The yellow Lupe had just exited his sister's Neohome after a nice visit. He had been about to make the short walk home when he saw his nieces and nephew tearing around, playing a game of Yooyuball. He smiled as he watched them. He opened the front door once more and stuck his head in.
"I'm going to take Brandi home with me," Inc informed his sister and her husband.
"Keep her as long as you'd like, Inc," Nisha said warmly.
Smiling still, Inc shut the door. Firebrand, his eight year old niece, stood waiting for him, grinning broadly. She fell into step beside him. While he was comfortable with silence, she did not appreciate quiet.
"It's a good thing you decided to take me home with you, Uncle Inc. I was about to clobber Yekaterina and Zach," Brandi said.
"Is that so," Inc said.
"Yeah, it is... Is Aunt Snar home?"
"Yes, she is."
Brandi, with Abacuc, her Nedler, ran on ahead. Fifteen minutes later, they arrived at Inc's Neohome. A white sign in the front yard proclaimed Territory of the Collared Greens. A green collar hung around the signpost.
"Collared Greens," Brandi said with a quizzical look at her uncle.
"You'll see," Inc replied cryptically.
They entered the Neohome and were met by nine pairs of young Lupe eyes. Some were hostile, others merely curious. Brandi wasn't put off in the least. When a brown Lupe, about Brandi's age approached, she went to meet him.
"Since Alpha brought you here, you must be OK. I'm Agam. Who're you?" the brown Lupe asked.
"Brandi! Who's Alpha?" Brandi asked a question right back.
"Oh, that's my Uncle Inc. Why do you call him Alpha?"
"Its pack etiquette, of course. You wouldn't call your parents by their first names, would you?"
"That's enough questions for now," a gentle but firm voice said.
Everyone turned to look at the blue Elephante that had entered the room. Her almond gaze passed over the young ones first before looking up at the oldest Lupe in the room. They seemed to communicate silently. The two had known each other and had been friends for years.
"We'll leave you to it, then," Snar said to the young ones after a moment.
Inc and Snar left the room together. As soon as they did, the other young Lupes gathered around Brandi.
"Just because you're related to Alpha Inc doesn't mean that you can boss us around," an electric Lupe said.
Brandi met his yellow gaze with her own direct blue one, "I'm related to Snar, too. She's my aunt."
One of the Lupes, Brandi didn't know which, growled at her. She wasn't afraid. Just then, a cloud Lupe stepped forward.
"That's enough. We shouldn't fight. The whole point of us coming here is to get along with pets that aren't Lupes," the cloud Lupe said, looking at the other young Lupes.
"I don't want to get along with other pets. 'Specially not her," the electric Lupe protested.
"She isn't a Lupe, Aamu. She can't be pack," an eventide Lupe said firmly.
"I don't want to be pack," Brandi protested.
"Then the matter is settled."
The eventide Lupe walked away, the electric Lupe and three others following. They settled across the room. While the eventide Lupe continued to ignore the others her companions cast hostile glances Brandi's way every now and again.
"Now, Brandi, I apologize for my packmates' behavior. In case you couldn't tell, they aren't that open to newcomers, especially non-Lupes," Agam said.
"I don't see what the big deal is. Non-Lupes don't bite. Brandi's nice, I can tell," a starry Lupe said.
"They are just bullies and set in their ways," a silver Lupe put in.
The other Lupes looked at the silver Lupe, shocked. Then, Agam turned his attention back to Brandi.
"Now, you're asking questions. We'll try to answer them as best we can," Agam said with a warm smile.
"Oh yeah. What's pack etiquette," Brandi asked her question at once.
"Pack etiquette is manners in a Lupe pack. If you aren't related to the leader of your pack, especially if you're young like us or being formal, you address them as Alpha. Like you would call an adult not related to you, Mr. or Mrs."
"So, what are you all doing here, anyway?"
"Do you know anything about your uncle's history?"
"He was born a wild Lupe but he was too restless to stay in his pack. He left and travelled Neopia. He settled in Neopia Central with an adopted family. What does his history have to do with anything?"
"It has everything to do with it. Alpha Inc went through a lot when he was our age. He believes that all young Lupes should get experiences in the rest of Neopia, not just in their packs. He wanted to give Lupes like him the opportunity to grow but in a safe environment, with pets that knew their way already."
"It's a wonderful opportunity," Aamu said.
"It sounds like it. It makes me almost want to be a Lupe," Brandi said.
"You'll never be a Lupe!"
One of the Lupes in the eventide's group had yelled that out.
Brandi whirled around to face them. "I said almost! If all Lupes were like you, no one would want to!"
