Sanity is forbidden Circulation: 155,374,198 Issue: 220 | 16th day of Celebrating, Y7
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Christmas Warmth: Part One


by neo_star_queen

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At 6 am sharp, the alarm went off. "NinetEENth day- of- the- MOnth of- ce-LEB-rating," the smooth, automated female voice whirred. It was soft and sleek, the voice. And you would think that if the voice of an alarm clock was silky like that, then the owner of said alarm would have blankets of the same texture, and maybe a smooth voice of her own.

     Not so. As Glix stood up, she scratched her back, because her wool blankets were itchy. As she stretched, it was easy for her to touch her purple toes, because her purple legs were short and squat. And as she stepped outside her dingy little cell and greeted a neighbor, she heard her own hoarse, scratchy voice say, "Morning, Vule."

     The starry Faerie Grundo in front of her smiled timidly. "Good morning," she mumbled. They walked down a long hallway with metal silvery walls, the spiral doors on either side opening continuously, allowing other Grundos to spill in, many of them looking stressed and busy, and a few others who still looked sleepy. These were the lucky workers like Glix, who had received the morning off that day.

     Glix and Vule entered the large, silvery, nearly empty cafeteria. The tin tiles on the floor shone in greeting, and Glix spotted a familiar orange Grundo eating breakfast at one of the more crowded long tables, which boasted three workers and a Fleurbik petpet.

     She grabbed a tray of blue glop and sat down, followed closely by Vule. "Hi Maz."

     The orange Grundo called Mazzota broke into a stream of chatter at once. "Glix, look at this! I finally figured out how this thing works!" He produced a shiny plastic object in the shape of a star from a pocket of his torn brown coat and waved it in excitement.

     "You found out what it does?" repeated Glix in amazement. "Show us!"

     Mazzota took a deep breath, clearly basking in the full attention of all four of his fellow Grundos present. With much more care than necessary, he flicked a small switch at the back of the star.

     Suddenly it began to glow, its tiny plastic jewels sparkling and shining. Vule gasped audibly and dropped her plate of glop on the floor. The plastic bowl merely rolled under the table. The other two Grundos ooh-ed and ahh-ed, but Glix leapt up and clasped the star between her hands, smothering the beautiful light.

     "Stop it!" she hissed. Mazzota tore the star away from her and stashed it hastily in the pocket of his long brown coat, looking harassed.

     Slowly, Glix sat back down. "Just… I don't think you should be playing with that, Maz. Just show it to Sloth ASAP."

     "You wanted to see it," pouted the other Grundo. He seemed quite put-out that Glix had not been awed by his discovery.

     "Yeah, I know," said Glix, who was feeling guilty already. "Just show it to Sloth, he'll be really impressed that you managed to find out what it does."

     Mazzota perked up in the blink of an eye. "It's not that hard, really," he said happily as they took their trays back to the counter, "I just did a bit of rewiring and the switch started working."

     "Mm, good job," replied Glix, not really listening. As they stepped back into the mass of Grundos rushing through the hallways of Sloth's giant ship, she glanced sideways at the star, just a bulge in Maz's jacket, one of the pointy ends showing. It seemed pretty innocent now, but when that light had turned on… so extravagant, so glitzy… such things were not meant to be seen by Sloth's slaves. 'Maz shouldn't have shown it to us,' she thought apprehensively.

     She broke out of her thoughts long enough to notice that they were going in the wrong direction. "Maz? We're in the factory today." Her voice seemed uncertain as she noticed where they seemed to be heading.

     "I just want to show this thing to Sloth, like you said," explained Maz. "Won't take a minute. You think he'll be really proud?" The customary excitement in his voice was even more obvious than it usually was.

     When they had made their way through the darkened, more vacant hallways and reached Sloth's steel office door, Maz knocked eagerly. Almost at once, an irritated voice beckoned them in.

     "Mr. Sloth," said Mazzota when the steel door had slid open, "Look! I found out what the Neopian star does!" And he produced the plastic shape from his coat pocket and flicked the switch. The beautiful light filled his palms immediately, reflecting softly off his skin, the twinkling red and green lights dancing.

     Sloth marched over and picked up the star while Glix hung back uneasily. The dictator examined it, a frown on his face. At last he scowled, "Is that all there is, then? How disappointing!"

     Mazzota was clearly disappointed as well. He sighed. "Sorry, sir."

     Sloth waved his large hand impatiently and strolled back to his desk. "I have been doing research of my own to make up for the poor quality of work you lot have been doing. And I have found out quite a bit!" He spun around, his cape whirling. "But not enough! No… it's never enough…" He sat down slowly, as if his bones were aching, and pressed two of the buttons in the many rows on his desk. "Vule! Farfin! My office, now!"

