The Best of Friends
"Gimme a Golden Juppie Delight." Kell slapped a pawful of Neopoints on the counter and turned around in one swift step, nearly running into his own bushy tail as he stalked to one of the small wrought-iron tables in the corner of the Neovian pastry shop. The table had a chair to match and he plopped himself down in it, resting his elbows on the cold metal and running his paws through his hair, trying to quell his rising migraine.
There was a monster at large in the Haunted Woods, Corbin was probably off playing Coconut Shy instead of tracking it, and low-hanging clouds outside promised another rainy night. Could things possibly get any worse?
Oh, wait. Kell rocked back and forth on the chair, which seemed to have one leg shorter than the rest, causing it to wobble at even the slightest motion.
Yes, things were worse.
"Here you are, guv!" A portly Yellow Meerca, wearing her white hair in a pile on her head, set a yellow mug and saucer down in front of him. The cup was garnished with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles, and a pair of cookies sat on the side. "One Golden Juppie Delight, pipin' hot!"
Kell was not one for decorum. He reached over and stuffed both cookies in his mouth at once, needing the energy sugar would give him. "Thanks," he muttered through crumbs, spilling some out onto his jacket before starting to slurp at the foamy whipped cream. Oh, sweet, steaming, liquid caffeine. Always there for him when he needed it.
He peered out of the corner of his eyes. The Meerca was still there.
"Anythin' else for you, guv?" she squeaked.
"I'm all set," the Wocky replied, slumping back in the chair and letting the hot beverage slip down his throat to warm his tired limbs.
The bell above the door rang merrily and the Crumpetmonger swept off to the counter to attend to her new customer, finally leaving Kell alone with his thoughts about how to correctly align the flowers to produce the necessary frequencies, and also how to explain to Tippens the counterhexes that might have accidentally leached into the basement walls.
The next morning saw Kell meander bleary-eyed into the pastry shop, his fur thoroughly soaked from the heavy fog that suffocated Neovia before dawn. The only sleep he'd managed to get was in the form of five-minute power naps whenever he felt like he couldn't keep his eyes open any longer. But he couldn't really rest until that monster was tracked down.
Thus, he needed more coffee.
"Golden Juppie Delight," he grunted, tossing the requisite Neopoints onto the counter and shuffling off to the same table as before.
The Crumpetmonger had just swung out of the back of the shop, carrying a tray full of freshly baked Blueberry Scones. They filled the air with a sweet aroma that sent Kell's tongue watering.
"Mornin', guv!" she greeted him as she slid the scones onto the display counter.
"It's morning, all right," Kell muttered, folding his arms on the table and burying his face in them. He needed energy, quick, or his body might actually have a chance to get the sleep it craved.
"Gimme just a moment," the Meerca panted.
Kell listened to the metallic wobble of the tray being set aside, and then the Crumpetmonger's humming a jaunty, but melancholy tune as she prepared his order. It was only when he heard her approaching that the Wocky looked up to see her set the frothy mug in front of him.
"Extra whipped cream," the Crumpetmonger informed him with a wink, "since you liked it so much last time."
Kell blinked. "Oh. Uh. Thanks." Not really quite sure what to think except that more sugar was good, he raised the mug to his muzzle and began gulping down the Juppie Delight like the safety of Neovia depended on it. Because it did.
The next thing he knew, the Crumpetmonger had placed a paw on the table, drumming her fingers absently and staring him down with an almost maniacal grin. "So... what're you doin' up this early, guv? Got a haunted house to explore?"
The Wocky's green eyes, which had been trained on the rich, dark liquid swirling with the whipped cream in his mug, flicked up at her, and his ears lowered slightly. "Sure." He went back to ignoring her. Being unsociable was an art, one that Kell had years of practice in. Noncommittal, one-word answers were usually sufficient to get people to stop talking to him.
"You a ghost hunter? Workin' with that bloke Livingston and his spectre-sniffin' Zomutt, or sommat?"
Not this time, apparently.
Kell's tail lashed behind him in agitation and he draped one arm over the back of the chair, trying to look as disinterested as possible. "No."
