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The Ringleader


by kateee366

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Dr. Death unlocked the giant metal door with a key longer than his forearm and entered the cage room. His hunched frame and crazy mad scientist hair scared every owner that came here, as it made him look near the brink of insanity. As he stepped through the caged hallways, hard soles clomping along the unforgiving concrete, a group plotted.

     Kougie purred, tail flickering and whiskers twitching. The environment was perfect. Her cage was at the very far end of the pound where most owners didn’t go to, and furthest away from Dr. Death. She unsheathed her untrimmed claws and set to work with the familiar lock.

     As she worked, her friends and allies worked around her. As Dr. Death passed the cages, his back to the pets within, gathered contraband was flung between cages. Threads of cotton and yarn were tossed back and forth, forming a wall of string. Broken marbles and shells of nuts were silently placed on the floor, as well as pieces of rotting fruit kept over from meals. The path behind him was becoming a death trap for escape.

     Kougie heard a little ping, and the door of her cage swung open. She prowled out easily, gracefully, and sat in front of the door at the end of the corridor Dr. Death always travelled to.

     The Techo’s beady eyes narrowed at the sight of her. “Get back in your cage, Kougracat.”

     She smiled her lazy grin. “Oh, but Sir, it’s small and cramped and I can’t stretch my legs! The food is gross and the lack of attention is mentally scarring. I’m catching a cold; if I wasn’t already blue I’ll be turning it right now. Please Sir, before I get so miserable and turn grey and popular here, give me more!”

     He didn’t believe the act, perhaps it was because of her melodramatic presentation, or the sarcasm dripping from every word. “Cage, 660, now!”

     He took the bait, pouncing at her. But she sprang away, onto a wall of cages and crawling up to the top. There wasn’t much room between the top row of cages and the roof, just a slit that Kougie’s flexibility barely fit her in. As she crawled to the very end of the hallway, Dr. Death followed down the corridor, right into the trap laid out by Kougie’s fellow pound pets. He slipped up on a rotten tomato, skidding across the floor and finally plummeting as his legs got caught up in the cotton strung across the walkway. He fell to the floor stunned, groaning, and the whole place erupted into laughter.

     Just before Kougie jumped back down, she noticed a little red button on the far wall. On it read: Emergency door release. Hmm, the master door opener. Good thing to keep in mind.

     Kougie dropped from her little cavity and gracefully hit the floor, turning to the cage behind her. In it held a smiling green Eyrie.

     “You ready, Drayk?” Kougie asked, easily picking the lock on his cage.

     “Always am, Kougie,” he confirmed.

     As his door swung open Kougie looked back down the hallway, her cage right at the very end. The Doctor thought he was so clever separating her and her best friend Draykwurm, but nothing could keep them apart. Pound pets always helped each other, particularly against Dr. Death.

     They padded out of the cage room and to the adoption desk. The pink Uni in charge of the discharges sat at her table, sipping a mug of coffee, a pen in her other hoof filling out a form. Kougie and Drayk steadied themselves behind her desk, unseen by those sapphire eyes.

     Kougie was a master of disguise, also a master of interpretation. “Excuse me, Miss.”

     They heard a flutter of papers as the Uni looked around at the invisible owner. “Yes?”

     “Can you tell me where Dr. Death is?”

     Draykwurm began whimpering, the same way every pet ready to be pounded did.

     “He’s in the cage room,” the Uni said dejectedly. Kougie could hear her arise from her seat, walking around the desk. Kougie and Drayk went around it too, staying at opposite ends from her. They didn’t want to be seen. “You shouldn’t abandon your poor pet, you know. Adoption is for life.”

     “You dare tell me what or what not to do?” Kougie growled, imitating her old owner perfectly. “Just go get Dr. Death!”

     “All right, all right,” she groaned. The heavy door to the cage room opened, and she gasped. Kougie grinned as the door closed, the Uni helping Dr. Death from the clutches of the pound pets around him.

     “Two minutes tops,” Draykwurm said, acting as lookout and watching the door. Kougie was already on the case, jumping onto the Uni’s chair and filing through the adoption papers. There she found Drayk’s.

     “What a silly Uni,” she chuckled, erasing her friend’s name from the slip. “The owner didn’t want Drayk, he wanted Alabaster.”

     Alabaster74957 was a green Eyrie like Draykwurm, who was desperate to leave the pound. Swapping the names was a win/win, as no one wanted to see Drayk gone, and he didn’t want to leave. Kougie and Drayk weren’t getting adopted unless they were adopted together, they’d made that pact a long time ago.