     The door slid open and a Shadow Grundo slipped in, the slick smile on his face hiding his disgruntlement at being caught listening in on the conversation. Nodding to the other two Grundos, he leaned casually against the wall furthest from Sloth's desk. A few silent minutes later, Vule hastened in, cringing and bowing.

     "Yes, this shall do," muttered Sloth, surveying the group. He didn't elaborate. Vule shot confused glances at Maz and Glix, who shrugged in return.

     "You have a job to do now, my workers. And this mission is set in Neopia Central."

     Vule let out a squeaky gasp, while on the other side of her, Maz's eyes widened in anticipation. Farfin, still leaning against the wall, merely raised an eyebrow.

     Sloth continued, "The twenty-fifth day of the month of Celebrating is very important to Neopians. This day is known as 'Christmas'. Little is known about this strange date, or why it is so important to the simpleton Neopians." He spun in his chair and with his back to the group, said, "You have six days. I must know what Christmas is. Report back to me on the twenty-fourth… and do not fail me."

     Before they knew it, the four Grundos were falling through space, through time, through everything. For Glix, it happened once every two months. Sloth always needed them to go to Neopia for something. Maz had only been down there once, and she wasn't sure about Farfin. They rarely talked. As for Vule, her hands were clutching her head, mouth agape, which led Glix to believe that the Faerie Grundo had never set foot outside the spaceship before. Feeling sympathetic, Glix grabbed her friend's shoulder as all four of them fell through the sky.

     ***

     The streets of Main Neopia Central were crowded. Of course, Emily had expected it. It was like this every Christmas.

     She squeezed past a shouting pair of parents with a wailing baby and entered the bookstore. It was completely packed, pets knocking books onto the floor and trying not to step on them. Emily cringed, but she knew that she had put it off long enough. The shop wouldn't be any less full tomorrow. Bravely, she made her way to the front of the line.

     "Excuse me!" she called to the extremely harassed-looking cashier over a throng of teenagers. "My name is Emily, do you have the novel I ordered?"

     "Ugh, Stan!" barked the cashier to one of the workers, "get that copy of Illusen's Novel!"

     A few minutes later, someone shoved a book into Emily's hands, and before she had a chance to look at the front cover, she was being pushed to the back of the store. She toppled out the door clumsily. Reading the title on the front cover, she sighed. "This isn't the book I wanted," she said aloud, her voice lost in the chaos. "Oh well, I can always come back after Christmas."

     She forced her way through the crowds and ended up finding sanctuary in a small, quiet coffee shop. Heaving a sigh of relief, she went up to the front counter and ordered a small cappuccino.

     "Hey, Emily! Nice to see you!"

     Emily looked up into the face of a red Aisha. "Oh, hi, Fillena. I didn't know you worked here."

     "I need some extra money to buy gifts." The Aisha laughed cheerfully. "Are you done with your shopping?"

     "I didn't have much to do," Emily admitted.

     "Oh." Fillena smiled awkwardly as she made the coffee.

     "Yeah, since I work at home, I just don't see people that often," Emily added quickly. "And I don't really keep in touch with my family, so…"

     "No, I understand," said Fillena, just as quickly. "Well, umm, here's your coffee!"

     As Emily took the coffee and left, Fillena sighed and slumped on the counter. "Why doesn't she want to be my friend?" she demanded of the coffee grinder. "Is there something wrong with me? I've hardly made any friends since I left Mystery Island and came here." She pouted. "It's freezing here. How do you stand it?"

     The coffee grinder didn't reply.

     ***

     Glix, Farfin, Maz and Vule all tumbled out onto soft grass. Farfin stood up at once and looked around. "It's not so great."

     But Glix smiled. She'd sort of missed the happy, bustling atmosphere of Central Neopia. The shops were clearly busy, some of the more popular ones with line-ups outside the door, even. Everyone was bundled up in scarves and jackets, as it was a lot colder than Glix remembered. Cheerful chatter filled the streets.

     "Whooooa!" exclaimed Mazzota, spinning around. "I didn't remember there being this many people! Hey! Neopians! Hi!"

     Glix clamped a hand around his mouth before he could shout anything else. "Maz! Blend in!"

     "Oh, right," giggled Maz, hopping on the balls of his feet. "This is just so exciting!"

     Vule gazed at the new sights, so different from her own back home on the ship. "It… it seems alright," she murmured.

     "Let's get back on track," said Glix. "Christmas, remember?" She rubbed her chin. "We need a place to start…"

     "How about this?" suggested Mazzota, and before anyone could stop him, he'd rushed up to the nearest shopper.

