"But 'Ponine, why not?" I whined, looking longingly at the apple bobbing tank, focusing on the gleaming, red apples that teased the surface.
"I said no, Gavroche!" Eponine, my elder sister, snapped. Grabbing my paw, she dragged me away from the tank, ranting on and on about how it did more harm than good, how I hardly won anyways, and the like, but I had tuned her out, preferring to fume and think about my situation instead.
It was the same thing, every day. I would want to do something fun, albeit dangerous and risky, that every other Neopet did, and Christine or Eponine would always stop me, lecturing me about the foolishness of doing something so crazy. It got quite boring, especially since it was nearly the same words repeated every single day.
Growing weary of Eponine's continued babbling, I ripped my paw out of hers and jumped back, glaring at her. "All right, all right!" I shouted, not really meaning to raise my voice. "I get it! You don't have to keep going on and on about it!"
Eponine stared at me incredulously, probably wondering where my anger had come from. Her red eyes grew softer as she took a step towards me. "Gavroche, I only say these things because I want to protect you from getting hurt. We're family, and family looks out for each other." Smiling, she attempted to put a comforting paw on my shoulder.
However, the flames of my temper had flared up far beyond my control. Scurrying away out of her reach, I snapped, "Well, if taking the fun out of life is what family does, than I don't want to be a part of a family!"
She blinked at me, surprise and hurt shining in her eyes. Suddenly, she laughed nervously, trying to dispel the awkwardness. "I know you don't mean that, 'Vroche," she said softly, almost as if she was trying to convince herself more than me.
Nodding vigorously, I proudly proclaimed, "I do mean it! I don't need, or want, a family, especially if they're just going to lock me in a cage! I can survive all on my own!" Somewhere in my heart, I knew that this was a lie, but I was far too caught up in my dreams of freedom and fun to accept the truth.
Before she could say anything else, I turned and sprinted off into the Haunted Woods, ignoring my sister as she continued to call my name. I focused on the wind rushing through my mane, the feel of utter joy in my heart as I was finally able to do whatever I wanted without getting reprimanded. It was a nice feeling, although completely foreign, and with a trace of dread underneath.
When I finally stopped running, I found myself in one of the thickest parts of the Haunted Woods. The dread that I had vaguely felt earlier now surfaced in full force. I began to realize that I had not fully thought my plan through before running, and I was now paying the price for it.
"Good going, Gavroche," I muttered, walking, hesitantly, deeper into the forest. "You're a young Xweetok, you hardly know anything about the world at all, and you've just run into the creepiest part of the creepiest land in Neopia. What are you going to do now, huh?" Angrily, I kicked a stone in my path, feeling pathetic, young, and dumb.
"Well, kicking stones certainly isn't going to help you," a smooth voice said, startling me out of my reverie. Looking up, I looked around uncertainly, trying to figure out who had spoken. When I finally spotted the owner of the voice, I gasped loud enough to wake Turmaculus.
There, right before my eyes, stood Sophie, the great Swamp Witch. A Meowclops circled her feet loyally, shooting me curious glances. In her hand, she held the stone that I had kicked, throwing it up into the air before catching it again and repeating her actions. She wore a slight smirk on her face, as if daring me to contradict her.
"Um, I, er..." I could only stutter as I sat there, not sure what to say. I mean, what does one say when confronted by a far more powerful, and famous, Neopet? I'm quite certain that anyone would act the way that I did.
"Well?" she questioned, growing impatient with my lack of response.
Shaking my head to clear my mind, I finally said, "Forgive me, Miss Sophie, er, I mean, Miss Swamp Witch, uh.... I didn't mean to disturb you. I only, uh, I..."
Sophie shook her head, trying to hide a chuckle. Holding out a hand, she beckoned me closer. "Come, child. No use in staying out here, stuttering like a fool. Might as well make ourselves comfortable." That said, she turned on her heel and walked away, presumably in the direction of her shack.
Not knowing what else to do, I complacently followed, collecting my thoughts as I walked. I would not be known as a child when I was trying to distinguish myself as an adult. I puffed out my chest a little, attempting to appear brave, only to have my efforts ruined when I crashed into Sophie, who had stopped when she reached her shack.
Turning around, she looked at me with an amused smirk on her face. "Careful, young one," she said. "You need to learn to pay more attention, or you might get hurt." Turning back around, she opened her door, shooing her Meowclops inside before following suit.
