A Real Class Act
It was one of those beautiful spring days where nothing is supposed to go wrong.
The sky was clear and blue, all the flowers were in bloom, and a warm breeze brought the smell of the sea up to the hills of Altador. Dark_breed_Hyren was taking advantage of this perfect day by reclining in the courtyard of his family’s villa. The blue Grundo sipped from his glass of ice-cold Phearade as he leafed through the Neopian Times. Yes, nothing could ruin this bliss.
“Hyren!” His sister’s voice shattered the mood.
Hyren bolted upright, his antennae quivering above his head. It took him a moment to process that from her tone, she didn’t seem to be in any danger. Looking around, he saw the Disco Zafara leaning over the second-floor terrace. “What?” he yelled back.
“Terra needs you! She says it’s important!” Their voices echoed against the whitewashed plaster and red tile roofs of the home.
“I’ll be right there!” Normally Hyren would balk at his relaxing being interrupted, but if his owner needed him—well, that was different. He would do anything for her. The Grundo set down the Phearade and the paper and jogged toward the north wing. “Where is she?”
“In the library!” Blynn was then distracted by a low-flying Alabriss, and she turned her attentions to watching the equine Petpet soar over the house.
Upstairs, their owner was leaning against a long table in their bookshelf-lined study. The young human woman seemed to be scrutinising a piece of paper. She didn’t look up until Hyren cleared his throat.
“Oh,” she said, pushing her glasses up her nose. “Hey, so, um… yeah.” She handed him the paper. “This.”
Hyren smiled a little at her inability to lead into a conversation effectively. His smile faded when he scanned the contents of the letter. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
She shrugged. “There must have been some sort of weird mix-up with paperwork.”
“What happened?” Blynn bounded into the room, tilting her head at them.
Hyren ground his teeth and showed her the paper. “They’re making me go to Neoschool.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense.” His sister’s brow furrowed. “You’ve never needed to go to Neoschool before. You’re way, way too old for it. And like… a former military commander.”
“That letter’s from the Bureau of Pet Registration,” Terra said, playing with the end of her brown braid like she always did when she was thinking. “They somehow got Hyren on file as young enough to require attending Neoschool.”
Hyren frowned. “But you adopted me twelve years ago. Even if you had created me, I’m far past mandatory Neoschool age.”
She sighed. “I’ll send them a letter to contest it. In the meantime, you are going to have to go to Neoschool so we don’t get the Defenders of Neopia after us for truancy.”
“What—“ Hyren’s jaw dropped. “Why?! You homeschooled Blynn and Pharazon—can’t you ‘homeschool’ me?” he asked, using air quotes for emphasis.
Terra shook her head. “Registration for that is way too much hassle, and it’d be hard to pull you out of it once this gets fixed. It’d be a lot easier on me if you just went to a public Neoschool for the next few days, and I’ll try my hardest to sort things out as soon as possible.”
Hyren groaned and rested his forehead in his hand. His perfect day had been ruined thanks to the wonders of bureaucracy. He wished he could say this was the first time that had happened. “Okay,” he muttered. “If it would be easier for you, I’ll do it. It’ll only be for a few days, right?”
“Yep,” Terra said.
“Okay.” He stood up straight and squared his shoulders. “I’m a grown Grundo. I can handle this.”
Or so he hoped.
Hyren had never had any formal schooling. His education had come in the form of Dr. Sloth’s military training, and countless ages of campaigning across the cosmos. He wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Neoschool.
The fact that he was put into kindergarten didn’t help.
Apparently, someone at the Bureau of Pet Registration had fouled things up so badly that Hyren was recorded as being the appropriate age for the starting grade of Neoschool. Being thigh-high to his owner, the diminutive Grundo unfortunately also looked the part.
But he was determined not to let that stop him. After Terra dropped him off at the King Altador Municipal Neoschool, Hyren strode confidently to the door of his assigned classroom and stepped inside.