"Y'know, I heard just last week, Olivia Shewbury sent off the ghost of Warblin' Williams, who'd been hauntin' the ol' Boghill place for right near two 'undred years! You ever work with her, guv?"
"No." Get the hint already, lady, Kell pleaded silently.
By some grace of the Faeries, just when the Crumpetmonger opened her mouth again, the bell over the door rang. The shopkeeper was distracted just long enough for Kell to gulp down the rest of his Juppie Delight and scramble for the exit. "Thank you," he whispered haggardly as he brushed past the new customer, a rather prim blue Poogle who looked disgusted at him for having gotten whipped cream on her petticoat.
Kell was back at noon, unfortunately, because Corbin had eaten both of the lunches Kell had packed for them. It was an accident, Corbin said, but Kell knew how much his Ogrin brother liked cheese sandwiches.
The Crumpetmonger looked almost too happy to see the Wocky, as she perked up behind the counter and her long tail bobbed in excitement, sending a few stacked dishes crashing to the floor. "The usual, guv?"
Kell eyed her suspiciously. "'The usual'? I've only been in here twice so far. That doesn't exactly make me a regular."
"One Golden Juppie Delight, comin' up!" The Meerca began puttering about, once again humming as she worked.
"I didn't even order--feh, whatever. I guess I'll have a Rosemary Bacon Scone, while you're at it." He paid, and as he moved to the corner table again, Kell flicked an ear at another patron, a bespectacled red Buzz in a suit and bowler. "This the only coffee place in town?" the Wocky asked wearily.
The Buzz nodded, taking a sip of his tea, pinky finger extended. "Afraid so, old chap. Well, unless you'd like to take your chances with Mister Moldworth's Slime Emporium..."
Kell stuck out his tongue. "I'll pass."
He reached his table at the same time as the Crumpetmonger, who arrived carrying an enormous plate stacked with various types of pastries. "Right then!" she chirped, setting the plate down in front of his chair. "How's that for service?"
The Wocky's tail bushed. "What are you--I didn't order all of that!" he growled, baring his fangs. "And I'm sure as heck not gonna pay for it!" His wallet was already smarting.
"On the house, guv!" the Meerca insisted, giving him another annoyingly exaggerated wink. "For me best customer!"
"I only started coming here yesterday, woman!" Kell spread his arms in protest. "All I ever wanted was a Golden Juppie Delight!"
Much to his dismay, the Crumpetmonger proceeded to pull out the chair opposite his and plunk herself down in it. "Time for me lunch break," she announced, nonchalantly plucking a Strawberry Cream Puff from the pile. "Lovely weather today, ain't it?"
Kell looked outside.
It was raining again.
With a groan, he slinked into his chair and nursed his Juppie Delight, closing his eyes and trying to tune out the Meerca as she proceeded to tell him all about her nephew's birthday party last Saturday and how her cousin had decided to speculate in the Kreludite industry, and the latest autumn couture from Prigpants and Swolthy, which reminded her, had Kell seen what Lydia Fenmoor had the audacity to go out in for her Sunday afternoon stroll?
The time passed in a slippery, caffeine-infused blur, until finally Kell realized his mug was empty and he slammed it down on the table with more force than was perhaps necessary. "Okay, back to work for me," he insisted, jumping to his feet and grabbing a Spiced Muffin for the road.
The Crumpetmonger followed him to the door. "An' so that's when I says, 'But he don't even like Apple Bobbin'!'" She let out a screechy laugh that made Kell's ears flatten against his head.
"If I don't figure out that melody soon," he growled to himself as he splashed through puddles amongst the cobblestones, "Neovia won't be the only thing in need of serious help. Gah..." He pinched the bridge of his nose with his paw, trying to quell the migraine.
Four days without sleep, and Kell was feeling fine, save for chronic jitters, his vision dancing before his eyes, and the constant pounding in the back of his brain. And, of course, the fact that every time he refueled on coffee, he had to put up with...
"Fine evenin', guv, a very fine evenin' indeed!" the Crumpetmonger declared, sliding another Techo Strudel his way. "Warms me ol' heart to see me best chum comin' in here five times a day, patronizin' me 'umble establishment, it does!"
