The neohome was silent. Not because it was empty, but because its single occupant was sleeping curled up on the couch, tail and paws hanging limply over the side and wings only half-folded. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable position, but then, the faerie Kougra hadn’t planned on falling asleep. Melanie had wanted to stay awake until her owner arrived, but sometime around midnight her eyelids had grown heavy and she’d slipped into slumber without realizing it.
Now, close to one a.m., the lock clicked as a key was inserted and turned, and the front door swung open soundlessly on well-oiled hinges. A short human with untidy red hair and tired blue eyes entered her neohome with a slight feeling of apprehension. She’d told her pet that she’d be there to visit her hours ago, but unforeseen complications had arisen, resulting in her arriving so late into the night.
Closing the door quietly behind her, Anna flipped a light on, illuminating the front entrance and the living room. She started with surprise when the light revealed Melanie asleep on the couch; and then a pang of regret and guilt hit Anna when she realized that her pet had obviously been waiting for her. Hesitantly, she rested her hand on Melanie’s small, furred shoulder; the soft, short hairs tickled her palm.
“Mel?” she said quietly. “Melanie?”
Melanie startled awake, and she looked up at Anna with wide eyes. Moments later, recognition dawned in her large, purple irises and she blinked. “You’re home,” she said. Her mind still felt half-asleep and she blinked again against the bright light. “What time is it?”
“Late,” Anna answered. “Close to one a.m.”
“I was waiting for you,” Melanie said, a hint of hurt and accusation in her tone. “Where were you?”
“I’m sorry. I got held up,” Anna apologized. It was a lame excuse, but it was the truth. She’d been all set to return to Neopia, but then her friend had called asking for help. Anna had thought it would only take a little while, but she’d been wrong.
“You always get held up,” Melanie told her, with a definite accusation in her tone this time.
Anna sighed, suddenly feeling frustrated. “I’m sorry, Mel. I’ve just been really busy lately.”
“Yeah, too busy to see me,” Melanie muttered.
“Are you at least going to be here for my birthday?” the Kougra asked, sounding resigned.
Anna hesitated. “I really want to, but... I don’t know if I can make it. I’ll try, though—really.”
Melanie stood abruptly, jumping gracefully off the couch and heading for the stairs. “Don’t hurt yourself trying,” she snapped, her tone hard. “If you don’t want to come around anymore, then just say it. But don’t lie to me.”
“Melanie!” Anna called sadly, but the faerie Kougra disappeared upstairs without looking back. Sighing, Anna grabbed her bag from where she’d dropped it on the floor and switched the light off, heading for her own bedroom.
Melanie awoke the next morning to the smell of bacon, eggs, and toast. She yawned and stretched, checking her reflection in the mirror for any fur sticking up or feathers out of place. After fixing a couple, she headed downstairs warily, unsure if Anna would be mad at her for her behavior the night before. Melanie knew she’d been out of line, but she’d been expecting Anna to at least be home for her birthday; and hearing that that might not happen had hurt more than the Kougra had expected.
Predictably, she found her owner in the kitchen, setting food on two plates. Melanie stood nervously in the doorway for a few moments, staring at the back of Anna’s head, before she finally spoke. “Morning.”
Anna started, turning quickly to face her pet. “Oh, good morning. I didn’t hear you come down.”
“Sorry,” Melanie said lamely. Silence lapsed between them for a few moments before Anna sighed.
“I really am sorry, Mel. And I really will try to make it for your birthday tomorrow.” She held up a plate piled high with food. “Forgive me?”
Melanie hesitated, but she finally nodded, giving in. Anna smiled brightly, setting the plate on the table and grabbing her own. Melanie got situated in her chair and then began eating. It was a few minutes before she broke the silence that had fallen over them. “So when are you leaving today?”
Anna paused. “After I finish eating, actually,” she said, her casual tone sounding forced. “I have some things I need to get done today.”
Melanie nodded, somehow having expected that. It didn’t mean she was okay with it, but she didn’t want to get into another fight with her owner when they were only able to spend a little bit of time together lately. “What things?” she wondered.
“Just... shopping. Errands, you know. The usual,” Anna answered evasively.
‘No, I don’t know. I don’t know anything about your other life,’ Melanie thought, but she didn’t say it. “Oh, okay.”
Anna finished her last bite of toast and then got up to wash her plate off in the sink. She dried it and set it back in the cupboard, turning to face her pet. Melanie didn’t look at her, but she knew what her owner was about to say.
“You’re leaving now, right?” the Kougra guessed.
“Yeah.” Anna didn’t try to hide the truth. “I’m sorry we had so little time.”
Melanie shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant. “It’s fine. I’m used to it.”
‘You shouldn’t be,’ Anna thought with another pang of guilt. “So I’ll see you—”
Melanie cut her off. “Don’t make any promises you can’t keep,” she said harshly.
Anna nodded, sounding defeated when she spoke next: “Then I’ll see you when I can.” She gave Melanie a one-sided hug and then grabbed her bag off the counter. She looked as if she was about to say something, but she stopped, seeming to think better of it. When she did finally speak, it was only to say, “Bye, Mel.”