     She was a tall Fire Zafara standing on two legs and reading a sign propped up against a shop. Her small grey eyes followed the words closely as she shifted a thick book from paw to mitten-covered paw. The tail protruding from her long black skirt swished from side to side.

     "Excuse me, miss!" chirped Maz, tugging on her skirt. "My name is Mazzota. I was wondering, can you tell me what Christmas is?"

     Vule squeaked. Glix moaned. Farfin frowned. But tugging her purple scarf away from her mouth, the Zafara smiled.

     "Oh. Where do you come from, may I ask?"

     "Farther away than you can imagine, miss," said Mazzota, a wide grin on his face. "And where I come from, there's no such thing as Christmas."

     "I see." She looked up. "Are those your friends, over there?"

     "Yes ma'am!"

     Some of the humour had disappeared from her smile, and been replaced by compassion. "And do you come to us from Sloth's spaceship, little Grundo?" she asked quietly.

     "That's the one!" said Maz brightly.

     The Zafara looked at the motley group and bit her lip. Less than a week until Christmas, and the holiday spirit was stronger than ever. She stuck out her paw for a shake. "My name is Emily. If you four come with me, I can show you what Christmas is."

     Vule and Glix stared at Maz desperately. But the orange Grundo shook hands and said proudly, "You've got a deal!"

     ***

     Emily flicked the light switch and said, "This is my house. Umm… I know it's not very big…"

     "Are you kidding me?" exclaimed Mazzota. "This place is great! Wow!" He ran in circles around the cramped living room, his jaw agape.

     "Maz," muttered Glix in embarrassment, "stop it…" The orange Grundo came to a sudden stop.

     "That's alright," said Emily quietly. "Umm… are you hungry? I don't really have much though… well, the kitchen is just this way."

     Maz ran in ahead of her, and Glix and Vule could hear him shouting, "Wow! There's more!?" They exchanged glances. Behind them, Farfin had made himself comfortable on the couch.

     The Zafara came back in with a tray of bread, cheese and jam. "I'm afraid this is all I can offer you… if it's not enough, we can buy something…"

     "This is fine," Glix hastened to tell her, "really!" While Maz dug in and Farfin eyed the food suspiciously, Glix continued, "Thank you for taking us in, but we really can't stay long... you see, umm…"

     "We're on a mission from Sloth!" said Maz brightly through a sticky mouthful of jam. Vule gasped and flapped her hands at him.

     "It's nothing terrible like taking over Neopia!" covered up Glix. "You see… we just want to know what this Christmas stuff is."

     Emily considered her. Then she said in her usual quiet tones, "Christmas is a holiday celebrated all over Neopia on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Celebrating. People buy gifts for their friends and family, and spend the day with them."

     "Oh," said Glix uncertainly. "OK. Umm… are you sure that's all there is to it?" She didn't want to sound ungrateful, but there must have been something more to this Christmas, or else Sloth would have looked it up in an encyclopedia.

     "Pretty much." Emily turned away, and Glix was afraid that she had annoyed the Zafara. She took a bite of bread, although she was not hungry. Vule hovered about Maz anxiously, but it seemed like he was not going to say anything else.

     At night, Emily let them stay. Maz became overly excited at the prospect of sleeping in the living room, so she let him and the two girls sleep there. Farfin opted for his own makeshift bed in the closet.

     As Emily brushed her flame-streaked fur and tucked herself into bed, she read the back of the book she'd accidentally been given. 'A Warm Christmas,' the title was. Emily sighed yet again. Although some Christmas stories were well written, they were usually too sappy and unrealistic for her taste. Events in Christmas stories only happened in real life by miracle.

     As she turned off the light, she remembered her four guests. She hadn't wanted to let them stay at her house for the night, but the pound had been packed with pets and owners, with no way to get in. She'd drop them off tomorrow.

     In the living room, Maz was whispering to the others excitedly. "Can you believe our luck? This mission will be easy as pie!"

     "Be quiet, Maz, I'm trying to sleep," grumbled Glix. "Anyways, we're leaving tomorrow."

     "What!?"

     "I agree with Glix," whispered Vule. "We already know what Christmas is. We don't need to stay. It's not safe, anyways."

     "Sloth told us to report back on the twenty-fourth!" argued Maz. "Don't you want to do a good job on this? I do! Let's find out as much as we can!"

     "I don't know, maybe," mumbled Glix. "I'm too tired to think. Goodnight." And she refused to answer Maz for another five minutes before he finally gave up and went to sleep.

To be continued...

 
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