The eight year old turned her back on the Lupes across the room. While she and the four friendly Lupes had been talking, they had settled themselves on the floor. The silver Lupe lay stretched out beside Brandi. He looked up at her now, his silver eyes solemn.
"Don't let them get to you, Brandi. Otherwise, you're just playing right into their hands. They want to get a rise out of you," the silver Lupe said.
Brandi sighed, "You sound like almost everyone in my family. 'Don't let your temper rule you, Brandi. You rule your temper.' I tell them it's harder than they know."
"Try not to focus on what's upsetting you. Focus on something else entirely, preferably something that makes you happy."
"Like Abacuc. Thank you..."
"Thank you, Adino. You've given me advice that I can actually use."
Having used up all of the words he cared to, Adino lay his head on his paws, his gaze and ears alert. The other Lupes knew he wasn't much of a talker. He hadn't warmed up to any of them like he had to Brandi. They also knew he never fully relaxed, ever. Unaware of all this, Brandi had decided to try out Adino's advice just then.
The orange Aisha rubbed her Nedler's ears and head, just how he liked. Adino was right. Focusing on Abacuc did help. After a few moments, she looked back up at her new Lupe friends.
"I do have one last question," Brandi said.
"Shoot," Agam said, waving his hand at the Aisha.
"I saw the sign out front that says Territory of the Collared Greens. Who or what are the Collared Greens?"
"The Collared Greens are us."
"Yes, we are a pack here, even if we aren't all related. So, we needed a name for ourselves," the starry Lupe explained.
"Yeah, it's a play on words. We turned a nasty vegetable into something good."
"Our pack name," Aamu said unnecessarily.
"To distinguish ourselves, we all wear green collars," the starry Lupe said, running a paw over her own, nestled in her thick neck fur.
"That's really cool," Brandi said.
"We all think so," Agam said.
Finally, all of Brandi's questions had been answered. Agam and the starry Lupe exchanged a glance.
"Aber, could I speak with you in private, please," Agam asked, rising to his feet.
Aber, the starry Lupe, rose too. The pair walked into the hallway.
"I wonder what they're talking about," Brandi said, her gaze riveted on the two Lupes.
The Aisha didn't have long to wait. Aber came back to the group. Agam had run into another.
"Where did-," Brandi was about to ask when Agam came back.
"Brandi, do you want to be a Collared Green? I mean, while you're here? How long are you staying anyway," Agam asked in a rush, bringing a green collar from behind his back.
"A Collared Green? Me? Awesome! Yes, I'd love to be a Collared Green! As for how long I'm staying, as long as I want."
The young Lupes all smiled as Brandi fixed on the green collar.
"Now you're one of us," Agam said.
In the same moment, the four Lupes began to howl. Brandi was surprised by this but joined in, not completely sure why. She could hardly compete with their deep, sonorous voices but she wasn't completely awful. The Lupes stopped a moment later. Brandi stopped a moment after they did, her high voice ringing extra loud in the silence.
The Aisha stopped, eyes bright, "That was... exhilarating! Why did we all start howling like that?"
"That's what Lupes do. It bonds us as a pack," Aber said.
"You live with Lupes, you get used to it," Inc said.
"Dinner is ready," Snar said.
The oldest Lupe and the Elephante had reappeared. There was a mad dash for the door. As Brandi waited to get through the jostling crowd, her uncle and aunt stood beside her.
"So, how are you things going," Uncle Inc asked.
"Great! I've made friends and I'm a Collared Green, too," Brandi exclaimed.
Inc and Snar smiled over their niece's head. The bottleneck had cleared. The trio made their way through the large kitchen and into the equally large dining room. To Brandi's surprise, all nine Collared Greens were seated at the long dining table and all of them were drooling. They didn't even touch the food until Inc and Snar were seated and had begun to eat.
Then, the young Lupes dug in as if they had been starved. Brandi also ate fast, for she couldn't sit still long enough to enjoy it. The young pets finished almost simultaneously and made a mad dash out of the dining room to do what young pets do before bedtime. Inc and Snar remained in the emptied dining room for some time afterward. They had both learned to enjoy a meal, busy as their lives were.
Snar cast an amused glance Inc's way. "It's a good thing that our home is proofed against almost everything."
"It's a good thing that we aren't here often enough to test it," Inc responded.
That evening, the young pets settled in the communal bedroom.
"So, what do you all usually do," Brandi asked, laying on her side and looking down the row at her friends.
"Alpha Inc and Alphess Snar usually take us on a field trip somewhere. They never tell us anything before hand," Agam said.