     “Kougie!” Drayk hissed as the door creaked open. Kougie hit the floor, sneaking under the desk unseen. Draykwurm plastered himself to the wall as the Uni and Techo stormed out, mumbling to each other. As the door was kept open, Draykwurm snuck back into the cage room unseen.

     “That Kougra!” Dr. Death spat. “The ringleader of them all. She’s a bad influence on them. I don’t say this often, but please let someone adopt her tomorrow!”

     “Here’s hoping,” the Uni tutted, returning to her desk. Kougie heard a little whicker of surprise; obviously she was staring at the changed slip. “You know, I would have sworn it was Draykwurm being adopted out tomorrow-”

     Kougie slipped out from the crack at the back of the desk, prowling silently to the door.

     “Both green Eyries,” Dr. Death said. “They’re exactly the same, no matter.”

     Kougie got behind the door and pulled it shut, then smiled down the rows of cages and all the pets looking expectantly out.

     “Congrats on getting adopted, Alabaster,” she said proudly, and everyone erupted into cheers. She grinned at Draykwurm, who smiled back through the bars of his cage. She prowled back down the hallway to her cage at the very end, bounding over Dr. Death’s trap and not getting a single piece of rotting fruit in her blue fur.

     Good day, she thought, reaching her cage and smiling at the words engraved by a claw in the metal: Kougracat660, proud permanent Pound resident. Draykwurm had one to match.

     “Good day,” she affirmed to herself, closing the cage door behind her and hearing the satisfying click.

***

     Another day, another poor sucker being led to a fresh cage, snivelling and crying. It was a red Usul, very small and innocent, and probably newly created. She was put in the empty cage opposite Kougie, right at the end of the hallway. As Dr. Death left, her tears escalated into screams and wails; it was as though she thought Neopia was coming to an end.

     Kougie was used to the routine. She unsheathed a single claw and quickly unlocked her cage, stepping out. The Usul’s eyes were wide as Kougie unlocked hers, and led her out by the paw.

     “Calm,” Kougie said gently. “Don’t draw attention to yourself. Your life isn’t over, despite what you think. The Pound isn’t as bad as what others tell you.”

     “But I’ll never get adopted,” she sniffed, looking around at the walls of cages, each filled with a single Neopet looking at them. “I’m called 19375024573, and I’m at the very end of the hallway. Who ever comes there?”

     Hardly anyone, Kougie thought with a smile. But saying that was hardly comforting for the newcomer. “Getting adopted isn’t everything, little one. Sure we all want to belong to a loving owner one day, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy our stay here.”

     The pets lining the walls nodded; most of them were a part of Kougie’s pack. She’d talked to them all, just like the little Usul here, and had talked to many that had already been adopted out. She’d been here for years, and was numbed to the horrors of the Pound now.

     “How can you enjoy it here?” the Usul groaned, little arms tightly around her chest.

     “Well, it’s better than Cockroach Towers,” Kougie said, naming her old home before being abandoned. “Or an owner that’s never there. The food is edible here, and shredded newspaper is comforting after a while.”

     “It’s not shredded.” The Usul pouted.

     “Mine is.” Kougie grinned. Her claws were her best asset. “ Look, Numbers... Can I call you Numbers?”

     “Everyone does.”

     “Numbers, we have fun here. We share stories and swap meals and pick on Dr. Death and the pink Uni, just like Neoschool. We have ways of getting you adopted if you really want it. You’ll be fine.”

     All the pets nodded, as Kougie and Numbers reached the start of the hall to Draykwurm’s cage. The Eyrie smiled at the newcomer, always the softer of the duo.

     “Me and Drayk will take care of you,” Kougie said. “Just ask.”

     Footsteps. Kougie’s ears pricked as she heard an owner out there, ready to be taken into the cage room. She picked Numbers up and dashed back to their cages. But Numbers put up a fuss and refused to be put back in her cage. Kougie shoved her in, slamming the door hurriedly, but was then enveloped in a rectangle of light, much to her horror. She’d never been caught out of her cage unwillingly before.

     Framed in the door were a teenage girl and a Christmas Zafara. Kougie trembled, slinking back into her cage. But before she could slam the door, the Zafara was bouncing up to her, giggling in a childish, young voice.

     “What are you doing out of your cage?”

     Kougie felt her muscles coiling up at this exuberant Zafara, asking the stupidest questions. “Looking for Jelly World. What does it look like?”

     “But Jelly World doesn’t exist!” The Zafara giggled again, bouncing up to her owner who was walking to them. “Kate! I like this one! She’s silly!”

