Ona Without an Owner
At the base of Terror Mountain (which really isn't as terrible as its name suggests) there is a cheery little village known as Happy Valley (which really is as happy as the name suggests), and tucked snugly away in a comfortable corner is a small shop. The snow-laden sign that sits in front of the shop's rounded doorway proclaims that the shop is named simply, Wintery Petpets, and that is exactly what it sells.
Inside Wintery Petpets you will find a kindly blue Bruce; he has quite the sense of humour and sells all manner of wintery companions for your Neopet; mischievous Felfs, festive Wreathies, spotted Tasus and you might even find a rare Snowickle, if you're lucky. It's quite the delight to walk into the rustic little shop, warm yourself with a hot cup of Borovan, and watch as all of the delightful little petpets excitedly clamour for your attention, each desperate to be taken home and given to a loving Neopet owner.
But it may surprise you to learn that not all of the shopkeeper's petpets were always so eager to find a Neopet companion. You see, there was once an Ona, who was so defiantly against the idea of being purchased that he spent all of his days hiding under a loose floorboard, making sure that no customer ever saw him. Like all petpets in the shop, he was unpainted, and was simply the default powder blue of all unpainted Onas. He did not have a name, as that is an honour that can only be bestowed upon a Petpet by its owner, but he didn't care; what did he need a name for? Being nameless was a small price to pay for his freedom.
You see, the Ona had seen and heard terrible things in his time at the Petpet shop. He knew that not all Neopets were nice and kind, and many did awful things to their poor, defenseless Petpets. He had heard tales of Florg, a hideous mutant Chia who swallowed Petpets whole; he had heard about a group of crazed villagers, who hurled Petpets into the lair of the Snowbeast as sacrifices; he knew of the Petpet Laboratory, where Neopet owners would ask a deranged Kookith to perform dangerous experiments on their Petpets, turning them into all kinds of unnatural colours, or disintegrating them into piles of soot, or even making them disappear altogether. No, the world out there was far too dangerous for a Petpet; he'd be much safer staying right here in the Wintery Petpet shop.
And so the days passed, and the Ona developed a method to avoid being seen, for avoiding being seen meant avoiding being purchased. He would hide, all day and all night (for the Wintery Petpet shop is open all hours) under a loose floorboard by the litter trays in the corner of the pen. The pungent atmosphere was not always pleasant, but it helped keep shopping Neopets at a distance. The floorboard lifted up slightly at the corner, just enough for him to peek out without being seen. Whenever there was a lull in customers, usually during the later hours, he would sneak out, pick up as much food as he could carry, and carefully bring it back to his hiding place. In a similar manner, he had also built a kind of nest for himself to sleep on under the floorboards, from bits and pieces he had scavenged from the shop floor; Pteri feathers, Feepit fluff, loose stuffing from Petpet beds... not as comfortable as a proper Petpet bed, of course, but passable.
He told himself he was as happy as he could be; he told himself that he was smart for keeping himself safe and free, while all the other Petpets stupidly craved the affection of Neopets. But still, he found he had a hollow feeling he couldn't shake, as though something very big and very important was missing. Loneliness.
As he spent his days in his secret little hiding place, he began to recognise many of the regular visitors to the shop; a shadow Gelert, who would come in looking for what he referred to as "lab rats", cheaply priced Petpets to throw under the cruel zap of the Petpet Lab Ray; a Royal Cybunny, who collected Snowbunnies; a Plushie Usul, who seemed to ask the shopkeeper a lot of questions about the Petpets, but never bought a single one; a blue Grundo, a seasoned reseller with lightning reflexes who would snatch up the most valuable Petpets before their little paws had barely touched the shop floor... so many familiar faces, none of whom ever noticed a pair of beady little black eyes, peeping out at them from under the floorboards.
But one of the regulars in particular, a white Kacheek, always made the little Ona feel particularly uncomfortable. She collected Petpets, and had dreams of owning the biggest Petpet gallery in Neopia, but she wasn't kind to them. Rumour had it that none of her Petpets were fed proper Petpet food, or given a nice place to sleep, or played with, or loved at all. They were just painted and thrown in her gallery to rot, to fill up shelves and be just another ticked box on her wishlist. Even the friendly blue Bruce did not like selling his Petpets to her, but he had bills to pay and food to buy, and it really wasn't good business to turn anyone away, especially not someone who spent as much as she did.
"Good morning, Miss Jenna!" called the shopkeeper breezily one morning, as the shop door opened and slammed shut loudly, a flurry of snowflakes blowing into the shop from outside.
"It doesn't feel so good from where I'm standing!" sniffed the white Kacheek. "Blizzards, blizzards, snow and more blizzards! I hate Happy Valley."
"Sorry you feel that way, Miss, but the chilly climate is perfect for my winter-loving little Petpets." The Bruce smiled, petting a passing Powtry affectionately.
"Humph! Well, I don't have time to chit-chat all day." Jenna dusted a few soggy droplets of melting snowflakes off the fur lining of her Prissy Miss Snowflake Dress, and pulled a checklist out of her Pink Knit Purse. "Right, I need... a Snicklebeast and a Polarchuck. I've got a Dung Petpet Paint Brush here that's stinking through my purse. Better use it up and put the smelly Petpet in my gallery where it belongs!"