“Bye.” Melanie didn’t watch her owner walk away. Only after the front door closed did she look up to stare in the direction Anna had gone.
Melanie spent the remaining hours of the morning trying to find something to do around the neohome. She wandered into the room Anna had set aside for their book collection—aptly named the Library—but none of the books lined neatly on the shelves caught her interest, and she left them untouched.
Next, she went to her room and grabbed one of her sketchbooks and her favorite mechanical pencil; but after staring at the blank page for five minutes with no sudden burst of inspiration she discarded that idea as well, turning to pacing in the front room, instead. It was only after a couple minutes of pacing that she realized her problem resulted from restlessness, and knowing that Anna wouldn’t be coming back that day she decided there would be no harm in wandering around.
It took a few minutes to find the backpack Anna had gotten for her a while ago. The straps had clasps on them, making it easier for winged pets to use. It had been expensive, being a specialty item, but Anna had insisted it would be well worth it and bought it despite Melanie’s arguing about their finances. Melanie sometimes thought it ironic that it was she that was more often the reasonable one when it came to spending and saving neopoints, but she just figured it was a special part of her and Anna’s relationship and just tried to keep her owner from emptying her bank account in pursuit of her newest fancy.
Not knowing how long she’d be out, Melanie put a couple sandwiches and water bottles in her backpack, as well as a paperback book. The backpack was a tad heavy, but nothing she couldn’t fly with. Her last addition were her keys, which she used to lock the front door behind her before she set off.
She started in Neopia Central, but not only had she seen the shops plenty of times before, it was also just an hour after noon, and the marketplace was packed with pets and owners. She ducked behind the food shop where there wasn’t anyone else around, and then took to the sky, flapping her wings hard to lift her in the dead air. A fair amount up, she caught a breeze and glided along on it, relieved to be free of the strain of constant flapping.
She angled somewhere between south and southwest and was soon leaving Neopia Central behind. The land turned to a prairie scene—grass as far as she could see ahead and to the side of her, and far to her left she could make out the glimmer of the sun on Kiko Lake. She didn’t fly towards it, though; today, she wanted to be alone.
She rode the breezes for a while, drifting left and right and stopping once to munch on a sandwich. The wind felt good drifting through her fur and feathers, and she was glad she’d decided to leave the neohome.
After another while of gliding, she saw the beginnings of the Haunted Woods appearing before her. The gloomy trees were a stark contrast against the bright greens and blues of the current landscape, but she didn’t change her course. She’d never been afraid of the Haunted Woods, despite Anna’s own misgivings about ghosts and zombies. Melanie knew there were ghost pets, and even some zombie pets had popped up lately—but she wasn’t particularly frightened of them.
She landed on the outskirts of the forest, wanting to wander beneath the trees rather than fly over them. The moment she passed beneath the gnarled, leafless boughs, it was as though the sun disappeared. Everything became dark and dismal, and the temperature dropped a fair amount of degrees. Her skin twitched in reaction to the change, but she continued on, avoiding hanging Spyder-webs and stepping over rotten foliage.
The Haunted Woods had always fascinated Melanie, with its supposed population of ghosts, zombies, werelupes, and the like—but when she’d suggested building their neohome somewhere in the forest Anna had rejected the idea immediately, saying that the mysteries and spooks of the Haunted Woods would be too much for her to handle day after day. Instead, she’d chosen Neopia Central—a place with many pets and owners around to prevent any society-shy creatures from wandering through her front yard.
Melanie didn’t know how long she’d been wandering in the Woods, as the place seemed timeless with its lack of sun or stars or sky. Looking up, all she could see were blue-brown branches and dark, impenetrable fog. Idly, she wondered how the fog managed to constantly cover the Woods and not get blown away by the wind; but her musings were pushed out of her mind by a sudden screech. She stopped, her eyes darting to find the source of the noise. During her exploring of the Woods, she’d thought she’d caught glimpses of ghost pets here or there, but she doubted any of them would be screaming.
The sound came again, somewhere to her right, and she turned to run in that direction. She’d not gone more than ten yards when she burst into a tiny clearing in the trees and found the source of the noise: a small Airax backed up against a tree with three glowing Sklydes spread in a half-circle around it. They appeared to be enjoying scaring the Airax, growling and snapping at it.
Melanie dropped into a crouch, stalking slowly forward and letting out a growl of her own. She half-raised her wings in a threatening pose and narrowed her eyes at the three Sklydes. They turned to face her with wide eyes, not having heard her approach. She snarled at them again, snapping her teeth, and the Sklydes took off running, disappearing into the forest.
Melanie straightened and re-folded her wings, turning to face the Airax, which was still cowering at the base of the tree. She moved towards it cautiously, and it watched her, squawking warily. It shuffled its wings, spreading them and trying to fly away—but it got no more than an inch off the ground when it fell back down, seeming pained. Melanie peered closer and saw a shallow cut on one of its wings. It didn’t look too deep or serious, but it was obviously painful enough to keep the Airax ground bound.
