everyone insane with songs about sporks and a great deal of glomping. Without her, everything was far too... she couldn’t put a word to it.

     “Good luck, guys,” Rowan said, handing Oreo a heavy green backpack. “There’s Achyfi and candy in there. If nothing else, that much sugar concentrated in one place has a great chance of attracting her attention.”

     Destiny, despite being a ghost Lupe, was delegated the task of carrying the bait. “I don’t want to... don’t make me...,” he mumbled, eternally depressed.

     “Oh, be quiet.”

     After snagging a ride on a ferry (i.e. sneaking onboard just before they set off and hiding in the cargo bay beneath a rather large pile of rotten left shoes, which were there for some not readily apparent reason), they reached Mystery Island. The white sand beaches were stunning, the crystal blue waves lapping gently beneath the palm trees.

     Everyone, even Pwuppy, wanted to go swimming, so Oreo wandered around, snagging discarded Tombola prizes for their dinner that night. The island was as beautiful as it had been so many years ago, seven years in fact, that Landen had first brought her there. Back then, Landen had been a wee bit less insane and had only spent an hour arguing with the Tombola man over the inadequacy of her booby prize. It had been just the two of them back then, she thought, plopping down on a boulder in the shade. Just the red Gelert and her owner, running around Mystery Island, spending more Neopoints than they had, badgering the Island Mystic, and accidentally setting fire to the Training School (which got them kicked off the island, but that’s beside the point).

     Oftentimes, after Landen adopted Noelk and continued to expand her family, Oreo wondered why. Was she simply not good enough, just by herself? Whenever Landen started painting her pets, Oreo was told she was going to be the last, and again she wondered. Had she done something wrong? Sure, in their adventures in early Neopia, Oreo had always been the voice of normalcy and caution, a direct contrast to Landen’s tendency to fling herself into situations head-on. (The first Meridell War? Let’s not go there.)

     She raised her head, studying the scene before her. Noelk sunbathed blissfully, uncaring of the water war raging around her. Pwuppy was crying, and while Cream was trying to comfort her, Copper and Danny were laughing hysterically. Destiny had managed to get seaweed on his face and was now wandering about the beach, muttering dismally to himself. Did they somehow make up for something she lacked?

     The red Gelert buried her face in her paws. Time to go. We have to keep looking.

     ~*~

     They spun around Neopia in a whirl of misadventure. Noelk almost was eaten by the Snowager and declared that she was against all things Christmas, setting a mob on them in Happy Valley. Pwuppy got stuck in the Giant Omelette and had to eat her weight in sausage omelette to free herself, resulting in a case of bloat the likes of which Neopia had never seen. Danny and Destiny got lost in the Haunted Woods and nearly were recruited by Edna into being “potion testers” before Oreo found them.

     Finally, they had ended up in Faerieland, after accidentally falling off a rope bridge in Shenkuu and landing amongst a flock of irritated Eyries, who dumped them in the cloud city with a great deal of white dung and ruffled feathers. The water faerie at the Healing Springs had laughed so hard when she saw them that she accidentally fell into the springs. Wiping tears of joy from her eyes, she’d agreed to let them use the springs to clean up. Now, they wandered through Faerie City. Pwuppy led the others about, frolicking in cloudbursts and annoying customers at Faerie Foods, cackling with evil puppy laughter (complete with slurred rs and overly accented ws).

     Oreo had given up on finding Landen anywhere. They’d gone to every place where something shiny and distracting was, everywhere that she could’ve annoyed someone and gotten imprisoned. There was only one conclusion she could reach.

     Landen was gone. She’d left Neopia.

     Blinded by sorrow, she walked wherever she could, avoiding other pets, fleeing from her family. Her thoughts whirled so fast that she could make no sense of them. Why didn’t she tell us? Is it something I did? What’s wrong with her? Doesn’t she care about us at all?

     Was it something I did?

     She glanced up, wondering what had jolted her out of her reverie. She was in the Hidden Tower, surrounded by items worth millions, but there was no Fyora in sight. “That’s odd,” she murmured, eying a Royal Paint Brush. “You’d think she’d be more careful with this stuff.”

     The Gelert climbed the winding purple stairs to the second level, watching for any sign of the Faerie Queen. However, what caught her attention was not the return of the truly fearsome faerie.

     It was someone giggling maniacally.

     Oreo broke into a run.

     She rounded the last bend in the stairs and stopped dead in her tracks. There, in front of her, stood Landen. Her blonde hair was cut short now, waving in an unseen breeze. Her eyes were locked onto something in front of her; Oreo didn’t recognize the purple dress she wore now. Beside her stood Fyora, who had that oddly resigned look on her face that one gets after losing in the fifth round of Snow Wars ten times in a row.

     “Pretty colors... so shiny...” Landen was practically drooling. Oreo was frozen in shock; how was she supposed to react? Her owner had quite obviously been standing in the Hidden Tower for a year, staring at the Rainbow Swirly Thing.

     Fyora glanced up. “So you finally found her, eh? Get her out of here, please. I can’t take it any longer!” The Faerie Queen shot Oreo an evil glare before sweeping off majestically.

     Oreo broke down crying.

     Landen looked up from the Rainbow Swirly Thing. “Sweetie? What’s wrong?”

     “Did I... d-d-do someth-hing wrong?” she blubbered. “Was I not good enough b-b-by myself?”

     Landen’s eyes glittered. Leaning down, she took Oreo’s paw and led her over to a window, looking down over Faerie City. Below them, they could see Pwuppy and the rest fleeing from a furious Jhudora, who was shrieking something about not drinking Noxious Nectar. “You’re talking about why I got everyone else, aren’t you?”

     Oreo nodded.

     Sitting down on the windowsill, Landen absently pet Oreo’s head. “Actually, I did it for you,” she said quietly. “I was afraid you’d get lonely with just me. And I wanted to help them, you know? You never did anything wrong, sweetie. I have always loved you for just who you are, and you will always have a place in my heart, just like Cream, Pwuppy, Noelk, Danny, Destiny, and Copper will. I love you all.”

     Oreo found herself staring into Landen’s eyes; the girl wiped away the Gelert’s tears gently. “You are perfect just the way you are, and I wouldn’t do without you for all the Achyfi and caramel creams in Neopia.”

     Landen leapt up on the windowsill. “Let’s go home, Oreo!” she yelled, flinging herself out the window.

     “What are you doing? This is the second floor!” Oreo shrieked, rushing to the edge. Below her, Landen bounced on the clouds, cackling.

     “Live a little, sweetie! Come on, jump!”

     Pwuppy and the others had seen Landen, rushing over. The Gelerts (and Lupe) swarmed her, knocking her over in a blinding mass of fur. Oreo watched, suddenly feeling amazing. Always loved, always cared for...

     What was she waiting for? She and Landen would always be a dynamic duo, together with their family.

     Oreo jumped, overjoyed at the happy look that Landen had on her face when she saw.

     Apart, they weren’t the same.

     Together, they made Strawberry Blonde.

The End

 
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