He was early, and there were only a handful of students there. Most of them were playing with toys, colouring or sneaking food from their lunch sacks. The teacher was a young, smart-looking pink Usul with thick-rimmed glasses and short hair that matched her fur colour. She sat at her desk reading Jazzmosis Biography, occasionally glancing up to make sure her pupils didn’t destroy anything.
Hyren approached her with a very businesslike look on his face. “Excuse me, ma’am.”
“Hmm?” Her nose remained buried in her book.
“My name is Hyren, and there’s been a terrible mix-up. Long story made short, I’m not actually supposed to be here. In fact, I’m older than you, and—“
For the first time she turned to look at him. Her cyan eyes looked him over for a moment and then she smiled saccharinely. “Okay, sweetie. You’re older than me. Anything else?” she asked in a tone that very plainly said she was playing along with his game of pretend.
Hyren winced. No one called him “sweetie”, ever. The fact that it was coming from a younger woman just made it even more awkward.
He had the sudden wicked urge to see how far he could push this. “As a matter of fact, yeah. I’m also the former commander of Dr. Sloth’s space marines,” he said with as much deadpan as he could muster. “I’m trained in several forms of combat and I’m a master swordsman. I led troops that conquered over ten thousand worlds, and I once defeated Commander Garoo in a one-on-one swordfight on the bridge of Sloth’s flagship.” Hyren grumbled under his breath, “And he deserved it, that backstabbing Mootix.”
The teacher bit her lip to suppress a giggle. “Wow, sounds exciting, commander! I hope today’s lesson will be to your liking—it’s about Petpets! Did you know a Yooyu is brown?”
“Oh joy,” Hyren said. One antenna twitched.
That was the most miserable day Hyren had experienced in a long, long time. The Blumaroo behind him had D’achoo and couldn’t stop sneezing, and the Acara next to him ate crayons—messily. One Korbat seemed to think that, instead of asking for what she wanted, screeching wordlessly while grabbing for it would do the trick.
By the time school let out, Hyren felt like no better torture device had ever been created. The only way he’d been able to keep from bursting into tears was to sequester himself in the corner with the bookshelf, reading Billy Blue Hat over and over. It was, unsurprisingly, the longest and most sophisticated book there, and kept him occupied with trying to analyze the psychological symbolism behind the blue hat, and Billy as an extended metaphor for capitalist Neopia.
As he trudged toward the gate that surrounded the schoolyard, Hyren heard “Wait! Where are you going?” He turned around to see the teacher leaning out the door, watching him worriedly.
“Home,” he said. “I’m going home.”
“Is your owner or a sibling coming to pick you up?” she asked.
“Nope.” He turned to leave again.
“You’re not allowed to leave school grounds alone!”
Hyren raised his gaze to the heavens, silently pleading for Psellia to save him.
When no such salvation came, he took a deep breath and slowly, calmly turned back around. “Look, lady. My house? Right up there.” He pointed to the hills down the coast. “I know how to get there myself. And if I stay here for one more minute, I’m going to snap and it’s not going to be pretty.”
Without waiting for a reply, he pivoted on his heel and stomped toward the gate. Miraculously, she didn’t follow him. He wondered if something in his voice had finally told her that he hadn’t been playing pretend.
Hopefully she wouldn’t get fired for this. He did feel sorry for her.
Once he reached the villa, Hyren dragged himself into the kitchen, where Terra was busy stir-frying some vegetables. “How was school?” she asked.
In reply, he sat down at the kitchen table and lowered his face onto it. “Mmmph.”
“Harsh, man.” She set the skillet down and walked over to him. “Well, uh… I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”
“Lay it on me.”
“The good news is, I heard back from the Bureau of Pet Registration! They fully admitted to their mistake and apologised for mis-categorising you as a kindergartener.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” Hyren moaned. “Because I am not going back there again.”
“Yeah, um…” Terra drummed her fingers on the table. “The bad news is… now they’ve got you listed as belonging to a higher grade.”
Hyren jerked his head up. “What?! When will the nightmare end?!”
“Soon, I promise!” The girl held out her hands. “I already wrote them another letter! Please, just go for one more day, and if they still don’t have it fixed by then, we’ll go to Neopia Central and get it sorted out in person!”