The Ona looked out at the other Petpets in the shop in dismay. It always broke his heart to see another Petpet go off with an awful Neopet.
"Well, I'm afraid I don't actually sell Snicklebeasts; they were available exclusively from the advent calender, but I do have a Polarchuck around here somewhere..."
Behind the shopkeeper, a chubby little Polarchuck cowered behind a Yullie Water Bottle. This was terrible! That poor Polarchuck didn't want to go with the mean Kacheek. He didn't want to be painted dung and left in a gallery unloved forever. The Ona couldn't bear it! He did something very, very out of character... he took a risk!
While the shopkeeper and the Kacheek searched the floor for the hidden Polarchuck, the Ona lifted up his floorboard, and waved at the Polarchuck to attract his attention, a mere six or seven feet away from him (although that's quite a distance to a little Petpet). The Polarchuck gave the Ona a pleading look of wild desperation, and the Ona beckoned for him to come join him.
The shopkeeper and Jenna were searching the Petpet beds, they were distracted. Now was his chance! The Polarchuck darted out from his hiding place, sped across the floor as quickly as his little legs could carry him, and tumbled into the hole under the floor with a thud.
Hearts pounding, the little Petpets held on tightly to each other in the darkness, listening to the Neopet footsteps and voices above, hoping not to be discovered.
"Well, it must be around here SOMEWHERE!"
"Perhaps I already sold him? I don't recall, but I do get such a lot of Petpets and customers coming and going through here. Sometimes it's hard to keep track."
"UGH! No Snicklebeasts and sold out of Polarchucks! What a waste of time!"
"I'm dreadfully sorry, Miss Jenna, I swear I didn't mean to-"
She'd gone. The Polarchuck was safe! The Ona had rescued him. The Polarchuck smiled in the blackness, and gratefully hugged his new friend as tightly as he could. The Ona had never helped another Petpet before, but he had to admit, it felt pretty good.
From then on, the two Petpets became the best of friends. Petpets don't normally become attached to each other, but those two became firm and close companions. The Polarchuck moved in under the floorboards with the Ona; by day, they would take it in turns to go out and scavenge for food, keeping watch over each other, and peek out through the floorboard cracks together; by night, they would cuddle up and sleep side by side.
The Ona had never been so happy! That feeling of loneliness had disappeared, the void had been filled by the hand of a warm, fluffy Polarchuck. Sure, life wasn't perfect, the smell of dung from the litter trays was never far away, and it would be nice to sleep in a comfortable bed and eat more than dropped scraps, but with his new friend by his side, life was so much sweeter.
Until, one fateful day, everything changed.
It had been many months since the Ona had rescued the Polarchuck, and he had taken to their secret life of sneaking around rather well; he never took unnecessary risks or allowed himself to be spotted by Neopets. He was a vigilant lookout and wonderfully soft and comfortable to snuggle with.
One of the regular Neopet visitors, the Plushie Usul who asked many questions, was back again. He had brought his little sister, a Baby Usul, with him today. She crawled around the floor, playfully chasing Petpets, while her brother held a notepad in one hand, and scribbled in it as he relentlessly questioned the Bruce shopkeeper.
"...which do the Gwalla seem to prefer using, the Petpet Scratching Tree or the Zytch Scratching Post?"
"...there have been some reports of Zomutt-themed products being too frightening and causing distress to non-Spooky Petpets. Have you found this to be the case?"
"...and since switching to Chokato Petpet Food, would you say the consistency, size or smell of the Bika dung has altered at all?"
"...do the Lady Blurg Chew Toy and Rainblug Chew Toy taste the same?"
"...have you found that feeding Disco Petpet Food to Dofrey appears to cause any unusual side-effects, such as lethargy?"
The Ona had always thought him a strange Neopet, quite unlike the other patrons; always neatly dressed in an argyle sweater and bow tie, meticulous in his attention to detail. He peeked over his rounded spectacles at the Petpets and Petpet supplies, made notes in his notebook, lined up the Garooda and measured their exact heights with a Shoyru Tape Measure, took dung samples and labelled them all carefully...
The Ona gasped in horror. His friend, his companion, his beloved Polarchuck was out on the shop floor! Right in plain sight! He stood, face to face, with the Baby Usul. They stared at each other, open-mouthed and still, as though hypnotised.
Without a thought for his own safety, the Ona pushed his floorboard out of the way and flew from his hiding place to rescue his friend. Baby Neopets can't speak very well, he might be able to reach his friend before an adult Neopet spotted them...
"TEDDY!" squeaked the Baby Usul, breaking the silence. A look of pure joy lit up her face and, much to the Ona's surprise, the Polarchuck's face, too. The Polarchuck dived into her arms, and they hugged each other tightly.
"Oh, my! How interesting!" the Plushie Usul exclaimed, upon seeing his sister and the Polarchuck.
It was a disaster! He'd been spotted by a human! The Ona considered that their only hope now was to run for it, run from the shop with his friend and keep on running until they found a new safe place to stay.