     The girl called Kate kneeled down beside them, smiling down at Kougie. She couldn’t handle it anymore. When Kate reached out to stroke her, she coiled back and hissed.

     “I’m not up for adoption!” Kougie spat.

     “Really?” Kate asked wryly. “A pound pet not wanting to be adopted. Never heard of that before.”

     “Of course I want to be! But not without Drayk.”

     Most Neopians didn’t had room for two pets, that was why Kougie was so surprised when Kate requested to look at Drayk to consider adopting him as well.

     “Two new siblings!” the Zafara said crazily. “I’m so happy!”

     Kougie curled herself up in a little ball, her stomach flipping over. Three years she had been in the Pound, and now was leaving? It couldn’t be. How could such a thing happen so soon?

     Draykwurm was let out of his cage and ran up to Kougie, hugging her tight. “Can you believe it, Kougie? It’s finally happening, we’re free!”

     “Free...” Kougie looked down on the familiar concrete floor. The other pets began to whimper nervously.

     “You can’t leave!” a bowless Bruce protested. “What will we do without you?”

     “Who will plan the pranks on Dr. Death, or help out the newcomers?” a green Mynci questioned.

     Kougie felt her throat tighten.

     “Don’t go, Kougie,” Numbers said sadly. “We need you.”

     “You can pick a new leader of the pack,” Drayk said, leading Kougie out. “You’ll be okay; you all knew this day had to come eventually.”

     “No one will replace you two,” a yellow Grarrl snarled. “Nobody.”

     “Drayk, we must replace the adoption papers,” Kougie murmured. “We can’t leave.”

     “What?” Draykwurm looked shocked. “Kougie, we’ve wanted this for years.”

     “You’ve wanted it for years.” She swallowed back tears, as thoughts of her old owner flickered through her head. “I always thought it would never happen.”

     Draykwurm seemed to look at her for the first time, beak hanging open. Never had she seen her beloved best friend look so disappointed before. “You don’t want to be adopted, do you?”

     Kougie looked back at all of the Pound pets, her friends and allies. They all needed her, and she realised she needed them. Finally she looked at Drayk and shook her head. “No, I don’t.”

     Draykwurm shook his head, tears in his eyes. She realised he was breathing heavily, gasping and moaning. “You can’t... We promised...”

     She shook her head. “Drayk, it’s easy. We just need to replace two papers this time...”

     The Eyrie’s head hung, and Kougie realised with horror he was torn. “I want to stay with you, Kougie, I really do. You’re my best friend. But I want to be adopted. I’m not wasting my life here. If you’re never going to leave, then I am.”

     Kougie gasped. “No, Drayk!”

     “You have a chance,” Draykwurm said. “Take it or lose me forever.”

     She just stood there, torn between her friend and the heavy metal door leading to the adoption office, and the rows and rows of cages full of pets that needed her guidance and leadership. Her old life was all through her mind, of days going hungry in an ill constructed Neohome, or being abandoned for months in Cockroach Towers. Cold omelettes for dinner, shared between her and her siblings. A mouthful each. Paper petpets, no toys, a life so monotonous and cruel she almost went insane. The Pound was a relief to her. It gave her a place in the world as a leader. She was finally loved.

     In a gasp of tears she turned her back on Draykwurm and ran back to her cage at the end of the hallway.

***

     “The dangerous duo, finally separated,” Dr. Death chuckled as he plonked a bowl of gruel in front of Kougie. “Thank Fyora.”

     Kougie ignored him, picking up her spoon and slowly eating the cold brew. Today she noticed the horrid taste, the lumpy texture that made her teeth feel furry. She hadn’t noticed that for three years.

     But it was better than a mouthful of omelette, or the dung they served at Cockroach Towers. Kougie knew she had to feel sorry for Draykwurm, now in the tormenting clutches of an owner. He was no longer taken care of anymore.

     “Man, it just doesn’t feel right without him,” a red Meerca sighed. Everyone hummed in agreement.

     “Kougie needs a new sidekick.”

     Kougie closed her eyes, curling up in a ball. He wasn’t a sidekick, he was a friend.

     “Who do you want helping you forge the adoptions, Kougie?”

     “Yeah, who?”

     “I can fly.”

     “Well, I can do impressions like him.” Somebody fake whimpered, but it was nowhere near as good as what Draykwurm did.

     “Who cares? I was his biggest fan. I can do everything he did.”

     Kougie’s tail flickered angrily.

     “Come on, Kougie, you need a co-leader. Can’t rule the Pound without one.”