"Yes, it's always a surprise," Aber said.
"I don't like surprises," Aamu said.
Brandi sat bolt upright to look at the cloud Lupe over the backs of the others, "I love surprises! My Uncle Legend throws surprise parties all the time! I can't wait until he throws me one!"
"Besides, Aamu, that's the whole point. Alpha Inc and Alphess Snar want to keep us on our toes," Aber said.
"Hey, can you be quiet over there? Some of us are trying to sleep," a voice growled in the darkness.
Brandi glowered at the yellow eyes that glowered right back. Abruptly, the eyes were gone. Brandi flopped back on her bed and closed her eyes, recalling Adino's advice. Thus, she fell asleep thinking eagerly of the day to come. She couldn't wait!
"So, what do you all think of DoN," Inc asked the group the next afternoon.
That morning after breakfast, Inc and Snar had led their group to the Defenders of Neopia headquarters where they had been taken on an extensive tour.
"It was awesome," Brandi exclaimed.
"I agree. It was most informative," Aber said.
"I admire all of the Defenders for doing what they do. They keep Neopia safe every day," Aamu said.
"How cool would it be to have superpowers," Agam said.
Brandi looked thoughtfully at the brown Lupe, "If you had a superpower, what would it be?"
"I would have... super strength, like Judge Hog."
"My superpower would be intelligence. I would love to be the smartest Neopet in Neopia and have all the answers," Aber said.
"I would like to calm any situation just by being there," Aamu said.
"What about you, Adino?" Brandi asked the silver Lupe, turning to look at him, knowing by now he wouldn't offer anything up unless asked directly.
"I would want to become invisible," Adino said in a low voice.
"Invisible? Then why don't you just get an Invisible Paint Brush," Aber asked.
"I want to keep my silver fur. However, the ability to become invisible could be useful."
"I already have a superpower," Aghi, the electric Lupe said smugly, extending one hand, palm up, where a blue ball of electricity snapped.
Brandi bristled at Aghi's condescending tone, "I have a superpower, too!"
The eight year old orange Aisha extended her palm in Aghi's fashion but a small flame moved agilely across her fingers. The others watched her in amazed silence. Brandi caught her uncle's eye and stopped what she was doing. The adult yellow Lupe let his gaze travel over those who had yet to answer. Catching on, the conversation renewed.
"My superpower would be camouflage. No matter where I am, I can blend in," Abha, the eventide Lupe said.
"My superpower would be to become larger or smaller at will," Abene, the mutant Lupe said.
"My superpower would be to have a supersonic voice," Abaddon, the Halloween Lupe said.
"Adisa, what about you? What would your superpower be," Inc asked the small yellow Lupe.
"I would want to know other pets' worst fears," Adisa said.
There was an awkward silence. Adisa was Agam's younger brother. How could they possibly be related, Brandi thought. The brown Lupe was happy, fun-loving and friendly while Adisa was just the opposite: sullen, submissive and... secretive. Brandi had never thought about it before but it was true. The yellow Lupe preferred to be by himself and didn't join in games.
It makes you wonder what he's hiding, Brandi thought. Having taken in the situation at a glance, Inc moved to talk to Adisa while Snar had the rest of the group moving ahead. Seeking reassurance and wanting to shake free from the serious case of the willies that Adisa had given her, Brandi slipped her hand into her aunt's. Snar smiled down at her niece and gave her hand a firm squeeze. Feeling the strength and warmth radiating from her aunt through their linked hands, Brandi felt immediately better.
After the walk home and a delicious lunch, Inc and Snar got the group to play a game: capture the flag. Whoever got the flag first won the game. Inc and Snar would guard the flag. They couldn't pick their own teams and everyone had to actively participate.
"Abene, Adino, Brandi, Agam and Abha are on Team One," Snar announced.
"Aamu, Aghi, Aber, Adisa and Abaddon are on Team Two," Inc said.
Brandi, for one, was not pleased to be on the same team as Abene and Abha. At least I'm not on the same team as Adisa, she thought. She felt sorry for those that were. She went into a huddle with her teammates.
"OK, first, we have to find the flag," Abha began.
"Who's the best scout?" Agam asked, looking at the others.
"I could do that," Abene offered.
"So could Adino," Brandi said quickly.
"Cool. We can use two. Abene, you find the flag. Adino, keep an eye on Team Two," Abha ordered.
The mutant and the silver Lupes dashed off to do as they were bid.
"Now we need a plan to get the flag," Agam pointed out.
"We also need to prevent the other team from getting the flag," Brandi added.