Hyren regarded her for a moment and then nodded. “Fine. One more day. At least it won’t be kindergarten.”
He was right. It wasn’t kindergarten.
It was far worse.
Terra dropped him off at a different part of the school this time, one crawling with teenaged Neopets. The first thing that struck Hyren was the noise. They were all walking in clumps, talking and laughing with each other. The girls’ voices were high-pitched and giggly, and the boys were loud and crass.
Hyren clung to his owner’s leg like a rabid Kadoatie. “Don’t make me go in there.”
She sighed and folded her arms. “Hyren, c’mon. They’re just teenagers. You didn’t flip out this bad when I was a teenager.”
An Eyrie and a Scorchio hurried past them, squealing about the lead singer of Yes Boy Ice-Cream.
“You were a relatively sane teenager,” Hyren hissed. His red eyes bulged from his head like two round Loveberries.
Terra patted his head. “You mean to tell me that Commander Hyren can’t handle six hours in high school? The same guy who spent two years occupying the swamp moon of Vilox 7?”
The Grundo’s grip on her leg tightened. “I’ll take the giant acid-spitting Rashpids over this.”
Despite all his efforts to convince her otherwise, Terra finally managed to pry him away and send him off through the doors of his dungeon for the day. The smell of gym socks and over-applied makeup hit him like nausea.
“Get to homeroom, tune everyone out, this mess’ll be fixed tomorrow,” Hyren grunted to himself, studying the paper that had his class schedule.
A tan-furred paw suddenly stuck out in front of his ankles. Hyren saw it too late to stop himself from tripping, but he curled his body into a breakfall, rolling on the linoleum and popping back to his feet. He was annoyed, but ready to dismiss it as an accident.
That was when he heard the snickering. With a glower, Hyren whipped around to see a tall Island Xweetok leaning against a bank of lockers, surrounded by his posse. “Oh man, that was great!” the Xweetok guffawed. “You shoulda seen your face, man!”
“But bro,” said the yellow Koi next to him. “It like, didn’t faze him.”
The Xweetok frowned. “Yeah, but he still tripped! What a nerd.” He put his forepaws to his mouth. “New kid’s a nerd!” he hollered.
Hyren groaned. “I don’t have time for you or your petty social power plays.” With a wave of dismissal, he turned to head back down the hall.
“No, hey, wait!” The Xweetok put a paw on Hyren’s shoulder, somewhat awkwardly considering their height difference. “I’m having a pool party on Friday, at my owner’s house. I could invite you… if you’re cool enough.”
“I’m not.” Hyren lifted the boy’s paw away. “I’m a grumpy old man.”
The Xweetok gave him a baffled look. “Uh… sure, man. But seriously, play it cool and I could get you into my crowd, bro.” He grinned.
Hyren sighed and stared him in the eyes. “One day, in about twenty or so years, you are going to wake up and realise that your social manipulation has made you an empty shell of a Neopet living a meaningless life. And you are going to recoil in horror at what you have become.” He smiled, a rather twisted smile. “Have fun.”
And with that, he left the bewildered Xweetok behind.
The best parts of Hyren’s classes were when the teachers were talking. Yes, Hyren already knew what they were trying to teach him, but at least he had something to distract him from his classmates passing notes and whispering about last week’s varsity Yooyuball game. All Hyren had to do was shut himself into his own little world and draw battle diagrams in his notebook.
Then came lunch.
Hyren made straight for the sole empty table in the cafeteria, hoping if he projected enough “leave-me-alone” vibes, it would stay empty—except for him, of course. With a sigh, he pulled his lunch sack out of his backpack.
“Aww man, we got another nerd over here!” the Xweetok from before shouted several tables away.
“What are we gonna do with him?” someone else jeered.
Hyren’s antennae pricked. They weren’t talking to him.
“Hey, nerd! Show us what’s in your lunchbox, already!”
“I bet his owner packed his lunch!”