     Kougie couldn’t take it, leaping to her feet and roaring at the entire room. “Will you guys just quit it? I didn’t stay here just to listen to you bicker and replace Drayk for power. I’m the only one in charge, got it? He’s gone, no one’s replacing him. Just let it be and let me sleep!”

     Everyone hushed, settling in their cages. The room became pitch black as it always did at night, but Kougie suddenly remembered something. She unlocked her door and padded down the hallway, all the way to Drayk’s empty cage.

     A glint of moonlight illuminated the engraved words. Draykwurm, proud permanent Pound resident. With tears streaming down her face, Kougie unsheathed her longest claw and scraped over top of the mocking words, until they were totally gone and her claw was whittled down to the end.

***

     Weeks passed, an endless slog of welcoming in new pets and keeping everyone else in line. Some were adopted, led out with painted step siblings and smiling owners, just like Draykwurm. Numbers was one of them. Kougie couldn’t help but smile as she was led out, beaming like a child in the Chocolate Factory for the first time.

     But life wasn’t the same, not without Draykwurm to conspire with. It was a game back then, tricking Dr. Death to always reach each other, the two friends on opposite ends of the hallway. Tricking the pink Uni to adopt out other pets, or letting everyone from their cages when they were a while away. Without Draykwurm, life in the Pound was unbearable. The food was awful and bed uncomfortable, and Kougie found herself growing sadder and sadder as time went on. She swore her coat went a deeper shade of blue over those weeks.

     “When are we going to prank double D again?” a bored Pteri asked one day. Everyone agreed.

     “Come on, Kougie, we haven’t pranked him in ages!”

     “Or the pink Uni. Or a potential owner. Come on, anyone!”

     They were all so demanding. Kougie rolled her eyes, picking open her door. “Fine. You all prank him, I’m sure you don’t need me to plan that out.”

     “Where are you going then?” a Quiggle asked, pressed against the bars of his cage.

     “Out.”

     “Out? You can’t leave!”

     “Calm down, I’m not.” Yet, Kougie thought. “Look, Dr. Death is coming through soon for the daily feed. Gather your contraband together, we’re going all out today.”

     “What are we doing?” the Quiggle asked.

     “Whatever you want,” Kougie announced. “Because I’m letting you all out. I know where the master switch is; when pressed, all the doors will open. When that happens...”

     Everyone sniggered, obviously liking the idea. But they hushed when the familiar taps of heavy soles against concrete echoed from across the door. Kougie bounded to the wall of cages and climbed up into her little crevice between the top cages and the roof, crawling along the top to a red button discovered the other day.

     Dr. Death came in, ringing his hands together, looking as mad scientisty as ever. Kougie waited until he was at the end of the hallway, just in front of her cage.

     “What the?” he wondered, bending down to see into the cage. He looked dumbfounded that she was no longer in there, but even more when he looked at where Kougie’s plaque had been. The engraved words had been scraped away, no longer there, and Kougie now had two claws whittled right down to the nub.

     Kougie pressed the button, and everything was chaos after that. Everyone jumped out of their cages, armed with string and rotten fruit. The noise caused the pink Uni to fly into the room to help, and the adoptions’ office was clear. Kougie made a break for it.

     She knew she had little time as she jumped into the Uni’s chair and shuffled through the adoption papers. Her paws trembled, she couldn’t find the right paper. Drayk’s paper. The Uni would be out at any moment.

     But then she saw it, hung up on the wall behind glass. Draykwurm was one of their proudest adoptions.

     Kougie bounded to the frame, knocking it off the wall. Glass shattered all over the floor and she picked out the paper, bringing it to the desk with a pen at the ready. She read through it quickly.

     Owner: Kate

     Pet adopted: Draykwurm.

     Kougie erased the final full stop, adding the long awaited words: and Kougracat660. The door swung open, the pink Uni wearily stepping out. But she didn’t catch sight of Kougie. She was already sprinting out the door, screaming with delight and success.

     She was free, at long last. For the first time in her life, she was truly free.

***

     The Neohome she approached was quaint, but so picturesque. It was the sort of house she dreamed about before her time at the Pound, a green lawn with bobbing flowers, welcoming anyone who set foot there. Toys strewn all over the place. The home of happy families.

     Her stomach tied itself in knots as she tapped on the front door. There was a long wait before someone answered. When he did, she gasped.

     “Drayk?”

     He wasn’t the green Eyrie she remembered, but was painted starry. His coat was groomed, the royal blue in his coat gleaming in the sun.

     Draykwurm smiled at her. “Welcome home, Kougie.”

The End

 
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