January, Year 15
Smaug struggled to keep up with Lichen. How did she know these corridors so well? Ixi had told him in the past that Lichen had spent practically her whole childhood travelling Neopia, never stopping in one place long enough to settle in properly. And though the Space Station had always been one of her favourite destinations, she had certainly never taken any of her pets past the designated tourist decks before.
Smaug halted. His belly scales were sore and his head was becoming a little cloudy from the continued exertion.
"Lichen –" he said, breathless.
Lichen turned back towards him, looking concerned. "Are you okay? Do you need me to carry you?"
"Just. Need. A minute," he gasped.
She crouched down next to her Hissi, giving his head a sympathetic pat.
"Look, I'll just carry you." Was it his imagination or did she sound scared? No, he must be imagining it. Her smile was wide, albeit tight. "It's no bother. And I can put you down again when you're feeling better, okay?"
"Okay," he said, smiling at his owner as she picked him up. He didn't like to be an inconvenience, but this was probably the most sensible option – especially since Lichen seemed in such a hurry. He wondered though, what wasn't she telling him? The last time she surprised him was with a camouflage paint brush, in lieu of a spotted one, she said. It had taken him a while to get used the brown of his wings, the dappled markings on his scales, but his older siblings had been wowed. In this moment, however, he wished he knew what kind of surprise lay ahead, if only to calm his worry.
Now that Lichen no longer had to limit her pace, they practically flew along the metal passages. They passed several Grundos in the corridor, some of whom greeted Lichen with a friendly hello.
"Do you know them?" asked Smaug.
It took her longer than usual before she responded.
"What do you think?" replied Lichen, her tone unreadable. Smaug couldn't think of any plausible reason that she would, so he stayed quiet. He noticed how she'd paused, however, and more doubts clashed against the core of his sensible logic. He could never think the worst about his human owner, but there was now the distinct possibility she might have been hiding something from them after all. But what?
They arrived at another elevator. The door slid open, and Lichen pushed her way past the exiting mass into the still crowded lift. Grundos made up most of the passengers, although humans and other Neopets were also present.
Smaug crawled round Lichen's back and up onto her shoulder, wrapping his tail around the top of her chest for support. He'd grown much since that first time she picked him up to carry him home, and he didn't want to cause her arms too much strain.
"Where are we going?" he whispered to her as the elevator began to move. They were now far beyond the boundaries of Smaug's previous experience. Possibilities kept creeping into his head – possibilities that alarmed him with their implications, or merely their absurdity. What did she mean to show him, and why was it so important?
"You'll see soon enough," she replied, patting him on the head. "We're nearly there."
The elevator slowed. Smaug felt his stomach drop – not from anxiety, but from the force of the lift's deceleration. The door slid open. "Habitation level five," announced a speaker from above as passengers began oozing from the lift. Smaug feared he and Lichen would be crushed by the weight of moving people, as others from outside began trickling into the elevator as well. It took several minutes, but eventually they were freed from the shuffling mass, and Smaug was finally able to look beyond the crowd and see where Lichen had brought him.
It looked like a small city was spread out across the deck. Row upon row of uniform houses stood like soldiers on parade, equally spaced, without variation or flaw, immaculate to the tiniest detail. The ceiling was the same grey metal as the rest of the Space Station's immense structure, and was far enough away from the floor to allow the full height of the Defenders' tower twice, or so Smaug suspected. Beyond the houses, a great window allowed a view of the planet against the backdrop of space. He expected to see stars, but the light from Neopia seemed to eclipse them. Still, the view was breathtaking.
Lichen detached herself from the crowd next to the elevators and found a patch of wall to lean on. Smaug slid to the ground and stretched his wings.
"I should have chosen a quieter time," Lichen apologised. "I'm sorry about that."
"Why are we here?" asked Smaug. Looking up, he noticed that the wall she was leaning on had been decorated with a vast image of the Space Faerie, with the word "protector" in large red letters at the top.
"I wanted to show you something." said Lichen, her tone serious. "I feel like I ought to be honest with you and the others, but I don't quite know how to tell them."
"Lichen, if there's something wrong, you need to tell us." Ixi had been adamant. "Smaug, if it looks like Lichen is hiding something, you need ask her about it. If she's in trouble, we need to know."
"Nothing's wrong," she said. "It's just... I've kept this a secret for a while. And I think you should know. Just I don't know how the others will react. You'll see what I mean when we get there."
Smaug was troubled by Lichen's unease. She'd been much more open with them ever since that incident at the bank, and they had all felt much happier and closer as a result. Ixi had even said it was like having the old Lichen back – that little girl who had not a serious bone in her body. Smaug wondered what could possibly make her feel so uncomfortable that, yet again, she had to sneak around and keep it secret from even her closest friends.
Before he could think of something encouraging and supportive to say, she picked him up and began walking again. Lichen picked her way through the houses in a zigzag manner.
"I can walk now," said Smaug. "You don't have to carry me."
"It's fine, we can move faster this way," she replied. "Besides, I don't want to lose you in the crowd."
There were rather a lot of people, and Smaug recognised that they would get to wherever Lichen was taking him faster if she carried him. Still, he didn't like being a burden to anyone – especially his owner.
They came out of the houses near another elevator (so, Lichen had been taking a shortcut) which was far less crowded than the last. After going down another few floors, they emerged from the lift. This deck was just as big, but thankfully much less busy. Glancing around, Smaug noticed the mural on this level consisted of a scene of happy Evil Fuzzles playing on an asteroid. The houses here were not nearly as pristine and uniform as the ones above, and Smaug realised that the first level must have been largely uninhabited.
Once Lichen was away from the immediate crowd, she let Smaug down again.
"If I'm going too fast, just yell, okay?"
The two walked almost side-by-side, Lichen glancing round every so often to check her pace. Once again, their path took them through the houses. Lichen didn't seem in so much of a hurry anymore. Smaug wondered if she might be feeling anxious about showing him this secret... thing, whatever it was. He wished he could say something to comfort her, but as long as she was moving, he thought it was best to stay quiet.
His worries increased when Lichen's pace began to slow even further. Ensuring Lichen could manage to share her secrets with him and the others was of the utmost importance. If she hesitated now, it could spell the end of that close relationship with her pets that had taken a year to rebuild.
"Well, here we are," she said, stopping by a particularly plain-looking house. The only thing outside to suggest there were inhabitants was a simple bamboo mat placed just in front of the door.
"Are we going inside?" asked Smaug as she stepped onto the raised platform.
"Yes," said Lichen, helping him up. "I believe we are."
She held Smaug's wing as they approached the door. Her grip tightened slightly as she laid her other hand on the doorknob. The neohome's interior was sparsely decorated. A couple of rugs here and there, chairs, a table, a poster of Dr. Sloth on the wall. Wait a minute – a poster of Dr. Sloth on the wall?
"Ted, is that you?" came a voice that sounded faintly familiar, but Smaug couldn't place. An oddly-dressed green Moehog appeared from around the side of the bed. "Oh," he said, visibly taken aback, but beginning to smile. "You brought a visitor."
Smaug was utterly flabbergasted.
"Ted!?" he gasped, looking up at Lichen in horror. "You mean you're devotedslothminion!?"
To be continued…