Hyren looked up to see the Xweetok and his cronies surrounding a diminutive orange Acara. The Koi shoved the Acara against the table while the Xweetok took away the Acara’s Sloth Lunch Box.
Something inside Hyren snapped. He could handle pathetic attempts to bully him, but he could not handle seeing someone else bullied.
Standing up, he brusquely made his way over to the table and grabbed the lunchbox from the Xweetok’s unsuspecting paw. “Excuse me,” Hyren said flatly as he wormed his way through the mass of bullies. He deflected their attempts to grab him and slipped through their holds with all the practiced precision of a warrior.
Finally he reached the Acara. “The kid’s with me.” Hyren firmly grasped the Koi’s fin, and in one swift movement turned it away from holding down the other teen. Before any of the boys could register what had just happened, Hyren had an arm around the Acara and was steering him toward his own table. “Don’t. Do that. Again,” he said very pointedly over his shoulder.
Like the kindergarten teacher yesterday, something in his voice must have gotten through to them. The boys watched in stunned silence for a moment, and then dispersed, looking like they suddenly remembered they had to be somewhere else.
Hyren sighed and sat the Acara down at the table, giving him back his lunchbox and looking him up and down to make sure he was unharmed. “Hey. You okay?”
The boy was small, just a little taller than Hyren, and gawky. His rust-coloured fur stuck up in odd patches and he wore the quintessential taped-up glasses. “Mm-hm.” He nodded, clutching his lunchbox possessively to his chest.
“What’s your name? I’m Hyren.”
The boy fidgeted for a moment. “I’m Bradley. What… what do you want?”
Hyren sat down across from him and began unpacking his own lunch. “For you to endure high school without going insane. College is much better, I promise.” He paused as he lifted out a bunch of grapes. “I mean, I’ve never been, myself, but I’ve heard stories from my brother’s friend.”
Bradley nodded again, and there was an awkward silence for a few moments.
Something about the dejected look on the boy’s face spurred Hyren to keep trying. He eyed the kid’s lunchbox. “You a Virtupets fan?”
Another nod. Bradley still didn’t look up. “I’m going to work for Dr. Sloth when I graduate college. Then those guys will be sorry.”
Hyren’s stomach gave a twist and he frowned. “Hey. Hey. That might look cool, but… it’s not. Trust me. It’s not.” He opened and closed his mouth, trying to figure out what to say. “Listen. Don’t get mad, and don’t get even, either. That doesn’t help anybody. Do what you love, and in ten years, you’re going to be so much happier than those bullies ever will, if they don’t stop being jerks.”
“Yeah,” Bradley said listlessly.
Hyren folded his stubby fingers over his mouth. He had to think back to when Terra was a teenager. “So what do you like to do?”
For the first time, Bradley looked up at him. “I like robots.” His blue eyes shone with hidden enthusiasm. “I have a Petpet Quadrone. I like to tinker with her in my spare time. I just finished installing an infrared scanner so she can see when my sister tries to sneak into my room.”
Hyren’s eyebrows rose. “Impressive. You ever been to the Space Station?”
A small smile began to crack across the boy’s face. “Yeah,” he said with a little more energy. “We just went last month. My sister likes Roo Island better, so my owner tries to alternate when we go on trips. I saw Conicks at Grundos Café! I’m sure it was him!” He leaned forward. “He’s the one who reprogrammed the shuttles when Garoo took over!”
Hyren grinned. Looked like he hadn’t forgotten some of his old tricks. “Did you talk to him?”
Bradley shook his head. “No way! He wouldn’t want to talk to me, I’m too…”
“Nerdy?” Hyren offered. “Nah. The Space Station’s full of nerds, you know. Next time you go there, talk to one of the engineers. They might be able to get you an internship.”
“R-really?” The teen’s eyes widened. “They would do that?”
The Grundo smirked. He’d taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker. Hyren wasn’t sure what he was happier about, that he’d helped out an insecure teenager or that he’d deprived Sloth of a future engineer. “They definitely would. If you like robots, you’d have a field day there, let me tell you.”
