Happily Ever After?: Part One
“Tell us another, Niki!” a tiny blue Kougra begged, right after the storyteller had uttered the last words of the story: “And they lived happily ever after.” He clutched the Zafara’s arm and gazed up at her with large, pleading brown eyes.
“Don’t you think three stories are enough for one day, Rascal?” Nikole, the red Zafara, asked, removing his paws. “If I tell you more now, then I may just run out of them. Anyway, it’s nearly sunset. I’m sure your owners are expecting you for dinner soon.”
A loud groan erupted from the village pets. They were gathered in a group of seven or eight, all of them staring at Niki in dismay. “You’ll tell us some more tomorrow, won’t you?” a small Kacheek asked in a sweet, high-pitched voice.
“Of course,” Niki answered, smiling at the hopeful yellow face. “Come find me after you’ve eaten lunch, and maybe by then I’ll have thought up a new one. What type of story would you like to hear next? A faerie tale? Or maybe another about Toby the Brave, the petpet hero?”
The Kacheek pondered the question, her gaze moving down to the ground as she thought. Finally, she looked back up at Niki. “I want to hear a story about family,” she said matter-of-factly. “A story about a Neopet getting adopted into a nice family to live with, like I did when I was little.”
The pets scurried away, hurrying to get home before darkness settled over Meridell. Niki watched them go, suddenly wishing that she, too, had a family waiting for her. The Zafara shook her head lightly, dismissing the unlikely idea. She had lived in Meridell all her life, and had never had a family or owner of any kind. Only recently, as she watched the pets run home at night, had these silly thoughts been coming to her head. Of course I don’t want an owner, she reminded herself. I’m doing just fine on my own. I always have. But how was she to come up with a story of a family, when she herself had never had one? She didn’t know a thing about adoption.
The village pets didn’t see how it could be possible, so Niki told them all sorts of stories of how she came to be. None of them were true, of course; even Niki herself didn’t know where she came from. She had been on her own for as long as she could remember. The Zafara was young; only a few years older than most of the pets she told stories to, and had only ever left Meridell to take a trip to Brightvale Books every once in a while.
Slowly, Niki turned and walked to the poorest part of the village, where she lived in a tiny shack by herself. The one-room hut had been abandoned long ago, but it was just right for her. She didn’t own many items; just a book or two and a few candles. A crumbling wooden table stood proudly in the center of the room, with a single matching chair to keep it company (although the chair had a broken leg, causing it to lean when sat upon).
Niki didn’t often have money in her pocket, but was usually able to earn a few hundred neopoints a day from the Meri Acres Farm. She helped count potatoes (which were getting ready to be shipped to Neopia Central, where they would be baked and sold in Hubert’s Hotdogs), guessed the weight of their newly-grown marrows, and checked the rubbish dump often for unwanted items or leftover food. During harvesting season, she always lent a hand by helping to dig up vegetables.
Dinner, as it most often did, consisted of a few slices of hard, day-old bread moistened with butter, and a small chunk of cheese. Occasionally, like today, she was able to bring home a potato or a basket of overripe berries from the farm. Niki ate a handful of the berries as dessert, savoring the sweetness on her tongue.
After she ate, the red Zafara pulled out her savings. She tried to save a few neopoints every day, and she kept them in a bag, which was hidden underneath one of the dusty floorboards. Niki counted them quickly, excited to find that she had enough to buy a new book. I’ll take a trip to Brightvale tomorrow morning, she decided.
* * *
The books in stock at Brightvale didn’t look too appealing at first glance. Not that Niki had any right to be picky. It was quite a long walk from Meridell, and she wasn’t leaving for home without a new book in her paws.
“We have a pretty large selection at the moment,” the orange Ixi shopkeeper said, glancing up from the book he was reading. He eyed her clothes, which were stained and full of holes. “Are you looking for anything in particular that I can help you with?”
“No... not really,” the Zafara answered slowly, feeling self-conscious about her appearance. The shopkeeper was wearing bright, colorful garments, while she was sporting an old, simple patchwork dress.
The Ixi just shrugged and returned to his book. “Feel free to browse. Let me know when you’re ready, if you find anything.”
After searching the aisles, Niki found an interesting-looking book. “I’ll take this one,” she said as she approached the front counter. “Poems of Brightvale.” Hesitantly, she handed him just over one thousand neopoints. There goes half my savings, she thought wistfully. I hope these poems are worth it!
The Ixi gave her an odd glance. “You aren’t going to try and haggle?” he asked, clearly surprised. When Niki responded with a blank look (she was quite confused – she had never heard of haggling before), he shook his head and accepted the neopoints she held out. “Thank you. Have a nice day,” he said robotically, turning back to his book.
* * *
The village pets were waiting for Niki as she returned from work on the Meri Acres Farm late that afternoon. Even from a distance, she could see their faces light up with anticipation when they saw her. A few called out and waved. Niki smiled and waved back, but didn’t quicken her pace.
In fact, she wished she could walk slower. The pets were expecting a certain story from her, but how was she to tell it? As they ran up to meet her, Niki decided to ask the little Kacheek about how she had found a home. Maybe that will help me, she thought, since I don’t know anything about adoption.
“Tell us a story!” Rascal, the pesky Kougra from the day before, yanked on Niki’s arm so hard she let out a yelp. “The one you promised Claire about.”
The tiny yellow Kacheek, Claire, raced up behind him and clutched Niki’s paw. “Did you think of one?” she asked, gazing up at the Zafara with her big, round eyes.
Niki smiled at her sympathetically. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t. I don’t know anything about adoption. Maybe you could tell me about it, and that will help me out?” she suggested coyly.
Claire smiled back. “Sure,” she answered. “But can you tell us a story first?”
Niki chuckled. “Of course. In fact, last night I thought of a great new one... have you ever heard of Plushie Island? They say it’s a place where all plushies can live peacefully...”
* * *
“Excuse me. Can you tell me where I can find the Neopian Pound?” Niki asked, tapping on a human’s shoulder.
The boy turned to face her, his eyebrows raised. “Uh... yeah, sure. It’s just down that road, on the right side.” He pointed west, then mumbled, “Not sure why you’d want to go there, though.”
“Thank you,” Niki said politely, smiling as she changed directions. Humming as she walked, the Zafara enjoyed the views of Neopia Central. She had never traveled farther than Brightvale before, and this land was very different. People and Neopets were everywhere, crowding the shops and the streets. She had never seen so many beings in one place before!
Niki picked her way through the crowds carefully, trying to remember every detail Claire had told her. “The Neopian Pound is where pets go to get adopted. You stay there for a while, in a big room with lots of other pets. Every day people come to look at you and pick out a pet. When you get picked, you get to go with your new owner and live with them and their family,” the Kacheek had said. “That’s all I remember. It was a long time ago.”
After Niki heard that, she knew it would better to go and experience the process of adoption herself. It wasn’t that she wanted to get adopted; she just wanted to give the village pets a great and accurate story. I’ll just stay for a few days, and then I’ll tell my adopter that I have to go home, she decided. They’ll understand. It would be easy.
“Can I help you with something, dear?” the pink Uni at the front desk asked, looking up from her paperwork.
“I’m looking to get adopted for a few days,” Niki answered.
The Uni raised an eyebrow. “Um... okay. Is your owner here with you?” she asked, glancing behind the Zafara.
“No.” Niki blinked. “I don’t have an owner.”
“Okay... Why don’t I take you to see Dr_Death? He’ll set you up for adoption.”
Dr_Death? Niki wondered, hesitating. Claire didn’t mention anyone with a name like that! But she decided to follow the Uni anyway.
To be continued...