"Don't forget getting past Alpha Inc and Alphess Snar," Abha said.
"I think I could handle Uncle Inc and Aunt Snar."
"I could get the flag while Brandi distracts them," Agam said.
"That leaves me with taking care of Team Two," Abha said with a sigh.
With jobs assigned, the rest of Team One split up. Brandi and Agam really couldn't do anything until Abene got back with the flag's location. Brandi stood in the front yard, waiting as patiently as she could (which wasn't very much at all). She suddenly caught a glimpse of Aamu in the woods, her yellow eyes watching closely. She must be the scout for Team Two.
There was nothing to be done about this information.
"Agam, do you see-Never mind," Brandi cut herself off as Abene came into view.
"I've found the flag! Follow me," Abene ordered.
Agam and Brandi followed their teammate into the woods. To Brandi's surprise they didn't go very far.
"The flag is in that tree," Abene said, pointing up into a sturdy pine tree.
"But, we have to get past them."
At this, Agam, Brandi and Abene froze until they spotted their Team Two rivals, who had also seen them. It was understood that 'them' were Inc and Snar. Then, something occurred to Brandi. Team One and Team Two were up against the same foe; they had the same goal. Why not...?
Brandi jogged towards Team Two, stopping in front of Aber, eyes bright. "Hey, why be rivals? We should become one team. Take down Uncle Inc and Aunt Snar and capture the flag."
"It's not a bad idea," Aber conceded.
"I agree," Abha said.
"I don't," Aghi said crossly.
"Let's do it," Agam said, enthusiastic as always.
"We need a new plan," Aber said.
"You're right," Abha said.
"I say send in Aghi and Brandi to distract Alpha Inc and Alphess Snar with their powers so the rest of us take the flag," Agam said.
"What? I don't want to work with her," Aghi protested.
"Why not? We're all Collared Greens, aren't we?"
"With that logic, why attack Alpha Inc and Alphess Snar at all? They're Collared Greens, too!"
There was a heavy pause. The young Collared Greens looked at each other for a moment.
"Little brother, you are correct. We are all Collared Greens," Abha said.
"Why don't we just go up and talk to them? They may just give us the flag," Aber said.
"It's worth a shot," Brandi said.
"We can't all go at once. They may see it as an attack. We'll send Aamu and Brandi," Abha said decisively.
Aamu and Brandi stepped out of their hiding place in the bushes. Inc was a few feet in front of them. He caught sight of them immediately. He approached them.
"We come in peace," Aamu said in a low, soft voice.
Brandi had to hold back a laugh; Aamu sounded like a Grundo visiting Neopia for the first time from space. Inc waited patiently for them to continue.
"Listen, Uncle Inc. We want that flag you're guarding," Brandi said.
Snar had come up and she exchanged a glance with Inc. Their gazes shifted back to the two young pets.
"Why should we give it to you?" Inc asked.
"That's the thing, though! Why are you guarding the flag? We are all Collared Greens. We should share the flag," Brandi said.
"We're pack. It's what packs do," Aamu added.
As they talked, the others had come out of hiding to stand around Brandi and Aamu. There was a moment's pause as their elders took in this change.
"You're right. We are all pack," Inc announced, holding the flag high above his head, which Snar had fetched down from its place in the tree.
Inc commenced to lead a group howl, their voices varying in pitch and strength but all equal in their enthusiasm. Through one game, the pack dynamic had changed. They were no longer segregated into separate groups; they were all one.
~ ~ ~
It was late that evening. Inc and Snar were alone.
"You made the right decision in bringing Brandi to stay. She brought the Collared Greens together in a way that couldn't be accomplished otherwise," Snar said.
"We weren't sure it would work. The plan could have backfired. Terribly so... You're leaving," Inc abruptly changed the subject.
"Yes, I regret being able to help you only part time."
"Don't. I know. Your commissions come first... As always, I'm going to miss you."
"Don't. You're going to miss me because ten young pets is a lot for one elder to take."
"Elder? I'm no elder and that certainly isn't the reason. You're a great conversationalist."
"Me? You have Aber for great conversation."
The conversation came to an end as there was a knock at the back door. The Elephante and the Lupe embraced before Snar made her exit, disappearing into the night with a Tyrannian Kougra. Inc watched her go, feeling the tug that came with their separation. Snar's jobs always took her for months at a time.
"I miss you, not just for your conversation or because you help me in my work but because you're my best friend," Inc said to himself, shutting the door.
Then Inc smiled, for the Collared Greens would help pass the time better than anything else ever could. In fact, he had their next field trip all planned out...