“Huh…” Bradley slowly put his lunchbox on the table and opened it, pulling out a sandwich. “I’m gonna try that.” He took a ponderous bite. “Why are you being nice to me?”
Hyren shrugged. “You seem like you don’t get that a lot. I’m just trying to even things out.”
They sat in silence for a moment. “Will you sit with me at lunch tomorrow?” Bradley asked.
“With any luck, I won’t be here tomorrow,” Hyren muttered under his breath, rubbing his arm. When he noticed the Acara droop, though, he smirked a little. “Tell you what. I might not be able to sit with you at lunch, but if you ever need somebody to rant to, send a Weewoo over to Dark-underscore-breed-underscore-Hyren.”
Bradley looked up at him with a hint of a smile. “Okay. Thanks.”
The rest of the school day was bearable for Hyren afterward. Mister Popular and his goons didn’t bother talking to him, although at one point Hyren was approached by an inexplicable clique of unpainted pets who wanted him to rally to the cause of “nonconformist sameness”. They didn’t quite seem to understand that Hyren’s plain blue colour was in fact not a social statement meant to call attention to economic inequality.
Before he knew it, though, he was walking out the school’s doors to sweet freedom.
Waiting for him on the street were Terra and her youngest Neopet, a Faerie Draik named ArPharazonTheGolden, astride an enormous Ganuthor. Gwyneth was Pharazon’s Petpet, and her floppy ears perked as Hyren approached. Before he could dodge her, out came her thick pink tongue, which covered one side of his head with slobber.
Hyren sighed and patted her nose. “Nice to see you too, Gwyn.”
“How was school?” Terra asked as Hyren climbed up to sit behind her. She giggled. “Man, it’s still funny saying that.”
“Well—“ Hyren paused. “You know, it could have been worse.”
Pharazon leaned forward and tapped Gwyneth’s head. “Gwyn, up!”
She snorted and took off down the road, spreading her grey, Korbat-like wings. Pushing off of the busy Altadorian thoroughfare, she gave a mighty flap and took off into the sky.
Hyren loved having access to private air travel.
“Hey, good news!” Terra shouted over the wind. “Those people at Neopia Central are fast! They got the paperwork all sorted out, you’re filed as the correct age now! You’ll never have to go to school again!”
The Grundo, who had his arms around his owner’s waist for security’s sake, rested his forehead against her back. “Oh, thank the Faeries.”
The trip back to their villa was always a short one on Gwyneth. The Ganuthor touched down in the courtyard, and her three passengers scrambled off of her back. She shook herself and then loped over to the reflecting pool, where she greedily lapped up the water—and then jumped in and began to splash around.
“What was it like?” Pharazon asked his brother as they and their owner sat on the rim of the pool.
Hyren smirked. “I’ll be honest, not pleasant. But… I’d say it was worth it.” He scooped up some water to wash off the Ganuthor saliva.
“Oh?” Terra asked.
“Believe it or not, I made a friend.” Hyren chuckled. “Geeky little kid, reminds me of you at that age. Needed some encouragement.”
His owner grinned. “You seem to be a magnet for lonely kids.”
Hyren rested his hands on his knees. “Yeah, well. I don’t know what they see in me, I’m just a cranky old soldier who wants to be left alone.”
Terra put a loving hand on his head. “Don’t sell yourself short, Hyren. This is one kid who will always be grateful for how you looked out for her.”
He smiled and leaned into her. “And I’m grateful I couldn’t shake her off.”
They stayed like that for a while, watching as Gwyneth continued her bath in the pool and then ran off chasing a wild Vaeolus. Pharazon flew after her, shouting at her not to tear up the gardens.
“You know,” Hyren said at length, “I have to admit. Whenever something stupid and awful happens to me, something good comes out of it in the end. I think there’s a lesson to be learned there.”
“That things always work out for the best if you persevere?” Terra asked.
“That, and the universe has a terrible sense of humour and I seem to be the punchline.”
Terra grinned. “Well said. Let’s go make dinner.” She stood up and offered him a hand.
“Let’s.” He took it and they strolled inside together.