He flew to his friend as fast as his tiny wings would carry him, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him away.
The Polarchuck stopped, and pulled back, looking longingly at the Baby Usul, who had began to cry at having her Petpet torn from her arms. He looked sad and confused.
What was that silly Polarchuck doing? He knew the dangers of Neopets! He knew they must be avoided at all cost! So why was he hesitating? They needed to run! Run from this place!
"Fascinating!" The Plushie Usul towered over the Petpets. "These two Petpets seem to have formed an attachment to each other. How rare!"
He looked over at the floorboard, which had been left wide open in the Ona's haste.
"...and look!" gasped the Usul. "This is where you two live, isn't it?"
"Well, I never!" blurted the shopkeeper, who had come over to see what all the commotion was about. "How long has that been there?"
"At least some months, judging by the amount of Polarchuck and Ona hair in there. Look, they've built themselves a sort of nest down here. Most intriguing!"
Intriguing or not, this was a dangerous situation, and the Ona wanted out. He tried again to drag his friend toward the open door, but again, to no avail. The Polarchuck seemed at a loss, torn between his Petpet friend and the Baby Usul.
"Excuse me, little Sir," said the Usul politely, "you appear to be most distressed, and I must assure you, that I will not hurt you. I mean no harm to either you or your Polarchuck companion here."
The Ona was shocked. He'd never seen a Neopet speak so politely to a Petpet before, as though they were equals.
"It's just a Petpet," interrupted the Bruce. "He can't understand you."
"Actually, my research suggests that although Petpets may not speak, they can understand what we are saying. I would be most obliged if you would nod if you understand me, little Sir."
The Ona nodded.
The shopkeeper's jaw dropped.
The plushie Usul simply smiled and continued, "I am Wuthers, how do you do? I am a scientist with a particular interest in the understanding of and improved care of Petpets, such as yourself. I have a passion for the ethical treatment of Petpets, and my research is condoned by the Petpet Protection League."
The Ona nodded. Very well.
"As I'm sure you are aware, it is extremely unusual among Petpets to form attachments or friendships, although I have read of such cases before, I have yet to encounter one until today. It is my understanding that your Polarchuck friend and yourself have forged such an attachment."
The two Petpets nodded.
"This is practically unheard of! You two could teach me so much! We could completely reinvent the way Neopia acknowledges Petpet emotional depth! If you please, I would be most obliged if you two would come home with me today."
The Polarchuck nodded enthusiastically, his eyes stuck fast on the Baby Usul. But the Ona shook his head. Go and live with a Neopet? Never!
"I completely understand your hesitance; however, today another rather uncommon thing has happened. My baby sister and your Polarchuck friend experienced what I call a Moment of Affinity. It is when a Neopet and a Petpet, upon seeing each other for the first time, experience a mutual feeling of deep connection. It is uncommon, but not unheard of, and has been a leading subject of my research for quite some time."
The Ona shrugged.
"All of my research so far has conclusively proven that, should a Petpet experience a Moment of Affinity, the Petpet and Neopet MUST be united forever, or else the Petpet is doomed to a lifetime of depression and misery. Your Polarchuck friend will never be truly happy without my little sister by his side..."
The Polarchuck nodded sadly.
"...or, I suspect, without you."
The Polarchuck nodded again, even more sadly, and squeezed the Ona's hand.
"So here is my proposition," Wuthers continued, "I propose that you both come live with us, BUT you will retain your freedom, little Sir. No leashes, no collars, no cages, no obligation. You are free to leave at any time. Your Polarchuck friend may attach himself to my little sister, if he pleases-"
The Polarchuck nodded happily.
"-and you may be my Petpet, if you wish. I will provide nothing but the very best in food and living accommodations, but you will retain your freedom. All I ask in return is that you help me in my studies whenever you can. Just answering questions and giving me your opinion on Petpet Supplies. Do we have a deal?"
The Ona considered. True, he had never trusted a Neopet before, but this one had always seemed different... his mild manners and attention to detail had always set him apart. He certainly seemed kind and gentle. And his research, it did seem extremely interesting. It had felt so good to help his Polarchuck friend that one time, just think how many Neopets he'd be helping by aiding Wuthers in his research!
And what of his Polarchuck friend? He really did seem to have experienced a Moment of Affinity with that Baby Usul, what if he chose to go with the Ona instead of the Usul? Would he really be miserable forever? That would be awful!
The little Ona looked up at the Plushie Usul. It was a risk, for sure, but one he felt ready to take. He extended his little paw, and shook the Usul's hand.
"Wonderful!" exclaimed the Usul happily. "You shan't regret this, Little Sir!"
Within minutes, Wuthers had paid the shopkeeper for two new Petpets.
"Which box would you like to take them home in?" asked the shopkeeper. "This one's a little roomier, but this one's got more air holes, and this one's..."
"No box," insisted Wuthers. "That won't be necessary."
And with that, the Ona with no owner finally left Wintery Petpets for the first time. Not in a box, but flying freely by the Usul's side. Not with an owner, but with a friend.