"Uh-huh," Kell droned, one eyelid twitching as he drained another mug of Golden Juppie Delight. He'd almost found the correct frequencies, or at least they sounded correct past the ringing in his ears. Just a few more notes and then he could get some sleep, and get away from this wretched one-sided friendship.
"An' such enthusiasm!" the Meerca crooned. "Ain't never had anyone so attentive to me ramblin'! Yer a jolly good sport, you are! A fine bloke indeed!"
"Yep." Kell stuffed another Lemon Tart in his mouth as an excuse for why he couldn't give longer answers. Not that the Crumpetmonger needed any excuse from him.
The bell above the door jingled again, and the Crumpetmonger started, looking over Kell's shoulder in delight. "Uncle Edgar! Why, it's been years since you last dropped in, ain't it! Fancy seein' you 'ere! What'll it be, you ol' gadabout?"
There was a moan in reply, and Kell's muzzle wrinkled as the aroma of baked goods was drowned out by a putrid odor, one he found unsettlingly familiar. He swallowed his tart – a difficult thing to do in the face of the stench washing over the shop – and turned around slowly, stomach knotting with dread.
He was met by a faceful of corpulent Zombie Usul wearing a suit and top hat, its paws clamped over his shoulders. Kell tried to pry himself away, but the Usul stretched its lips into a toothy grin and clumsily shook his paw, drool running out of the side of its mouth as it once again moaned amiably--or hungrily.
"Uncle Edgar," the Crumpetmonger began, "this 'ere's me best friend! Chap's practically family--he's a clingy bloke, he is, always stoppin' by fer a chat an' fer me famed Golden Juppie Delight!"
"That does it!" Kell insisted, breaking free from Uncle Edgar. The Wocky turned to the Meerca with a hiss. "I am not your 'best friend', lady! You don't even know my name! I just needed coffee, not emotional investment!" He dropped to his knees and clenched his fists up at her pleadingly. "Was that too much to ask?!"
Both the Crumpetmonger and the zombie looked at him for a moment, then at each other, and then back to him. The shopkeeper reached out and patted the overwrought monster hunter on the head. "Sounds like someone's had too much caffeine, guv," she sighed.
Uncle Edgar nodded, wiping his drool on his sleeve.
The Crumpetmonger perked up. "I know just the fix! Crumpets With Jam, fresh outta the oven! That'll take the edge off anythin'!"
"No more!!" Kell stumbled to his feet. Even if his appetite hadn't already been ruined by Uncle Edgar's presence, he never wanted to see this woman again. "There have got to be better ways to stay awake than this!!" Letting out a final yell of utter exasperation, he scrambled out the door and into the misty night.
"Hey. Wake up."
The next thing Kell realized, he was lying on a park bench covered in soggy pages of the Neopian Times. The fog above him shone a vague rosy-gold, indication that the sun was up. Blinking and rubbing his eyes, he looked at the purple Ogrin towering over him. "Corbin... where am I," the Wocky groaned.
"Neovia Central Park," his brother replied, helping him rise to a sitting position. "I just found you here; I've been looking for you all night."
"All night? All... night? It's morning, of course... oh, darn it. I fell asleep, didn't I." Kell used his palms to massage his forehead.
Corbin pushed his hair out of his face with one paw. "Went on a coffee binge again?"
"At least I wasn't off playing Coconut Shy," the Wocky growled.
"Hey, that Quiggle's a great informant!" Corbin protested.
"Please tell me you at least located the monster."
"Oh, good. At least something's going right." With a yawn, Kell slowly rose to his feet, leaning on his brother for support. "Let's get back to Tippens' basement. I'm nearly done constructing the melody."
"Sure thing, bro." Corbin's stomach let out a twisting grumble. "Oof, I'm hungry. Wanna go for breakfast at that pastry shop?"
Kell grabbed Corbin's shirt and yanked the Ogrin down to the level of the Wocky's own bloodshot eyes, one of which had begun to twitch again. "No."