“Poor thing,” Melanie murmured. “If only I’d thought to bring a healing potion with me.” She wasn’t sure if they worked on petpets, but she figured it was worth a shot. She paused in front of the Airax, crouching down to be more on its own level. “I can help you, if you’ll let me. But we need to go back to my neohome, okay?”
The Airax stared at her silently for a few moments before it tentatively took a step toward her. She reached a paw out and the petpet carefully walked along her leg and up onto her shoulder, its short, sharp claws grabbing a hold of her fur and the strap of her backpack.
She straightened again, and looked up. The clearing they were in wasn’t very big, but there just might be enough room for her to jump and fly up. “Hold on tight,” she told the Airax, and gathering strength into her hind legs, she launched herself into the air, flapping furiously. For a moment, she didn’t think they’d make it—but then she was moving upwards, into the fog, and then bursting out of the fog into sunlight.
At first, the sudden reappearance of light left her blinded, but the sun appeared to be setting so the light wasn’t as bright and she was able to see properly within moments. She flapped her wings harder, rising farther above the Haunted Woods and looking around to catch her bearings. Behind her, she could see the mountains that ran along the western edge of the Woods; if she kept those on her left, she’d be flying mostly north.
“Make sure you don’t let go,” she told the petpet still clinging to her shoulder. Turning, she caught a breeze and began the trip back home.
The sun had fully set by the time she arrived back at her neohome in Neopia Central. The Airax seemed half-asleep on her shoulder, but it woke up when Melanie closed the front door behind them. She flipped the light on, and the petpet looked around curiously. Melanie paused next to the couch and let the Airax walk clumsily onto the cushions.
“I’ll be right back, all right?” she told it, and it blinked at her. Taking that as agreement, she wandered to Anna’s room, searching through the medicine cabinet for a healing potion. It only took her a few minutes to find one, and she returned to find the Airax nesting peacefully on the couch.
“Now I don’t know if this will work, but it’s worth a shot,” she told it, when it looked up at her. “It shouldn’t sting, either.” The Airax just stared at her, so she uncorked the bottle and tipped it carefully over the cut on the Airax’s wing. A couple drops slipped out, landing around and on the cut, and Melanie pulled the bottle back, putting the cork back in. For a few seconds, nothing happened; but then the drops dissolved into the cut and it healed rapidly. The Airax screeched in delight and spread both its wings, testing them. Finding that neither hurt, it turned to Melanie and rubbed its head against her shoulder.
“Oh, you’re welcome,” she said, laughing a little. The Airax hopped onto her shoulder and perched there, seeming quite comfortable. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m starving,” she told it. The petpet screeched quietly, and Melanie laughed again. “All right, we’ll both eat; and then I want to sleep. I’m exhausted.”
She unhooked her backpack and grabbed the remaining sandwich out of it. She shared it with the Airax and then headed upstairs, jumping onto her bed and curling up under her sheets. The Airax seemed content on her shoulder, and together, they fell asleep.
When Melanie awoke the next morning, sunlight was already filtering through her blinds. She yawned, doing her morning stretch and noticing that the Airax was still perched on her shoulder. It blinked sleepily at her.
“I should give you a name,” she said thoughtfully. It only took a couple moments for the right name to pop into her head. “How about Aero?” she suggested. The Airax cocked its head, as if considering the name, and then it bobbed its head twice. “Yeah?” Melanie said, happy the petpet liked it. “All right. Your name is Aero, then. Now, shall we go get breakfast?”
She headed downstairs with Aero, and the second her paw hit the bottom step, there was a sudden flurry of movement and multiple voices shouted, “Surprise!” Melanie’s eyes widened as she looked around, noticing for the first time the birthday decorations hanging on the walls and from the ceiling, and then the people and pets gathered in the front room, all smiling at her.
“What...?” she trailed off, confused, and then saw Anna stepping out of the small crowd.
“Happy birthday, Mel,” she said warmly. “This is your surprise party.”
“My... surprise party?” Melanie repeated, definitely surprised. “But I thought you were too busy.”
“I could never be too busy for your birthday, Melanie!” Anna said firmly. “I’m sorry if I made you feel bad; I just wanted to make everything a surprise, so it was that much better for you.”
Melanie looked around, spotting some of Anna’s own friends in Neopia and their pets, who were Melanie’s friends. They’d all gathered so early in the morning to give her a surprise party, and they’d even decorated before she’d woken up. Melanie hadn’t been expecting anything special for her birthday, so this was almost too much.
“Thank you,” she said, feeling on the verge of laughing or crying—or both. “This is the best birthday party ever.”
“Oh, you’re welcome, Mel,” Anna said happily, the others echoing her words. Anna moved forward to give her a hug, but she stopped, noticing for the first time the Airax perched comfortably on her pet’s shoulder. “Um, Mel... where did that petpet come from?”
“Oh,” Melanie said, and smiled sheepishly. “Well, it’s kind of a long story...”