I reluctantly stepped over the threshold, feeling indignation as Sophie treated me the exact same way my sisters had. However, when I felt the heat from the fire warming the room, a sense of home and security washed over me. I willingly glided into the room, breathing an audible sigh, ignoring the irony that I felt safe in a witch's home.
Trying to hide a smile from me, Sophie quickly pushed me over to the hearth and directed me to a wicker chair. Taking a seat in her own plush rocking chair, she gazed intently at me, making me squirm under her gaze.
"So, child," she began, breaking the silence first, "what in Neopia could possibly possess you to wander this far into the Haunted Woods, all alone?"
Looking down at the worn rug beneath me to escape her eyes, I replied, "I want to live on my own. That way, nobody can tell me what to do, and I can have real fun!" I lifted my head with these words, looking at Sophie with excitement gleaming in my eyes.
To my surprise, she glared back at me firmly, a hint of sadness residing in her deep green eyes. "So, you left your family just so that you could be free and... have fun." It was a blunt statement, not a question.
I nodded, timidly, now unsure if I should have said anything. "Yes," I replied quietly. "My family was always holding me back from doing fun stuff that every other cool Neopet got to do, and I grew tired of it."
"Did you ever stop and think about why your family didn't want you to do those things?" she asked, practically growling as she leaned forward, refusing to allow me to escape her searing gaze.
Blinking and shrinking back, I mumbled, "No, not really. I didn't ever think there was a need to."
Sophie sighed dramatically and shook her head. "Child, your family wasn't trying to harm you, or make you seem less 'cool'! They were trying to protect you! They love you very much, and don't want to see you get hurt, especially by yourself."
"That's not what it feels like!" I exclaimed, jumping out of my seat, feeling the need to move around to release my frustrations.
Sophie stood as well, placing a hand on my shoulder before I could even begin to pace. Looking down at me sympathetically, she finally allowed her true emotions to show, sad tears shining in her eyes. She pushed me back into my chair and stood over me, holding my chin so that I was forced to look at her.
"Child, don't do this," she pleaded softly. "Don't leave your family for frivolous little things. Trust me when I say that I have learned from experience. Those fancy things that seem so wonderful can only last so long. Family lasts forever."
I was stunned into silence, reminded of Sophie's horrible experience. Nobody could speak more truly than she on this matter. And yet, a strange tugging in my heart still called me back to the freedom of living alone. My mind was extremely conflicted.
Sensing my inner turmoil, Sophie smiled and ran a hand through my tousled green mane. "Consider what I've said, child. Remember, all that glitters is not gold."
With these words, my mind dispersed of any doubts, leaving behind only clarity. Standing up, I grinned at Sophie and wrapped my arms around her in a hug. "Thank you, Sophie!" I cried joyfully. "You've really helped me tonight. You've helped me understand myself."
Sophie only stood there, shocked by my display of affection. "Um, you're welcome... I guess," she mumbled, pulling away and putting some distance between us.
Throwing her one last grin, I scurried out the door, running as fast as my paws could carry me back through the woods. I was slightly frightened that I would get lost, but my instincts led me right back to Neovia, right to the spot where I had first made my foolish decision.
I nearly began to cry with relief when I saw Eponine standing by the apple bobbing tank, Christine by her side, talking to Bart. They both wore worried expressions on their faces, plainly showing how deeply they cared about me.
Deciding to surprise them, I quietly snuck up behind them, listening as they gave my description to Bart. Happy tears shone in my eyes as I thought about how much they were willing to do to find me. They would even talk to one of the people they disliked most, just to see me safe and sound.
Giving a cry of happiness, I suddenly sprang on Eponine, causing both her and Christine to shriek in surprise. Their shrieks quickly turned to sobs of utter joy as they recognized me, embracing me so tightly that I could scarcely breathe.
"We thought you were never coming back, Gavvie!" Eponine said excitedly, almost shouting with her barely contained.
"You had us worried sick," Christine chastised, stroking my hair tenderly. "We thought that we would have to call in the Defenders to find you."
I grinned, glad that I had not allowed it to go that far, even though it did sound exciting. Looking apologetically at my sisters, I said, "I'm sorry for the grief I've cause you. I made a reckless mistake, thinking that family was always dragging me down. I've learned an important lesson, though, one that I will never forget."
Lifting an eyebrow, Eponine fought back a smirk and said, "Oh? And, what would that be?"
Looking off into the thick of the woods, I smiled secretively and said, "Family is the most important thing in the world. They only want to protect you, never hurt you. Even if it means protecting you from yourself."
And, you know, I think I saw an approving glint of green shining in the woods as my sisters happily carried me home.